You have to love Goodreads. When I started to try to think back over the books I read this year I realised my memory isn’t the amazing tool of total retention I like to think it is, but my Goodreads account gave me a long list of everything that I bought and borrowed in 2016. Phew.
How many wonderful books there were – not necessarily published within the year, but discovered by me for the first time even if written long ago. From searching the shelves in my local library to trusting recommendations from other readers and writers, there were plenty of times when I put down a book and thought: That was brilliant. And then I felt a bit happy and a bit jealous and a bit relieved that some humans write so well that they bring different experiences and thoughts into the minds of other humans, and make it possible for us all to understand each other a little better. When I think about hope for the future, I think about that.
I started the year with Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming, and the way he used the crime genre really inspired me to get back on the wagon and use the private detective setup myself in a new thing I’ve been working on. The shabby glamour of the PI – that can be used to carry the reader into all sorts of strange territory. It’s that sense of familiarity that then becomes something else entirely. I loved it.
Dan Grace’s Winter followed soon after and delivered beautiful blast of an icy future. I’m hoping he’s going to write more in this world but if this novella is all we get of his dystopian, magical Scotland then I’ll still be happy. He has a lyrical, poised, intense style that really works.
I’m not a huge fan of alternative histories but a good friend recommended Keith Roberts’ Pavane to me when I was reading around in preparation for a series of articles about the best British Sci Fi through the decades. Pavane is intricate and involved and magnificent, with a touch of steampunk taking a left turn into deep emotional territory.
Then I discovered Josephine Saxton. A British writer of the 60s, 70s and 80s, she did really interesting things to plot within settings that are difficult to define. Sort of futuristic, sort of Sci Fi, I devoured The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith and Group Feast, and I already want to reread them.
Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor also tapped into my nervy “collapse of society” vibe mid-year, as did DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. They are very different books, but they are both brilliant at making you feel uneasy about the direction we’re all taking even though they were written decades ago. How do some books do that?
I’ve never read much Flaubert but A Simple Heart called to me from the library bookshelf and provided a much-needed antidote to those stresses. Reading it also provided an explanation over that whole Flaubert’s parrot thing, but that’s far from the only reason to read it. The prose is so clean and true and piercing. I cried.
Manu Larcenet’s Ordinary Victories and The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia by Mary and Bryan Talbot were my favourite graphic novels of the year. I’ve put them together in this paragraph but really they are completely different reads; the only thing they have in common is that they use the marriage of words and illustrations to bring a story to vivid life. But that’s a good thing to have in common, right?
Nina Allan’s The Race led to me hunting down and falling in love with Spin and The Harlequin as well. Her ability to stitch together multi-faceted stories through small, revealing actions in complex characters has stuck with me, and has been a big influence on my own writing this year.
It’s a Martin Scorsese film now, but I picked up Silence by Endo Shusaku without knowing it was about to become a cinematic experience, and I’m glad I read this quiet, methodical and deeply questioning novel before I saw the Scorsese trailer. The reviews say the film is all about faith, but that doesn’t capture the novel for me. It’s about faith in the way a Graham Greene novel is about faith – it’s about what attempting to have faith (in anything or anyone) does to a person. Which is a much more interesting area than whether a person believes in one thing or another, I think.
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante was so brutal, so unflinching, so determined to plunge into despair, that of course I loved it, particularly as an antidote to the run-up to Christmas. I eagerly snapped up My Brilliant Friend afterwards and it didn’t do as much for me, being a more measured creation of family and friends when what I liked about her writing was the sense of having to find total self-reliance through experiencing anguish. Or perhaps I’m just a misery-guts at Christmas.
Finally, for me, the book of my year was Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. What a stunning read. The middle section in particular mesmerised me. I’m still trying to formulate what it does to me, but I mentioned jealousy earlier and I have to say I wish I had written it. But, failing that, I’m intensely glad that Han Kang wrote it and I got the honour of reading it, and all the books on this list.
Cheers, and happy new year to readers and writers everywhere.