Closing the final page on the very best books leaves you with a single urge: to share it. We’re talking about the kind of books that make you want to follow strangers down the road, tugging at their elbow and saying “seriously, you’ve got to read this”.
Here then, is our equivalent of doing that. These are the books published in 2016 that our writers felt compelled to share. If there’s one that you feel similarly enthused about, please do recommend away in the comments section…
All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
We live in what can charitably be described as interesting times. If you were feeling less than charitable, you might even describe them as dark times. And it has always been the mission of speculative and fantastical fiction to look long and hard at the world and extrapolate possible futures, for better or worse.
While All The Birds In The Sky, the debut novel from io9 co-founder and ex-editor Charlie Jane Anders, appeared at the beginning of 2016, its concerns resonate just as strongly as we reach the end of this particularly tumultuous, frequently painful year. Telling the story of the bumpy, complex friendship between witch Patricia and scientist Laurence, Anders’ book takes an unflinching look at the catastrophic harm that humanity can – and may yet – wreak upon ourselves, our planet and each other, and manages to find, if not optimism exactly, then a peculiar, bittersweet kind of hope. It’s a deeply empathetic, humanistic work, funny and moving and wonderfully inventive (of all the books I’ve read this year, this is the one I most wish I’d written myself), and there’s still time to put it on your Christmas list. I strongly advise that you do so.
By Stefan Mohamed
Europe In Winter (Fractured Europe series) by Dave Hutchinson
Dave Hutchinson’s superb Fractured Europe trilogy reaches its conclusion in Europe In Winter. This series takes a quirky geo-political look at the future via a motley crew of characters operating across a multi-layered, inter-dimensional post grand-flu-epidemic Europe that has mini sovereign states governed by despots / bureaucrats / an unholy mix of both. There’s the additional complication of a Trans-European rail line into a pocket universe known as The Community. Maximising opportunities for smuggling and trading of secrets are the mysterious Les Coureurs des Bois, an organisation we learn more about in Europe In Winter as coureur (spy) Rudi seeks answers about his paymasters.
This wouldn’t be Hutchinson without a quirky sense of humour and complex plotting. Submerge yourself in this deceptively slim volume (or treat yourself to the full series to have a cat in hell’s chance of understanding it!) and enjoy the espionage, weird science and a sort of, kind of hero who really is just the cook.
By Jane Roberts
The Many by Wyl Menmuir
Longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Many is an extraordinary first novel from Wyl Menmuir. Set in a decaying coastal town, it tells the story of two men; Ethan is a local fisherman who is suffering from low fish stocks and still grieving for the loss of his friend, Perran. Timothy Buchanan, newly arrived from the city, has moved into the deceased man’s house and has attracted the wary eye of the community. The village itself is watched by a mysterious fleet of ships, the physical manifestation of the faceless bureaucracy that controls where the fishermen are allowed to work.
There’s a du Maurier-esque note in the ghostly figure of Perran, who looms over the characters and the tempestuous coastal setting further evokes the prolific writer’s influence. There are also elements of folk horror throughout in the suspicious village community. Menmuir is keen to play with symbolism, building a chilling exploration of loss, both personal and communal, through the uneasy relationship of Ethan and Timothy. As events get more nightmarish, the narrative’s ambiguity becomes fascinating and The Many is a tale that deserves to be teased out and read more than once.
By Becky Lea
Blame by Simon Mayo
I was torn between recommending this, and Keith Stuart’s excellent The Boy Made Of Blocks, which in itself is a title that deserves people shouting about it from rooftops (here’s one such review). Blame has really stuck with me an awful lot, though. In a year when I didn’t read too much fiction, Mayo’s willingness to treat younger readers – he said many times in interviews he’d call Blame a 12A – with respect really shines through. More than that, though, Blame paints the story of a an all-too-plausible future, where offspring can be held legally responsible for the crimes of their parents. If you got to where you are in life due to your parents being bank robbers, for instance, then if they didn’t do the time, you’ll have to.
