The Skinny Books of 2016

The Skinny books team choose their favourites of 2016, from James Kelman's tale of musical beginnings to the tragic end of musician Ali Eskandarian, working through a somehow life-affirming frozen apocalyse and bitesized, bittersweet Treats

Article by Books Team | 02 Dec 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi’s remarkable novel, When Breath Becomes Air [Vintage Publishing], should be on your reading list if it isn’t already. Although sad, there exists something uplifting between the pages of this book, and after reading it I’d dare you not to feel a sense of gratitude, urgency, and humility about your own life, what you do, and the people you choose to share it with. 

A death worth living, and a life worth dying for; this text details the diagnosis, illness, recovery and finally death of a surgeon all too familiar with the process. In the novel, Kalanithi questions: “So what tense am I living in now?” Read this book, feel it’s warmth and go live your life in the present. Life is too short. [Rosie Barron]

Dirt Road by James Kelman; The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan and James Kelman went head to head for the Saltire Society Prize for Fiction in this strongest of years. While both may have lost to Graeme Macrae Burnet's fun and affecting His Bloody Project (a tip of the hat to him and publisher Saraband in a deservedly excellent year for them both), let me proclaim, in the style of a bad acceptance speech, that considering the shortlist, the actual winner in 2016 was Scottish literature.

The Saltire Society demand a Scottish connection to qualify for their prize, but even without such restrictions, I claim Kelman's and Fagan's the two best books of the year. I doubt they themselves would care too much for competition anyway (they would surely rather a cup of tea together than to duke it out) because between them there is as much to compare as contrast.

With Dirt Road [Canongate], the 70-year-old Kelman spins a novel from the golden filament of youth. With The Sunlight Pilgrims [William Heinemann], Fagan offers up a more mature and polished piece than her incendiary debut The Panopticon, while losing none of its dynamism. While (we must presume) at opposite ends of their literary life cycle, both seem to be working at the peak of their powers.

Kelman avoids floral prose, instead employing the poetry of real life to create a conciousness so authentic we feel we are observing it in real time – masterful technique projects scenes in technicolour onto our mind's wall. Fagan's characters are like no other; fully formed human beings, beautifully webbed with the cracks of imperfection.

She summons the mysticism of nature to elevate everyday experiences to the titanic levels of a Tarkovsky set piece: the climbing of a mountain as clouds roll across its summit, a solitary bike ride through a snow enveloped landscape. I feel in no way parochial by claiming these two Scottish novels as the finest of 2016, from any corner of the globe. [Alan Bett]

Treats by Lara Williams

At the launch of her debut short story collection Treats [Freight Books] at Manchester's Whitworth Gallery, Lara Williams stood at the signing desk and watched as people arrived and the hall began to fill. DJ's for the evening, The Suffradecks, played a perfectly pitched playlist that paired Springsteen with Le Tigre, Alanis Morissette's You Oughta Know with Solange's Losing You.

As she greeted the friends who had gathered to hear her read from Treats, the curious had turned out too: those who had picked up on advance word and been intrigued by early positive reviews. Williams eyed the throng. "Bit nervous," she confessed. Ultimately, of course, no need, as her audience proved warm and attentive. And the queue to buy a signed copy from the author spoke for itself.

The Skinny was there from the off and all were reminded of that in the onstage introduction which quoted our five star review. So, once more with feeling: Treats is a dark wonder. An often harrowing (and in parts, very, very funny) debut, it targets the unfathomable nonsense of relationships, work and modern living with a keen eye, head-spinning wordplay and enough compassion to crush your heart. Buy it for everyone you know. [Gary Kaill]

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

In Sarah Moss's The Tidal Zone [Granta Books], narrator Adam Schmidt researches the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. His wife, Emma, struggles with working within the over-burdened NHS. Their daughter, fifteen-year-old Miriam, is hospitalised with a severe anaphylactic episode. Their lives slowly unravel. As her parents struggle to maintain a sliver of normality, all eight-year-old Rose wants back is her space in the family: a sector of their attention and affection her older sister has unwittingly claimed back. That and, of course, a cat.

The Tidal Zone recalls the best work of Jon McGregor, and Moss's narrative invention and emotional intelligence is drawn from similar stock. Her fourth novel is often deeply moving but also gripping, shoehorning in a sharp examination of social justice and healthcare politics alongside its human interest. Ultimately, as ever, it is the children who most quickly learn how to survive (be warned: the delicately drawn scene in which the sisters finally find each other again after Miriam's return home requires a strong heart.)

And in Miriam, Moss has created a character you hope she will one day return to: a teenager whose mordant wit ('It’s a sign of despair,' she offers after taking up knitting in hospital), inventive swearing, and cold appreciation of her own mortality, help give life to Moss's best book to date. [GK]

Golden Years by Ali Eskandarian

Three years ago the Iranian-American musician Ali Eskandarian was shot and killed inside his home. Golden Years [Faber & Faber] was his first novel and so it will also be his last. So this is it – Golden Years will stand as Eskandarian’s solitary attempt to put his life into literature and it really is difficult to express how sad that is.

From its very first pages, the autobiographical novel comes tearing out along the path laid down by Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, picking up the pilgrimage where they left off. Wandering lost through an America getting ever sicker on its materialistic obsessions, Eskandarian delves into sex, drugs, art and love in his quest to uncover something more. It never arrives anywhere for certain but, in its brightest flashes, it seems like he might have touched upon it. [Ross McIndoe]

Autumn by Ali Smith

The first novel in Ali Smith’s Seasonal series is very much a book of and for 2016. Probably the first novel to probe the open wound which is the summer following the UK’s Brexit referendum, Autumn [Penguin Books] captures the shock and the sorrow of the period which one character aptly sums up as “Thomas Hardy on speed”.

Elisabeth, a young academic, is visiting her mother for the summer, and the visit is marred with post-referendum bitterness: a young Spanish couple in a taxi queue are heckled; graffiti tells a local non-white family to ‘go home’; an ominous fence is being constructed on public land. It would not be an Ali Smith book, however, if there were not also a promise of hope.

This is drawn from unlikely sources: the subversive creations of pop artist Pauline Boty, and – most movingly – from the changing relationship of Elisabeth and her mother, which grows into an unexpected friendship. Autumn is all about resilience, about learning to see things afresh. It crackles with the joy of rebellion. [Annie Rutherford]

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The premise of Naomi Alderman’s The Power [Penguin Books] is admittedly a strange one: sometime around now – maybe tomorrow, maybe next week – women develop the ability to project electricity from the hands, and thus to electrocute people at will. Yet while the concept might seem strange out of context, in the novel it feels unquestionably natural, with the science fiction behind the change carefully thought through.

The focus of the book however, is on the changes prompted as the power dynamic between men and women shifts. The characters criss-cross the globe, from the US to Moldova via Saudi Arabia, and all the way the novel tracks revolutions and backlashes, conspiracy theories and celebratory cults. What emerges is a page-turner, an adventure story, a tragedy and a sometimes wry, always heart-wrenching dissection of our own world’s gender dynamics. [AR]

Let us know what you think of our Books of the Year list in the comments below...