Matt Holland’s Top Nine Books Of 2017

Greetings from the distant past! It is I, a time traveller from the 1st of January. What a journey I’ve had. Instead of going back in time and kicking Fred Trump in the testicles; or going back to last week to tell myself today’s lottery numbers; I decided to use the precious gift of time travel to come here, an arbitrary date at the end of the month to write an article about my top nine books of 2017.

Yes, it would’ve made a lot more sense to stay where I was and publish this article on the 1st of January when reflections on 2017 were getting the most hits. Or go back and invest in Bitcoin while it was cheap. But no, here I am, writing this instead.

Obviously I didn’t only get this idea at the end of December and spend the rest of January writing it. That’s crazy. You ought to face a laser firing squad for even suggesting such a thing.

That’s the punishment for wild accusations in the future. You can trust me, I’m a time traveller. A time traveller who rarely lies about anything.

Anydangway. Here are the ten books I enjoyed reading most in 2017. Not all of these books were published in 2017, in fact one of them is nearly ten years old. This, in itself, might defeat the purpose of a top ten list. But these were all books I discovered for the first time in 2017, so they all count as far as I’m concerned. Maybe you can discover them yourself and add them to your list in 2018?

But if you make a year end list like this one I will seriously time travel my fist into your throat. Don’t steal my ideas.

Read these books, though:

(In all seriousness, I’m as much of a book reviewer as I am a time traveler. It’s not something that comes naturally for me as I have a hard time remembering specific plot details and occasional character names. And it’s been a few months since I’ve read some of these books, so please forgive me if I fuck up and misremember something. I’m also probably going to talk more about why I specifically enjoyed the book, rather than critiquing it properly.

I also have a tendency to lapse into ‘essay-speak’ when I’m doing stuff like this. You’ll probably recognise it when you see it.)

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I remember picking this book up in 2004, reading the blurb and the first few pages and thinking it sounded interesting. But at the time I was in university, my course load had just ramped up and that meant reading constantly. I think at one point I was even reading two books a week so there was scant time to read for pleasure. I reluctantly put the book back on the shelf but I always thought I’d get around to reading it one day.

That day happened to be 2017, when I picked up a kindle copy and took it with me when I went down to London for a funeral.

I knew the guy whose funeral it was, I don’t just go down to random parts of the country to attend funerals. Anymore.

I first cracked White Teeth open while I was sitting in a pub in Euston station, waiting for my train. I was full of conflicted emotions; happy at seeing some old friends for the first time in ages but sad about how one of them had to die in order to bring us all back together.

Turns out this is the perfect place and time to discover Zadie Smith for the first time. Smith’s London is such a vibrant, realistic place that was almost indistinguishable from the one outside the pub window (give or take a few decades).

What carried me away at first was her writing style. Long time readers of mine (hi, Mum!) will know that I’m a huge fan of Terry Pratchett, and Smith’s writing style reminded me of his. Considering that there’s been a Pratchett shaped hole in my heart for years, I was immediately swept away.

For someone so critically lauded for her literary fiction, Smith’s writing style is direct and accessible even as she deals with complex ideas. She has a keen eye for human nature and she uses it to write some of the most vivid characters I’ve seen in fiction. Everyone we meet in White Teeth, even the side characters, is multi-dimensional and human.

I don’t want to talk too much about the plot of the book, there’s a lot to condense and very little space here to do it in (I’ve still got nine of these to go). But the novel opens with a man about to gas himself inside his car. At the last minute, he realises he wants to live and he’s rescued by a neighbourhood butcher just in the nick of time.

That moment was what hooked me in even deeper. Watching a man go from the depths of despair to a sudden zest for life was like watching a sunrise. And in a difficult moment in my life, was exactly the escape I needed.

I would encourage everyone to read the first few pages of the book and let it carry them away as it did with me.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I discovered this book after I read an interview with the author in the Guardian. Fiona Mozley is younger than me and her book Elmet hadn’t even been published before it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It’d be easy to be poisoned by jealousy and bitterness by all of those facts, but Mozley came across as such a humble, likeable person that it was impossible to dislike her.

