2016 end of year roundup

2016 was a pretty good reading year for me. In terms of pure numbers I read around 56 books (plus a bunch of short works that I didn’t blog). As best I can tell that’s fewer than almost any other literary blogger, but I’m happy enough with it given work and other interests and commitments.

It’s been a year of discoveries, which is great. I discovered (more accurately, other bloggers introduced me too) writers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Yuri Herrera and Alain Mabanckou; I finally gave Joseph Conrad a try, with admittedly mixed results but I’ll be reading more by him; and I got stuck into Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo imprint which has proven a very reliable source of quality crime fiction.

[Edit: I thought I’d add a picture to accompany the post. This has nothing to do with anything that follows, I even watched it before 2016, but it fits the blog and I like the movie.]


Anyway, enough with the preambles. 2016 has been a hard year to whittle down to just a dozen or so end of year favourites, but here they are (the order is based on when I read them rather than any attempt to rank them against each other):

Best Viennese novel: Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler. It might not seem it, but best Viennese novel tends to be a highly contested category on this blog. This is arguably a lesser Schnitzler but still a marvellous read and beautifully packaged by Pushkin Press in a wonderful hardback edition. It shares with the Szerb an affection both for its characters and for humanity more generally. I adored it and am really pleased that Pushkin brought it back to us.

Best novel about aging, among other things: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor. A novel about an old woman whiling away her days in a cheap hotel while waiting for infirmity to remove her last independence doesn’t sound funny and warm and human, but it is. Mrs Palfrey is astonishingly well observed, well written and horribly sad while at the same time not being at all depressing. It’s a marvel, much recommended to me and rightly so.

Best novel about, actually I have no idea what it’s about: Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. A disturbingly brilliant slice of weird fiction.  My review describes it using words such as “slippery”, “disquieting” and “dread”. I meant to read the sequels fairly soon after but got caught up in other reading. Correcting that omission will be one of my priorities for this year.

Best novel about youth, among other things: King of a Rainy Country, by Brigid Brophy. This captures the sense of possibility that comes with youth better than anything else I’ve read in a very long while. It’s also structurally clever, remarkably witty and just generally something of a delight. It’s probably the most romantic book on this list, with a lower case r, and all the better for being so.

Best novel on so many fronts that it’s really a bit shameful it’s not my book of the year: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. This is arguably the best book I read this year in terms of the sheer quality of the writing (though The Easter Parade would be in with a shot on that front too). This is a rich and superbly crafted novel which isn’t nearly as difficult as one might expect. Don’t be put off by her reputation, Woolf is a joy.

Best novel about a porcupine, among other things: Memoirs of a Porcupine, by Alain Mabanckou. Mabanckou uses African folklore to explore a wasted life in what was a very strong contender for my book of the year. I read this in follow-up to Amos Tutuola’s memorable The Palm Wine Drinkard (which Mabanckou gives a shout-out to in the course of Porcupine) and it led me on to Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (Mujila being influenced by Mabanckou).

Best novel that puts the fucking back into African literature: Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila. This was a last minute addition to the list, replacing St Aubyn’s Never Mind which got squeezed out in consequence. I thought this good but flawed, with phrasing that always impressed but that sometimes didn’t seem to bear too much close examination. Looking back though its energy and imagery have stayed with me and it (rather pushily) insisted on a place on the list.

Best domestic drama: The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad. I didn’t take particularly well to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I found less impressive than I’d expected and unfortunately a bit racist. The comments under the review persuaded me to try another Conrad, and rightly so since Heart of Darkness blew me away with its atmosphere and tremendous psychological insight.

Best overlooked novel: The Small Back Room, by Nigel Balchin. The Brophy was a strong contender in this category, but I don’t think the Balchin is even in print any more which definitely makes it overlooked. This is a taut and impressive thriller which makes an interdepartmental meeting as tense as the defusing of a new type of enemy bomb.

