Friday, December 29, 2017

My Best Reads of 2017

If there's one last thing I write this year, it should be about the books I loved reading. These are our inspirations to tell more and fresher stories, and sometimes these are the only things that make us want to see tomorrow. True to my brand, most of these didn't come out in 2017. Some of the authors are actually dead. But I read them this year, and damn it, Kindred is incredible.

Join me for the love of words.

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

One of those books that came along out of nowhere and electrified me with the sheer potential of our genres. It's a book about a family of psychics, none of whom have all the classic abilities, some of whom may have none at all, and who have come up with tricks and cons to help them get by. Especially the children of this family have grown up trying to hide or suppress abilities because they don't want to be oddballs. One of the girls is a human lie detector, which makes talking to anyone impossibly painful - until she discovers the internet. There's joy in her instant messages, ambition in a psychic-turned-con artist trying to hustle money at a casino, and a genuinely X-Menish fun to a boy hitting both puberty and psychic powers that only work when he gets turned on. It is awkward in all the ways broken but well-meaning families are, plotted with heart all the way to its epilogues. It reminds me why I write.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

In high school, this book was voted Most Likely to Appear at the End of the Phrase, "If you liked Uprooted, try ____." Where Uprooted was a Polish Fantasy on the border of Russia, this is a profoundly Russian Fantasy, set deep in the folklore of a changing world. Our heroine is Vasilisa, a girl who grew up on a diet of fairy tales that has shaped her worldview. While those stories often ended unfairly, they're preferable to the coming world, as Russia is seeing a cultural revolution where a girl's only options are to live in the woods as a spinster, to be married off and live in a hut forever, or to join a convent. Unlike her sister, she can still hear creatures from those tales whispering in the woods, and seeks a better future than sewing at a convent until she dies. The journey requires sacrifice and can come back to haunt her at any point, just like a Russian folktale should, and it's told with a wistful but not naive prose style that swept me up.

A Land Called Tarot by Gael Bertrand

When people write wordless comics, they tend to give them obvious forward direction and obvious plots. A Land Called Tarot thinks that's too easy. It seems to follow a sorcerer pursuing increasingly odd adventures, through towers that might be robots, into dimensions only people in the shapes of frogs can access, and into the dreams of death itself. I say it seems like this because the story is so deliberately odd that half the fun is divining just what this guy is after. I won't spoil my theories, although I will spend all dinner comparing notes with you after you read it. All of this works because Bertrand's art is impeccable, every page a sweeping work of cultural suggestion. You'll start leaving your thumb on earlier pages to compare symbols and architecture as you put your theory together. Spoilers: bring bookmarks. You're going to run out of thumbs.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

My first taste of Butler's fiction and I'm in love. Kindred treats time travel as a curse. Dana is ripped back through time against her will, from the 1970s to the pre-Civil War South. An African American woman, she's assumed to be a slave, and it's a breath of relief every time she returns to the present - and equally horrible whenever she feels the tug that pulls her back. On an early visit, she rescues her ancestor, the child of a slave owner. She has such sway over him that she hopes she can affect his upbringing and change the horrors of the plantation. She doesn't even realize how each stay in the past, with its vicious culture of oppression, is changing her, down to the things that feel like resistance that, in the sober light of the present, are clearly submission. The novel is as poignant and powerful as ever, and has one of the most powerful final lines I've ever read.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

Imagine if The Handmaid's Tale fought back. After a mysterious fever has wiped out most women on earth and made every new pregnancy deadly, women have become a commodity. Our protagonist is a woman who can pass as a man, and uses her medical expertise to go from settlement to settlement, helping women survive through treatment. Someone who can't afford to leave the gang of men around her can at least be given medication to stave of pregnancy. Others, you keep hoping, will be inspired to run. Hers is a small resistance that we need right now. It's also a more fleshed out dystopia than average - some men are just lonely, and others are helpful in building healthier pockets of society, but you can't tell who is who at first glance, and often the first glance is all you get. It hits hard and often. There's an early scene where she takes a ride with a man who claims to just want to team up, and he's desperate, but even after talking pages, you can't be sure this guy won't change if he learns her secret. You can hope he finds a good place to stay while also hoping to God she gets miles away from him. Ultimately, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a novel about safety, and what you're willing to risk it for.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
A long novel about more than nine deaths. Even the characters question this title when it shows up in-world late in the book, but we're all going to have to get over it. James has crafted one of the greatest works of voice in English language prose history, with an array of characters giving their accounts of their lives and pivotal events in Jamaican history between the 70s and the 90s. Any one of these characters could hold their own novel, especially the CIA agent who can barely hold his family together while trying to sabotage anything that looks like socialism, and the girl who will do anything to escape the poverty-stricken nation, and the hitman running from debt and his own sexuality. The variation in how they sound on the page, and how they think, and the stations they have in life in this culture give a staggering vision of a changing country. James has promised to write his own African- and Jamaican-informed Fantasy epic to challenge A Song of Ice and Fire, and after seeing his work here, I can't wait.

