It’s that time of year when broadsheets and literary magazines start rolling out their Best Books of the year. So, not to be outdone, the Turnaround Marketing Team add our voices to the fray, in the first of our ‘Best of ‘ lineups, giving you the lo-down on the fiction that most floated our boats in 2017…
An Unkindness of Ghosts (Akashic Books)
An incredibly written, brilliantly imaged novel, this is (I think) the only scifi book I’ve read this year, but probably the best one I’ve read. Ever. Author Rivers Solomon has been deservedly compared to Octavia Butler and China Miéville, but to me this novel is in a league all of its own. Set aboard the HSS Mathilda, a colossal space ship that’s segregated by race and class, this book tells the story of medical officer Asta as she struggles to overcome the confines of birth and solve the mystery of her mother’s death.
As a God Might Be (Dodo Ink)
An absolutely staggering novel in every sense of the word. At just over 600 pages long, I raced through it in 2 days – the sheer brilliance of the writing and an unexpected plot ‘twist’ utterly absorbing me. This epic novel combines a dissection of faith, society, family and love as it tells the story of Proctor McCullough, who, despite having no previous religious conviction, is compelled to leave his family to go and build a church on the outskirts of a remote southern village, where he is assisted by a band of local misfits. I would never usually choose to read a ‘religious’ novel but this defies any and all convention.
We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press)
A contemporary re-telling of King Lear set in India… if that doesn’t make you want to read it then what will?! Told through five distinct narrative voices, the prose is arresting and hypnotic. The modern-day Indian setting works insanely well with the Lear parent text, telling the story of the three daughters – Gargi, Radha and Sita – of business tycoon Devraj, and the two sons – Jivan and Jeet – of his right-hand man, Ranjit. Even 6 months after reading this novel I am still awash with the wonderful delirium that reading it inspired!
Lightswitches Are My Kryptonite (Honno Welsh Women’s Press)
I still remember being handed the A4 printed manuscript of this novel after being assured by the publisher of its outrageousness and promised by our sales director that it was wonderfully filthy. It is a wild and wacky, thoroughly audacious novel (that also happens to beautifully written) about a boy named Sylvester who has OCD. I also read author Crystal Jeans’ first book, Polari prize shortlisted The Vegetarian Tigers of Paradise (published 2016), a semi-autobiographical novel about her childhood, which also had me roaring with laughter, cringing, and revelling in the shared pop culture experiences, such as playing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – specifically the heart-ripping-out bit – in the playground at primary school. I loved both books and can’t wait to see more from this author – one of the most genuinely exceptional, hilariously funny, and brilliantly spot-on writers I’ve ever encountered.
Attrib. and Other Stories (Influx Press)
I used to think I didn’t like short stories much, but I bloody loved this surprising and shockingly good collection. The stories are all about the incredible intricacies and bewildering affects of language and love and they are – every single one of them – miraculous. Being a reader is, at least for me, so much about seeing your own utterly inexpressible thoughts and feelings put into words by someone else, and Eley Williams manages this with such aplomb it takes your breath away.
We Were Witches (The Feminist Press)
A real star of my year, this book blew me away. The story of a young, queer, single mother raising herself and her baby daughter out of poverty, via education, by feasting of the subcultural feminist influences of Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olsen and Kathy Acker. This book defies simple explanation or description, so please believe me when I say it is an astounding work.
And, because I simply can’t confine myself, an extremely honourable mention to some of the other wonderful books that I’ve loved so much this year: The Island of Point Nemo (Open Letter Books), The Hotel Tito (Seven Stories), An English Guide to Birdwatching and The Favourite (both Myriad), UnAmerican Activities (Dodo Ink), The Night Ocean and The Hike (both Penguin USA).
New American Best Friend (SCB – Button Poetry)
There’s something about poetry that makes it at once timeless and a mouthpiece for the current state of things. Olivia Gatwood’s collection – that gained widespread attention through the spoken word scene – is a poignant reflection that is feminist throughout. There are some really beautiful poems inside this book, and if picked up at the right time, they have the power to speak to you authentically.
Eastman Was Here (Viking Press)
This is one of the first books I read while here at Turnaround, and I loved the punchy style with which it opens and maintains throughout. The narrator isn’t the most forgiving of Eastman, our not-so-loveable protagonist. But his flaws and the honesty with which they’re presented is what makes this book so great. I wasn’t really on Eastman’s side, but that didn’t make my reading experience less enjoyable – if anything, it made it more enjoyable.
The Stolen Bicycle (Text Publishing)
This is a cross between literary and commercially accessible fiction, which means it marries the best of both worlds. With a significant story involving journey and travel (by bike), and a narrative voice that gets mixed with emails and conversations, The Stolen Bicycle is a quick read despite its perhaps intimidating size. There also isn’t much Taiwanese translated fiction floating about, so that’s cool too.
Lucky Boy (Putnam)
This was one of the first fiction titles I read this year, but the story has stayed with me. Lucky Boy follows two contrasting experiences of motherhood and immigration: Kavya the second generation immigrant, who lives a comfortable middle class existence in a sought-after area, but is unable to conceive a child, and Soli, who makes her way across the Mexican border illegally, before giving birth to her son in America. Despite its familial focus this novel avoids cooing and sentimentality, instead exploring the untempered ocean of grief, desperation and rage brought on by the loss of a baby. There are no heroes here, instead Shanthi Sekaran forces the reader to grapple with the legal and moral implications of who has a right to a child. This book will tear you apart.
