Read To Win

An author read over 180 books in 2017 and picked her favourites (some of which are quite old)

Writer Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan selects the best books she read this year, from children’s fantasy to crime novels.

In 2016, I set myself a reading challenge on Goodreads to read 200 books. I’ve got to admit, I struggled with that number last year. For whatever reason, I wasn’t reading as much as I normally did. So, slightly humbled by how genuinely hard it was, I set a lower target this year – 150. By November 25, my count was about 182.

I read across the board this year, following different series to their completion and trying to challenge myself as much as I could. This is not to sound smug. I’m actually a little alarmed at how something I used to do with ease and pleasure, without really thinking about it, has become the target for an actual goal. When you bring a step count into it, as it were, are you really reading?

The flip side – and the reason I signed on for a “challenge” in the first place – is that it lets you log and rate each book you read. This is very useful, because I now know what I loved even way back in January, which brings me to the best books I read in 2017. I did consider making it just books published in 2017, but I read so many wonderful authors who were published years ago that I thought it would be nice to share all my discoveries. I’ve slotted it by genre, and since I read some more than others, you’ll see a lot more books in that category. Also, I’m counting series or books written by one author as one entry and not multiple. Let’s get started!

My favourite mystery/detective novels

It’s funny and when I say “funny” I mean “interesting” that a lot of great crime novels are by women. Take Agatha Christie or Gillian Flynn, for example. Maybe it’s because women can imagine crimes against women a lot more easily than men can (since it’s what most women do every day of their lives?). My top two books in this category are both actually series. The first is Kate Atkinson with her Jackson Brodie books, beginning with Started Early, Took My Dog. I’ve loved Atkinson since I read Life After Life a few years ago and tried to thrust it into the hands of everyone I met. When I came across the first of the Jackson Brodie books in a second-hand shop, I devoured it in one sitting. They’re long literary mysteries, with delicate turns of phrase and simple but intricate plotting.

This was also the year I discovered Tana French. I started with The Likeness, which reminded me a lot of Donna Tartt’s A Secret History – a detective has to pose as a student in an undercover mission to discover who killed her doppelganger. This is the second book in her Dublin Murder Squad books, and all five are heart-rate-increasing pacy books with lots of detail about Ireland and the people who live there.

My favourite children’s fantasy series

The Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones. A sort of Harry Potter-esque world, but one where wizards and witches exist and are well-known. Other worlds exist too, and there’s a sort of training institute where the chosen ones get some schooling that their regular magic classes can’t teach them. Written pre-Rowling, I saw a lot of her inspirations in these books as well, and like the best kids’ fantasies, there’s no dumbing down, no unnecessary exposition, all is revealed at the right time, and it takes a little while to understand what’s going on.

My favourite literary novels

The quietest, richest book I read all year was Stoner by John Williams. I bought it on an impulse because the blurb said “the best novel you’ve never heard of” and that is a good way to suck me in. After I read it, I searched all over the internet for a backstory. Apparently, it had a huge revival a few years ago, when people in Europe started picking it up in droves and recommending it to each other. What is it about? It’s the life story of one man, named William Stoner, his quietly unremarkable life, his unhappy marriage, his relationship with his daughter and also how he becomes a professor of English literature. All this doesn’t sound like much but it is stunning. Stunning.

I love parallel world narratives (see Birthday Letters by Lionel Shriver) and 4321 by Paul Auster is just that. There is a boy, he lives and dies. In each life and death, there is a slight variation and there are four of these stories, hence the title. Each section is a different life lived, but by the same people. It was nominated for the Booker Prize this year and I was hoping it would win.

Another Booker nomination that I loved was Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. Antigone retold, it’s about a Muslim boy in London who joins ISIS and the fallout this has on his two sisters. I can’t say very much else without giving away the plot, but it’s beautifully told.

My favourite books by friends and family

Even though they are friends and family, I’m still going to give my five star recommendations for each of these books as a reader because they are that good. My mother’s [Sheela Reddy] book Mr And Mrs Jinnah taught me about a period of history in India that I’ve actually never given much thought too, except “Oh, freedom struggle time.” She used letters as a base and built up from there to tell the story of Ruttie Jinnah, a woman who was lonely and misunderstood for much of her life, including by the people who loved her the most.

Diksha Basu’s The Windfall was a book I was looking forward to for a very long time and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a sort of black comedy about a Delhi family that strikes it rich and moves to Gurgaon. Deftly observed with points of view from people you’d never actually think about, I thought it was an excellent meditation on how we live today.

Prayaag Akbar’s Leila just won an award, and besides being jealous of everyone I know who wins awards (normal?) it was definitely well-deserved. It’s a slim hardback volume about a dystopian metropolis, where society is broken up into – well, I won’t give too much away but it stays with you a lot longer than it takes to read it.

My favourite comfort read

You know, you work hard, you have a lot on your mind and you need some way to forget all your stresses, and Netflix isn’t doing it for you. Enter Miss Read, a pseudonym for writer Dora Saint, who wrote over forty books about idyllic English villages, very Call The Midwife, except, with no midwifery involved. I liked her Thrush Green series more than Fairacre, but both are perfect, gentle reads about a recurring cast of characters who do everyday things like bake sales and rebuilding churches and what not. (This is a good time to also mention that my “Discovery Of The Year”, so to speak, was Amazon’s Used Books section. Very good, and the books arrive in good condition, also cheaper than buying new, so bear that in mind.)

My favourite memoir

I didn’t expect to feel so many things reading Ruskin Bond’s Lone Fox Dancing. But I totally did. Sad, sweet and poignant and you just feel like going back in time and giving the little boy he was a hug. Like the best memoirs, this gave you a lot of answers, but also not all the answers, because writers should ultimately retain a little mystery in the end.

My favourite series about a family

A very specific category, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. Set in England between the world wars, and some of the Second World War, I came across her via Hilary Mantel who mentioned in an article that in her opinion, Howard was the underrated author of her time. I couldn’t agree more. Even though the books have been made into a TV series, there aren’t many fellow Howardites, which is what makes our special club even more special. Finely observed, with all the foibles that make big families so entertaining, these were definitely a set of books I was sad to give up.

My favourite essay collection

When you’re crawling up on thirty-six, your biological clock either starts to tick with great loudness, or in my case, you just assume you have a defective one, because my womb is perfectly happy being just a womb, not a carrier of Future Life and so on. Every single essay in Selfish, Shallow And Self Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not To Have Kids validated that choice. Having children is not for everyone, and I’m glad we live in a world where the second choice is also explored and analysed and recognised as valid.

My favourite Young Adult book

What can I say about The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas that will sum up exactly how much I love it? I don’t think my words are adequate but a young black girl in a shady neighbourhood learns what cops are able to do to young black men, and realises her identity through it. So good.

My favourite short story collection

Out for drinks one day with a friend who brought along another friend who said The Adivasi Will Not Dance by Handsa Sowvendra Shekhar was the one book she was buying and giving to friends consistently. Of course, I had to have it. There was some controversy around the book, but I only recall the lyrical language, each story is pitch perfect and a representation of people we don’t often hear from – “the hinterland of Jharkhand” as the blurb says.

My all round favourite book of the year

Just finished Pachinko by Min Jin Lee two days ago, and already I am feeling withdrawal symptoms. This is my favourite sort of book – a long family saga, grandparents and parents, and kids and their kids, but set in Japan amongst Korean immigrants. I don’t know very much about this part of the world and was prepared to find the book dense and difficult, but instead, I found myself savouring it and slowing down so it would last longer. The last time I felt like this about a book was A Little Life, so please read this immediately.

This article first appeared as part of Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s newsletter.

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