Back in January, I planned to end the year by writing one of those smug “look what I read in 2016” posts that generate lots of hits from nosey competitive readers. Unfortunately I fell waaaaay short of my 100-books-a-year target, so this list is probs gonna be less impressive (?) than I’d hoped. (but don’t get me wrong, this is still one of those posts, just there’s a humble-brag element to it now, rather than the out-and-out self-congratulatory aplomb I had in mind)
I managed 72 books in 2016. I know there are bloggers who regularly read 100 books by April or something, and there are bloggers who finish the year at around 30; both of which, of course, are fine. As is reading no books whatsoever. But, for me, 72 is a tad on the low side. As such, I’ve prepared a list of bullshit excuses reasonable justifications to explain why my books-read count is a bit lower than usual.
Presenting Tomcat’s reasonable justifications for not having read as much as normal in 2016:
- I’m a very moody/whimsical reader, and 2016 had more stroppy “I’m not in the mood to read anything at all” episodes than usual.
- I read nothing in April and nothing in September for this reason
- I don’t read more than one book at a time, and Ian Pears’ Arcadia was so boring it took me an entire month to finish. Ridley Walker took me ages as well.
- Some Life Stuff™ happened in Spleptember that slowed me down a lot. Like, a LOT.
- Videogames. Some of which, seriously, have more original SF ideas and compelling human interaction than a majority of Science Fiction novels. Seriously SF, you need to step it up or pooter games are gonna over take you (if they haven’t already).
But it’s about quality, not quantity, or so I’m told.
Anyway, here’s The List, in chronological order. And yep, I’ve included novellas. They count. They definitely count. Fuck you.
- Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter
- Wild – Cheryl Strayed
- A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar
- Ringworld – Larry Niven
- Stories of your Life and Others – Ted Chiang
- Beloved – Toni Morrison (re-read)
- Embed with Games – Cara Ellison
- Magonia – Maria Dahvana Headley
- The Thing Itself – Adam Roberts
- Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
- My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem
- A Hologram for the King – Dave Eggers
- Touch – Claire North
- The Colour Purple – Alice Walker (re-read)
- Ridley Walker – Russel Hoban
- The Fellowship of the Ring – J. R. R. Tolkien (re-read)
- The Quality of Silence – Rosamund Lipton
- This Census-Taker – China Miéville
- Sociology – Steve Bruce
- Pnin – Vladimir Nabokov
- The Myths we Live by – Mary Midgley
- Uprooted – Naomi Novik
- Satin Island – Tom McCarthy
- The Child in Time – Ian McEwan
- What if Our World is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick – ed. Gwen Lee
- The Kraken Wakes – John Wyndham (re-read)
- The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham
- The Chrysalids – John Wyndham
- The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
- Falling Man – Don Delilo
- The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh
- The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers
- Way Down Dark – J. P. Smythe
- Three Moments of an Explosion – China Miéville (re-read)
- A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin (re-read)
- The Tombs of Atuan – Ursula K. Le Guin
- Speculative Fiction 2014 – ed. Renee Williams et al
- The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor
- Light – M. John Harrison (re-read)
- Nova Swing – M. John Harrison (re-read)
- Empty Space – M. John Harrison
- Canal Dreams – Iain Banks
- Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky
- Presepolis – Marjane Satrapi
- The Wretch of the Sun – Michael Cisco
- Human Acts – Han Kang
- The Vegetarian – Han Kang
- The Ballad of Tom Black – Victor Lavalle
- The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Caroll (re-read)
- Central Station – Lavie Tidhar
- Europe in Autumn – Dave Hutchinson (re-read)
- Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson
- Arcadia – Iain Pears
- Nina Allan – The Race
- The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin (re-read)
- The Serpent – Claire North
- The Thief – Claire North
- The Master – Claire North
- We Should All be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
- Last Night in Montreal – Emily St. John Mandel
- Revenger – Alastair Reynolds
- The Sellout – Paul Beatty
- Mockingbird – Walter Tevis
- White is for Witching – Helen Oyeyemi
- The Elephant in the Room – Jon Ronson
- The Beauty – Aliya Whiteley
- The Arrival of Missives – Aliya Whitely
- Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
- Europe in Winter – Dave Hutchinson
- Bethany – Adam Roberts
This isn’t a top 10 of the year, per se, cos several of these books were published before 2016, but all the same, I thought I’d highlight the stuff I enjoyed the most. So, in no particular order…
The Thing Itself – Adam Roberts
I think I read Adam Roberts’ books in a relatively simple, surface-level kinda way. I don’t have the breadth (or depth) of reading in such areas as the history of Science Fiction or Western Philosophy that’s probably required to truly “get” his work. Indeed, I often have to read other people’s reviews in order to appreciate what he’s doing. I do, however, very much love his work for its characterisation, humour, and hell just the sentence-by-sentence writing. In fact, I’d like to see a bit more discussion of Roberts’ skills in these areas, and a little less focus on his satire and intertextual game-playing, which sometimes feels, to me, a bit like a reviewerly Where’s Wally of “spot the references”.
The Thing Itself is a sort of hyper-active take on solving the Fermi Paradox via John Carpenter’s The Thing and Immanuel Kant’s noumenon stuff. I think. It has a brilliantly idiosyncratic, British protagonist and some confounding time-travel as well.
