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.
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Gary Almeter: To call this book a miracle is somehow an understatement, but it does achieve something miraculous. Sekaran has written a novel about immigration, the adoption of illegal immigrants' babies, the excesses of Silicon Valley, the Asian and Mexican immigrant experiences, marriage in the 21st century, and prison.
Even with the enormity of all that, the most compelling aspects of this novel are the simple love story and one immigrant mother's odyssey. Through it all, there are no heroes and no (well, maybe a few) villains. Everyone's hat is a shade of gray, and everyone elicits some sort of sympathy. I read this awaiting the ending—knowing that a happy ending was as close to metaphysically impossible as could be. The structure of that novel goes back and forth from Soli's story to Kavya's but the cadence never becomes repetitive. The author surprises you now and again and the writing is just too good to ever not be compelling.
What's also miraculous is the way Sekaran navigates all the worlds—the dusty village in Mexico, the sorority kitchen in Berkley, the Indian wedding, the Internet company's CEO's office. You walk through all these terrains as if you're really there. And you find yourself questioning for whom you are cheering and why.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Daniel Ford: Days Without End is a splendid novel from Irish author Sebastian Barry (who has twice been nominated for the Man Booker Prize). The novel follows Thomas McNulty as he comes of age in a violent era in American history. After surviving a harrowing journey from Ireland in the 1850s, Thomas finds himself signing up for the U.S. Army with his brother-in-arms John Cole.
As it turns out, John is more than just a friend or a close battlefield compatriot. Thomas and John are lovers, and their romantic bond is central to the novel rather than being vaguely alluded to or dismissed out of hand. In a recent interview (which ran in “Friday Morning Coffee”) Barry told me that his son coming out was a big inspiration for Thomas and John’s story. That influence shows in the tender and moving way he describes their love for each other. It’s made all the more poignant by Barry’s decision to tell the tale from McNulty’s point-of-view in a stream of consciousness that makes the novel’s events all the more immediate and crushing.
Barry puts these two men through the ringer. They see all manner of death and destruction during the Indian Wars and the Civil War. However, there’s also a wealth of dark humor and empathy that permeate these pages. Days Without End deals with issues and themes that are set in the past, but are still relevant today in the United States and around the globe.
Selection Day by Aravind Adiga
Adam Vitcavage: Selection Day, the new novel by Man Booker Prize-winner Aravind Adiga, is the perfect novel for the post-2016 Election world our new President has created. Instead of shunning diversity, we should be embracing it. Agida’s novel takes place in his native Mumbai and explores a young boy’s life and how it is consumed by cricket (a sport we Americans know nearly nothing about). It’s not a sports novel by any means, but instead a witty social commentary on a corner of the world that has often been perceived in a cartoonish way by Westerners. The fascinating realism the writer provides for the setting makes this coming-of-age novel a richness that readers should welcome with open arms
Talking As Fast As I Can by Lauren Graham
Stephanie Schaefer: Reading this book was like grabbing coffee with an old friend—filled with laughs, advice, and plenty of sarcasm. I’ll admit that I was a late bloomer to “Gilmore Girls” fandom. Having only seen a few re-runs in high school, I started binge watching the series on Netflix just a few months ago in anticipation of Netflix’s reboot (I have since finished all 7 seasons + “Gilmore Girls: The Year in the Life “and am anxiously awaiting an announcement that they’ll be future installments *fingers crossed*).
Although it took me a while to jump on the Stars Hollow bandwagon, I instantly fell in love with Lauren Graham’s acting on NBC’s “Parenthood” (if you haven’t seen the show before, go watch it, but make sure you grab a box of tissues). I enjoy how Graham can effortlessly switch between comedy and drama in both beloved series. She doesn’t take herself, or Hollywood, too seriously, which is evident in her memoir (essentially, she’s the anti-Gwyneth Paltrow). In a world filled with political drama, I think Talking As Fast As I Can is just what we need: a lighthearted, unpretentious book to make as laugh and escape the tension of the last few months, if only for a few blissful chapters.
The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich
Daniel: The Good Girls Revolt (the book that provides the basis for the Amazon television show) is essential reading for anyone with a judicious and rebellious heart. However, some of the early stats pioneering journalist Lynn Povich includes are shocking. She writes, “Until around 1970, “women comprised fewer than 20 percent of students in medical school, 4 percent of law school students, and only 3 percent of business school students.” Esh.
