Best Books I Read in 2017

Much of this year was spent getting used to my new full-time high-pressure job in an unfamilar town surrounded by strangers who soon became good friends or important contacts.

Luckily, despite an increasingly busy schedule, I still found time to read a few books. These were my favourites.

Tenth of December – George Saunders

tenth of december
Copyright: Bloomsbury.

Hype can be a dangerous thing.

A couple of pull-quotes on the front cover of a book can be good for attracting potential readers, but it’s all-too-easy to overdo them, to plaster the cover and front-load the first few pages with so many superlatives that the readers’ expectations become so impossibly-high that the book can no longer reach them.

This was the case with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a novel following the perilous journey of an escaped slave, which was showered with prizes and praise earlier this year.

Along with the usual short snippets from positive reviews on the front cover, the book had an extra cardboard flap behind the front cover full of lengthy paragraphs promising that the story was an unforgettable future classic with writing that was similar to half a dozen different literary greats, followed by a few pages which featured even more examples of critics singing its praises at the top of their lungs.

This absurd amount of hyperbole ended up hurting the book instead of helping it.

The Underground Railroad is a well-told tale with a great protagonist, an interesting structure, fully-developed characters and moments of extreme tension, sorrow and joy, yet I still felt a slight twinge of disappointment when I finished it because it had been merely excellent rather than an unquestionable masterpiece.

George Saunders also received a lot of acclaim this year for his new novel and I noticed that one of his short story collections, Tenth of December, had been gathering dust on my shelf, so the time seemed right to give it a go.

I glanced warily at the cover quotes suggesting that it was ‘the best book you’ll read this year’ and that George Saunders was ‘the best short story writer in English’, though compared to The Underground Railroad‘s cover this was fairly restrained and understated.

After skipping the introduction because it was 20 pages long – longer than some of the actual short stories in the collection – and because it began by repeating the ‘best book you’ll read this year’ comment which made me concerned that the rest of it would be similarly hyperbolic, I began the first story.

250 surreal, whimsical, disturbing, intense, laugh-out-loud funny and – quite often – extremely moving pages later, it was clear that the promises of the cover quote had been kept.

These stories are incredible.

They range from slice-of-life character dramas to sci-fi-inflected satires, they focus on dark and uncomfortable subjects but also have a silly sense of humour that doesn’t feel out of place, and Saunders writes with sympathy for his characters while putting them into desparate situations and observing how they cope.

So, with more than a little surprise, I must echo what the critics have said, because, once in a while, against all odds, despite their fondness for hyperbole, they’re right.

George Saunders has written the best book you’ll read this year.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Copyright: Vintage.

At the start of the year, soon after America inaugurated its new president, there was a sudden boom in sales of classic dystopian literature. What a coincidence.

The biggest bestseller was The Handmaid’s Tale, a chilling look at a society where women are treated as little more than walking wombs after a catastrophe which decimated the population of the USA and lead to widespread scapegoating of Muslims was used by an extreme right-wing Christian regime to stage a coup and strip women of their rights and freedoms.

In this new America, many women are assigned to wealthy married men as Handmaids, mistresses who must procreate with the head of the household since radiation has left the wives sterile.

Offred is our narrator and guide to this horrible society. She tells us about her miserable life, the life she once had, and how she got from there to here – the family and friends she lost along the way, the strict inhumane Aunts who taught her the rules of this new order, the day-to-day life of a Commander’s slave.

Her tale is a testimonial, a historical document from someone living under a totalitarian regime who wants to tell future scholars what it was like to live in such miserable conditions.

Abortion doctors are strung up on hooks on the Wall that encloses the community, uncomfortable quasi-religious ceremonies and rituals are unavoidable, women less fortunate than Offred (yes, that’s possible) regard her with hate and jealousy.

It’s all very bleak, yet it reads like a page-turning thriller with sharp lashings of wit, sympathy for characters who at first glance seem callous and even the possibility of hope.

