This month’s book recommendations include works by Lyndsay Faye, Kat Howard, Nick Petrie, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Mesha Maran, Ottessa Moshfegh, Susan Orlean, James Rollins, 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.
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
Daniel Ford: You can tell from the opening lines of The Last Ballad that Wiley Cash had this story in his bones. Based on true events, the novel tells the story of a fateful (and deadly) mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. Shifting between the perspectives of all those involved, Cash explores themes that are as alive today as they were in the 1910s.
On a recent podcast episode, Cash said he was chasing Ella May’s ghost the entire time he was writing the novel. That passion and research led to one of the most unforgettable and empathetic main characters you’ll read in fiction this year. If the book only focused on her, it still would have been great, but, to Cash’s credit, May’s supporting cast is just as finely drawn.
The Last Ballad is a special book, one that I think readers will fall in love with. Cash does the Southern storytelling tradition proud, and he adds even more to the remarkable fiction coming out of that region in the last couple of years.
Shallow Graves: the Hunt For the New Bedford Serial Killer by Maureen Boyle
Sean Tuohy: In the summer of 1987, a killer stalked the streets of New Bedford, Mass. He targeted young women who were addicts. He preyed on them, killed them, and left on the side of the road. In Boyle’s riveting narrative, the killer, a lurking, sinister figure, is left in the background. The author focuses on the victims, their family members, and the town itself. Boyle writes with a passion that shines in each passage, and she shares the pain of the victims.
Have You Met Nora? by Nicole Blades
Daniel: One day I’ll get to tell you my reaction to the final scenes of Nicole Blades’ cheeky and engrossing novel Have You Met Nora? Just know it made Blades “LMAO” in an email chain. Doesn’t get much better for a reader (or writer)!
We’ve come to expect great fiction out of Blades, and this novel is no exception. Have You Met Nora? (out Oct. 31) features a freight train plot and well crafted characters who deliver lines of sassy dialogue as if they were lightning strikes. Issues of identity, race, friendship, and family are all explored without beating you over the head with a blunt instrument. Blades gets bonus points for using punctuation in her title!
bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward
Daniel: I didn’t realize the recent paperback release of Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone features 40 more pages of poetry not included in the original 2014 release until after I finished the collection in roughly one sitting. It says something about Daley-Ward’s talent that a publisher signed off on an expanded edition given today’s publishing market! What’s interesting is that none of these poems feel added on or misplaced (I can’t even imagine the process involved in narrowing them down for the first launch). The collection’s title is apt considering that each poem seems to be stripped down to only its essential components, reveling in their devastatingly honest and personal nature. There’s one section of a poem called “things it can take twenty years and a bad liver to work out” that could serve as a mission statement for most creative types:
There are parts of you
that want sadness.
Find them out. Ask them why.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
Daniel: Gabriel Tallent's debut contains gut punches for days and will make you slam it down more much often than you anticipated. However, you'll keep picking up, sucking the marrow out of Tallent's prose. Turtle Alveston is a heroine for the ages, and the author gets inside her head in a way you won't find in any other fiction. My Absolute Darling also features one of the sweetest and well-earned denouements I've ever read.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Gary Almeter: I read this book immediately after Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling (see above). Sing, Unburied, Sing is also about a child, in this case, 13-year-old Jojo, let down and abused by parents. Jojo is a resilient and caring young man; his wisdom beyond his years is due in large measure to the patience of his grandfather, Pop, with whom he and his 3-year-old sister Michaela live, and the fact that he is tasked with caring for Michaela whenever their mother leaves them for days at a time. Jojo's white father, Michael, is at Parchman prison, the same prison Pop spent time in decades ago.
The whole book is teeming with ghosts. Leonie's brother was murdered and haunts her whenever she gets high; the rural Mississippi setting is haunted by the oppressive and omnipresent legacy of racism; Pop had a friend at Parchman prison whose memory stays with him. Woven into these ghost stories is a road trip to Parchman to retrieve Michael upon his release. The journey becomes a nightmare as everyone learns that there are absences that can never really be filled and ghosts that can never be outrun. Jojo perseveres nonetheless.
Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson
Sean: Ronald Balson does not waste any time. He quickly pulls the reader into the story and allows his characters to build over the course of the story until they are almost too real. After a Holocaust survivor accuses one of the city's wealthiest men of being a Nazi, it’s up to a burned out lawyer to find the truth. Rich in history, Once We Were Brothers is a wonderful tale.
Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett
Daniel: Kellye Garrett's debut novel Hollywood Homicide is such a fun read. In Dayna Anderson, Garrett has created a sassy, determined, and sometimes confused heroine that will be entertaining readers for plenty of beach "Days" to come. Every supporting character is a gem, and the plot moves along like a binge-worthy TV dramedy. Garrett's voice is a welcome breath of fresh air, and I can't wait to see what it has to say next.
Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis
Daniel: Vanessa Grigoriadis' distinct voice and empathetic, curious reporting are used so well throughout Blurred Lines, a book that delves into the myriad issues surrounding campus rape in the United States. Grigoriadis tackles everything from "Mattress Girl" to Rolling Stone's errant reporting during the University of Virginia rape controversy and the new age of consent to Donald Trump. The author/journalist interviewed hundreds of people, including students, parents, administrators, lawyers, and advocates, and that dogged reporting led to an even-tempered (though not unemotional) narrative our polarized electorate desperately needs.
One of the most refreshing things about Grigoriadis' work here is her ability to include comments, research, observations, and facts that questioned her beliefs or hypotheses. She didn’t pretend to have all the answers or discard information because it didn’t fit into a concrete mold she decided on long before writing the book. Journalism like this is of the utmost importance because of our current political climate. Read this book and recommend it to others.
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
Daniel: There’s a reason Kat Howard is one of our favorite authors (check out her “Author’s Corner” below). She delivers opening lines like the ones found in her new novel An Unkindness of Magicians.
The young woman cut through the crowded New York sidewalk like a knife. Tall in her red-soled stilettos, black clothing, that clung to her like smoke, red-tipped black hair sharp and angular around her face. She looked like the kind of woman people would stop for, stare at, notice.
None of them did.
Yeah, we can get down with that. What we’ve read so far of An Unkindness of Magicians proves why Howard has amassed the following she has. This fantasy thriller, which features competing magicians fighting to preserve (or maybe it’s to demolish) the magical system that binds the world, is the perfect read headed into the Halloween season.
Dreamfield by Ethan Bryan
Daniel: I found myself grinning ear-to-ear reading fellow 50/50 Press author Ethan Bryan's debut novel. I think Sid Sanford and his main character “Ethan” would get along just fine. Ethan finds himself transported back to high school, where he has a chance to relive his dream of being a star baseball player (yes, Bryan made me an offer I couldn’t refuse). Part “Field of Dreams,” part “The Rookie,” Dreamfield is a fun meditation on time, religion, family, and baseball.
Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks
Daniel: There is officially no limit to Tom Hanks’ talent. In his debut short story collection (out Oct. 17), the actor brings all of the traits that define him on the silver screen: honesty, irreverence, humor, and unending empathy and passion. Be warned, this is absolutely one of those collections that will cause you to stay up way past your bedtime and mutter, “Okay, just one more.” If these are the types of stories we can expect from Hanks and his typewriter in the future, we’re all very lucky readers.
By Kat Howard, author of An Unkindness of Magicians
Good Bones by Maggie Smith
I try to always have one book of poetry that I’m reading. This is the sort of collection that I’ll turn to again and again. Smith’s writing is clear-eyed, precise, and full of beauty. It gives me hope.
From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury
One of my very favorite books, and a quintessential October novel. Haunted and full of melancholy, it is also gorgeously written. I mean, it’s Bradbury.
All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry
The first of the completed Metamorphoses trilogy, it’s myth and Seattle and brilliant and a book I’ve reread at least once a year since it came out.
From the To Be Read pile:
Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia
Okay, so maybe Baba Yaga doesn’t spring immediately to mind as the sort of person you’d go to for life advice. But I loved this column when it ran on The Hairpin, and I’m really looking forward to picking this up.
Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory
Ben’s first collection, Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day, was a book I absolutely adored. He writes strange tiny gems of things, and I can’t wait to see what he’s done here.
Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Okay, no one needs me to tell you to read this collection, because it is winning all the awards, getting rave reviews, and is one of the most buzzed about books of the year. If you’ve ever read Machado’s writing, you know the praise is deserved. If not, you are in for a treat.
Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford discuss Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher.