One of my favorite research projects of 2017 was delving into the history and making of Wonder Woman (in preparation for the new Wonder Woman live-action). I wrote an entire review of different Wonder Woman books, but a handful of those books were a pleasure to read and I highly recommend them as the best of 2017.
Wonder Woman: The Complete History by Les Daniels
My all-time favorite Wonder Woman book is Wonder Woman: The Complete History by Les Daniels. I was lucky enough to obtain an old library copy with the library catalogue card intact (the card adds to the vintage aesthetic, in my opinion). This book contains Marston’s early life and inspiration for creating Wonder Woman. Daniels breaks the book into five categories: The Doctor, The Amazon, The Princess, The Woman, and The Icon. Wonder Woman: The Complete History is the most detailed collection of information pertaining to Wonder Woman that I have discovered thus far, and it wasn’t an onslaught of dry historical material and dates but accessible for the extensive Wonder Woman fan as well as the newb. What adds to the cool-factor of this book is the introduction penned by Lynda Carter (insert fanatical fangirl screams). Seriously? Lynda Carter? I can’t even! Trust me and get a copy of this book if you are into Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman: The Complete History takes the cake when it comes to Wonder Woman books, and it makes for an amazing coffee table book.
Wonder Woman: The Ultimate Guide to the Amazon Warrior by Landry Q. Walker
Other than Les Daniels’ Wonder Woman book, DK’s Wonder Woman: The Ultimate Guide to the Amazon Warrior by Landry Q. Walker is my other highly recommended Wonder Woman book of 2017 (also a great coffee table book). Walker’s version feels more like reading a comic book in the overall layout, where Daniels’ version has denser text. Also, Walker focuses mainly on Wonder Woman, whereas Daniels also covers Marston. Each book has great qualities. I prefer Walker’s version when homeschooling my kids because it is more accessible to the teenage mindset, but, as an adult, I am hypnotized by the illustrations. So, Wonder Woman: The Ultimate Guide to the Amazon Warrior is accessible to every age range. Also, Landry’s version has a more modern aesthetic in comparison to Daniels’. Landry gives an in-depth look at Wonder Woman from the Golden Age through the New Age. Either one of these books is worth adding to your library, but I am not sure I would buy one and not the other because together they are the ultimate guide to Wonder Woman.
The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor
My final non-fiction book recommendation of 2017 is not a Stack Overflow recommendation but a recommendation from GeekMom’s Between the Bookends column. The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor is everything! When studying Wonder Woman, I wanted to understand the historical inspiration behind Marston’s creation, and Mayor gives a detailed history of Amazons from the true legends to the mythologized Amazons of the ancient world. Mayor even talks about the curvature of Wonder Woman’s breastplate being impractical in reality as any immediate contact would result in the fracture of the breastbone, which is why many ancient female warriors wore flat and well-padded chest plates to deflect blows away from the sternum. Of course, the Amazons depicted in Wonder Woman mythology is nothing more than great storytelling so Wonder Woman’s metallic-breasted armor isn’t going to break the spell of plausibility for me—just like I don’t give a flying frickety frack about Wonder Woman’s lack of pit-mane (thanks Twitter for that ridiculous conversation).
Overall, these are the three books I utilized the most when writing my Wonder Woman post The More You Know: Wonder Woman, and I highly recommend them as the best of 2017.
Two of my favorite books reviewed in 2017’s Between the Bookends are The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Bear and the Nightingale by Katharine Arden. One thing that I look for in a work of fiction is strong world building. I hate reading a novel that lacks a believable world. Both Morgenstern and Arden do an amazing job of building two different and unique fantasy worlds.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is literary fiction at its finest with a fantasy twist. Morgenstern’s novel is a dueling love story between two young magicians forced into an ancient game between their mentors. To thoroughly enjoy this novel, one must have an understanding of Shakespeare—with a heavy focus on The Tempest. This is not The Hero’s Journey archetype that is so familiar to most readers, and Morgenstern clearly states that in her final chapter: “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case.” This novel is not for the reader that enjoys the classic Hero’s Journey rubric, as this novel breaks all the old rules in order to create a new system…a new narrative. This is a story for storytellers and bibliophiles. Through the use of multiple POVs (similar to George R. R. Martin’s style in GoT) and time-jumps, the reader is sucked into Marco and Celia’s love story. There is a great deal of world building so expect lots of description. Also, even though there is magic don’t read this book with an action-packed Harry Potter expectation because this is more of a character driven romance novel, but it is well worth the read and one of my favorite reads of 2017.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katharine Arden
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katharine Arden is also a fantasy novel with a bit of magic. A lot of what I loved about The Night Circus is why I love The Bear and the Nightingale. Arden uses Russian folklore to set the story and she also does an amazing job of world building with her lyrical prose. The characters, the writing style, and the descriptive scenery created by Arden are utterly mesmerizing. Although Arden uses multiple POVs in the first chapters of her novel, the bulk of the novel is set in Vasilisa’s POV—a young girl set to become a woman that must protect her family from the dark spirits of the woods. Vasya, similar to her mother, can speak to magical spirits, but after the passing of her mother she must learn to bite her tongue because her stepmother, who also can see the household spirits, forbids servants from leaving contributions around the house in honor of the spirits. This ban leads to the slow disappearance of the house spirits and opens the door releasing the great winter demon that Vasya must eventually fight. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first of a trilogy written by Arden, and a novel that is another favorite and highly recommended of my 2017 reads.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The book has stayed with me the most from 2017, the one that makes me stop and think in the middle of the daily grind is Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Easy to read, though not an easy read, The Power is hard-hitting and more than a little depressing. It describes what happens when women, and only women, are bestowed a super-power: the ability to channel electricity. With this newfound power, women become masters of the world, overthrowing male dominance in every walk of life.
