2016 was a middling year for reading and I, not in quality but in quantity. I didn’t read loads, but I got through a few books. This is my pick of the best five I read (a too-long review post of everything else will appear some time late on New Year’s Eve, because I don’t honestly expect you to spend much time trawling through it…). They may or may not have been published in 2016, but that was when I read them.
Before the books, an observation. All of these were written by men. That doesn’t mean that men are better authors. Rather, it’s driven by what I’m going to assume is my own unconscious bias when it comes to selecting books. In 2016 I read works by nineteen male authors and five female authors. Hardly surprising that men are going to dominate my personal top five selection then – I’ve stacked the odds considerably. I didn’t do that on purpose, but I did it. I do it every year, as it turns out.
2015 – Eighteen men, three women.
2014 – Fourteen men, two women.
2013 – NINE WHOLE WOMEN! And…um…fifty-one men.
And so on. One year can be forgiven – I don’t knowingly select books by gender, even though I’m undeniably doing so. Every single year without exception though? Yeah, that’s a bit funky. I can point at the inherent sexism of the publishing industry here I suppose, as the books with the most visibility in the genres I most read are obviously more likely to catch my eye, and visibility is often bequeathed by the publisher. I’m utterly participant in the process though. Publishing with a big ‘P’ doesn’t likely give a stuff about the gender of its word-monkeys. It cares about money, and my money is telling it to keep pushing books by (predominantly white) men.
In 2017 then I’m going to force myself to break that habit. Once I’ve finished the book I’m reading (which is of course by a man), I’ll dedicate the whole year to women*. Every book I read for pleasure will be written by people with internal gonads, and given how poorly read I seem to be outwith my gender I hope that means I’ll make some excellent discoveries (and if you have any recommendations for things I should include then leave them in the comments). My own wiggle room is research – sometimes, for authorly-type reasons, I need to read particular things. Where I have the option I’ll choose things written by women, but I won’t beat myself up if my research needs to break my rule.
Anyway that’s the year to come. Here’s the year that passed. All marvellous books, and I heartily recommend them even though they were created by beings with penises.
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George R.R. Martin – A collection of three previously published novellas set two or three generations before the ongoing A Song Of Fire And Ice sequence (upon which, of course, the TV show A Game of Thrones is based). I had not read any of these tales before, and found them to be an absolute joy. The stories are far smaller in scale than the epic novels set long after them, making them easier to dive into. They benefit too from the huge hearts of the principal characters Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire Egg (who is not all that he seems), genuinely likeable creations who despite this have managed to survive three whole stories travelling Westeros (which is not usually so kind to characters of honest, worthy nature). The Great Houses bicker in the background of these yarns, but for the most part they’re tiny and self-contained things compared to the sprawling struggle for the Iron Throne. For me, this was a joyful immersion back into Martin’s unsurpassed world of Westeros – I was swallowed within a page or two – bringing life to new characters amidst familiar surroundings. If there is one downside it is that I would now like to read more of Dunk and Egg almost as much as I would like the author to take me back to the grand tale of Targaryens, Lannisters, and Starks that has consumed me for twenty years. It seems unlikely that I will receive both, but it would be churlish to complain. Westeros, for all its horrors, is somewhere I relish visiting, and am always grateful for a new opportunity to do so.
NOS4R2, Joe Hill – Joe Hill writes horror stories as though they’re fairy tales, and of his longer works NOS4R2 perhaps shows that off more than anything that went before. It’s a heady brew, this fusion of whimsy and grit, and he’s used it to create for himself a unique space in the literary landscape. While he’s whimsical, he also keeps his stories grounded. While he’s grounded, he isn’t afraid to abandon the modern realism in which the greats of the previous generation of horror authors rooted themselves for flights of purest fancy.
His characters here are broken and distinctive, far removed from the ubiquitous Everyman and all the more relatable for that (how many readers, these days, are actually an Everyman in reality). They’re people you quickly grow to love or despise. Nobody he describes in this novel is a cypher, and he seems to take enormous pleasure in finding the wit in small moments and walk-on characters, any one of whom might be interesting enough to spin a new novel out of.
