Books were my solace in 2016.
I had a great time reading in 2016 and I’d like to share my best experiences with you. From the 111 books I read this year, I’ve selected my Most Read Author and my Twelve Top Reads
2016 Most Read Author
My biggest pleasure came from consuming ten novels by Tanya Huff. Her six Torrin Kerr novels are the best military SF that I’ve ever read. Her three Gale Women series gave me witty Urban Fantasy with a twist in contemporary Canada. Her standalone werewolves-but-not-as-we-know-them-Jim novel “The Silvered” was packed with new ideas and strong characters.
Tanya Huff is original, fearless, funny, helps me see the best and the worst and people and keeps me turning the pages to know what happens next. If you haven’t read her yet, you have a treat in store.
2016 Twelve Top Reads
Books About Artificial Intelligence That Show What It Is To Be Human
Without planning to, I ended up reading nine books where Artificial Intelligence was a central theme. A.I. ia no longer a fantasy, it’s at our doors and we need to work out what that means. Books like this help me to think that through, not in some theoretical way but in terms of what it means to be human and what it means to be intelligent and what being one without the other means.
Three of the A.I. themed books made it to my top twelve.
“Speak” by Louisa Hall is an exciting, original, haunting book about AI and sentience. Told through a series of compelling first person accounts that an A.I. has stored, “Speak” looks at the difference between memory, sentience and intelligence in a way that made me think and touched my emotions.
“The Unseen World” by Liz Moore was one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had this year. I connected with it on many levels. It wasn’t just a storyline I was following or a character that I could vicariously live through. It was much more immersive that.
“The Unseen World” took up residence in my head and my heart. It’s a book about identity and memory and above all, about the compassion for all of the characters in the book who are unable to bridge the distance between themselves and people that they love.
“The Scorpion Rules” by Erin Bow built on the premise is that, 400 years before the story, a (formally human) AI, Talis, took over the world, to save humanity from destroying themselves, and made war illegal. Talis takes a “Child Of Peace” from every ruler and holds them hostage. In the event that war is declared, the lives of the hostages of the warring parties are forfeit.
The story is told from the point of view of a fifteen year old Crown Princess Greta, who has been held hostage since she was five and who will continue as a hostage until she is eighteen. This is a book about power and responsibility and obedience and sacrifice and dealing with the reality that people will always find a way to go to war and that other people than the ones who took that decision will pay for it in blood.
Three novels that made me cry
“The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – epistolary novel packed with strong voices and deep emotions. Set immediately after World War II, it tells the story of young writer visiting Guernsey to research a book on the German occupation of Guernsey. As she interviews the Islanders she comes to understand the importance of “The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society in sustaining the courage and humanity of an Occupied people.
“Everthing I Never Told You”, by Celeste Ng had my full attention from the opening sentence: :
“Lydia is dead, but they don’t know this yet.”
I wanted more and more of it, even though it was so unbearably sad that I could not listen to it without finding myself in tears, time and again. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to know what happened next – Lydia is dead. I’ve know that from the first sentence – but I wanted to deepen my understanding of what that death and that life had meant.
This story about family life works so well because it is honest and kind and deeply empathic with ALL of the characters. It doesn’t judge. It doesn’t play favourites. Yet it doesn’t flinch at mapping out, often with painful clarity, all the ways in which we fail ourselves and each other: the difficulty of saying what we mean and hearing what we’re told; the way in which our internal narrative limits what we are able to see; the way each family creates its own lexicon, weighting words and gestures with a meaning that is mysterious to outsiders and is often only subliminally understood by the family itself.
“Rain Reign” by Ann M. Martin, tells that story of Rose Howard, a high-functioning autistic little girl who will win your heart and may change your mind.
Rose’s narrative voice is direct, compelling and sometimes heart-breaking. She sets out to tell her story with structured, straight-forward honesty, setting out the events and providing the background we need to understand them. She even gives us permission to skip the chapters that, experience has taught her. we might find boring, like when she explains her rules for listing homonyms (which are really homophones but she knows that homonym is an accepted colloquialism) and which are even more fascinating than prime numbers.
She tells us about her life , her father’s life, why she isn’t allowed to ride the school bus any more, her teacher, her classmates, her uncle, the damage that Super Storm Hurricane Susan did and her dog, Rain (whose name is a homonym: R A I N and R E I G N), whom she loves even more than homonyms and who loves her back
As Rose told her story, I began to understand the clarity and honesty of Rose’s vision and to share her ability to take joy in things that most people don’t value (what can I say: I really do enjoy homonyms) and to admire the effort she puts in to communicate with the people around her despite their tendency to break rules and to be mean to each other.
