A book club leader and compulsive reader, Stylist’s Jamie Klingler knows a good read. Here, she shares her verdict on each and every new book she consumed in 2016.
To say that I’m a big reader is probably putting it lightly. I read at any point I’m stationary – so when I’m not asleep and not in a pub (aside from the cinema of course). It’s my go-to escape from a world I can’t quite deal with facing after the events of 2016.
I run London Book Club which forces me to read some books that I might not have otherwise picked up, and last year I also tried to read the entire long list for the The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2016 (I finished 15 of them).
So if you’re after frank reviews on some of 2016’s literary offerings from a genuine fiction addict, scroll on for my take on 40 of the year’s new releases, from the spellbinding to the over-hyped.
The Lauras by Sara Taylor
There was a lot of hype about this novel, about a mother’s journey with her daughter through all of the big milestones, as the daughter learns her mother is a real woman with a real past. The voices were distinct in the first half and then melded together, so I felt it lost its way.
The Fireman by Joe Hill
This isn’t my typical type of book, but I loved it and it reads like the film it will undoubtedly become. There is an outbreak of Dragonscale - a scary epidemic - which results in moves to isolate and extinguish anyone who is diagnosed, and underground communities are formed.
The politics of infighting versus trying to hide from those that want you extinguished makes for a gripping tale.
The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood
I loved this YA novel (disclosure: it was written by a friend). It follows a young girl fascinated with science who falls for her first love. There are scenes of time-bending and romance which make for a smart page-turner.
The Museum of You by Carys Bray
I really enjoyed this. The family, characters and friendships depicted are written very well.
A young girl is trying to put the pieces together after her mother dies. Her loving but reclusive father no longer speaks of her mother as it is too painful, so she comes to her own conclusions while creating a museum in her honour.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
Originally written in Italian, then translated into English, this autobiographical book on the author’s relationship with language – specifically, learning Italian –is fascinating. The use of another language has resulted in a freedom that was unexpected to me.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
I dreaded opening this every single time. Characterised as a thriller, it follows a miserable prison secretary in her life as a depressive with an alcoholic father. I wish I hadn’t read it.
Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
One of the funniest things I've ever read.
There is a bit about taxidermy and ‘the right to bear arms’ which I just loved. Lawson has been vocal about her mental health struggles and this book is her memoir about dealing with darkness via humour.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne
I read this the day it came out. I know J. K. Rowling didn’t write it, but I still fell in love with it and can’t wait to see the show in July.
The Girl In The Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz
Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are back, but with the unfortunate passing of Steig Larsson, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the next installation of the series.
It was more enjoyable than I expected given the change in author, but it ended abruptly, which seemed like a set-up for the next book – kind of like when a movie ends prematurely because you know they’ve signed the actor up for a trilogy.
Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont
This well-paced book is about a marriage falling apart. I read about five books with the same theme this year – which is kind of ironic as I’m not married – but it seems to be a common theme. The language and voices in the first few chapters are really distinct, but by the end seem to meld.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
I thought this was overrated – readable, but largely forgettable. It’s the story of a relationship from both perspectives. I was left wondering whether if Groff had done an Ali Smith and switched the first and second half, what would have happened. I really didn’t like any of the characters.
My name is Leon by Kit De Waal
I really enjoyed this. It is a sad and poignant, but very well-written story about a young white student and his black brother. The younger sibling, whom he adores, is taken from him for adoption, while he is put into care.
It’s a heartbreaking but beautifully expressed book.
The Half Life of Joshua Jones by Danny Scheinmann
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
This is a beast of a book at 700-plus pages and I hated about 675 of them. So disappointing, as I've loved Safron Foer’s other books. The novel is about a family falling apart and the importance of Judaism in a Jewish-American family.
The character of the wife and her place in the faith aren’t explored at all, which infuriated me.
Dear Amy by Helen Callagan
I found this predictable and boring. On the back of Gone Girl and Girl on a Train, this is yet another ‘thriller’ about the search for a woman who is missing and presumed dead. I felt like I was watching a TV movie on repeat.
Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
This had great reviews but it really annoyed me – I wanted to throw it across the room. Lily is a dog who has a tumour which is named Octopus. The book just went off the deep end for me, although some of the descriptions of happiness and the relationship with a dog were apt.
Girl At War by Sara Novic
I loved this book. I don't think we know or read enough about modern-day conflicts and their victims. This is about the civil war in Yugoslavia and it was fascinating and so well-written.
American Housewife by Helen Ellis
Sardonic and funny, Ellis’ story collection would make a great Christmas present for your drunken best friend. I finished it over one lunch and laughed out loud a couple of times.
Yuki Chan In Brontë Country by Mick Jackson
This wonderful book would make a great gift for any Brontë lover. It follows a young Japanese woman who retraces her mother’s trip to England to Brontë country.
