I started a new job six weeks before Christmas 2015, so the beginning of 2016 was mostly a haze of attempting to reorient myself professionally. I had requested a truly enormous pile of review copies, and spent most of January bashing through them, alternating them with TBR books. Some of the year’s best books were found this way, including Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, which should have received more attention: the story of a young single mother and waitress in Dallas, Texas whose experiments with drugs and no-strings sex are really elaborate forms of self-harm. Beautifully written and devastating. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its two sequels, my Christmas presents from the Chaos, paved the way for more contemporary sci-fi this year. I especially loved Leckie’s use of the universal female pronoun, and the way she casually inverts standard tropes (a sexy bombshell character, who’s also a shrewd politician, is repeatedly described as being large, plump, etc., and the ruler of the known universe is, one realises late in the day, a black woman.)
Visiting a friend of the Chaos’s in rural France in February, we retrieved a couple of books he’d borrowed: the first two volumes of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. I read all three volumes this year, but the first, Quicksilver, is my favourite because it requires marginally less intimate knowledge of early modern international finance than the other two. They are all excellent books, witty like Terry Pratchett, smart like no other writer I know, circumscribing the globe and many decades. Characters like Gottfried Leibniz and Sophie, electress of Hanover, cross paths with Eliza, formerly a harem slave in Constantinople who rises to become Duchess of Arcachon and major stockbroker for the French crown; Jack, a vagabond and anti-hero par excellence; and Daniel Waterhouse, a natural philosopher and a Puritan malgré lui.
In a totally different way, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life was an equally wonderful reading experience; it is, I think, the best “9/11” novel I’ve ever read, engaging with the aftermath of deployment in Afghanistan and the diversity of New York City and the fact that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can’t win. It’s disturbing and heart-breaking and every word, every detail, tastes real. I’m still thinking about it all these months later. I also loved Helen Stevenson’s Love Like Salt, a memoir of her daughter’s cystic fibrosis that also encompasses expatriation, marriage, music, and bereavement after her mother’s death. It was one of those rare books that seems to strike a chord because the author’s experiences and interests are so like my own.
Four of the best books I read this year, I read in April. What was going on in that month?! I can barely remember, but I do know I started singing again the month before that. Good spring all around, really.
Those great books were: Daughters of the North (or, in the UK, The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall, whose novel The Wolf Border was my book of the year in 2015. In this novel she posits a UK where the population is controlled by forcibly implanting contraceptive devices into women; her heroine runs away from the Cumbrian border town of Penrith to join a militant women’s collective in the hills. In its exploration of the limits of what we’re willing to subject ourselves, or others, to, it’s positively incendiary. Foreign Soil is the debut story collection from Australian writer Maxine Beneba Clarke, and I just bloody loved it. Every story is like a tiny novel, an ivory miniature to rival the perfect miniaturism of Austen. She writes about refugees and immigrants and minorities and foreigners and makes you feel that her characters are your aunts and uncles, brothers and cousins, sisters and friends. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers was longlisted for the Baileys Prize and should have been on the shortlist (I can think of at least two worse books that did make it to the shortlist). Like Leckie’s trilogy, it’s part of a new breed of sci fi that celebrates diversity, tolerance, respect, and friendship, and I really like it for that. It doesn’t avoid big issues—the possibility of enfranchisement, or rather embodiment, for artificial intelligence is one of the novel’s major foci—and it isn’t preachy but simply, boundingly joyful. Kizzy and Jenks, spaceship mechanics, have a particularly great relationship. Finally, Lisa McInerney won the prize itself with her debut novel The Glorious Heresies, and oh my was it ever deserved. Heresies is a great book, outlining in detail a whole swathe of Cork City’s underbelly with the blackest of humour, an ear for dialogue that never fails, and just the right touch of poignancy. I wanted a sequel.
Every year has a crazy season, doesn’t it. This year it was the summer. I left my job. I decided to actually write the novel I had been trying to pretend wasn’t in my head for the past two years. I discovered that actually, I would really really like to write novels for a living. We went on holiday to Cornwall, where it was very windy and I complained about walking up hills and the Chaos tried to stop me from buying a pasty for every meal. Lots of books were read.
