Top Reads of 2017

In 2017 I anticipated that I wouldn’t read as much as I had read in previous years, due to giving my reading time over to some personal studies and the reading that would accompany them and to the social visits I had from many of the men in my family, brother, Uncle, Fathers. As a result, less of my writing appeared here in Word by Word and more of it found its way in the old-fashioned long form between the pages of journals that I keep.

However, I did still manage to read 48 books from 21 countries (10 in translation) including Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Turkey, Ireland, Nigeria, Ghana, Palestine, Italy, Canada, Scotland, Pakistan, France, South Africa, Guadeloupe, Greece, Spain, Mauritius, Australia and of course the UK and the US.

Outstanding Read of 2017

The one stand out novel for me came very early in the year, in February and I knew as soon as I finished it, that it was likely to be my outstanding novel of 2017.

This novel came out with a lot of fanfare and so I was a little dubious to begin with, novels that arrive with great expectations have a tendency to disappoint avid literary readers, so I read with intrigue what other reviewers had to say. Some loved it, others saw it as a collection of stories, and then my very dear Aunt, who totally knows what kind of books I love sent it to me for my birthday. Of course I dove right in.

Here is what I had to say in my review:

“I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.”

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana, but lived most of her life in the US. After revisiting Ghana, she began writing her novel by asking herself what it meant to be black in America today and through the lives and descendants of two sisters, her narrative will arrive eventually in the modern day. Here’s what she was trying to do and in my opinion totally succeeds. Read my review here.

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Top Reads 2017

Here in no particular order are a few books that have stayed with me long after I read them and the year has passed.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan is a slim novella, the third book by this young Irish writer and his best in my opinion.

The story is told in a way that pulls you inside the book and makes you feel it happening. Incredibly the author writes from the first person perspective of Melody, a 33-year-old woman who discovers she is pregnant to a young Traveller, a turning point that disrupts the confined world she has created and had been living in.

He has such penetrative powers of observation, that create a sense of foreboding and intrigue, it’s a book you’ll likely read in one sitting and then wonder in awe, how he did that. Just brilliant.

You can read my full review here.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar was published by Gallic Books new imprint Aardvark Bureau, I’ve loved all the books they’ve brought out under this imprint and Salt Creek might just be the best so far. It’s an historical novel, inspired by the events of the authors family, who immigrated to Australia from Britain, portraying one family trying to find success in farming in a harsh, unforgiving environment of South Australia.

This too is a book that gets under your skin, especially as a woman reading about the lives of other women and children (particularly daughters) who are at the mercy of the dreams and aspirations of men, men who have little empathy for how disruptive and out of the comfort zone, this life might be for a woman, and ironically, on the contrary, how quickly young children adapt, how easy it is for them to integrate and thus cross societal taboos when it comes to mixing with indigenous populations. It’s a novel richly populated with colonial issues of the time, that make you wish at times, that it could have a fantasy element, where it all might end differently.

Read my full review of Salt Creek here.

The Complete Claudine by Colette (translated by Antonia White) was my One Summer Chunkster for 2017, a French classic, relatively little known outside France among general readers, but an author who should be more widely read, especially by young adult readers, as it charts the young Claudine’s journey through her last year in school, then her adventures in Paris with her father, through marriage and into maturity.

The book includes an excellent introduction by Judith Thurman, which I devoted a full post to, as she was such a fascinating woman, so far ahead of the era in which she lived, being such a free spirit, determined to experience love, to live her artistic desires and be financially independent, wild and adorable!

Below are the links to the introductory piece and the four books that are contained in this one volume.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette by Leopold Reutlinger

A brilliant choice for my one fat summer book of the year.

The Complete Claudine – An Introduction

Claudine at School

Claudine in Paris

Claudine Married

Claudine and Annie

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis is a quirky fable-like book I read about and was intrigued by, recommended by a fellow reader. It is an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival, one which features, as the title suggests, two old women.

This is one of those stories, like Najaf Mazari’s excellent collection The Honey Thief, handed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation and now finally, thankfully, someone has captured it in print, so it can endure and be discovered by an even wider audience than originally intended.

I loved it because it teaches us the value of paying attention to our (women) elders, who possess much wisdom, something that if ignored wastes away and can even be forgotten by those who possess it. Let not our elders sit too quietly, lest they believe they have creaky bones and limp minds! Read my full review here.

My Story by Jo Malone is one of the six memoirs I read in 2017 and the one that was the most intriguing and personal to me, not because I’m a fan of her perfumes, but because I too have a love of the aromas of plants, flowers, resins, herbs and like to create remedies from essential oils and mix them with other plant oils to use therapeutically.

