Favorite Books of 2016

16:38 Sun 31 Dec 2017
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That’s not a typo—I really mean 2016. I need to write about last year before I can cover 2017.

2016 wasn’t a great reading year, and 46 books was a low total. I didn’t keep the momentum from 2015 going. I wasn’t reading much at any point in the year, with highs of only seven books in a month, and that only twice. Still, there were some good books in there.

Top Five

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, David Graeber (90)

I guess I’m just really a David Graber fan. This was insightful and fascinating, a brief foray into anarchist possibilities and explorations.

At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien (85)

Flann O’Brien’s absolute classic remains an absolute classic.

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (85)

Damning and convincing examination of how mass incarceration in the United States functions as a racial caste system. My disagreements with it are minor, with the most significant one being that the mechanisms of power she describes are not wrong simply because they’re racist, they’re wrong because treating human beings in such ways is indefensible.

The Fifth Season/The Obelisk Gate (85)

These two books, the first two in N K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, are really, really good. I was skeptical, because I had not been fond of the previous Jemisin I’d read, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but these were dark, gritty, very emotionally gripping, and kept me fascinated throughout. The setting is also extremely interesting.

This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein (85)

Klein’s examination of the many things we must change in order to have a chance at surviving climate change is both inspiring and depressing, and is really a must-read.

Other Highlights

Some of the other books I read in 2016 that I consider worthy of recommendation.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (85)

This was a very disturbing and powerful chronicle of three decades of Jamaicans, focused on political turmoil and the drug trade.

The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante (85)

Not to be confused with The Story of the Lost Child, this was excellent. Ferrante’s ability and willingness to look directly at extremely difficult emotions and to analyze them deeply is on full display here, with all the discomfort this brings along.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (80)

This was a wonderful book, a great look at American culture (and, particularly, race relations) by an outsider, and an excellent story.

Daughter of the Forest, Juliet Marillier (80)

A great retelling of the “Children of Lir” story.

How Nonviolence Protects the State, Peter Gelderloos (80)

An in-depth analysis of the focus on “nonviolence” in activist/protest movements, and a dismantling of the most common arguments in favor of that focus, with a lot of historical details that I hadn’t been aware of previously.

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (80)

Re-reading this was still fun, and the best parts were still the contemporary ones (particularly those featuring Behemoth, of course). Tragic in parts, and the sections set in biblical times are compelling, but the satirical and fantastical elements are really what make it a classic.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi (80)

Uneven (like almost all short story collections), but these stories, mostly reinterpretations of fables, were great at times and rarely failed to be interesting.

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust (80)

Of course it’s excellent and has some amazing prose. But I was surprised by how many of the characters are completely insufferable, and even if that was Proust’s point (which I’m not convinced was the case for all of them), it certainly made reading it less enjoyable.

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (80)

Still compelling, and I still found Alex all too plausible—but overall, the dystopia presented by Burgess here seems far less plausible now, in the Internet era, than it did to me when I first read it.

Seveneves, Neil Stephenson (80)

This was a really good end-of-the-world speculative story, and had a lot of emotional impact in how it dealt with that. The last third was significantly weaker, though.

The Reading Plan

I continued to be happy with following a plan for my reading in 2016, even though my total reading volume was down by so much (a 41-book drop from 2015). Alternating author gender still seems like a great idea, and I suspect it’s helped widen my reading range a bit in the years that I’ve done it.


In 2016 I read:

46 books with an average of 371 pages per book, an average rating of 78, taking an average of 9 days to read.

41 ebooks, 5 physical books.

41 fiction, 5 nonfiction.

26 books I would recommend.

20 books from book groups ( 7 SF reading group, 8 Books & Brews, 5 SFAiPT).

3 books that I had previously read.

7 books that have won awards I care about[1].

The List

All the books I read in 2015, in chronological order. You can see this more nicely formatted elsewhere.

Ratings are based on how much I enjoyed the book at the time. I wrote the comment on each book shortly after finishing it.

  1. Seveneves, Neil Stephenson.

    2016-01-02. 80%

    More traditional hard SF than I expected from Stephenson; an excellent beginning and first two-thirds, surprisingly effective emotionally in how it deals with its apocalypse. The last third is weaker, although my bias against the notion of genetically-determined personality traits is part of that opinion.

  2. The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe.

    2016-01-05. 70%

    Unreliable narrators, unclear identity, uncertain circumstances, oh my. It seems that I should have found these three intricately-intertwined novellas full of questions about the true nature of a postcolonial planet intriguing—but didn’t.

