Afthead’s Best and Worst Books of 2017

2017 was a great reading year for me, but every year since I have been able to read was a great reading year for me.  I love reading.  I love books.   However, certain ones rise to the top, so here are my favorite (and least favorite) books of last year.

Best books:

Morning Star, by Pierce Brown

I am a firm believer that the third book of all trilogies are terrible.  So much so, that I have considered that if I ever become I real author I will not write trilogies, because I don’t want to doom every third book I write.  Pierce Brown proved me wrong with this book, until I found out that his FOURTH book in the series is due out in 2018.  Therefore, my anti-trilogy stand holds.

This book begins with the most compelling imagery I have ever experienced in a book.  He made me uncomfortable, surprised me, and horrified me all in the first chapter.  In fact, that chapter was the reason I knew I couldn’t handle the audiobook: it was too much in the best way.  This book was only for my eyes, not my ears.

Way Station, Clifford D. Simak

Clifford Simak wrote this wonder in 1963.  A story about space travel and aliens and the end of human civilization so topical that I didn’t realize how old the story was until after I finished the book and looked at the publication date.  Perhaps it was the setting in a ramshackle cabin in the forest, but I think more likely it’s the timelessness of his writing and his story.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

According to social media, it’s cool to trash this book right now.  Well I’m going to stand up and display my unquestionable uncoolness and say I loved this book.  As a child of the late 70s and early 80s this was a trip down memory lane set in a future dystopia: an impossible juxtaposition that worked wonderfully.  The good guys were good.  The bad guys were bad.  The story was just fun, and 2017 was the perfect year to appreciate a fun read.

Best Audiobook:

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

I adored reading this book and appreciated that the audiobook taught me I had been mispronouncing every proper noun in this book while reading in my head.  This simple story of a simple man’s life was more poignant, more real and more heartbreaking in audio than when I read it.

Worst books:

The Power, Naomi Alderman

Oh, I wanted to like this book.  I wanted to dive into the hype and the perfectly timed topical plot contrasting the #metoo movement and relish the idea of women evolving a deadly electrical superpower.  I wanted to meander down this alternate universe and marvel at what would happen if women were in power.  But I couldn’t.  I enjoyed the idea, but I didn’t enjoy the people, the relationships, or the story that just fizzled out.  That said, I have nothing but admiration for Ms. Alderman to write the perfect unique story to be published at the perfect time.

Super Flat Times, by Matthew Derby

I found this book on a list of the best speculative fiction of all time, or the best dystopian fiction of all time, or some other internet list that struck my interest.  Since I’d read and enjoyed several other books on the list I figured this one – raved about by the article’s author – would have to be a worthy read.  It was not.  There were some interesting ideas, and some not interesting ideas all held together with bits of gum and shoestring and then shoved into a book in a disorganized heap.  My theory is that Matthew Darby wrote the list, or someone who loved Matthew Darby wrote the list and stuck his book on.  Either that or I am just too dumb to understand the point of Super Flat Times.

How to be a Good Wife, Emma Chapman

The only thing I remember about this book is that I bought it at an airport when I forgot the real book I was reading.  Thus, I’m assuming between my one star rating (a rarity for me) and my lack of memory that this is a book I wouldn’t recommend.  I don’t care enough to do more research.

Worst Audiobook:

Red Rising andGolden Son, by Pierce Brown

Funny that one of my favorite series to read this year was my least favorite to listen too.  I have to say that has never happened before.  Normally I can handle violent audiobooks.  I enjoyed the first three Game of Thrones books while on maternity leave and nursing my baby girl.  But then, I’d listen to a stock ticker if Roy Dotrice read it.  In the end, I think that was my problem with this audiobook.  It’s intense and I did not like the reader.  His accent didn’t match the voices the characters had in my head, and he didn’t differentiate between the different characters enough, so I got lost, after already reading the book.  The combination didn’t work for me at all.

Best Children’s Books:

Unicorn Crossing, by Dana Simpson

If you have a daughter, know a girl, were once a girl, or ever had an imaginary friend go read this book.  In fact, if you are a living breathing human being with a smidgen of a sense of humor, you should read this book.  Read the whole series.  It’s about Sophie and her unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, and their adventures together.  It is amazing.  I love reading it out loud.  I dream that someday I can do the audiobooks for Dana Simpson.  I love doing all the voices, but I must say, my Marigold voice is perfect.  This is the fifth book in the series, so please read all five.  You’ll be a happier human if you do.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser

This was such a sweet story.  It’s set at Christmastime, so I checked it out at the library thinking my daughter and I would read it together forgetting that we were in the middle of Harry Potter world.   So I read it myself.  It was a great story about the ingenuity of kids and how they can solve big problems in ways parents would never manage.  I can’t wait to read this with my kiddo next year.

