And finally, in my review of my reading year, it’s my Books of the Year. I saved this post for last, because since Christmas, I have just read a book which had to be added to this list. I tried to keep the list to a dozen, but it’s ended up as 14 – but who cares! All of these, and the various runners up were brilliant books that I loved reading. As always, they’re not ranked, but given apposite categories for fun, but I have (just) managed to pick my book of the year. Title links will take you to my original reviews. Here goes…
Best Chunkster – 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
This was one of the first books I read in 2017, and it also gave me one of the best experiences of my year – meeting my literary hero at the offices of his UK publisher Faber & Faber (see here), as a result of entering a competition to join a special reading group (see here). The reading group experience was such an enriching way to read this book which we were able to split conveniently into four chunks read over a month. It is a sprawling novel and undoubtedly wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but it worked for me. I loved the richness of the lives described in Auster’s 866 page chunkster.
Best Cover – Monte Carlo by Peter Terrin
This short novel by Dutch author Peter Terrin has the most beautiful cover photo – representing DeeDee, the film starlet who is saved from injury in a starting grid fire at the Monaco Grand Prix in the 1960s. This is a quietly devastating book, it has a restrained elegance telling of the disintegration of the life of mechanic Jack as the man who saved her, hoped to be considered a hero. Superb!
Runner up: The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills.
Best ‘You had to be there’ 1970s experience – Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh
I could have called this category ‘Best reprint’ but this play, forty years old in 2017, as broadcast on the telly in 1977 was such a seminal experience for me – I’ve never forgotten it. Penguin reissued the original play script with a new introduction by Mike Leigh, and it just took me back. It still packs a real punch today. Leigh’s introduction argues that it’s not really a ‘state of the nation’ work, it’s about the ‘done thing’. But it will forever be associated with 1977 for me…
Runner-up: The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
Best Cult Movie References – Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh
Published by Unbound, I pledged towards Martine’s third novel having loved her first two – and this book was a sheer delight. A coming of age story about a young man searching for the truth about his parents, it is also a homage to the cult movie Shaun of the Dead – one of my favourite films of all time too. Martine did a fun Q&A with me for Shiny here. You don’t have to have seen the film to enjoy this book, but I think you ought to – I hope you’d want to. A great fun novel with a wonderful young hero.
Best SF story – Mooncop by Tom Gauld
Some of the best science fiction books are those with human stories at their hearts – such as Flowers for Algernon which I re-read for book group this year. This is also so with this short graphic novel about the last policeman on the moon. The detail in Gauld’s drawings is wonderful and the little text there is, is all dialogue and the whole is full of dead-pan humour. It also firmly tweaked my heartstrings having an emotional punch that was unexpected. I absolutely adored it.
Runner up: Chocky by John Wyndham
Best Memoir – The Day that went missing by Richard Beard
Subtitled A Family Story, The Day That Went Missing recounts a tragedy that happened to Beard’s family in 1978, how they dealt with it over the years, and now the beginning of to come to terms with it forty years later. 11-year-old Richard was the only witness to the death by drowning of his younger brother Nicky, having had to make the decision to save himself first. The family clammed up and it was only after the death of his father that Beard started to investigate what happened. It’s a clever true detective story, but told with powerful emotion and full of Beard’s own personal pain. The feeling really comes through that this book doesn’t represent closure as much as being a tool for the work in progress that is Beard himself. Beautifully constructed, honestly written, I can’t recommend this powerful addition to the canon of grief memoirs enough, and I was lucky enough to hear Beard talk about his book at my local bookshop which was a memorable author event.
Best Slice of History – A gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Towles’s second novel was an entrancing tonic. Its hero, one of the last Russian aristocrats who is sentenced to house arrest for life when the Communists take over. Luckily the Count lives in one of Moscow’s great hotels, and although having to put up with very reduced circumstances in former servants’ quarters, for decades, he manages to live a life full of wonderful experiences as he befriends the staff, indeed becomes one of them, becomes foster father to a young girl and takes a film-star lover. Just wonderful!
Best Book About Music – The Importance of music to girls by Lavinia Greenlaw
More 1970s – the decade in which I was a teenager. Greenlaw’s memoir is a series of vignettes from growing up in the 70s into the 80s using the music that influenced her as her starting point for each short chapter. Country dancing, punk, learning to play instruments, David C (sob!) and more. Literate and totally engaging, The Importance of Music to Girls is a quirky, off-beat memoir, written with a poet’s ear – I loved it.
Runner-up: White Tears by Hari Kunzru
Best Myth Retelling – The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes
In her second novel, The Children of Jocasta, Haynes returns to ancient Greece to retell the stories of Oedipus and Antigone – but from the second characters’ points of view – Jocasta and her daughter/grand-daughter Ismene (Antigone’s sister). Haynes’s storytelling is clever. She cuts the mythical elements to the minimum, concentrating on the powerful drama of family relationships, backed up by the politics and intrigue of the Theban court. Haynes does a fine job in bringing a modern sensibility to the myth, interpreting the old stories with expert eyes to tell how it might really have been. giving us a truly page-turning thriller seen through these two womens’ lives.
Best State of the Nation – The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig
I felt that Amanda Craig really nailed it with her latest satire! We start off with a middle-class well-off couple who want to divorce but can’t afford to do it and maintain their nice lifestyles. Their solution – let their London house, decamp (still ‘together’ in the sharing a house sense of the word) to a cheap rental in the country until London property prices allow them to cash in. What follows is a superb tale of townies in the country, the exploitation of migrant workers, rural poverty and a reclusive rock-star. Amanda also did a spendid Q&A for me at Shiny here.
Runner-up: How Hard Can It Be? by Allison Pearson
Best in translation – Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, trans Frank Wynne
A state of the nation novel for the post-punk generation, by one of its enfants terribles. Vernon Subutex appears to be a more considered and mature novel by a writer who is now trying something different. That doesn’t mean that Vernon Subutex lacks intensity or a capacity to make you think, it has both those qualities in quantity. This intense and powerful novel full of flawed characters was a compelling read and felt very real in its awfulness. You sympathise with protagonist Vernon (a former record producer/shop owner made homeless), for in spite of the drink and drugs – his ‘beautiful eyes’ reeled me in, and there’s something about him that you feel deserves some kind of redemption. Bring on volume 2.
Runner up: Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello
Best Short Stories – The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico
I couldn’t not include this book, our Shadow Judges Panel choice for the PFD Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Prize. It has converted me to the power of short stories. Nuff said.
Best laughs – Learning to drive by William Norwich
This short novel from 1996 was simultaneously so awful in the violent predicament that veteran NY editor Norwich puts his protagonist into and yet made me dissolve into laughing out loud, it was a real treat. The main story follows a young man, Julian, who is to take his driving test that morning but gets landed with a psychopathic driving instructor Hector, on the way. Alternating between the chapters of Julian’s nightmare day are sections from his childhood and the relationship with his parents which allow you to take a breath before the next bout of hell with Hector.
Best late entry – Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
I finished reading this book the day before yesterday – and it just had to be included here! The debut novel by a former news reporter and political correspondant is compared with Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard by Clare Mackintosh on the front cover, and I have to agree – it was superb, and timely in its subject matter. A story of privileged young men at Oxford (remember all those stories about the Bullingdon Club) and their attitudes towards women, now and then. When a young minister is accused of raping the assistant he had just broken off an affair with, what is his wife meant to think and do? Can the prosectutor who has her own demons secure a conviction?
… and AnnaBookBel’s Book(s) of the Year
It was impossible to decide!