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Readers books of the year 2016

The critics had their say, now its time for readers to pick their books of the year from diaries to dictionaries and emperors to existentialists

Redeemable by Erwin James (Bloomsbury Circus)

Of the many books that have engaged me this year, three stand out: James shows in a brutally honest memoir how someone can be saved, and The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (Picador) depicts a life that many of us choose to ignore. More recently I have been transported to Cumbria by Sarah Halls The Wolf Border (Faber), which has all the ingredients to keep you reading and wondering if it might actually come true.
Sarah Akhtar, Stoke-on-Trent

Looking to Heavenby Stanley Spencer and John Spencer (Unicorn)

The first volume of Spencers autobiography, edited by his grandson, tells the story of his early years and how his life and paintings were transformed by his war experiences. The writing conveys both his sympathy for the plight of the men who had endured the war and its longer term consequences, and the book marks the period in his life when he moved from being a good artist to a great one.
Chris Allen, Buckingham

The

The Marches by Rory Stewart (Jonathan Cape)

A chance encounter with Stewart on Radio 4 led me to one of the most unexpected and enjoyable reads of 2016. Stewart embarks on walks along Hadrians Wall and from his home in the Lake District to his family parklet(!) in Crieff. The book fizzes with erudition and is delightfully leavened by the companionship of his aged and doughty father, who infuriates and is deeply loved in equal measure.
Kate Anderson, Sheffield

David Astor by Jeremy Lewis (Jonathan Cape)

Like previous books by this biographer Lewiss David Astor is well researched, and an absorbing read for those, like me, brought up in the 50s and 60s on the Observer, when Astor was editor. It also shows how much Astor helped friends in need, such as George Orwell.
John Ansell, Thame, Oxfordshire


The

The Joyce Girlby Annabel Abbs (Impress)

Lucia is the daughter of novelist James, a black hole who swallows both the worlds attention and domestic affection in industrial quantities. Dancing for the audiences of avant-garde Paris offers young Lucia an outlet, while her fathers friend Samuel Beckett offers romantic promise. But what begins as amusing scattiness starts tipping towards something darker and sadder. Abbs handles the parabola of this real life story with tremendous assurance.
Tim Blackburn, London

Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold by Anne Tyler (Hogarth)

This retelling of Shakespeares most problematic play, from a feminist point of view, features prickly, no-nonsense Kate Battista. She reluctantly agrees to a marriage of convenience to her fathers gifted eastern European lab assistant, Pytor Cherbakov, so he can get a green card and stay in the US. Much to everyones surprise, including her own, Kate is won over by Pytor and becomes his Katya. Tyler serves up a sweetly rendered, thoroughly modern love story.
Vidya Borooah, Belfast

Being

Being a Beast by Charles Foster (Profile)

Fosters attempts to live like various animals is my book of the year. Funny, exuberant and courageous, nudging closer and closer to how it might feel to enter the non-human world. Two memoirs have made me laugh and cry: Chris Packhams Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (Ebury) and Dexter Petleys Love, Madness, Fishing: A Memoir (Little Toller). Writing that crackles off the page and explodes in the imagination.
Sue Brooks, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire

A Country Road, a Tree by Jo Baker (Doubleday)

Bakers fictionalised account of Samuel Becketts time in France during the occupation and his work for the resistance gives us an insight into his development as a writer. What I admired most was Bakers ability to convey a sense of Becketts own writing without imitating it.
Maddy Broome, Stanhope

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley (Allen Lane)

Hanleys study is about the effect of social mobility on the individual, the anxiety and loneliness and at times the absurdity of getting from there to here. It may sound dry and dusty, but it is actually amusing and emotionally gripping, especially for those of us who have travelled a similar route.
Joyce Caulfield, Glasgow

The

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (Unbound)

This collection of essays by 21 BAME writers voices a plea for nuance in our discourse on diversity. Variously funny, poignant, polemical and anger-inducing, the collection is existentially challenging to the status quo. It could not be more timely. Breach, edited by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, (Peirene Now!) offers eight short, well-told tales exploring the refugee crisis. These brief yet complex stories, distilled from witness testimony, engage the reader in an eloquent plea for our common humanity.
Morag Charlwood, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex

Off the Shelf: A Celebration of Bookshops in Verse edited by Carol Ann Duffy (Picador)

There is nothing more enjoyable than browsing in a bookshop and my choices this year are concerned with them. Duffys anthology has a post-apocalyptic bookshop, a flooded bookshop, a visit to Bookbarn International, but what shines through is a love for bookshops and reading. Jorge Carrins Bookshops, translated by Peter Bush, (MacLehose) is not just a travelogue around amazing bookshops of the world, but also a history of bookshops and their importance.
Dawn Churchill, Belper, Derbyshire


