Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Best Books of 2017

When I first put this list together, it was twice as long, and I was unwilling to prune it. "I love this," I thought as I went down the list. But my goal was set—eleven in the main list and one best of best, an even dozen—so I had to strike books off, one painful entry after another. Eventually though, what has emerged is a true picture of the books I loved best and which will stay with me long after this year has been put to bed.

A caveat: All these books were not published in 2017, but I read them in 2017, hence their presence on the list.

Another caveat: For All About Romance, I wrote up my best romances and romantic fiction, all of them published in 2017, some of which are in the below list as well.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Brilliant and harrowing, Whitehead's spare prose makes the story he relates stark and compelling. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her grandmother was kidnapped and brought to America from Africa. One day, Cora takes up a fellow slave's suggestion to use the Underground Railroad to make her escape North. What follows is a grotesque tale of escape and pursuit, hatred and violence, degradation and depravity, hope and despair. And through it all, you see Cora's indomitable spirit shinning through. Through Whitehead's literal implementation of tunnels, stations, tracks, and trains, Cora is able to travel to different places along her journey through the history of race and slavery in America. I found this literary device so imaginative, because it provides a magical and relatable way for the reader to navigate history. This would have been impossible to do in a normal book. It was a difficult read, and I had to put it down and pick it up a lot, but I'm so glad I read it. It has won numerous prizes this year: the National Book Award, the Pulizer Prize, and the Booker longlist.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

This is such a charming book about Queen Elizabeth II and the subversive power of reading. Alan Bennett is one of England's foremost writers, and while this short novel is a departure from his usual fare of plays, he certainly has the flair for quiet, amusing, and sharply observant tales. One fine morning, out in one of the yards of Buckingham Palace, the Queen found the City of Westminster traveling library. When the startled librarian-driver asks her, "What does Your Majesty like?", the Queen is at a loss since she'd never before taken much interest in reading. Reading to her was a passive activity, and she was a doer. She assiduously devoted herself to all her duties of a monarch. But she borrows a book, nevertheless, and that starts her off on an adventure that has far-reaching consequences for herself, personally, and for her public duties. I loved this book so much!

Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

Set in the waning days of the British Empire in Kenya, it's a tale of great sophistication and nuance. I read this book thrice this year, every time teasing out more of that emotional layering that McVeigh is so skillful at creating. At heart is the forbidden relationship between a white English girl and a black Kenyan. But having grown up together on that farm since childhood, the two protagonists cannot imagine a different life for themselves, yet political forces like the Mau Mau are creating rifts between the indigenous peoples and European settlers. The heroine also has to contend with how her late teen years spent in England, the death of her mother, and her father's new family have irrevocably changed her. It was fascinating watching the protagonists try to capture their past relationship and try to overcome the socio-political struggles to transform it into a mature relationship of permanence.

The Horse Dancer by JoJo Moyes

Moyes's writing really speaks to me, and I’m engrossed in her stories from the first paragraph. They’re visceral, descriptive, and tangible. Her prose is lean and direct, with no recourse to metaphors or flowery language, thus making it accessible and relatable. This book is a story of awesome responsibility and awful choices. The protagonist has an all-consuming, perfectionistic connection with her horse. When one trains with a Selle Français horse at the level of admittance to Le Cadre Noir, the premier French riding school, excellence is a given and so is devoting every atom of one’s body and mind towards that excellence. She has no time for emotions, rules, duties, academics, or people other than her grandfather. This is the driving force behind this book.

Yo Soy Muslim: A Father's Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

The author and illustrator of this children's picture book are very well-known for publishing stories from all over the world and in various countries, taking on subjects from various cultures. This particular book is a celebration of multiculturalism and social harmony in lyrical beautiful writing. "Dear little one, ...know you are wondrous, A child of crescent moons, a builder of mosques, a descendant of brilliance, an ancestor in training." I've read Amina's Voice by Hena Khan, and Yo Soy Muslim reminds me of similar themes from that book, but this is better in its tender writing and gorgeous illustrations. "There are questions this work will ask. What are you? And where are you from? And there will come a day when some people in the world will not smile at you." How many young children in our country have faced just this othering? How many have felt betrayed and ashamed? How many have tried to hide their heritage in a desperate effort to blend in? "Tell them this: Yo soy Muslim. I am from Allah, angels, and a place almost as old as time. I speak Spanish, Arabic, and dreams. Mi abuelo worked the fields. My ancestors did amazing things and so will I." What beautiful words to empower your child with. What encouraging thoughts to equip your child with as they journey through this rough jungle of a world we find ourselves in.

