These are the ten books that I enjoyed the most, that made me think the most, that made me feel the most, or sometimes all three. It includes 3.5 non-fiction books, 1.5 poetry collections, 4 novels, and 1 comic (plus 4 honourable mentions because yes). The first two are my joint absolute favourite read of the year, but the others are in no particular order:
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (non-fiction)
There is so much in this book. It’s about history, science, the environment, religion, politics, philosophy, economics, and what the future might look like. No matter what your interests, there will be something in Sapiens for you. Highly readable, fascinating, and challenging. Full review here.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine (poetry & non-fiction)
This is an incredible collection of poetry and non-fiction essay, interspersed with artwork and photography, about what it means to be black in America. It’s raw, powerful, angry, and, at times, tinged with a kind of resigned sadness. Even if you aren’t much of a poetry reader, I urge you to pick this up. Full review here.
Stiff by Mary Roach (non-fiction)
I loved this book about all the different things that can happen, and has happened, to bodies after death. It’s a book with lots of interesting stuff in it, from body snatchers to the process of a ecological decomposition, and makes you think about what you might want after death. A non-morbid, morbid book which is interesting and funny and moving. Full review here.
The Wicked and the Divine: Volume 1 by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson (Comics)
Although I didn’t like the second volume quite as much, I loved this. It’s about how every 90 years, twelve gods become human, are worshiped, glorified and hated, and then die two years later. In their current incarnation, they are rock and pop stars – there is a David Bowie-esque one (Luci, a reincarnation of Lucifer, who I have a massive crush on), a Florence & the Machine type, etc. The colouring in particular is great, and the writing is a lot of fun.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (novel)
This wasn’t what I was expecting at all, in an excellent way. The bulk of the novel is series of ‘diversions’ and very little plot, but that’s where the good stuff is – all the grand themes about what the knowable-unknowable white whale means to you, the environment, self-destruction, obsession, racism, and just about everything else is in the irrelevance. It’s surprisingly readable and has very short chapters, so well worth a go if you’re not sure. Full review here.
Black Country by Liz Berry (poetry)
Berry is from the Black Country, and the collection is centred around that area and its dialect, but it is also more broadly about what home is, about leaving the place you grew up and going back to it, and growing up generally. I love the way she uses imagery like
For years you kept your accent
in a box beneath the bed,
the lock rusted shut by hours of elocution
I think part of what made this one of my books of the year was seeing her read at an event, as she’s such a great performer of her poems. You can check out a video of her reading poems from this collection here.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (non-fiction)
Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, and this is a book about the two strands of her immortal life – her cells and her family. It’s also about medical ethics in research, medicine and race, the question of who owns the bits of body that are removed (like cells, tonsils, or blood), and the huge number of scientific discoveries made possible by Henrietta’s cells. Though at times Skloot inserts too much of herself in the story, I really like the journalistic writing style. Full review here.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (novel)
This book is just devastatingly beautiful. It’s only 150 pages long, but packed full of beautiful prose and aching emotion. Even though I was frustrated with the narrator and his actions most of the way through, I could understand why he was acting the way he was – that intense brilliant/horrible feeling of loving someone made even more intense by the fact it was a forbidden love and one that he consequently felt ashamed of. Oh Giovanni.
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (novel)
Evie Wyld has exactly the kind of writing style I like – deceptively simple and beautiful. The structure of this book is also really interesting. The chapters alternate between the present moving forward, and the past moving backwards. It means Jake can never outrun her past, as it continues to catch up with her, and where she ends up (whether good or bad) is literally right next to where she started. Full review here.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (novel – Spanish in translation)
Translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman. I loved the writing style of this novella, as well as how ambiguous the ending is. For such a short book, it packs in so much about language, borders, family, and immigration. Full review here.
And because it’s hard to choose just ten, here are four honourable mentions that nearly-but-not-quite made the list:
Sweet Home by Carys Bray (short stories) – This is a really strong collection that broke my heart a little and made me say wow out loud. Full review here.
Fan by Danny Rhodes (novel) – It’s a grim and raw book, with so much unhappiness, and one in which you are not always going to like the central character. But it’s also gripping, beautifully written, and feels emotionally true (the author was also a Forest fan at Hillsborough that day). Full review here.
Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner (graphic novel) – It has the feel and shape of a short story, in a good way, with the sparse yet moving writing style I liked so much in All The Birds, Singing. The art style works really well with the writing and I like how it makes the sharks seem both more and less real at the same time. Full review here.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (non-fiction) – A book about nature and our relationship to it in the rawest sense, and how grief blurred the lines between the hawk’s taming and Macdonald’s own untaming. It’s incredibly well-written and very visual with beautiful imagery and description, and the different parts of the book blend together seamlessly.
Happy reading for 2016!