More 2017 Books Worth Your While | The Readers’ Shelf

What do book award chairs read during their off time? Below, the members of the American Library Association’s CODES awards share some personal favorites.

In the near future, coastal states are under­water, and the banning of fossil fuels has triggered a second civil war in the United States. Omar El Akkad’s debut, American War (Knopf. Apr. 2017. ISBN 9780451493583. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780451493590), revolves around the Chestnuts, a Louisiana family relegated to a refugee camp during the fighting. One daughter, Sarat, evolves from an innocent girl into a terrifying weapon against the government. Played out against a backdrop of global climate catastrophe, the narrative juxtaposes today’s fractious political conflicts with a dystopian America rife with violence and extremism.

Exceptional thrillers are impossible to put down, such as Fierce Kingdom (Viking. Jul. 2017. ISBN 9780735224278. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780735224285), Gin Phillips’s edge-of-your-seat novel about a mother and son trying to survive a mass shooting at a zoo. The story takes place over three hours—from the moment they hear the first, unexpected shot to the gripping conclusion—and there isn’t a single wasted minute through it all. Every sentence drives the plot forward, every twist provides a new revelation, and every scene begs the question of what the reader would do.

A traveling festival to celebrate cultural life in Palestine, the Palfest is hardly an ordinary event. The essays, statements, reports, and poems gathered in This Is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature (Bloomsbury USA. Jul. 2017. ISBN 9781632868848. pap. $23; ebk. ISBN 9781632868855) introduce a diverse lineup of festival participants. Writers such as Alice Walker, Michael Ondaatje, and Claire Messud lend their incredible voices to establish the connection between literature in the midst of chaos and occupation and literature as a response to freedom. Editors Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton have carefully arranged contributions that hit on many levels.

Leland Melvin’s memoir, Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances (6 CDs. 7:30 hrs. Harper ­Audio. May 2017. ISBN 9781538416167. $29.99), details his life from National Football League glory to a career as a NASA researcher and astronaut to then championing STEM education and taking a side trip into reality TV. Narrator Ron Butler’s self-deprecating and wry tone flawlessly echoes Melvin’s message, subtly capturing painful emotions of racial discrimination, perseverance through injury, and grateful appreciation for his Christian faith and family. There are so many appealing aspects here—not to mention the dogs.

Set in the 22nd century, Autonomous (digital download. 10:27 hrs. Macmillan Audio. Sept. 2017. ISBN 9781427290731. $23.99), by Annalee Newitz, is an sf adventure that cleverly intertwines the familiar with the futuristic. Jack is an intellectual property pirate and uses her proceeds to manufacture epidemic-combating drugs. Las Vegas is a market for indentured slaves, with corporations defining the law and many all-robot communities. Jennifer Ikeda narrates with a mix of matter-of-fact and quiet astonishment, reflecting the characters’ reactions to the quickly unfolding events. This exciting and thought-provoking production will make readers want to get back in the car just to keep ­listening.

Shot-Blue (Coach House. Apr. 2017. ISBN 9781552453407. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9781770564749) is the color of the sky and the sound of a shotgun blast. Jesse Ruddock’s title perfectly encapsulates both the beauty and cruelty of the remote Canadian setting. Tristan, a boy on the edge of adolescence, lives in an isolated cabin with his protective mother, Rachel. She does her best to prepare her dreamy, awkward child for the challenges of life in this harsh landscape. Ruddock pens gorgeous and hallucinatory prose to describe lives defined by the slow rhythms of nature.

Natasha Pulley’s second novel, The Bedlam Stacks (Bloomsbury USA. Aug. 2017. ISBN 9781620409671. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781620409688), tells the tale of Merrick Tremayne, an ex–East India Company agent ordered to break Peru’s monopoly on quinine. As Merrick journeys deeper into the forest, he encounters any number of strange and wondrous circumstances and meets a highly mysterious priest with an intriguing relationship to time. Pulley is a master of fanciful elements and deftly draws readers into her vividly realized locales.

This column was contributed by Craig Clark, Notable Books Council; Nanette Wargo Donohue, Reading List Council; Sarah Barbara Watstein, Sophie Brody Medal; Mary Burkey, The Listen List: Outstanding Audiobook Narration; M. Kathleen Kern, Dartmouth Medal; Cindy L. Craig, Outstanding Reference Sources; and Neal Wyatt, Univ. Pr. Books for Public and School Libraries. Selections and annotations are in the order given

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at

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