2016 was a particularly bookish year for me. I started a Booktube channel in autumn 2015, and while I wasn’t that consistent in uploading content throughout 2016 (in fact, I’ve all but disappeared into the ether now, but I don’t have any serious regrets about that – I’m spending my time doing other things that nourish me and make me happy. Maybe I’ll return when inspiration strikes. Maybe not. Either way, I feel I express myself better in writing so it’s probably for the best that I give a bit of love to this blog instead. Anyway, I digress…), being a part of the community motivated me to read often and read widely. Then in June, I became a full-time bookseller. While some might expect that full-time work would detract from my reading time, being surrounded by amazing books and even more amazing people who love books as much as I do has had a tremendous impact on my reading pace. As a result,the number of books I read in 2016 soared.
I read 84 books in 2016, and while I was initially going to condense this down into a top 10, scrolling through my shelves on Goodreads has made me realise that I read way more than ten books worthy of a mention. So, I’ve decided to organise these smashing reads by category in order to simplify a little bit: novels, novellas and short story collections, poetry, children’s and YA, and non-fiction. All books were bought by myself, unless otherwise stated.
Without further ado, here’s my list.
- The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I think its accolade as the winner Man Booker Prize 2016 speaks volumes about the literary merit of this book, but it really is just so damn good. From the blurb, you know that this is going to address the issue of racial tension in the USA in a satirical way and Beatty executes this theme brilliantly and with so much compassion underlying an important political message. You might think that any character who tries to reintroduce segregation and slavery is going to be painted as a villain, but instead, we have a sympathetic, somewhat hapless protagonist fuelled by Malcolm X-esque idealism who just so happens to find himself caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ending had me punching the air while sat on a Vienna U-bahn platform. (Sent for review by Oneworld Publications)
- His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Another Man Booker shortlisted book on my list, this completely defied my perceptions of crime fiction and historical fiction. I rarely read either genre, but picked this one up in an attempt to read all shortlisted books before the results were announced (I managed all of them except Do Not Say We Have Nothing) and also because Graeme is a Glaswegian author with whom I have many mutual connections. His Bloody Project, which explores the motivations and aftermath of a brutal triple murder in the 19th-century Scottish highlands, had me hooked and I devoured it within a matter of days. There were so many fascinating, multi-faceted characters, embroiled in a dark plot with many a twist and turn. I’m still talking about this one – it really is bloody brilliant (pun intended). (Sent for review by Saraband)
- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I completely underestimated this book. The story is nothing groundbreaking – family saga that spans generations, but the unique selling point in this case is the addition of a pesky author who gets far too involved with this family’s life. However, I really loved it. Patchett has the most gorgeous turn of phrase, making even the most everyday moments sound like poetry. I also really enjoyed how this book jumped about in a non-linear fashion with minimal signposting. As I don’t like being spoonfed when I read, this really worked well for me. All in all, understated and sublime. I reckon it’ll be nominated for this year’s Bailey’s Prize. (Sent for review by Bloomsbury)
- The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss. Where do I even begin when describing this book? It’s lyrical, yet gritty. It’s political, but encourages the reader to think for themselves. It’s surreal, yet more grounded in reality than many of us will ever realise. It’s the most dazzling blend of contrasts I’ve read all year. In summary, it’s about a family whose teenage daughter suffers from a rare form of anaphylactic shock that causes her to pass out and her heart to stop beating when over-exerted. As her family come to terms with having a chronically ill child, plenty of other relationship tensions bubble up to the surface. I love this book not only for Moss’ stunning prose, but also for its characterisation – Miriam is a badass fifteen-year-old sharp-tongued feminist, her little sister’s behaviours and conversational quirks are spot on for a child of that age, and their father (the narrator of the book) is a stay-at-home dad who relentlessly supports his doctor wife. A big thumbs up from me.