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
This is a massive 900 pages and took me weeks to finish, even when on holiday. I was doing dishes to avoid picking it up. It’s good in places, but it is so dense. Proulx is trying to tell the story of deforestation and 300 years of history. I think she took on too much.
Only in Naples: Lesson in Food and Famiglia from my Italian Mother-in-Law by Katherine Wilson
Only in Naples was boring and forgettable. I love Italy and food, and I’m American so this should have been written exactly for me – instead I felt like it was written for every American sophomore who wants to study abroad and land a European husband.
Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett
A refreshing read about whaling in Canada in the 1900s. This is one of the reasons I love the Bailey’s Prize: it exposes and introduces me to such a wide range of books, like this one. One of the most unique books I read this year.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeliene Thien
A challenging, deep and winding novel that is definitely worth the time commitment. I learned so much through the eyes of this musical family and their children who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Having three adopted sisters from China made this all the more fascinating for me.
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild
This art-history-meets-chick-lit novel was very enjoyable. It takes place around London so I learned about art history throughout, including references to places I enjoy visiting like the Wallace Collection.
Becoming by Laura Jane Williams
A friend of mine wrote this about taking a year off from dating and spending a celibate year in a convent to find herself.
It’s hard to read a good friend’s memoir, as I was there for some of it – I also read some of the drafts - but LJ’s honesty and voice are unique in a crowded market. She also makes me laugh.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This is my book of 2016. I thought it was amazing and then went to a reading by Gyasi and found out she was 26 when she wrote it, which just shocked me. She’s so talented.
It is the generational story of slaves from 200 years ago to the present day. I’ve never read anything like it and the research and time that went in to this book are commendable.
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
I hated this book. It’s about a woman working on an American women's national magazine who relives a horrific sexual attack behind the facade of the perfect life. But the women working in magazines that the main character identifies with and described are nothing like the hundreds of women I've worked with in ten years of UK women's mags.
Yes- the odd one may count calories - but in the whole, they are determined, smart, focused people and not megalomaniacs.
The Nix by Nathan Hill
One of my top books this year, The Nix is an epic political, family drama. It follows a mother who abandons her son as a child. Now 30 years later, he’s a professor and she’s committed an absurd politically-motivated crime.
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
This was the book that broke me out of my post-election depression/non-reading slump. If you liked Where’d You Go Bernadette (Semple’s previous novel) you’ll love this. Intertwining poetry classes with being a mother and pretending to have it all together while falling apart inside, Semple’s voice is brilliantly wry.
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
I liked this story of family forgiveness a lot. A burned man shows up claiming to be a woman’s grandchild and they go back through the years to Nagasaki.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
This is a story starring an annoying talking squirrel. I know a number of people in my office enjoyed this, but I really disliked it.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
I thought this was about kitchens in New York, but it follows an annoying narcissist waitress doing a load of cocaine and thinking she’s unique. Critics keep saying it is one of the food books of the year; apparently never having read Kitchen Confidential or Blood Bones and Butter.
Paris for One and Other Stories by Jo Jo Moyes
If you love Moyes, you will absolutely adore this collection (one of the stories was originally written for Stylist’s Christmas short story special). The collection is essentially about independence and confidence and love, how our relationships grow and shift and change and how we adapt or move on. I read it in one sitting and then went out and bought Louboutins. You’ll understand if you read it.
Little Deaths by Emma Flint
Little Deaths is about a single mother who works as a cocktail waitress is accused of killing her small children. Also added in to the mix – it is the 1950s and she is seen as a fallen woman. Judgement all around. I found it gripping and intense. Flint probes how we react to suspicion and grief when all eyes are on us, and asks whether there is an appropriate way to grieve.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
A brilliant book that won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction in 2016. It's set in Ireland and is witty, dark and interesting. The language takes a little while to get used to, but the main character Ryan is a lovable scamp who you end up really rooting for.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Patchett is my favourite author and I really enjoyed this. I read it over a weekend and didn't want it to end. What happens if your life and the breakdown of your family becomes fodder for a best-selling novel and film? When your privacy and stories become public?
The Girls by Emma Cline
I thought this was overrated. Based on women in a cult that resembles the Manson family. I just thought it was over-written. I know people are obsessed with how people get entranced in a cult, but this just didn’t do it for me at all.
Not Working by Lisa Owens
This divided my friends, but I thought it was a bunch of Twitter one-liners that somehow got made in to a book- I would have rather just spent the time on Twitter. Some of my freelance friends loved it, but I wanted to throw it.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
This is one of the hundreds of WWII historical fiction books that make it on to the New York Times’ bestseller lists annually and it felt clichéd. It was hard to read in the current political climate.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
This was well-written but I probably wasn't in the best place to read about mothers and hospitals. My mother has been battling cancer for years and I've spent many hours in the chemo ward - so it may have just hit way too close to home for me. Sometimes books aren't right for your circumstances. But, it has been up for a ton of awards and the prose is lovely.