This is a hard post to write, for all the best reasons: I’ve had a great reading year. I’ll have made it to fifty books, in the nick of the time and with the help of some short reads towards the end. I’ve had comparatively few disappointments. I’ve tried to be a bit more discerning when it’s come to buzzy books, unlike in previous years, where I’ve often been more disappointed. (Hence my resolution to read more backlist, which abjectly failed.) I’ve also had a bigger pond to fish in this year — with buzzy British books as well as American books to choose from, since I’m now on top of British book news.
So, I present to you my top 10, ranked by some mystical combination of my personal enjoyment of them and their intrinsic merit. I almost didn’t rank them, because I truly love them all, and if you asked me tomorrow I’d probably put them in a different order. You’ll notice there are four number 1s. I just couldn’t pick a favourite among these. And then I also present to you a list of four star, very good books I’d happily recommend.
1. Now Let’s Dance, by Karine Lambert
This was a lovely, touching story of two recently widowed older people who find each other in the midst of dealing with their grief and the complexities of family and of ageing. It’s fresh and original and sweetly realistic. It’s translated by Anthea Bell, who has an OBE for services to literature and literary translation, which is pretty cool. As far as I know, Now Let’s Dance has only been published in the UK, but you can get it on Book Depository and I whole heartedly recommend it. Its original French title is Et bien, dansons maintenant.
1. Piglettes, by Clémentine Beauvais
It’s rare that a French book, let alone a French YA book, makes it into translation and publication in both the UK and the US, so I was curious about this one. It’s about three young girls who are voted the ugliest in their school, become friends, and for complicated reasons decide to cycle through a chunk of France dragging a trailer full of sausages behind them, and stopping along the way to sell said sausages as the assemble quite a social media following. Yes, it’s a bit bonkers, and a bit random, but it’s also fun and touching and I loved the narrator’s voice. And as with most YA fiction, I think it’s a great read for adults too.
1. The Travelling Cat Chronicles, by Hiro Arikawa
“The uniqueness of this book,” says the blurb on the back cover, “is its subtle but persistent charm that insinuates itself into your heart”, and I’d have to agree. This is a delightful book from beginning to end, which some beautifully visual passages. A cat’s narrator voice could be twee in lesser hands, but it was wonderful — grumpy and haughty in places, smart in others, and sweet sometimes, just as you’d expect a cat to be.
1. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman
This book buzzed and buzzed until I could resist no more. And if someone had told me that the inciting incident in this charming, touching, funny novel is a crush on an unattainable man from show biz, I probably would have caved a lot sooner. I loved it — I laughed and I cried. One of the great achievements of this book is that it gets us so thoroughly immersed in Eleanor’s thoughts and voice that we (or at least, I) come to totally agree when she explains why she is actually the rational one, while others around her are a bit bonkers.
5. Freshers, by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison
Oh my goodness, I loved this. Admittedly, I’ve been feeling nostalgic for my university days, since it’s 20 years (gulp) since my own fresher term. This brought it all back on a visceral level — I found myself thinking about the particular smell of the banister up to my first year room in a way I hadn’t in years. It’s populated with fun characters and made me laugh and cry and cringe so hard in one particular chapter that I almost screamed.
6. Unconventional, by Maggie Harcourt
I spent many happy hours binge reading this British YA novel set in the world of fan conventions. Lexi has been helping her dad run events her whole life, and she’s great at it — but meeting a hot new author has her flustered. This has all the things I love most about YA novels: it’s funny, emotionally intense, and just the right amount of sweet — and, because it’s British, also full of delightfully awkward moments which are far more reminiscent of my adolescence than some of the rainbows and unicorns you sometimes get elsewhere. Note: you can’t get this book in American bookstores (yet; I’m hoping US publishers see sense), but it’s available postage-free and at a low price on BookDepository.com.
7. The Party, by Elizabeth Day
I’ve raved about this book in several other places already, but well, that’s because it’s rave-worthy. It opens in a police station, where Martin is being questioned for something that happened at his best friend’s 40th birthday party. The events of that night unfurl in front of us in alternating chapters alongside excerpts from the diary of Martin’s wife as well as Martin’s interrogation, which gradually gives us the full context for what happens that night. I found this book powerful and beautifully written, and loved talking to its author for Episode Three of my podcast, the Brit Lit Podcast.
8. Unravelling Oliver, by Liz Nugent
Although this book is backlist in the UK and Ireland, it’s a 2017 release in the US. One of my favourites of the year, though, definitely — like The Party, it starts with a a catastrophic event and goes back to explore its causes, through the voices of many characters. It’s beautifully written and a heartbreaking story. I heard about it at the Buzz Books Panel at BookExpo, so I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about it in year-end reviews.
9. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson
I binged this book in one weekend and then almost wished I’d paused to enjoy it more. I loved that it explored the butterfly effect and how that works in a school.The writing is great, the characters so well drawn with their subtly different voices. And it will make you infinitely glad you’re not a teenager anymore. (If you are, I’m sorry. Things will get better, I promise.) I loved it despite (because of) its sadness and hopelessness.
10. Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin
I flew through binge-reading sessions, too, of this warm-hearted and witty book about what it means to reinvent yourself because you simply have no choice but to do so. It too has chapters from different people’s points of view, but unusually, rather than alternating chapters, they are entire sections, narrated by people who knew Aviva Grossman at the time when she had an ill-advised affair with her boss, a Congressman.
Special mentions (in no particular order, because that’s quite enough existential crisis for one day) go to:
Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years, by David Litt
It is so nice to be able to gently chuckle about politics again — and to feel hope along with the author, who unexpectedly leads us there in his memoir of his time working on campaigns and for the Obama administration. He’s a speechwriter, and one that focussed on humour, and it shows. The writing is wonderful — I particularly enjoyed the self-deprecation and the way that form matched content: if he was discussing run-on sentences, it would be in a run on sentence, and alliteration accompanied accounts of alliteration.
The Futures, by Anna Pitoniak
I love the moving-to-New-York-after-college subgenre of literary fiction, and novels about difficult marriages, and this one fits that bill perfectly with its 2008-set novel about a husband who works on Wall Street as things begin to unravel there and his wife who, unsure what she wants to do, drifts into a job she hates, both of them making terrible choices along the way. I honestly had to think twice about finishing this versus going downstairs for Thanksgiving morning bacon — that’s how good it was.
Seven Days Of Us, by Francesca Hornak
This book got a lot of buzz in the UK, and it’s a nice seasonal read about a family stuck together over Christmas, so I saved it for Christmas and was not disappointed. One of my happiest memories of 2017 will no doubt be the December day I spent under a quilt reading this non stop for six hours.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan
I kept telling everyone to pack this in their beach bag — it’s a lovely epistolary novel set in an English village during World War II and full of characters I either loved or loved to hate. It reminded me of another favourite, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Its author, fellow DC resident Jennifer Ryan, was my first guest on the Brit Lit podcast.
A Kind of Freedom, by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
This was a heartbreaking multi-generational novel about an African American family in New Orleans.
Hot Mess, by Lucy Vine
I laughed so hard at this book, which was perfect plane reading and then by-the-pool reading this summer. Light-hearted and genuinely funny, but with important things to say about singleness. Lucy Vine was my fourth guest on the podcast.
The Light We Lost, by Jill Santopolo
Another novel about the fate of post-college love, and a reflection on which is better: steady, unremarkable love, the explosive love that destroys everything in its path, including you.
The Hollywood Daughter, by Kate Alcott
It’s hard to read with jetlag, but even in my foggy state, and even in houses full of people I loved, I couldn’t wait to get back to this novel set in the 1950s, whose Ingrid Bergman-worshipping heroine is caught between her father’s Hollywood career and her mother’s Catholicism.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
I really appreciated the experimental quality of this novel, and it made for a great Book Club discussion. It was heartbreaking and beautiful.
All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg
I wrote about this book for Bustle, which explodes the usual “single woman” tropes.
First Love, by Gwendoline Riley
Another mid-winter binge read — in one day, this one — about a doomed marriage. It’s a beautifully written exploration of an imperfect marriage, more kaleidoscope than story as it jumps back and forth through time. I was excited to see it shortlisted for the prestigious Baileys Prize.
Backlist I’ve Enjoyed
All Tomorrow’s Parties, by Rob Spillman
I’m sure the fact that I know Rob and his wife Elissa Schappell contributed to my enjoyment of this memoir of their early marriage and time in newly reunified Berlin, but it was — as you’d expect from the Tin House editor — lovely, evocative, thoughtful writing.
Milk and Honey, by Rupi Kaur
I don’t read a ton of poetry, but I sat down with a coffee a few doors down from Green Apple Books in San Francisco intending to read a few pages, and couldn’t stop till the end.
I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus
I don’t know if enjoyment is the right word for this one, but I was certainly mesmerised and I’ve been desperate to discuss it since I read it.
Confessions of a Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella
Late to the party on this one, but I loved it. My skint twenties are far enough behind me now that I can laugh at the traits I share with Becky Bloomwood and almost think fondly of an earlier era, despite the fact that I, too was shoving unpaid and unpayable bills in a drawer in the hope that if I couldn’t see them, that meant they didn’t exist.
Love in Lowercase, by Francesc Miralles
I started my reading year with this lovely, quiet, translated novel, and it reminded me how much richer my reading life can be when I allow myself to explore beyond the borders of the country I live in, or even the English-speaking world. It’s about a lonely linguistics professor whose life is unexpectedly changed on New Year’s Day when a cat turns up at his flat and ends up leading him to places he’s never been and to people he might never have met, including the mysterious Gabriela. It was the perfect start to my year, and one of four books in which cats unexpectedly featured. (Or, I suppose, in the case of The Travelling Cat Chronicles, not so unexpectedly.)