Book Review: My Favourite Reads of 2017

Christmas Book Flood: Jolabokaflod!

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
Now is the time of year when the media publish 'Best Of' lists for a variety of categories, including books, television series, music albums and films, so I thought that I'd join in with a baker's dozen of favourite reads from 2017. Some were published this year, and all came out recently, so should be readily available.

1) A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman:

It made me laugh and it made me cry. A brilliant portrayal of a grumpy old man, a stickler for petty rules and regulations, who'd be a nightmare to know on brief acquaintance. But, he has a heart of gold concealed within his leaden exterior and is blessed with the love of a good woman.

2) Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders:

Worthy of all the attention it's received, as much for the unusual way the story is laid out, with scattered thoughts from the spirits of the dead who haven't quite passed over, but who exist in a state of limbo or 'bardo'. Some are more aware of their condition than others, and the most confused is Abraham Lincoln's son Willie who's just died of typhoid fever in the second year of the Civil War. He's further unsettled by his father visiting the crypt to hold his corpse, as part of his mourning.

Not an easy read, and if you try, I recommend doing so in at least 20-30 page chunks, to get a sense of who all of the dead spirits are; it's a very moving experience—horrific, contemplative and loving.

3) The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, by Lars Mytting:

The best novel that I read this year or for many a year. A stunning achievement and just what a novel should be, for it involves the reader in a deep-seated mystery as the naive protagonist tries to unravel a tight knot that hides family identity, wealth, betrayal and who he really is and who he wants to be. Travelling between Norway, the Shetland Isles and the battlefields of northern France, it's sure to be turned into a film.

4) Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh:

If you want to know what it feels like to be a brain surgeon, this is the book to read. I was immediately in awe of Henry Marsh, and it's one of the most humbling memoirs I've read. Truly terrifying too, it will make you count your blessings. I'm on the waiting list at my local library for the sequel, Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon.

5) The Dry, by Jane Harper:

A highly-praised debut crime novel by a British author, who does a fine job of making the reader feel the heat, claustrophobia and paranoia of an isolated community in the Australian Outback where the murder of a family makes everyone a suspect.

6) The Force, by Don Winslow:

Winslow is without equal when it comes to writing tense crime novels involving the drug trade and the inevitable violent betrayals, paranoia, self-loathing and multiple murders. His The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, about the Mexican drug wars must have the highest body counts of any novels. In The Force, a corrupt detective who's been taking dirty money and operating as part of an unofficial police unit within the NYPD finally gets his comeuppance. He's a totally believable flawed hero, compromised by many 'well-what-would-you-do' situations.

7) H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald:

Grieving the unexpected death of her father, the author returns to an early love of falconry, by raising a goshawk. Her road to recovery is involving, tearing at your heart as you will her on. Macdonald writes brilliantly about wildlife, the weather and the landscape. I found it captivating.

8) Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane:

One of the best thrillers that Dennis Lehane has ever written, and that's saying something when you remember Mystic River and Shutter Island. The plot has more twists and turns than an epileptic snake, carrying the reader along in a state of excited confusion.

9) Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford:

A rollicking good read, that deserves all of the praise and awards it's received. Spufford knows his stuff historically, and he pens a believable world in 18th-century New York, where things turn frighteningly violent very quickly. I'm eager to read the sequel.

10) The Heavenly Table, by Donald Ray Pollock:

This absorbing novel will probably get lost by being shelved among Westerns in bookshops and libraries, and though it's set on horseback, the three gormless heroes have adventures that say much about human foibles. It's lewd and crude in places, but very entertaining.

11) The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan:

An unusual crime novel which was unjustly overlooked, and, I fear, will remain a neglected treasure. I only noticed it, as it was the last book shelved in the novel section of my local library! A debut novel by a mature writer, it tells of a strange friendship between an implacable, imprisoned serial killer, a complete psychopath, and a gullible young deputy, who finds missing people in the Montana snow—usually dead. Zupan rivals Helen Macdonald for his descriptions of landscape, and you'll soon be feeling cold. It's one of the most memorable stories I've read.

