As this, the first month of 2017, draws to a close, so it is time to take one last look back, this time at books. Specifically the books that the folks at the list and opinion aggregation site Goodreads chose as the best ones. Goodreads is like a Yelp for books 1, only somehow more annoying. But, y’know, they put up a list of what people have chosen to be the best, which I find more instructive merely than best-sellers lists.
The problem with best-sellers lists is that they don’t necessarily reflect an honesty of opinion, but rather the mere spending of money. It, thus, tends to weight every purchase equally, which means books purchased for airplanes 2 or books purchased as gifts, or whatever. A vote of what the best book that someone read all year, on the other hand, does at least require that someone who is thinking about such things, even for a second, is the person doing the choosing.
The other advantage to talking about Goodreads is that there is a kind 3 of nigh-expertise. Certainly all of the users aren’t, necessarily, expert readers, but there is still a self-selection that means that instead of tracking one of the pitifully tiny book purchases made by a person over the course of the year, we’re getting the opinion of people who, at least taken as a unit, tend to read more, and consider more (if only for the few moments of voting). Thus is a more measured sort of list made.
Anyway, both lists have their points of interest, but I’m only doing this one this year. So there.
Liane Moriarty – Truly Madly Guilty
WHAT IT IS: A thriller about a terrible party, and the terrible things that these terrible people do at this terrible party. Salacious! Prurient! Juicy! Extraordinarily heavy-handed foreshadowing! Much scandal!
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: Well, it says, at least on its face, that people are interested in the kind of twisty Australian suspense novel that Liane Moriarty writes. It also says, given that it’s here at the top of this list, where it was chosen for its putative quality, that people have some seriously fucked-up, sex-negative, retrograde opinions about what is and is not “scandalous,” and those people should be ashamed of themselves. Good lord.
Mystery & Thriller
Stephen King – End of Watch
WHAT IT IS: The end of a trilogy of Stephen King novels about a detective. It’s also King’s 55th novel (no, really). It has nothing to do with the David Ayer movie of a few years ago. It would probably make a pretty good movie with Michael Pena in it, though.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: That Stephen King’s name is super-recognizable, and that people like detective stories. Especially in the mystery category, I suppose, although at least this one doesn’t have any “twists” that are so fucking stupid they make you want to travel to Australia and demand answers, like the last one did.
Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad
WHAT IT IS: Easily Whitehead’s best book, it literalizes the underground railroad (i.e. folks get on a train that is, in fact, under the ground) while also not-at-all fantasizing-up the tale of human slavery in the American South. It’s also a cracking good story, with like, plot motion and stuff 4, which is just great. It won the National Book Award for fiction.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: That while there are a bunch of serious book people who would never cop to reading fantasy, if you dress it up in the guise of historical fiction 5, it’s fine.
John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
WHAT IT IS: the book adaptation of a play based on the world of Harry Potter (that’s why there’s three authors here). It’s another Harry Potter story, this one about time-turners, the sins of parents, and the inescapability of the past.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: One of the reasons that I’m supportive of things like the historical fiction category being used to smuggle in some of the better examples of the fiction of other genres is because the actual fantasy categories here tend to be dominated by this sort of titanic ongoing-series type of thing. Which, y’know, is fine, but also completely inevitable. Anyway, it says that people love Harry Potter, they really, really do.
Colleen Hoover – It Ends With Us
WHAT IT IS: Another Colleen Hoover novel. There are few things in this world that are more-or-less unanimous, but Colleen Hoover is one of them among romance fiction fans 6. This one has the added quirk of dealing with domestic abuse, and the difficulty of making healthy decisions.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: I mean to say, without taking anything away from Ms. Hoover or her considerable achievements here, that she is a superstar of the genre, but this book is stratospherically popular for including (even in an intelligent, thoughtful way) the evergreen “Right Guy/Wrong Guy” dichotomy, and also for, y’know, being a fairly lurid romance novel. People do love the steamy stuff. And also having to choose.
Pierce Brown – Morning Star
WHAT IT IS: The conclusion to Brown’s hugely successful Red Rising trilogy. Morning Star is a Star Wars-inflected 7 piece of space opera. A lot of fun, breezy, clearly well-regarded.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: That readers of sf can be united, be we the people that want to think about science, or people that want to think about how weird things are always going to be as they change, or about how the lasers go pew pew pew, by a well-constructed piece of adventuresome space opera.
Joe Hill – The Fireman
WHAT IT IS: Joe Hill’s fourth novel, and his fourth success – popularly and artistically. This one has some looser plotting, and spends a little more of its time getting to know the people involved. It’s about a plague, and it starts off global and narrows, over the course of its plot, down to the extremely local. It’s excellently rendered, but it really reminds me of something. And, I mean, I want to tell you whose work The Fireman most resembles, but the book pretty pointedly opens with a dedication to an agent who didn’t reveal his birth real last name for a decade, so it seems unsporting to say anything. It’s awfully good, though.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: At this point I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Hill has very much made his own name in the genre, and has his own fans that anticipate his books (I’m definitely one of them, but, y’know, I like that other guy I’m not mentioning also), and he is quietly turning into one of the most consistent producers of excellent scary books going. So I guess that’s what it is, even if maybe it started out as something else.