Worst Children’s Book:

The Boxcar Children Series, by Gertrude Chandler Warner

I didn’t really have a worst children’s book this year.  I love children’s books, but this series just has a hard time being relevant.  Similar to The Vanderbeekers the Boxcar children have to overcome adversity using their own wits in the first book.  Then their rich grandfather finds them and things get a little weird.  Not to say that rich kids can’t solve problems, but the problems the author comes up for them in later books get a bit odd.  The last book we read the family spent the summer on a deserted island that wasn’t really deserted.  It was a stretch.  Read the first one, maybe the second one, then stop.

What were your favorite books of last year? I’m always looking for a new great read!

Afthead Reading Totals for 2017

On a whim last year I started keeping track of the books I read.  Fast forward to this year, and all my friends are telling me about their Goodreads goals for 2018.  Pshaw, I muse, that was so 2017.  Except I didn’t set a goal, I just counted books.  Also, I didn’t do it on Goodreads, which I feel bad about since Goodreads helps authors.  Oh, and Goodreads has been doing this for awhile, so I’m not actually starting any trends.  Therefore, in 2018 I realized I’m a backwards, behind the times book reading list keeper.  Huzzah.

However, before I dive into this new-fangled Reading Challenge, I still want to review what I read in 2017.  The list is easily discovered by clicking the “Reading” link above.

I read 83 books in 2017, and for a working mother going to graduate school, I think that is pretty darn impressive.  Now, you may disagree with my accounting, so let me break it down for you:

  • 38 books were read in my head just by me
  • 22 books were audiobooks
  • 23 books were read out loud to Afthead Junior  (my rule was they had to be chapter books which took more than a day to read)

However, if you look at the numbers above and think I read 38 grown-up books, or read/listened to 60 grown-up books, you would be wrong.  This Afthead loves children and young-adult chapter books herself.  Here’s my breakdown by age category:

  • 31 children’s books
  • 9 young-adult books
  • 43 adult books (16 listen/27 read)

Now, another funny tendency I have is to listen to books right after I read them.  I’m a fast reader and often miss out on details when I read in my head, so I turn around and listen.  Many times it becomes a different book to me.  For example, as much as I loved Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series, I could only listen to the first two.  The combination of a reader I didn’t love and violence I glossed over in my head made it a hard audiobook for me.  But I still counted both the reading and the listening as different “read” books.  The duplicates are:

Finally, not all of my reads were first time reads.  Not only do I listen to books I have read, but I also reread books – always have and always will.  I can’t tell you how many books became different stories when I read them at different times in my life.  The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, stands out as the most changed story between readings for me.  As a mom, the message was much different to me than pre-kiddo, but I loved both versions of the story.   So books that were read in 2017 and also before 2017 are:

So, depending on how you count I read somewhere between 83 and 27 books this year.  However, this exercise was as much about reflecting on my annual reading as it was about counting.  Looking back, the year broke into a few themes:

I’ll cover those over the next few days.  Now, off to go finish my second book of 2018: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan.  Have you read it?  So far it’s great!

If you want to follow along with me this year on Goodreads, I’m at, but I’m also keeping my good old blog list up to date too.

Afthead Reads (and does math too)


A new year means new blogging features, or at least it does around the afthead parts.  Today, I’d like to introduce you to “Afthead Reads.”  This is a totally self serving new feature, because I’ve always wanted to keep track of how many books I read in a year, but can’t handle another social media time sucker like Goodreads.  So, I made a new page on my site to keep track of my annual reading.  You can access it by clicking “Reading” on the top navigation.  Inside you’ll find a low tech list displaying the name of the book, the date I finished the book, and a rating from one to five asterisks, where five is good and one is bad. If there is no date and no rating then I’m still reading the book.

My reading is categorized into:

  • Read – these are books I actually read in my head all by myself.
  • Listen – these are audiobooks I’ve listened to in their entirety.
  • Read Aloud – these are books that I read to my daughter.

I count all of the above methods as legitimate book reading, but if you disagree with me there are subtotals on each category to make adjusting my reading totals easier.  Now, the caveats:

  • First, any book I finished this year is counted, so even things I started back in December count toward 2017.  I do this because unquestionably I will start a book in December, which I won’t finish so things will mostly even out.
  • Second, I only include entire books I read.  If I don’t finish it, or just page through it, it doesn’t count.
  • Finally, the books I read my daughter which are completed in a single session also aren’t included.  The kid books have to be at least a three night activity.

