Today I’m taking a break from travel-related missives to talk about books, glorious books – the top books of 2017, and those I didn’t enjoy so much too. Many of my favourite below-the-line discussions on this little website have revolved around the written word, why we read what we do, and shared recommendations. A surprising part of our long trip away from home has been how much I missed paper books – their unmistakable smell, thoughtfully designed covers, the crunch of a page between the fingers, the pleasing crack of a paperback’s spine. E-readers are ever so convenient, but nothing will trump a proper book for me.
I’ve read thirty books this year (but plan to squeeze a few more in on the thirteen-hour flight back to London and over the festive period), far fewer than some years, but not too shabby. Last year, I promised “I’ll strive to always be reading, to always have a book on the go, to never be without one in my bag (Rory Gilmore, you’d be proud), to always pick words in print, not the newspaper linked to the shadowy screen of my phone” and while I managed that when I was waist-deep in a book, I do find the period between finishing one book and choosing another to be an odd, fallow time in which I am more likely to succumb to online words or the dopamine hit of Twitter. Still, reading is reading, and I’d rather be reading the New York Times on a screen than reading nothing at all.
Next year, I hope I’ll make more time for reading before bed and in the morning, when I read best, and make further use of the local library. I can’t stress enough how vital I believe libraries are to communities and families and young people who can perhaps not afford their own books, yet in the past decade they have been subject to brutal budget cuts and mushrooming closures. As a former library assistant, I saw firsthand how much these institutions can mean to people who live alone, or need help with reading, or to children who love words and stories. They mean a lot to me, too. So if you self-identify as a bibliophile and you make resolutions, please make one to use your public library and make your voice heard on why they’re so important. Here’s to books, a new year and the magic of libraries.
1 ⤜ Autumn, by Ali Smith
2 ⤜ The Story Of The Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante
I waxed plenty lyrical on Ferrante last year, if you remember, and I still think her Neapolitan novels are some of the best ever written. I was legitimately mourning the end of the series, which did not disappoint, but did have the foresight to book tickets to the theatre adaptation at London’s Rose Theatre for the summer. That was a magical interpretation too, and alleviated a little of my grief. See it if you’re a Ferrante fan if you’re able to.
3 ⤜ We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The title says it all. Short, sweet and indispensable. Did you know every 16-year-old in Sweden is gifted a copy? How incredible. Now come on, Britain, get your act together.
4 ⤜ Names For The Sea, by Sarah Moss
A more nuanced look at Iceland than the filtered snaps of the blue lagoon and Reykjavík’s coloured houses that are normally the limit of my exposure to this northern country. Moss is a favourite novelist of mine and so I loved seeing her words used in a different genre. It contained a host of fascinating tidbits about Iceland’s history and the nation as it is today as well.
5 ⤜ The Year Of Living Danishly, by Helen Russell
My mum lent this to me and I was expecting it to be a light read espousing more of the hygge hype we’ve all had enough of by now. I was pleasantly surprised. It was funny and deft and genuinely interesting.
6 ⤜ Dear Friend: From My Life I Write To You In Your Life, by Yiyun Li
7 ⤜ The Complete Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino
After hearing Calvino’s story (included in this collection) The Distance To The Moon narrated on a podcast, I made a beeline for this set of short stories. It’s otherworldly and bizarre and absolutely wonderful. I’m in awe of Calvino’s mind. One for the science fiction lovers – or those who relish creative storytelling.
8 ⤜ Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
An absolute must-read. Adichie highlights the plight of the illegal immigrant better than any other piece I’ve read. As well as being a prescient political treatise on race in the UK, this novel is a love story, too. Adichie weaves these dual purposes together so effortlessly into a spellbinding piece of fiction.
9 ⤜ A Photographer’s Life Of Love And War: It’s What I Do, by Lynsey Addario
Another gripping memoir that sped up the passing of a transcontinental flight. This is a quick read and completely absorbing, especially for those interested in the politics of the Middle East and/or photography.
10 ⤜ Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood
11 ⤜ Oysterlight, by Cheryl Pearson
Dazzling, dizzying poems on nature, fairytales, love, what it means to be a woman. Her writing is achingly exquisite and Pearson really deserves a wider readership. Truly gorgeous words.
12 ⤜ The Tobacconist, by Robert Seethaler
Charming and heartbreaking in equal measure. I loved its descriptions of wartime Vienna and the musings it provoked on culpability, war and young love.
