The best books of 2016

Well that was fun. 62 books down – the most I’ve read in a single year since I was a teenager. Or maybe ever.

I feel like I barely scratched the surface of what came out in 2016, let alone the massive backlog I’ve accumulated.

But nonetheless I read some terrific books and I’ve selected the five best below. To be fair, a couple of these actually came out in 2015 but hey, it’s my blog and I can do whatever the hell I want. No doubt some more 2016 books will get their due when I get around to them in 2017.


  1. THE GIRLS by Emma Cline – A staggeringly accomplished debut novel with some truly dazzling prose.
  2. MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout – A beautiful, understated character study with not a single word out of place.
  3. GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS by Max Porter – An amazing memoir-novella-poem partly narrated by a crow. Bizarre and divine.
  4. FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff – One of the great American novels of recent years, with all the flawed majesty that entails.
  5. OUR SOULS AT NIGHT by Kent Haruf – A gentle little love story that packs a huge emotional punch.

Some common themes? They’re all about love and family, which is sort of surprising given I usually gravitate more towards high-concept novels. They’re all naturalistic, with the exception of Porter’s surreal little book; three of them are very short, showing my preference for economic storytelling; and four of them are American which suggests I really need to broaden my literary-ethno horizons.

Some honourable mentions, both new and old: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi just missed out on my top five; likewise Ian McGuire’s The North Water; and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout deserves most of the praise it’s attracted. I spent time with another gorgeous Kazuo Ishiguro gem, Never Let Me Go. And this was the year I finally read Moby Dick, a book both maddening and majestic.

Some disappointments. I just couldn’t connect with Michael Chabon’s Moonglow; Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants was poorly-written trash, despite all the plaudits; and I will forever me mystified by the publishing phenomenon that is Elena Ferrante. Oh, and this was the year I finally read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and boy what a disappointing slog that turned out to be.

Of this year’s 62 books, just eight were non-fiction. I’ll try and squeeze some more in next year. Or maybe I won’t.

I did okay on gender balance: of my 62 books, 35 were by men and 27 by women. Better than I usually do, at least.

But damn, I love the anglosphere: more than half the books I read in 2016 were American. Another 10 were Aussie, another nine came from the UK and a couple from Canada. There was just one from continental Europe – Ferrante – and just three from non-anglo backgrounds: a couple of Gabriel Garcia Marquez novellas and The Vegetarian, the creepy prize-winner from Korean writer Han Kang.

I’m so white.

I’ve bought at least 50 books this year – probably a few more than that to be honest – so the towers of shame aren’t really getting much smaller. Thankfully, I’ve recently moved house so the towers are safely tucked away in my new walk-in-robe and I’m no longer at risk of being crushed in my sleep.

So that’s sort of progress I guess?

Anyway, bring on 2017.

I’ll be targeting 52 books again. That might not seem particularly ambitious given I surpassed that number pretty easily this year but in 2017 I’ll be targeting a few weightier books. I’m looking at you A Little Life. I admit, I took the easy route with a big number of novellas and short novels this year.

Happy new year reading!

Author: adamgartrell

Political journalist drowning in books

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