Books of the Year · Reviews

My Best Books of 2017

2017 has been a very up and down year on the reading front. I started strong, slumped massively in the middle and then re-discovered my reading (and blogging) mojo towards the end of the year. Despite that, I have read some cracking books this year and, whilst it’s not been as challenging a task to narrow down my Best Books this year as in previous years, the quality of what is here is definitely not diminished in any way – in my opinion all of the following are brilliant, brilliant books and I would urge you to read them if you haven’t already.

The Essex SerpentEssex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A gorgeously written treat of a book, this historical novel contains multitudes within it’s pages. Sarah Perry has skillfully captured life with her pen, weaving a web of human interactions around the strange fable of a legendary serpent said to haunt the Essex coastline. Packed with characters you’ll feel like you’re friends with and luscious prose that brings Victorian England vividly to life, this is a vibrant riot of a book and perfect for anyone who has The Miniaturist cravings following the BBC adaptation! My full review of the book appeared earlier this year on the blog and can be found here.

Days Without EndDays Without End by Sebastian Barry

If you’d have told me that a literary novel about two gay men set during the American Civil War would be my bag, I’d have been a mite dubious. But Sebastian Barry has created a miniature epic in Days Without End. A beautiful love story, a sweeping historical saga, a tense description of war, a tender portrayal of family – it’s all in here and surrounded in some of the best prose I’ve read all year. The voice in this novel is so unique and so profound at times – it gave me all the feels and I’d urge anyone to go and read it so that they can have them too. Again, a full review appeared earlier this year here.

The Dark CircleThe Dark Circle by Linda Grant

Again, a novel about twins set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-war England didn’t, at first, sound my cup of tea but, thanks to the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I picked up and loved Linda Grant’s novel. As with the Essex Serpent, this is a novel about characters more than plot as twins Lenny and Millie meet a range of residents from across the social spectrum within the enclosed microcosm of the sanatorium walls. Combined with an interesting period of social change and some insight into the early years of the NHS, this is a meditative, layered novel that rewards patient reading.

Six StoriesSix Stories by Matt Wesolowski

I’m a huge fan of the podcast Serial so when I heard that there was a novel that purported to be Serial in book form, you’d better believe I was straight on it! Constructed around six podcasts in which an investigative journalist outlines the circumstances surrounding the death of a teenage boy at an outward-bound centre and interviews witnesses and suspects, this is a compelling page-turner with a chilling edge. With a twisty narrative and some dark psychological insights, this novel is what I’d like all thrillers to be – a page turning read with an ending that packs a punch!

Killers of the Flower MoonKillers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Narrative non-fiction is always a tricky thing to pull off – too much narrative and it feels like a story, too much fact and you’ve got yourself a history book. David Grann gets the balance just right in Killers of the Flower Moon, an investigation into the systematic murders of large numbers of Osage Indians in the 1920s and 30s. Subtitled Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI, the book is a fascinating account of an overlooked piece of recent American history that retains it’s relevance and still resonates today.

The White RoadThe White Road by Sarah Lotz

Another twisty psychological thriller that gave me the chills in 2017 – although this time the setting might have had something to do with it! Set largely on Everest, this part thriller, part ghost story is gripping from the off and features one of the best unlikeable narrators I’ve ever come across. Simon Newman is the worst kind of journalist – dishonest and self-serving, he and his friend Thierry are willing to go to extremes to get their click-bait website off the ground, even if that means filming the bodies of Everest’s long dead. Taut and chilling, this is a psychological thriller with a supernatural twist, made all the better for the amazing sense of place. I posted a full review of the book earlier this year here.

The Good People by Hannah Kent / Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Get me being cheeky and sneaking in two recommendations for the price of one! In all seriousness though I couldn’t choose between Hannah Kent’s two novels, both of which I read in 2017. They’re both fantastic pieces of well-realised, cleverly crafted historical fiction. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdóttir, the last women to be executed in Iceland- perfect for anyone who has read (or watched) and adored Alias Grace. It’s dark, compelling and richly told. The Good People is a very different novel, centered around three women in early nineteenth century Ireland and their struggle to come to terms with the care of an unusual child. As with Burial Rites, the novel is based on real events but is quite different in tone and takes in a larger examination of societal attitudes and the uneasy truce between religion and folklore, modernity and tradition. I reviewed The Good People in full here and, on the basis of these two novels, I can’t wait to see what Kent produces next.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions this year have to go to:

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, which came along at just the right time and made me snort my tea due to laughing so much. It also made me realise that maybe being a bookseller wouldn’t be the best career for someone who prefers books to people most of the time!

Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas, wonderfully narrated on audio by Stephen Fry, which is a perfect alternative to A Christmas Carol and deserves to be read by adults everywhere (especially if they happen to be reading it to children). Gave me the real festive feels and has a vital message about importance of being kind.

Pam Smy’s Thornhill is a stunning graphic novel about loneliness, ghosts and a mysterious girl next door. Visually captivating, it tells it’s tale in alternating sections of narrative and pictures.

Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is an exploration of the way in which books shape and impact our lives and an insight into why and how we read. A must for any book lovers (as is his first book, The End of Your Life Book Club).

Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury, the third in her series of ‘Derbyshire Noir’ police procedurals. I went on blog tour with this book earlier in the year and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the whole series to crime fiction lovers.

As always, I’d love to know if you’ve read any of my books of the year and what you thought of them – or if you have any of them on your TBR pile for 2018. Do leave me a comment down below or say hello over on Twitter – if you’ve done your own Books of the Year post I’d love to read it! In the meantime, I’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and here’s to a bookish 2018!

Happy Reading x

Reviews

REVIEW: The Good People by Hannah Kent

“You know what they say, woman? The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
“And the road to Heaven is well signposted, Father…” Nance smiled. “But badly lit at night.”

35702191This, for me, sums up the essence of Hannah Kent’s latest novel, ‘The Good People‘. It’s a novel about three women, all with the best of intentions, who will end up questioning everything they have ever known as they become embroiled in a changing world caught between folklore and faith.

County Kerry, Ireland, 1825. Nóra Leahy, bereft after the sudden death of her husband, finds herself struggling alone with the care of her young grandson Micheál. Once a thriving, happy boy, Micheál cannot now walk or speak. As her neighbours begin to whisper of ill-fortune and the cows cease their milk, talk turns to the Good People – the faerie folk – and rumours of Micheál’s true nature abound. Confused and desperate, Nóra turns to two women – young Mary Clifford, who will act as nurse to Micheál, and elderly Nance Roche, the local doctress who understands that there is magic in the old ways. But trying to help Micheál will lead the women on a dangerous path and into conflict with the world both inside and outside the valley.

This is a work of fiction, although it is based on real life events and is clearly impeccably researched. As with Kent’s previous novel, ‘Burial Rites‘ (which is brilliant by the way), there’s a real sense of immediacy in her depiction of rural village life and of the inherent beliefs and assumptions that make up local culture, belief and custom. And, more so than in Burial Rites, this is a novel that really focuses on belief. There are, without a doubt, two belief systems in the novel – that of the Church and an older, more naturalistic belief that includes herbal medicine, blessings, curses and the faerie folk. Both are strongly felt in Nóra’s community and the balancing of the two in daily life was an aspect of the novel that I found absolutely fascinating.

As with ‘Burial Rites’, Kent also manages to make very difficult characters sympathetic and engaging. Nóra is a challenging woman – lonesome, prone to melancholy and often bitter about her situation – but the reader is never left in any doubt that she is grieving profoundly for her husband, her daughter and, in her own way, for Micheál. Nance could so easily be portrayed as a predatory vagrant, preying on people’s desperation however she’s also shown to be wise in herb lore and the only genuine option available when the priest won’t help and the doctor is a luxury that the villagers are unable to afford. Mary, although less vivid, is an ideal way in for the reader and we share in her confusion, her anger and her angst over the nature of Micheál’s ailment and the best course of action needed to help him.

Because, ultimately, this is a novel with a terrible and tragic outcome. I don’t want to give away the central premise completely but I will say that there are trigger warnings here for child abuse. That said,  the treatment of Micheál in the novel only ever serves to raise important questions and is never used gratuitously. I was shocked by the callous attitude of the supposedly ‘educated’ doctor and priest, who identify Micheál’s condition as an illness but fail to provide Nóra with any sense of how she can help her grandson other than to tell her it is the will of God and must be endured. It is no wonder that, desperate and confused and surrounded by whisperings in the village, she turns to Nance and ever more extreme measures to cure the boy and see him restored to her.  These measures are, in themselves, horrendous but Kent’s skill lies in her ability to encourage the reader to see why her character’s make these decisions and choices. We might not sympathise but it is certainly possibly to empathise with Nóra’s plight.

As one of my ‘5 Star TBR Predictions‘ from back in October, I’m pleased to say this more than lived up to expectations. Combining a compelling narrative with complex characterisation and social commentary, this is an emotional and taught novel. It isn’t the fastest paced but there’s undoubted quality in the writing and a meticulous replication of a time and place now vanished.

The Good People‘ by Hannah Kent is published by Picador and is available in paperback, ebook and audio from all good book retailers. 