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. My number one favourite book of this year, and definitely in my top five books ever. This one is just heartbreaking. Warm, funny, beautifully written, but totally devastating. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that its protagonist is a nine-year-old dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death in 9/11, but the way that he grows throughout the novel, uncovering a rich family history and battling his inner demons, is amazing. What starts as the voice of a child matures into a young man who understands that life isn’t always simple, that sometimes deception is necessary to protect the ones you love, that some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved, and that ultimately, life goes on. It’s a sentimental subject, but Foer doesn’t go down the often-tread path of mawkish sentimentality to gain sympathy from his readers – instead, he embroils these messages in a web of varying, often quirky, narratives that all paint a complete picture of human empathy without dictating how the reader should feel. This book is just utterly perfect. I’m still thinking about it half a year after turning the final page.
Novellas and short story collections
- Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson. Cosy, perfect, magical, wonderful. I don’t know how much more I can say. All these stories were absolutely enchanting. My favourite was ‘The Snowmama’, which I read aloud to my family on Christmas Eve, but I also really enjoyed the ghost stories as well. Between each story is an essay about and recipe (“ressaypes”, you could say) for a festive food cooked by either Winterson herself or, more often, someone important in her life. It’s one of the purest, loveliest collections I’ve ever read and I’ll be returning to it annually.
- Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. This has been on my radar for some time now, but it wasn’t until it was Waterstones Fiction Book of the Month in September that I decided to pick it up. Oh man, some ugly crying was involved with this one. As it is heavily influenced by Ted Hughes’ Crow, I decided to read that first in order to gain a deeper insight into the themes of this gut-wrenching novella – for those not in the know, Crow is a figure in trickster mythology that is present at the scene of all devastation, and in GitTwF, he visits a Ted Hughes scholar and his two young sons in mourning of their wife/mother. I’m really glad I did read both books, although I know plenty of people who read GitTwF without reading Crow and still understood the book in a powerful – albeit slightly different – way. I’d love to do more research into Crow throughout literature and come back to this one, as I really think it could be interpreted in so many different ways.
- Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. In this short but sweet collection, Eagleman (also a renowned neuroscientist) posits what the afterlife may be like. In fact, he asks this question a total of forty times, resulting in this wonderfully surreal vignettes that raise the question, “would I want there to be an afterlife if it was like this? What about if it was like this instead?”. One of my favourites was the opening story, in which the afterlife involves repeating every single activity you did in life, but grouped together by category. So you’ll spend weeks waiting for the bus, before years of sobbing over a lost love, or days of looking for missing socks. The other tales in this collection are all equally surreal yet brilliant. I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes to ponder life’s big questions and has a penchant for the bizarre.
- Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I love Japanese literature, but occasionally it can all feel a bit too similar. That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed this collection – Ogawa’s dark, magical realist writing was not unfamiliar, but was original and elegant enough to refresh my interest in the genre. Some of these stories I would even go as far to categorise as horror (bodies in the vegetable patch, anyone?). Ogawa uses the classic Japanese poetic tradition of using recurring motifs to bind these stories together and I really felt that it worked well – I especially enjoyed seeing characters pop up outside their own stories, merely a fleeting backdrop to other people’s stories. I’m really keen to read some more of Ogawa’s writing, as this collection really crept under my skin in the best possible way.
- When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard by Megan Beech. In 2016 I decided I would like to read more poetry, so when exploring the vast poetry section at Waterstones Sauchiehall St in Glasgow in January, I picked up a few collections from poets I hadn’t heard of before. I was drawn to this one as Megan Beech is a fiery, feminist performance poet, and that’s the kind of thing I go out for. I’m so glad I took a chance. It was completely bloody awesome. I could relate so strongly to Beech’s poems, given that she is around the same age as me and faces the same patriarchal, millennial problems that women in their early 20s (and of any age, I suppose) deal with every day. I recommended this one to a few people and it seems to have really snowballed in popularity since, and now it’s popping up all over Booktube – it definitely pays to take chances and champion a fresh poetic voice!
- milk and honey by Rupi Kaur. I bought this on a whim to see what the hype was about. I was definitely not disappointed; it exceeded all my expectations. Every time I thought I’d found my favourite poem, another one would come along. Long story short, my phone is now chock-full of photos of these heart-achingly illustrated poems. I don’t know to describe it really, but I honestly think every young woman should read this collection. Its depictions of hurting and healing and love are so utterly perfect and cathartic to boot. Go go go.
