Okay, 2016 was a bad year, in many more ways than I would care to enumerate. But on a personal level, it was a year in which silence seemed to fall, as if I became both deaf and mute. Not literally, I hasten to add, but metaphorically: I seemed to lose the ability to read and to write.
It began with writing. There came a point, during the Spring, when I wrote a review of a book I loved. Don’t bother looking for it, it was never published, it was never even submitted. I knew even as I was writing it that the review was awful. The effort to write that review, and the emotional let-down of recognising how bad it was (and that I was incapable of fixing it), felt like the culmination of many things, not all of them bad, but collectively all of them were mentally exhausting. All of a sudden the idea of writing anything filled me with dread. I couldn’t do it. For a while I didn’t write anything; then I wrote a few less challenging pieces, and eventually I started writing reviews again. The facility didn’t seem to be impaired. In all, I got through the slump fairly quickly and in better order than I had any right to expect. But since then I have deliberately cut down on the amount of reviewing I do.
It was a brief period, less than two months in total, in which writing itself was a terrifying impossibility. As I began to pull myself out of it, the act of writing remained horrible. I would wring out of myself maybe one or two hundred words a day at best, and those words would be birthed in agony, and invariably felt to me to be mediocre or worse. I’m still not completely out of the other side. But even this, wretched as it was, was mild compared to a deeper ill that this inability to write revealed.
Because suddenly I found myself unable to read. I would do anything to avoid picking up a book. When I did pick up a book I would read at most a page or two before I set it down again, unable to concentrate, unable to take it in. When I read I felt guilty, as if I was stealing time away from something, anything, that I should be doing. I wanted to read, the urge to read was almost a physical pain. Yet it felt wrong to do so. Reading was an ordeal, a punishment. This was, I knew, intimately connected with my difficulties writing. For the past far too many years, the vast majority of my reading has been for a purpose: I read for an award, I read to write a review, I read to inform an article. Reading is a means to an end, a job; I love the job, but all at once it was oppressive, tiring, an imposition. I still wanted to read, I still wanted to write, but for a while I couldn’t see any way of doing either.
The inability to read has lasted longer than the inability to write. I don’t yet know if I am out of the woods. There has been at least one month this year when I did not read a single book, and several others where I read only one or at most two. The fact that, in the end, I read as many books as I did over the course of the year is largely down to two months: September, when we were away on holiday and I was getting through nearly a book a day for the fortnight, and December, when the Christmas period has similarly given me permission to read without guilt. But those were special circumstances, and during each period I was careful to pick books as different as possible from anything I might feel obliged to read. How things will pan out in January I just don’t know.
Every year, since the dim and distant days of LiveJournal, I have produced a post like this at New Year: a simple list, with brief comments, of all the books I read during the year. This year the list is ten, maybe twenty books shorter than usual. I toyed with the idea of not producing this post at all, it was hard to convince myself there was any point in doing so, it was harder still to determine whether I had the mental energy for the job. As you can see, in the end I am writing the post, but at the back of my weary mind there are all sorts of reservations and caveats.
As ever, the books are arranged in the order in which I read them. Any title in bold is one I would recommend as among the better books of the year. Where possible, I have linked to my review of the book, otherwise there’s a comment here. I should add that too many of these books are associated inescapably with the mental silence of the year; some felt like a cause of that silence, others felt like a (temporary) relief from it. Bear in mind, therefore, that some of these judgements may be skewed.
1: Finale by Thomas Mallon which I wrote about here.
2: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Why is this book so popular? Why does it get onto award shortlists? It is terrible: twee, cosy, simplistic, and so artificially plotted that the solution to every problem is obvious from the moment that the problem is first hinted at. I thought we’d got past this sort of feeble writing in the 1950s.
3: Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds. A competent novella, but it really doesn’t rise above that. And didn’t Reynolds use this scenario for a rather better short story some years back?
4: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor. A novel written with a bit of vim, with passion. There are perhaps too many rough edges in this book and the superhero story is a mess, but somehow the whole thing works.
5: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. The more I read KSR, the more I find the same tics and tropes surfacing, and the more irritating they become. The further I got into the book the less inspired I was by it.
6: The Dark Valley by Piers Brendon. I was reading this, off and on, for a long time. It’s a history of the 1930s that dots regularly back and forth between Britain, America, Germany, the Soviet Union, France, Italy and Japan, with one passage that shifts to Spain for the Civil War. I’m not really sure I learned much that was new from the book, and the writing was often leaden, but there were some interesting things, especially about the militarisation of Japan.
7: 1966 by Jon Savage. A month-by-month account of the year in popular music; nostalgic mostly, reminders of things I was listening to back then, but with enough interesting and informative detail to make this well worth reading.
8: Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo, a thrilling, necessary collection that I reviewed at Strange Horizons.
9: Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood. One of my books of 2016, which I reviewed for Vector.
10: Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman. Definitely one of the two best novels of 2015: seek it out, it is glorious.
11: The Fold by Peter Clines. I was reading for the Campbell, and for most books a chapter or two is enough to tell you it isn’t in contention. This one, for some reason, I just kept reading; it’s a clunky thriller but reasonably entertaining. (It was around here, by the way, that I was starting to have real problems reading and writing.)
