Thursday, 12 January 2017

Top 10 books I read during 2016

Best books of 2016

2016 is done, and here's the top 10 books I read in 2016!

But first, a few words on hon' mentions:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

To be quite honest, this didn't actually make the shortlist, but it is still worthy of a shout-out: the idea is adventurous, the execution is excellent. Mitchell walks a fine line between creating a distinctive voice for each story whilst still making them feel like a larger overall story. Filled with ideas, humour, tragedy, action - it's a book the marries the big and the small beautifully. The writing can be a bit too on the dry side at times though.

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

This is an odd beast, well written throughout and highly idiosyncratic. The story is built around a number of real texts and characters, meaning from the off I was ill-prepared to really get the most out of the story. The ideas and atmosphere conjured by the story were excellent, but the novel felt like a bit of a meander that never really went anywhere. Set-pieces strung together without the narrative drive to properly give them weight: nonetheless, what The Vorrh does right it does brilliantly.

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie's first foray into YA waters was a compulsive, well-written story featuring a particularly interesting protagonist. This was the one that gave me the most indecision as to whether or not it was worthy of inclusion, so consider it an honourary number 11.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Atwood's famous (not sci-fi) sci-fi novel is a small and detailed depiction of a society, and the experience of a "handmaid" in the servitude of one of the society's most prominent figures. The novel deals with many blunt themes, but Atwood weaves them in subtly and explores nuances to an extent that took me aback. Atwood's prose is mostly beautiful, but occasionally falls into overwriting and the physical description that goes into the novel goes into detail that can be a little pointless. Couple that with the mono-atmosphere of crushing oppression, and I found I could never quite outright enjoy the novel. Not that I regret reading it - it's a remarkable, possibly brilliant novel.

The main event:

10. Nymphomation by Jeff Noon

Nymphomation is the fourth of Noon's novels and serves as a direct prequel to Vurt, but also a sort-of sequel to Automated Alice. By my reckoning it's the closest he's come to reaching the heights of Vurt. Filled with ideas, Vurt tells a story of experimentation and blends reality, computation and the altered perception that made him famous. It has one hell of a finale.

9. Weaveworld by Clive Barker

Weaveworld is an unwieldy, uneven creature. Frequent resets are put on the story, and what is meant to be downtime deflates the story's momentum. It's tone is also a little off - sometimes it's too grotesque and horror-y to really work with some of the fairy tale fantasy style. Nonetheless, this epic is filled with great set-pieces and ideas, and tells a story that builds brilliantly. It's most comparable to a full TV series than anything else.

8. The Sirens of Titan

SoT has a very different feel to it than any of the other Vonnegut books I've read - there's a Douglas Adams quality to the story. It's got some great ideas, some curious narrative choices and at times is a bit fractured. There's a curious pathos to the book too, and somehow the novel manages to draw it's scattered strands together.

7. The Builders by Daniel Polansky

Goddamn, this was fun.

6. The Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

The Angelmaker was my first venture into the fiction of Nick Harkaway, and hoo boy. This novel was most of the genres. It was a wacky overstuffed action drama, a comic book and a hollywood movie, a superspy gangster flick, filled with fantastical trappings and sci-fi ideas. Larger than life characters. Early I mentioned the set-pieces in Weaveworld, but this novel is pretty much the king of set pieces. It was let down, however, by structural issues - don't expect the central plot to actually start moving until roughly 450 pages in.

5. Blue Beard by Kurt Vonnegut

This year was year of Vonnegut for me, as I read seven of his novels. Blue Beard stands out as the only one which is not generally underpinned by cynicism about life in general, although it's not free from pot shots at the culture of the rich. It's a down to earth novel, no structural tricks or fantastical ideas. It's the story of an Armenia-American artist who keeps to himself, and what happens when people start imposing themselves on his life. Has one hell of an ending.

4. After Dark by Haruki Murakami

After Dark takes place in one night, as a young woman and a young man meet in a cafe. This off-beat story is sinister at times and gritty at times, but filled with heart and novelty. Murakami creates a real sense of Murakami-ness without dipping into the casually fantastical, and the comparative length of the story is a good fit I think. There's just enough story told, and just a hint of resolution - but in this well-crafted tale, that hint is enough.

3. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Area X is a creation of incredible power, heavy and suffocating, but beautiful and wonderous. The biologist, too, makes a main character who fits the story brilliantly. She's distant and cold, and as the reader you definitely can't trust her. This a novel that really should have commanded the number one spot, and yet...

(Notice that the sequels aren't on this list).

2. Nation by Terry Pratchett

So this might be my favourite Pratchett book. Full of heart, anger and humour, Pratchett has created a story here where the little things are the king. It's a triumph of small heroism, and he creates characters that are a joy to spend time with. Not that it lacks ideas, or that it doesn't have big moments. Nation is a coming of age story that traverses ideas and emotions whilst keeping the focus tight. Pratchett's writing is as brilliant as it always was.

1. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

The Gone-Away World is an incredible romp, similarly filled with ideas and wit and tragedy to The Angelmaker, but a little bit less bombastic. The trade-off is that the structure of the story makes sense and the focus on characterisation is a lot stronger. Not to mention it has, hands down, the best will-they-or-won't-they I've ever come across. It's a twisty and turn-y adventure, with more ideas than you can shake a stick at. It's a glorious triumph.