My Top 10 Books of 2016


About this time last year I revealed my Top 10 books of the year (check what they were here). I enjoyed doing it so much, that I’m going to do it again this year. One little rule – I’m excluding all the Harry Potters because otherwise my Top four would be dominated by him,.


Like many TV clip shows at the end of the year, you’ll have seen most of this before, but there is also some brand new content to keep you interested – as well as the drama of a countdown.


We’ll start – as is often traditional in Top Ten countdowns – at Number Ten…


  1. This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell


A story about the construction then the subsequent demolition of the relationship between Daniel and Claudette. We witness all the moments around the big arguments and the big decisions, and the characters are richer for it. The ending seems inevitable, but it makes it even more satisfying when we get there.


  1. The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley


A deeply mysterious book, one that describes the cold, wet countryside of England so well, that I feel cold even thinking about it now. What’s it about? It’s hard to describe. A pilgrimage of sorts to the eponymous Loney, an attempt to cure the protagonist’s brother. But it has an ending that stays with you.


  1. See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt


A retelling – or in my case, just the telling – of the story of Lizzie Borden. A brilliant piece of writing that presents the facts of the case, plus some suppositions to help the reader come to their own conclusion to what happened on that August day. Fascinating and creepy in equal measure. Definitely one to keep on the bookcase for a re-read.


  1. Seven Ways We Lie – Riley Redgate


A bit of a guilty pleasure, and am a bit surprised to see it so high up my list for 2016. It’s a fluffy and throwaway story about an American high school and a rumour that rockets around its corridors. I found it very funny, and a great bit of escapism from some of the heavier fare I usually read.


  1. Mad Girl – Bryony Gordon


One of two non-fiction books on the list…  It’s a book about mental illness, specifically Bryony Gordon’s, but also about YOURS because it’s hard to read about Bryony’s experiences without comparing and contrasting with your own. Some bits make you feel better, some bits make you feel worse, but you’ll come out of this book knowing yourself a bit more (gosh, that sounds American). If you read this and don’t recognise yourself in any of it, then you’re lucky – but hopefully, you’ll understand the rest of us a little bit more.


  1. And I Darken – Kiersten White

The tale of Lady Dracul, a take on Vlad the Impaler. A Game of Thrones style epic that pulls you into the politics of a country a million miles and a million years away from where you are. I’m looking forward to reading more books in this series.


  1. The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink


A tough one – because this is real life. My biggest problem when it comes to Non-Fiction, I either don’t care because there’s no sensible narrative (spoiler, there is no sensible narrative in real life) or I care too much because ‘this really happened, damn it!’. This definitely falls into the latter – with the tragic story of a girl growing up coping with the result of a tragic accident involving her brother.


  1. The Stranger In My Home – Adele Parks


The only title on my list this year that I haven’t done a full review for, so here’s a mini one, right here.


I read this back in August, and the main reason for not writing a review is that I didn’t know what to say that I’ve not said about Adele before. This is her first contemporary novel since The State We’re In, which is one of my all-time favourites (And FYI, I’m still waiting for a movie adaptation?), and it tells of a couple who learn that their only daughter may in fact not be theirs.


Is everything as it seems? Tense in places, it builds to a wholly surprising but satisfying ending. This is my favourite thing about Adele’s writing. You’re sure you know where it’s going, yet you know there must be something else to it, and there is always something else to it, but until it happens you have absolutely no clue what it is. The clever bit, though, is that it makes perfect sense.


This is Adele’s take on the domestic noir genre that The Girl on the Train spawned, but there is more weight to this, more investment in the characters and much less reliant on a cheap twist. Currently only available in e-book, it’ll be released as a real book in January


  1. Hex – Thomas Olde Heuvelt


A book that starts off as normal as any other, but soon descends into gothic horror. It blends the contemporary world with the ritualistic world of the past and slowly builds it from a calm acceptance to a complete breakdown of civilisation that leaves both hero and anti-hero in a state of shock.


  1. Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave


I called this way back at the beginning of the year. The sheer poetry of the writing alone was enough to make me fall in love with it, but the characters and plot drag you along with it. There’s no more that can be said that I haven’t already said. Just go and read it.





