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.
- 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.
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.
Review: How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus
“A story is like a net: you have to make your own; you have to throw the loops just right; you have to be careful what gets in and what gets out, what you catch and what you keep.”
Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck isn’t like the other children in her North Yorkshire town. The daughter of Pete, a grizzled fisherman, and Kate, an Irish Catholic woman who’s in a mental hospital after a presumed suicide attempt, Ellie was raised on stories of selkies and martyrdoms. Superstition infuses her daily life, making her afraid of pool trips with her classmates – it’s bad luck for fishermen to learn to swim – and leading her to expect her dead grandmother’s soul to waft in through an open window on Halloween night.
What with bullies’ beatings and her teacher Mr. Lockwood’s disapproval, it’s no wonder Ellie misses lots of school, going sea-coaling with her father or running off to the coast alone instead. But with Christmas approaching and Kate due home from the hospital, Ellie’s absences warrant an official visit. Social worker May Fletcher, the mother of Ellie’s new friend Fletch, is also concerned about Ellie’s home life. “How Saints Die,” Ellie and Fletch’s gruesome skit performed as an addendum to the school Nativity play, seems like proof that something is seriously wrong.
This is performance poet Carmen Marcus’s debut novel; from what I can tell it seems partially autobiographical. It powerfully conveys the pull of the sea and the isolation of an unconventional 1980s childhood. The dreamy, hypnotic prose alternates passages from Ellie’s perspective with shorter chapters from the points of view of the adults in her life, including her father, busybody neighbor Mrs. Forster, and May Fletcher. Marcus is equally skilled at the almost stream-of-consciousness passages describing Ellie’s trips to the sea and at humorous one-line descriptions:
Sand and salt in the cut, stinging. Her dad would know what to do. She wants him here, now, to show her. Without him the beach takes her up entirely, the shushshush of the sea and the coarse cackle of the waders at the waters-edge, creakcrackcreakcrackyawyaw; the wind tugging at the shell of her ear. All of it pulling, nipping, cutting at her – snipsnipsnip – and now blood, her edges ragged and wet.
Mrs Forster always smells faintly sweet and acidic like old Christmas cake.
– What are sins?
– They’re like germs but in your thoughts.
It’s easy to get lost in Ellie’s supernatural world of spirits and sea wolves, while the occasional outsider views make it clear just how dangerous some of her notions could be. Like Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human, this sets up an intriguing contrast between magic realism and madness. The language is full of transformations and fairy tale tropes. I was reminded at times of Amy Sackville’s Orkney and Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter. Although there is perhaps one perilous situation too many at the climax and the resolution is a bit drawn out (and there is also less punctuation than I would like), this is still a strong and absorbing first novel and one I fully expect to see on next year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.
How Saints Die is published in the UK today, July 13th, by Harvill Secker. My thanks to Louise Court for sending a free copy for review.
Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2017
Back in December I previewed some of the books set to be released in 2017 that I was most excited about. Out of those 30 titles, here’s how I fared:
- Read: 16 [Disappointments: 2]
- Currently reading: 1
- Abandoned partway through: 2
- Lost interest in: 4
- Haven’t managed to find yet: 2
- Languishing on my Kindle; I still have vague intentions to read: 5
The latter half of the year promises plenty of big-name releases, such as long-awaited novels from Nicole Krauss and Jennifer Egan and a memoir by Maggie O’Farrell. Here are 24 books that happen to be on my radar for the coming months; this is by no means a full picture.
The descriptions below are adapted from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads, NetGalley or Amazon. Some of these books I already have access to in print or galley form; others I’ll be looking to get hold of. (In chronological order, generally by first publication date.)
How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus [July 13, Harvill Secker]: “Ten years old and irrepressibly curious, Ellie lives with her fisherman father, Peter, on the wild North Yorkshire coast. This vivacious and deeply moving novel portrays adult breakdown through the eyes of a child and celebrates the power of stories to shape, nourish and even save us.”
Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen [July 20, Fitzcarraldo Editions]: “Two young Israeli soldiers travel to New York after fighting in the Gaza War and find work as eviction movers. It’s a story of the housing and eviction crisis in poor Black and Hispanic neighborhoods that also shines new light on the world’s oldest conflict in the Middle East.” (print ARC)
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang [Aug. 1, Lenny]: “Centered on a community of immigrants who have traded their endangered lives as artists in China and Taiwan for the constant struggle of life at the poverty line in 1990s New York City, Zhang’s exhilarating collection examines the many ways that family and history can weigh us down and also lift us up.”
The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson [Aug. 15, Scribner]: “An account of the hair-raising and heartbreaking cases handled by the coroner of Marin County, California throughout his four decades on the job—from high-profile deaths to serial killers, to Golden Gate Bridge suicides.”
