Top 10 books of 2017

I love books and I love lists of fun things and I’ve just found this website, Broke and Bookish, which has top ten book lists every Tuesday! The most recent one was post your top ten books of 2017.

I’ve reread a lot of things this year so it’s good to go back and look at what’s stood out so far, among old and new favourites. In chronological order of when I read them, because that’s the way my mind works.

read all the books

  1. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

This book has been talked and written about a lot since Trump was elected, since it’s apparently about ‘his’ voters – disadvantaged, frustrated, rural, white people. The nostalgia is strong. There is a theme of: we were violent and poor in the past but at least we had a work ethic! Vance seems to blame the welfare state and drugs for ruining his people’s sense of purpose, but he is also scathing of parents treating their kids badly, not putting enough emphasis on education, and allowing potential to be wasted out of disinterest or a kind of reverse snobbishness.

2. The year of magical thinking by Joan Didion

At the beginning of the year everyone seemed to be talking about Joan Didion in that infuriating way of presuming everyone knows who she is and what she does. So I decided to read her and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read her before. This book is a beautiful, surprisingly lucid account of the grief after her husband dies and her daughter is very sick. I’ve read a couple more since this one but Magical Thinking remains at the top.

3. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

An old favourite. I haven’t read much of Coetzee in a while because the most recent one (The Childhood of Jesus) was very disappointing. It was good to return to this. It amazes me when protagonists can be unlikable without making the novel unlikable. His characters seem to have more than three dimensions – is it possible to have a six-sided character? Because that’s what they are.

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Another old favourite that I read while in Winchester, as seeing Austen’s grave made me want to reread her. This was the first Austen I read and while I have since come to prefer Persuasion, I am appreciating P&P more and more as the TV show grows distant in my memory. The TV show is awesome, but there are extra layers in the novel – and I’m possibly liking Lizzie less and less without Jennifer Ehle’s bright eyes to make her inspiring.

5. The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

I read this year’s ago and had it mind as a great Toibin book. I’ve felt the more recent ones – Brooklyn, Nora Webster – were missing something which Blackwater and The South had. A deeper immersion in life, perhaps. Other than a random flashback section at the beginning which I didn’t like, this was as good as I remembered. Families in all their tense, judgmental love, complicated by the fear and grief of AIDs and the moodiness of the Irish seaside.

6. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

A new book! It was listed for the Bailey’s Book Prize this year. I have this idea in my head that I don’t like sci-fi, and then I realise most dystopians are counted as sci-fi and I love a good dystopia. A flu epidemic, unlike anything that’s come before, wipes out 90% of the population. What I loved was how the structures of modern life were adapted despite the lack of modern conveniences – I mean, of course an airport would be a great place to set up a community, even without electricity. I should see how far away Gatwick is for when the apocalypse strikes.

7. Blindness by Jose Saramago

Another dystopia and one I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. I’d heard great things about it, and although it took some time to get into the style (no names, rare paragraphs, no dialogue tags, long long sentences), it’s reputation is well deserved. What would happen if everyone went blind? What a question, even without all the disturbing allegorical layers to it. The chaos is quick and brutal and disturbingly believable. I don’t think Saramago has much faith in governments and after reading two dystopias in a row, I might not either.

8. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

This movie came out and everyone started talking about it, but I didn’t realise it was a YA novel from a few years ago. Small Australian country town in the sixties, prejudice and frustration and cricket – it all feels very recent and could easily have been set now. The mother was thoroughly unlikable, full of petty anger and tending towards masochism, and I can’t wait to see Toni Collette play her in the movie (when I get round to it).

9. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Another new one. This is on lists of ‘best debuts in 2017’ so I thought I’d give it a go (I am trying to read more debuts). It’s about two university students in Dublin who befriend an older, semi-famous couple, and begin a mixed-up mess of relationships with them. All the characters were so enigmatic, and while that seems a little unbelievable, it also felt like one of those cliques of famous people a la the Bloomsbury group or Taylor Swift’s posse.

10. Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose

I’m cheating a bit with this one because I haven’t quite finished, but it is amazing. It’s just really good examples of different types of writing – and writing that is good for different reasons – with super enthusiastic analysis of why it’s so good. It encourages readers/writers to slow down and sink into words, which I have been finding hard lately. Writing and reading frenetically around full-time work does not scream ‘spend an hour on each sentence!’ so this is a really good reminder which I will have to read over and over again. I also love that the author’s name is ‘Prose’.

