This is one of the most fun posts to write but it’s also difficult, when I spend the entire year featuring books I’ve really enjoyed and rated here on the Literary Sofa. So please do look beyond today’s list of my personal favourites to the many brilliant guest author posts I’ve hosted in 2017, which also include my reviews, and to my quarterly selections.
It’s been another great reading year, but one in which I’ve become increasingly ruthless about abandoning books I’m not enjoying, including several ‘big’ titles. I have read 86 books, slightly down on recent years as I’ve had several big projects on the go, and the female:male split by author is not far off the usual 2:1, with slightly fewer books written by men. This isn’t something I take into consideration in choosing what to read, nor do I have any other quotas.
As always, I am struck by the power of a good book to offer insights into other places, experiences and lives, and to help me make sense of my own. Those I’ve singled out have had a deep and lasting effect, making me feel or making me think – both of which I hope for when I read. Once again my personal favourites contain several titles which haven’t appeared here at all, and two of the very best I read were in French (and noted at the end). I don’t know what this says about my taste but again, to my frustration, many of the books I love haven’t had anywhere near the attention they deserve.
Where I have written about a book already I’m providing a link to the original content, and saying a bit more about the others. There are too many here and I still feel I’m cheating on the rest!
MUSSOLINI’S ISLAND – Sarah Day (Tinder Press)
A genuine standout amongst the many literary debuts I read this year. This complex, brave and powerful novel, both tender and hard-hitting, features fine writing and a transporting sense of place and historical period.
WAIT FOR ME, JACK – Addison Jones (Sandstone Press)
An involving novel, both timeless and of its time, in which every dimension benefits from the author’s wisdom and acute observations of love, marriage and human nature. These are my own themes as a writer and it’s inspiring to see them handled this well.
BEHOLD THE DREAMERS – Imbolo Mbue (4th Estate)
A fabulous NYC novel and engrossing story with a commendable even-handedness when it comes to character, race and class. The contemporary relevance of this recent-historical take on immigration and American life makes it an important book and, sadly, one likely to cause most pain to those who least need to read it.
THE WANDERERS by Meg Howrey (Scribner)
Real philosophical depth with a humane and accessible touch and it’s great (and rare, though I don’t get why) to see an older female protagonist. There were many exquisite moments which have stayed with me for months. I would love to see more intelligent, ‘questioning’ fiction like this – although this is a very American book it reminds me what I enjoy so much about French novels in its willingness to engage with the abstract.
Poignant, sexy and evocative, there is a timeless quality to Adélaïde’s reflections on the turmoil of adolescence and double standards in society. It portrays a later reign, but fans of TV drama Versailles will love this: just as rich, but less arch.
FOUR LATER (NON-DEBUT) NOVELS
RESERVOIR 13 – Jon McGregor
I’ve never read McGregor before and it takes a lot to persuade me to pick up anything with a ‘missing person’ premise but fortunately I was swayed by the praise for this unusual, symphonic novel charting the life and lives of an English village over many years and its Booker longlisting. The writing is stunning and there’s a hypnotic rhythm to the structure, refrains marking the passage of time. Some degree of engagement is inevitably sacrificed when there are no main characters and yet what really moved me was the compassion of this novel, its inclusivity (not in an irritatingly PC way) and lack of condescension in portraying the quietly complex lives of ordinary people, in which not every author succeeds.
Next up are three very different novels by writers I admire both for the taut, elegant and articulate quality of their prose and their acute observation. Specifically, CONFLICTS OF INTEREST by Terry Stiastny (John Murray) excels in portraying personal and moral conflict, as well as capturing an area of Provence I know to perfection; THE ORPHANS by Annemarie Neary (Windmill Books) balances suspense with perceptive social commentary; in STRONGER THAN SKIN – Stephen May (Sandstone Press) continues his trademark interrogation of masculinity and in particular, male vulnerability without raising feminist hackles (or at least not mine).
It’s amazing to think that I never used to read this genre before starting the blog. Memoirs now consistently figure amongst my favourite books but there have never been three on my end-of-year picks before.
THE BOOK OF UNTRUTHS by Miranda Doyle is a major omission from this year’s coverage which I am finally remedying. Miranda and I met on the Rising Stars panel at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival but I couldn’t have guessed how profoundly her memoir would affect me, reminding me of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle in its account of parental shortcomings, extreme family dysfunction and its legacy. This book is beautifully written, with an honesty made (just about) bearable by the wit and tenderness Miranda somehow manages to summon. Her examination of the psychology of lying and memory adds a fascinating extra dimension.
BORN TO RUN by Bruce Springsteen – most of us don’t know what it’s like to be a global icon (if you do and are reading my blog, I’m honoured) but he does know what it is to be human and doesn’t hold back on all that entails. Springsteen has always been a hero of mine and I do see him differently now, with respect for his willingness to reveal himself in a true light – I also liked that he wrote it, in his own voice. This inspiring brick of a book was the high point of my summer holiday reading.
This book is rightly everywhere at the moment and since I spent an entire day writing my review a couple of weeks ago, I suggest you read them both.
Stories for Homes Volume 2 didn’t make this list because all the proceeds go to Shelter or because I’m one of the 55 contributors (give me some credit). It’s here because it’s an incredibly powerful, varied selection of stories which pack a huge emotional punch.
DEUX ROMANS HORS CLASSE
Not yet available in English, although I hope they will be, because if I was doing a Top 5, they’d both be in it. For the benefit of my francophone friends, they are L’Art de Perdre by Alice Zeniter and L’Arbre du Pays Toraja by Philippe Claudel.
It only remains for me to say three things…
Thank you to my guest authors, publishers, readers and everybody who has supported the Literary Sofa in its sixth year – this isn’t a crowd-pulling book blog but it’s very rewarding to know that people appreciate what I do. To receive a notification of my weekly posts, enter your email in the Sign Me Up box.
An even bigger thanks to the readers, reviewers, bloggers, journalists, festival organisers and retailers who’ve made the big gamble of self-publishing the paperback of my novel Paris Mon Amour such an exciting and worthwhile experience . Thanks also to my agent Diana Beaumont, my digital publishers Canelo and to the Clays Self-Publishing team.
Happy holidays – I’m signing off now for a month, part of which I will be spending far far away with plenty of books and sunshine. See you next year!