Is it just us, or does it feel like pre-ToB fervor has never been so high? That we’ve all gotten pretty hardcore? From Goodreads threads to Twitter to right here inside Rooster HQ, this year’s excitement is palpable.
You’re ready, we’re ready, so let’s go. We’ve whittled our 2018 long list of 72 books down to a more manageable size: 18 books that we believe to be some of the most interesting works of fiction published last year.
Two big shout-outs before we go any further. Our presenting sponsor, Field Notes, makes exceptional products, and they’re great people. Please check out the new Signature Series. Supporting them supports us.
An even bigger expression of thanks goes to our Sustaining Members, who made this year’s Tournament possible. That’s no joke. The Tournament of Books is happening this year because they made it happen. (Here are the details about why.) If you’re a Sustaining Member, thank you, we’re tremendously grateful. If you haven’t already, please become a Sustaining Member today. (You also get a 50 percent discount at the TMN store, which we’ll update soon with 2018 merch.)
A few notes before we get to the main action:
If you’re new, here’s what’s happening: Each weekday in March, starting March 7, 2018, two of the books below will be read and considered by one of our judges (also listed below). One book from the “match” will be chosen to advance, with the judge required to explain in detail how he or she came to their decision. Then the judge’s decision is evaluated first by our official commentators, then by you, the Rooster fan, wherein you politely and respectfully describe how your heart was broken and your mind inflamed by such erroneous arrogance. And the next day we do it all over again.
Second, the Tournament of Books is an event, not an award. We deliberately try to keep it weird, and we don’t lay claim to anything fancier than a theory that it’s interesting to consider two books at the same time. Therefore the books below are decidedly not the best of the year, in our opinion, but instead are some of the finest works of fiction published (mostly) in English (mostly) in 2017, in a grouping that pleases us.
Third, we’re pretty sure your favorite book isn’t on the list and you’ll let us know.
Fourth, we need your Zombie vote today. Or at least before midnight ET, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. 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 using the form below.
Finally, some smaller stuff:
- We’re doing a play-in round again. This year: campus novels! It will be fun.
- In addition to our longstanding commentators Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, we’ll be introducing some new voices to the booth this year. Watch this space.
- Keep up with TMN to stay on top of the latest Rooster news. The best way is the Rooster newsletter, or on Facebook and Twitter.
In short: This whole thing is entirely ridiculous, and we’re happy that you think so, too. Thank you for playing your part. We’ll see you in March.
The Shortlist for The 2018 Tournament of Books
Here’s a spreadsheet of the shortlist titles, if you’re into that kind of thing. We get a cut from any purchases made through the list links. Book descriptions are excerpted from publishers’ summaries and edited for length.
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature and stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success comes doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship. When the only other partner Sharon has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reappears, long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
In the near future, world wars have transformed Earth into a battleground. Fleeing the unending violence and the planet’s now-radioactive surface, humans have regrouped to a mysterious platform known as CIEL, hovering over their erstwhile home. Out of the ranks of the endless wars rises Jean de Men, a charismatic and bloodthirsty cult leader who turns CIEL into a quasi-corporate police state. A group of rebels unite to dismantle his iron rule—galvanized by the heroic song of Joan, a child-warrior who possesses a mysterious force that lives within her. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim
In a small Midwestern town, two Asian-American boys bond over their outcast status and a mutual love of comic books. Meanwhile, in an alternative or perhaps future universe, a team of superheroes ponders modern society during their time off. Between black-ops missions and rescuing hostages, they swap stories of artistic malaise and muse on the seemingly inescapable grip of market economics. All the while, a mysterious cybernetic book of clairvoyance beckons, and trusted allies start to disappear. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis
“Every morning in the bathroom I would repeat the same phrase to myself over and over again… Today I’m really gonna be a tough guy.” Growing up in a poor village in northern France, all Eddy Bellegueule wanted was to be a man in the eyes of his family and neighbors. But from childhood, he was different—“girlish,” intellectually precocious, and attracted to other men. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people, Nadia and Saeed, embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through… (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family. (Winner of the 2017 Rooster Summer Reading Challenge) (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Freshly disengaged from her fiancé and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, 30-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town, and arrives at her parents’ home to find that situation more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory and is only erratically lucid. Ruth’s mother, meanwhile, is lucidly erratic. But as Ruth’s father’s condition intensifies, the comedy in her situation takes hold, gently transforming her all her grief. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Ann and Wade have carved out a living for themselves from a rugged landscape, but they are bound together by more than love. In a story told from multiple perspectives—Ann, Wade, Wade’s first wife Jenny, now in prison for murder—and in exquisite, razor-sharp prose, we gradually learn of the shocking act that originally brought Ann and Wade together, and which reverberates through the lives of every character in Idaho. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Play-in competitor: Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. Almost by accident, she begins emailing with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan’s friends. Selin’s summer in Europe is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
On Feb. 22, 1862, two days after his death, 11-year-old Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Soli is 18 when she embarks on a perilous journey across the US/Mexican border, arriving weeks later in Berkeley, Calif., dazed by first love found then lost, and pregnant. Kavya, a chef at a UC Berkeley sorority house, is consumed by the unexpected desire to have a child. When she can’t get pregnant, Kavya and her husband are set on a collision course with Soli, when she is detained and her infant son comes under Kavya’s care. As Kavya learns to be a mother, she builds her love on a fault line, her heart wrapped around someone else’s child. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Anna Kerrigan’s father has disappeared, and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets a man who knew her father, and begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life and the reasons he might have vanished. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant-and that her lover is married-she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac
Play-in competitor: Rosa Ostreech, a pseudonym for the narrator, carries around a trilingual edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, struggles with her thesis on violence and culture, sleeps with a bourgeois former guerrilla, and pursues her elderly professor with a highly charged blend of eroticism and desperation. Elsewhere on campus, Pabst and Kamtchowsky tour the underground scene of Buenos Aires, dabbling in ketamine, group sex, video games, and hacking. And in Africa in 1917, a Dutch anthropologist works on a theory explaining human consciousness and civilization by reference to our early primate ancestors—animals, who, in the process of becoming human, spent thousands of years as prey. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Jojo is 13, and his mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is black and her children’s father, Michael, is white. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. When Michael is released from prison, the family drives north to the heart of Mississippi and the state penitentiary, where another 13-year-old boy—the ghost of a dead inmate—carries the South’s ugly history with him. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, legacies, violence, and love. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
So Much Blue by Percival Everett
Kevin is working on a painting he won’t let anyone see. It may or may not be his masterpiece; he doesn’t know or care. What Kevin does care about is the past. Ten years ago he had an affair. It’s not clear to him why he had the affair, but he can’t let it go. In the more distant past of the late ’70s, Kevin and his best friend, Richard, traveled to El Salvador on the verge of war to retrieve Richard’s drug-dealing brother. As the past intersects with the present, Kevin struggles to justify his sacrifices and secrets. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
Play-in competitor: In his senior season, when every practice, every match, is a step closer to greatness and a step further from sanity, a troubled college wrestler in North Dakota falls in love and becomes increasingly unhinged. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
After Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, his similarly music-obsessed friend Carter sends it out over the internet, claiming it’s a long-lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Rumaan Alam’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, and elsewhere. He is the author of the novel Rich and Pretty. His novel That Kind of Mother will be published in 2018.