Suggestions for the second half of the year are very welcome!






Calling all volunteer readers

We all have moments when we’re reading books and we think, wait what? What is the author doing? WHY DID THEY WRITE THAT? I WISH I COULD TELL THEM THAT WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA!

Now is your chance!

I need readers. I have a manuscript called Hold back the night. It’s 74K words, which is slightly on the shorter side of standard for contemporary fiction.

The elevator pitch, blurb, or whatever you want to call it, is:

New Year’s Eve 2015, Dublin, a young Australian woman is sexually assaulted by a man she sees on a daily basis, in a bar, in front of a camera. Her instinct is for silence but, as she is continually exposed to her attacker, the pressure builds, and she must learn to accept the support of those around her or risk blaming herself forever.

If you’re intrigued, I’m happy to send the first chapter so that you can see if it’s something you would like to read. I will not be offended at all if you read it and say no!

What I need:

People who like to read, who can read it in a month or so, and can make critical but useful comments. I have thicker skin than it might seem, and I need it to be good. So bring it on! I’m specifically looking for:

  • As much information as possible about scenes/paragraphs/sentences that you like or don’t like, and why
  • Any time you are confused
  • Anything that seems clichéd
  • Anything that seems unnecessary
  • Anything that you want more information about (particularly subplots or characters)
  • Anything that would make you stop reading and why (e.g. boredom)
  • Typos, clunky sentences, bad grammar (only if that’s your thing)

What you will get:

  • My endless thanks
  • Book vouchers! Because who doesn’t need more books in their life?
  • (If you actually don’t need more books in your life, this can be exchanged for something more useful)

Things to know:

  • It’s a draft, there are mistakes
  • It’s about sexual assault, right from the first chapter, and may not be for everyone
  • It’s fiction, please don’t look for yourself, people I know, or me
  • Projects are fun, and if you like reading and/or writing, something like this can be quite rewarding!

So, for an obligation-free sample of the first chapter (as the salesmen on TV say), send me an email (

Also, if you’re wondering where the title comes from, check out the haunting Ms. O’Connor.




2016 reading list

I read some great books this year but all up it was a slightly scatty, underwhelming year. For the first time in a long time I found myself finishing books and not knowing what to read next, which lead to starting and stopping many books I would normally enjoy simply because I was not prepared for them.

  • The lost dog – Michelle de Kretser
  • Boyhood island – Karl Ove Knausguaard

The third and most disappointing of the My Struggle series.

  • We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver

I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time and it didn’t disappoint. There were many lines that struck me, in particular: “To answer one life with a successive life is simply to transfer the onus of purpose to the next generation; the displacements amounts to a cowardly and potentially infinite delay.” Controversial, but it struck a chord with me.

  • Catcher in the rye – J.D. Salinger
  • Snow – Orhan Pamuk
  • Adela Pankhurst: the wayward suffragette – Verna Coleman
  • An evil cradling – Brian Keenan

Keenan’s experience as a hostage in Lebanon in the eighties. A story that I was too young to know about at the time but which I now find incredible.

  • Why I am not a Christian – Bertrand Russell
  • Story of the lost child – Elena Ferrante
  • Persuasion – Jane Austen

Forever my favourite Austen.

  • Climbing the coconut tree – S.C. Karakaltsas
  • A spool of blue thread – Anne Tyler
  • Divergent – Veronica Roth
  • Room – Emma Donoghue

A highlight of the year. So absorbing that my 30 minute train trip just didn’t feel long enough.

  • Sparrow migrations – Cari Noga

Another highlight and comforting that it started as a self-published novel. Several stories linked by the Hudson river crash and sparrows.

  • The strays – Emily Bitto
  • Hideous kinky – Esther Ford

I read this while we were in Morocco, which felt fitting. Told from the point of view of a child whose mother is a wandering hippy on the Moroccan trail in the seventies.

  • Great expectations – Charles Dickens
  • All the light we cannot see – Anthony Doerr

Every time I read a story about the second world war I think I can’t possibly read another one that sheds more light, and yet I do. There are so many nuanced experiences outside those of the camps and they continue to intrigue me.

  • The door – Magda Szabo

I found this on a list of best translated fiction. It’s incredible and Emerence is a character I’ll never forget. See the New Yorker article here.

