I’ve selected fifteen of the 115 books that I read in 2017as “Best Reads”.
Mainstream novels made the biggest impact on me this year, so I’ve selected ten of the twenty I read. They were the ones that made me take a closer look at the world and the choices that I make.
I had a lot of fun reading genre books, mostly series that I’ve been following for some time in science fiction, crime and urban fantasy. I’ve selected five genre books that I thought were exceptional
Top Ten Mainstream Novels Read In 2017
I didn't expect it to be, but "Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine" turned out to be one of my favourite books this year.
Given that this is a book about a person who is very far from completely fine, who bears the physical and mental scar of childhood trauma and lives in a state of brutal isolation, this might sound like a depressing read. Yet I found it hopeful and sometimes funny, not because it escaped from reality but because it captured it so well but never gave in to despair.
There is so much understanding here of how day to day life really is, how we struggle with it, how loneliness colonises our lives like a carcinogenic mould until our lives become literally unbearable and how important small acts of kindness and regular honest contact are.
The writing is pretty much perfect. The characterisation is both subtle and clear. Modern life is closely observed and then relayed through the unique filter of Eleanor's perception. The emotions in the book are strong and real but not broadcast in soundbites or flash cards. If this was a movie, there would be no dramatic music, just close-ups of people being people.
What I want to say about "My Name Is Lucy Barton" is: read it and read it soon. It's full of truth. It will make you cry. It will make you feel less alone. It will give you courage. It will fill your imagination as you read it and echo in your memory long afterwards.
"My Name Is Lucy Barton" is about "A poor girl from Amgash who loved her momma." It's not a plot-driven book or even a character-driven book. It's a book in which Lucy, talking to us directly and frankly shares her thoughts, emotions and memories about how she and her mother were together.
In a few hours of listening, I felt that I knew who Lucy Barton was, at least as well as anyone can know such a thing.
At one point in the book, Lucy says, "I know a true sentence when I hear one." Well, this seems to me to be a book full of true sentences. I kept interrupting myself as I read to make a note of another true thing. Then I realised that the only way to do justice to their truth was to read the book. I recommend you do the same..
"Reservoir 13" by Jon McGregor as my favourite of the three books I read from the 2017 Mann Booker Prize Longlist although it didn't make the Shortlist.
It shows how life is lived in a village over thirteen years, season by season, giving a .surface view of all the things that people in a small village know about each other: the gossip, the constant observation of each other's acts and the things they don’t say or don’t ask. I came to understand how the politeness of being indirect grants dignity and privacy while still offering the possibility of sharing the things you cannot bear alone.
The people in the village are following the same tidal flows as the wildlife around them and, just as I learned about the courtship of badgers in the woods, I was shown that most human mating rituals are led by women and conducted through body language and eye contact more than words.
The missing girl is not the centre of the book but rather something that distorts the flow of village life without adding to it, She is like a waterlogged piece of driftwood that only occasionally surfaces but is always there, disturbing the peace of the water.
“Reservoir 13” has a distinct voice and an unusual structure that did, eventually, imprint the village on my imagination and made me reluctant to leave. The narrative doesn’t thrust, it shapes your perception of people and events with gentle persistence, like a stream eroding one bank and building up another. It has stayed with me in the weeks since I read it and grown richer in my memory like a place visited and fondly remembered.
"The Wolf Border" has a strong plot that deals with politics and class and the struggle between the wild and the civilized. On that level alone it would be compelling but what sets it apart is Sarah Hall’s muscular writing and her unflinching insights into people.
The language is sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal, always precise. The people are complex and real. The book is filled with sex, death, science, addiction, grief, motherhood and many varieties of love and distaste.
The sex is described with an honesty that is so unusual it is almost shocking. The raw pain and anger that death produces in those who are forced to watch it and survive it are graphically evoked. The overwhelming experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood are embraced without being romanticised.
One the themes of this book is rewilding, the untaming of our countryside by returning to it predators that we have long since exterminated. Rachel Caine is working towards this and,
“…would like to believe there will be a place again where the street lights end and wilderness begins: the wolf border.”
