Favourite Reads of 2017

Favourite reads of 2017

2017 was an adventurous year of reading for me. In 2016, I read ARCs almost exclusively and by the end of the year, I was feeling burned out. Free books are lovely, but the pressure to read and review them quickly was starting to suck the fun out of things. I also found I was spending less time browsing in bookshops and wasn’t getting to read any of the older books on my wishlist. So this year I decided to follow my fancy and read whatever I was in the mood for at the time.

I ended up reading a lot of YA—in particular, a lot of #LoveOzYA—(no surprises there) but also a fair bit of non-fiction, which isn’t typically my thing. I would have liked to read more lit fic, which I’m usually drawn to, but the non-fic I read instead was a welcome diversion.

How I read also changed. We moved back to Adelaide last December after five years interstate and I was welcomed back into my old book club. Our one rule for selecting books is that that they have to be titles that no one’s previously read. We’re all avid readers with varied tastes, so finding something to suit often means reading outside our comfort zones, which is fabulous. My pick for the year was Insomniac City by Bill Hayes, which I was a little lukewarm on but made for a lively discussion.

I spent a lot of time getting reacquainted with my local bookshop, Dymocks Glenelg, which has a well-stocked YA section and a knowledgeable team of delightful staff. And since my little girl Frankie was born in September, I’ve started listening to the occasional audiobook. I still don’t love reading this way—I’m too easily distracted and prefer the feel of a physical book—but it’s kept me reading during a busy few months when I’ve rarely had my hands free.

Selecting favourites is always tricky, but especially so this year when I read purely for pleasure and seemed to fall in love with something new each week. But here they are, my top reads of 2017:

The Queen of Whale Cay book coverThe Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of ‘Joe’ Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water

by Kate Suymmerscale

Biography (1999)

When Marion “Joe” Carstairs died in 1993 at the age of ninety-three, she was largely forgotten. During the 1920s she held the world record as the fastest female speedboat racer. But as journalist Kate Summerscale discovered, when researching an obituary for the Daily Telegraph, Carstairs was also a notorious crossdresser who favored women and smoked cheroots. Supremely self-confident, she inherited a Standard Oil fortune and knew how to spend her money—on fast boats and cars, on her female lovers, and on a Caribbean island, Whale Cay, where she reigned over a colony of Bahamians. There, far from her bohemian past in London and Paris, Carstairs hosted a succession of girlfriends and celebrities, including Marlene Dietrich and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Through it all, she remained devoted to Lord Todd Wadley, a little doll who was her bosom companion until the very end.

Why I loved it

The story of Joe Carstairs is too fantastic for fiction and Summerscale is a worthy biographer. The Queen of Whale Cay is an absolute romp of a book. Read my full review here.

Add The Queen of Whale Cay: the Eccentric Story of ‘Joe’ Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water on Goodreads.

Bad Behaviour by Rebecca StarfordBad Behaviour

by Rebecca Starford

Memoir (2015)

It sounded idyllic: a boarding school in the bush—a place where teenagers would learn resilience, confidence and independence. Living in bare wooden huts, cut off from the outside world, the students would experience a very different kind of schooling.

Fourteen-year-old Rebecca Starford spent a year at this school. In Red House sixteen girls were left largely unsupervised, a combination of the toughest students and the most socially vulnerable. Trying to fit in and cope with feelings of isolation and homesickness, Rebecca found herself joining ranks with the powerful girls, becoming both a participant—and later a victim—of bullying and aggression. 

Bad Behaviour tells the story of that year, a time of friendship and joy, but also of shame and fear. It explores how those crucial experiences shaped Rebecca and her future relationships, and asks courageous questions about the nature of female friendship and love.

Why I loved it

I have an obsession with boarding school stories, and this is one of the best. Starford writes with a refreshing honesty that captures both the brutality and vulnerability of a difficult age.

Add Bad Behaviour on Goodreads.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate MooreThe Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women

by Kate Moore

Non-fiction (2017)

The incredible true story of the women who fought America’s Undark danger.

The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.

Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive – until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.

But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women’s cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America’s early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights that will echo for centuries to come.

Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives…

Why I loved it

The Radium Girls is a bleak but compelling read. Moore approaches her subject with respect and pathos, bringing the dial painters to life and humanising them in a way their employers failed to do.

Add The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women on Goodreads.

The Good People by Hannah KentThe Good People

by Hannah Kent

Literary Fiction (2016)

Based on true events in nineteenth century Ireland, Hannah Kent’s startling new novel tells the story of three women, drawn together to rescue a child from a superstitious community. 

Nora, bereft after the death of her husband, finds herself alone and caring for her grandson Micheál, who can neither speak nor walk. A handmaid, Mary, arrives to help Nóra just as rumours begin to spread that Micheál is a changeling child who is bringing bad luck to the valley. Determined to banish evil, Nora and Mary enlist the help of Nance, an elderly wanderer who understands the magic of the old ways.

Why I loved it

Kent’s second novel is atmospheric and claustrophobic read and I loved the way she evokes the rural Irish landscape. It’s also a haunting story of conflicting beliefs and faith and of people committing terrible deeds with the best intentions.

Add The Good People on Goodreads.

