I think that we can all agree that, culturally, 2016 has not been a great year. We’ve seen the death of too many icons (and this just continues in the final days of December, with the past week seeing George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds pass on), we’ve seen the rise of less than desirable politicians which makes us wonder if this horrendous year is merely the tip of the iceberg.
However, determined to salvage some shred of light from the darkness of the seventeenth year of the new millennium, I’m turning to the greatest hope that we can all share – books! Despite the rest of the world’s scourge, there have been some great books released and enjoy renewed popularity in 2016, and, just like last year, I’m aiming to count down the top 5 books of the year. These will be books that have had a major impact on the year of bookselling as well as a reflection of the world around them. Either released in 2016 or enjoying success in the 2016, please take this list as highly recommended reading to help escape the real world and enter a new one – one that hopefully can distract you from the horror of the real world.
#5 – Gemina (The Illuminae Files, book 2) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
October 2016 saw the release of the highly anticipated sequel to Kaufman and Kristoff’s epic 2015, Illuminae. The second of a trilogy of young adult high fantasy books, Gemina takes place chronologically seconds after the end of the first book, we are introduced to a host of new characters. We have not completely abandoned Ezra and Kady from book one, however – but we follow two new characters who will confront the next wave of the assault of BeiTech. Hanna is the station commander’s daughter, who has lived a privileged life but that is not to say that she is incapable. And Nik is a member of the notorious crime family, although a reluctant one, is not entirely what he seems to both the readers as well as to Hanna herself.
The creativity and pure experience of reading Gemina is just as stunning as its predecessor. It is so much more than just a read and just a young adult book. I think its charm is universal, even to readers who are not normally fantasy fans (such as myself!) and even to readers older than young adult age (such as myself!) – I’ve written extensively on the two books on the blog before, which can be found here. It was a remarkable book and it was unusual in that it achieved an even greater reading experience than the first book – something very uncommon!
A word of advice if you’re planning on tackling the Illuminae files – do not be intimidated by their size. Often when recommending it to others, they take one look at its hefty size and are immediately put off reading them. In fact, they are rather quick reads in respect to others on the market. I’ve struggled more with slender books that with these weighty guys! As there are often pages with very little writing, or even no writing at all, it means that readers can fly through these books. The experience is futuristic and mind-blowing and I can’t recommend them highly enough. I’m very excited for the next addition to the series and the completion of the trilogy.
#4 – Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Although not released in 2016, this book was enormously popular in 2016, outselling anything else even remotely similar in the market. Due to the release of the film trailer and the subsequent movie, the book enjoyed a renewed success that it began to enjoy in the wake of its 2012 release. It really struck a chord with readers around the globe which meant that we saw it sell clean off the shelves several times in 2016.
The diversity of this book meant that readers who enjoyed romance loved it, readers who wanted a light holiday read loved it, and those who read general fiction or one or two books a year loved it. The book is a healthy and well-written mix of British humour, well-rounded characters and the potential for heartbreak as the plot develops. The story begins with Louisa Clark, who has recently found herself unemployed with no skills and no prospects for finding a new job in order to support her family. She has little or no choice but to take up a position as a full-time carer to a disabled man who has been rendered a paraplegic due to a motorcycle accident. When she meets Mrs. Traynor she prepares herself for her elderly husband, but is shocked to discover that it is in fact her son, Will, that will require her help. Will is only a handful of years older than herself, and is suffering a devastating low – his life as he knows it is unrecognisable.
After a frosty start, Will and Lou begin to develop a relationship unlike any other. Through slight self-deprecation, dry wit and, ultimately, self-realisation, it is here that the story really comes into its own. It explores issues beyond the importance of the characters – about the importance of challenging oneself, expanding horizons as well what makes life worth living. I won’t give away the ending, but it really does build towards the final pages of the novel in spectacular and heart-breaking fashion – again, no spoilers!
I’ve written extensively on more work of Jojo Moyes, including on the sequel to Me Before You¸ After You¸ over here on the blog, which will hopefully persuade you even more so that her work is worth reading. Believe the hype in the biggest selling work of fiction of the last 12 months – sometimes it is well worth it!
#3 – The Girls by Emma Cline
One of the most highly anticipated releases of 2016, this debut fiction by young American novelist was one of the most evocative reads of the year. This book jumped between modern times and the 1960s where our main character, Evie Boyd, is drawn into the irresistible lure of a group of girls she sees in the park. Their careless abandon, their manner of dress and their aura of freedom, in particular older girl Suzanne. She is soon drawn into their group and the “leader” of their group, Russell. But, despite his being the link that draws all the girls together, it is still Suzanne that holds the most appeal and draw to the group for fourteen-year-old Evie.
Based upon the lure of the Manson gang and their influence in the 1960s/1970s, this books puts a thoroughly human face to the gang mentality as well as the cultural and political influences around their formation. It was the dawn of a new era of sexual and political freedoms, and their draw to the naïve and inexperienced Evie is almost painful to read as we know more than she does, especially as the book draws to its close. The now infamous, horrendous involvement of the Manson gang in the Tate/Labianca murders of 1969 is the knowledge that we are armed with as readers, and what will bring the book to its inevitable close. The question that looms over the course of the book is just how far Evie’s obsession with Suzanne will go, and just how much her innocence will be destroyed.
The hazy scene-building and lush language that Cline writes with in The Girls is an amazing feat, particularly for such a green debut novel. The fact of its basis on real, notorious events lends it some significant interest from the general public, but it is our voyeurism on wanting to know just what happened on the other side during that time that means that this book was always going to strike a chord with readers. It is a magnificent, compelling read that shows the vulnerability of childhood innocence and just how far one can go when lead by those with more experience than us. It’s a compelling read and I cannot wait to see what Emma Cline can produce from here on.