Speculative Fiction Books That Fired My Imagination
“The Wolf Road”, by Beth Lewis, is told as first person account of events through the eyes of Elka, a seventeen year old woman who is almost feral. She lives in the wild by becoming part of it not by trying to tame it. She is another predator in the forest, moving soundlessly, killing efficiently, hiding her tracks and building shelters and making fires to keep herself safer at night. It is only when she has to deal with people and their rules and their written-down words that Elka is vulnerable.
The novel opens with Elka hunting a monstrous man: large, fierce and bloodied, in a snow-filled forest, marked with a trail of blood. Hiding in a tree, she throws her serrated knife with enough power to pass through the man beneath his collar bone and pin him to a tree. Then she leaves him, cursing behind her, knowing that the Sheriff will find him soon. The murdering monster she has pinned to the tree is the man who raised her from the age of seven and taught her how to move through the world.
Most of the rest of the novel tells us how this came to be.On the surface, the book is a picaresque novel, following an outcast as she makes her way across the country, running from her enemies and constantly under threat from the people she meets. Underneath, the structure of “The Wolf Road” is more complicated. It isn’t about Elka’s adventures. It’s about Elka coming to understand who she is and how she got to be that way.
“The Fireman”, by Joe Hill is astonishingly good. The idea is original: a spoor parasite that marks its human host with tattoo-like patterns across their bodies and which, after a while, leads them to combust spontaneously, causing a huge number of deaths, massive property damage and the spreading of the parasite.
Yet this remarkable vehicle to the apocalypse is not the dominant aspect of the book. It is a catalyst for looking more closely at people: how they behave under stress, how they treat those who are weak and pose a threat, what they allow themselves to do when the rule of law falls, what they make themselves do in the name of the greater good, how groups abdicate personal responsibility and how symbols of hope can be co-opted to become mechanisms of repression.
This is not a fun book. Things are bad at the start and they get progressively worse. Joe Hill made me live through that spiral into desperate, undignified, almost intolerable, survival almost one day at a time, through the eyes of Harper Willows, who starts the book as a Mary Poppins obsessed school-nurse who wants nothing more than to bring a spoonful of sugar to unhappy children and ends the book as… well, I guess you’re twenty-two hours away from knowing that.
“Time and Time Again” by Ben Elton is ‘what if?’ time travel story that turns from Boy’s Own Adventure into something dark, bleak and pitiless.
“Time And Time Again” starts as a travel-back-in-time-to-save-the-world book but becomes something with a much less romantic view of history. It is an often brutal reminder that the past was someone -else’s present and that the present is the only opportunity we have to act.
I recommend this book as a fascinating but uncomfortable read. Which, thinking about it, I could use as a description of almost all of Ben Elton’s books.
“The Water Knife” by Paulo Bacigalupi is set in a near future where water has become more precious than oil in the Western States of what used to be the USA.
Paulo Bacigaluoi writes with wonderful clarity and an emotional impact that comes from truthfulness. The truth about the world he is describing in “The Water Knife” is almost unbearably brutal and cruel. No one escapes undamaged and the damage is described with a degree of detail that is nauseating at times. We see torture, murder, enforced prostitution, mutilation, and ritualised punishment up so close that I it seemed the stink of it was on my skin and in my hair. There were points where I wondered if I could persist with this journey through gore, despair and betrayal. I kept waiting for redemption and it kept not arriving.
Then the penny dropped. What I was seeing wasn’t gratuitous, it was simply honest. Everything that was described is being done regularly somewhere in the world today. My repugnance and revulsion where a necessary part of understanding the grim realities of this place. My desire for redemption, my hope that the author would somehow raise his characters up above their situation, was an analog of the adults in Maria’s world not being able to see reality clearly enough to make valid decisions.
“The Water Knife” is a grim, difficult, disturbing book because that is the nature of the world being described. There are no heroes, just people trying to do what they can with what they have in a world that doesn’t care about them or what they want.
In “Ancillary Justice” , Ann Leckie doesn’t just do world-building, she creates an entire universe, spanning many worlds and huge tracts of time.
By telling the tale through the (sometimes many) eyes of an AI with a self-imposed mission of revenge, Ann Leckie keeps the scale of the experience human, driven by character and emotion rather than by the sweep of history.
Even though I’ve been given a whole new universe to explore, the image that haunts me after reading the book is that of an AI who seems to be a better person than the humans around her even though she was conceived primarily as a weapon of conquest.
She has enforced “Annexations” of many worlds over thousands of years to spread the “gift” of Radch civilisation and she has done so by taking over the bodies of conquered, making them into “corpse-soldiers” that execute her will.
At the same time, she is an AI who collects the songs of the cultures she annexes, who sings for the shear joy of it and who is capable of great affection for any of her officers who she thinks have earned it.
Perhaps the most alien and most endearing thing about this AI is her unflinching honesty. She will not lie to herself about what she does. She accepts consequences. She understands power and yet constantly confronts it with demands for justice.