The world began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s in large part because of the women's movement. Povich, one of the women of Newsweek who sued the magazine for equal rights in 1970, spins a captivating narrative that details all of the obstacles women in the workplace attempted to vault over both legally and culturally. Based on myriad interviews with former Newsweek staff writers and editors, The Good Girls Revolt features one badass female writer after another, some of which never got to fully reap the benefits of the lawsuit they won. “When I found out the working conditions were illegal," Povich said in a recent interview with Writer's Bone, "I thought, oh my god, it’s a moral imperative that we do something.”
The turbulent 2016 Presidential campaign and the conservative administration that resulted prove that the country has a long way to go in how it treats and values women. However, the size and fervor of the crowds during the Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration gives me hope that the ideals fostered by the women in Povich’s book are alive and well, and will give us all something to emulate and rally around in the days to come.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Daniel: It’s imperative we embrace all immigrant narratives during the next few years, but especially those as well written and sweeping as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (out Feb. 7). Lee’s novel follows generations of one Korean family, beginning in 1900s Korea. The narrative’s exquisite prose and well-crafted characters perfectly match Lee’s themes of family, love, and faith. The opening line sets the tone, both for the novel and our times:
“History failed us, but no matter.”
It’s in that failing that we discover who we are and who we care about. Lee’s novel may have been set from a Korean family’s point of view, but it could be any of our families. Familial bonds have a tendency to shape our identity and worldview, both for good and for ill, and Lee captures that tension and connection beautifully throughout Pachinko. I look forward to sitting down with the author to discuss her structure and character development later this month.
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Adam: It’s easy for a psychological thriller to get lost in its own mystery. Some writers push plot twists down readers’ throats without worrying about much else. However, Emily Ruskovich’s debut is a high literary affair with lyrical prose and shifting perspectives that will live a lasting impression on its readers. Idaho is set in...well, Idaho. It explores a family torn apart by the murder of a child while another disappears. Fans of Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek will experience a similar haunting feeling as these characters fall into the depths of despair. While the plot is extremely riveting, it is Ruskovich’s dedication to making her words leap off the page in a beautiful way that stands out. The juxtaposition of the horrors you’re reading and how breathtaking the prose makes this an early frontrunner for a future “Best Novels of 2017” list.
The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
Gary: The ‘80s were big for a host of reasons: big hair, big cell phones, big escapist television shows like "Dynasty," big concept albums like Paul Simon's "Graceland," big fears about Russia. But paradoxically, the decade was still small insofar as people still shopped in small stores on village main streets and people's obsessions were limited to that which could be covered by three networks and a finite number of media outlets; news spread slowly and stuck around for awhile. When everyone talked about something, everyone talked about it for a long time.
Enter Vanna White's appearance in Playboy in May 1987. It was the only thing a 14-year-old boy could think or talk about for a month. Fourteen-year-old boys like Billy, Alf and Clark in Jason Rekulak’s The Impossible Fortress. The novel is the story of how they try to get a copy of that issue of Playboy so they can see ogle the “Wheel of Fortune” star. Rekulak does a spectacular job of recreating the ‘80s in all of its bigness and in all of its smallness. He does an even better job of recreating the world of a teenage boy—how they are simultaneously omnipotent and insanely vulnerable, and how their limitless dreams are limited by the logistics of adolescence.
The writing is grand and filled with details that evoke a teenager’s mind: “Both of his parents worked—his father hung wallpaper and his mother was a secretary in a Realtor's office—so they were rolling in dough.” Most importantly, Rekulak has created characters that are authentic and likable, which makes the book about much more than stealing a magazine to see Vanna’s hoo-hoo.
Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson
Adam: Kevin Wilson broke out onto the literary scene with a heartwarming and quirky family comedy. In Perfect Little World, he brings his sharp literary prose to a story with a plot that sounds like sci-fi: a commune where you live with your children, but they don’t know who their parents are. It’s clear that the author’s obsession with family is something he’ll continue to explore. Perfect Little World feels fresh every step of the way, at once breezy and thought provoking. His story is offbeat and wholly original. Even when the traditional tropes come into play, he puts an unorthodox spin on it that never makes them feel stale. In an interview with “Electric Literature,” the author expressed how important it was trying to avoid copying The Family Fang in Perfect Little World.
The Seventh Plague by James Rollins
Daniel: A missing archeology professor wanders out of the desert. His body is in a semi-mummified state and laden with clues about his disappearance. However, he unleashes an unknown, and possibly ancient, plague that threatens the globe. That’s the thrilling set up for James Rollin’s most recent Sigma Force novel, The Seventh Plague.
