Books of the Year 2016: Part One

exposureHere we all are, hurtling towards the end of another year. Out there in the world, 2016 as proved to be pretty dreadful for liberals like me what with Brexit and Trump, not to mention the utter misery of Syria which surely touches us all. The reading world has been a much more comfortable place to be, although a little patchy in places for me. It certainly got off to a roaring start in January beginning with two books which share a similar theme. Set in 1960 against the backdrop of the Cold War with all its attendant paranoia, Helen Dunmore’s Exposure sees a woman fighting for her family’s survival when her husband becomes caught up in an old friend’s treachery. Gripping storytelling, sharp characterisation and beautifully crafted prose all combine in  this subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love. Another Dunmore triumph.

The Cold War is still quietly raging in Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, set in the last few weeks of 1981. Stephen is a ‘listener’ at The Institute wading through tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When the loyalty of a colleague falls into question, Stephen is called upon to spy on him and finds himself obsessed by the operative’s wife. Kay draws you in to Stephen’s story while slowly but inexorably ratcheting up the tension. The dénouement when it comes is hardly a surprise but this isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.

Entirely different, Rachel B. Glaser’s first novel, Paulina & Fran is a raucous roller-coaster ride following the eponymous friends from when they first meet as students. It’s both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant. Paulina strides around apparently impervious to criticism, hurling waspish barbs at her fellow students yet deflated by the slightest setback. Fran is incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life, obsessing over Paulina while eventually settling for the kind of job that would make her friend spit bile at its merest mention. It’s a very smart piece of fiction, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory. And the ending is a masterstroke.Cover image

January’s fourth favourite is also a debut – Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. Tierce’s writing is often graphic, sometimes uncomfortably so – descriptions of Marie’s abasement make difficult reading but that’s what makes her character so vivid. It can also be strikingly poetic. Love Me Back is a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what Tierce comes up with next.

February delivered a couple of excellent reads beginning with Kim Echlin’s superb Under the Visible Life. Like Paulina & Fran, it’s a story of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Echlin takes her time, unfolding Katherine and Mahsa’s stories using alternating narratives to round out these very different characters through their distinctive voices: Katherine’s sharp, passionate and frenetic; Masha’s gentle, quietly determined, almost poetic at times. It’s a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women able to withstand all that’s thrown at them, from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour.

Cover imageYou may have noticed that all five of my books of 2016 so far have been by women as is the sixth: Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton for which I had high hopes as a Baileys contender, sadly dashed. It did, at least, make it on to the longlist but there it stuck, much to my mystification. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism which seems a good point at which to finish this post.

Six books covered already and it’s only the end of February but as I mentioned, it’s been a patchy reading year for me – the next post will leap ahead from March to June. Should you be interested, a click on any of the titles above will take you to my review.

17 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2016: Part One”

  1. I’ve only read one of those – Paulina and Fran and was disappointed. I felt it started strong with great characterisation but got boring and faded to the point where it left me wishing I’d not bothered to finish it, my friend felt the same.

    1. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Helen. Always annoying when you feel you’ve wasted your reading time. It was a little hyped, I seem to remember, but it worked for me.

  2. Out of these, there’s one I’d not even heard of (Love Me Back) and only one I’ve read (Under the Visible Life) which I’m very happy to see included. I thought it was a wonderful look at female friendships and the important part music can play in our lives. The others are on my TBR but I despair of even getting to read them all next year!

    1. I’m so pleased to hear from someone else who loved Under the Visible Life, Kath. It seemed to hardly get any coverage at all. Love Me Back took me by surprise – such a fine debut. Good luck with the TBR. Lots of treats in store by the sound of it.

      1. Yes, it was a real shame that Under a Visible Life didn’t get more coverage but maybe it’ll enjoy a boost by being included in lists such as yours. Hope so.

        Thanks, and definitely lots of treats in store! I’m determined to carve out more time for treats next year. This year’s been frustrating for that.

        1. Hope so – I’m planning to explore her backlist next year. I think we all need a few treats after 2016!

  3. Excellent list, Susan. Only one of these makes my books of the year (I’m doing one list and being very strict on length!) but as I came to each one I realised how vividly I remember all of these and I read every one last December. For me that’s a sign of some very good books indeed.

    1. Me, too, and I admire your self-discipline. I’ll be rambling on for three more posts although not citing as many books as last year which says more about my year than my self-restraint. Looking forward to seeing which one of these made it on to your own list.

  4. I haven’t even started to think about my own list for the year. I’ve read two on your list though and can only agree with you re Elizabeth Strout’s novel, which makes me want to read more by her. I also read Exposure and enjoyed it in part though I am getting the feeling Dunmore is an author whose books i can take or leave

    1. I’m a fully paid up Dunmore fan as you’ve probably gathered so we’ll have to agree to differ on that one. Pleased to hear that the Strout hit the spot.

  5. Four of these books are firmly on my to-read list, and I’m happy to say that Echlin’s has been requested through the library. I may even get to read it over the Holidays. I find it very odd that it didn’t get much attention here in Canada, either.

    1. I’m amazed at that. I thought it was just here in the UK that it had been largely ignored. Your family may wonder where you’ve got to if it arrives before Christmas – hard to put down once started!

  6. Interesting list Susan. I haven’t read any on your list (but reading a lot more non-fiction these days), I’ll be interested to see what else makes your list.

    1. Glad to hear that, Poppy. Under the Invisible Life and Love Me Back come heartily recommended, both woefully under-reviewed. The jacket for the paperback edition of Echlin is very eye-catching which I hope will draw it to more readers’ attention.

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