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31 December 2016

My Top 5 Books of 2016

Towards the end of October, I realised that I had read almost 150 books so far in 2016 and that if I pushed myself, I might make it to 200 by the end of the year. I tend to read between 12 and 15 books each month, so upping this to 27 per month was going to be a stretch, particularly as I was so busy travelling and attending various weddings and work-related social events in November and December. However, I finished book number 200 — a late entry into my top five — with two days to spare and even managed to fit in another novel.

I don't think I'll do another reading challenge for a while because the time pressure and the constant hunt for the next books to read did take some of the enjoyment out of it. But I got some great recommendations from friends and there are usually a few crime writers whose archives I can work through in the absence of other inspiration. When I told people about my 200-book target, many of them asked if I was going to pick lots of novellas and short stories. The answer was no (I'm not generally fond of shorter-form fiction) and indeed, the books on my reading list range from 200-ish to 700-ish pages. One year, I might get around to tallying up my total annual page count!

With that being said, here are my favourite five books of the year:

1. Why We Came to the City* by Kristopher Jansma. Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for novels set in New York, particularly those featuring twenty- or thirty-somethings trying to carve out a life for themselves in the city. Even this year, I've read several books along these lines, but Jansma's was easily my favourite. Keenly observed, moving and, by turns, painful and funny, Why We Came to the City is beautifully written and left me longing for more.

2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I only finished this novel on Thursday, so perhaps it doesn't say that much to note how it has stayed with me ever since, but Gyasi's story about two half-sisters born in Ghana in the eighteenth century — one married to a slave trader and the other sold into slavery — and their descendants over two centuries is powerful and compelling. Each chapter offers up a snapshot of the life of one family member, from Ghana's Gold Coast to the coal mines of Alabama and the jazz clubs of Brooklyn. Epic in scope, Homegoing drives home the long-lasting damage done by African colonialism and American slavery. Gyasi is a tremendous storyteller and it's hard to believe that this was her first novel.

3. The Trespasser* by Tana French. I read a lot of crime novels every year. It's an over-saturated market and there are a lot of mediocre books out there but Tana French never disappoints. The Trespasser is the latest in her 'Dublin Murder Squad' series. Tightly focused and meticulously detailed, the novel follows Detective Antoinette Conway as she investigates the murder of a young woman that turns out to be a lot more complex than it first seems. Set during a bitterly cold Dublin winter, it's the perfect book to read in January — preferably curled up in front of a roaring fire with a mug of hot chocolate.

4. A Fortunate Age by Joanna Rakoff. I only got round to reading Rakoff's 2009 mémoir, My Salinger Year, last year and was keen to check out her début novel, A Fortunate Age. Set in Brooklyn in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it follows a group of college friends as they attempt to follow their hearts and pursue their dreams (I told you that I have a type). A Fortunate Age is a funny, sharp and richly painted portrait of a particular generation in a particular city. Coincidentally, I read this just after returning from New York, and the novel takes place primarily in the two Brooklyn neighbourhoods where I did my Brooklyn coffee tour — Williamsburg and Bushwick — both of which have changed considerably over the past 20 years.

5. The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. I don't tend to read much non-fiction for pleasure these days, partly because I do a lot of it in my day job, but Konnikova is a terrific writer and The Confidence Game is a truly fascinating book about the psychology of con artists and cheats, and the conned and cheated. Well-researched, engaging and thought-provoking, this book will help you understand why we are all so susceptible to manipulation and deception.

As usual, in case there aren't enough recommendations for you in my top five, here are five more books I enjoyed this year, which didn't quite make the shortlist:

  • Freya by Anthony Quinn. The heroine of Quinn's novel, the titular Freya, is one of the most memorable characters I've encountered this year; she is blunt, ambitious and not always terribly likeable. We first meet her on VE Day, as she meets Nancy — a gentler soul who also wants to be a writer — and follow the pair to Oxford, and then to London as they both try to make their way in the world. 
  • The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver. Set in 2029 in a post-...something world, Shriver's darkly comic novel follows the fortunes of the formerly fortunate and eponymous Mandible family. The US economy has collapsed, there are food shortages and children called Goog and Fifa. The scary part about The Mandibles is that, like the best Black Mirror episodes, its story feels, if not exactly inevitable, then all too plausible. Shriver's tongue is firmly in her cheek, however (“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all,” one character tells his daughter), and the novel is at its best when it is at it most satirical.
  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. Another multigenerational family drama, but this one is set in the recent past rather than the near future. An affair in the 1960s brings together two families, but has aftershocks that last for decades. Commonwealth is sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, but always warm and emotional, with well-drawn, complex characters.
  • The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker. Complex and self-aware, Dicker's weighty epic novel is, on the surface, a story about writing and writers. It is clever (sometimes too clever for its own good) and gripping.
  • The Animatorsby Kayla Rae Whitaker. Whitaker's novel about two female friends — the titular animators — is bold and imaginative, witty and tragic. The Animators will be published in January 2017 and I'll be posting my full review then (I received a pre-release review copy), but suffice to say that I loved it.

