The last few months of 2016 have been pretty difficult for me, personally and professionally (& politically!) which is why it’s now nearly the end of the year and I haven’t blogged since the summer. To be fair, a lot of things have also gone right: I had two academic articles published, I’m heading to Write Now Live with Penguin/Random House in Manchester in February, and I wrote the first draft of my time-travel novel and am more than halfway through the second draft. I also had an amazing new haircut [not pictured].
Still, I’m hoping to review a lot more books in 2017, and I’m kicking things off with my annual Top Ten Books of the Year post. (You can find my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog).
In no particular order…
1. The Likeness: Tana French. I’ve been raving about Tana French’s wonderful literary crime novels to everyone who’d listen this year, and picking a favourite was hard. In the end, I went for the one that most epitomises everything I like about French: wonderful writing, character-led plots, genuine, unforced tension and a touch of the supernatural. When a girl who is the spitting image of detective Cassie Maddox turns up dead, Cassie is persuaded to return to the undercover squad to investigate her murder – posing as the victim. The plot grows ever more eerie when Cassie realises that Lexie Madison, the victim, had already appropriated the identity Cassie invented when undercover on a drugs bust, and so she is essentially retracing a trail that she herself started. Who is Lexie and why did she die? And will Cassie be able to disentangle herself from the engrossing, Secret History style household she’s wandered into? Posing big questions about identity, the preservation of friendship, and the pressing but inexplicable need to leave an old life behind, The Likeness also has one of the best final paragraphs I’ve ever read. It makes me cry every time.
2. Any Human Heart: William Boyd. I wrote about this brilliant novel, the ‘collected diaries’ of Logan Mountstuart, after I finished it. This is one of my dad’s favourite novels, and after he read my review he emailed to say: ‘It’s true what you write, I want him [Logan] to be real, since so much of what he describes and the people he meets are. He sort of deserves to be.’ That sums up Any Human Heart perfectly for me.
3. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: Becky Chambers. I’ve started thinking of Chambers’ wonderful, quirky SF as the antidote to 2016. My reaction to the news of Trump’s election was to immediately purchase the sequel to The Long Way, A Closed and Common Orbit, and hide under my electric blanket. Rejecting dystopian trends, Chambers depicts a spacefaring future where a range of species, including humanity, are often baffled and confused by the range of genders, sexualities, races and cultural practices they encounter on other worlds, but where the vast majority of people want to do their very best to accept difference, rather than to suppress it. I wrote briefly about The Long Way when I first read it, suggesting that it at times felt like a bit of a hotch-potch, and that’s true; but actually, having read its sequel, which has a much more traditional and linear narrative, I think I now appreciate The Long Way even more. (Not that I didn’t enjoy A Closed and Common Orbit, because I did – but it felt like it was treading much more familiar ground). I can’t wait to see what Chambers does next in this fabulous universe.
4. Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Karen Russell. A collection of short stories which, again, I loved so much that everyone is probably quite sick of hearing me talk about how amazing it is. I reviewed it here, so all I’ll say now is: BUY IT AND READ IT. YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.
5. The Glorious Heresies: Lisa McInerney. Such a worthy winner of the Baileys Prize and, in a year in which I’ve ranted a lot about how most writers struggle to write fictional teenagers, a great portrayal of male adolescence. Again, I’ve written a full review here.
6. 10:04: Ben Lerner. Every year, I read a book that I don’t want to like because I feel I should be having a go at it for being written by a pretentious white man about other pretentious white men, and I end up loving it anyway. David Gilbert’s & Sons was That Book in 2014, Laurent Binet’s HHhH in 2015, and this year it’s the turn of 10:04. Lerner just has such interesting things to say about art and time, even if his semi-autobiographical narrator is hopelessly irritating. And how can you not find something to like in a book that finds such inspiration in Back to the Future? My appreciation of this novel was also assisted by the fact that I read most of it going back and forth on the Barcelona Metro to SEE ART [pictured above].
7. The Dig: Cynan Jones.
Despite having been such a crap blogger for most of 2016, I seem to have got it right when choosing my favourite books to focus on, because here’s another novel I’ve already written about. Everybody else has moved on and is now excited about Jones’s new novel Cove, so I’ll have to add that to the 2017 TBR list.
8. Tenth of December: George Saunders.
This, however, proves the wisdom of writing about books as you go along, because this collection of short stories was almost the first thing I read in 2016, and now I can’t remember very much about it other than how impressed I was by Saunders’ off-kilter visions of possible futures. I’ll have to descend to the level of saying that my two favourite stories were the very short ‘Sticks’ and the very long ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, which shares common ground with some of Russell’s imaginings in Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Also, that this was another Mr B’s Reading Spa hit. Thanks Mr B’s!
9. The Year of the Runaways: Sunjeev Sahota.
In contrast, this Booker-shortlisted novel was one of the last things I read in 2016, and what a great way to finish the year. It follows the lives of three Sikh, Indian men who emigrate to Sheffield – Tochi, Avtar and Randeep – and a Sikh, British-Indian woman, Narinder, whose story I found the most interesting of all. Though a great deal happens in The Year of the Runaways, it’s fundamentally a character-led novel, and all the better for it. It grips the reader because we really care about what happens to these four people, not because there is any complicated plot on the go, and although I do love some complicated plotting, I found this refreshing after a year dominated by thrillers. While this book refuses to be dominated by its prose, Sahota is also a wonderful writer, and there are great turns of phrase on almost every page. I’m now keen to read his debut Ours Are The Streets, although it sounds much more conventional on the surface.
10. The Book of Strange New Things: Michel Faber.
If I’d read this at the end of 2015 rather than the beginning of 2016, it wouldn’t have made my Top Ten list. This very weird tale of a man who goes to be a missionary to a group of aliens, leaving his beloved wife behind him, initially struck me as gripping but disjointed and badly-paced. I found the two main characters intensely unlikeable, and the emotional heart of the story hence didn’t beat for me. And to be honest: I haven’t changed my mind! But The Book of Strange New Things is so fantastically imagined, so different from any other novel I’ve read, and the characterisation is so real (I might have hated Peter and Bea but you can’t deny how well they are written). More than anything else, it’s stayed with me over the last twelve months, and for that alone (sorry George Saunders) it’s earned its place in this list. I do hope Michel Faber doesn’t give up on writing novels.
I read 84 books in 2016, beating my 2014 (81) and 2015 (76) totals. While I didn’t make my target of 100, it’s good to see that I did halt the downward trend! Target for 2017: let’s go for 100 again.
I read 29 books by men and 55 by women, keeping close to my usual % of two-thirds by women and a third by men. Does this bother me? No, not really. Especially because I don’t include any work-related reading in this round-up, and if I did, men might dominate the list. Interestingly, however, this is my first Top Ten books list ever to feature more male than female writers.
I read 14 books by writers of colour and 70 books by white writers. This is pretty poor, especially considering my 2015 resolution to read more books by writers of colour. Part of the problem here was that I decided to finish off my TBR pile, which was full of white men. Target for next year: improve asap.