What do you do with a year like 2017?
Politically, it’s been a dumpster fire almost from the start with enough insanity to make you laugh manically, sob hysterically, or in many cases, run for office because you can’t stand what’s going on. Looking at the mess politicians are making of the wider world almost makes me despair, and I’m looking into 2018 with far more uncertainty in my mind than ever before. I can’t fathom the optimism I had this time four years ago.
As low as 2017’s lows were, its highs were better than I could have imagined, culminating the occurrence of a total solar eclipse in my own backyard, and my fulfilling a lifelong dream of visiting Iceland.
I made blogging a higher priority this year. While both Traveling, Gladly Beyond and my photo blog have been around for a few years, I didn’t take either one seriously. If I posted once a week it was busy, and my following was correspondingly small. At the end of 2016, I decided that I would make a real effort to blog more often, and I stuck with it.
Here at the end of 2016, my following is still small compared to others, but I don’t mind. Thanks to this blog, I have made some wonderful friends, discovered (and fallen in love with) books that I would have passed over without a second glance otherwise, and have learned how to better explain my reactions to books, which has helped me both to understand why I do or do not like them and to develop a deeper sense of what goes into the structure of a story.
When Goodreads prompted me to enter a Reading Challenge at the end of 2016, I decided upon 60. I’d finished 74 books, and because of the madness I’d predicted for the coming year, I thought that 60 was a reasonable number. I blew past that in July, and though I thought about adjusting the goal to, say, 100 books, I never bothered to do it. There was always this weird little twinge of joy whenever I glanced at my Reading Challenge’s status bar and saw numbers like 115% or 175%. There is still time left in the year, but I have reached the point where I’ve reached over 200% of my goal, with 122 books read. To be fair, some of those titles were individual comics issues, essays, and short stories. But after nearly 36,000 pages read, I think I can safely claim 122 titles (and counting).
Memoir: Names for the Sea- Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss. This is the story of a British English Literature professor who takes a teaching position at a college in Reykjavik as the global financial collapse is happening. Moss and her family learn to live with the rhythms of Icelandic life and its changing culture. When she is not busy teaching, raising her two children, or learning to deal with crazy Reykjavikian traffic, Moss delves into Icelandic history and beliefs. This one likely sticks in my mind the most because I read it shortly after coming home from Iceland.
Non-Fiction: The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks. This collection of essays was Sacks’s last work before his death in August 2015. Sometimes funny and sometimes profound, the essays cover topics ranging from Darwin’s later flower studies to Sacks’s own failing health. Like the rest of his writings, The River of Consciousness overflows with knowledge, wisdom, and a love for healing and humanity.
Mystery: Old Scores by Will Thomas. This is the ninth installment of Thomas’s excellent series of Victorian mysteries starring Barker and Llewellyn. It’s almost too easy to say for a series that they keep getting better, but it’s the absolute truth for Old Scores. We develop a deeper understanding of Barker’s mysterious past, and Llewellyn’s growth as both a detective and a good man continues apace.
Historical Fiction: The Wars of the Roses series by Conn Iggulden. It would be hard to pick one title to stand above the others in this excellent series set during the English War of the Roses, so I won’t try. I’m already an Anglophile, and Iggulden’s series helped me gain a better understanding of the often confusing conflicts that marked the latter half of the fifteenth century, as well as putting a human face to these larger-than-life figures of English history.
General Fiction: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. After the death of his wife, A.J.’s life is in tatters, and it only gets worse when his most valuable possession is stolen from his apartment one night. Things take an unexpected turn when an unexpected delivery shows up on the counter of his little bookstore. I wish this book had been longer, because I was perfectly happy to sit and read about A.J., his bookstore and its customers, and how he found happiness where he least expected it.
Fantasy: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence. This is the story of Nona Gray, a girl saved from the gallows and taken to a nunnery where the students learn how to kill as well as pray. Though the story jumps between two different time periods, the majority of it stays with Nona when she is a pre-teen. Lawrence expertly weaves politics and prophecy into the story without straying out of Nona’s point-of-view or her childish understanding of the world. The plot twists are not forced. Instead, they play upon the reader’s expectations, quietly subverting them while remaining true to the characters.
Science Fiction: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Though it feels less like science fiction and more like reality with every passing year, Bradbury’s prescient story warns us about the dangers of forgetting our cultural stories in favor of passing fancies (like modern reality television).
