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The year in books – 2017’s recommended reads Featured

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It has been yet another marvelous year for the written word, with a wealth of wonderful literary offerings hitting shelves in 2017.

Reviewing books is easily one of the best parts of my job. I’ve been lucky enough to read dozens of books over the course of the past year. While I’ll admit that I tend to seek out works that I know will resonate for me – and hence usually enjoy the books I review – there’s no denying that there are always some that particularly stand out.

What follows are those standouts.

This is not your traditional “best of” list – that’s not my style. Instead, consider this a collection of recommendations. These are suggestions of books that you might enjoy based on the fact that I myself enjoyed them. Bear in mind that this is by no means a comprehensive list. I’m just one man – I readily acknowledge that there are scores more exceptional literary works that I simply never got a chance to read. That said, I feel confident that these are quality selections.

So are these the best books of 2017? I don’t know – it’s all subjective. What I can say is that every one of these works captured my imagination and my attention … and perhaps one or more of them will do the same for you.

In no particular order, here are my recommended reads from 2017.

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FICTION

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (Random House)

This book – the first novel from acclaimed short story writer George Saunders – is, to put it bluntly, brilliant.

Combining fiction and real-life correspondence, “Lincoln in the Bardo” tells the story of Abraham Lincoln and the grief he felt at the loss of his son Willie in 1862. And yet … there’s so much more to it.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, “Lincoln in the Bardo” is one of the most unique pieces of fiction that it has ever been my pleasure to read. It is sweeping and intimate simultaneously, marrying historical fact with narrative invention in a manner unlike anything I’ve seen before. Through these seemingly disparate parts, Saunders has constructed a tale that is jaw-dropping in its inventiveness while still concisely conveying the very quiet and internal nature of grief.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/style/lincoln-in-the-bardo-mind-blowingly-brilliant)

Sleeping Beauties – Stephen & Owen King (Scribner)

This father-son team-up features a family name most familiar to our area. It’s also one of the scariest books of the year.

“Sleeping Beauties” is a rip-roarer of a story, but it also carries within it some engaging thematic seeds. Elements of feminism and tendrils of environmentalism wend their way into the picture. The realities of small-town life – the good and the bad – are laid bare. And the good/evil dichotomy is rendered with a murkiness that imbues it with a real and unsettling power; the amount of gray at play here creates a flexibility that is far more interesting than the initial signifiers of black and white.

Honestly, I wish I could read it again for the first time. It’s that good.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/perchance-to-dream-sleeping-beauties)

Strange Weather – Joe Hill (William Morrow)

A sinister magic camera. An inverted “good guy with a gun” scenario. A young man trapped on a somehow-solid cloud. A mysterious weather event that turns rain deadly. Those are the tales put forth in this collection from Joe Hill.

The four novellas that make up “Strange Weather” wouldn’t appear to have a lot in common upon initial examination. But after reading them, it seems that Hill is really talking about the power of loneliness, and by channeling that power through some vastly different conduits, he’s able to tell four unique and powerful stories that, while different, share a spirit that unites them.

Joe Hill is a writer of incredible gifts and immense storytelling acumen; “Strange Weather” puts those gifts on full display.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/strange-weather-smart-scary-%E2%80%A6-and-sublime)

4321 – Paul Auster (Henry Holt and Company)

The path we travel to become who we are is a unique one. The choices we make (and don’t make) – as well as those that are made (or not made) for us – steer us into a specific life.

Paul Auster has chosen to show us not one but four such paths in “4321”. In this wildly ambitious and meticulously conceived book, Auster plays out the early life of a boy named Archibald “Archie” Ferguson in four different acts, each devoted to relating the voyage into adulthood through a tumultuous time in alternate and ever-diverging ways.

As these four timelines play out, we bear witness to an exploration of the influences that guide us towards becoming the people we are seemingly meant to become.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/style/parallel-lives-%E2%80%93-4321)

Anything is Possible – Elizabeth Strout (Random House)

Elizabeth Strout’s “Anything is Possible” is a brilliant collection of short fiction, nine loosely-connected stories featuring characters from her novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.” Every entry is charged with a delicate power; each is carefully honed and crafted in such a way as to create something organic. As you read, you can almost hear the heartbeat.

Strout is one of the best writers of her generation, full stop. She manages to elicit the epic from the seeming mundanity of small-town life, doing so with exquisite prose and captivating characters. The narratives that she weaves have within them a distinct sense of truth that often proves elusive in contemporary literature.

It’s an aptly-named book – Strout is a writer who makes you truly believe that anything is possible.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/style/anything-is-possible-stunning-quietly-brilliant)

Borne – Jeff Vandermeer (MCD/FSG)

Jeff Vandermeer is one of the best-known purveyors of what has come to be known as “weird fiction” – a style in which writers embrace and/or discard literary styles and tropes in order to create something whose disparate elements defy easy categorization.