Rachel walks this border throughout the book, sometimes seeing herself and those around her primarily as animals dominating their territory but still driven by basic needs and urges, sometimes feeling the pull to retreat from that wilderness into a safer world where she can protect the family and friends that she loves.
"Idaho" by Emily Ruskovich deserves a much larger audience than it seems to have achieved. Each chapter is a work of art. Emily Ruskovich can write in a way that makes you fully aware of how a particular person is experiencing something that is vivid and immediate but also ladened with context and possibility.
It is an intense, absorbing experience that speaks to my senses and my emotions but, by itself, does not satisfy my need for a narrative leading to some form of release.
The nonlinear nature of this narrative, the emphasis on moments of being and intense but bounded insights into a person, meant that reading “Idaho” felt more like experiencing other people’s lives than it did reading a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end. I was given lots of hard, emotionally taxing questions but I was offered only the inference of answers, much as I am in real life.
There is a narrative. It is triggered by an act of violence that changes the lives of almost all of the characters in the book. Revealing this narrative in a non-linear way is not done to enhance the tension or to build to a great reveal, but to show that we are not the events that we live through. They can harm us or help us but the self we bring to each moment is what shapes the outcome of an event.
"Ms. Bixby's Last Day" by John David Anderson wins my nomination for "book that would make a classic movie"
My blurb for the book would say:
“Read this book. It’s wonderfully written, perfectly structured and shares the lives. problems, passions and fears of three young boys in a way that feels real and true without ever getting schmaltzy or maudlin.”
The book is told as three first-person accounts, with each boy getting a chapter in turn. The pace of both plot and character development are perfect. There is a quest structure that is amusing and exciting and sad in turns but never leaves the real world behind.
At the centre of the book are three very different boys who each have a particular take on friendship, a teacher they all love but who is neither a saint nor a superhero and their mission to provide her with a perfect last day.
What I liked most about the book was the way the character of each boy was slowly built up through a series of interlocking events and insights that deepened my experience as the book progressed.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version of “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day”. Each of the boys has their own narrator, which emphasises their individuality. The performances are pretty close to perfect.
"Hour Of The Bees" by Lindsay Eagar was a book I went to with wariness. The blurb sounds a little miserable, a twelve-year-old girl forced to spend the summer with a grandfather she barely knows and who is sinking into the quicksands of dementia. The cover is bland, amateur, and not even slightly intriguing. I read it because Almarie Guerra is the narrator and I loved what did with “The Water Knife”.
Fortunately, “Hours Of The Bees” turned out to be a fresh, original and pleasantly non-didactic book that made me think, cry and occasionally laugh.
It centres around a twelve-year-old girl who is beginning to discover her identity and her independence and the relationship she builds with her newly-met grandfather who is losing both his identity and his independence.
While the two of them spend the summer together on an isolated ranch in the Painted Desert, her grandfather tells her the story of his life, starting always with “Once upon a time”.
Much of my pleasure in the book came from the splendid ambiguity created by having what might otherwise be tiresomely pious magical realism stories being told by an old man with dementia to a girl with limited experience of life. This ambiguity left me to make up my own mind and helped me to concentrate on the emotional truths of the novel: that life must be embraced to be lived, that love is the anchor of hope and that a place can have a soul that we can push roots into and be nurtured by.
The pace of the story-telling is perfect: slow enough to give the sense of time passing on a remote desert ranch and fast enough to keep you wondering what will happen next. Each moment is threaded between the pearls of “Once upon a time…” storytelling that changes the context of the present moment and the meaning of everything that passed before.
The novel s a coming of age story about Julia Reyes, a Mexican-American girl growing up in Chicago. The book begins with the death of her sister, Olga, who appeared to be the perfect daughter until Julia sets out to discover who she truly was. In the process, Julia begins to understand her family and herself.
What caught me by surprise was the simple beauty of the prose, the depth of the insight into depression and the skilful pacing of Julia's emotional journey.
Erika Sanchez's simple, precise, beautiful prose, captures Julia perfectly and helps the reader see her clearly in a way that seems effortless and natural but which requires great skill.
