My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

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Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

54 thoughts on “My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

  1. Col

    There’s lots on this I’ve never read so will use those as recommendations! Of those I have read I liked Age of Innocence and Deep Water ( though not as much as Mr Ripley) and I loved those Christopher Isherwood stories.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great – I hope you get a chance to read one or two of them at some point. The Isherwood Berlin stories are great, aren’t they? More than twelve months on, I can still picture the scene where he meets Sally Bowles for the first time. What a fascinating character she turns out to be.

      Reply
      1. Lady Fancifull

        Hah! Lots – but the Yates, the Hughes, the Highsmith, the Manning – novels by authors who spoke strongly to me, but I have not read these…TBH the whole bundle particularly based on the ‘I also LOVED these’ of the Isherwood, the Jackson, the Hamilton.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Marvellous! I think you would really like Deep Water. There are definite similarities with The Talented Mr Ripley, but it is very much its own novel too (if that makes sense). From what I know of your reading tastes, the Yates and Manning would suit you too. And the Hughes is just so well written – maybe not quite as strong as In a Lonely Place or The Expendable Man as it was more a case of ‘right book, right time’ for me, but it really hit the spot.

          Reply
          1. Lady Fancifull

            Tempter, thy name is JacquiWine. I have clicked the Highsmith to my Kindle – whose TBR is GARGANTUAN at the moment. If I had the same attitude to food as I do to books (eyes MUCH bigger than the time-for book tummy) I would be cosmos sized

            Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How timely! Isn’t it funny how things work out like that. Have you been reading the Yates recently? I’ll drop by in a little while.

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I’m so happy you put this together Jacqui and at a time when there aren’t other lists being published. That’s disappointing about the translations, but great that you found so many character driven voices that made up for it. It’s interesting to wait a little longer also to see which novels really have stayed with you.

    Patrick Hamilton sounds like he’s becoming one of your favourites, I see you have another on your shelf still to read, I wonder if it’ll be as good as the others you’ve read. Sounds compelling and the kind of book where you want to shout at the character to get over his obsession and move on, but then that wouldn’t make great literature would it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. This post has been sitting in my draft folder since December, and revisiting it at the weekend I found I still felt the same way about all of the books – they really have stood the test of time (well, 6-12 months at least). The lack of translations here did surprise me a little – but then again I’ve been veering towards a lot of British writers from the mid-20th century for a while now, so maybe it’s not so surprising after all. The other books in translation that deserve a shout-out are a couple of noirs by the French writer Frederic Dard: Bird in a Cage and The Executioner Weeps, both of which are very good – short, tight and suitably intriguing.

      Patrick Hamilton is great – and yes, he’s definitely becoming a favourite. He captures the seedy atmosphere of those smoke-filled London bars so well. I only hope I can get back to him at some point this year.

      Reply
  3. Simon T

    Better late than never! And what a wonderful selection of books – One Fine Day is one of my all-time favourites, and the Comyns, Manning, Jackson, von Arnim – so many authors and books I love.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed! One Fine Day was a wonderful discovery for me, a book I very much doubt I would have found without various recommendations from friends on the blogosphere. It’s good to see we have so many so many favourite writers in common – your ‘club’ events have helped with this, I must admit.

      Reply
  4. Tredynas Days

    Barbaras Pym and Comyns are favourites of mine, too, and I enjoyed several of the others here. I thought the Yates stories were weaker than Revolutionary Road. Have yet to read P Hamilton- one day.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. Barbara Pym is such a delight, isn’t she? I know I’m in for a treat when I start one of her books.

      Revolutionary Road is a modern classic, an amazing achievement for a debut. However, possibly somewhat controversially, I actually prefer The Easter Parade – it has a subtlety and quietness that really appeals to me. One or two of the stories in Loneliness reminded me of that novel, so that might have something to do with its place in my list of last year’s favourites. Either way, I really liked the sense of diversity in that collection – there were lots of different facets of ‘loneliness’ and isolation to explore.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, it was your enthusiastic review that prompted me to buy the Keun. (Well, that and Grant’s championing of one or two of her other books.) Cheers for the nudge – I’m very happy to have experienced her for myself at long last.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    This is,a fabulous list with several books on it that I have really loved. You’ve manager to include several of my favourite writers. Also there are at least a couple of books there I would like to read. Hangover Square particularly appeals.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. I thought this list would strike a chord with you! We seem to have a lot of favourites in common these days, which is nice to know. Hangover Square is absolutely brilliant, quite dark and twisted in a good way (if that makes any kind of sense). Plus, it’s definitely your kind of era/setting – I’d love to see what you think of it. I’m pretty sure you’d like the Keun too – it could be a good one to bear in mind for the future, especially if you’re aiming to read a few more books in translation this year.

      Reply
  6. Emma

    It’s good to have you back.
    Great list!
    I loved Hangover Square, The Age of Innocence and Enchanted April.
    I’m very tempted by the Shirley Jackson.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I’m not sure how often I’ll be dipping into the blogosphere going forward. Nothing much has changed since I was in touch with you earlier this year, so it’s just a case of seeing how things go over time. Irrespective of that, it’s nice to be back – I’ve really missed the interaction and camaraderie around here.

      The Shirley Jackson is excellent. Such an intriguing, mercurial book with a narrator quite unlike any other (she has such a distinctive voice). I think you’d like it a lot.

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    Many wonderful reads Jacqui! I’ve not read Hangover Square but it’s in the TBR and I’m tempted to move it to the top as it may be your read of the year. I thought 20,000 Streets Under the Sky was excellent so I’m really looking forward to reading it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely. Yes, do bump the Hamilton up the list, especially as you enjoyed 20,000 Streets so much – that’s a book I still need to get to, but I can imagine it being another excellent read. It’s good to see that he’s still of interest these days.

