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The best books to give and get: Fiction picks of 2017

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The good, the thrilling, the beautiful: Best books of 2017
The good, the thrilling, the beautiful: Best books of 2017
Courtesy of publishers

This week, The Thread is sharing some of our favorite books of the year.

Tell us the best book you read @TheThreadMPR.

"Rabbit Cake" by Annie Hartnett

"Rabbit Cake" is a peculiar, dark, grab-your-heart story of a family clawing its way out of grief. It's narrated by 11-year-old Elvis Babbitt, whose life is upturned when her sleepwalking, sleep-swimming mother drowns in the river running through Freedom, Ala. Elvis should be in contention for best narrator of the year; her voice feels like a mix of Scout Finch and Harriet the Spy, pushed to the edge by loneliness.

Rabbit Cake 9781941040560

"Dark at the Crossing" by Elliot Ackerman

 

Elliot Ackerman's second novel drops readers into a setting that has flooded headlines this year: the Turkish border with Syria. Enter Haris, who dreams of crossing the border to fight against the Assad regime. When his plans are disrupted, he finds himself in the company of a Syrian refugee who also desperately wishes to cross the border and return home.

Dark at the Crossing Dark at the Crossing

"History of Wolves" by Emily Fridlund

 

Emily Fridlund's debut novel unfolds in the isolation of northern Minnesota, where the perpetually misunderstood teenage Linda lives with her parents in the remnants of a nearly abandoned commune. When a young family moves into a new house across the lake, Linda finds herself caught up in their lives beyond her control. Fridlund's novel basked in the spotlight this year, landing on the short list for the Man Booker Prize.

History of Wolves History of Wolves

"Ill Will" by Dan Chaon

 

Dustin Tillman is a man risen from the ashes of his own dark past, but the life he's built as a psychologist in the Ohio suburbs is thrown into chaos with a flood of news. A serial killer is on the loose, preying on male college students, and Dustin's own half-brother, who was convicted of killing their parents, has just been released from prison after several decades, thanks to DNA evidence.

"It's a literary novel and it's a horror novel at the same time," said bookseller Michael Herrmann said. "It's very ambitious. It has a few narratives that stretch across three decades. ... There's half a dozen main characters. There's two unsolved killing sprees. He writes in first, second and third person, he writes in past and present tense. ... You don't even notice it really, because the narrative just carries you along."

Ill Will Ill Will

"The Power" by Naomi Alderman

 

Would the world be different if it were run by women? Naomi Alderman takes this age-old thought experiment and turns it into a thrilling, twisted story of our darkest impulses. Her novel imagines a world in which women develop a new muscle — a skein at their collarbone that generates electricity, allowing them to unleash bolts of it on anything or anyone. This new power unseats the global balance of power, and Alderman tracks the repercussions across the globe. The novel has been hailed as "The Handmaid's Tale" for a new generation.

The Power The Power

"Sing, Unburied, Sing" by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward leads readers into rural Mississippi, to the pain and grief and struggle of a family who can't escape history. The novel jumps between Jojo, already world-weary at 13, and his mother Leonie, who has visions of her dead brother every time she gets high. Ward's uniquely lyrical prose ties the family's modern-day struggles to the literal ghosts of Southern history. The National Book Award judges took note; the book took home the 2017 prize for fiction.

Sing, Unburied, Sing Sing, Unburied, Sing

"Fever Dream" by Samanta Schweblin

"Fever Dream" is a slim, sly, lose-an-afternoon read that will get under your skin. The premise is simple and devastating: A woman lies dying in a hospital room. A young boy is by her side, but he's not her son. At his insistence, she struggles to recount the last day she can remember, to reach an answer about what's happening to her. It's a dose of modern horror for those who want to devour a dark tale.

Fever Dream Fever Dream

"Stephen Florida" by Gabe Habash

"Stephen Florida" is a study in obsession. A college wrestler in the plains of North Dakota, Stephen wants just one thing: to take home the championship. After devoting four years of his life to make it happen, he has one final chance. He eats/sleeps/breathes/sweats/dreams of victory, with no space for anything or anyone else. The reader comes to know his every interior thought, even through injury, manipulation and his ill-fated forays into emotions beyond the wrestling mat. 