The book was incredible. I started reading it on a Friday and by the following Monday I’d finished it completely and was wishing it’d keep going for a few more pages.

The narrator of the story is Daniel, a young, uninteresting, sexually confused young man. I empathised with him right away for some reason. Daniel; along with his imposing father, and his sister Cathy; are building a home for themselves in the clearing of a Yorkshire forest. Their father helps support them by poaching from the surrounding land, taking part in bareknuckle boxing matches, and performing the odd bit of intimidation for folks around town.

It’s all quite idyllic in a twisted way, but their dreams are soon kicked in their collective genitals when Mr Price–legal owner of the land they’re squatting on–comes to chase them away. Price is your basic Tory voter; rich, corrupt, drives a Land Rover, and has some shady criminal connections at his back.

In order to save themselves, our family of outcasts must rally supporters from the nearby town in what becomes something between a trade union and a wild west posse.

Events never quite shake out the way you’d expect, there’s betrayal, violence, death; and all the while Daniel and Cathy are growing up and discovering their place in a confusing world.

Amongst all of this Mozley paints the Yorkshire landscape with some breathtaking descriptive writing. You can tell it’s good because even I, Matt ‘Fuck The Trees’ Holland, was swept away by its power.

I haven’t read much else from 2017’s Booker Prize list and I haven’t even gotten around to reading the winner yet so I can’t say for sure that Mozley was robbed. But the fact that this book isn’t getting more national recognition is an outrage! Check it out for yourself.

Necromancer Awakening by Nat Russo

I’ve been following Nat Russo on Twitter for a good few years now. He always tweets out some sound writing advice, and his blog ‘Erindor Press‘ has been a great resource to turn to whenever I’ve been struggling.

You’ve seen my writing by now, right? You know how much I struggle with it. Well, I struggled with it even more before I read Russo’s blog. You should seriously check it out.

Anyway, in thanks for all the help his work has given me over the years I decided I’d download his book and give it a read. Because as well as being a pretty terrible person on the whole, I’m also a citizen of the internet, so I like to get as much free stuff as possible before I put any money down.

Necromancer Awakening is the story of Nicolas, an archaeology student from Texas. He’s been having some horrible visions for a while and on the day of his adopted father’s funeral– the absolute worst time for this kind of thing–his visions come to life to tear him from his home, his girlfriend, and his adorable dog; transporting him to a strange and hostile fantasy world.

I think we’ve all had funerals that’ve seemed like that, right?

He’s rescued from almost certain doom by Mujahid, a taciturn but powerful Necromancer. In order to return to his own world, Nicolas must master Necromancy for himself.

It’s a really adorable dog, you guys. His name is Toby and he’s a Beagle and he has a little toy that is part gator and part pickle and it’s called a gatorpickle.

And he also misses his girlfriend too, or whatever. The weirdo.

In this world Necromancers aren’t necessarily evil. They’re like priests, only instead of reading last rites over a corpse to cleanse them of their sins, they drag the poor bugger back from the dead and make them a slave for a bit. It’s not pretty, but it apparently works for them.

I could say more, but that’d be giving away most of the fun of the story. The magic system Russo sets up for his Necromancers is truly unique and a refreshing take on the way this sort of thing normally works in fiction. It makes sense in a fantastical sort of way, and it’s always consistent. I never felt like Russo was stretching his own rules for the sake of the plot.

However, real talk, I actually struggled with the first few chapters of this book. For one thing, I normally get most of my reading done during my lunch break in work. And Nicolas’s early visions are so disgusting and vividly described that they actually turned my stomach. It’s effective, don’t get me wrong. It helps us to feel bad for the poor guy right from the get-go, but damnit, I was hungry.

I know, I know; I’ve done my share of over the top gore in my time as well and I’m not immune to stones in this glass house I’m living in.

I was surprised at my reaction though; gore never usually bothers me, especially not in books. Russo is excellent at writing description and he seems to find the perfect words for every strange situation in this book. And when you’re world-building, effective description can do most of the work for you.

