Best Books of 2016
This year I read 250 books. 250! No idea how that happened. I did travel a lot for book events and festivals, which meant many hours on trains and evenings in hotel rooms. I get sent a lot of books for review and blurbs. I volunteer in an Oxfam Books and usually buy at least one book per shift. I love the library – I’m a member of four, and my local library now refers to me as a “heavy user”. Also, my job is reading and writing books, and I really fucking like books.
Here is a highly personal, not-very-scientifically-chosen list of my 50 favourites of 2016.
Books out in 2016:
- Best Apocalyptic Magical Realism: The Sunlight Pilgrims, Jenni Fagan
- Best Addictive, Beautifully-Written Thriller: The Trespasser, Tana French
- Best Science-Inspired Novel: The Comet Seekers, Helen Sedgwick
- Best Literary Horror: We Eat Our Own, Kea Wilson
- Best Unputdownable Novel: The Last One, Alexandra Oliva
- Best Feminist, Murderous Retelling of a Classic: Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye
- Best Atmospheric, Sinister Wartime Mystery: The Amber Shadows, Lucy Ribchester
- Best Romance About a Writer: Tell Me a Story, Tamara Lush
- Best Funny Feminism: The Trouble With Women, Jacky Fleming
- Best Book About Pop Culture: But What If We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman
- Best Book to Read While Travelling Alone: The Lonely City, Olivia Laing
- Best One-Sitting Read That Made Me Cry: Avalanche, Julia Leigh
- Best Novella About Hydropathy & Feminism: Bodies of Water, V.H. Leslie
- Best Hard-To-Describe Book Written as Tiny Vignettes About Love: Trysting, Emmanuelle Pagano
- Best Best Poetry Collection To Read Aloud to Someone You Care About: Dirt, William Letford
- Best Debut Poetry Collection That Made Me Do a Mini Fist-Pump: This Changes Things, Claire Askew
- Best Poetry Pamphlet That I Can’t Stop Telling People About: Still, Nadine Aisha
- Best Ongoing Children’s Horror Series: Lockwood & Co – The Creeping Shadow, Jonathan Stroud
Books Out Before 2016:
- Best Dark, Magical Book I’d Never Heard Of Before: Cobwebwalking, Sara Banerji
- Best Book Under 100 Pages: Coyote, Colin Winnette
- Best Book to Read By the Pool: The Lemon Grove, Helen Walsh
- Best Magical Realism About Mothers and Daughters: The Blue Girl, Laurie Foos
- Best Deep-Sea Horror: The Deep, Nick Cutter
- Best Novella About Death: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter
- Best Queer Gothic: Grab Bag, Derek McCormack
- Best YA Magical Realism: The Accident Season, Moïra Fowley-Doyle
- Best Bizarre, Dreamy Horror Novella: The Paradise Motel, Eric McCormack
- Best Beautifully-Illustrated Fairytale Retellings: A Wild Swan, Michael Cunningham
- Best Creepy Novel About a Stranger Coming into Your House: A Pleasure and a Calling, Phil Hogan
- Best Fiction By an Author Who I Previously Only Knew as a Non-Fiction Writer: Fly Away Home, Marina Warner
- Best Changeling Story: Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce
- Best Halloween Read: The Night Country, Stewart O’Nan
- Best Retelling of Welsh Folktales: Dark Tales From the Woods, Daniel Morden
- Best Fairytale-esque Quest Featuring Bees: The Beekeeper, Maxence Fermine
- Best Multiple-Parallel-Narrative-Strand Novel: The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett
- Best Horror Anthology: Skin Of The Soul – New Horror Stories By Women, Lisa Tuttle (ed.)
- Best Surreal and Beautiful Children’s Horror Stories: A Whisper in the Night, Joan Aiken
- Best Cute and Weird Graphic Novel: Nimona, Noelle Stevenson
- Best Graphic Novel Re-Read: Saga, Brian K. Vaughan
- Best Graphic Novel About Antarctic Exploration: Shackleton’s Journey, William Grill
- Best Merging of Fiction and Non-Fiction: The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
- Best Change-Your-Life Book That Actually My Life: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck, Sarah Knight
- Best Tender, Thoughtful, Intelligent True Crime: Lost Girls, Robert Kolker
- Best Non-Fiction Book About a Misunderstood Holiday: Trick or Treat – A History of Halloween, Lisa Morton
- Best Book About a Topic I Didn’t Realise I Was Interested In: The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, Zac Bissonnette
- Best Surprisingly Readable Academic Book About Horror Films: Gender and the Nuclear Family in Twenty-First-Century Horror, Kimberly Jackson
- Best Beautifully-Written, Rambling Book About Ghosts: A Natural History of Ghosts, Roger Clarke
- Best Book About Writing: Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury
- Best Book About the Complicated Love of Pro-Wrestling: Wrestlecrap – The Very Worst of Professional Wrestling, R.D. Reynolds & Randy Baer
- Best Book About the History of Food: Consuming Passions, Philippa Pullar
Want to read something water-themed on your summer holiday but still stick to your creepy, fabulist, witchy-dark bones? You’ve come to the right place.
