Best Reading in 2017, Part One: Fiction and Nonfiction

December 21, 2017 at 3:07 pm (Best of 2017, books)

We’ve already had the lists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Kirkus…. And now the one you’ve all been waiting for breathlessly:

Roberta’s Favorite Reads for 2017, Part One


Improvement by Joan Silber. A terrific writer hits it out of the ball park yet again.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. Suspense? ‘Literary’ fiction? However you categorize it, a gripping, unputdownable novel.

The Past, and Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley. The only author this year to appear twice on my list. She’s officially one of my absolute favorite writers.

Trajectory by Richard Russo. Four long stories – more like novellas – comprise this slender and powerful collection. I haven’t read anything by Russo since Empire Falls; I’d forgotten what delight his work can provide.

Conclave by Robert Harris. I couldn’t imagine how this novel set in the claustrophobic environs of the Vatican could possibly interest me. But how, after the Cicero Trilogy, The Fear Index, Pompeii, An Officer and a Spy, and The Ghost, could I ever have doubted this gifted novelist’s transfixing powers?

One thing I really appreciated about Conclave as the way in which the intense faith of the priests and cardinals was bodied forth in prayer, both in formal occasions and in moments of private urgency.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Reservoir 13 by Jon MacGregor. I am somewhat ambivalent about listing this novel.  Yes, the writing is lyrical, the evocation of rural Britain is striking, the critics mostly raved – and yet….Maureen Corrigan’s review summed it up for me exactly:

….as admirable as McGregor’s achievement is, I frequently found myself looking for excuses to stop admiring it and read something else.

And finally, News of the World by Paulette Jiles, a slim triumph of a novel. I don’t often finish a work of fiction with a feeling of such deep gratitude for  the gifts it bestowed.



I had great reading in this category  this year, as you will see:


Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City, by Kate Winkler Dawson. I never go a chance to blog about this book, but trust  me – it’s a terrific story.

Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards. This book is responsible for greatly enriching my reading of crime fiction this year.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls. And what a life it was: edifying and enriching, and way too short.

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks. Okay, so for a while, I got kind of obsessed with Mr. Rebanks and his pastoral life in the north of England. Blame it mostly on those wonderful border collies.

The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas de Quincey, By Grevel Lindop

The Witness Tree: Seasons of Change with a Century-Old Oak, by Lynda V. Mapes

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation,  by Brad Ricca

Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling, by Michael Cannell

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, by John Preston

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. What can I say? I felt a need for a change of pace. And yes, I did read every word of it. How much I actually understood is open to question, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is such an entertaining raconteur, it didn’t really matter:

   As the universe continued to cool, the amount of energy available for the spontaneous creation of basic particles dropped. During the hadron era, ambient photons could no longer invoke E=mc^2 to manufacture quark-antiquark pairs. Not only that, the photons that emerged from all the remaining annihilations lost energy to the ever-expanding universe, dropping below the threshold  required to create hadron-antihadron pairs. For every billion annihilations–leaving a billion photons in their wake–a single hadron survived. Those loners would get to have all the fun: serving as the ultimate source of matter to create galaxies, stars, planets, and petunias.

At this point I find I must give a shout-out to the Wall Street Journal for its selection of the Ten “Books of the Year.”  In Fiction, the editors included, among others, Joan Silber’s Improvement; in Nonfiction, both Laura Dassow Walls’s biography of Thoreau and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann made the cut. (To access the full text of Wall Street Journal articles, use the Proquest database. It can be accessed on the Howard County Library site, and at other academic and public libraries.)

Part Two of this post will be forthcoming – but first I must return to London….




1 Comment

  1. whatsnonfiction said,

    Love your nonfiction list! Death in the Air and American Fire were among my favorites this year too. I’ve been meaning to get around to Mrs. Sherlock Holmes and Incendiary, glad to see you rank them so high. Lots of great suggestions here, excellent post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: