2017 was a banner reading year for me. I read anywhere and everywhere: on set, in bed, at red lights. All told, I blazed through a staggering 265 titles on the year covering a wide variety of genres (science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, thrillers, crime, non-fiction, and general fiction). Over half of those were 2017 releases, so when it came time to selecting this year’s top reads, I felt I was in a better position to do so than most.
Of course, narrowing down my selects proved an immense challenge and I truly agonized as I whittled down my initial shortlist from 40 to 34 and, finally, to 30, inevitably abandoning my plan to make it a Top 25. I ignored the critics, the big awards talk, and applied a fairly straightforward criteria to the selection process. I asked myself: Did the book grab me? Was I engrossed in the story? Did I love the characters? Was I compelled to continue reading? Did it touch me, amuse me, surprise me? Was I ultimately satisfied with my reading experience?
And, when all was said and done, these were my picks for The Top Books of 2017:
#30 – Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The family thought the little house they had made themselves in Elmet, a corner of Yorkshire, was theirs, that their peaceful, self-sufficient life was safe. Cathy and Daniel roamed the woods freely, occasionally visiting a local woman for some schooling, living outside all conventions. Their father built things and hunted, working with his hands; sometimes he would disappear, forced to do secret, brutal work for money, but to them he was a gentle protector.
Narrated by Daniel after a catastrophic event has occurred, Elmet mesmerizes even as it becomes clear the family’s solitary idyll will not last. When a local landowner shows up on their doorstep, their precarious existence is threatened, their innocence lost. Daddy and Cathy, both of them fierce, strong, and unyielding, set out to protect themselves and their neighbors, putting into motion a chain of events that can only end in violence.
The very last book I read in 2017 captures the final spot in my Top 30. A story about family, independence, and what people will do when what little they have is threatened.
#29 – Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns
Adda and Iridian are newly-minted engineers, but in a solar system wracked by economic collapse after an interplanetary war, an engineering degree isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Desperate for gainful employment, they hijack a colony ship, planning to join a pirate crew at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.
But when they arrive at Barbary Station, nothing is as they expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury — they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents. And it shoots down any ship that tries to leave, so there’s no way out.
Adda and Iridian have one chance to earn a place on the pirate crew: destroy the artificial intelligence. The last engineer who went up against the security system suffered explosive decapitation, and the pirates are taking bets on how the newcomers will die. But Adda and Iridian plan to beat the odds.
There’s a glorious future in piracy…if they can survive long enough.
A rip-roarin’ recommendation that came my way via The Verve’s Andrew Liptak. Sci-fi should be this much fun.
#28 – The Widow of Wall Street by Randy Susan Meyers
What’s real in a marriage built on sand and how do you abandon a man you’ve loved since the age of fifteen?
Phoebe sees the fire in Jake Pierce’s belly from the moment they meet as teenagers in Brooklyn. Eventually he creates a financial dynasty and she trusts him without hesitation—unaware his hunger for success hides a dark talent for deception.
When Phoebe learns—along with the rest of the world—that her husband’s triumphs are the result of an elaborate Ponzi scheme her world unravels. Lies underpin her life and marriage. As Jake’s crime is uncovered, the world obsesses about Phoebe. Did she know her life was fabricated by fraud? Did she partner with her husband in hustling billions from pensioners, charities, and CEOs? Was she his accomplice in stealing from their family and neighbors?
Debate rages as to whether love and loyalty blinded her to his crimes or if she chose to live in denial. While Jake is trapped in the web of his own deceit, Phoebe is faced with an unbearable choice. Her children refuse to see her if she remains at their father’s side, but abandoning Jake, a man she’s known since childhood, feels cruel and impossible.
From Brooklyn to Greenwich to Manhattan, from penthouse to prison, with tragic consequences rippling well beyond Wall Street, The Widow of Wall Street exposes a woman struggling to redefine her life and marriage as everything she thought she knew crumbles around her.
The fascinating flip side to The Wolf of Wall Street tells the tale of a fraudster’s wife left to pick up the pieces as a social pariah following her husband’s conviction.
#27 – Brave Deeds by David Abrams
From Fobbit author David Abrams, Brave Deeds is a powerful novel of war, brotherhood, and America. Spanning eight hours, the novel follows a squad of six AWOL soldiers as they attempt to cross war-torn Baghdad on foot to attend the funeral of their leader, Staff Sergeant Rafe Morgan. In an inhospitable landscape, these men recall the most ancient of warriors while portraying a cross section of twenty-first century America—sometimes strong, sometimes weak, but subject to the same human flaws as all of us.