  3. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

    2016-01-23. 80%

    Excellent writing, interesting and disturbing thoughts on race in America, and well-rendered relationships—I was however put off by Ifemelu’s tremendous sense of entitlement with regard to Obinze at the end, but that’s not unrealistic, just irritating.

  4. A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James.

    2016-01-30. 85%

    Immersive and convincing account of three decades of gang and drug events from Jamaica to New York, with an impressive range of voices.

  5. Ray, Barry Hannah.

    2016-01-30. 75%

    Short and striking, with some great lines but also with a number macho streaks that made it less interesting.

  6. Gut Symmetries, Jeanette Winterson.

    2016-02-04. 75%

    Probably deserves a higher rating; it has amazing passages in it and some phenomenal writing. However, I just couldn’t get into it, and the advanced physics/mysticism connections it played with didn’t really work for me.

  7. City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff Vandermeer.

    2016-02-19. 80%

    A fascinating combination of amusing, disturbing, and intricate. Casting around for comparisons, I think of HP Lovecraft, China Miéville, Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Z Danielewski, and M John Harrison. Self-/inter-referential weird fantasy with a focus on fungus.

  8. Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar.

    2016-02-28. 65%

    I’m not sure why, but my reading of this was extremely unsympathetic, and the self-awareness that simply must be there in a work of this kind was only coming through occasionally, making me feel as if the terrible characteristics of the main protagonist were those of the text. Aside from that, I felt it was too long, insufficiently interesting, had long patches of poor prose, deeply misogynistic, and that the occasional sections of excellent writing were far from enough to salvage it. Not clever enough about being knowingly clever about being too clever for its own good.

  9. Alif the Unseen, G Willow Wilson.

    2016-03-15. 65%

    Started out promisingly, seemingly a fresh mix of fantasy and technological themes with an interesting setting, but descended into tired tropes distressingly similar to “you have to believe in magic for it to work” mixed with heavy doses of religious apologetics, and veered more and more into the young adult genre as it went along.

  10. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, David Graeber.

    2016-04-15. 90%

    Succinct, well-written, insightful, informative, and inspiring, this is yet another Graeber text I consider a must-read.

  11. A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson.

    2016-04-24. 80%

    Kate Atkinson is a master of the end-of-paragraph knifing. Powerful, emotionally affecting, and with a lot of unexpected humor—but I thought it was significantly weakened by the ending.

  12. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess.

    2016-04-27. 80%

    I enjoyed it but was struck by how well I remembered it despite a gap of over two decades. I was also struck by how much less plausible this particular dystopia is in the Internet (and DOTA and LoL etc.) era than in the late 80s/early 90s.

  13. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust.

    2016-04-30. 80%

    Liquid, languid, gorgeous prose, with fascinating explorations of human memory and consciousness—offset by the fact that so many of the characters are assholes, and M. Swann in particular is insufferable. I suspect that some of my reaction is due to taking aspects more seriously than Proust intended—but not all of it, and some of that is down to attitudes apparently held by the author that I find highly objectionable, and all the more so for the author’s apparent conviction that their truth is unquestionable.

  14. The Loser, Thomas Bernhard.

    2016-05-02. 80%

    Impressive stream-of-consciousness of dark and cynical musings about music, ambition, art, life, and death in this fictional memoir of a trio of friends, one of whom is Glenn Gould.

  15. The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood.

    2016-05-06. 75%

    Good, interesting postapocalyptic fiction, with some excellent writing, but it didn’t seem to affect me deeply. It felt like an oddly unemotional apocalypse.

  16. Open City, Teju Cole.

    2016-05-06. 80%

    Calm and ordered meandering, centered in New York City, with relevant digressions into history, art, and music, this view into the thoughts of an immigrant Nigerian psychiatrist was fascinating throughout.

  17. This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein.

    2016-06-02. 85%

    Alternately depressing and inspiring, this is a rigorous examination of what needs to change to prevent climate disaster. Occasionally repetitive, and periodically unable to differentiate between science and the abuse of science by capitalism, but those are minor flaws.

  18. The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante.

    2016-06-03. 85%

    Powerful and emotionally insightful and unflinching, Ferrante tells the story of a woman’s life through her emotional responses to seeing another mother and her daughter on a beach while on vacation, and examines the power of emotional undertow.

  19. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison.

    2016-06-06. 80%

    Superlative world-building and a good story that stayed within itself, though occasionally over-earnest.

  20. Capitalizing on Crisis, Greta Krippner.

    2016-06-18. 80%

    Excellent examination of US financialization 1960–2000, meticulously researched, with detailed arguments for its analyses and a lot of support for the key thesis that financialization was merely a temporary escape from the problem of how to politically manage economic distribution under non-growth conditions; quite technical, so just about comprehensible to me as a non-economist.

