Books for Christmas 2016 - Haunted mountains, popish plotting and serpent slaying - simply the best new fiction of 2016

In the 1740s, in a little village in England, a group of excited people sat in a blacksmith's forge. The blacksmith himself sat on his anvil, and read aloud to the crowd from a newly-published novel, 'Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded'. Over a number of nights the villagers listened in rapt attention, and when - at the novel's end, and almost overcome with emotion at the book's happy ending - they flocked to the church to set the bells ringing.

Now, we can't promise that any of the following books will make you want to set bells ringing, but we all know that feeling that comes from finishing a really good book. Samuel Richardson would, we feel, approve - and we know (anecdotally, much like the story above) that novels are increasingly how we take a break from the always-on, screen-addicted, Internet-of-everything, twittering world in which we live.

Here are some of our favourites from 2016. Think of it as therapy, entertainment, deep thinking and digital firebreak all wrapped up in a centuries-old piece of communications technology. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you...the novel.

Himself - Jess Kidd
There is a freshness and lightness of touch here that collides brilliantly with the dark story of Mahony - drop-dead gorgeous, abandoned as a baby, his mother long-since disappeared - returning to his place of birth on a mission of discovery, conquest and (possibly) revenge.

Mulderrig is a rain-sodden speck of a place on Ireland's west coast, and Mahony brings only a photograph of his long-lost mother and a determination to do battle with the lies of his past. Playing against stereotypes, this darkly funny mystery has a cast of great characters (alive and dead), with a twisting plot and a shocking secret at its core. This feels like a bold new talent announcing herself - via Himself - to the world.

Don't miss out other debuts of the year - on a dedicated shelf in the shop (as shown above) - including 'The Girls' by Emma Cline, 'The Trouble with Sheep and Goats' by Joanna Cannon and 'A Boy Made of Blocks' by Keith Stuart

Cartes Postales from Greece - Victoria Hislop
This is a book which really does do justice to the phrase 'sumptuous'. At its heart it's the story of a young woman, who starts to receive a mysterious series of postcards from Greece. Initially wary, eventually beguiled, when the postcards abruptly stop - and a journal arrives detailing a young man's journey across Greece - the young woman sets off to discover the country - and investigate the mystery - for herself.. 

This is the latest novel from the bestselling author of 'The Island' and is a love-letter to a country Hislop has fallen in love with (she has even learned Greek, and has been doing book events locally in the language - now that is courageous). But it's the postcards themselves that are, in a way, the real star of this book. A lovely gift for any reader who wants to have their heart stolen...

Smoke - Dan Vyleta
Smoke is a visible manifestation of vice and sin, and provide a powerful metaphor for class division in this bold, original and compelling novel which weaves fantasy and superb characterisation throughout.

The working class pour Smoke freely and their vice and sin are shown openly and often revelled in - but aristocrats are taught from a young age to control their Smoke. In an Oxford boarding school, two young boys develop a bond as they receive their instructions in a world where the upper class are spotless. But on a trip to London, they witness something that seems to challenge all of their beliefs - and what follows is a tense, suspenseful and entrancing story with three young characters who are beautifully drawn and suck you into their world. One of Julia's big picks of 2016 - and definitely an author to get excited about!

Conclave - Robert Harris
Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world's most secretive election. They are holy men. But they have ambition. And they have rivals. Over the next seventy-two hours one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth...

If there is one writer who can be guaranteed to deliver a thriller that combines page-turning tension, intellectual heft and world-shaking events, it Mr Harris. Last year he completed the Cicero trilogy, and this year he takes us deep into the mysterious world of a papal Conclave (literally from a Latin phrase "room that can be locked up") where a new pope is going to be elected. It was - in part - inspired by the revelation of an unpublished 'secret diary' of the 2005 papal conclave, Claustrophobic, gripping and all about the nature of power - and the opportunities that can arise to take it.

Thin Air - Michelle Paver
What could be more Christmassy than a good ghost story? Well, forget cosy fireside warmth, this is a ghost story which is chilling in every possible way, from a legendary children's author now making a reputation in the world of adult fiction. It weaves natural - and supernatural - terrors with the dizzying vertigo and oxygen-deprived heights of a pitiless mountain. And inspired by a true story...

