I’m hardly the first person to lament the sheer heart-ripping agony the past twelve months have inflicted on the world. It’s been such a terrible year that it’s somehow managed to kill any joy I may have felt once 2017 finally comes around. It’s been a year of staggering difficulties to the point where I often feel guilty for wanting to seek escape through pop culture. So doing a list like this proved surprisingly difficult. Life goes on, as it always will, but shaking off the impenetrable dark clouds is a perpetual struggle. However, I want to emphasise the importance of pop culture during these moments. It can provide necessary comfort or shine a light on the undiscovered or subvert archaic excepted norms or light crucial sparks when all is lost. It’s okay to take time to enjoy the things that give you pleasure, I promise.
Well, with that maudlin crap out of the way, here are the 2016 releases that have left the biggest impact on me. Of course, this is a favourites list and is in no way indicative of what would qualify as the absolute best of literature in 2016. I didn’t read a lot of the major releases and this was an odd year for me in that I truly didn’t read anything worthy of the Worst Book label. Small graces, I guess. I wholeheartedly recommend all these books and urge you to treat yourselves this festive season!
The Vegetarian – Han Kang.
As much as I enjoyed this strange little book, equal parts feminist tract and body horror, I’m still surprised that it’s been as successful with the public as it has. It’s This short, sharp burst of simmering societal tensions broken up by chilling dreams of visceral violence and the deterioration of the flesh feels too deliberately abrasive to be so gleefully acceptable to the casual reader. Its success at the International Man Booker Prize awards probably helped, but I also relish its appeal beyond that.
A simple tale told with clinical precision, bracing and cutting, exploring the mundane that becomes poisoned by the strange. Translated fiction makes up such a disappointingly small percentage of UK book sales, so the success of The Vegetarian is encouraging on a variety of levels, and a must read.
The Just City & The Philosopher Kings – Jo Walton.
This was the series that most captured my imagination this year. While science-fiction remains one of the literary genres I struggle to wholeheartedly embrace, Walton’s intricately crafted combination of utopia, philosophy, history and sci-fi had me engrossed from the first chapter.
Athene, inspired by repeated pleas from humans throughout history as well as her own ennui, creates the Republic as theorized by Plato, and populates it with slave children who meet the philosopher’s specifications as well as devotees of his work plucked from their places in time across thousands of years. The objective: To see if the supposedly perfect system for living can indeed work in execution. Participating in the experiment is Athene’s brother Apollo, whom wishes to live the mortal life in order to better understand the autonomy of the humans who have worshipped him for so long.
There are also robots.
I’ve talked extensively about both books in my reviews (and have yet to read the third) so I won’t blab on too much here, other than to say that this series of staggering intellect and imagination is underrated to the point of criminality and highly deserves your time. It’s rare to see such labyrinthine philosophical quandaries explored within a deeply detailed world that’s both cerebral and empathetic. Questions of autonomy, consent, freedom and faith are posed with such confidence, and answered with incredible flourish. For those enjoying Westworld, I would pass this onto them. I eagerly await the arrival of my copy of the third book and will wait with baited breath for anything else Jo Walton releases.
The Backup – Erica Kudisch.
This debut effort was sold to me as “American Gods meets Velvet Goldmine”, which may be the best tagline a novel can carry. Anthony Brooks, fresh out of grad school with a PhD in musicology, thousands of dollars of debt and no employment prospects in the horizons, finds himself desperate enough to take a job from his record executive uncle. The aim is essentially to look after enigmatic rockstar Nik, whose spectacular concerts are prone to devolving into Dionysian orgies of lust and even death. Nik insists he is indeed the Greek god of ritual madness, Dionysus, and soon even the perpetually sceptical Anthony can’t ignore his experiences.
This genre spanning novel, published under Riptide Press’s Anglerfish Press, is steeped in hallucinogenic ambiguity and the simultaneously repulsive and enticing prospects that accompany dealings with the Greek gods of old. Nik is arrogant and alluring; petty and seductive; entitled yet magnetic – the epitome of the Rockstar appeal as well as the enduring qualities of Greek mythology. This mess of contradictions defines the best elements of The Backup, particularly when focused on Anthony’s seduction into a world he mostly finds distasteful. It’s not just the rock and roll bacchanalia he’s uninterested in; it’s the spoiled, pampered privilege of the musician everyone but him seems to worship, which exacerbates his own feelings of worthlessness as he’s constantly reminded of his increasing debt and decreasing options in life.
While this comes from Riptide Publishing, it’s important to note that the novel is decidedly not a romance. There are deep erotic elements – how could there not be when Dionysus is involved? – but this story is more concerned with the emotional and psychological ramifications of messing with benevolent forces, and the ways in which sex and power are often interchangeable. It’s a read that’s tough in places but has lingered long after the final page, and one that deserves a sturdy readership.
Girls on Fire – Robin Wasserman.
Wasserman’s adult fiction debut after many years as a successful YA writer is a cutting, abrasive and brutally honest exploration of a deeply co-dependent relationship between two teenage girls amidst the age of George Bush, grunge and Satanic Panic.
As Hannah and Lacey, the wallflower and the outcast, come together and their blossoming power turns toxic and inescapable in its painful allure, Wasserman holds back nothing in this piercing dissection of the world that makes girls bad, or at least paints them as such. To the backdrop of conservative America on the eve of the Clinton era yet clinging to puritan safety, these young women watch in agony as horrific things happen around and to them, and soon they find themselves inflicting the damage with a little too much glee. It’s not an easy read but with many books seemingly too timid to truly endanger the protagonists they hold so close to their hearts – this was an issue I had with the highly hyped 2016 release The Girls – there’s true catharsis in Wasserman’s refusal to shy away from the reality of these girls’ situations. There’s a chance they may get out of it alive one day, but not without a few scars.
Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman – Lindy West.
Everything in Shrill is worth your time, but I would like to focus on one specific segment that writer Lindy West explores in sharp, hilarious and often gut-wrenching detail.
After comedian Daniel Tosh made a rape joke at a show several years ago, a woman heckled him with insistence that rape jokes were never funny. His response, that it would be hilarious if that woman was immediately raped in the middle of the club, went viral and inspired a long, messy and often impenetrable debate. West, herself a regular on the Seattle comedy scene, wrote about the event and joking about rape, particularly when and how it should be done. As she found herself in torrid Twitter debates with Patton Oswalt and defending her views on W Kamau Bell’s talk show against white male comedians who thought she supported censorship, the abuse against her mounted and hijacked the entire debate. I remember watching the whole affair unfold and thinking how impossible it was for any woman to talk about without being attacked.
What makes Shrill so powerful, and such a strong demonstration of West’s skills as a writer, is in West’s confessions of how this entire issue, as important as it was to discuss and as unavoidable as said discussions became, ended up irrevocably poisoning comedy for her. She could no longer enjoy this passion in the way she previously found great joy in, and only found herself reminded of how her hobbies seemed to hate women. To say I related to this would be a dramatic understatement – I struggle to think of any woman who has not lived that life.
Shrill has much to recommend – laugh out loud moments, beautiful and deeply personal scenes of pathos, the oft-overlooked exploration of the intersections of feminism and body issues – but that segment alone is worth the hardback price.
TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time – Alan Sepinwall & Matt Zoller Seitz.
I like lists. I like the mindset behind organizing a series of connected things into a specific order based on merit, favouritism or seeming randomness, and I love the arguments they inspire. So two of television criticism’s most influential figures teaming up to decide once and for all the 100 greatest American TV shows ever was tailor-made for me.
Packed full of concise, passionate criticism that details the greatness of the television that changed the medium, TV (The Book) could so easily have been a plodding series of arrogantly insisted opinions, but both Zoller Seitz and Sepinwall have too much respect for TV to reduce it to a mere list of pros and cons. Given the genre’s history, starting as the minor to film and evolving to the days of auteur driven programming and so-called ‘Peak TV’, there’s much to cover and the authors’ reasoning and passion shines through with each entry. The expected classics are here – and I’m delighted by the defence of the latter seasons of The Simpsons offered by both writers – as are some obscure titles getting their fair dues, and clear thought is put into giving every show, regardless of its running time or surrounding circumstances, a fair shake. The entry of The Cosby Show is an excellent example of this – how do you quantify the evident influences and positive qualities of a show led by a truly terrible human being who used it to disguise his predatory nature?
Great criticism can succinctly convey to the audience the inherent appeal of the topic being discussed, and the essays for each entry analyze not only why said shows are so good but the context which they were made in – The groundbreaking developments in TV as a medium and business of profit that drove I Love Lucy; the underestimated fan appeal of Hannibal; the aforementioned dilemma of discussing The Cosby Show. While the book will no doubt inspire a multitude of arguments among its readers, as a passionate historical contextualizing of a frequently dismissed medium, it’s a proud representative.
Hold Me – Courtney Milan.
While Milan remains most noted for her expertly crafted historical romances, her contemporary offerings demonstrate a sharper, more experimental side to her talents. Delving into a variety of tropes and story features that clearly fascinate her – the Silicon Valley stalwarts Cyclone Industries at the centre of this series’ world is a clear homage to Apple – Hold Me brings both geeky enthusiasm and familiar genre elements to the classic Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail style story of foes who are unknowingly friends through a different medium.
Stubborn genius Jay obsesses over his research to the detriment of everything else in his life, and struggles to understand why anyone else would want to be distracted by frivolous things. One of those said frivolities, in his eyes, is Maria, the sister of his friend, who gets in the way with her sharp wit, garish heels and refusal to do as he says. Of course, it’s never that simple, and we soon see Jay and Maria’s more intimate relationship – that of internet commenters turned best friends, even though they’ve no idea who they’re really talking to.
Everyone online has had that thrill of uncertainty that comes with making friends over Twitter or Tumblr or elsewhere and not knowing entirely who this kindred spirit really is. As someone who has made many friends this way – more than in real life, if I’m honest – I enjoyed Milan’s manner of depicting the familiarity that comes with such friendships – the quickly developed in-jokes, the devotion that remains just vague enough, the comfort of anonymity. It’s a deceptively difficult dynamic to depict, but it’s where Milan’s strengths lie. There are no easy routes for this pair, and their move towards mutual trust and respect takes the time it needs to ring true.
Milan also deals with a variety of issues – gender, sexuality, race, class, religion – without resorting to polemics or proselytizing. While the romance genre has made leaps and bounds in recent years with diversifying beyond the ever prevalent Default Mode of romantic pairings (cishet white people with one of 7 different haircuts), it’s still disappointingly rare to see novels with a trans protagonist. Maria proves to be a heroine for the ages – fiercely intelligent, shamelessly geeky, feminist and combative when necessary, and always aware of the good and bad circumstances that made her who she is.
While many romance readers remain faithful to Milan’s historical works, I believe it’s the contemporary genre where her most fascinating potential lies, and Hold Me perfectly exemplifies that.