Winners of the 2017 National Book Awards Announced

by , NOVEMBER 16, 2017, first appearing on Library Journal

“Books matter because they give us information and hope and connect us to other people,” said Lisa Lucas, the National Book Foundation’s executive director, in a recorded message at the National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner on November 15, at Cipriani’s in New York. Lucas appeared in person as well, appealing to the tightly packed audience for support (envelopes in the program facilitated donations) and proclaim the desire to “not just celebrate [both winners and finalists] tonight but…keep celebrating the work they do.” The awards were the focus of the evening, but as always, National Book Foundation programming got big plugs throughout.

Lucas’s what-books-can-do theme was carried forth by the award winners. Robin Benway, winner of the award for Young People’s Literature for Far from the Tree (HarperTeen), an affecting story of family, told her fellow finalists that “sharing this experience with you has been an honor” and celebrated teenagers as the “toughest audience because they need to hear the truth more than anybody.” Said Frank Bidart, poetry winner for Half-light: Collected Poems, 1965–2016 (Farrar), a magisterial compilation of all the poet’s previous volumes plus the new collection Thirst, “I’m almost twice as old as any of the other finalists, and writing poems is how I survived…. I hope the journey these poems go on help others to survive as well.”

Masha Gessen, whose The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead) clarifies the emergence of a new brand of autocracy in Russia today by charting the lives of four people born at the time Communism fell, noted “I never thought a Russian book would be on the list for the National Book Awards, but things have changed.” Said Paula J. Giddings, chair of the nonfiction panel, the judges looked for books that were “national or transnational in scope and significance,…books that spoke to the underpinnings that shape a culture, …and books that [address] the tyranny of state”—those who perpetuate it, those who succumb to it, and those who resist.

Winning her second National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner), an ambitious story of poverty, oppression, and family fractured along race lines and encompassing African American–rooted magic realism, Jesmyn Ward spoke affectingly of the subtexts she has sensed in rejections of her work, as if readers were saying, “What do I have in common with a pregnant 15-year-old or a 13-year-old with a drug-addicted mother?” That challenge to universality begs the question of what books can do, as articulated by master of ceremonies Cynthia Nixon, who saw them as offering not just escape but a “welcome knowledge of history [and] broadened perspective. They cultivate empathy, inspire action, and make us feel less alone.”

Presented with the 2017 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, Richard Robinson, Scholastic chairman of the board, said that while he always wanted to receive a prize for a novel, “I am so grateful to the National Book Foundation for giving me a reading award instead.” His acceptance speech, gracefully introduced by President Bill Clinton (“I don’t think he’s ever going to win an award that reflects his heart as this one does”), embodied his conviction that reading is a solution to social ills, which makes it especially important to get books into the hands of all children.“In the years to come, reading will be more important than ever,” he declared. Rejecting a world of 20 percent reading haves and 80 percent have nots, he added “We have a huge stake in establishing a level playing field.”

Annie Proulx, winner of the 2017 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, took up the theme of social responsibility, pointing out that “we are living through a massive transition from representative democracy to viral direct democracy,” which is overwhelming us in a “garbage-strewn tsunami of raw data.” Decrying environmental degradation and encouraging listeners to join citizen science projects, she celebrating “outmoded values like truth” and wrestled with the tension between hard facts and hope, taking up books as a model: “The happy ending still beckons.”


First—And Foremost | Debut Novels

by , OCTOBER 2, 2017, first appearing in Library Journal

Some debut novels are much anticipated, such as National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, and A.J. Finn’s Frankfurt hit, The Woman in the Window. Others seem to come out of nowhere. Who knew Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beautieswould be that good, and how did C. Morgan Babst make us feel Hurricane Katrina’s lasting terror in The Floating World? Either way, debut novels are always a surprise, and therein lies their power.


The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara

Opening in 1980 New York with 16-year-old Angel feeling trapped in her boy body, then weaving together the stories of various trans outsiders whom Angel collects into a family, this exceptional debut was inspired by the House of Xtravaganza, as seen in the documentary Paris Is Burning. “Erotically luscious, lyrically intense, forthrightly in your face, and pitch-perfect in the dialog.”

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

A Nigerian-born Igbo and Tamil writer and artist now living in Brooklyn and Trinidad, Emezi won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. Here, she grounds madness, as manifested in main character Ada, in an ancient cosmology that sees god-born selves creeping into human being when the gates between this world and the beyond aren’t properly closed. Readers agree: like nothing you have ever read.

