This month’s book recommendations feature works by Andrea Bartz, Jill Santopolo, Marlon James, Robert Olen Butler, DaMaris B. Hill, Snowden Wright, Crystal King, and more!
By Daniel Ford
2017 was a remarkable year for fiction and nonfiction. From fearless debut novelists to established literary veterans at the top of their games, authors provided the artistic tonic we needed to survive a turbulent time both politically and culturally.
Narrowing down a reading list of 116 titles to just 35 was torture. The final grouping you’re about to read (and judge) could have easily been expanded to include 50 to 60 books. Please feel free to debate my choices and add your own in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.
As always, keep reading everyone!
35. Smothered by M.C. Hall
Megan Cassidy Hall deserves a writing award for the faux-comments section alone. Her epistolary exploration of a sensational crime, and how society reacts to it, is both haunting and incredibly sad.
34. Found Audio by N.J. Campbell
I still have this trippy, mind-bending novel in my head. You’ll question your own reality after reading this, but you won’t question N.J. Campbell’s talent.
33. Marcel’s Letters by Carolyn Porter
In a year when we desperately needed as many genuine love stories as possible, Carolyn Porter delivered a great one. Her hunt for the truth behind a World War II survivor’s letters led to a splendid and deeply personal read (as well as a beautiful font!).
32. Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger
Jeffrey Kluger’s return to the Apollo missions provided 2017 with the same burst of hope that Apollo 8 gave 1968 (one of the most turbulent years in American history). A thrilling narrative featuring the crew of Apollo 8 that reminds you of what Americans are capable of when reaching for the same stars.
31. Blurred Lines by Vanessa Grigoriadis
Vanessa Grigoriadis’ curious and wide-ranging reporting in Blurred Lines warmed my journalist soul even while making my skin crawl. Sexual assault on campus remains a complicated, serious issue, and, judging by Grigoriadis’ revelations, will continue to be one until colleges and universities make even more substantial changes to their policies and punishments.
30. An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
There’s not a bad sentence in this book. Kat Howard should be a household name. She makes you care deeply for all of her characters—even the evil ones—as she’s putting them all through (magical) hell.
29. The Weight of This World by David Joy
David Joy is the poet of broken characters. He gets better and better with every novel. The Weight of This World puts a hole through your heart with a shotgun and uses bourbon to salve the wound.
28. The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
Ella May Wiggins lives in the past, but would be right at home fighting against our current political demagogues. She’s a reluctant rebel, one driven to protest in order to feed her starving family. A finely drawn supporting cast experiences the novel’s tragic events through myriad personalities, racial identities, and disparate classes. Urgent historical fiction of the highest order.
27. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Still amazed at the answers Sebastian Barry gave during our podcast interview earlier this year. He combined his love of the American Civil War stories and his son to deliver a truly remarkable western.
26. The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves by James Han Mattson
A powerful read about the aftermath of a terrible tragedy perpetrated by a lost and confused teenager. No one comes off looking particularly well in this narrative, told in part through email chains and online chats, but it’s that broken humanness that makes The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves so devastating and gripping. Top-notch writing.
25. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The first chapter alone should win some kind of literary prize. It sets the tone of the novel and feels so immediate considering the political climate in the United States and around the globe. And that ending…so good!
24. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
The Story of My Teeth further cements Valeria Luiselli as one of the most important voices in fiction and nonfiction. Read this and everything else she’s written.
23. American War by Omar El Akkad
American War is a cautionary tale that seems more and more realistic with each passing day. It’s a visceral, brutal thriller that peels apart the many layers of American dysfunction and partisanship.
22. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses were two of my favorite main characters in 2017. Whitaker puts them through hell (some of it self-inflicted), but never leaves them completely hopeless. Author Julie Buntin called this novel “goddamned brilliant” in June’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” and she’s 100% goddamn right.
21. What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
20. Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais
Bianca Marais’ storytelling is so mesmerizing that you’ll constantly mutter, “Just one more chapter…” while reading the novel. Robin and Beauty don’t have it easy for much of the narrative, but they’re equal parts fragile and flinty throughout the narrative. Marais’ sparkling debut explores everything from race relations to familial bonds.
19. The Force by Don Winslow
How do you follow up The Cartel, one of the best novels written about the ongoing drug war in Mexico and the Southern United States? If you’re the master of crime fiction, you write The Force, a gripping thriller about a corrupt cop in New York City. A master class in dialogue and plot.
18. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer (#2 on last year’s list), and followed it up with an equally compelling, earthy, and poignant short story collection. He’s rightly become an essential voice on the literary scene.
17. Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman
It’s been such a joy following Elliot Ackerman’s career as a journalist and novelist. His debut Green on Blue was one of our favorite novels in 2015, and his stellar sophomore effort, Dark at the Crossing, was nominated for this year’s National Book Award.
16. I Was Told To Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet
I Was Told To Come Alone is an extraordinary memoir about a life in journalism. Souad Mekhennet’s journey from inquisitive child to fearless reporter tasked with communicating with jihadists is impossible to forget. Her final chapter is a call to arms for journalists and global citizens alike.
15. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
This is the first book I read in 2017, and it really set the bar high. Bennett’s wisdom and verve are evident on every page. I found myself falling in love with the characters all over again revisiting the novel for this post.
Note: The Mothers was published late in 2016, but I read it in January 2017 so I'm counting it for this year's list. It's my post, I can do what I want!
14. Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
I loved how Hala Alyan structured her debut novel. She wrote from multiple characters’ perspectives and jumped forward several years in the timeline throughout the book. This allowed her to explore themes like the aftermath of war and the development of familial relationships in a really heartfelt way. Her dialogue sang like poetry.
13. Sirens by Joshua Mohr
Joshua Mohr’s fiction is defined by brutal honesty. He upped the stakes by telling his own sordid (Mohr’s adjective of choice) tale. Make sure you listen to Mohr read from a section in Sirens (sure to elicit both laughter and tears) from our live event at Porter Square Books earlier this year. Very much looking forward to the follow up Model Citizen!
12. Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
I finished Gabe Habash’s insanely well written debut in one sitting. Spending time in Stephen Florida’s head was like sitting on top of a runaway freight train.
11. Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
The only thing I enjoyed more than this steamy satire was discussing it with Dave Pezza for #NovelClass. I loved the way Perrotta depicted his middle-aged female lead and how he crafted her eclectic supporting cast.
10. Marlena by Julie Buntin
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories. Julie Buntin’s Marlena is one of the best ever written, and one that makes me want to up my writing game. It’s been rightly feted all year, and I’d love to see this story on screen.
9. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
“Moving,” “romantic,” “tender,” and “violent” are all words I used to describe Exit West back in March. One of the central questions Hamid attempts to answer is, “Can new love blossom and survive in a war zone?” His answers are as poetic as they are heart breaking. And it all starts with this stellar opening line: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”
8. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Celeste Ng has no rival when it comes to crafting characters. Those that populate Little Fires Everywhere are deliciously damaged. Tangled small town drama has never been this illuminating.
7. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing has its own heartbeat that you feel through its spine. All the ghosts that her characters are living with feel like they’re right next to you as you read.
6. Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Soli, one of Lucky Boy’s main characters, is one of the most memorable, tough, and fierce mothers in fiction. You’ll find yourself rooting just as hard for her brilliant counterpart Kavya. Between them is a young boy unaware of the passionate struggle to claim him on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. I read this early in 2017 when the first of President Trump’s Muslim bans was enacted. It was a powerful read then, and remains one now in the face of continued xenophobia and discrimination.
5. Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
Deep space, an astronaut tortured by the romance he left behind, and a spider that may or may not be imaginary. What’s not to love? Plus, my favorite cover of the year (not biased at all by the giant coffee cup)!
4. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
I’m still amazed that Rachel Khong packed so much heart, humor, and human themes into such a short novel. Khong is one of my favorite risk-taking debut novelists.
3. What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
Speaking of risk-takers, Zinzi Clemmons wrote an innovative, emotionally devastating novel that I continually re-read to get inspired. She’s a must-follow on Twitter as well.
2. All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
I, perhaps unfairly, have compared every book I’ve read in 2017 to Jami Attenberg’s flawless All Grown Up. Attenberg told me in a podcast interview earlier this year that she wanted to “write something funny and contemporary, and loose and bittersweet.” She succeeded on all levels. This novel will be on my annual re-read list for years to come.
1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Epic in scope and passionately written, Pachinko has been my number one since the day I started reading it. Min Jin Lee is a treasure. “History has failed us, but no matter,” my favorite opening line of 2017, still gets me.
Setting Free the Kites by Alex George, The River of Kings by Taylor Brown, Unsub by Meg Gardiner, What We Build Upon the Ruins by Giano Cromley, The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak, Garden of Lost and Abandoned by Jessica Yu, She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper, The Wanderers by Meg Howrey, The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich, The River at Night by Erica Ferencik, Exit Strategy by Steve Hamilton, Trajectory by Richard Russo, Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, Have You Met Nora? by Nicole Blades, White Fur by Jardine Libaire, Colorado Boulevard by Phoef Sutton, Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett, Borne by Jeff VanderMeer, My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, Strange Weather by Joe Hill, In the Distance by Hernan Diaz, The Names of Dead Girls by Eric Rickstad, One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel, Wedding Toasts I'll Never Give by Ada Calhoun
Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.
Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais
Daniel Ford: “Just one more chapter,” I told myself. “Okay, one more…fine, last one, I need to work in the morning. This is really the last one…”
You’ll find yourself having the same conversation with…yourself while reading Bianca Marais’ sparkling and superbly structured debut novel Hum If You Don't Know the Words. The novel, set in Apartheid-era South Africa, alternates perspectives between Robin Conrad, a nine-year-old white girl leading a comfortable life, and Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman living in a rural village. Robin and Beauty’s worlds intertwine following the Soweto Uprising. Robin’s parents are murdered and Beauty’s daughter Nomsa disappears. Robin is taken in by her hard-drinking, jet-setting aunt, while Beauty relentlessly searches for her missing daughter.
One reveal after another in this novel just wowed me. Every chapter hooked you right into the next one. I revisited the book while writing my review and my heart got stuck in my throat all over again! Robin and Beauty are at times both incredibly strong and dangerously fragile. The supporting cast helps illuminate the two women’s struggle to realign their lives and provide insights into the segregated and racist world they’re living in. Hum If You Don't Know the Words is a master class in fractured familial drama and should be on the top of your reading list headed into the fall.
The Late Show by Michael Connelly
Sean Tuohy: The reigning king of detective fiction recently published his 30th book and added a brand new character for the modern era. Renée Ballard is a driven young detective who is exiled to the night shift, known as “the late show” at the LAPD’s Hollywood division. After witnessing a victim take their last breath in the aftermath of a brutal nightclub shooting, Ballard sets out to find the killer, even if it means risking her career. The author meets his high standard, as usual, and mixes together Los Angeles, compelling characters, and a driving plot line. The Late Show further proves why Connelly is the king of crime fiction.
Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips
Daniel: The premise of Gin Phillips’ recently published novel Fierce Kingdom is chilling: a mother and son are trapped in a zoo during a mass shooting. While the plot does make your heart race, it’s the relationship between Joan and Lincoln that will keep you flipping pages. Not only does Phillips establish them as characters quickly and efficiently, she also gives them depth typically lacking in this kind of thriller. Lincoln isn’t just an annoying kid who provides comic relief; he has real issues and motivations that test Joan’s ability to keep him safe. The supporting cast could have easily been cardboard cutouts by comparison, but it’s to Phillips’ credit that she burrows deep within the people Joan and Lincoln come in contact with. The situation is terrifying, even considering that these events have become commonplace in the United States. Phillips’ character work distinguishes Fierce Kingdom as a thriller of the highest order.
Of Mess and Moxie by Jen Hatmaker
BookTrib: Part self-help and part inspirational, Of Mess and Moxie (out Aug. 8) is all about inspiring women to embrace struggle and recognize that they’re strong enough to overcome almost anything. Told with a blend of humor and personal stories, Hatmaker offers advice and inspiration, showing readers how to consistently find their inner strength.
Killerjoy by Jon Negroni
Daniel: Jon Negroni can flat out write. He knows how to build a world and suck you right into it. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not the biggest fantasy aficionado, but I couldn’t help but get swept up in Negroni’s characters and narrative. He has a remarkable vision for this project, and if the rest of the series reaches the heights established here, fantasy readers are in for something special. My fellow 50/50 Press writer-in-arms is an author to watch, and Killerjoy should be on your bookshelf ASAP.
A Clean Kill in Tokyo by Barry Eisler
Sean: Zero Sum, the ninth book in John Rain series, was released in June, so I figured I'd swing back and start with the first novel in the long-running book series about the half-American, half-Japanese assassin who makes his kills look natural.
This is a stellar thriller. A fast-paced, but well thought out plot line mixes well with layered characters against the fantastic Tokyo backdrop. Eisler quickly shows the reader that he is a top-notch thriller writer.
The Road to Concord by J.L. Bell
Daniel: J.L. Bell is a Massachusetts writer who runs the terrific history blog, “Boston 1775.” His book, The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War, features everything that makes Bell’s site great: accessible writing style, innovative historical storytelling, and a fresh perspective on events that occurred nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago. The Road to Concord focuses on how four stolen cannons (that British general Thomas Gage was desperately, and perhaps foolishly, trying to recover) may have helped spark the American Revolution. The narrative features colonial hijinks, high political drama, and Revolutionary War heroes not often discussed alongside Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. The Road to Concord is refreshingly original and structured like a thriller. Learning about what led the British and the colonies to war has never been this much fun.
