New Writing North’s books of the year 2016
We love a good end of year list in the office, so we thought we’d bring you a selection of some of our own favourite reads of the year. We kept the rules simple – recommend any book that you enjoyed reading in 2016.
And yet with barely any rules to break, Claire Malcolm still did her best. Chief exec’s prerogative…
My book of the year is The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante – 4 books in fact. A brutally truthful account of female friendship, motherhood, love, identity, home – all the big things, told with pinpoint psychological insight. I was late for work a few times as I was compelled to sit on a bench and finish the bit I had started on my commute.
My favourite book of 2016 was Man V Nature by Diane Cook, a debut collection of short stories on a dystopian theme. I couldn’t put it down and devoured them all in a day and a night. There’s a dark undercurrent of violence and threat running through the stories but also moments of humour and needle-sharp observations of human behaviour in extreme circumstances. Highly recommended.
The novel that made me laugh the most this year was Paulina & Fran by Rachel B Glaser. Cutting, witty and laugh-out-loud funny, it’s the study of an awkward romantic coming together and a primer in just how disappointing it can be to grow up and realise that you are still ‘you’. The book that made me think most this year was Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Full of ideas about gender, parenting, sexuality and identity. It feels like a watershed book. My fiction discovery of the year is Deborah Levy. Hot Milk blew me away. Angry, smart, allegorical – there is so much going on in this novel. I’d also like to big up Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare as it seemed to fly below the radar this year. It explores ethnic, economic and social differences and the magical liberation of horses through a story of fostering and tough love.
Other literary discoveries this year include the Backlisted podcast – a joyous thing to behold, and The Writer’s Voice – New Fiction from the New Yorker which is brilliant (especially Ottessa Moshfegh and Kevin Barry’s stories). I also wish I had space to enthuse about Ayelef Gundar Goshen’s Waking Lions, Janine di Gionvanni’s The Morning They Came for Us, Lucy Caldwell’s short story collection Multitudes, David Szalay’s All That Man Is and The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla. A good year for books, if not for anything else…but maybe I was just hiding in them.
I definitely have read some books for adults this year, but right now my child-addled mind won’t allow me to recall them (I’m on maternity leave!). For that reason, I’m choosing Nadia Shireen’s The Bumblebear . It’s an incredibly charming, beautiful illustrated story about Norman the bear who likes honey so much he dresses up as a bee to have maximum access to the sweet stuff. It’s very funny and doesn’t drive you bonkers, even if you have to read it 7 times in a row.
As I look forward to Christmas with my extended (Irish) family, Anne Enright’s The Green Road is the book that comes to mind. It’s a story of the small tragedies of our ordinary lives – defeat, disappointment, the ways we fail to show other people who we are and fail to understand who they are too: some of my preferred topics at any time of year, but The Green Road also pivots on a scenario in which a dysfunctional family comes together for one last Christmas in their childhood home. Fortunately my own mum (who will definitely Google this blog post) is nothing like the overbearing matriarch Rosaleen. And I’ll be doing my best not to channel adult children Dan, Constance, Hanna and – please God not Emmet – at the dinner table.
Is it me or has 2016 been a bit grim? So to close the year, and with the promise of a few laughs, I picked up I’ll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos. The novel is dry, understated and witty with an affectionately flawed protagonist I came to be very fond of. Mexico feels magical, with many fantastical characters (and dogs) adding to the lively scene. There’s also a warmth and affection for literature and the arts running throughout. If you’re looking to escape, and to giggle to yourself on the bus, I’d recommend I’ll Sell You a Dog as my book of 2016.
I’m not usually one for graphic novels, but The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua is a vividly illustrated and researched opus, and frankly irresistible to fans of steampunk, cutting-edge technology and/or classic literature. It follows two under-acknowledged inventors whose creative output was cut short, and envisions what they could have achieved in an alternate timeline. The book is smart, thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny, with a palpable reverence for the two protagonists. (There are also ray guns in it.)
I’m a massive fan of Anthony Horowitz AND a massive fan of murder mysteries so when I heard he was writing an Agatha Christie inspired novel for adults I was very excited. Magpie Murders is actually two mysteries in one and, despite attending Anthony’s talk at Durham Book Festival and being absolutely certain that he’d dropped a hint that had cracked the whole mystery open for me, I was completely surprised when the killers were revealed.
If you’re a fan of a classic murder mystery (or a modern murder mystery!) this is 2016’s book for you.
My book of the year is the brilliant Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which is being published in January 2017. I raced through my proof copy of this book, which follows the fates of two sisters Effia and Esi, born into a Ghanian village in the 18th century. One sister is captured and sold into slavery in the USA, while the other remains in Africa and marries a British slave trader. Each chapter of the book explores the lives of the next generation of the sisters’ descendants, spanning the Asante wars, the cotton fields of the American south, the abolition of slavery and civil rights marches in Harlem, finishing in the present day. Yaa Gyasi is an exiting new literary talent and a name to watch out for over the next year.
This Christmas I am looking forward to dipping into Pretty Iconic: A Personal Look at the Beauty Products that Changed the World, from the Guardian’s beauty editor Sali Hughes and I’m also hoping to read Artemis Cooper’s new biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall was brilliant inspiration that came at the perfect time when I was struggling to train for the Great North Run this year. I couldn’t put it down and it got me straight back outside clocking the miles, rain or shine. Born to Run gives an insight into how when you put your mind to it, your body can do pretty much anything.
Like all his books, Outlaws by Javier Cercas blurs the boundaries between fiction and history as it experiments with different modes of storytelling. The novel traces the lives of childhood friends Ignacio, El Zarco and Tere from the 1970s to the early 21st centrury. I especially loved the early sections in post-Franco Gerona, where middle-class Ignacio is lured into an adolescent gang by Tere but ultimately manages to escape the punishments given out to his friends from the other side of the tracks. Instead, Ignacio grows up to become a lawyer, which ultimately brings him back into contact with El Zarco, now a nationally famous criminal, and reignites his relationship with Tere.
No Way But Gentlenesse is Richard Hines’s account of how training his kestrel, Kes, changed his entire life. If this sounds familiar, it’s because he was the inspiration for his older brother’s book A Kestrel for a Knave, which in turn inspired Ken Loach’s film Kes. It is a moving portrait of not only falconry, but his inspirational response to the inequalities inherant in social class. I had many late nights after being too engrossed to put it down and go to sleep.
Listening to him speak at this year’s Durham Book Festival took me right back to my native South Yorkshire. Afterwards, as he signed my copy, I told him how great it was to hear a proper accent again. He smiled at me and said “You mean a rate accent, lad.” What a bloke.
… And finally, we have to put in a good word for our office mascot, George, the subject of Chris Haughton’s brilliant picture book Oh No, George! which he read for us at this year’s Durham Book Festival. Chris gifted us this puppet which has held pride of place in our office ever since.
It’s hard work being good all the time; George knows it and so do we. Here’s to a week or so of eating all the snacks and not getting in trouble for it. Happy Christmas everyone!