Firstly, I hope you all had a lovely Christmas and are continuing to enjoy the festivities. With the end of the year right around the corner, and little likelihood of finishing many more reads, I feel happy with my list of favourites, and simply can’t wait any longer to shout about how much I loved the following books. Having read at least 125 books this year, narrowing it down to just 10 was tough, and though I could easily have added a few more to this list, I must admit that I like the neatness of a top 10, and so in the spirit of singling out the real cream of the crop, I ended up with the following reads, some of which earned their place by blowing me away right from the off, and others which have ended up here because of how much they’ve stayed with me.
(Just to clarify, these are books I read for the first time in 2017, so they weren’t necessarily published then, and I didn’t include any re-reads.)
10. The Dig by Cynan Jones
With stark brutality yet quiet beauty and poeticism, this novella explores the way in which we as humans both use and abuse animals, as we follow the dual narrative of a young farmer lost to grief, whose sole motivation to carry on is the need his animals have of him, and a seemingly normal man who is party to the most callous hunting and torture of badgers. I love the way Jones mirrors yet contrasts the two characters. Both have darkness in their past and feel separate from society because of it, yet one responds with compassion and the other violence, effectively suggesting the existence of both within us all. The writing itself is razor sharp, where not a single word feels wasted, and the narrative has a sense of coming full circle, which works really well.
9. The Doll by Daphne du Maurier
In some respects, 2017 really was the year of my du Maurier awakening, in which I tried her work for the first time, fell in love with it, read five of her books, and came to consider her one of my favourite authors. In this collection of short stories, there were of course some that had more impact than others, as is always the case, but there was not a single dud or filler story in here, and my favourites have stayed with me so clearly ever since. The title story and one set on an island were particularly creepy and affecting, but it was the two stories narrated by a prostitute at different stages of her life, like dramatic monologues that recount her descent into a life of crime, and her eventual resignation to the future that awaits her, that were especially well executed, and with great subtlety, managed to say so much. These were some of her earliest stories, and to see what talent for sinister undertones and deftly handled themes she already had was a delight.
8. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
This book completely swept me up. I loved the vivid and immersive setting and thought the atmosphere of the era was captured so well, transporting readers to the dark yet magical underbelly of Montreal and New York during the Great Depression, with O’Neill never shying away from how brutal it could be. The strange, eccentric, flawed and enigmatic characters captured my heart, especially Rose, who is crafted beautifully. I haven’t become so quickly invested in a set of characters for a long time, nor rooted for them so strongly, feeling their anguish and relishing their fleeting moments of joy. It’s an enchanting and visceral experience, documenting the ways our two protagonists are broken by a cruel world, and the ways they do or don’t adapt in order to survive.
7. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Despite how much I enjoyed it, this book wasn’t necessarily an obvious frontrunner to be in my favourites list when I initially read it, but it is easily one of the reads that has most stayed with me. It’s a brilliantly creepy story that builds tension throughout at the perfect pace and seethes with a constant undercurrent of dread, getting right under your skin and refusing to leave. It’s about a young couple expecting their first child, who become concerned when their seemingly friendly older neighbours start taking a little too much interest in their unborn baby. I loved that the heroine was both an everywoman of the 60s and yet far more proactive and realistic in her responses to the unfolding events than many thriller/mystery/horror protagonists that came before or after her – and the ending is deliciously unsettling.
6. Shelter by Jung Yun
If you’re a fan of crime fiction or thrillers and are looking to make the move into more character driven literary fiction, or vice versa, I think this book would be an excellent bridge between the two. This family drama kicks off in the aftermath of a horrific crime, in which our protagonist’s parents are victim to a traumatising break-in and attack. His sense of duty to care for his mother and father sits in contrast with their formerly distant relationship and exposes the tensions between them all. A complex web of themes and ideas are touched on, including gender, the class divide, racism, Korean culture, religion and abuse, with both gut-punch moments and quietly brilliant revelations that will break your heart and flirt with the idea of mending it again; ultimately asking us if we owe respect to our family, even if they haven’t earned it.
5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
To an extent, this is a placeholder for Agatha Christie in general, who I also read for the first time this year and now love. Having read five of her novels in 2017, it was tricky to single out a favourite, but I think And Then There Were None just edged it. It’s true ‘I-don’t-want-to-put-this-down’ fiction at its best, as we jump right into the gripping story with no faffing around, following a great cast of distinct characters, all harbouring dark secrets, as the body count rises and they increasingly turn on each other. The isolated setting, great pacing, clues and red herrings, and excellent use of foreshadowing all proved exactly why Christie’s stories have endured for so many years.
4. All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
This book felt so real to me. The way Donal Ryan handled the plot and pacing was phenomenal. Time and time again he would create a sense of ease before hitting me in the gut with a one liner seemingly out of nowhere that pulled the rug out from under me, completely changing my whole perspective on a certain character or plot point. This ability to constantly catch the reader off-guard and call into question the morality and motives of his complex, flawed characters was incredibly impressive. I felt so instantly invested in the outcome of the characters’ lives, as they navigated themes of love, betrayal, forgiveness and the letting go of our own guilt.
3. The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley
At once a dark and quietly terrifying dystopian and a fascinating exploration of gender roles, this book asks us to question the importance we place on physical beauty in women, and the extent to which man is predisposed to revert to violence. It’s beautiful and disturbing in equal measure; one of my very favourite combinations in literature when it’s done well. It’s also very much a book all about the artform of storytelling itself; both its importance in preserving the past and providing hope for the future, told in rich and gorgeous prose that paints a fever dream of events that are astounding and revolting, and utterly unforgettable.
2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Gothic fiction at its best, We Have Always Lived in the Castle features perhaps one of the most memorable and fascinating heroines I’ve ever encountered in literature. The aura of mystery and otherworldliness that surrounds the characters and the horror of the climax are brilliantly well handled, and the influence of fairy tales that becomes increasingly apparent by the end added a whole other dimension that I loved. At its core, it’s a quietly menacing story of madness, sisterhood, isolation, and a fear of ‘otherness’; I predicted at the time its story and characters would stay with me, and stay with me they most certainly have.
1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Yep, I wasn’t kidding when I said 2017 was all about du Maurier for me. In a lot of ways, I can’t believe I only read Rebecca this year; it feels as though I’ve loved it forever. Despite it being my first foray into du Maurier’s work, I’ve now read five of her books and as I said, I consider her one of my very favourite authors – with Rebecca itself easily one of my top reads of all time, let alone this year. Immersive and completely transporting, it’s a masterclass of tension and brooding atmosphere, with a wonderfully sinister undercurrent bubbling beneath the surface throughout, leading to shockingly brilliant twists and revelations. As with most of my all-time favourites, it’s one that is at mere surface level a damn good story (about a woman marrying a wealthy widowed man, only to discover that his deceased former wife still holds a strange grip over their household), but on deeper analysis, it reveals so many fantastic layers and nuances that just add to its brilliance.
There we have it! What were some of your top reads of 2017?