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Favorite Books I Read in 2017

Thursday, January 4, 2018
I read 59 books in 2017.

Sort of.

Looking through the list, there is at least one novella/short story, several plays, and one graphic novel (which made me realize that I've been very inconsistent in how I recorded my comics reading for the year). But I also read two Neal Stephenson books, one of which was over 1100 pages (in tiny print) so I think that makes up the difference?

Without being too much of a stickler about genre, here is the basic breakdown:
- 11 non-fiction
- 6 plays (all but one written by Martin McDonagh)
- 13 crime/thriller/mystery
- 5 fantasy
- 3 horror
- 6 science fiction
- 1 young adult
- 1 crime/fantasy hybrid
- 12 "literature" (this label became somewhat of a catch all for books that defied easy categorization, like Cryptonomicon, Children of Men, The Road, The Prestige, or Before the Fall. All of these are genre mixes of a sort and could easily fit into other categories)
- 1 graphic novel

With that background, I've boiled it down to a list of 15 that I enjoyed the most, and will try to highlight the best in each genre for me among that group.

On when the 15 were released:
- 6 were released in 2017
- 3 were released in 2016
- 2 were released in 2015
- 1 was released in 2012
- 1 was released in 2009
- 1 was released in 2006
- 1 was released in 1999

Without further ado, the books, in the order I read them:

BookDate FinishedReleasedGenre
Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta1/2/20172016Literature
The Magicians by Lev Grossman1/10/20172009Fantasy
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley 3/4/20172016Literature
Police at the station and they don't look friendly by Adrian McKinty 3/19/20172017Crime
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson 4/5/20172015Sci-Fi
Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane5/17/20172017Crime
How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen6/19/20172012Non-Fiction
The Force by Don Winslow7/15/20172017Crime
Afterlife by Marcus Sakey8/5/20172017Crime/Fantasy
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu 8/26/20172015Fantasy
The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu9/10/20172016Fantasy
Safe by Ryan Gattis11/3/20172017Crime
Strange Weather by Joe Hill11/12/20172017Horror
Special Topics in Calamnity Phyiscs by Marisha Pessl11/29/20172006Literature
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson12/23/20171999Literature

*Before the Fall was a kindle read, so no picture for Noah Hawley
**All pictures taken by my very talented and generous wife, Krystle Wahnschaffe.

The Crime/Thriller/Mystery Books

Police at the station and they don't look friendly by Adrian McKinty

I don't know how I'm supposed to capitalize that title. Also I don't know how Adrian McKinty is so good. Practice I guess.

He's an Irish author that now lives in Australia, and this is the sixth book in his Sean Duffy series, which follows a Catholic detective in a predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland during the 1980's, or the troubles.

The thing that always strikes me about his books is how I'm hooked even by the quiet, non-plot moments. Some of my favorite parts of these books are when Sean Duffy is just walking around at home, listening to a record, or stuff like that. I think that's what keeps me coming back to this series. Every one has had a great mystery and crime plot, but at the end of the day I care about this guy's life, and I want to spend time with him and see where he ends up.

Start with the first book in this series if you're interested.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite writers. He releases a book, I buy and start reading it the day it comes out. If you like crime/mystery novels and don't read this guy, evaluate your life choices. He's written things you might have heard of because of the film adaptations, like the wonderful Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River, Shutter Island, Live By Night, or The Drop.

His series that contains Gone, Baby, Gone is one of my favorites. The Given Day, Live By Night, and World Gone By, are all incredible. Mystic River is heart crushingly amazing.

Anyway... Since We Fell. Great read. Different than his last several books, which was refreshing. It sits in the space that Gillian Flynn made popular with Gone Girl, the whole I-think-my-significant-other-might-secretly-be-evil-or-trying-to-kill-me-or-at-least-lying-to-me-and-now-I-have-to-figure-it-out kind of genre. But right away I was reminded what makes him so good, as the first 50 pages or so is basically backstory for the main character, and it is so compelling.

He has this ability to bring characters to life that had me invested from the start. Then the rest of the book is just a blast. Does it live up to the rest of his works? I would rather not think about it. I was just glad to have another book from him to read.

Buy it here.

