Books of the Year: 2017

This year, so far, I’ve read 175 books. That’s a lot to choose from, but I’ve managed to narrow down my top choices for the year to eleven. These are THE books: the ones I can’t stop thinking about, have been recommending for months, and still get something new from, every time I reconsider them. There were many, many others that I loved and thought were brilliant (they’re listed at the bottom of this post). Some titles have been left off on the grounds of ubiquity: Lincoln in the Bardo, The Underground Railroad and The Power were all incredible books which I adored, but they don’t exactly need any more attention or admiration. These eleven are my absolute hands-down all-stars, and some of them, I think, deserve a bit more love. So here they are.

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  1. For A Little While, by Rick Bass. Bass is criminally unknown in this country. He writes the most beautiful, most complete short stories I’ve ever seen: each one is like a novel, feeling full with incident and characterisation and yet never going on for too long. His geography is the American West and Midwest, but unlike other writers of whom he reminds me (Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy) he is unfailingly humane to his characters. Reading him is an absolute treat. (short review)

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2. Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry. Speaking of McCarthy, Barry’s novel reminded me of a gay-er, more tender and humane and frankly normal, riff on Blood Meridian. Barry too writes about the violence visited upon Native Americans by whites, but he does so in the context of the US Civil War and as part of the love story between his two male protagonists, Thomas McNulty and John Cole. His sentences are stunning, and he absolutely nails the dynamic of silent, undemonstrative love between men.

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3. Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. My initial impression of this stands: it’s like a Graham Greene novel and an Ian Fleming novel had a baby, then left the baby to be raised by the Coen Brothers. Dark, funny, nihilistic and magnificently disdainful of narrative convention, it’s a spy novel set in 1970s Morocco that manages to completely baffle you half a dozen times. The ending is unforgettable. (full review)

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4. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Of all the books I read this year, this is one of the most sophisticated. Juggling the stories of several young Chinese musicians at Shanghai Conservatory during the Cultural Revolution, it manages to be an overview of twentieth-century Chinese history, a family saga, and an examination of the ethics of making art under tyranny, without ever losing nuances of characterisation. Good though The Power is, this was my favourite to win the Baileys Prize. (short review)

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5. The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. This is the single book that I wish I had pushed on more people this year. It’s a hard sell, because it is about Marzano-Lesnevich’s investigation of the case of Ricky Langley, who is in prison for molesting and murdering a six-year-old boy. She interweaves his story with her own—including her childhood molestation by her grandfather—and creates a compelling, frightening, beautiful book out of it, tackling the meanings of innocence, of justice and of redemption. I think it is utterly stunning.

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6. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. Everyone has been talking about this book. No prize jury has yet seen fit to reward it, which is bonkers; it’s a book with no narrator, which ignores the conventions of the missing-girl genre as well as those of traditional nature writing, resulting in an extraordinarily compelling jigsaw of life in a rural village shaken by tragedy over the course of thirteen years. It takes almost inconceivable skill to write such a thing, and I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already. (full review)

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7. The Time Of Our Singing, by Richard Powers. This book is absolutely astonishing. Its protagonists are mixed-race (African-American-Jewish) brothers Jonah and Joseph, a concert pianist and an operatic tenor, but it is so much more than an insider’s classical music novel; it is ambitious enough to take on twentieth-century American history, inter-racial marriage, deep questions of belonging and vocation and family and home, and Powers simply writes so intelligently and thoughtfully. (It will also give you a whole Spotify playlist of stuff to listen to, if that’s your jam.) It is now on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. Can’t say better than that.

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8. It, by Stephen King. Rarely, if ever, have I been so pleasantly surprised by a book. King’s exploration of small-town horror and mundane evil is over a thousand pages long, but, reader, they will fly by, I promise you. His sexual politics are awkward and dated, but you can tell he was trying, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another author who—at his best—is so damn readable while still keeping rhythm and flow in his prose. Make time for this book. (full review)

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How about this cover. Maybe my favourite of the year.

9. Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer. The sci-fi book I have been recommending to everyone who doesn’t like sci-fi. Set in an industrially ravaged future city menaced by an enormous flying bear (go with it), it tells the story of scavenger Rachel, who lives with her partner Wick in an abandoned tower block, and who finds a small lump of biotech one day on her searches. She takes it home and names it Borne, and quickly finds that the extent of Borne’s abilities—and his true nature—are way beyond her expectations. It’s a lot of things rolled into one: a suspense thriller, a mother-and-child story, a tale of friendship, a sort of romance. VanderMeer’s imagination, and ability to translate his ideas into strong visuals through prose, is peerless.

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10. The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. In the same way, I imagine, as the medical profession thanks its various divinities for Theodore Dalrymple, Henry Marsh, and Adam Kay, so are booksellers offering orisons for the work of Shaun Bythell. At last, someone who is lifting the curtain on the ridiculous/rude/implausible/plain stupid things, customers, and situations that booksellers deal with daily. And you don’t have to be in the industry to appreciate the man’s witty misanthropy. We keep selling out of this in the bookshop, sometimes within the same day of a fresh delivery.

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11. Dodgers, by Bill Beverly. This is one of those books that you almost cannot talk about, because to do so is to disturb the complex feelings of awe and sorrow and emptiness and fullness that settle, all at the same time, upon you once you finish it. It is indisputably a crime novel, but oh it is so much more. East, our protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old lookout at an LA crack house. He fucks up, and is given a chance to redeem himself: take a roadtrip with some other fuck-ups, and his preternaturally brutal younger brother Ty, to assassinate a federal judge in Wisconsin. There is so much brilliant thinking and writing in this, about brothers and violence and despair and choosing the kind of man you wish to be. It deserves to be a classic.

Other books that were incredible: Every one of these titles is something I would urge you to read as soon as you can. Run, don’t walk. Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway: viciously funny, insanely clever, on the potential consquences of a surveillance society. Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward: a stunning road trip novel; Ward is a modern William Faulkner. A Gentleman In Moscow, by Amor Towles: charming and witty, without ever losing intellectual complexity and nuance. Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain, by Barney Norris: if you loved Reservoir 13, this is your next stop; set in Salisbury and utterly breathtaking. English Animals, by Laura Kaye: beat Ali Smith to being the Most Timely Brexit Novel, and also a beautifully written depiction of class/power imbalance and a lesbian relationship. A Field Guide to Reality, by Joanna Kavenna: the dreamiest, oddest Oxford novel ever, taking in thirteenth-century medieval theories of reality and contemporary metaphysics, and really set apart by fantastic illustrations. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead: you know why. Black and British, by David Olusoga: my new favourite history book, dealing with the presence of free Africans in Britain long before the Empire Windrush. The Wardrobe Mistress, by Patrick McGrath: a compelling ghost story set in the freezing winter of 1947, in London’s seedily glamorous theatre world. 2084, ed. George Sandison: some of the best sci-fi of the year, in the best-edited short story collection of the year. My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent: brutal and stunning, a contemporary McCarthy mixed with Daniel Woodrell. Balancing Acts, by Nicholas Hytner: engaging commentary on plays and staging, as well as some fun name-dropping; worth reading for his analysis of Othello alone. Lincoln In the Bardo, by George Saunders: it really is the most heartbreaking and risk-taking book, very worth reading. Night Sky With Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong: my favourite poetry book of the year, lush meditations on sex and heritage and allegiance. The Power, by Naomi Alderman: reading it is a mental game-changer; you won’t think the same way again. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow: an honest-to-God utopian novel, suggesting that the future might not suck if we work together and use tech productively. Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: a novella about a sexy, cosmopolitan pensioner, the kind of older woman we should all aim to be.

And I have to stop there—I could go on. Have you read any of these? Have I convinced you to pick up any?