Her story provokes plenty of questions that remain unanswered due to Offred’s limited perspective and it ends on an ambiguous note that’s frustrating but rings true, as it provokes the same feeling that anyone who’s ever perused personal letters in a history museum exhibit about any historical atrocity, only to find that the letter ends with a paragraph saying ‘It is unknown what happened to X after this was written, but there are several possibilities…’ will find familiar.

Berlin Stories – Robert Walser

Copyright: New York Review of Books.

In May 2016, I travelled to Berlin for three weeks as part of a work experience project. While I was there, I bought numerous books which were by German authors or about German history or just had the word ‘Berlin’ in the title because I planned to read one of them during that same three week period next May, and the May after that, and so on.

As this May began, I didn’t have the time or concentration to commit to a massive tome, so Robert Walser’s slim collection of even-slimmer pieces of writing about his time living and working in Berlin was the perfect book for this hectic period.

Rarely longer than four pages each, many of these notes and musings do a lot with very little. Walser’s joy in describing the minutiae of city life is infectious, expressed in lengthy paragraphs of conversational, personable, and endearingly rambling prose.

Sections near the end of the book have a more reflective and melancholic mood but are no less engaging and wonderfully imagined.

It’s like an old, exceptionally eloquent traveller telling you about where he’s been and though his anecdotes are all rather mundane, his storytelling ability and careful observations elevate them immensely.

It usually takes me a couple of minutes to read a couple of pages yet I spent considerably longer on some pieces in this book, like ‘Friedrichstrasse, ‘The Metropolitan Street’ or ‘The Theater, A Dream’, as I kept going back and re-reading, pausing on a particularly nice turn of phrase, or just waiting a while before reading the last couple of lines to let it all sink in.

The bar has been set very high for whatever I decide to read next May.

Before the Fall – Noah Hawley

Before the fall
Couldn’t find a big enough pic of the UK cover, so I took my own.

This tense, character-driven thriller about a mysterious plane crash, written by the creator of two of the best shows in recent years, seems almost like it was tailor-made for me.

After all, a character-driven thriller about a mysterious plane crash was a teenage obsession of mine, so when I discovered that the creator of Fargo and Legion had somehow found the time to write a book in-between planning, writing and directing the two shows, it was an obvious instant-buy.

Before the Fall examines the malleability of truth by looking at how an amoral journalist at a ratings-hungry 24-hour news network covers the aftermath of the disaster and how he affects the reputations of the survivors and the relatives of the dead through his wilfully-misleading and unethical reporting.

Down-on-his-luck artist Scott Burroughs becomes a last-minute addition to the list of passengers on a private jet’s flight to New York City after he meets the wife of a TV mogul hours before take-off.

When the plane unexpectedly crashes into the sea, Scott rescues the only other survivor, the mogul’s five-year-old son, by swimming several miles to shore and is quickly scrutinised by the media and the government.

As Scott attempts to adjusts to his new life in the spotlight while coming to terms with the trauma and tragedy he’s experienced, flashbacks reveal the personal histories of everyone else on the flight and offer up several possible causes for the crash before some shocking and satisfying revelations in the novel’s final pages.

This page-turner is a wonderfully well-written book, full of richly-developed characters and intriguingly-structured, a gripping and satisfying read that’s tense, funny and often quietly, heartbreakingly sad.

It proves that Noah Hawley is enviously multi-talented. Hopefully, he can find time to write another novel in his increasingly-busy work schedule.

Franny and Zooey – J.D. Salinger

franny and zooey
Copyright: Penguin.

This “pretty skimpy-looking book”, as Salinger himself calls it in the preface, was an unexpected highlight of the year for me.

I say unexpected because the first story, in which Franny Glass spends a day with her college boyfriend that triggers a nervous breakdown, was thoroughly underwhelming. Perhaps my expectations were too high but it was fairly uninteresting and luckily the second story more than made up for it.

Remarkably, Salinger has made an engaging, painful and entertaining read out of a plot that contains little more than a letter full of family history, two lengthy conversations which turn into heated arguments, and one that doesn’t.

Zooey’s section of the book is narrated by his older brother Buddy, who calls it a “prose home movie” that lets us witness a typical day in the life at the Glass residence.

