In our smallVOICE media review, we review books on a fairly regular basis, in amongst other media such as TV, film and radio. Sometimes we pick books that one of us has already read, or where we have a connection with the author, but more often we end up googling the various literary prize shortlists to see what’s “trending”, or likely to be in the news to some degree. We’ve never gone so far as awarding prizes of our own, or drawing up “best of the year” lists, but as a regular reader I thought, what the hell, and so here’s the best of what I’ve read in 2017 – I was going for a top five but a sixth one snuck in, and as any reader will know, you can never have too many books…
So, in no particular order, off we go.
I’ll start with a couple of literary novels. First up, and freshly clutching a couple of prizes (Costa Book of the Year 2016 and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017), comes Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. We reviewed this in our March podcast, where we were pretty unanimous in our admiration of Barry’s writing style. I can’t think of many novels set during the American Civil War where I’d reach for the adjective “beautiful” to describe the prose, but that’s exactly the word that still comes to my mind, even months later. Parts of the book are horrific but overall there’s a gentleness, and hopefulness, to the story that repays careful reading. Barry is generous to his characters and never descends to caricature. But would I have read this at all, if we’d not picked it for smallVOICE? I fear I might not have bothered, so for once I’m really glad to have been set it for homework by the production team. (It’s odd, by the way, how your relationship with a book changes when it becomes one that you HAVE to read. Happily this one was anything but a chore – and, glory be, it’s not a long novel. I can only hope that big-name US authors might take note.)
Secondly, 2017 was the year when I finally picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead off my special “to read” bookshelf (actually, it’s a bookcase), having bought a copy second-hand a few years ago, only to find it was every bit as good as everyone else has been saying for ages. Robinson’s a somewhat elusive author, with Gilead having come out in 2004, some twenty-plus years after her previous (and, indeed, first) novel Housekeeping (nope, haven’t got round to that one either). Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction so I’ve always been keen to read it, but it’s just that something more attractive (and probably trashier) always seemed to get in the way. The novel takes the form of an episodic memoir written by the Reverend John Ames (Congregationalist pastor in Gilead, Iowa) towards the end of his life, for his young son. Once again, I’m afraid I’m going to have to describe the writing as “beautiful”, which may be frustrating but is entirely accurate, from my point of view. I should say that I don’t really go in much for descriptive writing in fiction. I’d far rather get in with the plot and dialogue, but Robinson made me stop and take notice. Here’s a wee taster, as the pastor ruminates on the parable of the Prodigal Son:
“I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained. And that’s all right. There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal.”
There’s also a real cleverness in what she has her character NOT say, and I’m not surprised that she has since revisited the Gilead setting to tell the story of two other main characters in the book, in her follow-up novels Home (2008) and Lila (2014). I promise not to wait so long before tracking these down and reading them!
Another prize-winner which stood out for me this year was Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017 and is being made into a TV series even as I type this. It’s not often that a science-fiction novel gains acclaim (away from its own sci-fi turf) but Alderman offers a brilliant “what if?” scenario which is hard to resist: what if women had the power to deliver electric shocks to men, just by touching them? This is a novel broad in scope, with forays into religion and politics, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m pretty sure I pitched for us to review it in smallVOICE: sadly it was not to be, but I can imagine it’s a great novel for generating all manner of discussion at book groups up and down the land.
Next, a quick nod to Christopher Brookmyre, whose novel Black Widow was far and away the best of my many crime reads this year. All too often publishers waffle on about shock endings or twists you won’t see coming but blimey, fair play to Mr Brookmyre, you had me entirely fooled. Managing to do that on page one is pretty good going. If you haven’t caught up with his Jack Parlabane character since the earlier, “funnier” outings, I’d strongly recommend giving this a go.
Finishing with non-fiction, I was enormously impressed with Jordan Ellenberg’s popular mathematics book (yes, there is such a thing, hush at the back) How Not To Be Wrong: the hidden maths of everyday life. Given my maths teacher background, you won’t be surprised to hear that I get through a fair few books claiming to open up the beautiful (yes, that word again) secrets of the Queen of Sciences to the general reader. Often times they are, to be blunt, not very good – but Ellenberg hits this out of the park. It’s mainly a book about statistics, data and the uses and abuses thereof, and is written in a very readable and engaging style. I learned loads – and I’m meant to know this stuff! – and I do honestly believe that this is the sort of book which more people need to read, so that we can be better prepared to cope with the barrage of nonsense presented to us on a regular basis in the media. I must confess I get very annoyed when people say “you can prove anything with statistics” – my response is yes you can, but only if you are speaking to an idiot. So, in 2018, why not be less idiotic? This book will help.
My final pick is Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics and if I’m honest, this stands out as the best book I read all year. Back in the day I gave up on geography in school at my first opportunity so I bought this book thinking it might fill in a few gaps. It did this, easily – which may not sound too impressive, given the size of my ignorance on the geography front. But what I’d not anticipated was how much better informed it would make me (at least for as long as I was reading it) about current global politics. I could almost feel myself getting (slightly) less dumber as I turned the pages. Sadly much of this new knowledge has since been long forgotten, though I’ve half a mind to pick the book up again to get it back. Marshall clearly knows his stuff. There are hints here and there to make me think that he and I might not share the same political ground, but that doesn’t detract from his achievement in this book. I’ll never look at geography – or politics – quite the same way again.
So there you go. I managed 56 books this year (of course I count them – I’m a maths geek, remember?) but these six stood out for me. What about you?