Book of the Year 2016

books

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.

Honourable mentions:

 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.

Best Short:

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.’

Best Discovery

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.

Discovery Mentions:

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.

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

There’ve been many stories about the end of civilisation. Right back to War of the Worlds (Wells), through Day of the Triffids (Wyndham) and on to Mostly Harmless (Adams), writers have delighted in killing lots and lots of people. And the trend sees no sign of ending. Even my own work, Chivalry, has the end of nations as its backdrop.

 

Why is this? What is it in the imagination that leads us to such grim speculation?

 

I guess that part of it is that there’s something in all of us that shares the fear. There’s a common knowledge (rightly or wrongly) that we are constantly walking at the edge of the abyss. We all have so many worries, many stoked by the media, that we are about to enter a new Dark Age. So it’s easy to come up with a world-destroying mechanism that people will accept, will buy into. We’ve also learned so much more about our planet and the solar system we live in; we’re now so aware of the possibility of a supervolcano plunging us into an instant Ice Age or of a comet doing to us what one did for the dinosaurs so many years ago.

 

So destroying civilisation is easy and believable.

 

Another reason is that there are so many ways to tell the story. The hero can be trying to prevent the end of the world, or to rebuild some sort of society or just trying to survive. Or the story could pick up years later, like Tim Arnot’s story Wanted.

 

Maybe a lot of us subconsciously want society to fracture. We are, after all, a product of millions of years of evolution and for most of this time we’ve lived as small groups. It’s been suggested that humans struggle mentally when living with more that a hundred other people. Which is why most of us know, are related to, interact with, no more than that number despite being surrounded by so many more. And no, Facebook doesn’t count.

 

Of course, the world in microcosm has already ended many times. The Minoan civilisation ended as a (probable) consequence of the Santorini eruption around 1600 BCE. Believers in climatic determinism can cite a dozen more examples, and once upon a time I knew them too. I’m fairly certain that various collapses in Chinese dynastic history can be linked with periods of famine and environmental downturn.

 

These events, real or imagined, can provide great inspiration for writers. As well as a ‘true’ historical account of events at the time of great disasters, it’s at least moderately easy to transplant these disasters into different times or places. How about moving the effects of Santorini to Victorian London, or onto a brand new space-station posted at the edge of the solar system?

 

One of the major sources of inspiration for Chivalry was an academic book called Brittania: The Failed State. Written by Stuart Laycock, it tries to explain why the British abandoned the culture of Rome after the legions had gone. Maybe this is only of academic interest, but I find it fascinating. Laycock’s ideas may not be accepted by the people who matter, but it makes for a good convincing story.

 

For me, what really ‘clicked’ was the idea of people naturally reverting to old tribal boundaries once an overarching authority had been removed. And that’s what Chivalry became. Not the story: that always remained focussed on the small group of people I’d centred the tale around. But the background. The slow descent into anarchy.

 

I was always intending to write a sequel (which was going to be called Feudalism until someone said it was a not-very-good title) which showed the transition to a tribal society. That’s not happened. I did start it, and do some planning, but the idea’s stalled. The major problem for me is that I feel I’ve exhausted one of the main devices in Chivalry, which was to set part of the novel in a computer recreation of the Crusaders. Logically I can’t see a way to crowbar that sort of thing into a sequel. But without it I’m missing something; a spark, a flame – something to maintain the thrill of the first book.

 

Maybe my history books will provide the answer.