I try to read a lot. In between the toddler, an often 60-hour working weeks and completing the first year of a degree course, I somehow squeezed in about fifty books last year, taking in a pretty broad array of genres and directions. Since I’ve found most books don’t age particularly badly (in fact, aside from Kindle, most of my books are second-hand charity shop buys anyway), I figured these are every bit as appealing as the day they came out. There are a couple here I feel like I’ve recommended to various people a dozen plus times already, so I thought I’d throw down the highlights in a post.
There are not – at least not necessarily – books released in 2016. They’re just the best ones I happened to read and feel like shouting about. There’s already another huge heap waiting to explore this year. Reading recommendations – especially based on the below – very much appreciated!
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (link)
Set in twin worlds – a grim ‘real world’ future and the huge escapist fantasy of a virtual reality computer game – Ready Player One creates those two environments beautifully, and then uses them to explore ideas of equality and power, travel and personal virtues. Based on an extreme version of ‘Easter eggs’ – hidden extras added to computer games, movies and albums for diehard fans to uncover – the main character is a minnow in a virtual world as dominated by those with economic muscle as the real one. When the creator of the virtual world dies, this triggers a kind of treasure hunt that sees players compete to solve riddles and win ultimate control. The computer game aspect aside, it’s a slightly tired plot, but one delivered so well and through such nicely-rounded, anxiety-riddled characters that any predictable edge to the story doesn’t matter, especially when every key task on the journey is taxing and unpredictable. I’ve found a lot of these more conceptual books are more interesting in theory than in reality. This was a spectacular exception.
The End of the World Running Club by Adrian Walker (link)
Continuing a theme of strange futuristic worlds, The End of the World Running Club is a book I picked up because it combined two things that seemed ever-present for me this year: the need to fit in more exercise (I didn’t really succeed), and the horrors of global politics and the sense of impending doom brought along with certain events. We don’t learn in any detail what’s causing “the end of the world” – only its impacts – in this frantically fast-paced first-person doomsday book. The ramshackle group featured are literally running for safety, and not being the running types, their slow progress allows them to uncover some of the darker sides of post-apocalyptic human behaviour along the way. Sort of like a zombie survival book without the zombies, this has the added bonus of a deeply flawed main character (always more likable than the false-feeling flawless heroes that sometimes appear in these texts) and strangely dingy family plot-line.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova (link)
Perhaps not the most original recommendation – this has been collecting great reviews over the last few years – but the concept of a first-person narrative from a highly-functioning thinker with developing Alzheimer’s is a fantastic one, and darkly memorable. Title character Alice is a professor at a major American university, and the novel charts the slow demise of her thought process and functional ability through what feels like the eyes of real experience with the disease. I haven’t seen the movie, nor do I want to, as with so much of this book set around internal self-examination, it feels like it would be difficult to portray on screen. In text, the ever-more jumpy abruptness and growing hints that Alice is thoroughly misinterpreting the world around her are cleverly presented: it’s the detail here is everything, and the every day becomes thought-provoking and eventually toxic. I ended up looking back when I finished, trying to work out at what point things really started to go downhill. Harrowingly beautiful.
In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey To Freedom by Yeon Mi Park (link)
Having spent two of the most important years of my life in South Korea – and visited the north twice during that time – North Korea is a subject of endless car-crash fascination for me, and I pick up at least one of these real-world accounts every year (the desolate descriptions of journalist Kang Chol Hwan’s personal account ‘The Aquariums of Pyongyang’ is probably my all-time favourite). Variations of this story are becoming increasingly common: tough, restricted lives in the North, escape over the northern border, a mix of paranoia and genuine danger in unsympathetic China and eventual ‘repatriation’ through citizenship in the south. Park’s journey is a particularly surreal one: she left at thirteen, got sold into slavery in China and only reluctantly went public with her story once she found freedom in an attempt to track down her own sister, who had escaped years earlier. The resilience of her family is incredible, and her story genuinely stranger than fiction.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman (link)
I have a bit of a thing for Swedish writing generally. Jonas Jonasson is another I keep going back to. Fredrick Backman’s story of a lonely old man is one that would sound fiercely dull if I described the plot: it’s about a set-in-his-ways, slightly miserable Swede who has lost his wife and his will to carry on. The events of the book – unlike Jonasson’s surreal tales – are very much every day in nature, but the development of Ove as a character and the subtly delivered messages that start to creep out of the writing as you progress are phenomenally well expressed and tie together as one of those simple, life-affirming examples of the straightforward sometimes being as good as it gets. I don’t want to give too much away, but from the Saab obsession to the mixture of love and disdain with which he treats anyone below about forty, there’s so, so much to love here. Probably the best example of character writing I’ve ever read.