12) All Involved, by Ryan Gattis:

I wasn't sure that I'd enjoy this tale set in the days of the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, mainly as the author had previously written quirky titles for young readers. However, I was swiftly gripped by the dilemmas faced by a dozen different characters, including coppers, drug dealers, store owners, nurses and the homeless. Some scenes were real edge-of-the-seat stuff—and I mean real—much scarier than any imagined dystopian worlds.

13) The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman:

The reader is transported to New York in the early 20th-century, where the protagonist works as a mermaid in her father's museum of freaks, among such as the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl and a century-old turtle. She meets a handsome Russian immigrant photographer, who has left the confines of his Jewish community to concentrate on his career. When he photographs a tragic factory fire, he gets embroiled in the case of a missing girl and dark forces hunt the two youngsters. Hoffman is superb at summoning up the atmosphere of the streets, river and surrounding countryside of a young city. Best-known for Practical Magic, which was turned into a film, and to which she's recently published a prequel called The Rules of Magic, Hoffman's Museum of Extraordinary Things is sure to be filmed too as it's equally spellbinding.

What books have you enjoyed reading this year? They don't have to be recent—old favourites that you've revisited will do.
Don't have enough time to review here, but I quite liked 'An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It' (short story collection by Jessie Greengrass), and 'Spies', by Michael Frayn.
Blackwing is on my to -read list. In haste, off the top of my head,

Boneland by Alan Garner. Still thinking about that one.

Bright Air Black by David Vann. Poetic as anything and uggghhhh. Shudder. True to the legend of Medea. Therefore revolting.

Skellig by David Almond it with a little student (freelance Eng Lit tutor) I do like Skellig. Do like. And also by him, a collection of short stories drawn from his own life Counting Stars.

Nightwing Martin Cruz Smith. Bats by night, but is it a curse? He is brill.
Into the Mist by a lovely talented Kiwi, Lee Murray. It's a quick read that mixes science and Maori mythology in a classic 'creature feature'. Think Jurrasic Park, but in New Zealand. Nothing taxing, just a fun read.

And I re-read Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller series. Loved it every bit as much the second time around.

I know I read some other great books this year...damned if I can remember them.
... Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller series. Loved it...
This. A thousand times this.

Also, in a very different vein and not an experience I'd rush to repeat, Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, the story of a boy from a slum in Casablanca; politics, religion, terrorism and childhood. It's first person from beyond the grave – you know the shape of the end by page two. Perhaps the most awfully compelling book I've ever read, a lot of which I read through tears.
This. A thousand times this.

Also, in a very different vein and not an experience I'd rush to repeat, Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, the story of a boy from a slum in Casablanca; politics, religion, terrorism and childhood. It's first person from beyond the grave – you know the shape of the end by page two. Perhaps the most awfully compelling book I've ever read, a lot of which I read through tears.

So, not good summer beach reading, eh? Anyone have any suggestions for light fluff, no romance? I'm off to the North Island for some pre-Christmas lounging on the beach and hiking volcanoes. I need some reading material.
So, not good summer beach reading, eh?
Ha! No, not unless the beach is made of pure happiness and you want to balance it out with a few negative emotions. Goodness knows why I put it on a list of favourite books. Certainly made an impression though.

I think I mentioned it before, but check out Jen Williams. The Copper Promise trilogy might be just what you're looking for – swashing and buckling and a spiky young heroine. Good for reading while listening to waves (or screaming teens – depends on the beach, I suppose ;)).
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Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13. Blew me away.

For those curious, here's the Guardian review.

'And all the time we’re expecting Rebecca’s body and its secret to erupt from where it’s hidden and break up the surface of this ordinary, extraordinary, flow of time and change: bring it to a point, a revelation. We want her to answer something unappeased and unfinished in us, as the solving of the crime would in a more conventional genre fiction novel. Gradually, though, as the story unfolds across its 13 chapters (ah, so is she in Reservoir 13?), playing with and undercutting our expectations, we appreciate that this isn’t a murder mystery at all. It’s a chilling meditation on time, and loss through change. Why does that archetype of female sacrifice have such hold over us – why did Iphigenia have to be sacrificed by Agamemnon at Aulis?'
I love this book so much, I splurged on the hardback as soon as it came out:
'I am, I am, I am' by the incredibly talented Maggie O'Farrell.