Of these, not many actually stick in the memory. I was trying to complete Cathy‘s #20booksofsummer challenge and, although it’s a great idea, I fear my picks were basically good books but not, you know, outrageously awesome. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee was a huge beast of a book about Belle Epoque France and nineteenth-century opera that I absolutely adored; it has its flaws, but I was definitely the right reader for this. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, which I got to a year late, was as amazing as everyone said: her stories about laundromats and alcoholics and runaways and emergency rooms are never pessimistic or downbeat, though often bittersweet. Ian McGuire’s novel of whaling and pure human evil, The North Water, sticks in my head, though its level of violence made me feel sick at least once. It is, nevertheless, not a book that will leave you easily.
In Cornwall, I finished Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which are wonderful. My favourite, I think, is probably Marking Time or Confusion, but to be honest with you, they do all run together. That’s sort of the point; they are a literary box set. For all that they’re thinly veiled autobiography, they are also astonishingly delicate and ahead of their time, for the ways in which they handle child sexual abuse, emotional manipulation, post-partum depression, and the realities of a bad marriage. The way the story flips back and forth between the cousins, the way they develop and grow as characters, is utterly charming and addictive: pretty, vain Louise; sensitive Polly; passionate Clary; dashing Teddy; increasingly horrible little Neville. They feel like family.
Writing novels is not necessarily lucrative. I’ve been financing the writing of mine by working as a waitress since late September, and that work has framed my season. While in training, I discovered the novels of Tana French going for 99p each on Kindle, and snapped them up. (They were easy to read on my phone, during breaks in training. I maaayyy, in a minor way, be less violently opposed to the Kindle app now.) In the Woods and The Likeness, the first two, are perhaps the best: in the former, Detective Rob Ryan must catch a murderer in his hometown of Knocknaree, where two of his childhood friends went missing, presumed dead, in the woods. In the latter, Detective Cassie Maddox goes undercover to find out who stabbed a University College Dublin postgraduate. They’re not your run-of-the-mill thrillers: French writes detailed, precise, electric prose, and her understanding of human psychology is second to none. I’m a true convert to her work now.
I also adored Lisa Owens’s Not Working, a sweetly sad novel about graduate unemployment which, let’s not dissemble, struck pretty close to home. It should go on the same shelf as Alice Furse’s Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, for consultation in the year 2216 by academics interested in artistic representations of the repercussions of global fuckuppery and malaise in the early twenty-first century. Treasure Palaces, edited by Maggie Fergusson, is a glorious compendium of essays by well-known authors on their favourite museums. Don Paterson’s piece on the Frick Collection is simultaneously reverent and ripe with detail; it makes me want to go straight there. So does Frank Cottrell Boyce’s on the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, and Aminatta Forna’s on the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. C.E. Morgan’s magisterial The Sport of Kings is, like The Queen of the Night, an enormous and flawed beast: for some, Morgan’s use of four words where one would do isn’t worth it. For me, it absolutely is; her exuberance is tempered by the fact that she does know how to write, and by her huge ambition in taking on subjects like race, racism and heredity in a Southern American setting. It feels a bit like a Faulkner novel had a threesome with Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule and Dickens’s Bleak House.
Finally, coming up to Christmas I’ve had some absolutely cracking reads, as I try to push through the books outstanding on my TBR before the New Year. Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children is a hell of a book, dealing with trust, responsibility, emotional abuse, mental health and cultural disorientation, all in a nineteenth-century Cornish and Japanese setting. I’m now planning to read Moss’s entire back catalogue. And the two books most recently reviewed here—Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich and Golden Hill by Francis Spufford—couldn’t be more different, but couldn’t be more brilliant in their own ways: one a painfully beautiful literary documentary of life for the citizens of rural Ukraine and Belarus in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the other a glorious, voluptuous romp in eighteenth-century New York with writing that rings true as a bell. Both are unforgettable.
These books are my personal best-of 2016 list. I can’t rank them—the good ones this year were so good, and so diverse, that it feels like comparing apples with oysters—but I feel I’ve raved more about The Queen of the Night this year than any other book. Though I’ve also shouted a lot about Love Me Back. And In the Woods. And Love Like Salt. And the Baroque Trilogy. And, now, Golden Hill. …No, ranking is impossible.
Coming soon: 2016’s few (but spectacular!) bookish misfires…