To kick off my literary reflections for 2017, here are my favourite fiction books from this year. (Note that not all of these were published this year, that’s just when I read them.)
The following are abridged reviews; where there’s a longer version on the blog, I’ve linked to it. Blurbs are either from the back of the book, or from Amazon.
Confessions by Jaume Cabré
An instant bestseller in nine languages, Confessions is an astonishing story of one man s life, interwoven with a narrative that stretches across centuries to create an addictive and unforgettable literary symphony. At 60 and with a diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s, Adrià Ardèvol re-examines his life before his memory is systematically deleted. He recalls a loveless childhood where the family antique business and his father’s study become the centre of his world; where a treasured Storioni violin retains the shadows of a crime committed many years earlier.
His mother, a cold, distant and pragmatic woman, leaves him to his solitary games, full of unwanted questions. An accident ends the life of his enigmatic father, filling Adrià’s world with guilt, secrets and deeply troubling mysteries that take him years to uncover. Ambitious, powerful and deeply moving, with an overwhelming theme of guilt and redemption, Confessions is a consummate masterpiece in any language, with an ending that will not just leave you thinking, but probably change the way you think forever.
I read a lot of books. I once worked out that I average about five books per week; although I try to read a book per day, sometimes one book merits several days’ reading, or sometimes life gets in the way (not often though. What is life without reading?)
So when I say this might be the best novel I’ve ever read, that’s very high praise. Confessions reads like it was written by Umberto Eco: that level of depth and literary quality that’s so rare to find. It spans generations, lifetimes even, and has twists and turns that will keep you invested throughout.
I can’t wait to read Cabré’s other books.
Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
Could a story save your life?
If Kelsey Newman’s theory about the end of time is true, we are all going to live forever. But who would want that?
Certainly not Meg, a bright spark trapped in a hopeless relationship. But if she can work out the connection between a wild beast on Dartmoor, a ship in a bottle, the science of time and a knitting pattern for the shape of the universe, she might just find a way out.
I kept meaning to review this book but it never quite happened. When I read it I loved it so much that I kept wanting to stop and make notes, but I also wanted to just enjoy reading it, and that was what won out in the end. I’m definitely going to re-read it at some point, and when I do I’ll probably write a glowing review, but for now suffice it to say that when I finished it I immediately bought copies for several of my friends, so I think you should buy yourself a copy too.
It’s one of those books that spans many different subjects and provides a refreshingly philosophical window onto an otherwise fairly average human life.
Silence Is Goldfish by Annabel Pitcher
Silence Is Goldfish is the story of Tess, who suddenly stops talking when she unearths a horrible secret. She feels like she belongs nowhere, like she’s floating lost through the world – and her only friend is a toy goldfish she carries around in her pocket.
Naturally, this doesn’t exactly make for an easy ride, and Tess must deal with being bullied at school alongside all the other things that are going on.
Can she find some way to help herself through this mess?
The storyline of this book is interesting, easy to follow, and a good read. But the main reason I liked it so much is the tone. Annabel Pitcher perfectly captures what it feels like to be a teenager (at least, what I remember of it…) and I spent various parts of the book going “Oh! I’d forgotten what that was like!”
Funny, sad, relatable, a bit philosophical in places, it perfectly captures life as a lost teenager and reminds the reader about that stage in life where you had no idea what was going to happen, but somehow you had an opinion on it anyway.
Fizz by Zvi Schreiber
It’s 2110. Fizz lives in an “Ecommunity”, a kind of anti-technology cult that has areas around the world that are cut off from the technologically advanced society around them (the “Outside”). Per the rules of her community, on her 18th birthday Fizz is allowed to exit Iceland, where she is based, for three weeks to visit the Outside and see what it’s about. To say this isn’t encouraged would be an understatement, but Fizz’s dad lives on the Outside and she’s always been curious about the big questions of life: questions she’s not allowed to ask.
It is a hugely ambitious work; essentially a Sophie’s World for science. And on the whole, it works really well. The science is explained clearly and simply throughout, in exactly the way you’d have to explain it to an intelligent person who was coming across it for the first time. As I was reading it, I thought it would be a great way to introduce teenagers to the wonders of physics, which can seem like such a dry and boring subject in school but is actually so full of fascination.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principal is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother- who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.
The characterisation in the book is excellent. While it took me a few pages to settle into the writing style, I was quickly hooked by the descriptions of the protagonists, and Ng masterfully shows her characters’ motivations and feelings throughout the book.
I was struck by the number of subplots in Little Fires Everywhere, which Ng somehow manages to slot in without it seeming at all unnatural. Throughout the novel you’ll meet loads of different characters, and you’ll almost certainly relate to at least one of them. Little Fires Everywhere explores the bounty of human experience through the eyes of a group of people whose lives intertwine in ways few of them could have anticipated.
The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman
Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them; a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua…
This is the most unusual of beasts: a prequel that’s just as good as the original series. If you liked His Dark Materials, you’ll love this, and I’m hoping it becomes as hugely popular as it deserves.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Jesus fucking christ. If you like dark, twisted psychological thrillers, read this at once. It was written in 1892 and tells the story of a woman who’s suffering with what was probably termed hysteria back then, so her husband sequesters her away inside a single room to ‘recuperate’. Spoiler alert: this doesn’t do much for her mental health.
This is so deeply disturbing that I had to watch stupid comedies for the rest of the night after I read it, because I couldn’t get the ending out of my head. It’s only a few pages long, and you can find it online since it’s no longer in copyright. Read it now, it’s brilliant.
I’m Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjork – a classic crime novel with a sufficiently gruesome murder mystery and the kinds of characters I can’t help loving. A specific shout-out goes to the new young investigator for whom the job starts to get a bit too real: very relatable if you’ve worked in law enforcement. Full review here.
Little Face by Sophie Hannah – an excellent psychological thriller. Little Face is what Gone Girl would have been if Gone Girl had been good. Full review here.
The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr – don’t be put off if you read the blurb and think it sounds like a romance. This is a story about what it means to accept yourself exactly as you are, and begin to define yourself outside of the lines which have been painted around you. Full review here.
Every Day by David Levithan – a sweet, touching tale about a boy who wakes up each day in a different body. He thinks he’s learned to accept his lot, until one day he meets someone who makes him want to stick around…
Living the Dream by Lauren Berry – relatable for anyone who’s pried themselves out of the advertising industry’s iron grip and into the freelance lifestyle, especially if you’ve recently been through a bit of an existential crisis.
Hyddenworld by William Horwood – if you enjoyed Duncton Wood, you’ll love this. It’s fantasy at its best: a far-fetched yet heartwarming romp through a magical landscape that will make you want to step into the pages and live inside the book.
Hellfire by Karin Fossum – a gruesome murder and a deathbed confession twist through the centre of this tale. Brilliant as always, Fossum really delivers the chill factor on this one. It’s got to have one of the best last lines I’ve ever encountered.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman – the kind of book Caitlin Moran might have written if she’d grown up in America and turned out a bit evil, Girls on Fire is a book about friendship in all its beautiful, twisted, fantastic, disgusting glory. Full review here.