In 2017 I read 64 books – almost exactly the same number as last year, though I had periods of several weeks where I read little, and other periods when I read constantly. I do wonder whether social media and other digital distractions have been interfering with my ability to really focus on reading and accounted for the gaps over the past year. But nevertheless, I did some interesting reading in 2017, including a lot of science fiction, along with lots of new fiction, some classics, and assorted others. First I’ll talk about the books, then at the bottom of this post I will list all the books I read in 2017, arranged into ratings of 1-5 (where 5 is excellent). Behold: your reading inspiration for the year!
Best book of the year
2017 has been odd for not really having a stand-out book of the year. I ranked 18 books (28%) at 5 stars, but it’s hard to pick the absolute best. Since I have to, I will be decisive and say The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain. This is a wonderful novel set in Switzerland after WWII. It’s about family and friendships and love, and the decisions we make, and their impact on the people around us. The characters are beautifully drawn, and I recall shedding some tears while reading this book.
Disappointment of the year
While not intrinsically a bad book, I was rather disappointed by Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe. I read Love, Nina last year and loved it. And so many people told me that her next novel, Man at the Helm, was even better. They described being in floods of laughter throughout. And sure, it was amusing at times. But I hardly laughed out loud, and it seemed to have lost that freshness of tone that was so intrinsic to Stibbe’s first book. Plus, I can never really get behind books that are primarily focused on ‘finding a man’… I grudgingly bought the sequel, Paradise Lodge, and enjoyed it a little more, probably because the ‘finding a man’ narrative took a back seat to a more engaging, quirky coming of age story. Embarrassingly, I didn’t realise it was actually a sequel til halfway though. Also, everyone except me seems to have loved Tin Man by Sarah Winman – I have no idea why I couldn’t get into it… And having loved the Silo trilogy, I was disappointed in the bleakness and lack of sympathy in Sand by Hugh Howey.
In the young adult section, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas got a lot of publicity this year – and for good reason. Focused on the challenge of race in America through the eyes of a teenage girl in New York, I read it at the start of the year and it has stayed with me and affected how I think. I was also impressed by Autumn by Ali Smith, which gave me the unusual experience of reading a book that is anchored in the UK right now. This must have been written at speed and it has an interesting format that conveys mood very well – though it’s not exactly jolly. And La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman absolutely lived up to expectations as a brilliant, thrilling prequel to The Golden Compass. But for me, the most exciting books this year have improbably been the Hogarth Shakespeare series where beloved authors have reimagined Shakespeare’s plays as modern novels. I say improbable as this is a concept about which I’d ordinarily have had grave suspicions. But I couldn’t resist reading Hagseed by Margaret Atwood, based on The Tempest. It was gloriously written, engaging, original, and edge-of-the-seat fascinating. I loved it. So then I tried New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, based on Othello. And it was maybe even better! In the coming year I’ll be reading the rest of them: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (The Winter’s Tale), Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson (Merchant of Venice) and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (The Taming of the Shrew) are all out already; Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear are being published in 2018.
More offbeat books
I’ve been charmed by some lovely quirky books this year. I loved Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn, which is funny and charming and a little silly, imagining the Queen taking a day off from her duties. It will appeal to those who liked An Uncommon Reader… My other favourite was Calling Major Tom by David M Barnett about loneliness and connections and coming of age at different ages… and about random decisions that can literally send you into space. It’s heartwarming and delightful – I distinctly remember both laughing and crying out loud. Another big charmer on similar themes (though less about space) is the delightful Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Also very interesting was The End of the Day by Claire North, who wrote The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. This book is pretty similar in some ways but a bit wittier, with an inventive premise that death employs a human harbinger. It’s not charming, but it’s gripping and thought-provoking.
Classic author treats
I loved re-reading A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute while I was actually in Alice Springs this year. I concurred: it’s a ‘bonza town’. And one of my favourite books of all time. I finally tried my first Barbara Pym. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym is one of those refreshing, funny, charming books about spinsterhood and humanity. And I picked up The Parasites by Daphne DuMaurier on the strength of a recommendation on Facebook that it was A Swish of the Curtain for grown-ups. Not sure it exactly was, but it was interesting, written in intriguing collective tones, about three siblings who shared famous showbiz parents and are now making their own way in the same sort of world. Quite thought provoking.
This was the year of the dystopia for me. I went dystopia mad. I couldn’t get enough of them. And they very much fell into two camps: the ‘literary’ dystopia, and the ‘young adult’ dystopia, some of which felt a little more of a (trashy) guilty pleasure than a worthy read (but were no less compelling for it!).
