2017 has been a great year of books for me. After wasting far too much time last year scrolling through what is essentially time-wasting crappy content on my phone screen, I made an active effort to read much more this year, and I’m happy to report I’ve been successful in my endeavours.
In the interest of sharing book recommendations, here’s a selection of some of my most memorable reads from the past year. Also, be sure to check out this post for some joyous summer holiday inspiration (especially for the Kiwis and Aussies lucky enough to currently be in the midst of your chilled-out summer break. Sigh.)
ROANOKE GIRLS (Amy Engel, 2017)
“Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.” The girls of the Roanoke family – beautiful, rich, and mysterious – seem to have it all. But there's a dark truth about them that's never spoken. Lane is one of the lucky ones. When she was fifteen, over one long, hot summer at her grandparents' estate in rural Kansas, she found out what it really means to be a Roanoke girl. Lane ran, far and fast. Until eleven years later, when her cousin Allegra goes missing - and Lane has no choice but to go back. She is a Roanoke girl, but is she strong enough to escape a second time?
My take: 4.5 / 5
If you liked Gone Girl, this female character driven family drama is guaranteed to be right up your alley. One hell of a page turner, Roanoke Girls is well-written and kept me guessing until the very end. Snapping back and forth between past and present – Lane’s first summer in Kansas as a rebellious youth and her current-day traumatic return – the pace never lags. Characters are well-written and the story is skilfully told, the mysteries being unwound bit by bit. A book just begging for a film adaptation and I, for one, can’t wait.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (Jane Austen, 1813)
Arguably Jane Austen’s most famous and beloved novel, Pride & Prejudice centres on one of literature’s greatest heroines, Elizabeth Bennet. Due to their father’s entailed estate, it is imperative that at least one of the five Bennet sisters marry well in order to support the others on his death. The novel revolves around the importance of marrying for love, not simply for money, despite the social pressures to make a wealthy match. Charting the emotional development of the protagonist, Elizabeth learns the error of making hasty judgements and comes to appreciate the difference between the superficial and the essential, in the form of Mr Darcy. Be still my beating heart.
My take: 5/5
I am absolutely ashamed to admit this was my first ever experience of reading Jane Austen. Having watched – and becoming obsessed with – the BBC adaptation as young as five, reading the novel somehow just never happened. As a result of Miss Austen’s face being added to the £10 note this year, I felt guilt every time I paid with cash, and decided this simply had to change. Perhaps it’s because of my love for the miniseries that I loved the book so much, but I think that was only a small part of it. Despite knowing what was just around the corner at every turn, Austen’s writing is absolutely delightful and her characters charming. A genuine pleasure to read.
STATION ELEVEN (Emily St. John Mandel, 2014)
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theatre troupe known as the Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains – Station Eleven charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.
My take: 4/5
If I was to write a one-word review for this book it would be ‘unique.’ Station Eleven is an original, other-worldly gem that tells of a ‘could be’ future. I strongly felt shades of the film ‘Babel’ as I was reading, in which four seemingly un-connected characters unknowingly shape each other’s fate. A truly fascinating story.
THE GIRLS WITH SEVEN NAMES (Hyeonseo Lee, 2015)
An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom. As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family. This is the unique story not only of Hyeonseo’s escape from the darkness into the light, but also of her coming of age, education and the resolve she found to rebuild her life – not once, but twice – first in China, then in South Korea. Strong, brave and eloquent, this memoir is a triumph of her remarkable spirit.
My take: 4/5
I love books’ ability to transport us into worlds unknown; not just those which are fictional, but those which we are never otherwise able to experience, within our own world. Stories like this one are not only powerful, they are essential. The transcend otherwise impassable borders, and they are a key tool in education. I often had to remind myself that what I was reading was not a made-up story, but in fact someone’s personal account. I found this to be not only absorbing, but a deeply humbling and inspiring read.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE (Margaret Atwood, 1985)
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
My take: 4.5/5
Most people will recognise this title as one of the year’s most popular TV series, however I didn’t watch this as I actively wanted to read the book first, and I’m so glad I did. It's not hard to get hooked on cautionary tales such as this which give a gloomy prediction of a turn our world could take if we’re not careful. Not only is this a gripping story, but it is skilfully told, and I could barely put it down I can’t wait to watch the adaptation now!
THE WOMAN ON THE STAIRS (Bernhard Schlink, 2014)
For decades the painting was believed to be lost. But, just as mysteriously as it disappeared, it reappears, an anonymous donation to a gallery in Sydney. The art world is stunned but so are the three men who loved the woman in the painting, the woman on the stairs. One by one they track her down to an isolated cottage in Australia. Here they must try to untangle the lies and betrayals of their shared past - but time is running out. A story about creativity, love, the effects of time, and the regrets that haunt us all.
My take: 3/5
I picked this book up based on two factors: A) it was by the author of The Reader which I LOVED and B) the summary alone, which I thought sounded fantastic. Unfortunately, the book itself fell sadly short of expectations. While the plot I still feel is a fantastic one, I found the characters frustratingly un-relatable and unrealistic, with countless moments in the story brushed over rather than delved into in any significant way, making the end result something I found hard to invest in (the polar opposite to A Little Life, below).
A LITTLE LIFE (Hanya Yanagihara, 2015)
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity. This coming of age story spans decades, in which their relationships deepen and darken. Yet each comes to realise their greatest challenge is Jude himself, by midlife a talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
My take: 4.5/5
Fair warning, this book isn’t for everyone – its subject matter is hell of heavy, and it is seriously long, making it quite the undertaking. Having spoken to several people about it, it seems extremely divisive, with readers either loving or hating it; I was of the former conviction. I’m not sure I’ve ever been taken on a more emotional roller-coaster throughout the course of a novel, but personally I found it a deeply satisfying read; the kind where you think about the characters for weeks after finishing, and feel a strange void after finishing. Hard to get through, but utterly rewarding.
FLAWED (Cecilia Ahern, 2016)
Celestine North lives in a society that demands perfection, and she lives a perfect life. She’s a model daughter and sister, she’s well-liked by her classmates and teachers, and she’s dating the impossibly charming Art Crevan. But then she encounters a situation in which she makes an instinctive decision, threatening everything she holds dear. Will she be branded as Flawed and lose all her freedoms? In a society where perfection is paramount and mistakes are never forgiven, Celestine takes a stand that could cost her everything.
My take: 4/5
I read this book on the recommendation of a friend, and went in with the knowledge it was every inch the Young Adult fiction novel, meaning I easily accepted some of the more romanticised sequences I would generally scoff at. While the writing may not always be top notch, the dystopian society in which it is set kept me hooked; it echoed classics such as Brave New World, or more modern bestsellers such as The Hunger Games series or a personal YA favourite, Noughts and Crosses. Flawed is the first of a duo, so it leaves you very much hanging for the sequel... which I’m yet to read but certainly keen on.