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28 thoughts on “Books of the Year: 2017

  1. I’ve read quite a few of your top 11 but I’m not sure if any of them will make my top 10 – not because I didn’t like them (I thought Days Without End, for example, was great) but because picking a final top 10 out of so many books is so subjective. (I’ve not read as many as you but I’m on 120 at the moment, which is an all-time record for me). Often it’s the books I’ve felt a deep emotional connection with, that manage to stay with me over the course of the year – or simply the books I’ve read more recently – that make the cut. I always feel like there’s a bit of a weighting towards winter reads that I’m still excited about and haven’t recommended 1000 times already!

    The SF all sounds fascinating – I must read Bourne, 2084 and Gnomon. I’ve really struggled with Joanna Kavenna before – I find her quite pretentious – but A Field Guide To Reality ticks a lot of my boxes, so I might try it. Sing Unburied Sing is already on my 2018 TBR list.

    • I totally agree – lots
      of people have got books I adored on their best of yearar lists that just didn’t make it onto mine because of numbers or the fact that I had a slightly better emotional connection with a different title, or what-have-you. It’s one of the reasons it’s so much fun to see other people’s lists!

      2084, Borne and Gmomon are all really exceptional, and you won’t regret reading Jesmyn Ward, either.

  2. There are some there which I really want to read (like Reservoir 13), but we’ll have to agree to disagree about Sand. I found it good in parts, but just too long and… also… I just felt it didn’t go quite far enough, if you know what I mean. It could have pushed the boundaries just a little bit more.

  3. Victoria (Eve's Alexandria) says:

    Days Without End and The Fact of a Body will almost certainly be on my best of 2017 list too. Both astonishing books that have stayed with me. Of the others I’ve only read Reservoir 13 and you know I didn’t love it as much as you, although I can see why so many people loved it. (I just finished The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, which felt very similar in approach but worked much better for me. Have you read it?) Ah no, I tell a lie, I’ve also read Joanna Kavenna’s Field Guide to Reality. But the less said about that the better. :/

    I’m adding Rick Bass and Richard Powers to my wishlist immediately. I have Borne, 2084, English Animals and Do Not Say We Have Nothing on my TBR already and am really looking forward to them. 🙂

  4. I am delighted to see The Time of Our Singing on your list. It is one of my all time favourite books. I try to push it on to everyone! I’ve noted a couple of these that sound really interesting. Thanks!

  5. I’ve read 4 and a bit of your top picks, and a good few from the overflowing paragraph of runners-up 🙂 It’s interesting to me that you didn’t limit yourself to 2017 titles. At the moment I only have 9 works of fiction from this year that would make a best-of list for me, though I’m expecting The Heart’s Invisible Furies to make that an even 10. Then I’ll probably have a separate list of the backlist titles I loved the most. My most memorable read of the year came from 1982.

    • I read a lot more brand-new releases now, but I still try to vary my reading enough to cover the C20 stuff that I feel I’ve missed (and some earlier stuff too, which I love reading anyway), and it turns out that often those are the ones that stick in the mind!

      I want to know your memorable 1982 read…

      • Fair enough 🙂 So 2 of your 11 were NF; does that accurately represent the NF:F ratio of your reading?

        It was Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, of all things. I haven’t written anything about it yet as I’m struggling to encapsulate why I loved it so much, but it instantly leapt onto my all-time favourites list. I’ll have to come up with a paragraph about it to tack onto my fiction best-of list.

      • I think probably, yeah – I don’t read very much nonfiction at all, generally, but this year there’s been more, most likely because of the job.

        I’ve never read any Anne Tyler!

  6. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    I can’t believe that the only books I’ve read of all the ones you mention are the Amor Towles which I adored and Laura Kaye – which continues to grow on me. I do own at least half a dozen of the others though (Borne, Dodgers, Bythell, Gnomon, Kavenna, Tallent, Walkaway and The Power) and have added Sand to my wishlist. I’m planning to tackle Gnomon over the break… Superb list.

  7. Love this post! I have Days Without End, Sing Unburied Sing, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Do Not Say We Have Nothing on my TBR for next year and am so excited to read them!

  8. I’m happy to see Do Not Say We Have Nothing on your list!
    I’ve had a couple of other Richard Powers books on my radar for a while – I’ll add this one too! have you read any of his others?

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