Her first chapter is chilling and masterfully told. This extract is from Guardian article:

(I can delete this if it infringes on copyright. )

‘I have walked into his trap’: an exclusive extract from Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir
On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.

We are, he and I, on the far side of a dark tarn that lies hidden in the bowl-curved summit of this mountain. The sky is a milky blue; no vegetation grows this far up, so it is just me and him, the stones and the still black water. He straddles the narrow track with both booted feet and he smiles.

I realise several things. That I passed him earlier, farther down the glen. We greeted each other, in the amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk. That, on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call. That he has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, and I have walked into his trap.

I see all this, in an instant.

This day – a day on which I nearly die – began early for me, just after dawn, my alarm clock leaping into a rattling dance beside the bed. I have just turned 18 and I have pulled off an escape. From everything: home, school, parents, exams, the waiting for results. I have found a job, far away from everyone I know, in what is advertised as a “holistic, alternative retreat” at the base of a mountain (exactly where remains a secret I keep to this day). I serve breakfast, I wipe tables, I remind guests to leave their keys. I go into the rooms, I make the beds, I change the sheets, I tidy.

All morning, I sift and organise and ease the lives of others. Then, around lunchtime, if I’m lucky, I have four hours before the evening shift to do whatever I want.

So I have walked up to the lake, as I often do during my time off, and today, for some reason, I have decided to take the path right around to the other side. Why? I forget. Maybe I finished my tasks earlier that day, maybe the guests had been less untidy than usual and I’d got out of the guesthouse before time. Maybe the clear, sun-bright weather has lured me from my usual path.

I have no reason, at this point in my life, to distrust the countryside. I have been to self-defence lessons, held at the community centre in the small Scottish seaside town where I spent my teens. The teacher, a barrel-shaped man in a judo suit, would put scenarios to us with startling Gothic relish. Late at night and you’re coming out of a pub, he would say, eyeing us one by one from beneath his excessively sprouting eyebrows, and a huge bloke lunges out from an alleyway and grabs you. Or: you’re in a narrow corridor in a nightclub and some drunk shoves you up against a wall. Or: it’s dark, it’s foggy, you’re waiting at traffic lights and someone seizes your bag strap and pushes you to the ground. These narratives of peril always ended with the same question: so, what do you do?

We practised reversing our elbows into the throats of our imaginary assailants, rolling our eyes as we did so because we were, after all, teenage girls. We took it in turns to rehearse the loudest shout we could. We repeated, dutifully, dully, the weak points in a male body: eye, nose, throat, groin, knee. We believed we had it covered, that we could take on the lurking stranger, the drunk assailant, the bag-snatching mugger. We were sure we’d be able to break their grip, bring up our knee, scratch at their eyes; we reckoned we could find an exit out of these alarming yet oddly thrilling synopses. We were taught to make noise, to attract attention, to yell, POLICE. We also, I think, imbibed a clear message. Alleyway, nightclub, pub, bus stop, traffic lights: the danger was urban. In the country, things like this did not happen.

And yet here is this man, high up a mountain, blocking my way, waiting for me.

It seems important not to show my fear. So I keep walking, keep putting one foot in front of the other. If I turn and run, he could catch up with me in seconds and there would be something so exposing, so final about running. It would uncover to us both what this situation is; it would bring things to a head. The only option seems to be to carry on, to pretend that this is perfectly normal.

“Hello again,” he says to me, and his gaze slides over my face, my body, my bare, muddy legs.

I cannot meet his gaze, I cannot look at him directly, not quite, but I am aware of narrow-set eyes, a considerable height, fists gripping his rucksack straps.

I have to clear my throat to say, “Hi.” I turn myself sideways so as to step past him: a sharp mix of fresh sweat, leather from his rucksack, some kind of shaving oil that seems distantly familiar. I am past him, I am walking away, the path is open before me. He has, I note, chosen for his ambush the apex of the hike: I have climbed and climbed, and it is at this point that I will start to descend the mountain, to my guesthouse, to my evening shift, to work, to life.

