Philip Ardagh Chooses the Best Books of 2017
2017’s been a busy year for favourite children’s author Philip Ardagh, not only has he penned several new children’s stories, including two books with the National Trust (The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny and The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge), he’s also written a sumptuous introduction to Tove Jansson’s Moomins, The World of Moominvalley. If all that weren’t enough, he’s been taking his famous white beard on tour to Lapland, stepping in as Father Christmas’s lookalike during the festive season. So we’re particularly grateful that the elves have given him some time off from feeding the reindeer to select his pick of the best books of 2017 for us.
I have rather an eclectic Santa-sack of book recommendations this Christmas. I’m actually a ‘Father Christmas’ rather than a ‘Santa Claus’ man myself – the latter sounding far too much like a sneeze to me – but I was going for the alliteration. I am happy to declare up-front that I either know or have met a number of authors whose books are on this list – I know a LOT of authors -- but, as Rudolph with his lie-detecting red nose is my witness, I’ve made this selection based purely on books I’ve recently enjoyed.
My first choice is The Cost of Living: An Ant & Bea Mystery by Rachel Ward. Rachel’s first book was Numbers, a highly original novel for children, and this, her first foray into adult fiction – more alliteration there – is equally impressive. Ant is a trainee at the supermarket where Bea is a ‘checkout girl’ but then there are the attacks on women. And murder. Heart-warming, intriguing and character-led, this is just the right kind of crime book to curl up with in front of the fire after having eaten far too much over the festive season. Gritty, it ain’t.
Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida has an introduction by David Mitchell who also co-translated the book from Japanese with KA Yoshida; this being David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas rather than Peep Show fame. Autistic and non-verbal, Naoki Higashida wrote his first book, The Reason I Jump, when he was thirteen giving a unique insight into his perspective on the world as a child. This latest book, shines a light on his life as an adult with autism. An important book, it has an extraordinary beauty at its core.
Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal, translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger, is a beautiful slow-burn of a novel told from the perspective of Allis Hagtorn who has left her former, highly-public and scandalous life to work on the isolated farm of Sigurd Bagge while Bagge’s wife is away. Allis is housekeeper cum (terrible) gardener, and slowly her relationship with Bagge builds. With what is left unspoken being as important as what is said, and the relating of the everyday, this really reminds me of Patricia Highsmith’s work, and I can’t offer much higher praise than that.
I was recently on a children’s books judging panel which gave a prize to Wolf Hollow by American author Lauren Wolk. A Waterstone’s Children's Book of the Month last year, it had somehow slipped under my radar. With shades of To Kill a Mockingbird but inspired by her own mother's family, Lauren Wolk has created a work of fiction where every character lives off the page. As I summarized at the time: “it is a gripping, moving, living, breathing tale written by a highly skilled hand. I cannot recommend it enough." I should add that I recommend it to adults and older children alike.
My fifth choice – and these are in no particular order as I metaphorically delve into my metaphorical Santa-sack – is a children’s classic in a magnificent new edition: Comet in Moominland, written and illustrated by Tove Jansson, translated by Elizabeth Portch. For those new to the Moomins, adults and children alike, this is a wonderful books to start with in a glorious ‘collector’s’ hardback edition (and just one of four published this year). Moomin fans will want to own it too! Follow the trials and tribulations of Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin and the Snorks as they face possible destruction from an on-coming comet.
For the particularly bookish amongst you, let me recommend The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell. Owner of The Bookshop, which is just one of many secondhand-book shops in Scotland’s official Book Town, Wigtown, whatever its name might suggest -- then again, he does stock over 100,000 books – Shaun portrays himself as grumpy and curmudgeonly when, in reality, he is grumpy and curmudgeonly and charming and plain good company. He bemoans dreadful customers and ridiculous demands, starting each chapter with numbers of books purchased and sold. Very funny, it is very insightful too.
When, as a result of an algorithm or some such nonsense, the Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped words such as ‘acorn’ and ‘conker’ a couple of years back, there was an understandable outcry. Whether or not Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words is a direct response to this I can’t say but I can tell you that this large format, lavishly illustrated, book of Macfarlane’s poems and Morris’s paintings is a sumptuous delight, like a wild blackberry bush over-laden with fruit. A Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller, this book should adorn coffee-tables everywhere (because it’s too big to fit on the shelves). Ideal for adults and children.
Merry Christmas and season’s greetings to you all. May your days be filled with great books and good mince pies.