This is a series of reviews of my favorite books published between 2010 and 2019. These are shorter reviews of good reads published in 2017.
The River at Night by Erica Ferencik (2017)
Four women friends go on a whitewater-rafting adventure trip, but an accident leaves them lost in the Maine backwoods, where they run into unexpected dangers. This was a quick page-turner of a survival story that I enjoyed. The four main characters were neither idealized nor one-dimensional, but seemed like real people, and their friendships were nuanced and realistic. The narrator, Winifred, seemed especially relatable; she’s in a midlife slump, wondering what her purpose is and mourning some losses, when she’s thrust into this life-or-death situation.
Hunger: A Memoir of My Body by Roxane Gay (2017)
This book evoked so many feelings in me and had me on the cusp of tears more than once. I’ve never read anything like it. Everyone should read this book.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)
Obviously, Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine, or we wouldn’t be reading about her. However, she is a great character: excessively formal, strangely naive for being thirty, judgmental (but in a funny way). Also lonely, damaged, literally scarred, with a past so traumatic she can’t remember it. I thought this was a very well-done treatment of depression, both realistic and not overly heavy, and following Eleanor along as she begins to lift herself out of it can feel cathartic. I also liked that this was almost but not quite a romance about people who both seemed real and like people I’d like to get to know.
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017)
I read this in one sitting. It is an account, narrated in poetic snippets, of a cataclysmic flooding of London just as the unnamed narrator goes into labor. She, her husband, and her baby become refugees. The narrator is less concerned with giving details of this apocalyptic event than with observing how her son grows and reaches his milestones, just as all new mothers do. The effect is a reminder of what’s important, a cutting through of the detritus of modern life to the basics of just being alive. This works, I think, because of the spare and simple style of the writing, which omits the details but retains the emotions, and its structure like an epic poem, interspersed with lines from religious and mythological texts.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles (2017)
Captain Kidd makes his living traveling from one small Texas town to another, reading the news of the world, bringing stories of far-off places to rural people who need escape and entertainment. At one of his stops, he is persuaded to escort a young girl, recaptured from the Kiowa Indians, back to her relatives near San Antonio. Ten-year-old Johanna has lived with the Kiowa for four years, the only life and family she remembers, and she seems almost feral. As they journey, a bond begins to form between the old man and the young girl, strengthened by the adventures they share, including one memorable gunfight. But if you expect this novel to be maudlin or sentimental, banish that thought. This is a simple story well told with well-defined characters who you will truly come to care about–a heart-warming read perfect for the holidays.
The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones (2017)
This novel is set in a near-future South where ticks have become so deadly that people have retreated inside zones surrounded by a ring of scorched earth to keep the ticks out. An adventure company takes rich tourists on expeditions to the outside where they can experience nature again if they are willing to risk the very gruesome effects of a tick bite. The story is about such a group setting out on an expedition, but things quickly take an unexpected and suspenseful turn. I really sped through this story, which combines dystopian and apocalyptic elements, suspense, and political commentary.
Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones (2017)
One night, a young Native American boy sees his dead father in their house, in full dance regalia. As the boy keeps watch for his father over subsequent nights, he comes to realize that his father’s spirit is not benevolent. This was a beautifully written novella, almost like a long prose poem, that combines fantastic imagery with subtle but chilling horror. The ending genuinely shocked me.
Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar (2017)
A nicely done little story about a girl named Gwendy who receives a “button box” from a mysterious stranger named Richard Farris, which changes her life. The button box is actually a box with buttons on it, but while Gwendy can guess what those buttons might do when pressed, she never really knows. The button box also dispenses rewards for its keeper: money, success, happiness. But it also comes with responsibilities. There are questions. Who is Richard Farris (note the initials)? Why does the button box need a caretaker? Has the black button ever been pushed? There could be a novel in these ideas, and this could be its prologue. Yes, it’s short, but it was a tight story that offers a lot for the reader to ponder.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle (2017)
There are many things to like about this modern fairy tale: the blending of old stories and very, very new aspects of modern life; the incorporation of issues regarding race and feminism; and the always-appealing quest plot line. The idea of a troll living in a cave in a forest at the heart of Queens charmed me (if charmed is the right word), because it’s the idea that the old monsters–and magic–can still live with us, that modern technology and living haven’t vanquished them after all. At heart, this is absolutely a fairy tale (with a fair dollop of mythology–the main character is named Apollo, after all), which is why unbelievable things must happen, and I really appreciated how LaValle drew on the traditions of the old stories to craft this twenty-first-century version.
Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt (2017)
Set in 1969, the story opens with Lucy, a high school sophomore, running away with her English teacher. Her older sister and adoptive mother are left to grapple with her disappearance, while Lucy herself discovers her new life was not the fantasy she’d envisioned. All of the characters became so real to me as the story unfolded, especially the girls’ guardian, Iris, who is also coping with getting older and losing her independence. This is a bittersweet story that rings absolutely true.
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin (2017)
This is not a collection of essays but rather a collection of posts from Le Guin’s blog, and as such, they lack the sense of polish or significance that an essay might impart. But they do showcase the precision of language that makes Le Guin such a satisfying writer, and there are several gems in here. As in her other nonfiction, Le Guin seems to be at her most insightful when discussing literature and women. One of my favorite selections, for instance, combined the two in an examination of the yin and yang of utopian/dystopian fiction. I also greatly appreciated her insights into Homer. Toward the end, the writing becomes more poetic, introspective, and–as I was reading this in honor of Le Guin’s life and her impact on me as a reader–bittersweet. One essay on soft-boiled eggs almost brought me to tears. An uneven collection, but certainly a worthwhile one.
The White Road by Sarah Lotz (2017)
This is an uncomfortable book for claustrophobes as it begins underground in Wales, in a cave so dangerous that it has been closed to explorers. Simon is hoping to take pictures of three men who had previously died in the cave to post on a website he is trying to launch, but he and his guide, a surly and creepy alcoholic named Ed, become trapped by sudden flooding, and Ed dies. Simon barely manages to escape but comes out haunted. His next expedition is to Mount Everest, where he again has a near-death experience. I won’t say much more so as not to spoil, but I enjoyed this, although Simon is most emphatically not a sympathetic character. The story explores survival in extreme situations, the Third Man syndrome, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and the sense of place in both the caves and on the mountains is excellent.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (2017)
In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado has turned the oppressions that women face in our society into literal horrors. Each story in this collection is surprising, provocative, often darkly funny, and different from the one that came before. And at eight stories, this collection is the perfect length. The strongest story is the opener, “The Husband Stitch,” which uses urban legends to illustrate how men try to entirely possess women, allowing them nothing that is theirs alone. And the final story, “Difficult at Parties,” moved me to tears.
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (2017)
Tom, the narrator, lives in a utopian 2016 where a world-changing invention in 1965 guaranteed limitless, clean, free energy, freeing humanity from drudgery. Tom’s father is inventing a time-travel machine, and when a relationship with his crush goes horribly wrong, Tom impulsively travels back in time and screws everything up. He’s thrust back into a different 2016 where the energy engine was never invented–a dirty dystopian world that is actually our 2016. He has to decide whether he wants to set things right, and if so, how. For much of the novel, it’s not actually clear whether Tom is just crazy, although that is resolved, and this is actually a time-travel story, which like so many, gets tangled and somewhat paradoxical at the end. Still, I enjoyed the breezy narration and Tom’s evolution as a character, as well as the general reflection on our ideas about utopias.
The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson (2017)
This is very good body horror, about a young woman whose blood generates versions of herself that inevitably become violent, attack her, and must be killed. Reading this story literally raises many questions, but I don’t think it’s meant to be read literally, given the ambiguity about when and where this is taking place. Metaphorically, this is a horrifying rendition of a reality many of us endure or have endured: the unceasing and often violent murders of aspects of ourselves, both good and bad, so that we can continue to exist. No wonder Molly was exhausted at the end. No wonder we all feel so exhausted.
When the English Fall by David Williams (2017)
This is a different take on the postapocalyptic novel. It is told from the point of view of an Amish farmer just after a solar storm knocks out almost all technology, reducing the world to a preindustrial state. Written as diary entries, this was slow-moving and introspective, and I found it to be really a meditation on our dependence on technology and whether this is how we are meant to live life.