A snowstorm is a perfect chance to write the blog posts I’ve been meaning to do since the turn of the year, right? Belatedly, then, here are the best books I read in 2017 (picked from just under 50 I managed to work my way through), and just why I loved them. I decided to make this an annual thing in part because I’ve already flicked back to last year’s post half a dozen times to check the names of certain authors whose other books I’m dying to read (good memory and a young child don’t go well together, it turns out), but also because I’ve found reading has edged to easily on a par with music for what fills my free time (free time – haha) these days, and a good 90% of this website is about music. So, you know, balance or something. As with last time, these are not necessarily books released in 2017, they’re simply books I read in 2017. More importantly, these are some great books. Go read them!
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (link)
This is a chunky enough book to put off the casual reader (it was only after seeing more than half a dozen people absolutely raving about it online that I was willing to commit to 600-plus pages), but what a fantastically imaginative and evocative tale it is. Starting in rural Cork, with a young woman pregnant by dubious means and very publically expelled from her community, it weaves through the lifetime of the child, which encompasses much of the time of the existence of the modern Irish state. Cyril Avery’s winding tale is picked up at various key moments of his life, incorporating key political events, the progress of the gay rights movement, the influence of the church and – critically to the enjoyment of the story – a poignant and unforgettable tale around the main character. I was sad when it ended, which is saying something for a novel of this length.
Pirates, Punks and Politics by Nick Davidson (link)
It’s hard not to be a touch disillusioned with football these days, which can be hard as a lifelong fan of the game, but the levels of imbalance amongst clubs and the sense that the vast majority are there to be also-rans sits heavy, and it’ll take more than a Leicester premier league title to convince me otherwise. I was lucky enough to catch German club St Pauli play against Union Berlin in Hamburg a few years ago. Whilst not the only ones, they are the stand out club that convinces me football still has its soul. Pirates, Punks and Politics is the story of an Englishman falling in love with the club (I’d be on that boat if it was within the realms of life’s realities, to be honest), and their story is incredible. Born out of the harder edge of what’s now the city’s party district, the Reeperbahn, the club has been at best modestly successful (they typically, and currently, sit in the German second tier), but play with an ethos of left-wing politics, social equality, anti-abuse, atmospheric protest and progressive views that is encapsulated in this book. I can’t help loving them, though I dread to think what the parties are like.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (link)
Christopher Knight wanted to drop out of modern society, and so he did. He simply walked into the woods, found somewhere to bed down, and avoided virtually all human contact for the best part of three decades. What’s odd about what Knight did, though is that he wasn’t an ‘Into The Wild’ type character. He didn’t disappear into the isolated ether and hunt, forage or plant a garden, but made a small area in the wood near a commonly used holiday camp in the north of the US his own. Much of his waste stayed within his little tree-shielded home throughout the three decades, and instead of hunting or foraging to survive, he often stole from the nearby houses. In fact, he was eventually caught stealing, and after thirty years missing, captured by the police as a result of ongoing complaints. He had been the topic of local myths and legends. A very modern hermit, in other words, and truly fascinating to learn how he lived in the shadows of society, surviving with its help, but avoiding any contact. I found it somewhat sad, in a sense, in that it has now become so difficult to ‘drop out’, and it probably should be a more realistic option. A very memorable book.
How To Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell (link)
Cat Marnell is a fascinating character. Hanging around the fringes of the very peak of modern day journalism, she wrote about fashion and makeup at major publications, but also great sprawling essays on parties and drug abuse, flitting from glossy, celebrity-laden parties to slums and raves as she just about fulfilled her professional commitments (or often, didn’t). You suspect, based on her book, that she was tolerated for so long out of a need to try and help her (there are numerous rehab trips) combined with a genuinely impressive talent with words that any magazine editor would be mad not to try and hang onto. How To Murder Your Life chronicles the descent into madness: just how bad things got, from endlessly popping a concoction of drugs to the messes she got herself into trying to write coherent stories along the way. I’ve met people who say they can write better after a bottle of wine, and I believe them (I suspect I start to deteriorate after more than a glass, though it’s not a theory I’ve tested), but to write the way Marnell did in the state she got herself in is almost as impressive as it is horrifying. This book, written after it all, is a hell of a story, but would be worth reading for her descriptive passages alone.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (link)
Eleanor Oliphant is not, it’s fair to say, completely fine. In fact, she’s a social outcast, laughed at in the office for her frumpiness and pedantic view of the world, as well as her failure to understand almost every aspect of modern culture beyond the basics needed to survive. She’s a borderline recluse, drinks heavily, and has an extremely difficult relationship with her mother (and, initially, almost no relationship with anyone else). She’s not a particularly likeable character, either, but that is, perhaps, kind of the point. This is so accomplished I was more than a little surprised to learn that it’s Gail Honeyman’s debut novel (something I discovered when looking for more of her work). It’s different, in part in that the lead character will make you laugh at her, rather than with her. As the story slowly unravels, though, it’s also thought-provoking, slightly shocking and effortlessly charming.