As 2016 draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on the books I’ve read over the last 12 months. It’s been a productive year, and I’ve managed to attain my Goodreads target of reading 45 books, as well as reading an extra 5 books on top of this, bringing the total to an even 50. There’s been great novels, fascinating non-fiction and challenging literature. Without any further ado, here are my top ten fiction books and top five non-fiction books I read in 2016:
Top 10 Fiction
10) The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley
Kicking off the top ten is the debut of Andrew Michael Hurley. This addition to Gothic horror canon is an intriguing tale set on the wild Lancashire coast where a small group of dedicated Catholics congregate every year, hoping to cure the muteness of a young boy. The prose is fraught with tension and impressively assured for a debut novelist. Although I wasn’t sure whether the twist hit home when I first read it, it stayed with me weeks after I finished the novel, the uncertainty of what I had read lingering. It’s a fantastically dark story, perfect for a gloomy bank holiday weekend when the wind howls through the eaves and, though I’m no aficionado, possibly my favourite horror story. I attended a talk by Hurley and he was a very nice, talkative man who spoke of how his upbringing and influences informed the story.
9) The Lost World – Michael Crichton
The sequel to Jurassic Park, one of my favourite novels, was a surefire top-ten candidate and just snuck onto the list this year. It didn’t reach the giddy heights of its predecessor, but its immensely thrilling and a lot of fun. Crichton blends scientific theory with dinosaurs rampaging on an island perfectly as he revisits the concept he began in Jurassic Park, when Dr Ian Malcolm ends up going to the Site B, Isla Sorna, with a group of naturalists who want to document how the dinosaurs behave. Naturally, things go horribly wrong.
8) Embassytown – China Mieville
Without doubt one of my favourite authors, Mieville’s first entry in the top ten is a fantastically original and bizarre journey into space, focusing on the problems of the Ambassadors at Embassytown, an outpost on the fringes of space where many alien species come together to discuss trade and diplomacy. The Hosts, the aliens who own the planet, have a method of communication quite unlike any other species, and things are about to get more complicated when a new Ambassador arrives – one who will cause unimaginable chaos on the remote planet.
Trying to remember all the details of Embassytown is impossible. It’s a cerebral novel, relentlessly intelligent and challenging. Mieville seemingly found a particle accelerator and fired the concepts of science-fiction, drug addiction and linguistics at each other in order to create this complex, puzzling, ever-shifting novel. And the work remains effortlessly readable despite its complexity. It’s without doubt one of the most innovative ideas ever put to paper.
7) The Casual Vacancy – J. K. Rowling
The fiftieth and final novel I’ve read this year settles on this list comfortably. Rowling’s first novel after Harry Potter focuses on the townsfolk of Pagford after a councillor dies unexpectedly, leaving a casual vacancy open. Many of the locals have vested interests, and the election becomes a dirty and underhanded race that threatens to tear the community apart.
Rowling’s debut adult novel is an unrelenting State-of-the-Nation satire with an ensemble cast of mostly deplorable characters, tearing the middle class sensibilities of a conservative town to shreds, yet always providing a nuanced view of the neuroses of people from all walks of life. It’s continued testament to Rowling’s ability to bring characters to life and expertly dissect them in a smart, multi-faceted story.
6) The Shining – Stephen King
This classic horror novel was my choice of reading for the Halloween season and proved to be a very good choice indeed. King’s iconic tale of a caretaker and his family trying to survive the winter in a haunted hotel was immortalised in Kubrick’s highly lauded film, but the novel is well-worth reading in its own right as King delves further into the ideas of family and addiction, and there are plenty of fantastic scenes that didn’t make it to film. The spine-chilling scene when Jack checks the bathroom for an intruder who harmed his son is more-than-worth the price of admission alone. This is a novel worthy of its hype.
5) A Very British Coup – Chris Mullin
I had a run of political novels earlier in the year and this was one of them. Former MP for Sunderland South, Chris Mullin, wrote this novel in the early 1980s. Harry Perkins, a former miner and union leader becomes an MP and Labour party leader before sweeping to power unexpectedly in an election. The powers that be are terrified by this radically left-wing man’s agenda and do everything they can to destroy the Prime Minister. Perkins’s premiership becomes a grueling fight to survive the attacks thrown at his office by some very powerful, moneyed individuals who want to see power restored in their favour.
