The Best Fiction of 2016: My Top 15
You might be surprised to hear that I received ‘only’ eight books for Christmas. (And a very fetching owl bookmark.) Here they are:
As I did last year, I’ve come up with my top 15 fiction books of the year (the three translated works first appeared in English in 2016) and even attempted to rank them. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Without further ado, let the countdown begin!
- Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa: A hard-hitting novel with an unforgettably resonant title, this is set at the 1999 Seattle WTO protest: Yapa explores the motivations and backstories of activists, police officers, and delegates as the day deteriorates into violence. This fine debut is about cultivating the natural compassion in your heart even while under the threat of the fist.
- The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson: Beyond the barest biographical facts, Dawson has imagined the plot based on Patricia Highsmith’s own preoccupations: fear of a stalker, irksome poison-pen letters, imagining what it would be like to commit murder … and snails. You’re never quite sure as you’re reading what is actually happening in the world of the novel and what only occurs in Highsmith’s imagination, making this one of the most gripping, compulsive books I encountered this year.
- Nutshell by Ian McEwan: Within the first few pages, I was captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.
- The Longest Night by Andria Williams: This absorbing work of historical fiction combines a remote setting, the threat of nuclear fallout, and a marriage strained to the breaking point in a convincing early 1960s atmosphere. A great debut and an author I’d like to hear more from.
- Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin: Each of us is said to occupy 40 rooms in our lives; this novel in 40 vignettes, one per room, tells the life story of a Russian immigrant to America who dreams of becoming a poet but ends up a suburban housewife and mother of six. I feel this book will resonate with women of every age, prompting them to question the path they’ve taken, the passions they’ve left unexplored, and whether it’s too late to change.
- Irmina by Barbara Yelin: After her grandmother’s death Yelin, a Munich-based artist, found a box of diaries and letters that told the story of a budding love affair that was not to be and charted a young woman’s gradual capitulation to Nazi ideology. For the out-of-the-ordinary window onto Third Reich history and the excellent illustrations, I highly recommend this to graphic novel lovers and newbies alike.
- The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: In the 1850s a nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax? Donoghue writes convincing and vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature to technology and setting up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition.
- The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson: The kernel of the novel is a true story: for two summers in the late 1880s, Chekhov (known here as Anton Pavlovich) stayed at the Lintvaryovs’ guest house in Luka, Ukraine; one strand of the narration is a journal kept during those years by the family’s eldest daughter, who’s dying of a brain tumor. An elegantly plotted story about writing, translation, illness, and making the most of life.
- Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić: This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery. The lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war.
- Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell: Rindell brings the late 1950s, specifically the bustling, cutthroat New York City publishing world, to life through the connections between three young people who collide over a debated manuscript. It’s an expert evocation of Beat culture and post-war paranoia over communism and homosexuality.
- Golden Hill by Francis Spufford: The novel opens suddenly as twenty-four-year-old Richard Smith arrives from London with a promissory note for £1000; before he can finally get his money, he’ll fall in and out of love, fight a duel, and be arrested twice – all within the space of two months. Bawdy, witty, vivid historical fiction; simply brilliant.
- Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Five university friends strive to make their lives count against the indifferent backdrop of recession-era New York City. You’ll see yourself in one or more of the characters, and the rest you’ll greet as if they were your own friends and makeshift family.
- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent was a real-life legend from the latter half of the seventeenth century, but Perry’s second novel has fear of the sea creature re-infecting Aldwinter, her invented Essex village, in the 1890s. This exquisite work of historical fiction explores the gaps – narrower than one might think – between science and superstition and between friendship and romantic love.
- The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler: Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel’s life changes for good when in 1937 his mother sends him away from his quiet lakeside village to work for her old friend Otto Trsnyek, a Vienna tobacconist. This novel is so many things: a coming-of-age story, a bittersweet romance, an out-of-the-ordinary World War II/Holocaust precursor, and a perennially relevant reminder of the importance of finding the inner courage to stand up to oppressive systems.
- Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: The restaurant where twenty-two-year-old Tess works is a claustrophobic world unto itself, like a theatre set where the food is high art and the staff interactions are pure drama. Everything about this novel is utterly assured: the narration, the characterization, the prose style, the plot, the timing; it captures the intensity and idealism of youth yet injects a hint of nostalgia.
& A poetry selection:
Still the Animals Enter by Jane Hilberry: A rich, strange, gently erotic collection featuring diverse styles and blurring the lines between child and adult, human and animal, life and death through the language of metamorphosis. The message is that we are part of a shared life beyond the individual family or even the human species; we are all connected.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors?
I’ll be back tomorrow with the best nonfiction books I read this year.
Reviews Roundup, March–April
One of my goals with this blog was to have one convenient place where I could gather together all my writing that appears in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I don’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild: From the Baileys Prize longlist, an enchanting debut novel that blends art and cooking, mystery and romance. Annie McDee, a heartbroken PA and amateur chef, pays £75 for a painting from a junk shop, not realizing it’s a lost Watteau that will spark bidding wars and uncover a sordid chapter of history. In a triumph of playful narration, we mostly learn about the artwork’s history from the painting ‘herself’. She recounts her turbulent 300-year-history and lists her many illustrious owners, including Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Queen Victoria. These are the novel’s only first-person sections; you can just imagine a voiceover from Helen Mirren or Judi Dench.
