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The 24 Best Fiction Books Of 2017

In a year of fantastic novels and short fiction — many by debut writers — these are our favorites, in no particular order.

Posted on December 8, 2017, at 5:47 p.m. ET

Madelene Wikskär / BuzzFeed News

1. All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Michael Sharkey

In All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg writes about adulthood and responsibility — what it means to be responsible not just in your life but for your life. Her narrator, Andrea, is a Manhattan-based designer nearing 40, perpetually single and child-free by choice. While she contemplates the choices she's made to get where she is — those choices neither idealized nor condemned — Andrea watches as her brother and sister-in-law struggle under the weight of caring for a baby with a terminal illness. Attenberg presents two options for living a life — no overarching moral, just messy reality — and reveals the inevitable truth that, conventional or not, life will be maddeningly imperfect. It's a familiar kind of story, but in Attenberg's capable hands it shines anew, so fresh and true and funny and heartbreaking. —Arianna Rebolini

2. The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Algonquin /

I raved about The Leavers to my best friend, and two weeks later she texted me asking, "Does it stop getting sad???????" And, well, yes and no. Lisa Ko's novel is about an undocumented mother who suddenly disappears, and the son — 11 years old when she leaves — who spends the rest of his childhood and early adulthood wondering why. Deming (renamed Daniel by his adoptive [white] parents) carries this abandonment with him, and with it the resentment of losing his identity, the guilt of wanting to find his birth mother despite his adoptive parents' good intentions, and the overwhelming anger — at his mother's boyfriend for letting him go when she left, at his mother for leaving, and at the system that took her away. It's a gut-wrenching and damning account of our broken immigration system, a revelation of the wholly human consequences that can't be ignored. So, yes, sad, but very, very worth it. —AR

3. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

The heart of Sing, Unburied, Sing is story — the yearning for a narrative to help us understand ourselves, the pain of the gaps we’ll never fill, the truths that are failed by words and must be translated through ritual and song. In Ward’s Mississippi, 13-year-old Jojo is heavy with a story he never asked for, but which he inherited and must make sense of nevertheless. He does this by listening: to his grandfather’s stories about being in a prison that treated him like a slave; to the hushed conversations between his black mother and the white father whose family won’t acknowledge him; to the generations-old spiritual practices of his dying grandmother; to the ghosts only he and his little sister can see, those of his uncle, a young boy, and the many nameless black Southerners whose stories died with them. Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love, and her National Book Award–winning book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it. —AR

4. Large Animals by Jess Arndt

Catapult, Poets & Writers Magazine

Jess Arndt's debut short story collection is provocative and haunting, forcing readers to reckon with their assumptions around gender and identity, masculinity and femininity, conformity and queerness. Her narrators — each speaking in a frustrated but often hypnotic first person — travel through worlds that demand they subscribe to a system of categorization that simply doesn't work for them; each story shows the internal and external manifestations of this conflict. There's the parasite infecting a couple whose relationship is falling apart, the crystal cave one narrator refuses to leave, the beast that shows up nightly in the bedroom of another. It's about the awkward absurdity of bodies, and Arndt is masterful in describing it with metaphor and ambiguity, allowing a multiplicity of meaning but always confidently, controlled. —AR

5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Penguin Press / Kevin Day Photography

Celeste Ng is back with a new novel that takes us into the heart of complex suburban life. Little Fires Everywhere is set in Shaker Heights, a quiet, idyllic suburb of Cleveland where order, careful planning, and playing by the rules is king — especially for resident Elena Richardson with her lawyer husband, four children, and seemingly perfect life. So when the mysterious Mia Warren, a bohemian artist and single mother, arrives in town with her teenage daughter and rents a house from the Richardsons, she threatens to upend the peaceful status quo of the community with the secrets of her past. Written with deep empathy and vivid characters who feel true to life, Little Fires Everywhere is a captivating, insightful examination of motherhood, identity, family, privilege, perfectionism, obsession, and the secrets about ourselves we try to hide. —Jarry Lee

