Best Reads of 2016
So back in the early days of a bright looking 2016, before the general doom laden days of terror and tragedy set in, I set myself an ambitious reading goal.
52 Books in 52 Weeks.
At the time it seemed an unreachable target. Ive always been a regular reader but not to that extent. I’ve never previously even recorded the number of books I’ve read in any one year, but I would guess it wouldn’t even reach half of the 52 I was aiming for during 2016.
Anyhow, I’m a man who enjoys goal setting so I dove in with relish and here we are a year later and I practically smashed that target. If I take into account a couple of graphic novels I read last year too, I read 56 books in total!
Hell not only that but I compiled a weekly Vlog series covering it all! You can find that here if you want in depth, book by book reviews of my reading marathon.
So after all that I though it wise to record my 10 favourite reads of a rich literary year.
Partly to cement these pieces of literature in my mind and reflect and appreciate them for another brief moment, and maybe to help spread the word a little on some of the more obscure works also.
So here is my top 10 reads of 2016, in no particularly order.
Note. Some of these books are new releases, some of them are older works, some are obscure and some definitely aren’t (one has Matt Damon on the cover!) – I just read anything that caught my eye, not necessarily books that were first released last year.
Kit De Waal
I met author Kit at a writing event I was graciously invited to by Penguin books back in October. This event was designed to find new up and coming authors from impoverished and marginalised communities, with an intent to bring more diversity and range to the publishing roster and offer readers stories from all corners of society (more on that event here).
My Name is Leon is such a story – a heartbreaking tale of adoption and a broken family. The titular Leon is a 8 year old boy whose troubled mother struggles to provide for him and his newborn brother Jake. She soon spirals into post natal depression and neglects her children. Both boys are adopted into foster families but Jake, being only a few months old and of different colour, is adopted by a completely different family to his older brother. We then follow Leon as he struggles to adapt to his new life, recover from the loss of his family and attempt to grow into a mature and well rounded young man.
This is a strong debut novel that really details the trials and tribulations of a broken home and a boy struggling to grow up under turbulent circumstances, a real and authentic glimpse into a sad and unfortunate side of society.
I’m pretty late to the party when it comes to The Martian given Matt Damon adorns the cover of my copy. Space has been a heavy theme in my reading this year and aside from this I would also recommend astronaut Chris Hadfields biography and Packing For Mars by Mary Roach, both entertaining and insightful looks into the mechanics and experiences of space exploration.
The Martian though offers a very well researched and scientifically accurate tale of survival set against the bleakest of backdrops. No doubt most people are aware of The Martian and I need not delve into much detail here, needless to say the impeccably researched details and scientific accuracy (even the shuttle flight paths were calculated accurately but the author), make for a fascinating as well as entertaining sci-fi survival story.
A haunting and tragic dystopian sci-fi read, Nod appears to be criminally underrated. I’ve seen little or no promotion, advertisement or coverage related to Adrian Barnes’s unique vision of an insomnia curse that spreads across his city. The mass population descend into virtual zombies as the sleep deprivation kicks as the days continue to pass, society crumbling because of this. Only a few lucky ones attempt to continue life as best as possible as they have inexplicably avoided the curse and can sleep as normal – they are labelled ‘sleepers’ and turned on by the sleep deprived masses.
Therein lies the genius of Nod as Paul’s wife descends into a near animalistic state whilst he is unaffected by the curse and sleeps soundly, leading to a heartbreaking account of a man helplessly losing his spouse.
Nod is a tragic and striking story but the real life circumstances of Adrian Barnes, as detailed in an author essay in the back of the book, gives the whole thing a deeper real life undertone. Adrian was fighting terminal cancer when writing the book and upon its publication his outlook wasn’t great by his own admission. This real world tragedy brings a whole alternative perspective to the already bleak and catastrophic vision of the future – a truly memorable piece of writing.
A beautifully composed and atmospheric murder mystery set in a foggy and overcast San Francisco bay, The Poison Artist plays out like a classic film Noir – all dark backdrops, dangerous shadows and mysterious strangers. We follow toxicologist Caleb as he is drawn into a murder investigation after his friend, a chief medical examiner, asks him to take a look at a mysterious body that has washed up in the bay.
Throw into the mix an enigmatic and attractive women who accosts Caleb in a local bar and his own psychological scars from a messy break up, and you have all the ingredients for a hypnotic and disturbing thriller that builds to a shocking crescendo.
Blackass doesn’t hold back in its searing examination of race and metamorphosis as a native black Lagos resident inexplicably wakes up on one ordinary morning transformed into a white man. Overnight Furo’s world is completely transformed as opportunities open up to this ‘white’ man and his life begins to dramatically change for the better. This is Kafka’s metamorphosis re-imagined brilliantly.