Though most of the action is set in parliamentary offices, this manages to be an extremely clever and engaging thriller. It’s also strangely relevant today with Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour party, much to the chagrin of the powers that be. It’s a compelling, quick and important novel.
4) What A Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe
The second political entry on this list is Jonathan Coe’s scathing satire of the nepotism of British politics. The story follows Michael Owen on a commission to write the biography of the infamous Winshaw family. The Winshaw’s are a collection of the worst sort of unpleasant, upper class elitists – from Hilary the gossip columnist to Henry, the corrupt politician, the whole dynasty is filled with awful people whose closets are full to the brim of skeletons. But events are speeding to an inexorable conclusion as the Winshaws’ unsavoury past threatens to collide with Michael’s future.
Told in an intriguingly idiosyncratic style, What A Carve Up! is undoubtedly a rather literary work, difficult at times but never dry. The Winshaws are brilliantly observed caricatures of the entitled ruling class and there’s plenty of laughs to be had. But its the intricate plotting and intertwining events that make this novel truly unique, and a brilliant all-round read.
3) The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade was also the first of his novels I’ve ever read. Set in Arthurian Britain, the country is shrouded in a fog of forgetfulness. Elderly couple Axl and Beatrice depart on a journey to see their son. On the way they meet old knights, dragon and boatmen – all struggling to get by in a divided nation where the omnipresent mist of forgetfulness pervades all lives.
I don’t want to say anymore than that. It’s a strange novel in some ways, perfectly imperfect, subtly unsubtle. It’s a textbook work of creative writing, the sort of thing you can imagine picking apart in a literature class, but that’s testament to Ishiguro’s mastery of such things and the pregnant symbolism of the novel. What starts as a compelling yet gentle novel about a loving elderly couple shifts through several passages before its haunting and beautiful final chapter. And that final chapter is everything, transforming a merely “good” story into a heart-wrenching and unsettling work of great literature. The fact it was overlooked for the 2015 Man Booker Prize longlist is criminal.
2) The Cormoran Strike Series – Robert Galbraith
Galbraith, the pseudonym J. K. Rowling uses for her crime works, has three novels under “his” belt, and I read all three this year. And they were all brilliant. Rather than having each novel dominate the list, I’ve decided to group them in one entry. The novels follow the cases investigated by surly private detective Cormoran Strike and his secretary-cum-partner Robin Ellacott: the suspicious suicide of a famous model in The Cuckoo’s Calling kicks things off, before the grotesque incident of a brutally murdered writer whose as-yet-unpublished novel had upset a lot of people in The Silkworm, to a serial killer who’s out for revenge on Strike in Career of Evil. Rowling applies her impeccable storytelling and brilliant characterisation to the crime world, breaking the trend of police detective novels and opting for a more rough-and-ready set of limitlessly entertaining thrillers.
1) Perdido Street Station – China Mieville
The top spot this year goes to one of my favourite writers, and its his second entry in the top ten to boot. This enormous tome is the first in the Bas-Lag novels (I’ve just started the second as of writing), a set of broad, sweeping fantasy novels set in a grim, industrial steampunk world full of weird races, strange forces and madcap events. Its one of the most impressive works of invention I’ve ever read, brimming with mind-bending concepts. Mieville has less written a novel than created a universe. New Crobuzon is a hugely immersive city with a well-defined structure, riveting pseudo-science and hints for so much more depth.
There’s a story too – a bloody good one that twists and turns and goes to so many places that defy imagination and transcend the boundaries of the fantasy novel. Isaac, a scientist, is enlisted by Yag, a Garuda to help him fly. The Garuda are a proud race of birdmen but Yag’s wings have been cut off for the somewhat incomprehensible crime of choice-theft. Meanwhile, Isaac’s girlfriend Lin, an insect person known as a Khepri, is commissioned to build a sculpture of a notorious gangster, a Remade known as Mr Motley whose appearance defies description. The work of Isaac and Lin spirals out of control and a terrible threat is unleashed upon the city.
