Our staff pick their favourite fiction titles from 2017. Sink into a chair and revel in some of the best fiction we've come across so far. For nonfiction staff picks, award winners and more, head over to our Recommended Reads page.
What were your favourite books of the year? Shout it out! Add your picks to our website reviews.
See what I have done
This is a deliciously creepy book. Telling the story of the infamous Lizzie Borden, a Victorian-era Sunday school teacher accused of murdering her father and stepmother in an ax-wielding fit of rage, it can hardly help being disturbing. However, Sarah Schmidt's gorgeous writing, fully realized characters and insight into tangled domestic politics mean that this book will do much more than indulge a reader's morbid curiosity. A fictional re-imagining of the Borden murders won't be to every reader's taste, but if you're fascinated by the dark side of human nature and like literary works with Gothic horror sensibilities (think of the writings of Flannery O'Connor or Shirley Jackson) you're likely to gravitate to this all-too-true story of family dysfunction, violence and its terrible aftermath. Meghan Casey (Queen's Square Library)
Machado, Carmen Maria.
Her body and other parties
With the rise of the Women's March and #MeToo movements bringing increased attention to feminism and problems of sexual harassment in the cultural and political sectors, this short story collection centering on female sexuality and personal autonomy is perfectly in-tune with the zeitgeist. Machado's stories are remarkable for their clarity of tone and theme, as well as clever and experimental stylistic elements that will provoke and surprise. For example, in "Especially Heinous", the writer invents TV Guide summaries for imaginary episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, satirizing the incongruous intersection of kitschy entertainment with the genuine suffering of crime victims. "The Husband Stitch" is another story that twists pop culture inside-out, this time evoking the hidden cultural realities underlying the scares and gore of campfire horror stories and urban legends. As clever as this all is, I found that the focus on theme rather than character occasionally blunted the stories' emotional impact for me. The stories often read as allegories or thought experiments, discouraging deeper identification with their protagonists. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating collection and a must-read for those reflecting on the cultural and political turmoil of 2017.
Meghan Casey (Queen's Square Library)
History of wolves
If you're a fan of Alice Munro, you're likely to love History of Wolves. This intense neo-Gothic story focuses on a teen babysitter living with her former cultist parents in the wilds of northern Minnesota. As she takes care of Paul, a four-year-old boy, staying in a summer cabin with his lonely mother and a distracted, often distant, astronomer father, she begins to sense that there is something not quite right in their household, something that may end in tragedy. Beautiful prose and a wonderful character study.
Meghan Casey (Queen's Square Library)
Peterson, Zoey Leigh.
Next year, for sure
Despite the fact that I still don’t know how the title relates to the book, I really enjoyed this one! Next Year for Sure is the story of Chris and Kathryn, a couple who have been together for 9 years. When Chris develops feelings for Emily, the interesting woman he has been running into at the laundromat he uses, Kathryn encourages him to ask her out on a date. From here, the couple stumble into an open relationship and begin to rethink everything they believe about love, jealousy and monogamy. Peterson handles a tough subject in a sensitive way; her writing is simple and precise, yet powerful. And even though the subject matter is a little taboo, there is nothing gratuitous in this book - just a great read about a long-time couple testing the limits of their relationship. (Carroll, Queen's Square)
Son of a trickster
Wow, this is a top-notch book from a unique Canadian writer! Jared is an indigenous teen who sells weed cookies, has a scary, very foul-mouthed mom, parties too hard and is just trying to get through high school. He also has a kind heart and a quick wit. In another writer’s hands, Jared and the other characters would be stereotypes. In Robinson’s totally authentic prose, humour and heartbreak mesh to bring us an unforgettable novel. And that’s before Trickster, talking fireflies and murderous river otters get involved. (Leah, Queen's Square)
Lincoln in the Bardo
Good fiction on grief seems to be a recurring theme of my favourite 2017 novels. Lincoln in the Bardo explores the grief of Abraham Lincoln after the death of his son Willie from typhoid fever. Saunders is a masterful writer and many Idea Exchange member have commented that this is one of the best novels they have read in several years. This is Saunders first novel. (Phil, Queen's Square).