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

Chief blogger for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Graham-Felsen investigates ongoing inequality by fictionalizing his experiences as a white boy in a mostly black middle school in Boston. At the same time, he examines the complexities of friendship across a racial and cultural divide. This LJ Editors’ Fall Pick “poignantly captures the tumultuous feelings of adolescence against the historical backdrop of a racially segregated city and country.”

The First Day by Phil Harrison

In this blazing first novel by filmmaker Harrison, Belfast preacher Samuel Orr cannot resist the sins of the flesh, and son Philip’s resentment of half-brother Sam leads to a violent act with long-lasting repercussions. “Harrison’s absorbing debut will surprise readers with its ingenious plot twists and nuanced characters.”

Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth

In 1880s Australia, adolescent siblings whose parents have been slaughtered and sister left for dead, presumably by a resentful Aboriginal stockman recently let go, join with an unscrupulous landowner in a violent search for revenge. This visceral yet elegantly written work is the publisher’s “Lead Read” for the season.

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

With London sunk beneath the flood­waters, a woman escapes north with her baby in this fable-like, delicately told dystopic tale. “The story may seem familiar…but debut novelist Hunter’s spare prose and luminous writing give it a fresh immediacy.” A big hit at the London Book Fair and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.

Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

Spun from an award-winning short story that originally appeared in the Missouri Review, this debut features two Chinese American sisters, steady Miranda and the volatile Lucia, who starts hearing voices after their mother dies and loses all direction despite Miranda’s best efforts to help. “A visceral portrayal of sister love and its limits.”

Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li

In Ireland on a weekend break from her London job, Taiwanese American Vivian is enjoying a solitary walk when she is attacked and raped by an emotionally damaged Irish boy. “What is striking about this acclaimed first novel…is that not only is it based on an incident in the author’s life, but the facility with which Li is able to intertwine the life stories of Vivian and Johnny, giving each substance and depth.”

The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy

In a moving coming-of-age story set during World War II, a Dutch boy and his family face impossible choices. Do they cooperate with the invading Germans? Or engage in risky sabotage? And what happens when the Allies bomb the local factory because it supplies the German army? This Discover Great New Writers Pick is “an effectively detailed, morally complex book that will appeal to all readers of historical fiction.”

The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce

A National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree who won high praise for his debut story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, Pierce tells the story of a man who dies briefly of a heart attack at age 30 and, after reviving, worries that he saw no hint of an afterlife. That sends him and his wife on a journey both thoughtfully and absorbingly written.


The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst

When older daughter Cora refuses to abandon New Orleans as Hurricane ­Katrina sweeps in, Joe Boisdoré, an artist descended from a freed slave, and his white, upper-crust wife, Dr. Tess Eshleman, must leave without her. “A richly written, soak-in-it kind of book; now you’ll know what it was like to have survived Katrina.”

This Is How It Begins by Joan Dempsey

Still tough at 85, art professor and ­Holocaust survivor Ludka Zeilonka wrestles with a new problem: her grandson Tommy has been fired, along with other gay high school teachers, after being accused of silencing Christian students. “Current events have only made this gripping story more relevant.”

In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

Associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University, Diaz challenges the conventions of writing fiction about the American West. In the 1840s, young Swedish immigrant Håkan Söderström boards the wrong ship in New York, ends up in San Francisco, and must travel east to find his brother. “Resonant historical fiction with a contemporary feel.”

Black Rock White City A.S. Patric

A Sarajevo-based Serb who fled unimaginable horrors with wife Suzana, Jovan now works as a janitor in a Melbourne hospital, where he’s forced to wash away increasingly disturbing graffiti that seems directed at him; he’s obliterating and cleansing terms like obliteration and ethnic cleansing. A Miles Franklin Literary Award winner; “Patric’s images will remain indelibly and affectingly in readers’ minds.”

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

In 1990 Australia, Ru’s increasingly disturbed Vietnam vet father disappears, and more troubles cascade down as her mother languishes in the past and her wild sister seeks escape. This debut from an Elizabeth Jolley Prize winner is “one of the smarter, most lyrically written stories you’ll read about a fracturing family.”


