The 100 Best Books of 2017

by The Listener / 07 December, 2017

Make the most of your break over the Christmas holidays. Here’s a shopping list of the year’s best reading, compiled by books editor Russell Baillie and the Listener team.

Illustration/Chris Slane

Illustration/Chris Slane

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Fiction

4321 by Paul Auster (Allen & Unwin)

Weighty first book in seven years from the venerated New York writer, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker. It tracks four different paths in the life of Jersey boy Archie Ferguson as he comes of age in the 1960s.

American War by Omar El Akkad (Knopf)

Egyptian-born Canadian journalist offers a fascinating dystopian novel set in a late 21st-century America ravaged by global warming and a north-south conflict.

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Viking)

The title character of Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton from last year returns, sort of, in a novel set in her rural Illinois hometown. The book dedicates each chapter to an elegant study of a local resident and their bruised lives.

Baby by Annaleese Jochems (Victoria University Press)

Terrific, subversive debut novel with memorably monstrous lead character Cynthia, a narcissistic Auckland princess who runs away to the Bay of Islands with her fitness instructor, buys a boat and sails into dark, surreal waters.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore (Hutchinson)

Final book by English novelist Dunmore, who died in June, is one of her best. Set in 18th-century Bristol, it’s centred on a second wife unsettled by the fate of her predecessor.

Broken River by J Robert Lennon (Graywolf Press)

Beautifully written novel that’s part paranormal thriller, part portrait of a shaky marriage, part real-estate cautionary tale about a Brooklyn family buying a backwoods house with a dark history.

The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton (Allen & Unwin)

Electrifying debut novel traversing Egypt’s 2011 revolution and counter-revolution, centred on an activist group trying to tell the world what is happening on Cairo’s tear-gassed, blood-stained streets.

Decline & Fall on Savage Street by Fiona Farrell (Vintage)

Eloquent sequence of intensely human stories all connected to the same Christchurch villa, stretching from its construction in 1906 to the post-earthquake era.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (HarperCollins)

The story of poor, solitary Eleanor might suggest a life of quiet despair, but this debut is a heart-warming tale with a promise of emotional rescue.

First Person by Richard Flanagan (Knopf)

Australian one-time Booker winner delivers dark, pleasingly complicated story about an author ghost-writing an autobiography of an elusive Melbourne conman.

Fletcher of the Bounty: A Novel by Graeme Lay (4th Estate)

Entertaining, imaginative retelling of the life of the legendary Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian that focuses on his long, complex relationship with Captain William Bligh.

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)

Richly entertaining epic satire laden with irony and the anxieties of the era. Rushdie riffs on the rise of Trump, packs on the movie allusions and dissects New York as if this was an update of The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Heloise by Mandy Hager (Penguin)

Wellington writer delivers a meticulous retelling of the story of Peter Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil and how the 12th-century lovers became France’s most famous early pen pals.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury)

Gripping novel about three London Muslim siblings, finding their lives upended by being the children of a jihadist father they barely knew and a sister’s love affair with a British politician’s son.

The Hope Fault by Tracy Farr (Fremantle Press)

Quietly brilliant second novel by Wellington writer about the complications of a blended family that risks fracturing during one last hurrah at the clan’s holiday home.

Human Acts by Han Kang (Allen & Unwin)

South Korean writer acclaimed for The Vegetarian follows up with a captivating novel examining the country’s infamous 1980 Gwangju student uprising.

Iceland by Dominic Hoey (Steele Roberts)

Striking debut novel from Queen City poet-rapper offers authentic account of inner-city bohemians trying to make their mark in a rapidly gentrifying central Auckland.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (Vintage)

Brilliant, brutal and beautifully written debut that starts in psychological-thriller territory with an act of senseless violence by a mother against her child, but becomes a haunting meditation on love, loss and memory.

Johnson by Dean Parker (Steele Roberts)

Playwright Parker’s hectic, rewarding sequel to Man Alone, in which the hero of John Mulgan’s 1939 Kiwi classic meets his maker – crossing paths with Mulgan himself while fighting in Greece.

