And just like that, 2017 has come and gone. I remember opening this exact piece last year with a lamentation on how horrendous a year 2016 had been, what with the passing of so many legends and the foreshadowing of the political climate. Unfortunately, 2017 was not much of an improvement on this front. In spite of being essentially dull in its nature, 2017 was anything but on the publishing front. Highlights included a revolution in the self-help book front (most notably with additions of curse words in the titles!), blockbuster film and television adaptations that renewed interest in older texts and children’s books that work just as well as fantastic reads for adults.
On a personal note, I’m delighted to renew my now annual tradition of my top reads of the year. It was quite a hard list to compile this year – we were truly spoiled for choice in 2017 in books which is certainly something to celebrate. This year, I’ve managed to narrow my choices to those published in the last twelve months; however I have also included an “honourable mentions” list this year (a first for me!) where I will make mention of those which deservedly influenced the year in spite of their earlier publication. So, let’s get this thing started!
#5 – One of us is Lying by Karen M McManus
Five high school students walk into detention. Only four emerge. Intrigued? I certainly was!
As compelling a young adult book that has been released in recent times, this thriller/murder mystery for teens is a delectable read that grabs its readers by the throat from its very outset. The motley crew that enter that detention room is the main focus of the story. As unlikely a combination of students as there could be – the jock, the geek, the outcast, the beauty and the criminal – is where the suspicion and intrigue begins. Under what circumstances should they all end up in the same room together? And what is it that links them all together?
This book weaves its plot delicately between the pressures that plague modern teenagers and age-old familial dramas all set against the backdrop of a mysterious death that happened right under all of their noses. The intrigue does not stop at this horrendous event, though. What secrets does the straight-A student, Bronwyn, have in her background? Meanwhile, star pitcher Cooper and drug dealing Nate are not all that they seem – not in the slightest. And what role does the homecoming princess, Addy, have? It all relates back to our victim, founder of a notorious high school gossip app, Simon. The relationship that the other four have to both him and to the app will be querulous to the book’s ending revelation.
In a year where there was a renewed popularity in Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult drama Thirteen Reasons Why (on the back of the controversial Netflix series), there was a simultaneous rise in young adult thrillers such as this one. However, I believe McManus’ work shines where Asher’s fails in describing the complexity of the modern teenage life. The life of teenagers has long been an intriguing subject to writers and indeed to society itself, but this book explores it in a much more sophisticated way as compared to anything else I’d read in the past previously. Twists and turns aplenty, this was certainly an unforgettable read.
#4 – The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty
A new and welcome addition to the adult fiction world by one Australia’s most talent rich families. Younger sister of one the most popular authors in the world, Liane Moriarty, Nicola Moriarty’s new release The Fifth Letter can certainly hold a candle to anything that Liane has written in her impressive back catalogue. Granted, I hadn’t previously read anything that Nicola had written before (from an equally impressive list of releases), but this screamed nothing but promise. And it certainly delivered on this promise.
Similar to the book in my fifth slot on this countdown, the action centres around four main characters – their lives, their secrets and their relationships with each other. This time, it is five women, friends since their school years, but each now with complicated and busy lives which lends little time to be spent with each other. Determined to renew their former closeness, on a group holiday a proposition is made. An anonymous letter, penned by each of the women, is to be read aloud to the group. However, rather than bringing the friends together, the letters drive a wedge between the already tense group – and fuel is only added to the fire when a fifth letter is discovered. This titular concern reveals long-held grudges and, even more seriously, that one of the women may even be in danger.
The lives of our main characters, Joni, Deb, Eden and Trina, are infinitely relatable and seem to be portraits of women that we all know in our “typical” Australian lives. Much like Liane’s books, this book had a healthy dose of drama, mystery and family all mixed in together to create a compelling story. It’s a compelling story all about the lives of women and the everyday drama that, if not acknowledged, can snowball into a much larger issue (such as depicted in this book). I love that the Moriarty sisters can write such relatable and popular stories that will certainly ring a bell with many different kinds of readers without looking too far beyond the seeming confines of domestic life. A well written and addictive book that will be sure to strike a chord with many readers.
#3 – Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
A highly anticipated release that we welcomed in 2017, The Girl on the Train author, Paula Hawkins, returned with a new thriller. This time, we are welcomed into Beckford, small town with a big past. As the title suggests, our story will be largely centred around water – namely, “The Drowning Pool”, which holds so much history and still sadly plagues the locals with its tales of tragedy and suspicion.
Into the Water hosts a large and diverse range of characters, though this is not a deterrent so much as it is further voices contributing to the mystery that is The Drowning Pool and its story. The reader begins a chain of events through Nel Abbott, a maligned single mother who has become the pool’s latest victim at the beginning of the novel. A women whose life’s attention has been the pool though swore she would never meet her end there – which leaves us suspicious as to whether it was an act of suicide or if it was murder.
There’s much, much more to the story than that – and a more extensive review which I’ve written immediately following the release of the book can be found here on my blog. This includes a look at some of the other victims of the pool, Beckford’s local institutions and family and friends of Nel Abbott.
A dark book though it is, we see how Hawkins is anything but a one-hit-wonder of an author. She is clearly a master of character, as each of the many characters in this book is nuanced, well developed and unforgettable. This goes hand in hand with her plot development, as it will certainly keep readers guessing, but also turning pages. This was one of those books that I was hungry to finish but was also sad to close at its conclusion as it was such a wonderful read. Well worthy of sharing the shelf with Hawkins’ 2015 release, which was also a standout in that year!