Despite being absent during the events of the actual narrative, Buddy’s presence is still keenly felt, though not as much as Franny and Zooey’s late eldest brother Seymour, who is mentioned repeatedly in hushed, reverent tones that speak volumes about how much the Glasses miss him.

All of the Glass children had been the stars of a radio quiz show and listener feedback was split: “the Glasses were a bunch of insufferably ‘superior’ little bastards that should have been drowned or gassed at birth… [or] bona-fide underage wits and savants, of an uncommon, if unenviable, order.” If your opinion of them falls into the former camp, this will be the longest 150 pages you’ve ever read.

While Zooey reads a screenplay in the bath and Franny lies in a sobbing, starving heap on the living room sofa, their long-suffering mother Bessie is worried sick trying to figure out what’s wrong with her daughter while also dealing with the painters that are redecorating the house.

She has the achingly-relatable struggle of juggling problems that are immensely important and monotonously mundane while trying not to collapse under the stress of it all.

It was surprising, and slightly concerning, to see elements of my own personality distorted, twisted and unflatteringly amplified in certain members of the Glass family.

Zooey’s well-read but comes off as smug and self-important, his sarcastic smart-arsery regularly crosses the line from cheeky to cruel and his apologetic self-awareness about this bad habit doesn’t make his harsh jibes any more forgiveable.

Buddy’s need to reflexively criticise his own work as a self-deprecating tactic to stop anyone else mocking it quickly becomes irritating rather than endearing.

Mrs Glass’ unhelpful but well-meaning concern for the children who seem to find her endlessly annoying is met with constant disrespect and both of the titular siblings struggle with crises of identity and second thoughts about their life choices.

Though it could easily be argued that Franny and Zooey is a rather aimless book of annoying people bickering with each other, its characters are so well-realised that it’s a shame there’s only two more ‘skimpy-looking’ books which feature them.

Salinger is adept at creating characters who are equally loved and loathed by his readers (see also: Holden Caulfield) and writing them in a way that feels real and resonant.

Honourable Mentions: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead, Chronicle of a Death Foretold – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Look At Me – Jennifer Egan, Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett, MR ROBOT: Red Wheelbarrow (eps1.91_redwheelbarr0w.txt) – Sam Esmail and Courtney Looney,

Best Books I Read in 2016

It’s rare for me to read a book that was published recently as there are so many classics and modern greats for me to catch up on that there’s not much room on my shelves for new fiction. So, none of these books are from 2016 but they were so good that I felt compelled to write a little post about them anyway. Here are my four favourite reads of last year.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami

Copyright: Vintage.

What does a futuristic city with a mad scientist, a hapless middle-aged loner, and an economy that thrives on the big business of data protection have in common with a mystical fantasy land where unicorns graze near dark forests outside a walled Town with townfolk that discard their memories and shadows when entering through the Gates that keep them safe?

Well, more than you’d think, as the two locations anchor the seperate stories of Murakami’s weird and wonderful novel where the narratives of the city and the Town unexpectedly intertwine with and echo against each other. Alternating chapters in each setting give the novel a fast pace and plenty of cliffhangers, turning this bizarre book into an unexpected page-turner.

The futuristic Hard-Boiled Wonderland sees its nameless protagonist begin what should be a fairly simple job that becomes a complex conspiratorial headache which then escalates into a matter of life and death. The hero of this story is an unremarkable everyman with a monotonous life that is thrown into chaos by the eccentric characters he meets.

The fantastical End of the World has its protagonist, a stranger in a strange land, try to learn more about his new home and begin a new job of reading dreams from the skulls of dead beasts. The mysterious new resident reveals little about his past and his reasons for moving to this generically-named Town but is still an interesting character. The prose in these chapters is often slow, vague and abstract, which suits the beguiling but baffling place it describes, though it did force me to slow down a little as I often had to reread paragraphs to wrap my head around what was happening.

One of the best things about the book is that it’s so easy to get invested in each individual story that you’re not waiting impatiently for the two to mix. Good thing, really, as you’d be waiting quite a while, but reading about the polar-opposite lives of the book’s comically confused and quietly determined protagonists is so enjoyable that any thoughts about why or when or how HbW and EotW will connect are shoved firmly to the back of your mind. Having said that, there’s still an undeniable thrill when the first reference to the End of the World finally appears in a Hard-boiled Wonderland chapter.