12: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson. Another clever and effective thriller.
13: The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts. As far as I am concerned, the biggest scandal of the year was the fact that this novel didn’t even feature on the shortlist for any award (apart from the Campbell). The novel is brilliant, it deserved to be in contention for every award going.
14: Promised You A Miracle: UK80-82 by Andy Beckett. My interest in recent British history continues with this account of the country during the first two years of Thatcher’s rule. Beckett always strikes me as more journalist than historian, his strength is seeking out and interviewing people who were there rather than providing historical perspective, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in this book.
15: Touch by Claire North. I really liked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, but it feels that she’s just repeating the trick in this novel. It doesn’t feel fresh, it doesn’t feel fully thought-through, and it doesn’t really hang together.
16: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. Taken at face value this is a really powerful post-catastrophe novel, the background detail of life in a water-starved USA stuck me as very convincing. Dig under the surface, though, and it becomes just a little less salubrious, with the same sort of questionable gender politics found in The Windup Girl.
17: Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift. A very engaging short novel that I wrote about here.
18: Modernism and Science Fiction by Paul March-Russell, an interesting but rather too brief look at this fascinating subject, which I reviewed for Foundation.
19: Into Everywhere by Paul McAuley. The second of his Jackaroo novels, and I think much better than the first. I reviewed this for Interzone.
20: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. By this time I was trying to distract myself from my reading problems by reading old detective novels. I wrote about this one here.
21: Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder. Basically a conversation between the then-dying Judt and his long-time friend Snyder. I wish I had conversations like this, a wide-ranging, very personal but consistently fascinating account of European history over the last half-century or so.
22: The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham. More crime fiction: I wrote about this here.
23: Stories for Chip edited by Nisi Shawl & Bill Campbell. A collection, mostly fiction though with the occasional non-fiction piece, in honour of Samuel R. Delany. The quality is variable, some is very good, some not so good, but too few of the writers seem to have any real awareness of Delany’s own advice about writing fiction. Reviewed for Vector.
24: The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark. My first encounter with Spark for too many years, I wrote about it here.
25: The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. More crime fiction. I’ve never read Crispin before, and wrote about the experience here.
26: The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin. And again.
27: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. I really didn’t like this book, as you might gather from my review at Strange Horizons.
28: Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin. Once more with feeling. Do you detect a theme?
29: Island Stories by Raphael Samuel. I’ve been meaning to read some Samuel for a long time, and this is a posthumous collection of his essays. Rather bitty, a lot of the pieces were incomplete at the time of his death, but at their best these are wonderful.
30: The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer. A massive and essential anthology. It has its flaws, but many more virtues. I reviewed it for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
31: Decision at Delphi by Helen MacInnes. In my late teens, early twenties I was obsessed with the spy novels of Helen MacInnes. I rediscovered them last year when I picked up one of her books in a car boot sale. Now I’m going back to them again. This was always one of my favourites.
32: The Gradual by Christopher Priest. It took me longer to get into this novel than is usual with Priest’s books, and when I finished it I still wasn’t totally convinced. Then I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and the more I thought the more complex it revealed itself to be. The plot is a beautifully oiled machine whose workings are almost entirely hidden while you read the book but which become a thing of wonder when you look back on it and see how much was going on under the surface. Definitely one of the books of the year.
33: The Venetian Affair by Helen MacInnes. I got some amazing books for my birthday, and this was one of them. You relax with the story like an old friend.
34: Zero K by Don DeLillo. DeLillo has used science fiction before, in Ratner’s Star and the odd short story, but here he shies away from the sf implications of his subject, and the novel is actually all the better for it.
35: A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker. The novel based on Samuel Beckett’s wartime experience working for the resistance in France is as crisp and cool and oblique and funny as you’d expect if Beckett had written it himself.
36: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. And from the allusive and elusive brevity of Beckettian prose we turn to richness of Victorian literature. Sarah Perry gets the voice just right in a novel that has Gothic overtones, but an awful lot of complex undertones, such as the competing roles of science and religion in shaping late 19th century society. There’s a lot more going on in this novel than appears on the surface.
37: Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom. I discovered the Shardlake novels sometime last year, and I’m now engaged in working my way through them. This is the second, set just at that point when Thomas Cromwell is losing his influence. The sense of what it was like to live at that point may not quite have the delicate precision of Hilary Mantel, but then there’s a thriller plot to drive things along.
38: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. The novel I was most reminded of as I read through this was Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban; this is a post-apocalyptic past rather than a post-apocalyptic future, but the way that place and time are conveyed through the language is very similar. The story of a brash, egotistical would-be rebel against the Norman invaders in the fen country comes across as a vivid and inevitable tragedy.
39: Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. I think this is meant to be a sequel to The Wake, certainly there is a moment when we glimpse The Wake as though it were a dream. But this is nowhere near as satisfying. It’s a white room story, a single figure isolated in an essentially featureless setting, or rather a series of them since the setting shifts at several points during the story without actually providing any more substance. It’s the sort of story where the author is trying to imply that it is all happening within the mind of the character (think Mantissa by John Fowles, Travels in the Scriptorum by Paul Auster) and it never really works.
