LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2017 (part 1)
Another year has come and gone. You know what that means, don't you? Time for a bunch of strangers to tell you what was good! And why should you care what the LitReactor staff thinks are the best books of the year? Trick question! You shouldn't. But what they have to say might interest you nonetheless, because they are good-looking and knowledgeable and they read like the wind. So for those who care, we submit for your approval/derision some of LitReactor's favorite reads of 2017 (part 1).
Not all of these books were published this year. We figured if someone read a book for the first time in 2017, they deserved the opportunity to crow about it.
Rob Hart — Class Director
'She Rides Shotgun' by Jordan Harper
Debut novels don't have any right to be this good.
Fuck Jordan Harper.
'The Last Place You Look' by Kristen Lepionka
Speaking of killer debuts... Here's the blurb I gave it. Can't say it better than this: "Just when you think the PI novel is dead, Kristen Lepionka brings it roaring back to life. Roxane Weary is a richly drawn protagonist who proves that 'hardboiled' and 'feminine' aren't mutually exclusive. This book is so good it makes me jealous."
'The Force' by Don Winslow
I am a sucker for a good cop novel. And I am a sucker for a book that really digs deep into life and culture in New York City. This book is a new gold standard for both. The first Winslow book I've read, which makes me disappointed it took me so long to get to him, but excited I get to dig back through his other books.
'UNSUB' by Meg Gardiner
The most unputdownable book I read this year. Just like Lepionka breathed new life into the PI novel, Gardiner does it with the serial killer novel. If anyone at Dutton is reading this and wants to send me a galley of the next one, you know, that wouldn't be so bad...
'American War' by Omar El Akkad
Brilliant. The book imagines an America in the aftermath of a second Civil War. If I have to explain why it's timely you haven't been reading the news. But it's bigger than that, too, and digs into this country's deep, gnarled, ugly roots.
Max Booth III — Columnist
'She Rides Shotgun' by Jordan Harper
I loved Jordan Harper's previous short story collection, so I'd been looking forward to his debut novel for quite some time. Guess what? It didn't disappoint. Good god did this thing slay me. Easily one of the best crime books I've ever read. If anyone's doubting Harper's ability to create a faithful L.A. Confidential television series, all I gotta say is read She Rides Shotgun and you'll be singing a different tune.
'Behind Her Eyes' by Sarah Pinborough
One of the strangest endings of a book I've ever read. This book blew up in a big way earlier in the year. There's a good chance you've at least heard of its existence at this point. If you haven't read it yet, that's entirely your fault. Get on this.
'In the Valley of the Sun' by Andy Davidson
Who said vampire fiction was dead? Certainly not Andy Davidson, who took a stab (ha-ha GET IT?) at the genre and came up with something insane and wonderful. We got serial killers, vampires, and Texas — what could go wrong?
'The Changeling' by Victor LaValle
LaValle is a kickass writer and his latest novel is no exception. This thing is epic both in size and story. Magical is probably the best way to describe it. A father searches through surreal New York for his wife after she commits an unspeakable act against their child. This book surprised me in the best way possible.
'The Trespasser' by Tana French
Okay, so this one was published in 2016 but I don't care. I only read it recently and it fucking blew me away. Why aren't more people talking about Tana French? I can't remember the last time a book stressed me out so much. I honestly couldn't guess the mystery, and it kept me awake trying to figure it out. Read her books immediately. You won't regret it.
J.S. Breukelaar — Instructor
'A Natural History of Hell' by Jeffrey Ford
I first read one of my favorite stories in this collection, “A Terror,” years ago, and reading it the second time was even better. Ford’s horror is as delicate and intricate as a perch skeleton, and just as sharp. The opening tale, “Blameless,” about a small-town exorcism told through the eyes of a man deeply in love with his wife of several decades, will take your breath away.
'Song of Synth' by Sebastien Doubinsky
As a friend and fan of this unclassifiable author, it would be easy to accuse me of bias. Guilty as charged, but this novel about a conflicted hacker addicted to a reality-synthesising drug transcends bias. It is Doubinsky’s best book— as savagely unforgiving as it is a radically compassionate hack into the soul of the 21st century. But don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself.
'The Grief Hole' by Kaaren Warren
I had to take a break from this to return to my own obsession into why, when it comes to Evil, size matters. I knew from the first page that this novel would be in my top five reads of the year, but what I didn’t know is how insanely smart it was. And funny. For every vein she opens in this stark, unsentimental look at grief’s murky hungers through the eyes of a social worker who sees dead people, Warren has the guts to tickle your funny bone too, and that’s a tough act to pull off. I’m more than half way through now, and I’m still laughing, still crying.
'What I Didn’t See' by Karen Joy Fowler
My other favourite collection of 2017. One story’s better than the next, all unclassifiable, all searing. “The Pelican Bar” is one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever read, part Amelia Gray’s “Western Passage” and part Oates’s “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been”—featuring a psychotic manager of a youth rehab facility who you will never forget. Ever.
“The Mouth of the Oyster” by Adam Troy Castro and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
(Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue #239 — Nov. 21, 2017)
2017 was an amazing year for online fiction. This one jumps out at me now—partly because whatever I’m currently obsessed with, there seems to be an Adam Troy Castro story that speaks to it, but mainly because this moving, profound tale about a blind man who meets a maker of eyes, but with unforeseen consequences, is one of the most beautifully structured yet humane stories (about chaos theory, yeah, but so much else) that you’ll ever read.