Ember by Brock Adams

In this postapocalyptic thriller, winner of the South Carolina First Novel Prize, the sun is cooling, people desperate to survive clump in little enclaves, and armed militant rebels look to take over what’s left of the government. For those “who enjoy dystopian worlds, quick pacing, sympathetic if flawed protagonists, and compelling prose.”

The Blind by A.F. Brady

Routinely assigned the toughest cases at her elite psychiatric institution in Manhattan, psychologist Sam James is the only staff member willing to deal with seemingly normal new patient Richard. Working with him sends Sam down her own dark path. “A fast-paced, riveting psychological chiller; brilliant character study and superior writing make this an outstanding debut.”

Need To Know by Karen Cleveland

Counterintelligence analyst Vivian Miller has a talent for discovering the leaders of Russian sleeper cells in the United States, but a secret dossier of deep-cover agents brings her whole life crashing down. “This suspenseful espionage tale is a rousing Act 2 to the excitement of TV’s The Americans and the novels of Chris ­Pavone.”

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

A big Frankfurt title, buzzing even before BookExpo last spring, sold to 35 countries, and in development as a Fox film, this white-knuckler is one of the most talked-about debuts of the season. Finn’s woman at the window peers out of her New York apartment and sees something she shouldn’t, and the result “lives up to its hype, stand[ing] out in a crowded genre.” An LJ Editors’ Fall Pick.

White Bodies by Jane Robins

Callie may be unusually obsessive about glimmering, popular twin sister Tilda, but she has good reason to worry about Tilda’s new boyfriend Felix. “After a slow beginning, this debut by a British journalist…offers a suspenseful and twisty foray into the world of obsessive love that suspense junkies should not miss.”


The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby

Bad move, Sherlock, turning down the case of that needy young woman. Now Mrs. Hudson and Dr. Watson’s wife, Mary, have joined forces to help her and have ended up with a fun new mystery short-listed for the 2016 CWA Dagger Awards. This work “captures the atmosphere and feeling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories while shining a spotlight on his overlooked female characters.”

Heaven’s Crooked Finger by Hank Early

Earl Marcus wants to forget a childhood riven by the excesses of his father’s fundamentalist church, but not so fast. He’s just received a photo of his father, presumably long dead but looking hale and hearty. “This gritty and riveting debut combines elements of a classic Southern gothic tale, enhanced by distinct pacing, a redolent sense of place, and striking characters.”

Dark Traces by Martin Steyn

A member of Cape Town’s Violent Crimes Unit, South African Police Warrant Officer Jan Magson goes after a nasty serial killer while mourning his wife’s death. “A damaged but determined detective is matched against a bold and intelligent killer in this captivating debut thriller.”

Lost Luggage by Wendall Thomas

Having worked hard at her family’s travel agency, Cyd Redondo is thrilled to win a trip to Tanzania, but things don’t go as planned—and lost luggage, jailed clients, and animal smugglers aren’t even the half of it. Now she’s the main suspect in a murder. “Thomas makes a rollicking debut.”


The Trick by Emanuel Bergmann

After World War I, rabbi’s son Moshe Goldenhirsch runs away from home and becomes a magician, performing as the Great Zabbatini. How his story connects with that of 11-year-old Max Cohn, trying to avert his parents’ divorce in 21st-century California, is “a magic trick of its own. Bergmann’s ability to create appealing, well-drawn characters and tell a gripping story is impressive.” An LJ Editors’ Fall Pick.

The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover

In a tumble-down farmhouse on one of Scotland’s far-flung islands, George Orwell battles illness to pen his masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. “This engrossing, timely, and finely detailed first novel about the creation of a 20th-century literary masterpiece is a must-read for lovers of history, literature, or politics.”

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

Having escaped a crumbling marriage, librarian Hanna Casey is home on Ireland’s southwestern coast, driving a book­mobile and leading the fight against developers who want to consolidate services and close the local library. “An appealing novel…. There are plenty of good discussion points about the nature of community for book clubs and thoughtful readers.”

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Luckily for the Birch family, they’re getting to spend Christmas together for the first time in years. Unluckily for them, they’re forced together for seven days, quarantined because daughter Olivia is back from volunteering in Liberia. This “satisfyingly alternative holiday read” is an LJ Editors’ Fall Pick and the No. 1 ­LibraryReads pick for October.

