There are, like, a million billion books out there, and this year I only read twenty-one of them. That makes me cringe a little. I have failed all of literature, and must try harder. In a few days I’ll post the full list with the reviews I wrote at the time.
A couple of years back I would end each year by highlighting the best five books I read over the twelve months, selected from those I rated a full five stars over on Goodreads. With so small a sample to pick through though, it should come as no surprise that I don’t have five books at five stars to pick from. There were exactly three books that thrilled or delighted me utterly. These, listed in no particular order, are those. I recommend them heartily.
The Wolf In Winter, John Connolly – Sometimes the benefits of a long running series are that when its beats and shuffles become familiar, the author is able to yank the rug from under the reader to truly epic effect. Such is the case here. The story starts out playing all of the familiar Charlie Parker riffs – a mystery falls into the detective’s lap in which society’s most vulnerable are the victims of a lethal conspiracy with supernatural underpinnings, and he proceeds to put himself in front of all the wrong people for the right reasons – and then two-thirds of the way through the book… it would be criminal for me to be specific, but the ordinary thrust of the mystery is derailed with ferocious and almost random savagery, and the implications are neither brushed under the carpet nor easily reversed. It’s a breathtaking move on the part of the author, and I can’t wait to see how it carries forward into the next volume. Other pleasing aspects include the most Lovecraftian scene yet to feature in one of these books, which more often allude to the supernatural than fully embrace it, and the late (and necessary) engagement of the supporting cast to bring matters to a close. This book feels like a watershed moment in the Parker series, and suggests that some sort of endgame may be in sight to which everything has built. Thrilling, haunting, and splendidly bleak stuff.
How I Escaped My Certain Fate, Stewart Lee – If you like Stewart Lee’s stuff, you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you won’t. Simples.
There are three threads to this volume, which weave together throughout. The first is a sort of comeback story. In 2001 Stewart Lee quit stand-up comedy after more than ten years of touring. Exhausted and demoralised, he turned to other projects for a time (notably, writing the Jerry Springer Opera), before realising that he couldn’t leave stand-up after all, because it was the only place where he could properly explore his own ideas about how comedy works. How he changed his business model is a story in itself, told in a typically faux-dour way, and he punctuates it with transcripts of the three sets that relaunched him and brought him sufficient critical acclaim to flip his career around. The sets are wonderful – if you’re interested in this book you’ve certainly seen them live or on DVD – and they’re given vast added value by the constant footnotes and commentary from Lee looking back over where he stole his ideas from, what worked, and what didn’t. Exceptionally entertaining, but also a great insight into the real work behind what is often seen as a disposable entertainment form. I loved this book, in particular the way that Lee switched his goals from ‘a sort of vast and aimless success by being something I’m not’ to a more definable and truer artistic satisfaction (which just happens to cover his bills). Lessons for us all, about how success is defined and what it really means. Also bloody funny, because Lee remains one of the best stand up comedians currently performing.
Trigger Warnings: Short Fictions and Disturbances, Neil Gaiman – A glorious and charming selection of stories, most of which have been published elsewhere before here. Gaiman’s current story voice is such a whimsical, comforting thing that it stands in fantastic contrast to the often unsettling undercurrents in his fiction. Reading many of these tales is like having a dear old friend invite you round for tea and then explain halfway through eating that actually there’s strychnine in the soup, and do you mind, and hasn’t the weather taken a turn for the worse this week? Perhaps a third of the collection is utterly disposable – poems and short short stories that please and then vanish. The rest offer more substantial fare, with ‘The Black Dog’ (featuring Shadow, from the author’s novel American Gods) and ‘The Truth Is A Black Cave In The Mountains’ both resonating particularly strongly with me. Also utterly charming was ‘The Sleeper and the Spindle’, an upside down and inside out retelling of Sleeping Beauty, which deconstructs the classic story and reframes it as something far more relevant than I’ve ever known it. There’s a great deal of magic throughout the collection, and it makes a fabulous entry point for those who have heard of Gaiman but have yet to try his offerings. By the end of book you’ll either be utterly seduced, or know to stay well away. It’s not Gaiman’s best collection – for me Smoke and Mirrors remains one of the best single author collections I’ve ever read – but that’s the very worst thing I can say about it.
There you have it. Three things that I read, which I think stand a good chance of driving many of the people likely to be reading this into a deranged and frothy excitement. You’re welcome.
As for next year, I am going to do a plan. Plans make stuff gooder. For a start, instead of ending the year with a big list of everything read in 2016, I’ll try to write a shorter post at the end of each month. At the beginning of each month I’ll pick one piece of non-fiction to read, two novels (at least one of which won’t be from the horror section), one collection of short fiction (either an anthology or a single author collection, doesn’t matter), and a collection of poetry. That’s on top of stuff I need to read as research for stuff I’m writing. It’s a big step on this year, so we’ll see how it works out.
Any recommendations*? I’m particularly clueless about poetry, but recommendations in any of those loose categories would be very useful indeed! Tell me what you particularly enjoyed reading this year. It might make my list in the coming months.
*Not one you wrote. Seriously.