My Best Books for 2016


A ‘classic’ was defined by Italian author Italo Calvino as “…a book that’s never finished saying what it has to say.”

Now, I’m not claiming that the books I truly loved this year are ‘classics’, however, I’m borrowing Calvino’s definition to guide my list of top picks for 2016. This year, I’m paying less attention to five-star ratings and more attention to the books that are still speaking to me.

There were two books that made me really laugh – Penelope by Rebecca Harrington (which represents the best kind of campus-lit) and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (the first and only time I’ve enjoyed magic realism). I loathe the word ‘quirky’ but if I quickly looked away, it would be okay to apply it to both of these books.

I don’t normally think ‘funny’ and ‘historical fiction’ go together but Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! breaks that mold. I loved every unexpected moment.

In contrast, the book that made me cry the most was Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. There was one scene in particular that broke me.

I read three novellas in the middle of the year and each was remarkable – Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, and The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith. Swift, Haruf and Smith all managed to etch a rich story with an economy of words – the writing in all three was extraordinary.

Perhaps the most original book I came across in 2016 was Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. Although I didn’t rate it highly at the time, there are elements I’m still thinking about, which says a lot. I’m also still thinking about Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault – perhaps because of the furore she caused on the Australian writers festival circuit, perhaps because she writes damn-fine stories.

‘Contemporary-literature relationship stories’ are my go-to genre (think Yates, Shriver, Hartnet, Dee), so obviously Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety sang to me. Likewise, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am was marvelous (all the more thrilling thanks to the autobiographical hints).

My two absolute favourites for 2016, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg, stood-out for similar reasons – both books were beautifully written, had memorable characters and were so layered with meaning that I’m quite sure I missed half of it – both books truly fulfill Calvino’s definition.

Thanks for your readership this year and I look forward to more ace books in 2017.


43 responses

    • I think the Foer has divided people (some thought it self-indulgent). The Stridsberg was such a surprise – wish there was more by her translated into English.

  1. I think Here I Am is going to make my top ten of the year, too. I was so prepared to loathe it judging by some early reviews, but this is totally a classic example of needing to read something yourself to judge it adequately. I keep hearing good things about Hot Milk- on my way to check it out further now! Happy New Year!

    • Hot Milk is a dividing book – can see why you abandoned. That said, it did take me a few chapters to get into it. Have you read her other novel Swimming Home? Less kooky but equally well-written.

  2. I read, and somewhat enjoyed, Mothering Sunday; I very much enjoyed Our Souls At Night; and, Stegner is one of my very favorite literary fiction writers, and Crossing To Safety is a great read. The Gravity Of Love and Here I Am are both on my TBR list.

    • I’ll get more Stegner this year. Can’t believe I left it so long (particularly given how much I love Yates….).
      Be warned, Here I Am might drive you mental. I liked it because it bore no relevance to my life (in ways that really mattered, anyway!).

  3. I, just like you, adored Rush Oh!, and admired Hot Milk very much. I’d like to read Our Souls At Night—Kent Haruf is perhaps finally getting the attention he deserves.

  4. Our Souls at Night was one of my favorites last year. Haruf is such a wonderful writer! This year I also read Crossing to Safety, which was terrific. The ones from your list I’d still like to read are My Name is Lucy Barton and Rush Oh! Happy reading in 2017!

    • Rush Oh! is superb (and probably the book I have most widely recommended this year).
      So funny that we both read Stegner – not like Crossing to Safety is on the current best-seller list!

  5. The quirky tag is a tricky one – I side step those books with a quick do si do too. But a friends urged me to read “The Portable Veblem” and, yes there are elements of magical realism and whimsy – but it has a really muscular story. I loved it too. Hot Milk was another of my favourites this year. So dense and so beautifully written and unexpected. Will try and catch up with some others on your list Kate!

    • “…a muscular story.” – such a perfect description. And yes, Hot Milk was dense (but not in an off-putting way). I really can’t stop thinking about it – so many elements revealed themselves long after I finished it and I thought the ending was sensational. If you liked Hot Milk, then Gravity of Love would appeal.

      Happy reading for 2017!

  6. I’m reading Mothering Sunday right now. I’m enjoying it very much though only read about 40 pages. Off to bed to read lots more in a minute. I also just read My Name is Lucy Barton the other day. I liked it hugely neither book will be on my books of 2016 list which comes out tomorrow. That’s only because I read some outstanding things.

    • You’ve got some good reading ahead. It’s weird, but I’m almost jealous… there’s something about reading a really good book for the first time…

      Happy New Year!

  7. Some great books here, Kate. Though I’ve read almost none of them – except for the stellar Crossing to safety – many are ones I would happily read. Does that count? I’m looking forward to seeing what I think of Nutshell next year.

    • That most certainly counts 🙂

      I’m amazed it took me so long to discover Stegner, particularly given that I love Yates so much and they are similar in style and focus. Looking forward to more this year.

      Will look forward to your thoughts on Nutshell – it’s an impressive book, based on the concept alone.

  8. I loved Portable Veblen, and I have your review to thank for that find. I’ve just added Rush Oh to my 2017 reading pile; sounds great. Look forward to more reviews next year!

  9. I really like that definition of a classic. I’ve only read the novellas, and agree they are all brilliant. The rest are on my TBR thanks to your reviews! Wishing you a great New Year and much wonderful reading in 2017 🙂

    • I only came across that definition toward the end of the year and it really did change the way I put together this list.

      Hope you had a lovely New Year and cheers to lots of good reading in 2017.

  10. I keep seeing Mothering Sunday around…I think I have to add it to my TBR! And Lucy Barton made my list as well.

  11. So many options I’d not even heard of in this list! We’re in complete agreement on Haruf, though. So much said in so few words. He was another dreadful loss this year.

    I’m adding Hot Milk and Gravity to my TBR right now. Beautiful writing and layers of meaning are just what I need!

    • Persist with both Hot Milk and Gravity for a few chapters – they take a little getting in to but worth the effort.

      I’m very much looking forward to more Haruf – will have to try not to binge-read!

    • Embassy (probably more a ‘long’ short story than a novella!) is Smith at her best. I just finished Swing Time and while there were parts I loved, it lacked the focus of Embassy.
      Hope you have a year of fabulous reading ahead.

    • I think we’ve had some overlaps this year 🙂 when it comes to favourites I usually go for contemporary lit or memoirs (I think there are more thrillers in your list??)

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