I truly felt like I was observing Russo’s world. Not only that but I was also hooked by Nicolas’s plight. He’s alone, as far from home as it’s possible to be, and he reacts exactly the way anyone would in this situation. Both he and Mujahid have their own goals and they always act true to their characters. There’s some great interplay between the two of them early on as they butt heads during Nicolas’s training. Mujahid demands perfect discipline and obedience for some genuine reasons, but Nicolas, understandably, just wants to go home as soon as possible.

The plot moves at just the right pace to keep things interesting while still conveying everything it needs to. And there are some incredible magical battle sequences that are breathtaking to read, particularly in the middle of the book when we see a glimpse of Mujahid revealing the full extent of his power.

The book does suffer a tiny bit early on when we zip from Nicolas’s story to the actions of some seemingly unrelated fantasy types on the other side of the world, which can be a bit jarring. But these chapters are mercifully short and they do help to flesh out the world in the end, so I can’t really fault the book for that.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Necromancer’s Awakening. Not just because I got to support an indie author and pay back someone who’s helped me out a lot. There’s a sequel, as well as a prequel novel that I’ll definitely be checking out at some point in the future.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

Struggling lawyer, Jay Porter, takes his pregnant wife on a moonlit boat trip as an anniversary gift. But his trouble doesn’t start until Jay rescues a strange woman from drowning in the river. See, Jay is a man with a past and he’s been keeping his head down for years. This one act of kindness threatens everything he’s worked so hard for and begins to dredge up a past he wished he could keep buried.

This is a frustrating one to write, because there’s very little I can say that isn’t a spoiler. Locke is very careful with parceling out information, she normally lets slip some new nuggets of intrigue on every page. Whether she’s delving into Jay’s history in flashbacks, or untangling some threads of the vast conspiracy unfolding around him, Locke is careful not to reveal too much too soon. The book is a page-turner in the truest sense.

Not only is it a well-plotted, fantastically written book, it also speaks about a period in American history I knew very little about. I can’t say which period without spoiling anything, but it’s one of those bits that the American establishment is deeply ashamed of. Or at least they pretend to be.

Behind closed doors, with the maniac they have as president now? Who the fuck knows?

Jay is also a character I really felt for. Despite how much personal danger he puts himself in, he always fights to do the right thing, even if that doesn’t make him popular amongst his loved ones. He’s not just soom goody-two-shoes paladin type either, everything he chooses to do throghout this novel is a perfectly human reaction to some exceptional circumstances.

Locke is a great novelist, no question. But one of the areas where she shines is in describing the emotions of her characters. We never leave Jay’s perspective for long, so we are drawn into everything he’s feeling. We carry the stress of his situation with him, feeling his fear, his frustration, his rage, right along with him.

So this book ticks all the boxes; it’s informative, well-plotted, well-researched, perfectly paced, with good characters and several intriguing plots all working at once.

Attica Locke is the kind of novelist I wish I could be. Seriously, after reading this I almost wasn’t sure if I could write anything that could ever compete.

What The Hell Did I Just Read? by David Wong

I’ve been trying to expand my reading list for the past few years, to read outside of my comfort zone and find new authors to obsess over. On the whole this has been great fun, there’s nothing like finding a new author that speaks to you or a new style of writing that you never thought you’d enjoy.

But this has also made me much more discerning and more aware of what I hate.

For one thing; I’ve come to detest cosmic horror as a genre. Even Lovecraft, who’s pretty much the racist, shut-in, daddy of the genre.

I’ve just never found it frightening in any way. Most of the time it’s just about being alone in an uncaring universe surrounded by hostile things we can’t conceive of, control, or protect ourselves from. It’s no scarier than waking up on an average work day. Not only that, but it seems like a child’s idea of horror. “There’s a monster and he’s invulnerable to everything and he lives in the ocean and he can’t be hurt and he knows where you are at all times and can get you in your dreams and he flies a helicopter and he’s a million miles high!”