6. What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Riverhead / Emily Baxter

Lesley Nneka Arimah's debut short story collection is subversive, vibrant, and utterly original. Each story examines complex human relationships through a geopolitical lens, focusing on the traditions, history, and imagined future of Nigeria. The women at the center of her writing are touched by loss and hope, existing in a slightly skewed reality — a deceased mother revisits her family, a generation of children survive a devastating global flood and find they have clairvoyant powers, would-be mothers rely on a sorceress to transform their hand-made creations into a living being. Arimah's magical realism is grounded by emotional truths, full of insight into love and resilience. —AR

7. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Penguin Random House, Marina Waters

John Green's latest novel follows 16-year-old protagonist Aza as she tries to navigate all manner of relationships while living with OCD. Green writes her recurring thoughts (or, as Aza calls them, "invasives") and her endeavors to understand, or at least quiet, those thoughts with sincerity, wonder, and often fear. The reader can feel Green, through Aza, working these big questions out for himself, the kinds of questions that will resonate with anyone who's lived with mental illness. Like, where does my illness stop, and my self begin? What will it mean to be better? Die-hard fans know this already, but if you haven't read his work yet, trust: John Green is the master of writing young voices, and one need only read Turtles All the Way Down — rife with complexity, tenderness, and grief; free of condescension — to understand why. —AR

8. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Graywolf Press /

Barely into the first story of Carmen Machado's Her Body and Other Parties, I was certain this writer was about to explode everything I thought a short story had to be — and I was right. Machado's sharp, eerie, and often hilarious stories experiment with format in a way that feels genuinely new, dropping in theatrical asides to the reader, or structuring a narrative around Law and Order episode titles. Their darkness is playful until it's not, and that tipping point happens whenever the reader realizes the surrealist nightmares Machado has built around her female protagonists — worlds in which women's bodies are infected by the trauma they've witnessed, or made vulnerable by an epidemic of becoming ethereal — aren't quite so fantastical at their cores. —AR

9. New People by Danzy Senna

Riverhead /

In Danzy Senna's compulsively readable novel New People, Maria, an adopted, newly engaged, mixed-race Columbia University grad student finds herself infatuated with an unnamed black poet. Her crush prompts her to engage in increasingly unhinged behavior as the prospect of spending the rest of her life with her woke-before-woke-existed fiancé, Khalil — whose locs "have long since passed the Basquiat stage but have not quite arrived at Marley" — fills her with unnameable dread. Set in mid-'90s New York, New People is a witty and incisive send-up of race relations that feels just as relevant now in 2017. —Tomi Obaro

10. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Riverhead, Ed Kashi

Exit West is a dark and slightly surreal love story embedded in the violence of living in, and then fleeing, a war-torn home. Nadia and Saeed fall for each other right as their (unnamed) country erupts in civil war, and when the couple decide to leave — through mysterious dark doors that transport immigrants immediately into Western countries — they must reconcile their new peace with the "murders" they've committed against loved ones they've left. Mohsin Hamid has written brilliant tale of strength and humanity, of the bonds that are tested and strengthened when everything around us falls apart. —AR

11. Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Harper / Paul Emmell

Louise Erdrich's new novel presents a dystopian future, eerie in its familiarity, in which evolution has seemingly reversed and babies have become rare, studied, and stolen from their mothers. At the center is Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a pregnant Ojibwe woman who grew up adopted by white, big-hearted hippies (it's these adoptive parents who named her Cedar Hawk, she says at the book's opening) and now, at what might be the end of the world, has endeavored to reconcile her two families, two identities, and two belief systems. Her story accelerates subtly as she describes her survival in a journal intended for her unborn child. As the story progresses, she is forced to contemplate her belief — in humanity, in god(s), in family, and perseverance. It is a beautifully written reckoning, and everyone is implicated. —AR

12. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Henry Holt and Co. / Andria Lo

Former Lucky Peach editor Rachel Khong's debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, tells the story of Ruth, a young woman who moves back home after a broken engagement to help take care of her father, Howard, a brilliant history professor who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Though the book is deeply emotional, it's also a playful, hilarious page-turner told in the form of a daily(ish) diary that also includes details of all the meals Ruth cooks when her mother becomes too forlorn to face the kitchen. Ruth goes to great lengths (assisted by Howard's old students) to attempt to preserve her father's dignity and stem the tide of his illness, but the real story is about remembering the love we have for one another — to appreciate what you once had and what you still have, even as memories fade and darkness approaches. Goodbye, Vitamin is one of those rare books that is both devastating and light-hearted, heartfelt and joyful. —Isaac Fitzgerald

13. Five-Carat Soul by James McBride

Riverhead, Chia Messina

Five-Carat Soul by James McBride covers a lot of ground, all of it unpredictable, exhilarating, and, often, hilarious. The short stories bounce from one unlikely protagonist to the next — from the antique toy dealer chasing a legendary train set owned by Robert E. Lee, to a captive lion making sense of the hierarchy of the zoo, to the one and only Abraham Lincoln — and each story, despite the foreignness of its characters' circumstances, expertly weaves in such timeless themes as power and identity. McBride's writing vibrates with so much life that sometimes I found myself reading the sentences aloud because thinking them wasn't enough. I loved these stories individually; all together they make for a wild and utterly delightful ride. —AR

14. The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Penguin Press, Beowulf Sheehan

Elif Batuman's hilarious debut novel follows first-year Harvard student Selin as she ventures into adulthood. Since this coincides with her introduction to the internet

— it's 1995 and she has her first email address, which brings about her first romance — this journey is through especially unfamiliar terrain, forcing Selin to contend with the difference between book and street smarts. Batuman describes Selin's fumbling misadventures with tenderness and wonder, and it's nearly impossible for the reader to not be charmed. —AR

15. Conversations With Friends — Sally Rooney

Penguin Random House, Jonny L. Davies

Conversations With Friends is a story steeped in irony and contradiction. Ex-girlfriends Bobbi and Frances are artists who reject capitalism, but their survival depends on inherited wealth. The duo are traveling poets, but Frances identifies, and presents herself, as "unemotional." She's eager to grow up but acts out when entangled in adult drama — specifically an affair with a man married to the woman interested in profiling her and Bobbi. And in an unexpectedly progressive Ireland, it is Frances who represses herself. Rooney's exploration of growing out of naïveté is true to life, sometimes painfully so, and anyone who has thrived on created drama, who has imagined higher stakes than exist, will see a bit of themselves. —AR

16. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

McSweeneys / Meiko Takechi Arquillos

Patty Yumi Cottrell's riveting debut novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, is one of this year's most exciting books. When her brother commits suicide, 32-year-old Helen Moran returns to her adoptive family's home in Milwaukee to investigate the reasons behind his death. Part family tragedy, part dark comedy, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is above all a window into the strange and fascinating mind of its narrator Helen, a character who will stay with you long after you've finished reading this fantastic novel. —IF

17. Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

Lenny / Jenny Zhang

Jenny Zhang's debut story collection is at once explicit and poignant, vulgar and refined — equal parts pain and beauty. Each story centers a young, female, first generation Chinese-American narrator, each with a distinct voice but overlapping in experience (most show up in each other's stories) and linked by the loyalty, guilt, and love that comes with knowing how much, and how continuously, one's parents have sacrificed. The weight of these conflicting emotions pulls on Zhang's narrators and her writing, often in accelerating run-on sentences — but the headiness is balanced by Zhang's incorporation of the (often grotesque) physical realities of being a human being. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, it'll make you gag, but you'll love all of it. —AR

18. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Press / BeBe Jacobs

Viet Thanh Nguyen's stunning short story collection is largely about exile and its aftermath. The stories explore what it is to be a refugee — what "refuge" quite literally looks like for those who have experienced trauma — especially, though not specifically, for Vietnamese citizens forced from their homes. There's the 18-year-old Liem who's welcomed by a gay immigrant couple in '70s California, the ghostwriter who can't stop telling the stories of the dead, the father whose grown daughter moves to Saigon — a place he's only "visited" when dropping bombs on it. Each refuge(e) is haunted by memory of trauma, either experienced or inherited, and Nguyen's stories are testaments to the power of endurance. —AR

19. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Random House, Fort Green Focus

The first novel from legendary short story writer George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo follows Willie Lincoln, the young son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, after Willie's untimely death. As Willie navigates the spirit realm, trapped between living and dead, he encounters other strange denizens of the bardo, all resisting the push to move on. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln, wracked with grief, struggles with a country in the grips of the Civil War. Told in a chorus of distinctive, fascinating voices — like a play, an opera, an oral history, while still being very much its own unique creation — Lincoln in the Bardo is an incredible work of art. Deeply moral, heartfelt, hilarious, and wildly imaginative, it is everything you've come to expect from Saunders, and more. —IF

20. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Hachette Book Group, Elena Seibert

Min Jin Lee's epic saga follows one Korean family over four generations, starting in the early 20th century with a young woman — pregnant out of wedlock by a man who abandons her — who saves her poor family's fate and dignity by marrying a man in Japan. From there, the book charts decades of this expanding family's ongoing attempts at not only survival but success — their cyclical struggles to find home after displacement, and to maintain their identity among a community that would maybe rather they didn't. It's a familiar story of hope and perseverance, but expertly wrought, and one that fully transports the reader. —AR

21. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Knopf / Michael Lionstar

Two struggles ground Stay With Me: a couple's infertility, and the slow destruction of their home country, Nigeria. Adebayo describes Yejide's determination to get pregnant with both passion and desperation — after all, when her husband moves a second wife into their home, Yejide realizes pregnancy will be the only way to stay in his favor — and this single-minded goal blossoms into hope, love, and grief. It's a painful story about family and home, and the sacrifices necessary for their protection. —AR

22. Marlena by Julie Buntin

Henry Holt and Co. / Nina Subin

Julie Buntin's debut novel is a marvelous coming-of-age, exploring the friendship between Cat and Marlena from Cat's point of view, contrasting their teen years in rural Michigan with Cat's adult life in New York City. It's about reconciling the strength of a bond with its inevitable fading, the frustrated and futile attempts to make sense of a whirlwind romance (and yes, a friendship can be that) whose magic and intensity is unsustainable. Buntin injects her writing with just enough of those teenage, high emotional stakes to resonate, but with enough distance to keep the story grounded. Hilarious and heartbreaking. —AR

23. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Random House / Sam McPhee

Emily Ruskovich's Idaho is a somber meditation on memory, love, and grief, disguised as a literary thriller. At the core of this harrowing novel is a 6-year-old May's murder, but the meat of the story is in the narratives built around it — each pieced together by faulty memories and influenced by loss. May's mother is in jail; her father, slowly losing his mind, marries a woman drawn to his dark past and determined to understand his history. It's a masterpiece — lyrical, haunting, surprisingly empathetic — and reminds the reader of the impossibility of answers, or at least, the inability of answers to provide a grieving mind with real peace. —AR

24. The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

FSG, Marion Ettlinger

Samantha Hunt's stories are about metamorphosis — physical, psychological, fantastical, life-changing. There's the FBI agent who ruins his own mission by falling in love with a military robot; the woman who can't stop cheating on her husband every time she shifts into a deer; the wife who, after months of no sex, starts to wonder if her husband is even real. Hunt writes about women's relationships to their bodies and their realities, their trust in themselves, and she does so with such sharp writing, and within such beguiling worlds, that The Dark Dark becomes impossible to put down. —AR

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