Max Gate by Damien Wilkins: This is a novel of Thomas Hardy’s last days, but we get an unusual glimpse into his household at Max Gate, Dorchester through the point-of-view of his housemaid, twenty-six-year-old Nellie Titterington. Ultimately I suspect a third-person omniscient voice would have worked better. In fact, some passages – recounting scenes Nellie is not witness to – are in the third person, which felt a bit like cheating. Fans familiar with the excellent Claire Tomalin biography might not learn much about Hardy and his household dynamics, but it was fun to spend some imaginary time at a place I once visited. [First published in New Zealand in 2013; releases in the US and UK on June 6th.]
Dust by Michael Marder: A philosopher carries out an interdisciplinary study of dust: what it’s made of, what it means, and how it informs our metaphors. In itself, he points out, dust is neither positive nor negative, but we give it various cultural meanings. In the Bible, it is the very substance of mortality. Meanwhile “The war on dust, a hallmark of modern hygiene, reverberates with the political hygiene of the war on terror.” The contemporary profusion of allergies may, in fact, be an unintended consequence of our crusade against dust. The discussion is pleasingly wide-ranging, with some unexpected diversions – such as the metaphorical association between ‘stardust’ and celebrity – but also some impenetrable jargon. I’d be interested to try other titles from Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series.
How to Cure Bedwetting by Lane Robson (Oh, the interesting topics my work with self-published books introduces me to!): Explaining the anatomical and behavioral reasons behind bedwetting, the Calgary-based physician gives practical tips for curing the problem within six to twelve months. Throughout, the text generally refers to “pee” and “poop,” which detracts slightly from the professionalism of the work. All the same, this compendium of knowledge, drawing as it does on the author’s forty years of experience, should answer every possible question on the subject. Highly recommended to parents of younger elementary school children, this book will be an invaluable reference in tackling bedwetting.
The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine: An epic novel about an unconventional priest, set in late-eighteenth-century Denmark and Greenland. This struck me as a cross between Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned, another historical saga from Denmark and one of my favorite novels of all time, and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. Like the former, it features perilous sea voyages and ambivalent father–son relationships; like the latter, it’s edgy and sexualized, full of lechery and bodily fluids. No airbrushing the more unpleasant aspects of history here. The entire story is told in the present tense, with no speech marks. It took me nearly a month and a half to read; by the end I felt I’d been on an odyssey as long and winding as Morten’s.
Still the Animals Enter by Jane Hilberry: A rich, strange, and gently erotic collection featuring diverse styles and blurring the lines between child and adult, human and animal, life and death through the language of metamorphosis. Ambivalence about the moments of transition between childhood and adulthood infuses Part One. Early on, “A Hole in the Fence” finishes on a whispered offer: “You could be part of this.” The message in this resonant collection, though, is that we already are a part of it: part of a shared life that moves beyond the individual family or even the human species. We are all connected—to the children we once were, to lovers and family members lost and found, and to the animals we watch in wonder.
Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht: Lomath, Pennsylvania consists of a half-mile stretch between old textile mills and is home to just 150 people. During one unpredictable summer, blackouts and the arrival of an Eastern European fugitive draw the residents into a welter of paranoia and misguided choices. Our eyewitness to provincial commotion is 16-year-old Livy Marko, who considers herself plain and awkward – her childhood style was supplied by Anne of Green Gables and Goodwill. Knecht’s writing is marked by carefully chosen images and sounds. The novel maintains a languid yet subtly tense ambience. For Livy, coming of age means realizing actions always have consequences. Offbeat and atmospheric, this debut is probably too quiet to make a major splash, but has its gentle rewards.
Shiny New Books
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot: Put simply, this is a memoir about Amy Liptrot’s slide into alcoholism and her subsequent recovery. Liptrot grew up on mainland Orkney, a tight-knit Scottish community she was eager to leave as a teenager but found herself returning to a decade later, washed up after the dissolute living and heartbreak she left behind in London. A simple existence, close to nature and connected to other people, was just what she needed during her first two years of sobriety. Her atmospheric writing about the magical Orkney Islands and their wildlife, rather than the slightly clichéd ruminating on alcoholism, is what sets the book apart. (On the Wellcome Prize shortlist.)
