The Top 10 Best Books of 2017
Merry Everything, book lovers! If you were lucky enough to get some gift cards to bookstores as gifts this year, I'm about to help you spend them.
My "best of" list is the post I look forward to writing all year long. It was especially hard for me to narrow down my top 10 this year because I read more books than ever before. I'm on track to close out the year with 101 books and there were SO many good choices!
One quick note about this list. I read a mix of backlist (books that have already been published), new releases, and ARCs (advance copies of books that have yet to be published), so my "best of" list is a compilation of my favorite books I read this calendar year, regardless of their publication date.
Let the countdown begin!
10. The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Not gonna lie, I saw the cover of this one in the bookstore and was immediately intrigued. With a title like that, how could I not be? Sometime later I was craving a fun adventure novel and was immensely impressed with what I found. It's rare to find a historical fiction novel that deals with LGBTQ issues, race, and feminism as beautifully and authentically as this. It seems like so many times these issues are ignored completely or the marginalized characters (if the author bothers to include any) are punished and often not one of the central characters. Not so here, which was heartening and refreshing. Combine that with the witty prose and you've got a hell of a good YA novel.
9. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan wrote this book after one of the most heartbreaking experiences of her life: losing her only daughter and her husband within three months of each other. I'm lucky in that so far in my life I've been fairly insulated from loss––I've had one grandmother and one great-grandmother pass away, which isn't very many funerals in my 27 years of life. I had this book on my shelf for years, thinking it'd be there when I needed it. What prompted me to read it this year was learning that one of my best friends lost her sister. I realized I was completely inept––I had no idea what to say or how to support her because I'd never experienced loss like that myself. I looked to Didion for guidance and I wasn't disappointed.
8. Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, an anthology edited by Sari Botton
Speaking of Didion, this anthology was inspired by her landmark personal essay "Goodbye to All That" about her time in New York. If you're anything like me, you've probably harbored dreams of living in the city that never sleeps for the majority of your life. I used to dream of running away and being a writer in New York, but one thing or another (usually relating to money) always stopped me. I also had several friends who did move to NYC and the city kicked their asses BIG TIME. Even so, there was a (very impractical) part of me that still wanted to try it one day.
On my last trip to the city, when my best friend and his partner announced they'd had enough and were leaving, I found this book. Reading it was like being homesick for a home you never had, but also feeling good about your decision not to claim that place as your home. This book proved what I always feared was true: I can't afford to be a writer in NYC. But I can afford to be a writer where I am now and my writing is more important to me than living in a city where I have to struggle so hard to get by that I have no time to write.
7. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Speaking of New York City kicking your ass, this book follows a Cameroonian family who immigrated to NYC to give their six-year-old son a better life. But when the dad gets a job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers exec, they had no idea the 2008 recession and the shuttering of Lehman would be close on the horizon. What I love about this novel is that it so gut-wrenchingly portrays just some of the many struggles immigrant families face when they come to the US. I don't think it's possible for natural-born citizens to fully grasp the forces working against immigrant families and what they have to do just to get by in this country. I can't imagine anyone reading this novel and not having their heart swell with empathy.
Pro tip: Behold the Dreamers is especially good on audio. I highly recommend that being the format in which you read it.
6. Kindred by Octavia Butler
I've been finding myself gravitating more and more toward science fiction lately and Octavia Butler is sci-fi royalty. After reading this book, I see why. The novel follows a black female protagonist who finds herself thrown back in time to the early 1800s. At first she doesn't know why, but with each jolt to the past she appears just in time to save a young white boy's life. Though he's awful in all the ways you'd expect a white slaveowner to be in the early 1800s, the woman finds that she must save him because he's her great-great-grandfather. If he doesn't survive to continue the family line, she doesn't exist present day.
I read the novel on a plane and hardly looked away from the book for the entire duration of the flight––I even passed up those honey roasted peanuts everyone loves so much. It's gripping, it's insightful, and it's especially necessary for white people to read because it shows we're not that far removed from that dreadful time in history. It shows how trauma is passed from generation to generation and how ignoring this trauma or pretending it wasn't really that bad is both a lie and a disservice to all who carry the strife of their ancestors' slavery in their bones.
5. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Of the many books I've read this year, Exit West broke my heart the hardest. Although it never says the setting of the war-torn country in which the novel is set is Syria, one can reasonably assume. The novel follows two young people falling in love––except that in addition to the normal stresses of a new relationship, they also have to deal with gunmen on street corners and car bombs and curfews and militias and the fact that they could literally die any minute. Even attempting to escape could mean almost certain death and losing their families forever. The risks are many and love can only be stretched so thin.
One of the saddest things I've ever seen on the news, which is now burned in my brain, was right before the fall of Aleppo when the last people living there had made videos of their final goodbyes, their buildings rocked with bomb blasts even as they filmed, knowing they wouldn't live to see morning. I defy anyone to read this novel, watch those videos, and look at Aleppo on Google Streetview and tell me we shouldn't take all the Syrian refugees we can. With stunning prose and a narrative that will make you ache as you read, this novel is not one you want to miss.
4. When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
As a creative nonfiction writer myself, I love a good unconventional memoir––the more unusual the style, the better. And let me tell you, there's no better woman for the job than Terry Tempest Williams. In When Women Were Birds, she somehow managed to weave observations about the nature of birds, writing, reflections on her mother, Mormon culture, and the dozens of blank journals her mother left her upon her death into one of the most haunting and gorgeous books I've ever read.
I'll put it to you this way. I have an antique writing desk with shelves built in, so I can stash a handful of books within arm's reach of my desk and the only books I keep that close to my writing desk are the ones I believe will be most helpful to me as I hone my craft. Considering the number of books I own, less than 1% make it to the space on my writing desk. Let's just say I cleared out some space for When Women Were Birds. It's a singular reading experience, quite literally like nothing I've ever read before.
3. They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
This essay collection is just brilliant. Hanif measures his life in music, much the same way I measure mine in books, so he blends the personal essay, music criticism, and social justice all into one in the best way. I think it's a mark of exceptional talent when a writer can make readers on a large scale care about the things they're most passionate about, and Hanif certainly does that.
2. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
If you've ever watched the news unfold with the story of another unarmed black person being shot by police and wondered how the hell this shit keeps happening, this novel is for you. The protagonist was just a regular high school teenager until the day she sees her unarmed best friend get gunned down in cold blood by a white cop. Between trying to process everything, coping with the loss of one of her best friends, trying to pretend like nothing happened at school, and becoming a reluctant activist, The Hate U Give should be required reading for everyone––both for those who wrongly assume those shot have done something to deserve it, as well as those who are sick of police brutality and are committed to do something about it. This novel is timely and necessary and impossible to put down.
1. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Last, though obviously not least, the #1 spot goes to The Mothers. This was also the first book I read in 2017, so I've had plenty of time to think about it, be swayed by other books, and possibly change my mind. Instead, my adoration and enthusiasm for The Mothers only grew.
The novel follows the protagonist who gets knocked up by the preacher's son and chooses to have an abortion and the preacher's son later marries her best friend, who has no idea about the abortion or their history together. I don't often say a book is perfect, but The Mothers is about as close as you can get. All of the characters are fully developed, complex, and are composed with a raw, unrelenting honesty. The author takes a "controversial" subject and makes it expedient and human. The chracters' emotions are rendered in such a way that you'd believe Bennett could actually read minds.
This is the book with the most underlined quotes and the novel I recommended the most to everyone who would listen. It's a book I plan to re-read many, many times.