My Favorite 2017 Reads

Here is my top-ten list of favorite reads of 2017, in order of preference, with #1 being the best. Most of the comments are excerpted from reviews I posted on the Goodreads site. Next month, I will blog in more detail about my 2017 reads. It was a very good year.

1.  Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I highly recommend this title to anyone who is seeking to understand this demographic that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

2.  All They Will Call You by Tim Z. Hernandez. The author brings a true, heartbreaking event (a California plane crash that killed the crew and the farmworkers on board who were headed for deportation) to life through a fictionalized account with beautiful writing and gritty details.

3.  Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. The challenges of a young Chinese immigrant attempting to assimilate into American society are portrayed in a touching manner. This is not categorized as a YA novel, but it should be.

4.  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This novel gave me a better understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement and the day-to-day realities of those who live in poor black neighborhoods.

5.  In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes. This is a creepy, atmospheric novel that takes the reader into the mind of a serial killer. I was drawn to its 1940s L.A. setting.

6.  American Chica by Marie Arana. An autobiography that puts into beautifully written words what many a bicultural child can feel about living in two worlds.

7.  I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez. I especially enjoyed the depiction of Mexican-American culture and family in this YA book, and I was able to relate to so much of it.

8.  Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These two very wise men talk about the path to joy and how we can all achieve it with practice and determination. I listened to the audio book, which I believe made it a more pleasant experience.

9.  Isabel’s Hand-Me-Down Dreams by Isabel Lopez. This is an honest, humorous, and inspirational memoir that tells of the author’s life first in Puerto Rico, then in New York City, and, finally, in Florida, from childhood to middle-age.

10.  The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street Susan Jane Gilman. The main character’s enterprising nature exemplifies all that is good about the immigrant spirit. But she is a complex person who gives in to her worst instincts. She is a fictional character to remember.

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Latino Fiction

Every year, I read as many novels by Latino authors as I can, so long as I’m interested in the particular titles, and so long as the characters are also Latinos. It’s important to me to read novels with characters that I can relate to, because we share a cultural background.

Here are the novels by Latino authors that I have read so far this year (in the order read):

All They Will Call You, by Tim Z. Hernandez, is actually a fictionalization of a real event that occurred in the 1940s, the crash of an airplane in central California that killed the crew and passengers, who were undocumented workers. This is a heartbreaking, beautiful telling of a not well-publicized tragic event.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, who is a popular YA author. I didn’t care for the story’s meandering style, but its characters are well-written.

Haters, by Alisa Valdes, is another YA title and one I quite enjoyed. Valdes is a good writer, and her books, including this one, are page-turners.

Eulogy for a Brown Angel, by Lucha Corpi, is a mystery set in 1970s’ Los Angeles  and San Francisco, with the Chicano Moratorium march serving as a background for the murder of a child. It’s a slow-moving but interesting read.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erika Sanchez, is another YA page-turner that focuses on the topics of teen suicide, Mexican culture, and the search for self-identity.

It Can’t End This Way!

I love a happy ending. For me, novels can be an escape from the harsh realities of life. I enjoy entering the world a novelist creates and becoming engaged by the characters and their lives. If the novelist has done her job well, I come to care for the characters and hope the “good guys” enjoy a happy ending. For the most part, the novels I’ve read this year have ended happily, but not all. Stephen King’s Insomnia has a sad ending because one character finds much-deserved happiness only to have it yanked away prematurely. Too bad. I was rooting for him. Lucha Corpi’s Eulogy for a Brown Angel includes a death at the end that seems unnecessary, just another way to add tragedy to the story. But, given that the author uses the main character to start a mystery series, maybe, somehow, this seemingly unnecessary death serves some kind of purpose for the next book. I’ll know if that’s so, when I read the next in the series.

But though I prefer a happy ending, it doesn’t make sense to have one if it doesn’t suit the story’s themes or characters. For example, I loved Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, but I did not like the ending. However, I understood why it had to end the way it did: it made sense, given the protagonist’s responsibilities to her family and her goals in life. An ending can also be “bad” if it lets the reader down in terms of expectations. Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen is a big disappointment. I didn’t like the book from page one, but I was drawn in by the protagonist who kept teasing about a big reveal. There was no such big reveal. For me, it was a complete letdown.

There is also the ambiguous ending, which leads the reader to imagine what the end might mean or leaves the characters’ fates undetermined. I’m not crazy about that ending, either, though to an extent, I was guilty of writing such an ending for my first novel, My Doormat Days. I didn’t even realize it at first, not until readers asked if there would be a sequel, that it had been ambiguous. I finally realized that they wanted to know about the resolution of one of the relationships in the novel. I didn’t think it was important enough to spell it out, but on the other hand, it’s a good sign that the readers cared enough about the characters to want to know what the future held for their relationship.

So , though I prefer a happy ending, it doesn’t make sense to have one if it doesn’t suit the story.

Driven by Character

Yes, I love character-driven fiction. I can almost–almost, but not quite–accept a poorly written novel if its characters are interesting. Occasionally, I like to blog about interesting characters I’ve come across recently in the fiction I’ve read. Here are a few I’ve met this past year:

Eileen in Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh. I downright hated this depressing tale narrated by the sociopathic Eileen. I only finished it because Eileen kept promising a BIG REVEAL, which instead was a big letdown. I should have known not to trust her. Eileen is self-centered and loathsome. But she is unforgettable.