The world-building of the first part of this novel, setting up the players, following their lives, is outstanding and engrossing. The second half, a race against time and fate to rescue a small boy from the made-up world of Christmasland, is a ridiculous thrill. Nobody else is telling stories quite like Joe Hill, and NOS4R2 is a fantastic showcase for that.
Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari – The latter part of 2016, it turns out, is a particularly interesting time to be reading this book. Upheavals in Western democracy have shaken many, and previously well-established assumptions about the way cultures will progress across the next fifty years have fallen like dominoes. Harari’s engaging narrative of why and how we’re human steps right back and sweeps across the history of the species to examine its development. There’s some science, some history, and some fascinating speculations. Many will have an issue with the latter, and there were some points I felt were less well argued, but this book is a discussion not a lecture, and each potential fallacy is a jumping off point for your own conjectures.
I read this in the wake of Brexit and during the turmoil of Trump, and it cast a fresh perspective on how those cultural quakes came to pass (observations on how social grouping works and humanity’s need to create greater powers – countries, religions, the Internet – to bond beneath were particularly on point). Harari closes the book with some speculation on the future and what we might become, which has more relevance than ever and makes his next book a must-read. Often eye-opening and reliably provocative, this is highly recommended, particularly today.
The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats, Mark Hodder – So endeth the glorious time-jumping, reality-bending, narrative-inverting adventures of Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Swinburne, and I’m using it to represent the whole six book extravaganza. I read them all this year, and at least four of six could have made this list, while the other two would have been near misses. The series took me wholly by surprise in its narrative ambition and playfulness, which might have been alienating had they not been so gloriously reckless and madcap. This book begins a little more slowly than the others, with time taken to position yet more parallel characters (closest to their real-life historical counterparts) into position within the story. Their abduction from reality and placement in fiction is yet another fresh joy, as they struggle to become the ideal versions of themselves which have inhabited previous instalments. As with the previous parts of this second Burton & Swinburne trilogy the allegories between this fictional, exaggerated Victorian period and our own era are pushed front and centre to provide a sometimes startling critique of where we find ourselves today, but as ever there is plenty of comedy, drama, and derring do for those who just want to getswept up in this glorious alternate reality.
I can’t recommend this series strongly enough. I’m sad it’s done, but also happy that it ended before it could disappoint – it’s a series of books that will make me happy for a long time.
The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin – I envy the reader who today picks up the first part of the apocalyptic trilogy that began with The Passage, continued with The Twelve, and ends here with The City of Mirrors. That reader gets to move through the whole story without frustrating breaks of years between instalments, during which they’ve forgotten all of the detail that went before. Picking up The City of Mirrors was initially baffling, for I genuinely couldn’t remember much of the densely plotted previous books. After a few chapters it didn’t matter so much. Vaguely familiar characters firmed up on their own terms into people I know intimately, and the state of the world was outlined enough to make me feel at home.
I said in reviews of the previous books that ‘post-apocalyptic vampire story’ doesn’t properly describe them, any more than ‘post-virus apocalyptic story’ sums up The Stand. This is an epic tale, spanning decades and countless relationships. It uses its vampires carefully, freeing them from their pulp trappings and turning them into an epic force of nature, and makes the story about the people living through it. As humanity tries to rebuild in the aftermath of the previous instalment, fresh terror is sweeping towards it in an extinction level event that offers next to no hope. Yet in the end hope is all there is, and the book thrives on the moments where it shines brightest. When the world seems darkest, it’s stories like this which both acknowledge the crushing sense of disorder and chaos all around, and show you that sometimes there’s a way through.
An utterly engrossing epic, which grows largest in its tiniest beats and often swallows you whole, this is a trilogy that I commend to you in the strongest terms.
Bubbling Under – Happy: Why More Or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine, A View From The Cheap Seats, Schindler’s List
*I know a lot of authors who are not women, and have their books on my TBR shelf. If you are one of them, then you have my apologies but your book will have to wait. If we all survive until 2018 I’ll get back to you then.
Tagged a knight of the seven kingdoms, burton, george r.r. martin, joe hill, justin cronin, mark holder, nos4r2, sapiens, swinburne, the city of mirrors, the rise of the automated aristocrats, yuval noah harari