The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

I don’t often read Non Fiction titles.


I find that the majority of history books can be dull and patronising, while autobiographies are guarded and vacuous at best.


The word I would use to describe The Last Act of Love is ‘memoir’. It doesn’t tell the full tale of Rentzenbrink’s life up to this point, nor does it tell the story of her brother’s life.


Instead, it’s the story of his death.


I’m finding it very difficult to talk about this book, perhaps because it’s real. People actually felt this pain. These tragic events actually happened.


But this isn’t relentlessly tragic, it reflects the events of what happened. Some of it hard, some of it upsetting, but some of it positive, uplifting even.


I find it weird that I sat next to Cathy at a meal last year, and I had no idea about all that had happened, though I did get a whisper that was writing a book.


Perhaps she puts it best herself when she talks about carrying the grief around in a rucksack. She’s learnt how to carry that rucksack around with her, and accepts it always will be there. But what she notes with some insight is that nearly everyone has a rucksack of some sort.


Everyone has a story, a tale. Some of them don’t have the twists and turns that exist in others. Some are smaller in scale than others. But they’re still there. They’re still as heavy.


Maybe one of the reasons I don’t really like Non Fiction titles is something that the author notes shortly after her rucksack observation. Those of us who have been brought up with books, specifically fiction, crave some kind of narrative resolution, that simply doesn’t exist in real life.


If there’s one thing I’ll take from this book it’s this; The story goes on, it continues to be told. And we have to learn to go on with it.


Despite my scoring system being geared towards fiction, The Last Act of Love manages to score an impressive 4.1 out of 5.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

It’s not often that I’m wrong, it’s an even more infrequent occurrence that I admit that I’m wrong. But I was.

Earlier this year, I read A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale and I wouldn’t stop raving about it. I even, what now seems a touch prematurely, considering it was January, billed it as my book of 2015.

I was wrong.

And that’s not to do down A Place Called Winter, it’s still within my top five books of all time, and most other years, would easily win the book of the year title.

But, a few months ago, a book by Hanya Yanagihara landed on my desk at work. It’s a big brick of a book, over seven hundred pages, and I knew nothing about it. I hadn’t even read the blurb, but I was told by a colleague that I would enjoy it. Mostly because he knew I enjoyed The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

So what was I expecting? The great American novel. A bit of a saga. Not much else.

The blurb tells us it is the tale of four friends, JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. But really, it is the story of Willem and Jude. But REALLY, it is the story of Jude.

We meet them when they’ve first moved to New York and Willem and Jude are looking for a place to live together. It is made clear at the very beginning, they are not a couple, nor are they brothers. They are simply friends. Best friends.

And that is what the story is about; the importance of friendship, how it effects our lives and how it can be bigger, yet more uncategorised than romantic love, than sexual love.

A Little Life is the story of love between men. It explores all aspects of it, and it does so beautifully, and yet so tragically.

It’s very difficult to talk about this novel without giving anything away, or indeed without going on for pages about the tiny point that you want to talk about, so perhaps the best thing to do is to tell you about the structure of the book.

The titular little life in question is that of Jude St Francis, and it is through a non-linear construction that we learn about it. He is mysterious, and reluctant to talk about his past, to the point that his friends, his closest friends know nothing of him, except not to ask.

It is over seven hundred pages long, but each section, each chapter, feels like its own book. We learn in them the stories of all four characters to varying degrees, and though some of the chapters are as long as eighty pages, the prose and the characters are so elegantly drawn, it is impossible not to get swept away.

Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote in the Bookseller that she read the book in one night. This is unbelievable, believable, and unbelievable again all at once.

Initially, the size of the book is off-putting. It certainly doesn’t strike you as a quick read and the first thirty to forty pages are confusing. There are so many male twenty-something characters that it is difficult to tell them apart.

But then, something clicks and you’re not just able to tell the characters apart, but they have started to become part of you. The book starts to become part of you and although you kind of broadly know what’s going to happen, you have to read on. And that’s when you understand how it’s possible to have read it one night.

