So, what can one say about 2016 that hasn’t already been said? A year that became almost farcical in its unrelenting mission to annoy, upside and divide everyone. The news seems to have been full of stories of war, abuse and struggle, often with minorities dying at the hands of people who think they know better and seek to waste their time hating rather than loving. America elected a supposedly unelectable man to the most powerful office in the world, Britain apparently decided it was somehow better off out of the European Union, and both are being used as examples of how insidious racism is in our world today.

And that doesn’t even begin to cover the enormous list of great people who died this year. Among others who have departed the planet, often far too soon, there was David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Harper Lee, Frank Kelly, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood (I’ll never be over that one), Prince, Muhammad Ali, Caroline Aherne, Kenny Baker, Gene Wilder, Jimmy Perry, Leonard Cohen, Andrew Sachs, Liz Smith, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Stars winked out on an almost daily basis this year, and at times it became tough to find a glimmer of joy in this sea of troubles.

Fortunately, there are still books. At any moment you can pick up a book and escape into a world unlike our own. I managed that ninety-one times this year, and here ten books that stood out for me in particular over the last year.

1. Animal by Sara Pascoeanimal

This is one of those books that feels like a Very Important Book, with capital letters and everything. Since it was feverishly recommended to me by two friends, I have passed it on with a similar ferocity to others. Sara Pascoe tells here the story of the female body, discussing how the body works, how the mind works, as well as discussing the importance of consent, particularly when it comes to sex.

With great humour, and deeply moving anecdotes from her own life, Pascoe constructs one of the most incredible books I have ever read. I learnt so much from this book, and from what I gathered, so did everyone else I know who read it. I cannot begin to explain how truly remarkable this book is, and how I can’t believe it’s taken us so long to get round to doing this. Pascoe is a hilarious comedian and her style and voice is unique. If you read nothing else on this list, read this. Even better, listen to the audiobook, narrated by Pascoe herself, and revel in her warmth and charm.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

circle2. The Circle by Dave Eggers

The best dystopian novels are those that really exaggerate the world we’re currently living in, and thus showing you that we’re all sleepwalking into a dystopia anyway. In The Circle, social networks are everything. Mae Holland is a recent graduate who is now working for The Circle, the biggest network of them all. Soon she is sucked into a world where everything about you is known, and privacy is considered shameful and suspicious.

This book is horrifying above anything else, but powerfully written. The perceived struggle of the characters to become popular and influential on social media feels like an exaggerated version of what we have now, but sometimes the exaggeration doesn’t feel too strong, given how some people already behave. The company seems to be modelled on a combination of Facebook and Google, but somehow even more powerful and insidious. This is the sort of book that sticks with you for a long time, and makes you think twice about what you’re putting online.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

rook3. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

A woman has just woken up in the body of Myfanwy Thomas. She has no idea why she woke up in the middle of a park, wearing latex gloves and surrounded by dead bodies. Whoever this first body was, it turns out she worked for the Checquy, a secret organisation that protects Britain from supernatural threats. Everyone in the company’s employ has some kind of superpower, and as Myfanwy grows accustomed to her new body and role, she finds herself in the midst of a conspiracy that stretches back centuries.

This is urban fantasy at its finest, silliest and yet most believable. Sharp prose from O’Malley provides us with a world that I found myself longing to be a part of, despite the danger. The superpowers are particularly unique. Myfanwy is able to control other people’s bodies when she touches them, and her colleague Gestalt is a hive mind who has four physical bodies. It’s a great addition to the genre, and I intend to get around to the sequel this year.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

shades4. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

If I’m being honest, I could probably fill this top ten entirely with Jasper Fforde’s work, but that seems a bit daft, so instead I’ve chosen the one that, if you’ve read nothing of his, you should start with, as it’s not (yet) part of a series so can be dashed off quicker. This book takes place in an undisclosed time in the future of Britain where humans can only see one colour each, and your position in the social order is dictated by what you can see, with purples at the top and greys at the bottom.

When Eddie Russett, Red, is sent to the outer fringes to the village of East Carmine as punishment, he meets Jane, a Grey with a pretty nose, who begins to show him that his world view has been heavily limited all this time. This is a world where colour is  a commodity, history is being erased, and there are massive killer swans roaming the countryside. Best described as “1984 if written by Douglas Adams”, the book is wise and thoughtful, but above all hilariously funny and sharp, and Eddie and Jane are two of the greatest characters in fiction.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

quick curtain5. Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

The weather was great, the summer was full of promise, and I’d stumbled upon another of the British Library’s crime classics. In Quick Curtain, during the opening night of a long-awaited new musical, the lead actor is shot dead live on stage. Inspector Wilson and his journalist son Derek spring into action to work out whether this was an accident or if there is something more sinister going on. The intrepid duo, with the aid of the cast and crew of the musical, set about uncovering more and more secrets the deeper they dig.