The dystopian “Borne” is typically difficult to pigeonhole, a bizarre and fascinating combination of the cerebral and the visceral that is both familiar and utterly unlike anything that you’ve read before.

“Borne” is a work that exemplifies the notion of pick-and-choose literature; there are elements of science fiction and fantasy of course, but also flavors of thriller and love story and coming of age. And regardless of genre influence, there’s a crackling intelligence on every page. It’s new, it’s weird … and it is wonderful.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/jeff-vandermeers-weird-wonderful-borne)

The One-Eyed Man – Ron Currie, Jr. (Viking)

Sometimes, you read a book and it floors you on every level. It tells a rich and engaging story while also wrestling with complex themes. It features compelling characters. The prose is deft, fluid and vivid. It has humor and pathos and wields them with both surgical precision and shaggy-dog joy.

“The One-Eyed Man” by Ron Currie Jr. is that kind of book. A meditation on the nature of truth, it’s the story of a man who loses the ability to process metaphor, leading to a literal-mindedness that inspires and infuriates those around him.

This book is an exquisite deconstruction of American social mores driven by quirky characters and a propulsive narrative. It’s a work of sharp wit and breathtaking intelligence.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/the-truth-hurts-the-one-eyed-man)

New Boy – Tracy Chevalier/Dunbar – Edward St. Aubyn (Hogarth Shakespeare)

I’ve put these ones together since they’re both part of what is probably my favorite currently ongoing literary series. The folks at Hogarth Shakespeare have enlisted notable novelists to reimagine Shakespeare’s plays as new narratives. It has been fascinating to watch.

“New Boy” (inspired by “Othello”) and “Dunbar” (inspired by “King Lear”) are 2017’s entries into the Hogarth Shakespeare canon. They’re both exceptional. Chevalier’s “New Boy” sets “Othello” on a Washington D.C. school playground in the 1970s; St. Aubyn’s Lear is a media mogul betrayed by a behind-the-scenes power struggle.

Anyone who loves Shakespeare’s plays really needs to check out the entire series, though these two are particularly good. There’s a beautiful spark to them that captures the essence of the Bard.

(Full reviews: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/monkey-bars-and-green-eyed-monsters & http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/unhappy-new-lear-dunbar)

Meddling Kids – Edgar Cantero (Doubleday)

This was easily one of the weirdest books I read in 2017. Edgar Cantero has created the kind of pop culture/literary fiction mashup that sits squarely in my wheelhouse; creepy and smart and darkly funny.

The elevator pitch for this one is pretty simple – Scooby-Doo meets the Cthulhu Mythos. Yes, really. When a group of teenage detectives used to Rube Goldberg schemes executed by dudes in Halloween masks inadvertently stumbles into a much more sinister situation, it haunts them for years – until they go back to finish the job.

“Meddling Kids” is delightful stuff, genre fiction treated with literary respect. It’s sharp and scary, with plenty to offer to fans of Hanna-Barbera and H.P. Lovecraft alike.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/scooby-cthulhu-%E2%80%93-meddling-kids)

Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan (Scribner)

Well-built historical fiction is a real treat. When you get the right combination of high-quality research and authorial talent, well … that’s the good stuff. The stuff that Jennifer Egan gives you with “Manhattan Beach.”

It’s a story of one of a particularly turbulent time in our country’s history – the stretch leading up to and into World War II.  Through a few individuals, the narrative focuses on the ways that time and place can influence and ultimately shape both the people that we are and the people that we strive to become.

“Manhattan Beach” is never anything less than captivating. The world that has been built and the people that populate it are magnificent – sharp and clear and utterly enticing. Just exceptional.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/style/life-during-wartime-%E2%80%93-manhattan-beach)

Gork, the Teenage Dragon – Gabe Hudson (Knopf)

Gabe Hudson’s “Gork, the Teenage Dragon” is the weird “planet-conquering alien dragons go to high school” book that you never knew you wanted.

Gork is your typical teenager. He’s struggling with his classes. He gets bullied. There’s a girl that he likes that he’s not sure how to talk to. His grandfather thinks he’s a disappointment. He just happens to be a dragon hoping for a chance to conquer a planet of his very own.

This is a smart, subversive work that somehow reads as sophisticated even when repeating the phrase “scaly green ass” on seemingly every page. It’s “Catcher in the Rye” spiced with Anne McCaffrey, “Eragon” by way of John Irving, with a whiff of Douglas Adams for good measure.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/the-world-according-to-gork)

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Knopf)

We’ve all dreamed about having special powers – abilities that transcend those of ordinary people. But what if being extraordinary isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

That’s the central theme of Daryl Gregory’s “Spoonbenders,” the story of a once-famous psychic family that is still suffering the fallout from a public debunking – this despite the fact that their abilities aren’t hoaxes at all – and the gradual unraveling of their relationships.

