The best (and worst) books I read in 2016

Book reviews used to be the bane of my life when I was still at school, trumped only by maths homework and after-school hockey matches. Was there anything worse than a weekend spent trudging through the purgatory of the key-stage 3 syllabus, when all you wanted to do was practice applying lilac eyeshadow and read Mizz magazine? Fucking no, there was not.  And then to be required to write about it was a complete dose of fresh hell in itself. Well, fast forward a decade and a bit and here I am, willingly writing little book reviews for my own simple pleasure. How times change. Next I’ll be spending all my money on expensive candles or chatting about mortgages. Oh. Wait…

Anyway. I set myself a challenge in 2016 to read 100 books in a year. Never mind that I only decided to do this in April, putting me massively on the backfoot. In a moment of gung-ho optimism and unquenchable enthusiasm for the written word, I decided that to chug merrily through approximately eleven books a month for the foreseeable was absolutely something I could do. In fact, I’d probably nail two books this weekend, easy, so how hard could it be?

Spoiler alert: I did not succeed in this feat. Lies told to people about the exact amount I actually managed to get through range from the realm of 60 to about 30. Was it more, was it less? That’s just going to have to be one of life’s little mysteries, and I apologise in advance for the sleepless nights this will doubtlessly cause you.

Let’s just say that I didn’t reach the big old hundy books and leave it at that. I’m going to kick off with the worst. If the smiling-pile-of-poo emoji were a book, it would be this:

Maestra by LS Hilton

There were many contenders for worst book this year, but this one had to win purely by dint of all the rude words I can now say in my review. Branded ‘the thinking woman’s fifty shades’ (a clear warning sign it was gonna be awful) this was apparently the most shocking erotic thriller I would read all year. I rubbed my together hands with glee…

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Sadly, like so many others who can talk all the talk, this was an absolute limp dick of a book. It opened with an orgy, which was such a try-hard ploy to rope readers in I almost stopped reading there (obvs didn’t though, cos you know, thrusting and stuff.) But it was just so painfully obvious that this opening chapter had been moved here by a publisher, despite the fact it served no real purpose, that it was kind of embarrassing.

But then I guess that makes me embarrassing because onto Chapter 2 I bravely ventured. If you’re looking for a strong female protagonist in the so-utterly-uninteresting Judith Rashleigh, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Her defining characteristics appear purely limited to being angry and cum-hungry, her whole life fuelled apparently by rage (although at what it’s never really made clear) and a desire for vengeance. The plot also leaves a lot to be desired, but basically it centres on her mission to destroy the art company who fired her when she was just starting out. This is executed by carrying off a considerable art heist, which sees her journeying from London to Paris to Italy, multiple cocks-in-hand at each location, naturally. Because of course, Judith, why bother to have a cocktail at the bar when you can just have a cock instead?

Like Judith’s soul (and possibly other parts of her anatomy), this book was pretty much a gaping void. I quite frankly fail to see how someone who is so preoccupied with applying monoi oil to her arse crack every five minutes (lest some poor sweet soul should end up face-down in it) could even accomplish the masters degree she supposedly has, let alone a serious art heist. She’s obviously great at pulling off some things, but I feel a global crime may have lain just outside her capabilities.*

One thing I did love, however, is that the cover is basically just a big old gash, marauding casually as a split canvas. It was 100% meant to symbolise a fanny and was incredibly unsubtle. Georgia O’Keefe eat ya heart out. Whenever I whipped it out of my bag on the train, I had a little snigger to myself about the fact I was getting my gash out on public transport. Don’t judge – everyone has to get through the day somehow.

Admittedly, I did finish this book in about a week, but this was not because it was actually any good, but purely down to the fact it required absolutely no attention span whatsoever.

*Also I would just like to add that, although it may sound like I’m slut-shaming Judith the whole way through this, I’m not. Ride as many dicks as you please, but please just do it with a little more personality than she did.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

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Going from the ridiculous to the sublime, this is one of those books that left me genuinely bereft upon turning over the last page. Oh my god this book. It was so weird. But in the best way. July’s expertise has always been in digging up and presenting the awkward internal monologue that makes us all human – a lot of her short stories focus on feelings of displacement, sexuality and OCD. In lead-character Cheryl Glickman, July creates a peculiarity and awkwardness that somehow feels both laughably unhinged and terrifyingly familiar.

At its core, this is a tale of loneliness. This is 3am thoughts written down, it’s deeply-buried sexual perversion spoken aloud and it’s recognition of how each and every one of us can become obsessed with the minutia of routine to a degree that verges on insanity, if only we are left alone with the hum of our own thoughts for long enough.