Treasure

Treasure Palaces edited by Maggie Fergusson(Economist/Profile)

As a coping strategy for the events of 2016, rather than hiding under the duvet, I gratefully dip into this collection of essays in which great writers recount their visits to great museums. This is a beautifully produced book with illustrations by Steve Panton. The writers range from Jacqueline Wilson via Andrew Motion to Roddy Doyle. The destinations include Kabul, Dove Cottage and the National Gallery of Victoria. Perhaps most fittingly for 2016, Aminatta Forna describes the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. But theres also Matthew Sweets view of Abba: The Museum in Stockholm, so thank you for the music to lift our spirits.
Catherine Davies, Belfast

Worktown by David Hall (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

This is the revealing story of the birth of Mass Observation. In the first project of its kind, the anthropologist Tom Harris son took privileged university boys and girls north to late 1930s Bolton, to live in a chaotic terraced house where they studied the lives of the community, much to the amusement of the townsfolk. With teaching the history of art no longer under threat in our schools I would also recommend putting a copy of Will Gompertzs What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye (Penguin) on the new syllabus. Its both jargon-free and accessible.
Paul Eastwood, Stamford

The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velzquez by Laura Cumming (Chatto & Windus)

In 1845 John Snare, a Reading bookseller, acquired for 8 a portrait of Charles I undertaken shortly before he became king. It was supposedly painted by Velzquez in 1629. Snares endeavours to authenticate whodunit create a gripping tale with as many twists and turns as a detective story, and ultimately his obsession becomes his downfall. Cummings investigation is immaculately researched and told. She has also woven into her text a masterclass on the life and works of Velzquez.

Tim Winton, best known for his award-winning novels, enhanced his reputation with Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (Picador). This succinct volume is part childhood recollection and part cri de coeur against our rampant addiction to materialism. Although set in Australia with vivid wilderness descriptions, his theme that you attempt to tame nature at your peril is universal.
David Fothergill, Pocklington, Yorkshire

The Big Book of Science Fiction,edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Vintage)

This 1,200-page chronological survey of the genre includes many freshly translated foreign language stories from countries as diverse as Argentina, Russia and China, and strong feminist and social themes. One of the best is Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, which melds physics and linguistics in a most intelligent way and was the basis of the recent film Arrival.
Richard Gilyead, Saffron Walden

Commonwealth

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury)

At the heart of the novel is a family story that is appropriated by another character an author the consequences of which ripple out to every family member. I was also utterly absorbed by The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet), the nail-biting story of a womans escape from life as a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Cora is transported via the metaphorical underground railroad, which the author has transformed into a literal network of secret tunnels and stations across America.
Nicola Gooch, York

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury)

A big book like this would have taken the whole year to read if I had followed up every reference that piqued my interest. A compendium of Eurasian trade in goods, technology and ideas over millennia, it really does give a history of the world, up to the present war in Syria. If Frankopan does not write much about South America, the continent is the core of The Invention of Nature (John Murray), Andrea Wulfs comprehensive narrative of Alexander von Humboldts life and works. While stylishly revealing his amazing insights and discoveries, including the concept of ecology, her account portrays a genuinely nice man.
Catriona Graham, Edinburgh

The


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Two wholly different American novels gave me the cant go on, must go on sensation this year. Whiteheads novel tells a moving story about slavery and the possible routes of escape. In complete contrast was Jonathan Moores The Poison Artist (Orion). This equally compelling but much less salubrious novel is convoluted and complex, revealing the seedy links between the key character, Dr Caleb Maddox, absinthe and derangement. Avoid them in real life but enjoy them in fiction.
Kate Johnson, Mirfield, West Yorkshire

Black Outby Ragnar Jonasson (Orenda)

The third of Jonassons Dark Iceland series to be translated into English (by Quentin Bates) and easily the best yet. Mostly set in Siglufjrur, an isolated town in the north surrounded by mountains and facing out into a loch just outside the Arctic Circle, it is beautifully written and elegantly paced with a plot that only gradually becomes visible, as if the reader had been staring into the freezing fog waiting for shapes to emerge. In joyous contrast, the disarming illustrations and informative and witty words of Matt Sewells A Charm of Goldfinches & Other Collective Nouns(Ebury) is utterly delightful. Find out why its a deceit of lapwings. Fabulous!
Martin Jones, New Barnet, Hertfordshire

Spitalfields: The History of a Nation in a Handful of Streets by Dan Cruickshank (Random House)

This book is not just about a fascinating area of London but, in the era of Brexit, it provides an account of how immigration shaped the history of the UK in every aspect, and how without it we would be a lesser people. Cruickshank narrates a story of immense change which continues to this day, and calls for a response to the destruction of not only a way of life but of memory by forces that are not benign and affect us all.
Cyril Kavanagh, Kingston

Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie by Anne Martinetti, Guillaume Lebeau and Alexandre Franc (SelfMadeHero)

Graphic novels have never appealed to me, but as Im a Christie enthusiast I thought Id try this, and I was bowled over. It tells Christies life in pictures and with simple dialogue, but what makes it special is that her detectives appear occasionally as real people with whom she has conversations, not always amiable. This is a tender, moving tribute to a great author.
Anne Kirkman, Cambridge


The

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape)

Other authors have tackled Stalinist Russia through fiction but Barness book about Shostakovich, of whom I knew very little, taught me much about power, bravery and compromise in lives lived under the Stalinist terror.