My full reading list for 2016 is as follows (re-reads are in italics):
  • Complicit — Nicci French
  • Descent — Tim Johnston
  • Missing Pieces — Heather Gudenkauf
  • The Illuminations — Andrew O'Hagan
  • The Lake House — Kate Morton
  • Oryx and Crake — Margaret Atwood
  • The Year of the Flood — Margaret Atwood
  • MaddAddam — Margaret Atwood
  • Landfalls — Naomi J. Williams
  • The Festival of Insignificance — Milan Kundera
  • My Name Is Lucy Barton — Elizabeth Strout
  • The Exclusives — Rebecca Thornton
  • Why We Came to the City — Kristopher Jansma
  • Alice & Oliver — Charles Bock
  • Dune — Frank Herbert
  • Eligible — Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Cat's Eye — Margaret Atwood
  • The Bones of You — Debbie Howells
  • Try Not To Breathe — Holly Seddon
  • The Queen of the Night — Alexander Chee
  • Trust No One — Clare Donoghue
  • The Taliban Shuffle — Kim Barker
  • The Expatriates — Janice Y. K. Lee
  • The Quality of Silence — Rosamund Lupton
  • The Confidence Game — Maria Konnikova
  • The Girl in the Red Coat — Kate Hamer
  • The Girls — Emma Cline
  • A God in Ruins — Kate Atkinson
  • Girl Through Glass — Sari Wilson
  • Unscripted — Alan Sugar
  • The Man in the High Castle — Philip K. Dick
  • The Widow — Fiona Barton
  • Until It's Over — Nicci French
  • The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair — Joël Dicker
  • Losing You — Nicci French
  • City on Fire — Garth Risk Hallberg
  • The Clan of the Cave Bear — Jean M. Auel
  • On Beauty — Zadie Smith
  • The Handmaid's Tale — Margaret Atwood
  • Cometh the Hour — Jeffrey Archer
  • Before the Fall — Noah Hawley
  • Black-Eyed Susans — Julia Heaberlin
  • Our Endless Numbered Days — Claire Fuller
  • Neurotribes — Steve Silberman
  • Shotgun Lovesongs — Nickolas Butler
  • White Teeth — Zadie Smith
  • Homecoming — Tanya Bullock
  • Keep You Close — Lucie Whitehouse
  • The Valley of Horses — Jean M. Auel
  • The Wars of the Roses — Dan Jones
  • Maestra — L. S. Hilton
  • Before We Met — Lucie Whitehouse
  • Gone Astray — Michelle Davies
  • e. — Matt Beaumont
  • The Robber Bride — Margaret Atwood
  • Just Fall — Nina Sadowsky
  • The Secret History — Donna Tartt
  • Missing, Presumed — Susie Steiner
  • Catfish and Mandala — Andrew X. Pham
  • The Crossing Places — Elly Griffiths
  • England, England — Julian Barnes
  • The Vanishing Year — Kate Moretti
  • Escape the Night — Richard North Patterson
  • The Nest — Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
  • The Last Child — John Hart
  • The Frozen Dead — Bernard Minier
  • The Assistants — Camille Perri
  • Modern Lovers — Emma Straub
  • Gone, but Not Forgotten — Phillip Margolin
  • Shelter — Jung Yun
  • Freya — Anthony Quinn
  • The Woman in Cabin 10 — Ruth Ware
  • Conviction — Richard North Patterson
  • Dear Amy — Helen Callaghan
  • Eleanor — Jason Gurley
  • The Sympathizer — Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Between You and Me — Mary Norris
  • Invincible Summer — Alice Adams
  • The Most Dangerous Place on Earth — Lindsey Lee Johnson
  • Orpheus Lost — Janette Turner Hospital
  • Hold Still — Lynn Steger Strong
  • The Execution of Noa P. Singleton — Elizabeth L. Silver
  • Rich and Pretty — Rumaan Alam
  • If I Forget You — Thomas Christopher Greene
  • The Mandibles — Lionel Shriver
  • Conspiracy — S.J. Parris
  • Rage of Angels — Sidney Sheldon
  • Memoirs of a Geisha — Arthur Golden
  • Vinegar Girl — Anne Tyler
  • The Lock Artist — Steve Hamilton
  • The Unforgotten — Laura Powell
  • The Man Who Couldn't Stop — David Adam
  • Sweetbitter — Stephanie Danler
  • The Gilded Years — Karin Tanabe
  • The Fire Child — S.K. Tremayne
  • This Perfect Day — Ira Levin
  • The Clasp — Sloane Crosley
  • Disclaimer — Renee Knight
  • Indonesia, Etc.  — Elizabeth Pisani
  • The Janus Stone — Elly Griffiths
  • Stormbird — Conn Iggulden
  • Wild Justice — Phillip Margolin
  • The House at Sea's End — Elly Griffiths
  • A Room Full of Bones — Elly Griffiths
