As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2017 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews, either on this blog or on Amazon or Goodreads.
Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone focuses on stay-at-home dad and part-time historian, Adam, after his teenage daughter Miriam collapses mysteriously at school and he has to deal with the aftermath. Like all Moss’s work, this is character-led but thematically rich, touching on parenthood, adolescence, war, architecture, and the painful helplessness of being the relative of somebody who is chronically ill. Moss has never been as well-known as she ought to be, and this is one of her best.
Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier, which I haven’t written about before on this blog, tells the story of a young man leading British troops into an Afghanistan war zone when he is severely injured by an explosive device. What happens after is narrated by 45 objects. Much less experimental and gimmicky than it sounds, and genuinely moving.
Louise Doughty’s Black Water will put off those expecting another Apple Tree Yard, but this is still a fantastic thriller, even if it’s a very different kind of story. John Harper, half-Dutch, half-Indonesian, is on the run. To find out why, the novel flips between his childhood in the Netherlands and in California in the 1940s and 1940s, and Indonesia in 1965, at the time of the failed coup in Jakarta that led to the mass killings of communists. It’s a real shift away from Doughty’s usual subject-matter, and she pulls it off very well.
Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place is, in my opinion, her best novel since her wonderful debut, After You’d Gone (although this isn’t to say that she hasn’t written other great novels in between). It weaves together a massive web of characters and yet manages never to disintegrate.
Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill deservedly won the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Costa First Novel Award this year. It’s an eighteenth-century historical romp with a serious core, focusing on the arrival of the mysterious Mr Richard Smith in the small town of New York in 1746, demanding payment for a vast bill. If you’ve already read and enjoyed this: don’t miss Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock in 2018, which has a very similar feel.
There are other books I want to mention. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky is an uneven but highly imaginative collection of short stories that move from the realistic to the speculative and from Nigeria to America, taking in grief collectors, joy destroyers, animated babies spun from yarn, alongside the simple rebellions of little girls. Arimah is a writer to watch. Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth offers a very different kind of science fiction, postulating that palaeontologists are offered the opportunity to travel back in time to study dinosaurs. Overstuffed, often illogical and sometimes confusing, I loved Swanwick’s book for its sheer guts and for its wonderful descriptions of what it might be like to walk with triceratops or watch swarms of ammonites swimming in prehistoric oceans. Meanwhile, I was very happy to discover James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, which kicks off with Leviathan Wakes – the authors were part of George R.R. Martin’s writing group and you can see the influence of Martin’s impressive plotting in their complicated and yet gripping space operas.
The Booker Prize showcased some gems. One of my favourites was the deserved winner, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; yes, it’s on all the lists; yes, it really is that good. (For those who keep on seeing it mentioned but don’t know what it’s about: a group of ghosts watch Abraham Lincoln as he grieves for his dead son, Willie; the story is told through fragments of Lincoln ‘biography’ and the internal monologues of the dead.) I’ve loved Saunders’s short stories in the past and he is simply brilliant at making impossible things seem internally coherent. His vision of the afterlife is weird, untidy and as solid as a story you feel like you’ve been hearing all your life. Kamila Shamsie’s longlisted Home Fire, which deals with two Muslim sisters and their jihadi brother in the contemporary US and UK, attracted polarised reactions, but I admired its emotional punch and the rich characterisation of the two female protagonists.
In crime and thrillers, Erica Ferencik’s The River at Night stood out for me, especially as it doesn’t seem to have received the attention it deserves. Four female friends, all in their forties, undertake a dangerous white-water rafting trip through the Allagash Wilderness in Maine. When they are left stranded, they’re faced with the possibility that they might not all make it out alive. I felt as compelled forward by the narrative as our protagonists are by the plummeting water. Val McDermid’s older novel, A Distant Echo, was probably my best crime read of the year (sadly I read all of Tana French in 2016), dealing with four male university friends who discover the body of a local barmaid in a snowy Scottish cemetery in 1978. The book jumps forward through time to explore what happens to the four men when this investigation becomes live again in a newly-established cold case unit. Billed as the first in the Karen Pirie series, it can easily be read as a stand-alone.
Finally, my ongoing struggle with YA fiction was epitomised by Shappi Korsandi’s Nina Is Not OK, which felt like everything a YA book should be but was sold as adult fiction. Seventeen-year-old Nina’s fight against alcoholism is disturbing but very well-handled, there’s humour in the darkness, and the characterisation is top-notch.
By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.
Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine introduces us to a strange, isolated female protagonist, and follows her attempts to become more involved in the world while also dealing with an abusive past. Unfortunately, I found Eleanor functioned more as a narrative device than as a fully realised character; socially awkward enough to be funny, not awkward enough to actually face restrictions on her day-to-day life once she’s resolved her psychological problems; suddenly perceptive when she needs to be, but not when she doesn’t. Since reading the novel, I’ve also become increasingly uncomfortable about how autistic-coded protagonists such as Eleanor (another example is Don Tillman in Graeme Simison’s The Rosie Project) are treated in fiction. In brief, their problems become a series of punchlines. Rebecca (Bookish Beck)’s review sums up the other issues with this novel very well.
Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is a tricky one to dislike, in that it deals with a hugely important and timely topic – the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence directed against black Americans. When sixteen-year-old Starr sees her friend Khalil murdered by a police officer, she is unwillingly dragged into a community backlash against the crime. However, I didn’t feel that it succeeded as a novel. Like much YA, it is issue-led with good representation but little substance, and the story is virtually structureless, and far too long.
Sarah Stovell’s Exquisite is probably the book that frustrated me the most this year. It’s a thriller that focuses on an obsessive relationship between two women who meet at a writing retreat – Bo is the tutor, Alice her promising student. When such little fiction is written about lesbians, it means that, inevitably and unfortunately, those stories that do exist must carry a greater weight. Exquisite is not up to the task, falling into some very familiar homophobic tropes: it’s more scandalous and exciting to be part of a ‘lesbian affair’ rather than a ‘normal’ affair; lesbian relationships are emotional, intense, and ‘crazy’; they end badly; both participants are left permanently damaged. Annoyingly, the novel could have challenged this simply by presenting a wider range of lesbian characters in the secondary or even tertiary cast. Even more unrealistically, neither Alice or Bo seems the least bothered about finding out that they fancy women. This should have some impact on their self-identity, especially in Alice’s case (Bo indicates that she has been attracted to women before). It’s also notable that neither Bo nor Alice consider the idea that they might be bisexual – not because they know they’re lesbians but because, in this fictional universe, it doesn’t seem to be an option. To make matters worse, the writing is overheated, and the ‘twist’ is incredibly easy to guess.
I was also disappointed by Jon McGregor’s flat Reservoir 13, Lisa McInerney’s repetitive The Blood Miracles, and two books which were actively offensive: Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2017!