Amy Schumer – The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo
WHAT IT IS: It’s Amy Schumer’s book.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: That we, collectively, as book-readers in society and otherwise, apparently cannot get enough of talking about Amy Schumer. Moving on.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter – Hamilton: The Revolution
WHAT IT IS: A book about Hamilton, the musical that you probably know all the songs from even though you’ll probably never ever be able to get tickets to it.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: It says that Hamilton is such an enormous cultural phenomenon that we will read books about what it was like to be in the room where it happened, like, three years after it actually came to be. And we will love them and rate them highly on Goodreads.
Memoir & Autobiography
Paul Kalanithi – When Breath Becomes Air
WHAT IT IS: A neurosurgeon got cancer and died. He occupied his time spent otherwise dying of cancer by writing a book, whose marketing materials hinge almost entirely on “he used to be the doctor, and now he’s the patient!”, a dramatic story twist that hasn’t appeared anywhere else except for the countless movies, literally a half-dozen high profile memoirs, once a season on every single medical procedural, and at least three episodes of Scrubs.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: Well, it’s here because people love when people die while they’re writing books 8. It is, for whatever, reason, a huge marketing hook. Also people love grief pornography because it allows them to performatively talk about how deep they feel about stuff and how very grateful they are for their lives without, y’know, actually having to engage in anything. Big business, grief pornography. Big business.
History & Biography
William Shatner (with David Fisher) – Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man
WHAT IT IS: A recounting of the frenemieship between the Captain and Science Officer of the USS Enterprise, Leonard is pretty biographical, and isn’t much about Shatner at all, except where Shatner must, by context, insert his own stuff in there so you understand what’s going on. Theirs is one of the more interesting partnerships 9, and Shatner has an impressive memory, and an equally-impressive ability to tell their story without doing what we all probably assumed Shatner would do (i.e. what he did every week on the bridge of the Enterprise: override the protocols, take control, and yell and Walter Koenig).
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: I mean, I think it was widely-read because there could have been an alternate version of the book that was about the tasty, tasty feuds that popped up periodically between the two men, but I think it lingers in the memory and good graces because it’s an effective, moving piece of writing about two guys who lived life in very close proximity to one another, working in the property that pretty much catalyzed berserk fandom, and, as a result, is awfully moving.
Science & Technology
Frans De Wall – Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
WHAT IT IS: A popular science treatise on the different forms of cognition, and an interesting argument for thinking of “intelligence” not as somethign arranged on a linear spectrum, but rather as something in a sort of cloud, with various and sundry elements taking the forefront dependent on the species’ needs in their world. All, of course, saddled with an unnecessarily bomb-throwing title
WHY IT’S HERE: It is a genuinely fascinating and engrossing book, and, really, that’s quite a title. Like a lot of science books that get particularly popular, it really feeds directly into people’s love of saying “everything you think you know is wrong,” which propels the sort of revisionism that almost always wins in these categories, regardless of the quality of the book itself. At least in this case, the book is quite good.
Food & Cookbooks
Chrissy Teigen – Cravings
WHAT IT IS:.It’s a book of recipes that Chrissy Teigen put together in a book. So, like, a tiny portion of Chrissy Teigen’s – known famous person and television-appearer-onner – Instagram. It’s probably interspersed with pictures of Chrissy Teigen, so you’d also get another chunk of her Instagram along as a bonus.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because famous people cookbooks are, for whatever reason, something that people are nuts over, and, in this case, it’s likely that enough of the recipes work enough of the time that people think “oh that’s actually a good cookbook.”
Graphic Novels & Comics
Sarah Anderson – Adulthood is a Myth
WHAT IT IS: A repackaging of Sarah Anderson’s extremely popular webcomic, which became extremely popular, like many extremely popular webcomics, by pandering directly to its audience with subject matter like “how awesome is not doing stuff?” and “how much does it suck to do stuff?” and “sometimes when I try to do stuff, I can’t!” ad. inf. 10. All with drawings that are cutesy without being cute, and stylized without having an actual style. It feels like a marketing experiment, is what I’m saying here.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because this kind of pandering is always, always rewarded in the “webcomics that get shared on facebook and/or tumblr all the time” demographic.
Amanda Lovelace – The Princess Saves Herself in This One
WHAT IT IS: A book of poetry about fairy-tale stuff. Sassy fairy-tale stuff. But also, like, feelings and whatnot. I don’t know guys, I really am not a poetry person.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: Poetry is a weirdly diffuse thing, and so the only real thing you can hope for is to write poetry that is good enough, with an easy-to-grab hook, and hope people remember it.
