Books of the year 2017

  1. The Angel and the Cad by Geraldine Roberts

This non-fiction book explores the life of Catherine Tylney Long, the wealthiest heiress in Regency England and beloved ‘angel’ of the public. Ignoring the warnings of her closest confidantes, she married for love, her choice the charming but selfish William Wellesley Pole. Roberts tells a fascinating story of the first celebrity couple, whose every action was detailed in newspaper gossip columns. Catherine was a fascinating woman; fiercely intelligent and beloved by everyone she met, she nevertheless had a fatal blind spot when it came to her husband. Although the pace occasionally flags, there are enough twists and turns to keep you enthralled.

‘Catherine captured the hearts of the public because fame and fortune did not turn her head; in fact she remained so unpretentious and sweet-natured that she became known as ‘the angel’.’

  1. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This enchanting fairy tale is set in the wilderness of northern Russia, where old beliefs in sorcery and folklore are gradually being ousted by the church. Young Vasya is the only one who can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods. With a beautiful, otherworldly atmosphere, lyrical writing and a feisty heroine, this fairy tale for adults has shades of Angela Carter and is completely gripping.

‘All my life I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come’. I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.’

  1. The Good People by Hannah Kent

Set in Ireland in 1825, this bleak but beautiful novel follows widow Nóra’s attempts to discover what is wrong with her young grandson Micheál, who cannot speak or walk. Kent’s writing is startling and moving and she effortlessly creates an immersive world in which folk beliefs control all aspects of everyday life. Uncomfortable and heart-wrenching at times it may be, but Kent succeeds brilliantly at doing just what historical fiction is supposed to do: plunging you into an entirely different world that somehow feels familiar.

Alarm ran through her and she looked down at the child, his hair copper in the firelight. She was grateful that he slept. The boy’s difference did not show so much when he was asleep. The keel of his limbs slackened, and there was no telling the dumb tongue in his head.’

  1. In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

Dunant’s latest novel picks up where her first novel about the infamous Borgias, Blood and Beauty, left off. Rodrigo sits the Papal throne as Alexander VI, Lucrezia is travelling to the home of her soon-to-be third husband, and Cesare is marching through Italy on a campaign of conquest. Dunant is a fantastic writer and effortlessly blends fiction and historical fact to create a visceral and entertaining read, plunging you headfirst into 16th century Italy.

‘The speed and ferocity of the rise of the Borgia family have taken everyone by surprise. Of course Rome has had unscrupulous popes before, men who quietly favoured the fortunes of their ‘nephews’ or ‘nieces’. But this, this is different.’

  1. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Not only does The Silent Companions win the prize for most beautiful cover of 2017, but the gothic ghost story within is also wonderfully atmospheric. Set in 1866, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling estate with only her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. Billed as a ghost story inspired by Shirley Jackson and Susan Hill, I can confirm that this truly chilling tale is creepy enough to send a shiver down your spine on even the warmest days.

‘She had seen things beyond the comprehension of his small, scientific brain. Things he would deny were possible until they stole up beside him and pressed their worn, splintered hands against his.’

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  1. The Dry by Jane Harper

An alternative to all the Scandi-noir novels populating the shelves of crime fiction came in the form of Jane Harper’s The Dry. A masterful debut novel set in a small town in Australia, we follow Aaron Falk as he returns to his hometown for the funeral of a friend, who seemingly committed suicide after murdering his wife and son. The searing heat and tense, claustrophobic atmosphere leap from the pages and the mystery at the heart of the novel will keep you gripped until the very end.

‘The space was the thing that hit them first. There was so much of it. There was enough to drown in. To look out and see not another soul between you and the horizon could be a strange and disturbing sight.’

  1. Lost Boy by Christina Henry

I bought this Peter Pan prequel completely at random, unaware at the time that I was picking up what would become one of my favourite books of the year. You might think you know the story, but Henry’s version has little in common with the Disney film; this fairy tale retelling has edges sharp enough to cut and the Peter Pan in this book is one of the most frightening characters I’ve ever read. Reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, with its claustrophobic atmosphere and threatening undercurrents, this fantastic story will plunge you headfirst into a horrifying world of blood and loyalty, twisting and turning as it hurtles toward its thrilling, inexorable end.

