A quick bit of housekeeping to begin with. I’ve posted very little this year, and can’t see myself posting all that regularly in future, so I suppose I finally have to face facts. This isn’t really a blog anymore. So I’ve renamed this page as “news and updates”, and I’ll see how that works in 2017.
(Having done this, maybe I’ll find myself wanting to post several times a week and start treating it as a blog again – but somehow I doubt it. For better or worse, blogs increasingly feel outdated, and I’m far more active on the standard social media accounts these days. I’ll most likely keep this bit of my website for what it now says on the tin.)
But! I do want to post about my five favourite books of the year. As usual – and despite my best intentions – I haven’t read as much as I would have liked to. And as usual – once again – I’m determined to do much better next year. I probably won’t. It does seem strange to me, the reading lull that always occurs in the middle of each year, but maybe that’s just my nature, and around 25 novels a year is my limit.
Regardless, these were my five favourite books of 2016. They’re in no particular order, and there’s the standard caveat that my favourites do not necessarily represent what I thought was strictly best. And as always, I could – and probably would – have picked a different five on a different day. Trust me: everything I read this year has much to recommend it from my point of view, not least because I simply abandoned lots of books that aren’t on that list (and there was nothing wrong with them either). But these five stand out for me, at least today, and I recommend them to you highly. If you like these sorts of books then I think these are the sorts of book you will like.
The Poison Artist, by Jonathan Moore
We meet toxicologist Dr Caleb Maddox – an expert in pain – just after a violent breakup with his girlfriend that has left him bleeding from his forehead. On the boozy, absinthe-fulled night out that follows, Maddox encounters a mysterious woman and becomes obsessed with tracking her through the late-night bars and secret clubs of a misty, rain-drenched San Francisco. At the same time, bodies are being pulled out of the bay, each bearing marks of torture by poison. The Poison Artist is a beautifully-written, woozily erotic nightmare of a book, full of quiet horrors, evocative settings and a mounting sense of outright dread. By the time the pieces have come together at the end, you’re not sure whether you want to drink absinthe or if you might already have.
The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts
While many SF novels deal in physics, Roberts’s latest novel is an adventure that hinges more on metaphysics. It effectively begins with a pun – two scientists at an Antarctic research station bang heads and bicker about Immanuel Kant’s theory of ‘the thing in itself’ and then experience what may be an alien encounter – before splitting into strands. Alternate chapters describe the fallout from that initial event, while flashbacks and flashforwards give us glimpses into a distant past and faraway future all influenced by the central idea: that Kant’s theory is right, and that access to the real world beneath our perceptions and measurements – the thing itself; A/K or “Applied Kant” – has astonishing and dangerous consequences. The central strand at times feels Bond-like and humorous, at others dense with debate, and – occasionally – horrifying. The other sections are written in individual styles, and feel like self-contained short stories that gradually bind the book together. All told, it’s an incredibly ambitious novel – demanding; intelligent; full of ideas and arguments – and it concludes with a quiet coda that’s easily one of the loveliest passages of writing I’ve read this year.
A Head Full Of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay
A superb, multi-layered psychological horror story about possession. The Barrett family suffers difficulties when one of their daughters, Marjorie, begins to show escalating signs of mental disorder. Finding no medical solutions, they unwisely invite both an exorcist and a reality television crew into their home. Fifteen years later, their other daughter, Merry, recounts her own memories of the events that took place. The horrors here build slowly – the story helped along by Merry’s compelling and appealing narration – before ending with one of the cruellest twists I can remember in recent years. Throughout, the whole novel is slyly self-aware: there are knowing references to the standard tropes of the genre, easter eggs galore, and sections where the book even takes time to dissect not only aspects of the story that have been presented to you but the way they have been. Events remain ambiguous and open to interpretation. And yet none of that stops the book gathering a chilly, terrifying pace, before that ending delivers an unforgettable final shiver.
Watch Her Disappear, by Eva Dolan
While many crime writers choose to locate their series characters in the murder squad or some other ‘extreme crime’ unit, to give them gritty and viscerally exciting investigations to undertake, Dolan chooses a quieter approach: her novels are set in the Hate Crimes unit in Peterborough. The setting allows her not only to deliver well-structured and grounded crime novels with superbly-realised characters, but also to explore timely and important social issues. It’s a thing she does with real sensitivity. Watch Her Disappear, about the murder of a trans woman, is not only smart, compassionate, beautifully written and completely compelling, it also takes its characters and subject matter into areas you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I was lucky enough to get an ARC, and this is a highly recommended read for when it’s released next year.
Slow Horses, by Mick Herron
Slow Horses is set in Slough House, a departmental dumping ground for various fuck-ups from MI5, ruled over by the odious Jackson Lamb. Lamb is a wonderful creation: obnoxious, astonishingly ill-mannered, and described as looking like Timothy Spall gone to seed – but also more than capable, and loyal to his own (admittedly well-hidden) moral compass that he’ll “never leave a joe in the lurch”. The other characters, mostly bitter and hating each other, are equally well-drawn and compelling. When a boy is abducted, his beheading scheduled to appear live on the internet, the slow horses end up involved. This is an incredibly funny book – cynical and twisted – but also a serious one with genuine heart. Not to mention the fact that it’s beautifully written with twists and turns galore. I’m not particularly a fan of spy thrillers – or series characters, when it comes to it – but the second I finished Slow Horses, I went straight to the bookshop and bought the next two Jackson Lamb books. I could easily have included either of them (Real Tigers especially) on this list instead, but figured I’d start at the beginning.