Our Bookmunch Best of 2017

Liam Bishop: Your expectations are there either to be met or confounded, and both results are satisfying in their own selfish way. Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba (Portobello) and Bruce Chatwin: The Novels (Vintage) challenged and enlightened my expectations of my readerly self. I also finished my devotion to reading Russian Literature this year which I started at the end of 2016, and as Alma continued to republish a steady stream of Russian classics, I was expecting Mikhail Lermontov (A Hero of Our Time) and Ivan Turgenev (The Nest of the Gentry) to be great: indeed they were.

Daniel Carpenter: Nina Allan’s The Rift is the best book released this year. A story about a rift between siblings across decades and possibly worlds that also happens to be one of the most honest books about family relationships I have read in decades. Allan’s novel is ambiguous in all the right ways, and its open ended conclusion is pitched exactly right. Elsewhere, I loved Gary Budden’s Hollow Shores [ed. review coming soon], in which memory and folklore haunt people across London, Kent and Finland. It’s subtle and angry, and lingers long after you finish reading it. Not enough people at all read Verity Holloway’s terrific novel Pseudotooth, a portal fantasy novel that eschews the usual cliches of the genre, cleverly linking it with invisible disability, William Blake, and strange old traditions. Finally, Undertow Press’ Year’s Best Weird Fiction anthology continues to be the most essential purchase every year, volume 4 interrogates what weird fiction can be and throws up a variety of answers in the form of writers like Aki Schiltz, and Irenosen Okojie. Strange stories for strange times – what more could you ask for?

Lucy Chatburn: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris managed to be profound whilst consisting almost entirely of banality. One of the cleverest novels I’ve read for ages. Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac was also clever, in an altogether more understated kind of a way. Helen Simpson’s Hey Yeah Right Get a Life was just brilliant: same fundamental mission as The Power, but without the sci-fi dystopia. I also re-read Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, which still felt original, even second (or maybe third) time around. Either it is visionary, or I’m stuck in the past.

James Doyle: The most enjoyable book I’ve read this year is Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days. It is the final part of McInerney’s trilogy, beginning with Brightness Falls, and brings the lives of the Calloway family and their publishing company, their affairs and friendships with the elite of New York’s society up to 2008. Along with the Forrest Gump-esque ability to have background appearances in key moments of contemporary history – Obama’s election, the fall of Lehmann Brothers – it is a sadly evocative portrait of compromised youthful idealism and how to build new relationships in middle-age.

Jackie Law: My book of the year is We that are young by Preti Taneja. A retelling of King Lear, the action is set in modern India and offers a masterclass in the country and its people. A literary feast and a highly readable story. I wanted to applaud the last line. Four other books were standout reads. Tin Man by Sarah Winman is hauntingly, achingly beautiful. The author has woven a love story that is intensely moving yet avoids all the cliches and banality typical of the genre. It oozes colour and possibility – just glorious. The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks. A mesmeric tale of loss and survival. The actions of each of the characters are in many ways reprehensible yet, given circumstances, the reader cannot help but empathise. The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. A multi-layered fictionalised story based on true events from eighteenth century northern England. Although historical, it is a tale for our own changing times. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack. An evocative elegy that captures the battles and the beauty of existence – an extraordinary, life-affirming read.

Valerie O’Riordan: As usual, it’s hard to narrow it down… The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney was definitely one of my top reads of 2017; I read it twice in quick succession and I’d happily get stuck in a lift with it. Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister (a historical novel about the fictional sibling of the Witchfinder General) was properly tense and creepy, but also nicely understated. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake wasn’t new this year, but I’m glad I finally caught up wth it; likewise, I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life years after the rest of you and found it totally devastating. In non-fiction, I was really taken by Mark O’Connell’s exploration of transhumanism, To Be A Machine, and – another older book – Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (as grim as you’d expect). Lastly, I’m not sure why Ross Raisin’s A Natural [ed. review coming in time for the paperback in March 2018], isn’t getting more airtime: it’s a brilliant exploration of masculinity and sexuality, and he actually manages to make lower division football seem interesting – that’s got to be worth a trophy.

Joe Phelan: Levitation is Sean O’Reilly’s first publication in 12 years [ed. review coming soon], and is well worth the wait. A collection of short stories set in and around O’Reilly’s native Derry and his adopted Dublin. The stories relate the exploits of characters blown about by life and just trying to get by. Despite being downright grubby and careworn, the reader will be left rooting for the protagonists and offering them a listening ear. It is apparent that O’Reilly knows Dublin city centre well, most of the action takes place on its worn and grubby streets.  An excellent collection from one of the most innovative Irish writers around.

Tamim Sadikali: I read some memorable short story collections in 2017 but the late season by Stephen Hines was flawless – bleak and yet beautiful. As in 2016, my pick for best novel goes to Jarett Kobek. The Future Won’t Be Long ran with the same vibe as I Hate the Internet and, from where I’m sitting, it’s unique – no-one else is laying us bare quite like him. But if I had to pick one book, it would be Signal Failure by Tom Jeffreys – ostensibly ruminations of the author’s walk along the proposed HS2 route, but it was so much more. I don’t expect to read another book like it.

Lucille Turner: I love fiction as much as the next reviewer, but it has to be really good to keep me reading. My selection for 2017 is one of non-fiction and memoir. Gut wrenching and engaging, these books will make you think, feel and worry. But if it’s escapism you’re looking for, you’ll be knocking at the wrong door. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond: a book about Big History that confronts historical and current attitudes to subjects such as colonialism and racism in a scientific way, and for that reason one of the best books I’ve reviewed this year. Major/Minor by Alba Arikha and Educated by Tara Westover [ed. review coming soon]: both of these, although worlds apart in their reference points, are thought-provoking memoirs that touch on parent-child relationships and the social issues that affect them. Timeless stuff really. How does extremism rip a family apart? Read and discover.

Peter Wild: Even though it won the Booker, which somehow renders it an underwhelming choice in some respects, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders remains the book that gave me the most pleasure. It made me smile, it made me rueful, it dazzled me, it was as good a novel as I’d want from George Saunders. Other books I enjoyed a whole lot: I finally caught up with Dan Davies’ In Plain Sight: The Life & Lies of Jimmy Savile which is every bit as shocking and horrifying as you’d expect but Dan Davies makes this a fascinating page turner. Naomi Klein’s No is Not Enough felt like a much-needed reassurance as the world got gradually madder and madder. Chaboute’s The Park Bench was a beautiful and poignant graphic novel. And This is Memorial Device by David Keenan was the second best novel I read this year, and a book (like the Saunders) I intend to go back to when it’s out in paperback early 2018.

 

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