2017’s Runners-Up and Other Superlatives

The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any previously published reviews linked in (many of these books have already appeared on the blog in some way over the course of the year). You know the drill by now: 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, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title. The first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. Across these three best-of posts (see also my Top Nonfiction and Best Fiction posts), I’ve spotlighted roughly the top 15% of my year’s reading.

 

Runners-Up:

 

  • As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths: The themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas about encounters with God and the nature of evil. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.

 

  • Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař: The story of Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who leaves his wife behind to undertake a noble research mission but soon realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. A terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space.

 

  • English Animals by Laura Kaye: A young Slovakian becomes a housekeeper for a volatile English couple and discovers a talent for taxidermy. A fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging, this is one of the more striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years.

 

  • Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Reeling from a broken engagement, Ruth Young returns to her childhood home in California for a year to help look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. This is a delightfully quirky little book, but you may well read it with a lump in your throat, too.

 

  • Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty: In MacLaverty’s quietly beautiful fifth novel, a retired couple faces up to past trauma and present incompatibility during a short vacation in Amsterdam. My overall response was one of admiration for what this couple has survived and sympathy for their current situation – with hope that they’ll make it through this, too. (Reviewed for BookBrowse.)

 

  • Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: An Irish college student navigates friendships and an affair with a married man. This is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality; a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did.

 

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: The residents of Georgetown cemetery limbo don’t know they’re dead – or at least won’t accept it. An entertaining and truly original treatment of life’s transience; I know it’s on every other best-of-year list out there, but it really is a must-read.

 

  • The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw: Shaw travels through space, time and literature as he asks why we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about the smells we encounter every day. If you’re interested in exploring connections between smell and memory, discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is a perfect introduction.

 

  • A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: Tomalin is best known as a biographer of literary figures including Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens, but her memoir is especially revealing about the social and cultural history of the earlier decades her life covers. A dignified but slightly aloof book – well worth reading for anyone interested in spending time in London’s world of letters in the second half of the twentieth century.

 

  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The story of a mixed-race family haunted – both literally and figuratively – by the effects of racism, drug abuse and incarceration in Bois Sauvage, a fictional Mississippi town. Beautiful language; perfect for fans of Toni Morrison and Cynthia Bond.

 

I’ve really struggled with short stories this year, but here are four collections I can wholeheartedly recommend:

  • What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Reviewed for Shiny New Books.)
  • Unruly Creatures: Stories by Jennifer Caloyeras
  • Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
  • The Great Profundo and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (1987)

 

The Best 2017 Books You Probably Never Heard of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!):

 

  • The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson: The coroner’s career is eventful no matter what, but Marin County, California has its fair share of special interest, what with Golden Gate Bridge suicides, misdeeds at San Quentin Prison, and various cases involving celebrities (e.g. Harvey Milk, Jerry Garcia and Tupac) in addition to your everyday sordid homicides. Ken Holmes was a death investigator and coroner in Marin County for 36 years; Bateson successfully recreates Holmes’ cases with plenty of (sometimes gory) details.

 

  • Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Tasting notes: gleeful, ebullient, learned, self-deprecating; suggested pairings: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler; Top Chef, The Great British Bake Off. A delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.

 

  • A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light, edited by Eleanor Brown: A highly enjoyable set of 18 autobiographical essays that celebrate what’s wonderful about the place but also acknowledge disillusionment; highlights are from Maggie Shipstead, Paula McLain, Therese Anne Fowler, Jennifer Coburn, Julie Powell and Michelle Gable. If you have a special love for Paris, have always wanted to visit, or just enjoy armchair traveling, this collection won’t disappoint you.

 

  • Ashland & Vine by John Burnside: Essentially, it’s about the American story, individual American stories, and how these are constructed out of the chaos and violence of the past – all filtered through a random friendship that forms between a film student and an older woman in the Midwest. This captivated me from the first page.

 

  • Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel, Thomas H. Cook: In 28 non-chronological chapters, Cook documents journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. This is by no means your average travel book and it won’t suit those who seek high adventure and/or tropical escapism; instead, it’s a meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst. (Reviewed for Nudge.)

