Best books for presents
Muddy's pro-bookworm Kerry Potter gives us her literary picks of the year. Is your favourite on the list?
Don’t make me choose, don’t make me choo…. oh, you made me choose. I’ve read a LOT of brilliant books this year but after endless agonizing I’ve distilled things down to my top 10 tomes of 2017 (they’re in no particular order, by the way).
Hopefully you’ll find my edit useful for Christmas present planning but also as a prompt to catch up on the brilliant writing you may have missed during the year, when our insane-in-the-membrane lives tend to get in the way of that wonderful old-fashioned pleasure of getting stuck into a good book. I really hope you can carve out a sliver of time over the festive period to escape your family, turn off your phone, shut the door, hunker down on the sofa and get lost in another world – it really is quite the tonic.
Finally, I know these kind of lists create all sorts of heated debates – I haven’t included 2017 biggies from Alan Hollinghurst, Zadie Smith or Philip Pullman, for example. So if I’ve left out your personal favourite, feel free to berate me in the comment box below…
Don’t Be A Dick, Pete by Stuart Heritage
Awww, brotherly love. Stuart Heritage is a mimsy Guardian journalist who writes about fatherhood, while his younger brother, Pete, is an Iron Man alpha male who admires Danny Dyer. “Pete and I have vastly different skill sets,” writes Stuart in this fantastic family memoir-cum-riff on modern masculinity. “I like reading; Pete has read 15 books in his life and all were ghostwritten footballer autobiographies. We wouldn’t be friends if we weren’t brothers.” It’s properly laugh-out-loud funny but affecting too – and will chime with anyone who ever wound up their brother so much said brother tried to stab them with a huge kitchen knife while their mum was out (I’m looking at you, Jon Potter).
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
I absolutely loved this quirky debut novel when it came out in the spring and it’s since been picked up by Reese Witherspoon for her book club and optioned by for a movie adaptation. Eccentric and awkward, 30-year-old Eleanor is basically your classic office weirdo or the wallflower you hope you don’t get trapped with a party – not that she’d ever go to parties. At first you snigger at her strangeness, before gradually evolving into her cheerleader once you realize why she is the way she is. It’s a charming, hilarious, poignant book, it’ll encourage you to be kinder and it’s unlike anything else you’ll read this year.
The Wild Other by Clover Stroud
Local Oxon author and newspaper journalist Clover told us about her favourite places earlier this year to mark the publication of her brilliant, moving memoir. No one could ever accuse Clover of being boring – she mooched round Ireland with travellers in her raver days, was a cowgirl in Texas and spent time in a war-torn corner of Russia. Oh, and she’s had five children. Overshadowing all of this is one horrific life-defining moment – the catastrophic horse-riding accident suffered by her mother when Clover was just 16. Horses are an enduring motif through the book and you’ll gallop through this one with tears in your eyes.
How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn
Now there’s a book title after my own heart. My husband got in a bit of a huff when he clocked me reading this in bed but while it’s an inflammatory pitch, the content is actually eminently useful and sensible. Rolling Stone writer Dunn explores how you can ensure that your relationship doesn’t drop to the bottom of the to-do list once nippers are on the scene. There’s loads of genuinely new advice from various experts and academics – I especially liked the chapter about how to make your weekends not seem like one big tedious chore-fest. And unlike many self-help books it’s hilarious – at one point Dunn takes advice from an FBI hostage negotiator on how to defuse domestic arguments.
This Is 40 by Tiffanie Darke
I wonder if you’re a Generation X-er like me; sandwiched between the far noisier millennials and baby boomers, too busy juggling a million things to think much about generational demographics? If so, you’ll find this an engaging read. Darke, ex-editor of The Sunday Times’ Style, unpicks this cohort, interviews its major players, and traces how we’ve evolved from our ’90s salad days. (Spoiler: then – optimism and hedonism. Now – obsessed with our wonky work-life balance and wishing we could party like its 1999). Her trawl through ’90s cultural touchstones – Kate Moss, Britpop, Alexander McQueen, raves, Euro ’96 etc – will make you sigh with nostalgia. It was good in the olden days, wasn’t it?
