As we’re now firmly ensconced in 2018, by about 5 days—holy jeewillikers, how is that possible??—I thought it would be a really great opportunity for me to review some of the amazing books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Especially because James and I are currently winging our way to Hawaii (Hawaii everyone!), and I need to post more regularly this year (damn uni). I decided, when I conceived the idea for this post, that I would pick 12 total books to discuss (y’know, because there are 12 months in the year and that kind of symmetry just works for me)… And then I subsequently cursed myself many, many times, because now I had to narrow it down to twelve out of eighty-eight. I managed, but I also feel like I’ve missed the chance to talk about all the other great books I read last year, so I’ve included my full 2017 list at the end for anyone who’s interested.
In absolutely no particular order, my twelve fiction books of choice for 2017 are as follows:
The Orchardist — Amanda Coplin
I stumbled upon this novel almost by chance—I think it might have been suggested to me when I was casually browsing the on-base virtual library offerings—and fell in love with it almost as soon as I began. What struck me was that it is so intensely lyrical: the novel is like a delicate piece of music, intricately inter woven and flowing together until you’re swept up in it and carried along. Coplin’s powers of description are incredibly evocative; she finds beauty in the smallest moments and magnifies it until it’s inescapable and almost overwhelming. Simultaneously, her characterisation bring every single character to life: I couldn’t help but become emotionally-invested in the path of Talmadge’s life as it became intertwined with the pregnant teenaged girls who show up in his orchard. There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered in this book, but I’m learning to accept that more and more as an inevitable part of contemporary fiction: after all, not every question we have gets answered in real life, so why should they in a novel?
The House of Mirth — Edith Wharton
What I figured out this year was that, sometimes, I don’t like 2000s contemporary fiction. Sometimes, I just really need to spend some time drowning in older novels. Why? I’m still not 100% sure. I can’t help but feel sometimes they have a richness, a complexity, that some modern literature lacks [DISCLAIMER: I said some, and I mean some, this isn’t about disparaging all contemporary fiction in favour of last century… But you do have to admit, if you want the lush, sumptuously-rendered imagery and detailed exploration of social/realist conditions, its hard to go past the late 19th/early 20th centuries]. And Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth is a beautiful, twisty social critique, with a flawed but fascinating protagonist, that I found engrossing. It’s moved Wharton significantly up on my ‘authors to read’ list, because I’ve fallen in love with her literary style.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle —Shirley Jackson
Again, another older novel: after spending much of her lifetime dismissed as a Shirley Jackson has experienced a literary revival in recent years, with critics and readers rediscovering her work: count me among them. I stumbled upon We Have Always Lived in the Castle because it was in an article talking about Jackson’s marginalisation in life. Lyrical, beautiful, and strangely haunting, this novel explores the life and actions of a bizarre young woman who both sees the world, and acts, in a way that is almost entirely beyond the understanding of the rest of humanity.
Middlemarch — George Eliot
Virginia Woolf (in and of herself, an incredible author), once described this novel as, “one of the few English novels for grown-up people,” and while I’m not 100% sure that I ascribe to that view, I can enthuse that after struggling through the first 50-100 pages, I fell in love with Middlemarch. One of Eliot’s incredible skills in this carefully crafted critique of society and humanity is her portrayal of how the influence of society on the individual is inescapable, and how the individual in turn influences those around her. Dorothea’s naive dreams of her marriage to Casaubon are strangled by his own ideas about what their marriage, and Dorothea herself, should be; the relationship between Lydgate and the gorgeous (and shallow) Rosamond simultaneously examines the impact of our own self-delusions upon our prospects in life. As a reader, you can’t help but gnash your teeth over the clear pitfalls the characters are heading straight towards… But you are also forced to acknowledge the complexity and the depth of human nature. Eliot so expertly humanises her characters that she demands you find sympathy with them for at least a moment, even those whose behaviour and beliefs you find completely repugnant.
Before the Fall — Noah Hawley
I saw the blurb for this novel somewhere, at some time — “On a foggy summer night, eleven people–ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter–depart Martha’s Vineyard headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the passengers disappear into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs–the painter–and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of a wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family.”
What is fascinating is how Hawley subsequently unravels the mystery of what happened, taking us along an intricate and winding path as he explores very human flaws, our intrinsic motivation, and the bizarre confluence of moments which can lead to a horrific disaster. I also have to say that, in the context of some other books (particularly The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan, which I’ll be doing a blog post on later in January), the portrayal of the media in this novel was fascinating and mesmerising. Moreover, even knowing without a doubt what had happened, I wanted to hope—against hope, against hope, against hope—that some of the characters hadn’t suffered the fates they clearly had. I liked them: even the ones I’d only gotten to know very, very briefly. I loved this novel, and I would happily read it again: Hawley’s gift for characterisation and narrative is brilliant.
Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
I have a sneaky feeling that there are multiple books on this list that EVERYONE ELSE has already read bar me… Why is that? I don’t quite know, but I know that it seems like everyone and their dog has read Far From the Madding Crowd, and I’m stoked that I can now say that I have too. Especially because I loved it. I love Bathsheba’s pride, and her fiery character; I love her growth as a character over the novel; I love the stories that interweave and draw a complete disparate and unique cast of characters into relationships with one another.
Dawn — Octavia E. Butler
I was introduced to Octavia E. Butler while doing a highly stressful literary theory subject at uni in early 2017, and I have to admit… Her first short story didn’t appeal to me. It was fascinating to deconstruct, and it was fascinating to learn about her, but I found it kind of… icky. Anyway, it did enough to rouse my interest in her as an author that I sought out some of her other work, and thus discovered Dawn, the first novel in her trilogy, Lilith’s Brood. This series was absolutely fascinating and entrancing, and I powered through it because I couldn’t wait to see what happened. Set in the future, it examines the fates of human beings who have been saved from a dying earth by a race of aliens who want to interbreed with them and repopulate the earth (and, in time, to spread this new breed of alien throughout the universe). It is an incredible vehicle for providing the key underlying themes Butler is famed for: a critique of humanity’s tendency to hierarchical societies (which inevitably minimise and marginalise aspects of society) and the creation of alternative societies which are not limited by race boundaries. In this, her stories provide the perfect reading through a postcolonial lens, and I’m looking forward to getting into more of them in the future. I’m generally not a huge sci-fi fan, but these novels I found engrossing.
The Shining — Stephen King
I have to admit… I’m a bit of sucker for Stephen King. I have a loooooow scare threshold and, inevitably, reading much of his stuff has me leaving the lights on all the time so that there are no dark spaces anywhere, and avoiding bathroom sinks (thanks IT), but there’s a reason that he is ‘the King’ (both figuratively and literally). I’ve never watched the movie, but now I really want to, because this book is brilliant. I love King’s way of gradually developing the fear and the tension in his work: he ratchets it up until it feels like you’re standing on a cliff edge, until you’re gripping the book so that your fingers are digging in and so that if someone dares to try and talk at you, you bark at them to shut up. Probably every one who reads this has already seen the movie, but I strongly recommend the book.
Their Eyes were Watching God — Zora Neale Hurston
I’m well aware that this book has become, at least in the last decade or so, almost required human reading for a lot of American school/university students, but it isn’t in Australia. I’d never even heard of Zora Neale Hurston until 2017—though that’s not saying much; the amount of authors, particularly black authors and those who examine race in different ways in both fiction and nonfiction, has skyrocketed since I moved to the US. Regardless, this book is stunning. Why, I hear you ask? Good question. It follows the beautiful and independent Janie Crawford, a black woman in the 1930s, as she sets out to find her identity. Following her through three different marriages and the different iterations of herself that she discovers throughout her life, it is a simply portrayed but incredibly deep examination of what it means to find and to know oneself, and what it means to be true to yourself in love as well. And I adored this quote about love so much that I decided to put it in here for all of you to read too:
“Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh moving thing, but still and all, it takes it’s shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”
The Queen of the Night — Alexander Chee
This book was surprisingly long (as in, literally, it took me by surprise that it just seemed to keep on going), and it had some mixed reviews on goodreads etc, but I really enjoyed it. I loved the unravelling of the past of famous soprano Lilliet Berne and examining the convoluted, intriguing past that made her what she was. The characters are drawn from history, but they are wonderfully brought to life by Chee’s portrayal and the story itself is wild, exhilarating ride: though others thought Chee’s prose dry (which it is, a little bit, sometimes) and found Lilliet dull, I enjoyed her characterisation…Though sometimes I was less than impressed at the situations she managed to find herself in. I enjoyed this book, long as it was, but I’m not 100% sure that I’d seek it out to read it again in the near future. If I did, I think I’d enjoy it a lot more in hardcopy rather than as an ebook: the complexity of it lends itself to flicking back through every now and then to see how everything ties together, which is a lot harder in an ebook.
Salt to the Sea — Ruta Sepetys
Salt to the Sea is a historical fiction novel set in WWII which follows the intertwined stories of four refugees and centres around the tragic fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Sepetys language in this is beautiful and her characterisation is excellently rendered: each individual’s nature is gradually revealed to us throughout the novel, and as we travel along with them we learn about who they are and the history that is driving them. Goodreads says that if you liked All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, check this out and, as I’m currently reading it, I can confirm that there are some fantastic similarities in style/direction of Salt to the Sea that make it a fascinating and lyrical read.
The Serpent King – Jeff Zentner
I found a recommendation for this book in a literary agent’s (Caitie Flum, check her out!) list of favourite books from 2016 and decided to check it out; fortuitously, the on-base library had it in ebook. Hurray! This was my first introduction to Zentner and I fell in love with his style on the basis of this novel. Following a trio of close friends as they navigate the various unique challenges of their final year of highschool, Zentner examines the costs of religious fundamentalism, the pressures our families (and friends) can put us under, and the ways in which friendship and acceptance can both save us and push us to make more of ourselves than fate might have made seem possible. Though tragic in aspects, this book is, to me, a tale of persistence and triumph in the face of bleak and oppressive circumstances, and Zentner’s capacity to tenderly explore the travails of teenagers approaching a major life transition into adulthood seems boundless. The relationships in this novel are its crux, and they are incredible.
