Best books of 2017 part one

Funny, outrageous, touching, intimate, gorgeous writers from George Saunders to Ali Smith pick their favourite reads of the past year

John Banville

The Once and Future Liberal; There Your Heart Lies; Angel Hill


The Mark Lillas The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (Harper) has annoyed a great many people in the US, though its message is nothing but common sense: in the age of Trumpery, nothing can be done for vulnerable minorities unless liberals get themselves elected to positions of influence. An urgent and important book by one of the clearest and most inspired political thinkers of the day. There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon (Pantheon) takes us back to an earlier time of crisis, the 1930s and the Spanish civil war, and an American womans experiences in it. A thoughtful, provocative and beautifully written novel. Michael Longleys Angel Hill (Cape) is at once elegiac and celebratory, and achingly beautiful. Longley has honed his poetry to the bone, but how the bone does shine.

Nicola Barker

Becoming Myself; All Things Remembered; Wonder Beyond Belief


All Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrists Memoir (Piatkus) by Irvin D Yalom. When Yalom publishes something anything I buy it, and he never disappoints. Hes an amazing storyteller, a gorgeous writer, a great, generous, compassionate thinker, and quite rightly one of the worlds most influential mental healthcare practitioners. All Things Remembered (Faber) by Goldie. A fabulous, whirling kaleidoscope of music, memory and trauma. Top highlights: when Goldies boa constrictor decides to try to eat him after he staggers home from the pub smelling like a kebab; and when his favourite piece of custom-made jewellery is stolen right from under his nose by dodgy Russian airport officials. Magical and cautionary. Navid Kermanis Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity (Polity). Iranian-born, German-bred, Muslim novelist/intellectual Kermani travels the globe looking at significant (and not so significant) Christian artworks. This truly is one of the best books Ive read in years: funny, outrageous, touching, intimate, glorious.

William Boyd

Insomniac Diaries; David Bowie: A Life; Fasting and Feasting


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As a Vladimir Nabokov completist, I could not resist Insomniac Diaries: Experiments with Time (ed. Gennady Barabtarlo, Princeton). Over a period of a few weeks in 1964 Nabokov wrote down his dreams, nightly. Here they are not random narcoleptic scribblings but direct pellucid access to the great mans unconscious. Utterly fascinating. Dylan Jones made absolutely the right decision to frame his superb life of David Bowie as a multi-voiced oral biography. David Bowie: A Life (Preface) suits the shape-shifting, beguiling, enigmatic complexities of its subject perfectly. Its hard to imagine anything that will do Bowie better justice. Patience Gray (1917-2005) is the great original British cook and food writer. Her rackety, reclusive life is brilliantly realised in Fasting and Feasting by Adam Federman (Chelsea Green). This book will establish Gray as a wonderfully eccentric and visionary one-off. She is the British MFK Fisher there can be no higher praise in literary/culinary circles.

Gordon Brown

Lincoln in the Bardo; Autumn; A Legacy of Spies; Dare Not Linger



Spending much of the year writing a book of my own has left me with a deeper and more personal understanding and sympathy for the challenges confronting authors. In fiction, I was impressed but challenged by the originality and scope of George Saunderss Booker-winning story of grief and empathy, Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) and enjoyed Ali Smiths Autumn (Hamish Hamilton) (and now look forward to her Winter), but I would opt for John le Carrs A Legacy of Spies (Viking), not least for Smileys dramatic and surprising closing revelation of his reason for a life-time of spying and lying. In autobiography, Nelson Mandelas Dare Not Linger (with Mandla Langa, Macmillan) cannot rival Long Walk to Freedom he died with it unfinished but it reveals the struggles, setbacks and frustrations that to this very day thwart the progress of Africa. And Branko Milanovis much underestimated Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Harvard), now being published in many languages, tells us more than any other recent book about the state of the world we live in and, at a time when hope is so urgently needed, offers us thought-provoking insights into the world we could become.

Roddy Doyle

To Die in Spring; Anything is Possible; Reservoir 13


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The war is almost over, the Russians are getting nearer and two young men join the SS. A bad career move, but To Die in Spring is a wonderful, precise, very moving novel by German author Ralf Rothmann (Picador, translated by Shaun Whiteside). Anything Is Possible (Viking) is predictably great because its written by Elizabeth Strout, and brilliantly unpredictable because its written by Elizabeth Strout. I like most of the books I read but, now and again, I read one I wish Id written myself. This year its Reservoir 13 (4th Estate), by Jon McGregor. Its structure, pace, detail, tone, humanity its a quiet masterpiece.

Jennifer Egan

Bystanders; Lincoln in the Bardo; Swing Time


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Short story and thriller tend to be incompatible genres, but not in the hands of Tara Laskowski. Bystanders (Santa Fe Writers Project) is a spooky, quirky collection reminiscent of Roald Dahl: a mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills. In Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders has somehow managed to write a historical novel that hews deeply and movingly to archival fact while also being an all-out crazy spectacle of his own invention. Abraham Lincolns visit to his young sons grave becomes the locus of a whirl of dialogue from around the cemetery: a puzzling, hilarious vortex of invention that only Saunders could pull off. The novel made me feel intimate with Lincoln, and that particular moment of history, in a way I never had before. Female friendship has become a literary focus in recent years, and Zadie Smiths take on the subject in Swing Time (Hamish Hamilton) is my favourite. Tracing the evolution of a childhood friendship into adulthood, she bracingly portrays the compromises and bargains we all eventually make. Smiths idiosyncratic gaze and keen, supple prose transform and elevate everything she touches.

Anne Enright

After Kathy Acker; Bluets; Midwinter Break



It used to be Plath, but now some part of every girl writer will want to be like Kathy Acker, especially those who are interested in pain; whether pain as kink or pain as artistic production. Her life was a hot mess, and these pages capture the heat of it. After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus (Allen Lane) is hectic, less than objective, very much alive. A cooler, more serene take on the subject is to be found in Bluets by Maggie Nelson (Jonathan Cape), recently published in the UK for the first time. This discussion of the colour blue is a gorgeous read, almost religious in the way it defaults to the beautiful and the sublime. Addiction, religion and beauty are also themes in Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty (Jonathan Cape). This reads like a book about a long-married, monogamous couple on a city break in Amsterdam. Actually this is a book about a long-married, monogamous couple on a city break in Amsterdam. What has that got to do with the sublime? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Bernardine Evaristo

When We Speak of Nothing; Kingdom of Gravity; Why Im No Longer Talking to White People About Race


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