Safe by Ryan Gattis

I've read one other book by Gattis (Kung Fu High School - which is actually really fun), but had heard about him because of his book about the L.A. riots, All Involved. I actually bought that book a few years ago, but haven't read it yet. Then I saw this and for some reason just felt compelled to start it right away.

It reminded me a lot of another favorite of mine (The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton) in that the main character is a safe cracker. What really struck me about this book was the character work and emotion that went through the whole thing. It's a pretty standard crime story set up: a guy is trying to do ONE LAST BIG JOB to get enough money to get out. And yet this puts a great twist on it. The reason he needs the money, his ultimate goal, how he goes about it, and the people who end up crossing his path, all subverted my expectations for what I thought this story was going to be.

It surprised me with it's depth and love for its characters. It's a book that respects the murky nature of right and wrong, bad guys/good guys that you see a lot in some of these stories. And at the end I was moved emotionally in a way that surprised me.

Buy it here.

Afterlife by Marcus Sakey

That this guy isn't more well known is a constant surprise to me. He wrote a bunch of great stand alone Chicago crime novels, and then branched out with his Brilliance trilogy, which was really good.

This book has a killer premise: death is a gateway to the next plane where there is an epic war going on. Mix that with crime elements as the two main characters are FBI agents, who also happen to be in love, trying to get back to each other.

Great read. Supposedly already in development to be adapted into a movie. Not life changing, but very entertaining.

Buy it here.

And finally... The best crime book I read this year:

The Force by Don Winslow

Whatever I said above about Dennis Lehane applies doubly for Don Winslow. The Cartel might be one of the best books I've ever read in my life. The fact that he's working on a third one right now is something to be grateful for.

Here is the blurb for The Force from Amazon, because I can't say it better than this:

Based on years of research inside the NYPD, this is the great cop novel of our time and a book only Don Winslow could write: a haunting and heartbreaking story of greed and violence, inequality and race, crime and injustice, retribution and redemption that reveals the seemingly insurmountable tensions between the police and the diverse citizens they serve. A searing portrait of a city and a courageous, heroic, and deeply flawed man who stands at the edge of its abyss, The Force is a masterpiece of urban living full of shocking and surprising twists, leavened by flashes of dark humor, a morally complex and utterly riveting dissection of modern American society and the controversial issues confronting and dividing us today.
There is a sense of reality to Winslow's books that always blows me away. He must do so much research, and I felt that with The Force. On top of that, it's just exciting to read. I honestly don't feel like anything else I say will do this justice. It's great.

Buy it here.

The Fantasy Books

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Odds are if you love fantasy, you've already read these. Harry Potter for adults doesn't quite work as a descriptor, because Harry Potter is for everyone, but it's close. Krystle read these books years ago and really liked them, but I had no interest. Then we started watching the TV show together, and again I found myself not too invested, but we kept watching it.

Then somewhere around episode 8 or 9 of the first season I was completely hooked, I loved these characters and this world and I had a strong urge to read every book in the series. And this first book delivered. I loved it. It's a grown up story that pulls from all of the best of your favorite fantasy/magic properties. It's also self aware about these influences, as this is a world where Harry Potter exists. You see this too in that the central premise revolves around a book series about a magical realm that happens to actually exist.

Anyway, the whole thing is great. I felt so invested in these characters and am still saving the last one for a rainy day.

Buy it here.

The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

I was introduced to Ken Liu by way of The Three Body Problem, one of my favorite sci-fi trilogies of all time. He translated the first and third book in that series from Chinese to English. I also enjoyed his collection of short fiction as well (although I still need to finish that).

These two books are the start of a series of epic fantasy, often described as "silk-punk" because of how they draw from non-western influences. It had the scope and depth of a Game of Thrones, but with an Eastern twist. The magic comes through as mechanical or technical innovations. It focuses on a array of characters, but ultimately zeroing in on a few and the people around them.

I had the first book in this series on my list for years but didn't start it because I was intimidated by the length. These are both long books. But it was so exciting, engaging, and fun to read that when I finished the first one, I went out and started the second one right away, even though it was much longer than the first!

If you love epic fantasy, I think these are a must. And The Grace of Kings is my favorite read in that category this year for sure.

Buy it here.