The Power is set to become this generation’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a complex analysis of attitudes toward women and the corrupting nature of power. The novel is beautifully constructed, using a very clever device that I won’t spoil. Alderman’s writing is effortless to read; not only is the story rich and thought-provoking, the way in which it is told is enthralling too. For my full review, click here.
I had some good reading this year. According to GoodReads, I completed 36 books! In addition to being in two bookclubs to discuss in person, I enjoyed reviewing some with you on GeekMom. Looking back at Between the Bookends 2017, here are my favorites.
The Great Good Thing by Roderick Towny was a read-a-loud with my nieces. Part of the fun was reliving a good book with a new audience. This was a book I read out loud to my daughter many years ago. It’s a heady plot about a book within a book, even going into the imagination and dreams of the reader. But the heroine takes charge of her own story and stays kind while doing it. Always recommend this one for ages 9+.
Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas was by far my surprise favorite of the year. It’s a lower YA book, but I recommend it for older “kids” too. It’s hard to create a modern fantasy with young kids and not compare it to Harry Potter, but once you get going, you’ll be engrossed in this original tale, well-built world, and bright characters. I can’t wait for the next books!
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal in the short story collection Mash Up edited by Gardner Dozois. To requote my original review: What a gem of writing. The narrator is an astronaut in her sixties, always hoping to go back into space, married to a computer programmer who is dying. They live on Mars on a colony she helped establish decades ago. She is called to do a final mission, but in a marriage that always put her career first, can she leave her husband on his deathbed for her last chance at going back to the stars? The beauty of the story is how the details of life on Mars, the history of how it all happened, and what illness and a real marriage looks like are all written with equal deft. I totally bawled at the end. If you want to know what love is, read this story. It is worth the price of the whole book.
I always have a hard time choosing favorites, but part of the reason I take part in this annual ritual is because it lets me go back and review the books I’ve read and written about over the past year. I’m the sort of person who usually reads a book once, and then is done with it—sometimes I’ll re-read books to remind myself about it before starting the next book in a series, but often after I’ve read a book and thought about it a while, I put it aside and am on to the next thing. So choosing some of my favorites lets me skim the titles again, thinking about which books still have a hold on me several months later.
In Other Worlds was a book that had been on my reading list for 2016, and I only finished it at the very end of that year, so it ended up in an early 2017 Stack Overflow. I confess that I haven’t read much Margaret Atwood, but even so I found this collection of her writings very fascinating. I even found myself referring to her essay about “ustopias” recently in a conversation about dystopian/utopian fiction, and realized that her words had really stayed with me. I read a very small amount of non-fiction in 2017 (as usual) but this one definitely stood out to me.
“Art of” movie books are always a highlight for me, and probably my favorite one this past year was The Art of Rogue One, in part because I enjoyed the movie so much, too. For the filmmakers, it was a particular challenge to make a film with modern technology and effects that still looked like it fit in the same timeline as A New Hope, and this book gives you a behind-the-curtains peek at how they approached it.
Unlike non-fiction, I have no trouble reading picture books—a lot of picture books. That may be changing somewhat as my youngest daughter has learned to read and is often interested in reading the picture books herself rather than having me read them to her. That said, I mentioned about 130 picture books in Stack Overflow in 2017, so it’s very hard to choose just a couple of favorites.
One picture book that I really loved was Welcome: A Mo Willems Guide to New Arrivals, which is written as a message to new babies, but my toddler and I still found delightful. Its combination of graphics and signage combined with text that explains the world to a new visitor is clever and charming, and I think it would make a great gift for any new parent. (This one was included in my Father’s Day post.)