Children’s and YA
- The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. I feel like I’m cheating slightly with this one, given that’s part of a series that I started in December 2015, but The Subtle Knife is definitely my favourite book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I can’t remember what it was that made me love this one so much, but I hazard it was probably the introduction of a multiverse extending beyond that experienced by Lyra in Northern Lights. Everything felt that much richer, and I completely fell in love with all the new characters. Mary Malone meeting the Mulefa has to be in list of my top literary moments ever.
- Radio Silence by Alice Oseman. This book restored my faith in YA literature and I gobbled it up in a couple of days. Never have I read a YA novel with a protagonist so similar to my teenage self; I really wish this book had ben about when I was a teenager, as I think it would have been a source of immense comfort. Frances is perceived as being quiet, studious, and – dare I say it – somewhat boring at school. She is still well-liked and has a small core of friends with whom she goes out on a semi-regular basis, but none of them know the “real Frances”. The real Frances is a punky, CONFIDENTLY BISEXUAL (!) nerd who loves nothing more than drawing fan art for her favourite podcast and wears leggings with cartoon characters all over them. So when she discovers that she has actually known the creator of this podcast in real life all along, her life changes drastically for the better. Finally, she has someone with whom she can act like “real Frances”. But, all is not well…A hilarious, poignant debut novel with well-rounded characters and realistic relationships and dialogue, I would heartily recommend this to anyone who needs a new perspective on YA literature. And Welcome to Night Vale fans. Would 100% recommend to Welcome to Night Vale fans.
- Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee. A bit like Grief is the Thing with Feathers for 10- to 12-year-olds, Maybe a Fox is a lovely little magical realist novel about grief and how finding the spirit of our loved ones in nature can soothe heartache. Set in a frozen American landscape, Jules is devastated when her older sister – and best friend – Sylvie disappears into the woods behind their house one day and never returns. But is Sylvie really gone? Her friend’s brother has recently returned from the war, having lost his best friend as well, and their respective grief combines to weave a really moving, compelling tale in which even adults will find deeper meaning. Just a truly lovely book. (Sent for review by Walker Books)
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. You know you’ve hit upon something special when a book climbs its way into your “top books of the year” list on 30th December. A few people had recommended When Breath Becomes Air to me, but I had kind of pushed it to the back of mind – I wanted to read it, but it wasn’t a high priority. That was until I was sent a reading copy of the new paperback edition, and one evening, when I was in the mood for some non-fiction, picked it up on a whim. I regret NOTHING. Telling the story of a nearly-graduated neurosurgeon and aspiring writer diagnosed with lung cancer in his mid-thirties, this isn’t one for the faint of heart. It’s heartbreaking, but it has given me so much to think about. What makes life worth living, especially when you know the end is near? Is death a better option than living a life without self-expression? I know some people have shirked this one off as mainstream misery porn, but it’s really not. I implore anyone to read this and not consider their own life choices and mortality. Definitely one to read with tissues, especially while reading the afterword written by Kalanithi’s wife after his untimely passing. (Sent for review by Vintage)
- The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight. Like many, I am not a self-help book person. Without having read any, I have always assumed them to be a bit too preachy and overly simplistic. That’s one of the reasons I picked this one up: it’s almost an anti-self-help book in its irreverence. It doesn’t pander, it doesn’t pussyfoot. Instead, its core philosophy is blunt but effective: if you can’t be bothered, or if it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it. Become unapologetic about this. Build yourself a “fuck budget” of things to which you can realistically dedicate your time, money and enthusiasm. I honestly do thing this has improved my mindset in many ways. I’m super excited to read Sarah Knight’s new book, Get Your Shit Together. Now go forth, and be fuckless.
Aaaaaaaand thus concludes my mega-list of favourite books of 2016 – congratulations if you read this far. I did say it was a good reading year for me, didn’t I?
I hope 2017 will be another epically brilliant reading year, and that maybe I’ve helped you discover some new books you might like to pick up soon – let me know!