The Lonely Horror Book

Strange Weather by Joe Hill

This is the only one, so obviously it's the top in this category. Joe Hill wrote one of my favorite books from 2016 (The Fireman - it's so good, read it!), and so even though I'm not a huge fan of shorter fiction, I got this as soon as it came out.

As you can see from the cover, it's four short novels. Not quite short stories, not quiet full length novels, I guess he didn't want to call them novellas. Whatever. They are four amazing pieces of story telling.

"Snapshot" is the disturbing story of a Silicon Valley adolescent who finds himself threatened by "The Phoenician," a tattooed thug who possesses a Polaroid Instant Camera that erases memories, snap by snap.
A young man takes to the skies to experience his first parachute jump. . . and winds up a castaway on an impossibly solid cloud, a Prospero’s island of roiling vapor that seems animated by a mind of its own in "Aloft."
On a seemingly ordinary day in Boulder, Colorado, the clouds open up in a downpour of nails—splinters of bright crystal that shred the skin of anyone not safely under cover. "Rain" explores this escalating apocalyptic event, as the deluge of nails spreads out across the country and around the world.
In "Loaded," a mall security guard in a coastal Florida town courageously stops a mass shooting and becomes a hero to the modern gun rights movement. But under the glare of the spotlights, his story begins to unravel, taking his sanity with it. When an out-of-control summer blaze approaches the town, he will reach for the gun again and embark on one last day of reckoning

So out of the four, "Rain" and "Loaded" were my favorite. They blew me away. Knocked my socks off. Buttered my grits. And then the other two were still very good, just didn't have the same knockout impact for me, personally. I also don't know if Horror is the right category for these stories, or maybe I just don't understand the full range of what's possible in that genre. Either way, I loved this collection and it was one of the best things I read this year.

Buy it here.

The Lonely Science Fiction Book

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

So this is far and away the best sci-fi book I read this year. Overall it's probably my second favorite read of the year. It's also another long one, that reads fast because it's so engaging and exciting that I couldn't stop.

It starts with the moon exploding, and everyone finding out that this will lead to an extinction level event in two years. So it becomes a race for the survival of our race, but not everyone will be able to get into space. So who stays, who goes? What does society look like on the other side?

I really don't want to say too much else, as part of the joy of this read for me were the unexpected twists and turns as the story progressed. But this is pretty much a book I would recommend to anyone.

Buy it here.

The Lonely Non-Fiction Book

How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth and Karen Dillon

So I first saw this as the HBR article, and then later the TED talk, and when I saw the book, I assumed it was essentially the same text as the original article but with a fancy hardcover. Even when I thought it was just that, I still wanted to buy it, just because I got so much out that material originally.

When I finally got around to buying a copy of this, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this isn't just a fancy publishing of the original text of his article, but Christensen and his colleagues took those original ideas and fleshed them all out, with more color and examples.

I think this is a potentially life changing book. I plan to re-read it again this year as a reminder. Sometimes I just watch that TED talk for a quick gut check of where I am with my priorities. Especially at the beginning of a new year, if you're looking for something inspiring and motivating, this is a great place to start.

Start with the TED talk if you want a preview. If you like that at all, then you'll probably love the book.

Buy it here.

The Fiction/Literature Books

Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta

I heard about this on one of my favorite podcasts (The Watch on the Ringer podcast network), and decided to check it out based on their recommendation.

Innocents and Others is about two women who grow up in LA in the 80s and become filmmakers. Meadow and Carrie have everything in common—except their views on sex, power, movie-making, and morality. Their friendship is complicated, but their devotion to each other trumps their wildly different approaches to film and to life.
It's a short novel, and contrasts their different paths of trying to make art. Meadow is making "real art" and Carrie goes a more commercial route. The book dives deep into their relationship, how they affect each other, how pursuing their creativity affects their lives.

Ultimately this was just a joy to read. It's the kind of book that's an experience more than a plot that sticks with you. I could see myself reading it again.

Buy it here.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

No picture for this one because I read it on kindle, but you can check out the cover on the amazon page here.

This book won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel, and while I don't recall what it was up against, it makes sense. This book is great.

