Let’s keep this rolling! Below you’ll find the books I ranked between 44 and 20 out of 64. All of these books were, at worst, very enjoyable reads that I’d happily recommend.
44. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
A feat of storytelling to be sure. Gaiman reinvents Odin, Thor, Loki, and Freya for a new generation in a way Marvel never could. Once I finished reading his mythic cycle, though, I was left with more of the feeling of a reference text than anything else, with a certainty that the Northmen believed in enormous palaces and shapeshifting gods and magical mead, and not much understanding of why.
43. My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson
I picked this up at a book sale because it reminded me of The Valley of Steel in the way it weirds America. 12-year-old Gracie and her family pack into a Winnebago and head west across a land of dragons and sasquatches in hopes of staving off her younger brother’s death. A heartbreaking final twist brings young readers face to face with things they’re only just ready to deal with, but the story leading up to it is fairly slight.
42. How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman
A short but fascinating graphic story about two guys trying to chat up girls who may or may not be a hive mind of omnipotent extraterrestrials. Or something. You know what, I’ve got no idea what happens in this comic, but I’m still thinking about it.
41. The Winter Fox by Timothy Knappman
I know what you’re asking: “Sam, did you read an entire children’s picture book in a store, just so your total number of books for the year could be a square number?” The answer is yes. I did do that. Someone stop me, I’m an absolute madman.
40. The Clockwork Raven by Samuel Chapman
39. Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne
The second of three Verne books on my list this year, telling the story of three Europeans crossing the interior of Africa using technology that was cutting edge at the time. Rated higher than Journey to the Center of the Earth because it tells a more exciting story along similar beats, but rated lower than Around the World in Eighty Days because…well…”slightly less racist than it sounds” isn’t exactly the highest praise.
38. Sandman: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s comics are back, this time featuring a tetralogy of tales: a captive muse gets her revenge, cats attempt to take over the world, Shakespeare performs for an audience of Fair Folk, and an obscure superhero seeks her chance to die. Again, nothing at this point is bad, and there are worse criticisms than “doesn’t offer anything but a spectacular creepy atmosphere and wicked good artwork,” but something’s gotta be number 38.
37. Last Hours on Everest by Graham Hoyland
I have been a junkie for stories of old-timey men freezing to death since before I could read. Hoyland, who has summited the world’s highest mountain eight times, tells a story of the enduring mystery and allure of the disappearance of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, while at the same time attempting the definitive summary of the evidence in that case. Through recreations, research, and interviews, Hoyland tries to figure out whether the two made the summit before their fatal accident, thus claiming the title of first climbers from Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
It’s a riveting and personal tale that only loses some ranks for dragging when Hoyland is off the mountain and sifting through clues. Gains some ranks back for relating that George Mallory was apparently possessed of a monumental hotness that overrode sexual orientation, sort of the Idris Elba of his day.
36-31: Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour)
Having read the six comics that inspired one of my favorite movies, I can officially join the ranks of the insufferable book-was-better crowd. The thing is, though, it is better, and admitting that doesn’t have to diminish Edgar Wright’s film. Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers actually seem to enjoy each other’s company, minor characters are expanded on, and the brilliance of O’Malley’s tale of millenial angst shines through.
None of these characters really have any problems. They’re aimless, sure, and they don’t have that much money, and some of them are gay, but that’s not much of an issue in urban Canada. And yet the emotions they do feel are so real to them that they can only be expressed by means of choreographed kung-fu battles–compared by Wright to musical numbers in the way they straddle reality and fantasy. Scott and his friends are no saints, but they explain better than anyone today why things that don’t matter can matter so much.
30. The Art of War by Sun Tzu
2017 being my Chinese phase, it was inevitable that I’d get around to this sooner or later. Let’s get one thing clear: it is not a management training handbook. It is not about business or relationships. It is about leading soldiers in the Warring States Period of pre-Imperial China. If you are treating your employees the way you’d treat the marauding troops of the Duke of Qi, something in your management style is fucked up harder than Sun Tzu can repair.
29. Selected Poems by Robinson Jeffers
Last November, I had the chance to visit Jeffers’s house in Carmel, near Big Sur south of Monterey Bay. I gazed at the tower where he wrote his poems, then went to the edge of the surf and read “The Torch-Bearers’ Race,” his meditation on the progress of civilization. The poem was utterly of the land, rocks writ into words.
Jeffers was an anachronism in his day: while Kerouac and Ginsburg were protesting the hypocrisies of the 1950s, he alone attempted to get to the root of modern ennui. He also wrote lengthy allegorical poems wherein a woman named California wants to have sex with a horse, but that’s the beauty–he is not about subtlety. The cliffs of Big Sur are not subtle. Why shouldn’t poetry be as big as the world? Why should we not shout at the impenetrable walls of civilization, rather than grumble under our breath like the beat poets (Gary Snyder excepted) preferred to do? Why shouldn’t we collectively rediscover Jeffers in 2018? Let’s make it happen.
28. The Starry Rift edited by Jonathan Strahan
The only anthology I read this year, representing 16 different authors as they pay homage to the golden age of sci-fi. You guessed it: time for a ranking within a ranking.
