Amanda’s favorites of 2017
Yes, it’s list time. What follows are 17 of my favorite 2017 books that I reviewed and excerpts of my reviews. I pretty much exclusively read contemporary fiction. Even though I’m a voracious reader, I’m sure I missed a lot of great titles this year. I always enjoy reading the many lists that crop up this time of the year, but I also always want more variety and to hear from more people. So here’s my list—will you share yours with us too? Leave us a comment or hit me up on Twitter where I’m @CiteSomething.
History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera
Both the history and the present are riveting, unexpected storylines. Griffin and Theo’s relationship is powerful and complicated, especially once they break up. I loved seeing them get together and watching their close friendship morph into intense first love. They have loving, supportive families. The third member of their squad, Wade, barely blinks when the two start dating—he just doesn’t want to feel like a third wheel with his longtime best friends. When Theo begins to date Jackson while in California, Griffin tries to keep his cool, jealous, but figuring the relationship won’t last. After Theo dies, Griffin has the love and support of his family, Theo’s, and Wade, but it’s through Jackson that Griffin tries to seek solace. Though at first not really excited to get to know Jackson at all, Griffin realizes that he’s really the only person who can understand exactly how he feels. Plus, he believes Theo is watching him, and he thinks Theo would like to see him working so hard to get along with Jackson and to understand what they had.
Predictably, growing closer to Jackson and learning more about his time with Theo is agonizing for Griffin. It’s all hard to hear and pretty heartbreaking. Through this entire grieving process, Griffin is growing more and more heartbroken, learning things about Theo that hurt him and avoiding pretty enormous things that need to be dealt with. One of those things is Griffin’s “quirks,” as he thinks of them—really OCD and depression and the whole thinking Theo is currently with him somehow thing. Though surrounded by love and support, Griffin is hellbent on forging his own way through the quagmire of grief.
This profoundly devastating, heartbreaking, and brilliantly rendered look at love and grief will captivate readers. An absolute must-read. Bump this to the top of your TBR lists and be ready to not move until you finish it. (See full review here.)
The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu
Haydu has written a profound story examining grief, doubt, tradition, expectation, and identity. Haydu’s story brings up huge questions about sacrifice and protection, about truth and perception. We are asked to consider, right alongside Lorna and crew, if love if a decision. Lorna and her friends know grief and pain, but they are still young. They are still learning that loss and heartache are inherent in love. And they can’t protect themselves from that—not by chalking things up to a Curse, not by drinking certain teas, not by building cages around their hearts, not by anything. They don’t yet know that we are all Affected, that we are all Cursed. In their isolation, they don’t understand that everyone has lost loved ones, that everyone blames themselves. Thanks to the relentlessness of Angelika, the Devonairre Street girls feel like they are the only ones protecting themselves, denying themselves, and stumbling under the dizzying weight of grief and guilt. Lorna, Delilah, Charlotte, and Isla’s whole lives are filled with people making them feel Other because of this. They don’t yet understand these are the prices we pay for being alive, for being the survivors. Their search for this understanding, their stumbling for answers and finding new pain, is heartbreaking. This beautifully written story is not to be missed. A powerful and deeply profound exploration of love, tragedy, and life itself. (See full review here.)
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Before long, she gets to know her cousins better and learns that they are tough girls who no one wants to mess with, girls who are fiercely loyal and protect their family. Fabiola has to figure out what being in Detroit means for her. She maintains rituals and beliefs from her heritage, but also learns how to fit in in her new neighborhood—one that is full of drugs, guns, violence, and secrets. Fabiola relies on vodou and spirits (lwas) to help guide her toward understanding what she needs to do as things get more complex in Detroit. Meanwhile, she’s also started a new relationship with Kasim, the best friend of her cousin Donna’s abusive boyfriend, Dray. Also, don’t forget, she’s trying to figure out how to get her mom, who is now in a detention center in New Jersey, to Detroit. Things take a dramatic turn when Fabiola begins working with a detective who is determined to bust Dray for dealing drugs. In exchange, the detective will help Fabiola’s mother get out of the detention center and get a green card. Wherever you think that part of the story is going, you’re wrong. The many twists and turns that part of the plot takes blew my mind. By the time I got to the end, the only coherent thought I was capable of writing in my notebook was “WHOA.”
