Here’s my annual ‘best fiction books’ list with suggestions for your next library outing. As always, the list includes books published during and before 2017. A couple of surgeries, hospitalization and a lengthy recovery provided plenty of time to read this year – 88 books in total, and I surpassed 30,000 pages for the first time. (Click here for previous years’ fiction lists: 2014, 2015, 2016).
For the second year running, Fredrik Backman provided my favourite novel: Beartown. Set in a small, dying “hockey town” in Sweden, all eyes are on the junior team who have reached the national semi-finals. If they win the title, the town has a chance of securing the new youth academy, with the attendant much-needed economic boost. All eyes are on the star player to deliver the goods – until he rapes the daughter of the club’s general manager at a team party. As always, Backman’s characters are exquisitely drawn, and his portrayal of what an act of sexual violence does to individuals and a tight-knit community is both unflinching and unsentimental, as the hopes of a town collide with the needs of its wounded. A powerful narrative in the year of #metoo.
A close second is Britt-Marie Was Here by the same author. Another story about a town in economic decline, a character from a previous novel “accidentally” becomes the coach of the local kids’ soccer team, and the narrative unfolds in Backman’s customary laugh out loud and heartbreaking style.
The stand out in adolescent literature was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a remarkable debut novel. High school student Starr is with her friend Khalil when he is shot and killed by a police officer. What could have been a one-dimensional story unfolds instead in a powerful, multi-faceted narrative, exploring the impact of US structural racism on individuals, families and communities. Her portrayal of the struggle for justice is harrowing yet hopeful. Simply stunning.
Libby, the protagonist of Jennifer Nixon’s Holding Up the Universe, enters High School in her junior year following years of being home-schooled. When her classmates discover she was “America’s Fattest Teen” years ago, one – Jack – humiliates her, and then slowly attempts to make it right. I found myself cheering for both of them – Libby’s solid sense of self and dignity offering Jack the chance to so some introspection of his own.
Other enjoyable reads in adolescent lit were Wolf Mark by Joseph Bruchac, an original take on paranormal powers drawing on First Peoples’ traditions; Turtles All The Way Down by John Green (of course); and Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher, a delightful underdog story in which a non-conformist black student athlete in a predominantly white Spokane school forms a swim team (in a school with no pool) so a collection of outsiders have a shot at getting a much-coveted letter jacket.
In the dystopian genre, David William’s beautiful and haunting When the English Fall is unusual in that it describes the beginning of the collapse of civilization. We read about the solar event which plunges the world into chaos through the pages of an Amish farmer’s journal. Gentle, and truly disturbing. I also enjoyed Parable of the Sower, my first experience of powerhouse author Octavia E. Butler’s novels.
In straight up sci-fi, I thoroughly enjoyed a romp through my adolescent geek memories in Ernest Cline’s excellent debut novel Ready Player One. Wade Watts spends the majority of his life inside the OASIS – a massive virtual reality world – trying to solve the puzzles its creator left behind, the prize for solving them being to inherit his fortune and the entire system. But an evil corporation will go to any lengths to get there first, so it can monetize the project. Soon to be a Spielberg movie, with – no doubt – an awesome 80s soundtrack. I also read Red Mars, the first volume in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic and dense trilogy about terraforming Mars, primarily because I knew it inspired my favorite boardgame of the same name. Heavy on the science, but it has certainly heightened my enjoyment of the game.
In fantasy lit, I continue to be impressed with Brandon Sanderson’s remarkable world-making skills. I finished his excellent Mistborn series with The Hero of Ages, the remarkable conclusion to a compelling story. The world is threatened by both the ever-present mists and the now-falling ash, and the final confrontation between the main protagonists and Ruin, the manifestation of evil, is at hand. The messy complexity of individual agency in the age-old narrative of good vs evil: it doesn’t get any better than this.
In murder mysteries, I discovered William Brodrick’s Father Anselm series at the end of the year with The Discourtesy of Death, and I look forward to reading more in the year to come. But once again, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache was the stand out mystery of the year. In his latest outing – Glass Houses – Penny incorporates the current opioid crisis into Gamache’s ongoing narrative, as well as delving into the idea of “breaking the law for the sake of a Higher Law.” Simply superb, as always. If you haven’t visited Three Pines yet, I suggest you run, not walk, to the library and spend some time with its memorable inhabitants.
In “old friends,” my wife Rebecca read one of our favorite novels to me while I was in the hospital. An Alien at St Wilfred’s by British author Adrian Plass is a gentle, humorous and tender story about a small group of parishioners who start meeting weekly with their vicar and Nunc, a strange little visitor, who has something to tell them. Certain passages still bring me to tears. As do many in possibly my favourite novel ever, Skallagrigg by William Horwood, which I re-read over Christmas. Both of these beloved novels are hard to find in the US, but if you ever see a copy, grab it!
Finally, in the “give it a miss” category is The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. This appeared in a list of ‘must read’ books, but having read it, I have to disagree. An annual fundraiser for a Catholic day-school provides the vehicle for human cruelty, focused on one unfortunate freshman. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about the story that ensues, something which the author is unapologetic for, if not even proud.
Well, I hope you find a novel or two that draws your interest in this list, and I hope they provide as much enjoyment for you as they did for me.
(I link to Amazon as a convenience and as a participant in their Associates Program. I encourage you to buy books where you want to see them sold. Or check them out of your local library.)