Saturday, December 23, 2017

Top 20 Books of 2017

Top 20 Books of 2017

Well, another year has gone by, and by the end I was 120 more books closer to my ultimate goal, which I will reach next year. This might be the last top ten for a while as I rethink things next year. This is a good mix of new and old books, and as always, I separate my list by authors I have read before and authors I read for the first time this year.

10. Strange Weather by Joe Hill: After his last underwhelming novel The Fireman, it was nice to see Joe Hill go back to shorter works. It was necessary and it shows in the quality of the four short novels in this collection, which range from grim to hopeful. This was a total joy.
9. Between Them by Richard Ford: I am not too big on the Bascombe novels or Ford in general, but this small yet eviscerating book about his parents hit a nerve and it stung. Very painful, but very wise and eye-opening as well.
8. Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami: Murakami might be my favorite short story writer, and this newly translated collection is proof enough of such a sentiment.
7. Broken River by J. Robert Lennon: One of the many books I read this year that blended terror and drama. Using a risky but successful literary technique, the novel about a fractured family was unexpectedly chilling.
6. You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann: This little novel, easily read in one sitting, is also guaranteed to give you the creeps as it slowly and horrifically folds in on itself in disturbing ways.
5. Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy: A writer whose fiction has never been a big hit with me has surprisingly written my favorite nonfiction book on writing, which is both funny and informative.
4. Ill Will by Dan Chaon: A big novel that travels deep into the hearts of dark men, Chaon’s third novel continues a streak that looks to remain unbroken, telling a bleak Midwestern story ripped from real life that brilliantly shows the fragility of life.
3. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons: One of the few perfect horror novels. There isn’t a hair out of place in this doorstop of a book filled to the brim with everything good fiction is capable of.
2. The Force by Don Winslow: What he did for the drug war in The Power of the Dog and The Cartel Winslow does for NYC police: relevant, intense and utterly riveting.
1. 4321 by Paul Auster: It has been seven years since Auster put out a novel, and I realized how much I missed him. It is still too early if this 866-page book will be one of the pillars of his career, but this was an event that lived up to the hype.

10. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel: A true story of a man who successfully did what some of us only dream of doing for a quarter century forces us to look at ourselves and the lives we have built but also how we interact with fellow humans.
9. Chemistry by Weike Wang: The kind of self-assured but humble debut novel that presents drama, pathos and esoteric musings in an inviting and enlightening way.
8. The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson: This novel of racism, violence and hidden secrets feels both like an epic but an intimate one where we come away knowing more about the characters than we may have wished too.
7. The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins: One of the three best books about prison life. It’s look into the hopelessness and humanity of incarceration by someone who will most likely never get out is a melancholic journey into the far corners of American marginalia.
6. Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon: A novel close to 80 years old which still has lasting power. Its story of banal violence easily trumps Camus’ The Stranger. Along with The Killer Inside Me, it’s the best of its kind.
5. Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez: These creepy stories from Argentina filled with ghosts, zombie and demons were the best I read all year, calling to mind writers as varied as Bolano and Ramsey Campbell. I can’t wait to read what she puts out next.
4. Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou: This intriguing and captivating story of boy in Pointe-Noire, Congo whose trajectory from an orphanage to petty crime is ultimately sad and tragic is the best of its kind since Adiga’s The White Tiger.
3. Encircling by Carl Frode Tiller: The absolute antithesis of Knausgard’s ongoing struggle, this novel about identity, projection and human connection took me by total surprise and had me hypnotized. I will be picking up the second book of the proposed trilogy as soon as I can.
2. The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews: The best debut of 2017: big, long, filled with wonder, suspense and the chance of redemption and set in a time when the world could look ahead without cynicism. What’s not to love?

