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?

A Year In Reading: 2015

I’m stealing this idea shamelessly from The Millions, and, emboldened by the first act of kleptomania, I’m going even further and stealing the seasonal format from Garth Risk Hallberg’s Year In Reading post there. He’s extremely compelling in his linkage of personal life and literary life: very worth emulating, and perhaps a touch more interesting than endless rehashed plot summaries.

Winter

2015 didn’t start well. I’m never at my strongest, psychologically, after Christmas. Seasonal affective disorder kicks in; the weather is bad; I forget to eat well and don’t want to exercise. I was still in a job for which I felt underqualified and in the execution of which I remained unsupported. Reading on my commute became a lifeline. In January I read a good deal of exotically-located fiction, including books set in the Amazon rainforest (Euphoria by Lily King), Tokyo (parts of Ghostwritten by David Mitchell), and south Florida (Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy), but the standout was Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I’d never before read her fierce, haunting story of a former slave woman whose dead baby returns in the form of the mysterious Beloved, but it knocked my socks off. Everyone should read it.

I was also entranced by Michel Faber’s creepy alien novel Under the Skin, which ought to make everyone who reads it a lifelong vegetarian. It’s got such a simple central conceit, but once you get wise to it, the story’s horror is only deepened and enhanced. Catherine Chanter’s eco-thriller The Well was my reading material of choice during a five-day bout of illness that combined the common cold and acute depression; once I swam out of my nest of duvets and Lemsip and BelVita, and away from Chanter’s hallucinatory England (in which not a drop of rain has fallen for years), I realized that my mental health was in a perilous state, and needed attending to.

Fortunately, the end of winter came into sight just as I discovered some absolute crackers: Sarah Hall’s latest novel, The Wolf Border, is the best book I’ve read all year. It’s about a Cumbrian observational biologist who is hired as a consultant on a project to reintroduce grey wolves to the North of England. Along the way she discovers that she is pregnant by a former colleague, and the novel is as much about navigating motherhood (and the complexity of her relationship with her own, now dead, mother) as it is about lupine behavior. The descriptions of the Cumbrian landscape are spot on and chest-achingly beautiful; Hall’s knack for capturing a character in a few tight analytical paragraphs is reminiscent of George Eliot. It is so, so good. It should have been on the Baileys Prize list, and the Booker Prize one. Please go and read it. (The final winter read that I loved: The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. It is a simple joy to read, a thick, funny, poignant, surprisingly contemporary family saga set in the late 1930s, and it has four sequels. Excellent.)

Spring

Things got better in the spring. I looked out of my office window one day as I was about to leave and saw that it was still just about light, and my heart lifted. I also decided that this blog was to become a full-time book blog, and that too provided a sense of purpose.

April was a very good reading month in terms of sheer quantity, but two books particularly stood out to me. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the debut novel from Alice Furse, is a hymn to the zero-hours-contract office worker, a book for our times. Her unnamed protagonist manages to extract meaning from her life despite the mind-numbing tedium of her job in data entry; by the end of the book, it looks like she might be approaching happiness. A good lesson for recent graduates: things do get better, eventually. In the same month, I finally got round to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and was utterly bowled over by its smooth, fluid prose and its humane conception of the end of the world.

It’s had a lot of love already, though, so how about an unjustly neglected work: Grits, Niall Griffiths’s dense, hallucinatory, Welsh answer to Trainspotting. I never knew there were so many different ways to get high. It sucks you in like addiction itself; you start to feel dizzy and overwhelmed, reading its polyphonic voices, but you can’t let go. Finally, near the end of spring and as I was starting a new (much better) job, I came across Belinda McKeon’s Tender. The story of a close friendship between two Irish students in the ’90s which develops into something more–but only for one of them–it’s a devastating portrait of unrequited longing, youthful fuck-uppery, and the torment that young gay people suffer in environments where they cannot openly be themselves. Reading it is agonizing but also strangely comforting: you can know that other people have felt love and been hurt, but Tender is one of the few books that makes you really believe you’re not alone.

Summer

Summer was a game-changer in a lot of ways. I got serious about my own reviewing efforts. I stepped down from my post at Quadrapheme, where I had been managing editor, when I found I was no longer comfortable with the magazine’s politics; it’s the biggest decision on the grounds of social conscience that I’ve ever had to make, though I don’t regret it. I met the Chaos and fell hard. He talked to me about things I hadn’t seriously considered for years–maths, logic, computing–and realms of thought I had long considered out of bounds for a literature student like me lit up again.

During this time I read some incredibly good books. Ali Smith’s Baileys Prize-winning How to be both was impossible to review; how could I do justice to a novel that encompassed artistic integrity, grief at losing a parent, multiple chronologies, and the development of technologies across the centuries from fresco painting to the iPad? I couldn’t. But I strongly encourage you to read it. Cheryl Strayed’s collection of columns for the Rumpus, Tiny Beautiful Things, has already been lauded on this blog, but it too was a life-saver this summer, read at just the right time and striking just the right tone. It would make a perfect stocking stuffer (or indeed sub-arboreal offering) for literally almost anyone, and it’s not often I give such a blanket recommendation.