You can almost see it beating out of the front pages of the Daily Mail, and in the midst of his story, Mayo gives us a hero to really root for. Mattie is a girl who’s feeling the brunt of the regime, and Mayo’s book sees her start the story in a particularly unpleasant prison, before taking us through a tense, exciting escape attempt.
I found myself frantically page-turning when I read it first time. But it’s the fact that Blame has stuck around my head so much that particularly makes me want to recommend it. It’s ambitious, chilling and exciting, with a core collection of characters I really did care about.
By Simon Brew
The Chronicles Of Alice by Christina Henry
Last year Christina Henry gave us Alice, a familiar childhood tale twisted into darkness: a scarred Alice, a warped Rabbit and a man who frequently engages with his axe before his brain. Their lives brutally intertwine as we fall down the rabbit hole of madness and memory loss alongside them. This year she gifts us the sequel, Red Queen – ‘Alice was tall and blue eyed and a little broken inside, but her companion didn’t mind because his insides were more jumbled than hers could ever be.’ Best read as a pair, the tone echoes Stephen King’s The Eye Of The Dragon – and skilfully manipulates the fairy tale setting in a world of lost magicians to create a beautifully told story equal parts fantasy and horror. Quests are undertaken – to avenge innocence brutally taken and to find themselves again in Alice, and to recover a stolen daughter sold for her beauty in Red Queen. Alice, I don’t think we’re in Wonderland anymore.
By Jane Roberts
Play All: A Binge-Watcher’s Notebook by Clive James
Climate change aside, Clive James is worth reading on any subject. Current affairs, travel, poetry, mortality, himself (with five memoirs on that topic, he’s on level-pegging with Kissinger and Katie Price but lags two behind Maya Angelou)… On the subject of television though, Clive James is essential.
It’s a boon then, that James chose to devote what time he has left following his leukaemia diagnosis (about which he continues to write wittily and piercingly in a weekly column for The Guardian) by adding a volume on modern TV drama to his recently published poetry collection and reading diary. Play All: A Binge-Watcher’s Notebook shines James’ sharp, comic insight onto such shows as Game Of Thrones, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, House Of Cards, Band Of Brothers and more.
Don’t expect him to be kind about modern blockbuster cinema (why should he be?) but do expect to feel the urge to re-watch hundreds of hours of TV with him sitting next to you on the sofa.
By Louisa Mellor
The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Following the success of her debut In A Dark, Dark Wood (a thriller of near-perfect structure) Ruth Ware has created another claustrophobic, nerve-jangling mystery. Laura “Lo” Blacklock is a journalist who is determined to make the most of her first big travel assignment – a luxurious trip on a tiny, boutique cruise ship. She’s already feeling strung-out and nervous after a break-in at her home, and the pressure of the job means Lo knocks back more booze than she normally would. So when she thinks she hears a murder taking place, could she just be over-tired, drunk and paranoid? The woman in the cabin next door is now missing, but the crew and handful of other guests on the ship claim they never even saw her.
The unstable woman who doesn’t even trust herself to be a reliable narrator may be having a moment as the protagonist du jour, but there is something wonderfully retro and Agatha Christie-ish / Hitchcockian about being trapped in the middle of the ocean with an unknown murderer and a reputation for being an hysterical bimbo. Particularly when the internet is down and you have no way of communicating with the outside world; The Lady Vanishes-esque premise is given a modern twist, scattered throughout with emails between Lo’s friends and colleagues asking if anyone has heard from her lately. It’s a nice sinister touch in a book with enough suspense, red herrings, and menace to keep you hooked from the first page.
By Rebecca Clough
Winter by Dan Grace
Published as an e-book by Unsung Stories
Set only a few years ahead, in one possible future, Winter depicts a time when there is no longer a United Kingdom. There are desperate attempts by many to flee the terrorists who continually attack England. Scotland is the obvious destination, but borders and checkpoints are firmly in place. After negotiating these and arriving at the Scottish cottage in which he grew up, Adam and his friends discover two squatters who have their own reasons for hiding. The clash of cultures and personalities is not just political; it extends into how we feel about the land itself.
