The best books of 2017: the 20 best novels

Okay so of course that one by George Saunders that won the Booker is among the best 20 novels of 2017 – but what were the others? Funny you should ask!

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Penguin, $26)

The novel for our times. It’s a sci-fi feminist allegory of a society in which women are in charge, and dispense their brutal, degrading punishment to the weaker sex as they see fit. Reviewed at the Spinoff by Andra Jenkin.

Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, $29)

Naenae noir. Straight outta Naenae. Last exit to Naenae…Actually the latter one really is apposite; Gnanalingam’s novel shares a similar feverish temperature as Hubert Selby’s classic Last Exit to Brooklyn, as he crafts a story about a Sri Lankan woman who has to try and battle a flood in the Hutt Valley to get to downtown Wellington, where she works as a cleaner. It’s set during one night and culminates in a phantasmagorical ten-page stream of consciousness. Longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand national book award – and it’s the Spinoff’s pick to win it, because this is surely the best local novel of 2017 by a long stretch. No other novel comes close to achieving such a close examination of life in New Zealand right now.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (Bloomsbury Circus, $27)

Sour Heart begins with a sentence that lasts for a page, and which involves a young girl unblocking a toilet by mashing a bowel movement into tiny pieces, because the apartment she and her parents live in is so derelict that no part of it functions. This sets the tone for the whole short story collection, which focuses on a group of young Chinese girls who have immigrated with their parents to New York City. Sour Heart is many things – funny, wacky, sad, disturbing – while also being a rich account of growing up as an immigrant, and growing up female. Reviewed at the Spinoff by Sam Gaskin.

Baby by Annaleese Jochem (Victoria University Press, $30)

Jochems’s darkly comedic debut signals the arrival of a terrifying talent. Auckland princess and potential psychopath Cynthia and Anahera, a gorgeous fitness instructor who has no idea of what’s about to hit her, leg it to Paihia and buy Baby, the charmingly run-down boat that serves as the claustrophobic setting for the novel’s chilling finale. Beach-read perfection. Reviewed at the Spinoff by Louisa Kasza.

La Belle Sauvage: Book of Dust Trilogy by Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books, $35)

The first book in Pullman’s fantasy trilogy sets out a masterpiece in progress. It’s aimed at younger readers but hardly exclusively; this is a dark book, an examination of inner, personal daemons, which take shape and sometimes take charge.

Milk Island by Rhydian Thomas (Lawrence & Gibson, $23)

Baroque, perverse satire of the Fifth National Government. Thomas writes like if the boy who drew cocks in all the school textbooks grew up to be Lenin. It’s got Dave Dobbyn, pagan orgies, and political sobriety. A funny, brutal book.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Canongate, $23)

A truly invigorating blast of fresh air, longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, over 233 pages there is not one full-stop in this book. Sounds audacious and unreadable but as a result it reads like a beautifully pitched and immersive long prose poem. Set in a small Irish town on All Souls’ Day, a deceased civil engineer looks back on the events in the lead-up to his death. A novel of civil duty, the environment, technology, politics and economics, fans of JG Ballard will love this.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (Fourth Estate, $39.99)

Tallent’s debut novel follows a 14-year-old girl called Turtle as she begins to pull away from her father, who is both charismatic and highly abusive and controlling. Many have used the term “gratuitous” to describe this book – the scenes of sexual and physical abuse, as well as the danger that the environment presents in various occasions are certainly abundant – but My Absolute Darling presents an honest picture of the realities of long-term abuse. It is also – incredibly – a book with gorgeous descriptions of the surroundings of northern California, and some of the best funny, silly passages you’ll ever read.

Black Marks on the White Page edited by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti (Vintage, $40)

This anthology of Oceanic writing should be on every bookshelf. It’s a gorgeously produced book, with stories and novel extracts that roam the world in tone and style and subject, and which challenge us to “expand our perception of the Pacific World”. Highlights include an extract from Tusiata Avia’s forthcoming novel, Victor Rodger’s typically frank writing, and stories from Ngāi Tahu writer Nic Low, one of the most exciting voices to come out of Christchurch in recent years. To round it off, beautifully reproduced artworks from the likes of Shane Hansen and Lisa Reihana pop on the page and make this one of the most essential New Zealand books of the year. Reviewed – and essayed upon – at the Spinoff by Paula Morris.