Book of Formation (Melville House)
I finished the Book of Formation just before Taylor Swift revealed her new look to the world, and I feel obliged to say that Ross Simonini is a genuine fortune teller, and we should all be afraid: he predicted the new p that came out of her most recent turn with SUCH precision! If that sentence made no sense, I know you aren’t involved with the cult of personality explored in the Book of Formation… yet! The book is a series of interviews between the narrator, who becomes obsessed with the newest self-help hit, and a mysterious child who grows up in the midst of it, gradually becoming the new leader. It is a fine-tuned, experimental wonder, a weird ol’ rollercoaster from beginning to end. Very intriguing, VERY GOOD.
Eight Ghosts (September Publishing)
This was published just in time for Halloween, but these stories would be just as spooky read on a clear, bright day, sat outside the Dover Castle or Eltham Palace! Eight Ghosts is a chilling compilation of short stories from superstars of the British literary scene – Mark Haddon, Sarah Perry, Max Porter – each one based on an English Heritage site. Don’t look too hard at the painting that will make you utterly detestable to your loved ones, and try not to fall into any portraits… The stories are in parts compelling, moving, and downright sinister, and would be ideal for those interested in ghost stories, English history or both. I’m not sure if I should be visiting each site to explore the setting of each story, or to run, arms flailing, as far from them as possible.
The Last Days of Magic (Penguin USA)
Magic was real once. Not just an idea presented in stories but something which was used as an everyday resource… but if it was real, what became of it? In medieval Ireland, twins Anya and Aisling are due for their coronation, to fully awaken their goddess powers. Things don’t quite go to plan though… a battle between magic and religion is brewing and there are no good outcomes to be had. A vast and dazzling display of characters and creatures come together, along with their history and lore in this audacious and fantastical adventure. All fans of fantasy and modern fairy tales will love The Last Days of Magic. Find out more here
2084: The End of the World (Europa Editions)
This is a tribute to Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four – set in the distant future, 2084 presents itself as a cry of protest against totalitarianism of all kinds. In this time, citizens submit to a single god, free thoughts and remembering are forbidden, and surveillance monitors their every move. The story follows Ati who thinks differently from the rest, but he must defend his thoughts with his life, or lose them forever. Similarly to Nineteen Eighty-Four this is a work of pure fiction… or is it? Could it foreshadow the future we may have to one day live? A powerful satire; one which will no doubt make you question the world we live in today.
The Sinner (Bitter Lemon Press)
A dark haunting novel that explores memory and the effects of repressed trauma; originally published in 2007, this incredible novel has been republished this year to coincide with a new Netflix adaptation. When Cora Bender unexpectedly kills a man, the police commissioner investigates further to find out the reasons behind her spontaneous and violent act, unearthing horrific secrets in the process. If you’re looking for an engrossing and thrilling narrative then pick up The Sinner: it’s unpredictable, gripping and a page turner – you’ll keep flicking through the pages until you’ve reached the end of the book and then you’ll be begging for more.
Castle Cross the Magnet Carter (Seven Stories Press)
This is about the closest to a masterpiece I have read in years. It’s a total reading event. It follows the lives of two pairs of brothers, one black and one white, from 1941 to the twenty-first century. It’s completely epic, dealing with the civil rights movement, with war, with political chaos, with family, with relationships, with love. Kia Corthron was a writer on The Wire; if you’ve seen The Wire you can get a sense of how good this is. She is a playwright by profession, and that really comes through in the dialogue; the characters are some of the best-realised I’ve read.
How to Survive a Summer (Blue Rider Press)
When Will Dillard was a teenager, he was sent to a gay conversion camp in the Mississippi countryside. What happened there has haunted him ever since, making it impossible for him to lead a normal life. When someone makes a horror movie about the camp in the present day, Will finds he has no choice but to confront his past. How to Survive a Summer is not an easy read in places, but it is masterfully written – Nick White has perfected a kind of contemporary southern gothic that feels heady and disorientating while being entirely sharp and insightful. It’s rare to read a novel that features characters across the LGBTQ spectrum – Will’s new love interest is a transman, while his best friend is a lesbian. Overall, it reads like a wholly modern queer novel, which is surprisingly rare.
Things to do When You’re Goth in the Country (Seven Stories Press)
As a former goth from Yorkshire, I was won over by this spectacular looking book just from the title. It’s a collection of short stories about being a weirdo, about the people who live on the fringes of American society in the modern world. It’s set in small town America and contains characters that should have left but instead remain in places they don’t belong. It features queers, zombies, punks, drugs, and endless cigarettes. It’s completely captivating, very unique, and resoundingly timely.
New People (Riverhead)
New People is a one of the oddest novels I’ve read in a long time – in the best possible way. It follows Maria, who is about to get married to her university sweetheart Khalil while writing her dissertation about the Jonestown massacre. Everything Maria knows she should want lies before her, but she can’t stop daydreaming about a slam poet who lives in the neighbourhood, eventually going somewhat mad in her pursuit of him. The book isn’t really about a love triangle though. It’s about identity, race, class and what is deemed socially acceptable. It’s written in a very impersonal, starched tone which makes it seem a little sinister, which I found very enjoyable.
Honourable mentions: We had a lot of incredible fiction to choose from this year, so my other picks (some of which have been chosen already) are: Marriage of a Thousand Lies (Soho Press) by SJ Sindu – a novel about coming out as a lesbian in the confines of a conservative Sri Lankan family. I think the only Sri Lankan queer novel in English I know of to date? We Were Witches – the total group favourite of the Turnaround marketing team, see above. The Hotel Tito – a slim but powerful novel that follows a Croatian young girl growing up through the Yugoslav war.