Best reads of 2016

>> Saturday, December 31, 2016

Hi from Uruguay! Just popping in to post my list of favourite books of 2016. I've been reading and reading, so I thought I'd best wait till the last minute and, indeed, there are a couple here I've just finished.

I really neglected my poor blog this year, particularly in the second half. Part of it was that work was particularly busy, but really, mostly it was all the stuff going on in the world. I guess objectively I could say I've had a good year personally, however crap this year has been for the world, but the world stuff has felt much too personal for that. The Brexit campaign and vote, particularly, felt like a kick in the teeth for me (I've possibly taken it a bit too personally, but I can't seem to help it), and things only got worse as the year went on. The angrier and more bitter I've felt, the more I've moved towards feeling disconnected and disengaged. I know myself, and when I'm upset, I withdraw and become alienated. I used to be a bit of a news junkie, but I have now not watched the news since November 9th (I'd already switched to France 24 from BBC News in June), and my social media use has plummeted. Fortunately, I've got a really good group of wonderful offline friends with whom I feel safe and happy, and I've been spending a lot of time with them, but the world outside of my immediate social sphere feels scary and horrible these days.

Anyway, on the plus side, my withdrawal from news and social media has meant I've been doing a hell of  lot of reading. I just haven't felt motivated to connect to others about it, and that's what I want to do more of from now on.

And that starts here. I read some absolutely fantastic books last year, and they deserve to be celebrated. My favourites were mainly on the non-romance side, and particularly in the non-fiction area. I did read a few good romances, but I'd characterise them as solid and enjoyable, rather than books that wowed me.

So, starting with the non-romances, non-fiction first:

HHhH, by Laurent Binet: A

HHhH is the story of the plot to assassinate a high-ranking Nazi in Prague. It's also just as much the story of the writing of that story. It could have felt gimmicky, but it never did. Instead, the experimental structure enhanced the tension and brought the extremely high stakes even more to life. I loved it.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard: A-

SPQR is exactly the kind of history writing I like the most. Beard tells her reader fascinating things and does so with excellent, lively writing. But most of all, she pays as much attention to how we know things as to what we know.

East West Street: On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes Against Humanity", by Philippe Sands: A-

This one is hot off the press, as I've literally just finished it (a bit of an incongruous book to read by the pool, but that's exactly what I did). The author traces the origin of the concepts in the title by exploring the stories of the men that originated them and got them into the Nuremberg trials. He gets into it through a personal connection, and this makes what could be a dry subject fascinating and emotional. It's beautifully written, and well worth it.

And next quite a few non-romance fiction titles:

The Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child), by Elena Ferrante A-

This quartet tracks the life of two women, childhood friends from Naples. They're the rare books that are actually about women themselves, and not about their relationship with men. While there are plenty of men in Lila and Elena's lives, the focus of the story remains squarely on them and their relationship . The books are extremely absorbing and the story that emerges is feminist and powerful. I listened to these on audio, about a half hour each day, so I had several months of living with Lila and LenĂ¹ and all the other characters. It was hard to let them go.

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie: A-

This might be cheating, since I had read it before. Not for many, many years, though, so it counts. This one is not what most people think when they think of Agatha Christie, but it classic Christie in its surprising, twisty plot, which is impossible to guess, while being completely fair. It also has really good characterisation and manages to be fun to read, while treating its objectively pretty dark and scary subject seriously.

Little Black Lies, by Sharon Bolton: A-

A very dark mystery set in the Falklands. I loved the setting and the way it was so present in the plot and the characters. And I enjoyed the characters just as much. They were flawed and interesting and real. And the book had a cracker of an ending. Just don't read this if you can't tolerate bad things happening to children in your fiction.

This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart: A-

I rediscovered Mary Stewart this year. I'd read a few of her books about 10 years back and liked them well enough, but was not wowed. I think I'm now at a point in my life where they really hit the spot, because this time round, I absolutely loved them. This Rough Magic was my favourite of the ones I read this year, but I read several more. I love the settings, the adventurous heroines, the thrilling plots, not to mention the way Stewart treats the local characters like actual people, with their own interests and motivations.

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet: A-

One of the two books nominated for the Man Booker prize that I actually liked. It's historical fiction, exploring a triple murder which took place in a remote Scottish crofting community in 1869. At the start we think we pretty much know everything about it, but through a collection of documents, we start realising there's much more to it than we thought. The plot is fascinating, but it's also a great portrayal of a place and a psychological exploration.

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty: originally a B+, but I've moved towards an A-, since I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

This is the other book I liked that was nominated for the Man Booker prize, and what do you know. it actually won! I was really pleased about that, because it was challenging to read, but definitely worth it, a wince-inducing exploration of race in the US. I listened to it on audio, and that's an approach I'd recommend with this one, as it feels a bit like an extended stand-up routine.

A Study in Scarlet Women, by Sherry Thomas: B+

This one is Thomas's first historical mystery. It's a wonderfully fresh take on the Sherlock Holmes story, with a Holmes who feels just perfect, and plenty of significant female characters. I look forward to reading upcoming books in the series.

The Bees, by Laline Paull: B+

If you told me I'd enjoy a book set in a beehive and narrated by one of the bees, I would have laughed (the last 'animal' book I read was not a great success). But this was genuinely gripping and a fabulous read. Great characterisation ad an inventive,fun plot.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J Ryan Stradal: B+

This was really interesting in the way the story was told, by telling the stories of people around (in some cases a bit peripherally, even!) our central character. But it was also a fun, satisfying story in its own right. I really enjoyed it.

And now for the romance!

Lay It Down, by Cara McKenna: B+

It took me ages to pick up the first in this series, as I was under the impression it was a motorcycle club book. It's absolutely not, just plain romantic suspense, with a romance that is classic McKenna: intense and powerful, with a dynamic I would probably find a bit skeevy with any other author, but which I'm absolutely fine with when it's McKenna writing it.

Give It All, by Cara McKenna: B+

Uncharacteristically for me, I started Give It All as soon as I had finished Lay It Down. What I'd seen of the GIA main characters in the first book made me really want to read their book (prissy, hyperserious hero, badass heroine, that's my catnip). I enjoyed these two very much.

The Obsession, by Nora Roberts: B+

Most readers seemed to be a bit meh about this one and it's a book where I can see exactly why, while loving the book to bits anyway. A fantastic setup, and a solid, satisfying development made me a happy reader.

Hold Your Breath, by Katie Ruggle: B+

I feel like I've gone on and on and on about this one, but I did love it. The setting is great (an ice rescue dive team) and I loved the hilarious and really sweet heroine and the super-controlled hero. The second book in the series wasn't great, unfortunately, but Ruggle did get it back on track for the 3rd, so I'm looking forward to reading more by her in future years.

Apprentice in Death, by JD Robb: B+

A solid entry in the series.. I enjoyed the mystery, and I liked how Robb dealt with the mentor-mentee relationship, contrasting the culprits with Eve and Feeney. Fun.

I'd love to hear any comments you may have on this, as well as hear about your own favourites. Thank you for reading, and my best wishes for a much better 2017 than the year we've just had!


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