A Little Fanfare: Four Books You May Have Missed in 2017

An intense commuter-reader!

No one has time to read everything.  If you work full-time, perhaps you read 50 books a year.  And that’s if you manage to read on the bus or the subway.

After  a certain age, I wanted to emulate Thomas Hardy, who, I believe, spent six hours reading every night.  And the more I read, the fussier I became.  In my forties, it seemed that either (a) much worse books were suddenly being published, or  (b) my taste was so honed that fewer books passed my standards.  (N.B.  The less exhausted you are when you read, the pickier.)

Here’s the good news:  I have read some outstanding new books  in 2017. And here’s some curious news:  I happened upon some stunning new books that were published with little fanfare. So here are four great finds you may have missed in 2017.


Ellen Klages crafts one perfect sentence after another in her  dazzling new collection of short stories, Wicked Wonders.  Published by Tachyon, a small press in San Francisco, this extraordinary collection is introduced by PEN/Faulkner Award winner Karen Joy Fowler.   Klages has a reputation for eclecticism:  she won the Nebula Award in 2005 for her novelette “Basement Magic” and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2007 for her Y.A. novel, The Green Glass Sea.  This pitch-perfect, genre-crossing collection demonstrates her diverse gifts:   magic realism, retold fairy tales, and some smart homages to Ray Bradbury’s brilliant work.   (You can read my entire post here.)


Crystal King’s clever, entertaining historical novel, Feast of Sorrow, was my favorite pop fiction read of the year.  Set in ancient Rome in the first century A.D., it is narrated by the slave Thrassius, who is the gourmet cook (coquus) for the household of  Apicius, a Roman gourmet after whom an actual Roman cookbook was named.  In King’s  novel, Thrassius is the author of the cookbook, though  Apicius takes credit for it.  It is great fun to read about the dinners (cenae), but there are also fascinating political intrigues and personal feuds. And King is a witty writer, she creates  believable characters,  and has a great sense of humor.  The pages fly.


The award-winning writer John Crowley’s new novel, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr,  is brilliant and beautiful, a perfect book for  lovers of myths, legends, and epic poetry.  In this novel about a  crow who learns human language and steals immortality,  there are allusions to Dante and Virgil.  On one level,  I love the bird’s-eye view of history, and the mythic journeys of the crow Dar Oakley over 2,000 years.  On another level, it explores the meaning, or lack thereof, of  life and death.  And the crow’s autobiography is occasionally interrupted by a dying human narrator,  who is reconstructing the story from his own conversations with Dar Oakley.  I found this an enthralling read, really hypnotic.  It reminds me slightly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary fantasy, The Buried Giant.  You can read my entire post here.


The best nonfiction book I read this year was Yopie Prins’s  Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedies.  It is the story of Victorian women writers, poets, and classicists who fell in love with Greek and translated tragedies, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, H.D., Amy Levy, and Edith Hamilton.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was very keen on Greek, and the phrase “lady’s Greek”  comes from her  novel/poem, Aurora Leigh.  The heroine of the poem, Aurora Leigh, is a passionate reader of Greek who hopes to become a  poet.  Her cousin Romney, who proposes to her on her 20th birthday  cannot resist teasing her, i.e., denigrating her education.  He mocks her Greek marginalia in a book of poems.

I adored this book, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the education of Victorian women and the role they played (or were allowed to play) in reading and promoting classics.   You can read my entire post here.

Finally, what books do you think were overlooked or underreviewed this year?  I love lists…

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

In  Ellen Klages’ dazzling new collection of short stories, Wicked Wonders, she crafts one perfect sentence after another.

Published by Tachyon, a small press in San Francisco, this extraordinary collection is introduced by PEN/Faulkner Award winner Karen Joy Fowler.   Klages has a reputation for eclecticism:  she won the Nebula Award in 2005 for her novelette “Basement Magic” and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2007 for her Y.A. novel, The Green Glass Sea.

Klages’ perceptive stories cross genre.  Are they miniature fantasies?  Magic realism?  Retold fairy tales?  A little bit of all three, plus some smart homages to Ray Bradbury.

Klages is an evocative chronicler of childhood.  In “Amicae Aeternum,” Corry gets up early one lovely morning to take a  walk through her hometown. She has a list of things she wants to see:  she appreciates every detail, from flowers to fire hydrants.

Klages writes,

A dandelion’s spiky leaves pushed through a crack in the cement. Corry squatted, touching it with a finger, tracing the jagged outline, memorizing its contours. A weed. No one planted it or planned it. She smiled and stood up, her hand against a wooden fence, feeling the grain beneath her palm, the crackling web of old paint, and continued on. The alley stretched ahead for several blocks, the pavement a narrowing pale V.

It is gradually revealed that Corry’s future life, unlike a dandelion, will be planned.  But for now, Corry goes bicycling with her best friend, Anna.

No traffic, no cars.  It felt like their last day on earth.

Ellen Klages

And then we learn that it is Corry’s last day on Earth.   She and her parents are  leaving on a “generation” spaceship headed for a distant planet.  She will spend the rest of her life on the ship, and her great-great-great–she doesn’t know how many “greats”–grandchildren will live there.  She will never see the planet.

The melancholy narrative is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s depictions of t of Midwestern small towns in Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles, where astronauts on Mars never stop missing their hometowns.  Is the journey  worth it? As in Bradbury’s stories, small town characters are split between Earth and space.  But the girls make a pact that may sustain Corry.

Klages’ other stories of childhood are equally fascinating. In “The Education of a Witch,” Lizzie, a small girl, sympathizes with Maleficent in the movie Sleeping Beauty  She finds Maleficent beautiful, unlike the warty witches in storybooks, and thinks the king and queen were wrong not to invite her to the christening.  Later, at a toy store, she persuades her mother to buy her a Maleficent puppet. And after her mother has a baby, Lizzy  spends more time with Maleficent, who tells her stories. When Lizzy tells her nursery school teacher she wants to be a witch, we wonder if she already has the power.

Klages is also fond of portal fantasies. In “Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s,” the heroine Rachel plays a game of backgammon with the school’s cleaning lady and is transported through a portal to living board games, where she must win Clue, Snakes & Ladder, and Monopoly for the lives of her best friend and herself.

Klages’ stories also explore identity.  In “Woodsmoke,” the heroine Peet, whose real name is Patty, is excited about spending  the summer at camp while her parents go to Europe. She loves camp, where girls get to do everything boys do.   Another strong girl, Margaret, whose parents live in Asia, is also there for the summer.  The two girls become close friends, because  other campers leave after one- and -two-week session.  But there’s an identity twist at the end.story.

In my favorite story, “Echoes of Aurora,” a single retired woman, Jo,  returns after her father’s death to the resort town where she grew up. Her father owned a penny arcade, which decades ago was successful, and she repaired the machines.  She plans now to fix some up and sell them to a circus museum.

Again, it is Klages’ prose that makes the story so special.

Cedar River was a summer town.

You’ve seen it, or one just like it. Off a state highway, on the edge of a lake—a thousand souls, more or less, until Memorial Day. Then the tourists come, for swimming and fudge and miniature golf. They laugh, their sunburns redden and peel, and when the first cool autumn breezes ripple the water, they leave. The carnival is over.

I have seen it!

One day, while Jo listens to the nickelodeon in the arcade, a beautiful young woman, Aurora, shows up dancing.  The two become lovers, and Jo stays longer than she had planned.  In the fall, we learn Aurora’s real identity.  It is so fitting–why didn’t we realize it all along?  But you won’t guess it.

I loved these stories.   I am so glad to have discovered this writer.