Once again December has crept up, and it’s time to look back on the past twelve months’ reading. For 2017 I set myself a goal of 50 books and at the time of writing I’m up to 46. In the meantime, here are a few recommendations of books I’ve loved this year.
The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood
Allen & Unwin, 2016
Ten young women wake to find they have been drugged and transported to a remote station in the Australian outback. Watched over by guards, they discover that what they have in common – and the apparent reason for their incarceration – is a past involvement in sex scandals with powerful men. A fiercely feminist novel which veers in unexpected directions, with a searing depiction of one woman’s descent into feral life.
The Swan Book – Alexis Wright
An Aboriginal teenage girl, Oblivion Ethylene, is found in the roots of a eucalypt tree by an old woman who is fleeing climate change wars in the northern hemisphere. Alexis Wright’s prose leaps from surreal to luminous to mythical to deeply satirical, in an extraordinary exploration of the legacy of colonialism and impacts of climate change unlike anything else I’ve read. I can’t possibly do this book justice in few lines, so for a detailed review, take a look at the Sydney Review of Books.
Speak Gigantular – Irenosen Okojie
Okojie’s debut collection weaves the familiar and the unknown in new and unexpected ways. The writing is bold, surreal, erotic, often disturbing and always original, and I loved seeing London anew through the lens of many of these stories, including an encounter between two Londoners haunting the Underground.
The Queue – Basma Abdel Azim
Melville House, 2016
A clever, subtle, Kafka-esque exploration of authoritarianism set in an unspecified Middle Eastern city in the wake of the Arab Spring. A cast of characters meet, share and conceal their stories while waiting in the eponymous queue for their requests to be granted by a sinister government.
Exit West – Mohsin Hamid
Hamish Hamilton, 2017
A bittersweet love story of two people fleeing war in an unnamed country. Hamid’s latest novel takes a speculative departure, with the guise of mysterious doors which allow people to move instantaneously between countries. Timely depiction of the refugee crisis with wonderful characterisation.
Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang
There’s so much to admire about Ted Chiang’s short fiction, but what has stayed with me about this collection is the way form is so perfectly aligned to subject matter in each of these immaculately constructed, evocative tales.
Open City – Teju Cole
Faber & Faber, 2012
An American psychiatrist of Nigerian and German descent is undertaking his training in New York. Rootless, trying to make his way in the city, he walks compulsively. From the first lines you know you’re in for a treat: this is a gorgeous, meditative read which has stayed with me all year.
You Will Know Me – Megan Abbott
Superb psychological portrait of teenage gymnast and Olympic hopeful Devon, and the toll her ambitious regime takes on Devon herself and the family pushing her to glory. Told from the perspective of her conflicted mother Katie, this is a cleverly plotted, compulsive read.
Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer
Fourth Estate, 2015
One of my favourite reads this year, encompassing all the things I love in literature: great characterisation, luminous writing, an unreliable narrator and the mysterious, surreal setting of Area X. I enjoyed the rest of the trilogy very much but this remains the standout.
The Forty Rules of Love – Elif Shafak
Shafak deploys the frame of an American woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, who is reviewing the novel ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ by a mysterious writer about the scholar and poet Rumi and his muse Shams of Tabriz. Their story is told by a large cast of characters including Rumi and Shams themselves, Rumi’s family, and the various people they encounter from fellow travellers to the local drunk. Glorious storytelling and I can’t wait to read more from Shafak’s (happily lengthy) backlist.
The Sixth Extinction – Elizabeth Kolbert
A lot of my reading this year has been research for the next writing project. If you read one non-fiction book this (or rather next) year, make it The Sixth Extinction – Kolbert’s reporting on the mass extinctions already underway is timely, informative, heartbreaking and imperative reading.
Sapiens / Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari
Vintage, 2015 and 2017
There’s been plenty of hype around Harari’s bestselling Sapiens and the follow up Homo Deus, and happily they live up to it. Immensely enjoyable, thought-provoking history which interrogates humanity’s place on the planet past, present and future. A new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is due next year – I can’t wait.
Finally, shout-outs to two superb novels, both of which I read in advance copies last year but were published in 2017: Anne Charnock’s multi-stranded Dreams Before the Start of Time and Nina Allan’s haunting The Rift are science fiction at its best.
Here’s to 2018 reading!