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Best books of 2016

Whether you're lining up your summer reading, or sorting out some literary Christmas stocking fillers, there will be a zillion books you haven't had a chance to get across during the year. Fear not, M has compiled this list of notable publications, conveniently divided into broad categories by reading preference. In the mix are several overseas authors but many are homegrown talent. So sit back, grab a cold drink and browse through these titles; they'll take you through to the silly season and beyond.

FOR MEMOIR AND BIOGRAPHY STICKY-BEAKS

The Hate Race, Maxine Beneba Clarke: Growing up black in whitewashed Australian suburbia and the racism, "casual, overt and institutionalised" experienced by the author during her youth is the subject of this memoir, a blisteringly powerful, highly charged account of the effects of such skin-based hostility.

Reckoning, Magda Szubanski: From her father's nefarious activities in wartime Poland, to a growing acceptance of her sexuality, this memoir uncovers long-held secrets with disarming candour. Not a celebrity expose as much as a family history, Reckoning is moving and compassionate. That Szubanski can act is a given fact; that she can also write is revelatory.

The Boy Behind The Curtain, Tim Winton: Notoriously private, the feted author offers insight into his creativity through this collection of essays and diaries, taking in childhood, religion and, of course, his beloved WA surf.

Also recommended: Working Class Boy, Jimmy Barnes; Ken Done (A Life Coloured in), Quentin Blake, Ghislaine Kenyon; Brett Whiteley, Ashleigh Wilson; Try Hard, Em Rusciano; Songs of a War Boy, Deng Thiak Adut; Avalanche, Julia Leigh.
 

FOR CONNOISSEURS OF LITERARY FICTION

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The Good People, Hannah Kent: Hannah Kent's follow-up to bestseller debut Burial Rites may well be its companion piece. Set in Ireland in 1825, this historical fiction delves into the gossamer-thin line between faith and superstition. Kent's prose is tied to the earth in its evocative description of the villagers' hardscrabble lives but is also otherworldly in its treatment of malicious fairy folk blamed for all manner of misfortunes.

Nutshell, Ian McEwan: In terms of originality, it's difficult to beat Ian McEwan's latest novel. Loosely based on Hamlet, its point of view comes from an articulate foetus. Within his confined space, this neonatal narrator despairs of the love triangle of his mother, uncle and father. The premise sounds preposterous and it is, and yet through humour and wit, McEwan's take on this tale of sex and murder is daringly inventive.

Commonwealth, Ann Patchett: Set over five decades, this sprawling novel begins in the 1960s, and charts the eventful lives of two families, brought together by an adulterous affair. Relationships — romantic, parental and siblings—are all accounted for, with Ann Patchett moving effortlessly from one character to another as she includes in her scope the lives of the blended children as they grow into adulthood.

Also recommended: The Sellout, Paul Beatty; Swing Time, Zadie Smith; Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler; The Windy Season, Sam Carmody; The Toy Maker, Liam Pieper; Zero K, Don DeLillo; The Wonder, Emma Donoghue; Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood, Elena Ferrante (Neapolitan series).

FOR LOVERS OF POPULAR FICTION AND ROMANCE

Bridget Jones's Baby, Helen Fielding: Everyone's favourite ditzy, boozy, calorie-counting singleton has a new dilemma: who's the father of her unborn baby? Is it stitched-up but fundamentally decent Darcy or charismatic but rakish Cleaver? Bridget's arch-rivals are still snipping at each other, only this time it's during childbirth classes. Bridget's foray into the world of smug motherhood is bubbly and frothy.

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts, Toni Jordan: Toni Jordan's novel showcases not a bizarre triangle but a confused love heptagon. With wit and humour, this screwball bedroom farce bends the lines of communication and fidelity out of shape and reconfigures them into new (though not necessarily improved) forms.

Jonathan Unleashed, Meg Rosoff: Dog lovers in particular, will lap up this novel in which canines offer uncomplicated companionship in the face of tedium and change. Though hapless protagonist Jonathan manages to obtain both a job and a girlfriend, "real adult life seemed to exist over there, somewhere as distant and unreachable as Uranus". A wry, sweetly drawn portrait of a man in arrested adolescence.

Also recommended: The Fence, Meredith Jaffe; Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld; Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult; Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty.

FOR ARMCHAIR DETECTIVES  

The Dry, Jane Harper: Set in a tiny town rural Australia during the worse drought in decades, The Dry tells the story of a federal policeman returning home and his reluctant involvement in teasing out the details behind the violent deaths of a young family. There's another crime, committed 20 years ago that's interwoven in the narrative. Strong characterisation and plotting, plenty of red herrings and a denouement that's genuinely unexpected make this debut whodunit a riveting read.

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, Melina Marchetta: Best known for her YA book, Looking for Alibrandi, Melina Marchetta's latest novel ventures into new territory; a detective thriller set mainly in London and Calais about the aftermath of a bomb attack on a busload of students. Marchetta ably exploits the very topical themes of terrorism in Europe, immigration and racial prejudice to bring together a book that explores her typical preoccupations with identity and belonging.

Cambodia Noir, Nicholas Seeley: Set in steamy Phnom Penh where a crumpled photographer is in pursuit of a missing woman, this debut thriller weaves through seedy Cambodian hotspots and the surrounding jungle. Drug busts and political and police corruption are at play in a plot that's wily, suspenseful and as noir as night.

