It’s that time of the year again: a chance to reflect on all the wonderful books I’ve read in what has been a pretty scary twelve-month. Reading has rarely provided a more welcome retreat from a world that’s rarely seemed more chaotic or terrifying.
So, without further ramblage, here’s a short selection of my favourite books of the year. Apart from the ‘Discovery’ choice, all have been published (in the UK) in 2016. Which brings me to my first confession: I’ve not read that many new books this year. Casting a quick eye over my book log I see that 2016 has been a year of catching up with books I missed on first release; books I always meant to read but never quite caught.
Book of the Year:
Custodian of Marvels; Rod Duncan
It’s been a year of sequels. Sorry about that. But the sequels I’ve read have been top quality and none more so than this.
The Custodian of Marvels is the third book in the Elizabeth Barnabus series, and is that rare thing: a follow-up that surpasses the original. In (and beyond) the richly-drawn lands of the Gas-Lit Empire we see an alternative world that is neither utopia nor dystopia but plausible and fulfilling. Almost every scene tells us more about about both characters (and Elizabeth Barnabus is a wonderful creation) and society. A mention should also be given to the dwarf Fabulo, who enriches every scene he’s in.
Also, I’ve shared the odd Twitter-word with Mr Duncan and he’s a lovely man. Makes me want to live in Leicester.
The Murder of Mary Russell; Laurie R. King
Book #14 in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, this is a triumphant return to form after the slightly disappointing Dreaming Spies. It explores the history of Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs Hudson, giving one of Conan Doyle’s minor characters the depth and resonance she previously lacked.
I’ve read the whole series and, to me, King’s books are the closest you can get to the continuation of the Holmes canon. The characters are so well drawn, so plausible; they take the ‘afterlife’ of Holmes into new – but totally believable – directions.
The Woman in Blue; Elly Griffiths
I started reading Elly Griffiths because this crime series (Ruth Galloway; this is #8) is set in Norfolk, a county I still think of as home. I was immediately struck by the use of the present tense, which I found slightly jarring at first but now want to try out for myself.
This might be the best of the series; a wonderful setting (the holy village of Walsingham) and great supporting characters. But the real joy is the growth and awkwardness in the relationships between the central characters: adultery, confusion, the sheer humanity of Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson. It’s utterly convincing.
And there’s a murder in there too. What more can we ask for?
Best Dr Who
Shadow in the Glass; Justin Richards & Stephen Cole
Okay, so the 6th Doctor is probably my least favourite. His personality grates. Add in Hitler and the myths around his death (yawn?) and there are all the recipes for a disaster here. And yet…
A great ‘assistant’. Real horror. A proper kick-in-the-teeth ending. Somehow this novel really works. This is Doctor Who stepping a toe firmly into nightmare – and getting it absolutely right.
Best Graphic Novel: also Best Non-Fiction
The Trouble With Women; Jacky Fleming
Hilarious. Horrifying. Dripping with cynicism. This is one of those books that you read and then think ‘who can I give this to?’
To say too much about this would be to spoil it. Read it. Laugh. Learn.
And then get angry.
The Summer People; Kelly Link
Well. This is a bit of an oddity. I got a free copy of this from a Twitter-based giveaway; the publishers said ‘anyone want one?’ and I put my hand up just because you can never get enough books.
And it’s really good. Written with delicacy and grace, the borders between reality and fantasy slowly disintegrate. Gothic, fairytale, coming-of-age; it’s amazing how much this packs it in such a short read. This is just one of those books you finish saying ‘Yes. That just felt right.’
This is my section to explore my favourite reads that weren’t published in 2016: that I somehow missed and have crawled back to, tail between the legs.
Old Man’s War, John Scalzi
Admission: I’d never heard of Scalzi until he started appearing in my Twitter-feed. Enough times was he retweeted for me to get a sense that he was worth hunting down.
I could talk at length about the story, but what really struck me was the simple quality of his writing. His novels move with real pace it’s amazing how he manages to pack in such depth – in character, in world, and with such humour. I always admire writers who can get wit into their stories as it’s a trick I’ve never managed to pull off.
This is how Twitter works, folks. Don’t just shout about your work. Be human. Be nice. The readers will come.
Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett
Ah, charity booksales. Where would we be without them? This is where I get to pick up things I’ve heard of and think I should read. Occasionally you get gems.
This is a long book that feels much shorter because the writing flows so freely. The topic – religion and obsession – and setting (12th century England) are heavy but Follett makes them look easy. As you might have guessed, I love books that hide the hard work behind smooth writing. This deserves the respect it’s garnered since its release.
Ack-Ack Macaque; Gareth Powell
I’d heard vague rumours of this and took it on a punt. In truth, I wasn’t expecting much. Monkeys and Nazis. Humour and silliness: at best I was anticipating a fun adventure.
It’s a lot more than this. It’s a steampunk-inspired story with surprising heart. There’s a lot to it: the future of artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness, and real depth of character. There’s a lot to make you think, a lot of deep philosophy carefully contained in – yes – a fun action-adventure. I’m sorry I didn’t get to it sooner.
* * *
And that, good people, is that. Another year done. Another year of wonderful books, most of which have probably passed me by and slipped off into the ether.
I hope it’s been a magnificent year for you and yours. See you in January for more book-based banter and writerly witterings. Just remember: as those most bodacious philosophers Bill S. Preston esquire & Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan entreated us, be excellent to each other.