I am careful to use strides that are confident, purposeful, but not frightened. Perhaps, I think, I am free, perhaps I have misread the situation.

I am 18. Just. I know almost nothing.

I do know, though, that he is right behind me. I can hear the tread of his boots, the swishing movement of his trouser fabric – some kind of breathable, all-weather affair.

And here he is again, falling into step beside me. He walks closely, intimately, his arm at my shoulder, the way a friend might, the way I walked home from school with classmates.

“Lovely day,” he says.

I keep my head bowed. “Yes,” I say, “it is.”

“Very hot. I might go for a swim.”

There is something peculiar about his diction, I realise, as we tread the path together. His words halt mid-syllable; his Rs are soft, his Ts over-enunciated, his tone flat, almost expressionless. Maybe he’s slightly “touched”, as the expression goes, like the man who used to live down the road from us. Maybe, I think, with a flood of relief, that’s all this means. This man might be like our old neighbour: eccentric, different. Perhaps I should be kind, as my mother was.

I turn to him then. I even smile.

“A swim,” I say. “That sounds nice.”

He answers by putting his binoculars strap around my neck.

A day or so later, I walk into the police station in the nearby town. I wait in line with people reporting lost wallets, stray dogs, scraped cars. The policeman at the desk listens, head cocked to the side. “Did he hurt you?” is his first question. “This man, did he touch you, hit you, proposition you? Did he do or say anything improper?”

“No,” I say, “not exactly, but…”

“But what?”

“He would have done,” I say. “He was going to.”

The man looks me up and down. I’m wearing patched cut-offs, numerous silver hoops through the cartilage of my ears, tattered sneakers, a T-shirt with a picture of a dodo and the words “Have you seen this bird?” on it. I have a mane – there isn’t really any other word to describe it – of wild hair into which a guest, a serene-faced Dutch woman who had travelled to the guesthouse with her harp and a felting kit, has woven beads and feathers. I look like what I am: a teenager who has been living alone for the first time, in a caravan, in a forest, in the middle of nowhere.

“So,” the policeman says, leaning heavily on his papers, “you went for a walk, you met a man, you walked with him, he was a bit peculiar, but then you got home OK. Is that what you’re telling me?”

“He put,” I say, “the strap of his binoculars around my neck.”

“And then what?”

“He…” I stop. I hate this man with his thick eyebrows, his beery paunch, his impatient, stubby fingers. “He showed me some ducks on the lake.”

The policeman doesn’t even try to hide his smile. “Right,” he says, and shuts his book with a snap. “Sounds terrifying.”

How should I have articulated to this policeman that I could sense the urge for violence radiating off the man, like heat off a stone? I have been over and over that moment at the desk in the police station, asking myself, was there anything I could have done differently, anything I might have said that would have changed what happened next?

I could have said: I want to see your supervisor. I would do this now, aged 45, but then? It didn’t occur to me it was possible.

I could have said: listen to me – that man didn’t hurt me, but he will hurt someone else. Please find him before he does.

I could have said that I have an instinct for the onset of violence, and when the man put the binoculars strap around my neck, even though he was saying something about wanting to show me a flock of eider ducks, I knew what came next. I could smell it. I could almost see it there, thickening and glittering in the air between us. This man was going to hurt me. He meant to inflict harm, rain it down on my head, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I decided I must play along with the birdwatching game. I knew that this was my only hope. You can’t confront a bully; you can’t call them out; you can’t let them know that you know, that you see them for what they are. I glanced through the binoculars for the length of a single heartbeat. Oh, I said, eider ducks, goodness, and I ducked down and away, out of the circle of that strap. He came after me, of course he did, with that length of black leather, intending to lasso me again, but by this time I was facing him, I was smiling at him, gabbling about eider ducks and how interesting they were, did eiderdowns used to be made of them, is that where the name came from, were they filled with eider duck feathers? They were? How fascinating. Tell me more, tell me everything you know about ducks, about birds, about birdwatching, goodness, how knowledgeable you are, you must go birdwatching a lot. You do? Tell me some more about it, about the most unusual bird you’ve ever seen, tell me while we walk because is that the time, I really must be going now, down the hill, because I have to start my shift, yes, I work just there – you see those chimneys? That’s the place. It’s quite close, isn’t it? There will be people waiting for me. Sometimes if I’m late, they’ll come out to look for me, yes, my boss, he’ll be waiting. He walks up here all the time, too, all the staff do, he knows I’m out here, he certainly does, he knows exactly where, I told him myself, he’ll be out looking for me any minute now, he’ll be just around that corner. Sure, we can walk this way, and while we do, why don’t you tell me some more about birdwatching, yes, please, I’d like that, but I really must rush because they are waiting.