Knowing Jo Malone to be a high-end luxury brand, I had little idea that she came from such fascinating and humble beginnings and was a woman of such incredible perseverance. As I say below, I loved it!

“I absolutely loved this book, from it’s at times heartbreaking accounts of struggle in childhood, to the discovery of her passion, the development of her creativity and the strong work ethic that carried her forward, to finding the perfect mate and the journey they would go on together.”

Read my full review here.

Worthy Mentions

I could go on, but rather I will just say that I also really enjoyed the excellent debut novel Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller was an accomplished evocative novel, Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors was as exquisite, heart-breaking and lyrical as I expected after her brilliant What Lies Between Us I’d read in 2016.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso and The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Condé were a brilliant pair to read together, both placing a black Caribbean woman in South Africa while observing her relations with others around her, in a post-apartheid era. And personally I thought Zadie Smith’s depiction of female friendship in Swing Time easily rivalled Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, with her poignant insights and ever-present mastery of that sense of place and community, particularly in London. And though it didn’t reach the heights of Homegoing for me, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing also left an equally strong impression:

“how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect on people’s behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. “

So did any of these books make your top reads for 2017? If not, what was your one Outstanding Read of the Year?

Happy Reading!

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49 thoughts on “Top Reads of 2017

    • I thought Homegoing was amazing, I hope she’s working on something else, that one was such an incredible debut. Quite a varied list of old and new and fewer than I’ve read in the past, but still some goodies in there. Will have to come and check out what your favourites were.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Homegoing is on my must read pile – and just jumped to must read next! As with you Do Not Say We Have Nothing left quite an impression on me. I read it back in 2016 and I still think about it and recommend it.

    I spent so much time travelling in 2017 that I didn’t read nearly as much as usual. Nevertheless of the books I did read Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises stands out. I found it to be both an unflinching account of ageing and a rewarding read.

    2018 is already shaping up to be a more productive reading year. I’ve just finished Jenny Eroenbecks’s Go Went Gone about the realities of migration in Germany. I couldn’t put it down.

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    • I look forward to hearing what you think of Homegoing Jill, I’m amazed you get to read at all with your travel schedule! Hats off to you and for blogging as well, I hope 2018 has some great adventures in store for you and some equally wonderful reading material!

      I’ve not read Margaret Drabble which is a bit of an oversight, and I’ve long intended to read Erpenbeck, thank you for the reminders!

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      • Thanks Claire! Right now I’m thoroughly enjoying staying put, and the chance to indulge in some really great books. And I have no inclination to tackle any long walks which is, I expect, all part of the Camino recovery.

        The Dark Flood Rises was my first Margaret Drabble and on the strength of that and a recommendation from a friend who has been a fan of Drabble for decades I read The Peppered Moth. I didn’t find it nearly as engaging. In that book she blurred autobiography and fiction a little too much for my taste. I’d definitely read more of Erpenbeck though.

        Thanks for all the book recommendations, I always look forward to your thoughts on the books you’re reading.
        Happy New Year and good health to you and yours.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Homegoing was my top read of the year as well. I also delayed reading it because of the hype it has received, but now I know it’s worth it. I see it as a book of interconnected short stories through which we trace the experiences of Black peeps.

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  3. Beautiful post, Claudine! I want to read ‘Homecoming’, the Claudine quartet and ‘Swing Time’! I love Colette and Zadie Smith! Need to explore Yaa Gyasi’s works now. Thank you for sharing!

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    • Oh I’m so glad to remind you and others Debbie, especially since February was a long time ago and many read it back in 2016, but it has stayed with me all the reading year and I’m even contemplating a reread. It’s such a work of art and scholarship through brilliant storytelling and one woman’s intelligent and thought provoking effort to understand how she and others like her came to be where they are now. Thank you for your encouraging comment. Happy Reading!

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    • I love that, I’ve found a few top reads from other posts are on my shelf and they’ve suddenly become my January/Feb reading, maybe that’s why the best books are often read early in the year, we’re reading others recommendations of favourites! 🙂

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    • I found this one so hypnotic and was not wanting it to finish, he’s really hit his stride, it reads so effortlessly and totally drew me in, exactly the kind of reading experience I cherish. Can’t wait to read his next one too.

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  4. Happy New Year, Claire! From your list of favorite reads of 2017 I’ve read Homegoing, Swing Time, and Two Old Women. Two Old Women I learned about from your review and I loved it – many thanks! I can’t choose “one Outstanding Read” because I love my darlings for very different, distinct reasons. Still, reading the first three of Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels was a highlight.