Murakami is undoubtedly the most widely-known Japanese author and I’d read a lot of praise for his work over the years. This book was a nice mixture of the mad and the mundane that he’s famous for, a good starting point for a newcomer looking to jump into his vast back catalogue. The short-story collection I read next, After the Quake, was less encouraging but hopefully whichever novel of his I read next will live up to the high standard set by this one.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Copyright: Simon and Schuster.

This gripping and alarming glimpse into a dystopian future where those who own books get their houses and literature burned to ash is a sci-fi classic that deserves all the praise that it’s been given since it was published more than 60 years ago.

It’s a short but powerful story about a fireman – that is, a man who starts fires – that begins to question why exactly he and his colleagues have to find and destroy the few houses that still have illegal books in them, and why are they illegal anyway? How could a book be considered dangerous? Why was one homeowner willing to die trying to protect them?

A confrontation with the Fire Chief reveals how this society came to be and his explanation acts as a clear warning to the reader about technology becoming a distraction which encourages complacency and prevents critical and independent thought.

This warning appears to have been somewhat ignored, as reality has become slightly closer to the world described in his novel. Of course, no books are banned or burned, but it’s rather unnerving and oddly impressive to read a description about the formation of a supposed dystopia which was written decades ago and notice several similarities with modern-day life.

A few examples: In the book, everyone walks around with earbuds in ignoring each other and the scenery. Everyone stays inside watching enormous TVs and learning nothing, distracted by empty spectacle and quizzes that reward knowledge of useless trivia. People want to seem clever and cultured without putting any effort in so they look up one-page summaries of a subject and pretend to know all about it. Complex political and societal issues are reduced to a sentence or a headline and everyone’s attention span is, to put it bluntly, fucked.

The most worrying detail about Bradbury’s imagined society is that the government’s banning of books was not a contentious issue for most of the population because when the ban was introduced most people no longer bothered to read anything, they watched TV or listened to audio-dramas and no longer saw the point of reading. The revamped fire service  was created to tackle the small number of people – academics, librarians, scholars, etc – that still cared about it.

It’s a quick read and it’s wonderfully written. Bradbury’s descriptions tend to turn into poetic digressions that make the grim future which he has imagined come vividly to life.

There is anger and compassion in his storytelling. The actions of his wife and the Fire Chief cause big problems for our hero but they are still written with empathy. Bradbury is sympathetic to Mildred Montag’s sorry state, addicted to her TV ‘family’, and the boo-hiss Fire Chief is surprisingly intelligent, well-read and persuasive.

A brief note on the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 that I read: It features almost 100 pages of short essays and notes about the creation of the novel and its film adaptation. These essays, histories and critical analyses are written by Bradbury himself, famous admirers of his novel, and the director of the film. They were informative, interesting and added a lot to my understanding of the novel, its critical reception, its inspiration and its influence.

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Copyright: Harper Torch.

In this hilarious novel co-authored by the dearly departed Discworld creator Sir Terry Pratchett and scribble-haired gothic fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, the Rapture is rapidly approaching but things aren’t going to plan. The Antichrist has gone missing due to a careless baby-swapping error made by Crowley, a stylish demon who isn’t entirely happy with his boss’s plans and is rather fond of the planet he’s called home since the Beginning. With the help of the foppish angel Aziraphale – his best friend and also, technically, his oldest enemy – Crowley must find the missing deity before Judgement Day or all hell won’t break loose.

Meanwhile, the Four Horsemen are gathering, a demonic hell-hound is heading to Earth, the last member of a witch-hunting society is close to finding a new target and the ancient prophecies of a mad old dead woman are turning out to be bang on the money.

Hidden amid endless jokes, sharp bits of satire and footnotes poking fun at religion, the clichés of apocalyptic fiction, and life in the UK is a surprisingly complex rumination on the nature of humanity and our ongoing inner battle between being good and being bad. Don’t worry, this never comes across as preachy, as both authors care more about making you laugh than making you think, but it is there and it gives the book an unexpected depth.

