Hidden gems of 2016: great reads you may have missed

From AJ Lees’s extraordinary memoir Mentored By a Madman to Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter and Julie Myerson’s chiller The Stopped Heart, our critics recommend the reads that slipped under the radar

Alex Preston (novelist and critic)

Alex Preston

At the end of a dreadful year, I drew some small comfort from the fact that a number of books I loved – The Underground Railroad, The Essex Serpent, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (which I know was a 2015 title, but the ubiquity of the beautiful paperback this year has been heart-mending) – got the recognition and readers they deserved.

I’m hoping that his James Tait Black prize win will turn more people on to one of the most brilliant novels of recent years – Benjamin Markovits’s You Don’t Have to Live Like This. The book feels more urgent and powerful now than ever, turning a profound intelligence on the rotten state of the US. I can’t believe it hasn’t been high on the bestseller lists as people seek to understand the catastrophe that was 2016. It also reminds us that books can take time to fix themselves to the public consciousness, and that the instant smash hit is only one possible life for a work.

Also unjustly overlooked was Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself (Gollancz £16.99). It’s among the most inventive and bizarre books I’ve read in years, a collage of ideas that skips from Kant to the Fermi paradox via Joycean comedy and 18th-century pastiche. It’s about the nature of reality and perception, and is more comic and less of a slog than a book this philosophically complex has any right to be.

Dan Richards
‘Wonderfully engaging’: Dan Richards, author of Climbing Days. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter (Little Brown £16.99) was published in November, perhaps too late in the year to be widely noticed, and is a fabulously frosty tale of the bleak Suffolk countryside. It reminded me of Melissa Harrison, with gorgeously understated prose and a keen eye for nature. It deserves to be read in front of a fire with the wind roaring outside.

Another book that immerses you in a landscape is Dan Richards’s Climbing Days (Faber & Faber, £16.99), which is part memoir, part literary history, part meditation on mountains, and should have been a much bigger hit. It’s a wonderfully engaging book that tells the tale of Dorothy Pilley, a brave and brilliant climber who also happened to be the wife of the critic IA Richards (and the author’s great-great-aunt).

Finally, there’s Trammel (Penned in the Margins £9.99), an angry, allusive and highly literary debut collection of poems by Charlotte Newman. Leaping from Brexit to the Bechdel test, this is poetry that is at once personal and political, of the moment, yet offering sudden sublime passages of timeless beauty. A bright new voice for dark days.

Alex Clark (critic)

Alex Clark
Alex Clark Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Is it a coincidence that a trio of novels I’ve greatly admired this year but didn’t feel had quite their due had, at their hearts, a sense of discomfort? More precisely, they featured displacement, occupied contested territory, wrestled with their characters’ slippery identities. In Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You (Picador £12.99), for example – which arrived with much fanfare but was not as celebrated as it should have been – is the narrator, a young American man teaching English in Bulgaria and embarking on a perilous relationship with a capricious male prostitute, the exploiter or the exploited? Is he a foreign adventurer, capable of turning his back on Mitko, or an exile from a family that has rejected him, finding his own way? We are never quite sure, which is the novel’s point; its exquisite and delicate prose contrasts with the rawness and violence of its action, its striking originality with our realisation that we’re reading one of the oldest stories in the world.

Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare (Serpent’s Tail £14.99), the story of a middle-aged white woman’s relationship with a Dominican girl from the inner city, might have shared Greenwell’s title, or at least its negative, what doesn’t belong to you. It is a riveting, painful account of different varieties of wealth, of privilege, of “having”, ranging across class and race divides and interrogating the idea of maternal identity. It should have been huge.

Mary Gaitskill: ‘a riveting, painful account of different varieties of wealth’
Mary Gaitskill: ‘a riveting, painful account of different varieties of wealth’. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

And finally, a word for Peter Ho Davies’s mystifyingly overlooked The Fortunes (Sceptre £16.99), which sets itself the task of bringing to life 150 years of Chinese-American life, and does so in a series of partial (and partially true) narratives that take us from the building of the railroads to a contemporary scene of international adoption. It is a novel about hybridity and reinvention, about home and its loss – as, indeed, are all of these novels. None of them makes for easy reading, yet all of them reward their readers with riches.

Robert McCrum (author and critic)

Robert McCrum

It is hard to believe that this extraordinary memoir is not fiction, but every word of AJ Lees’s Mentored By a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment (Notting Hill Editions £14.99) turns out to be rooted in hospital life and literary experience. Andrew Lees is an internationally distinguished neurologist, Britain’s leading Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s expert. He is also a one-time collaborator with the late (and great) Oliver Sacks, and himself a gifted writer who was not afraid to apply the deductive methods of Sherlock Holmes to diagnose his patients.