Uncategorized

5 Star TBR Predictions

I’ve recently watched a few videos on Booktube that use this tag and I thought it was a really fun idea for a blog post.

Basically the idea is to look at your shelves (because, let’s face it, who has just one shelf) of unread books and select some books that you think will be 5 star reads and that you intend to tackle and report back on in the coming months. I think the tag originated with Mercedes over at MercysBookishMusings and you can watch her original video here.

This seems like a great idea to me, not only as a way of busting through reading slumps but also as a way of thinning a large pile of unread books into a more manageable TBR. So, without further ado, here are my 5 star book predictions!


The Good People by Hannah Kent

I adored Kent’s first novel, ‘Burial Rites’, and had the pleasure of meeting her at an author event over at Booka Bookshop in Oswestry earlier this year. She was a fascinating speaker and it’s clear that she puts a great deal of time and energy into researching her books. That said, ‘Burial Rites’ always put the story first and never allowed the history to get in the way of a good tale.

Her second novel, ‘The Good People’, is set in rural Ireland, 1825, and looks at three women who are forced together to try and save a child that they believe has been made a changeling by the faerie folk. Kent is brilliant at portraying the everyday struggles of people’s lives and so I’m looking forward to seeing how she tackles this tale of folklore and ritual.

I’m about 50 pages into this at the moment and it’s building up to be a fabulous read so I have high hopes and will report back when I’m done!

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

I mentioned this in my Autumn Reading post but ended up putting the book down as my chunky hardback copy was just too big to pack in the suitcase for my recent holidays.

I do really want to get back to this novel, set in Alaska in 1885, which follows Lieutenant Colonel Allan Forrester as he attempts to navigate Alaska’s Wolverine River with a small band of men. Alternating between Allan’s diaries and that of his young wife Sophie, left behind as her husband goes exploring, it promises to be a fascinating tale of discovery and adventure as well as a portrait of a marriage placed under unexpected strain.

Ivey’s ‘The Snow Child’ was one of my favourite winter reads a couple of years ago and she has such a talent for realising place so I’m just waiting for a chilly weekend to dive back in to this.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas 

I’ve recently added this to my stack after hearing about it on the All The Books podcast. I don’t know much about it other than the blurb which is as follows:

‘Aged 13, Joan Ashby drew up a list ‘How to Become a Successful Writer’. With tenets such as ‘write every day’, ‘do not entertain any offer of marriage’ and ‘do not allow anyone to get in my way’, it is no surprise that, less than a decade later, her short stories took the literary world by story. But, with her failure to abide by her own rules followed by a marriage and two children, Joan finds herself living a life very different from the one she had envisioned. Now she wants to get back on track and complete her much-anticipated first novel but a betrayal of Shakesperian proportions is lurking around the corner.’

This debut sounded fantastic to me when I first heard about it and it ticks a lot of my reading joy boxes – female protagonist, book about books and authors, Shakespearean style drama and betrayal. I’m hoping for something along the lines of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ or Diane Settenfield’s ‘The Thirteenth Tale’, both past favourites.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig 

Another book that’s had loads of love on Twitter and Booktube (and has also been optioned by Benedict Cumberbatch for TV), this novel sounds like it’s going to scratch my ‘Time Traveller’s Wife’ itch. From the blurb:

‘Tom Hazard looks like an ordinary 41 year old. But a rare genetic condition means he’s been alive for centuries. Always changing his identity and staying on the move, Tom’s seen a lot but he craves an ordinary life. Now, working as a history teacher in London, he can teach kids about wars and witch hunts as if he never saw them first-hand – and he can try to come to terms with a past that is fast catching up with him. What he cannot do – what he must never do – is fall in love.’

I adored Matt’s non-fiction book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ but I’ve never read any of his novels so I’m really hoping that this one lives up the hype.

If We Were Villains by M L Rio

Again, I haven’t started this one and I don’t know that much about it so I’m going to let the blurb do the talking regarding the plot:

‘Oliver Marks has just served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. Years earlier, as a young actor at an elite conservatory, he noticed that his talented classmates seemed to play the same characters onstage and off. But when the teachers change the casting, good-natured rivalry turns ugly and the plays spill dangerously over into real life. When one of the seven friends is found dead, the rest face their greatest acting challenge yet – convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.’

Doesn’t that just sound like Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’?!?! That is one of my favourite books so I’m really hoping that this debut will have similarly gothic, Shakespearean tragedy vibes whilst adding something new and original.


So those are my 5 star book predictions! I’m really looking forward to starting each of these books and hope to report back with my verdict on each when I’ve finished them. Have you read any? If so, do let me know in the comments or over on Twitter. And, until the next time, Happy Reading! x