- Orkney, Amy Sackville – An ageing literature professor honeymoons on Orkney with his much younger wife. He’s studying enchantment narratives about strange girls and women, and soon his research bleeds into his obsession with his mysterious new wife.
- Becoming Bone, Annie Boutelle – A biography-in-poems about Celia Thaxter, from her childhood on the stark islands off the New Hampshire coast to her adulthood as one of America’s most popular poets, now mostly forgotten.
- Blue Girl, Laurie Foos – This short magical realist novel set in a small lakeside town is weird and sad and beautiful. One of my favourites.
- Harbour, John Ajvide Lindqvist – Swedish horror/thriller about a missing girl and her haunted father. It’s bonkers, bizarre and rambling, but oddly compelling with some genuinely scary scenes that still stay with me. Also provided the epigram for my next novel: “We no longer give people to the sea, but it takes them anyway.”
- Lost Paradise, Kathy Marks – In 2004, charges of sexual assault were made against 13 men from Pitcairn, a remote volcanic island in the southern Pacific, so sparsely populated that these men made up a third of the male population. This non-fiction book is a little trashy, but it’s a dark and fascinating story.
- The Sea Egg, L.M. Boston – One of my favourite things about pre-1980s children’s books is how dreamy and weird they can be. As well as being deceptively creepy, this has such luscious prose: “Then all was quiet, except for that murmurous half telling, half withholding of tremendous secrets that the sea would keep up all night.”
- Daylight Saving, Edward Hogan – An awkward teenage boy becomes obsessed with a girl he sees swimming in the lake at a depressing holiday camp. It’s all underwater shadows and ticking clocks and dark shapes flickering through the trees.
- The Black Tongue, Marko Hautala – Finnish horror where something horrible lurks in the depths of an abandoned lighthouse. I read this in Finland just before swimming in a huge, freezing, pitch-black lake, and spent the whole time convinced that a witch was going to bite off my feet.
- Imaginary Girls, Nova Ren Suma – Drowned girls who then appear alive again in a mysterious lakeside town. I can never get enough beautifully-written magical realist YA.
- The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan – Eh, you know. Pretty fond of this book.
What are your favourite alternative beach reads?
I’ve somehow managed to read 133 books so far this year (how did that happen? I don’t even know). Luckily for me, some of them have been seriously amazing. Here are the best ones of April and May:
- Cobwebwalking, Sara Banerjee – A strange, lovely little book that I devoured in a day. Geek Love meets Cold Comfort Farm.
- A Wild Swan, Michael Cunningham – Gorgeous retellings of classic fairytales. The prose is so lush I could bathe in it.
- The Sunlight Pilgrims, Jenni Fagan – You can read my full review in the Guardian, but in short: I loved it.
- Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye – What if Jane Eyre was a serial killer? The prose is luscious, the setting is vivid, the plot kept me guessing.
- The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston – This beautiful blending of memoir and fiction is like nothing else I’ve ever read, and I absolutely adored it.
- The Lonely City, Olivia Laing – I read this on a (rather lonely) trip to Germany. Beautifully written, revealing, and great company for a solo traveller.
- Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Max Porter – I read this in an hour, then spent the next hour doing happy-sad sobbing. An incredible book.
- Consuming Passions: A History of English Food and Appetite, Philippa Pullar – I got about fifty story ideas from this gloriously-written book (and learned several new words).
- True Crime Addict, James Renner – I’ve been reading lots of quality true crime lately, the sort that’s less a police procedural or gory description of the murderer, and more a focus on the victim’s life. This is an intense, atmospheric read.
- The Amber Shadows, Lucy Ribchester – A dreamy, grimy mystery set at Bletchley Park.
- Nimona, Noelle Stevenson – Adorable and strange. The best graphic novel I’ve read in ages.