What is striking about Blackass is the way in which our main character begins to change due to his sudden transformation, he himself morphs from a honest family man into a shallow and arrogant person as the world around him seemingly opens up to him and affords him a preferential and fairly privileged life. His white skin suddenly offering him riches and advantages previously not available to him. A strong and original examination of physical and psychological transformations.
I can’t be the only one slightly confused and bewildered by the rise of erotica over the past few years? Everything has its place of course but fueled by the Fifty shades…phenomenon, the ranks of self published erotica eBooks seem to grow exponentially by the day.
Well, leave it to good old Chuck Palahniuk to come along and deliver a wildly entertaining and raucous satire on the whole genre.
Beautiful You follows the genre template for its first half as our low-level worker Peggy is seduced by a mega-billionaire client of the lawyer firm she works for. What follows are sexual encounters that take her to undreamed of heights and offer her unrivaled pleasures at the hands of her new boyfriend and his range of experimental ‘toys’.
Its around the midpoint however that this really spins on its head and almost reads like a middle finger to the mommy-porn craze. It transpires that these ‘toys’ Peggy has been so enjoying are the first in a line of female pleasure items designed to virtually replace men. From here Beautiful You descends into a crazy action packed sexual thriller full of entertainment, excitement and typical Palahniuk excesses.
McGuire plunges us on a headlong into a doomed whaling expedition in the late 1850’s. We follow Patrick Summer a former army doctor who volunteers for a 6 month expedition as the ship’s surgeon. It soon descends into a dark and murky voyage of betrayal, depravity and shady ethics. The ill fated ship becomes stranded on the northern ice fields and the divided and squabbling crew are pitched into a battle for survival against the enclosing elements and increasing group tensions. The North Water is a brilliantly realised tale that portrays a lost industry set against a backdrop of questionable individuals and high stakes – a bloody and rotten, but incredibly well written thriller about that explores human relationships under extreme circumstances.
Perhaps the most important book I devoured this year, Reasons To Stay Alive is a nonfiction account of depression from famed YA author Matt Haig. Haig is a long term sufferer of depression and this searingly honest account of a crippling illness is quite the revelation. Haig crams a hell of a lot into a short 150 odd pages as we hear about his long term suffering, his brushes with suicide and his continuing battle with the disease. He paints a detailed but optimistic outlook and offers his own personal insights, advice and coping mechanism for those suffering from chronic depression. An important and timely portrayal of an insidious and dangerous condition that continues to claim numerous lives.
For those not familiar with Richard Ayoade, a British TV star, comedian, film director and now author, this celebrity autobiography may been a tad confusing and perplexing. For this who know all about Moss from the IT crowd, have enjoyed his intelligent and thoughtful films (Submarine, The Double), and are familiar with his particular brand of comedy and personality – this will be one of the funniest and entertaining books you will read.
Ayoade on Ayoade is a 300 page interview he conducts with himself in which he shamelessly deconstructs the pompous celebrity autobiography in his own unique off kilter style. He mimics Fabers traditional and celebrated series in which filmmakers discuss their works by interviewing a ridiculous, surreal, overblown version of himself. This is a wholly silly, completely ludicrous and persistently farcical series of faux interviews that reveal nothing atall about Ayoade himself and offer no insight whatsoever into his motivations and his body of work.
However for those of us who are well versed in his entirely individual style and are big fans – as i unashamedly am – this will have you howling with laughter for its entire duration.
McCarthy is genuine literary legend at this point but after reading The Road and Blood Meridian a few years back, I somehow managed to dodge No Country for a good number of years, even missing the Hollywood film adaptation a few years back. Needless to say when i eventually picked it up this year it was a genuinely memorable and compelling western-thriller set on the Mexican-American border. At this point the book hardly needs promotion by me, but aboard a transatlantic 12 hour flight this book offered me complete escapism. A racy pounding plot full of twists, punchy dialogue, memorable characters and one of the best villains written in contemporary fiction – No Country… is a harrowing , sad, but resonant novel.
A few notable mentions:
Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker :- A commercial pilots account of his career and his life aboard these transatlantic flying vessels. Full of beautiful imagery and detail and portrays a real love of aviation.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaimen :- Beautifully imagined fantasy by and author that probably needs no introduction to most.
The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett :- Bartlett dives head long into the seedy underbelly of the internet, interviewing cam girls, buying stuff on Silk Row and generally revealing the sinister underbelly of the web.