Sleeps Standing/Moētu: A Story of the Battle of Orakau by Witi Ihimaera, translated by Hemi Kelly: (Penguin, $32.99)

There isn’t enough literature in te reo Māori for adults. Not enough of us know anything about the New Zealand Wars and legendary battles like Orakau. What can be done? This book: a side-by-side English and te reo version of a novella about the most dogged, conniving, heroic and doomed battle of the Waikato war, with a contemporary frame and gripping battle-scene story, plus testimony from the survivors.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru (Hamish Hamilton, $48)

Kunzru’s novel follows a couple of white New York hipsters who release a rediscovered song by blues legend Charlie Shaw, who never existed. Or did he? A smart, spooky read that tackles the theme of appropriation and provides a sharp critique of modern pop culture, but wraps them up in a thrilling, inventive narrative. Why the fuck didn’t this make the Man Booker list?

This is Memorial Device by David Keenan (Faber, $36.99)

In a good year for music books, This is Memorial Device by the Scottish writer stood out. His novel appears as a loose and unreliable oral history of a doomed and obscure music scene in the early 1980s with the band Memorial Device as a Joy Division-like legend. It’s driven by an ambivalent nostalgia for when you were a teenager stuck in some godforsaken place and life was elsewhere. We might relate but was anywhere in New Zealand ever quite as grim as the Airdrie that people call “a dump, a horror show, an asylum”?

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, $33)

Saunders is a short story master, but his first brilliant, idiosyncratic novel reveals how well his boundless imagination, psychological insight, wit and playfulness with form can translate to the larger stage. Set in a graveyard on one night in 1862, President Lincoln mourns his young son and the rowdy assembled ghosts comment, bicker and rage against the dying of the light. Reviewed at the Spinoff by Wyoming Paul.

The New Animals by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press, $30)

Best satirical novel of the year. Who’d have imagined that a story about disagreeable fashionistas and hairspray could be so invigorating? Self-important Auckland hipsters and their shitty recycled minimalism are skewered in the first half of the book, and in the second the realities of real estate and ecological apocalypse are confronted side-on through surreal fantasy.

Tess by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press, $25)

The young woman of the title encounters Lewis, a grieving husband, in a small town in the Wairarapa and becomes entangled in his family troubles. McDougall writes with wisdom and insight and with spare prose that nails human emotions and landscape beautifully. Atmospheric, intriguing, page-turning. Reviewed at the Spinoff by Holly Walker.

Flow: Whanganui River Poems by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press, $30)

We interrupt this list of 20 novels to bring you the year’s two best books of verse! Flow is Beautrais’ fourth book, but it feels like some sort of breakthrough. The writing here is more relaxed than in her earlier work, but without any loss of social and political commitment. The poems all feel richly contemplated, and just as richly crafted.

The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx by Tara Bergin (Carcanet, $26) 

Irish poet Tara Bergin’s second collection is an oddly entertaining set of poems about masks and performance, loosely centred on the daughter of Karl Marx, who committed suicide in 1898 and was also the first translator of Madame Bovary. Brilliant stuff.

Midnight Line by Lee Child (Bantam, $38)

We resume our list of the year’s best novels with the latest fucken-A Jack Reacher thriller by Lee Child. Reacher doesn’t go looking for trouble. He just sort of stumbles across it. He hits people, really hard….You’ve read it before and you’ll want to read it again. Reviewed at the Spinoff by  Danyl Mclauchlan.

Iceland by Dominic Hoey (Steele Roberts, $35)

Grey Lynn noir. The surprise local hit novel of the year; Hoey crowdfunded the publishing of his debut book, set among Auckland’s inner-city bohemia, and created an energetic, funny, raw-ish novel which was a welcome departure from the national house style as set by the Sunday writers class aka the IIML.

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin, $37)

De Kretser’s cast of Sydney hipsters are delightfully awful, and she skewers them to perfection. Set in a lushly-painted Sydney, it features an ensemble cast of hideous literati such as Pippa, a novelist whose need to obliterate her own bogan beginnings – and feelings about migrants who don’t seem “grateful enough” – clashes with her online social-justice warrior persona.

A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre  (Viking Penguin Random House, $37)

Pretty much the immaculate spy novel.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (Chatto & Windus, $37)

Intense US novel which slowly, agonisingly reveals something awful that happened to a couple with two kids.Idaho is completely absorbing, reveals more and more of its layers and allusions with each reading, and manages to be both horrifying and hopeful at the same time”: Kim Hill, the Spinoff Review of Books.

Chosen and/or reviewed by Joseph Barbon, Steve Braunias, Kiran Dass, Louisa Kasza, Rachael King, Tilly Lloyd, Bill Manhire, Dr Paula Morris, Wyoming Paul, and Philip Matthews.


The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.

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