Midnight at the Bright Ideas bookstore
Dark winter nights were made for curling up with a fine mystery. Like all good whodunits, this one starts with body.
The stiff is one of Lydia Smith’s lost and lonely regulars, dead at midnight in the self-help section of her downtown bookshop. Searching his pockets for ID, she discovers tiny letters cut from books and a photograph of herself as a child. This strange discovery pulls her back to a past she’s tried to forget -- to a family she lost contact with, a decades-old unsolved murder, and a trauma she doesn’t want to relive. Like the main characters in Gone Girl and Girl on the Train, Smith is a terribly unreliable narrator. She is likeable, but we can’t trust her long-suppressed memories. Fortunately, there are plenty of other cunning clues to help her, and us, solve the mysteries from her childhood.
Don’t be fooled by the twee title, Midnight in the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a dark, clever tale. Certainly worthy of a late night binge read under a warm afghan. (**Review previously published in the Waterloo Region Record, Nov 25/17) (Laura, Queen's Square)
Fiction that explores the lives of real people always interests me, even if the novel fails me in the end. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield and Mrs Nixon by Anne Beattie are two recent examples. Sittenfield explores the life of Laura Bush (although unnamed), while Beattie imagines the life of Pat Nixon. Both worth reading, but both failing to give any sense of real insight.
Gray succeeds in another way. Isadora explores the grief of modern giant of dance Isadora Duncan, who lost her children in a tragic accident in 1913. And it is through this exploration that, Gray delves so deeply and memorably into the human psyche. The writing is fantastic and the insights will stay with you long after you put down this novel. (Phil, Queen's Square)
A promise of fire
Magic flares and three kingdoms fight for control with the current Kings and Queens constantly watching their backs for the knives (usually coming from their own kin). In the midst is Catalina Fisk, a woman with mysterious powers who's hiding from a homicidal mother and her destiny. Griffin, a warlord from a magic-deprived kingdom, kidnaps her for her powers. Then the real adventure begins... This one has it all! Fickle gods, dazzling magic, action, romance, adventure! I couldn’t wait to read the next book! (Leah, Queen's Square)
Rise & shine, Benedict Stone
Another charming, inspiring book from the author of The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper! Jeweller Benedict Stone is in a rut. His wife has left him, his business is slowly fading and every day seems dreary. Then his teenage niece Gemma blows into his life and things start to change. I love Patrick’s writing because she mixes poignancy and heart without being too sugary. A sweet and endearing feel-good book! (Leah, Queen's Square)
LaValle, Victor D.
Few horror stories cut so precisely into the fear all parents instinctively have for their children as this one does. Modern and gritty, The Changeling tells the story of family that explodes after the birth of their child, but not necessarily in the ways you’d think. Keep an eye on Victor LaValle -- he's a brilliant storyteller at the top of his game. (Laura, Queen's Square)
Small great things
Ruth Jefferson is an educated, middle-aged woman that holds a respected nursing position at a local hospital and has a son on the honors list. During a busy work shift, she is assigned to conduct routine screening on a newborn baby, Davis Bauer. Ruth quickly learns that the baby’s parents are white supremacists when she is banned from helping the patient because she is African American. After the baby goes into cardiac arrest, she is faced with the decision to honour her oath to the Nightingale Pledge, or to submit to the racist orders that restrict her from doing her job.
In the bestselling novel, Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult weaves a compelling tale that alternates between three varied perspectives. Ruth Jackson tells her story through the disheartened eyes of a nurse whose life has been shattered after she is condemned for not responding to a medical issue quickly enough. Turk Bauer provides a harrowing recount of a lost youth becoming a white supremacist and his unshakable desire for someone to pay for what he has lost. Lastly, Kennedy McQuarrie, a public defender, provides an intimate view of how race relations are approached in the judicial system. Through many different eyes, this novel sends readers on a thought-provoking journey that sheds light on ongoing issues of racism and hate. (Stephanie, Queen's Square Library)
Hurwitz, Gregg Andrew.