#2 – The Choke by Sofie Laguna
Another fabulous new release from one of Australia’s most talented new voices. Author of the 2015 Miles Franklin award winner The Eye of the Sheep, Laguna has once again written in the voice of a young child. This time, a young girl by the name of Justine, whom we follow as readers from a young age through to her becoming a young woman. Against a backdrop of 1950s rural Victoria, Justine is abandoned by her mother and rarely visited by her criminal of a father (although this is a fact of which Justine knows very little). She is raised by her Pop, a man who is himself plagued with issues of his past and his family. None of these characters or environments are particularly conducive to a wonderful childhood for Justine, as she exposed to worlds of violence, danger and adulthood which only serve to her detriment. However, it is also one of tremendous self-actualisation and limited comfort. Justine finds this comfort in her childhood friend Michael, the chickens of her Pop’s backyard and in nature.
Although Laguna won one of Australia’s most prestigious literary awards for her previous work, The Choke has established her as a writer whose works are unmissable. This book is a sophisticated examination of a ravaged childhood who somehow finds redemption and love in what seemed to be the most unlikely of places. But this is not without its tribulations – there are confronting scenes aplenty. At times, they are almost unbearable to read. This is particularly during Justine’s childhood when, as readers, we are privy to knowledge and information of exactly what is occurring, which Justine’s lack of maturity does not recognise. This only serves to highlight her vulnerability in the world in which she lives, leaving her exposed for the many other trials which she must endure.
This book moved me in ways which books rarely do. In spite of reading being the great passion of my life, I have rarely been reduced to tears by a book – but this one did just that. There are any number of scenes which could have done it in The Choke such as its remarkable hold on the nature of the human condition and on our collective hearts, such as we develop a connection to Justine and want the best for her. Laguna’s latest fiction certainly had my heart in its hands and, although she ripped it out of my chest and stomped on it, she ultimately mended it all through the course of its pages.
#1 – Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
Quite simply, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. A masterful work that reflects a dark future for women, it is one which lingers with you long after the book’s conclusion and leaves readers utterly absorbed. Whether or not this is in horror at what is happening, or in hope that some of the characters create for themselves, it is undoubtedly moving and as fine a work that has ever been produced in modern times.
Simply a must-read from the back of the renewed interest in Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale, Gather the Daughters is a story of an isolated cult living on a small island, following the teachings of the founders of their cult, which have been written in “Our Book”. There are rules for living, as well as givens for societal function. This leads to the quite terrible world which we are privy to seeing as readers. Although it is written in a subtle way, we become attuned quite quickly to what is going on at the hands of the belief system of this society, particularly to the women and girls. Essentially, they have no autonomy of spirit or of body; however, they are left with little choice to dissent against their situation at any stage of their lives. And hence, the great danger of the cult life that is depicted in the pages of this book. However, there is great hope in the hands of the young girls as they experience an event which changes everything and completely shakes the foundations of their lives as they know it.
The book is so complex it is hard to describe plot, action or even character in a few short paragraphs. For one thing, the content is hard to write or talk about given its graphic nature. It is entirely unsurprising to learn that author Jennie Melamed has worked with traumatised and abused children as it rings completely true in the pages of Gather the Daughters. The situations she depicts are horrific and yet are completely accepted by the society of the island – shocking, when considering how as a modern society, we are doing the exact same thing in our desensitisation to such matters.
Graphic and provoking content written in a lyrical and poetic refrain which causes us to examine our very core values. This book is phenomenal, amazing. I feel privileged to have read it and beseech anyone else to do the same. A clear standout read for 2017 and well beyond.
- Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood: although published in 1996, this book enjoyed a renewed interest following the Netflix adaptation television series. Although The Handmaid’s Tale was similarly and eclipsed it in its renewed popularity, I read Alias Grace for the first time in 2017 and was utterly compelled right from the opening sentences. Based on the true story of Grace Marks, accused murderess of two in 1843, it tells of her past, her life as a prisoner, as well as her doctor, Simon Jordan, and his personal interest in both her case, her person and her psychology. A fascinating, deftly told tale by one of the greatest writers the world has seen in modern times.
- Force of Nature by Jane Harper: a keenly anticipated follow up to a standout release of 2015, Jane Harper returned with another Aaron Falk mystery to which she enjoyed great success with The Dry. This time, Falk has to investigate a mystery in which a team building bushwalk resulted in one woman never emerging from the forest. A twisted tale of workplace relationships and family ties souring, Harper does it again with the classic mix of whodunit and the modern thriller. I look forward to Falk’s franchise growing even more.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: a hugely important book which gives human faces to the Black Lives Matter movement. When Starr’s friend Khalil is shot dead by police for basically no reason, she is staggered when the police officer responsible faces no punishment and the greater community response is silence. Against her former nature of balancing life in a primarily white school and the ghetto, Starr decides to speak out in the name of justice and of her slain friend. A work of fiction that feels a lot more like reality than a fabrication, an obviously personal work is a testament to how important the issues depicted in this book are.
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: despite not being blown away by this author’s previous work, I was very glad to read this follow-up work. Beautifully written, a character exploration at its heart of a new coming family to an idealistic Shaker Heights community and how interests will clash when secrets are exposed. Set in 1990s Cleveland, this book is a wonderful gentle book which disguises great passions.