2017 was my best reading year yet, in both quantity and quality. It was difficult to narrow my favourite reads down to just 10, but here they are (with some, er, persuasive commentary). I love yearly round-ups, so please do share your favourites with me too!
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
At a recent meeting of our book club, I asked if anyone had read A Little Life. Every woman within earshot clutched at her heart and emitted a pained sound. I nodded – they had indeed read it. And while each of us found it heart-rending, harrowing, even nauseating at times, we all loved it, too. Four friends – Willem, Jude, Malcolm and JB – graduate from college and head to New York to make their way. We know from the beginning that something terrible has happened in Jude’s past, and over the course of decades, as they each find their path, the full horror of what he’s endured slowly becomes clear. All the while the thread of love and friendship runs through their story, sometimes fraying but never truly broken. This book is beautiful, devastating, exquisitely written, and I will never, for as long as I live, forget it. Beware: A Little Life is a very tough read. Trigger warnings for violence, all manner of abuse (substance, sexual, physical, emotional) and severe mental health issues apply.
Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
I have been intrigued by Outlander for years, but never took the plunge because I was frankly put off by the idea of a time travel romance. I had a preconceived notion that it would be cheesy and badly executed, and while it does have a few cheesy moments, the research and writing are excellent and I fast became one of Outlander’s legion of rabid fans – especially after watching the TV adaptation. I devoured it, closely followed by Dragonfly in Amber and Voyager, but then the series started to lose steam for me while reading Drums of Autumn and ground to a halt a few chapters into The Fiery Cross. Honestly, I think the story was derailed by the Big Awful Thing that happens at the end of book two (no spoilers here) and I never regained the enthusiasm I had for book one, which will stand as one of my favourite escapist reads of all time.
Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo
In May I had surgery on my foot and took a week off work to recuperate. It was a great excuse to get lots of reading done! I started with Shadow and Bone, which I had seen floating around Bookstagram for what felt like forever, and raced through the entire series in a matter of three days. Being laid up certainly helped, but I was hooked from the first page. As a bit of a Russophile (and an editor), I did have a few quibbles with some of the language and naming of characters, but the story and worldbuilding are so good I was able to overlook them and give this one five stars.
Ruin and Rising, Leigh Bardugo
I’m skipping over Siege and Storm because, although I enjoyed it and it introduced Nikolai Lantsov, who is marvellous in every way, it fell slightly short of my love for the first and third books in this series. I think that is in large part due to the seemingly endless Mal angst. Readers of the trilogy will know exactly what I mean by that. However, he did grow on me in Ruin and Rising and I think I’m somewhat of an outlier in the Grisha fandom for being satisfied with the ending. It all comes down to this: when a book makes me laugh, gasp, and squeal aloud with delight, and I find it really difficult to extract myself from its world when it’s all over, it gets five stars from me.
The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry
Sometimes, it pays to judge a book by its cover. I was drawn to this pretty, intricate novel when I saw it shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, and I am so glad I picked it up. Victorian London you say? Don’t mind if I do. The story takes place in London and the fictional village of Aldwinter in Essex, where a mythical serpent lurks as an eerie backdrop to events. Perry’s prose is gorgeous, her characters beautifully crafted, and she masterfully evokes the late Victorian era in all its social turmoil and unexpected modernity. Sarah Perry’s third novel, Melmoth, is said to be even more ambitious, taking in Gothic horror and set in the city of Prague. I will eat it right up.
A Court of Mist and Fury, Sarah J. Maas
For the first half of A Court of Thorns and Roses, I enjoyed myself just fine, but found myself wondering: what’s all the hype about? It was just a standard retelling of Beauty and the Beast… until it wasn’t. The second half of the book takes it in a totally different direction, inspired by my favourite Greek myth – that of Cupid and Psyche. That got me really excited. Then I read A Court of Mist and Fury and went nuts. Nuts, I tell you. I became terribly invested, had to force my best friend to read it, and then was gratified when she, too, went nuts. I don’t think this series is perfect by any means, but I am at heart an escapist, and I loved getting quite thoroughly lost in these books.
Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo
I waited a couple of months after the Grisha Trilogy before reading Six of Crows, afraid of exhausting the world’s supply of Leigh Bardugo in a mere week. I heard it was a fantasy heist with a diverse cast of characters from Ketterdam, a city that was teased in Ruin and Rising and inspired by London, Amsterdam and Las Vegas. Amazing, right? I really enjoyed Six of Crows, but I straight up loved Crooked Kingdom. Back in Ketterdam, Kaz and his crew are pitted against the city elite and wreak delightful havoc. There is some deeply satisfying character (and relationship) development, and the most exciting cameo I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Seriously, my face hurt from grinning. If you love fantasy, clever plotting and even more clever banter, read this. Read it all.
Dark Matter, Blake Crouch
Annoyingly, I somehow mixed this up in my head with Dave Eggers’ The Circle and spent a fruitless few minutes searching for the TV show I just knew had been adapted from Dark Matter. I soon realised my mistake, but I do hear that a movie is in the works and I’m hoping that is the case; I think it would translate really well to the big screen in the hands of someone like Ridley Scott or Christopher Nolan. This was a rare case of me not being too crazy about the main character, but being so caught up in the action and wanting to know what the eff was going to happen that I just didn’t care. It’s original (boy, is it original), suspenseful, and will totally screw with your head and your world. If you are even remotely intrigued by the multiverse theory, this is a must-read.
Rules of Civility, Amor Towles
I’ve mulled it over and settled it. This was my favourite book of the year. With one of the smartest, funniest, pluckiest heroines I’ve ever read, larger than life characters with terrific names like Katey Kontent, Tinker Grey and Dicky Vanderwhile, and crisp, clever dialogue, all set against the glittering background of 1930s New York City, Rules of Civility quite simply swept me off my feet. I rarely reread, being deeply concerned with the fact that there are more great books out there than I have time to read in one lifetime, but this is one I will definitely be picking up over and over again. I couldn’t possibly sum up its intelligence and complexity in a paragraph, so just take my word for it and read this book. Here is one of my many favourite quotes just to give you a flavour:
“Anyone can buy a car or a night on the town. Most of us shell our days like peanuts. One in a thousand can look at the world with amazement. I don’t mean gawking at the Chrysler Building. I’m talking about the wing of a dragonfly. The tale of the shoeshine. Walking through an unsullied hour with an unsullied heart.”
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
I’ve already talked about my feelings for Eleanor here. I read this for book club in November and absolutely fell in love. If you haven’t read this one yet, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook. Cathleen McCarron does an amazing job bringing Eleanor, Raymond and sinister Mummy to life. You can drop me your email for a link to download free if you don’t yet have an Audible account!