The Himalayas, 1935. Kangchenjunga. Third-highest peak on earth. Greatest killer of them all. Five Englishmen set off from Darjeeling, determined to conquer the sacred summit. But courage can only take them so far - and the mountain is not their only foe. Rivalry, class divisions, ego and pride. As the wind dies, the dread grows. Mountain sickness. The horrors of extreme altitude. A past that will not stay buried. And sometimes, the truth does not set you free...

To be read late at night, with the window opened, in the depth of winter. We don't think. Seriously unsettling.

Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
When her debut 'After Me Comes the Flood' was published, we loved it, recommending it to readers (and on BBC Radio Oxford back in 2014). We recognised a major new talent arriving on the scene, and her new novel 'The Essex Serpent' cements it. Here's Nicki's review from earlier this year:

"The friends of newly-widowed Cora Seaborne in Victorian England are indulging their passions for science, medicine and social reform. Cora is just happy to be out of an abusive relationship and finding herself both independent and wealthy, she is determined to follow in the footsteps of her heroine, Mary Anning, and discover fossils. 

Her amateur geology draws her to a tiny village in Essex and rumours of a giant sea serpent, perhaps still living from prehistoric times. Science and Darwin have yet to penetrate the mud and the salt marshes and fear and rumour about the serpent means every crop failure, every death, is attributed to the creature. Local pastor, William, is having trouble convincing his flock and not allow myth and hysteria to take over.

A finely-tuned cast of characters get drawn to the beguiling Cora and her quest for science to be able to answer every question with reason. They all do battle on her behalf as she argues against superstition, pagan fear and religion. But whether it’s a community increasingly troubled by fear of the unknown, or the urban squalor Cora’s friends back in London are struggling to reform, the ideals of science have much to contend with in this rich and wonderfully human story of the clashes of the Victorian age. 

As rumours and sightings of the serpent persist, will the ideals of science triumph in this rich and wonderfully human story of the clashes of the Victorian age."

(And 'The Essex Serpent' wins the prize for book with the most exquisite cover as well!)

Nutshell - Ian McEwan
This is - very loosely - a retelling of Hamlet, from the perspective of an unborn child in the womb, who - in this rather privileged position - listens in as a murder plot which is seemingly unfolding.

It's also daring, original and darkly funny - full of McEwan's trademark humour, social observation and focus on small, key events. With a great twisting plot, and played with tongue firmly in cheek, this is great entertainment from a master novelist.

Golden Hill - Francis Spufford
Francis Spufford is a publisher's marketing nightmare - everything he writes is so completely different. He's written a series of historical vignettes charting the rise and fall of Khrushchev's Soviet Union (Red Plenty), a book on why Christianity makes emotional sense (Unapologetic) or how re-reading the books he read as a child gave him insight into the man he became (The Child That Books Built). But his erractic brilliance is our huge gain, because 'Golden Hill' is a fresh, original book - and one of Mark's favourite books of this (or any) year.

A young man arrives in the fledgling city of New-York in 1746, seemingly in possession of a fortune. Tongues are wagging, conspiracies are imagined but what is the truth? This book will utterly transport you to the very different time and place of America a generation before the Revolution, when Dutch and English settlers maintained an uneasy relationship with the British Crown. Foreshadowing the America to come, written in an 18th century novelistic style that shouldn't work but does, this is breathtaking, brilliant - you should read it!

Divine Countenance - Michael Hughes
In 1999 a programmer is trying to fix the millennium bug, but can't shake the sense he's been chosen for something. In 1888 five women are brutally murdered in the East End by a troubled young man in thrall to a mysterious master. In 1777 an apprentice engraver called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience; thirteen years later this vision returns. And in 1666 poet and revolutionary John Milton completes the epic for which he will be remembered centuries later. But where does the feeling come from that the world is about to end?

Computer nerd Chris is working on the Millennium bug problem when he meets Lucy. What starts out as a boy meet girl story slowly transforms itself into a tangled web, with letters from Jack the Ripper, a journal from the time of William Blake and a story from Milton’s time seaping into each other. As Michael Hughes uses these four different voices to tell four interlinked stories which rub off each other and weave together to create an apocalyptic thriller.  This is a book of poetry, creation, obsessions and visions of the end of the world. A huge work of imagination!

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