Graphic Novels: Monstress, vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu, art by Sana Takeda. Set on an alternate Earth, this steampunk Art Nouveau world is populated by both humans and magical non-humans who have long been at war with each other, and follows one teenage girl struggling with the trauma of war even as she shares a deepening psychic link to a monster beyond imagining. Everything about this series, from the characters to the writing to the artwork leaves me utterly amazed every time I look at it.
Horror: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. There’s magic in the world, and Charles Thomas Tester knows how to use it to his advantage, even as the racism prevalent in 1920s Harlem keeps him from getting ahead in the world. After a series of violent encounters with the police, Tester opens a door to a realm of magic beyond his comprehension and catches the eye of creatures best left alone. I’m not generally a horror fan, but this story is exquisitely told and shows why a man like Tester would gladly open a door to the dark realms.
And my favorite book of 2017, overall?
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. Set in Russia during the middle ages, this beautiful fantasy novel blends Russian folktales with Christian lore as it tells the story of Vasya, a girl who can see the mystical creatures that dwell in the reaches of the northern forests where her family makes their home. After the arrival of her new, devout stepmother and her priest, the balance of the forest is thrown off, allowing a demon to return to the world to threaten Vasya, her family, and the whole of the forest. This was Katherine Arden’s debut novel, and it was absolutely enchanting, featuring a heroine who didn’t need a sword to defend her people, but instead relied on her own good sense and the teachings of her people. The second book in the trilogy, The Girl in the Tower, is already out, and I am anxiously waiting for it to come in for me at the library.
2017 was a good year for literary-based television with the premier of Starz’s American Gods based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, PBS’s Victoria based on Daisy Goodwin’s novel, TNT’s Will which is a fictionalized account of William Shakespeare’s early career, along with the seventh season of Game of Thrones. The Marvel universe on Netflix expanded a little more, too, with the arrival of The Defenders over the summer and the premier of The Punisher in the fall.
Victoria, starring Jenna Coleman, Nell Hudson, Tom Hughes, and Rufus Sewell. This show follows the early reign of Queen Victoria as she struggles to move from being an isolated princess to ruling the English empire and finding a husband worthy of a queen. Like Downton Abbey, the stories of servants below stairs are told, as well, and are just as dramatic as many of the issues that Victoria faces. Season 2 premiers in the US in January.
Star Trek: Discovery, starring Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Jason Isaacs, and Anthony Rapp. This new Star Trek series is set ten years before the events of the original series (featuring Kirk and Spock), follows the adventures of the rather strange ship, Discovery. The Federation is at war with the Klingons, setting scientists against their more war-like counterparts on board- the scientists hate that their research is being used to make weapons, but without those weapons the Federation will be destroyed. This is my favorite show of 2017, and I’m looking forward to the second half of season one, which premiers on January 7.
There was a lot for studios to regret this year, with a number of lousy sequels, failed reboots, and lackluster comedies, but there were some standouts, many of which were directed by women. Perhaps, in the wake of low box office numbers and the success of films like Wonder Woman and Lady Bird, Hollywood will figure out that A) women are pretty good at making films, and B) a lot of women go to the movies. I don’t go to a lot of movies thanks to a weird work schedule, and there are several from 2017 that I want to see, but haven’t yet (I haven’t seen The Last Jedi, for example, though I want to, and am definitely going this week!).
My favorites of 2017:
Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, and Robin Wright. This is the origin story for Diana, Princess of Themyscira, who grows up among the Amazons on a secluded island shielded from the rest of the world. The peace that she has known is shattered by the arrival of a WWI spy, who draws her into the wider world where she learns about love, humanity, and the nature of evil. This film is the first superhero movie made for the female gaze, and it shows. The Amazons are allowed to be muscular and to show their age, and their armor is made with ancient Greek and Roman warriors’ garb as the inspiration, not lingerie. The No-Man’s-Land scene is particularly inspiring as a defining moment for Diana.
Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, and Timothee Chalamet. This movie follows Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson as she navigates through her senior year of high school, tries to become a ‘cool kid’, applies for college, and seeks to hide her family’s poverty from the kids at her private Catholic school. It feels so heart-breakingly true to the life of a teenager who, age-wise is nearly an adult, but has a long way to go, maturity-wise. The female relationships, especially between mother and daughter, are so perfectly drawn and are almost painful to watch when they are brought into conflict.
So there are my favorites from 2017! It’s been a crazy year, and I can only hope that 2018 brings a little peace and quiet to the world. But whatever happens, there is a lot to look forward to in the new year!