Top Ten Books of 2016

I wasn’t going to do one of these lists – for the first time in ten years of blogging – because I have read so little this year. But then it occurred to me that whilst I may not have read many physical books, I’ve listened to a large number. And looking back over the year, I see that Shiny ensured that when I was reading, I still read as much as I possibly could. And I adore Best-Of lists; it was reading Annabel’s (which inspired me to order three actual books in the spirit of cautious optimism motivating my idea of reading in 2017) that decided me finally to do one.

So, in no particular order, the best books of the year have been:

commonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett

Mr Litlove read this one to me and we both enjoyed it tremendously. The story of a dysfunctional family, grafted in awkward ways due to divorce and remarriage, is viscous with dread in its early stages, but strong on reconciliation and renewal by its conclusion. Patchett’s wonderful writing brings every scene dazzlingly alive.

Black Water by Louise Doughty

The unglamourous side of espionage and its complex ethical issues are brought to the fore in this stunner of a novel. John Harper has ‘looked after the interests’ of multinational companies, doing the legwork that not many people ever get to know about, mostly in Indonesia (where he was born to mixed race parents) in two period of turmoil: the anti-Communist purges in 1965 and the riots of 1998. What would you do if your survival was at stake, the novel asks? And then how would you live with yourself afterwards? Exquisite writing gives this tale terrific emotional and moral heft.

The Good Guy by Susan Bealethe-good-guy

Suburban America in the 1960s is the setting for this story of adultery and its consequences. You might think it’s a tale that’s been often told, but the Hopper-ish scene setting and the delicate characterisation of all the parties involved makes this a standout.

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

Critics mistook this for a novel when it was first published, but it’s actually a genuine investigation undertaken by Modiano into a petit annonce in a 1941 newspaper seeking the whereabouts of teenage runaway, Dora Bruder. Modiano found out that she had run into the arms of the Gestapo and had been deported with her father to Auschwitz in 1942. But what else could he discover about her? Could he piece her biography together? Who was she? What follows is one of the most moving and insightful accounts of an imaginative attempt to enter the life of another that you’ll ever read.

conclaveConclave by Robert Harris

Mr Litlove and I have only just finished listening to this one on audio book, but it’s kept us enthralled over the festive period. The story, set in the near future, begins with the death of the current pope and the meeting of cardinals in the Vatican to elect his successor. It’s told from the perspective of Jacapo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and the man whose unhappy task it is to preside over the conclave. Full of details you never knew about the process of papal election, yet dominated by a powerful, gripping storyline as secrets and scandals rise inexorably to the surface, this is one fun and fulfilling read.

Americanah by Chimamande Ngozi Adiochie

I listened to this way back at the start of the year and absolutely loved it. It’s fundamentally a love story, concerning teenage sweethearts in Nigeria who are separated by their life choices. Ifemelu has the opportunity to study in America and she takes it with both hands, believing it is her route to a better future. Obinze, who had hoped to follow her, is stymied in his choices and finally ends up in the UK. The story is a long, slow appreciation of their different routes, taken as the two make it back to one another, though of course both are now in separate relationships and carrying a great deal of baggage. Essentially, it’s a book about race, and about being a black person in a white world. It’s brilliant on race. Really excellent. And I have to give a special shout-out to the narrator of the audio book, Adjoa Andoh, whose range of Nigerian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, American and British accents had to be heard to be believed. I could have listened to her all day (and sometimes did).

The Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamiltondeadly-touch-of-tigress

My sister-in-law got me started on this crime fiction series featuring Ava Lee, a forensic accountant. Yup, a petite, gay, Chinese-Canadian woman who can do maths and kick butt – what’s not to like? Ava goes on the track of funds (enormous funds) that are missing or have been criminally appropriated, and she gets her clients their money back. You get to find out what a lot of airports across the world are like, as Ava has to do a lot of travelling to follow the money trail, and you learn interesting stuff about Chinese martial arts, financial accounting and top-end hotels, too.  I’ve been wonderfully entertained by them.

The Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child

If I’m honestly doing my best of the year, then I have to include another shout-out to Reacher. Having listened to a LOT of audiobooks this year, I’m here to tell you that being read out loud is a stringent test for any work of fiction. You get to hear every single word chosen by the author, and you get to hear every single sentence, all read at a constant, steady pace. Not many styles, plots or characters can survive it. However, Lee Child’s novels really do work under these severe conditions. I can’t speak for the last five or six he’s published, as they are showing all the signs of series fatigue and just don’t match up to the early ones. I listened to Killing Floor and The Hard Way, and both were excellent – and brilliantly read by their narrators, too.

a-spool-of-blue-threadA Spool of Blue Thread and Back When We Were Grown-Ups by Anne Tyler

The other author who works magnificently on audio is Anne Tyler. I’ve long loved her work and read most of what she’s written (you remember they re-issued her early novels? I haven’t read all of those – she hit her stride with Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant and I’ve read them all since then). The two I mention above were real highlights of the listening year. Her characters are so real and her dialogue so wonderful and – the later you go in her back list – she is so funny and amusing that her novels were just instant cheerfulness for me.

The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick

This is an unusually fiction-heavy list this  year, and I should add honorable mentions here for Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Hicks and Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marcal. But I have to award the prize to Vivian Gornick for her set of splendid interconnected literary essays on the way love in novels has changed since the 19th century. She writes about Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Christina Stead, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley and many others. But it doesn’t matter who she writes about, the point is the clarity, the insight and the lack of pretension she brings to whichever author falls into her sphere. Mr Litlove read these to me, and he – an engineer by training – enjoyed them as much as I did. Now that’s what I call literary criticism.



32 thoughts on “Top Ten Books of 2016

    • So do I! I do hope I’ll be able to read more blogs, too. I’ve sorely missed your posts about books to anticipate each month! So glad Commonwealth was in your best-of list, too. It was a wonderful novel.