The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson [Aug. 22, Little, Brown and Company]: “A memoir of friendship and literature chronicling a search for meaning and comfort in great books, and a beautiful path out of grief.” (currently reading via NetGalley)
Midwinter Break by Bernard McLaverty [Aug. 22, W. W. Norton]: “A retired couple fly from their home in Scotland to Amsterdam for a long weekend. … [A] tender, intimate, heart-rending story … a profound examination of human love and how we live together, a chamber piece of real resonance and power.” (to review for BookBrowse)
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell [Aug. 22, Tinder Press]: “A childhood illness she was not expected to survive. A terrifying encounter on a remote path. A mismanaged labor in an understaffed hospital … 17 encounters at different ages, in different locations, reveal to us a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots.”
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah [Aug. 24, Tinder Press]: “A dazzlingly accomplished debut collection explores the ties that bind parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends to one another and to the places they call home.” (print ARC to review for Shiny New Books)
Madness Is Better than Defeat by Ned Beauman [Aug. 24, Sceptre]: “In 1938, rival expeditions set off for a lost Mayan temple, one intending to shoot a screwball comedy on location, the other to disassemble the temple and ship it to New York. … Showcasing the anarchic humor and boundless imagination of one of the finest writers of his generation.”
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss [Aug. 24, Harper/Bloomsbury]: “A man in his later years and a woman novelist, each drawn to the Levant on a journey of self-discovery. Bursting with life and humor, this is a profound, mesmerizing novel of metamorphosis and self-realization – of looking beyond all that is visible towards the infinite.” (currently reading via NetGalley)
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent [Aug. 29, Riverhead Books/4th Estate] “A brilliant and immersive, all-consuming read about one fourteen-year-old girl’s heart-stopping fight for her own soul. … Shot through with striking language in a fierce natural setting.” (e-ARC to review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander [Sept. 5, Knopf]: “[A] political thriller that unfolds in the highly charged territory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pivots on the complex relationship between a secret prisoner and his guard. … Englander has woven a powerful, intensely suspenseful portrait of a nation riven by insoluble conflict.”
George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl [Sept. 5, Touchstone]: “[A]n emotionally riveting debut novel about an unlikely marriage at a crossroads. … With pitch-perfect prose and compassion and humor to spare, George and Lizzie is an intimate story of new and past loves, the scars of childhood, and an imperfect marriage at its defining moments.”
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng [Sept. 7, Little, Brown]: “In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned. … [E]xplores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.”
Afterglow (A Dog Memoir) by Eileen Myles [Sept. 12, Grove Press]: “A probing investigation into the dynamics between pet and pet-owner. Through this lens, we examine Myles’s experiences with intimacy and spirituality, celebrity and politics, alcoholism and recovery, fathers and family history.”
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty [Oct. 3, W. W. Norton]: “Fascinated by our pervasive terror of dead bodies, mortician Caitlin Doughty set out to discover how other cultures care for their dead. Featuring Gorey-esque illustrations by artist Landis Blair.”
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan [Oct. 3, Scribner/Corsair]: “The pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller and a wealth of detail about organized crime … Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America, and the world.”
Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn [Oct. 3, Hogarth Shakespeare]: “Henry Dunbar, once all-powerful head of a family firm, has handed it over to his two eldest daughters, Abby and Megan. Relations quickly soured. Now imprisoned in a Lake District care home with only an alcoholic comedian as company, Dunbar starts planning his escape.” (print ARC)
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell [Oct. 5, Profile Books]: “Bythell owns The Bookshop, Wigtown – Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop. … These wry and hilarious diaries provide an inside look at the trials and tribulations of life in the book trade, from struggles with eccentric customers to wrangles with his own staff.”
In Shock by Rana Awdish [Oct. 17, St. Martin’s]: “Dr. Awdish spent months fighting for her life, enduring consecutive major surgeries and experiencing multiple overlapping organ failures. At each step of the recovery process, she was faced with repeated cavalier behavior from her fellow physicians. … A brave road map for anyone navigating illness.”
American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee [Oct. 17, Crown]: “[I]n recent decades, conservationists have brought wolves back to the Rockies, igniting a battle over the very soul of the West. With novelistic detail, Nate Blakeslee tells the gripping story of one of these wolves, alpha female O-Six.” (print ARC)
The White Book by Han Kang [Nov. 2, Portobello Books]: “Writing while on a residency in Warsaw, the narrator finds herself haunted by the story of her older sister, who died a mere two hours after birth. A fragmented exploration of white things … the most autobiographical and experimental book to date from [the] South Korean master.”
Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance by Bill McKibben [Nov. 7, Blue Rider Press]: “Follows a band of Vermont patriots who decide that their state might be better off as its own republic. … McKibben imagines an eccentric group of activists who carry out their own version of guerrilla warfare … a fictional response to the burgeoning resistance movement.”
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich [Nov. 14, Harper]: “Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. … A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient … a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.”
(Nothing as of yet…)