  • Saturday Requiem — Nicci French
  • The Red Room — Nicci French
  • Ties That Bind — Phillip Margolin
  • Beneath the Skin — Nicci French
  • A Quiet Place  — Seicho Matsumoto
  • Dying Fall — Elly Griffiths
  • The Trespasser — Tana French
  • The Swimming Pool — Louise Candlish
  • I See You — Claire Mackintosh
  • Truly Madly Guilty — Liane Moriarty
  • Bright, Precious Days — Jay McInerney
  • Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow — Peter Høeg
  • Proof Positive — Phillip Margolin
  • Undertow — Elizabeth Heathcote
  • The Animators — Kayla Rae Whitaker
  • You Will Know Me — Megan Abbott
  • This Is Where You Belong — Melody Warnick
  • Three Sisters, Three Queens — Philippa Gregory
  • The Faces of Angels — Lucretia Grindle
  • Loner — Teddy Wayne
  • Catch Me When I Fall — Nicci French
  • Killing Me Softly — Nicci French
  • The Outcast Dead — Elly Griffiths
  • Eileen — Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Out — Natsuo Kirino
  • Land of the Living — Nicci French
  • Fugitive — Phillip Margolin
  • Serious Sweet — A.L. Kennedy
  • The Plains of Passage — Jean M. Auel
  • Supreme Justice — Phillip Margolin
  • The Blind Assassin — Margaret Atwood
  • Violent Crimes — Phillip Margolin
  • Good as Gone — Amy Gentry
  • The Shelters of Stone — Jean M. Auel
  • Bring Back the King — Helen Pilcher
  • Only Daughter — Anna Snoekstra
  • Highest Duty — Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow
  • The Associate  — Phillip Margolin
  • Commonwealth — Ann Patchett
  • Today Will Be Different — Maria Semple
  • Heartstone — Phillip Margolin
  • The Trap — Melanie Raabe
  • The Hopefuls — Jennifer Close
  • A Fortunate Age — Joanna Rakoff
  • Tell Me No Lies  — Lisa Hall
  • Stoner — John Williams
  • Home — Harlan Coben
  • The Whistler — John Grisham
  • Modern Romance — Aziz Ansari
  • Alias Grace — Margaret Atwood
  • Mount! — Jilly Cooper
  • This Was a Man  — Jeffrey Archer
  • The Circle  — Bernard Minier
  • Behind Her Eyes — Sarah Pinborough
  • Once More, with Feeling — Victoria Coren & Charlie Skelton
  • Behind Closed Doors — B.A. Paris
  • The Last One — Alexandra Oliva
  • The Two-Family House — Lynda Cohen Loigman
  • All the Ugly and Wonderful Things — Bryn Greenwood
  • News of the World  — Paulette Jiles
  • Another Brooklyn — Jacqueline Woodson
  • Modern Girls — Jennifer S. Brown
  • The Secret of Nightingale Wood — Lucy Strange
  • The Penguin Lessons — Tim Michell
  • The Swans of Fifth Avenue — Melanie Benjamin
  • Best. State. Ever. — Dave Barry
  • Sleight of Hand — Phillip Margolin
  • Small Great Things  — Jodi Picoult
  • Animal — Sara Pascoe
  • The Wrong Side of Goodbye — Michael Connelly
  • The Book of Unknown Americans — Cristina Hernandez
  • North of Boston — Elisabeth Elo
  • To Capture What We Cannot Keep  — Beatrice Colin
  • The Futures — Anna Pitoniak
  • Sleeping Beauty — Phillip Margolin
  • We Never Asked for Wings — Vanessa Diffenbaugh
  • The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead
  • Tender — Belinda McKeon
  • The Muse — Jessie Burton
  • Jar City — Arnaldur Indriðason
  • When Breath Becomes Air — Paul Kalanithi
  • Swing Time — Zadie Smith
  • The Last Innocent Man — Phillip Margolin
  • Hillbilly Elegy — J.D. Vance
  • The Land of Painted Caves — Jean M. Auel
  • Trinity — Conn Iggulden
  • Lost Lake —Phillip Margolin
  • Silence of the Grave — Arnaldur Indriðason
  • Hidden Figures — Margot Lee Shetterly
  • This Must Be the Place — Maggie O'Farrell
  • A Rising Man — Abir Mukhurjee
  • The Wangs vs the World  — Jade Chang
  • Voices — Arnaldur Indriðason
  • The Crossing — Andrew Miller
  • The Draining Lake — Arnaldur Indriðason
  • Homegoing — Yaa Gyasi
  • Hagseed — Margaret Atwood

* I received pre-release review copies of Why We Came to the City, The Trespasser and The Animators from NetGalley. Receiving a review copy of a book doesn't influence my decision to review it or my opinions of it in any reviews I do write.


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