Peter Derk — Columnist
'Paperbacks from Hell' by Grady Hendrix
The most charitable way I can describe the books chronicled within is "unusual." The least charitable way would be to say that there are books about aborted fetuses who become Nazi dwarves, a vampire that crawls inside an enormous vagina, and a Vietnam vet who moves to a small town only to discover rampant incest—and that time can be stopped by shooting a clock. Grady Hendrix, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
'Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century' by Chuck Klosterman
Klosterman is always a favorite of mine, and there are some really great essays in here. Personal favorites are the ones about Eddie Van Halen and Usain Bolt. If you want an odd treat, check out the audiobook, which, instead of Klosterman reading the essays, consists of his recollections, side notes, and summaries of them.
'The Elementals' by Michael McDowell
It took me way too long to get to this book, written by the same dude who wrote the screenplay for Beetlejuice. Don’t make the same mistake I made in waiting so long.
'The Goon, Volume 15: Once Upon a Hard Time' by Eric Powell
I try to keep caught up with The Goon. This has to be one of the better comics out there right now. Beautiful illustrations, funny, sad. When I get a little bored with the Marvel/DC stuff, It’s Eric Powell and The Goon that always turn me back to comics.
'Faith, Volume 1: Hollywood & Vine' by Jody Houser
Fat-shaming, body positivity—all of this was the primary focus in comics media when Faith kicked off. When the dust settled, I was pissed that nobody bothered to tell me that this book is FUN AS HELL.
Stephanie Bonjack — Columnist
'Braving the Wilderness' by Brene Brown
Included in my column, 7 Powerful & Painful Books That Will Make You A Better Person. For anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, looking in, this book is an affirmation and a guide. It's an antidote to that black-hole feeling one gets from watching the news. Braving the Wilderness is about accepting yourself, connecting with others, and finding a way forward out of this polarized existence we currently inhabit.
'The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People's Lives Better, Too)' by Gretchen Rubin
If you're like me an have already done the Myers-Briggs and/or Enneagram personality tests and found them wanting, this book will blow your mind. Rubin has created four personality indicators based on how one responds to internal and external expectations, and they are brilliant. This book opened a window for me into other people's behaviors and motivations that I intuitively knew, but now I understand. I recommend this book for all readers. Still skeptical? Take the assessment quiz.
'House Industries: The Process Is the Inspiration' by House Industries
I love books about design and typography, and this is definitely my favorite of 2017. House Industries is the story of a couple friends who built a design company from scratch around things they love, and this book documents their journey. Everything from velo racing to muscle cars to modern furniture was incorporated into their design projects and has helped them become the creative powerhouse they are today. The Process is the Inspiration is a reminder that hobbies and work don't need to be separate and that we should never ignore a creative impulse or spark, no matter how crazy it feels.
Fred Venturini — Columnist
'The Nix' by Nathan Hill
A big novel with heart and humor, The Nix gleefully and expertly jumps around in time and POV and delivers on every single page. This tragicomic tale is both a wild ride and a meditation on the absurdity of the world we live in, captivating right down to the final pages when the twists and turns and callbacks unpack themselves in surprising and satisfying ways. If I could recommend one book in 2017, it'd be this one.
'Stephen Florida' by Gabe Habash
A stunning, profane, maniacal, obsessive, hilarious, dark, and brutally honest voice unleashed. This book stunned me. A friend sent me the first page, and I knew I had to read it, and less than a day later, I wasn't sure what had happened. I'm not exactly sure what it feels like to come down from a healthy dose of meth, but I imagine it's somewhat like closing Stephen Florida and thinking about what it is you just experienced. If The Nix is the one book I can comfortably recommend, Stephen Florida is my favorite, and it's only because I know this one isn't for everyone. If you crack this one open, wear Kevlar.
"All the Castles Burned' by Michael Nye
Maybe I'm cheating here since this isn't out until February 2018, but I'm telling everyone who will listen to mark their calendars or preorder because ATCB is a gem. A coming-of-age story that drips with menace, this one's an energetic and unexpected testament to what is possible when a young outsider steps into the world of the privileged elite through the portal of basketball. A mind-blowing masterclass full of tension, truth, and highlight-worthy prose from an author to watch.
'Strange Weather' by Joe Hill
Much like his iconic father, Hill's literary powers feel magnified in the shorter, novella form. This four-pack of short novels show off Hill's immense gifts, his range, and more than anything, his heart. "Snapshot" explores the use of a Polaroid camera that literally steals your memories. "Loaded" confronts the brutality of gun culture through the lens of a mall shooting. "Aloft" follows a lovesick skydiver who ends up trapped on a mysterious cloud. "Rain" brings down a weather apocalypse of needle-like crystals shredding anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside. The protagonists of these tales help the collection defy the simplicity of the elevator pitch premises that they inhabit. Hill understands the power of vulnerability, empathy, and sympathy. He brings that power to bear in startling and sometimes horrific ways.
Found some new additions for your To Read pile? There's more. Stay tuned for part II.
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