Malka Treynovsky in The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. Malka starts life as a naïve, hopeful immigrant child who gradually becomes an embittered, successful entrepreneur.

Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes. This guy is one evil dude. The author takes the reader into the mind of a serial killer. Humphrey Bogart played him in the movie, but was not as evil a character.

Selina in Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall is another young immigrant, but from childhood she is feisty, rebellious, and sometimes cruel to family and friends. She’s a well-drawn character, but one I couldn’t bring myself to like, because of her cruelty.

Ralph Roberts in Insomnia by Stephen King. Ralph is a senior widower who finds new meaning to life when faced with a supernatural foe. King has always had a knack for creating strong characters. Ralph is real in every way.

The dad in Haters by Alisa Valdes. I can’t remember his name. He’s not the protagonist, but he’s a fun-loving, sweet father to his self-absorbed teenage daughter. It’s a refreshing portrayal of a loving parent.

Antoinette Conway in Trespasser by Tana French. It’s interesting that the most compelling characters are often the most unlikable. Antoinette carries a chip (that is more like a boulder) on her shoulder. But she’s fiercely independent and smart. Tana French mysteries always have detailed, real characters, and Antoinette is one of her best.

 

 

 

Read or Listen?

This month our book club is reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I didn’t realize how popular this book is until I searched for it on the websites of my local libraries. There were hundreds of requests at one library but only fifteen at the other, and that’s where I placed a hold. As weeks went by, I grew concerned that the book wouldn’t arrive in time for our book club meeting. So, at the suggestion of a friend, I downloaded the audio edition through a lending service offered at one of the libraries. It’s hard to believe, but this is only the second time I’ve listened to a book. As someone who has been intimately connected to libraries for almost my entire life, it’s amazing that before 2017 I’d never listened to an audiobook!

I don’t know why I avoided audiobooks for so long, especially after colleagues and friends had touted the advantages of listening to a book while mired in L.A. traffic, or spoke of the excellent work of a particular narrator. Maybe I felt that I wouldn’t actually be reading the book and appreciating the written word firsthand. Though I avoided audiobooks for a long time, I am now a convert. I’m not a fast reader. Sometimes I’ll get stuck on a paragraph; my mind will wander (I’ll be thinking about such banal topics as what I’ll cook for dinner or the horribly rude driver I encountered in traffic the day before), and I won’t absorb what I’m reading. I might have to read the paragraph a few times before the words sink in. That doesn’t happen to me with an audiobook. You see, I’m a very good listener and always have been. I listen more than I talk. I can listen to an audiobook and not miss a word, even if I’m also giving myself a manicure or cooking lunch. I finish the book faster than I could if I were reading it. This doesn’t mean, though, that I’ll abandon the physical book for the audio version. A book can be read on a plane or in bed without the need to plug in earbuds. For me, a book is a friend I’ll never give up.

A Vacation from Reading? No!

My husband, John, and I recently returned from a thoroughly enjoyable vacation on a European cruise ship. I’ve blogged before about the fact that I try to take a book with me every time I travel because you never know when you’ll be stuck waiting for a plane, a train, or whatever. Books always help me pass the time. Plus, reading is a part of my life that I hate to leave behind, even if I am on vacation. But this time I did leave it behind. I considered taking my iPad with me so I could read an e-book, but I worried about risking the loss of a valuable item during the bustle of travel. For the same reason, I wouldn’t take a library book with me. In the airport, I scanned the shops for a good book or magazine to purchase for the flight, but nothing appealed to me. Oh, well, I decided, I’d spend time with John and watch whatever video entertainment the airline had to offer. That worked fine for the flight to our destination and throughout the cruise, too.

On the return flight, it was a different story. Unfortunately, John and I were not seated together on the plane. And, again, I found no interesting reading material to purchase. Oh, well, I decided, I would rely on the video entertainment to keep me amused. Big mistake. The video player at my seat didn’t work! Oh, how I missed my books!

Though I was able to have a perfectly wonderful time on the cruise without a  book to read, flying without good reading material is something I will never do again.

Book Club Suggestions

Yesterday, I attended my monthly book club meeting. We had a very good discussion about the Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Our club doesn’t always have such deep discussions, because, frankly, some of the books we read are not that deep. Though we tend to avoid political issues, on occasion we have ventured into more serious topics, such as death and racial discrimination. It’s certainly possible to have a lively back-and-forth after reading a popular novel, but for me it’s not as intriguing as when the discussion turns to weightier subjects, as it did yesterday. Here is a list of books I’ve recently read that I believe would encourage a serious book club exchange:

The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It’s a self-help book on a grand scale. Our discussion touched on religion, the role of education in influencing personal behaviors, and particular challenges we have faced within our own families.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a novel that is currently getting a lot of attention for its timely views on racial issues in the African-American community, from the perspective of a teenage girl.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. If a book club is not afraid to delve into a classic that is relevant to today’s U.S. political climate, it will certainly inspire opinion and conversation.

A Deep Dark Secret, by Kimberla Lawson Roby, who is a prolific author of novels that deal with real issues in society (for example domestic violence, infidelity, mental illness, etc.). A Deep Dark Secret is a novella about child abuse. At times, I found it difficult reading, but it gave me a lot to think about.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes. Published in the late 1940s, this is an interesting look at the role of American women during that mid-century world, and one man’s horrific misogyny. It would be interesting to pair the book with a viewing of the film of the same name, starring Humphrey Bogart. There is much to compare and contrast.