One of the funniest books I read all year, and perhaps ever, it’s full of self-important actors, bickering detectives, gossipy busybodies and more jokes and quips that you can throw a stick at. Despite being written in 1934, it feels surprisingly modern and shows that there are always more tricks crime writers have up their sleeves than you could even imagine.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

nod-book6. Nod by Adrian Barnes

In one of the most terrifying books I read this year (and this is a year in which I also read Psycho), we meet Paul and his girlfriend Tanya. One night, Tanya doesn’t sleep, and goes into work to find that most everyone else didn’t sleep either. Scientists are at a loss to explain what’s happened, and understand it even less when the next night, once again, all but about one in ten thousand people didn’t manage to sleep. On the third day, society collapses.

Despite the horror and creepiness of the story, it is absolutely beautiful. Barnes writes like his words are being woven into a patchwork quilt, and there isn’t a dropped stitch or lose thread in it. There are many reflections on what it is to be human, an emphasis on our physical bodies and how there isn’t much more to us than that, and of course what happens to a world where everything is upside down and one of the fundamentals we’ve always taken for granted has been taken away. The images are vivid and the tension and terror are palpably real.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

reasons7. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

This feels like another Very Important Book, like Animal. This is the account of Matt Haig’s battle with mental illness and serves as both a memoir and self-help book for those dealing with depression. While perhaps not the cheeriest book on this list, it’s nonetheless very beautiful, wise and hopeful. After the year we’ve had, it feels necessary to turn our attention to a book that tells us that despite all the terrible things that happen, they are temporary and that there are plenty of other things to live for.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

good-omens8. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

Where does one begin when trying to describe the plot of Good Omens? Do you start with the angel and demon who have inexplicably become friends over millennia and are now tasked with bringing the Antichrist to Earth? Do you begin with Anathema Device, the professional descendant and witch, who knows that the end time is near? How about with Newt, one of Britain’s last witch hunters? Maybe you have to start with the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse who are gathering for the first time in centuries…

Hilariously funny on every page, this book is everything I wish I could write. Gaiman and Pratchett are both incredibly talented in their own ways, but together they become unstoppable. Great and important themes of good and evil are tied together with complete whimsy and truly hysterical dialogue. The characters are all wonderfully real, despite their fantastical bases, and there can be few raptures that are more pleasant and charming as this. A modern classic, and well deserved of being considered so.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

after-the-funeral9. After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

It wouldn’t be my list without including an Agatha Christie on here, and while I read some belters this year, I’ve gone for After the Funeral as the best, as it contains all the true hallmarks of a Christie novel. There’s an old house with a loyal butler, a sprawling, dysfunctional family, a dead earl, and a killer with a singularly unique motive. After Richard Abernethie’s funeral, the family gather to hear about the will, and his younger sister Cora notes, “It’s all been rather hushed up, but he was murdered wasn’t he?” The next day, she is dead.

With more red herrings than a sunburnt stargazy pie, Poirot begins to unravel the mystery and, as usual, it turns out that everyone in the family has a secret, some more pressing than others, but there can only be one solution. If you’re smart, you’ll get it, but don’t worry if you don’t. I’ve read nearly seventy Christie books and still have correctly solved less than five. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

the long way10. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The science fiction is probably the last place you expect to find a book all about the importance of family, and yet here it is. Set on a hyperspace tunnelling ship out in deep space, we meet a cast of humans, aliens and AIs and get to know them and the way they work. Every member of the crew has a story and deals with relationships in their own ways, be they tactile reptiles, falling in love with the AI, in a symbiotic relationship with a virus, or the last of their species.

It’s an eye-opening book, and one that reminds us not to judge others by our sense of “normal”. The universe is a vast place and we shouldn’t be too surprised by what we find out there. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking, but also funny, sharp and hugely readable. Yes, Chambers plays with language and science, but it all feels incredibly thought out and none of it is excess, frivolous fluff.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

And there you have it. Another year over, another stack of books read, another tapestry of memories to add to our history. It’s been a challenging year, as I’ve already discussed, but I still have hope. Hope is perhaps the most important human emotion – a sense that we shouldn’t give up. We must fight on, fight louder and fight better. There is hope for humanity, and maybe this year is just an unfortunate blip.

Although I’m no expert on life, nor can provide much in the way of advice, I think perhaps we should turn to the heroes we lost this year and look at the example they set. Carrie Fisher was warm and brave. Victoria Wood was clever and determined. Terry Wogan was benevolent and charming. Ronnie Corbett was tireless and hilarious. George Michael was charitable and unashamed. Gene Wilder was mad and kind. Almost everyone who died this year had by all accounts been “the nicest person who ever lived”. If we are truly going to honour those we’ve lost this year, we could do worse than being more like them.

Be decent to each other, and I wish you all health, happiness and a hope for a brighter future in 2017. X

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