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As I mentioned in my look ahead post, my goal in 2018 is to read as many unread books that I already own as possible—and not buy more until I’ve made a good dent. In the spirit of a new year of reading, I’m calling this my “Read My Shelf Challenge”–though you know how I actually feel about reading challenges!
I went through my shelf and made a list of all of the books I haven’t yet read. It’s…not short. There are 70 books on this list, and conveniently, I read 70ish books last year (I didn’t start tracking in Goodreads until mid-way through the year, so it’s an estimate). I don’t anticipate that I’ll read many more than that in the coming year—especially if most are hardcopy, because reading on my iPad and phone helps me get through more books.
Nonetheless, these are all books that I want to read. I’m looking forward to mostly focusing on this list instead of the new and shiny (remind me of that when I’m reviewing all kinds of new and shiny books, please).
Update 2/15/18: This post is still proving to be popular, so I thought I’d add a list with the books I’ve read from my shelf this year, so readers can see my reviews. The books I didn’t finish and the remaining books on my shelf that I need to read are below this list.
Cyril Avery was born to an unwed mother in Ireland in the 1940s--an unthinkable and shameful thing, at that time. Cyril is adopted by Charles and Maude Avery, who are indifferent and self-centered, but not neglectful.
From an early age, Cyril knows he's different: not a "real Avery," as Charles is quick to remind him, and realizing that he is not attracted to girls like his friends are--something that's even more shameful at that time in Ireland. In fact, Cyril harbors a deep love for his womanizing friend and eventual school roommate, Julian Woodbead.
The book follows Cyril through his life, from his youth and twenties spent in hiding and public denial in a repressive Dublin to a more open life in middle age in Amsterdam and New York. Cyril's search for identity, belonging, acceptance, and family is by turns funny, frustrating, and sad.
Some of the characters feel a bit like caricatures, but they serve to highlight some of the extreme attitudes Cyril, his mother, and so many others faced in those decades in Ireland. I loved this book, and though Cyril could be frustrating, I wanted to see him find happiness and contentment with himself.More info →
Kindred is famous for being the first science fiction novel written by a black woman. That's significant, but the science fiction part of this story--the time travel--isn't what makes it so compelling.
In the 1970s, a 26-year-old black woman is suddenly pulled back through time to save the life of a young boy who grows to be a slave owner in 1800s Maryland. Yanked without warning between present and past and back again, she returns multiple times throughout his life (as only minutes or hours pass in her own), and she realizes that she must keep him alive so he can father her great-grandmother. But through this, she also must live the life of a slave and face all the indignities, hardships, and heartbreaks that come with it.
This is an illuminating look at the lives of slaves, cognizant of our modern ideas that the people who were slaves must have been tougher than people now, somehow superhuman in their ability to endure. But the wounds from the whips and chains and inhuman disregard for their lives and families were real, and Butler sensitively examines the ways in which the people were beaten and worn into submission.
Light on the sci-fi aspects (sudden unexplained time travel is the only element) and a fast, worthwhile but difficult read (due to the subject matter). Highly recommended.More info →
This is a creepy coming-of-age novel that might appeal to fans of Stephen King. Eddie and his friends are pretty typical 80s kids in England, spending time at the park, riding bikes, and avoiding bullies. They start communicating with one another through chalk drawings--until one day drawings appear that none of them made, leading them to a dismembered body. Now, 30 years later, Eddie and his friends are reunited, finding that they all received a chalk drawing in the mail. Secrets start unraveling, and the friends find that they may not have known each other as well as they thought. I found the characters a little hard to pin down, which I think was part of the point, but it made it a tough to connect with any of them. Overall, this was gripping but a little too creepy and gruesome for my taste--true fans of this type of book will have no trouble at all, and it's received many positive reviews.More info →
Based on a true case from 1843, the story focuses on Grace Marks, a young woman who at the age of 16, was convicted of the murders of her employer, Mr. Kinnear, and a fellow housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, was also employed in Kinnear’s home. The two were arrested in a hotel not long after the murders, wearing the victim’s clothes and carrying valuable items stolen from the home. Grace insists she has no memory of the key events.