Stephen Florida Stephen Florida

"American War" by Omar El Akkad

Omar El Akkad turns up the volume on America's ugliest impulses in the dystopian landscape of "American War." The novel opens in 2074, in the grip of the second Civil War. The North and South have split once more; oil is outlawed; the changing climate has ravaged the country; and sabotaged drones dot the skies, firing at random. Amid the chaos, the Chestnut family is forced into a refugee camp, where young Sarat gets an education in what can turn a human into a weapon.

American War American War

"My Favorite Thing is Monsters" by Emil Ferris

Warning: Dark. Morbid. And brilliantly told. Emil Ferris' graphic novel unfolds in the form a 10-year-old girl's diary. Living in Chicago in the tumult of the 1960s, Karen becomes obsessed with the murder of her upstairs neighbor, a Holocaust survivor. As Karen investigates, everyone in her life becomes a suspect, and the story casts its reach as far back as her neighbor's early life in Germany.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters My Favorite Thing is Monsters

"Norse Mythology" by Neil Gaiman

Let one of modern literature's most inventive minds run wild in thousands of years of myth, and ta-da: "Norse Mythology." Neil Gaiman works his magic on ancient tales, reinventing the pantheon of Odin, Thor and Loki. (No, this isn't a Marvel movie.) Gaiman's clever and irreverent spin on these classic tales makes them sing (and yell and dance) again.

Norse Mythology Norse Mythology

"Celine" by Peter Heller

Here's your private eye caper for 2017. Celine is a masterful investigator based in New York with a track record for finding whoever's missing — especially when law enforcement can't or won't. Then, in the grand tradition of mysteries, a woman comes asking for help. Her father's gone missing in the wilds of Montana, and authorities assume it's a bear attack. But when Celine and her partner decamp for Yellowstone to investigate, they find themselves tangled in a plot fueled by family secrets.

Celine Celine

"Magpie Murders" by Anthony Horowitz

"Magpie Murders" delivers two mysteries in one. This twisty, form-defying novel is built around a manuscript for a murder mystery. The manuscript is traditional in the best ways possible, recounting a series of murders that shake an English village and turn everyone into a suspect, a la Agatha Christie. But the manuscript is framed by the story of its editor, who regrets ever touching the papers in the first place. "Unlike me," she writes, "you've been warned."

Magpie Murders Magpie Murders

"Future Home of the Living God" by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich can do anything. The National Book Award-winning author with more than 10 novels to her name takes a leap into dystopia with her newest work — and she lands flawlessly. "Future Home" imagines a world where evolution starts rolling backward, and the government — or whoever the government has become — rounds up all pregnant women for study. Caught in the middle is Cedar, a Native American adoptee raised by wealthy white liberals in Minneapolis, who reconnects with her birth family just as the world is coming apart.

Future Home of a Living God Future Home of a Living God

"Pachinko" by Min Jin Lee

If you want a multi-generational historical novel, here's the best of the year. Min Jin Lee's latest is a glimpse into a world about which most of us are ignorant: Koreans who moved to Japan for work, where they were treated like eternal outsiders no matter how long the family had been settled in the country. Through unforgettable characterizations, Lee keeps you rapt through the highs and lows of the descendants of Sunja, a young woman who finds herself single and pregnant at the turn of the last century. It's a good, old-fashioned sprawling family saga.

Bookseller Josie Danz said: "I found this novel very relevant to today's world, just because it's about outsiders, familial roles and also the politically marginalized. For me, it drew a lot of questions of what makes a nation, what defines a home, how do we define family, and how do we define what loyalty is to family?"

Pachinko Pachinko

"Borne" by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer is known for his delightfully dark speculative fiction, and his newest novel imagines a post-apocalyptic landscape ruined by technology run amok. It follows a young woman named Rachel who lives in the shattered remnants of a city now controlled by a giant, murderous, levitating bear. Rachel is a scavenger, bringing whatever of value she finds back to her cliffside refuge, which she shares with her partner Wick. One day she brings home what looks like a seashell — though it proves to be anything but.

Borne Borne

"Lincoln in the Bardo" by George Saunders

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie died in the White House of typhoid fever. George Saunders, who has been a modern master of the short story for decades, has crafted his first ever novel around Lincoln's crippling grief, and the inhabitants of the graveyard where he lays Willie to rest. The novel is an experimental force of nature, bouncing between the many spirits that still walk (or float) the grounds. The audiobook, notably, required a 166-person cast to convey all the voices. Saunders' first foray into full-length fiction earned him the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

Lincoln in the Bardo Lincoln in the Bardo

"Her Body and Other Parties" by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado's debut collection of short stories is a fantastically bizarre debut of a wild new voice in fiction. The book is difficult to capture — the stories riff on horror, femininity, queerness and even "Law & Order: SVU." Each one is clever, provocative and refreshingly new.

