Writing a post like this on the 15th of December makes me anxious—there are still 16 days left of 2016 in which I could read an incredible book, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Or perhaps I should read only terrible books for the next two weeks. (Any recommendations?) 16 books for 2016 seemed like an appropriate number—according to Goodreads I have read 154 books (so far) this year so this is roughly my top 10%.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
This is my book of the year—I’m so glad Waterstones agrees with me and that this novel is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies she retreats from London to Essex with her son Francis where they begin to hear rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Somewhere in between AS Byatt and Tracy Chevalier, The Essex Serpent is jam-packed with fascinating characters, atmospheric prose and intriguing plotting. It’s a brilliant book about love and friendship, science and faith. I read it on Kindle but I couldn’t resist buying the stunning blue Waterstones exclusive edition hardback as well.
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
I have emigrated several times (from England to South Africa as a child and vice-versa as an adult) but as a white, English-speaking immigrant you get to blend in a lot more easily in the UK. Your ‘otherness’ is not so clearly signposted on your face. I like to think of myself as an open-minded, empathetic person—curious about other people’s lives, but these essays opened the door to a world I know very little about. This is an important book. It’s not perfect and it’s not exhaustive, but these fifteen essays give a fascinating glimpse into the British black, Asian and minority ethnic experience of living in the UK, storytelling that is essential in creating a diverse and inclusive society—an ideal that seems increasingly under threat.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge is structured as a series of short stories based on characters living in a small town in Maine but most, if not all, of the stories feature the titular character, Olive Kitteridge, in some way and we’re able to follow the main events of her life through the book. Many of the stories are about marriage, relationships and loneliness—and there is a sense of melancholy that pervades the book. But there are also occasional glimpses of hope and redemption to make it bearable. It’s a poignant and moving book. My Name is Lucy Barton is Elizabeth Strout’s most recent book, and was on several literary award shortlists this year, but I personally enjoyed Olive Kitteridge more.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
In the Atwood-esque world of The Power, young girls, and later all women, develop the ability to produce electric shocks with their hands. At first their ability leads to liberation and justice for enslaved women and victims of abuse—but of course, power corrupts, the pendulum swings wildly in the opposite direction and suddenly men are the abused and enslaved ones in this scenario. A brilliantly though-provoking, if thoroughly uncomfortable, read.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Whatever you think about cultural appropriation, Lionel Shriver could NOT have written this book. A laugh-out-loud funny and wincingly satirical look at race in ‘post-racial’ America. When his hometown ‘Dickens’, a dodgy neighbourhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles, is literally taken off the map of California, the narrator reinstates racial segregation as a way of putting Dickens back on the map. A brilliantly clever and challenging book.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
A strange and eerily beautiful story about family relationships and grief in a style that is part poetry, part stream-of-consciousness and part fable. The crow that arrives, like a profane version of Nanny McPhee, to help this bereaved father and his sons, is sometimes wise and maternally protective, sometimes vulgar and belligerent. Yet somehow the crow is the perfect catalyst to allow the family to move on with their lives. A short book, but a profoundly moving one. The whimsical cousin of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.
You Took the Last Bus Home by Brian Bilston
Brian Bilston (the Poet Laureate of Twitter) is a master of pithy wordplay and the supreme commander of the pun (my personal favourite is ‘Robert Frost’s Netflix Choice’). Many of the poems made me laugh out loud. He has much to say on the perils contemporary life: autocorrect, procrastinating on Twitter, holiday cottages with no wifi, delivery charges for internet shopping, Black Friday and the unreasonableness of someone wanting to borrow your mobile phone charger. The poems are sometimes Excel spreadsheets, flow charts and scrabble boards. Bilson’s loathing for The Daily Mail and Jeremy Clarkson is a frequent theme. He also has some poignant observations: like ‘At the Intersection’ a moving venn diagram poem on the ways we misunderstand each other, and ‘Chore Play’ – the awkward juxtaposition of seduction with the boring minutiae of married life. Brian Bilson’s poetry is witty, wise and always enjoyable.