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance by Bill McKibben

Famed environmental activist ­McKibben steps into fiction with a work starring 72-year-old Vern Barclay, who broadcasts a subversive message via Radio Free Vermont: Vermont should secede from the United States and operate under a free local economy. “McKibben’s…spirited and thought-provoking modern fable will have readers grappling with the ethical questions of how and when resistance is necessary.”

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

After a gunman ranged through their school, killing 19 people, six-year-old Zach retreats into his own special hideaway and uses his imagination to heal. One of the publisher’s biggest books of the spring—the voice immediately distinctive and riveting.

Virtually Perfect by Paige Roberts

Her cooking show, monthly magazine column, and cookbook deal all out the window, Lizzie Glass becomes personal chef to the über-wealthy Silvesters at their summer home on the Jersey Shore. “Roberts’s spot-on debut novel delves into the virtually perfect façade of an internally imperfect family.”

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

In the world of Manhattan’s one percent, a husband and wife frantically compete for their daughter’s attention even as a threatening young man steps in view. Weiner, the driving force behind Mad Men, delivers “a razor-sharp, fast-paced dark look at the class divide.”

Rosie Colored Glasses by Brianna Wolfson

Wolfson’s autobiographical debut features Willow, a child of divorce caught between her rigid father and a mother named Rosie who’s warm and loving and suddenly dangerously crazy. From a star on the San Francisco storytelling circuit; a big hit at BookExpo and a Publishers Lunch Buzz Book.

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

Of Korean heritage, Bracht boldly faces the ugly truth of the Japanese military’s forcing 200,000 Korean women into sexual slavery during World War II. Big buzz.

Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik

Darznik follows The Good Daughter, her New York Times best-selling memoir, with a portrait of poet Forugh ­Farrokzhad, sometimes called Iran’s ­Sylvia Plath.

On the Horizon

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallet

Winner of Samuel Johnson and Costa Biography honors, Hughes-Hallett got rave UK reviews for this novel, which chronicles a great house named ­Wychwood from the 17th century ­onward.

Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur

Following the PEN New England Book Award–winning story collection Half Wild, this soberingly relevant work features a young woman looking for her estranged mother after Tropical Storm Irene devastates ­Vermont.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

Quatro’s story collection, I Want To Show You More, won multiple honors; this full-length fiction features Maggie, married with children, who is drawn as if mesmerized to a wild affair with poet James.

The Invention of Ana by Mikkel Rosengard

In this Danish award winner, an aspiring writer fresh from Copenhagen meets a performance artist in Brooklyn who claims that she can time travel.

The Last Wolf by Maria Vale

Runty Silver Nilsdottir determines to make a place for herself with the Great North Pack by fighting for a wounded man who seeks the pack’s protection. The publisher wants a trilogy.


The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

In 1700s Cairo, street hustler Nahri cons people with her tricks but rejects the idea that magic really exists until she manages to summon up a dark and wily djinn warrior who takes her to the magnificent City of Brass. An LJ Fantasy Debut Pick. “With a swiftly moving plot, richly drawn characters, and a beautifully constructed world…this lyrical historical fantasy…brings to vivid life the ancient mythological traditions of an Islamic world unfamiliar to most American ­readers.”

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Solomon’s dystopian fantasy stars quietly rebellious Aster, whose family has lived for generations in the hold of the creaky HSS Matilda, putatively carrying the last of humanity to a Promised Land. “Harrowing and beautiful, this is sf at its best…. The fully rounded characters bring ­nuance and genuine pathos to this amazing debut.”

The Black Tides of Heaven & The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

In this debut novel doubleheader, the Protector has sent her six-year-old twins ­Mokoya and Akeha to the Grand Monastery to satisfy a debt, but when ­Mokoya develops prophetic tendencies, she’s essentially recalled, and the twins spin down different paths. “While published simultaneously, each volume can be read separately…together, they make an impressive, fresh debut steeped in Chinese culture.”

What Would You Lose?

by , August 30, 2017, first appearing in Library Journal

Library Advocacy PosterU.S. libraries battle unprecedented challenges to federal support; you can help—and if you don’t have a copy yet, you can download and print the PDF of our poster, sponsored by Gale Cengage, highlighting services that libraries stand to lose without federal funding. These services were drawn from states’ 2013–17 plans for Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) funds granted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Read it, post it in your library or around your community, and start a conversation.