The novel deals with death, love, cultural and personal identity and the impact of trauma and secrets on our ability to be honest with ourselves and others. This is not an easy ride but it is one that is filled with deep compassion, a reluctance to judge and a refusal to simplify or avoid unpleasant things.
“The Bette Davis Club” by Jane Lotter, is a larger than life comedy, structured around a chaotic road-trip in a classic 1938 MG that careens from Malibu to Manhattan by way of Chicago.
Margo Just, a single woman in her fifties whose life is slowly falling apart attends her niece’s wedding in her childhood home in Malibu, despite being estranged from her half-sister.
When the bride jilts the groom and makes a run for it, Margo’s financially straitened circumstances, combined with the impact of the several vodka martinis and the promise of the use of her dead father’s classic little red sports car, lead to her accept a mission, from her half-sister to join with the groom and bring the runaway bride home.
What follows is a riotous journey with some classic scenes, including a crazed attack on the highway and Margo, who is straight, doing the samba in a lesbian dance competition. It's also an engaging internal journey for Margo, who is on the cusp of confronting some deep truths about her life that will determine her future.
"My Year Of Meats" was a delightful read that provided an accessible story, engaging characters, humorous glimpses of two culture misunderstanding one another and still managed to take a serious look at the American meat industry and the American' public's unwillingness to believe unpleasant truths.
Published in 1999, "My Year Of Meats" tells the story of Jane, a Japanese American documentarian, who spends a year making a series called “My American Wife” that is intended to promote the sale of American beef in Japan by showing wholesome American housewives cooking wholesome American meat.
Much humour arises from the gaps in perception between what is happening in front of the camera and what makes it to the TV show, the gap between Japanese and American views of wholesomeness and the gaps between how men and women react to things. It's a sign of Ruth Ozeki's skill that the same gaps are also used to generate empathy and compassion for the people involved.
One of the themes of the book is our willingness and ability to take in a fact-based view of the world and to take action on what we know. Jane's journey from seeing her role as "Hey, it's a job." through, "I want to be fair to the people I film" to "I need to do something about these abuses" provides a vehicle for us to consider how and why we engage with what we know. During her journey, Jane comes to the view that, to some extent, we all cultivate a level of ignorance to protect ourselves from "Bad Knowledge", that is, knowledge that we acquire from a constant barrage of bad news that leaves us feeling powerless because we can't act on what we know so we would rather no know it.
I enjoyed Ruth Ozeki's lightness of touch. Her people are believable. Her humour is compassionate in its way and yet she still manages to seed new ideas and concepts.
Top Five Genre Novels Read In 2017
"A Legacy of Spies" was my first John Le Carré novel
What surprised me most was how beautiful the language is. Le Carré writes with clarity and precision, capturing nuances of speech, thought and culture with deft touches that are evocative without being obtrusive. He moves skillfully from past to present, from lie to truth, from regret to rage, in a way that fully engaged my mind and my emotions.
The premise of the book is a present-day investigation into British security operations during the Cold War. It is told through contemporary interrogations by a rather loathsome lawyer, extracts from official, secret but not necessarily truthful records and intensely intimate memories of Peter, the retired spy from whose point of view the story is told.
This is a strong spy story, full of intrigue and deception and betrayal but those are really just the vehicle for the true heart of the novel, which seems to me to be an exploration of the nature of patriotism and the inability and unwillingness of the current generation to understand the context of the actions of the previous generation.
As I shared Peter's memories and experiences, his secrets and his regrets, I was reminded of a time when Russia was our overt enemy, holding half of Europe in its totalitarian fist and threatening the other half with conquest or extinction. Patriotism then was a matter of survival not nostalgic flag waving.
"A Legacy Of Spies" is not a polemic disguised as a novel, It is fundamentally a very human story of love and sacrifice and deception and regret and most of all, of endurance.
Stephen King's "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" surprised me. I'd expected Stephen King to apply his story-telling skills to give me a tense story about the bad things that happen to little girls who get lost in the woods, invoking all the things that lurk in the deep dark and reminding me what it feels like to be prey. Instead, I got something quite different and wonderful, Stephen King narrowed his focus down to the internal dialogue that drives Trish, nine years old, almost ten and big for age, to persist in struggling not to die in vast Maine woods that she is alone and lost in.