On the train on the way to work in the mornings, and on the bus on the way back, I read Donald Ray Pollock’s rural-noir short story collection, Knockemstiff, about the trap of poverty and despair in southern Ohio. I was also blown away (heh) by Patricia Smith’s collection of poetry about Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler, and Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, a raw and elemental novel set in the Mississippi Gulf during the same hurricane. It, too, should be more widely read and admired; Ward is an excellent writer whose protagonist, Esch, is a black girl compared explicitly within the text to icons of Western culture such as Medea. It’s a powerful, impressive annexation of “elite” literary history.

But the best books I read this summer were in August, not least Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which I tipped for the Booker before it won. It’s a completely immersive novel, its cast of characters vast and simultaneously tightly interwoven. Meanwhile, William Golding’s novel of Neanderthal-human cultural clash, The Inheritors, rearranged my ideas of how language and abstract thought work while also providing a heartbreaking plot. Finally, the summer ended with a rainy bank holiday weekend in Abingdon, where I read Sara Taylor’s dynamite novel-in-short-stories The Shore in a coffee shop and wept openly at its vivid portrayal of the simultaneous beauty and horrifying violence of Virginia’s Tidewater region.

Autumn
…And then everything got insane. I applied for another job and got it. I moved to London and into editorial web publishing. I moved in with the Chaos. (My parents, amazingly, didn’t have to be revived with smelling salts when informed.) The books, equally amazingly, kept up. The magical (and magisterial) Neal Stephenson entered my reading life with Cryptonomicon, a virtuosic novel about computers, coding, WWII, and freedom of information–timely in 1999, when it was first published, and timely now. Stephenson is a brilliantly funny, dry, erudite writer and I’m planning to read his whole backlist. Another mind-blowing read came from China Miéville, whose novel Embassytown addresses language, metaphor, power, imperialism and addiction in a faraway-alien-planet setting. It’s worth a graduate thesis, and I’m delighted to see that scholars are starting to produce serious work on Miéville; he deserves it.

October was the Month of Grim Beauty. It started with Helen Macdonald’s memoir-cum-hawking-treatise H Is For Hawk, which, like Station Eleven, has already been much lauded but fuck it, I’ll add my voice to the general hue and cry. It’s a great and beautiful book. Macdonald writes like a dream; the words slip down cleanly but make a huge impact as they go, and she draws an unflinching but undramatic portrait of herself as someone struck by grief and behaving, as even she understands, a little bit oddly in its wake. Simultaneously raw and controlled, it deserves its Costa Award win and really should not be missed, by anyone at all. Another powerful and heartbreaking read, Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, channels Ted Hughes’s mythopoeic Crow to help a London widower and his two young sons cope with their bereavement. Goes down in one sitting; stays with you for much, much longer. Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, a saga of post-apocalyptic America where only black and Hispanic children have survived a hideous disease, forced me to reconsider my mental defaults in a way that few books do; meanwhile, Naomi J. Williams’s debut novel Landfalls dealt with an eighteenth-century French scientific naval expedition by juggling multiple points of view, managing to narrate each new chapter with a distinct, realistic and totally engaging voice.

Finally, last month: Jeannette Winterson’s modernized retelling of The Winter’s TaleThe Gap of Time, navigated possible anachronism with aplomb, showing that Shakespeare’s ideas can be applied to present-day situations, and that issues such as jealousy, cruelty, forgiveness and redemption will never cease to be relevant. Katherine Carlyle, the new novel from Rupert Thomson, presented us with a self-possessed young female protagonist who fully owns her sexuality; the sumptuous landscape descriptions are merely the icing on the cake. I also recently started my project to read all the winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. So far my favorite has been Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which kept me enraptured on Tube journeys to and from work for a week. It’s not, in my opinion, as smooth a ride as Americanah, but my goodness, it’s still a terrific novel, an exploration of the Biafran conflict that humanizes a war mostly used in the West as a rhetorical device. Finally, the Belgian writer Annelies Verbeke was totally new to me until last week, but her short story collection Assumptions kept me hooked for a full day; the poignant misfires between characters, the way that people try to connect and don’t quite manage it, are subtly managed and deeply affecting.

I realize that this is way, way too long already, but if you’ve gotten this far, that was my year in reading: the books that really stood out. And, for those of you who really like numbered lists, here are my absolute top ten books of the year, in rough but by no means definitive order (except for #1, of course).

1. The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

2. H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

3. Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

4. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

5. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James

6. Katherine Carlyle, by Rupert Thomson

7. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

8. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

9. Under the Skin, by Michel Faber

10. The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Coming soon: this year’s dishonorable mentions/just plain misfires–the books I didn’t get on with, for obvious or obscure reasons.