1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid: One of the best horror novels I have ever read and one of the saddest. Its switch from creeping dread to unquenchable sadness is among the best tricks I have ever seen in a book. This one is sure to stick with me for a long time.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Review: "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman

In the back of Joe Hill’s new book Strange Weather, he talks about his love for the short novel and name-dropped Neil Gaiman’s most recent novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He called it Gaiman’s most perfect novel, and after finishing it, I think he is absolutely positively correct. I read American Gods years ago and found it to be a bit of a boring mess. This book solves all of that. At only 178 pages, it is a lean story that quickly establishes, builds on and pays offs its fictional world in swift way that leaves you breathless and heartbroken. I will get into what other book (one in particular) that it reminded me of, but what I liked most about this book was its humanity, which I felt American Gods and fantasy stories in general tend to lack. The worlds created are very hard for me to buy into and therefore never feel the full effect of whatever emotion the writer wants me to feel, whether that be humor or tragedy. This short book focuses solely on the humanity of its characters, and greatly contrasts real world issues in magical, terrifying and satisfying ways. For that reason, I can see a lot of Gaiman’s fan base considering this to be one of his weaker books. It is just an assumption, but it would not surprise me if I were correct. At the heart of this novel is an unnamed man who comes back to his childhood home after attending a funeral. He is compelled to move past where his childhood home rested (since demolished and replaced with elegant high rises) to a pond at the end of the road. He arrives and is greeted by an old woman he can only vaguely remember. It is only once he makes his way down to the pond itself does he remember that a girl he knew long ago referred to it as an ocean. This one thought takes him back to the time when he was 7 years old, where the suicide of one of his family’s boarders leads him on a path to that very girl named Lettie and a world filled with magic, danger and the memories lost down in the gulf between childhood and adulthood. The book this immediately reminded me of was David Mitchell’s Slade House, with Ursula Monkton cutting a disturbing and haunting visage very similar to the Grayer siblings. The fantastical elements here act only as window dressing to the human drama, and it was easy to feel suspense, happiness and finally sadness once the story wraps itself up. The last few pages are brilliant, packed with layers upon layers of interpretations and implications, ones I will not spoil here, but will be happy to talk about in person with those who have read the book. This is a work of quiet and humble beauty from a writer I have mistakenly cast off years ago. I will try not to make that same mistake heading into 2018.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Review: "The Grown-Up" by Gillian Flynn

The Grown-Up, a short story by Gillian Flynn (originally titled “What Do You Do”), is a deliciously devious haunted house story that is able to pack more than a few nifty twists within its airtight 62 pages. And with such a short page count, it is important for the story to be lean and filling, and this very much is. I am not familiar with Flynn as a writer, who is obviously most well known for her novel Gone Girl. If this short book is any indication as to what she brings to the table, I can’t help but feel that I am missing out on something. It has the feel of a classic ghost story, with books like The Haunting of Hill House and The Lady in White being name dropped purposely in the story, but where it leads to is very modern and very intriguing. It begins with one of the best first lines you are likely to come across, where an unnamed female narrator describes why she is going to quit giving massages with happy endings. We get a little backstory from her, about her life with her grafter mom and how she got to where she is now, but it doesn’t take long for the real story to kick in when Susan comes to the massage parlor/psychic desperate for help with her overbearing stepson. The narrator slowly inserts herself into Susan’s life even when Miles, the stepson, shows obvious signs of sociopathic behavior, which include cutting the tail off a cat. But everything is not as it really is, and over the course of a few pages, the book achieves the kind of nirvana you can only get with a well-constructed story. It ends a tab abruptly and feels rushed (an odd complaint for a book of such short length) but it leaves you with questions, the kind that stay with you when you are done, which always the sign of a story done right.

Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Land of Green Plums" by Herta Muller

Much like her other well-known novel in the states The Appointment, Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums is a novel that can’t help but overly politicize itself. I understand the need for these books and their merit as works of protest or a newsreel of past state injustices, but a lot of the time those attributes, as admirable as they are, come at the expense of a good story. For example, The Appointment has a wonderful setup that is creepy, disturbing and suspenseful, but the story itself is never one of those three things throughout its length. The same goes for this novel, which is easily her most popular, garnering big name literary awards and quite possibly influencing the decision to award her the Nobel Prize in 2009. It’s the case for most of the books and writers who fall in that category, and I question whether they will have lasting power. This book deals with five friends, all German immigrants to Romania, who move from the rural countryside to the city to go to college, and in doing so they replace one kind of oppression (the discrimination they face as a German minority) for another kind under the totalitarian rule of the Communist dictatorship. Muller is able to characterize the horror’s well, with things like sex and friendship being nothing but commodities to be bought, sold and finally betrayed among the five individuals, which lead more than a few of them to ruin. But they are interchangeable, even the unnamed narrator who is a little too much of an observer, a cursory victim to everything that happens to the other four. It has a really strong final few pages, with the lasting image being that of Captain Pjele, the book’s monster and representative of the state, in a picture with a young boy, but overall these kinds of books tire me out, and it was not a very good improvement over the last book of hers I have read. 
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review: "The Tragedy of Brady Sims" by Ernest J. Gaines

The Tragedy of Brady Sims, the new novel from well-known writer Ernest J. Gaines was a late edition to my lineup this year, so I did not expect to have my world moved when I finally picked it up and read it. It turns out I was right. While it is not a bad book (there are very few out there, or maybe my radar is just that good), it feels like a minor work, something that shouldn’t be seen to represent the author’s output. Gaines is most well known for his bestseller A Lesson Before Dying, which I don’t know much about besides it was adapted into a TV movie by Oprah. And this slim 114-page novel is his first published work of fiction since that book was put out in 1993, almost a quarter century ago. It was released this year to little fanfare, and after reading it I can see why. It begins with an intense scene of sudden violence, where a black man is coming out of a courthouse after being sentenced to death and is shot and killed by Brady Sims, a well known person in the town of Bayonne, which is where all of Gaines’ fiction takes place. The majority of the book takes place in a barbershop where the local population of elderly men reminisces about Sims, who was known to take extreme measure to keep local youth out of jail, and his strange relationship with Mapes, the local sheriff. I like the setup and it benefits from the book’s short length. It reminded me of Stephen King’s short story “It Grows on You”, where the remnants of a destroyed Castle Rock are seemingly stuck in a place out of time, who tell pointless stories to ignore the horrors around them. It is just too bad none of those stories are very interesting. The locals tell the stories as stories within the story, so they come off heavy handed, inauthentic and not very compelling. The book has a very good final few pages, but the bulk of this short novel never seems like anything very special.

Rating: 3/5

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Review: "All the Dirty Parts" by Daniel Handler

Despite it’s childish nature, even when it is describing things like oral sex and hardcore internet pornography, there is something about Daniel Handler’s slim 135 page novel All the dirty Parts that feels very real. It is a major improvement over his first novel and the only other book of Handler’s that I have read The Basic Eight. With the character of Cole, a young teen whose sexual appetite feels more like an infection than a natural outgrowth of puberty, Handler presents a person who is at times clueless of the consequences of his actions but also sympathetic because of how little the world around him has anything to offer. I was worried coming into this book knowing Handler’s politics, but this is not a treatise on sexual assault or an indictment of male sexuality (thank god), but it goes much deeper and asks important questions about where sexual attraction and love correlate and don’t and how to possibly find a balance between these two natural human feelings that more often than we want to admit lead us astray. This is a short book not just in length, but also in its structure, with scenes lasting from a few pages to a few sentences. It becomes tawdry at times, but not as much as I thought it would, especially during a section where something happens between him and Alec, which reveals Cole’s detachment from his world.  And once Cole meets Grisaille, whose implications are predictable, Cole’s armor and the full weight of his behavior comes back to hurt him in ways that are expected but still very sad. He reminded me a bit of Telly from Kids but not nearly as monstrous. It ends sadly in a whirlwind of confusing emotions, but one gets the sense that Cole has learned a valuable lesson. This is a book with a lot of heart and that is unexpectedly warm despite its coarse and sometime unappealing subject matter.

Rating: 4/5