How am I doing so far?  In January I read 11 books.  Wondering if that’s a lot or a little I turned to my friends at Pew Research Center to learn more.  There I learned that:

“Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read 4 books in the last 12 months. Each of these figures is largely unchanged since 2011, when Pew Research Center first began conducting surveys of Americans’ book reading habits….”

This was eventually fascinating to me, after I did some web searching to remind myself what mean and median are.  The mean is just all the books read divided by the number of people who read the books, while the median is the middle number in the range of books read by people.  So say five people read 1, 2, 4, 11 and 42 books in January.  The median would be 4 (just like above) and the mean would be 12 (just like above).  I don’t really get medians, unless I think hard about them.  For this study, I’m assuming they present the median because it shows that there are big outliers in the data, like the 42 above.  More about that later.  For now I’m sticking with the tried and true mean or average for my next analysis.  On average Americans read 12 books a year?  I had no idea the number was so low.  Because I’m a super dork I dug into my specific demographics from the study and found:

Women: 15 books in 12 months

White: 14 books in 12 months

30-49:  14 books in 12 months

College +: 17 books in 12 months

So if I continue at my current pace I will have read 132 books this year.  Even compared to the average college educated person that’s a crazy ton of books.  Now maybe January was a fluke for me, and maybe I’m reading dumb young adult books (I am) so that pace might slow down during the year, but the truth of the matter is that I have already read more books this year than the annual average for a person, white person, or 30-49 year old person, and by the end of the week I will have tied the annual woman number.

Now I’m annoyed.  Really, why can’t there be a reading Olympics?  Maybe I could medal, or at least make the national team, or get an invite to try out?  If I was able to participate in a sport at this level, I imagine I’d be pretty good, but no one other that Pew seems to be evaluating all us readers.

Back to the super interesting math.  Considering I’m one of those outlier readers that made the Pew folks present a median value, now I’m more interested in the median.  For grins, let’s take my range from before and throw in my estimated 132 books in as the top value, so now we have 1, 2, 4, 11, 132 as our range of numbers.  Now the mean (average) jumps from 12 to 30, but the median (middle number) is still 4.  What?!?  Isn’t that amazing?  So knowing the median really helps you know that there are some big numbers at the top of this range, even if you didn’t know the numbers in the range.  For the Pew study, I don’t know how many books each of the 1,520 readers read, but I do know that 625 of the people interviewed only read 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 books, because of the median value.  That’s a lot of people who didn’t read much.  It also makes me wonder if within the Pew range of 1,520 interviewees I might not even be an Olympic caliber reader because they have a pretty large sample size.  I bet there are some big numbers at the top of the range to bring up 625 not-readers and to a mean of 12.  The more values you have in a range the harder it is to increase the mean.  But I wonder.  Are those big estimates really accurate?  How many super readers are keeping a detailed tally of their annual book consumption?

Uh, wait… have I lost you?  Are you shaking your head and saying “Johanna, this is a reading blog post!  What the heck is up with all these numbers?!?!  You tricked me!”  Sorry about that.  Anywhoo, if you are looking for good book recommendations you can always check out my new page and find the five asterisk books.  (And if anyone hears about a secret reading Olympics, please let me know.  I think I’ve got a shot.  If you are a big reader too also let me know.  Maybe we can train together in a book club.)

Thanks to Unsplash for the image!



The Gunslinger: Should You Read or Listen?

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. – Stephen King, The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I

My weekly post to help you decide the best format to enjoy a book.  Without further ado:

Should you read or listen to The Gunslinger, by Stephen King?

The Afthead Summary:

I adore Stephen King.  I’ve been reading his books since I was in my early teens, and attribute my cold-sweat fear of clowns (It) and aliens (The Tommyknockers) to his works.  I have always loved King’s scary worlds.  That said, The Dark Tower series is my absolute favorite of his works; it goes beyond horror to action, adventure, magical realism and moves toward epic.  This is not a series to begin lightly, because once you start it will suck you in and you’ll lose huge swaths of your life until the last book is read.  I read George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (at least the first three) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and this series trumps them both.  If my child was a boy his name would have been Roland.  I love the main character that much.

The Gunslinger is the first book in the series, and it’s a quick read.  The slim volume begins the entire series by introducing us the gunslinger (Roland) and the first of his foils, the man in black (Walter/Marten).  The first sentence, above, sets up the story and then the book is end to end heart racing action as the gunslinger travels across the desert and the mountains after the man in black.  Through the journey you begin to learn a bit about Roland’s history and how his world has moved on.  There is travel between Roland’s world and our own, magic, mutants, darkness, love (or at least lust), and death.

