This is a pure indulgence on my part – a chance to look back through my book diary and compile my ‘top ten’ reads. These are books which have wowed and/or surprised me by making me look at things afresh.
2017 has been an exciting year for me in terms of my reading. I *loved* the Booker shortlist (this hasn’t been the case for the last two years), my local library and bookshops have been fantastically well-stocked, and I embarked on this blog in late August. Perhaps this element has been the biggest surprise for me – I had no idea how much I would love writing about books, nor would I realize how many opportunities it would offer in terms of finding fantastic new writers to read and work with. So, without further ado, here are my top books of the year. Chin chin.
January: The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Yeong-hye, a young, and otherwise dutiful wife in South Korea, quietly challenges family and social conventions by making the decision to stop eating meat. Her decision causes significant consternation, and Han Kang’s descriptions of the baffled aggression Yeong-hye faces are vivid in my mind almost a year on. Our relationships with food are increasingly complex, it strikes me, and this is a fascinating and unsettling way into looking at a woman’s personal choices, with her body explicitly becoming the site of contention for those around her. I don’t think I’d read anything like this before coming to Kang’s novel – she is a very distinctive story-teller – and the accolade of winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 was well-deserved.
March: The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman
I first came across Gaiman as a writer when I read Good Omens, his collaborative (and quite brilliant) novel he wrote with the late and much-lamented Terry Pratchett. This is one of the few books I will happily read and re-read whenever I can. I have also absolutely loved The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. So it’s safe to say that I know his books are an obvious choice for a top read, and I’m now trying to make up for lost time. The Sleeper and the Spindle is all that you’d expect: clever, dark, thought-provoking and beautifully illustrated by another genius, Chris Riddell. It takes well-known fairy tales and presents them afresh, showing these fairy tale females to be anything but passive and inert. I loved it.
April: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Based on a real-life murder case and trial in 1829, Burial Rites is set in a remote Northern settlement in Iceland. Agnes Magnúsdóttir is accused, with an accomplice, of killing her lover. Because there are no jails in Iceland at this time, she is sent to wait out her time before execution with a local family. There are similarities with Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, and as time passes, the reader cannot help but begin to sympathise with Agnes’ plight, as does the family she is staying with. However, unlike Atwood’s tale, and as this is based on actual events, Kent’s denoument is fixed and makes for highly compulsive reading.
July: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
This had sat on my bookshelf for a few months – it was the fact that the summer holiday was now stretching ahead that meant I now felt I had the stamina to tackle it. I had previously peeked at the opening pages at some stage and decided I wasn’t yet in the mood for its Eighteenth Century picaresque narrative style. More fool me. Once Richard Smith landed in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (it’s always slightly disconcerting when a friend’s name appears in a novel – not sure why), I was away with the story, laughing aloud at more than one occasion. It has the most marvellous characters – Septimus Oakeshott is forever a favourite – and THAT ending. Wow.
September: Elmet by Fiona Mozley
This is probably my Book of the Year. It’s one of those books which has such an impact on you that you will always remember where you were when you read it. It builds slowly to a terrifying climax and is an incredibly striking debut novel. Mozley’s place on the Man Booker shortlist was well-deserved and I cannot wait to see what she does next. My original review is here: Fiona Mozley’s Elmet – a very strong contender.
Autumn by Ali Smith
This would have been my second choice for winner (although I concede that Lincoln in the Bardo was brilliant too – such a strong year). I have loved much of Smith’s writing over the year and this, coming as it does in the tumultuous aftermath of Brexit, felt so perfect an examination of the state of, well, just everything. Smith’s language play is second to none and I laughed and sighed my way through the cleverness and bathos of it all. The recently published Winter is also a good read, but I think there’s a greater freshness to her Autumn.
October: The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keaney
It was a bumper month as a new blogger – Brian Keaney’s novel was the first one I’d picked out on Netgalley and I was so glad I had had the chance to read it. Telling the stories of a young Thomas de Quincy, a freed slave and a young prostitute, Keaney’s novel brought Nineteenth Century London to life, with all its attendant dangers and difficulties. I love novels which offer new perspectives on famous writers, and Keaney’s writing is beautiful in its detail.
In October, I also reviewed Helen Matthew’s highly memorable After Leaving the Village. This powerful novel cast a light on the dark world of modern slavery and human trafficking, setting the story of Odeta, a young woman from Albania, alongside the narrative of a middle-class English woman, Kate, and her concerns about her family. It was tightly plotted and horribly real in its details. It very much left a mark on me and it deserves a wide readership.
November: Dracula by Bram Stoker
This is not the first time I’ve read this one, but I enjoy it so much every time that I felt it warranted an appearance here. It’s also hard to think of another such novel, dismissed as a ‘shilling shocker’ in a Chicago review at the time, which has left such a legacy. Re-reading it in November, I was once again struck by how easy Count Dracula has it for the first half of the novel, and also by how hard it is to come to this novel without all its cultural baggage now. I found Mina as irritating as I always have but, once the chase begins, it’s a rip-roaring read and one that’s perfect for misty Autumn evenings.
December: Echo Hall by Virginia Moffatt
This historical novel snuck into my reading pile at the end of November, providing me with excellent reading material over the last few days. I enjoyed Moffatt’s detailed plotting greatly, and loved the way the structure unfolds the secrets of the Flint family as the novel progresses. It has been a fantastic way to end my reading year and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work in the future. My review is here:
Right, I’m off to plan for my first Jolabokaflod, a Christmas Eve of reading and eating chocolate. Happy reading, folks!