Her Body and Other Parties Her Body and Other Parties

"Chemistry" by Weike Wang

The narrator of "Chemistry" is trapped. Trapped by her graduate program in chemistry where her research has hit a dead end; trapped by her parents' unyielding expectations for her to succeed; trapped by a question she doesn't know how to answer from her frustratingly successful boyfriend. And so, for the first time in her life, she veers off plan, leaving behind the analytical embrace of the lab to try to answer another question: What do I really want? 

Chemistry Chemistry

"What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky" by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Lesley Nneka Arimah's collection of short stories weave together memory, war and Arimah's own brand of science fiction. The stories range from deviously simple to grand and imaginative. Arimah brings to life families separated by time, oceans and the things they never talk about. The collection took home the 2017 Kirkus Prize for fiction.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky

"The End We Start From" by Megan Hunter

You can't escape the rise of dystopia in fiction. This year's literary offerings included hundreds of ways the world as we know it could end. Several of these dark visions are featured on this list. But Megan Hunter's slim, poetic leap into the chaotic near-future feels the most plausible and, possibly for that reason, the most devastating. It begins with a couple giving birth to their first child, Z, in a London hospital. As they ready to take their baby home, however, they find that the city is quickly flooding and their way of life is lost beneath the rising waters. What would you do with a newborn and nowhere to go? "The End We Start From" is one couple's painful answer to that question.

The End We Start From The End We Start From

"Standard Deviation" by Katherine Heiny

The long marriage of Graham and Audra, a New York couple with a neuro-atypical son, is at the center Katherine Heiny's first novel. As Graham grows tired of his second wife's impetuous and open nature, he renews a relationship with his precise and remote first wife. Lovers of Laurie Colwin will be drawn to Heiny's deft blend of humor and deep insight into the mechanics of the human heart. It can't be stressed enough: This book is very, very funny.

Standard Deviation Standard Deviation

"Broken River" by J. Robert Lennon

 J. Robert Lennon's thriller is a study of people who are their own worst enemies. It opens with the brutal murder of a family in a house in the woods — a house that sits empty for years after the horrible crime. Ten years later, a new couple moves in with their young daughter. The couple — an unfaithful and unsuccessful sculptor and a blocked writer — are trying to save their marriage. Lennon peels back each of their onions' of self-destruction, as well as those of several other deeply-flawed characters, as the tale builds to its inevitable violent end. But who is the spectral presence in the house, and what does it seek?  

Broken River Broken River

"Bluebird, Bluebird" by Attica Locke

Darren Matthews wanted to leave Texas behind, but he can't shake his roots. As a black man navigating life as a Texas Ranger, he finds himself torn between allegiances that end with his suspension from the force. While waiting out his punishment, he begins investigating two murders in a small East Texas town. The victims' bodies wash up in the bayou — one is a black lawyer from Chicago, one is a white waitress from town. The novel is an engrossing murder mystery, as well as a literary meditation on racial tensions. 

Bluebird, Bluebird Bluebird, Bluebird

"Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid

The darkest moments of history always work themselves into fiction, and with "Exit West," Mohsin Hamid has crafted one of the first great novels of the modern refugee crisis. Set in an unnamed city besieged by bombings and bullets, the book follows a young couple — Nadia and Saeed — as they fall in love in the face of loss. Hamid conjures up a way for them, and others in similarly dire situations, to escape danger: He fashions a set of doors that can connect one place to the next, across continents and oceans. All you have to do is step through.

Exit West Exit West

"A Separation" by Katie Kitamura

A woman travels to a Greek Island on the off-season to locate her estranged husband, who has stopped all communication. Her trip, spurred by her mother-in-law's worries and not her own desire to face him, takes unexpected turns as the nameless woman learns not just about her husband's whereabouts but also uncomfortable truths about herself. Don't open Katie Kitamura's book expecting a plot-filled thriller — you'll see many sour reviewers on Goodreads seemed to expect just that. Instead, her quest and its repercussions will haunt you long after you finish this slim literary trip. (It may also quell any interest in Peloponnesian travels.) 

A Separation A Separation

"Young Jane Young" by Gabrielle Zevin

Young Jane Young Young Jane Young

"Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere Little Fires Everywhere