In 2017, I was able to read through over 80 books, largely thanks to the great power of Audible and 3x listening. I also found that reading books in between the little things when the boys needed attention was easier than picking up other things. I also weaned myself off of most social media, especially Twitter which was my normal nightly ritual, freeing up more time for other things, mostly reading. Thanks to this extra time, I was able to read more in 2017 than perhaps any other year.
I started enjoying more non-fiction this year as well. In general, I find fiction easier to read and non-fiction easier to listen to, especially quickly in the car, my main listening place. While I did discover some great fiction this year, finally getting to some series in the sci-fi and fantasy realms that I’d had on my list for years, I really enjoyed learning more about both Norway in preparation for our trip there as well as the history of the American West after a great visit there in the early winter. I find reading about places as well as stories that take place in them really adds to the experience when traveling there.
Learning more about the Vikings and Norwegian history made our travels there much more enjoyable and interesting to me. Seeing the fjords where Vikings set out made history come alive in my mind. If only the modern Norwegian fiction was as bright as the 24-hours of sunlit summer days there rather than as dark as the sunless winter ones.
Without further ado, here are my top 12 from the year
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
I picked this book up after seeing it on several lists of great non-fiction as well as due to the nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. Written by a long-time resident and journalist of the Great Lakes, it tells the story of how man has inadvertantly destroyed the entire ecology of the lakes, Earth’s largest source of freshwater (nearly ⅓ of the freshwater on the planet is contained in the lakes) through building canals, introducing invasive species, and generally doing absolutely nothing to conserve the environment there. The only actions which have been taken were to clean up pollutants after a river caught on fire, multiple times, and even these were insufficient to prevent the decimation of the ecology. It’s a harsh wakeup call for modern conservationists, and a tough pill to swallow for those who love the lakes. I recently discovered how incredible the lakes our after a wedding out on Mackinac Island between Lakes Huron and Michigan, as well as in Chicago.
The Bear & The Nightingale
A story based on the traditional folklore of Medieval Russia, this book reminded me of other folk-fantasy books I enjoyed like The Genii and the Golem. Though it was a little up and down with pacing and plot, I liked the introduction of Russian Folklore, building on what I learned from my wife’s family. We know now that our dog is a domovoi, a household spirit that demands food in order to protect the house. As a breakout book from a first time author, it’s a pretty solid entry, though I know I can’t afford to get involved in the whole series.
I thought this book would have more of a technology tilt, but as a work of deep but fast paced fiction, it works well. In it, the wife of a scientist who is working on a time machine discovers alternate realities where things have turned out differently for her tumultuous family. Any book which spends multiple pages explaining source control systems is a winner in my book.
Broken Earth Trilogy
This trilogy, started a few years ago, was wrapped up this year with the final installment, the Obelisk Gate. It’s a very different take on fantasy, taking place on a planet where frequent cataclysmic seismic activity causes year-long events or “seasons” in which inhabitants have to scrape and fight to survive. Through the trilogy, several high powered people with the ability to shape and control this seismic activity work to break this cycle. It also brings new light into fantasy with questions of individuality, race, and human freedom. It’s a refreshing series that’s perfect right as most fantasy and sci-fi was getting a bit stale to me.
It’s a story about a childhood hockey team coming together during a championship, but this book is about as far from Mighty Ducks as can be. It takes place in a small rural town in Sweden where the only thing keeping the town from disappearing into the woods due to everyone leaving for bigger towns is the great hockey team. Dealing with concepts such as urban flight, teen pressures to win, and even rape, it’s not a light read. It is the kind of dark Scandinavian book that makes you question mankind though.
Similar to Broken Earth, this sci-fi book is so far outside the bounds of normal sci-fi it’s hard to even categorize it that way. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic future where corporations have run amok with genetically engineering plants and animals, control has been lost and what’s left of humankind has to adapt to survive. That’s pretty standard. What makes it different is that instead of just a tale of survival, this book introduces a genetically engineered creature as protagonist, casting a very different light on the story. Through it, one of the survivors struggles with playing surrogate parent to the creature and dealing with the repercussions when she loses control. It’s a sometimes light, sometimes intellectually challenging read that kept me reading through very quickly.
Back into non-fiction, this book about the last days of the Wild West, leading up to the shootout at the OK Corral paints a masterpiece of the old West just as it was completely changing from lawlessness to culture as a result of the industrialization of the country. Centered around Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as many good stories (and Seinfeld plots) do, it weave several seemingly unrelated threads into a fatal inflection point at the conclusion. Beside Deadwood, nothing has shown me more about how the West worked and how it ended.
The Passage Trilogy
I finally got into this massive, expansive sprawl of a trilogy this year and enjoyed it the most of any reading I did. Each book kept me up several nights far past bedtime and into the dark hours of the night because I wanted to read just one more chapter. The dark creepy nature of it also made sleep a little hard to come by. Taking place from now through about 100 years into the future, like so much sci-fi, it involves a government created virus that causes the decimation of all but a tiny enclave of humanity left hiding under lights during the dark nights when monstrous creatures come out. The first book focuses on the creation and proliferation of the virus while the later two jump ahead to humanity’s last ditch effort to save itself. Each book is incredibly long, taking me a few months even at a ravenous pace, but even still I wished for more thanks to the great writing and captivating story lines.
I’m a few years late to the Hamilton party, but this expansive tome centered around the life and times of founding father Alexander Hamilton is a great primer on the founding of the country from the revolution and beyond, going deep on the much harder part of nation building after the war ended. Most books in this era only go to the end of the war and ignore all the immense hard work that went into building a government from scratch. This part is a bit less entertaining than the war, but no less interesting. Now, I just have to see the musical.
When the movie came out, focused on the women behind NASA who actually did the calculations for many of the launches before computers were mechanized, I knew I’d want to read the book. It tells the fascinating story of the hidden women at NASA who didn’t get the credit they deserved. It goes a long way to explain why female participation in science and engineering has dropped off so much.
Another nonfiction story of the American West, this book tells the story of George Bird Grinnell, one of the country’s first conservationists who was foundational in the establishment of Yellowstone National Park as well as the conservation and protection of the last remaining buffalo in America. Estimated at at least 30 million at its peak, by the mid 1800s, the vast buffalo herds of the American prairies were down to around 300 total animals. Thanks to the efforts of these early conservationists as well as breeding in preserves, the herds were saved and people can still see these native animals today. As the book puts it, it’s not only incredible that Grinnell was so successful, it’s incredible that he even had the idea to protect these animals in an age where no one prioritized conservation or animals over human needs at all.
While also nonfiction and popularized by a movie, this book tells the character driven story of the incredible injury of, and survival of an early pioneer out west. After being left for dead after a bear attack, he searches for revenge on the bear as well as those who left him for dead. It’s another book I wish were longer because I couldn’t put it down. For those who love stories of the American lawless West and vengeance, it’s a perfect combination, much like True Grit.
These dozen books (plus two trilogies) really stood out to me this year. I still have over 300 books in my to-read queue, but 2017 might have been the first year I actually reduced the list’s size. If 2018 brings as many great books, I cannot wait. There are already some great entries this year and it’s time to start tucking in.