Sunday, January 01, 2017

Favorite Books of 2016

Everyone connected with a creative field is required to do a "best of the year" post, by an iron law. Since Antick Musings is basically a book blog (despite my half-assed efforts over the years to do other things), that means it features a list of my favorite books at the end of each year.

Because I'm grumpy and opinionated, they will be odd choices. Because I'm puckish and contrary, I insist on doing my list at the very end of the year, and counting things I read that year, not some arbitrary publishing calendar.

(I've been doing this since this blog started; see previous entries for the years 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.)

My rules have gotten codified in relatively simple terms these last couple of years, so here they are again:

The Rules:

  1. My list is finalized on the last day of the year, so it includes all my reading for the year.
  2. This is a list of "favorites," not "bests."
  3. I try to favor recent/current books -- but this rule gets bent more and more every year.
  4. My reading includes many genres and formats, and the list mixes that all together.
  5. I pick a favorite for each month, to make a top twelve.
  6. And each month gets a narrative including other notable books I read then.

The Field:

I read only 157 books in 2016, down even from 2015's 175 and substantially from 2014's 383. But 2014 was a Book-A-Day year, and 2016 was back in line with the three years before that (which averaged a bit over 150).

If I didn't read a book, it can't be one of my favorites for the year. (Simple, right?)

I always wish I read more -- even in the years when I got through five or six novels a week, I complained that there were as many other books that I wanted to read but didn't get to. I don't know if it's "worse" now, but there's always more books to read, no matter how many I do read. (This is a good thing.)

So the below is what I read in 2016 that I want to celebrate and call out and point at, for various reasons. It's not as complete as I wish it was -- once again, man's reach exceeds his grasp.


I started the year with two excellent books about strange young people that came out of webcomics, in two very different modes. Jillian Tamaki's Supermutant Magic Academy collected the entirety of that comic, a loose series of linked stories about the students at a not-Hogwarts school for magical and/or superheroic youth, focused on character rather than plot. And then John Allison's third collection of the teens-investigating-weird-mysteries series, Bad Machinery, was The Case of the Lonely One. (Two more collections of Allison's series -- The Case of the Fire Inside and The Case of the Unwelcome Visitor -- came out later in the year, and I read both of them as well.)
I'm reading a lot less SFF than I did in my SFBC days -- though that mostly means I'm not reading the first 100 and last 50 pages of a lot of epic fantasy yardgoods, which I do not miss -- but I still find time for some books. I'd been saving Sean McMullen's The Time Engine, the fourth and apparently last of his "Moonworlds" books, for about a decade but finally broke down and read it this year. It's just as quirky and clear-eyed as the earlier ones.

But the book of the month has to be the finale of Lemony Snicket's second series of novels for younger readers, "Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?" It's the perfect end for a dark series of mystery stories about melancholy and regret and saving what you can in a broken world.


I try not to make old books my favorites, particularly when I'm re-reading them. But I do want to note that I re-read two great graphic novels this month, because I'd re-bought them and needed to run them under my eyeballs again before they went up on the shelves. Kyle Baker's Why I Hate Saturn is a great comedy-drama movie in comics form, told with his unique verve and at the high point of his artistic style. And Jason Shiga's Bookhunter is simply the best cop thriller possible set in a library in the 1970s.
Speaking of old books, I finally got to Jessica Mitford's memoir Hons and Rebels, which wasn't quite as revelatory about her weird family as I'd hoped but was a great glimpse into a deeply interesting life and a bizarrely fascinating childhood.

The best book of the month, though, was entirely new, and transformed the older work it was part of: Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III's The Sandman: Overture. Gaiman came back to his comics masterpiece almost two decades later to provide it with a new frame, and succeeded brilliantly with the support of an artist who I now think can draw absolutely anything.


Adrian Tomine was back, for the first time in too long, with a great new collection of his comics short stories -- it's a cliche, but his work in Killing and Dying is as good as any contemporary prose short stories, and better than most.
And my favorite of the month was Paul Theroux's first travel book about his home country (the USA) in a long time: Deep South. He changed his methods of travel, swapping trains for a car, to get to parts of the country isolated and cut off from the modern world -- and carefully described both why those people were cut off, and how they were fighting for their own lives there.


I mentioned John Allison up in January, with his great webcomic Bad Machinery and its various collections this year. But he has another, equally wonderful ongoing project, and I read the first collection of his comic book format comic Giant Days this year as well (and the second one, somewhat later in the year). On Giant Days, Allison tones down the supernatural to tell the story of three young women in college, and was joined on art duties -- for the first book and half of the second -- by the excellent Lissa Treiman.
Tim Powers had a full novel out this year, and I'll get to that a little later. But he also had a recent novella-in-book-form on loosely related themes, and that was the perfect length to be my favorite book of April. Salvage and Demolition is a great time-slip story, just the right length, a story of loss and longing and gaps both bridgeable and un-.


