In 2016 I read 65 books, and reviewing my rating system, it looks like I rather enjoyed most of them! First I’ll talk about the books, then at the bottom of this post I will list all the books I read in 2016, arranged into ratings of 1-5 (where 5 is excellent). Behold: your reading inspiration for the year!
Best book of the year
The Unseen World by Liz Moore was much anticipated after Moore’s outstanding novel Heft. And it absolutely delivered: this is a book about families and love and artificial intelligence. It’s smart and thought-provoking and touching and very well done indeed.
Disappointment of the year
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue was one of the new releases I looked forward to most. But compared to her other lovely, complex books, this one just seemed a bit flimsy and trivial, with a lightweight story that wrapped up in a far too convenient manner and didn’t seem to signify much.
Most of this year’s blockbusters lived up to expectations: At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier was fantastic and a must read. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood was also compelling (though I’m never totally sure I like short stories), and The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver, while not perfect, has me thinking about the ideas within Shriver’s economic dystopia months later. The Power by Naomi Alderman was also an intriguing dystopia that imagines the consequences of women having power that renders them the dominant gender, and was really interesting though a bit too violent for my liking. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler was one of those luxuriously sprawling books about family and relationships. (Okay, it was published last year but I only read it this year). Finally, I liked Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, but not as much as I felt I ought to.
More offbeat books
Some slightly more offbeat books may not have generated an anticipatory buzz but were still amazing. When I encountered The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet I was completely charmed and compelled by the world building and character building of a multi-species universe traveling through space in a way that somehow felt more ‘literary’ than ‘sci-fi’ though I know lots of people dispute that genre separation anyway. I desperately wanted to read more of this world, and I was in luck: a sequel was in the works. While awaiting it, I read the full Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series, but despite its similar worlds, I remained staunchly unsated. When Chambers’s sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit, was finally published, I was so delighted: this book is as good or perhaps even better than the first one. It doesn’t just follow on from the plot, but explores a whole new set of ideas, mostly around artificial intelligence – perhaps a theme of 2016… Becky Chambers is a big talent and if you even slightly enjoy science fiction, don’t miss it. Also thrilling was Arcadia – world building in the past, present and future, time travel, and all of it tying together in brilliant ways. This is a smart book that I enjoyed a lot. I’m intrigued that one can read it via an app in an almost choose-your-own-adventure way. Haven’t tried that myself. When She Woke was another fascinating dystopia, focused on women’s rights and how to punish people for crimes beyond a jail sentence. I couldn’t put it down. And if you want another dystopia, Crosstalk may have a slightly trashy vibe to it, but is a hard-to-put-down, almost-present-day dystopia addressing telepathy, empathy, and our culture of smartphones and increasing communication. Meanwhile Landfalls was based on a historical voyage and was inventive, interesting and told the tale of an ill-fated voyage from the perspective of the different people on board the ship. I found this both a great and an annoying technique – but it’s worth reading. The New Woman, about a transgender person transitioning from male to female in her 50s, is an important and well-written book, and I found it unputdownable. If you are looking for a plane or beach book, you’ve found it. Slightly more lightweight but another good plane book is My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologies – but avoid the sequel, Britt Marie Was Here, which I found a big disappointment. Love Nina is another lightweight but compelling read for the holidays, in the form of letters from the London Review of Books editor’s nanny to her sister.
Classic author treats
Why had I never really read much Nevil Shute? Clearly a ridiculous omission from my reading lists all these years. I’ve previously loved Trustee from the Toolroom and On the Beach, but had not explored further. So I had a Nevil Shute feast this year. A Town Like Alice and Pied Piper were two absolutely glorious books. If you haven’t read them, consider this an urgent call. No Highway and In the Wet were also very good. I’d skip Round the Bend. Also in view of Brexit this year, I read the prophetically topical Rule Britannia by Daphne du Maurier which I thought was fascinating: published in 1972, it’s a dystopia where Britain is no longer part of the EU. And I couldn’t resist a delightful re-reading of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.
I was interested to come across The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is a coming of age book about a gay girl in Montana. Much of it is set in a boarding school (where the miseducating takes place as they try to convert her to heterosexuality). It is an intriguing contemporary-feeling young adult book that I found quite unusual. In terms of gay male-themed books, The Lost Language of Cranes was another delicate, compelling coming out story, this one set in 1980s New York City. I’ve already mentioned the outstanding The New Woman and Kitchen as really interesting books about transgender people I read this year; another was the excellent Trumpet, which I re-read for book group. The same book group had me re-read Tales of the City, a classic that gets better every time I read it.
Books about Japan
Since I moved to Japan, I have been particularly compelled to read books on that theme. My favourite of all was perhaps Hokkaido Highway Blues, a very entertaining road trip book about an English teacher hitchhiking from south to north Japan, and learning much about Japanese culture through the people he meets. Texan in Tokyo was fairly similar in theme and tone, though done partly in the form of a graphic novel. In terms of more classic literature, The Artist of the Floating World was outstanding: a personal look at the repercussions of the second world war in Japan, while The Housekeeper and the Professor is gloriously charming and surprisingly about relationships for such a mathematics-based plot. Kitchen is the first Japanese book featuring a transgender person I’ve read and it was really interesting, though not my favourite. The Haruki Murakami books I read this year (two of his first plus Sputnik Sweetheart) were fine but did not thrill me. Neither did Strange Weather in Tokyo which was, well, mostly quite strange. But I did find Woman in the Dunes a creepy and intriguing little dystopia that is not like anything I’ve read before and definitely worth a read.
Here are my ratings of the books I read in 2016 on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the best.
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson
My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologies by Fredrik Backwan
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
Arcadia by Iain Pears
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
Landfalls by Naomi Williams
The Unseen World by Liz Moore
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
The New Woman by Charity Norman
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Rule Britannia by Daphne DuMaurier
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Everland by Rebecca Hunt
Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti
The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken
Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
Texan in Tokyo by Grace Mineta
Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
This must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver
Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling and others
In the Wet by Nevil Shute
Secret Language by Neil Williamson
No Highway by Nevil Shute
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Unwind series by Neil Shusterman (5 books)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Tales of the City by Amistead Maupin
Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Love Nina by Nina Stibbe
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami
Pinball by Haruki Murakami
My Life in Orange by Tim Guest
The Repercussions by Catherine Hall
Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams
So Long and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams
Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams
The Family from One End Street by Eva Garnett
Britt Marie was Here by Frederik Backman
Reader, I Married him by various authors
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Bilgewater by Jane Gardam
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
Round the Bend by Neville Shute
The Reader in the 6:27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
Rating: 2 and 1
None. Wow: either I had a particularly great reading year, or my standards have slipped… I haven’t rated any of my 2016 books 2 or 1.
Of the 65 books I read, 53% were by women and 47% were by men.
Onwards: to 2017!