These are the best books we read in 2017.
*Our best books list includes any book we read in 2017, regardless of release date*
The Dark Dark is a collection of wonderfully weird and haunting short stories about the mysteries and random acts of magic that touch peoples’ lives in the darkness. Author Samantha Hunt makes alien landscapes out of mundane small towns, populating her stories with extraordinary characters or circumstances. But it is also a book about building a world illuminated at every turn by malls and security lights. Even as adults we are afraid of the dark, and the magic forest can’t hurt us if it’s been developed into a Wendy’s.
The second “dark” in the title might stand for Hunt’s sense of humor. These are stories concerning a zombie dog, a teenage coven, a woman who transforms into a deer and a woman who reads drafts of her life in an old notebook. For all the fancy, these are characters grappling with unachieved desire, and Hunt grounds her stories in the tactility of flesh, especially women’s bodies, depicting them as chaotic machines in all stages of age and effectiveness. Her uncommon frankness makes her humor feel taboo especially when turned to themes like motherhood and disingenuous expectations of quotidian perfection.
The Dark Dark may not have the reach of a Time cover, but some act of fate brought this book to publication in this extraordinary year of women demanding their overdue respect. It is a stunning work of imagination that is, at its core, a horror novel, but Hunt dispenses with the dark towers and killer clowns, instead focusing on a more salient terror: daily life as a woman in America. These are stories that will not leave you, and, if you’re a man, they might transform you just a little. – Don Kelly
This book builds on its prequel, The Origin of the Brunists (1966), whose themes of fanaticism and fundamentalism among misfits of a coal-mining burg somewhere between the East and the Midwest resurrect in this new work, nearly a half-century later. Robert Coover’s 2015 sequel doubles the five-hundred pages of the original. Five years on in a wisely unspecified time, disasters of first a mining explosion and then the Brunists’ ceremony gone haywire blacken this new cult’s reputation and accelerate the decline of West Condon, now twice beleaguered.
Coover’s crafted a slow shift as locals and converts react to the second coming of the Brunists as Coover constructs each person’s unease and pain carefully through indirect voice. He maneuvers dozens of people around town and the Brunist encampment, and as the chapters chronologically relate the countdown to ecclesial ecstasy, Coover choreographs actions and thoughts meticulously. Replacing the first novel’s puerile satire and dated swingers with a sympathetic but never sentimental approach, Coover dramatizes deftly how these true believers and their civic rivals contend and bicker.
“Voices in their heads. In the wilderness of their heads.” So a bemused chronicler shares the symptoms of a collective unease, as the complicated relationships and end-times rhetoric thicken and their recorded testimony to delusion grows thicker.
In the drawn-out denouement, it’s understandable why Coover hesitates before leaving behind his flawed protagonists, but these digressions try the reader’s patience, given the massive bulk of this intricate, dense narrative. Still, this is a far more likely prediction of American religious causes and tragic effects than, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. – John L. Murphy
The Red Rising trilogy is a glorious hybrid: part Hunger Games, part Star Wars, part Mass Effect and part Lord of the Rings, the books are set more than 700 years in the future, after humanity has ventured out to the far reaches of the solar system and conquered every planet and moon within it. Society has been divided into a color-based class system, and protagonist Darrow is born Red, bred to toil in the mines of Mars. The Reds believe that they are pioneers, mining in order to ensure the future colonization of Mars’ barren surface. What they don’t realize is that the planet’s surface has been livable for hundreds of years and the Reds are blind slaves tricked into lives of endless, backbreaking work.
The first book, 2014’s Red Rising, takes a while to get rolling as the reader is introduced to Darrow living a happy, oblivious life as a hard-working family man. When his wife is hanged for rebellion, Darrow’s thrust into a larger conflict. He is kidnapped by the rebel group the Sons of Ares and tasked with impersonating a Gold, the Solar System’s ruling class. Genetically altered to near perfection, Darrow is sent to an Institute where young Golds play war games to determine their societal trajectory.