This account of how Burroughs, the drug-addicted author of Naked Lunch, inspired the young and word-struck Lees to pioneer a radical new treatment for Parkinson’s is just one of the stranger and more fascinating episodes in the history of British neurology. It is also a journey that takes the reader into the Amazon rainforest, the back streets of Liverpool, the National hospital in Queen Square, via the native quarter of Tangier, and the Botanic Gardens at Kew.

The unconventional Burroughs would probably have made a bad neurologist, but his work powerfully “mentored” Lees in his search for answers to the wonderful mystery of the brain, and piqued his curiosity for self-experimentation. “I came to see his crazy pronouncements,” writes Lees, “as a Hippocratic oath for medical science.”

Mentored By a Madman is both an exotic memoir and a passionate appeal for a more humane approach to bio-medical research. In associating himself with Burroughs, Professor Lees is arguing that potential breakthroughs in the treatment of neuro-degenerative diseases are most likely to come from a relaxation of the stringent controls surrounding the profession.

Rachel Cooke (author and critic)

Rachel Cooke

I first came across Philip Sassoon, the politician and aesthete, in The Long Weekend, Adrian Tinniswood’s brilliant book about life in the English country house between 1918 and 1938. There, he appeared chiefly by dint of his fabulous home: Port Lympne, overlooking Romney Marsh, with its murals by Rex Whistler and its dramatic pool that seemed almost to float. “I like the sound of him,” he thought. And then, as if by magic, just weeks later there came Charmed Life (Harper Collins £20), a biography by Damian Collins, the Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe, once his subject’s seat. Collins, predictably, is more interested in politics than in what we might call “the times”. The exotic is, for him, another country. Still, in the absence of another account of Sassoon’s life, I enjoyed his. It is impossible not to enjoy a book in which Diana Cooper, Edward VIII (to whom Sassoon gave delphiniums for the gardens at Fort Belvedere) and Lytton Strachey all have walk-on parts.

As the year ends, however, my main cause is to try and convert people, in the manner of some crazed evangelist, to Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin £30), a spellbinding book that I have come, embarrassingly, almost to revere. I know it had some wonderful reviews. But I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s read it. Perhaps I move in the wrong circles. More likely, though, its great girth – this isn’t one for your clutch bag – puts people off.

Damian Collins MP, author of Charmed Life, a biography of Philip Sassoon
Damian Collins MP, author of Charmed Life, a biography of Philip Sassoon. Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images

The keeper of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, de Hamel has probably handled more illuminated manuscripts than any person who ever lived, and this is his guide to some of the most rare and lusted after: objects that the public hardly ever gets to see, and which they will never be allowed to touch. Among those included are the Book of Kells and the Hengwrt Chaucer. A scholar who can convey his enthusiasm and erudition to the lay person without ever seeming to patronise, his tone is so urbane and wise, you find yourself absorbing the most arcane and complicated stuff – the history of handwriting, say – almost by osmosis. The religious texts he describes, born of endless labour and unfathomable (to us) faith, seem not to connect at all with our own times, and yet they do, in ways I cannot begin to describe here. In a digital world that cares less and less for facts, moreover, de Hamel’s book, the product of a lifetime’s learning, is the ultimate analogue consolation.

Viv Groskop (author and critic)

Viv Groskop

Gulp by Mary Roach (Oneworld £8.99) is a wonderful nonfiction read that was reissued in paperback this summer. It’s hilarious. I read it because it was mentioned online by Tom Barbash, a short-story writer I greatly admire who always recommends interesting and unusual things. (Barbash also wrote On Top of the World, the definitive account of the 9/11 attacks, which I reread this year, weeping all the while.)

Subtitled Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Gulp is a series of essays about food-tasters, competitive hot dog eaters and rectum-examining prison guards. It is not to be confused with Giulia Enders’s Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, last year’s surprise runaway hit and the reason, I suspect, why Roach’s book has been reissued. People love to read about their insides, it turns out. I don’t have an especially high tolerance for gross-out and, for me, Gulp was just on the right side of the “ewww” line. The journalism is gripping and the writing is intensely funny. If biology had been like this at school, my life would have taken a different path. The chapter about Elvis’s doctor, the King’s final hours and the strain he was under (sorry) is utterly priceless.

Mary Roach
‘Intensely funny’: Mary Roach’s Gulp was reissued in the summer. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I also loved A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway (Yale University Press £14.99), the former bishop of Edinburgh, who is now, famously, more or less atheist and has repositioned himself as a charming and fascinating authority on “godless morality”. This book features witty and generous investigations into every religion you can think of, from Buddhism to Scientology, treating them all with equal seriousness and scepticism. It is compelling and sweet and should be compulsory reading for the entire population in our warring age. Best of all, it’s short, thank God (or whoever).

Kate Kellaway (critic)

Kate Kellaway

Though aimed at children, there is nothing childish about the anthology A Poem for Every Night of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri (Macmillan £16.99) – a reminder that poetry is for everyone and for every day (or night). It would be easy – but a pity – for adults to miss out. There is not even a trace of condescension towards readers – although poems are prefaced with serviceable politesse, as though a door were being opened by a friend. It is a brilliant idea to divide the year up with a poem for every night – it gets round the feeling of defeat that can set in with unwieldy anthologies: where to start? Why this poem and not that?

I turn now to 9 November, the day of Donald Trump’s triumph, not knowing what I will find, but enjoying the sense of a lucky dip. Divali by David Harmer is not a poem I know, but I am glad to find it. It begins: “Winter stalks us / like a leopard in the mountains / scenting prey. /It grows dark, /bare trees stick black bars / across the moon’s silver eye.” The poem transports us to another place, brings light in a festival of light – exactly what one wants (and needs) poetry to do. A flamboyantly miscellaneous list of authors ranges from Sappho to AA Milne and from Langston Hughes to Charles I. Adults and children should read in the new year with this book and keep going.

Alice O’Keeffe (critic)

Alice O’Keeffe

If I describe Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone (Hamish Hamilton £16.99) as an intimate portrait of a family dealing with manic depression and suicide, it will not sound like the cheeriest read. And naturally, given the subject matter, it is terribly sad in places. Pehaps that is why it did not sell in large numbers. But I would urge readers to give it a try; I found this book an uplifting experience. For a start, it is written with unerring precision. Haslett captures pitch perfectly the voice of each family member, from manic, medicated Michael to tough, pragmatic Celia. By weaving their stories together, he creates a beautiful, intimate tribute to the way families survive, and manage to love and support each other, even when life is at its most difficult.

By way of contrast, I enjoyed Lisa Owens’s comic novel, Not Working (Picador £12.99), which was launched to some fanfare from her publishers, but received rather mixed reviews. OK, so it’s a gentle prod at the trials of modern life, rather than a full evisceration of the evils of late capitalism. But I recognised and identified with her drifting, disillusioned protagonist, Claire Flannery. I also admired Owens’s ingenious structure, which allowed the story to develop in a very natural and lifelike way, without any need for phoney drama.

Anita Sethi (critic)

Anita Sethi

The power of music to stir memory and move the hardest heart permeates Taduno’s Song (Canongate £10.99), the overlooked Kafkaesque debut novel by Nigerian writer Odafe Atogun, which echoes with the life of the great singer and human rights activist Fela Kuti. When the rebel singer Taduno returns from political exile to his homeland, he discovers that the ruthless dictatorship has erased all traces of him, and that his beloved Lela has been imprisoned. Taduno faces a stark choice: to sing in praise of the regime or to continue striving “against injustice and oppression”. I urge people to read this unforgettable new voice, writing in polished, gleaming prose about how it feels to be silenced.

The Memory Stones by Caroline Brothers (Bloomsbury £16.99) is an evocative second novel, bringing to life “the disappeared” – those who vanished during the 1976 Argentine military coup. This includes the Ferrero family, which fragments when its members are forced to flee or go into hiding. This rough diamond of a novel is a lyrical portrait of brutality that lingers in the memory and deserves a wider readership.

Travis Elborough
‘A compendium of curiosities’: Travis Elborough, co-author of Atlas of Improbable Places. Photograph: Sent by him/sent by him

Abundant with hidden gems of another kind is the wonderfully illustrated Atlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners (Aurum Press £20) by Travis Elborough and Alan Horsfield. This compendium of curiosities showcases the world’s lesser-known wonders, from the relics of ancient cities to extraordinary land formations. But the world’s hidden horrors are also elucidated (a British Indian penal settlement in the Andaman archipelago, for example, where freedom fighters were forced to construct their own prisons). From an underground cold war spy tunnel to the mist- and myth-wreathed Mount Roraima, this engrossing book traverses the heights and depths, the beauty and terror, of our world.

A fascinating examination of friendship is at the heart of Anna Thomasson’s magnificently researched yet largely ignored biography, A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing, published in paperback this year (Macmillan £9.99).

Telling the story of the unlikely friendship between a bohemian art student, Rex Whistler, and the writer Edith Olivier, which “changed them irrevocably”, it explores the transformative power of friendship. This vivid portrait of the 1920s and 1930s also demonstrates how, through the meticulous process of biography – the painstaking excavation of letters, diaries, photographs – hidden emotional lives and forgotten nuggets of history can be thrown into the light.

Hannah Beckerman (novelist and critic)

Hannah Beckerman

Two debut short-story collections, both from John Murray and both little noticed, hugely impressed me this year. Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin (£8.99), and Blind Water Pass by Anna Metcalfe (£10.99) demonstrated a grasp of storytelling, language and emotional economy beyond the expectations for any debut author. Alongside Mark Haddon’s much more widely praised The Pier Falls (Random House £12.99), they prove the capacity of a short story to immerse the reader fully in a fictional world.

