Books of the Year 2017: Part One

Cover image I’ve been in dire need of distraction this year. I tend to keep politics out of this blog but ours is a very political household. It’s what we talk about over supper but this year we both decided, for the sake of our mental health, we needed to rein it back. Books, as ever, have been a solace. Far too many favourites for one or even two posts so there will be four, all with links to full reviews on this blog.

January began with a book that was published in the previous December and as a result may not have made the impression it deserved which is why it’s popped up two weeks running here. Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend  kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. Written from Audrey’s point of view, Down’s debut is a masterclass in elegant understatement steered neatly away from the maudlin. It’s about the way in which friendship can help you through the darkest of times, about resilience and learning when to reach out, and it ends on a note of hope which brought me to tears. A very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Nathan Hill’s The Nix is a big novel in every sense of the word. Through the story of a mother and the son she left when he was eleven, it explores the panorama of American life from the heady idealism of the ‘60s to 2011, the world still reeling from the global financial crisis. The writing is striking from the get-go and it’s very funny: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia to mention but a few. Careful plotting ensures that each piece of the puzzle slots neatly into place until both Faye and Samuel’s stories are told. It ends with fresh starts, a much-needed reminder that despite all that’s gone before there will always be both redemption and hope somewhere in the world, albeit personal rather than political.

Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack comes packaged in the perfect jacket. It’s the story of a marriage Cover image spanning sixty years, contracted in 1952: Jack is about to playfully pull the laughing Milly into what they hope will be the nice warm swimming pool of married life. In many ways they’re an ill-matched couple, neither of them quite what the other expected or thought they were, but they stick it out, always finding some love left no matter how close they are to the bottom of the barrel. Jones’ narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs. An engrossing, utterly gripping novel, beautifully bookended by the repetition of Jack and Milly’s first meeting.

February also delivered three novels that hit the spot, each very different from the others, starting with Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. This elegant novella is a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past. It’s a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. Woodson is known for her young adult and children’s books but I hope she’ll find time to write some more for us grown-up readers.

Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, The Refugees is by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. It explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. Viet Thanh Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view in a collection which combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience lending it a quiet power. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades.

Cover image At which point you may be wondering about books as a distraction from politics but my next February choice has that in spades. Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree is a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash – gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang. It’s the story of Edgeworth Bess who is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Alongside Bess’ tale, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.

That’s it for January and February’s favourites. Goodies were thinner on the ground in the following three months but they did include one which should have won all this year’s prizes, as far as I’m concerned, but didn’t…

33 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2017: Part One”

  1. There’s still time for me to add to my Xmas wish list so I love these posts. I like the sound of Our Magic Hour and I’m off to read your full review. Look forward to the next instalments of your top picks…

    1. I’d love to think I’d made a few converts to Our Magic Hour, Helen. I’m told it did very well in Australia but I don’t rememeber it getting much coverage here. Next part on Wednesday…

    1. Thank, Melissa. Every year I try and get it down to ten, and every year I fail to do so. The upside, of course, is that there are some excelelnt books out there. Looking forward to your list.

  2. Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour does sound rather special so I’m adding it to my letter to Santa. That Jake Arnott seems very different to what he’s written previously??

  3. Having been awol much of 2017 I’m really looking forward to, even relying on, posts from trusted bloggers like yourself to help me plug the gaps of which books I might have missed out on… this is a timely reminder I have Wait For Me, Jack on the TBR and will be adding both Another Brooklyn & Our Magic Hour to the wish list

  4. Four posts :O that’s the sign of a good reading year. Sad to say I have read none of the books in this post, but have enjoyed them vicariously via your reviews. I may yet get around to The Refugees. Viet Thanh Nguyen is a writer that interests me.

    1. I try every year to get it down but never quite manage it! Nguyen’s one of those quietly brilliant writers. There’s been a fair amount published about the first generation refugee experience this year, fiction and otherwise for obvious reasons, but these stories explore the second and third generations’ stories.

  5. The Fatal Tree sounds like the most fun, but I find myself drawn to Wait for Me, Jack and The Nix. I’m going to try my best to get Wait For Me, Jack put on the next Literary Wives list!

  6. Naomi from Consumed by Ink and I have talked about this before, but we love reading books about marraiges-their ups and downs, etc. So Wait For Me Jack sounds the most interesting to me, and i love the cover!

    1. Isn’t it great? The jacket was what attracted me to the novel and it fits the book beautifully. I thought of Naomi and the Literary Wives Club while I was reading this one.

  7. Spoiler alert: Our Magic Hour has also made my Best of 2017 list (I’m still finalising it).

    I have The Nix in my TBR stack – had considered it my ‘big summer read’ but also tempted by The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne so will have to toss up.

    1. Haven’t read the Boyne but those two sounds very different. Delighted to hear that Our Magic Hour is on your books of the year list, Kate. Also verry pleased that a bookseller picked up on my review. She might even be able to sell a few copies!

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