Little Deaths by Emma Flint
One of the buzz debuts of the year, this was the talk of Twitter, as well as landing an endorsement from literary titan Donna Tartt. The hype was justified. Based on a true crime story, it’s a ‘60s New York-set thriller, centred around mesmerizing femme fatale Ruth Malone, who reminded me of Joan from Mad Men. When her two young children go missing one summer night, Ruth is the prime suspect – after all, the hedonistic glamour-puss doesn’t act like a normal mother, does she? Journalist Pete Wonicke, however, isn’t convinced by the police’s open and shut case. A gorgeously written exploration of how society expects women to behave – and the terrifying consequences if they fail to conform.
The Story Of The Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture by Paul Gorman
Reading The Face as a teenager made me want to be a journalist but anyone who grew up in the ’80s or ’90s with an interest in pop culture will find plenty to love here. Gorman takes a forensic look at the iconic style magazine that launched in 1980 and documented all that was cool in music, fashion, celebrity, photography and art for two decades. There are revealing interviews with ex-editors, hundreds of spreads and covers to pore over, and era-defining photography, including Corinne Day’s famous black and white shots of a teenage Kate Moss. Coffee table cat-nip, basically.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Fan of Toni Morrison? Like your fiction to be highfalutin’? Look no further. This hit debut begins in 18thcentury Ghana, with two half-sisters whose lives play out in starkly different ways: privileged Effia marries a British slave trader, while Esi is brutalized, sold and shipped to America. Through a series of character vignettes, the narrative traces the next six generations of their bloodlines, through the Southern cotton picking plantations to ‘60s Harlem civil rights protests to present day. Gyasi writes so beautifully about such ugliness, while deftly squishing an epic tale into just 300 pages.
The Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick
I adored ex-physicist Sedgwick’s dazzling debut literary novel, The Comet Seekers, a critically-acclaimed, super-smart love story that’s anchored in an Antarctic scientific research centre but spans centuries and multiple locations. Her new one is just as brainy and ambitious. It’s set in an alternate reality where anyone can grow a baby in a biotech pouch, a situation that liberates women from the potential dangers of childbirth and breaks down the barriers to having a family, but also poses many murky moral questions. Protagonists Eva, a campaigner, and journalist Piotr, her ex, join forces to investigate pouch provider FullLife in a story that’s as personal as it is philosophical. Clever stuff.
Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett
Speaking of hits, Barnett’s debut novel The Versions Of Us (think One Days meets Sliding Doors) was a huge one in 2015, this follow-up is a doozy too. Sprawling and epic, this unpicks the thrilling, moving life story of Cass Wheeler. A reclusive Kate Bush-esque ’70s rockstar, she’s hiding out in her Kent country pile after a life-changing tragedy, pondering her past as she attempts to create a greatest hits album. The writing is so evocative, you’re there with Cass every step of the way, from rags to riches, from stage to hotel room, through all the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. And if you crave an encore, there’s an accompanying album; a collaboration between Barnett and singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams.
ALSO… I know you made me choose 10 but I wanted to very quickly flag up a few other 2017 titles that come highly commended. How Not To Be A Boy by actor Robert Webb (Jez in Peep Show) is part memoir part musing on toxic masculinity and made me both guffaw and weep (sometimes at the same time), while Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is not a new book but has dominated best-seller lists this year. I’m not surprised – it’s mind-blowing, engaging and far more accessible than you’d expect from an academic book subtitled The Brief History of Humankind about what it means to be a human. Meanwhile, life isn’t exactly going swimmingly for Alexandra Heminsley in Leap In, a poignant, deeply personal memoir about both learning to front-crawl and trying to have a baby. And finally, a children’s book – but what a children’s book. Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls by Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli is a book of the year for both me and my 8-year-old daughter. These gorgeously illustrated mini-biographies of cool, heroic, pioneering women through history are an utter joy – and hammer home the point that girls can do ANYTHING they damn well choose with their lives. From Coco Chanel to Amelia Earheart to Malala to Serena Williams, our nightly bedtime dive into these inspiring tales are the undisputed highlight of my day. What’s more, a sequel is promised soon. Buy it for every little girl you know.