“Spoonbenders” is an energetic, engaging genre mélange. There’s something for everyone: speculative fiction, crime fiction, family sagas, coming of age – it’s all here. Even better, it all WORKS. Rather than feeling like a stitched-together combo quilt, this book feels very much like its own thing, incorporating diverse elements in service to the most important factor – the story.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/matter-over-mind-%E2%80%93-spoonbenders)

Long Black Veil – Jennifer Finney Boylan (Crown)

There’s a lot that goes into a literary thriller - strong characters and intricate plotting; thoughtfulness and narrative engagement. When all the pieces come together, you get something like Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “Long Black Veil.”

Bouncing around in time, this book tells the story of a group of friends who underwent an experience in their youth that profoundly impacted them – an experience dragged back into the light after decades spent in shadow, forcing them to confront secret truths.

“Long Black Veil” is a thoughtful thriller, concerned as much with character as with plot. It is smart and complex, carving out a nervy mystery and addressing the complicated calculus that comes with the human condition. The book is fast-paced, concise and exquisitely-written – a beautiful and captivating stampede.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/style/long-black-veil-captivates)

Stephen Florida – Gabe Habash (Coffee House Press)

I wouldn’t have anticipated that one of my favorite books of the year would be a character study of a small college wrestler in North Dakota, but here we are.

Gabe Habash’s “Stephen Florida” tells the tale of the titular wrestler whose obsession with championship success consumes him at the expense of any and all other things. The narrative is captivating. The prose is propulsive and powerful. And it’s one of the best literary representations of wrestling you’ll see outside of John Irving.

“Stephen Florida” is less sports fiction and more fiction about sports – an undeniably fine distinction, but a significant one. It is a book about the power of obsession and isolation, one told with a complex and vivid voice.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/wrestling-with-demons-%E2%80%93-stephen-florida)

The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (Random House)

This latest offering from Salman Rushdie is billed as a return to realism for the author, but the truth is that even at his most realistic, there’s an inescapable sense of the mystical in his work. So it is with “The Golden House.”

A young filmmaker lives in a small, walled community where he finds himself swept up into the orbit of a mysterious and wealthy family whose past is shadowy and whose present isn’t much clearer. It’s an exploration of societal power dynamics and the impact that wealth – tangible and intangible alike – can have on those dynamics.

“The Golden House” is a sprawling, roiling urban epic – a sharp-eyed observation and interpretation of what it means to be American in the 21st century.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/style/american-dreams-%E2%80%93-the-golden-house)

Homesick for Another World – Otessa Moshfegh (Penguin)

Otessa Moshfegh is considered by many to be one of the best writers of short fiction out there. If the 14 offerings in “Homesick for Another World” are any indication, they might be damning her with faint praise.

This is a collection that lashes out with dexterous prose and narrative surprise. These stories are constantly peeling back the layers of the human condition, pulling away the facades and revealing an underneath that is often unsettling and/or unpleasant.

“Homesick for Another World” is challenging, confrontational work. Each one of these tales shines with a cracked-mirror bleakness that slices the reader to the emotional quick. All 14 of Moshfegh’s final lines leave us wrung-out and strained … and eager to tackle the next one.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/homesick-for-another-world-bleak-beautiful)

Woman No. 17 – Edan Lepucki (Hogarth)

Edan Lepucki burst onto the literary scene with her acclaimed 2014 debut, the dystopian “California,” but this – her sophomore effort – is a completely different (but no less exceptional) animal, a sleek, perspective-shifting tale driven by the complexities of relationship dynamics, the notion of identity and the importance/absurdity of modern art and its impact. 

“Woman No. 17” is a narrative built on alternating viewpoints, the perspectives of two women whose secrets are constantly bubbling away just beneath the surface. It is also exquisitely composed and sharply funny, emotionally charged and challenging.

This book is a rare beast – a quick read that nevertheless lingers long after the final page is turned. An outstanding offering from an immense talent.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/style/mother-mother-%E2%80%93-woman-no-17)

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NONFICTION

Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann (Doubleday)

Every once in a while, you come across a nonfiction read that is as thrilling and impactful and fraught as anything that could have been conceived in a writer’s imagination. David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” is one such read.