The Last Hours by Minette Walters (Allen & Unwin)

Queen of the contemporary psychological thriller abdicates throne in impressive style with a historical novel set during the Black Death in 14th-century Britain. As suspenseful as anything she’s written.

Leap of Faith by Jenny Pattrick (Black Swan)

Historical-novel specialist uses the 1907 construction of the Makatote Viaduct in the central North Island to frame a riveting story of a teenage bridge worker and a conman priest.

Lifting by Damien Wilkins (Victoria University Press)

Beautifully crafted tale about the death of a department store and how its staff, including the resident detective, Amy, find themselves reassessing their lives.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury)

Saunders won the Man Booker with this audacious, funny and moving account of Abraham Lincoln mourning his son delivered as a story told mostly by ghosts observing from beyond the grave.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Corsair)

A Visit from the Goon Squad author heads to 1930s-40s New York and brings back astonishing novel of mobsters, shipyards, a missing father, revenge and deep-sea diving.

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker)

Japanese maestro is at his best in this collection of short stories about blokes perplexed by the opposite sex.

Mrs Osmond by John Banville (Viking)

Respected Irish author offers the year’s best performance of literary ventriloquism with a sequel to Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady that is both homage to the 1881 original and a fine novel in its own right.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (4th Estate/HarperCollins)

Engrossing, thrilling, grim coming-of-age tale about 14-year-old Turtle who is growing up, feral, self-sufficient but abused by her survivalist father in remote Northern California. A triumphant debut.

The Necessary Angel by CK Stead (Allen & Unwin)

Deeply literary tale of a NZ-born English professor on a sojourn in Paris written with a joie de vivre that helps make this Stead’s best novel since All Visitors Ashore.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Head of Zeus)

Captivating saga of a Korean family caught between their native land and life as unwelcome immigrants in Japan.

Rotten Row by Petina Gappah (Faber)

Delightful if often sad collection of short stories named for the Harare precinct housing the city’s criminal courts. Gappah, a lawyer turned writer, offers a profound glimpse of Zimbabwean life.

See You in September by Charity Norman (Allen & Unwin)

English 21-year-old holidays in NZ, splits with boyfriend, joins cult in the backblocks while parents attempt a rescue from afar. A tense page-turner with spot-on characterisation.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury)

Author of 2011’s acclaimed Salvage the Bones returns to fictional Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage for the extraordinary tale of a deprived family, and their ghosts, dealing with one of their kin’s return from prison.

Sleeps Standing: Moetū by Witi Ihimaera with Hēmi Kelly (Vintage)

Ihimaera’s novella bears witness to the Battle of Ōrākau, during the New Zealand Wars in the Waikato, through the eyes of 16-year-old Moetū. With a parallel translation by Kelly, it’s a bittersweet story unapologetically told from a Māori perspective.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Canongate)

Irish writer’s gorgeously musical novel comes delivered in a single sentence, recounting the thoughts of a man sitting at his kitchen table as his life flashes before him.

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador)

Affecting, blackly humorous, stylishly written fifth novel by past Man Booker winner. It spans three generations from 1940s Oxford University to modern London while showing how the lives of gay men have changed across the decades.

Spoils by Brian Van Reet (Jonathan Cape)

Former US soldier delivers an intense and illuminating depiction of the Iraqi War in a debut novel that centres on a female US Marine held prisoner and her jihadist captor.

Crime & Thrillers

The Destroyers by Christopher Bollen (Simon & Schuster)

Fine, atmospheric literary thriller set on a Greek island where a young American has gone to inveigle a rich childhood friend to give him money, but soon finds himself a murder suspect.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly (Allen & Unwin)

Veteran crime writer launches compelling new character, stuck-on-nightshift LAPD detective Renee Ballard, in a gritty first outing that has her investigating a mass shooting in a Hollywood nightclub.