Those who didn’t listen so well or weren’t happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn’t want his adventures.

  1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Sunday Times bestseller, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and winner of WH Smith’s fiction book of the year, this is one of those books that you might think has been overwhelmed by critical praise only to fall short when you finally get around to reading it. You would be wrong. This quirky novel about a woman who has barricaded herself behind the words ‘I’m fine’ manages to be both heart-wrenching and laugh-out-loud funny. At first I admit I found it hard to get along with the rather socially inept Eleanor, but the more you get to know her the more you’ll fall in love with her story, and you’ll be bereft when you turn the final page.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a woman who’s wholly alone occasionally talks to a pot plant, is she certifiable? I think that it is perfectly normal to talk to oneself occasionally. It’s not as though I’m expecting a reply. I’m fully aware that Polly is a houseplant.’

  1. Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Parry’s debut novel is a masterclass in historical fiction. Effortlessly interweaving the story of three strangers whose lives become intertwined, the sights and sounds and smells of 19th century New York come alive on the page. The imagery and atmosphere is so rich and detailed that you’ll be surprised when you look up and find yourself in the 21st century. Add fantastic characters and a gripping story on top of that, and you have a wonderfully bizarre and unique story that will completely capture your heart.

‘We assume that our sight is reliable, that our deeds are straightforward, that our words have one meaning. But life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns. So onstage we remind them just how extraordinary the ordinary can be.’

  1. The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

This is a very difficult book to categorise; it’s a mystery, thriller, romance, horror, ghost story and crime novel all in one. It is set in a future in which the Elysian Society offers its clients the chance to reconnect with their dead loved ones by channelling them through living ‘Bodies’. Edie is regarded as the best Body in the team, but everything changes when Patrick, a distraught husband, comes to speak to his drowned wife. With shades of Rebecca, The Handmaid’s Tale and with a plot like an episode of Black Mirror, this story of obsession and grief knocked me breathless and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick. The colour is exactly wrong for me. Deep, ripe plum, nearly purple, the type of harsh shade that beautiful women wear to prove they can get away with anything.’


Dark Peter Pan retelling has edges sharp enough to cut

Lost Boy by Christina Henry

Those who didn’t listen so well or weren’t happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn’t want his adventures.

Peter brings Jamie to his island because there are no rules and no grownups to make them mind. He brings boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper then a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Peter promised they would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies.

I picked up Lost Boy in Waterstones without ever having heard of it or its author before. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special, but I haven’t been this excited to write about a book in a long while. This Peter Pan prequel turned out to be one of those unexpected reads that comes out of nowhere and completely knocks your socks off.

This is a brilliant novel. Fairy tale retellings are 10 a penny but this one is different; it has edges sharp enough to cut and will keep you up way past your bedtime. Henry creates incredible suspense – even though everyone already knows the story – so that you’re never sure what is just around the corner, or waiting on the next turn of the page.

Our narrator is Jamie, a boy who has been living on Peter Pan’s island for as long as he can remember. During all those years of never growing up, Jamie has looked up to Peter, has loved him with all his heart and trusted him always. But things are changing on the island, and Jamie starts to see Peter in a new light.

The Peter Pan of this book is one of the most frightening characters I’ve ever read. He cares only for fun and games, for adventures and laughter, but what matters to him most is that the other boys all adore him. The moment one of them starts to doubt him is the moment they no longer matter to him, and there are plenty of ways on the island for a careless boy to disappear.

Lost Boy is strongly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, with its group of boys trapped on an island, the captivating claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense that something very, very bad is just seconds away from happening.

In Henry’s hands the sugar-sweet Disney-fied version of Peter Pan becomes a terrifying portrait of a ‘mad child’ whose idea of fun is killing pirates and watching boys fight to the death. The other boys are little more than toys that he picks up and puts down as he wishes, but he is so charming and brave that they can’t help but love him. Only Jamie understands Peter’s true cruel, manipulative nature, but even he isn’t immune to Peter’s influence.

I would highly recommend this book. Even if you’re not usually a fantasy fan, the characters and gripping storytelling will plunge you headfirst into a horrifying world of blood and loyalty, twisting and turning as it leads you to its thrilling, inexorable end.