Now, eight years later, McDermott has been executed and Grace remains in prison. She often assists in the prison governor’s home, providing visitors with opportunities to gawk at the famed murderess. Some community members believe in her innocence and bring in psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan to draw out lost moments of Grace’s memory in the hopes of exonerating her. Read my full review of both the book and Netflix series.More info →
After losing her family in a Russian pogrom, Lillian Leyb comes to America and talks her way into a job and the lives of some New York theater powerhouses. Intent only on survival, her focus is finding and maintaining stability--until word arrives that her young daughter, Sophie, may have survived the slaughter. Lillian then begins a journey across the United States, intent on returning to Siberia to find her daughter.
From New York to Seattle to the Alaskan wilderness, Lillian calls on wiles and a resourcefulness she never knew she had. This book was oddly affecting--not odd because of the subject matter, which is devastating, but because Lillian herself is written as somewhat detached. I found this a little uneven and I was impatient with some of the tracks of the story that felt like they had no connection to either Lillian's past or her goal. As a mother, the arc of the story hit me hard, but the execution of it didn't quite hit the mark.More info →
This Pulitzer-Prize winning novel brings imagines the life of Little Women father Mr. March, absent for most of that famous novel to serve as a Union chaplain in the Civil War. As a childhood fan of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, I gave little thought to their father and had only a dim understanding of the transcendentalist beliefs driving March and Marmee's ways of being and raising their family. I certainly never imagined him to be in much danger during his service (why, I'm not sure).
Brooks' imagining of March is based on the life of Alcott's own father, Bronson Alcott, heavily documented in his letters and journals (though dramatized and fictionalized by Brooks).
The tie to the Little Women provides points of familiarity, but it isn't the focus and fans hoping for a new perspective on the girls will be disappointed (though the new view of an outspoken and impulsive Marmee is refreshing). Instead, the novel provides insight into one man's experience of the Civil War, life as an abolitionist, and his human fears, failings, and moral quandaries when faced with the violence of war and the horror of slavery.
Lately, I'm appreciating darker, more realistic takes on my childhood favorites, and March puts Little Women more clearly into historical context. This was a slow read, at times, but worth it for fans of both Little Women and historical fiction.More info →
After years of working multiple jobs while her mother raised her two children, Letty Espinosa now finds herself raising 15-year-old Alex and six-year old Luna on her own. Her parents have left San Francisco to return to Mexico and she must learn to be a mother for the first time. The cards seem stacked against the family, but Letty is determined to get the kids out of their abandoned apartment building and into better schools--whatever it takes. Complicating her efforts are the return of Alex's father, new love interests for both Letty and Alex, and a lack of credit that would allow them to move. While I didn't find Diffenbaugh's sophomore effort as arresting as her debut The Language of Flowers, this is a touching story that includes a personal look at illegal immigration and a prescient view of the familial impact of reversing DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).More info →
Helena has always been a little different from everyone else, but over the years, she's learned to hide that she doesn't always understand social niceties. She has a loving husband and daughters and a business, and life is going smoothly, until she hears that an inmate has killed two guards and escaped from the local prison.
The authorities believe they are on his tail, but she knows the truth. He has disappeared into the marsh, and he's coming for her. The man is her father, and until she was a teenager, she didn't know that he had kidnapped and held captive her mother. Faced with hunting down a man she all-at-once fears, loathes, and loves, Helena goes into the marsh.
The Marsh King's Daughter is a slow-burn of a novel--a little slower than I would have liked, but still unsettling in all the ways a psychological thriller should be. There are thrilling moments that justify the genre designation, but the story is told largely through flashbacks to a childhood tinged with a new interpretation following Helena's discovery of their captivity. It's a unique twist on a psychological thriller, as the reader is forced to understand her love for her father while knowing him to be a monster.More info →
As Hurricane Katrina headed toward New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun never considered leaving. He was used to riding out the storm and keeping watch over his painting business and the properties he and his wife, Kathy, owned. Kathy and the four kids would leave, eventually making their way to Arizona to stay with friends, but Zeitoun stayed. As everyone knows, New Orleans soon turned into a disaster area. Zeitoun was largely isolated from it, staying on the second floor and roof of his home at night and paddling through the nearby neighborhoods by day, feeding dogs and helping people who needed it.