Drew is reliable in the field, but unfaithful at home. Cheever, overweight and whining, is a friend to no one—least of all, himself. Specialist Olijandro, or O, is distracted by dangerous romantic thoughts of his ex-wife. Fish’s propensity for violence is what drew him to the military and could be a catalyst for the day’s events. Park is the quiet one, but his quick thinking may make him the day’s hero. And platoon commander Dmitri “Arrow” Arogapoulos, is stalwart, yet troubled with questions about his own identity and sexuality. As the six march across Baghdad, their complicated histories, hopes, and fears are told in a chorus of voices that merge into a powerful portrait of the modern war zone and the deepest concerns of us all, military and civilian alike. Moving, thoughtful, funny, and smart, Brave Deeds is a gripping story of combat and of brotherhood, and an important addition to the oeuvre of contemporary war fiction.
A stirring account of the incredible lengths a group of soldiers will go to in order to pay their respects to a fallen comrade.
#26 – Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
When it comes to law and order, East Texas plays by its own rules–a fact that Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, knows all too well. Deeply ambivalent about growing up black in the lone star state, he was the first in his family to get as far away from Texas as he could. Until duty called him home.
When his allegiance to his roots puts his job in jeopardy, he travels up Highway 59 to the small town of Lark, where two murders–a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman–have stirred up a hornet’s nest of resentment. Darren must solve the crimes–and save himself in the process–before Lark’s long-simmering racial fault lines erupt.
A gripping thriller with a remarkably atypical protagonist in Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. Hopefully the first in a long series.
#25 – Such Small Hands by Andrés Barb-a
It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls. . . . Life changes at the orphanage the day Marina shows up. As she tries to find her place, she creates a game whose rules are dictated by a haunting violence. In hypnotic, lyrical prose, Andrés Barba evokes the pain of loss and the hunger for acceptance—a masterwork from the Spanish writer at the peak of his powers.
A haunting little tale that will get under your skin – and stay there.
#24 – Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen
Officer Denny Rakestraw, “Negro Officers” Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, and Sergeant McInnis have their hands full in an overcrowded and rapidly changing Atlanta. It’s 1950 and color lines are shifting and racial tensions are simmering. Black families—including Smith’s sister and brother-in-law—are moving into Rake’s formerly all-white neighborhood, leading some residents to raise money to buy them out, while others advocate a more violent solution. Rake’s brother-in-law, Dale, a proud Klansman, launches a scheme to rally his fellow Kluxers to save their neighborhood. When those efforts spiral out of control and leave a man dead, Rake is forced to choose between loyalty to family or the law.
He isn’t the only one with family troubles. Boggs has outraged his preacher father by courting a domestic, and now her ex-boyfriend has been released from prison. As Boggs, Smith, and their all-black precinct contend with violent drug dealers fighting for turf in new territory, their personal dramas draw them closer to the fires that threaten to consume Atlanta once again.
The second book in a (the Darktown) series, that reads like the first. A fascinating look at the professional and personal struggles on both sides of the racial divide in 1950’s Atlanta.
#23 – The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigan
Warren Botts is a disillusioned Ph.D., taking a break from his lab to teach middle-school science. Gentle, soft-spoken, and lonely, he innocently befriends Amanda, one of his students. But one morning, Amanda is found dead in his backyard, and Warren, shocked, flees the scene.
As the small community slowly turns against him, an anonymous narrator, a person of extreme intelligence and emotional detachment, offers insight into events past and present. As the tension builds, we gain an intimate understanding of the power of secrets, illusions, and memories.
A taunt thriller with a final reveal I never saw coming.
#22 – Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating by Charles Spence
Why do we consume 35 percent more food when eating with one other person, and 75 percent more when dining with three? How do we explain the fact that people who like strong coffee drink more of it under bright lighting? And why does green ketchup just not work?
The answer is gastrophysics, the new area of sensory science pioneered by Oxford professor Charles Spence. Now he’s stepping out of his lab to lift the lid on the entire eating experience how the taste, the aroma, and our overall enjoyment of food are influenced by all of our senses, as well as by our mood and expectations.
The pleasures of food lie mostly in the mind, not in the mouth. Get that straight and you can start to understand what really makes food enjoyable, stimulating, and, most important, memorable. Spence reveals in amusing detail the importance of all the off the plate elements of a meal: the weight of cutlery, the color of the plate, the background music, and much more. Whether we re dining alone or at a dinner party, on a plane or in front of the TV, he reveals how to understand what we re tasting and influence what others experience.