About the only exception I’ve found so far is David Wong’s John Dies At The End series. It kind of straddles the line between comedy and horror, it pokes fun at some of the more ridiculous elements of the genre while still managing to bring some actual scares into the mix. I loved the first book–John Dies At The End. But I thought the second–This Book Is Full Of Spiders, Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It–was a little too dark for my tastes.

Also, it really was full of spiders. I seriously shouldn’t have touched it.

But Wong is back on form with What The Fuck Did I Just Read? It bills itself as a ‘Novel Of Cosmic Horror’ and it does draw from the last dregs of that well, but it also has a much lighter tone than ‘Spiders.’

The plot is; David Wong and John Cheese are a pair of slackers from an undisclosed Midwest town called ‘Undisclosed,’ funnily enough. They’ve taken a drug, known as ‘Soy Sauce’ that lets them see the paranormal and along with Amy, David’s girlfriend, they try to protect their town from the various monsters and strange creatures that try to force their way into our dimension.

What sells it is the humour; Wong has been an editor of for as long as the site’s been about and he knows funny. He can inject humour into the most harrowing moments and make you laugh at things that would repulse you in any other book.

Not only does his Cracked experience make him funny, it’s also given him access to huge amounts of research into psychology and pseudo-science. This knowledge makes his extradimensional horrors just real enough to be unsettling, while still being true to the genre.

Which is more than I can say for Cthulu or any of them other lads.

This time around, Dave, John and Amy are hired to find a missing child. This starts with the usual Dave and John weirdness I’ve come to love: a ghostly amusement park with the same name as a South Korean porn star, a child’s toy phone that can communicate across dimensions etc. If you’ve read the other books, none of this will be strange to you.

But soon the trio are stumbling ass-first into crazytown along with the reader, as they uncover an alien intelligence with sinister motives. I can’t spoil too much (part of the fun of the book is the mid-plot twist), but suffice it to say you’ll be questioning not only the reality of the book, but the reality of the world around you.

There are some dark themes this time around. The toll of battling monsters all day has exarcerbated Dave’s depression to the point where if he isn’t on the verge of death, he’s staying in bed all day. John’s drug use has gotten way out of hand (just a little meth) and as for Amy? At one point she needs Flaming Hot Cheeto’s to get through the day.

But despite all this, it’s much lighter in tone than ‘Spiders.’ Although, even now, months after reading it, the implications of the ending still give me chills.

I was sure this book was called ‘What The Fuck Did I Just Read?’ but I just checked my copy and it said ‘What The Hell Did I Just Read?’

Should’ve just called it ‘Can Lovecraft Do This?’

Little Lost Things by Mark Hill

Speaking of Cracked alumni breaking into the book writing game, I couldn’t let this list pass without mentioning Little Lost Things by Mark Hill.

I picked this up after reading one of Hill’s Cracked articles, because it was cheap and I felt like I owed him a few quid for being so consistently entertaining over the years. I didn’t actually start reading it until I was in a doctor’s waiting room, about to be called in for an appointment to determine if I was crazy or not.

I mean, more crazy than I already know I am.

I was nervous as this appointment had a lot riding on it: I could’ve gone through those doors and been laughed back into the street, fired from my job, or given a prescription for mega-drugs that drain that personality you’ve all come to love.

And despite all this pressure–I laughed out loud at the first story in ‘Little Lost Things.’ Didn’t really help my case too much. But it turns out my GP is lovely and everything was fine.

But I ended up taking my kindle with me everywhere over the summer. I wasn’t reading so much because I wasn’t super interested in anything I normally enjoyed aside from lying in bed and watching Netflix. But ‘LLT’ was the perfect book for that. I could dip into a story every few days and read it in one sitting. It felt like I was achieving something.

The stories themselves range from the hilarious (the first story pokes fun at cliche fantasy tropes and it is well worth picking up for that alone) to the sad, to the frightening, to the plain weird. In the introduction, Hill even states how his stories are his ‘little lost things’ stories that couldn’t find a place anywhere else.

