Let’s be honest, 2016 has consisted of a stream of distressing, confusing, heartbreaking and infuriating moments that have made finding the gold difficult, to say the least. If you’re like me you’ve been panning for that gold on the shelves of your local bookstore, where the writers of the world have done their best to quell the ghastliness of the past twelve months.
2016 saw debut books that were stunningly beautiful and new work from old favourites that further cemented their places on our bookshelves and in our hearts. Here is a broad birds eye view of great literature reads of 2016.
Anna Spargo-Ryan’s debut novel, The Paper House, is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of grief and family and life, sharply written with a gorgeous tenderness. I expect it to appear on a number of shortlists next year.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s The Love of a Bad Man is a skilfully written debut that imagines the stories of the women who stood beside many of the most infamous men of recent history. It’s not always an easy read, teetering as it does at the edge of real-life horror but Woollett is a name to watch.
Other debuts worth noting/reading include Micheline Lee’s The Healing Party, Kate Mildenhall’s Skylarking, Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour, Jane Harper’s The Dry, Rajith Savanadasa’s Ruins, Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink (the first book published by literary journal and now publisher, The Lifted Brow), Emma Cline’s The Girls and Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a firm favourite of mine, as is Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, so it was exciting to see them both return in 2016. Kent’s The Good People is a story of superstition and folklore set in 19th century Ireland and the difficult lives of the women who lived there. Kent’s ability to coalesce her obviously deep and wide-ranging research with an engaging narrative makes her work captivating, the type of book you want to read again and again.
McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, the story of a young Irish woman in London, her struggle to fit in at drama school and her complex relationship with an older man is vivid and sharp and beautiful in a way only McBride can be.
Other excellent releases this year include the late Georgia Blain’s Between a Wolf and a Dog, Kate Tempest’s The Bricks that Built the Houses, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out, Tara June Winch’s After the Carnage, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident and Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities.
Helen Garner returned to us this year with Everywhere I Look, a collection of essays that is at times amusing, at others affecting—I found myself tearing up at her essay on her mother—and throughout simply glorious. A snapshot into the life and mind of one of Australia’s most respected and renowned writers.
After the incredible and well-deserved success of Foreign Soil, it was brilliant to see Maxine Beneba Clarke return in 2016 with her memoir, The Hate Race. A powerful and at times gut-wrenching book that explores the reality of growing up black in white, middle-class Australia.
For the feminists among us—so that’s all of us, right?—2016 was a banner year for damn good books; from Lindy West’s Shrill, to the 2016 edition of Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police, to Clementine Ford’s smash hit, Fight Like a Girl and writer and comedian Rebecca Shaw’s very funny No To Feminism. I’m not sure whether to be happy to see feminist books take centre stage or saddened that in 2016 we need yet another edition of Damned Whores.
Anthologies are always brilliant for summer reads, or for any season really. Top picks for 2016 are the Best Australian Science Writing from the University of New South Wales Press, and the Best Australian Stories 2016 and the Best Australian Essays 2016 from Black Inc. This year there was also the excellent The Near and Far, a collection from Scribe, edited by David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Scott, featuring work from award winning writers across Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Other must reads include Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir, Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country, Ruth Franklins’ Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain, Doing It: Women Tell the Truth About Great Sex edited by Karen Pickering, Ruth Quibell’s The Promise of Things and Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football by Brunette Lenkic and Rob Hess.
This year saw two collections of poetry that bought together some of the greatest poets in the country. Puncher & Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Poetry, edited by Martin Langford, Judy Johnson and Judith Beveridge, features 200 poets and 500 poems. A landmark publication, ten years in the making, Contemporary Australian Poetry is a wonderful celebration of Australian poetry. Similarly, Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, edited by Bonny Cassidy and Jessica L Wilkinson, features 70 new poems, commissioned especially for this collection, that demonstrate the depth and breadth of Australian feminist poets.
Other impressive poetry releases this year include Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food, Stuart Barnes’ Glasshouses, Alison Whittaker’s Lemons in the Chicken Wire and Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey.
Regardless of what happens next year (the apocalypse, the beginning of a Handmaid’s Tale-esque dystopian nightmare, J.K. Rowling putting out another half-assed Harry Potter book) here’s hoping the writerly gods can send a little more gold our way.