Bookmunch end of year best of…
Daniel Carpenter: You can read elsewhere all about my favourite comics of the year, so I’ll give you a few of my highlights in fiction and non-fiction instead. I loved Lara Williams’ Treats, Callan Wink’s Dog Run Moon, Serefina Madsen’s Dodge & Burn, and China Mieville’s This Census Taker. Those who read it can all agree that Aliya Whiteley’s magnificent The Arrival of Missives is one of the highlights of the year, a book about fate and war, and the roles that women are forced into in society. Elsewhere, Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower, a novel that asks big questions about how to talk about a deity (spoiler, you don’t talk about deities, you talk around them instead) was bonkers, in a way that only really Barker can achieve. Over in the states, Joe Hill may have released his masterpiece, after years of only writing really really good books; The Fireman is a post-apocalyptic story with an interesting message about social media and the ways in which we interact with one another. It’s hugely engaging, and not at all like any kind of post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read before. But the best book this year is one I didn’t end up reviewing on this site – Paul Trembley’s A Head Full of Ghosts. It’s the kind of book Shirley Jackson would have written if she was writing now, wonderfully constructed, and with a climax that genuinely left me scared, Trembley may just be the horror novelist to keep an eye on.
Lucy Chatburn: This year I embraced Ferrante fever. The Neapolitan Quartet (which have to be lumped together because, although you might read My Brilliant Friend and decide it’s not your cup of tea, if you get as far as The Story of a New Name I guarantee you will not be able to stop yourself devouring the other two), documents the lives of two friends from a poor neighbourhood of Naples. It was brilliantly intense: 1500 plus pages of acutely observed friendship, scandal, history, and everything else, all of it elegantly written and compulsively readable. David Szalay’s novels were also among the highlights of the year. All That Man Is challenges the conventional novel structure without compromising on accessibility: nine men, each at a different stage of life, reveal their innermost thoughts in nine short, sharp bursts. Colourful characters, crazy situations and clever writing.
Thom Cuell: Looking back at the books of 2017, there have been many highlights, and it’s been great to see mainstream recognition for novels like Sarah Perry’s gothic masterpiece The Essex Serpent, Paul Beatty’s tightly-coiled satire The Sellout, and Deborah Levy’s intoxicating Hot Milk. Independent presses have been responsible for many triumphs, including Jarett Kobek’s I Hate the Internet, which recalled Coupland when he used to be good, and The Isle of Minimus by MKL Murphy, a pulp-y subversion of the modernist epic style from Repeater Books. The standout, though, was Counter-Narratives by John Keene, a highly intelligent, thoughtful and cohesive piece of work, which achieves its goal of disrupting the mainstream narratives which dominate American history, and opening a space for alternative voices. By revisiting historical and cultural events such as the American Revolution, the colonisation of South America, the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and the milieu of the French Impressionists with a fresh narrative perspective, Keene widens our understanding of our shared past, particularly the experience of victims of colonialism and slavery. This is an urgent and important novel.
James Doyle: It is not only the title of Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run, that is familiar from his music. The first pleasure of this book is to encounter the origins of his songs, particularly evocative when he recalls how his sister’s life inspired The River. The power of Springsteen’s music has always been its ability to go beyond the autobiographical and into the universal, The River becomes more than a portrait of his sister with its brooding question: “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?” Springsteen admits that “most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical” and this memoir as much the result of decades of crafting answers in interviews as years of therapy. Each chapter is as much anecdote as part of a narrative. The harsh honesty Springsteen applies to himself is something you rarely encounter in a memoir, he is relentlessly critical of his own failings (those of his personality as much as actions he now regrets). The first half of Born to Run is fascinating, especially in its portrayal of his relationship with a violent and frustrated father, and the evolution of this relationship into mutual understanding (even friendship), rather than his rise to international success, is at the heart of the book. Perhaps, the Nobel laureate Springsteen resembles most is not Bob Dylan but Seamus Heaney. Both find a bedrock in their childhood experience and home that sustains a lifetime of writing, despite enormous wealth and success (relatively speaking, it’s unlikely Heaney ever bought houses as casually as Springsteen seems to). Springsteen is a self-lacerating, uncomfortable presence throughout Born to Run but its moving intimacy is an essential appendix to his songs.