This is where Red Rising gets going, and the breakneck pace it establishes while Darrow fights it out at the Institute continues through the second book, 2015’s Golden Son, and doesn’t let up until the shocking, stirring conclusion of the trilogy’s final installment, 2016’s Morning Star. The real strength of these novels is that Brown starts the trilogy with a relatively small scope—the first book is all set in a relatively small area of Mars—and expands outward, eventually detailing the entire solar system. Brown also has knacks for giant plot twists and killing off major characters at surprising moments, giving the series the same kind of heart-breaking readability that works so well for George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The first book in a follow-up trilogy, Iron Gold, is due out next month. – Mike McClelland
Without question, the ‘70s and ‘80s were the pinnacle of horror fiction. Coming to a head in the wake of the terror of Vietnam and the looming specter of total nuclear annihilation, there was a veritable explosion of titles that dealt with the horrors of the natural world just as much as the supernatural world. In Paperbacks from Hell, Grady Hendrix offers up an essential field guide to the glut of blood and gore that littered bookshelves more than three decades ago. Moving well beyond the mass market fiction of Stephen King, Hendrix delves deep into myriad sub-genres and long-forgotten attempts to terrify. With a menagerie of subgenres, including many animal titles—everything from dogs to giant praying mantises—vampires, ghosts and demented psychopaths, Paperbacks from Hell offers up a heaping helping of horror galore.
Given the recent resurgence in horror soundtracks on labels like Mondo, Death Waltz and Waxworks, it’s not surprising that the pulp fiction produced during that same era should also see a renewed interest. Paperbacks from Hell serves as a prime starting point, offering information on titles both obscure and easier to procure. The latter will likely be snapped up quickly by anyone with even the slightest interest in Hendrix’s assessments, while the former will become all the more impossible to track down—at a reasonable price, at least. Both a blessing and a curse for fans of vintage horror fiction, Paperbacks from Hell is nonetheless an essential entry point to a world largely overlooked due to the ephemeral and often exploitative nature of the books themselves. Fun, informative and endlessly readable, Paperbacks from Hell is as good as it gets. – John Paul
As a symptom of the post-truth era in which we sadly find ourselves, scientific evidence has somehow become controversial to an unsettling percentage of the population. Whether it’s climate change denialism trickling down from the highest ranks of power or the small but vocal segment of the population that identifies as flat-Earthers, facts don’t always hold the same weight they once did. We’ve reached a point where it’s difficult to believe that Stephen Hawking’s landmark book on cosmology, A Brief History of Time, was once a runaway bestseller.
First published in 1988, Hawking’s book takes centuries of scientific thought on the nature of time and space and presents it in as accessible a way as you’re likely to find in a tome about the complexities of relativity, the uncertainty principle, quantum theory and the origin of the universe and how it might end. Spending a great deal of time on the Big Bang and black holes, Hawking expresses how, through the rigors of the scientific method, his original theories about both—which changed the course of cosmology—have evolved over the years to the point of contradicting his own initial stances. In doing so, he demonstrates how the scientific method, unlike the staunch conspiracy theories proffered by its detractors, requires constant questioning of our current understanding when presented with new evidence. It’s a refreshing and enlightening read in these Orwellian times. – Josh Goller
David Grann’s meticulously researched account of the 1920s discovery of oil on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma and the violent resentment it sowed among neighboring whites is the horror book of the year. Grann sets up the pieces gradually, tracing the Osage tribe’s forcible relocation to a seemingly barren patch of soil through to the resultant economic explosion brought about by oil wealth. Likewise, the author starts to ratchet up tension by explicating the legal and personal escalations facing newly-rich Native Americans, from Congressional paternalism that forced white oversight of their money to the influx of white grifters looking to score any way they could. Grann then structures the murders of Osage Indians first as noir, with bodies turning up mysteriously and without clear suspects, then as plague narrative, with individual stories of loss and devastation giving way to statistics as the sheer scale of shootings, abductions and suspiciously “natural” deaths proliferate. The story that the author uncovers is bone-chilling in its depiction of outlaws and upstanding folk alike conspiring to steal land, in some cases from their own relatives and spouses. The latter aspect adds a strain of sorrow to the story, particularly when Grann includes interviews with the descendants of some of the murdered Osage, many of whom never got an official answer for what happened to their families. – Jake Cole