Best Books of 2017

The year is almost over and it’s time to revisit some of my favorite reads of the year. As with any list, this is not as extensive/inclusive/comprehensive as I’d like it to be, but having to do other things besides reading severely cuts into the amount of time I can spend inside books (if you have any leads on a gig that pays you to read whatever you want, get at me). In any case, this was a fantastic year. I made a list of best crime reads and one of best horror books, but some of the best books were in the enormous interstitial space between genres. Anyway, here are some books I hope didn’t fly under your radar:

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano. I was ready for this to be great, and it was, but the pain and violence in its pages blew me away. This is a narrative about loss, guilt, and surviving, but the way Catalano builds his vignettes allows him to show the minutiae of everyday living and the sharp edges of every failure.

Absolutely Golden by D. Foy. Funny, satirical, smart, and packed with snappy dialogue and characters that are at once cartoonish and too real, this is a book that, much like Patricide did last year, proves that Foy is one of the best in the business and perhaps one of the most electric voices in contemporary literary fiction.

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman. I met Tatiana when we read together at Malvern Books in Austin in late 2017. She read a chunk of this and it blew me away. I got the book that same night. Imagine your favorite philosopher deconstructing weird relationships while trying to simultaneously make you cringe in recognition and laugh at yourself. Well, this is what that philosopher would write. A short, powerful read that I will soon be reviewing here in its entirety, this was a blast of fresh air.

Itzá by Rios de la Luz. This short book destroys patriarchal notions of silence, abuse, and growth. Rios de la Luz wrote about a family of water brujas and in the process redefined bilingual bruja literature. This is a timely, heartfelt book that celebrates womanhood in a way that makes it necessary reading for every gender.

Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister. With Trump in the White House, this novel is more than an entertaining look at the dangers of unchecked religion and politics. Yeah, call this one a warning that should be read by all. It’s also very entertaining and a superb addition to the impressive Stalking Horse Press catalog.

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown. I don’t want to imagine the amount of research that went into this book. However, I’m really happy that Brown did it, and that he turned everything he learned into a novel of interwoven narratives that is a celebration of a river, of people, and of language. This was so stunning that Brown immediately joined the ranks of “buy everything he publishes authors” before I’d reach the tenth chapter.

Human Trees by Matthew Revert. If Nicolas Winding Refn, Quentin Tarantino, and David Lynch collaborated on a film, the resulting piece of cinema would probably approximate the style of Revert’s prose. Weird? Yup. Smart? Very. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It seems Revert can do it all, and this is his best so far.

In The River by Jeremy Robert Johnson. The simple story of a father and son going fishing somehow morphs into a soul-shattering tale of anxiety, loss, and vengeance wrapped in a surreal narrative about the things that can keep a person between this world and the next. Johnson is a maestro of the weird and one of the best writers in bizarro, crime, and horror, but this one erases all of those genres and makes him simply one of the best.

The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan. A slice of Americana through the McClanahan lens. Devastating and hilarious. Too real to be fiction and too well written to be true. Original, raw, and honest. Every new McClanahan books offers something special, and this one might be his best yet.

In the Distance by Hernán Díaz. This is the perfect marriage of adventure and literary fiction. The sprawling narrative covers an entire lifetime of traveling and growing, and it always stays fresh and exciting. At times cruel and depressing, but always a pleasure to read. I hope we see much more Díaz in translation soon.

Beneath the Spanish by Victor Hernández Cruz. Read the introduction and you’ll be sold on the entire book. Multiculturalism is fertile ground for poetry, and Hernández Cruz is an expert at feeding that space with his biography and knowledge and then extracting touching, rich poems and short pieces that dance between poetry, flash fiction, and memoir.

Some other outstanding books I read this year:

Dumbheart / Stupidface by Cooper Wilhelm

Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools by Peter Markus

Something to Do With Self-Hate by Brian Alan Ellis

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi



A Car With No Tires On It: A Conversation with Daniel McCloskey


–Interview by Rachel Mennies


Rachel Mennies: We’ve talked a lot about you seeing yourself as both a visual artist and a writer—I was curious if you could talk a little bit about a “hybrid novel,” the term you use to describe A Film About Billy?

Daniel McCloskey: I call my book a hybrid novel because it’s a novel that has comics in it. The book has 250 pages and about 80 of those are comics pages, but that term could apply to a broad range of longish narratives that integrate non-traditional elements.

RM: Okay—so that’s one way to distinguish it from, say, a more traditional graphic novel?