Best Mexican vampire novel: Vlad, by Carlos Fuentes. This also wins the “Best book that probably doesn’t deserve to be on this list category”. This was my first Fuentes and I understand it’s not seen as one of his strongest efforts. Being blunt it’s probably not as good a book as several I’ve not included this year. I really enjoyed it though and I found it interesting and memorable, and it’s my blog so on the list it goes.

Best novel for so many, many reasons: The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates. This was a December read and was very nearly my book of the year. It’s superbly well written, honest and beautiful. The novel as art form doesn’t get much better than this.

Drum roll, drum roll, drum roll …

Best book of 2016: Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera. I read this back in February or March and right through until the Yates in December there was no question but that this was my book of the year. I thought it fresh, exciting, interesting, intelligent, I could easily go on. This uses mythic structures to explore issues of language and identity and does so with flair. The Yates was so well written that it nearly squeezed this out from the top spot, but when I look back to the books that gave me joy in the year (to get a bit Marie Kondo for a moment) this definitely did. Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies also came close to making my end of year list, though much as I enjoyed it there’s no risk it would have beaten out Yates or Woolf to the top spot.

Honourary mentions. Each of these was on my shortlist, but got cut as I put this post together: Azazael by Youssef Ziedan, a fascinating exploration of sectarian conflict which deserves a much wider readership than it seems to have received; Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker, a really well executed exploration of a life sacrificed to music; Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson, probably the best new SF I’ve read in a very long while and a writer and series I intend to stick with; Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys, and you know it’s a good year when I don’t let a Rhys on to the end of year list; Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, which is simply the funniest book I read all year and certainly the most delightful; and Run River by Joan Didion, it’s Didion so naturally it’s good though for me this year it perhaps got slightly eclipsed by the Yates which I read not long after.

I should also mention as particularly noteworthy honourable mentions Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb and Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn, each of which actually did make the list and only got cut as I finalised this post as I decided not to go over twelve total. The Szerb is funny, warm, melancholic and rather wonderful while the St Aubyn is blackly comic and rather vicious. Both are very, very good.

Each of the honourary mentions on another day might well have made the end of year list, and some of them arguably merit it more than some of the books I did include. The gender balance isn’t as good as the last couple of years for those who keep track of such things – only three of the twelve on the list are books by women. Interestingly my balance over the year’s reading is much more even, but the Baker, Rhys and Didion didn’t quite make the end cut which I would have expected them to (and the Spark didn’t even make the honourable mentions, good as it was). Clearly the answer is that I need to read more Taylor, more Barbara Pym and probably more Nicola Barker.

So, there we are. Now I’ve written this I can read other people’s end of year lists (I didn’t want to be influenced by them) and find out what I should have read. I’m on holiday for two weeks in January so while I’ll probably leave some comments and hopefully get another post or two up the blog proper probably won’t be restarting until February.

Happy new Year!


Filed under Personal posts

32 responses to “2016 end of year roundup

  1. I’ve read a few of these but I shan’t list them as that’s boring. I always like the year wrap up–although sometimes the choices are difficult, but it’s an opportunity to review your reading.
    Have a great holiday.

  2. I love Didion as well, but I’ve had some wishy washy experiences with her work of late. Happy New Year!

  3. Transmigration of Bodies was among my best books of year.
    One of my big regrets last year was not reviewing Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower which was excellent but didn’t get much coverage.

  4. Thanks Guy. Are you doing one? Or have I missed it?

    Literary, wishy washy, ouch! Better luck in 2017, and happy new year!

    Grant, now that’s one of my regrets too. Is it too late to write it up now? I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts. Glad Transmigration worked for you too.

  5. Love the way that instead of a simple 1-10 you give them a title of their own! And a great selection of books there, several of which I’ve read and loved myself. I also love The Grand Budapest Hotel – one of the few modern films I’ve watched!

  6. Choosing a book of the year is already pretty artificial, if I gave them numbers it would imply a ranking that doesn’t really exist. It might be better to say these are the twelve I most wanted to remind myself and others of.

