It would be fair to say that 2016 has been an eventful year – and certainly one that will be hard to forget. With world events rather overshadowing the world of books for most of the year, now is a great opportunity to look back over the best books of 2016. We had an incredibly difficult decision to make to get down to a top ten – but we enjoyed many long and passionate conversations about the books we loved along the way!
Honourable mentions must be made for Dadland by Keggie Carew, The Trespasser by Tana French, The Dark Circle by Linda Grant, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old by Hendrik Groen, The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan, Darktown by Thomas Mullen, Holding up the Universe by Jennifer Niven, Radio Silence by Alice Oseman, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, East West Street by Philippe Sands, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart, and Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama.
In the end though, the following are the ten we chose as our favourites of the year. While there was always debate over which books would make the list, our number one was absolutely unanimous. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a necessary, inventive, emotionally intense and superbly gripping novel: one that in a year of unforgettable moments remains an indelible part of 2016’s landscape.
Here’s to the best of 2016 – and we hope you find something that you missed over the course of the year!
Book of the Year 2016
The Undeground Railroad
In any year, The Underground Railroad would have been a monumental achievement; in 2016, however, its importance was all the more apparent. Colson Whitehead’s epic follows the journey of Cora from slavery to ostensible freedom, the twist being that instead of being a metaphor for the secret routes and safehouses used by Abolitionists to free slaves, the ‘underground railroad’ is physical reality, a steamtrain taking Cora from one city and town to another, hoping to find a true home.
As affecting and convincing as such treasured novels as Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, The Underground Railroad has already been hailed as modern classic – and is sure to be read, studied and marvelled at for many years to come.
The Borough Press
In a year dominated by psychological thrillers broadly in the mould of international phenomenons such as Gone Girl and The Girl on a Train, Missing, Presumed is our pick of the very best. Edith Hind is missing, the only clues left behind an open door, a smear of blood and her coat. DS Marion Bradley launches an investigation, but is hampered by the evasion and inconsistencies of the girl’s friends and family, as well as an invasive and increasingly feral press pack. Full of twists, turns and switches, this is one of the most gripping books you’ll read all year.
Chatto & Windus
There were many hyped debuts of 2016, but The Girls stood out for its woozy prose stylings, a brilliantly captured late-sixties setting and its intriguing cast of characters. Evie Boyd is desperate to be noticed. In the summer of 1969, empty days stretch out under the California sun. And then she sees them. Dirty dresses skimming the tops of thighs. The girls. And at their centre, Russell. Russell and the ranch, with its rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings and teen runaways. Is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever? Compelling and startling.
When Breath Becomes Air
One of the most talked about non-fiction books of the year was also one of the most heart-breaking and profound – one that has moved thousands in its depiction of a man facing his own early death. At the age of thirty-six, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer. One day he was treating the dying, the next a patient struggling to live. Paul died while working on this deeply felt book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.
What is Not Yours, Is Not Yours
Helen Oyeyemi has a passionate community of readers who consider her – quite rightly – to be one of the most innovative, unusual and imaginative writers currently at work today. That she has not reached a wider audience is a travesty – and this perfect collection of very loosely linked short stories shows why. This is fiction at its most breath-taking, its unsettling and deeply affecting characters inhabiting a strange netherworld very much like ours, but refracted through a funhouse mirror. If you’ve yet to discover her incredible work, this is the perfect place to begin.
John Murray Press
Now firmly established as a modern master of the spy thriller, Mick Herron has redefined the genre for a new age, his Jackson Lamb sequence – of which Real Tigers is the third – becoming one of the most acclaimed of recent years. Jackson Lamb runs a kind of halfway house for exiled spooks, called Slough House. Catherine Standish is one of his agents, and she is being held hostage. But why? Jackson Lamb is determined to find out in this superbly written and tense drama. ‘If you read one spy novel this year, read Real Tigers‘ The Spectator.
Having woven intricate and gripping plots around thought-provoking looks at the future of countries like India, Brazil and Turkey, Ian McDonald turns his attentions skywards in this epic SF exploration of the moon. Five corporate families are caught in a bitter battle for supremacy as they orbit the earth. The moon is a dangerous, desolate place, but also one of vast opportunity – there, people will make their fortunes, but at what cost? And to whom? One of the most acclaimed SF writers in the world is at the very top of his game in this masterclass in speculative fiction.
Described as a cross between Stand By Me and We Were Liars, this heart-breaking and stunning breakout YA novel from the author of Seed was, for us, the most compelling YA novel of the year. June’s life at home with her stepmother and stepsister is a dark one – and a secret one. Not even her father knows about it. But then she meets Blister, a boy in the woods. And in him, June recognises a glimmer of hope that perhaps she can find a way to fly far, far away from home and be free. Because every creature deserves their freedom…but at what price?
This debut novel of considerable imagination and verve flew lower under the radar than its many champions had hoped – but thankfully it is finally getting the recognition it deserves. It is a sweltering South American summer, and during a family meal, Carlos disappears. An experienced, semi-retired inspector takes the case, but what should be a routine investigation becomes something strange, intangible, even sinister. Bold and daring, MacInnes’s intelligence and understanding shines through every page, making him the discovery of the year.
Everything Love Is
Claire King – the author of The Night Rainbow – has a poignant and unique voice in contemporary fiction, and Everything Love Is stands out as a mysterious, unforgettable story of love, and of the happy endings we conceive for ourselves. Baptiste Molino has devoted his life to other people’s happiness, rather than his own. But a new client may help to change his perspective. When a legacy from the past finally reveals itself, however, he finds himself torn between pursuing his own happiness and safeguarding the one he loves.