I always wondered why I craved tomato juice on long haul flights. I’ll take food science over food porn any day.
#21 – The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka
Sarah Cook, a beautiful blonde teenager disappeared fifteen years ago, the same night her parents were brutally murdered in their suburban Ohio home. Her boyfriend Brad Stockton – black and from the wrong side of the tracks – was convicted of the murders and sits on death row, though he always maintained his innocence. With his execution only weeks away, his devoted sister, insisting she has spotted Sarah at a local gas station, hires PI Roxane Weary to look again at the case.
Reeling from the recent death of her cop father, Roxane finds herself drawn to the story of Sarah’s vanishing act, especially when she thinks she’s linked Sarah’s disappearance to one of her father’s unsolved murder cases involving another teen girl. Despite her self-destructive tendencies, Roxane starts to hope that maybe she can save Brad’s life and her own.
This thriller stands out among so many others on the year for its deeply flawed but incredibly engaging protagonist, Roxanne Weary.
#20 – The Last Days of Cafe Leila by Donia Bijan
A neighborhood café in Tehran is at the center of this powerful and transporting story of love, family, friendship, and homecoming told against the backdrop of Iran’s rich, yet tragic, history.
When Noor returns to her native Iran for the first time in thirty years, so much about her homeland is different. But Café Leila–the restaurant Noor’s family has run for three generations–hasn’t changed. Zod, Noor’s father, is still at the café’s helm, a much-loved patriarch offering laughter, solace, and nourishment to the makeshift family of regulars and waiters who call Café Leila home. With her discontented, very American teenage daughter, Lily, reluctantly at her side, Noor struggles to maintain a semblance of family life. But Tehran is a place of contradictions, where grace and brutal violence both have a foothold, and it’s not long before rebellious Lily is caught up in both.
As the novel folds back in time, stories emerge of Noor’s ancestors, particularly of her mother, who was killed when Noor was a teenager. As past and present converge, Noor begins to understand her place in–and her responsibility to–this world and to the many souls who have sought refuge at the café. The Last Days of Café Leila is a powerful debut about the delicate, sometimes dangerous balance between history and progress, and the resilience of a family in the face of upheaval.
I was thoroughly swept away by this tale of one family’s journey from the horror’s of war to the hope of a new world, and then back to the home they once knew.
#19 – Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.
But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.
Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…
Lawrence sets aside the grimdark trappings of his Broken Empire Trilogy for this much more hopeful but no less epic adventure which focuses on the rise of a bold new fantasy heroine.
#18 – The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible — until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.
Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war — and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.
The Flow is eternal — but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals — a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency — are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.
Old Man’s War is and will forever by my favorite Scalzi novel, but The Collapsing Empire, with its BIG sci-fi concepts, clever plot, and sense of humor, is now a strong second.
#17 – History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Fourteen-year-old Madeline lives with her parents in the beautiful, austere woods of northern Minnesota, where their nearly abandoned commune stands as a last vestige of a lost counter-culture world. Isolated at home and an outlander at school, Madeline is drawn to the enigmatic, attractive Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is charged with possessing child pornography, the implications of his arrest deeply affect Madeline as she wrestles with her own fledgling desires and craving to belong.
And then the young Gardner family moves in across the lake and Madeline finds herself welcomed into their home as a babysitter for their little boy, Paul. It seems that her life finally has purpose but with this new sense of belonging she is also drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand. Over the course of a few days, Madeline makes a set of choices that reverberate throughout her life. As she struggles to find a way out of the sequestered world into which she was born, Madeline confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do—and fail to do—for the people they love.
A story as strange and unique as its young protagonist. This one will stay with you…
#16 – Ill Will by Dan Chaon
“We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves,” Dustin Tillman likes to say. It’s one of the little mantras he shares with his patients, and it’s meant to be reassuring. But what if that story is a lie?
A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to symbolize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.
Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients gets him deeply engaged in a string of drowning deaths involving drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses talk of a serial killer as paranoid thinking, but as he gets wrapped up in their amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.
“That was dark!”was my friend Alex’s review after taking me up on my recommendation to check out this book. Hell, yes. By the time the pieces of the mystery fall into place, it’ll have you by the throat.
#15 – American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. Vigilante groups sprang up, patrolling the rural Virginia coast with cameras and camouflage. Volunteer firefighters slept at their stations. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate—there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.