Valerie O’Riordan: My top reads of the year are mostly Irish – Mike McCormack’s brilliant Solar Bones (if you can make an engineer’s day interesting, you’re clearly operating on a higher plane than the rest of us) was a totally deserving winner of the Goldsmith’s Prize; Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians was just as shocking and compelling as (but a bit happier than) her debut; Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets was a massively assured collection from a writer that deserves all the praise she’s been getting; Mia Gallagher was a new writer to me but her hugely ambitious and pretty crazy Beautiful Pictures From the Lost Homeland captivated me. Looking outside Ireland, though, you’ve all got to read Ian McGuire’s The North Water: a murderous whale hunter, an opium-addicted doctor, some truly unfortunate polar bears and beautiful, beautiful prose – what’s not to like, eh?
Joe Phelan: With Fallen Glory, James Crawford charts the rise and fall of various buildings which have adorned humanity through the ages. Each chapter covers a specific building detailing the story of its initiation and eventual destruction. In this fascinating compendium Crawford takes the reader from The Tower of Babel in ancient Iraq to GeoCities on the worldwideweb. Along the journey we are brought to the now mostly forgotten Madinat al-Zahra in Cordoba, to the famous Fortress of Golconda in Hyderabad and the disastrous Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis Missouri and much more in between. One of the plus factors of Fallen Glory is that it is extremely well written and accessible. Historical characters stride through the pages of this book and we witness the vision which propelled them create and hubris that destroyed. Poignantly the paperback issue of Fallen Glory includes a chapter on the archaic city state of Palmyra in Syria. Crawford charts the rise of the city when it had an opportunity to outshine the Roman Empire to the destruction of the Temple of Bel in 2015 of which only the main arch remains. All in all I would recommend Fallen Glory to anyone with even the most faintest of interest in the history of architecture.
Tamim Sadikali: 2016 has been an exceptional year for fiction, delivering a slew of books that will live long in the memory. My picks though are for those that gambled, that purposely chose the high road, and came out flying… The love between parent and child, and its intersection with loss, was a theme that surfaced in Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal, The Place That Didn’t Exist by Mark Watson and My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal. The three perspectives were very different however each was original, with the emotional register being handled delicately. As a result, stories that could so easily have seemed kitsch, clichéd or saccharine-sweet were instead subtle, unorthodox and deeply moving. Two collections of contemporary shorts really stood out (and deserved to generate far more noise than they did). Prodigals by Greg Jackson suffered from being snooty and ostentatious, and yet was written with such confidence, panache and audacity that one could not resist applauding. (When one is inclined to hate a book, and ends up loving it, the author is doing something right…) Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s Starstruck was so inventive, intelligent and downright funny, this reviewer was left swooning with almost every page. To thread together stories featuring George Bush Sr., Mike Tyson and Prince Harry, making them more contiguous than consecutive, is no mean feat. Without exaggeration, this work touched genius. Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven achieved the almost impossible when dealing with a hallowed subject (WWII) – it paid homage to the past and, hand-in-hand, interrogated it. This, combined with a masterfully delivered story of a brutal war, cut with pristine, young love, makes this my favourite ‘classic’ novel of 2016. What with the apocalypse just around the corner, it’s amazing that we make time to obsess over Rihanna and tweet butt jokes. And no-one called out this simple truth more starkly than Jarett Kobek in I Hate the Internet. Structurally and aesthetically, this work – a loose story about a comic book artist spun around rant after rant after rant – was a huge gamble. But to the victor go the spoils…my book of 2016.
Fran Slater: I hate to be a party pooper but, as with many other areas of society, I can’t help but think 2016 wasn’t the best year for books. Usually when I sit down to do this I’ve got too many to choose from, but this year there were only really two books that stuck their heads above the parapet. I read some very good books, but only two 2016 ones that I would call truly great. The very good included Kate Tempest’s The Bricks That Built the Houses, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know, Ali Smith’s Autumn, and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. The truly great included one work of fiction and one from the non-fiction shelves. Fiction wise, it was The North Water by Ian McGuire, a brutal and brilliant account of a murderer on a whaling boat that will remind you of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner at the same time as being something totally original. The non-fiction work, and probably my absolute book of the year if you pushed me for an answer, was Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. An account of ten children and teenagers killed by guns in one single US day, it touches on everything that is relevant to our society today and it does so with empathy, anger, and honesty. A devastatingly important and relevant book.
Peter Wild: Yuki Chan in Bronte Country by Mick Jackson. Arcadia by Iain Pears. Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. The Terranauts by TC Boyle. Wood Green by Sean Rabin. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkoff. They All Love Jack by Bruce Robinson. Bit Rot by Douglas Coupland. Patience by Daniel Clowes. The Vision by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire. Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden. Mooncop by Tom Gauld.
Thanks for reading in 2016. We’ll be back in 2017. Have a good un 🙂
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- December 27, 2016 / 8:14 am