As someone who was wondering what his place was in the world, I couldn’t have found this book at a better time. If that’s not enough; the stories in this book inspired me to get back into short stories of my own, and in turn, start up some website you might’ve heard of.

If it weren’t for me reading ‘Little Lost Things’ this website may not exist.

Actually, forget what I said. Mark Hill, you’re going down in history as the inspiration for one of mankind’s worst atrocities.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

This book wound up on a lot of people’s year end lists, and for damn good reason. After the year we’ve had, pussy-grabbers in the White House, Weinstein, that distracted boyfriend meme; we could all do with a little female empowerment.

In The Power, women all over the world are discovering a long dormant power that lets them deliver electric shocks with their hands. Women are suddenly able to overpower almost any man in the world with little effort. As you can imagine, this shifts the balance of power between the genders overnight.

By itself, this is a fantastic premise for a socially relevant book; and it’s true, The Power doesn’t pull any punches in that regard. But what pushes this book over the top is the strength of it’s plot and characters. Alderman constructs this novel like a thriller with rapid twists and turns, political intrigue, and–if you’ll forgive the pun–shocks on every page.

What’s interesting is that Alderman doesn’t just immediately switch to ‘women are in charge now, and they’re much better at it, the end’ which I wouldn’t have judged her for. Her characters react to this new change in different ways. There are some women who are out for revenge on the men who’ve wronged them; others willing to protect and shelter a lone man in the middle of a riot; and still there are others who are using their newfound powers to manipulate world events for their own ends.

Like it or loathe it, this book will make you think. You can’t help it. It even made me think and I haven’t had a thought since 2006 and that thought was ‘is it right to use baked beans as pasta sauce?’

Although my taste in pasta sauce might be lacking, my taste in books is still as sharp as ever. I started The Power when I was coming back from a stag party in Poland. Let me tell you, after that weekend a female dominated world seemed like a blessed relief.

Half A War by Joe Abercrombie

Despite the stuff I normally write, I’m not actually a big fan of the ‘Grimdark’ ultra-realistic, gritty as a garden path, dark fantasy that’s suddenly become so popular. I love George RR Martin’s writing for his epic worldbuilding, painstaiking research, and the likeable characters who he always finds a way to kill.

But Joe Abercrombie is, simply, one of the best writers of character arcs in the business. Characters we love at the beginning get weighed down by their choices and backstories until they’re literal monsters, others start out as irredeemable fuckwits and somehow manage to find their way to being the most sympathetic characters in the story. And, of course, there’s always at least one character who starts out a bloody bastard and their journey has them coming full circle into the exact same bloody bastard and we love them for it.

Half A War is the final installment of Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea series, in which he takes his particular brand of character driven fantasy and aims it at a slightly younger audience. That isn’t to say it’s watered down in any way, the same grisly battles and banter are still there; it’s just the characters are a bit younger than his First Law series (which I also highly recommend you check out).

The first Shattered Sea book introduced us to Yarvi, a crippled noble in a world where only strength of arms seems to matter. With only one working hand, Yarvi must rely on his instincts and cunning to navigate his dangerous, war torn world. The second book followed Brand; a good-hearted blacksmith, and Thorn Bathu; a hot-tempered killer who has to kill twice as hard for recognition in a man’s world.

What’s interesting about the third book is that the character arcs that started in the earlier books are still winding away in the background, despite the cast of new characters we follow this time around. We’re reintroduced to Koll, a character who was a child in the earlier installments, now grown up and seeking his fortune as Yarvi’s apprentice. We also follow Skara, a refugee princess seeking allies to reclaim her conquered kingdom and avenge the death of her family; and Raith, a barbaric soldier who lives for violence and not much else.

My natural inclination is to talk about the plot here, but I kind of can’t without spoiling the other two books in the series. Seriously, read them if you haven’t already.

Suffice it to say, the world is fucked. A death worshipping maniac is leading a massive army against all the surviving major characters. Now, bitter enemies have to forge quickie alliances in a desperate attempt to survive.