#2 – The Dry by Jane Harper
Another debut novel, this time by British turned Australian author Jane Harper, was one of the most addictive and well-crafted novels of the past twelve months. A book that you simply can’t put down, it skilfully weaves classic crime traits of the red herring and the whodunit, as well as the burning significance of place in the novel, in this case, the Australian drought-ridden countryside.
This book sees the return of Federal Police investigator, Aaron Falk, to the town of Kiewarra, for the funerals of his childhood friend Luke Hadler, and his wife and child. Accused of murder-suicide, Aaron senses that not all is right with this charge. Although initially unwilling to confront the demons of his youth in Kiewarra, he takes it upon himself to investigate the deaths of the Hadlers and just what lead to that fateful day.
As the investigation runs its course, Aaron finds that the course of life in Kiewarra has eerily blended the past and the present, in particular, his relationship with his former friend Luke. The one constant is the relentless heat and the titular dry, and what causes so much angst and tension between the characters as well as their relationship with the land on which they are living. The beauty of this novel is its skilful development of the plot and subsequent intrigue of the solving of the mystery of the Hadler family.
One of the finest thrillers and suspense novels to come out of Australia in the last decade, the fact that this is a debut novel is truly astounding. A fine blend of classic crime novel and high literature, the plot is the book’s greatest achievement. But even more so is the building of the motives behind all of the characters that we meet that inhabit Kiewarra, making everyone a suspect behind the deaths of these three people. As it builds to its compelling conclusion, the book becomes ever more addictive – you’ll want to carve out a good chunk of time to read this one as you won’t want to put it down once you’ve started!
#1 – Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Released only a few weeks ago, this one narrowly edged out The Dry for my top read of 2016. Jane Harper’s book was well ahead of the contenders through roughly seven months of the year, but this latest release from New York Times bestselling author, and my personal favourite author for about ten years, was too compelling and important to ignore. Small Great Things is truly a novel for our time, but, as sad as this is, this could easily also have applied if this book was written ten years ago as was initially tabled by Picoult when she first tried to write the novel but found herself overwhelmed.
Normally Jodi takes less than a year to produce a novel. These novels are no small feat – often over 500 pages and dealing with important subject matters such as school shootings, gay marriage and stem-cell research, the fact that this novel and its subject matter took her over two years to produce goes to show just how hard this issue is not only to write and speak about, but also to succinctly communicate in a manner that will speak to a larger audience. As Jodi is a mainstream author, with her books being read by thousands of people across all class and reading backgrounds, it was important that such a book must appeal on a universal level – easier said than done!
The main character of this novel is Ruth Jefferson, a labour and delivery nurse of over twenty years’ experience. When she is doing a routine check of a newborn, she experiences some frostiness from the child’s parents. Whilst she dismisses this as not terribly unusual, she is later told that she can no longer attend to this particular child – his parents are White Supremacists, and object to Ruth, a black nurse, handling their baby.
Both the hospital and Ruth comply with this request; however, when the baby goes into cardiac arrest when Ruth is alone in the nursery, Ruth does not know whether or not to disobey explicit hospital instructions and come to the rescue of the baby, or leave him to die. The baby dies, and Ruth’s hesitation to act means that legal charges must be pursued – Ruth is now charged with a serious crime. A public defender, Kennedy Mcquarrie, takes the case. Given her profession, she thinks that she has seen it all in the courts and urges Ruth not to “play the race card” in court; however, Ruth feels that this is wrong given that the fact that she is black has so defined the nature of this case.
This book is important. Racism in America has been a recurring issue throughout human history, and continues to be a major issue in twenty-first century America. Just about every week there is a new issue on the news which highlights just how racism is still prevalent in the United States – to say that the situation has improved or been eradicated in the modern age is to be incredibly naïve and ignorant. This book was released prior to the election of Donald Trump; however, it bears even more significance since this election – all it takes is one look at the President elect’s intended policies as well as his personnel is all it takes to show how this is an issue and, sadly, will continue to be an issue in the future.
The White Supremacist couple’s narrative are certainly the most disturbing events that take place throughout the novel, particularly when armed with the knowledge that these sorts of people are still active in large numbers in the modern and real world. The events that they describe are sickening and disturbing. The research that Jodi must have had to do in order to write these events also are sickening to even imagine.
However, where I find that the book has its most impact and power are the descriptions of overt racism and casual racism that Ruth endures. This includes security lurking her at the department store, and the distressing scene of her teenage son’s arrest. But it also includes her interactions with white lawyer Kennedy, who insists that she “does not see colour” when she deals with her clients, but only people who need her help. Although this seems like a fundamentally human and decent thing for her to say, it is in fact laced with naivety and ignorance of the way the world works. The way in which Ruth and Kennedy interact is Jodi Picoult’s way of opening the white reader’s eyes to their own casual racism – and that is what makes this book so important. I know that I now certainly will look at things differently, and have found myself questioning whether or not certain assumptions and views that I had of the world were in fact laced with my own racism, of which I was not aware. The book expresses that we can clearly see how racist the white supremacist couple are; it’s the way that we cannot see how racist the “general population” of white people are that makes our society dangerous and vulnerable to more such challenging court cases as this one.
So those are my top 5 reads of the year – here’s to a more successful 2017 and to just as many great books to choose from at the end of the year!