Neither Pratchett nor Gaiman can remember who wrote which bit of the book and their writing styles blend together so perfectly it’s often difficult to tell. People who have read the work of either author before know what to expect but it’s also an ideal starting point for those who haven’t.

Another review I read compared this novel to being like the Book of Revelation if it were written by Douglas Adams and I’m struggling to think of a better comparison. It’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, playfully clever, subtly serious and has a distinctly British way of imagining Armageddon. A must-read.

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt

Copyright: Granta Books.

This quirky Western has a very simple plot: Notorious bounty hunter brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters are tasked with travelling to California and killing a man. The execution, as it were, is what really makes this novel stand out.

During their travels, the two bickering brothers (are there any other kinds of brothers?) meet an assortment of odd and dangerous characters that test their friendship, their loyalty and their patience.

Some of these people wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen brothers movie and the novel has plenty of other things in common with their films, like the meandering idiots-on-an-epic-journey storyline of O Brother, Where Art Thou? that’s full of entertaining digressions, and the dry, dark humour of  True Grit and Fargo.

The relationship between grouchy arsehole older brother Charlie and his kind, sensible younger brother Eli is, speaking as an arsehole older brother, very convincing. The novel does a good job of using their reactions to the increasingly perilous and unusual situations they stumble into to demonstrate their differences and suggest that their tenuous alliance has been slowly disintegrating long before we peeked into their lives.

DeWitt’s dialogue is fun to read and his prose is nicely descriptive and wryly observant. I impulse-bought the book based mainly on its striking cover and odd title and enjoyed it so much that I bought the rest of the author’s works soon after finishing the final page.

Honourable mentions: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, Pyramids by Terry Pratchett, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse.

Best Books I Read in 2015

In 2014, I reignited my love of literature by reading 25 books. Then, last year, I managed to do it again! Here are four of my favourites in no particular order.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino

if on a winter's night a traveller ©Vintage Classics

Like the world’s worst Choose Your Own Adventure book, this post-modern novel makes YOU the reader the star of the story and follows your linear but by-no-means-straightforward quest to return a misprinted copy of ‘If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino and find out how the book ends.

This is not as simple a task as it may seem. The book, like its title, is incomplete and every time the Reader – er, you – gets a new version of the book, it has a completely different story in it, and every time he/she reads the new story, they put the previous story to one side and become focussed on finding the rest of the new one, and there’s another Reader who’s having the same problem, and together you get caught up in an increasingly bizarre tale that starts with a simple printing error and unfolds into a sprawling international adventure.

It’s also far more engrossing, playful, clever, funny, charming, entertaining and easy to follow than any description of its story makes it seem.

What’s most impressive about the book is how it manages to forge a connection with the reader and make the second-person narration not feel like a pointless gimmick. When writing this novel, Calvino had to somehow make thousands of unknown Readers that he’d never met and would probably never meet feel personally involved in his genre-hopping tale and all he had to go on was the fact that the person bought this book, so he could discern that:

  • They read books.
  • They thought that a novel about someone who has quite a lot of trouble finishing a book would be worth reading.
  • They like a bit of post-modern gimmickry.

And that’s it. But he manages this difficult feat and I quickly got sucked in.

You might be wondering how a book like this would even work and it goes like this: every other chapter is ‘You’ doing something – getting ready to read, going to the bookshop to complain, meeting the Other Reader, travelling to a new place, getting the next chapter – and the rest are the chapters of the books that ‘You’ read, each one completely different in tone and genre and apparently unrelated to any that came before it.

The book is one big celebration of reading and language and it’s brilliant. Well done to the translator, too, who must have had a tricky job translating this meta-novel from the original Italian.

I would go on but unfortunately, because I read this right at the start of last year and stupidly decided to not write down any of my thoughts about it until now, the finer details of the story and the quality of the prose have become a bit smudged in my memory (not making that mistake again) but whatever I would have written would have probably ended with a summary that goes something like this:

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is one of the cleverest, loveliest books I’ve ever read and I’m looking forward to diving into this incredible Italian’s entire back catalogue.