First up for May, I want to mention Sonny Liew's deeply engaged The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I suspect being more familiar with the history of Singapore would have made it even better, but it is a great graphic novel no matter how much knowledge you bring to it.
And then in May I dove into three excellent SFF novels -- a rarity in one month for me these days. (Whether that's because I'm lazy or there's a dearth of such books I'll leave as an open question.) Ian Tregillis began a new historical fantasy series with The Mechanical, telling a story about free will and determination against a world almost as dark as his "Milkweed" books.

Tim Powers had a great novel about Hollywood and memory and family and history, Medusa's Web, one of the stronger books of his long and excellent career.

But my favorite was last year's new "Laundry Files" book from Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score. He broadened his universe to tell a story not focused on Bob Howard and showed just how flexible that universe is: its one of the great fictional achievements of our time, able to comment on anything going on in the world. (Which may be a frightening idea, given that universe is lurching quickly towards its own apocalypse.)


This was another month when I dug into older books I hadn't read before. I finally got to Angela Carter's spiky and demanding collection of stories Saints and Strangers, which I'm very happy to have read but I can't say I actually loved.

Then there was Roald Dahl's first volume of autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood -- it was quick and a bit glib, but a great view into the inner life of a man who wrote so many books for young readers that are sneakier and smarter than they appear.
Somewhat more recent was Tony Horwitz's early-90s travel book Baghdad Without a Map, which was eye-opening as parallax as to how much the Middle East he chronicled had changed in the twenty-five years since and was also a great exploration of an important corner of the world. (Then as now.)

And the book of the month was another old one: James Salter's mid-60s novel of sex and obsession and ennui, A Sport and a Pastime. Choosing it is a bit of a cheat for my rules, admittedly, but it was easily the most interesting book I read that month, and I try to always cheat on the side of more thought.


July was a month of oddball books, typified by Howard Anderson's picaresque beast fable Albert of Adelaide, about a platypus looking for the heart of Australia and finding all sorts of other things along the way. It's not a great novel, and it's not a well-known novel, but it's unique and quirky and deserves to be at least a minor classic.
Already a minor classic: Evan Dorkin's stories of the worst comics fans imaginable, collected in The Eltingville Club. It's not possible to hate anything this much unless you also love it more, and Dorkin both hates and loves comics with a passion that is both inspiring and frightening.

I came back to an old favorite this month as well, which I'll mention because this is my blog and I can do whatever I want. James Morrow's City of Truth is a great novella from a great writer, concerned with big questions as he always is. This one is about truth and lies -- and how and why the latter can be much better and more important than the former.

My favorite of the month was a few years old, but my excuse here is that I've been meaning to read it since it came out, so I'm just delayed a bit. Ray Davies, the primary songwriter behind the Kinks and both the subtlest and the least-appreciated voice of the British Invasion, told his own life through the lens of a hostile interviewer in an imagined near-future dystopia in X-Ray. We should have expected nothing less inventive than that. 


Yet another book from the past revisited, mentioned for its pure entertainment value: Lawrence Block's hilarious deconstruction of the sex novel Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man. It has no redeeming value whatsoever, but it manages to be almost entirely sex-positive and only glancingly sexist, as opposed to the entire field it came out of.
Newer, and far subtler, was the storybook retelling of a certain old tale from writer Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell, The Sleeper and the Spindle. It does not go where the reader would expect, and brings in another old tale -- one Gaiman had already visited once -- along the way. This may look like it's meant for children, but by no means should be left to only them.

And for the favorite of the month, I have to pick Austin Grossman's third novel, Crooked, the story of the presidency of Richard Nixon, the secret magical history of America, and the power of a good marriage.


There are three excellent graphic novels that I read in September worth mentioning here. I'll start with Trashed by the cartoonist currently billing himself as Derf Backderf. It's a fictionalized version of events in his own life, transmuted into the modern world and surrounded by a semi-non-fictional look at the garbage industry -- for which "warts and all" would be a deeply inadequate description.
Noelle Stevenson's energetic and surprisingly deep story of friendship and the question of good and evil, Nimona, has been praised by a lot of people before me. (I was a bit late getting to it.) But I agree with them: her art is charming, her people are real, and her story goes further and touches more than you'll expect.

