All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood*
This is the book that I think will stick with me for a very long time. I was surprised that it didn’t get more pick up in the bookish press this year, but perhaps that is due to the controversial subject matter (or perhaps the sheer volume of books out there). The story follows eight year old Wavy, daughter of a meth dealer and only ‘adult’ in her household, and twenty-one year old Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold. After a chance meeting, the two form an unlikely friendship – and begin to fall in love. It’s shocking and complex and thought-provoking and ugly and wonderful, just as the title suggests.
The Girls by Emma Cline*
Quite the opposite of ‘All the Ugly and Wonderful Things’, this book seems to have been in every ‘best of 2016’ list going – and was hyped from the very start of last year. And whilst some have questioned its popularity, I would definitely say that all of the praise for this book is very much deserved. The lyrical, lilting writing is evocative and beautiful, capturing the heady summer of 1969 and that liminal moment on the cusp of girlhood and teenagedom that characterises the life of protagonist, Evie Boyd. Based on the true story of the Manson Family, Evie is captivated by the girls who come to town, living on a ranch in the hills under the leadership of the enigmatic Russell. As Evie grows closer to the girls, and, in particular, the bewitching Susan, she finds herself pulled into life at the ranch, until something happens that changes everything forever…
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Another heart-wrenching and heart-breaking novel – this is not a light beach read, but it is an absolute masterpiece and another book that will stay with me for a long time. After college, best friends Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem move to New York to pursue their dreams. They are more like brothers than friends, but whilst they are close, none of them know the true pain of Jude’s past and present. As they make their fortunes, you learn more about Jude’s history and it is more painful and horrifying than you can imagine. You will need a million tissues when reading this book, for sure, but it will also bring you moments of lightness and hope, and one of the most touching portrayals of male friendship that I have ever come across in literature.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney*
A family drama that’s whip smart, funny, and surprisingly touching. The Plumb children have been relying on ‘The Nest’ – a trust fund payment that will pay out when the youngest turns 40 – to help solve their self-inflicted problems. However, just before the pay out, eldest brother Leo – notorious rogue and failed businessman – gets into a car accident whilst under the influence and the resulting fallout depletes ‘The Nest’ that they were all relying on. As the siblings struggle to find a solution, they must battle with old conflicts and the very particular pain that your family can bring. It’s entertaining, a little madcap with a very lovely ending.
The Brothers Sinister Series by Courtney Milan
2016 was the year I discovered historical romance novels – and I am so glad that I did. I devoured this series, which follows a group of friends (the eponymous Brothers Sinister, and their honorary members) as they each fall in love. This is feminist romance at its very best, with heroines that defy expectations and stand out from the crowd – and I loved them all. And I loved the male protagonists more because they could see how wonderful these women are, which is the right way round in a romance, I think. The stories were full of intrigue and feminist badassery, as well as the obligatory kisses and marriage proposals.
Nina is Not OK by Shappi Khorsandi*
This debut from comedian Shappi Khorsandi is absolutely stellar. Seventeen-year-old Nina has a drinking problem, and her life begins to unravel after a rather traumatic evening that she doesn’t quite remember. This book is darkly funny, very powerful, emotional and brave. Nina is a fantastic protagonist; although she acts like a bit of an asshole to her family and friends, she goes on a real journey and you are rooting for her all the way. This book pulls no punches when it comes to the reality of alcoholism, and there are some pretty big roadblocks for Nina to overcome, but you find yourself rooting for her all the way.
What’s a Girl Gotta Do? by Holly Bourne
Holly Bourne’s whole Spinster Club series is absolutely excellent, but the third one, which focuses on Lottie and her #Vagilante campaign to call out every instance of sexism she encounters for a full month, was my favourite. This is a really excellent look at the struggles of being a modern feminist, and Lottie is such an amazing character. The scenes of sisterhood in this novel had me welling up, and I’m sure I punched the air a few times as Lottie got down to some serious feminist business. We need more books like this in the world!
Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven*
If you need a book to uplift you, then you definitely need to pick this one up. Libby was once dubbed ‘America’s Fattest Teen’ and had to be cut out of her own house. That was years ago, and now she’s ready to embrace every possibility that life has to offer. Jack is one of the popular kids at school, but he has a secret. He can’t recognise faces – including those of his own family. Every day is a struggle to play it cool. When the two get tangled in a cruel high school game that ends them in group counselling, they come to realise they have more in common than they’d first imagined and they start to change each others’ worlds. This is a gorgeous love story, and if you don’t adore Libby and her fat-positive, grab-life-by-the-balls attitude then you maybe don’t have a heart.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult*
This book is a punch in the gut, especially given the current political climate. Ruth is an experienced labour and delivery nurse, but during a routine shift she is abruptly told that she can no longer care for a particular newborn. The parents are white supremacists and they don’t want Ruth, which is African American, to touch their child. When an unfortunate incident leads to the baby’s death, the parents accuse Ruth of a serious crime and the life that she has built up around her starts to crumble. Kennedy, a white public defender, takes the case and the two struggle to see eye-to-eye as they confront racism, privilege and prejudice in order to win Ruth’s freedom. I was hooked on this interesting and emotionally smart book, and I think it would make a great book club read if you’re starting one up this year!
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