40: The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark. More deliciously acerbic Spark, as a malevolent spirit who may be the devil interferes with the lives of the people in a small South London locale.
41: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley. I approached this novel with some trepidation (it has a reputation as literary horror, which is not my thing), and I have to say it didn’t entirely work for me. The characters at the centre of the novel are devout churchgoers, and their rituals and beliefs are central to the plot, but since I’ve never had any religious inclinations I find it difficult to take these things seriously. Nevertheless, the way the emptiness of the landscape reflects the emptiness of the lives is vividly done and I ended up reading it with quite a lot of pleasure.
42: Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World by Ben Wilson. The subtitle is a lie, Britain is no more central to this book than America, China, India or Australia. It’s the story of the 1850s, taking us from the laying of the first undersea cables to the fashion for beards, from the Crimean War to the Opium War to the Indian Mutiny, from the Great Exhibition to the erosion of British imperial might. It’s a story of connections, often unexpected, that produce unlikely knock-on effects cross the globe. Thus the extension of the railway network across India was primarily intended to spread British political influence into the subcontinent’s semi-independent statelets, but it also provided a route for Indian cotton growers to reach export markets, so when the American Civil War came and the cotton mills of Lancashire were starved of Southern cotton there was another source of supply to replace it, which is why Britain in the end never felt compelled to recognise the Confederacy.
43: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters. Curious that this and the Colson Whitehead should come along at more or less the same time to present more or less the same subject: the stain of slavery on the American body politic. The Winters is a good thriller, at its best when showing the caustic effect that the survival of slavery has on the supposedly free states of America. It falls down somewhat when the focus shifts to the slave states, there’s always a sense of looking at slavery from the outside, there’s something visceral missing from the book. Nevertheless it is a very good book.
44: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. But the Winters is outshone by Whitehead. This is my novel of the year, a book that for the most part avoids the grand guignol of slavery and yet one in which every sentence is replete with the horror of that institution.
45: At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. A sort of group biography and introduction to the thought of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl. I never had much time for existentialism. When I was studying philosophy at university I dipped into books by both Heidegger and Sartre, and was put off by the clotted generally incomprehensible prose in both. My general stance has always been that if ideas cannot be clearly expressed then it is likely that the ideas themselves are not clear. Bakewell does go some way towards clarifying things, but even she ties herself in knots over some of the more abstruse aspects of their work. In the end I felt I had learned something useful and insightful about existentialism, I also realised that I probably wouldn’t have liked either Sartre or Heidegger (but Merleau-Ponty, who I previously knew about through Josephine Saxton’s Jane Saint books, is a rather different matter).
46: Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes. Her first novel, though you’d hardly know it, all the familiar ingredients are here.
47: Time Pieces by John Banville. I’m not exactly sure what this is: it’s a series of photographs of Dublin around which Banville has weaved a series of reminiscences (so the book is part memoir), anecdotes about the city (so it is part travel guide), gossip about various past inhabitants (part history), and present day encounters (part journalism). But it is Banville, so the end result is oddly satisfying.
48: Selected Poems by John Fowles. Fowles was writing poetry before he ever wrote fiction, and you can see something of the poet in his prose style. He was, I think, a much better novelist than poet, but some of these poems, especially the Greek ones, are very good indeed.
49: Nutshell by Ian McEwan. I liked McEwan’s perverse early short stories, and thought he really came into his own as a writer around the time of The Innocent and Enduring Love, but the books he’s written since Saturday have felt uninspired and lifeless. This bucks the trend somewhat, it’s certainly the best thing he’s done for some years. The narrator is a baby in the womb who is able to listen in on what is going on around it, which turns out to be a murder plot that recapitulates Hamlet: his mother Trudy and her lover Claude are planning the murder of her husband and his brother. The baby is insufferably middle class, exquisite taste in fine wines, a dread of being adopted by a working class family, occasionally dropping foreign phrases into his narration. But that aside, the story works very well, partly at least because it is so blatantly stolen from Shakespeare.
50: New Atlantis, Volume 1 by Brian Stableford. I’ve got three more volumes to read before I can write the review I’m supposed to be doing of this revision and expansion of the work he did in Scientific Romance in Britain. But I already suspect that my review is going to be very long, since I’ve got masses of notes just on this first volume, mostly pointing out lazy or inadequate research, faulty memory, or places where he is misinterpreting evidence to fit a predetermined theory. A lot of these problems relate to relatively minor points (Stableford is quite strong on original sources even if he cites virtually no secondary sources), but there are enough of them to create doubt about everything else. And his history of British sf skips from Francis Bacon to Jonathan Swift, eliding a huge chunk of British fiction including work by Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn; and Mary Shelley, when she does appear, is simply an adjunct to Percy. Poor Jane Webb’s finds that all of the technological ideas described in The Mummy are ascribed to her former montor, John Martin. It’s been a long time since I’ve argued with a book as much as I am arguing with this one, and that, I think, may be a hopeful sign for the future.