Rioters Share their Best of the Backlist 2017
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The year of 2017 has been great for books, and there has been no shortage of exciting titles being published weekly. But sometimes the frenzy to keep up with what’s current can seem hamster wheel hopeless. Whenever I feel overwhelmed with reading what’s new, I try to fit a backlist title in there. According to Publishing Trendsetter, the term “backlist” refers to older books published before, well, right now: it’s a publishing term to describe titles listed in the back of the catalogue, rather than pushed to the “frontlist” and featured more prominently. Time traveling backward in book publishing history can help you discover an author, series, or genre you overlooked and provide some welcome perspective on today. In this list, 21 Book Riot writers give a “backlist bump” to the best backlist book (pre-2017) they read this year. What backlist book did you read and love? Share your recommendation in a comment!
Sarah S. Davis
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) by Jon Ronson
Reading Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) was a transformative experience for me. Up until then, I had read fiction almost exclusively. When another Rioter recommended this book, I was curious and decided to take a chance on nonfiction. I’m so glad I did. Ronson’s smart, witty, and self-deprecating narrative style makes him an entertaining host through the wilds of the Internet and public shaming across history. I appreciated how digestible the book reads while Ronson ultimately brings it all together in a sobering ending. After this book, I also read The Psychopath Test and listened to The Butterfly Effect, both by the author. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed helped open the doors for me to feel confident reading nonfiction. It was a gateway book.
The Fire Next Time (1963) by James Baldwin
I spent a portion of 2017 brushing up on my Baldwin and I’m so glad I did. If you’re a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work, go back to his inspiration and read The Fire Next Time. The book consists of two letters written at the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. The first letter is addressed to Baldwin’s young nephew and the second to the American people, both exploring the history of race in the U.S. and calling for an end to racial injustice. Baldwin’s writing is powerful and personal, and this book is as important in 2017 as it was in 1963.
Leah Rachel von Essen
A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1953) edited by Leonard Woolf
I’ve dug more into Virginia Woolf this year. I read The Waves and fell in love with the poetic brilliance of the text—it’s now one of my all-time favorite books. I had heard a lot of great things about A Writer’s Diary, which is a collection of her diary entries specifically about her books and her writing, and so I picked it up from Persephone Books in London when I was there in September. It’s led me to a new appreciation of her literary genius, and given me perspective as I read through her struggles with mental health and with the ebbs of fame. It is so gorgeous, and I think might be one of those rare books that literally changes my life. Her passionate work ethic (she was writing The Waves and Orlando at the same time!) and compelling diary-writing have led me to make my journaling more reflective and work harder on my novel-writing, setting better deadlines and expectations for myself.
The Vegetarian (English edition 2016; Korean 2007) by Han Kang
This novel about Yeong-hye, who stops eating meat after a disturbing dream and encounters resistance and violence from her husband and family as she becomes increasingly unable to eat, is itself like a dark dream. The tension builds steadily as Kang switches perspectives from Yeong-hye to her brother-in-law to her older sister. This novel was praised to the skies when Deborah Smith’s translation of the original Korean was published in 2016. Kang’s ability to create an ever-increasing sense of unease and her seamless perspective switching are two reasons why.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014) by Becky Chambers
I’m always a sucker for good sci-fi, and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is some of the best sci-fi I’ve read in a while. It tells the story of Rosemary Harper, the newest addition to the Wayfarer, an interspecies ship specializing in creating hyperspace tunnels. Although there is some intrigue and conflict and drama, the book is far more focused on character and world-building than plot—and believe me, in this case, that’s not at all a bad thing! Chambers develops some of the best and most thoughtful sci-fi world-building I’ve ever seen—considering similarities and differences between humans and other “Sapiens,” in a host of ways including biology, gender, and cultural beliefs/practices, to name a few. It’s truly refreshing to read a book that doesn’t consider humans—and particularly the cultural constructs we often take for absolute—as the norm. Between that and the fact that I absolutely fell in love with the cast of characters, this book (and I feel safe to assume, the rest of the series, which is ongoing) has become a new favorite for me.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (2014) by Genevieve Valentine
I’ve written about my love of fairy tales, but it means that at this point in my life I am incredibly particular about them. For me, a good retelling needs to explore the story in a way that hasn’t been done ad nauseum. This is one of the best retellings. 12 Dancing Princesses is not a well-trodden story (Get it? Like their shoes?), and Valentine takes us to 1920’s NYC for the setting. The story is about the love of 12 siblings all set against a uncaring father. The oldest, Jo, takes the girls to nighttime speakeasies to burn off their energy and frustration. Valentine somehow makes each of the 12 sisters distinctive, though some don’t get quite as much page time as the others. Jo struggles with the pull of her own wishes against her responsibilities toward her many sisters. She worries that she’s an instrument of her father, keeping her sisters subdued for him, rather than their champion, keeping them safe from him. It’s a fairly quiet novel, but it moves along with clean prose and little need to tie itself to the original tale. This book is perfect in my opinion and I went to re-read looking for its warm embrace.