In the category of worlds where population has been almost wiped out by something or other, the theme this year (with the exception of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison) seems to have been longish-term survival after the event, rather than a focus on the immediate aftermath. I was excited to finally read The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey, the long-awaited sequel to The Girl with All the Gifts. I liked it almost as much. I re-read On the Beach by Nevil Shute which I still think is one of the most haunting and human descriptions of a possible end of the world by nuclear fallout. Another apocalypse-by-nuclear-fallout I read was A Gift Upon the Shore by MK Wren which had its flaws within the plot but was a very compelling meditation on what’s important in rebuilding a world. I also got round to reading Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and while I was suspicious of a civilisation of spiders providing half the narrative (the other is set on a human space ship), my only ‘space-set book’ on the list was actually one of my highest quality sci-fi reads this year. I also quite enjoyed When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall because it was set in Britain and gave a fairly unusual but realistic vision of a rather grim future world. As mentioned under disappointments, I did not really enjoy Sand by Hugh Howey, which is a far-sequel to the Silo trilogy, set in a world covered by sand that has buried cities and was just a bit depressing.
Moving along to worlds that have adapted to new technology and other futuristic demands, this was the premise most popular with the coming of age sci-fi trilogies I read this year. The Testing trilogy by Joelle Charbonneau was one of those worlds where people are kept down and isolated into districts, Hunger Games-style, but every year a few of them are invited to the capital to participate in something that sounds good but is violent and bad. The first book was quite compelling, but the sequels started to decline in quality. The same for the Gender Game series by Bella Forest where men and women are separated into different towns that do not mix, which I really enjoyed at first, though the quality fell so quickly I stopped at book 3 of 7. I preferred The Girl Who Dared to Think trilogy, also by Bella Forest, where civilisation is based inside skyscrapers, controlled by a computer, and success depends on positive mental attitude. Which is perhaps the modern-day version of The World Inside by Robert Silverberg which I also read this year, and found fascinating, both in terms of concepts and also the way in which it’s told, each chapter through the eyes of a different tower resident. Further harnessing technology (and punishing those who don’t conform), Replica by Lauren Oliver was about clones, Flawed by Cecelia Ahern was about physical perfection, and The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (not young adult, and falling more clearly into the literary fiction camp) was about what happens to those who fail to find a romantic partner by a certain age.
The only book I read in the category of alternative reality this year was United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas, imagining a world where Japan had won WWII. It’s a fascinating concept but it was quite violent – not really my thing. Something else that’s not my thing is fantasy. I only read The School for Good and Evil trilogy by Saman Chainani as it’s been getting a lot of press in the young adult market and I was intrigued. Two girls are plucked from a village of fairy tale readers to train respectively as the hero and villain of future stories. The trilogy was a frustrating mix of really nice progressive and inventive, quirky ideas… and tediously maintained stereotypical gender roles that felt incongruous and annoying. But it was an exciting page-turner throughout.
Here are my ratings of the books I read in 2017 on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the best in my particular opinion.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Hagseed by Margaret Atwood (Hogarth Shakespeare series)
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (Hogarth Shakespeare series)
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
Curtain Up by Noel Streatfeld (re-read)
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Calling Major Tom by David M Barnett
The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeld (re-read)
The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey (sequel to The Girl with All the Gifts)
On the Beach by Nevil Shute (re-read)
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
The End of the Day by Claire North
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (re-read while in Alice!)
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
All These Wonders by The Moth
Oranges are not the only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (re-read)
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Autumn by Ali Smith
When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin
Dirty White Boy by Clayton Littlewood (re-read)
A Gift Upon the Shore by MK Wren
The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau
Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (re-read)
The Parasites by Daphne DuMaurier
Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe (sequel to Man at the Helm)
Flawed by Cecelia Ahern
The Girls by Emma Cline
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Harmony by Carolyn Pankhurst
The World Inside by Robert Silverberg
Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn
The Girl Who Dared to Think by Bella Forest
The Gender Game by Bella Forest
The School for Good and Evil by Saman Chainani
The School for Good and Evil 2 by Saman Chainani
The School for Good and Evil 3 by Saman Chainani
Borrowed Spaces by Christopher deWolfe
Replica by Lauren Oliver
United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas
The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen
Cousins by Sally Vickers
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Marvelous Misadventures of Ingrid Winter by JS Drangsholt
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
Requiem by Lauren Oliver
Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau
Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau
Sand by Hugh Howey
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
Tin Man by Sarah Winman
The Girl Who Dared to Stand by Bella Forest
The Gender Secret by Bella Forest
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
The Rift by Nina Allan 2/5
The Gender Lie by Bella Forest
Onwards: to 2018!