Monday, January 01, 2018

Favorite Books of 2017

Everyone connected with a creative field is required to do a "best of the year" post, because we can't let anyone else's choices take precedence over ours. Since Antick Musings has turned into a book blog (despite my half-assed efforts over the years to do other things), that means it features a list of my favorite books at the end of each year.

Because I'm grumpy and opinionated, they will be odd choices. Because I'm puckish and contrary, I insist on doing my list at the very end of the year, and counting things I read that year, not some arbitrary publishing calendar.

(I've been doing this since this blog started; see previous entries for the years 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.)

My rules have gotten codified in relatively simple terms, so here they are again:

The Rules:

  1. My list is finalized on the last day of the year, so it includes all my reading for the year.
  2. This is a list of "favorites," not "bests."
  3. I try to favor recent/current books -- but this rule gets bent more and more every year.
  4. My reading includes many genres and formats, and the list mixes that all together.
  5. I pick a favorite for each month, to make a top twelve.
  6. And each month gets a narrative including other notable books I read then.

The Field:

I read only 139 books in 2017, down even from 2016's 161, 2015's 175 and 2014's 383. (That's an asterisk: 2014 was a Book-A-Day year, and 2011-2013 averaged a bit over 150).

If I didn't read a book, it can't be one of my favorites for the year. (Simple, right?)

I always wish I read more -- even in the years when I got through five or six novels a week, I complained that there were as many other books that I wanted to read but didn't get to. I don't know if it's "worse" now, but there's always more books to read, no matter how many I do read. (This is a good thing.)

So the below is what I read in 2017 that I want to celebrate and call out and point at, for various reasons. It's not as complete as I wish it was -- once again, man's reach exceeds his grasp. Think of it as a list of books one guy really liked, if you want, a list of things worth celebrating.

I list a few "runners-up" for each month as well, as long as something else was worthy. More options are always better, right?

January

I was solidly impressed by two books this month. The first I think I understood pretty well: Dash Shaw's Cosplayers: Perfect Collection, which expanded a cycle of short stories about fans and their fannish activities. The other I frankly admitted it was mostly opaque to me: Shaun Tan's The Singing Bones, a collection of fairy-tale retellings, mostly done as individual sculptures.

Taking the top slot, though, is a dark graphic novel set in a superhero universe -- yes, another one of those! -- focused closely on real people and their bad choices. It was Plutona, written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Emi Lenox.

February

This month, I had two older books that really impressed me, which I'm not considering for the top slot mostly because they were old. First up was Taiyo Matsumoto's big manga volume Tekkon Kinkreet: Black and White, the story of two boys in a surreal dangerous city. And then I re-read ax excellent Andi Watson story in two volumes: Love Fights, a romance told with (or despite?) superheroes.

But the most impressive book was a massive collection of good stuff: the immense compendium of the best work from a major comics publisher, Drawn & Quarterly. It was edited by Tom Devlin (with a lot of assistance from others) and contains work by more people than i could list here.

March

Another book from a few years ago to start off March: Paul Pope's grungy near-future SF story of love and relationships and barflies, 100%. Also worth mentioning: Deal With the Devil, a nonfictional retelling of a murder case in early Manhattan, from Paul Collins.

Running away as my favorite, though, was the first big Neil Gaiman short-story collection in a long time, Trigger Warning. Gaiman doesn't invest as much time into short fiction as he did earlier in his career, but it's still always choice when he does have time for it.

April

And here's where I start cheating on my own rules. (What good is it making the rules if you can't bend them when you need to?)

There were two very different books this month, both worth making the final list. So I'm going to include both of them, and knock down some month later in the year. (I've looked ahead, so I already know where.)

First is Tom Gauld's graphic novel Mooncop, a quiet look at the last and only policeman on a rapidly emptying-out moon, another requiem for the vanished Space Age.

And then there's the brilliant Get in Trouble, the third major short-story collection from Kelly Link, who I wish could write stories at four or five times the speed she actually does. (But when do we get what we want out of life?)

May

I read one old and one new SFF novel, both worth mentioning.  The older one was Patricia A. McKillip's first novel, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, a World Fantasy winner from forty years ago and still as pointed and strong as ever. The new one was the more cagey and (deliberately) confusing Homefires, a recent novel by Gene Wolfe in a very Gene Wolfean manner.

My favorite for the month, though, ended up being a graphic novel for kids about death (more or less) -- Rana Telgemeier's Ghosts. The Day of the Dead is turning up a lot lately in entertainments for younger people, but Telgemeier makes it her own and tells a specific story set far away from the usual Mexico-travelogue style.