The Arrival of Missives – Aliya Whiteley
A bit late to the party, I know, but how good is Aliya Whiteley? Her writing has this real kick-you-in-the-guts emotional grit and lyricism to it which, combined with the sheer originality of her SF concepts, results in that ultra-rare breed of Science Fiction that manages to convey truly othering ideas while simultaneously portraying how human beings actually interact and relate to one another. What I like most about The Arrival of Missives is the way that the weird SF elements seem to take a back-seat to the book’s historical, almost prosaic coming-of-age drama, but are slowly revealed to colour the entire narrative and structure of the story. Honourable mention to the other Whiteley book I read this year, The Beauty, a visceral horror-fictional take on contemporary issues re: the deconstruction of gender.
The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro
I’ve never read a Fantasy novel quite like this one. It’s an extremely odd, unknowable and dream-like experience that melds myth with history with allegory with fiction into a visionary Gordian knot of a thing. The inner space of its characters’ emotional lives, memories and history is melded and folded into the outer-space of the book’s setting in a way which makes the landscapes, societies and rules of the world inseparable from the emotions, desires and memories of its characters. It’s all malleable and deeply personal and everything is up for interpretation. A wonderful panacea to the hyper-specificity of lorecraft and tedious Tolkien-esque World Building that’s come to dominate Fantasy lit.
White is for Witching – Helen Oyeyemi
Very strange take on the traditional haunted house yarn made relevant by Oyeyemi’s characteristically beautiful prose and a concern for such contemporary issues as eating disorders, immigration and maternal guilt. It has some really strong relationship stuff, too: from the weird, obsessive love between its twin protagonists, to the spectral, odd relationship between its central character, Miri, and her female ancestors. Also watch out for the visceral chalk-eating scenes, some of which are so graphic that they made me, literally, gag.
The Gameshouse Trilogy – Claire North
I have a soft spot for books that knowingly treat very silly ideas with a kind of hyper-attentive seriousness. How would it work, for example, if two men played a global game of high-stakes Hide and Seek? The Gameshouse Trilogy charts the history of a secretive society of game players who can bet anything on a game of anything. Memories, youth, skills honed over decades of practice, political power… anything is winnable, if you’re good enough. There’s a wonderful sense of escalation that I really like. The sequence opens with a city-level game of political manoeuvring in Renaissance Italy, and ends with an all-out modern day global conflict (or game of “Chess”). The way that Claire North manages to reign all the silliness in and end with a very moving, personal twist is this trilogy’s greatest achievement.
The Race – Nina Allan
I don’t so much remember the specifics of reading The Race as much as I remember the feeling of reading it. I dunno, it’s hard to explain. The majority of reviews I’ve read of The Race spend most of their time skirting the issue of what the book’s actually about by describing how hard it is to review it in the first place. Reviewers much more talented than I have had a hard time summing it up, so I’m not even going to try. It’s beyond me. But The Race is brilliant. I *think* it feels sad, and haunting and it seems to be about things we might have missed. About how we can fuck up when just trying to do good. Also there’s a nice subtext about the instability of fictions and the problematic ways they relate to anything real, which is, aesthetically, right up my street.
Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
This does one thing over and over and over again until, near the end, it’s suddenly doing something different and you realise that the repetition and prosaicism of the first 80% is all worth it in light of the earth-shattering volta that changes everything. It hammers home what’s been lost.
The Vegetarian – Han Kang
Most end-of-year lists I’ve read have included Han Kang’s Human Acts, which is undoubtedly great, but I much, much, much preferred The Vegetarian, perhaps because, this year, I’ve been favouring more personal, inner-life fiction than big-picture, state-of-the-nation stuff. The Vegetarian is part family saga, part body-shock, and part examination of a woman’s attempt to control her identity, body and mind in the face of interference and judgement from family, culture and history. Really good inside/outside stuff going on here.
Fractured Europe books by Dave Hutchinson
The second of this sequence, Europe at Midnight, gained a sort of unexpected poignancy post-Brexit, despite being published before the referendum. And I can’t wait to see where Hucthinson goes with the up-coming fourth novel. These books are just a joy: packed with delightful idiosyncratic portrayals of European cultural identities, wonderful subversions of traditional espionage tropes, and a really compelling and politically on-point take on the parallel universe Science Fiction sub-genre. Wit in buckets.
Pnin – Vladimir Nabokov
On the surface this is a straight-forward campus novel–come–comedy of manners about a Russian émigré struggling to find his place in hyper-consumerist America. But beneath the farce and somewhat even quaint examination of cultural misunderstandings lies a moving examination of personal grief emerging from the holocaust. The protagonist’s contention is that in order to live without his lover, he must never think about her, ever. And so, accordingly, the text never mentions her; except, that is, for one, world-shattering, heart-breaking paragraph right in the very middle of the book that feels like it was cut-and-pasted from an entirely different novel but which is so profoundly affecting as to force a complete re-orientation of my understanding of the central character. A masterpiece.
Empty Space – M. John Harrison
“My name is Pearlant and I come from the future.”
Okay, so that was eleven not ten, but whatever.
I didn’t read with any kind of plan or schema in 2016, and I don’t have any designs or resolutions to do so in 2017. As I said, I’m a moody reader, and what I feel like reading from one day to the next is entirely dependent on my state of mind at any given moment. Having said that, though, I would like to set the vague goal of reading more books by non-white, non-Western writers, if only because I’m foolishly limiting my own experience as a reader by lazily gravitating towards the kinds of easily-acquired stuff that dominates the shelves of high street bookshops. I’ve made some headway with this in 2016, but not nearly enough. Not nearly enough.