I vowed to read some more novels this year, and – oh boy – I read some absolute gems. Here were the best 12 fiction books I read in 2016:
A Threat of Shadows – J A Andrews.
In a world where historians are revered and have magical powers, one has gone rogue – looking to dark magic to save his dying wife. Utterly brilliant, emotionally-rich fantasy in the mould of Tolkien/Lewis, with concepts and scenes that have really stayed with me. Looking forward to the sequel.
The Trouble With Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon.
Set in a small cul-de-sac in the claustrophobic heatwave of 1976, two young girls search for God, sheep and goats when a woman goes missing in mysterious circumstances. Whimsical, character-rich and interesting weaving of biblical themes. Both parabolic and utterly real. This and A Threat of Shadows were my favourites this year – because of all the amazing books I read, these were the ones that have stayed with me.
THE DOOR STOPPERS:
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt.
A Dickens-worthy beast of a book about a teenage boy, caught up in an explosion in a New York Art Gallery, who steals a painting in the confusion. Brilliant character portrayal and interesting thoughts on art.
Arcadia – Iain Pears.
It combines an Oxford professor caught up in a possible Cold War spy plot, a girl looking for a cat who walks into a Utopian world where Storytellers are revered, and a possibly-mad scientist trying to escape a dystopian one. There are three worlds and several narrators to get your head around, so it’s a brain-stretch, but a witty, fun and intelligent one. If you like Tom Stoppard’s play by the same name, you’ll like this.
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara.
A young man with a mysterious past meets three friends at university in New York. This carries a MAJOR trigger warning for abuse of all kinds and suicide ideation, but is very well-written, and the kind of book where you’re really invested in the characters. Long, heartrending exploration of the beauty and limitations of human kindness.
QUICK-ish AND INTELLIGENT READS:
Exposure – Helen Dunmore.
Utterly gripping story of false accusation of spying in the cold war, and how the family cope. Not a ‘spy’ novel, but more about the disintegration and reformation of a family in crisis. Brilliant for character-depth, and scenes with such subtle menace that I forgot to breathe.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler.
A seeimingly placid student, whose siblings have mysteriously disappeared from her life, unexpectedly attacks a police officer. There’s a spectacular plot twist about a third of the way through, which is when it becomes a truly memorable work of literature. A book to make you think.
Before the Fall – Noah Hawley.
It starts with a plane crash. We piece together the mystery of why the plane crashed through the backstory of the 11 people on board, as well as the aftermath of all affected by it. A compelling and character-rich story with biting commentary on the rapacious nature of the 24/7 news cycle, this is a good and gripping read.
Siracusa – Delia Ephron.
Two couples and one child go on what turns out to be a disastrous holiday in Siracusa, Italy, as secrets unravel, and fractures in the relationships are exposed. Part-dry comedy and part-social comment, part-psychological thriller, I devoured this book in a few days, staying up late to read it.
The Muse – Jessie Burton.
Flicking between 1960s London and 1930s Spain, on the cusp of civil war, this novel centres on the discovery of a mysterious painting, and the tragic secrets it holds. Though the Spain parts are stronger than the London narrative, it’s a wonderful story that touches upon how we interpret art, the role of women in art and literature, and the silences and trauma that war brings.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood.
A dystopian novel about a world in which women are subjugated, it was a fascinating, breathless read. It is both literary and very readable, which is a sign of truly good literature.
Murder at Maypole Manor – LB Hathaway.
I love this series of the Posie Parker cosy crime novels, and of the two I read this year, this was my favourite – but you really should start at the beginning with Murder Offstage.
Also – for 2017 – Preorder Ink – Alice Broadway. Set in a world where everything you do in your life is tattooed on your skin, this is the first book in a trilogy that promises to be the next Hunger Games. SO GOOD. Preorder from Amazon.co.uk or Wordery (UK). (Sorry Americans, you have to wait another year for it…)
TOMORROW – look out for the best ten Christian books of 2016!