Here we are once again amongst the closing days of another year. This is certainly one year I’ll be glad to see the back off. I won’t go off-topic here or cross that line into putting too much of the personal up here but I will say 2016 was an utter bloody farce of a year.
However, as the days before the fat man with a beard drops down the chimney diminish, it’s also that time to share what I think were the best things I read during 2016.
Once again – save for a few weeks where I simply couldn’t read / take anything in – I read a lot this year – some amazing fiction new and old and plenty of fascinating non-fiction. There are some I’ve started but not finished (I do aim to finish Life and Fate in 2017) and some that still sit on the To Be Read pile.
This list, then, is my take on the best written word I consumed during 2016 and is in no particular order with the obvious exception…
One of the first books I read this year and one that’s stayed with me throughout. Echoes of great writers can be found throughout but it’s truly marked by the unique voice of Yusuf Toropov who here has written an important novel of our time. In my review I said that its a rare thing to find “a book that is so unarguably great that you find yourself telling everyone they should read it regardless of their usual choice of paperback writer. Jihadi; A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov is just such a book.” I stand by that.
Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon
A spy thriller set at the very start of the Cold War, as divisions and sides are drawn in a country still beset by the scars of war and trying to rebuild itself amongst the rubble. As much as I was fascinated by the historical element the plot equally gripped my attention and has sent me off down another path of reading with a couple of Cold War thrillers already en route to my letter box. Original review.
For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian
For completely personal reasons this book would already make the top ten. It was purchased while spending ten hours waiting for a plane at Gatwick airport ahead of a family holiday where it was hungrily consumed. I’d been searching for Sebastian’s work in English and this, published this year, did not dissapoint. Beautifully written and deeplu insightful and evokative. The knowledge of the tragedies that lay in store for Mihail Sebastian only make it all the more poignant. Original review.
This book absolutely broke my heart. This book was so far from what I was expecting and so gripping that I honestly can’t see how it wouldn’t make this list. If everything you knew about yourself turned out to be a lie, that your whole life was built around a crime so devestating that lives have been ruined, what would you do? In Her Wake, is a real story of hope and courage. And, yes, the final revelation about Bella still guts me many months down the road.
Notes on a Cuff by Mikhail Bulgakov
Finding this book last year, and finally reading it in this, was such a joyous experience. I thought I’d read all that was available so to discover the stories in Notes on a Cuff was like stumbling upon gold dust. These stories, written in the early 1920s, show a real master finding his voice and revelling in the art and joy of writing. There are elements here that he’d perfect later in his career but it’s amazing to see just how brilliantly formed his work already was.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
On each occasion (and it’s always an ‘occasion’) that a Franzen book is published I can’t help but think it won’t be as good as his previous novel. On each occasion I’m proven wrong. Easily his most accessible and equally amongst his finest work.
The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov
I’ve written before on just how much I love Kurkov’s work. Something of a cross between Bulgakov and a Ukranian Vonnegut, he weaves near-absurdist, satirical novels of the highest calibre. The Bickford Fuse from what I can tell, is an earlier book than any he’s yet published and was written in the final days of communism. A look at ‘Soviet Man’ told through a series of somewhat connected stories and characters that, while clearly written by the same author, is completely unique amongst his work printed thus far. Ambitious, multi-layered and hugely rewarding to read.
I read this in circumstances almost as perfect as possible yet I’m sure that had I read it in the middle of a cesspit as I sank down to the bottom I would have loved it just as much. Hugely gripping, deeply evokative and written without a spare word, Gunnar Staalesen is like the samauri of Nordic Noir – every masterful, well-practiced and skilful word strikes home hard. Staalesen is the master of his craft and it’s a big credit to the translation that there’s never any question of this when translated into English from the native Norwegian. Original review.
A book about the intelligence war was never not going to be my cup of coffee and when you factor in that it’s written by Max Hastings, The Secret War couldn’t get much better. Some real shockers in here and written in such a way as to ensure it never gets dull. It’s strange as it never caught my attention in school (more down to the education system at the time) but the Second World War has become the subject I’ve probably delved into most in terms of personal education. While I always enjoy a personal account – my interest being how normal people find themselves in extraordinary circumstance that I can’t comprehend rather than the ‘guns and glory’ stuff – the intelligence and spy / espionage war really fascinates me and this book is packed with detail.
In theory that should mean this would be the best NF book I picked up in a year but, then, this was the year that Bruce Springsteen published his autobiography.
Born To Run is the memoir every Bruce fan could have hoped for. He could’ve phoned it in. He could have gotten a ghost-writer to assisst and turn it into pristine prose. He didn’t. A deeply personal book, there’s more insight here than any such auto-bio I’ve read and all told in Bruce’s own voice. Revelations, inspiration and the salvation of music is all in here like one of his greatest songs. Original review.
The Dark Iceland series by Ragnar Jónasson is one of the most compelling and rewarding additions to the thriller genre and this year’s Black Out and Night Blind were both excellent – but impossible to choose a favourite.
I delved deeper into the Jack Reacher series this year with a good five books under my belt including the new (in paperback) Make Me which was a real strong contender and shake up of the character.
Yann Martell’s books are always going to suffer in comparisons to his famous book with the tiger but The High Mountains of Portugal was a good effort, if a little wayward at times, with a beautiful, heartbreaking evocation of absolute grief.
Epithany Jones by Michael Grothaus and The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto really should be on this list too…