The Gustave Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus) is a compelling read and a deeply moving story about friendship and a life apparently unfulfilled. A man who repeatedly saves people, but who cannot accept being loved until late in life gives those of us in that age group hope that we may not be completely emotionally and psychologically set.

Kate Latham, St Anns Chapel, Cornwall

And the Sun Shines Now by Adrian Tempany (Faber)

Written by a journalist and survivor of Hillsborough, this is a lucid, honest, captivating and sensitive account of the tragedy in April 1989, its aftermath and repercussions, both for the victims and for football in general. To be read by everyone, but especially younger people who want to know how the game became, certainly in England, the money-soaked commercial enterprise it is today.
Terry Lempriere, Warrington


The

The Holy Roman Empire by Peter Wilson (Allen Lane)

Two outstanding transnational histories were published this year: The Holy Roman Empire, and Richard J Evans The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914(Allen Lane). A great deal more than the sum of national parts, these multi-layered works impress in erudition and judgment. How apt they should have appeared in the year of the Brexit referendum. Science continues to be well served and I doubt we shall get a better written and informed account of the ubiquitous microbial world than Ed Yongs I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life(Bodley Head).
Hamilton McMillan, London

The Lesser Bohemiansby Eimear McBride (Faber)

Two books by Irish writers helped me see the world with new eyes. McBrides novel is about the raw exhilaration of youth. It charts the ordinary chaos and joy of early adulthood in an extraordinary fashion. The other Seamus OMahonys The Way We Die Now (Head of Zeus ) is about kindness and courage in the face of death. The author is a doctor, critical of contemporary attitudes, who wants to see death reclaimed from the medics. I dont agree with everything in it, but it left me both unsettled and strangely reinvigorated.
Arthur Musgrave, Bristol

Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermoredited by Adam Sisman (John Murray)

Like many people, my introduction to Leigh Fermor was A Time for Gifts. These letters cover the years from 1940 to 2010 and provide a fascinating and engaging sort of autobiography full of the charm found in his travel writings. Wonderful to dip into.
John Nicholson, London

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by John Preston (Viking)

Wonderfully illuminating and entertaining. Preston ignites the familiar, but still extraordinary, account of Jeremy Thorpes rise and fall with pace, humour and colour. The supporting cast is rich and varied too. Thorpes status as a major figure of the establishment was in his favour. Ranks closed to protect him all the way to his trial.
Chris Palmer, Doonfoot, Ayr


The

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpents Tail)

Immersing myself in Perrys outstanding novel was certainly one this years highlights. Also, Olivia Laings fascinating study of metropolitan alienation in The Lonely City (Canongate). Plus, a terrific anthology of English Renaissance Poetry (NYRB) edited by John Williams and Frances Wilsons biography of Thomas De Quincey, Guilty Thing (Bloomsbury).
Stephen Parkin, Godalming, Surrey

A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters(4th Estate)

I was intrigued and entertained by Masters endeavours as he seeks to understand and then identify the author of a lifetimes diaries found in a skip. The small but beautifully formed Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift (Scribner), demonstrates both the social hierarchy of the time and how much life can change in a single day. I was entertained by Ian McEwans Nutshell(Jonathan Cape), an eventful tale of a dysfunctional family told from the viewpoint of an unborn child.
Katharine Robbins, Leeds

The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams (Tuskar Rock)

Williamss short stories portray the edges of modern life in vivid, staccato detail and make for compelling reading. The narrative threads move forward in unpredictable, exciting and often unsettling detail. Bernard ODonoghues latest collection of poems, The Seasons of Cullen Church(Faber), captures the landscape and people of County Cork in a delicate, moving way, blending classical and middle English texts with contemporary experience. The poems have a warmth of recollection tinged with sadness.
Ross Settles, St Leonards-on-Sea


The

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

This will not disappoint those of us who enjoy and admire Tremains novels. Although most of the story is set in Switzerland and covers the period around the second world war, there is a masterly section describing Gustavs first journey out of the country, visiting Paris as a 50-year-old at the end of the last century. This sense of place is almost as important to the novel as its central relationship between Gustav and Anton. Such is the gentle power of the last scene that I feel these characters will remain with me for a long time.
John Shields, Wilmslow, Cheshire