Continue reading “Best Books I Read in 2015”

Best Books I Read in 2014

I used to love reading. As a child I had a book in my hand wherever I went. This love of reading continued as a teenager, but faded during my uni years as academic reading took priority over fun reading.

This year, I resolved to get back into books and read 25 in one year, a considerable increase from the 4 or 5 I read last year. And I just about managed to do it.

These were my favourites.


Mort by Terry Pratchett

In 2013 I began the slightly daunting task of reading through the 40-odd books that make up Terry Pratchett’s acclaimed Discworld series.

After umming and ahhing over where to start (some are standalone, so you can jump into the series easily, but some are part of little series within the series that focus on a particular character, and even the standalone ones feature several nods and references to previous books that newbies will miss and, oh, what a headache), I decided to simply start at the start, despite reading that the earliest Discworld books are not even close to Sir Terry’s best work.

I enjoyed The Colour of Magic enough to continue onto The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites, but was still feeling slightly underwhelmed. I liked the world that Pratchett was slowly putting together, the spoofs of fantasy conventions were fun, I liked the creative locations and characters and the nonsensical but oddly logical rules and traditions of the Discworld, but I wasn’t amazed.

I wasn’t disappointed, as I knew the early Discworld books weren’t the best and were very much about Sir Terry figuring out what he wanted to do with his imaginative creation and find his feet before he could really get into the swing of things, but I had yet to be bowled over. There had not been a moment where everything clicked and I thought ‘Ah, so this is what all the fuss is about.’

But then, in 2014, I read Mort. And I loved it.

I knew it was something special when it made me laugh. I don’t really laugh when reading books. Plenty of them, including the first three Discworld novels, are advertised with quotes that use words like ‘Hilarious’, ‘laugh-out-loud,’ ‘side-splittingly, gut-bustingly funny’, ‘so rib-destroyingly hilarious you’ll shit yourself’, etc, but usually these books massively under-deliver on their promised hilarity. They provoke the occasional appreciative smile, a quiet ‘Heh’, or maybe even a chuckle or two.

Not Mort. It snuck up on me. It charmed me, lured me in, then it caught me off guard. It threw in a particularly clever bit of wordplay or a wonderfully awful pun or a wry aside during a descriptive passage or a bone-dry one liner from Death himself, and I burst out laughing. Not a smile or a ‘Heh’ or a chuckle, a loud guffaw. This happened several times, and I after I’d stopped laughing, I’d go back, reread the last sentence and laugh again.

I’m not sure why this, of all the Discworld books that I had read, made me laugh so much. None of the humour was any different to that of the first three books. The footnotes, the puns, the silly similes, they had all been there. Death had appeared in them, too, but only for brief cameos (which, incidentally, were always a highlight).

Perhaps the broad silliness had been refined, perhaps the bizarre world that had been introduced to me three books ago now felt familiar and comfortable, perhaps I have a really morbid sense of humour, perhaps the sheer amount of comic potential to be mined from Death getting an apprentice and then having a day off for the first time in several millennia was just so huge it couldn’t not be hilarious.

Whatever the reason, it was a delightful ‘Aha!’ moment. I understood the hype. Impressively, the book also managed to tackle a fairly weighty and serious subject that can send even the most level-headed person into a deep and despairing existential crisis. It used jokes to make the subject more palatable but never to water it down or dilute its serious nature.

The book had raised my expectations very high indeed, so when I moved on to Sourcery, I was a bit disappointed. It was a light, likeable and perfectly fine tale that was similar to Colour of Magic  and Light Fantastic, both of which I had enjoyed, but it felt like a step backwards after Mort. I started to worry that perhaps I had raised my expectations too high and now my enjoyment of the rest of the series would suffer because of it.

Then I finished Sourcery and moved on to Wyrd Sisters.

I laughed three times on the first page alone. Ah, this is gonna be fun.

I didn’t want to clog up my blog’s front page with a lengthy entry, so I hid the rest of the best under this Continue Reading button. Click it. It’ll be worth reading, honest.

Continue reading “Best Books I Read in 2014”