  • Why not me? – Mindy Kaling
  • Not that kind of girl – Lena Dunham
  • 20 fragments of a ravenous youth – Xiaolu Guo
  • Silas Marner – George Eliot

I was only disappointed that this was so short. It is an incredibly succinct story of the interweaving of lives and how we see people.

  • The garden of evening mists – Tan Twan Eng

I wanted to love this, and the second world war information about Malaysia was interesting but the actual writing I found over the top.

  • First love, last rights – Ian McEwan
  • The history of love – Nicole Krauss
  • A little life – Hanyu Yanagihara

Everything is just so big in this novel. The violence is nauseating and the characters often frustrating, but it is a must-read.

  • Insurgent – Veronica Roth
  • Still Alice – Lisa Genova
  • The wandering falcon – Jamil Ahmad
  • A god in ruins – Kate Atkinson
  • Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout was the best thing about this year! I feel like I’m lowered into her novels in a glass sphere, the characters are so real that it is easy to believe I am simply visiting them for a time.

  • Purple hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • The Burgess boys – Elizabeth Strout
  • The eye of the sheep – Sofie Laguna
  • North and south – Elizabeth Gaskell


  • Farewell to the East End – Jennifer Worth
  • Dark places – Gillian Flynn
  • In the woods – Tana French
  • The girls – Emma Cline

I kept seeing this on lists of books to read in 2016, so I did. It’s a fictionalised account of the Manson murders, and it was engaging until the writing style got a bit much. Still, an amazing debut.

  • Emma – Jane Austen
  • Notes on a scandal – Zoe Heller

The best unreliable narrator I’ve ever read. Completely fascinating.

  • A murder is announced – Agatha Christie
  • Dancing in the dark – Karl Ove Knausguaard

Fourth in the series and it made me look forward to the fifth. I’m a fan once again.

  • Moments of reprieve – Primo Levi
  • Waiting for the barbarians – J.M. Coetzee
  • The lonely city – Olivia Laing

The third of Laing’s books, and I loved it. Non-fiction about how loneliness informed the art of artists including Edward Hopper. Heart-breaking and optimistic at the same time.

  • My name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout
  • Slammerkin – Emma Donoghue

I’m not usually one for historical fiction but this was great. Three years of a teenage girl’s life as she goes from prostitution in London to servitude in a Welsh country house.

  • Amy and Isabelle – Elizabeth Strout
  • Reckoning – Magda Szubanski
  • A streetcat named Bob – James Bowen
  • And all of Harry Potter, of course.

See previous years’ lists here.



For the Love of Books

Greenwich Book Festival Part 1

Yesterday I went to the Greenwich Book Festival, a two-day series of talks and readings in the Old Royal Naval College. I’m always a bit uncomfortable at these things, as I am anywhere where people are rhapsodizing about anything in particular. There is just so much in the world to love, and hate, that spending two days on anything seems a bit tunnel-visioned. I do love books, however, so I tried to ignore my misgivings.

Greenwich – where photos look like oil paintings

The first talk I went to was about small independent presses and how they are in a ‘silver age’ and it struck me more completely than it has before how little control we have over what we read. I fully believe in the power of books to change our minds, our thinking, our lives. They develop empathy and push our experiences out of the immediate here and now and into an entire range of possibilities, and impossibilities. Through books I have met 19th century blacksmiths and 21st century zombies, Russian widows and Indian musicians, hermits and politicians and brain surgeons. I have been there while people fall in and out of love, have children and lose children, forget themselves and journey through self-discovery. There is an incomprehensible magic in being allowed into all these lives.

2016-05-28 14.33.13
A beautiful desk I stared at while listening to the talk. When did they stop making writing desks slanted?

And yet, how many people have we been denied because a business model doesn’t think their story will sell? The three owners of independent presses spoke about how they do what they do for the love of literature, while large publishers have enormous overheads to cover and as such, can only publish commercially viable fiction. And yet they were saying that they personally choose what their press publishes. The ten books they release a year is entirely in their hands and dependent on their taste, and while there are many of these small presses  there is no way they can cover all the good fiction that’s around.

So while they were busy bemoaning the evils of Amazon, I was thinking thank god we have another option now. Thank god I could release Andie and Caroline into the world because it is where I think they belong, and not because they will make anyone mountains of money.

Now I must try to navigate the self-publishing waters to try to find these mysterious characters whose lives might have been dismissed by people in The Business but who I, nevertheless, want to meet.