June

I have a longer list of good stuff for this month -- maybe it was the universe's birthday gift to me, that many more books worth celebrating? Whatever the reason, I read:
  • a nonfiction book about the history and present day (as of 1989) of the US plains states from redoubtable New Yorker writer Ian Frazier (Great Plains), Ian Frazier, Great Plains
  • a collection of stories about ordinary people, mostly getting older, in the UK, from Julian Barnes (Pulse)
  • a SFnal graphic novel of loss and obsession from Daniel Clowes (Patience)
  • a fantastic graphic novel of a world of the far past and the horrors that men do there, from Isobel Greenberg (One Hundred Nights of Hero)
The best thing I read in June was the second novel by Mountain Goats singer-songwriter-bandleader John Darnielle, Universal Harvester, which teases the edges of horror to tell a story of deep sadness and the possibilities of human connection.

July

August was another month with old and new -- the old represented by the big collection of miscellaneous Bill Griffith comic strips, Lost and Found. (The book itself was fairly new, but the material goes all the way back to 1969 for the earliest pieces.)

And the new book was the favorite, a first book from someone I'd never heard of before, who made a big splash in the comics world for a big, amazing book. That was Emil Ferris with My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the story of a girl in the late '60s with more troubles than she can tell us about and a desire to be a monster rather than a human.

August

I'll start this month by mentioning two old books I re-read: the modern classic novel White Noise by Don DeLillo and the sneakily wonderful fake-nonfiction book Dragons: The Modern Infestation by the otherwise unknown Pamela Wharton Blanpied. Also impressive was Rick Geary's newest graphic novel retelling the story of a historical murder, Black Dahlia.

But my favorite book was the voice-driven SF short novel (novella?) All Systems Red, from Martha Wells, about a robot that can kill humans if he wants to, and what he really wants to do.

September

It's all comics this month, leading off with two books I got to a few years after publication. I have a good excuse for Boulet's Notes, Vol. 1: Born to Be a Larve -- Boulet is French, so the English translation was delayed a few years, and it took some time for this UK-published book to find its way to me as well. There's no such excuse for Chester Brown's historical masterpiece Louis Riel, which I could have read any time in the past decade. But a great book is still great, no matter how long it takes to get to it.

My favorite book for the month was more frivolous than Brown, but no less worthy. Great comics for young people are as important as great books for anyone else, and Andi Watson's big Glister omnibus, collecting all the stories about that resourceful girl and her various odd adventures, is a wonderful compendium of joy and thrills.

October

October is a scratch; this is the month I'm stealing from to have two slots back up in April.

So in the unenviable position of runner-up to nothing (much like Bob Silverberg's The Stochastic Man, which lost the 1976 Campbell Award to a 1970 novel), I'll just mention Paul Theroux's '80s travelogue of a year wandering through China by rail, Riding the Iron Rooster. It's a great travel book, like so much Theroux has done, but it's also thirty years old, so mostly ineligible by my rules.

November

Two very quirky old things to mention first: Lawrence Block's early and minor sex novel Campus Tramp, which is pretty tame these days but amusing in its own ways; and a collection of the first third of the stories of one of the great oddball characters in comics, Herbie Archives Vol. 1, by Shane O'Shea and Ogden Whitney.

And the favorite of the month was another short-story collection (the third this year), Michael Swanwick's Not So Much, Said the Cat, which brought together pretty much everything he's done at shorter lengths over the past decade.

December

And in the last month of the year I read two standalone manga stories by two different creators. (And let me say here that I find my own ignorance liberating: I can't consistently tell if a Japanese name is coded masculine or feminine, and so I read manga by new-to-me creators simply as books by people.) One of them gets to be the favorite, the other must be the also-ran, since that's the way this works. Slightly less impressive, but still excellent, is Kaori Ozaki's The Gods Lie, something like a pre-teen romance and something like a fall from grace and something like a first understanding of how the world really works.

But my favorite for the month, and my last favorite for the year, is Inio Asano's A Girl on the Shore, a darker and deeper teen romance, about sex and self-loathing and the refusal to be "in love" and what it means to be an outcast.

2017's Top Twelve

Those are the best books I read this year, and I'd recommend all of them.

Of course, the problem isn't finding books worth reading; there are more books than any of us could ever read. The trick is finding the best book for that moment and that mood and that need. Good luck in 2018 in finding just the right book when you need one, and I hope that some of the things I mention above can be that for you, at some point.

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