Back again. Here to let you know my humble little opinions on the best books that crossed my bedside table this year. This year I’ll be breaking my book lists into several categories. For brevity’s sake. For sanity’s sake. For goodness sake, let’s just get on with this.
Best of 2017 (Fiction)
Yes, once again, many of these titles were not actually published in 2017. But I read them in 2017. And that’s how I’m justifying their presence on my list, okay? Please don’t get nit-picky with me. I’ll have to go on a rant about my ongoing struggles to attain newly released titles while still maintaining my integrity by shopping at second-hand indie bookshops and/or supporting my local library. Trust me, no one wants to hear that rant.
The official blurb: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest retold as Hag-Seed. Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds. Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge. After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall? Margaret Atwood’s novel take on Shakespeare’s play of enchantment, retribution, and second chances leads us on an interactive, illusion-ridden journey filled with new surprises and wonders of its own.
I’m a fairly recent devotee of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. This series managed to escape my notice for a while, probably while I was distracted editing CTS or binge-watching the latest Netflix original. (I’m only human, after all.) But ever since the series did come to my attention, this is the title I’ve been waiting for with bated breath. Margaret Freakin’ Atwood and The Tempest, people. It’s timely and piercing and creative in a way that only Atwood can be. So while this ‘Best Of’ list appears in no particular order, this was my ‘best book’ read of the year. Read it. Love it. Thank me later.
The Official Blurb: In this deeply suspenseful and irresistibly unnerving debut novel, a man and his girlfriend are on their way to a secluded farm. When the two take an unexpected detour, she is left stranded in a deserted high school, wondering if there is any escape at all. What follows is a twisted unraveling that will haunt you long after the last page is turned. In this smart, suspenseful, and intense literary thriller, debut novelist Iain Reid explores the depths of the human psyche, questioning consciousness, free will, the value of relationships, fear, and the limitations of solitude. Reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s early work, Michel Faber’s cult classic Under the Skin, and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an edgy, haunting debut. Tense, gripping, and atmospheric, this novel pulls you in from the very first page…and never lets you go.
This book invaded my psyche from page one. I read it in a single sitting, feeling as if I was slipping into a madness of my very own. It’s a book that keeps the reader guessing, sure. But any book can do that these days. What sets this book apart was its willingness to invade and haunt the readers’ mind with pulsing imagery and themes that stick with us long after we’re done reading.
The Official Blurb: On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, an enigmatic billionaire from foreign shores takes up residence in the architectural jewel of “the Gardens,” a cloistered community in New York’s Greenwich Village. The neighborhood is a bubble within a bubble, and the residents are immediately intrigued by the eccentric newcomer and his family. Along with his improbable name, untraceable accent, and unmistakable whiff of danger, Nero Golden has brought along his three adult sons: agoraphobic, alcoholic Petya, a brilliant recluse with a tortured mind; Apu, the flamboyant artist, sexually and spiritually omnivorous, famous on twenty blocks; and D, at twenty-two the baby of the family, harboring an explosive secret even from himself. There is no mother, no wife; at least not until Vasilisa, a sleek Russian expat, snags the septuagenarian Nero, becoming the queen to his king—a queen in want of an heir. Set against the strange and exuberant backdrop of current American culture and politics, The Golden House also marks Salman Rushdie’s triumphant and exciting return to realism. The result is a modern epic of love and terrorism, loss and reinvention—a powerful, timely story told with the daring and panache that make Salman Rushdie a force of light in our dark new age.
I don’t get my hands on Advanced Reader Copies very often because, let’s face it, I’m not terribly important in the big grand scheme of the literary world. However, an ARC of The Golden House slipped across the bookshop desk and I immediately claimed first read. Now, I’m about to make some Gatsby claims here, so before someone out there in bookworm world gets all bent out of shape and berates me for comparing this to one of the greatest novels of all time, just calm yourself. I’m not saying this is Fitzgerald-level writing. I am, however, saying that the Gatsby themes it contains are impossible to overlook. An elusive and compulsive millionaire, unabated ambitions leading to ruin, expectations dashed and destroyed. And while I’ve never been a huge, screaming Rushdie fan (seriously don’t, just don’t yell at me, fellow bookworms,) this book was a bright and shining part of my reading year. And while it was not technically the most sophisticated book that I read (see Atwood, above) it was perhaps my ‘personal favorite’ read.
The Official Blurb: In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery. Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.
I waited all year to get my paws on a copy of this book. Do you have any idea what it’s like to sign into your library account and see that your hold is #43 on 2 copies? The hopelessness is real, folks. But patience is a virtue, or so my mother once taught me, and the eventual presence of this hot little novel in my sweaty palms was a day to remember. I read this one slowly, savoring the atmosphere and the rich settings that Amor Towles does so well. The playfulness and humor I found in a tale of a man trapped in a hotel for decades was a surprising and delightful treat. The situation posed by the novel’s premise could very easily have made for a bleak read, but the opposite is somehow accomplished, and I was left delighted, inspired, and moved by the many characters of this book.
The Official Blurb: Every family has its problems. But even among the most troubled, the Plumb family stands out as spectacularly dysfunctional. Years of simmering tensions finally reach a breaking point on an unseasonably cold afternoon in New York City as Melody, Beatrice, and Jack Plumb gather to confront their charismatic and reckless older brother, Leo, freshly released from rehab. Months earlier, an inebriated Leo got behind the wheel of a car with a nineteen-year-old waitress as his passenger. The ensuing accident has endangered the Plumbs joint trust fund, “The Nest,” which they are months away from finally receiving. Meant by their deceased father to be a modest mid-life supplement, the Plumb siblings have watched The Nest’s value soar along with the stock market and have been counting on the money to solve a number of self-inflicted problems. Melody, a wife and mother in an upscale suburb, has an unwieldy mortgage and looming college tuition for her twin teenage daughters. Jack, an antiques dealer, has secretly borrowed against the beach cottage he shares with his husband, Walker, to keep his store open. And Bea, a once-promising short-story writer, just can’t seem to finish her overdue novel. Can Leo rescue his siblings and, by extension, the people they love? Or will everyone need to reimagine the future they’ve envisioned? Brought together as never before, Leo, Melody, Jack, and Beatrice must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledge the choices they have made in their own lives.
I love difficult characters. This is a trait that comes through in my own writing, and often isolates me from my fellow readers. I can’t tell you how often I hear people bemoan “The character in [insert book title here] were just so unlikable.” To which my general response is “Neato, I’ll put it at the top of my To-Read list.” The characters of The Nest aren’t merely flawed, they are, at times, impossible to look away from. Their shortcomings as siblings, as parents, and even as productive members of society made for a delicious read. It was rather like a train wreck of familial resentments and chaos that gripped from page one, and fascinated with all its dysfunctional glory to the very end.