I love best-of-the-year book lists. Every December, I probably look forward to them more than Christmas. But once the very last list is published, it’s another eleven or twelve months before next year’s first list comes out, and that’s a very long time to wait. So that’s where best-of-the-year-so-far lists come in. And this one’s mine!
I should probably say that this list is not entirely representative of 2017. This is because I rely a lot on end-of-the-year lists to pick books, which means that so far I’ve actually read more books written in 2016 than ones written in 2017. So really I should have written a “best of 2016” list. But it would be perverse to publish such a list in July 2017, so here we are. These are the best books I’ve read this year that were also published this year, either in the UK or the US, excluding ones that haven’t been published yet. And even though there are many 2017 books that I haven’t read yet, I can guarantee that every single one of these books is well worth reading.
Readers–if you have any suggestions for other 2017 books I should check out, any genre, send them to me in the comments!
10. C. Spike Trotman (editor), Smut Peddler Presents: My Monster Boyfriend
This is a half-cheat–My Monster Boyfriend was technically published in 2016, but those who supported its Kickstarter campaign only got their paperback copies in early 2017. So it’s good enough for this list. As the title suggests, it’s monster erotica. It’s also a comic anthology, with a fantastic range of drawing styles and body types. I liked some stories better than others, but this probably depends entirely on one’s personal preferences. I enjoyed Clutch for its worldbuilding, Lonesome Palace for its eeriness, Face Value for the characters’ sheer delight in each other, Sortuefinde because it was so moving, Thirsty Work for its overall charm and the way Jess Fink draws penises, and Spoilsport is quite funny. The standout story has to be A Winged Man Flew into the Shed, so lovely and romantic that I almost forgot that its sexy monster was a scary-looking black-feathered birdman thing.
9. Ottessa Moshfegh, Homesick for Another Planet
Moshfegh’s characters are almost always some combination of deluded, narcissistic, repulsive, and socially incompetent. I found few of them sympathetic, but almost all of them compelling. Perhaps a few too many stories follow a similar pattern–perhaps a few too many of the characters seem to be re-combined versions of one another–but, in the end, most of the stories are distinctive enough–and funny enough–that they’re worth reading. Still, the more different a story was from the usual Moshfegh template, the better I liked it–The Beach Boy and A Better Place being the absolute highlights. Of the “deluded, weird narcissist does something gross and awkward” stories, Mr Wu and An Honest Woman were my favourites, though I’d recommend listening Moshfegh herself read the latter out loud on The Writer’s Voice.
8. Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream
Environmental horror. Black magic body swaps. The almost telepathic bond between a mother and her child. One of two disturbing Argentinean books on this list. To be read in a single sitting, if you can handle it.
7. Stephen Graham Jones, Mapping the Interior
A short, sad tale about a boy’s relationship with his dead father, his loving but unhappy mother, and his little brother, a boy with a learning disability and a penchant for superhero toys. About growing up poor and Native American in a modular house in the middle of nowhere. With a supernatural twist: the boy’s father comes back as a ghost, though only the boy sees him. My favourite SGJ trademark, his horror geekery, comes through in the boy’s compulsion to figure out the rules regulating these apparitions: what is the best way of engineering an encounter with his father’s ghost? how does the ghost sustain itself? what’s the connection between it and the boy’s brother’s toys? And there’s that other SGJ trademark, too, the prose syntax that only reveals the meaning of the words shyly, almost reluctantly, as if it doesn’t entirely trust the reader, like a wild beast.
6. Han Kang, Human Acts
Human Acts examines the 1980 uprisings in Gwangju, South Korea, as well as their aftermath through the decades. It’s casts light on the fragility of the human body, the thinness of the thread that connects a body to a life. One of the chapters is actually told from the perspective of a soul as it watches its own body decompose after a violent death. Bleak, brutal, but also lyrical. Read my full review here.
5. Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire
Very disturbing–almost too disturbing–but always compelling. Set in a modern-day Argentina (mostly Buenos Aires) where supernatural horrors mingle with all-too-human horrors such as child abuse, domestic abuse, police corruption, urban decay, environmental pollution, and the darker corners of the internet. Enriquez isn’t afraid to push ideas to the extreme. And no dud stories–they all pack some kind of punch. There’s one where women set themselves on fire as a feminist statement on misogynist violence; one where a couple of drunk cops beat up a kid and throw him in a river, thus accidentally waking up Something monstrous that inspires a disturbing cult; one where a woman finds a jawless skull in the street and turns it into her dearest friend. I felt like cleaning myself after many of these, but I also felt that thrilling buzz that you get after good horror films, almost as if it was you, not the film’s heroine, who was clever enough to escape the monster’s clutches.
4. Jillian Tamaki, Boundless
In her new graphic short story collection, Tamaki explores the ways humans can stretch beyond the bounds of our bodies and minds, and connect with the rest of the universe. Through social media, the imagination, pop culture, weird internet cults, pyramid schemes, appeals to a shared sisterhood, bed bugs, and even, in one story, by disintegrating into nothing/everything. Read my full review here.
3. Roxane Gay, Difficult Women
I read this book cover to cover in two sittings. Roxane Gay has a knack for arranging words and sentences in such a way that stopping for a break while reading one of her books does not always feel like an option. She also has a knack for (1) creating complex, compelling (female) characters you don’t often get in mainstream fiction, (2) treating the most harrowing of subjects (rape, the loss of a child) with the lightest of touches, and (3) writing really good sex scenes. My favourite stories were The Mark of Cain (about a woman married to a twin who pretends not to realise when her husband and his brother impersonate each other), Difficult Women (four super-short stories disguised as a taxonomy of stereotypical female characters), FLORIDA (about a gated community in Florida, as seen through the eyes of its misfits), Baby Arm (featuring a female fight club and mannequin parts), North Country (about a black woman trying to piece her life back together in a remote corner of Michigan), and Noble Things (about the aftermath of a future second Civil War, as experienced by a single family).
2. Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
Pachinko is one of those rich, hefty family sagas, with everything you’d expect from the genre: illicit children, affairs, ambition thwarted, ambition rewarded, disappearances, secrets, financial struggles, tuberculosis, brushes with crime, unexpected deaths, lots of babies, seemingly immortal matriarchs, gangsters with hearts of gold, and, every now and then, History stirring things up a bit, most obviously in the 40s, with WWII. A lot of the pleasure I got from this book derived simply from watching all these lives unfurl, devouring page after page just to see what comes next, sixty years’ worth of soap opera compressed into 485 pages–will Isak survive his second bout of tuberculosis? will Sunja be able to make enough money with her kimchi stall? will Mozasu drop out of school? will Noa find out who his real father is? will Solomon marry Phoebe? Read my full review here.
1. Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy
An orgy of surreal comedy, punctuated by somber, poignant reflections on the more unsavoury aspects of the Catholic Church, written in a style unlike anyone else’s on Earth. Probably the best book of the year so far. Read my full review here.