There’s so much incredible stuff going on in Perdido Street Station that it defies description at times. The plot is such brilliant fun, but its the little tidbits about the wider universe that really intrigue – concepts like the Torque, Dreamshit and thaumaturgy are fantastic fun and just add to the huge scope and possibilities for this series. I’ve just started The Scar, the second novel in the series, and I have high hopes for a continuation of the wildly inventive and entertaining standard set by Perdido Street Station.
I didn’t read as much non-fiction as I might’ve liked to this year, and some of what I did was a little average, so the top list will have to be limited to the five best.
5) How the World Works – Noam Chomsky
An introduction to Chomsky’s political ideas released this year, How the World Works brings together four of his previous works in one volume. Composed mostly of interviews, Chomsky applies his philosophy and intellect to world politics, chiefly focusing on America’s vested interests and disastrous influence abroad. It’s an enlightening and viciously well-reasoned take on the immorality of what goes on behind the closed doors of the world’s most powerful nation.
4) Do No Harm – Henry Marsh
From political polemic to medical biography, Henry Marsh’s account of his years as a neurosurgeon is a heartwarming and engaging look at advanced medicine and what it takes to cut it (pun intended) as a brain surgeon. Each chapter focuses on a different disorder, all of which Marsh elucidates in heart-stopping detail and accessible prose. But it’s not just about the technical side, Marsh also recounts his encounters with remarkable patients, his somewhat fraught relationship with hospital administration, his career progression, and his own experiences under the knife. Do No Harm is a charmingly written, emotional and gripping work that explores mortality medicine, and what it takes to work in one of the toughest professions there is.
3) Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible – Peter Pomerantsev
Kicking off the top three is Peter Pomerantsev’s journey into the Russian propaganda system. A former TV producer, Pomerantsev’s experiences in Russia paint a picture of a postmodern politics in which, as the title states, nothing is true and everything is possible. People disappear for no reason, mobsters become film directors, the city constantly reinvents itself, young women go to schools that teach them how to seduce millionairies. Russia has internalised communism, oligarchy, mob rule and capitalism and brewed them all together to create a new political system that is all things at once, and yet can take away at a moment’s notice. It’s an infinitely strange book, delving into the Orwellian depths of the Russian propaganda system. “The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with twentieth-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.”
2) Feral – George Monbiot
A niche book but providing a new perspective, Feral is an intriguing look at the concept of “rewilding”. Whereas conservation conserves an environment, rewilding seeks to allow an area of land to grow completely wild, without maintenance or human regulation beyond that necessary to help it revert to its old state. Some could argue that too much rewilding would be tantamount to regression, but it raises some questions about how far we’ve changed our environment and to what extent everything is managed: hedgerows aren’t natural, rivers have obstructions removed from them for more or less aesthetic reasons (which causes flooding and narrows biodiversity), even our woodlands are managed. There’s very little that’s truly wild about England anymore. Peppered with vignettes of Monbiot’s experience in truly wild habitats, Feral is a compelling argument for allowing pockets of the UK to return to an untouched state, and even offers arguments for reintroducing long-lost species. You don’t have to agree with all the ideas in it, but it’s a consciousness-raising work that is a valuable addition to the ongoing environmental debate.
1) Bending Adversity – David Pilling
Perhaps an odd choice for number one, Bending Adversity was a thoroughly enjoyable and readable take on post-war Japanese society as told through the disasters Japan has weathered since. Pilling uses the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the post-war boom, economic stagnation, the tsunami and Fukushima disaster and many more as focal points around which to describe and explain the idiosyncrasies of Japanese society and culture. It’s this intriguing structure and viewpoint which makes Bending Adversity stand out against less mold-breaking books. It’s also written with real passion and energy, from an outsider attempting to make sense of a strange land through its politics, economics, culture and events. It’s balanced – critiquing where necessary, exhibiting a Barnesian patriotism, expansive in scope, and attempting to explain Japan’s uncertain place in the world with vigour and aplomb.