Malala's Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët

This is a gorgeously designed book with fabulous illustrations—such a wonderful landscape for Malala's story. "Do you believe in magic?" Malala asks of the reader. Her younger self certainly did. On TV, she watched a show where a young boy uses his magic pencil to draw a bowl, which turns into a real bowl of curry to feed the homeless, and to draw a police officer to protect people who need help. He was a hero. And Malala would go to bed imagining what all she would do if she had a magic pencil. She would draw a soccer ball for her brothers, beautiful dresses for her mother, and school buildings for her father. She dreams about how she would go about erasing this injustice and draw in a better, more peaceful world if only she had a magic pencil. And those thoughts lead into a solidification of what her duty for the future should be: She would speak for all the girls who couldn't speak for themselves. In the afterword, Malala writes: "I hope that my story inspires you to find the magic in your own life and to always speak up for what you believe in. The magic is everywhere int he world—in knowledge, beauty, love, peace. The magic is in you, in your words, in your voice." I cannot emphasize enough how lovely this book is—a keeper for your bookshelf.

We're the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. and Joy-Ann Reid

These are twenty-six of President Obama's greatest speeches and cover his two inaugurals, the first election night speech, after Sandy Hook, at the eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney, among others. As I read through the collection, I was reminded again what a thoughtful, compassionate, articulate, erudite person he is. He knew how to read people and negotiate emotions adroitly, whether in a church or at the United Nations, whether stumping in a small town or speaking in front of cheering crowds in Europe. I feel privileged to have borne witness to his presidency; may I have the privilege of seeing him in person before I shake off this mortal coil.

Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne

Bourne is currently my favorite historical romance writer. I, not, only love her books, but I also enjoy her online presence on Twitter and when I interviewed her earlier this year. Her writing, so delicately nuanced like a finely-honed, well-balanced blade, has captured my imagination like no other romance ever has. How does she envisage such intricacy of emotion and personality for her characters, such complexity of plot, and above all, such precision in language? Comte Raoul Deverney, a vintner and a sometimes jewel thief, hires Séverine de Cabrillac, an ex-spy and a private detective, against her better judgment, to find Pilar, the daughter of his former wife, who’s now lost in London’s stews. Along the way, they're assisted by Lazarus's feral children as they fight to stay ahead of Sévie's enemies from her spying days. Their romance is one of shifting shadows, at once, a chimera and a force to be reckoned with.

Dukes Prefer Blondes by Loretta Chase

Chase has written a few books that fall in my "favorite books of all time" list and have brought me hours of reading and re-reading pleasure. This book is the newest addition. How I loved this story. The hero is part of the laboring classes despite being the grandson of a duke; to wit, he is a barrister prosecuting criminals even as he mingles with them to prepare his cases. Lady Clara Fairfax is a diamond of the first water, being feted by the ton and regularly proposed to by her beaus. In other words, she is bored, so she volunteers at a home for the indigent. Put two bright, intelligent, "with it" people together, stir in some antagonism and reserve, and watch the mixture bubble and hiss and spit articulately and humorously. Chase uses language so sparingly and purposefully, it makes the lean ripostes crackle with wit and pointed observations.

A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran

I consider Meredith Duran one of the finest historical romance authors writing today. Given any storyline or any romance trope, she makes it fresh and new and interesting. The characters’ reactions are never commonplace, the plots are never tired and predictable, and the writing is always to the point and yet lovely at the same time. This book features an amnesia trope that is handled so well. It's a political Victorian story involving a Member of Parliament, a woman raised in a political family, and a mystery they must unravel else their lives are at stake. At heart, this is a story of trust: Can a woman trust her instincts when it comes to the most important person in her life -- her husband? The book is a fascinating study in how fragile and malleable trust is and how easily it can be abused or even bruised.

Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas

At long last, we get to see St. Vincent from Kleypas's famous book Devil in Winter in print again. This time, he's the duke and his son, Gabriel, is St. Vincent. With this book, it feels like Kleypas has returned to her historical roots. She's found her feet again, and her voice is assured, her comedic wit balanced, and her characters tender and big-hearted. Despite various naysayers, I liked the heroine and how, with her imperfections, she's such a perfect foil for the glossy urbane hero. I enjoyed seeing how she struggles to assert herself and her rights as an entrepreneur in a Victorian society where a woman becomes the property of her husband after marriage and anything and everything she owns becomes his by right. What stood out for me is how much he respects her business acumen and innovation in the face of her other bumbling qualities and works to resolve her business issues and workaround the day's existing laws.


Act Like It by Lucy Parker

This contemporary romance is my best book of the year. I re-read it a couple of times, and every time, I laughed and laughed till my sides hurt. Seeing this, my husband wanted to read it, too, and he laughed through the entire book as well. What a fabulous book: snappy dialog, biting wit, modern characterization, the London theater scene, and all of it so detailed and well-tuned. Parker's talent is in building tight, complex relationships that don't feel rushed or smoothened out. All the problems are out in the open, and they are all dealt with. There're no deus ex machine events that magically get characters out of the tight spots they put themselves in. The book has a breezy irreverent tone to it that belies the serious nature of the choices the characters have to make. Actress Lainie Graham has a lead role in a play running at the Metronome Theatre in London. The other leading man, Richard Troy, comes from wealth and the upper classes and has an overly-developed sense of self-importance to go with it. His temper tantrums and bad behavior have been affecting his public image and starting to affect the box office, so his publicist and the director ambush Lainey to convince her to commence a faux relationship with him so that her London's Sweetheart image will burnish his image. What could possibly go wrong?