I had a pretty great reading year, so narrowing this down was kind of torturous, but here we go. Here are my favorite reads of 2017! As with my least favorite books list, these are books that I read in 2017 – they were not necessarily published this year.
Honorable mentions: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, Bright Air Black by David Vann, The Absolutist by John Boyne, Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Translations by Brian Friel, An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia, King Lear by Shakespeare… it took me a very long time to narrow this list down, as you can see.
10. The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. I came very close to not including this, because it’s a play, not a novel, unlike everything else on this list… and yet. The books I was considering talking about in its stead just didn’t have the same impact on me. The Pillowman is one of the darkest and most macabre things I’ve ever read, but also one of the most stimulating and fascinating. A writer, Katurian, living in some kind of totalitarian state, is interrogated about the content of his stories, which bear a striking resemblance to a series of child murders that have occurred recently in this society. In his typical style of black comedy, McDonagh examines the relationship between those who create art and those who interact with it – what responsibility does an author have over how his work is received? Grim, devastating, twisted, and mind-blowingly entertaining.
“Right at this moment, I don’t care if they kill me. I don’t care. But they’re not going to kill my stories. They’re not going to kill my stories. They’re all I’ve got.”
9. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I couldn’t be happier about discovering Agatha Christie this year – so far I’ve read six of her books and I haven’t given a single one a rating lower than 4 stars. But the standout for me was actually the first one I read, And Then There Were None, her acclaimed murder mystery set on an island off the English coast. Ten strangers are invited to a mysterious dinner party on this island, and then one by one, begin to get picked off – and they each believe the murderer is one of their fellow guests. Rather tragically, I’d already seen the BBC miniseries and knew the twist before I read the book, but I suppose it’s a testament to Christie’s skill that I still loved the novel so much. It’s delightfully creepy and atmospheric, and even knowing the resolution ahead of time, it still blew me away.
“In the midst of life, we are in death.”
8. Bird Box by Josh Malerman. This wonderfully creepy book is everything I could have hoped for in a horror novel. Rather than trying to scare the reader through monsters and gore, Malerman takes a simple premise and taps into a primal fear – that of darkness and the unknown. In Bird Box, there’s something outside that’s causing civilization to collapse, because when people see it, they lose their minds and commit acts of violence against themselves and against others. Forced to stay inside in a house full of strangers, twenty-something-year-old pregnant Malorie does whatever she can to survive in this new world, and her story is tragic and harrowing and unexpectedly moving. This is hands down the best horror novel I’ve read, and one of the scariest.
“You can smell it, too. Death. Dying. Decay. The sky is falling, the sky is dying, the sky is dead.”
7. All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan. This is a book that crept up on me. From the very first page I was struck by the mastery of Donal Ryan’s prose, but it wasn’t until I was pretty far into this book that I realized just how strong of an effect it was having on me. All We Shall Know is a contemporary Irish novel about 33-year-old Melody Shee, who finds herself pregnant by a 17-year-old boy – the novel chronicles Melody’s pregnancy as well as her developing friendship with a young Traveller girl. Seeking atonement for an event in her past, Melody is one of the best anti-heroines I’ve ever encountered, and one of the characters who’s haunted me the most from any of the books I’ve read this year. Donal Ryan’s storytelling and insight into human nature is fiercely, unnervingly realistic, and this book is as unsettling as it is beautiful.
“I could still fly to London and end this, and come back and say, Yes, Pat, I was lying, and he could persuade himself to believe me, and we could take a weekend break somewhere and be massaged together, and walk along a river hand in hand, and stand beneath a waterfall and feel the spray on our faces and laugh, and think about the cave behind the falling water, cut off from the world, and all the roaring peace to be found there, and have a drink in the bar after dinner, and go to bed, and turn to one another’s flesh for warmth, and find only a hard coldness there, and no accommodation, no forgiveness of sins; and we’d turn away again from one another, and lie apart facing upwards and send words into eternity about babies never born, and needs unmet, and prostitutes and internet sex and terrible unforgivable sins and swirling infinities of blame and hollow retribution, and we could slow to a stop as the sun crept up, and turn from each other in familiar exhaustion, and sleep until checking-out time on pillows wet with tears.”
6. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. I am in complete and utter awe of this book. Though it begins as a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, C.S. Lewis instead focuses on the story of one of Psyche’s sisters, Orual, and tells an absolutely heart-wrenching story that meditates on beauty and ugliness, on a woman’s role in society, and on man’s relationship with the gods. Orual is one of the most complex female characters from anything I’ve ever read, and this book made me realize I’d been severely underestimating C.S. Lewis ever since I disliked Narnia when I was younger. This book is an absolute masterpiece. I lost track of the amount of times I had to go back and re-read a passage because I found it so striking.