Cheryl is left to go about her solitary life largely unbothered, fantasising about Philip from work when feeling particularly bored and finding bizarre meaning in the gaze of other women’s babies – believing them potentially to have been her own, despite the fact she has never been pregnant. However, when Cheryl’s boss foists her 19-year-old daughter – smelly-footed, rude and ungrateful Clee – on her, to lodge in her living room for an unspecified length of time, Cheryl’s solitary life is completely upturned, and with surprising results.

It’s massively cliched to say that this book left me unsure whether to laugh or cry but, genuinely, that’s what happened. It’s not for everyone; parts of the plot go so far out on a strange tangent that you have to reread a page here and there, and bloody hell if you are in any way prudish put it down now because some of it is hideously disgusting. But the unlikely events of this searingly sad tragicomedy are a reminder of how familiarity and circumstance have the power to create lust and desire between the most unlikely of people, and how it can die out as quickly as it blossomed, with devastating effect.

Sylvia by Leonard Micheals

Sylvia

I read this last January, in the depths of deepest, darkest Winter, and spent an entire Sunday snuggled under the duvet with it surgically stuck to my hands until I reached the last page. Set in 1960s Manhattan, this semi-autobiographical novella tells the tragic tale of Micheals’ turbulent relationship with clinically depressed Sylvia. Her wildness and boundless beauty at first attract him, then repel and bewilder him as he falls deeper into the dangerous and violent cat-and-mouse game their relationship becomes. Sylvia is remembered by Michaels in all her imperfect glory – always both beautiful and unbalanced, angelic and menacing, passionate and heartless. But, all the way through, his narration is never bitter – broken yes, but this is a reverie on the relationship, not a story of hate.

This was perhaps not the best book to read during the most depressing month of the year, feeling slightly apathetic towards everything and especially not after rereading The Bell Jar. Whoops. But for anyone who has lived through a relationship with someone mentally ill, or experienced the pain of adoring someone who seems able only to destroy everything good in their life, it will be one of the most pertinent books you ever read. And even if you haven’t been through any of it, I defy anyone not to find this – and its inevitably harrowing ending – desperately, hauntingly sad.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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I blame this and The Goldfinch for the pathetically low number of books I read this year because I read both of these and they are absolute fucking tomes. Really they should count as ten books each.

I always thought I didn’t like Donna Tartt. I picked up The Goldfinch a couple of years back and promptly put it back on the bookshelf to gather dust, getting just a few chapters in. It was rambling and indulgent and was basically the very definition of too long, didn’t read. But then people kept acting amazed when I said I didn’t like her. So after about the fifth time, I accepted The Secret History from a colleague and I’m so glad I gave old Donna a second chance. I almost gave up on this one too.  It centres on a group of classics students and thus the opening chapters are basically a long and pretentious jizz-fest about Latin, Greek mythology and loads of other interminably boring shit that read like a textbook, not a novel. Snore. But I pushed on, and wow. Suddenly it’s not really to do with classics at all, it’s to do with power, influence, murder, morality and pretty much everything else in between. The characters became so real over the 800+ pages that I weirdly felt like I knew them – so fully-fleshed out was every aspect of their psyche. A lot of people dislike Tartt’s lengthy prose, but I actually find there’s something quite soothing to it. I’m forever impressed by her ability to write such fuck-off huge sentences without them once seeming jolty or awkward – no easy feat. If you have a long-haul beach holiday ahead of you, pack this.

Good, but not totally amazing, other honourable mentions go to:

The Girls by Emma Cline

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I would have rated this higher if the plot wasn’t such an obvious rip of the Charles Manson case. The way she captures the uncertainty of being a teenage girl – the bitchiness, the stifling desire to be liked and the disconnect that comes with wanting to be noticed by men but not knowing what to do with that new, terrifying power once they actually do start to see you – is so spot on.

The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir. 

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I’m aware it’s sacrilegious to give someone like Simone de Beauvoir an honourable mention because she is an absolute boss, but this was three short stories, not an entire book and I haven’t included short stories in this list. Plus, I make the rules here. My favourite in this triptych was the second story – the namesake of the whole book. This tells the bitterly sad tale of Monique, who uncovers her husband’s affair and, being oh-so-typically French, decides to stay quiet and bide her time, expecting that he will come back to her one day, if only she can await him tiring of his younger mistress. The way de Beauvoir writes about Monique’s utter despair as she begins to realise this is not the case, perfectly capturing the desperate helplessness of seeing someone you love slipping away with no power to pull them back, is exquisitely palpable. There’s also another story in here about a woman who is driven crazy by her hatred for the man who spurned her. She spends the whole book Miss-Havisham-style, sitting in her apartment and yelling incredible combinations of profanities at the wall – probably representing the dark abyss of my future self.

If you got through all that, well done – I commend your attention span. If you scrolled to the bottom without really reading, that’s also fine – it got me an extra view.

Fellow book nerds, please give me recommendations for 2017. I’ve set the bar low and aimed for ten this year so I can only go on to outdo myself.

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