16. “Anda’s Game” by Cory Doctorow: Artlessly preachy about two completely unrelated subjects, and it’s weird that an adult man is deciding how a teenage girl feels about her body.
15. “Sundiver Day” by Kathleen Goonan: Beautifully evokes the Florida Keys setting, but chickens out at the ending, and winds up not being about much of anything.
14. “Repair Kit” by Stephen Baxter: Fun pulp sci-fi that’s about as layered as a sheet of printer paper.
13. “Orange” by Neil Gaiman: An interesting concept, but he literally wrote it on the flight he took to turn it in.
12. “An Honest Day’s Work” by Margo Lanagan: Riveting in its idea, but it’s a scene-setting, not a story.
11. “Cheats” by Gwyneth Jones: A moving exploration of disability and escapism that requires a bit too much explanation to be truly heartbreaking.
10. “Ass-Hat Magic Spider” by Scott Westerfeld: A short, sweet, emotional tale of the future.
9. “Incomers” by Paul McAuley: Youthful idiocy runs headlong into adult reality, but it’s still optimistic in the end.
8. “Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome” by Tricia Sullivan: A vacant-lot fistfight has intergalactic consequences in this brutal send-up of drone warfare.
7. “Infestation” by Garth Nix: How do you make vampires work as sci-fi instead of fantasy? Evidently, you gotta be Garth Nix.
6. “Lost Continent” by Greg Egan: The refugee experience in time instead of space. An object lesson in the power of speculative fiction to employ metaphors nobody else gets to use.
5. “Pinocchio” by Walter Jon Williams: Predicted Jake Paul several years beforehand, though this character is quite a bit more sympathetic.
4. “The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice” by Alastair Reynolds: It’s pretty gross. It’s also suspenseful and morally complicated and a damn good miniature space opera.
3. “The Dismantled Invention of Fate” by Jeffrey Ford: Science fiction without the science, with the beauty, with extra mind-bending. A love letter to what the genre can be when it doesn’t have to be “hard.”
2. “The Surfer” by Kelly Link: On the one hand, it’s a kid playing soccer in an airplane hangar and never going to space. On the other, it’s about everything we desperately want when we read science fiction. Majestic.
1. “The Dust Assassin” by Ian McDonald: Tragic, vivid, imaginative, sweeping. A short story should not be able to hold this much. Whole series of novels manage less.
27. Vox by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell
I’ve written about my love for The Edge Chronicles before, and Vox, the sixth installment and second in the Rook Trilogy, is the best of the lot. It’s got atmosphere, a twisty plot, action, a dark original world, and intrigue. Its politics are far more complicated than any other middle-grade adventure, but the motivations are still easy to keep straight. There’s nothing special in the prose, and it’s got some unfortunate representation issues, but I’ll go on forever about how underrated this whole series is.
26. Natural Grace by William Dietrich
This was the first book I read for my candidacy in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. The author, who usually writes historical thrillers, has a regular column in the Seattle Times where he argues that we should preserve animals, plants, and wild phenomena “not necessarily because they are important, but because they are interesting.” Each chapter is adapted from a column and concerns a topic in Pacific Northwest ecology such as deer, alder trees, or snow. It’s not the deepest nature writing ever, but it’s entertaining, informative, and passionate.
25. The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb
Here is a fascinating and unexpected book of nonfiction. Building on years of research and miles of cycling tours of Europe, Robb advances a revisionist historical theory that would call to mind Gavin Menzies if Gavin Menzies was correct about literally anything. His assertion: in ancient times, when nothing was old except for Stonehenge, an inter-tribal coalition of Druidic priests used their skill in astronomy and geometry to create the first map of Europe, long before the Romans stormed in.
To prove this, he visits towns and temples and travels roads, revealing how they were intentionally built to make the earth mirror the mythic world of the sky. His revelations, contrary to the established idea that every pre-Roman civilization north of the Alps spent its days clubbing itself in the face like a Far Side caveman, have been favored with a measured reaction of “Huge, if true.” Which was really the best he was going to get.
If Robb makes one error, it’s that his assumption that the Druids were a Europe-wide organized group that superseded national boundaries rests on shaky evidence. It’s clear that something big was done, but who did it remains an open question.
24-20. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy)
As a child, the target audience for Lemony Snicket’s campily grim series, I couldn’t get into it for two reasons: first, my brother and cousin spent several months bizarrely obsessed with imitating Vice Principal Nero, and second, I took the warnings to stop reading too seriously. The book said “go read something else,” and I said “OK,” and put it down.
Picking them up again in time for the excellent new TV series, I got a much better sense of their intelligence. First of all, they’re not actually all that dark. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny endure all manner of tribulations, true, but they’re rarely in physical danger. The fact that every adult is either a befuddled moron or a member of a sinister shadow society just mirrors the worldview of the average child (and most young adults).
Further, the five books that I read take excellent care to teach lessons we too often leave children to figure out on their own. Not just the definitions of difficult words, but also truths that are at once harsh and comforting to understand. Plenty of books and movies tell kids to be themselves and live life to the fullest. Not enough teach them that they shouldn’t believe everything they read, that people who try to hurt them are doing it because they themselves are upset, or how important it is to know how to cook. They’re going to learn those things anyway. Better that it happen this way.
Check back in a little while for my top 19 books of 2017!