Bleak House – Charles Dickens
I decided in 2017 that I was going to try to read a lot of contemporary fiction in the hopes that this would help make me a more attractive candidate for any and all kinds of publishing internships when I finally got around to applying for them (spoiler, I never did. That’s this year’s job). And I did read a lot of contemporary fiction… But as you can also see, I also read a stack of old stuff. Old stuff that the whole world had read bar me and that I was like ‘you can’t call yourself a real reader, or consider yourself well-read unless you actually read these books’. And Bleak House? Had to read it. And as a bonus, I loved (hence why it’s on this list, with all these other books I loved, right?). Sometimes you just need to read Dickens, and Bleak House is so Dickensian: long (sometimes confusing) sentences, coupled with complex and twisty but somewhat predictable turns of events (still highly enjoyable).
Tune back in sometime next week to read about my favourite nonfiction reads from 2017, and for anyone who might like to see what else I’ve read this year, check it out below!
- Last Argument of Kings- Joe Abercrombie
- The Meat Tree – Gwyneth Lewis
- 10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2010
- A twist in the tale – Jeffery Archer
- Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
- Big brother – Lionel Shriver
- Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
- The Fate of the Tearling – Erika Johansen
- Saturday – Ian McEwan
- Coraline – Neil Gaiman
- Holes – Louis Sachar
- The trick is to keep breathing – Janice Galloway
- The golden day – Ursula Dubosarsky
- Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Tales – Herman Melville
- The light in August – William Faulkner
- Awakening and other short stories – Kate Chopin
- The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
- We Need New Names – Noviolet Bulawayo
- The Falls – Joyce Carol Oates
- The Secret Horses of Briar Hill – Megan Shepherd
- Eileen – Otessa Moshfegh
- The book of strange new things – Michael Faber
- Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
- A Book of Tongues (Hexslinger Trilogy Book 1) – Gemma Files
- A Rope of Thorns (Hexslinger Trilogy Book 2) – Gemma Files
- A Tree of Bones (Hexslinger Trilogy Book 3) – Gemma Files
- We have always lived in the castle – Shirley Jackson
- My cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier
- Room – Emma Donoghue
- The Wonder – Emma Donoghue
- The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin
- Salvage the bones – Jesmyn Ward
- Pond – Clare-Louise Bennett
- What is not yours is not yours – Helen Oyeymi
- Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper
- Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
- Middlemarch – George Eliot
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
- The Island of Dr Moreau – H.G. Wells
- All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld
- Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – Ray Lawler
- The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island – Chloe Hooper
- The Princess Bride – William Goldman
- A Fortunate Life – A.B. Facey
- Five Bells – Gail Jones
- The Aunt’s Story – Patrick White
- The Painted Veil – Somerset Maugham
- The stranger’s child – Alan Hollinghurst
- The Glass Canoe – David Ireland
- Before The Fall – Noah Hawley
- The Unknown Terrorist – Richard Flanagan
- Dawn (Lilith’s Brood #1) – Octavia E. Butler
- Adulthood Rites (Lilith’s Brood #2) – Octavia E. Butler
- Imago (Lilith’s Brood #3) – Octavia E. Butler
- The lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch
- The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee
- The Serpent King – Jeff Zentner
- Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn
- Eleanor – Jason Gurley
- The chimes – Anna Smaill
- The Orchardist – Amanda Coplin
- The Tip of My Tongue – Trezza Azzopardi
- Illuminae (The Illuminae Files #1) – Amie Kaufman
- We love you, Charlie Freeman – Kaitlyn Greenidge
- Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
- Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood
- Bleak House – Charles Dickens
- Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut
- The spy who came in from the cold – John le Carre
- Parable of the sower – Octavia E. Butler
- Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepetys
- The Shining – Stephen King
- Dragonfly in Amber – Diana Gabaldon
- Voyager – Diana Gabaldon
- Secondhand time: the Last of the Soviets – Svetlana Alexievich
- The Changeling – Victor Lavalle
- Parable of the Talents – Octavia E. Butler
- Their eyes were watching god – Neale Hurston
- A court of thorns and roses – Sarah Maas
- The mountain between us – Charles Martin
- Goodbye Days – Jeff Zentner
- The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust – Edith H. Beer, Susan Dworkin
- The dinner – Herman Koch
- A Court of Mist and Fury – Sarah J. Maas
- A Court of Wings and Ruin – Sarah J. Maas
- Hunger – Roxane Gay
- The selection – Keira Cass
- Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli
If you’ve ever wanted to read any of these and would like to hear my thoughts, let me know!
Have an excellent weekend everyone: I can’t wait to soak up some sun and eat some delicious Hawaiian food!