“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
5. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. This book in set in modern day Cork, Ireland, and follows five characters – a teenage drug-dealer, his alcoholic father, a notorious gangster, his elderly mother, and a former prostitute taking refuge in religion. This story is told with biting and irreverent humor, and I found it wickedly entertaining – but more than that, it’s an unflinching and powerful look at crime in contemporary Ireland, and the inter-generational cycle of poverty that drives it. Despite the pervasive humor, this is a rather bleak and depressing read, culminating in a positively harrowing conclusion for at least one of the characters, but if you can stomach the bleakness and the profanity, this book is so rewarding and thought-provoking.
“I hold onto her and tell her I love her and tell her I’ll do anything she wants me to do but beyond my words and her weight in my arms there’s the knowing we fucked this up. There was something beautiful here once.”
4. Human Acts by Han Kang. This is the most brutal book I have read, ever. As in, graphic descriptions of decaying corpses type brutal. But it’s also one of the most beautiful. Set in South Korea during the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, Human Acts is told in a series of vignettes that center around a boy, Dong-ho, who is killed in the massacre. In this novel Han Kang examines the question of whether it’s possible for human beings to live without violence, or whether violence is an inherent part of the human experience (a theme also present on a more microcosmic scale in The Vegetarian). Human Acts is powerful, thoughtful, and unsparing. I couldn’t stop thinking about this book for weeks.
“Every time I recall the blood that flowed in the small hours of that night – literally flowed, gushing over the stairs in the pitch dark – it strikes me that those deaths did not belong solely to those who died. Rather, they were a substitute for the deaths of others. Many thousands of deaths, many thousands of hearts’ worth of blood.”
3. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Set against the backdrop of the Japanese annexation of Korea in the early twentieth century, Pachinko is a multi-generational family saga that follows one family from a small Korean village to Japan. In their new home, Sunja and her family face systematic discrimination for being Korean – they’re forced to navigate their new life never fully accepted by this society in which they’re made to live. Not only is Pachinko a gorgeous, immersive, heartbreaking story, it’s also incredibly informative – Min Jin Lee provides an unflinching look at Japanese-Korean relations, and paints a detailed portrait of the Korean immigrant experience. But history never overpowers the narrative or these brilliant, vibrant characters who take center-stage. Pachinko is a beautiful novel and a nuanced exploration of national and cultural identity, and even though I read this book in February, I still think about it all the time.
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
2. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. A sweeping epic about the life of a gay man growing up in twentieth century Ireland, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. Boyne balances humor and gravitas with aplomb – I’ve never read anything else that strikes this balance so masterfully. The novel follows the life of Cyril, adopted and raised by the wealthy Avery family but constantly reminded by his adoptive parents that he’s not a real Avery, and he happens to be in love with his only friend, Julian. Cyril is an aggravating yet incredibly well-crafted protagonist – he makes arguably unforgivable mistakes, but never out of malice, only out of a desire to find his place in a society that refuses to accept him. In this novel Boyne also examines the sociopolitical climate of Dublin in the twentieth century, exploring themes of religion, sexuality, the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic church, and the way social attitudes change over time. It’s a stunning and ambitious book, both heartening and heartbreaking. I sobbed a grand total of three times while reading this, but even though it emotionally wrecked me, I had tears in my eyes from laughter much more often.
“Maybe there were no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.”
1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck. This book is a masterpiece. I don’t even know what to say about it that hasn’t already been said – I don’t think I ever even wrote a proper review of this because I just have no idea how. Set in Salinas Valley, California in the early 20th century, East of Eden follows two families – the Trasks and the Hamiltons, whose intertwining fates reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the story of Cain and Abel. Spanning across multiple generations, the scope of this novel is huge, but it’s a page-turning story that I found myself incapable of putting down, until I finished all 600 pages in less than a week. This book is somehow both larger than life and intimately personal – these characters and their fates seem so much bigger than my own reality, but I also saw so many echoes of myself in these pages. Though it’s undeniably a sad story from start to finish, East of Eden is ultimately about choosing to rise above darkness, and it ends up being an unexpectedly compassionate and hopeful commentary on human nature. Intelligent, thoughtful, passionate, beautiful, and an absolute masterclass in storytelling. Read this book.
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
Have you guys read any of these? And what were your favorite books of 2017? Please let me know!