Also recommended: Signal Loss, Garry Disher; The Serpent's Sting, Robert Gott; Black Teeth, Zane Lovitt; Rather be the Devil, Ian Rankin; The Good Liar, Nicholas Searle; Black Widow, Chris Brookmyre; Nightblind, Ragnar Jonasson; Under the Harrow, Flynn Berry; Dead in the Water, Tania Chandler; Gunshine State, Andrew Nette.

FOR SOCIAL, HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL AFICIONADOS

True Girt, David Hunt: Erudition leavened with wit, this is a sequel to David Hunt's well-received first book. True Girt continues the romp into unexplored pockets of Australian history. Hunt presents his knowledge in a bitingly satirical fashion; his book is sprinkled with funny asides and footnotes, anachronistic editorialising and all sorts of eyebrow-raising information not found in your average dusty textbook. Don't be fooled by his irreverence though, there is some serious research within these pages.

Wardrobe Crisis, Clare Press: Part social commentary, part cultural history of fashion, Wardrobe Crisis also explores the ethics – or lack thereof – of the garment industry. Investigative trails into the chemical treatment and the environmental diaster of the manufacture of jeans, the unregulated exotic skins trade and the impact of cotton production will make you consider the actual cost of your cheap clothes.

The Story of Australia's People (The Rise and Rise of a New Generation), Geoffrey Blainey: The second and final instalment of Geoffrey Blainey's Australian history series; this volume continues on from the gold rush of the 1850s to the present day, marking out significant events including Federation, the world wars, the mining boom and immigration. At once comprehensive and concise; the books are an excellent primer to national events.

Also recommended: Dig, David Nichols, (Australian rock and pop music 1960-85); Not Quite Australian, Peter Mares; How to be a Writer, John Birmingham; Bring Back the King (the New Science of De-extinction), Helen Pilcher.

FOR DIPPERS INTO ANTHOLOGIES

Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner: Spanning 15 years, this varied collection of short non-fiction pieces presents some of Helen Garner's best work. Whether it's a dig into her own life or a broader look into societal whims and ills, Helen Garner is one of our most skilled essayists.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered, curated by Michaela McGuire and Marieke Hardy: The latest anthology offers more personal responses from a range of correspondents on a number of topics: To my rude awakening, To my other half, To my fork in the road … Gathered from the live salons and transferred into written form, these letters are short but heart-felt missives.

The Near and the Far, edited by David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short: All new pieces from both homegrown writers as well as those from the Asia-Pacific, this anthology was borne of reciprocal residencies and cultural events. Poems, vignettes, memoir and non-fiction encompass a wide ambit – from traffic chaos and post-war reflections in Vietnam to gender politics in Bangkok.

Also recommended: A Single Tree, compiled by Don Watson; Rebellious Daughters, edited by Lee Kofman and Maria Katsonis; The Griffith Review: Earthly Delights, the Novella Project IV; The Best Australian stories 2016 edited by Charlotte Wood;  The Best Australian Essays 2016 edited by Geordie Williamson.

FOR FANS OF JUNIOR AND YOUNG ADULT FICTION

Words in Deep Blue, Cath Crowley: Perfect for bibliophiles, particularly those who love fossicking in secondhand bookshops. This YA crossover novel alternates viewpoints between 18-year-old Henry and Rachel, once best friends, now not so close. It explores the confusion and piquancy of infatuation and unrequited love. Crowley's Letter Library, a selection of books not for sale but set aside for annotation and random messages, is a charming and integral addition to the narrative.

The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon: Written from the perspective of two children on either side of a detention centre in Australia, The Bone Sparrow is harrowing at times (so parental supervision advised) but its narrative is buoyed by a poetic sensitivity and strong voices from both young protagonists. Slivers of hope do penetrate the darkness of the tale.

Iris and the Tiger, Leanne Hall: Inspired by surrealist art, Leanne Hall's book is full of wondrous details: a reclusive aunt who presides over a menagerie of strange creatures; and paintings and ghosts that come alive. This is magic realism translated for a middle primary audience.

Also recommended: Dog Zombies Rule, Tom Gates, Liz Pichon; The 78th Storey Treehouse, Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton; Another Night in Mullet Town, Steven Herrick; One Step, Andrew Daddo, Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell; One Would Think the Deep, Claire Zorn; Becoming Kirrali Lewis, Jane Harrison; The Book that Made Me, edited by Judith Ridge

FOR PICTURE BOOK ENTHUSIASTS

Pandamonia, Chris Owen and Chris Nixon: Inventive rhymes and gorgeous bright artwork make this picture book a joy to read out loud. The refrain of not waking up the slothful panda lest he set off a chain-reaction of hullabalooing zoo animals is catchy and hilarious.

Lots, Marc Martin: Roaming around the world, taking in both city and country (and ocean and forest), Lots combines quirky, random facts about various countries and bright and detailed illustrations. There is indeed lots to see: from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo to the wildlife of Galapagos Islands, Marc Martin globetrots widely, with stops in Cairo, Moscow, Alice Springs and Cape Town.

Mr Chicken Arriva a Roma, Leigh Hobbs: After jetsetting to Paris and London, Mr Chicken (or Signor Pollo) visits another great European city. He perches his enormous body on a tiny Vespa and whizzes around to see the sights: the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon and, of course, the Colosseum. Naturally, there is gelato and pasta to satisfy his gargantuan hunger. Silly and fun as always.

Also recommended: A Child of Books, Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston; The Patchwork Bike, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Van T. Rudd; What Do They Do with All the Poo from All the Animals at the Zoo? Anh Do and Laura Wood; The Nose Pixies, David Hunt; Penguin Problems, Jory John and Lane Smith.