Angela Chen is a science journalist at The Verge and a columnist at Catapult. Her reporting and essays have also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Atlantic, the Paris Review Daily, Hazlitt, and more. Her book Ace is forthcoming from Beacon Press.
ToB 2018 Reader Judge Lauren Cohen lives in her reading chair in a Boston apartment. She met most of her friends and her boyfriend in book clubs, and if you ask her how many book clubs she’s in, she’ll plead the fifth. When not in her reading chair, she works in cancer research at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Jeffrey Cranor created the podcast Within the Wires. He also co-writes the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, live shows, and novels. He makes theater and dance and lives in New York state.
Ruth Curry is a writer whose work has appeared in Bookforum, n+1, the Paris Review Daily, Esquire, Nylon, and Buzzfeed. She is, with Emily Gould, the co-founder of Emily Books.
Joseph Fink is the creator of Welcome to Night Vale, Alice Isn’t Dead, and I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats. He co-wrote, with Jeffrey Cranor, the novels Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours! He is also the author of the upcoming Alice Isn’t Dead novel.
Ashley C. Ford lives in Brooklyn by way of Indiana. She is (mostly) a writer. She is currently working on a memoir, and hosting Brooklyn-based news & culture TV show and podcast, 112BK.
Patrick Hoffman is a private investigator and author of the novels The White Van and Every Man a Menace. He lives in Brooklyn.
Maris Kreizman is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed Books, Longreads, Vulture, Esquire, GQ, and more. She’s the creator of Slaughterhouse 90210, a blog and book (Flatiron Books, 2015) that celebrates the intersection of literature and pop culture. She was previously the editorial director of digital content at B&N.com, and a publishing outreach lead at Kickstarter. As a former book editor and editorial director of Book of the Month, she very much enjoys critiquing her own writing.
Juliet Lapidos is the op-ed editor of the Los Angeles Times. Previously she worked at the New York Times and Slate. She has written for The Atlantic, the New York Times Book Review, and the websites of the New Yorker and the New Republic, among other publications. Her first novel, Talent, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in January 2019.
Bryan Mealer is a journalist and the author of four books, including the bestselling The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (with William Kamkwamba), soon to be a major film, and The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream. He lives in Austin.
Ismail Muhammad is a writer and critic living in Oakland, where he’s a staff writer for The Millions and contributing editor at ZYZZYVA. His writing has appeared in Slate, the Los Angeles Review of Books, New Republic, and other publications. He’s currently working on a novel about the Great Migration and queer archives of black history.
Meaghan O’Connell’s writing has appeared in New York magazine, Longreads, and The Billfold, where she was an editor. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and young son. Her book of essays, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in April 2018.
Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (FSG & Random House Canada, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction among other honors. Most recently, she co-authored a digital novella, Clean, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s; the novella received two Lovie awards. Oria’s fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and elsewhere, has been translated to other languages, and has won a number of awards, including the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. A recipient of grants and fellowships from MacDowell, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria, she co-directs the Writer’s Forum at the Pratt Institute and has a private practice as a life & creativity coach.
Caitlin Roper is the special projects editor at the New York Times Magazine. She creates new sections of the newspaper like the Kids section, Puzzle Mania, and the annotated constitution. Before joining the Times, Roper was the articles editor at WIRED, and before that, the managing editor of the Paris Review.
Jaya Saxena is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in GQ, ELLE, The Toast, The Daily Dot, the New Yorker, Catapult and more. She is the co-author of Basic Witches, and lives in Queens with her husband and two ungrateful cats.
Merritt Tierce is the author of the novel Love Me Back (Doubleday, 2014) and a staff writer on the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black. Love Me Back was shortlisted for the PEN/Bingham debut fiction prize and won the Texas Institute of Letters’ prize for first fiction. Tierce is a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” author and a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She has been a fellow at the Yaddo, MacDowell, Willapa Bay, Omi, and Can Cab artist residencies. Her essays, reviews, and fiction have appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Paris Review, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan, among other publications.
Thank you again, and we’ll see you in March!