With 79 titles to compete with, every book on my favorite reads of 2017 list had to kick some serious page. Memorability, humor, wonder, emotion, intelligence, poetry: these are some of the things that got these books into my head—and what kept them there.
While only one of the six was actually published in 2016, nothing was publishing before 2003 (huh). Only one of the six was written by a woman, for which I blame my poorly (gender) balanced reading. (But! If you’re looking for more SF authored by women, you’ll find four more recommendations among the runners up.) 2016 was the year I binge read Andrew Smith, which explains his double showing here (guys, I love his writing), and if I’d been more successful in my attempt to binge read Patrick Ness, you’d probably be seeing double Ness as well. (Stay tuned, 2017.)
Here’s to great books, a new year, and new favorites. Or something. Oh cripe this is starting to sound sentimental get me out of here before I get all weepy looking at the covers and reminiscing. 2016 was not the best of times, but let’s hope that in 20 years what I remember most about it is that it gave some damn fine book.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (2011)
The Knife of Never Letting Go shows off Ness’ skill in puppeteering voice, character, and plot, and A Monster Calls rips open his white button down shirt to reveal the superhero outfit underneath. Ness is a master, and A Monster Calls a tragic, gorgeous example of that mastery. Every word, every sentence, every tear-covered page gripped tightly in tense hands, feels inevitable, which is to say, perfect. Perfectly worded, perfectly placed, no excess to be trimmed.
A Monster Calls is sad yet gorgeous, devastating yet cathartic, and oh VALIS, it will destroy and fortify you as it narrates a young boy’s experiences of grief and loss alongside a terrifying magical tree-man-thing. It transcends genre, so you can buy a copy for everyone you know—I can’t imagine a human who wouldn’t find something in this book—and if they don’t like it, well, at least it’s short. JUST KIDDING EVERYONE WILL LIKE IT GO READ IT NOW.
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (2014)
Grasshopper Jungle, holy shit. Rolling Stone called it “Raunchy, bizarre, smart, and compelling,” and I’d say the same. Though I’d add a few more adjectives while I was at it: hilariously raunchy, deliciously bizarre, Vonnegut-smart, and I’d-take-it-to-a-dessert-island compelling. Not only is it one of the best post-apocalyptic stories that has been written in the last decade, and certainly the funniest, it manages to give classic B-movie camp material substance. Now that’s magic.
Smith is fond of using repetition, giving each book a chorus, a hook. This grates on some people’s nerves (you’ve been warned), but Grasshopper Jungle displays his most skillful use of the device. Grasshopper Jungle is about being a horny, confused, queer teenager. It is about giant man-eating, sex-crazed mantis creatures. It is about a glowing brain in a jar and getting bullied and being in love with your two best friends and the end of the world and bunkers and relationships and I love every sentence.
You can read Erika’s review of it here.
The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith (2015)
The Alex Crow, however, is another species completely. Oh, you’ll recognize Smith in it, what with the ridiculous, repeating punchline about euphemisms for masturbation and the use of repetition and the absence of women (BAM—though, hey, be fair to this book, it is about the failures of masculinity), but it is dark too, juxtaposing a horrible story about a boy’s experience of war on top of a horrible experience of that same boy’s experience in over-the-top capitalist America. More poignant and meaty than Grasshopper Jungle, its humor means more for the tragedy it is set against. Life is horrible and life is absurd and yet here we are.
Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer (2003)
When I think about Jeff VanderMeer’s debut novel Veniss Underground, I think of amputated legs. A pile, no, a mountain, of amputated flesh through which our hero wades, WADES, to complete his quest. When I try to think about what the rest of the book was about, I can’t focus; all I see is that mountain of legs, mounds of rotting flesh, body parts donated by the poor and left to rot, piled so high that tunnels have formed beneath their bulk where other corpses lie. This is book is so fucked up, in the most wonderful, picturesquely demented way. Is there a Jeff VanderMeer book I won’t love?
Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010)
The only non-SF book that made the list this year, Just Kids—a memoir by Patti Smith, read by Patti Smith—is a book I would recommend consuming via audio. The rough, low sound of her voice and the rhythm in which she reads fill out the poetry of her life together with Robert Mapplethorpe beautifully. The woman manages to make a Jersey accent sound like poetry for fuck’s sake. Because it stops just before Smith’s music career takes off, it avoids all the usual glitz and glam and blah of a typical rock star memoir. I’d never spent much time listening to Smith’s music before, but the ten hours I spent with her seductive voice has put Horses into the listening rotation. And sometimes, even when I’m so tired I know I’ll fall asleep in less than a minute, I put on a random chapter so I can fall asleep to the sound of her voice. (I also do this with the audio of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. What can I say? Both women are excellent readers.)
Notes From the Shadowed City by Jeffrey Alan Love (2016)
Jeffrey Alan Love is one of my favorite contemporary artists, and his first book, Notes From the Shadowed City, came out this year. A strange and delightful graphic tome, it contains a short, fantastical text and a picture on each page spread. There is a story of sorts, about a city and a sword, and I recommend purchasing two copies so you can read one and take the other apart so you can hang your favorite pages on the wall. Somebody get this man a fucking Hugo already!
There were many, many books that almost made the cut, then…didn’t. Those runners up include: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Railsea by China Miéville ,The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley, The Last Witness by K.J. Parker, Paper Girls Volume 1 by Brian Vaughn, and Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks.
Read any of the titles on the list? Agree/disagree/light this list on fire/recommend me all the books?