Begin End Begin A #LoveOzYA AnthologyBegin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology

edited by Danielle Binks

Young Adult (2018)

With brilliantly entertaining short stories from beloved young adult authors Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Will Kostakis, Ellie Marney, Jaclyn Moriarty, Michael Pryor, Alice Pung, Gabrielle Tozer, Lili Wilkinson and Danielle Binks, this all-new collection will show the world exactly how much there is to love about Aussie YA.

Why I loved it

Just look at that list of contributors! What’s not to love? Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology is a stellar short story collection that showcases where Aussie YA is at right now. And it’s got a bit of everything, from sci-fi to contemporary—a perfect read for anyone looking to find new authors to fall in love with. Read my full review here.

Add Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology on Goodreads.

Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse NearFairytales for Wilde Girls

by Allyse Near

Young Adult Magic Realism (2013)

There’s a dead girl in a birdcage in the woods. That’s not unusual. Isola Wilde sees a lot of things other people don’t. But when the girl appears at Isola’s window, her every word a threat, Isola needs help.

Her real-life friends—Grape, James and new boy Edgar—make her forget for a while. And her brother-princes—the mermaids, faeries and magical creatures seemingly lifted from the pages of the French fairytales Isola idolises—will protect her with all the fierce love they possess.

It may not be enough.

Isola needs to uncover the truth behind the dead girl’s demise and appease her enraged spirit, before the ghost steals Isola’s last breath.

Why I loved it

Dark, surreal and whimsical, Fairytales for Wilde Girls simmers with imagination and enchantment. Read my full review here.

Add Fairytales for Wilde Girls on Goodreads. 

The Accident SeasonThe Accident Season

by Moira Fowley-Doyle

Young Adult Magic Realism (2015)

A bewitching, dark and beautiful debut novel about a girl living in the shadow of a mysterious curse.

It’s the accident season, the same time every year. Bones break, skin tears, bruises bloom.

The accident season has been part of seventeen-year-old Cara’s life for as long as she can remember. Towards the end of October, foreshadowed by the deaths of many relatives before them, Cara’s family becomes inexplicably accident-prone. They banish knives to locked drawers, cover sharp table edges with padding, switch off electrical items – but injuries follow wherever they go, and the accident season becomes an ever-growing obsession and fear.

But why are they so cursed? And how can they break free?

Why I loved it

The Accident Season reminded me a little of Fairytales for Wilde Girls—both were recommended to me by my editor after a long chat about our favourite books. They share a similar thread dark magic that I found utterly enchanting.

Add The Accident Season on Goodreads.

Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona WoodTake Three Girls

by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood

Contemporary Young Adult (2017)

Ady – not the confident A-Lister she appears to be. Kate – brainy boarder taking risks to pursue the music she loves. Clem – disenchanted swim-star losing her heart to the wrong boy.

All are targeted by PSST, a toxic website that deals in gossip and lies. St Hilda’s antidote to the cyber-bullying? The Year 10 Wellness program. Nice try – but sometimes all it takes is three girls.

Why I loved it

My YA fangirl heart burst when I heard about this collaboration, and Take Three Girls is everything I could have hoped for and then some. Each of the three narratives is stellar in its own right (and so, so, SO beautifully written), and the way Ady, Kate and Clem set aside their differences to form an unlikely alliance against a common enemy is fist pumpin’ stuff.

Add Take Three Girls on Goodreads.

La Belle Sauvage The Book of Dust Vol 1 by Philip PullmanLa Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)

by Philip Pullman

Young Adult Fantasy (2017)

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua…

Why I loved it

I was obsessed with Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as a teenager and was excited as a kid at Christmas when I learned he was writing a new series set in Lyra’s Oxford. La Belle Sauvage didn’t disappoint, thrumming with the same sense of adventure and insidious unease as Pullman’s earlier books.

Add La Belle Sauvage on Goodreads.

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah PinboroughBehind Her Eyes

by Sarah Pinborough

Thriller (2017)

Louise is a single mum, a secretary, stuck in a modern-day rut. On a rare night out, she meets a man in a bar and sparks fly. Though he leaves after they kiss, she’s thrilled she finally connected with someone.

When Louise arrives at work on Monday, she meets her new boss, David. The man from the bar. The very married man from the bar…who says the kiss was a terrible mistake but who still can’t keep his eyes off Louise.

And then Louise bumps into Adele, who’s new to town and in need of a friend, but she also just happens to be married to David. David and Adele look like the picture-perfect husband and wife, but then why is David so controlling, and why is Adele so scared of him?

As Louise is drawn into David and Adele’s orbit, she uncovers more puzzling questions than answers. The only thing that is crystal clear is that something in this marriage is very, very wrong, but Louise can’t guess how wrong―and how far a person might go to protect their marriage’s secrets.

Why I loved it

I’m a sucker for a good thriller and Behind Her Eyes is one of the best I’ve read in years. Well-crafted, with bags of tension and a twist that actually works (thanks to some excellent foreshadowing), it’s my top recommendation for readers who like their stories on the sinister side. Read my full review here.

Add Behind Her Eyes on Goodreads.

Over to you:

What were your standout reads of 2017?

What books have you got grabby hands for in 2018?

—Margot XO 

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