As a bonus, I want to tell you about a few books I’ve read and loved that aren’t out for a while – get them on your radar now, as they’re going to be big:
- The Last One, Alexandra Oliva – This book is crazy-addictive, and a fabulous lesson for authors on how to tell a tight, gripping story without the dreaded info-dumping. (out July)
- The Comet Seekers, Helen Sedgwick – A brave and tender debut from one of the brightest new stars of the literary world. It’s one of the most vivid, original and magical books I’ve read in years. (out August)
- We Eat Our Own, Kea Wilson – Cannibal Holocaust meets [meats?] Heart of Darkness. It’s creepy, enlightening, thoughtful and beautifully written. I can never get enough literary horror, and this is a fantastic example. (out September)
What are the best books you’ve read recently? What books are you looking forward to?
January and February are always big reading months for me. Blame the terrible weather and general post-festive blah, but all I want to do is escape into new worlds. For 2016, I decided to branch out and try new genres. So far I’ve read literary fiction, children’s novels, romance, horror, magical realism, nature non-fiction, memoir and essays. Here are my favourites of the year so far:
- The Deep, Nick Cutter – The perfect horror novel for claustrophobics, Event Horizon meets Stephen King’s It.
- The Accident Season, Moïra Fowley-Doyle – This magical realist young adult novel is atmospheric, vivid, poetically-written, and just the right amount of weird.
- Best Laid Plans, Lauren Gallagher – This was my first proper romance novel, and I loved it. It’s romantic and hot (which is what you want in a romance, really), as well as considering serious issues in a thoughtful way (Islamophobia, non-traditional relationships), and presenting sexuality as a spectrum rather than a strict binary.
- Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce – Fantasy meets reality when Tara goes missing for twenty years, then reappears claiming she’s been in fairyland the whole time. I can’t get enough of books that mix realism and magic.
- But What If We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman – Entertaining and thought-provoking. Klosterman asks how we will value and think of today’s arts in the future.
- Coyote, Colin Winnette – A big subject (the loss of a child) handled beautifully in a small book (96 pages of tight, precise prose).
What are the best books you’ve read so far this year?
It’s February, and you know what that means – Valentine’s Day! (I know – ugh.) I’m a rainbow sunshine hippy, and I do believe in love. But I don’t believe that you have to buy anyone tacky overpriced shit on a specific day to show that you love them. So in honour of being anti-Valentine’s Day (though not anti-love), here are my favourite stories about love, in all its complicated, horrible, wonderful, vital glory.
- Fingersmith, Sarah Waters – One of my favourite love stories, and even then the ‘happily ever after’ has a generous dollop of bleakness. Ah, just the way I like it.
- The Blue Girl, Laurie Foos – There are many different types of love here – both functional and dysfunctional – but the one that comes through the most strongly is the powerful and complex love between mothers and daughters.
- In Love With Death, Satish Modi – Brief but punchy philosophical essays on coming to terms with your inevitable death by falling in love with your life. This might seem morbid for Valentine’s Day, but after losing my dad and all my grandparents, I’ve come to see that the only way to truly appreciate life is to accept that it’s brief and utterly unpredictable – but all the more wonderful for that.
- Geek Love, Katherine Dunn – One of my all-time favourites, this novel chronicles a family of freak show performers and shows how love can make us do strange and terrible things.
- Big Ray, Michael Kimball – Although presented as fiction, it’s clear that Kimball’s own love-hate-love relationship with his own father had a huge influence on this book. This is one of the truest and most brutal books about loving and losing a parent that I’ve ever read.
- The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison – As this is a memoir about Harrison’s consensual incestuous relationship with her biological father, clearly this is not a positive portrayal of love. Love is good, love is bad, but love is rarely simple.
- Days of Grace, Catherine Hall – Good lord, how I adore this book. I’ve never read such a beautiful portrayal of unrequited love.
- Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block – This was one of my favourite books as a teenager. I wanted to be just like FLB when I grew up. It’s not to everyone’s taste (and even my jaded eyes now find it cloyingly sweet at times), but underlying the glitter there’s a strong message that you can love whomever you want to love, and family is whatever you want it to be.
- ‘Gold‘, Katherine McMahon (in Treasure in the History of Things) – McMahon’s poetry is so beautiful you can get high from it. She writes so wonderfully and honestly about love, particularly in this ode to an ex-girlfriend.
- Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell – This list has focussed more on the grim side of love (though, genuinely, I do think that only by confronting the bad aspects of life and love do we appreciate the good). Still, I’m ending on an upbeat note with this sweet, addictive novel about two people finding, losing and [SPOILER!] re-finding love.
What’s your favourite love story?