The culprit, and the path that led to these crimes, is a story of twenty-first century America. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse first drove down to the reeling county to cover a hearing for Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic who upon his capture had promptly pleaded guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But as Charlie’s confession unspooled, it got deeper and weirder. He wasn’t lighting fires alone; his crimes were galvanized by a surprising love story. Over a year of investigating, Hesse uncovered the motives of Charlie and his accomplice, girlfriend Tonya Bundick, a woman of steel-like strength and an inscrutable past. Theirs was a love built on impossibly tight budgets and simple pleasures. They were each other’s inspiration and escape…until they weren’t.
A great real life mystery particularly notable for the odd relationship at its center. We begin with a small community in the grips of a serial arsonist and end with a trial charged with shocking revelations.
#14 – Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
In a ruined, nameless city of the future, a woman named Rachel, who makes her living as a scavenger, finds a creature she names “Borne” entangled in the fur of Mord, a gigantic, despotic bear. Mord once prowled the corridors of the biotech organization known as the Company, which lies at the outskirts of the city, until he was experimented on, grew large, learned to fly and broke free. Driven insane by his torture at the Company, Mord terrorizes the city even as he provides sustenance for scavengers like Rachel.
At first, Borne looks like nothing at all—just a green lump that might be a Company discard. The Company, although severely damaged, is rumoured to still make creatures and send them to distant places that have not yet suffered Collapse.
Borne somehow reminds Rachel of the island nation of her birth, now long lost to rising seas. She feels an attachment she resents; attachments are traps, and in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet when she takes Borne to her subterranean sanctuary, the Balcony Cliffs, Rachel convinces her lover, Wick, not to render Borne down to raw genetic material for the drugs he sells—she cannot break that bond.
Wick is a special kind of supplier, because the drug dealers in the city don’t sell the usual things. They sell tiny creatures that can be swallowed or stuck in the ear, and that release powerful memories of other people’s happier times or pull out forgotten memories from the user’s own mind—or just produce beautiful visions that provide escape from the barren, craterous landscapes of the city.
Against his better judgment, out of affection for Rachel or perhaps some other impulse, Wick respects her decision. Rachel, meanwhile, despite her loyalty to Wick, knows he has kept secrets from her. Searching his apartment, she finds a burnt, unreadable journal titled “Mord,” a cryptic reference to the Magician (a rival drug dealer) and evidence that Wick has planned the layout of the Balcony Cliffs to match the blueprint of the Company building. What is he hiding? Why won’t he tell her about what happened when he worked for the Company?
VanderMeer’s recent Southern Reach series was an insidious, slow-burn departure from his fungi and celaphod-inspired early work, but Borne finds him at his brazenly bizarre best.
#13 – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.
In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.
No mystery gripped me tighter than this true crime account of the mysterious murders that plagued Oklahama’s wealthy Osage Nation. Grann’s search for answers almost one hundred years later makes for one of 2017’s most compelling reads.
#12 – The Power by Naomi Alderman
In The Power the world is a recognisable place: there’s a rich Nigerian kid who lounges around the family pool; a foster girl whose religious parents hide their true nature; a local American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly.
This one made a bunch of Best Of lists which, on the one hand, put it on my radar but, on the other, made me a little dubious going in. It grabbed me in its first twenty pages and never let go. A critical darling wholly deserving of its praise.
#11 – Little Heaven by Nick Cutter
From electrifying horror author Nick Cutter comes a haunting new novel, reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridianand Stephen King’s It, in which a trio of mismatched mercenaries is hired by a young woman for a deceptively simple task: check in on her nephew, who may have been taken against his will to a remote New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. Shortly after they arrive, things begin to turn ominous. Stirrings in the woods and over the treetops—the brooding shape of a monolith known as the Black Rock casts its terrible pall. Paranoia and distrust grips the settlement. The escape routes are gradually cut off as events spiral towards madness. Hell—or the closest thing to it—invades Little Heaven. The remaining occupants are forced to take a stand and fight back, but whatever has cast its dark eye on Little Heaven is now marshaling its powers…and it wants them all.
As far as I’m concerned, Nick Cutter ranks alongside Stephen King as a must-read author of the genre. His latest book is eerie and unsettling, but, as always, its characters are as crucial as the horror.
#10 – The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall
Willow Havens is ten years old and obsessed with the fear that her mother will die. Her mother, Polly, is a cantankerous, take-no-prisoners Southern woman who lives to shoot varmints, drink margaritas, and antagonize the neighbors and she sticks out like a sore thumb among the young modern mothers of their small conventional Texas town. She was in her late fifties when Willow was born, so Willow knows she’s here by accident, a late-life afterthought. Willow’s father died before she was born, her much older brother and sister are long grown and gone and failing elsewhere. It’s just her and bigger-than-life Polly.
