It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year. As always, only some of these books were published in 2016, but they were all a part of my 2016 experience.
I have loved all six of French’s “Dublin Murder Squad” novels, and when she has a new book out, it always makes my list. The Trespasser is close behind 2014’s The Secret Place in the running for my favourite. We revisit the two main detectives from The Secret Place, Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, but this story is told from Conway’s point of view, and she’s not doing so hot. She’s unable to let her guard down for a second, convinced as she is that everyone but her partner is trying to orchestrate her professional demise. When a new case lands on her desk – a pretty, stylish blonde is found dead in her own well-appointed living room – Conway can’t shake the feeling that she’s seen the victim somewhere before. As usual, the case looks simple at first but turns out to be anything but. After I finished The Trespasser, I went back and reread Broken Harbour, Into the Woods and The Likeness in quick succession, because there’s so much more to French’s novels than finding out who did it.
I’m cheating here – I’m only halfway through Americanah. I feel confident in my assessment, however. Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman, leaves home to seek a fantasy life in America, and finds, of course, that America is no fantasy. Ifemelu’s alienation and moments of desperation are tempered for the reader by her humour, her eye for nuance, and her implicit but unshakable belief that she deserves far more than the people around her – white Americans, African-Americans, other immigrants, family, lovers, employers and friends – are willing to accord her. She returns home years later to face the changes in herself, the people around her, and her country. I haven’t gotten to that part yet, but I very much look forward to seeing what becomes of her.
Lindy West is currently my favourite essayist. She writes a lot about being fat, being a woman, pop culture, and politics – her recent articles for The Guardian have titles like “Disney’s Moana strikes at the heart of proto-Trump America” and “Dear Barack Obama, thank you for not being an evil robot accountant.” Shrill is mostly personal, and mostly about being a woman and being fat. Chapter titles include, “Are you there, Margaret? It’s me, a person who is not a complete freak,” and “You’re so brave for wearing clothes and not hating yourself!” One of my favourite chapters, “Lady Kluck,” details the fat pop-culture role models West remembers from her childhood, from Maid Marian’s chicken maid in “Robin Hood” to Miss Piggy (“she invented glorifying obesity. But also…is kind of a rapist”). You will find that chapter excerpted here. Also, you should follow Lindy West on Twitter. Unless you are fatphobic, in which case, she will destroy you. [Update January 3, 2016: turns out, you can’t follow Lindy West on Twitter any more. This is as much a harbinger of the apocalypse as anything else that’s happened in the last few months – or maybe it’s a preventative? Not sure, but her explanation is worth reading.]
This is a story about childhood friendship. August grows up in Brooklyn in the 1970s and learns that being a girl is dangerous, but other girls can help. At the very least, they can spin the danger into a story, thus making it an adventure. She also longs for her missing mother and grapples with the reality of death. Woodson drew great acclaim for her young-adult novel-in-poems Brown Girl Dreaming (on my list of what to read next), and, having read this brief, absorbing novel for adults, I can see why.
Because you are reading this blog, I figure there’s a probability of about 40% that Pride and Prejudice is your favourite novel. I’m a big fan of modern retellings of classics (see Zadie Smith’s On Beauty [a retelling of Howard’s End], Cathleen Schine’s The Three Women of Westport [Sense and Sensibility], Michael Cunningham’s The Hours [Mrs. Dalloway], Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”, etc.) I didn’t love Sittenfeld’s Prep, her 2005 breakthrough debut, as much as the rest of the world seemed to, so I wouldn’t have thought of picking up Eligible if it weren’t for a host of excellent and intriguing reviews. It’s charming. Lizzie is Liz, a magazine writer in New York who, along with her sister Jane, a yoga instructor, is called home to Cincinnati to help the family when their father’s health takes a bad turn. Kitty and Lydia are orthorexic ninnies, Chip Bingley is the former star of a Bachelor-esque reality show, and Darcy is a pompous neurosurgeon. You can probably read this book in an afternoon, and I recommend it. So much fun.
The Nest is neurotic family drama at its sharpest. The adult Plumb children have been waiting their whole lives to inherit “The Nest,” a trust fund that is bound to resolve their myriad financial difficulties and keep them comfortable into old age. Their legacy is jeopardized by black sheep brother Leo, starting with a DUI accident in which his passenger, a teenage waitress, is maimed for life and now wants restitution. The siblings come together to try to find a solution, but of course, they each in their own particular way make everything worse. This is a juicy read, but also a moving tribute to the destructive and redemptive power of family love.
Plum Kettle is fat, and unhappy about it. She is waiting for weight-loss surgery and, in the meantime, works for a teen magazine, responding to letters from desperate readers. One day, she notices she’s being followed by a mysterious woman, and thus begin her adventures. She discovers an underground community of feminist activists hell-bent on teaching women to love themselves, with sometimes deadly consequences. This novel starts out intriguing and becomes steadily more bananapants, so it is not for those who resist suspending disbelief. For the rest of us, it’s both a rollicking page-turner and a bold political statement.
Laura Lippman is now on my list of crime writers whose back catalogue I will devour. If this novel is any indication, she is both a skilled prose stylist and a master genre craftswoman, a rare combination in my experience (see Tana French, above). Responding to a hit-and-run, police discover a woman who claims to be Heather Bethany, the younger of two sisters who disappeared thirty years ago and were never found. However, the woman has no ID, and her story is inconsistent and unconvincing. The novel moves back and forth between the events around the Bethany sisters’ disappearance and the present-time interrogation of “Heather.” Couldn’t put it down.
Cecilia stumbles across a letter written by her husband, labelled “For my wife – to be opened only in the event of my death.” He’s not dead. Does she open it? This is a soapy, fluffy read, but it moves along briskly, and the narrative weaves deftly between Cecilia’s story and those of two other women whose roles in the story are not immediately clear. A good book to devour on the deck with a Campari & soda or two. After reading The Husband’s Secret, I went back to Liane Moriarty’s other novels, and was also impressed by Big Little Lies (which I have just learned will soon be an HBO series). I liked the others less, but look forward to reading her newest, Truly Madly Guilty, in the new year.
You may see a theme emerging here. About seven years ago, I paid a lot of money to go on a well-known diet plan, and lost almost 50 pounds. I managed to keep most of it off for a couple of years, but, as is the case for most people who diet, I discovered that maintaining such a weight loss was beyond my capacity. After struggling mightily and desperately searching for anything – veganism! intermittent fasting! green smoothies green smoothies green smoothies! – that would get me back to a place where I received across-the-board approval for the way my body looked, in 2016 I decided that I am not going to waste one more second of the life I have left trying to control my weight. This led to a lot of reading, listening and thinking about body positivity, Health at Every Size, and intuitive eating. Is it possible to like one’s body – and, by extension, oneself – even if one is not “beautiful” in the eyes of everyone? I’m still not sure it’s possible for me, but books like Kelsey Miller’s memoir are very helpful. It’s a funny, honest and wrenching story about growing up fat and ashamed, but then learning that “fat” is a neutral descriptor, and that other people’s opinions of our (and their own) bodies, even those of the people we love and want to please most, are at best irrelevant and at worst poisonous. If you’re tired of hooking your self-worth to the wagon of your body size, and would like to be free of that nonsense, I have plenty of book, podcast and blog recommendations for you, starting with Big Girl.
What did you read this year that you loved? Tell us below, and happy 2017, reading-wise and otherwise.
Want to see lists from past years? Here are all my previous Top 10 Books posts on one convenient page.