    I really do need to read my copy of Baum’s Grand Hotel, which made a couple of end of year lists this year and which does look a lot of fun. I should have saved the Grand Budapest poster for that…

  7. If you read the Baum, I’d be curious what you think of it. I liked it quite a bit, though it’s not having quite the staying power I thought it would.
    Interesting list. Glad you liked Secret Agent: underrated, IMO. I liked Europe in Autumn too, and keep meaning to get to the next one, but he is hard to find in the US.
    Best wishes for 2017!
    PS Never to late to blog about something–curious to hear your take on the Barker.

  8. OK, time to add Herrera to my daunting reading list for this year. Delighted you discovered the Brophy, arguably not even her best novel.

  9. Great list that shows the variety of your reading.

    I’ve read a few on your list, the Didion, Miss Pettigrew and the Szerb, all great.
    I remember your review of the Herrera but like Anthony, I find it daunting.
    I’ll have to read The Easter Parade, there are too many extatic reviews about it among bloggers I follow for me to ignore it.

    I will happily follow your literary adventures in 2017.

  10. Jonathan

    It must have taken ages trying to decide which book should win the ‘best novel about a porcupine’ category.

    I’ll have to check out the Yuri Herrera book.

  11. Ive not read that particular novel by Mabanckou but thoroughly enjoyed one of his other works – Broken Glass. Have you read it? https://bookertalk.com/2013/01/22/review-broken-glass-by-alain-mabanckou/

    Loved your take on the ‘best novel about’….” category

  12. ‘Only’ 56 books? That’s about 20 more than me – though I do have to read a lot for work (I teach) & don’t count that. Some good recommendations there. Enjoy your holiday, & look forward to your posts in 2017.

  13. My reading quantity is only a little more than yours Max. I’m retired, but have so many commitments that I find very little time to read. Yesterday I managed to read 5 pages! How can that be!

    BTW I do blog the short works. In fact individual short stories rank very high in hits on my blog which I find interesting.

    But, to your list. I concur regarding To the lighthouse, which is one of the few books (besides Austen’s) that I’ve read more than once, and could read again, However, I clearly need to look at Richard Yates, and Yuri Herrera (Which though is your top one – Signs preceding the end of the world or Transmigration of bodies? I think you had a little conniption in you Best Book paragraph?)

  14. Tony

    I think you may have meant to give your big prize to ‘Signs…’, not ‘Transmigration..’ …

  15. A fine list. I’ve read some if the novels on your list and found them all excellent as well. Mrs Palfrey. To the Lighthouse. The Easter Parade.
    Brigid Brophy is a writer I’m not familiar with so I have to look her up. Sounds like my kind of book. I’m glad to see the Balchin on your list. It was one if my Literature and War titles a while ago.

  16. Terrific list, quite a few I really want to read and did pick up the copy of Vlad that I had seen on sale after reading your review.

  17. I’ll definitely read the Baum. I actually started it a couple of months back but it got interrupted by work, which means it gets put back a bit so I can properly start it fresh but I’ve no real doubt that I’ll take to it.

    Anthony, all the better. I started Rhys with her best and it’s not my preferred approach. Better to build up I tend to think.

    Herrera has the merit of brevity, so even if you don’t take to it at least you won’t have to not take to it for long.

    Emma, The Easter Parade I think you’d find really interesting. I definitely recommend it. The Herrera I’d probably look for a French translation if there is one.

    Thanks Stu!

    Jonathan, it may be a bespoke category, but still a worthy winner. I think I’ve said before but I took the idea for these categories from industry award dinners – Best bond financed East European road deal 2017 – where you’re pretty sure your deal will win since it was the only bond financed road deal in Eastern Europe to close that year. The awards’ organisers make their money by selling tables at the event, and people are much more likely to attend if they’re fairly confident they’ll win something…

  18. Booker, I haven’t but I absolutely plan to. It’s the next of his I plan to read in fact. There are actually links between Porcupine and Broken Glass incidentally. I’ll save your review for after I’ve read it (if I haven’t already, which I may have done).

