2017 was a hard year. Whether it was personal hardships, Natural disaster, or the frightening and dramatic turn our country has taken, many of my friends have admitted to having a harder and harder time loosing themselves in art, or finding art that matched their mood. A lot of us retreated to the familiar and comfortable – I sure as hell did, spending the first several months of 2017 rereading almost every single Stephen King short story and almost every entry in Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series – while others stepped away from reading or writing all together. But even though it was a hard year, there were still good books. Some that were even great. Greatness aside, the below isn’t meant to be a “Best of the Year” list or anything as prestigious as that. Instead, it’s just a list of the books I most appreciated in the last several months. There are a couple entries from last year on here, and one from more than a decade ago, but this was the year they all found their way to me. Each of them, in some way or another, meant something to me, and if you haven’t read them, I hope you’ll take a chance, and if you do, that they’ll mean something to you, too.
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: everyone is going to have this book on their list, and if they don’t, it’s either because they didn’t read the book, or it’s because they have questionable taste. This kind of thing usually leads to people gnashing their teeth about “group think” or some such nonsense, and a lot of the times they’re right. But not this time. You’re going to see everyone talking about this book because it’s really just that goddamn good. A paranoid run through California, stuffed full of drug dealing nazis, a teddy bear that mimes martial arts, crooked cops, terrifying incarcerated gang-leaders, an ex-con father desperately trying to keep his daughter safe, and one of the most compelling child characters I’ve ever read, She Rides Shotgun is a sledgehammer of a novel that starts on page one and doesn’t stop until it hits a brick wall (at which point it drags you from the wreckage and beats you to death with a broken off fender). It is a novel that is both fearless and perfectly executed, with characters you’ll grow to love, and an unsparing glee in putting them through hell. It’s been years – probably since Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time – since I’ve been so taken with a novel. If it’s not book of the year, I don’t know what the hell else could be.
Lightwood by Steph Post
We all have our tics. If you tell me a book has a motorcycle gang, my ears will perk up a bit. If you tell me a book has a deranged preacher, they’ll perk up a little more. If you tell me a book is a noir – southern gothic mash up, I’m handing you my credit card. All that is to say that I started Steph Post’s Lightwood primed to love it from the jump, but even I was surprised by how deeply I fell for this novel. What starts as a story about Judah, an ex-con working to figure out his life after release, and the family ties that continually draw him back to crime, Lightwood becomes something else with the introduction of Sister Tulah, a criminally terrifying preacher who only truly worships power. The confrontation comes, as we know it will, but before and after, Post subverts our expectations time and time again. But the plot, though damn good, isn’t what makes this book special. It’s the air of dread Post fills the room with. The haunted Florida countryside sweats inside these pages, and Sister Tulah comes alive in ways that suggest more than a hint of cosmic-horror. It all leaves you with an air of unease, a sense that anything can happen and anyone can die. The sequel comes out next year, and I have no reason to doubt it won’t be just as good. If you haven’t, get caught up with Lightwood before the next book in the series drops.
The Midnight Assassin: The Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer by Skip Hollandsworth
I’ve long thought Skip Hollandsworth is the single best true crime writer going. Through Hollandsworth’s fabulous longform articles in “Texas Monthly”, I’ve followed in the steps of serial murders in Houston and Dallas, worked with a heist crew, and met more tough cops trying to solve impossible cases than a weekend binge of “The First 48”. The Midnight Assassin continues this tradition. The story of a string of unsolved servant girl murders in downtown Austin, the police force that seemed incapable of catching the killer, and the rising panic that drove the young city to the brink of madness, Hollandsworth captures both the history and the brutality in perfect no-nonsense prose. Half a search for one of America’s most elusive killers (an early forerunner of Whitechapel’s Jack, himself) and half an examination of the history of Austin, Texas, The Midnight Assassin is the best true-crime I’ve read in years.
California Fire and Life by Don Winslow
I went on a bit of a Don Winslow spree this year. After being absolutely knocked on my ass by The Power of the Dog, I tore through The Cartel, The Force, The Winter of Frankie Machine, and finally, California Fire and Life this year. It’s 2017, and The Force just came out this year, so I should probably list that instead, but California Fire and Life was new to me this year, and out of all the wonderful Winslow books I’ve read, I genuinely think this one is the best. The story of an arson investigator, the Russian mob, a group of Vietnamese car thieves, an old lover (also a cop, natch), the intricacies of insurance settlements, and a woman’s body pulled from the ashes of a seaside mansion, California Fire and Life is where we can first see Don Winslow becoming Don Winslow as we think of him today. Deeply textured and stuffed with characters charming, tragic, entertaining, and vicious, Winslow somehow takes the pain in the ass mundanity of insurance and turns it into a complex and violent crime novel. If you somehow missed it, I can’t encourage diving into this one enough.
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan
If you’re not instantly hooked by the end of the first chapter, I don’t know what to tell you. This novella, the first work of Kiernan’s I’ve read, is a slim but pitch perfect piece of sci-fi noir. Concerning, among other things, a woman who can step outside of time, a cult hiding in the desert while awaiting some kind of signal, the actual no bullshit end of the world, terror from beyond the stars, and a mysterious government operative known only as The Signalman, Agents of Dreamland has a hell of a lot more packed in to it than the typical novel. A meditative time jumping exploration of the fate of all human life, Kiernan has not only written a novella that is deeply invested in its themes, but one that is also aiming to scare the pants off you. It doesn’t hurt that it’s probably the best modern Lovecraft Mythos story I’ve ever read.
The Tor Dot Com Novellas
The last several years I’ve seen several crime writers I respect turning towards Sci-fi. There are plenty of reasons for this, but while I understood, I was never able to find myself excited; as a lover of crime fiction, it frankly sucked to see so many talented people turning to other genres, especially one I was never really able to get into. I always knew I was missing something with Sci-fi, but most recommended books left me cold. Then, the Tor Dot Come novellas came along. This is a bit of a cheat as an entry, but what Tor dot com is doing with their novella line is something truly special. I’ve read so many excellent science fiction novellas in the last couple months, and now I finally truly see what the fuss is about. Apparently all it took was the right introduction, one Tor was more than happy to provide. Agents of Dreamland, listed above, is available through the line, as are other incredible novellas you can read in an hour or so: Hammers on Bone by Kassandra Khaw, The Warren by Brian Evenson, The Ghost Line by Andrew Neil Gray and JS Herbison, and Acadie by Dave Hutchinson, to name just a few. If you’re looking to expand your horizons, I really don’t think you can go wrong with anything from Tor.