I thought 2016 had a bit of a slow start when it came to books, but some of the books I’ve read this year are among the best I’ve ever read, and I’ll be talking about my 10 favourite for years to come.
I made a conscious effort to try and read more books by writers of colour this year, something which bears out in my best of 2016 list (even though I still read more books by white writers, could the fact that the majority of my list is books by non-white people possibly show the really high quality of writing by writers of colour who do get published? Discuss).
There were some notable gaps in my reading this year – I failed to get round to Sarah Perry’s much-lauded The Essex Serpent, which I’m now saving for a time when I can savour it, and I skipped most of the Man Booker Prize shortlist because it just didn’t capture me this year, plus I’ve not read as much YA as I did in previous years.
Now, without further ado, here are my 10 favourite books of 2016…
The Good Immigrant ed. by Nikesh Shukla (Unbound)
This collection of essays by established writers, new voices, actors, poets and more was always going to be good, but its stories of belonging (or not), representation and appropriation resonated even more as 2016 unfolded in a way few could have predicted.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet)
Hands down, the best book I read in 2016. It’s been months since I read it and there are still times I find myself just thinking about certain scenes or moments. Utterly brilliant writing, a simple but effective concept, characters that draw you in, and a story that makes you feel and teaches you something – this book has everything.
American Housewife by Helen Ellis (Scribner UK)
I’m not usually a short story person but I loved these wicked, sharp, funny stories about, well, American housewives. Just don’t go in expecting stories about cotillions and how to make lemonade, these are delicious and dark.
Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge (Guardian Faber)
Gun deaths in America seem to make news regularly, but Younge’s book shows that barely a fraction make it to the headlines. Taking a randomly picked day, he dedicates a chapter each to a child who died as a result of a gunshot – Younge’s understated writing style, devoid of histrionics, is quietly effecting, and gets under your skin.
The Power by Naomi Alderman (Viking)
A book that is part science fiction, part political thriller and part satire, The Power’s straightforward concept – that women wake up one day with the ability to inflict pain with just a touch of their bare hands – soon makes for a clever, subversive look at gender, power and more. It’ll send shivers down your spine, and with the year we’ve had, some of it won’t even seem that dystopian.
Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence (Hodder Children’s Books)
A YA novel that really captures a young voice, as well as a place. Following 16-year-old Marlon as he tries to live his life without getting drawn into the gang culture around him, this is a wonderful exploration of teenage life in the inner city. The musical influences on the character and the book are a lovely touch, and the beautiful cover is the cherry on the cake.
My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal (Viking)
I knew before I picked this up that it was going to make me cry, and I was right. De Waal effortlessly takes us into the world of Leon, whose mother is not fit to care for him and whose (white) baby brother is adopted – all I wanted to do was reach into the pages and wrap Leon in a protective blanket so he would stop hurting.
An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao (Virago)
For someone who doesn’t often read short stories, that I have two collections on my list this year amuses me. An Unrestored Woman is really pairs of stories, with one character from the first appearing somewhere in the second. Rao’s look at the vulnerability, but most importantly the strength, of women affected in one way or another by the partition of India and Pakistan is exquisite.
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee (Harvill Secker)
A fabulous, properly old fashioned crime story set in the vibrant world of post-First World War Calcutta as a British detective investigates his first crime in the city. This stands alone as a crime novel, but also works as a critique of the British Raj and an exploration of race, class and gender at the time.
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo (Orion Children’s Books)
The sequel to Bardugo’s Six of Crows, Crooked Kingdom is full of action and great characters. Six of Crows was my introduction to Bardugo, who is a great storyteller, something Crooked Kingdom (which I stayed up late reading because I just couldn’t stop) illustrates in spades. (Plus, the characters make for excellent cosplay.)
And, because I can’t resist, honourable mentions for Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, Hag-Seed, and poet Kei Miller’s short, lyrical novel Augustown.
Which books make your best of the year list?