Fiction Review 2017
As we start looking forward to all the fabulous new fiction coming our way in 2018, there's just time to take a look back over the past year in fiction and try to do the impossible – come up with a list of 12 must-reads and a further12 highly recommended titles from all those books that had their first outing in 2017. So - with apologies not only to all those that didn't make the cut but also to the books I just haven't got round to reading yet - here it is.
The Power – Naomi Alderman – Foyles' Fiction Book of the Year
Naomi Alderman is a remarkable writer each of whose books is completely different and yet equally convincing. Her latest well deserves its place as our Foyles fiction book of the year and winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I had the privilege of meeting Naomi Alderman just as she was finishing writing it and I was struck by the relish with which she described the central premise of women suddenly developing the power to annihilate men with a wave of their hand, and the chaos that ensues. But underlying it all, and what makes the book so effective, is that it combines a convincing dystopic vision with a serious examination of power and gender, belief and responsibility.
* Pictured here is the Foyles exclusive signed edition with jet black sprayed edges and Naomi Alderman's essay 'Dystopian Dreams'.
Read my exclusive interview with Naomi
The Brittle Star - Davina Langdale
I have a weakness for stories set in the American West – remember the excellent The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt and Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End? For me, this is right up there with the best of them, and all the more remarkable for being a debut. It tells the story of sixteen-year-old John Evert’s search for revenge when his mother’s ranch is attacked. His quest takes him from the bustling young city of Los Angeles to Texas to Missouri and back, to the front lines of the American Civil War and home again, but more than that, it’s a powerful, atmospheric and well-told coming of age tale as he learns about friendship, trust, forgiveness and surviving on his wits. Brilliant!
Read my exclusive interview with Davina
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders
I was delighted when Saunders won this year’s Man Booker prize: many books claim to be unique but few deserve that accolade. This one really does stand apart from the crowd. His remarkable, experimental and moving novel takes a risk on many levels, on practically every level in fact, and pulls it off with aplomb. It is set mostly in a graveyard over a single night where President Lincoln’s young son Willie finds himself trapped in a transitional realm - called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo - as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and regret. Don’t let the premise put you off, this really is a remarkable feat of imagination, stylishly executed with grace, humour and compassion.
Watch an exclusive video of George talking about his book
The Growing Season – Helen Sedgwick
It's impossible to read this multi-layered book without being fully drawn into its fascinating and provocative central premise, in which anyone can have a baby thanks to FullLife's externally worn pouch, and indeed as Helen explained in her exclusive interview with Foyles, the basic technologies needed to create an external womb already exist. The world-building is superb and Helen skilfully explores what it means to be a parent today, the perils and wonders of scientific development, nature versus nature and the price of progress. There’s also a mystery at its heart and a love story. What more could anyone want?!
Read my exclusive interview with Helen
Sugar Money – Jane Harris
Set in Martinique in the mid-18th century, this is based on real events that took place in Martinique and Grenada. Brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, to return to Grenada, the island they once called home, and smuggle back the 42 slaves claimed by English invaders at the hospital plantation in Fort Royal. The stand-out feature for me was the language Jane Harris invents for her young protagonist Lucien to tell his tale – a mixture of Creole, French and English, with a smattering of Scottish words and phrases, which brings her vibrant, intelligent and lively narrator to life and ensures we stay with him on his increasingly dark journey.
Read my exclusive interview with Jane
My Absolute Darling – Gabriel Tallent
The subject matter of this spare and gritty debut about a 14 year-old girl's bid for freedom from her oppressive family set-up is not for the fainthearted, but the story is riveting, the psychological insight profound and the prose beautiful. You read with your heart in your mouth as young ‘Turtle’ slips through the cracks, her father’s manipulative intelligence enabling him to keep interference at bay and isolate his daughter – until she takes matters into her own hands. Tallent writes with compassion and intelligence and his prose sings on every page. Without a doubt one of the debuts of the year.
Read my exclusive interview with Gabriel
The History of Bees – Maja Lunde
Maja Lunde is a seriously impressive writer, so much so it’s hard to believe this is a debut. In alternating chapters she tells the story of three generations of beekeepers from the past, present and future in England, America and Japan, weaving a captivating story of their relationship to the bees, to their children and each other. It feels intricately plotted yet effortlessly delivered. She has an important tale to tell but is never heavy-handed and as speculative fiction it is all too credible. She’s great on character too, and on what remains unsaid as well as that which is spoken and often regretted.
Read my exclusive interview with Maja
The Sixteen Trees of the Somme – Lars Mytting
An epic tale of family secrets and the search for identity, this follows Edvard's quest from a remote farmstead in Norway to the Shetlands and the battlefields of the Somme in search of an unusual inheritance and some answers to his questions about the mysterious death of his parents when he was a small child. And as you might expect from the author of the bestselling Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, wood plays its part too! A satisfyingly complex and engaging read, perfect for a long winter’s evening.