True Grit (1968) by Charles Portis
Sometimes you stumble into one of your favorite books of all time because you wake up in the morning, open the Audible Daily Deal email, and you see that your favorite author, Donna Tartt, is narrating the book today. For just $2.95 it seemed like a pretty safe bet even if it was a Western. Meeting a book can be serendipitous like that. Like a rom com where you see a scruffy guy in a cowboy hat across the room, and sure, he doesn’t look like your type at all, but when you get to talking something clicks. It can feel kind of like you’ve met your soulmate in book form. Even though I’d met this book’s close relative in the movie adaptation, I had no idea that when I met the book, sparks would fly. Yes, please, give me a book narrated by a curt, opinionated spinster about the naively bold girl she once was. Let me listen to her share her adventures interspersed with observations on townsfolk she doesn’t like. Let me listen to this woman who has remained, for decades, utterly herself, inimitable and cantankerous and uncompromising. Oh, yes, there are also outlaws and rangers and manhunts and snakes. Those are all good, too.
The Monster of Florence (2008) by Douglas Preston & Mario Spezi
After reading The Lost City of the Monkey God earlier this year, I decided to explore Preston’s backlist. I don’t read much true crime, but the intriguing tale of a brutal serial killer stalking the picturesque groves of Florence was too enticing to pass up. The Monster of Florence describes an enthralling case, with more twists and turns than a James Patterson novel, but it goes much deeper than that. There are three things that make this account truly exceptional. The first is that the co-author, Mario Spezi, was actually arrested for the murders at one point. How many true crime books have you read in which the author is also a suspect? The second is that it exposes the corruption of the Italian legal system. It’s not just a book about a series of gruesome murders; it’s also a book about justice gone wrong. And third, it details the roles some of the main actors in the Monster of Florence case played in the Amanda Knox case, an angle that further condemns an unhinged criminal justice system. Bottom line: The Monster of Florence is a page-turner with a purpose. If you’re looking for your next true crime read, pick this one up ASAP.
The House on Mango Street (1991) by Sandra Cisneros
This beautiful heartbreaker of a book had been on my radar for a few years, but I just never made it a priority. I was lucky to pick up a copy at my library’s annual book sale last year and earlier this year found myself needing to break a particularly bad reading slump. Books on the shorter side tend to be the magic bullet for me in this respect, so I grabbed my used copy of Mango Street off of the shelf. And, as anticipated, this did the trick. Cisneros’s use of vibrant, complicated language in a middle grade book shows that she implicitly trusts and respects her audience. This is one of those books where I was shocked to learn of its publication date, as it has taken on the “classics” mantle in such a short period of time.
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006) by Nathaniel Philbrick
This book has been on my shelf for 10 years, and a recent move plus it being Thanksgiving time brought it to my attention. Philbrick takes care to tell as much as he can of both sides of the story, while having to rely overwhelmingly on Pilgrim accounts. He tells the story of the Pilgrim settlers and the native tribes they met, starting from the Pilgrims’ time in Holland as a persecuted religious sect, to the end of King Philip’s War, the last ditch effort by King Philip to stop the English takeover of his and other tribes’ lands.
Every Heart a Doorway (2016) by Seanan McGuire
I will readily admit to being a grown woman who still dreams of getting her Hogwarts letter or finding a magical door that will lead me away from the real world. This book is for people like me who know, deep in that secret imaginative part of them, that they belong somewhere else. The book follows young Nancy, having just returned from a fantastic land, as she enters a school dedicated to rehabilitating those returning to the real world after having similar experiences. There is magic, murder, science, and an asexual protagonist (!!!). It’s a relatively recent publication by an author with an impressive and renowned backlist, and a quick read that will leave you feeling jealous of those who have found their magical door.
We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (2016) by Jeff Chang
In this essay collection, Jeff Chang connects the Black Lives Matter Movement to #OscarsSoWhite to the re-segregation of towns throughout the United States and how that led to the events in Ferguson and around the country. Even if you already know about these events, Chang highlights a lot of the details behind the beginnings of these movements, how they all connect to each other, and how they have led to where we are today. This is a required reading book for people living in the United States because it not only will show you why things are the way they are, but how we can and should move forward as a country.
Modern Romance (2015) by Aziz Ansari
The road to true love has lots of potholes, false ends, and sometimes technology as a hindrance. Aziz Ansari, after realizing how stressful texting a date can be, decides to explore how courtship has changed over the past few decades. He talks to his parents about arranged marriages, for example, and to Japanese businessmen about updated technology. We get a lot of research and insight into society, and how we view romance.
The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar (2003) by Robert Alexander
With an incredibly strong voice, the narrator of Robert Alexander’s The Kitchen Boy tells the story of the final days of the Romanovs’ story and his involvement in their deaths. Graphic at times, the book is heart-wrenching and gripping despite sparse action. Even readers who know the royalties’ fates will hold on to shreds of hope as they come to the final pages. The Kitchen Boy is one to read slowly to truly appreciate the excellent and delicious prose while savoring the incredible story through which Alexander leads his readers. Plus, a shocking twist at the end will make you want to flip to the beginning and start again. It’s mind-boggling to me this book hasn’t received more attention and I want to shout from the rooftops, “Read this book!”
The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenstern
This book has been rave reviewed by absolutely everyone I know and now I can rave about its greatness with the best of them. I’ve never read something that had such vivid imagery and such a distinct feel. I’ve read a few books since that were described as read-alikes, but nothing has come close. The writing was magical and full of moments that have stuck with me all year. If you have even a small inkling of wanting to read this one. Do it. Right now. Seriously, go grab it! I’ll be here to talk over how incredible it is when you’re done.
Dark Matter (2016) by Blake Crouch
This book utterly blew my mind. I stayed up until 3am to finish and then just laid in my bed afterward thinking about life and the universe and other metaphysical things I’ve only really thought about in my college philosophy class. Dark Matter is a smart thriller that makes you question life as you know it and I was on the edge of my seat (…or bed) until the end. Believe the hype, people. It’s real.
Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (2015) by Lauren Redniss
If you talk to me about weather, I promise I will never be bored. This is a graphic novel about weather and our relationship with weather. The pictures were drawn on location, and according to the author were given their unique effect by two different printmaking techniques: copperplate photogravure etchings and photopolymer process—meaningless to someone who knows nothing about art, but the pictures were so stand out gorgeous that I was curious how they were made. Also, before this book, I had never heard of Svalbard (small archipelago north of Norway) or the Atacama Desert in Chile, which are now two places I’d desperately like to travel to.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015) by Becky Albertalli
An adorable YA love story that takes place mostly through anonymous emails between two boys who haven’t yet come out to the world. I loved everything about this book. The narrative is split between Simon’s POV and the emails he exchanges with the mysterious Blue, which drives the story forward with lots of little emotional cliffhangers. While the love story is the driving focus of the plot, there are plenty of moments of character growth that take the book deeper. I loved Simon’s thoughts on how growing up is a continual series of “coming out” to the people in your life in different ways. Every time you change at all, you have to “reintroduce [yourself] to the universe all over again.”
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah
I generally give memoirs a wide berth, so it’s a testament to this book that it’s one of my favorite reads of the year. Noah is a ridiculously good storyteller—he knows exactly when to misdirect and when to lay it on the line. There are so many memorable moments: the sneaky pooping incident; when he went to meet his father as an adult (made me sob all over the place); go Hitler; Fufi the dog. It’s touching and hilarious and sad and thoughtful and all the things. Plus I learned about a culture and country I with which I was completely unfamiliar. Noah deserves every accolade for this book and I can’t recommend it enough.
The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt
I loved this book for its gorgeous writing and complex characters, but all I really want to talk about is the audio. The audio is SO GOOD. Please imagine me jumping up and down, screaming excitedly, and fist pumping right now, because I cannot do it justice with this demure little blurb. I have listened to a lot of audiobooks this year, and many of them have been fantastic, but none of them have even come close to being as good as The Goldfinch. I think about the audio of this book on an at-least-weekly basis, and it gives me shivers. Actual shivers. Like, “isn’t it incredible that something as perfect as the audio of The Goldfinch exists in the world!” shivers. David Pittu not only voices a range of characters with stunning precision, but executes the first person narration of the novel with power, fluidly, and astonishing grace. It did not feel like someone reading a work of fiction; listening to it was like being inside the book itself. Donna Tartt wrote a breathtaking book, but it is Pittu’s narration that landed it a place on my list of all-time favorite novels.
The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson: A True Story of Love and Murder (1997) by Lois Simmie
With true crime literature, podcasts, and documentaries having something of a golden age, I was interested to read this award-winning classic of the genre. It’s a highly engaging read, using documents and old photographs to recreate the baffling and cruel actions of the titular sergeant, the only Canadian Mountie ever convicted of murder. Wilson is a cipher, clearly charismatic as he inelegantly juggles two marriages on both sides of the Atlantic, his mountain of lies less and less credible as the charade goes on. Both a cautionary tale of marital abuse and the inspiring take of one woman’s determination to get justice for her sister, it’s at once uniquely Canadian and instantly universal. The picture it paints of turn of the century Saskatchewan is also notable and sets this work apart from other tales of historical true crime.