Zoboi’s debut is complex and gritty (I kind of hate that word, but it gets the job done), with characters that will stick in my mind a long time. Though narrated by Fabiola, we get small first-person passages from all of the other characters, allowing us to know them more deeply. These passages reveal pasts and secrets, some of which will send you reeling. This powerful and well-written story of an immigrant girl’s new life in the United States is absorbing and unpredictable. I hope this finds its way to bookshelves in all public and school libraries. (See full review here.)
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
I love Nina LaCour. When this book showed up in my mailbox, I was delighted. Because here’s the thing: I’m going to guess I haven’t been alone in having a really hard time concentrating on a book lately. I started and abandoned a whole bunch of books in January. I read this until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Then the next morning, I read it while waiting for my doctor. For once, I wanted her to be running behind, because I was down to about twenty pages. I finished it later that same day, sobbing over my gummy candy and desperately hoping my kid would stay playing outside for a few more minutes so I could just keep on crying. It was exactly the book I needed to read at that moment in time. It’s a relatively quick read, and since it’s Nina LaCour, you know it’s going to be a deep and beautifully-written story. This is one of those books where I just don’t even want to say much of anything beyond OH MY GOD, GO READ THIS, IT’S STUNNING. I want the story to unfold for you like it did for me. I hadn’t so much as read the flap copy. I didn’t need to. It takes a while to figure out where the story might be going, and even once the pieces start to fall into place, it never feels predictable. This is, hands down, one of saddest books I have read in a very long time. But here’s how I mean that: you won’t cry all the way through. It’s not all doom and gloom. There is a lot of love and friendship to be found here. But Marin’s grief and loneliness will just destroy you. (See full review here.)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This book is so important. It’s also so good, but it’s SO IMPORTANT. And I’d say it’s timely, but violence against black people—specifically police violence against black people—is not a new thing. So the story feels very “ripped from the headlines,” but the damn headlines never change. The names of black people murdered by police officers pile up and you know that list is only going to get longer. So yeah, this book feels very of right now—but “right now” is actually a pretty long period of time. It’s things like the mentions of Twitter, of increased media attention on protests and victims’ stories, Tumblr, and other very contemporary things that make it feel like it’s happening RIGHT NOW, right this very second. Again, chalk that up to the fact that the date might change, but the story never does. Plenty of 90s references (thanks to Chris and Starr’s love of Fresh Prince and her parents’ interests and influence) help add to the feel of being timely and timeless all at once. This book will age well, and I write that while heaving a big sigh, because, again, in real life, the damn story never changes.
There’s so much more I could tell you about–Starr’s wonderful and supportive family, the complex interactions between gang members (and ex-gang members), the way you will be cheering out loud when Starr finally finds her voice and begins to speak out about what happened–but the bottom line of all of it is this: This book is profound. It is important. It manages to be funny and devastating at the same time. This intense look at systemic racism, police violence/accountability, and the lives of people affected by both needs to be read by everyone. EVERYONE. It’s only February, but I’d go so far as to say that this is probably the most important book of 2017. (See full review here.)
What Girls Are Made Of by Elana Arnold
There are people who are going to read this book and judge Nina harshly. Here is who I suspect those people will be: people who are not teenage girls; people who have never been teenage girls; people who completely forgot what it’s like to be a teenage girl; people who literally cannot imagine being a teenage girl; and people who don’t understand the realities of teenage girls. Reading this book requires being aware of the fact that being a teenage girl means processing, internalizing, and subverting a lifetime of your gender being socially constructed. It means bending and breaking under the weight of expectation. It means digging deep to find your worth when you’re surrounded by an entire world that tries to define it for you. It means being fed conflicting and dangerous messages, then being left to untangle them, alone, and find out the truth for yourself. Being a teenage girl is not easy; Elana Arnold shows us exactly why in this stunning and thoughtful book.
This meditation on the idea of unconditional love—whether it is, indeed, unconditional, whether this idea is dangerous or appealing (or both), and determining who sets conditions and why—is devastating, smart, complex, and utterly real. Nina is aching, learning, screwing up, holding on too long, letting go, bending, breaking, and recreating. Arnold shows us that none of that is simple. It’s not easy, in any way, but she is doing it all, largely alone. She is hurting and growing and being. She is becoming. Her story is so painfully familiar and common and will surely resonate with readers. A powerful and unforgettable look at the things that define teenage girls. (See full review here.)
