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!