Read my exclusive interview with Lars
Mrs Osmond – John Banville
I approached this with some trepidation as Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, to which this is a sequel, is one of my all-time favourites. It takes a little while to stop thinking about how well Banville is channelling The Master (very well indeed) and just enjoy the story on its own merits. This picks up where the earlier novel left off, with Isabel Archer's attempts to come to terms with the death of her beloved cousin and the bitter discovery of her husband's and friend's betrayal of her. She is learning, albeit belatedly, how to become an agent in her own life rather than a pawn. I can’t help but think that Henry James would have approved.
Read my exclusive interview with John
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward
A deserving winner of the prestigious 2017 National Book Award, this examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story, and the power - and limitations - of family bonds. It is set in southern Mississippi where the legacy of the past is palpable and manifests itself in the form of ghosts, one of which appears to Leonie. A black woman married to a white man, she is a complex and often flawed individual, a drug addict and a neglectful mother but also, as Jesmyn puts it in her exclusive interview for Foyles: a ‘a hurt and hurting human being who can’t quite see her way to better decisions and outcomes.’
Read my exclusive interview with Jesmyn
Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
The publisher’s description of this as a Victorian epic transplanted to Japan is spot-on. It tells the story of a Korean family of immigrants in Japan through eight decades and four generations. Lee explores the fate of Koreans living - but barely tolerated - in a country where foreigners are not welcome and opportunities are limited. This opened a fascinating window on a world rarely seen in fiction: due to the discrimination that the Korean-Japanese continue to face today, many Korean-Japanese will still not discuss their ethnic background openly. Pachinko is an adult gambling game which also serves as a metaphor for the history of Koreans in Japan and indeed many other groups around the world caught in seemingly random global conflicts.
Read my exclusive interview with Min
The Scandal – Fredrik Backman
Backman is the author of the best-selling A Man Called Ove and other funny, tender and endearing stories of second chances, fitting in and finding happiness where it is least expected, and I took this with me on holiday, expecting something in a similar vein. But while it shares the humanity and the neat observations of its predecessors, for me it is also much richer than they. Set in a small town in a Swedish forest, it describes how a brutal act divides the inhabitants into those who think it should be hushed up and forgotten and those who'll risk the future to see justice done. It is a provocatively told tale, well-translated and morally complex, well worth a read.
Read an exclusive blog by Fredrik about his book
Also Highly Recommended
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles' Antigone, this timely story of immigration, faith, family ties and divided loyalties looks at the fate of two Muslim families living in England whose lives become intertwined through love and politics.
Read my interview with Kamila and listen to her talking about her book, both exclusively for Foyles.
A Legacy of Spies – John le Carre
George Smiley, le Carre's most beloved character, returns to the page after more than 25 years, in what has been one of this autumn’s most eagerly awaited publishing events, and he did not disappoint. Vintage le Carre.
Read an extract here
The Fatal Tree – Jake Arnott
Drawing on real figures and a true history of crime, punishment and rough justice, this tells a heartbreaking story of love and betrayal in early 18th century London.
Read an exclusive interview with Jake by Sarah Watkins
Universal Harvester – John Darnielle
John Darnielle's second novel is unsettling and sad, and the kind of novel that starts out as one thing and turns into another. It appears to be a work of nostalgia, a reflection on small-town life, a horror story. It's all of these and none. It's a book that will haunt you, but perhaps not in the way you expect.
The Idiot – Elif Batuman
This quirky coming of age tale set mostly at Harvard is also a meditation on language, culture clash, love and art. Its heroine, Turkish-American Selin, is a companion you will get to know and love and feel sad when it’s time to leave.
Winter – Ali Smith
The second (though standalone) instalment in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet is another masterclass in the art of the novel: clever, subtle, funny and humane. Ali’s inventiveness shines through every page.
Read my exclusive interview with Ali
The Blood Miracles – Lisa McInerney
The follow-up to the hugely acclaimed, prize-winning debut by the blogger who called herself the ‘sweary lady’ is every bit as foul, sexy and drug-ridden as The Glorious Heresies, though you don’t need to have read the first one to enjoy this.
Read my exclusive interview with Lisa
Madness is Better than Defeat – Ned Beauman
If you like weird look no further! Imaginatively anarchic, this opens in 1938 as two rival expeditions set off for a lost Mayan temple in the jungles of Honduras whose aims bring conflict and stalemate.
Read an exclusive interview with Ned by Simon Heafield
Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney
This is a multi-faceted meditation on love in all its guises, at once a romantic comedy and a feminist text, a tale of intimacy and infidelity, but above all, hugely entertaining.
Exclusively for Foyles, Sally introduces some of her favourite books
Sleeping Beauties – Owen and Stephen King
Only start reading this when you have plenty of time: you’ll find this ambitious story of a global pandemic, which causes all women to fall asleep wrapped in a gossamer cocoon, utterly addictive.
Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan
Something completely different from the author of A Visit from the Goon Squad this is a compelling historical noir novel about organised crime, the merchant marine and the clash of classes, which opens in Brooklyn during the Great Depression.
The End of Eddy – Edouard Louis
A slim novel which packs a big punch, this debut draws on the author’s own life growing up poor and gay in a village in northern France. Profoundly affecting, it sparked debates across France about violence, social inequality and sexuality. An important and impressive writer.
Read my exclusive interview with Edouard