Novellas can be perfect moments, freed from the burdens of explanations and exposition, and Winter creates an uncomfortably recognisable dystopia in few words. It’s written so well that it needs nothing more to give us the possibility of surprise and self-revelation wrapped within a snowstorm, and a future that feels far too real.
By Aliya Whiteley
Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig continues to bridge the gap between Return Of The Jedi and The Force Awakens with Life Debt, the second instalment in his action-packed Aftermath trilogy. This chapter sees the series’ colourful characters tracking down Han Solo, whose mission to liberate Chewbacca’s home world Kashyyyk went rather drastically wrong between books. As the state of the universe morphs from party mode to political instability in the background, a twisty tale full of daring rescues, blaster-stuffed skirmishes and witty dialogue unfolds in front of you. Put simply – this is a Star Wars movie in everything but format.
By Rob Leane
Bodies Of Water by V.H. Leslie
A veteran short story writer, V.H. Leslie’s debut novel follows two women connected across time by the building in which they both spend time, the enigmatic Wakewater Hall. For Evelyn in the nineteenth century, the building is a hydropathy sanatorium that she is sent to after suffering a nervous breakdown. In the twenty-first century, Wakewater Hall is being converted into luxury apartments and Kirsten has moved in. As Kirsten begins to learn more about the building’s darker past and the secrets of the river that flows close by, she is haunted by a mysterious figure along the riverbank.
Short but sweet, Leslie’s narrative luxuriates in the gothic delights of its premise, creating an absorbing tale of the way in which women become subjects for men of both the sciences and the arts. At the heart of it is Wakewater Hall, a glorious, haunting creation in all its creaks, leaks, and dark hallways. It’s a tale ideal for long winter evenings, but make sure you wrap up warm; it induces quite the chill.
By Becky Lea
American Gods 2016 illustrated editions
Pity the book with a Daniel Egneus cover, for its words have the unenviable task of living up to its exquisite artwork. Luckily for this quartet (the illustrated series includes American Gods, Anansi Boys, Black Dog and The Monarch Of The Glen), it’s written by Neil Gaiman so the words comfortably hold their own.
Published in hardback this November by Headline Books, this quartet doesn’t only boast Daniel Egneus covers but also illustrations to accompany the text, atmospherically rendering key characters and moments from the sprawling, intoxicating world of Gaiman’s American Gods, which comes to TV this Spring courtesy of Starz. First published in 2001 (though this is the 2011 author’s preferred text), chances are you already know the title novel, but if not, it involves a road trip, an impending battle, gods old and new, and a man named Shadow Moon…
By Louisa Mellor
Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin
21 books in, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series still shows no signs of dipping in quality. In Rather Be The Devil, Rankin weaves a typically intricate whodunit after a young mob boss is beaten up on his driveway. Rebus, now very much retired, sees a chance to get involved when a cold case from his younger years appears to connect to some recent deaths. With decades of fags and booze catching up with him, no badge or gun to his name, and suspicion rising within Police Scotland, unravelling this one is possibly Rebus’ toughest task to date.
By Rob Leane
Jason Arnopp – The Last Days Of Jack Sparks
I’m generally not big on horror, but for Jason Arnopp I happily make an exception. After scaring the bejeesus out of me with various clever and creepy short stories and novellas over the last few years, he ups the stakes with his first full-length novel. Quite aside from the scares, though – of which there are certainly plenty – what really makes Jack Sparks is the smartness of its conceit. It’s at once a pastiche of the sort of “journalist goes on a wacky quest” non-fic that was especially popular earlier in the 2000s, and a rare example of a genre I suppose you can only really call “found footage novels”. Right from the outset, it makes clear to the reader that the titular author is entirely deceased – so what sort of twists and turns could it possibly offer? The answer is: absolutely loads. After all, something a found footage book can do that a movie can’t is… well, lie, basically. It’s an absolutely gripping ride, completely and utterly chilling throughout, impossible to predict and with a hefty dose of wit.
By Seb Patrick