The story of a largely-forgotten series of brutal murders that targeted the oil-rich members of the Osage Native American tribe, the book recounts in mesmerizing detail a tale of deceit, greed and murder most foul – a tale that led to the birth of the modern FBI.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is narrative history done right, a captivating and powerful account. This is masterful, emotionally gripping work from David Grann – the sort of book that grabs the reader by the lapels and flat-out refuses to let go. One of the best reads of the year.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/lawless-osage-county-killers-of-the-flower-moon)

Vacationland – John Hodgman (Penguin)

John Hodgman’s “Vacationland” is quite simply the funniest book that I read in 2017 … and it isn’t close.

It’s a collection of stories – subtitled “True Stories of Painful Beaches” – in which Hodgman recounts his relationships with two specific vacation homes. There’s the western Massachusetts house of his younger days and his current summer home in a small coastal Maine town.

“Vacationland” is smart and snarky and occasionally raw. Hodgman’s narrative gifts are undeniable, and when combined with this kind of genuine feeling and truth, the end result is flat-out exceptional. It’s a beautiful balance of humor and heart – a book that’ll make you laugh, that’ll make you think … and that’ll ultimately make you glad you spent some time with John Hodgman.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/buzz/a-tale-of-two-summer-homes-vacationland-true-stories-of-painful-beaches)

The Cooperstown Casebook – Jay Jaffe (Thomas Dunne)

As someone who loves the Baseball Hall of Fame, I’ve been a longtime follower of Jay Jaffe’s work. He is the best in the business when it comes to Cooperstown talk – his JAWS system has become a key component of any advanced statistical analysis of Hall of Fame cases.

“The Cooperstown Casebook” brings all of that information to bear. It’s wonky without being overwhelming, offering thought-provoking analysis and a fair amount of humor.

The book’s subtitle is “Who’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques.” And there’s no one out there better suited to tell you who’s who. If you’re interested in Cooperstown, sabermetrics and/or where the two intersect, Jay Jaffe is for you.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/sports/the-hall-by-the-numbers-%E2%80%93-the-cooperstown-casebook)

Smart Baseball - Keith Law (William Morrow)

I know, I know – another book built on a foundation of advanced baseball stats. What can I say? I like what I like.

Keith Law’s “Smart Baseball” might just be the ideal book about sabermetrics. Law is deeply knowledgeable, but has a real knack for finding ways to convey sophisticated ideas in an easily consumable way. In addition, he goes in-depth enough to engage the real statheads. He offers us not just the numbers, but a way to look inside those numbers – fascinating stuff.

This is a book for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the intricacies inherent to the current baseball landscape. And by prioritizing innovation over tradition, “Smart Baseball” offers the reader an intelligent, engaging - and potentially eye-opening – experience.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/sports/smart-baseball-lives-up-to-its-title)

The Captain Class – Sam Walker (Random House)

Sports fans love debating greatness. But what does it mean for a team to be great? And how does one determine the very greatest of the great?

Sam Walker tackles that very task in “The Captain Class.” He spent years creating a method to determine a team’s greatness, one that allowed him to compare squads from different sports to seek out their commonalities. And they all shared one – a captain.

“The Captain Class” will fascinate any lover of sports history with its thoroughly-informed and engagingly-written look at greatness. The depth of research is matched only by the depth of Walker’s passion – it is as effective as it is enthralling. If you’ve ever been curious regarding the “why” of historic team brilliance, you’ll never find a better explanation.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/sports/oh-captain-my-captain-%E2%80%93-the-captain-class)

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry - Neil deGrasse Tyson (W.W. Norton & Company)

It’s probably safe to say that the current king of scientific awareness in popular culture is Neil deGrasse Tyson. His book “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” is a collection of essays about the big questions – how the universe works and why, how we fit into it, those sorts of questions.

This is an ideal book for anyone looking for a crash course in or a brush-up on the basics of astrophysics. It’s a surprisingly breezy read considering the density of the subject matter, but Tyson has built a huge, loyal following with his ability to strike that balance.

It’s smart and informative without every feeling dry, a chance to learn more about the stars even as you’re being encouraged to reach for them.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/tekk/astrophysics-for-people-in-a-hurry)

To Be a Machine – Mark O’Connell (Doubleday)

The notion of using technology to transcend our humanity is not new, but “To Be a Machine” by Mark O’Connell explores how the exponential pace of development is leading people down various paths toward what they believe to be longer lives and – potentially – immortality.

The book is flat-out fascinating. O’Connell’s journey is a layman’s adventure through the technological looking glass, an opportunity to meet with a subculture existing on the fringes of the tech scene and a compelling peek at one possible future.

Sharply-written and thought-provoking, “To Be a Machine” is a book that will undoubtedly set your mind to racing and your gears to turning. It offers remarkable insight into the deep faith that some carry regarding the power of technology.

(Full review: http://www.themaineedge.com/tekk/touring-transhumanism-%E2%80%93-to-be-a-machine)

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