Best Fiction of 2017, Plus Some Other Favorite Reads

Below I’ve chosen my top nine fiction releases from 2017 (seven by women!), followed by the backlist titles I loved the most this year. Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, as with my nonfiction selections I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.

 

  1. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This atmospheric novel reminiscent of Iris Murdoch is no happy family story; it’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate, yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right. I recently caught up on Fuller’s acclaimed 2015 debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, and collectively I’m so impressed with her work, specifically the elegant way she alternates between time periods to gradually reveal the extent of family secrets and the faultiness of memory.

 

  1. The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico: You may remember that our shadow panel chose this as our winner for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award: we were blown away by this linked short story collection set in a drug-fueled Colombia in which violence and its aftermath are never far away. For the originality of the setup and the sheer excellence of the writing, this can’t be topped.

 

  1. The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber: The name Margery Williams Bianco might not seem familiar, but chances are you remember her classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. This is about Margery and her daughter, Pamela Bianco, a painter and child prodigy troubled by mental illness, and the themes of creativity, mental health and motherhood are nestled in a highly visual debut novel full of cameos by everyone from Pablo Picasso to Eugene O’Neill.

 

  1. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. Though it seems lighthearted, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators as Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy.

 

  1. In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir: Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father.

 

  1. How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream.

 

  1. Elmet by Fiona Mozley: The dark horse on this past year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, this is a twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. It’s a gorgeous, timeless tale balanced between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism.

 

  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A multi-layered story about many facets of motherhood: adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy, abortion; estrangement, irritation, longing and pride. Each and every character earns our sympathy here – a real triumph of characterization, housed in a tightly plotted and beautifully written novel you’ll race through.

 

And my fiction book of the year was:

  1. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: A wonderful seam of humor tempers the awfulness of much of what befalls Cyril Avery – born in Dublin in 1945 – for whom homosexuality seems a terrible curse. It’s an alternately heartbreaking and heartening portrait of a life lived in defiance of intolerance and tragedy.

 

My poetry read of the year was:

All the Spectral Fractures: New and Selected Poems, Mary A. Hood: There is so much substance and variety to this poetry collection spanning the whole of Hood’s career. A professor emerita of microbiology at the University of West Florida and a former poet laureate of Pensacola, Florida, she takes inspiration from the ordinary folk of the state, the world of academic scientists, flora and fauna, and the minutiae of everyday life.

 

The year’s best books that I happen to have around in print.

And here’s a quick run-through of the seven best backlist titles I read this year:

 

  1. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis: Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!).

 

  1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Brings together so many facets of the African and African-American experience; full of clear-eyed observations about the ongoing role race plays in American life.

 

  1. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: Contains the most matter-of-fact consideration of same-sex relationships I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Heart-breaking, life-affirming, laugh-out-loud: those may be clichés, but it’s all these things and more.

 

  1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami: Mesmerizing and bizarre, but in the best possible way: it questions our comfort in the everyday by contorting familiar elements like dreams do. I’m a definite Murakami convert.

 

  1. The Nix by Nathan Hill: A rich story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Hill is a funny and inventive writer.

 

  1. Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: Simply superb in the way it juxtaposes England and Japan in the 1880s and comments on mental illness, the place of women, and the difficulty of navigating a marriage whether the partners are thousands of miles apart or in the same room.

 

My overall most memorable fiction read of the year, to my great surprise, was:

  1. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: I’ve been lukewarm on Anne Tyler’s novels before – this is my sixth from her – but this instantly leapt onto my list of absolute favorite books. Its chapters are like perfectly crafted short stories focusing on different members of the Tull family. These vignettes masterfully convey the common joys and tragedies of a fractured family’s life. After Beck Tull leaves with little warning, Pearl must raise Cody, Ezra and Jenny on her own and struggle to keep her anger in check. Cody is a vicious prankster who always has to get the better of good-natured Ezra; Jenny longs for love but keeps making bad choices. Despite their flaws, I adored these characters and yearned for them to sit down, even just the once, to an uninterrupted family dinner of comfort food.

 


What were some of your top fiction reads of the year?

Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up and listing a few other superlatives.

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33 thoughts on “Best Fiction of 2017, Plus Some Other Favorite Reads

  1. Some great books here! Wasn’t The Velveteen Daughter a nice surprise read? Boyne was also my year’s favorite and The Nix on my top last year. I also liked Ng’s latest and The Animators. I need to read some of the others you have listed, including Homecoming which I have on Kindle.