The Long Drop by Denise Mina (Harvill Secker)

Scottish crime writer Mina’s elegant and fascinating thriller about 1950s Glasgow serial killer Peter Manuel.

My Name Is Nobody by Matthew Richardson (Michael Joseph)

A tale of MI6 vs terrorist double agent espionage that is gripping, tense and head-spinning.

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner (Borough Press)

Again, showing her talent for concise characterisation, Steiner delivers an enthralling second outing for Detective Manon Bradshaw as she investigates a London banker’s murder.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (4th Estate)

A mystery about the disappearance of a little girl while on holiday with her parents in England’s Peak District that neatly overturns conventional thriller expectations.

Politics

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen (Ebury Press)

Spirited and provocative history-filled explanation of how America’s bonkers-to-others “exceptionalism” led the country to elect Donald Trump president.

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Riverhead)

The award-winning biographer of Vladimir Putin explains through the lives of four Russians how and why the country is heading back to autocracy.

New Zealand's Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key by Michael Bassett (David Ling Publishing)

Colourful, detail-packed treasury of our past leaders in which historian and former Labour Cabinet minister Bassett shows the rich variety of disparate personalities who have led our democracy.

No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein (Allen Lane)

Klein’s urgent call to arms against the “gang of scandal-plagued plutocrats” and their leader in the White House. Unlike most books on Trump, this ends on a positive note.

The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce (Little Brown)

Financial Times columnist on why the values of democratic liberalism in the West will remain in peril until it can refashion an economy that works for most of its people.

History

Fearless by Adam Claasen (Massey University Press)

Impressively illustrated volume about Kiwis serving in British air squadrons during WWI. It tells of the odds stacked against those fighting the first air war while relating ripping Biggles-worthy yarns.

Good-bye Maoriland: The Songs & Sounds of New Zealand's Great War by Chris Bourke (Auckland University Press)

A search for the music that marched NZ into World War I becomes an evocative panorama of army life and a study in how waiata, singalongs and concert parties brought succour to those on the frontlines.

The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees (Viking)

Former head of BBC TV history programmes offers nuanced account of Hitler’s Final Solution, charting how Germany fell for the Führer’s anti-Semitism and how that led to the deaths of six million Jews.

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor​ (Scribe)

Indian politician Tharoor cuts through the gauzy romanticism in modern histories of the Raj, meticulously detailing the crimes and misadventures of the British Empire’s centuries on the subcontinent.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (Simon & Schuster)

New Yorker magazine writer heads to 1920s Oklahoma to uncover the dark and riveting story of the oil-rich Osage Indians living under a reign of terror.

 

The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World by Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro (Simon & Schuster)

Yale law professors make a persuasive argument that the 1928 Pact of Paris, a multilateral treaty between nations effectively outlawing aggressive war, was a cornerstone of the liberal internationalism that is once more under threat today.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes (Hachette)

Not so much history book but a wonderful, colourful biography of the city that was Byzantium, then Constantinople, then Istanbul.

Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson (Scribe)

Enlightening history about how Occupied Europe, its exiled leaders and British-based free forces kept up the fight against Nazi Germany.

Make Her Praises Heard Afar by Jane Tolerton (Booklovers Press)

An effort to address the lack of recognition of women in our WWI histories, this is a meticulous chronicle about many of the female New Zealanders who did their bit as doctors, nurses, frontline ambulance drivers, Red Cross workers and more.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney (Jonathan Cape)

Vivid, multidisciplinary account of a pandemic that killed as many people as WWI and WWII combined.

Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Allen Lane)

Powerful account of how Stalin engineered the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, which left four million dead, with seasoned Russian history writer drawing parallels to Vladimir Putin’s campaign against the former Soviet republic today.

Six Minutes in May by Nicholas Shakespeare (Harvill Secker)

Novelist-turned-historian makes fascinating work of the question: How did Winston Churchill, who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, botched the Royal Navy’s defence of Norway against the Nazis, become Prime Minister?

Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand by Chris Brickell (Auckland University Press)

University of Otago academic Brickell’s evocatively illustrated and accessible social history of what it was like to be an adolescent in Aotearoa through the ages.

Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds by Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins (Bridget Williams Books)

Insightful and entertaining biography of Ngare Raumati chief Tuai, who was one of the first Māori to visit Britain, after sailing from his native Bay of Islands in 1817.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg (Atlantic)

An absorbing history of the American underclass, stretching from the indentured workers of the New World to the redneck supporters of Trump.

Life stories

Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster)

A Muhammad Ali bio that largely puts aside a blow-by-blow history of Ali the fighter and goes behind the gigantic persona and hero-worship to find Ali the man.

The Beat of the Pendulum – A Found Novel by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press)

Novelist follows her Ockham-winning The Wish Child with a left turn – a curiously absorbing chronicle of a year in her life, delivered as a context-free patchwork of conversations, emails, soundbites, social-media chatter and the like.

Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford (HarperCollins)

Esteemed US novelist turns to memoir, pondering his contrasting memories of his mother, who lived to a ripe old age, and his father, who died when the author was 16.

Drawn Out: A Seriously Funny Memoir by Tom Scott (Allen & Unwin)

Scott’s thoroughly entertaining (the political bits) if bittersweet (the personal bits) autobiography surveys a colourful life and creative career that has stretched from political cartoonist and columnist to scriptwriter for screen and stage.

Driving to Treblinka by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press)

Wichtel’s search for what happened to her Holocaust-survivor father is a quietly devastating and often amusing memoir of a fractured family that shines a light into its cracks.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell (Hachette)

Irish novelist O’Farrell’s intriguing memoir tallies her multiple near-death experiences, ranging from escaping a murderer to various medical misadventures.

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster)

Biographer of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs delivers another rigorous study of genius in what is a beautiful book structured as a series of essays on da Vinci’s many obsessions.

The Mighty Franks by Michael Frank (4th Estate)

Hollywood-raised writer’s powerful, eloquent memoir of his unconventional upbringing under the wing of his overbearing and controlling screenwriter aunt.

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy (Little Brown)

Beautifully written account from New Yorker writer of heart-breaking loss, yet it’s not at all doomy or gloomy.

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan (Viking)

Deep and fascinatingly gossipy study of Rolling Stone magazine founder-owner Jann Wenner turns out to be the most sex, drugs and rock and roll biography of the year.

Theft by Finding: Diaries Volume 1 by David Sedaris (Little Brown)

Amusingly absurd highlights of American humorist-essayist’s diaries from 1977 to 2002 that chart a path from his lost years as a heavy drug user to successful middle-aged writer.

Modern life

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Allen & Unwin)

The Bulgarian-born, Scotland-based author, whose writing career started in New Zealand, delivers a captivating piece of travel writing spiced with history from her wanderings through the troubled lands of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

The High Road by Colin Hogg (HarperCollins)

It may have had the intent of reporting back on life in the legal stoner states of the US, but like the writer’s previous Angel Gear and Going South, this is another dryly humorous tale of mates on the road.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (Constable & Robinson)

Second book this year by US feminist intellectual (after short story collection Difficult Women) is an extraordinary memoir about the trauma that sparked her overeating and being fat in a culture that constantly reprimands you for it.

Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing to Us by Will Storr (Picador)

Looking for explanations for the rise of narcissism and an increase in self-harm, journalist-novelist Storr takes us from ancient Greece to the self-esteem evangelists of 1980s California. Highly entertaining.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (Simon & Schuster)

Journalist Finkel’s gripping, thought-provoking study of hermit Christopher Knight, who opted for 27 years of solitude in a New England forest before being dragged back to civilisation.

Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz (John Murray)

Shanghai-based American journalist goes looking for the real China and finds it among the residents of the neighbourhood in which he lives.

Art & literature

Every Word Is a Bird that We Teach to Sing by Daniel Tammet (Hodder)

A fascinating voyage into language by Tammet, an autistic savant for whom words and numbers have shape, colour, texture and sometimes motion.