As always, Abercrombie’s battle sequences are incredible. Neither the author nor the characters pull any punches, but what really set Abercrombie’s battles apart are the way he builds to them. He often follows a character or a group of them preparing for the battle ahead and he manages to capture the sheer dread of the situation better than any writer I’ve read so far. By the time he’s done setting the scene, you’ll feel as nervous as the characters.

I’m not totally sure how he does it; I suspect some kind mind-controlling ink? Either way, once I figure it out I’m gonna emulate the technique for myself.

The way the war ends is one of the highlights of the book. I never suspected it even once, despite all the clues being there right from the first pages of book one.

All in all this is a brutally satisfying final chapter for an equally awesome series and I can’t wait to see what Abercrombie has next.

Goblin by Ever Dundas

There is so much in this book worth talking about. Set during the notorious pet massacre of World War 2, the story follows Goblin, a London child with a vivid imagination and a love of animals. On the surface, Goblin has a sad life; unwanted by her mother (who gave her the name ‘Goblin’ in the first place) and rejected by polite society, her only human friends are a few local boys, her adored older brother, David; and a local woman known only as the Pigeon Lady who fills Goblin’s head with rambling stories about underground lizard people like a more sane David Icke.

But what makes Goblin such a compelling and readable character is her utter refusal to let herself be defined by other people’s terms. If her mother calls her a goblin, that’s fine, being a goblin is more fun than being a person anyway. If humans reject her then that’s fine too, animals are better than people.
War is declared, Goblin’s brother goes missing, and she stumbles into what she thinks is a German plot to kill every pet in London the animals.

In actuality, people were putting their pets to death because they couldn’t see a way to look after them during the horror of war. Goblin tries to save as many pets as she can, but she’s soon evacuated to Cornwall along with hundreds of other London kids.

Meanwhile, we also follow the story of Goblin as an elderly lady in 2011 Edinburgh. Still sharp as a whip and still rescuing animals and lost souls, Goblin is contacted by the police regarding some evidence they’ve found in her old London stomping grounds. She must go back to London to answer questions about a seventy year old crime she thought had been buried forever.

Dundas weaves the two plotlines together like an expert, every time she skips back and forth through time she leaves with the sort of questions that make us hungry for the next few pages.

I was amazed to learn this is only Dundas’s first book. She writes like she’s hundreds of books deep into a writing career. She seems to know exactly how much information to give the reader without leaving them lost or overwhelmed and she can do more with two pages than I could do in two hundred. A few paragraphs with Goblin are enough to make us feel like we’ve known her for years, yet there’s always still more to learn about her life.

Way to set the bar high, Ever Dundas, you monsta.

More than being a fascinating character study, a brilliantly crafted plot, and a well-written story about a buried piece of genuine history; Goblin is just a fun book to read. This was another one of those 2017 books that I polished off in a single weekend and still wanted more. It’s only short, but it still manages to feel epic. In just a few hundred pages, we follow Goblin through most her life, the good times, the bad times, the times that are laugh out loud in a cafe hilarious, and the times that put tears in your eyes when you’re on a bus (and not for all the usual reasons you’d cry on a bus).

Ultimately, I think what I loved most about this book was the overall theme of individuality, of accepting yourself with all your faults, and that no matter how weird you might think you are, there are always people who’ll love. For a book so filled with pathos, that’s a wonderful message to get after the crapshow that was 2017.

That’s why Goblin, in case you couldn’t tell, is the book I won’t shut up about this year. I guess that makes it the best one I’ve read.

And after this year of excellent books, that’s one hell of an achievement.

There was also a tenth book, but I forgot what that was. So I’ll just plug my own book series again. Because this isn’t a charity and time travel isn’t cheap. And I need to go back and sell my Bitcoins a little earlier before they became worth negative one hundred thousand pounds. Because that happens in the future too, I guess.

Thanks so much for all the great books this year, and thank you me for being such a wonderful book reviewer who only had to consult Google a few times and still probably only got like, two or three details wrong on each book.

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