It’s that time of year — mid-November — when proofs for 2017 titles are beginning to pile up, which means it’s time to pull the plug on what’s been a great year of reading, and jump heard-first into the future. But before that, let’s pause and reflect on the year that was — well, still is, for a few more weeks. You understand.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett is an outstanding debut novel: an engaging, poignant, and thought-provoking read about the importance of motherhood, and the hardships faced by girls who don’t have a female figure in their lives to help guide them.
Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus is an enthralling work of potent brain fuel that ponders humanity’s future. I don’t read a lot of non-fictIon, but this was a brilliant follow-up to Sapiens.
With more twists than a double helix, Federico Axat’s Kill the Next One is a relentlessly-paced, unputdownable psychological thriller. It zigs one way, then zags another, providing the kind of stomach-clenching, unsettling suspense I associate with Lauren Beukes and Stephen King.
Last year I called Stuart Neville’s Those We Left Behind “a true hallmark of the genre,” and I hold So Say the Fallen in the same regard. It isn’t so much a whodunit — we know the truth, or at least shades of it, very early on in the piece —but an extrapolation of motive.
In Daniel Clowes’s Patience, things go terribly awry when Jack Barlow attempts to travel through time to circumvent his wife’s murder. Part science fiction epic, part love story, Patience brims with heart and soul. Clowes’s focus on the emotions of his characters rather than the physics of time travel elevates the book above stories of a similar ilk. No doubt about it: the best graphic novel of the year, and was this close to making it onto my overall Top 5.
Jem Lester’s exceptional debut, Shtum, poignantly depicts the love, anger, guilt and exhaustion felt by the parents of a young boy with severe learning disabilities. It’s darkly comical, searingly honest, and unputdownable. It’s a book that needs to be read, so that people understand the challenges facing the parents of children with developmental disabilities, and the ripple effects of these hardships – but also because it’s simply a stunning work of fiction, absolutely absorbing and affecting.
Both laugh-out-loud funny and weep-into-your-hanky heartbreaking, Steve Rowley’s Lily and the Octopus introduces a spectacular new voice and leaves its mark on the landscape of great fiction. For anyone who has ever loved and lost a pet, anyone who has struggled to find meaning in the face of death and feared its residual solitude, Rowley’s debut is unmissable and provides a potent catharsis.
5. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Dark Matter is an unabashed science fiction thriller. If the thought of multi-dimensional travel – of our protagonist traversing alternate worlds – is too much of a leap from the grounded reality in which you prefer your fiction, perhaps this one’s not for you. But for everybody else, willing and able to suspend their disbelief, and accept the parameters of Crouch’s fiction, Dark Matter is a relentless and thrilling ride. I read this, then immediately picked up Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy, and enjoyed those books immensely, too.
4. The Fireman by Joe Hill
Operatic in scope, Joe Hill’s post-apocalyptic opus The Fireman
doesn’t pull any punches as it exposes readers to the bleak reality of a world beginning its rapid spiral. Dragonscale — which draws patterns on people’s skin and eventually ignites them, causing them to spontaneously combust — is a truly frightening ailment, which throws societal into upheaval. The novel’s protagonist is Harper Grayson, a school nurse who becomes a volunteer at her local hospital when society starts to decay, and school becomes a thing of the past. When Harper learns she is infected by Dragonscale — and pregnant! — she vows to bring her baby safely into the world. Her husband Jakob has other ideas… which leads Harper into the path of the near-mythical figure known as The Fireman. Like his father, Hill is a master storyteller – it’s in his blood, clearly – and this novel elevates him into a new literary stratosphere. It has been a long, long time since I was last able to lose myself in an epic like this.
3. The Good People by Hannah Kent
Few debuts have garnered as many accolades as Burial Rites, so if “second novel syndrome” is a real thing, it must apply doubly for Australian author Hannah Kent. Thankfully we’ve not had to wait long for Kent’s second novel — no decade-long interlude á la Donna Tartt — and it’s every bit as immersive as its predecessor. The Good People is a sparkling examination of Irish folk medicine and a lapsed belief system, and what happens when the real world – cold, stark reality – intercedes with these once-cherished folk traditions. I’ve been asked a bunch of times since its release whether The Good People is better than Burial Rites. Truth is, I don’t know how to separate them. They’re both A-grade works of fiction.
2. Barkskins by Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx’s Barkskins is enormous in size and scope. A vast multi-generational and ecological saga, few readers won’t appreciate its lofty aspiration — to chronicle the world’s deforestation from the perspective of two distinct bloodlines — but some might be turned off by occasional sterile characterisations, which is perhaps an inevitable repercussion of the novel’s ambition. Thing is though, months after reading it, I can’t get it out of my head. Again, not necessarily because of its characters, but because of Proulx’s depiction of the brutality of our forefathers’ lives. It’s that grand thing: a novel that truly resonates.
1. The Dry by Jane Harper
Jane Harper’s The Dry has earned accolades from professional reviewers and readers from around the country, and deservedly so. It is the year’s best achievement on the Australian crime writing scene.
The small rural town of Kierwarra is on the brink. Haunted by its past, and more recently impacted by two years of severe drought, the town is struck by an even greater tragedy following the murder / suicide of a farmer and his family. Federal police investigator Aaron Falk reluctantly returns to his hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend, and his presence immediately stirs latent discontent and animosity amongst certain folk. He might now carry a badge, but there are plenty of people in Kierwarra who’ve never forgotten, and certainly never forgiven Falk, following the suspicious death of another childhood friend. Now he’s back, and digging deeper into the murder/suicide, and unearthing the town’s dark secrets from its past and present.
The Dry is a stylish, compulsive whodunit that will keep even the sagest mystery reader asking questions until the very last page. I can’t wait to see what Jane Harper writes next. I’m hoping we don’t have long to wait.