Noah Hawley makes me a little upset. He has written and produced three seasons of the excellent FX show Fargo. At the same time he made Legion on FX, which was incredible. And then in the middle of all of that, he releases a novel. What is this guy's deal?

Anyway, I guess you could call this a mystery. Literary mystery maybe? It doesn't matter. It's really good.

Basically there is a private plane that crashes, and only two people survive. A random artist, and the young child of the rich people who owned the plane. The book goes back and forth between the after math of the crash, and their experience dealing with that investigation, and flashbacks that gives us insight and background into all of the various passengers and crew of the flight. All of this comes crashing together as we understand why everyone was on the plane, and ultimately what led to the crash.

I loved it.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

I started this book in the spring, and just barely finished it in December. I had to take a little break. This book is long. It's dense. It's brilliant, but sometimes brilliance is hard for me to take in.

This is three books smashed into one. It's a hacker novel about cryptocurrency (released in 1999!), it's a WWII novel about code breakers, and it's a novel about treasure hunting ultimately related to those first two novels as well.

There is a 4-page section where one of the WWII characters provides a mathematical analysis of how the time between a sexual release affects his ability to concentrate in his code breaking duties. Complete with equations and charts as he works through the various variables and connected ideas. It's a tangent. It's also an example of what makes this book so good. It's sprawling. It's epic. And ultimately that makes the journey extremely satisfying once it all comes crashing together at the end.

This might not be for everyone, but if you have the stamina, it's a worthwhile ride.

Buy it here.

And now, for my favorite read of 2017:

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

This book had some of the best prose I've read all year. It had some of the best characters, character descriptions, and character references. It had some of the best pop culture/literature references (my favorite example of this comes on page 344 when there is an exchange with a police officer, and the father is calling him every detective name from every novel ever). It also provoked some of the most visceral reactions in me. I felt things reading this book that I didn't feel reading anything else.

But what it comes down to is that this is a mystery I ended up actually caring about. It's basically 350 pages of character introductions, set-up, and then the main mystery happens, and the rest of the book is her trying to make sense of it. And I cared. I wanted her to find out. I wanted to know what happened. And I was invested in her finding out before other characters in the novel. There were stakes. There was real emotional investment to the proceedings. And that's rare for me.

So I think this was the book I enjoyed the most this year. It's long, and it's not long enough. It was another case of wanting to slow down, and really just savor what I was reading because the experience was so enjoyable. Whenever a writer can do that, as opposed to me just wanting to race to the end to figure out what happened, that's remarkable.

Buy it here.


We made it folks! Let me know what you guys read this year and what you think I should check out for 2018.

5 comments on "Favorite Books I Read in 2017"
  1. These are the books I read this year and podcasts listened to (Books/Podcasts with a * are highly recommended):
    1) Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by John Helyar
    2) * The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by the Arbinger Institute and Oliver Wyman
    3) * The Five Dysfunctions of a Team - A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni
    4) * Serial Season 1 by Sarah Koenig
    5) Serial Season 2 by Sarah Koenig
    6) * Dirty John by Christopher Goffard
    7) Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton M. Christensen
    8) * The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
    9) * Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
    10) * How Will You Measure Your Life? By Clayton M. Christensen (Repeat Read)
    11) * A Man Called Ove: A Novel by Fredrick Backman
    12) Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg Mckeown
    13) * The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind

    1. I have Barbarians at the Gate on kindle. No * - would you recommend prioritizing it?

      I loved both seasons of serial. I also really enjoyed Dirty John.

      Grit, Essentialism, and A Man Called Ove are all on my shelf right now. I'll read at least two of those this year, I think.

      Out of those three, which was your favorite?

    2. All of the books I read on my list were good and I would recommend, but some I liked better than others. Out of the three you mentioned from my list, I liked "A Man Called Ove" because I prefer to Novels. It is hard though because I feel like "Grit" is also a must read as well. "Essentialism" is good but I didn't feel like it was anything that changed my life.

  2. Marisha Pessl is the bomb. Read Night Film next. Great books! I ended up only reading 96, down from my all-time high of 130 in 2016.

    1. That is so impressive. Even 96 feels like a LOT.

      And I actually read Night Film first (Christian recommended it to me originally), and I liked it a lot. Maybe it's recency bias but I think I like Special Topics more.