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

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Non-Stop Non-Fiction

I recently took a glance over my ‘Read’ shelf on Goodreads and was surprised to see how many non-fiction titles I’ve been reading of late. Whilst I’ve never been adverse to reading non-fiction, I’ve always considered myself  primarily a fiction reader. Yet out of the last ten books I’ve read, five have been non-fiction and my only recent 5* Goodreads review went to a non-fiction title. So why the sudden change in my reading habits?

I think primarily it’s because I’ve been super busy  recently so most of my reading has taken place in snatched bites of time. 5 minutes over my morning cup of tea, 15 minutes before bed, 10 minutes whilst waiting for an appointment. A whole day to sit and read – or even a few uninterrupted hours – sounds like a complete luxury to me at the moment. Reading in small doses means its hard to settle into a plot-heavy novel where it’s important to recall who all the characters are, what happened in the last chapter and what person A said about person B ten pages ago.

 

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child MurdererThis coincided with my discover that the true crime genre – something I’d always worried would be sensational and tacky – has become home to some thought-provoking, genre-blending books that scratch the itch left by ‘Serial’ and ‘S-Town’: two of my favourite podcasts in recent years.

First up, I listened to the audiobook of Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer‘. Although not actually as focused on the ‘sensational’ murder as the blurb and advertising would have you believe, this was a fascinating piece of narrative non-fiction covering such varied topics as early mental health treatment in Victorian England (surprisingly progressive) and the role of bandsmen in the trenches of WWI (much larger than they’ve been given credit for). Complete with the narrative drive that Summerscale is known for, this was a great audio – although the ‘mockney’ accent the narrator used for some of the characters nearly drove me to distraction!

Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBIDavid Grann’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon‘, subtitled ‘Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI’, is ostensibly a book about the murders of a number of Osage Indians throughout the 1920s, but opens up into a discourse on power, money, land rights, injustice and racism. It was a sensitively written, fascinating and powerful examination of a largely forgotten piece of  American history. Grann’s writing is a brilliant blend of journalistic drive (he knows how to work a cliffhanger!) and stylised reportage and I was keen to check out more of his work so also read ‘The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession‘, which is a collection of his shorter essays and articles. I didn’t enjoy this as much as ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ – as with all essay collections, some pieces held my interest more than others – but it confirmed my opinion of his writing style and I’m looking forward to starting ‘The Lost City of Z‘ soon.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a MemoirAlexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s ‘The Fact of a Body‘ is a slower-paced combination of narrative true crime with memoir resulting in an emotionally raw yet moving examination of the lasting effects of historic abuse. Juxtaposing the 1992 molestation and murder of a young boy by a paedophile with the author’s own repressed feelings about abuse within her own family. Not an easy read by any means, and with subject matter that will undoubtedly have triggers for some readers, but a skillful and intimate blending of two genres that really pushed the boundaries of what I thought a ‘true crime’ book could be.

Most recently, I’ve read ‘True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Disappearance of Maura Murray‘ by James Renner. This is written in short, snappy chapters – often only one or two pages each – and is also a blend of personal memoir and true crime. Less literary in style than ‘The Fact of a Body’ and with more of the narrative drive found in Grann or Summerscale’s work, this is a dual investigation of the strange disappearance of a young woman from rural New Hampshire and of Renner’s own complicated true-crime addiction. It definitely had that page-turning quality although, because the focus is less on a historic case and on an open, unsolved investigation, I did experience a level of unease about some of the speculative elements of Renner’s investigation. It’s a compelling narrative to be sure – and Renner does a good job of keeping the primary focus on his own mentality and raison d’etre – but there are some leaps into the dark corners of the internet and  toying with outlandish amateur theories that left me feeling a cold.

So do I intend to carry on with this non-stop slew of non-fiction? More than likely. I’ve got a short break planned this coming weekend which is a much needed chance to get absorbed into a nice chunky novel. But I have become more aware of how my reading habits need to change to fit around my lifestyle in order to avoid a slump. When I’m busy, non-fiction is just easier to read in short doses. So maybe I need to use non-fiction as my weekday reading and make fiction my weekend choice, when I can indulge in a lazy morning sipping tea and curling up with a good book? If it stops me from entering those hideous periods when I just don’t read at all, it’s certainly worth a try!

I’d be interested to know if anyone else finds their reading habits have changed with their lifestyle and if you find yourself reading differently at different times? Drop me a comment down below or send me a message over on Twitter. And, until next time, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or something in between, Happy Reading! x