Psychological thrillers have been the year’s hot publishing ticket, and a number of literary titles have brought complexity to the genre, but received less attention than they merited. Amanda Jennings’s In Her Wake (Orenda Books £8.99) is a haunting and elegiac novel, exploring themes of identity, family and loss. Following the death of her mother, protagonist Bella begins to uncover secrets about her past that force her to question everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Deeply atmospheric, it is compelling and emotionally satisfying.

Noah Hawley
‘An instinctive grasp of plot’: Noah Hawley. Photograph: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall (Hodder & Stoughton £7.99), a big hit in the US, didn’t receive the coverage in the UK it deserved. Opening with a plane crash from which there are only two survivors, Hawley peels back the layers of each passenger’s previous life with all the precision and pacing of a great suspense writer. But to describe Before the Fall as a thriller is to undersell it: as Hawley has proved with his previous novel, The Good Father, and as the creator of the TV series Fargo, he has an intuitive understanding of human behaviour and an instinctive grasp of plot that make him a master storyteller.

Anthony Quinn (novelist and critic)

Anthony Quinn

Benjamin Johncock’s The Last Pilot (Myriad Editions £8.99) seems at first to be a brilliant pastiche of distinct American classics, the Tom Wolfe of The Right Stuff, the short stories of Raymond Carver and James Salter of Burning the Days. The author’s grasp of the intricacies of life among test pilots and their perilous pursuit of the demon of speed is striking enough. What gives the novel its emotional lift-off is its portrait of a marriage going wrong, harrowed by the pressures of American machismo and familial loss. The novel dovetails these two different agonies and wrests from them a dreadful sense of breakdown, of life being torn apart in front of our eyes. It is achieved by the use of pared-down dialogue and prose that conveys an absolute understanding of its subject: the technical daring of pilots in the age of the space race, and the awareness of their mortality. Despite winning this year’s Authors’ Club best first novel award, The Last Pilot has remained, mystifyingly, under the radar. I do urge you to seek it out.

Benjamin Johncock
‘Pared-down dialogue and prose’: Benjamin Johncock. Photograph: Nick Tucker

In nonfiction, Diary of a Wartime Affair (Viking £16.99) hasn’t received its due as a remarkable record of private life in the years between 1934 and 1941. Doreen Bates was a 30-ish, well-read civil servant in London involved in a passionate and sometimes anguished affair with a married man at her office. Their night-time country walks, trips to the theatre and circular arguments (she wants a baby; he doesn’t) are recounted with a precision and feeling that might break your heart. But it’s droll and candid, too, as only a young woman can be when describing quick sex in a train carriage between Leatherhead and Box Hill. This is a companion piece to last year’s A Notable Woman, and a treat for anyone interested in the sturm und drang of life during wartime.

Stephanie Merritt (novelist and critic)

Stephanie Merritt

I’ve always been obsessed with ghost stories, and the more I read, the more I realise it’s one of the hardest genres to tackle: to create a story that avoids cliche and succeeds in being genuinely scary takes real skill. So I loved Julie Myerson’s The Stopped Heart (Vintage, £12.99), a properly chilling novel with a dual narrative that plays on the idea of being haunted and deals with profoundly disturbing subject matter. I read it almost in one sitting and felt it should be a huge hit – I’d love to see a TV adaptation, but it would need to be sensitively handled. But the queen of the genre is Shirley Jackson; for Halloween a new edition of her collected stories, Dark Tales, was published by Penguin Classics (£9.99) and it’s full of little-known gems.

There’s been an explosion of superb nature and travel writing in the past few years by writers who have fused the genres with memoir and literary reflections. Two recent books I’ve loved have both been fascinated with the landscapes of the north. Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country (Granta £18.99) charts a series of journeys to the Hebrides over the course of six years, following a love born in childhood holidays. She explores the history and culture of the islands and, through them, the nature of home and what it means to belong to a place.

Julie Myerson: ‘a properly chilling novel with a dual narrative’
Julie Myerson: ‘a properly chilling novel with a dual narrative’. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Charles Moseley’s Latitude North (Indie Books £20) ventures even further towards the pole, following a lifelong passion for the icy landscapes of Greenland and Spitsbergen. Moseley draws on his expertise as a literary scholar to weave the history and myth of the northern lands into accounts of his own travels. The result is a lyrical treasure chest of anecdote and insight.

• To order any of these titles for a special price go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Hannah Beckerman, Alex Clark, Rachel Cooke, Viv Groskop, Kate Kellaway, Robert McCrum, Stephanie Merritt, Alice O'Keeffe, Alex Preston, Anthony Quinn, Anita Sethi

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