Best books of the year: 15 top titles of 2016
Zadie Smith and Yann Martel head the line-up of well-known authors releasing new material
Critics are enjoying a bumper year for books, with a string of new releases from established authors and talented newcomers.
We round up some of the most hotly anticipated titles:
Zadie Smith’s forthcoming novel, Swing Time, is about “two brown girls”, according to the author. It’s the tale of two bi-racial dancers who grow up together in a poor London neighbourhood but diverge in adulthood in the 1990s. Where one follows her dream of turning professional, the other becomes a personal assistant to a pop star.
“It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early 20s, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either,” says publisher Hamish Hamilton, which describes the novel as “dazzlingly energetic and deeply human”.
Performing a reading of two chapters of the book at the US’s Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Smith intriguingly said the idea of conspiracy – which she sees as “a symbol of a yearning for knowledge” in the absence of a formal educational structure – is an underlying theme throughout the novel.
Out on 15 November 2016
Autumn, Ali Smith
The first in a four-part series of books by the How to Be Both author, has been described by its publisher as “a stripped-branches take on popular culture” and a “meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on richness and worth”.
The four novels from Smith, who won the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, are expected to be named Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer as part of a seasonal motif. Publisher Hamish Hamilton said the books would be separate yet interconnected and cyclical, “exploring what time is, how we experience it and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative”.
Out on 25 August 2016
The Winds of Winter, George RR Martin
The next instalment of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series was due out before the sixth season of Game of Thrones hit television screens on 24 April. However, the author confessed he would not be able to finish it in time. “For months now I have wanted nothing so much as to be able to say, ‘I have completed and delivered The Winds of Winter on or before the last day of 2015.’ But the book’s not done,” wrote Martin on his blog in January. It is not clear when the novel will be published, with the author warning he was still “months away” from finishing it.
Television viewers are well acquainted with key characters such as sharp-tongued dwarf Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, the king’s scheming mother, and the “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys Targaryen, who wants to retake the Iron Throne. The novels also include scores of other characters who never made the cut for Game of Thrones and Martin has hinted that some of these could play a much bigger role in the sixth book.
In his first novel after The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, Julian Barnes recounts the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famed Soviet composer who struggled all his life with the Communist Party’s absolute rule over his music – in a decade, he went from a celebrated cultural icon to being officially denounced for being too “Western”. Barnes has written an ambitious book, says The Independent, while The Guardian describes it as a “complex meditation on the power, limitations and likely endurance of art”.
Yet another highly anticipated book, Here I Am is Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel since 2005 and there’s already a lot of hype around it. Set in Washington DC, the novel follows the implosion of an American-Jewish family over the course of a month, as divorce and tragedy take hold of their lives. Meanwhile, overseas, a massive earthquake rocks the Middle East and Israel’s political foundations. Foer’s editor Eric Chinski says Here I Am is full of “high-wire inventiveness and intensity of imagination”.
Out on 6 September 2016
This is Yann Martel’s fourth novel and it already has everyone buzzing. It’s not hard to understand why – he won the 2002 Man Booker Prize for his breakthrough title Life of Pi, which became a Hollywood film. Starting in Lisbon in 1904, The High Mountains of Portugal tells the story of a young man called Tomas, who finds an old journal hinting at a deep secret. The book weaves three different stories into a road-trip across four centuries and two continents, exploring themes of love, loss and heartbreak along the way. It could turn out to be a serious awards contender – even those who weren’t pleased with Martel’s last book, Beatrice and Virgil, are putting this on their must-read lists.
In 1980s Spain, Juan de Vere, the assistant to famous film-maker Eduardo Muriel, finds himself trapped in an unsettling love triangle. As Muriel’s wife flits in and out of the book – and other people’s beds – Juan is tasked by the jealous husband to find out all he can about one of her mysterious old friends, who seems to be inexplicably linked to the Franco regime. Javier Marias has a knack for exploring disquieting relationships and this looks to be a similar affair.
With five novels under her belt, as well as a Granta nomination for Best Young British Novelist of 2013, Helen Oyeyemi is one of Britain’s new powerful voices. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is her first short-story collection, inspired by fairy tales and dark secrets, all magically reworked throughout the book.
This heart-breaking memoir chronicles a young doctor’s path from promising neurosurgeon to terminal cancer patient. Diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer aged 36, Dr Paul Kalanithi is suddenly forced to adjust to his role as patient instead of healer. “It is inherently sad,” warns the Washington Post. “But it’s an emotional investment well worth making: a moving and thoughtful memoir of family, medicine and literature.”
Kalanithi passed away on 9 March 2015, leaving behind a young family and an unfinished book. “But it still has a complete quality,” says the Daily Mail, “a feeling that it contains all that needs to be said.” Writing the epilogue, his wife Lucy speaks of “a grief so heavy that at times I shiver and moan under the weight of it” but she celebrates the fact that his memoir can “teach us to face death with integrity”.
The Girls, Emma Cline
Set in 1960s California, Cline’s debut novel chronicles a Charles Manson-esque story from a woman’s perspective. Damaged, young and vulnerable, Evie is lured into a dangerous cult in a reimagining of the summer leading up to the notorious Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles, says the New York Times. “It dissects an obsession – but not the one you’d expect.” This coming-of-age story by a young American author manages to hit that “sweet spot” of literary fiction that’s also “compulsively readable”, says Publishers Weekly.
Out on 14 June
A darkly comic debut novel from former journalist Jem Lester, Shtum tells the story of Ben Jewell, a father struggling to cope with looking after his severely autistic son as his marriage collapses around him. But Ben isn’t an idealised hero battling for his disabled son’s rights, says The Guardian. “His failings are laid out in plain sight. He is a man-boy who has never quite grown up. It as an impressive novel that gives a very accurate portrayal of the struggles some families of autistic children endure, while taking the reader on an exhilarating roller coaster ride between pathos, comedy and anger.”
The book was inspired by some of Lester’s own experiences with his autistic son Noah. “Writing it certainly wasn’t a therapy and there were times when I found it painful,” Lester told the Evening Standard. “Bear in mind that the book finishes but the story behind it is our lives, which carry on. There are still huge obstacles ahead.”
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
Gyasi, a 26-year-old Ghanaian writer who grew up in Alabama, tackles race and identity in her powerful debut novel than spans three centuries. The book traces the descendants of two half-sisters born in 18th-century Ghana, who go on to lead very different lives. One thread follows the Gold Coast slave trade, tribal warfare and British colonisation, while the other moves from the cotton plantations in America to modern-day Harlem. “No novel has better illustrated the way in which racism became institutionalised in this country,” says Vogue US.
Out on 7 June