The Best (Newish) Books of 2016

IMG_5373As some of you may have seen, last week I posted on a fine collection of books which, while all wonderful reads, didn’t quite make it through the monthly tussles for entry into my book of the year award.  Today, however, I’ll be introducing you to my twelve monthly winners, with a particular focus on the six most recent titles (the others can probably speak for themselves).  On New Year’s day, when my Annual Awards post appears, you’ll find out my favourites, including the winner of the prestigious book of the year award (which could go to any book I reviewed in 2016, no matter when it was originally published or translated into English).  All clear?  Never mind – off we go 🙂

January – While my January in Japan event has (unfortunately) long disappeared due to IMG_5384work commitments towards the end of the year, I still try to up the J-Lit ante in January, and Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water (translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm: Atlantic Books) was one of my highlights of the month (and my eventual pick for our Shadow Man Booker International Prize winner).  A typical autobiographical tale, the novel examines the patriarchy and right-wing politics in Japan – making it an even more fascinating read at the end of this rather worrying year…

Signs-Preceding-the-End-of-the-World_CMYK-SMALL-300x460April – Another story which seems apt amidst talk of building giant walls is Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (tr. Lisa Dillman: And Other Stories).  We follow Makina, a teenage girl making a journey across a border to find her brother, in a novella which examines the nature of modern North-American immigration politics in the form of a dreamlike tale incorporating elements of Central-American mythology.  This one was overlooked for the MBIP but did take out the American equivalent, the Best Translated Book Award (making the Booker judges look very silly in the process…).

May – That’s quite enough talk about the world in general, though.  Let’s get back to moodyIMG_5438 self-introspective artists – and when it comes to literary navel-gazing, there are none more angst-ridden than Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard Some Rain Must Fall (tr. Don Bartlett: Harvill Secker) is the fifth and penultimate part of his autobiographical novel My Struggle, looking at his student days, and while the fourth part was an embarrassing mess, Some Rain May Fall saw Knausi back to his best, with just the right blend of anger and pathos 🙂

IMG_5461June – Of course, it’s not just men that feel the need to open up about their lives – there are plenty of talkative gorillas out there too.  Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became (tr. David Colmer: Peirene Press) has a former resident of the rainforest discussing his rise to the status of fully-fledged human, and his feelings when he gets there.  You see, when you’ve reached the top, you have to stop – and there’s no end to the things troubling you.  Another excellent Peirene choice, with all the hidden allegories a gorilla reader could wish for 🙂

IMG_5483September –  There must be something in the Nordic air at the moment, as Knausi isn’t the only writer feeling the need to bare his soul.  Jón Kalman Stefánsson has decided to take a look at Icelandic life during his childhood, and Fish Have No Feet (tr. Philip Roughton: MacLehose Press) is the result.  A shade more prosaic than the superb historical trilogy that made his name in English, the novel is nevertheless packed with wit and flair, and I suspect that there’s a sequel on the way at some point too.

greater_music-front_frame_largeOctober – With so much testosterone-fuelled nostalgia around, it’s a good job that my final choice here balances this out a little.  In Bae Suah’s A Greater Music (tr. Deborah Smith: Open Letter Books) a Korean writer’s return to Berlin evokes memories of the year she spent there, and the woman she spent it with.  Beautifully written, the book marks Bae’s long-form debut in English and is sure to increase the number of fans of her work in the Anglosphere.

I’m sure you’re all wondering what the other six monthly winners were, so (for the sake of completion) here’s the rest of the list 🙂

FebruaryYour Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell
by Javier Marías
(tr. Margaret Jull Costa: Chatto & Windus)

MarchHopscotch by Julio Cortázar
(tr. Gregory Rabassa: Pantheon Books)

JulyWar and War by László Krasznahorkai
(tr. George Szirtes: New Directions)

AugustDeath in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda
(tr. Martha Tennent)

NovemberThe Confusions of Young Törleß by Robert Musil
(tr. Shaun Whiteside: Penguin)

DecemberThe Spirits of the Earth by Catherine Colomb
(tr. John Taylor: Seagull Books)

And the shortlist (and winner)?  See you in two weeks’ time 😉


6 thoughts on “The Best (Newish) Books of 2016

  1. Great list. Looking forward to the final awards.

    Death by Water was in my top 10 for 2016. I loved Signs Proceeding, and it was my choice from the BTBA list, and Knausgaard’s latest was a return to form for the series, although both were just outside my personal favourites. Fish Have No Feet I didn’t think was up to the standard of the Heaven and Hell books, in part as it felt more well trodden territory, including by Knausgaard. The other two from 2016 are now on my reading list.


    1. Paul – A lot of good books in my final list (as always!), but I’m not convinced 2016 was a great year for fiction in translation. It’ll be interesting to see what makes the Booker Int. longlist next year as I don’t think it’ll stack up to the previous year’s bunch…


      1. I tend to read books that were eligible for the previous year’s award so difficult for me to judge. But I am pretty confident it will be a stronger list that the 2016 main Man Booker.


        1. Paul – Really? I’m not convinced. There haven’t been a lot of MBIP-eligible books that have blown me away, to be honest… (no Han Kang either!).


          1. That was more a comment on what I thought of this year’s main Man Booker list which I really didn’t like, particularly the winner.

            Can’t really comment on MBI as I doubt I have read that many eligible books. This time last year things like Ladivine and Mend the Living were completely unknown to me. I tend to use the longlists of awards to help me choose books.

            But yes there doesn’t seem to be many obvious strong contenders.


            1. Paul – Yes, I suspect we won’t get a clear idea until much nearer the cut-off date (and even then, there are bound to be some surprises…).


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