    Simon, that’s what I was averaging until a year or so back, and some of those were still great reading years. I think unless one has a lot of free time (or reads a lot of lighter stuff – a lot of crime reissues are very fast reads) one has to make choices and it’s not as if reading is the only thing in life. One has one’s relationships, work or other activities, other interests…

    WG, I normally would blog the small works, I just wasn’t up to it in the run up to Christmas and took a view that I’d pass on this occasion and get stuck back in with the new year. Signs was my top one (thanks Tony!) – I did mangle that paragraph. Distracted by the drum roll I guess and all the excitement. As with Emma I do think you’d like the Yates. In all honesty the Yates should probably have been the book of the year, but the Herrera was so new and unexpected to me and that too has value.

    Caroline, I think you’d like the Brophy. Have you read more Balchin since? I had heard there was an element of diminishing returns with him, but I have no idea how fair that is.

    RG, I’d love to see your thoughts on Vlad actually. Incidentally, I’ve bookmarked your thoughts on Sergio Y for after I’ve read it (I want to go in unspoiled as per Jonathan Gibbs’ piece on it).

  19. I think the number of books everyone has read over a year is kind of incidental as quality of reading is more important and books vary so much in length it’s a bit meaningless; it’s only interesting from a statistical point of view I guess. I’ve only read one of Taylor’s novels before and keep meaning to go back to read more. I’m really intrigued by Jeff Vandermeer’s writing – writing which people feel impossible to summarize always perks my interest. I think he has a new book out this year as well. Since you responded so strongly to To The Lighthouse I’d be intrigued what you make of The Waves (which for me is the ultimate novel of all time). I’m going to buy a copy of Herrarra’s book after your strong recommendation. I’ve admired the cover plenty of times when I’ve been in bookshops it’s silly I haven’t got it yet.

  20. I quoted the number partly as mostly when I see people quote numbers they’re always much higher, and I think there is some value to saying that we’re not all reading 100+ books a year (we might wish we were, but it’s fine we’re not). It is as you say though all a bit meaningless.

    Orlando’s my next Woolf, but I certainly plan to get to The Waves in time. Good to hear such high praise for it.

    The Herrera I meant to put as the top on one Signs. As pointed out above I botched the text slightly and while the link was right I referred instead to Transmigration which is very good and would likely have made the list but which wouldn’t have got the top spot.

  21. My, you have had a great year of reading! Very diverse too – there’s a real sense of range here. I’m delighted to see Mrs Palfrey and The Easter Parade on your list, complete with very elegant summaries. Hopefully, I’ve partly returned the favour for those Isherwood novels I picked up from you as a result of your previous reviews. The King of a Rainy Country is another gem, a real discovery for me as well. Given your fondness for it, may I suggest Olivia Manning’s The Doves of Venus? It’s another novel about the freshness of youth, one that really captures a sense of being young and having a world of possibilities in front of you. I couldn’t help but be reminded of it as I was reading the Brophy. (There’s a review over at mine which I think you’ve seen, but it’s there if you ever need a quick refresher.)

    Balchin is definitely on my list for the future. In fact, I have another of his novels – Darkness Falls from the Air – in my TBR. The St Aubyn sounds truly excellent, too. So many books I’d like to get to…

    It’s great to see a few favourites in your honourable mentions, particularly Miss Pettigrew, Young Man with a Horn and Voyage in the Dark. Oh, and Run River as well – all credit to Emma for writing about that one in the first place. I can see what you mean about it being slightly overshadowed by the Yates as there are clear similarities in style and tone between the two. Still, it’s a terrific novel, very impressive for a debut.

    All in all, that’s quite a list, Max – Happy New Year to you. I look forward to seeing what you’ll be reading in 2017.

  22. Palfrey and Easter were both gems, so thanks for both. I will look at the Manning.

    The St. Aubyn I think you’d like. The Balchin you have I’ll pick up if you take to it in your review, but I’ll wait to see that I think.

    Run River I think was a victim of timing in terms of my own reading. It is very impressive and Emma was quite right to sing its praises, but I still prefer Play It as It Lays which I think is extraordinary.

    For January probably just War and Peace I suspect. That’s going to take me ages, and then I want to get back to Proust. It’ll be quality over quantity.