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

What I thought would be a big, silly mech novel is actually an Alternate History about how we use history. Here, the Japanese developed the nuclear bomb early (and giant robots), and won World War II, turning chunks of America into part of their empire. The opening scene, of Asian Americans being liberated from a U.S. internment camp by Japanese soldiers, feels destined to be an iconic piece of SF/F literature. The novel deftly sidesteps Yellow Menace tropes by telling its story mostly from the points of view of Asian Americans who are marginalized in different ways under foreign occupation, showing the striations in the power structures that emerge. The Japanese Empire occasionally lies about history (it claims Genghis Khan was Japanese, and that FDR only pretended to be disabled for sympathy), but more often accentuates parts of real history to suit its anti-American narrative, such as slavery and that Abraham Lincoln refused states the right to leave (and thus was a warlord). The biggest rebellion are the George Washingtons, who accentuate history like the American Revolution to bolster the idea that Americans have always been virtuous rebels. No one is aware of the full context of Japanese or American history, and what is propaganda - no one except the reader.

Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay

A deconstruction of urban legend Horror that is still harrowing. A local boy has gone missing in the same woods where his father was found dead, and his mother and sister are left heartbroken and hoping for clues, but nothing turns up. His band of friends and the eccentric older guy they used to talk to, who would be the heroes that rescued him in a Stephen King novel, have no decent leads on where he went. There are no eye witnesses. There's no deranged serial killer stalking the town. The novel rapidly develops into a study in how much Horror tropes can comfort us because at least they're context. When his mother has a vision of his shadow running through her room, she clings to it and buys digital cameras to record the house, praying for an implausible lead. It's a rare story that posits that it's scarier to have no ghosts at all.

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

A powerful short story collection on the theme of blackness. The stories give you angles on life: what it is to be religious, to be broke in a gentrified town, to be condescended to by people from other countries, and to try to protect someone who might be lying to you and risking both of your reputations. It culminates in an ugly story about a lynching that the on-lookers treat as a picnic, the only black character dangling from a tree, reduced to a literal object. The final story is a deliberate choice, and every judgment the on-lookers fling at their entertainment resonates off of all the things they refuse to understand, which Baldwin has laid bare in all the lives profiled before it.

The Family Plot by Cherie Priest

The classic problem of haunted houses is explaining why the characters don't leave. Priest has a remarkably smart answer to this: her protagonists are a salvage team who have all of a week to tear the house apart or else they'll be broke. They cannot afford to leave. Even after a couple of them have paranormal experiences, they rationalize that they just have to work safer and quicker. It's striking to read about characters so underprivileged that discovering proof of ghosts is neither awesome nor horrifying. Instead, it's another obstacle to salvaging teak and marble. And then there's that graveyard no one told them was in the backyard…


  1. As always many new titles to add to my virtual shelf. That's why I love your bestreads list, John!

  2. I have bookmarked this and will come back again and again. Megathanks. And happy reading - and writing in the year to come.

  3. Dammit, John! My TBR list is longer now. Thanks A LOT. ;)

  4. Thanks you for this, John. I've added Kindred, A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Going to Meet the Man to my list (Spoonbenders was already on it). I was wrong when I told you I'd only read 5 books last year, I guess it was 10 (still sad). My top 3 would be The Handmaid's Tale, Murder on the Orient Express (my first Agatha Christie), and The Gathering by Anne Enright.


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