Two weeks later, a police car drives up the winding track to the guesthouse and two people get out. I see them from an upper window, where I’m wrestling pillows into their cases. I know straight away what they are doing here, so even before I hear someone calling my name, I am walking down the stairs to meet them.

These two are nothing like the policeman at the station. They are in suits, their demeanours serious, focused. They proffer badges and documents to my boss, Vincent, with faces that are still with practised, skilled neutrality. They want to talk to me in private, so Vincent shows them into an unoccupied room. He comes in with us because he is a good man and I am only a few years older than his own children.

I sit on a bed I made that morning, and the policeman sits at an ornamental wicker table where some guests like to take morning tea; the policewoman seats herself next to me on the bed.

Vincent hovers in the background, muttering mistrustfully. He is a former flower child, a Haight-Ashbury survivor, and has a low opinion of what he calls “the fuzz”.

The police are interested, the woman tells me, in a man I encountered recently on a walk. Would I be able to tell them exactly what happened?

So I do. I start at the beginning, describing how I passed him early on the hike, how he headed off in the opposite direction, then somehow appeared ahead of me. “I don’t know how he did that,” I say, “because there isn’t a short cut, or not one that I know of.” They nod and nod, listening with a measured intensity, encouraging me to go on. Their eyes never leave my face: I have their absolute attention. When I get to the part about the binoculars strap, they stop nodding. They stare at me, both of them, their eyes unblinking. It is a strange, congested moment. I don’t think any of us breathes. “A binoculars strap?” the man asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“And he put it around your neck?”

I nod. They look away, look down; the woman makes a note of something in her book.

Would I be willing, she asks as she hands me a folder, to take a look at some photographs and let them know if I see him there?

At this point, my boss interrupts. He can’t not. “You don’t have to say anything, you know, you don’t. She doesn’t have to say anything.”

The policewoman is putting up her hand to silence him, just as I am placing my index finger on a photograph.

“That’s him,” I say.

The detectives look. The woman notes something again in her book. The man thanks me; he takes the folder.

“He killed someone,” I say to them, “didn’t he?”

They exchange an unreadable glance but say nothing. “He strangled someone. With his binoculars strap.” I look from one to the other and we know, we all know. “Didn’t he?”

From across the room, Vincent swears softly. Then he walks over and gives me his handkerchief. The girl who died was 22. She was from New Zealand and was backpacking around Europe with her boyfriend. He was unwell that day, so had stayed at their hostel while she went off on a hike, alone. She was raped, strangled, then buried in a shallow pit. Her body was discovered three days later, not far from the path where I had been walking.

I only know all this because I read about it in the local newspaper the following week: the police wouldn’t tell me. I saw a headline in a newsagent’s window, went in to buy a paper, and there was her face, looking out at me from the front page. She had light-coloured hair, held back in a band, a freckled face, a wide, guileless smile.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I think about her, if not every day then most days. I am aware of her life, which was cut off, curtailed, snipped short, whereas mine, for whatever reason, was allowed to run on.

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I liked the way she gave a 'flash-forward' in the middle of it, to give a break from the tension building up, then, puts the reader straight back into the horror of the situation. Also, being a true story, you know she survives, but you really fear for her life. (Well, I did.)
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Christmas Book Flood: Jolabokaflod!