Willow is desperately hungry for clues to the family life that preceded her, and especially Polly’s life pre-Willow. Why did she leave her hometown of Bethel, Louisiana, fifty years ago and vow never to return? Who is Garland Jones, her long-ago suitor who possibly killed a man? And will Polly be able to outrun the Bear, the illness that finally puts her on a collision course with her past?
Polly, a caustic and colorful senior raising her teenage grand-daughter, is one of 2017’s most memorable fictional characters and, alone, well worth the price of admission. Or the cover price anyway.
#9 – Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini
Mere weeks after the 1992 riots that laid waste to Los Angeles, Eugenia, a typical Italian teenager, is rudely yanked from her privileged Roman milieu by her hippieish filmmaker parents and transplanted to the strange suburban world of the San Fernando Valley. With only the Virgin Mary to call on for guidance as her parents struggle to make it big, Hollywood fashion, she must navigate her huge new public high school, complete with Crips and Bloods and Persian gang members, and a car-based environment of 99-cent stores and obscure fast-food franchises and all-night raves. She forges friendships with Henry, who runs his mother’s movie memorabilia store, and the bewitching Deva, who introduces her to the alternate cultural universe that is Topanga Canyon. And then the 1994 earthquake rocks the foundations not only of Eugenia’s home but of the future she’d been imagining for herself.
From local celebrity (after her family is cast in an Italian Spam commercial) to inner city outsider, Barzini’s offbeat protagonist, Eugenia, is a force of nature as strong as the titular quake. Joyously transportative.
#8 – The Destroyers by Christopher Bollen
Arriving on the Greek island of Patmos broke and humiliated, Ian Bledsoe is fleeing the emotional and financial fallout from his father’s death. His childhood friend Charlie—rich, exuberant, and basking in the success of his new venture on the island—could be his last hope.
At first Patmos appears to be a dream—long sun-soaked days on Charlie’s yacht and the reappearance of a girlfriend from Ian’s past—and Charlie readily offers Ian the lifeline he so desperately needs. But, like Charlie himself, this beautiful island conceals a darkness beneath, and it isn’t long before the dream begins to fragment. When Charlie suddenly vanishes, Ian finds himself caught up in deception after deception. As he grapples with the turmoil left in his friend’s wake, he is reminded of an imaginary game called Destroyers they played as children—a game, he now realizes, they may have never stopped playing.
An incredibly suspenseful read. Once I started, I became so engrossed that I ended up setting aside the entire day to finishing it.
#7 – To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell
Meet the visionaries, billionaires, professors, and programmers who are using groundbreaking technology to push the limits of the human body our senses, intelligence, and our lifespans.
Once relegated to the fringes of society, transhumanism (the use of technology to enhance human intellectual and physical capability) is now poised to enter our cultural mainstream. It has found adherents in Silicon Valley billionaires Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. Google has entered the picture, establishing a bio-tech subsidiary aimed at solving the problem of aging.
In To Be a Machine, journalist Mark O’Connell takes a headlong dive into this burgeoning movement. He travels to the laboratories, conferences, and basements of today’s foremost transhumanists, where he’s presented with the staggering possibilities and moral quandaries of new technologies like mind uploading, artificial superintelligence, cryonics, and device implants.
Informative, funny, and at times altogether bizarre, this book explores the concept of transhumanism through its contemporary proponents – all of them fascinating, several of them downright weird.
#6 – Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry
On 11 March 2011, a massive earthquake sent a 120-foot-high tsunami smashing into the coast of north-east Japan. By the time the sea retreated, more than 18,500 people had been crushed, burned to death, or drowned.
It was Japan’s greatest single loss of life since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. It set off a national crisis, and the meltdown of a nuclear power plant. And even after the immediate emergency had abated, the trauma of the disaster continued to express itself in bizarre and mysterious ways.
Richard Lloyd Parry, an award-winning foreign correspondent, lived through the earthquake in Tokyo, and spent six years reporting from the disaster zone. There he encountered stories of ghosts and hauntings. He met a priest who performed exorcisms on people possessed by the spirits of the dead. And he found himself drawn back again and again to a village which had suffered the greatest loss of all, a community tormented by unbearable mysteries of its own.
What really happened to the local children as they waited in the school playground in the moments before the tsunami? Why did their teachers not evacuate them to safety? And why was the unbearable truth being so stubbornly covered up?