Fans of Lee Child will love this exciting action-packed new book by Gregg Hurwitz. Evan Smoak turned his back on his dangerous past when he learned he’d been betrayed. To atone, he becomes The Nowhere Man and helps desperate people who can’t help themselves. He has the skills and smarts to best anyone. But someone is after him and only one of them will be left standing… (Leah, Queen's Square)
Two if by sea
Haunting but hopeful, this is a riveting book! Hours after he loses his wife and his unborn child in a tsunami, former police officer Frank Mercy pulls a young boy from a car seconds before it is whisked away. Without knowing why Frank illegally adopts him and vows to keep him safe. He soon sees the boy, Ian, is very special with an extraordinary telepathic gift that people would kill to possess. On the run from Australia, to America to Britain, Frank and his family know they must protect Ian no matter the cost. (Leah, Queen's Square)
Anyone familiar with Claire Fuller’s debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days knows she is a literary tour de force, and her second and highly anticipated novel Swimming Lessons does not disappoint. Told from differing perspectives, it is the story of a breakdown of a marriage, and subsequently, a family. Ingrid Coleman feels trapped in her marriage to famous writer and womanizer, Gil. We know that she has been gone for 12 years, but do not know if she left or committed suicide. Ingrid tries to explain the truth of her marriage and the reasons for her absence through a series of letters hidden in the thousands of books Gil has collected and scattered throughout the house.
Now an adult, Ingrid’s daughter Flora has returned home to look after her aging and injured father. Flora has secretly never believed that her mother is dead, and as she starts asking questions, we learn about the extent of Gil’s philandering and the depths of Ingrid’s unhappiness. This novel is extremely well-written and thought-provoking. (Carroll, Queen’s Square Library)
The lonely hearts hotel
At the dawn of the Great Depression, two children fall in love at a Montreal orphanage. They dream up a sensational travelling show, but before they can make their dream a reality they are separated by forces beyond their control. One falls in with the mafia, the other falls into drug addiction ... but their love endures. O’Neill’s prose is so whimsical that this story about the seedy underworld of 1930’s Montreal feels like a fairytale. (Jessica, Preston)
In 1840’s London, two families – one noble, the other nouveau riche – face scandal when an old secret begins to surface. Filled with upstairs/downstairs drama, illicit love affairs, and lavish settings, this is a fun read for historical fiction fans. Julian Fellowes originally released this serialized novel in weekly episodes, so the pacing is not unlike his hit series, “Downton Abbey.” (Jessica, Preston)
As a word and a song, moonglow brings to mind a certain mid-century bittersweet wistfulness. It's romantic yet fleeting, elegant yet obscuring. Here too, in this end of life confession, that feeling comes to light. This is the story of a WWII veteran who experienced so many things and yet was unwilling to tell a soul until his final hours. It's through his grandson's voice that we hear of his obsession with rockets, with going to the moon, and with escaping the horrors of war. So entertaining and beautifully told. Oh, I flat out adored this book -- I read it once and then I had to read it all over again. (Laura, Queen's Square)
All our wrong todays
This tale of time travel gone wrong has an unusual twist: the time traveler in question doesn't come from a horrible dystopian future but from the kind of advanced technological paradise one might see in The Jetsons or pulp '50s science fiction magazines. Our protagonist, Tom Barren leaves this astonishing world of the future behind to test the time machine invented by his genius father. Unfortunately, he makes a mistake that destroys his version of reality, condemning everyone he's ever known to oblivion and setting up a new, less promising future in its place. As he builds relationships in the new reality, Tom is left with a choice: will he restore the world he grew up in or settle down to life in a version of the future that was never supposed to exist? Fun characters, a wry sense of humour and an intriguing perspective on time travel set this novel apart, while the smooth pacing of the story makes it difficult to put down. Consider reading this novel time well-spent. (Meghan, Queen's Square)