He and a friend are in a home he owns, visiting a tenant, when heavily armed authorities burst in and arrest them all. Thus begins an imprisonment filled with indignities, no standard rights, and accusations of terrorism. It's an insightful look into one of the only parts of the machine that seemed to run like clockwork during Katrina: arrests and imprisonment.
This book is especially interesting not just for its content, which paints Zeitoun as quirky but noble, but also for its aftermath. Since Katrina and the writing of this book, Zeitoun and Kathy divorced, and he was accused of trying to beat her with a tire iron and then with soliciting a hitman in prison to kill her. He was acquitted of both but later convicted of stalking her. He was recently freed from prison after a deportation order couldn't be carried out because of the war in Syria.
It's always interesting to look at the larger story outside of a book, to find out if there are other perspectives or if new events have occurred since the writing--particularly when a person in a nonfiction book is portrayed in a certain way. I believe that most of the story in Zeitoun is probably true, but I also believe that people can be nice to dogs, help out a few neighbors, and still do other horrible things.More info →
This massive tome is the third in the Pillars of the Earth series and is set several hundred years after the previous (there are small references to the previous books, but they don't need to be read to follow this story). These books are what I call "soapy historical fiction." They are epic stories that span decades and are filled with drama, conflict, and romance, as well as history. This story takes us back to the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England, as well as to France, Spain, and Belgium during the time of the Tudors and the Inquisition.
The main conflict is between Catholics and Protestants, and we see the effects of this conflict on everyone from peasants to merchants to royalty. What I love about reading this whole trilogy, spaced hundreds of years apart, is the very strange feeling that comes with realizing that the characters you knew intimately from the previous books have died. All of the events and cares that drove their lives have passed into history and are largely irrelevant to the current story, but they also reverberate through the centuries and shape the lives of future generations. Another book that does this (with a very different story, and in much fewer pages) is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.More info →
Tana French writes character-driven mysteries set in Dublin, and I love her smart, thoughtful writing style. This first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series had me hooked with its layers of mysteries. The first: the disappearance of two children from a wood. The only witness is a boy, frozen in terror against a tree with blood in his shoes and no memory of what happened. The second: twenty years later, the murder of a young girl near that same wood. Detective Rob Ryan was that boy with blood in his shoes, and now he returns to the wood to investigate this new murder and determine if the two crimes are connected.
The suspense, relationships, and slow reveals of memories and clues were almost perfect in this book--until about the last 25%, when all of them started to unravel. The investment I had built up in the characters and their backstories felt left by the wayside and I was left frustrated by unresolved storylines. While disappointing, I do wish I had read this before The Likeness (which I liked much more) for further backstory on Detective Cassie Maddox (Ryan's partner). I will continue to read Tana French, but I'll also continue to hope that she revisits Ryan and gives him a better resolution.More info →
Alice leads a successful, fulfilling life as a wife, mother, and Harvard professor. Even after she starts to notice gaps in her memory and moments of disorientation, she still isn't prepared for the diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Still Alice is a rare peek into the mind of a person living with Alzheimer's--the loneliness, the fears of what's to come, the struggle to keep hold of an identity, even as it seems to be slipping away.
As someone with Alzheimer's and dementia in my family, this book was intriguing and sad. I was impressed with Lisa Genova's meticulous research and attention to detail. While I am not conversant in the medical intricacies of the disease, I was at Harvard during the same academic year covered in the story. Small details that could easily have been fudged for the story's sake (we did get feet of snow upon returning from holiday break! John Lithgow was the commencement speaker! And so on...) made me trust her attention and care of the details, and how hard she worked to get this story right. It's one that matters to many people, both those whose family members are facing the disease and those who may be facing it themselves.More info →
When her family learns of their ties to the wealthy d'Urbervilles, Tess's family pressures her to claim her place and elevate the family from poverty. The plan goes horribly wrong and Tess finds herself a grief-stricken, ruined woman. When she finds love and a potential new life with Angel Clare, she must decide whether to keep her past a secret or risk his rejection. Tess is truly a woman of her time, as are the characters around her, but Thomas Hardy was ahead of his. Hardy deftly illustrates the hypocrisy that dictated the expectations of women in this time and the pressures they faced to be pure, chaste, and angelic (the name "Angel" is a bit ironic here.). I loved this book, though it filled me rage on Tess's behalf. It was a little slow moving in the middle, but it's worth it to stick it out to the end.More info →
Starting with a young boy and his beloved little sister in Afghanistan, separated abruptly and set on different paths. One is forever heartbroken, while the other has little memory of the past. Following, then, through the decades and stories of people around the world whose own pasts and choices set them on a course to influence the lives of the two children and others.