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    • Fortunately my outstanding read isn’t something I get to the end of the year and have to think about, at least that hasn’t happened yet, it’s the book that when I read, I just know it’s going to be “the one”. I felt that immediately with ‘Homegoing’, just as I did last year with Simone Schwartz Bart’ The Bridge of Beyond and Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘An Autobiography of My Mother’. If I don’t get hit by that one standout book during the year, then I’d probably just limit it to Top Reads. I love that so far I have had one that really bowled me over, they are often hard to write about, as it always includes such a strong emotional element.

      I’ll be interested in how you find Swing Time, especially with it’s tale of female friendship, which reminded in parts of My Brilliant Friend too. I love the way Zadie Smith depicts characters and develops her sense of place. Swing Time was excellent and provocative.

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  5. I love it when I see a favourite name from the past re-surface… Colette was a must read in my youth…along with Francois Sagan … though not in the same league as Colette …
    My reading list for last year was heavily weighted with history as usual…am reading aloud to my love, ‘H is for Hawk’ at the moment… have you come across this wonderful nature and autobiographical and philosophical memoir?
    Belated happy new year, Claire…

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    • Oh yes, I read Sagan’s exquisite Bonjour Tristesse last year and loved it, however Colette is a ‘tour de force’, she wrote so much and lived so much and was more than an author, but a significant and unusual character in her own life, when I went looking for more information about her, I couldn’t stop reading. I love how she wrote out all the stages of her life, never mind the controversy or judgement, she had a refreshing frankness and a determination to live as she pleased and realised quickly that that would mean not being dependent on another.

      H is for Hawk is a gripping memoir, I loved it and there’ll be a review here somewhere for sure. I remember seeing it come up pre-publication and immediately added it to my list, I love memoirs that cover a period like hers does, an intense emotion, grieving period, throwing herself into a challenge and simultaneously into scholarly research, her rereading T.H. White’s The Goshawk.trying to encounter her younger self between the pages. Enjoy reading that one Valerie. I’m reading birds at the moment, my second volume of Kathleen Jamie’s nature essays, Sightlines, I seem to gravitate towards nature writing at the beginning of the year for some reason, taking those long clifftop walks between the pages of a book instead of in the Scottish isles as she does!

      Happy New Year to you too Valerie, thank you kindly for your visit and lovely comments.

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  6. Homegoing was a top read for me last year – I thought it was amazing. I also loved Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Stay With Me is on the Literary Wives list for this year, so I love seeing it on blogger “best” lists. I would also love to read The Woman Next Door sometime.
    Happy reading in 2018!

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    • I was thinking of you this week Naomi when the first volume of my gift subscription of the new writing journal ‘Granta’ arrived, because it features all Canadian writers! Lots of names that are new to me, I look forward to discovering.

      Good to hear you enjoyed Homegoing too and that you’ll be reading Stay With Me for your Literary Wives bookclub. The Woman Next Door is a fabulous and engaging read, I hope you get to that one too, it would make a fabulous film and I love that it features two elderly female protagonists.

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      • I just got a copy of the Granta, as well – arrived in the mail on Friday!
        I’m happy to say that I’ve heard of most of them, but not all, and many I have not read before. I’ve been trying to decide how to approach it… little by little, or all at once?
        Putting a special plug in for Alexander MacLeod’s story – I heard him read from it this summer at the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia’s annual general meeting. It’s about his rabbit. 🙂

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    • Happy New Year to you too! Once I became aware of where I was reading from, it definitely made me look a little wider, for without this awareness, I think we’d all find that we’re reading in a very narrow range, from a limited pool of books. I thought I read widely until I started discussing with French readers who they were reading and was amazed at how international their choices were, though equally, without them necessarily being aware of it, but that’s the difference between a country where almost 50% of their fiction at least is translated, whereas in most English language reading traditions it’s a measly 3% and I discovered that during my years of living in NZ and England, even the English language books I was being exposed to, mostly were by British authors, almost no American authors back then and certainly none from South America, Asia, Africa, Scandinavia etc. Now, I can’t help but notice.

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      • That’s an excellent point. Over the last few years, I’ve been careful about reading “diversely” in terms of the author’s race and life experiences, but not in terms of country. I will change that. Thanks for the encouragement!

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    • I’m happy to hear you’ll be reading Homegoing, I’m hope you get as much out of it as I did, I was a little wary of the initial hype and ultimately disappointed it didn’t really feature in any of the annual literary awards, but regardless, I thought it was truly outstanding and knew it right from the moment I finished in February that it would likely be my outstanding read of the year.

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