Tag Archives: Books of the Year 2017

Books of the Year 2017: Part Four

Cover imageFor anyone wondering if these posts are ever going to end, we’re nearly there. Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress was the highlight of September’s reading for me. Set against the background of East End fascism in 1947, still bubbling away despite the suppression of the Blackshirts, McGrath’s novel explores the anguish of grief through Joan, widow of the late lamented Charlie Grice, star of the West End. McGrath is a master storyteller, unfolding his tale of grief and madness against the vividly evoked background of a frozen London struggling with the continuing depredations of post-war austerity.

October saw novels from two of my favourite writers, the first by Jane Harris eight years after the wonderful Gillespie and I. Based loosely on true events, Sugar Money tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique in 1765, restoring them from British to French hands. The star of the show is the novel’s twelve-year-old narrator, Lucien, a bumptious sardonic smart Alec in counterpoint to his quietly resourceful brother charged with what he knows is a foolish and dangerous task. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour couldn’t be more different. McDermott is one of those quietlyCover image brilliant authors whose work often seems underrated to me. Set in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, her new novel is the story of Annie, rescued from poverty by the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor when her husband commits suicide leaving her pregnant and bereft. It bears all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a McDermott novel: understated yet lyrical writing; empathy in spades; astutely drawn characters, all gathered together to form a quietly glorious whole infused with gentle humour. A treat to savour.

My third October choice is Alex Christofi’s Let Us Be True. I was a little lukewarm about this book when it arrived but it turned out to be absorbing, insightful and beautifully written. Largely set in Paris during the middle of the twentieth century, it’s the story of Ralf who becomes smitten with Elsa and remains so for decades after their brief affair ends. With a light touch, Christofi explores the way political events can shape ordinary lives through the framework of Ralf and Elsa’s relationship, a vivid backdrop to their stories told from each of their perspectives. A smart, thought-provoking novel which ends, I’m pleased to say, on a hopeful; note.

Cover imageNovember’s star was also a surprise. The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao spans twenty or so years in a Brazilian housewife’s life, beginning in the 1940s. Euridice is a clever girl who excels at everything. Her older sister Guida is the worldly one, beautiful and flirtatious. Left with parents who pin all their hopes on her when Guida disappears, Euridice marries a respectable banker who fails to understand her brilliance. One day, out of the blue, Guida knocks on Euridice’s door. Euridice’s story is expertly told, liberally laced with a smart, playful humour sharp enough to flag the serious side of this salutary tale about the dangers of becoming a good girl. An absolute treat which rounds 2017’s favourite reads off nicely.

And if I had to choose? Usually it’s a struggle but this year there’s no contest: Jon McGregor’s beautiful Reservoir 13,  a gorgeous book that will stay with me for some time.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three 2017 books of the year posts they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Time to look forward to what’s on offer in January next…

Books of the Year 2017: Part Three

Cover imageSummer’s favourites wander around the world a little taking in novels from Scandinavia, South Africa and the USA, beginning in June with Monte Carlo, a book by a Belgian author. Ending on the night of the first moon landing in 1969, Peter Terrin’s novella tells the tale of a God-fearing mechanic who becomes obsessed with the actress whose life he saves when she’s caught in a conflagration. He’s badly burnt, but she’s unscathed. Jack arrives home a hero but as the year passes with no word from DeeDee, no acknowledgment of his sacrifice, his obsession with her deepens. From its vividly dramatic opening, this beautiful dreamlike novella had me in its grip. I’m hoping that more of Terrin’s fiction will be translated soon.

Tom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a piece of autofiction that also deals with trauma, this time the death of his partner a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom finds himself caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare in which he must prove himself to be Livia’s father. The novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter. I’m not entirely taken with the idea of autofiction but this is an intensely immersive, heart-wrenching book which I hope proved cathartic for its author.

June ended with Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which explores the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Lottie – furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him – finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment of her loosely linked state-of-the-nation novels.Cover image

Just one book from July but it’s a particularly lovely one. In Victoria Redel’s Before Everything five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.

Death and friendship are also themes in the first of August’s two favourites: Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy. Ellinor stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner. Georg and Ellinor were married for decades but she has always felt she was leading Anna’s life. She’s a stepmother who has never felt the children were hers; accepted by the family but standing at its edge. Now that Georg has died there is no one that she wishes to talk to except Anna. Ellinor’s grief is such a private, painful thing, not a rending of garments or tearing of hair but a constant ache of absence as much for Anna as it is for Georg. This loving, forgiving friendship is at the heart of Grøndahl’s quietly powerful novella.

Cover imageSummer’s last book is Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Just as Woolf’s novel reflected the preoccupations of her time, so Johannesburg offers us a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. Melrose deftly knits the many threads of her narrative together, shifting smoothly between her characters and offering a microcosm of this complex country where white privilege often shuts itself away behind razor wire and navigates the constant stream of black hawkers from comfortable, air-conditioned cars. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.

That’s it for summer, a season I cling on to for as long as I can. Autumn gets off to a darker start although not as Gothic as I was expecting…

All links are to my reviews on this blog. If you’d like to catch up with the first two instalments of my 2017 books of the year they’re here and here. And for those of you who’re flagging, it’s the home straight on Monday.

Books of the Year 2017: Part Two

Cover imageJanuary and February boasted six reading treats for me but things were spread a little more thinly over the following three months. March began with what I knew would be a favourite author’s last book. Helen Dunmore’s, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling. Dunmore quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she was gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

April’s favourite is by another writer whose work seems underrated to me. Although longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 was omitted from the shortlist much to my – and many other readers’ – amazement, then it missed the Goldsmiths Prize. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life. The rhythms of the natural world hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl and what may have happened to her. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fingers firmly crossed that the Costa judges see sense.Cover image

Three books stood out for me in May, the first of which was all about storytelling. Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell sees two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Disoriented and lonely, Marc begins to let slip information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him until they become more real to him than his own predicament. Lowe draws you in with his extraordinarily ambitious structure, frequently pulling the rug from under your feet. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. A very clever, subtle piece of fiction.

I’ve no idea how I managed to miss Duncan Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos when it was first published here in 2016. Three timelines run through this tightly plotted, inventive novel: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting from the de Groot family in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000 when its curator is faced with a youthful indiscretion which could destroy her reputation. Smith juggles his narrative stands with admirable deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted and there’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel. It’s that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure about Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which looked distinctly dystopian, not the kind of distraction I was looking for in a year spent trying to escape the real world, but she’s a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. This is a highly ambitious first novel but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

The next three months kick off with another bumper selection in June, including one often described as a Brexit novel. Can’t seem to get away from it…

All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.

Books of the Year 2017: Part One

Cover imageI’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 imagespanning 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 imageAt 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…