The desire to read on is strong, but what I can’t understand, is how anyone can be emotionally stable enough to read it in one sitting. There is a point about a third of the way through – and I don’t think this spoils anything – where the tragic background of Jude starts to become clear, and you realise that this is a book that’s going to break your heart.

That’s not to say it is filled with unrelenting misery. I read A Little Life at the same time that I downloaded Will Young’s latest album 85% Proof. It’s a typical Will Young album, cracking vocals, a little bit dance-y but quite melancholy, but I had it playing in the background as I read parts of the book, and every song on it seemed to fit the plot.

Three songs stand out:

Thank You – a song from Jude to Caleb

Blue – a song from Willem to Jude, that actually contains the line “We live a little life”

And Joy – a song that is melodically upbeat and happy, but is lyrically about hope. “Nothing really matters, we’ve got everything we need, take a big leap and we will feel joy.”

It’s a song about daring to hope that things are going to work out, and that is the pervading feeling that you get from this book. Life is miserable, bad things happen, but the characters in this book are not just living little lives, they’re living great ones, because of the relationships and friendships that they form with each other.

There’s a whole section of the book in the last third called “The Happy Years” and by the time you get there and you see the heading, your heart sinks, because you know that nothing is going to stay happy, by this point, you know it’s a book that’s not only going to break your heart, it’s going to shatter it and use the bits to create itself a home.

And there are moments during The Happy Years where you’re screaming at the characters, urging them to just… well, I shan’t say. But you are. They’re making themselves miserable and it’s unbearable.

Then, at the end of The Happy Years, at their happiest, something happens, in the last three to four paragraphs. I had to put the book down and walk away.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and there were maybe a hundred pages or so left. I had time to finish it before going for dinner at my mum’s, but by this point, I knew that I would not be in any state come the end of the book, where I would be able to be around people, let alone make small talk with my granddad and mum.

I came back in the evening, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine and began to read.

I started with Will Young playing in the background, but it became clear after just one page that the music wasn’t suitable. Not because it didn’t match, but because I was being sucked into this world. Into Jude’s world.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that first part of the last section is told from Jude’s point of view – as I’ve already said, the book is told in a non-linear structure – and I started to cry.

I’m not a big crier. I’m not emotional. But sometimes when watching a film, or a TV program, a small tear will escape. It happens more often with books, where one or two tears will trickle down my face. It last happened with A Place Called Winter, and previously to that it happened with the book that I won’t name (I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s becoming less and less important to me that I don’t share it, perhaps one day, I will).

In the space of 98 pages, I cried four times. A trickle or two of a tear. Maybe on one occasion three tears, because I really screwed up my face and squeezed that third one out. This was surprising enough to me, to know that A Little Life had truly affected me, but then…

The last section of the book is a letter from Harold – Jude’s adoptive father, and it had made a tear escape already once. And then there is the payoff to a moment three or four hundred pages earlier and I immediately started to sob.

Big, unmanly, tears misting my eyes, properly crying.

I had to put the book down, two pages from the end, because I couldn’t see to read. I had to compose myself before I could bring myself to carry on any further.

There are many more things I could say about A Little Life, and I could probably talk about it and digest it and analyse it forever, and I probably will, but for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll just add these last few points:

  • It’s taken me a week to even contemplate writing this post, such did it effect me that I couldn’t face thinking about it.
  • I’ve many more books in my ‘To Read’ pile, but I’ve regressed to Harry Potter. I need to cleanse my pallet so to speak, before I move on to anything else, and I know that the JK Rowling series will not be diminished by what has been read before.
  • To my sister – who will likely be one of the few people to read this review. This is my Moulin Rouge.

To people who want more than plot from their books, the kind of person who might enjoy The Goldfinch, then I would ask you to please read this book, to stick with it past that first confusing section (which by the way, I think is intentional, because it seems ridiculous now, that one could confuse any of these characters).

I was wrong when I said A Place Called Winter was my book of the year. It’s still a very good book, one of the best. But, if there’s a book better than A Little Life, I don’t have the emotional strength to read it for at least six months, and so I am crowning A Little Life my book of 2015.

It’s probably the book of my life.
A Little Life is published on August 13th 2015