 

  • The Valentine House by Emma Henderson: This is a highly enjoyable family saga set mostly between 1914 and 1976 at an English clan’s summer chalet in the French Alps near Geneva, with events seen from the perspective of a local servant girl. You can really imagine yourself into all the mountain scenes and the book moves quickly –a great one to take on vacation.

 

The year’s runners-up and superlatives that I happen to have around in print.

 

Various Superlatives, Good and Bad:

 

The 2017 Book Everybody Else Loved but I Didn’t: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. (See my Goodreads review for why.)

The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, Between Them by Richard Ford and George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl.

The Worst Book I Read This Year: Books by Charlie Hill (ironic, that). My only one-star review of the year.

The Downright Strangest Book I Read This Year: An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle.

My Best Discoveries of the Year: Beryl Bainbridge, Saul Bellow, Bernard MacLaverty and Haruki Murakami. I’ve read two books by each of these authors this year and look forward to trying more from them.

The Debut Authors Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Lesley Nneka Arimah, Laura Kaye, Carmen Marcus, Julianne Pachico and Sally Rooney.

The Best First Line of the Year: “History has failed us, but no matter.” (Pachinko, Min Jin Lee)

The Best Last Line of the Year: “If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.” (Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty)

 


Coming tomorrow: Some early recommendations for 2018.

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23 thoughts on “2017’s Runners-Up and Other Superlatives

    1. I can understand that — a lot of people have found it difficult to like Rooney’s characters. One of our Young Writer shadow panel members really hated the book, but I could see why it won and I admired the skill that went into it.

      I hope you enjoy the Saunders and MacLaverty books. They were my (excellent) introductions to those two authors, and now I want to read a lot more by them. Extra special for you since you met MacLaverty this year 🙂

      Like

    1. It’s got an absurdly high average rating on Goodreads. It really did feel like everybody in the world loved it but me. I could see what the author was trying to do, but found the tone wildly uneven and a lot of the elements cliched.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m relieved to hear that! I’ll have to wade through that sea of 5-star reviews on Goodreads to find yours 😉

      Goodbye, Vitamin was so fun, and one of the best covers and titles of the year, too.

      Like

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed English Animals. I began Conversations with Friends without much enthusiasm but I grew to love it, too, and you’ve piqued my interest for Midwinter Break – ‘quietly beautiful’ usually does it for me!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am really enjoying your end of year summaries. I have just ordered Ashland and Vine from my local library, I tried to order others that you recommend too but sadly they are not stocked. I also thought Goodbye Vitamin was an excellent book dealing with the sad subject of dementia in a funny, clever way without belittling it. I found Eleanor Oliphant very readable and entertaining but if one went into it expecting a profound literary experience then you would be disappointed. I do find my view of books is very much influenced by my expectations and my mood!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m enjoying your summaries too – and so glad you like Murakami. I think he’s amazing. I have some Murakami books unread on my shelves just for the pleasure of knowing I still have them to read!!
    I often find that the books I’ve wanted to read the most turn out to be the biggest disappointments. And others that I didn’t expect much from turn out to be absolute crackers.
    Lincoln in the Bardo was certainly the strangest one I read, but I loved it and often think about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like your ‘Good & Bad’ categories. I only had a single one-star read this year – I usually avoid bad books but sometimes one slips in and while there’s nothing stopping me abandoning bad books, I usually keep reading, incredulous the whole time!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m so glad you’ve discovered Beryl! I love her. I’ve read several of the books you include, English Animals was fab, and the Valentine House was pretty good too. As you know, I wasn’t such a fan (although I wasn’t the one who hated it) of the Sally Rooney, preferring Sara Taylor.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Future Home of the Living God seems to be getting mixed reactions. I find it so interesting to see different takes on books, even when I haven’t read them myself. Eleanor Oliphant is another example. On the one hand it makes me hesitant to try it, but on the other I’m very curious to see which camp I’d fall into.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always feel vindicated when the mass of critical opinion backs me up: when I surveyed newspaper reviews of FHotLG for Bookmarks magazine, the average rating was 2.5 stars — just what I rated it. But Eleanor Oliphant is a weird one because critics and ordinary readers alike seem to love it. It just won the Costa debut novel of the year award, for instance. I’ll see the movie when it comes out, I reckon; maybe it will achieve a better tone.

      Liked by 1 person

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