  1. This is a great list – I’m a fan of ‘Americanah’ as well 🙂 You’ve opened me to the possibility of making a foray into audiobooks… what do you think are some of the biggest pros and cons of listening to, as opposed to reading, books? Would love some insights from you! xxx

    • Hi Jen – thank you for dropping by and so glad you loved Americanah! My experience with audio books is that the narrator makes a HUGE difference. So always listen to the sample clip that audible offers you – you can quickly tell whether the voice is going to be to your taste or not. I also think that long, detailed books suit the aural format less well than concise, snappy ones. But that might be a more personal taste thing on my part. I began listening to audio books by choosing old novels I’d read a loved long ago, so long ago that I’d almost forgotten them. That gave me the best chance of enjoying what I picked, and learning about the elements that suited me. I hope some of this helps – let me know how you get on!

  2. Happy New Year to you and Mr Litlove. Thank you for the link – and adding to your TBR from it. I’ve only read The Good Guy from yours (and loved it too), but have Anne Patchett and Robert Harris on my shelves. Love the sound of the Ian Hamilton books too.

    • Happy New Year dear Annabel! There was just something about your list this year that proved irresistible! I’ve begun the Becky Chambers although I never read sci-fi of this kind. If I really can’t get on with it, then I’m sure Mr L will enjoy it. I’ll let you know!

  3. Americanah is the only one of these I’ve read, but I loved it and am in utter awe at your description of the range of accents in your audiobook! I’m dead keen to read Black Water, as well as Conclave (for some reason papal thrillers feel like a kind of guilty pleasure for me), and your description of the Ava Lee novels has just made me sit up and go “YEP, LOOKING THAT UP NOW.” So hurrah!

    • Hurrah! I am so hoping to get back round your blog this year, so I can see what you think of any of the above! And the narrator of Americanah is truly awesome. Truly.

      • Open Book (on Radio 4) did a segment recently, a close reading of the opening page, and it was great—the focus on rhythm and inversion made me see how smart and planned Adichie’s writing is. I must go back and read it again soon.

  4. Happy end of 2016, beginning of 2017. Lovely to see you here, and your list. What an eclectic one too! Americanah was great. Such a mature and all encompassing novel. Hope you have a good year.

  5. I am so envious of you being read to, although sorry for the condition that requires it. This is a great list, Ava Lee is going straight on the TBR list! I also discovered Jack Reacher this year, such a treat to have a whole series ahead of me and good to know that they also work in audio.
    If you haven’t already, then Wolf Hall is absolutely marvellous on audio and of course, there’s hours of it to wallow in. Happy New Year!

    • I will happily lend you Mr Litlove! Just say when. He might fix any carpentry issues you have, too. 🙂 I’ve been thinking about whether to get Wolf Hall or not. I’ve read the first novel, not the second, and long enough ago now that I can’t recall all the details. So it is definitely in the running!

  6. The reader makes such a difference in audiobooks, doesn’t it? We have an audio version of a book Ron and I loved and wanted to share with our kids on a long highway journey, but the reader’s voice was so sleep-inducing we couldn’t get through much of it.
    One of my favorite books of the year, read right at the end, is News of the World, by Paulette Jiles (I posted about it today).

    • Ooh I love recommendations and I will come over and read your review. I do hope to get more blog reading done in the very near future. I miss you all. And oh boy do I hear you about those sleep-inducing voices. I lie down sometimes to listen to an audio book – fatal!

  7. It’s always great to see your list. I liked the Gornick a lot when I read it a while ago. I didn’t agree with all of it but it was so well written and fascinating.
    You have a few interesting titles on your list.
    I wish you a wonderful 2017. I wasn’t around much so I only just found out about your eyes. I’m very sorry. I hope it will get better soon.

    • That’s so kind of you – I was hardly around at all in 2016 either, and really hope to be more present now. My eyes are improving – it’s just been a really slow process. 😦 But hopefully I’ll get there in the end. I do miss my blogging friends.

  8. How lovely that Mr LitLove has been reading so much to you … and thank you for the Vivian Gornick: off to buy instantly!
    PS Happy new year: may it be better than last in many ways, both personal and political.

    • I think you’d like the Gornick, Stef, it’s right up that alley that we share! 🙂 And a very Happy New Year to you and the Bookman, too. Hope to see more of you – virtually – in it!

  9. I love book lists too. When they’re written by people whose tastes you share to some extent, they’re such a great source of reading inspiration. I’m like you, actually—more listening than reading last year, mostly because we’ve been travelling a lot and listening as we drive from place to place. I find that some books work better on audio than others. Anne Tyler is perfect—we listened to The Amateur Marriage. All the best to you and Mr Litlove for 2017!

    • Andrew, hey, how lovely to hear from you! Do hope all is well and that you have a great 2017, too. I’m considering The Amateur Marriage at the very moment as I have an audible credit at my disposal, heh. Anne Tyler is indeed wonderful, isn’t she?

  10. Well I am enormously glad and grateful you did a list this year! There are so many here going on my TBR list – in the last year I have really struggled to read anything at all (my personal life fell apart, basically) because I couldn’t still my mind enough to receive any sort of story – I am working to change that in 2017 and this is a fantastic starting point. Thanks Litlove!

    • Aw Courtney, I send love and hugs. 2016 was a brutal year one way or another for just about everyone I know, I think. Glad to see the back of it! You’ve got a new blog, yes? I must come and visit. I do hope to see more of my blogging friends in 2017. I’ve missed you all loads.

    • I have heard very mixed things about Bel Canto and haven’t read it. But everything else of hers I’ve read, I’ve loved. Commonwealth was fab – do hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up!

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