This list originally appeared in the Secret Posts in December 2017.
If you'd like to listen to a more in-depth discussion about these selections, I talk about a lot of these books in the latest Smartest Person in the Room Episode #28: Best of Books & Reading 2017.
End of the year lists are the best, I love keeping a record of the best things about a season, and my year-end book lists are my favorite to compile. On average, my goal is to read about 1 book a week, or roughly 50 - 55 books a year. I hit that goal in 2017, but it was a little uneven.
Mid-way through the year I became a little disappointed with what I’d been reading. It’s true that I had a small slump in the spring where I didn’t read much or read things that I didn’t love, but I kicked it up a notch and now that I look back on the whole of 2017, I can see that I read some truly phenomenal things. The types of books that when you’re finished with them, you think to yourself, “I want to read more stuff like THAT.” Not in content, but in caliber.
I also read some especially long books this year, several over 400 pages: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (418 pages), IT by Stephen King (1,116 pages), The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (582 pages), Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (496 pages), A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (462 pages), Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (477 pages), Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris (707 pages). In one of the reading focused book club groups on Facebook, a few people were contemplating setting their new year reading goals to be pages read instead of book count. Some people were claiming that towards the end of the year they were reaching for shorter books in order to make their goal. I’m going to stay with a book count goal instead of pages read, but it’s something to think about if you’re honest about your motivation.
While making this list, I considered several factors. Pure entertainment, quality of the writing and story, and how long it stuck with me after I turned the last page. Even though they were definitely two of the best things I read this year, I purposefully left off IT by Stephen King, because it was a reread for me (and one of my favorite books of all time already), and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, because it is the 3rd book in a series and therefore unhelpful if you haven’t started with book 1 of the series. In this case the series is the Neapolitan novels and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is my favorite one so far, though they’ve all been excellent. I also read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee in the last few days of the year, and it was so good that it probably should have weaseled its way onto the final list.
But here are my ten favorite fiction reads of 2017:
#1. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Let’s just go ahead and start with the best, shall we? Sing, Unburied, Sing is stunning. The writing is beautiful, the story is well-told, and I will think about these characters for a long, long, time. The story is deceptively simple: a single mom, her friend, and her two children set out on a road trip to pick up the baby daddy as he’s released from prison. But it’s about integrity, and family, and failure, and wanting to be better. There’s also an ancestry and spiritual element to this novel that had me nearly weeping. Jesmyn Ward’s previous novel Salvage the Bones is now on my immediate To Read list. 2011’s Salvage the Bones and 2017’s Sing, Unburied, Sing both won the National Book Award. Jesmyn Ward is a treasure.
#2. The Power by Naomi Alderman
I have been telling everyone I know to read The Power right now. It’s the book I can’t stop talking about. The Power tells the story of women across the world suddenly discovering electrical currents in their hands, and how this shift in power dynamic between genders changes everything. How would men be if they lived with an undercurrent of fear of assault? Would women really be more peaceful if they were in charge? This book is science fiction, but it couldn’t be more emotionally relevant to world events.
#3. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Okay, I’m kind of cheating here by including two books as one entry, but they’re not only by the same author - the marvelous Elizabeth Strout - but also from the same world (though not exactly the same characters, there is some clever overlap). I am so late to the Elizabeth Strout game, but she is an excellent writer. Her sentences, characters, and story lines are somehow both sparse and incredibly layered, allowing the readers to fill in their own gaps. I loved both of these books and related to the people in them - and that’s how I thought of them, as people, not fictionalized characters - so much, it was as if I KNEW everything that was happening as I was reading it. Like I was really in it.
Her writing and tone is what I connected to the most, but I liked each of these books for different reasons. My Name is Lucy Barton is a character study, and Anything Is Possible has a structure I was drawn to. They’re both quick reads that will stay with you. I want to read everything by Elizabeth Strout now.
#4. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
When is it appropriate to admit that you picked a book because of the cover? Well, this played a huge factor in making The Animators a Book of the Month Club selection for me this summer, that on top of hearing from a few others that it was a great friendship story. I love a good friendship story. This book surprised me, actually. Dozens of pages in, I was sure it was going to be a certain thing…and then it wasn’t. It’s about a messy, collaborative, creative, complicated friendship that spans from college into adulthood. The writing is good and the story is even better. Surprising without veering into weird.
#5. The Dry by Jane Harper
The Dry was recommended to me by Anne Bogel when I was a guest on her podcast What Should I Read Next. Jane Harper has been called an Australian Tana French (and I do love Tana French), so Anne was correct in assuming that The Dry was going to be right up my alley. It’s a murder mystery but with a love triangle and a small town and childhood friendships, so basically all of the elements that I like in a weekend read. This is the best of that genre that I’ve read in a while.
#6. Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
I’ve been talking about Dreamland Burning for months. I started this one because it’s about my home state of Oklahoma, and even though it’s technically Young Adult, which isn’t a genre I usually like, I flew through it. In fact, if someone hadn’t mentioned to me that it was YA, I’m not sure I would have noticed it, even though it’s about teenagers. The writing is captivating (I couldn’t put it down) and the characters are good, but the strongest point here is the story. It’s fictionalized events around the very real 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, of which I knew nothing about. This is a topic that has been erased from our history lessons until recently, so I was avidly googling as I was reading. This is the perfect storm of a book: fast paced, a murder mystery as the central plot, but also learning something about a real part of history.
#7. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Well, this is one the best novels I’ve read in YEARS and I only wish that I had read it sooner. I stayed away from this one when it was on all of the best seller lists because I had the mistaken assumption that it was anti-American. Americanah is NOT anti-American and really isn’t all that much about America at all (although there are some really interesting perspectives to the immigrant experience), but instead is about identity and relationships and first loves and becoming who you were born to be. This novel deserves all the accolades and pushed my brain in the best possible way.
#8. The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
This book is so special. The very obvious nod to John Irving is charming and not annoying, and I wanted the best for these characters and their overly difficult lives. Boyne’s writing makes 600 pages fly by in a breeze. There is a lot of heartbreak in The Heart's Invisible Furies, but it’s also funny and sweet, and, again, I learned many things about the time periods and countries that it spans. I want to read at least one novel like this a year: long, sweeping, that makes me feel like there’s hope for humanity.
#9. This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
I started this novel knowing absolutely nothing about it, not so much as a blurb on the book jacket, and I highly recommend you do the same. It’s better to go into this story without any preconceived notions. I don’t want to say too much about the story, but this is a novel about a family, mostly about parenthood, and it will have you thinking about the central struggle for months. It’s one of those novels that can slowly turn the tide of your heart. I kept asking friends who had also read it, "What would you do?" This Is How It Always Iscouldn’t be more timely, and would be an excellent book club choice.
#10. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
This was the perfect vacation read for me. Compelling, juicy, Hollywood-set story, easy sentences with no desire to put it down. This is an obvious homage to Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and the like, with fun plot twists and a really great overall structure that you can’t fully appreciate until you’re finished. Whenever a friend asked for a lighter book recommendation for a trip or the the airplane, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is what I’ve been recommending for the last 6 months. There are parts of it that still make me laugh, and also look back at the earliest film stars and think…hmmmm….I wonder….
But that's not all!