    My end of year list for 2017 will probably be brief as having hopefully by then read War and Peace and the next Proust volume (The Captive & The Fugitive) I’ll only have had time to read about ten books in the remainder of the year …

  23. I haven’t read anything else by Balchin but I thought Guy read more of him.

  24. Thank you for the list! I’m new to your blog and I haven’t read–or even heard of!–a lot of these but those I have read I liked a lot so I’m going to give your “best of the year” title a shot. (Like some others here, I also appreciate the range of titles you read–and think “books featuring a porcupine” is a sadly underrepresented category. But why half the world is suddenly reading “War and Peace” eludes me.)

  25. Hi Mary, thanks for the comment! Please let me know what you think of any you do read, even (perhaps especially) if you don’t take to them.

    Re War and Peace, I suspect the recent TV adaptation (which I’ve not seen yet) has quite a lot to do with it, plus while I don’t remotely believe in New Year resolutions that doesn’t mean I’m immune to that whole fresh start vibe that goes around at this time of year.

    I always make the comparison to Game of Thrones, as it’s what stopped me reading that. I’d got two or three books in before bailing and at that point there were about 5,000 pages of GoT in print with plenty more still to come. I realised that I’d already read more about Westeros than the entirety of Proust and much more than W&P. I’m not knocking GoT, they’re decent books (the early ones better than the later from what I’ve seen), but it kind of put these blockbuster books in perspective.

    I’ve read SF trilogies longer than War and Peace and not blinked (though admittedly I had more free time then). Besides, so far it’s quite fun. Lots of dinner parties. There’s now some shenanigans about a will. It’s pretty fast moving stuff (which is good given how much of it there is to move). Sort of a posh Russian soap opera.

  26. Great list as ever – shocked not to see Woolf top the list!

  27. I really, really liked the Herrera. I’m not saying it’s better than the Woolf, but for me for this year it’s the one that best stuck with me. I think it’s just because it was so new to me.

    The Rhys is the only omission I’m really questioning presently.

  28. I think the Herrera pick was a great one and an exciting choice – I was just convinced, after your (excellent) TTL review, that you’d definitely go for VW.

  29. Ah, The Palm-Wine Drinkard has been on the reading list for a long time. Tram 83, I think, was on a “35 Books You Must Read in 2016” list on either The Guardian or the Telegraph, and I remember being intrigued by it – but didn’t end up buying it because a few other books on that list seemed even more interesting.

    On a similar note, you might enjoy Chigozie Obiama’s The Fisherman, which I am reading at the moment.

    Fuentes is a fantastic novelist, one of my favourites (his Paris Review interview is particularly good), and if you’re looking to follow up on Vlad, then the next book must be The Death of Artemio Cruz (his magnum opus, as such things go).

    I think it’s undeniable that Conrad brings a great deal of human insight to his literature, and is also a fantastic stylist (as Achebe himself admits in his review of Heart of Darkness) – so I’m not surprised that when he’s not writing about Africa, it’s really good quality stuff!

  30. Yay for Annihilation by Jeff V. In this situation I’d normally say that reading the rest of the trilogy will clear things up, but… no such luck with the Southern Reach books. Book 2 is very, VERY different in tone and style, then book 3 kinda converges the interests of the first two.. and gets even weirder. I really enjoyed them; partly as eco-horror, and partly with the ways they wrestle with an unreliable narrator who is so altered and changed by the unknowable nature of the environment that we can’t really trust or believe anything she says.

  31. Just back from holiday, hence the late replies.

    Lee, thanks. TTL? I’m being dense.

    Guatam, I have a review here of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. It’s worth reading. Incredibly influential as far as I can tell based on my frankly pathetic knowledge of African literature.

    I wouldn’t say anyone has to read Tram 83 (or anything else for that matter), but it worked for me. I’ve seen a few reviews and recommendations for The Fisherman so I’ll look that up.

    Thanks for the Fuentes recommendation. Very handy.

    Tomcat, he deserves it. I don’t really expect anything to get clearer, but then explanations can easily weaken the power of the sort of effect he’s aiming at.

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