Third was a big collection of the short comics of Dylan Horrocks called Incomplete Works. Horrocks bleeds comics, which is occasionally too much -- but mostly is lovely and touching and true.

And then my favorite was a nonfiction book about what will probably be the artform of the 21st century: Simon Parkin's Death by Video Game. He starts from a few cases of young people who played themselves to death and expands from there to look at the worlds and stories that would inspire such devotion.


Hey, remember Charles Stross and the Laundry Files series? He had a new book this year, too, and I caught up with it. The Nightmare Stacks continues to deepen and expand his fictional universe, with yet another new viewpoint character. In choosing between the two for a favorite this year, I gave Annihilation a slight lead based on the technical difficulty of writing a female lead and a slightly more definitive ending, but Nightmare is just as good in all of the ways that count.
Mike Dawson had a great collection of short comics called Rules for Dating My Daughter. All of them are about the modern world and how we live in it, and most of them have interesting personal and political questions buried in them. Dawson has really been finding his voice with this length comic -- you can find some even newer comics on The Nib.

A more conventional excellent graphic novel showed up from Faith Erin Hicks. The Nameless City is the first of a series -- a second book is coming in 2017 -- about a city in a country that isn't quite China and is at the point that three great empires have been fighting over, and trading ownership of, for centuries. Against that background, she tells a story appropriate for younger readers about friendship and loyalty -- and, more importantly, about how to choose who is worthy of either.

Another book I got to because lots of other people said first that it was great: Eleanor Davis's collection of comics How to Be Happy. I'm not too proud to say that they were all right: Davis has about three entirely separate art styles in this book, all of them brilliantly right for the stories she uses them to tell. I'd love to see more of her work as soon as possible.

The best book of the month was the heartbreaking Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart, the story of his daughter who died, unexpectedly and suddenly, at the age of two. If I can say I even come close to understanding what he went through, it's entirely because of this masterful graphic novel, a true gift of art to a world that doesn't seem worthy of it.


I've mentioned Neil Gaiman a few times in this round-up; he had a busy year and was dependably excellent at everything he touched. (That only comes with long hours of really hard work, I should add.) His big book for the year was The View from the Cheap Seats, a career retrospective of his nonfiction, full of introductions and essays and speeches and squibs and thoughts -- all of them saying things only Gaiman could tell us.
One of the least likely subjects for a great nonfiction graphic novel: the story of the cartoonist's mother's decades-long affair with a married man. Bill Griffith told that true story brilliantly in Invisible Ink, perhaps inspired by the fact that the man in question was a professional cartoonist himself.

And the book of the month was another graphic novel, one entirely fiction and told in a way only comics could provide: Manuele Fior's 5,000 km per second, a story of three people across several decades, told in discrete scenes and through indirection, with a perfectly chosen central color for each of those scenes.


And now we come to the month just ended, and to the books I haven't finished writing real blog entries about yet. Once again, I have an old book and a re-read to mention first -- Evelyn Waugh's cutting first novel Decline and Fall, which suffers just slightly from being set in a world none of us now can entirely recognize from life.
Also something of a retrospective: Dupuy and Berberian's Monsieur Jean: From Bachelor to Father, a big collection of five graphic novels about their semi-autobiographical character, as he grew up through the '90s and into this new century. Monsieur Jean is a great Everyman, and his creators find great everyday events to  showcase him in.

My final favorite for the year is a big two-volume set, though in a just world, it would be many volumes longer and not exist for decades to come. Richard Thompson created one of the great comic strips of the modern world, and all of it was collected in The Complete Cul de Sac a couple of years back. 2016 was the year that Parkinson's disease stole Thompson away -- it ended his strip for him in 2012 (again, much too soon), so it's bitterly appropriate as a favorite for this year of horrors.

2016's Top Twelve

  • Ray Davies, X-Ray
  • Manuele Fior, 5,000 km per second
  • Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III, The Sandman: Overture
  • Austin Grossman, Crooked
  • Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning
  • Simon Parkin, Death by Video Game 
  • Tim Powers, Salvage and Demolition
  • James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime
  • Lemony Snicket, "Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?"
  • Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score
  • Paul Theroux, Deep South
  • Richard Thompson, The Complete Cul de Sac
Those are the best books I read this year, and I'd recommend all of them -- though, in a couple of cases, I'd recommend starting with that author at a somewhat earlier point. And the other books I mentioned above are all also worth reading.

Of course, the problem isn't finding books worth reading: the world is stuffed with them. The problem is picking them, to fit a particular moment or mood, and in finding the time. So my New Year's wish for both me and the rest of you is for excellent luck in your reading life in 2017. May the right book leap to hand whenever needed.

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