I make no pretense of picking the best of all the books published in 2017. With about a million new titles coming out each year, no one can possibly claim to know the best out of all of them.
But here are my choices for the best books I read and wrote about in 2017. I read somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 books per year, and the majority of them are excellent, so it’s difficult to choose. The titles on this list not only boast high quality but are books that stuck with me long after I’d reviewed them. If you’re looking for recommendations for spending that bookstore gift card, here you go.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders; Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan
Saunders’ first novel, based on the real-life events surrounding the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, is a blazing, heartbreaking tour de force, told mostly in the voices of a cemetery full of ghosts. Like Saunders’ acclaimed short stories, it combines wildly experimental (but beautifully crafted) form with deep human insight. Egan’s Manhattan Beach draws from history as well, setting its lushly detailed account of a young woman’s coming of age in New York City during World War II. It’s a book about family, about feminism, about the American spirit, and an interesting twist on the gangster tale to boot.
Best revival of a novel
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood
In print, on screen and in the cultural-political conversation, Atwood’s chilling story set in a theocracy that enslaves women might be the book of the year — even if we wish it weren’t.
Best comeback after 20 years
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
Indian writer Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things, won the Booker Prize in 1997. Her second is a rich, roiling story of many plots that encompass everything from life in a household of transgender people to a star-crossed love triangle, all wrapped in the turmoil of India’s politics.
Best new crime fiction series character introduction
The Late Show, Michael Connelly
Connelly’s Harry Bosch is one of the most beloved and indelible series characters in crime fiction. In The Late Show, the author invents Renee Ballard, like Harry an LAPD detective, and one who promises to be just as intriguing and durable. (Need more Bosch? Two Kinds of Truth is one of the best in the series.)
Hunger, Roxane Gay; You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie
Gay’s memoir is a ferocious, vulnerable exploration of women’s relationships with their bodies, our culture’s obsession with weight and the terrible, endless aftermath of rape. Alexie’s fiction has often borrowed from his life. In this moving memoir he recounts his childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation, his complicated relationship with his strong, difficult mother and the grief that overtakes him when she dies.
Best first drafts
Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, David Sedaris
These selections from Sedaris’ voluminous diaries, which he has kept for most of his life, answer the question of where he gets all that great material for his witty essays.
Best dystopian fantasy
Borne, Jeff VanderMeer
Florida writer VanderMeer creates a vividly imagined future in a city ravaged by technology gone wrong — and sets there one of the warmest and weirdest stories of a mother and, um, child ever. Plus a giant flying bear!
Best American history
Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, Mark Bowden
Bowden’s deeply researched, utterly gripping history of one of the key battles of the war in Vietnam is not to be missed by anyone who understands how vital it is to learn from our past.
Best natural history
The Gulf: The Story of an American Sea, Jack Davis
University of Florida historian Davis dazzles with this sweeping volume about the Gulf of Mexico and the many human beings who have lived upon its shores.
Best cultural history
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Kevin Young
This wide-ranging, fascinating book about why Americans can be so vulnerable to hucksters could not be more timely.
Best posthumously published books
A Really Big Lunch, Jim Harrison; Spy of the First Person, Sam Shepard
Harrison was a great novelist and poet, but this collection showcases his stellar food writing (including the famous title piece about a 37-course lunch) and his Rabelaisian appetites. Shepard did not flinch from recounting his painful progress toward death in this final memorable novella, even though ALS forced him to depend on family and friends to help him complete it.
Special category: Best books written by women named Sarah
Sunshine State, Sarah Gerard
Pinellas County native Gerard combines intensely personal pieces with astutely reported journalism in this striking collection.
Best historical romance
The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry
In Victorian England, widowed Cora Seaborne finds unexpected freedom in this stylishly told story about the power of both myth and science.
Best historical horror
See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt
Schmidt’s debut novel is an almost unbearably tense and creepy recreation of the events leading to the 1892 axe murders of the parents of Lizzie Borden.
The 2017 Unintended Consequences Award
Best job of significantly increasing book sales by a person who says he doesn’t read books: Donald Trump