For most of us, the December holidays constitute precious time, a longed-for interval in which to recover some lost equilibrium. The festive season is an ideal period in which to realise some of the goals you’ve been postponing, but if you’ve fallen behind on your recreational reading, it can be daunting to decide where to start. In a bid to remove some of the guesswork from your literary endeavours, we’ve compiled a cheat-list: a sample of the best of 2017’s novels, non-fiction and children’s picture books.
The Power, Naomi Alderman.
With Trump officially in office, and variations of political tumult rife on a global scale, 2017 has primed us for dystopian fiction; and Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a notable contemporary iteration of this genre. Thought-provoking and original, The Power –which won Alderman the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction – relays an imaginary history in which a mutated gene inverts the power dynamic between men and women. Alderman’s writing and characterisation err on the rudimentary side –but this only serves to enhance the scope of the book’s potential readership, as anybody over the age thirteen is likely to enjoy it. The Power is an easy, enjoyable read, and the novelty of the book’s ideas and presentation redeem its less attractive features.
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
Korean-American author Min Jin Lee’s second full-length novel offers an intricate, emotive interpretation of love, loss, and cultural displacement. Set in the early 20th Century, Pachinko chronicles the triumphs and travails of a Korean couple and their daughter, Sunja. An expert fusion of history and imagination, Pachinko attends to the ways in which people – and their identities – shift and evolve in response to the myriad contingencies of survival; it is little wonder that this poignant offering won Min Jin Lee the National Book Award for Fiction.
Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami
Unquestionably one of the greatest writers of the twenty-first century, Haruki Murakami is famous for his ability to immerse readers in the complexities of ordinary human relationships, more often than not in incongruously surreal, magical settings – and always with a clowder of cats as part of the cast. Men Without Women is a (characteristically witty) compilation of seven short stories, with a unifying focus on loneliness, mystery, feline disappearances, and the ways in which men come to terms with their alienation from women.
Hunger, Roxanne Gay
Roxanne Gay’s devastating memoir is a powerful indictment of the insidiously subtle – and the overtly volatile – ways in which society punishes obesity, and polices femininity. Gay is fast emerging as a powerful contemporary feminist, and Hunger is a beautifully-wrought exploration of the complexities of family, trauma and alterity. It is a first-rate memoir in its own right; but it is particularly exceptional as a piece of non-fiction that doesn’t flinch away from a frank treatment of bodies, and the multifaceted consequences of their abuse.
Always Another Country, Sisonke Msimang
South-Africa born Sisonke Msimang offers a vivid, critical retrospective of a childhood spent in exile. A modern, distinctly African, answer to the prolific coming-of-age paradigm, Always Another Country contains vignettes of Msimang’s adolescence in Zambia and Kenya, as well as her education in North America. Simultaneously, Msimang gives voice to the tensions, the optimism and the disillusionment that characterise latter-day South Africa, within the framework of her homecoming. It’s a must-read for South Africans in an age of transnational identities and historical hangovers; not least of all because Msimang is a truly talented writer.
South and West, Joan Didion
Joan Didion is the unchallenged master of creative nonfiction, and the 82-year-old’s latest offering will appeal both to seasoned Didion fans and to recent converts. South and West is a very short compilation of essays, the unexpected product of a collection of notes Didion amassed when she travelled through the South in the 1970s. Didion’s observations about a culture embedded in archaic values seems prescient, in relation to the political climate in America today; and her inimitable style transports the reader to a landscape of glaring light and stagnant water, a landscape both ominous and ominously nostalgic.
PICTURE BOOKS (for children & enthusiasts)
The Worm and the Bird, Coralie Bickford-Smith
A truly good picture book should appeal to adults as much as it does to its target-market, and Coralie Bickford-Smith’s haunting tome more than meets this criterion. Her distinctive illustrative style, an injection of morbid humour, and the simple profundity of the story within are guaranteed to charm anyone lucky enough to get their hands on a copy.
The Journey, Francesca Sanna
Francesca Sanna’s vivid, moving rendering of political refugees recently won the Klaus Fugge Picture Book Award. The book was inspired by Sanna’s conversations with refugees, and with children in particular. The Journey manages to describe one family’s urgent migration in the conventional language of fairytale and legend, transposing a monster, for example, onto the ominous figure of an armed guard; and containing an entire world within the confines of the book’s pages. It is a powerful lesson in both empathy and artistry from which children and adults are liable to benefit.
A Greyhound, a Groundhog, Emily Jenkins & Chris Appelhans
A sweet, simple adventure in wordplay and contrast, A Greyhound, a Groundhog is a winning combination of amusing tongue-twisters and a duo of quirky protagonists. Jenkins and Appelhans successfully refresh a timeless parable of unlikely friendships, with beautiful illustrations and the unlikely pairing of a slinky, genteel greyhound and a grouchy, diminutive groundhog.