Debut Goodreads Author
Alwyn Hamilton – Rebel of the Sands
WHAT IT IS: I very nearly skipped this category, as I know neither the book nor the author, but I decided instead of just staying mum, I will say this: the synopsis available on Goodreads for this book is the most obnoxious thing I have read in a long time.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: It says that either we as a group are not bothered by super-annoying-sounding synopses, or that the book is much better than it sounds. Or, alternately, that this is all some kind of elaborate prank.
Young Adult Fiction
Ruta Sepetys – Salt to the Sea
WHAT IT IS: A piece of historical fiction about “the deadliest maritime disaster in history,” and also an examination of some under-examined effects that World War II had on the world in general, down to and including lost art.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: Well, historical fiction is big business, as are stories of people triumphing (in whatever ways) over Nazis. This has the added bonus appeal of being about a piece of history that is both unquestionably important and also little-remembered, which is sort of the cousin to the same sort of thirst for revisionism that also dominated in the science category above.
Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction
Sarah J. Maas – Court of Mist and Fury
WHAT IT IS: It’s a fine piece of magical high fantasy – lots of talk of destiny and the importance of making choices, and etc. Really, there’s nothing wrong with it except this: the villain rules something called “The Night Court,” which really makes it inevitable that he is pictured as Harry Anderson, which does some minor damage to the gravitas of the whole thing. Luckily, it’s a YA book, and kids have no idea who Harry Anderson is.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US: That there’s always going to be room in the YA-market for stories about chosen ones and magic and stuff.
Middle Grade & Childrens
Rick Riordan – The Hidden Oracle
WHAT IT IS: This series is a sequel to the series that was a sequel to the series that brought the world Percy Jackson. This time it’s about Apollo, who is sent to Earth to live as a mortal because Zeus gets ticked off at him.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because Rick Riordan is as popular as he is consistent, and will probably occupy a space in this category for a long time to come (NB: he has already occupied a space in this category for a long time).
Mo Willems – The Thank You Book
WHAT IT IS: The twenty-fifth book in the Elephant & Piggie series. This one is about the importance of thanking people. All of the people. It is also by Mo Willems, and not by Mo Williams, the beleaguered, currently-contractually-nebulous NBA guard.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because twenty-four books in the Elephant & Piggie series were not enough, and also because children are simply not thanking enough people.
And there it is! All of the categories. Tune in next year, when probably there will be Rick Riordan again! And I will probably be just as happy that it’s him!
- in a couple of senses, but primarily in the sense that everything ends up rated 3.5 stars, that if the people being reviewed are involved it’s probably completely absurd. ↩
- I do wonder, actually, if the lifting of the ban on using e-readers during takeoff and landing on airplanes has had any kind of effect on airline book sales. This is the sort of thing I wonder about. ↩
- I mean, a vague, not-really kind, but a kind nonetheless. ↩
- generally my issue heretofore with Whitehead’s work is that it tends not to go much of anywhere, despite being glacially beautiful. ↩
- Although NB with historical fiction in general the elements of it that lean toward “Fantasy” are pretty heavy, albeit “getting away with it” because there’s a veneer of “but I’m learning something about it.” I will also state here that I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with it – romance fiction, another highly-maligned genre that doesn’t deserve to be (my own interest in it notwithstanding – see below) – is also closely-bound with historical fiction, and the more mainstream examples tend to appear on lists exactly like this in exactly this space. All of which is to say that if there needs to be a historical fiction category to Trojan Horse the fantastic in here, then I suppose that’s how it is, although there’s also a perfectly good fantasy category in the Goodreads awards. ↩
- a belief that I held informally prior to this – based basically on the fact that 1) I don’t know a lot about romance as a genre, and I know about her and 2) I have known a fair number of people who “don’t read romance….except Colleen Hoover”. This seems to be as confirmed as it can be by the fact that It Ends With Us has a 4.5 star rating through over 59,000 ratings, which is a lot. ↩
- by frequent admission of Mr. Brown himself ↩
- see: Larsson, Steig; Kafka, Franz; Austen, Jane; Bulgakov, Mikhail; and Frank, Anne ↩
- they worked together very closely for a long time, and that always creates an interesting relationship, but also Leonard Nimoy had his own sort of personal battles with the nature of his fame, and, for a long time, with the role that brought it. ↩
- I am coming down a little hard on Ms. Anderson here, which is unfair: there’s nothing particularly wrong with her webcomic in and of itself, and she certainly deserves her success, but there is an aspect to it that I find deeply frustrating, and the Graphic Novels & Comics part of this list is probably the part I have the most actually invested in, so here we are. A book of these comics is fine, just frustrating, and not the best comic book of the year by any means. ↩