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  2. You’ve sold me on The Lucky Ones and The Animators about which I was dithering. I’m also a fan of Swimming Lessons, The Nix and In Every Moment We Are Alive. Pleased to say I think we’re ending the year on a note of agreement!

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  3. I really must read Swimming Lessons ….
    You liked Homegoing far more than I did it seemed – I didn’t *dislike* it, just thought it could have been an even stronger book if it had lingered more in each generation.

    My best reads were Cove by Cynan Jones and Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

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    1. Hooray! The Animators really hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

      This finally made me understand why Nick Hornby calls Anne Tyler our greatest living author. I think I remember that Dinner was one of your favorites by her; what are some of her other best ones?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I’ve not read all of her books yet, but of the ones I’ve read, Digging to America is my favorite, but that might be because of my Persian heritage (the plot concerns an Iranian family immigrating and assimilating to America.) I also really liked A Patchwork Planet, Saint Maybe, and Noah’s Compass.

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  4. I loved Our Endless Numbered Days and now I must read Swimming Lessons. The Lucky Ones is also on my 2018 TBR list, as are Elmet and Little Fires Everywhere. I was going to avoid The Heart’s Invisible Furies on the basis of the synopsis (I’m a little tired of historical fiction about homophobia and gay men’s suffering at the moment, partly because it’s a familiar narrative, and partly because it continues to frame gay lives as sad and difficult) but so many people have recommended it that I might have to try it now!

    I very much enjoyed the Barry (despite the above!) and Gyasi. Everything Sarah Moss writes is fantastic, but Signs for Lost Children wasn’t my absolute favourite. If you’ve not read it yet I’d recommend her latest, The Tidal Zone.

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    1. I think what makes the Boyne work is the historical sweep (1945 to 2015) and the focus on Ireland, which has only recently caught up to other Western countries in terms of gay rights. Its other great achievement is to be so consistently funny despite terrible things happening. Like a John Irving or Dickens novel, it’s got terrific secondary characters.

      I’ve read three Moss novels this year, including The Tidal Zone for the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist shadow panel. She’s quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. I only have one more of her books awaiting me: Cold Earth.

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  5. Absolutely loved reading this post, I love a “best of” list and your list features lots of books I will add to my reading list. Also by coincidence I started reading Signs for Lost Children yesterday and it’s really good. Of the ones I have read, I would also include Days without End, How to be Human and Elmet in my own best of list. I loved the character of the fox in How to Be Human so much. I have not read the latest Celeste Ng but finished reading Everything I Never Told you the other day; I really wasn’t impressed, did you like that one?

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  6. That Anne Tyler was just great, wasn’t it? I heard an interview with her (CBC’s “Writers and Company”, IIRC) and she cited Ezra as her favourite character, so I can only imagine that she, too, wanted that “perfect sit-down meal” for him too. I like how you arranged these in backlisted/new: that’s always a bit awkward otherwise. I’m glad you had so many satisfying reads: hopefully you find even more in 2018. (The one here that you’ve added to my TBR is The Veleveteen Daughter – it sounds wonderful)

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  7. I’m totally with you on Swimming Lessons but not on The Animators (which was probably one of my most disappointing reads of the year! just goes to show, horses for courses!).

    Quite a few of the books you’ve recommended are in my TBR stack, which makes me very happy – notably the John Boyne which I plan to start within the next few weeks.

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  8. Love that The Heart’s Invisible Furies tops you list. It was my top pick as well. I’m also thrilled to see The Animators and The Lucky Ones here. I feel like they were both under appreciated.

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  9. I’ve heard good things about Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, but have never really given it a go. I’ll be keeping an eye out for it now – her books are often easy to find at books sales (although I’ve yet to find this one). I would also like to try Connie Willis. Her books have been recommended to me before.

    Wonmderful list… you’ve made me want to read them all! Right now I feel especially keen on Boyne and Ng.
    Homegoing was one of my favourite books from last year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got a whole stack of Tyler novels at charity shops last year for hardly any money. I’m looking forward to getting to more of them — and just hoping that I haven’t used up the best one and they’ll all be downhill from here. 😉 Laila recommends a couple others (above).

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