Pointe, Claw by Amber J. Keyser
This is absolutely 100% a book about what it means to inhabit a girl’s body. It’s a book about growing up, changing, seeing ourselves, and being seen. It’s about expectations, anger, jealousy, relationships, shame, love, friendship, and support. There is a constant conversation about women and women’s bodies–Jessie, her fellow dancers, Dawn, Dawn’s makeup-selling mother, the girls at the strip club, the men who observe all of them… there is SO MUCH to unpack and think about. Much like Vadim’s dance (which, by the way, I was left sobbing after the description of their performance), this book is experimental and risky. And, like his dance, it is successful and surprising. The metamorphosis each girl undergoes is powerful; Dawn’s is downright shocking. I can’t say enough good things about this strange, disturbing, and extremely compelling look at girlhood, bodies, and identities. Raw, weird, and wonderful. (See full review here.)
The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
Growing up can mean growing apart, which is a hard revelation for twins Cassie and Molly Peskin-Suso. When Cassie, who is a lesbian, begins dating Mina, a pansexual Korean American, Molly feels a little cast aside. Molly, who has an anxiety disorder, has silently nursed 26 crushes and is working on finally risking the rejection she fears and starting to date. Cassie wants Molly to hook up with Mina’s best friend, Will, but Molly might be more interested in sweet and endearingly geeky Reid. While the girls are navigating these new worlds of romance, things don’t slow down in other parts of their lives. Cassie and Molly’s moms are finally getting married, so there’s a wedding to plan, much to the delight of Pinterest-savvy Molly; plus there are jobs, friends, and a busy baby brother. Molly, Cassie, and all of the secondary characters are well-developed and distinctive. The outspoken girls have honest, humorous, and sometimes awkward conversations with each other, their friends, and their supportive and loving moms about relationships and growing up. Albertalli’s keen ear for authentic teen voices will instantly make readers feel that they are a part of Cassie and Molly’s world, filled with rich diversity (Cassie and Molly’s family is Jewish and interracial), love, support, and a little heartache. In the satisfying conclusion, Molly and Cassie learn that letting new people into their lives does not have to mean shutting out others. (See full review here.)
How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake
I read this book in one sitting. I used to do that a lot—read books in one chunk of time—but don’t so much anymore. While I do typically read a book in one to two days, the time is broken up—I need to write something, I need to run errands, I need to parent, I need to do whatever. My busy brain isn’t the biggest fan of letting me settle into any one thing for too long. But with this book, I was hooked from page one and had no interest in moving until I was done reading. I am not a person who says “all the feels.” I do not tend to feel “swoony” over books. As a fairly cynical, scowly person, those kinds of expressions are just not me. BUT. I kept thinking of both expressions as I read. And when I was done, I shut the book and just held onto it, thinking, well, that was a completely satisfying read. And, really, how often do we read books that just feel completely, absolutely, perfectly satisfying?
Blake’s characters are vibrant and multifaceted. Though so much of this book is about pain, loss, and grief, there is also just so much love in this story. Compassion comes from the places we would expect (Emmy, Luca) and from surprising places, too (Jay, Pete). Both Grace and Eva are fragile but resilient. They both find family in new ways—ways neither would have chosen (a dead mom, an irresponsible and alcoholic mom)—and find support and care and love there. And their relationship, though not always easy, is meaningful and achingly lovely. I do not generally want characters who date in YA books to stay together forever (see my earlier remark about being cynical and scowly). But I love Grace and Eva together. This is an easy recommendation for fans of contemporary stories. Again, it’s rare that I find something just completely satisfying, and this book felt perfect in every way. Go read it! (See full review here.)
Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee
Seventeen-year-old Kentucky filmmaker and Tolstoy superfan Tash Zelenka’s summer takes an unexpected turn when her web series, Unhappy Families (a modern adaptation of Anna Karenina) goes viral. The newfound fame causes tension between Tash and her best friend Jack, who also works on the series. Tash is easily caught up in the increased social media attention, her fans’ expectations, and the criticisms. She is also grappling with her complicated relationship with her sister, Klaudie, who drops out of acting in the series to more fully enjoy her last summer before college. Plus, Tash must deal with her flirtation with vlogger Thom, her confusing feelings for Paul (Jack’s brother and Tash’s other best friend), and her worries about the end of the series and her impending college applications. Tash is also beginning to come out to people as romantic asexual and needs to figure out how to share her identity with Thom, whom she will be meeting soon at the Golden Tuba independent web awards. Tash and her group of artsy theater friends are vibrant, creative, and thoughtful. They may not always totally understand one another, but their admirable and complicated friendships have so much heart. The much-needed asexual representation plays a significant role in the story, with readers privy to Tash’s thoughts on identity and conversations with friends about what the term means. (See full review here.)
Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali
We first meet Janna, wearing a burkini, while she’s in Florida with her dad and his family. She’d rather not be hanging out with them, but after her friend’s cousin sexually assaults her at a gathering, she needs to get out of town. Farooq, who Janna mostly just refers to as “the monster,” is well-respected in their community, a sort of golden boy at their mosque, who has memorized the entire Qur’an (but doesn’t appear to actually understand any of it). Janna keeps the assault to herself for much of the story, busy navigating the many parts of her life, but the monster is always around and Janna is fearful and angry. Janna’s brother, Muhammad, has recently moved home, taking a year off from college, and is courting Sarah, a study circle leader at their mosque, who Janna feels is, annoying, “the most perfect Muslim girl.” Janna spends time with Mr. Ram, her elderly Hindu neighbor, tries to figure out what to do about her crush on white, non-Muslim Jeremy, and hangs out with friends. She takes part in an Islamic Quiz Bowl team, too, getting to know more about people like Nuah, a nice dude who is friends with the monster, and Sausun, a niqab-wearing girl who becomes a surprising ally for Janna.
As Janna finds her voice, she struggles with how to fit in (both with her Muslim friends and her non-Muslim friends, as well as within her divided family), with what is important to her, and with how to make real connections with the people in her life. This is a thoughtful and engaging look at identity and finding your footing in your own life. As with the other books from Salaam Reads, this should be in all collections. (See full review here.)
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
A trio of high-born, determined, and wildly charismatic teenagers get more than they bargained for in this rollicking 18th-century Grand Tour of the Continent gone awry. Endearing rake Lord Henry Montague (or Monty) and his biracial best friend (and unrequited love), the infinitely patient Percy, leave England to drop Monty’s fiercely intelligent sister Felicity off at finishing school. The friends then spend a year traveling. After the Grand Tour, Monty will return home to help his demanding father run their estate and Percy will go to Holland to law school. If Monty’s dad catches wind of him still “mucking around with boys,” Monty will be cut off from the family. The trip is intended to be a cultural experience. However, no one could have predicted that one seemingly petty theft would set off an adventure involving highwaymen, stowaways, pirates, a sinking island, an alchemical heart, tomb-raiding, and a secret illness. From the start, readers will be drawn in by Monty’s charm, and Felicity and Percy come alive as the narrative unfolds. The fast-paced plot is complicated, but Lee’s masterly writing makes it all seem effortless. The journey forces Monty and friends to confront issues of racism, gender expectations, sexuality, disability, family, and independence, with Monty in particular learning to examine his many privileges. Their exploits bring to light the secret doubts, pains, and ambitions all three are hiding. This is a witty, romantic, and exceedingly smart look at discovering one’s place in the world. (See full review here.)
Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens
There is SO MUCH to love about this novel. It’s a profoundly loving look at friendship, the kind of friendship where friends truly support each other and give each other room to grow, change, and figure life out. It’s also a really complex look at expectations, perceptions, identity, and fluidity. It’s also an incredibly necessary and supportive look at teenagers experimenting with who they are and finding so much love and support in even the most unlikely of places. Like Billie says at one point, “Feeling don’t sort like laundry.” Nor should we want them to. So much of the joy comes from sifting through everything, discovering who you are, in the process of finding yourself. Billie and her friends are unfinished and imperfect, but they’re grateful for what they have and willing to do the hard work of figuring out who they are. This thoughtful look at love, friendship, identity, sexuality, and fluidity is not to be missed. Brilliant. (See full review here.)