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (Scribe)

Im not sure what I feel about bio-fiction (novelists using the best bits of peoples lives as inspiration and making up the rest), but I loved Mrs Engels. Its based on the real-life Lizzie Burns, an illiterate mill worker from Manchesters Irish slums who moved to London with her lover Friedrich Engels in 1870. Historians have put her in the margins, like so many women: here she tells her own story. Its refreshingly original and beautifully written, and a sardonic take on the limited place for women in Marx and Engels brave new world.
Ann Kennedy Smith, Cambridge

Cyclogeography by Jon Day (Notting Hill Editions)

This year Ive been lucky and hit a run of gems. Cyclogeography is an enjoyable account of a hair-raising life as a London cycle courier interspersed with two-wheeled philosophical digressions. US journalist William Finnegans story of his surfing travels in Barbarian Days (Corsair) left me wishing Id spent my 20s rather differently, but then Jonathan Bennetts Around the Coast in 80 Waves (Sandstone), a tale of the frustrations and highs of surfing every nook of Britains coastline, provided inspiration to ensure I make up for it in my 50s. Best of all, the first two volumes of The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf (Two Roads), an engaging and moving graphic memoir of growing up in 1980s Syria, have lingered long in my minds eye brilliant. I hope Santa brings Vol 3.
Alex Spalding, Sidmouth, Devon


The

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney (John Murray)

I hugely enjoyed Lisa McInerneys dark but tender debut novel with its vivid portrayal of the life and times of Ryan, a teenage gangster in the making. Alexandra Shulmans frank, funny diaries, Inside Vogue (Fig Tree), with their blend of wry character sketches, commercial nous and dispatches from her home life, make for a very pleasurable read.
Alison Starling, Sevenoaks, Kent

Peacock & Vine: Fortuny and Morris in Life and at Work by AS Byatt (Chatto & Windus)

A beautifully illustrated meditation on two of the 19th centurys greatest exponents of textile arts, Mariano Fortuny and William Morris. The politics of Morris underpins Sheila Rowbothams Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States (Verso), in which she charts the lives of four women and two men as they journey from the 19th to the 20th century, in their search for self-fulfilment and equality, struggling to combine personal happiness with radical social commitment.
Martin Stott, Oxford

Elegy by Andrew Roberts (Head of Zeus)

The centenary of the battle of the Somme was widely commemorated. Roberts focuses simply on the events of the first day, and perfectly captures the tragedy and heroism of this terrible moment in our history. Meanwhile, Louis de Bernieres family saga The Dust That Falls from Dreams (Vintage) manages to find charm and deep poignancy as it charts the effects of the war on middle-class England.
Simon Surtees, London

Razor Girlby Carl Hiaasen (Sphere)

Hiaasens novels are always fast-moving, bizarre and bawdy. Razor Girl, full of eccentric characters, mistaken identities, coincidences and farce, follows a similar format. It is set in Hiaasens native Florida where bigots, corrupt lawyers, politicians and pharmaceutical companies, the mafia and red-neck reality shows are all lampooned.
Dorrie Swift, London

Big History: Our Incredible Journey, from Big Bang to Now (DK)

A mind-expanding and brilliantly illustrated book that attempts to explain the entire story of the cosmos from the big bang to the emergence of life and human society. Aliens: Science Asks: Is Anyone Out There? (Profile), edited by Jim Al-Khalili, is a thought-provoking collection of essays providing a rational, scientific discussion of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Dave Taylor, Purbrook, Hampshire


Mothering

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Centred on the titular day in 1924, the book describes the last meeting of lovers: a maid, Jane Fairchild, and upper-class Paul Sheringham from the neighbouring estate. It is emotionally intelligent, expertly achieved and beautifully written.
Lynne Taylor, Burnley, Lancashire

At the Existentialist Caf by Sarah Bakewell (Chatto & Windus)

This reconnected my younger idealistic self to the more floundering me of today; I fell in love with 20th-century philosophy all over again. A book thats too grim to recommend in the usual way is Hanya Yanagiharas A Little Life (Picador), but its unlikely Ill forget its relentless story or regret reading it.
Genevieve Terry, Exeter

The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine (Atlantic)

I much admired two books about indigenous peoples and colonial histories. Danish novelist Leine, translated by Martin Aitken, chronicles a haunting and extraordinarily visceral journey into the wilderness of 18th-century Greenland.Indigenous London by Coll Thrush (Yale) reverses the colonial narrative, looking at the history of London through the eyes of travellers from British colonies over 500 years. They include Hawaiian royalty, Inuit children, Aboriginal diplomats, a Native American missionary and Pocahontas herself. Its salutary to read just how many v

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