Khaled Hosseini weaves a complicated web composed of both strong and loose connections. Sometimes books such as these don't work--the reader has trouble following the connections, or individual stories are abandoned too soon. But Hosseini, as always, is masterful. While there were moments where I had to jog my memory about past characters, particularly when they appear only as glimpses in later stories, I never felt rushed through any one story. The characters are richly developed and the stories are given their space to unfold and reveal their place within the whole. I loved this book and will continue to read anything Hosseini writes.More info →
When Alice wakes up on the floor of the gym, she finds herself in an alternate universe: one where she is 10 years older, has three children she doesn't remember, a husband she no longer loves, and a sister who speaks to her in strained tones. Alice's memory is gone, and she's trying to figure out how to live a life she no longer recognizes--and get back the man she loved ten years ago.
I was intrigued by the premise of this novel, and it was entertaining, but the domestic drama failed to capture my attention. Maybe elements of her novels are too close to my own suburban mom life, but most of Moriarty's novels fall a bit flat for me. This was a decent lighter read with an interesting spin, but not one that will stick with me.More info →
When Cornelia and her husband, Teo, move from the city to the suburbs, she is eager to make friends. Instead, she feels the weight of her neighbor Piper's ruthless judgment. Another woman, Lake, seems to be a promising friend, but her inscrutable behavior and mood changes leave Cornelia confused. But she unwittingly becomes central to both women's lives as Piper cares for her dying friend and Lake's son takes a liking to Cornelia's family.
I was a little hesitant when I started this book, because I just don't have a lot of patience for reading about the gossip and maneuvering of suburban women--yes, that's my world, but I don't find it interesting in my own life, either. And while this book did have some of that, it was presented more as something to overcome on the way to deeper relationships, rather than as a plot driver. I was surprised to find that the cattiest of all of the characters ended up being on of my favorites--but really, all of the characters here were intriguing and at least somewhat likable. The downfall, for me, was in the peak dramatic moments of the story--while I saw the "secret" almost from the beginning, it was the overhyped drama of the reveal that bugged me at the end. Before that, though, de los Santos' thoughtful writing of the characters and their growing relationships kept me reading and would prompt me to try out more of her books.More info →
When Eleanor woke up this morning, she decided that she will be better: a better mom, a better wife, and a better person. All it will take is a few little things. Her plans quickly go awry when her son fakes sick and she learns that her husband--for some reason--has taken vacation from work without telling her.
This book is a day-long comedy of errors, and--to be blunt--it's just not very good. Certain thoughts and struggles of Eleanor's at the beginning of the book will resonate with any mildly frazzled mom, and she is funny and quirky at times. She soon, however, begins to feel like a bit of a frantic caricature. I read far enough that I decided to finish, but I found the ending strange and disconnected from the madcap journey of the rest of the book.More info →
Seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family live in a castle in the English countryside, but they are far from wealthy. This family of dreamers and creatives can hardly put food on the table. When two young Americans, Simon and Neil Cotton, arrive to take over the estate of their deceased landlord, they bring new hope to the family: of creative patronage, of potential marriage, and of (continued) free rent. Aspiring writer Cassandra details the adventures of the family in her journal as they move from abject poverty into high society. Full of charming observations and self-awareness, Cassandra teeters between childhood and adulthood and, through her her writing, she comes to realizations about herself, her family, and love. The family is by turns frustrating and amusing--I was confused by the inability of all of them (save Stephen, their ward) to find work in any capacity. That aside, Cassandra is a delightful companion through the story--on par with Anne Shirley--and the castle itself is pure fantasy for any romantic Anglophile.More info →
Swing Time reminded me a bit of My Brilliant Friend, with two young girls growing up together in a poor neighborhood. Each dreams of greatness and is differently talented, but one forever seems to be straining to catch up. Their relationship falls square into "frenemy" territory, especially as they grow up and lives grow more complicated.