For all of you who think King is a hack, this book came forth from Robert Browning’s poem Childe Roland, which King studied as a sophomore in college.  His stuff may not be literature by the narrowest definition, but the man has a reader’s soul.  Only a serious reader can appreciate Browning’s poem.  (I’m not sure I count myself in that “serious reader” column.)


This is the only one of the Gunslinger books I have read, and I was young when I read it.  My copy is from 1982, and while I’m sure I didn’t read it when it was published, I know I was no more than fifteen.  This is not a book for a fifteen year old girl, even one who loved Pet Semetary.  This is a book for action loving young men and grown ups with a little life under their belts.  Someday I’ll pick up the series and read it again, or I might just keep listening to it.


George Guidall, the narrator of this book, is one of the absolute best readers ever.  I could listen to him read anything, which is good, since he’s recorded over 900 novels, according to his website.  He also read American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, another of one of my top audiobooks.  My spine shivers when I hear him start, “The man in black fled across the desert…” and it keeps shivering at varying intensities through the whole book.  The reading of this book is masterful.

There is a scene that begins in a dark cave where Roland and Jake, a boy he meets during his travels, come across the Slow Mutants.  Do not listen to this in the dark in your car.  Do not listen to this alone in the house after sunset.  This passage may be the scariest passage in any audiobook I have ever read and it will leave you breathless (if you are lucky) and crying (if you aren’t.)

Do yourself a favor and go download this book as soon as you are ready to commit hundreds of hours listening to one of the best series you’ve ever heard.  It will be the only time you are thrilled you have a long commute.



As an addendum, there is an interesting story about the Dark Tower narrators.  If you look on Audible, Guidall reads book 1, and 5-7, but  Frank Muller reads book 2-4.  (It appears from Muller’s website that at some point he also recorded book 1.)  I don’t know why the reader changed, but if you listen to the series Muller was also amazing and I love his interpretation as much as Guidall’s.  Mueller’s reading of the series ended in 2001 when he suffered head injuries from a motorcycle accident.  For those of you who know Stephen King well, he suffered a serious accident in 1999, also while working on The Dark Tower.  This series was fraught with tragedy and injury during its writing and reading, which just adds to the hyperreality of the work.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot: Should You Read or Listen?

“Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know.” – Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot

My weekly post to help you decide the best format to enjoy a book.  Without further ado:

Should you read or listen to The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell?

The Afthead Summary:

You should read The Partly Cloudy Patriot if you meet any of the following criteria:  you like history, you are a nerd, you are a twin, you know a twin, you like playing arcade games, you enjoy politics, you vote, you’ve heard someone inappropriately compare themselves to Rosa Parks, you like Tom Cruise, you dislike Tom Cruise, you like antique maps, you like paper cups of pickles, or you have conflict with your family on major holidays.  This little book of essays is a favorite of mine, and whenever I’m feeling down or want to feel smarter I re-read it or re-listen to it.  Sarah’s take on every topic is witty, intelligent, and enjoyable.  Full disclosure, I’d like Sarah Vowell to be my friend.  We are about the same age, and enjoy many similar things, but she’s way smarter than I am.  I like having smart friends.  We could spend hours together going in depth into nerdy topics we care too much about.  Bliss.


This is a great read.  It’s also a great book to have on hand for random gifts for random people.  Forgot a housewarming present?  Need a graduation present?  Hostess gift?  Just pull out a copy of The Partly Cloudy Patriot and you’ll delight the recipient.  Regardless of political orientation there is something in here for everyone.  (Well, you may want to take out the chapter on the Bush inauguration for die-hard Republicans.)  Because it a set of smaller writings it’s easy to enjoy a quick tidbit about history, politics, careers, and families.  I recommend this for everyone.


The audiobook is an even higher level of awesomeness.  Sarah reads the book herself, and her nasal voice lends a perfect nerd feel to the book: you’ll learn about the importance of the nerd voice if you read.  Then, she has a series of guest readers for the famous characters in the book.  Perhaps you’ve head of some of them: Conan O’Brien, Seth Green, David Cross or Stephen Colbert?  Oh, and They Might be Giants did all the music for the book.  It’s a cross entertainment genre bonanza!



I must say that I’m not enough of a history buff to really enjoy the other book I listened to by Sarah Vowell: Assassination Vacation.  Her history is entertaining, but too thorough for my enjoyment.  However, nonfiction is not really my favorite, so don’t make too much of my opinion on her more historical works.