At turns shocking, touching, and maddening, Parry’s book touches on the victims of the 2011 tsunami, their personal stories of survival, and their ensuing attempts to recover lost loved ones and the truth about the tragic circumstances at one ill-fated elementary school.
#5 – Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
The childhood of Patricia Lockwood, the poet dubbed “The Smutty-Metaphor Queen of Lawrence, Kansas” by The New York Times, was unusual in many respects. There was the location: an impoverished, nuclear waste-riddled area of the American Midwest. There was her mother, a woman who speaks almost entirely in strange koans and warnings of impending danger. Above all, there was her gun-toting, guitar-riffing, frequently semi-naked father, who underwent a religious conversion on a submarine and discovered a loophole which saw him approved for the Catholic priesthood by the future Pope Benedict XVI – despite already having a wife and children.
When the expense of a medical procedure forces the 30-year-old Patricia to move back in with her parents, husband in tow, she must learn to live again with her family’s simmering madness, and to reckon with the dark side of a childhood spent in the bosom of the Catholic Church. Told with the comic sensibility of a brasher, bluer Waugh or Wodehouse, this is at the same time a lyrical and affecting story of how, having ventured into the underworld, we can emerge with our levity and our sense of justice intact.
As the son of a former minister, I could relate to a certain degree, but Lockwood’s hilarious account of her relationship with her colorful father is beyond imagining.
#4 – Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
Foxcatcher meets The Art of Fielding, Stephen Florida follows a college wrestler in his senior season, when every practice, every match, is a step closer to greatness and a step further from sanity. Profane, manic, and tipping into the uncanny, it’s a story of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark.
The biggest surprise of my 2017 reading list was this book about a college wrestler and his single-minded mission to achieve victory at all costs. Unputdownable.
#3 – The Force by Don Winslow
All Denny Malone wants is to be a good cop.
He is “the King of Manhattan North,” a highly decorated NYPD detective sergeant and the real leader of “Da Force.” Malone and his crew are the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, and the baddest, an elite special unit given carte blanche to fight gangs, drugs, and guns. Every day and every night for the eighteen years he’s spent on the Job, Malone has served on the front lines, witnessing the hurt, the dead, the victims, the perps. He’s done whatever it takes to serve and protect in a city built by ambition and corruption, where no one is clean—including Malone himself.
What only a few know is that Denny Malone is dirty: he and his partners have stolen millions of dollars in drugs and cash in the wake of the biggest heroin bust in the city’s history. Now Malone is caught in a trap and being squeezed by the Feds, and he must walk the thin line between betraying his brothers and partners, the Job, his family, and the woman he loves, trying to survive, body and soul, while the city teeters on the brink of a racial conflagration that could destroy them all.
Winslow’s The Winter of Frankie Machine is one of my all-time favorite crime novels, so I was prepared to be underwhelmed by comparison. Instead, I ended up staying up until 3 a.m. to finish the last 400 pages of this cracking read.
#2 – Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
Welcome to the age of behavioral addiction—an age in which half of the American population is addicted to at least one behavior. We obsess over our emails, Instagram likes, and Facebook feeds; we binge on TV episodes and YouTube videos; we work longer hours each year; and we spend an average of three hours each day using our smartphones. Half of us would rather suffer a broken bone than a broken phone, and Millennial kids spend so much time in front of screens that they struggle to interact with real, live humans.
In this revolutionary book, Adam Alter, a professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, tracks the rise of behavioral addiction, and explains why so many of today’s products are irresistible. Though these miraculous products melt the miles that separate people across the globe, their extraordinary and sometimes damaging magnetism is no accident. The companies that design these products tweak them over time until they become almost impossible to resist.
By reverse engineering behavioral addiction, Alter explains how we can harness addictive products for the good—to improve how we communicate with each other, spend and save our money, and set boundaries between work and play—and how we can mitigate their most damaging effects on our well-being, and the health and happiness of our children.
Informative and downright shocking at times, this book has made me much more mindful of my technological dependencies. And makes me thankful I never disappeared down the rabbit hole that is World of Warcraft.
#1 – The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter, Loo, to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death. Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past; a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come. This father-daughter epic weaves back and forth through time and across America, from Alaska to the Adirondacks.
Both a coming-of-age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most.
I read this one early in the year and it stayed #1 on my list through the next nine months on the strength of the wonderful father-daughter relationship at the heart of this wholly wonderful novel.
So, those were my picks for The Best Books of 2017. I’d love to know yours.