DM: Yes. A Film About Billy is more of a true prose book that has chunks of comics in it. It’s a novel about a kid filming a documentary about his dead friend during an international suicide epidemic—so it was important for me to have this character show part of his documentary. [My original] screenplay format wasn’t working, so I decided the text needed comics to give that glimpse. Continue reading

Novel Zombie

A terrified novelist

I’d like to tell you about my novel. The dead one. The one which stirs in its grave.

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It started in 2002. I lived in Prince George’s County, Maryland–about ten miles from the DC border–and I had a typical life for a college-dropout & would-be artist. I worked at a independent bookstore; I dated a woman nine years my senior; I wrote awful poetry. One day, I wanted to write a story.

I figured twenty pages was a suitable length. I also figured I could clear my throat for the first three pages. Anyway, I set the story in DC. A blizzard made its way to my fictional District, closing the schools for a few days. My protagonist puttered around the house, thought of his deadbeat dad–a father he never met–and decided to spend the snow day with his friend, Derek. Derek was an emcee; my protagonist made beats; together, they dreamed of obtaining a record deal one day. I too had such a dream: waiting daily for a publishing contract to–just–fall from the sky.

There was sex, betrayal, fist fights, a father-son reunion, money gifted by said deadbeat dad. I think my protagonist bought himself an SUV and–


Eighteen months later, the short story became four hundred pages (no chapters). I printed out the four hundred pages. I read the first ten pages–maybe. I held my phonebook-thick manuscript, reading the first pages, thinking aloud what have I done? By this time, I was in Georgia, a few miles from the Alabama border, still living the (now twice-over) college dropout, artistic life: my new girlfriend was two years older than the one I left in DC; I worked for an insurance company; I still wrote awful poetry, waiting for that publishing contract to appear out of thin air, still.

2004 passed. 2005 stopped by and I entered my first marriage. By the end of the year, I hated my insurance company job and I started to think about my novel. In my cubicle, I scribbled a quick outline–changes that had to be made for the second draft. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my first depressive episode began to surface but that is immaterial for this story–I only mention it for context, to quickly characterize my state of mind back then.


I finally sat down to completely rewrite the novel. I changed a few details. I reset the novel from DC to a fictional rendering of my hometown in New Jersey. The blizzard remained, as did the throat-clearing: about three pages of scene setting written in what was, at the time, my best verse. Everyone was the same age, more or less, though my protagonist was less pragmatic the second time around. More unstable. More unsure of himself. Less hopeful. More dour. A sad young man who carried around pound of guilt on his back.

He later met a new character I created. She became his first love. She lived with her father in an incestuous household. She was murdered by her father; my protagonist saw her body and was eventually shot in the back by her father who, seconds later, took his own life.

My protagonist suffered paralysis, post traumatic stress disorder, disassociated himself from his friends, went to college (Temple in Philadelphia), where he abused his painkillers and threatened to kill his psychiatrist, prompting a trip to the mental hospital.

By the time I got him to the mental hospital, I had no idea what to do. I thought the novel climaxed too soon. I figured if a shootout and a commitment to the looney bin occurred in part one of the story, then how the fuck do I make the story climax in part two?

Well–my depressive episode took hold; my wife and I split up; I moved back to New Jersey. Then, I didn’t regard the novel as officially dead–just on hold until I sorted out my life as well as my hero’s. In the meantime, I came to some conclusions: I didn’t know how to write well; I didn’t know the elements of craft–I’m sure I used a few accidentally in the novel; I had no idea what I was doing. So I went back to short stories for practice. This was in 2007, by the way.

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Novel zombies are inherently difficult to kill. To my knowledge, there’s no way to do it: no decapitation, no gunshot to the head. Is it enough to say my novel is dead?

A dead novel isn’t a failed novel; a failed novel–wheezy and fatigued as it might be–still breathes, still generates a modicum of hope that one day, it’ll become a success or, at least, its author can use it for parts in other stories.

What makes my novel dead? It’s not a failed project, it’s one I gave up on over the years because of a challenge. To be fair, I didn’t know how to write a short story; I had no idea how to construct a novel; there was no hope that I could actually save a novel.

I guess a dead novel is one without faith from its author. Even a failed novel can be crafted and sent into the world with loving hands. The author must love his story, his characters, his world. When I loved, my novel began to fail; when I stopped, it died. Love, like a zombie, dies hard, if at all. I realize–I love my main character. A decrepit page flickers, threatening to turn.

@thomasdemary. @twitter.