An Ocean at the End of the Lane: Should You Read or Listen?

My weekly post to help you decide the best format to enjoy a book.  Without further ado:

Should you read or listen to An Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman?

The Afthead Summary:

When I went to see my BFF Neil Gaiman speak a few months ago, he told the story about how An Ocean at the End of the Lane came into being.  it was an accident.  It wasn’t supposed to be a novel, but the story just kept going, and when it was done he called his publisher to tell him/her that he’d accidentally written a novel.  I am in awe.

I have to admit when I first read this book, I didn’t really dig it.   It’s the story of a man who has returned to the home of his youth and finds the memories of a magical and horrible event in his childhood.  It is Neil Gaiman through and through: succinctly told with beautiful imagery, a dark story, unexpected twists and turns, but I didn’t initially love it.


I read the novel first and it didn’t capture me.  The main character kind of reminded me of the boy in Stardust, without the bravery or the adventure behind him.  His sister is nasty, his mom is present but absent, his dad is just evil, and the family is on the brink of disaster.  Their finances are a mess and they have to let out a bedroom in their house to make ends meet which is where the problems begin.  The sister’s nastiness pales in comparison to the housekeeper they hire and life goes beyond downhill from there.  The character between utter disaster and the protagonist is an eleven year old girl.  It’s a dark book from start to end.


Normally when I’m as ambivalent about a book as this one I don’t bother to get the audiobook, but Neil Gaiman reads it and I really love listening to him.  In an ideal world I would have him following me around day and night narrating my live in his soft fluid voice.  “Johanna wakes up late, again.  She burrows her head into her cat trying to drown out the hypnotic voice of Neil Gaiman, but alas he can not be snoozed.”  I could deal with tragedy, bad news, and anger so much more effectively if it were delivered by Mr. Gaiman.  But I digress….

There is a scene where the boy pulls a worm out of his foot, and I almost had to stop my car and hug myself to alleviate the full body heebie jeebies.  The whole book was like that in the best way possible.  I sat in my parking garage at work for an awkward amount of time each morning, just trying to get to place where I could stop listening.  The evil people were so evil.  The boy was so much less blah and so much more innocent  and afraid when read through Gaiman’s interpretation.  The ending was so poignant and heart wrenching.  I loved it.



I really love Gaiman’s audiobooks.  If you get a chance, and the idea of this one doesn’t excite you, try M is for Magic, Stardust and American Gods (not read by Gaiman.)

A Dirty Job: Should You Read or Listen?

My weekly post to help you decide the best format to enjoy a book.  Without further ado:

Should you read or listen to A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore?

The Afthead Summary:

After the unexpected death of his wife, Charlie raises his infant daughter Sophie through a series of hysterical misadventures.  Wait.  That doesn’t really sound funny or like a book anyone would want to read.  How about, A Dirty Job, a comic tale of a motherless child and her beta-male father battling the forces of evil.  Crud.  That’s not really selling it either.  Okay, I recognize that Christopher Moore isn’t for everyone, but trust me, this book is funny and you’ll hardly even mind the dying mom part once you start laughing.  If everything I have written so far upsets and disturbs you, do not pick up this book.  Listen to last week’s book, or wait until next week’s book.  But if you have a strong stomach for inappropriate humor, read on.  From the Russian neighbor and her discussion of the “tiny bears” (hamsters), to the Chinese neighbor who eats all the dead pets, to the harpies of darkness stalking  “new meat” (their nickname for Charlie) this book will teach you about the mythology of death, the kindness of strangers who become family, and the love of a father for his daughter.


I read the novel first and actually laughed out loud several times.  Moore’s writing is fresh, unexpected, and will make you think long after you put the book down.  The ending takes a bit to resolve, but it’s worth the ride.  If you read it, or have read it, please let me know so I have an outlet for all my funny allusions to this book that no one I know understands.


This is an amazing audiobook.  Fisher Stevens’s voices for Minty Fresh, Charlie, the harpies, Sophie, Audrey, and the squirrel people make the book.  His characterization is so much better than what my imagination could supply.  Listening to him makes the characters take on solid form and distinct personalities.  When I’m feeling glum I start this one up again and laugh my way to work.

Again, this is not a book to listen to with small children, grandparents, humorless or judgmental people.  Know your listeners before sharing this one with friends.



Much to my excitement and joy, I found out that Moore has published a sequel to this novel, and it was released in August!  Is there anything better than an unexpected sequel that is already out?  It’s my next read, so watch for a review in the coming months.