The Best Books of 2017: Fiction

The Best Books of 2017: Fiction

2017 was another outstanding year for fiction. Even the mediocre novels were sounder and smarter than in most years, and the terrific novels were correspondingly even more terrific – so much so, in fact, that many of the year's best novels achieved that status despite committing venial and mortal sins against their own genre: things like pandering topicality, chasing buzzwords, and avoiding plot, things that would ordinarily torpedo a novel, were in 2017 transformed by sheer talent into working parts of the performance. And those performances included some mighty fine works – these were the best of them:
 

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The Best Books of 2017: Nonfiction!

The Best Books of 2017: Nonfiction!

I've come to expect a certain amount of variety in the books that manage the near-impossible feat of making their way from galley-and-first-reading to finished-copy-and-second-reading to critical appraisal/mauling to cold reconsideration and then ultimately to this year-end list. But even so, the best works of what I think of as 'general nonfiction' in 2017 are more varied than usual, ranging from the whimsical to the terrifying to the tragic and back. I went into the year with clear expectations of where my favor would lie, and as usual, I was constantly being surprised right out of my certainties. Here are the best nonfiction works from a year of upset:

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Tale of Two Summers

Tale of Two Summers

It’s like I was telling my esteemed colleague Ty the other day – teen novels are often sharper than adult novels, because teen novels are pitched to the most unforgiving audience in the known world: teenagers who actually read. They can sense stupid artifice and plot boondoggling a mile away, and they can’t stand, utterly can’t stand, being talked down to.


Writers who respect that can end up writing really, really good books – books that are so lancingly smart and sharp and wry that they bear only an insulting comparison to most contemporary fiction aimed at adults.

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In the Penny Press! Things to do before you die!

In the Penny Press! Things to do before you die!

This month’s GQ has an amusing ANTIDOTE to all those ’50/100/1001 Things to do before you Die’-type books that have proliferated as boomers reach the age where they start to realize they’ve never done much of anything.

The GQ piece is called “50 Things a Man Does Not Have to Do Before He Dies,” and since I’m a sucker for lists (though yes, I know, you couldn’t tell that from this blog as yet … I have heard your list-hungry complaints and am brewing up several as we speak), I naturally started keeping a tally. Or two tallies, actually:

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Books! Zombies, ponds, and loners!

Books! Zombies, ponds, and loners!

An abundance, an embarrassment almost, of good reading lately has succeeded entirely in wiping the rancid aftertaste of Bully Boy from my mind. Naturally, this makes me happy – reading is one of my foremost pleasures, so a bad patch of it can make my entire waking life feel a little wrenched.

After A Tale of Two Summers I read Saint Iggy by K.L. Going, the author of the really good teen fiction book Fat Kid Rules the World. Saint Iggy is cut from much the same cloth – a memorable loner as the main character, and graceful, fun, fluid, intelligent writing throughout. Before I was half-way done with it, I’d forgotten my dissatisfactions with A Tale of Two Summers. Saint Iggy is hugely smarter as a book, and part of what lets it be so is the greater trust it reposes in the kids who’ll be reading it.

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Books! Titus and More!

Books! Titus and More!

Well!

Not only has my general-reading palate been cleansed by a couple of pretty good teen novels (although further reflecting has made me think less of Saint Iggy, mainly because it has an almost bewilderingly unsatisfying ending) and one great science fiction novel, but now my very specific HISTORY palate has also been cleansed! Soldiers & Ghosts by J. E. Lendon was great!

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Books! Crocodiles and Kings!

Books! Crocodiles and Kings!

Karleen Koen’s big book Dark Angels turned out to be a quite enjoyable piece of Restoration historical fiction. This was a relief, since the Restoration, worse than any period (except of course the Regency), tends to bring out the Amelia Nettleship in so many writers (for those of you who don’t know the name, it refers to a lady novelist and “bottler of historical bilge-water” in John Mortimer’s immortal story “Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation”). Certainly Koen herself gave me cause to worry, since right there in her Author’s Note she refers to Charles II as “the merry monarch.” That’s usually a sign of trouble.

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One last Masefield note

One last Masefield note

In case any of you were wondering what my weird fascination with this Masefield character is, I can tell you: it’s Star Trek!

Masefield is one of the only poets mentioned by name in the Star Trek universe, specifically in the much-maligned Star Trek V when Kirk quotes from a line of the poem herein posted. Kirk quotes the line, McCoy misidentifies it as Melville, and Spock corrects him with Masefield.

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