I love books that are about books and storytelling, so Also an Octopus tickled my brain and my funny bone. The narrator explains the parts that make a story, and as she explains, the characters (including the octopus) act out the “hypothetical” story that the narrator tells. I included this one in a column focused on books that celebrate reading.
Middle Grade Fiction
Moving up to middle-grade fiction, I didn’t read quite as many middle grade books this year as I have in the past, but three series really stood out to me. Incidentally, they’re all about kid detectives (or agents)—which I’m sure is influenced by some of my own favorite books when I was a kid, including things like Encyclopedia Brown and The Westing Game.
Friday Barnes is a fantastic take on the kid-detective genre: Friday is brilliant and somewhat socially awkward, but manages to think her way out of many bizarre situations at a prestigious boarding school. The books are filled with larger-than-life characters and complicated schemes, and it’s a joy to see how all the various loose ends tie together. I recommended Friday Barnes in this column about middle grade books.
The Ministry of SUITs is a bit like Men in Black, except that instead of aliens, you’ve got pirates, Atlanteans, dinosaurs, and a terrifying Tooth Fairy. The Ministry is in charge of making sure that our fragile little minds aren’t exposed to all of the Strange, Unusual, and Impossible Things that might loosen our grip on reality. The books follow the adventures of Jack and Trudy, two kids who wind up working at the Ministry and having some pretty crazy adventures. This one made it into my Year-End Grab Bag post.
Here’s another series I included in my year-end grab bag. I’d previously read The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford and enjoyed it, but these two books (set in the same world but at a later time) are what really made me a fan. I loved the story of an old smuggler’s house-turned-inn, filled with mysterious characters searching for … something. And an adopted Chinese kid who is learning how he fits into his world, solving mysteries with the help of a new friend and role-playing games. It was a fantastic read and I didn’t want it to end! I’m planning to go back and look up her older series, The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands, and give those a shot, too.
After picture books, the biggest category of books I read is comics, so it’s another tough choice to narrow things down. This year was filled with so many different comics: memoirs and folk tales and silly stories and non-fiction. I’ve picked a few to list here, but there are so many more!
I’ve been a fan of Tom Gauld’s dry humor ever since I first discovered it, and this particular collection of his comics is one of my favorites yet. Baking With Kafka is filled with literary allusions and book humor, so if you love reading about reading, this is right up your alley. I included this one in a Stack Overflow about comics—there are a ton of other great titles on that list, too!
I write frequently about First Second Comics (because they have such excellent taste in comics) and this year had one column focused on their line of Science Comics, which use comics to explain various scientific concepts. The whole line is great, but if I have to choose just one, I’ll go with Dogs. It’s a book that kept me engaged and interested, even though I am decidedly not a dog person. I mean, it didn’t make me run out and get a dog, but I found the science behind dogs really fascinating, so kudos to Andy Hirsch for that!
One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg
This follow-up to Greenberg’s The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a gorgeous book that puts a new spin on familiar-sounding folk tales and legends. It challenges the status quo about where women belong in society, and gives us two heroines who navigate a dangerous situation. The book takes on even more significance in light of all of the sexual harassment in the news in 2017. Read more about it here.
Last but not least, adult fiction! This year the most common topic in my fiction reading was time travel—yep, I’m still fixated on that, with three columns dedicated to the subject. Here are the titles that topped my list, both from my Double Time column.
My Real Children isn’t traditional time travel: it’s a dual alternative history, with one woman experiencing her two lives branching out from one particular decision. The story shows the two different people that Patricia Cowan becomes: the children she has, the people she falls in love with, the influence she has on her worlds. It’s a striking book, and was my first introduction to Jo Walton, so I’m excited to read her upcoming book, Starlings.
I loved so many of the time travel stories I read, but this one had a particularly nice world built around it. In this story, time travelers came back to the early 21st century and made themselves known: they sequestered themselves, mostly, and areas cropped up that served as tourist destinations. The fact that there are (incomplete) records of the past existing in the future gives the travelers an odd mix of self-determination and predestination. The plot here involves one particular tourist who may not be who she says she is.
Okay, one last title, because I know both of my other fiction favorites were actually published prior to 2017, so here’s one book that I actually read on time. Kangaroo Too is a sequel to Waypoint Kangaroo, written by my friend Curtis C. Chen. The titular character is a secret agent with the world’s only known superpower: he can open up portals into a void and store things in it, like a bottomless pocket. That makes him very useful on assignments, even if his other secret agent skills are a little lacking. The books are action-packed and funny and clever, and I’m eagerly waiting for whatever comes next. (Read the full review here.)
Well, those are some of our favorites from last year. How about you? What did you enjoy reading in 2017?