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2016 Reading Recap

A great year in reading with some new all-time favorites and a re-read of some classics.

Fiction

The Expanse Series, S.A. Corey, 2014

  • Leviathan Wakes
  • Caliban’s War
  • Abbodon’s Gate

If Dan Brown wrote off-planet science fiction, this would be it. At the core of each book is a dark mystery perpetrated by shadowy organizations, and the only hope for mankind is a ragtag but unusually clever group of folks. The narrative bounces between characters, and cliffhangers loom at the end of each chapter, literally forcing you to turn the page because can’t put it down. Not sprawling enough to qualify as “space opera”, but totally immersive in its own right.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series, Douglas Adams

No editorial necessary. Third time through, and it just gets better.

The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmons, 2015

At first, this is a straight-forward mystery story with an unlikely hero pair: an actual historical figure (Henry James) and a fictional historical character (Sherlock Holmes). But the mystery on the surface gives way to velvet-rich character studies of late 19th Century politicians and writers (Theodore Roosevelt, Clarence King and Samuel Clemens appear). A subtle, disquieting thread is Holmes’ struggle to understand whether he is an actual person or a fictional character, which unwinds into some seriously existential dialogue. While tame for a Simmons novel, the time spent unfolding the psychology of the characters, and describing the technology and culture of the turn of the century, is a true pleasure. If you liked the gentle pacing and crafted scene-setting of The Crook Factory, this is for you.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, 2006

A long, plodding novel about two magicians quest to return magic to England, which sounds exactly like my kind of story. I tried hard as hell to find the appeal of this book, but it took me a year to finish because it’s just. that. boring.

The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud 2015

An absolutely brilliant complement to Albert Camus’ The Stranger, where an investigation, carried out decades after the crime, leads us to the brother of the murdered Arab. The brother, mad from grief and the suffocating presence of his mother, unravels a winding tale of suffering, war, murder, mystery, love, and so much more. The translation from French is exquisite, a true gem of literature where the subtlest turns of phrase trap you in wonderment. If you love language, unconventional storytelling, and mystery served with the delicacy of a croissant, do not pass this by.

Rise of Endymion, Dan Simmons, 1998

Final installment to the Hyperion series. Excellent space opera and a gripping conclusion. If you’ve read the other books in the series, this ties it all together.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson, 2015

Quite the hyped science fiction book of last year, it lives up to 90% of the good reviews. The first two-thirds describes mankind’s quest to escape an Earth doomed to boil under the rain of fragments from a shattered moon, and is absolute classic near-future fiction along the lines of The Martian. The personalities, hard science, and portrait of a global society on the precipice of annihilation is gripping. The last third, picking up the story 5,000 years into the future, sacrifices a punchy storyline for extended passages of scene-setting that describe just how humans were able to survive without Mother Earth. Without question, in my top 10 sci-fi books of all time.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel, 2015

A novel that weaves a delicious story of people surviving the near extinction of the human race and then learning to come back together as a new kind of civilization. Stringing character stories back and forth between “Before” and “After” the end enables Emily St. John Mandel to explore vivid passages of everything we have to lose, from the little things like turning on a light to the inability to communicate with anyone beyond a few hundred feet. While set in the near-future (like the tomorrow near future), its introspection is beyond science fiction.

Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs

In retrospect, not a particularly good book. You know the story. The original narrative is underscored by shocking racism; the idea that a white man could ever not be the king of the jungle, over “apes” and native tribes, is not even on the radar. Combined with the plotless violence and stilted writing, it all just kind of sucks.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough, 1977

Not much to be said about this that hasn’t already been written. A winding tale following a complex Australian family through three generations of love and loss, birth and death. While cloyingly melodramatic and shockingly cruel, it was hard to put down.

The Twenty-One Balloons, William Pene du Bois, 1948

A tale of one ex-schoolteacher who builds a balloon with the intention of sailing around the world without landing for one year. Rather abruptly, he’s wrecked on the island of Krakatoa days before its explosion where he discovers a fantastic community of twenty families rich from diamond mines on the island. Of course the island does explode, forcing them to evacuate by, you guessed it, balloons. Written for kids, but fun for adults.

Nonfiction

A Sense of Style, Steven Pinker, 2014

Billed as “the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st Century”, this is Mr Pinker’s argument for writing with classic style. Without hesitation, he lays contemporary writing on the table and picks it apart with defenses against confusing syntax, zombie nouns, ambiguous phrasing and more. He demonstrates how to “tree” sentences for clarity, a useful trick, and openly challenges conventions from The Elements of Style (and other style books) that inhibit clarity. While his writing is clear, some passages are as dense as clay and require several read-throughs. If linguistics and the mechanics of writing excite you, this is worth every penny.

A Walk In the Woods, Bill Bryson, 2006

Mr Bryson’s account of hiking the Appalachian Trail is a humble, deadpan, genuinely funny narrative of the trail itself, the personalities that populate it, the scenery and history it touches across its 13 states, and the social and political pressures it faces on a yearly basis. While a literal walk in the woods seems scarcely interesting on the surface, his punitive detail and sardonic, journalistic objectivity make this book hard to put down.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, Simon Winchester, 2005

An unbelievably thorough narrative describing not just the 1883 explosion of the island itself, but the historical science of plate tectonics, the geo-political trade climate at the time, and of course the long, unfortunate fall-out of the cataclysm. Equal parts history, science, and personal narrative, Krakatoa is a treat in understanding how single moments of unimaginable change from over a century ago shape today’s religion and politics.