2017 was destined to be the year that I read more books that I wrote. The previous year had been spent researching and writing my Green Arrow book, and suddenly the bit of my brain dedicated to obscure comic bookery was free to flex its literary muscles.
Sometime in late 2016, with the first draft of Moving Target sitting with the publishers, I thought it would be a great time to catch up on my long-neglected nihilism. So I began a Cormac McCarthy re-read. Three books in and I’d had all the incest, murder, and necrophilia I could handle for a while, so I took a little break. About 100 books later, I found myself at the end of 2017 returning to Suttree. (It’s phenomenal and disarmingly funny, by the way).
A friend casually suggested that we tackle Stephen King’s The Dark Tower books before the film was released. Now the film was not great, but King’s multiverse was right in my wheelhouse. The eight core books branched out into The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot, Eyes of the Dragon, and even It. The process reminded me that very act of reading was a form of creation. It restored a passion that had remained dormant due to a “lack of time” or some other excuse. So thank you for the challenge, Alex.
Yet lists like these are necessarily a contemporary affair, and the new releases of 2017 filled out KingFest 2017. From literary heavyweights like Paul Auster through to the sharply modern voices of Angie Thomas and Emil Ferries, here’s a look back at the 37,000+ pages that cameoed on my bookshelf and Kindle throughout the last 12 months.
Fraction too much fiction
4321 is one of Paul Auster’s longest books. He reported worked on the 866 page book 7 days a week for 3 years and in longhand. The narrative itself is equally epic, with the title referring to the tale of Archie Ferguson being told four different ways. The different versions of Archie make different life choices throughout the 50s/60s setting, resulting in different outcomes. It’s all-encompassing.
The most surprising things about Mohsin Hamid’s EXIT WEST are the fantastical elements, doors that facilitate instantaneous passage between faraway borders. Replace those doors for ‘boats’ or any other type of vessel, and you have a perfect metaphor for the refugee experience, and a tale that feels completely immediate.
On the other end of the sci-fi scale is Andy Weir’s ARTEMIS, the witty writer uses a similar narrative voice as The Martian, his second novel takes everything we liked about that and distills it down to a laser-focused heist adventure.
One of my underrated favourites this year was Kayla Rae Whitaker’s THE ANIMATORS, oestensibly about a pair of female animators struggling to find themselves as their artistic voices. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and comic books, Whitaker’s book is about animation in the same way that Moby Dick is a about a big fish.
Of course, I had to include a contemporary Stephen King in here. SLEEPING BEAUTIES, despite the speculative/sci-fi setting of this outing, is also unapologetically fresh and sharply contemporary. This is post-Trump King, totally tapping into the zeitgeist with commentary on the treatment of women in all aspects of society. When the President’s motorcade is referred to as just another “swinging dick,” we are left in no doubt as to the politics of either King.
Speaking of politics, the first year of the 45th US President has brought us some sharply political pieces as well.
There’s the more forthright pieces in WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, a powerful collection of essays written by Ta-Nehisi Coates during the Obama Presidency. Coates uses new introductions for each piece to frame their context and perhaps try and understand the legacy of that presidency in light of the current administration of “45.” Or as he puts it in his introduction “the argument made in much of this book is that Good Negro Government—personal and political—often augments the very white supremacy it seeks to combat.”
The essential YA book of the year is undoubtedly THE HATE U GIVE from debut novelist Angie Carter. Like Exit West, it is another book for our times, and the response to any sentence that begins, ends, or contains any version of “all lives matter.” Dealing directly with the police shooting of a young black man, Carter is never didactic or anything less than authentic. It is merely a window into an event that may seem extraordinary to the outside, but reveals the everyday realities for millions. Like her character, Thomas uses her most powerful weapon (her voice) to respond to myths perpetuated by a seemingly immovable paradigm.
Then there’s the clinical autopsy of the election in Joshua Green’s thoroughly researched DEVIL’S BARGAIN: STEVE BANNON, DONALD TRUMP, AND THE STORMING OF THE PRESIDENCY. In one moment, you’ll find yourself wanting to fling the book across the room in sheer frustration. The deliberate and single-minded way in which Steve Bannon, the Breitbart chief and Trump campaign executive/former White House Chief Strategist, who helped fast-track nationalism in the US was so patently manipulative that it should have been obvious. Yet Green paints a portrait of a Democratic Party and a left that didn’t think it could happen so quickly. Sinclair Lewis, eat your heart out.
On the other side of the pond, writers responded in different ways. Man Booker shortlisted authors Ali Smith and Fiona Mozley dealt with a post-Brexit Britain with less direct prose. There is so much understated tension lurking beneath the surface of Mozley’s ELMET, including any number of things that may never be resolved for the reader. A slice of Souther Gothic by way of ancient Britannia, you may find yourself returning this one in the future. Smith released the first half of her quartet of seasonal books, AUTUMN and WINTER. Filled with cutting, emotional, and sometimes laugh-out-loud conversations, Smith works Trump’s attempts to reclaim “Merry Christmas” and the Brexiters fear of The Other into the narratives seamlessly.
I have a little bit of bias towards my publishers at Sequart, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t still praise the excellent essays in editor Ian Boucher’s HUMANS AND PARAGONS: ESSAYS ON SUPER-HERO JUSTICE. Do superheroes hold a mirror up to society or do they reflect the one we live in? This excellent collection of essays and interviews unpacks the genre in an accessible and thought-provoking way.
Emil Ferris’ brilliant debut, MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS, is composed entirely of ballpoint pen drawings on ruled notebook paper. One of the most brilliantly original comics I have encountered, it’s a mixture of fantasy and honest autobiography that puts Ferris in the same camp as Art Spiegelman, Roz Chast or Alison Bechdel.
DC’s Young Animal imprint also threw up some crazy interesting titles, including SHADE: THE CHANGING GIRL and DOOM PATROL. More on my favourite comics of 2017 over at Newsarama.