While this premise is intriguing, the book itself confused me. It strayed far from this original setup, so one of the girls, Tracey, didn't loom as large as it seemed she was supposed to. She felt like more of a shadow figure to me, occasionally popping up but never coming into focus. Lending to this inability to settle into the story was a device that I'm learning bothers me as a reader: the unnamed narrator.
While it seems the device was meant to demonstrate the narrator's inability to forge her own identity, first in Tracey's shadow, and then in Amy's--a famous singer who employs her in adulthood--the narrator didn't feel any more unfocused than most 20-somethings, and she felt worthy of a name.
I'd love to hear from someone who loved this book, because it felt scattered to me and I think I just didn't get it.More info →
Books I Didn’t Finish from the Read My Shelf Challenge
These are the books that I attempted but didn’t finish. For one reason or another, the books on this list just didn’t work for me and I chose not to continue reading them.
Books to Read from My Shelf
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local "powhitetrash." At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors ("I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare") will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.More info →
Velveteen Vargas is eleven years old, a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn. Her host family is a couple in upstate New York: Ginger, a failed artist on the fringe of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Paul, an academic who wonders what it will mean to “make a difference” in such a contrived situation. The Mare illuminates the couple’s changing relationship with Velvet over the course of several years, as well as Velvet’s powerful encounter with the horses at the stable down the road, as Gaitskill weaves together Velvet’s vital inner-city community and the privileged country world of Ginger and Paul.More info →
Anna is a writer, author of one very successful novel, who now keeps four notebooks. In one, with a black cover, she reviews the African experience of her earlier year. In a red one she records her political life, her disillusionment with communism. In a yellow one she writes a novel in which the heroine reviles part of her own experience. And in the blue one she keeps a personal diary. Finally, in love with an American writer and threatened with insanity, Anna tries to bring the threads of all four books together in a golden notebook.More info →
This now classic book revealed Flannery O'Connor as one of the most original and provocative writers to emerge from the South. Her apocalyptic vision of life is expressed through grotesque, often comic situations in which the principal character faces a problem of salvation: the grandmother, in the title story, confronting the murderous Misfit; a neglected four-year-old boy looking for the Kingdom of Christ in the fast-flowing waters of the river; General Sash, about to meet the final enemy.More info →
Set amid the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program.
Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as ‘Human Computers’, calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts, these ‘colored computers’ used pencil and paper to write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.More info →
I loved both The Secret History and The Goldfinch, so I have been eager to get to Tartt's less-discussed book. The synopsis makes it sound like it has elements of both of those books, but is also entirely different: The setting is Alexandria, Mississippi, where one Mother’s Day a little boy named Robin Cleve Dufresnes was found hanging from a tree in his parents’ yard. Twelve years later Robin’s murder is still unsolved and his family remains devastated. So it is that Robin’s sister Harriet - unnervingly bright, insufferably determined, and unduly influenced by the fiction of Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson--sets out to unmask his killer. Aided only by her worshipful friend Hely, Harriet crosses her town’s rigid lines of race and caste and burrows deep into her family’s history of loss.More info →
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.More info →
So there you have it. I’m not fooling myself and thinking I’m going to get through all of them. I think I’ll aim to get through half of them, but this is a loose challenge.
I still plan to approach reading in much the same way: I’ll pick up the book that “feels” like the right next read for me–usually something completely different from my previous read. I’ll try to keep two books going at a time. And, moving forward I want to get more comfortable not finishing a book–I anticipate that several of these may be DNFs.
Above all, I want to keep reading fun, relaxing, and never stressful. And with my new plans for digging deeper into some of these books for the blog (more on that soon), some of these may take longer than usual. That’s okay with me.
I’ve started off strong and picked up Alias Grace. I’m hooked only a few chapters in, so I have high hopes for a riveting first read of the year.
I’m not creating a formal challenge here, but if you’re working on reading the books on your shelf, I’d love to hear from you!
Have you read any of the books on my list? Which do you love (or not)? Also, which books on your shelf are you hoping to get to in 2018?