In some ways, this is a book in which nothing much happens. Trish gets separated from her mother and brother and finds herself lost in the woods and does her best to find a way to walk out again. Yet, from the beginning, I kept wanting to know what happened next and by the end, I cared passionately about whether Trish would survive.
Trish is brave and resourceful and unyielding. She’s also, as she tells us from time to time, just a kid. She’s afraid. She’s furious at the unfairness of her situation. She cries. She throws tantrums. Then she persists.
The writing is wonderful, simple on the surface but with flowing rhythms beneath the surface that entrance the ear and build meanings on simple phrases until a verbal Fibonacci Sequence unfolds. Stephen King can take a radio jingle, “Who do you call when your windscreen ‘s busted” and turn it into a leitmotiv for the desire for rescue. The pace is perfectly controlled and cleverly structured around the innings of a baseball game.
I recommend the audiobook version of “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”. It’s performed by Anne Heche, who does a superb job of making Trisha real and made this an even better read.
In "Warchild" Karen Lowachee has been brave enough to focus on the emotional damage war inflicts on the most vulnerable. The book confronts the reality of the damage done to the life of Jos, a nine-year-old boy who is abducted, enslaved and abused by the pirate who attacks his ship and kills his family.
The first section of the book is particularly hard on the emotions. Jos’ description of his abduction and what happened during his enslavement is written in the second person, giving it a distant, disconnected feel, like someone reporting something that happened to someone else a long time ago. The distance amplifies the sense of helplessness, of wrongness and brutality in a way that breaks the heart and stokes impotent rage.
I picked up "All Systems Red" because it was one of the Best Science Fiction Nominees in the GoodReads Choice Awards 2017 It's my first Martha Wells book, but I'm sure it won't be my last.
I've been reading Science Fiction for more than forty years and it's rare for me to come across a novella as fresh, engaging and original as "All Systems Red".
Told from the point of view of a part machine, part organic, Security Bot that secretly refers to itself as "Murderbot", "All Systems Red" is a turn-the-page-I have-to-know-what-happens-next read. Murderbot has gone rogue, is proud of himself for not having murdered everybody yet and mostly wants to be left alone to watch entertainment videos. Strange and violent happenings that threaten "his" humans mean that he has to put the entertainments aside and take risks to keep his humans alive.
Murderbot's interior monologue is simple, alien and compelling. He is not human but he is not just a machine either. He's a person that you end up rooting for.
"The Spaceship Next Door" is a fun book: witty, fast moving, great dialogue, original ideas, a twisty plot, aliens, zombies and a whole bunch of in-jokes for those of us who live and breathe SciFi and horror.
It's told in a raconteur third-person style that heightens the amusement, keeps things from getting too serious and allows the parts of the puzzle to be nudged into sight at just the right pace.
The basic premise is that spaceship lands in the small mill town of Sorrow Falls, Massachusetts in the middle of the night and then,,, nothing much happens... for three years. Long enough for the good folks of Sorrow Falls to get used to having a spaceship next door and even to take for granted the strong Army presence that is guarding the ship.
Then things do start to change and it seems the end of the world is at hand. At least, it will be if sassy sixteen-year-old Annie Collins doesn't help the thirty-something government agent who absolutely no-one believes is the reporter he claims to be, to solve the mystery of what the ship wants and what it will do if it doesn't get it.
Annie Collins is the heart of this book. If you don't like her, then the book will just pass you by. Fortunately, she's very likeable. She's open, friendly, preternaturally smart, always has a clever question to ask and is hiding a hugely important secret from just about everyone.
I was smiling almost all the way through this book. I listened to the audiobook version and felt entertained the whole way through. In addition to being witty, "The Spaceship Next Door" manages to twist a number of tropes around aliens and zombies and the reaction of the military to a space invasion in very clever ways. It makes constant reference to science fiction movies and books and I could almost see the author's gleeful grin in my mind when he managed to include the line, "Take me to your leader."
If you're a sci-fi fan looking for a smile and a few surprises, come and spend a few hours in Sorrow Falls and let Annie Collins show you around.