Please note: The 2017 Tournament of Books brackets are now available. The shortlist found below is based on our previously released “long list.” Also, you can check out all of our Rooster coverage over here, browse previous tournaments at the official ToB website, or support some of our tremendous sponsors like Field Notes and Powell’s, who make this whole thing possible. Thanks!
Thirteen is a lucky number. In this case, because we feel extraordinarily lucky to keep doing this stupid thing. To quote the president-elect, a sports tournament for literature: dumb! But here we are, 13 years later, thanks in large part to our presenting sponsor Field Notes and our book sponsor Powell’s, where once again we’re lining up some of the best of the year’s new fiction in a bloodthirsty fight for… an award named after David Sedaris’s brother. Idiotic! But as your Rooster history will learn you: Why not?
And yet. We say this time and time again, tough year buttressed by tough year, the ToB is not an award. It’s not a contest. We’re not even sure it’s a “tournament.” What it has been and will be, as long as we’re putting it on, is a month-long conversation about novels and reading and writing and art that takes place on weekdays in March. But that’s not all. Because what also happen is readers freak out, fall out with each other, and fall back in love. Fight over little things, fight over big things, altogether dig deep into what makes something good or not. This is what keeps us going, the point of it all, that together we celebrate the extraordinary act of transferring the human experience that is writing and reading and discussing fiction, and if it’s not clear already, yes, this month-long silly thing is part stunt, part goof, part circus, but we are motherfucking serious about books.
Below you’ll find a list of novels and a bunch of judges who will read them and, come March, discuss them at length, and then you’ll discuss them at length. The books represent, we believe, some of the best fiction published last year (in English, mostly in America), which derive from our long list, previously released. But to reach this short list, we had to exclude dozens, if not hundreds of titles that easily could have made the cut. So the list is no “best of the year,” but a group of titles we found fascinating—and fit other criteria we deem important—culled from the hundreds of very good, interesting books likewise released in 2016.
On that criteria note. If you’re truly hardcore, check out last year’s interview with our producer Nozlee Samadzadeh by the Goodreads ToB group in which she explains much of the minutia behind how we make our list. But here’s an example for 2017: A bestselling book we loved this year, The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee, is not included in the list below. That omission has nothing to do with its qualities, but the fact that Alex is so close to the family, having written numerous, celebrated essays for TMN, that we needed to exclude his book in the end. Just saying.
So here’s how it works, in case this is your first rodeo. Starting in March and proceeding each weekday, one of our judges reads two books, chooses one to progress, and explains how he or she reached their decision. The criteria is personal, but we require the judge to make their decision-making process public, and also tell you any connections they have to the authors and/or books involved. (Because screw smoke-filled rooms, Iowa alumni events, Brooklyn Book Festival green rooms, etc.) Then our commentators, novelists Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner—and some new guests this year—will weigh in, followed by the wonderful community of readers that turn the ToB’s comments section into one of the best discussions of contemporary fiction that we know about.
Before the lists, three things.
First: We’re doing a play-in match again. Category: highbrow sports. Three books will face off to see which one makes it into the ToB, as determined by a judge who knows his way around courts and fields and sentences.
Second: Each round, some of the match commentary will be performed by booksellers from some of our favorite indie stores. We’ll announce the complete lineup later, but it’ll include folks from Portland, Ore. (naturally), New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, and more.
Third: Update—the Zombie poll is now closed. We need your Zombie vote
today. Or at least before midnight ET, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Here’s what that means. From the play-in match to the eight opening round matches to the four quarterfinal matches through the two semifinal matches, the original field of 16 qualifying books is whittled down to two. However, before those books enter the final, championship match, they must go through a “Zombie Round,” which brings back two books that were eliminated previously during gameplay. As to which books return, it’s determined by a popular vote—as in democracy. Please vote soon (form below).
And so, because this has gone on long enough: lucky 13. Lucky us to have the opportunity to do this ridiculous thing. Lucky us to have so many high-quality books to read. Lucky us to live in the freedom that allows us to publish, purchase, and discuss publicly such things. Many people don’t have this luck, so let’s celebrate it. See you in March.
The Shortlist for The Morning News 2017 Tournament of Books
Here’s a spreadsheet of the shortlist titles for all your sorting, pivoting, and data science needs. We get a cut from any purchases made through the list links. Book descriptions are excerpted from publishers’ summaries and edited for length.