Simply by Sailing in a New Direction: Allen Curnow: A Biography by Terry Sturm. Edited by Linda Cassells (Auckland University Press)

Towering figure in our literature gets towering biography – Terry Sturm’s overview runs to 732 pages, delivering the definitive study of Allen Curnow, great New Zealand poet and writer’s writer.

A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield's Wellington 1888-1903 by Redmer Yska (Otago University Press)

Historian retraces formative years of the young Kathleen Beauchamp, discovering her first published story and positing that her Wellington childhood had a stronger influence on her adult writing than previously thought.

Strangers Arrive: Émigrés and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930-1980 by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press)

Illuminating look back at the refugees and émigrés who brought modernism to our cultural shores – largely absent from our art and architectural historical record until now.

Undreamed Of ... 50 Years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship by Priscilla Pitts and Andrea Hotere (Otago University Press)

Great writing, beautiful design, important photographs – a highly readable insight into the fellowship that cultivated New Zealand art.

Science & Nature

The Ascent of Gravity: The Quest to Understand the Force that Explains Everything by Marcus Chown (Hachette)

Gravity may be the least-understood force in the universe, but cosmologist Chown ably tackles the abstract with clarity and humour.

Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism by Bill Schutt (Profile)

Humans are cannibalistically inventive, but the animal world is truly brutal when it comes to gobbling kith and kin. Fascinating.

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde (Simon & Schuster)

Norwegian author’s enjoyable and enlightening cautionary ecological tale intertwines three apian stories across 250 years.

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini (4th Estate)

Science writer Saini picks up the gender thread with her tour through periods of discovery and shows that inequality permeates sex studies from start to finish and continues today. 

RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Philip Hoare (4th Estate)

Hoare’s ode to oceans is lyrical, odd, indulgent, unputdownable. If you are going to write a history-soaked, literary-pilgrimage nature book, this is the way to do it.

The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature's Great Connectors by David George Haskell (Black Inc)

US scientist-cum-poet Haskell has produced a second arboreal book that, like his first, The Forest Unseen, is eloquently written and an even deeper meditation on ecology.

Tamed: Ten Species That Changed Our World by Alice Roberts (Hutchinson)

Prof Roberts, whose last book made an epic story of embryonic development, explores 10 wild species that we subdued and domesticated – including ourselves.

Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds by Cordelia Fine (Icon)

Fine’s cutting, dry-humoured critique of the myth that inequality of the sexes is somehow biological rather than cultural.

Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History by Philip Simpson (Auckland University Press)

Thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated tome full of the science behind the ancient tōtara, its conservation and its role in Māori culture.

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (Penguin)

Moneyball and The Big Short author Lewis brings his clear-eyed ability to tell engaging stories about arcane worlds of numbers to his study of the partnership of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, trailblazing psychologists and pioneers in behavioural economics.

Sci-fi

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (Penguin Random House)

Absorbing brain-teasing time-travel tale about a man who journeys back from a utopian flying-car future to find he might like our defective present better.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Hachette)

Big Apple sinks to new depths in this ambitious epic that imagines a city still functioning after a 15m rise in sea levels, but with its inhabitants caught up in age-old political conflicts.

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Penguin)

A smart, thrilling, feminist dystopian tale with echoes of Margaret Atwood. When teenage girls develop an ability to spark electricity from their hands, the capability more than evens the odds in the battle of the sexes.

Star Sailors by James McNaughton (Victoria University Press)

A worryingly convincing picture of how runaway climate change may affect New Zealand 30 years hence, complete with a space-alien prophet turning up in Hokitika.

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow (HarperCollins)

Tech-thinker and digital-rights activist’s riveting return to grown-up sci-fi contemplates a near-future in which folk have decided to opt out of participating in a capitalist economy.

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (Simon & Schuster)

Brainy book about space travel that doesn’t actually blast off but follows a virtual mission to Mars for three astronauts spending 17 months in a spacecraft simulator. More psych-fi than sci-fi.

This article was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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