All the Bayou Stories End With Drowned by Erica Wright
Daniel: During our recent podcast chat, Erica Wright told me it’s likely that people who say they don’t like poetry just haven’t found the right poem yet. Well, let me tell you, the poems you’ll find in her new collection are indeed the right ones. From her fiery, apocalyptic opener to the eponymous entry that inspired the collection, All the Bayou Stories End With Drowned showcases a poet in firm command of her genre. There’s such depth of character and snappy dialogue that you’ll think you’re reading a short story at times. You’ll marvel at how Wright packs so much heart and fury into such a concise structure. I have a whole new appreciation for modern poetry, and will likely seek out other poets thanks to this collection.
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
BookTrib: It’s all about discovering new parts of yourself in Perrotta’s novel about a mother and son who are thrust out of their comfort zones in various ways. For the 40-something Eve Fletcher that means a sexual awakening that’s connected to the idea of herself as a MILF. And for her son, Brendan, it means readjusting his expectations as he leaves home for his first year at college.
I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet
Daniel: I’ve been tweeting out how much I love Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad for a month. Mekhennet, an Arab-German journalist for The Washington Post, gives an honest and passionate account of her upbringing and journalism career. While her background gave her opportunities to discover stories that may have gone otherwise unnoticed, she also had to hurdle plenty of discrimination (both racist and sexist) in order to get those stories told. This memoir also provides a different perspective on Sept. 11, the War on Terror, and the fight against ISIS, one that’s much more nuanced than the current daily headlines. Mekhennet puts a very human face on both sides of this seemingly endless conflict, and her tenacity keeps her asking that all-important question: why? I Was Told To Come Alone should be required reading at journalism schools. All schools, actually. Read this book.
The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
Daniel: This novel is going to unsettle your senses from the get-go. Set in the Ozark Mountains, The Weight of Blood features a shadowy, absent mother, a ritualized murder, and a young woman coming of age in a secluded area with an alcoholic father. McHugh writes atmosphere so well, and the Ozarks provide the perfect tableau for this kind of storytelling. Secrets abound in this novel, and you’ll be white-knuckling it long into the night (yeah, you’re not going to sleep, don’t even try).
By Bianca Marais, author of Hum If You Don’t Know the Words
Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
While on tour two weeks ago, I visited the fabulous Copperfield's Books in Healdsburg for an event. They were kind enough to allow me to pick a book in the store as a gift from them, and so I did what I always do: I asked a bookseller for a recommendation.
Emily suggested Into the Forest, saying that the author was local and that it was one of her favourite books, and so naturally, that’s the one I chose. I’m so glad I did, because I absolutely devoured the book that tells that story of two sisters, Eva and Nell, whose worlds are turned upside down when sickness and anarchy rage across the United States as it’s on the brink of collapse. The description appealed to me because I so thoroughly enjoyed Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which was also a favourite of Katie Smith’s, another wonderful bookseller at the store.
Hegland is a masterful storyteller who has written a page-turner that is both lyrical and challenges everything you think you know about society.
A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass
I’ve been a fan of Julia Glass’s since her Three Junes won the National Book Award in 2002. I’ve read all of her books multiple times and was very excited to hear that she had a new one coming out in July called A House Among the Trees. I was planning to buy, it but was given it as a gift by another fabulous bookstore that I visited while on tour, Towne Center Books. And it wasn’t just any copy; it was an autographed copy which made it even more special!
I’m halfway through it and absolutely loving it. Glass has a way of immersing you in her books so that you feel as though you’ve known the characters your whole life. In this, her fifth novel, she tells the story of the unusual bond between a world-famous writer and his assistant. I can’t wait to finish this but I’m trying to read it slowly to savour it.
A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith
I haven’t gotten to this one yet, which is another book in the Isabel Dalhousie series that takes place in Edinburgh, but I love everything Alexander McCall Smith writes. I’ve become even a bigger fan of his since my 12-year-old goddaughter, Anya, who lives in Edinburgh, recently went to home to give him my book in the hopes that he might blurb it.
When she knocked on his door, instead of his being annoyed at the intrusion, he invited her (and her mother who was hiding behind the bushes around the corner) inside, offered them tea and even gave them a few autographed copies of his books. He then sent me a lovely email when he didn’t have time to blurb the book before the deadline.
Two for the Road
Two books that I also haven’t gotten to yet, but that I’ve heard amazing things about, are The Elephants in my Backyard by Rajiv Surendra and Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar. I’ve bought them both and am looking forward to diving in shortly.
Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford discuss Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin. Also read author Julie Buntin's review in June's "Books That Should Be On Your Radar."