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Childhood friends Patricia and Laurence didn’t expect to see each other after parting ways under mysterious circumstances in middle school. Now they’re adults, and the planet is falling apart. Laurence is an engineer working to avert catastrophic breakdown. Patricia is a graduate of a hidden academy for the world’s magically gifted, and works to repair the world’s growing ailments. Little do they realize something bigger than them is determined to bring them together—to save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
Twenty-two men gather every fall to painstakingly reenact the November 1985 play in which Joe Theismann had his leg horribly broken live on Monday Night Football. Over the course of a weekend, these fans reveal their secret hopes, fears, and passions as they choose roles, spend a long night of the soul preparing for the play, and finally enact their bizarre ritual for what may be the last time.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Mourning her mother’s recent suicide, 17-year-old Nadia takes up with Luke, 21, a former football star. The pregnancy that results—and the subsequent cover-up—have an impact that goes far beyond youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including her best friend Aubrey, the years move quickly. Soon, the three are adults, living in debt to their choices that summer, and dogged by the question: What if they had chosen differently?
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
A speculative history that attempts to reconstruct the mysterious origins and fate of Chabon Scientific Co., an authentic mail-order novelty company whose ads for scale models of human skeletons, combustion engines, and space rockets were once a fixture in the back pages of Esquire, Popular Mechanics, and Boy’s Life. It is a tale of, above all, the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies.
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue
In a brutal tennis match that could decide the fate of the world, the painter Caravaggio and the poet Quevedo battle it out. In England, Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII behead Anne Boleyn, and her crafty executioner transforms her legendary locks into the most sought-after tennis balls of the time. And in a remote Mexican colony a bishop reads Thomas More’s Utopia and thinks that instead of a parody, it’s a manual.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
The Freemans have been invited to rural Massachusetts to take part in an experiment: Live in an apartment with Charlie, a young chimp, teach him sign language, and welcome him into their family. Isolated in their new, nearly all-white community by race and their strange living situation, the Freemans come undone. When one of them discovers the history of the institute’s questionable studies, the secrets of the past begin to invade the present.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Effia and Esi are born into different villages in 18th-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, Esi is imprisoned in the castle’s dungeons, sold into the Gold Coast’s slave trade, and shipped off to America. Over the next two centuries, their descendents alternately struggle: between the slave trade and British colonization in Africa, and from the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of 20th-century Harlem, to the present day.
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she left when he was a boy. Now she’s back, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, the internet, and a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: She’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Yeong-hye and her husband had lived an ordinary life, but when splintering, graphic images start haunting her thoughts, she decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. Her now-dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
A note from our sponsor
High Dive by Jonathan Lee
In September 1984, a bomb was planted at the Grand Hotel in the seaside town of Brighton, England, set to explode in 24 days when the British prime minister would be staying there. Over the next four weeks, as the PM’s arrival draws closer, three lives will be transformed: Dan, a young IRA explosives expert; Moose, a former star athlete, now the deputy hotel manager; and Freya, his teenage daughter.
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet
Fleeing her political hopeful husband, the cold and unfaithful Ned, Anna and their six-year-old daughter go into hiding in a run-down motel on the Maine coast. But the longer they stay, the less the guests in the dingy motel look like typical tourists—and the less Ned resembles a typical candidate. As his pursuit of Anna and their child moves from threatening to criminal, Ned begins to alter his wife’s world in ways she never could have imagined.
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan
Hellsmouth, an indomitable Thoroughbred with the blood of Triple Crown winners in her veins, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavor of raw obsession: to breed the next Secretariat. But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm, the violence of the Forges’ history are brought starkly into view.
Version Control by Dexter Palmer
Rebecca has reclaimed her life, finding her way out of her depression following a tragedy years ago. She spends her days working for the dating site where she first met her husband. But she has a persistent sense everything around her is somewhat off-kilter. Meanwhile, her husband’s dedication to his invention (which he would prefer you not call a “time machine”) has effectively stalled his career. But he may be closer to success than either of them can possibly imagine.
Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
In the wake of his wife’s sudden death, a husband their two sons are visited by Crow. This self-described “sentimental bird,” who “finds humans dull except in grief,” threatens to stay with the wounded family until they no longer need him. As the pain of loss lessens, Crow’s efforts are rewarded and the little unit of three begins to recover.
