Obviously mine is the most anticipated literary list of the year so I’ve left it especially late, leaving you almost not enough time to buy my recommendations for your loved ones for Christmas.
But before the lists, some rules and qualifications:
First, a reminder that what I have spent 99% of my year reading is either submissions – as yet unpublished books that have been sent to me by agents – or books I am actually editing and publishing. So if you feel that the list below is somewhat lacking in undiscovered gems, this is the reason why. Often I’ve read these books because they have shouted quite loud to get my attention. ‘My book may have gone undiscovered if Jenny hadn’t recommended it as one of her books of the year’ said absolutely no-one in the list below.
Second, this is a list of books I have read this year, and not necessarily books that have been published this year, although some of them also have been.
Third, this list excludes all the books I was involved with publishing at Arrow, and all the books I have read in anticipation of starting at Bookouture. Obviously both lists contain a huge number of excellent books, but they are sadly not allowed here. I have spent and will spend enough time telling you all how brilliant they are in other contexts, mainly on twitter.
So, rules over. Here they come:
First, A Little Life. This was the first book I read this year and as soon as I finished it, I knew it was likely to be the best book I read all year. I was right and it was. In order to keep us moving swiftly through the list, I won’t linger on the reasons why I thought most criticism of it was misguided and unfair (though I may linger on that some other time – something to look forward to… ) but I did think it was. It isn’t a perfect book, but as a friend of mine said when she recommended it to me ‘I have a very high tolerance for the sort of thing that is wrong with it’. And I shared this feeling exactly. Yes it could have been shorter, but I loved every word of it.
Behind Closed Doors is my thriller of the year, in a year during which I read approximately 3 million thrillers (so, no mean feat). Publishers have spent a lot of time discussing why exactly this book worked so well, and much of that discussion has focused on publication model and pricing. Useful discussions to have, and the book was brilliantly published by HQ (then Mira) but it is also literally unputdownable and it is hard to imagine someone reading it without telling all their friends this vital fact. My one small quibble with it is that one of the ways in which the psychopath husband demonstrates his awfulness in the book is by arriving at the airport 3 hours before his flight leaves. Which as any fool knows is entirely normal behaviour. I have just been lucky enough to read an advance copy of B. A. Paris’ second novel The Breakdown, out in February 2017, and it is every bit as gripping as her first.
The Gustav Sonata was the best of an excellent bunch of books I read on a holiday in North Norfolk in May. (The other two were This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell and Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty, both of which I also loved. A 100% holiday hit rate is always satisfying.) As with so many of Tremain’s novels, it is perfect. Moving, intelligent, gripping, not a word out of place. So it won ‘The Book of my Norfolk holiday’, that much-coveted literary award.
Elizabeth Strout was my author discovery of 2016, and I read three of her novels this year: Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle and My Name is Lucy Barton. Any of them could have had a place on this list but I’ve gone for Olive. It’s an unshowy book but that’s not another way of saying ‘it’s a bit slow and has no plot’. Strout is an outstanding observer of human behaviour and also of the ways in which people can get each other wrong, with devastating consequences.
I have been reading Jodi Picoult for years, and have always enjoyed her, but with her last three – The Storyteller, Leaving Time, and this one, Small Great Things – she has moved up a notch. All three have made me cry, and Leaving Time I loved despite its containing a supernatural element, which is an almost automatic strike against a book for me. When Hodder sent out proofs of Small Great Things, they did so ‘blind’, as it were – with no author and title on it, so readers did not know what they were reading. As you’ll see if you read the book, this ties into its themes but also I imagine they wanted readers who had never read Picoult before, and who had a set idea of the ‘sort of thing’ she is, to read this book without prejudice. If you never have read her, this is a good place to start.
The last novel on my list is the one I most wanted to publish this year, but sadly missed out on. (‘All in the game, yo’ as Omar from The Wire would say, were he an acquiring editor.) And that book is Miss You by Kate Eberlen. Sleepless in Seattle meets One Day is my best publisher-speak one line hook, but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s upmarket commercial fiction at its best. I laughed, I cried, I lost the auction, and now I’m showing how not-bitter I am by suggesting you buy someone a copy for Christmas.
And finally – an honourable mention for something a bit different, which is this, The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k.
If you have anyone in your family who has inclinations towards control freakery, perfectionism and anxiety (I can’t imagine why someone told me I should read it), then this is the perfect Christmas gift. The title gets across the core message, but it is engagingly written and genuinely helpful on the topic of how to spend less time doing the things that are wasting your time and holding you back, and more time doing the important things that you love. I have absorbed its key message so successfully that I am not bothering to send Christmas cards this year. And hopefully any of my friends reading this will now realise ‘it’s not because she’s selfish and doesn’t want us to have a nice Christmas’ (which of course I am not/do want) but rather that’s it’s part of a vital life change. I will be equally understanding if you can’t be bothered to send me a card, and you can spend your time on more worthwhile activities like reading one of the wonderful books on this list.
Happy Christmas everyone!