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
I’ve read many YA fantasy series this year but if I had to pick one it would be Leigh Bardugo’s outstanding Six of Crows duology, Crooked Kingdom is the second book. This is an epic, rollercoaster of a story with a cast of brilliantly flawed and fascinating characters, and also a satisfying end to the duology. It was also great to see some of the characters from the Grisha trilogy pop up in here as well.
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
I have never read anything by this author before as he primarily writes non-fiction, so I had no idea what to expect. 1746: a mysterious young Englishman, Mr Smith, arrives in the then small town of New York with a bill of credit for £1000 but won’t tell anyone where he got the money from or what he intends to do with it. Golden Hill has a sense of authenticity that suggests a lot of research but it is also completely immersive, tightly-plotted and entertaining. It reminded me a little of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
Memory is a black Zimbabwean woman with albinism, on death row for the murder of a white man, Lloyd Hendricks. We don’t know how or why or even if she actually killed him and the details are spun out through the book, from her earliest memories of her childhood with her parents and two sisters, to her life with Lloyd and then later her time in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare and a final heartbreaking revelation. There is a particularly beautiful quote at the end which sums up the book perfectly: ‘To accept that there are no villains in my life, just broken people, trying to heal, stumbling in darkness and breaking each other, to find a way to forgive my father and mother, to forgive Lloyd, to find a path to my own forgiveness.’ Highly recommended – poignant, lyrical and intensely moving.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
The Portable Veblen is a simply lovely book about an incongruous selection of subjects: marriage, familial relationships, medical advertising blurbs, the FDA approval process, and squirrels. The squirrels are the most important bit of course. Elizabeth McKenzie is like a gentler, more whimsical version of AM Holmes. I particularly enjoyed this bit of wisdom a squirrel imparts to the main character Veblen: ‘I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted…’ Don’t we all!
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North
How well can you truly know another person? This book tells the story of Sophie Stark, an indie filmmaker, from the perspective of those people who supposedly knew her best. The result is a collection of stories and reminiscences that build a fragmented, abstract image of an artist, like one of Sophie’s own experimental films. Anna North is a wonderful storyteller and in that her writing did remind me of Jennifer Egan’s. It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking read.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship that creates wormhole-type shortcuts through the fabric of space and we meet the mixed-species crew on the day that a new human member, Rosemary, is introduced for the first time. Short afterwards they’re offered their most ambitious job yet – to travel to a distant planet inhabited by a particularly belligerent species and create a tunnel home. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is proper, hardcore sci-fi complete with space travel, weird looking aliens and shedloads of impenetrable sci-fi jargon, but it is also brilliantly inventive, thought-provoking and moving. I couldn’t put it down.
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly is a budding natural scientist. She possesses a passionate curiosity that gets her into trouble but also serves her well as she investigates a suspicious death and explores the properties of the mysterious Lie Tree—a tree that thrives on human lies and yet bears fruit that illuminates truth. It’s rare to find a book with such a good message that is not at all moralistic or preachy. The Lie Tree is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction, woven together with dark and mystical elements and a strong feminist sensibility.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Just brilliant: vivid, compelling and honest. I’ve never read anything by this author that I didn’t like, but I found the themes of cultural identity, assimilation and the immigrant experience particularly resonant in this book.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
Plagued by terrible nightmares, a once dutiful and submissive wife, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian, seek a more ‘plant-like’ existence and ultimately aspires to become a tree. Dark and disturbing but also hauntingly beautiful and intensely moving. The Vegetarian was also the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016.
Bonus Book: Swing Time by Zadie Smith
I’m a third of the way through this so I don’t have a conclusive opinion yet. Of course, it’s crammed full of Zadie Smith’s typical wit, insight, and beautiful prose. Damn it! And so far I’m enjoying it more than NW.
That’s all folks, working on the ‘Best Bookcovers of 2016’ for my next post.