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
Puerto Rican Mateo and Cuban-American Rufus meet through the Last Friend app, an app designed to help you meet up with someone to spend your last day with. Their connection is immediate, intense, and one that deserves far longer to play out than the time allotted to them. Rufus, a bisexual foster kid, has really only had fellow foster kids Aimee, Malcolm, and Tagoe to turn to since his parents and sister died not long ago. And he can’t spend his last day with them for complicated reasons involving the police and a nameless gang. Mateo has really only ever had his dad, who is in a coma (his mother died in childbirth), and his best friend Lidia, who he doesn’t want to die in front of. Neither Mateo nor Rufus could have possibly expected to find such a powerful match on their End Day. Together, they struggle with the guilt and pain of both living and dying all while falling in love at the absolute worst time. On their End Day, they laugh, dance, sing, “skydive,” share their stories, say goodbyes, witness others’ End Days, cry, hurt, heal, and live.
The chapters alternate between Mateo and Rufus, with many brief chapters about the lives of those that surround them—their friends, people at the Death-Cast call center, the nameless gang, and others—showing how Rufus and Mateo’s lives were linked with their own. Every chapter is bursting with life and plans and regrets, and every chapter brings us one step closer to that inevitable ending. Told with warmth and humor and so much love, Silvera creates a stunningly powerful examination of what it means to really live your life. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Mateo and Rufus, but isn’t that how life always works?
Release by Patrick Ness
In my notes for this book, I noted a lot of passages and just wrote “YES!” or “I’m cheering!” or “OMG, I love Adam.” He is loved and supported (by his friends). He is vulnerable and feels undeserving of love. He is hurting but working through it. He is scared and confrontational. He contains multitudes. His relationship with Linus, sweet, patient, lovely Linus, is a thing of beauty. There is a lot of on the page sex and intimacy, which especially goes to prove the real difference between Linus and Enzo. There are wonderfully frank discussions of sex and sexuality between Adam and Angela, including a fantastic exchange about labels, fluidity, and the liberation that the right label can bring.
I read this book in one sitting. I didn’t want it to be over. It’s heartbreaking, beautiful, funny, odd, smart, and just truly stunning. This is easily one of my favorite reads so far in 2017.
I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina, Stacey Robinson, and John Jennings
Alfonso is feeling pretty good about life. He loves playing his trumpet, acting, attending his arts high school, being a bike messenger, and flirting with Danetta. The best thing in his life, though, is that his father, who has been incarcerated Alfonso’s entire life, is being released, finally exonerated of a crime he did not commit. But while out shopping for a suit to wear to meet his father, Alfonso is shot and killed by a white off-duty cop. Once dead, Alfonso joins a group of ghosts on a train. These ghosts are the ancestors who are seeking justice and rest. Alfonso learns about their lives and the ways they were killed by police while also going to see scenes from his past as well as what he’s missing in the present. Alfonso is able to see how his parents are coping, to follow the white police officer who killed him, and to see how his name lives on in the media, the justice system, and the many large protests that spring up after his death. An Ancestors Wall at the end lists the names of victims of police violence. This look at the prison industrial complex, the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, and the various systems of violence and oppression that have always existed in this country is devastating and important.
The Closest I’ve Come by Fred Aceves
Marcos is so achingly honest and vulnerable. He longs for connections—real, meaningful connections, where he can truly talk about his life. His loneliness is palpable. He makes mistakes but owns up to them and learns from them. Despite having every reason in the world not to, he allows himself to be real and open, tentatively at first, seeking so hard to find understanding and compassion, and to offer it to others. He’s loyal, smart, and brave enough to move beyond the expectations for him. It takes guts to make new friends, to be authentic (all while still trying to figure out just who you are), to try new things. It takes guts to go home day after day only to be greeted by abuse and neglect and indifference. It takes guts to tell your friend he’s making the wrong choice, to tell a girl you might be in love with her, to tell the police what’s been happening at home. Though the story is filled with violence and sadness, it is ultimately a hopeful story. Aceves shows how terribly painful life can be, but also how beautiful it can become through friendships, support, growth, and hope. A powerful look into the life of one kid trying to answer the question of “who am I?” in the midst of both bleak circumstances and increasingly deep friendships.
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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