Readers are treated to mysterious assassins, a wise-crackin’ Kowalski, and Biblical mayhem in what should be yet another Rollins best-seller. His adventurous blend of science and history never fails to disappoint, and knowing the effort and dedication the author puts into his craft makes following Sigma Force all the more enjoyable. In our current political state, it’s also nice picking up a thriller that embraces and champions facts rather than cowers from them.
Oh yeah, Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla make an appearance and prove integral to the plot! We’re currently prodding Rollins to write a standalone buddy comedy featuring the famed author and inventor.
Lightwood by Steph Post
Daniel: One of the best things about interacting with as many up-and-coming authors as we do is seeing their work improve with each novel or short story collection. Steph Post’s debut novel A Tree Born Crooked was a lot of fun, but you could see how much potential she had to do even more with her prose and characters. She didn’t disappoint with her sophomore effort Lightwood!
Her main character, Judah Cannon, walks out of prison and right back into his family’s criminal enterprise. After a lucrative robbery goes sideways, Judah finds himself caught between his hillbilly king pin father, a disgruntled biker gang hell bent on recapturing its past glory, and a tyrannical, corrupt “lady preacher” who would be right at home on an episode of “Justified.”
Post is a natural fit for the “sunshine noir” genre, and Lightwood is getting great buzz from the crime fiction crowd. Don’t be surprised if Post is a household name by book three!
Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith
Daniel: We do what David Joy says around here. (I also can’t wait to read this book!)
By Rory Flynn
The short days of a Boston winter call for compact, streamlined novels that can be read quickly, before it gets dark. We could turn on the lights, but that costs extra and thrifty New Englanders don’t splurge on lights or heat or food. Those are for libertines.
A short novel has to work like a little machine, with all the gears in place. But they also have to have enough depth to make them emotionally engaging. Here are some that do both.
The Devil in the Valley by Castle Freeman, Jr.
Castle Freeman Jr.’s deceptively simple retelling of the Faust legend, grafted to a flinty Vermont town, is a joy to read. He captures more in a few lines of dialogue than most writers can in several pages. While he may be best known for Go With Me, the cult classic favored by dark writers and readers, Freeman excels at capturing the darkness in broad daylight, the streaks of sin that run through even the most upright citizens. Confession: This novel is dedicated to me, and I couldn’t be more proud of it.
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway
Not all fictional cops act like real cops. And that’s good for readers, otherwise we’d live in a world of grinding procedurals. If you want to immerse yourself in cop reality, I suggest lighting a car on fire and waiting around to get arrested. You’ll get your fill of cops soon enough. That’s not a problem with Keith Ridgway’s twisted London cops, Hawthorn & Child, who seem as floaty and pleasantly surreal as an afternoon on codeine. Legendary bookseller Tom Wickersham recommended this one, and he’s never steered me wrong. I’m halfway through and this subversively absurd novel just keeps getting better.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Look out. It’s literature. No cops in sight here in Graham Swift’s earthy gem of a novel. I loved Waterland, his weirder and slightly longer novel. But Mothering Sunday is a textbook study of beautiful writing, indelible characters, and precise delineation of a lost era. I actually forced myself to stop reading so that the book would last longer. I went to one of Swift’s readings about a decade ago and he read so fantastically well that he restored my faith in bookstore events.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Deserved winner of the 2016 Pulitzer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (which checked in at #2 on Writer’s Bone’s “Best Books of 2016” list) could very easily have been a compressed novel in the style of The Quiet American. Saigon falls. The defeated Vietnamese decamp to California. Dissent in the ranks leads to murder and a return to Southeast Asia and new disasters. Most of these historical plot points are explored well in the many, many fine Vietnam-era novels, memoirs, and histories. (Dispatches, A Bright Shining Lie, et al). But luckily, Nguyen goes long, spinning out the story in vast swaths of smart, beautiful writing—the kind that makes even the most jaded reader notice. Though the end of the novel is telegraphed on the first page, I wanted to know how it all happened, even if it meant reading a longer novel.
Daniel Ford and Dave Pezza recently introduced #NovelClass, a new “Friday Morning Coffee” segment that features an in-depth discussion about a novel chosen by Writer’s Bone’s social media followers.
The first installment features Kevin Morris’ All Joe Knight, which was published December 2016 by Grove Press. (Be warned, this discussion contains spoilers.)