Mister Monkey by Francine Prose
Mister Monkey—a screwball children’s musical about a pet chimpanzee—is the kind of family favorite that survives far past its prime. Margot, who plays the chimp’s lawyer, knows the production is dreadful, and bemoans the failure of her acting career. She’s settled into the drudgery of playing a humiliating part—until the day she receives a mysterious letter from an anonymous admirer.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Lucy Barton, a writer, married with two young children, is in the hospital in New York City due to an infection from a simple appendix operation. Her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in years, comes from Amgash, Ill., to visit her, and sits by her bedside, reminiscing about people she and Lucy know from Lucy’s childhood, before Lucy went off to college and never returned.
Black Wave by Michelle Tea
Fleeing drugs, disastrous romance, and ’90s San Francisco, Michelle heads for LA. After it’s announced the world will end in a year, life becomes increasingly weird. Living in an abandoned bookstore, dating Matt Dillon, and keeping an eye on the apocalypse, Michelle begins a new novel, a sprawling exploration to complement her promises of maturity and responsibility. But as she tries to make queer love and art without succumbing to self-destructive vice, Michelle wonders how much she’ll have to compromise her artistic process if she’s going to properly ride out doomsday.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave in Georgia. When Caesar, a recent arrival, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take a terrifying risk and escape. Here, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city whose placid surface masks an insidious scheme. Cora again flees, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Bim Adewunmi is a British journalist based in New York. She’s a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed and a columnist at the Guardian. She frequently laments the lack of a British “High Street” culture in America.
Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland, Calif., a bookseller at Diesel bookstore, and an editor at The New Inquiry.
Kirstin Butler is social media editor for The Millions by day and Slate by night. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is either working on her novel, procrastinating on Twitter, or walking her dog, Momo.
Susannah Cahalan is a journalist whose bestselling memoir Brain on Fire chronicled her experience with a rare brain disease. Her next book The Committed, out in 2018, explores the modern history of psychiatry though the true stories of volunteers who went undercover as patients in the 1970s.
Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough. She’s the noir editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles with her husband and two basset hounds.
Will Chancellor is the author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall (Harper, 2014). He is currently working on his second novel, To Test the Meaning of Certain Dreams.
Nicole Chung, an editor at Catapult and the former managing editor of The Toast, has written for the New York Times, Hazlitt, BuzzFeed, the Atlantic, ELLE, and other publications. She is working on a book about adoption.
Jason Diamond is the author of the memoir Searching for John Hughes, the sports editor at Rollingstone.com, and the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. He is the editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-author of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them and Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos (with Recipes).
V.V. Ganeshananthan, a novelist and journalist, is the author of Love Marriage (Random House, 2008), which was longlisted for the Orange Prize and named one of Washington Post Book World’s Best of 2008. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota.
Rahawa Haile is an Eritrean-American writer of short stories and essays who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016.
Reyhan Harmanci is an editor at First Look Media. Previously, she put in time at Atlas Obscura, Fast Company, Modern Farmer, and BuzzFeed.
Lili Loofbourow is a writer who lives in Oakland, Calif. She’s the culture critic at The Week.
Caille Millner is the author of a memoir, The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification, which won the Barnes & Noble Emerging Author Award. Her fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Joyland, and Best American Short Stories 2016.
Miranda Popkey is a writer. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, the Paris Review Daily, the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, The Hairpin, and The Awl. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.
Pamela Ribon writes books (You Take It From Here, Why Girls Are Weird), movies (Moana, Smurfs: The Lost Village), comics (Slam!, Rick and Morty), and TV. She’s currently co-writing Untitled Wreck-It Ralph Sequel and was just named one of Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch. Her comedic memoir Notes to Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public), which NPR called “brain-breakingly funny,” is now out in paperback. She’s known as a pioneer in the blogging world with her successful website pamie.com, where she launched such viral essays as “How I Might Have Just Become the Newest Urban Legend” and “Barbie Fucks it Up Again,” the latter of which led to #FeministHackerBarbie, a revamp of Mattel’s products and marketing for Barbie, and the creation of Game Developer Barbie as “Career of the Year.”
TMN 2017 Reader Judge Tim Rinehart is a Botanist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, where he uses molecular genetics to improve hydrangeas and other flowering plants. When he’s not in the lab sequencing genomes and editing genes, he’s writing federal reports. He is one of 2,818 people living in Poplarville, Miss., along with his wife and five children.
Thank you again, and we’ll see you in March!