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
Look We Have Coming to Dover! by Daljit Nagra: The dialect was a bit too heavy for me in some of these poems about the Sikh experience in Britain. By far my favorite was “In a White Town,” which opens: “She never looked like other boys’ mums. / No one ever looked without looking again / at the pink kameez and balloon’d bottoms, // mustard-oiled trail of hair, brocaded pink / sandals and the smell of curry. That’s why / I’d bin the letters about Parents’ Evenings …”
Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves: Between the blurb and the first paragraph, you already know everything that’s going to happen. I admire books that can keep you reading with interest even though you know exactly what’s coming, but this isn’t really one of those. Ultimately I would have preferred for the whole novel, rather than just alternating chapters, to be in Roscoe’s first-person voice, set wholly in prison (where he helps out in the library and with the guard dogs) but with brief flashbacks to his electricity siphoning and the circumstances of his manslaughter conviction. The writing is entirely capable, but the structure made it so I felt the story wasn’t worth my time.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: The Freemans are raising Charlie, a chimpanzee, as part of their family for a Toneybee Institute experiment and teaching him to communicate via sign language. Flashbacks to the late 1920s bring an uncomfortable racial subtext to the surface, suggesting that the Toneybee has been involved in dodgy anthropological research over the decades. This is a deep and unsettling story of human–human interactions, even more so than human–animal interactions. I much preferred it to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Love Like Salt by Helen Stevenson: Stevenson’s daughter Clara has cystic fibrosis, so I approached and enjoyed this as an illness memoir. However, it’s very scattered, with lots of seemingly irrelevant material included simply because it happened to the author: her mother’s dementia, their life in France, her work as a translator and her hobby of playing the piano, her older husband’s love for Italy and Italian literature, etc. Really the central drama is their seemingly idyllic life in France, Clara being bullied there, and the decision to move back to England (near Bristol), where the girls would attend a Quaker school on scholarships and Clara was enrolled in a widespread clinical trial with modest success. Enjoyable enough if you share some of the author’s interests.
Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser: Ghost story? Really? There’s very little in the way of suspense, and not too much plot either, in this Australia-set novella. I would expect tension to linger and questions to remain unanswered. Instead, the author exposes Frances’s ‘ghost’ as harmless. What I think de Kretser is trying to do here is show that ghosts can be people we have known and loved or, alternatively, places we have left behind. There is some nice descriptive writing (e.g. “three staked camellias stood as whitely upright as martyrs”), but not enough story to hold the interest.
Let the Empire Down by Alexandra Oliver: This debut collection is heavily inspired by history and travel, as well as Serbian poetry and personal anecdote. I enjoyed the earlier poems, especially the ones with ABAB or ABBA rhyme schemes. My favorite was “Plans,” about a twenty-something manicurist who abandoned her talent for science to get ready cash: “A girl’s future should be full and bright, a marble, / but (alas for her) there is a catch: / we take on the immediate. Hope flags: / wishing to be wise and come out shining, / we pop a beaker over our own flame. / We do it cheerfully. We do it coldly.” The last quarter is devoted to poems about films, especially Italian cinema.
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: This is the most fun I’ve had with the Hogarth Shakespeare series so far, as well as my favorite of the three Anne Tyler novels I’ve read. Yes, it’s set in Baltimore. Kate Battista, the utterly tactless preschool assistant, kept cracking me up. Her father, an autoimmune researcher, schemes for her to marry his lab assistant, Pyotr, so he can stay in the country after his visa expires. The plot twists of the final quarter felt a little predictable, but I was won over by the good-natured storytelling and prickly heroine. (I don’t know The Taming of the Shrew well enough to comment on how this functions as a remake.) Releases in June.
The Assistants by Camille Perri: At age 30, Tina Fontana has been a PA to media mogul Robert Barlow for six years. He’s worth millions; she lives in a tiny Brooklyn apartment. One day a mix-up in refunding expenses lands her with a check for $19,147. If she cashes it she can pay off her debts once and for all and no one at Titan Corporation will be any the wiser, right? This is a fun and undemanding read that will probably primarily appeal to young women. I would particularly recommend it to readers of Friendship by Emily Gould and A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan. Releases May 3rd.
Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson: A sketchbook Thompson kept on his combined European book tour for Blankets and research trip for Habibi in March–May 2004. It doesn’t really work as a stand-alone graphic memoir because there isn’t much of a narrative, just a series of book signings, random encounters with friends and strangers, and tourism. My favorite two-page spread is about a camel ride he took into the Moroccan desert. I could also sympathize with his crippling hand pain (from all that drawing) and his “chaos tolerance” overload from the stress of travel.
Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden: Some very nice writing indeed, but not much of a storyline. The book is something of a jumble of mythology, geology, prehistory, and more recent biographical information about some famous Cornish residents, overlaid on a gentle travel memoir. I enjoyed learning about the meanings of Cornish place names, in particular, and spotting locations I’ve visited.
And my highest recommendation goes to…
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: It all starts with an early 1960s christening party Los Angeles policeman Fix Keating is throwing for his younger daughter, Franny. DA Bert Cousins turns up, uninvited, with a bottle of gin the grateful guests quickly polish off in their fresh-squeezed orange juice. He also kisses the hostess, sparking a chain of events that will rearrange the Keating and Cousins families in the decades to come. The novel spends time with all six step-siblings, but Franny is definitely the main character – and likely an autobiographical stand-in for Patchett. As a waitress in Chicago, she meets a famous novelist who’s in a slump; the story of her childhood gives him his next bestseller but forces the siblings to revisit a tragic accident they never fully faced up to. Sophisticated and atmospheric; perfect for literary fiction fans in general and Patchett fans in particular. Releases September 13th.