      Reply
  8. MarinaSofia

    Wonderful list, with many of my favourites on there – and some which are on my TBR list (like Hangover Square). Most certainly better late than never! I am really glad to have you back.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Marina. It’s nice to be back even if my presence around here is likely to be somewhat sporadic. I’m glad you’ve been reminded of a few favourites here – it’s good to revisit some old friends every now and again.

      Reply
  9. BookerTalk

    I thought you had been quiet lately and wondered if some glitch had occurred in my blog feed. Lovely to hear from you again and with a list that includes many books I really want to read…. if only there were more hours available. Do you keep all the books you read – I assume so otherwise how would you put that photo together? I try not to keep books now unless they are very special

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. Yes, I do keep most of the books I read, especially the ones I’m particular fond of. In some ways, they stand as a sort of record of my recent reading as I don’t blog about every single book I read – I’d never find the time!

      Reply
  10. Sarah

    I read Deep Water last year too – snap! Isn’t it dark? I do love me some Patricia Highsmith. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s so good when it comes to capturing that undercurrent of menace, the darkness that lurks beneath the surface of a seemingly respectable/upstanding character. I’m glad you enjoyed it too.

      Reply
  11. Guy Savage

    Nice to see you back, Jacqui: I’ve read One Fine Day, The Age of Innocence, Ride the Pink Horse, The Shooting Party, Hangover Square, The Enchanted April & Crampton Hodnet. To think of all those read in one year … well it’s a marvellous thought.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Guy. It’s good to be back even though my presence on the blogosphere might be a bit sporadic going forward. Yes, it was a great year reading-wise. I’ve missed out on so many wonderful books over the years, so I’m trying to make up for lost time. The Hamilton was probably my highlight, although The Age of Innocence came pretty close. I still need to read The Custom of the Country, which I think is a favourite of yours?

      Reply
  12. 1streading

    It’s a great list for me as I haven’t read a single book on it! In fact, with both Richard Yates and Irmgard Keun you’ve included the only book of theirs I haven’t read. I think my most immediate aim is Barbara Comyns though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fantastic. And there was I thinking you’d read ALL of Richard Yates! Seriously though, I’m sure you would enjoy Eleven Kinds of Loneliness – some of the stories are textbook Yates while others reveal a slightly different side. I found the element of variety very refreshing.

      The Keun is excellent too, as is the Comyns. I would be fascinated to see what you make of her. I’ve tried and failed a couple of time with The Vet’s Daughter (too strange for my tastes!), but I loved Spoons.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the Jackson. Funnily enough, I have a copy of The Haunting of Hill – it’ll probably be my next by her.

      Reply
  13. Scott W

    It’s never too late for such a list (from one who’s always late with such a list). So many enticing titles on here. I’m reading Manning now – The Balkan Trilogy – and loving it. The Hamilton caught my interest when you reviewed it last year. Taylor, Comyns and Pym are already permanent additions to the jukebox; I’m almost certain to read another one sometime this year (having finished Taylor’s A View of the Harbor in January). Oh, and I’ll read anything connected to Anita Loos, so the Keun I must get to.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely. I have Manning’s Balkan Trilogy on the pile, so maybe later this year – I’ll just have to see how things go over the next few months. The Keun is definitely a book I would recommend to you – and the edition from Other Press is so beautifully produced, it would be a fine addition to any discerning reader’s shelves. A truly marvellous book.

      Reply
  14. Caroline

    Indeed, better late than never. A wonderful list. The best thing, those I haven’t read yet are mostly in my piles already and those I have are all favourites of mine as well. I particularly loved One Fine Day and am looking forward to reading the Taylor novel.
    Isn’t there cruelty against animals in Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. I got it but someone warned me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. Hopefully you have some treats to look forward to there. One Fine Day is wonderful isn’t it? It all feels so effortless and fluid and yet I’m sure that must have taken a lot of skill and planning to achieve.

      I don’t recall any cruelty against animals in Spoons, but then again my memory is not the best these days especially when it comes to specific details in books. There’s certainly a lot of cruelty towards Sophia on the part of Charles, but I can’t remember if they had any pets – if so, they may well have borne the brunt of some of Charles’ frustrations. On a related note, I’ve tried and failed to get very far with Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter on a couple of occasions. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some examples of animal cruelty in that one, particularly given the tone of the opening – I found it pretty disturbing.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I think she mentioned the Vet’s daughter too. And that it was minor in Spoons but she knows I’m extremely sensitive when it comes to animals.m
        One Fine Day is splendid.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I think it must be relatively minor or fleeting in Spoons as I’m struggling to recall it! The Vet’s Daughter could well be a different kettle of fish though. I would definitely pause for thought before considering that one…

          Reply
  15. Naomi

    It’s nice to see you, Jacqui! And it’s nice to see a list like this pop up in the middle of the year. Many of these are on my radar, thanks to you and a few others. Someday I will get to them… one book at a time! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Naomi. Yes, a few people have said that it’s interesting to see a ‘best of’ list at this time of year as it’s a chance to reflect on which books have held up well in the memory and which have fallen away. I’m pretty happy with this list, so hopefully you’ll get a chance to try one or two of them at some stage. :)

      Reply
  16. Mr. Wapojif

    Great blog, I just read An Evening With Claire last week and Goodbye To Berlin recently as well. Now I’m heading to Goodbye to All That by Graves, so it seems anything with “goodbye” in the title will do right now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha. That sounds like a good plan. Maybe you could move on to Goodbye Mr Chips once you’ve finished with the Graves, just to continue the trend!

      Reply
  17. Pingback: The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith | JacquiWine's Journal

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