13 ⤜ When I Lived In Modern Times, by Linda Grant
This was one of my favourite novels of the year and my passion for it was completely unexpected. I picked it up in the library just as I was checking out a stack of carefully chosen tomes (the bookworm’s equivalent of falling for the fruit pastilles at the supermarket till, surely) and it ended up being my pick of the lot. The book follows the story of Evelyn, a Jewish woman who lives in London but emigrates to (what will soon become) Israel in 1946. The descriptions of London were sublime, and I fell hopelessly in love with the characters and the gorgeous sense of place.
14 ⤜ Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
Strout never disappoints and this novel, the sequel to Lucy Barton, is no exception.
15 ⤜ Admissions, by Henry Marsh
I didn’t think it possible to love a Henry Marsh book more than I loved Do No Harm and planned to buy this book in paperback. In a joyful turn of fate, a proof copy turned up in an office book sale and so I devoured it a few weeks before publication in a hungry frenzy. The impossible became possible: I loved it even more than Marsh’s first memoir. It’s uncomfortable reading in some parts, particularly the passages on old age and death as Marsh contemplates his own mortality, but utterly necessary reading. The last few pages were dazzling, my mind swirling in a kind of book-hangover for days after.
16 ⤜ Upstairs At The Party, by Linda Grant
After adoring When I Lived In Modern Times, I was keen to get my hands on more of Grant’s work. I borrowed this from the library, but never really got into it – probably more my issue than Grant’s. One to try again with next year.
17 ⤜ The Noise Of Time, by Julian Barnes
18 ⤜ Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller
Quirky and charming, this epistolary novel charts the experiences of an eccentric family navigating death. Such charming characters!
19 ⤜ So Many Ways To Begin, by Jon McGregor
I find it hard to put my feelings about this book into words. The writing is just divine and the characters are so mortal, so blindingly relatable, so true to life. McGregor has such a simple way of putting the most heart-wrenching ideas and events into words. He’ll break your heart, over and over.
20 ⤜ Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor
After the success of the former McGregor book, I dived into his latest release. It was alright, but nothing compared to David and Eleanor’s meandering love story. Sorry, Jon.
21 ⤜ I Am, I Am, I Am, by Maggie O’Farrell
Another I’d-read-in-one-sitting book, or at least I would have had I not been working all hours at my desk job at the time. I hurtled through this creative memoir by O’Farrell (whose novels I really like, too) and it fully satisfied my obsession with all things human body-related. Add in heart-thumping prose and a pace akin to a thriller, and it’s definitely up there as one of the best nonfiction books I read this year.
22 ⤜ The Dogs And The Wolves, by Irene Nemirovsky
23 ⤜ The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant
24 ⤜ Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
Worth the hype!
25 ⤜ The River Of Time, by Jon Swain
An incredibly moving and evocative account of Swain’s time covering the Indochina conflict in the 1970s. All the better for having read it while travelling through Vietnam. The descriptions of lush Mekong landscapes and charming locals were spot on.
26 ⤜ The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott
I love, love, love Alice McDermott’s Someone, but this didn’t quite meet my expectations. The Catholicism was more overt and that perhaps had something to do with it. Nonetheless, it still featured McDermott’s unusual and wonderful turn of phrase and a cast of endearing characters.
27 ⤜ The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy
28 ⤜ The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot
An original, thought-provoking piece of creative nonfiction that fuses memoir and nature writing. I adored the descriptions of the desolate landscapes of Orkney and the solitary nature of living so far north. I wished I’d been reading a hard copy, too, because I desperately wanted the satisfaction of underlining some of the more beautiful sentences and scribbling notes in the margins.
29 ⤜ The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry
It’s a little cheeky to put this on this year’s list, because I haven’t finished it yet, but I started in it in 2017…! I tried to read this last year, but didn’t quite get into it – even though the opening chapter is written in such gorgeous, fast-paced prose. I tried again this autumn and while I’m still not speeding through it, I’m enjoying it much more.
30 ⤜ East West Street, by Philippe Sands
I stayed up late reading this until my eyelids were drooping on a Thai sleeper train. It concerns itself with the concepts of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’, but does so by examining them through a personal lens, charting the fate of Sands’ family during the Holocaust and the intertwined destinies of three men involved in the Nuremberg Trials. It’s been on my to-be-read list for years, even before it was published, after I watched Sands’ production of The Song of Good and Evil at the National Theatre three years ago. It was such an arresting piece of theatre I still think about it today. It was a pleasure to revisit the same themes, all written in such stylish, clear prose by Sands (a human rights lawyer).
So now to the ulterior motive of this article (of course!): what have you read and loved (or loathed) this year? Thanks to my lovely friend Johanna, I’ve been alerted to the wonders of Wunderlist for making lists and I’m always keen to add to my burgeoning ‘To Read’ list. So ‘fess up, what were your books of the year?
For the curious, last year’s reading round-up can be found here.