  21. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi.

    2016-07-10. 80%

    Some of the stories were excellent, some a little less so, but overall I think her writing is excellent and what she’s doing very interesting.

  22. On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee.

    2016-07-27. 80%

    Great writing in a compelling postapocalypticish setting, but doesn’t quite satisfy.

  23. The Lost Weekend, Charles Jackson.

    2016-08-03. 75%

    A brave, significant, and well-written account of alcoholism, but despite the fact that you’re not really supposed to like the protagonist, my dislike of the protagonist was strong enough to put me off somewhat.

  24. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri.

    2016-08-06. 75%

    Very well-written, this story of immigrant dissociation and adaptation probably deserves a higher rating, but various comparisons to my own life made me enjoy it less than I might have.

  25. The Little Friend, Donna Tartt.

    2016-08-14. 80%

    Dark and effective, but lost something around the halfway point. I did think Harriet was a great character, and avoided the pitfalls authors sometimes have with similar protagonists.

  26. The Great Ordeal, R Scott Bakker.

    2016-08-17. 80%

    A good enough continuation to hold my interest, and to make me want to read the next one, but not as good as earlier books in the series.

  27. The Fifth Season, N K Jemisin.

    2016-08-25. 85%

    Excellent, searing, and intense, this is great far-future near-fantasy postapocalyptic fiction. (Also way better than The Several Kingdoms.)

  28. The Obelisk Gate, N K Jemisin.

    2016-08-26. 85%

    Matched the high standards of the first book in the series.

  29. All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders.

    2016-08-30. 70%

    Fun, quirky, whimsical, but ultimately it was unsatisfying and felt oddly shallow.

  30. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander.

    2016-09-10. 85%

    Excellent and searing account of how mass incarceration in the US functions as a racial caste system. While not new to me, the details Alexander presents are still important (and infuriating). I have minor disagreements with some of Alexander’s emphasis, particularly around the issue that many of the mechanisms of power she describes, while clearly racist, are not wrong only because they are racist; they are wrong because unaccountable arbitrary power structures inevitably lead to abuse (or simply are abuse).

  31. The Gate to Women’s Country, Sherri S Tepper.

    2016-09-16. 75%

    Ultimately unconvincing to me in terms of the social structure and world it envisions, and the late revelations, particularly about the entire setup having been created by women in the first place, don’t make sense to me.

  32. Rant, Chuck Palahniuk.

    2016-09-24. 70%

    Not bad, but it just didn’t really work for me, and by the end it felt like Palahniuk was trying to cram too many zany ideas into one book.

  33. Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor.

    2016-10-11. 75%

    I thought the setting was great and the folkloric aspects interesting, but the abilities of the protagonists felt very off, and the combination of psychic or magical powers on the parts of those protagonists plus the highly mystical portrayal of the aliens as a combination just didn’t work for me.

  34. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov.

    2016-10-11. 80%

    Weirder than I recalled, highly whimsical, with some wonderful passages, but I suspect there’s a lot of it I’m just not getting.

  35. How Nonviolence Protects the State, Peter Gelderloos.

    2016-10-16. 80%

    Excellent and informative in its dissection of many myths of purely nonviolent activist, particularly claimed past successes, but goes adrift at times in overstating its case and eliding some of the complexities involved. Still, eye-opening and uncomfortable in an effective way.

  36. Pacific Edge: Three Californias, Kim Stanley Robinson.

    2016-10-18. 75%

    The worldbuilding is interesting, and the world well-done, but I found I just didn’t care about many of the characters, the relationships—particularly romantic ones—felt off somehow, and the “flashback” sections just didn’t feel like they fit well.

  37. The Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon.

    2016-10-20. 80%

    Very engaging in its attempt to investigate the subjective experience of autism, and while the plot was somewhat thin and some of other characters very two-dimensional, the issues explored and the main character prevented those things from doing too much damage to the whole.

  38. The Summer We Got Free, Mia McKenzie.

    2016-11-19. 75%

    Some of the writing is extremely strong, and I wanted to like it more, but too much of it rang slightly wrong to me—in particular, the quasi-supernatural elements and the interplay of “specialness” with generations of social repression.

  39. The ABCs of Socialism.

    2016-11-20. 75%

    Fine as a primer, but, unsurprisingly, doesn’t get into enough detail for me to rate it that highly.

  40. Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction, Colin Ward.

    2016-12-03. 75%

    Some of the history was good, and I appreciated the overview, but some of it seemed excessively shallow, particularly in its attempts to wrap up or summarize sections. It also seemed glibly overoptimistic in places—even when I agreed with the sentiments. I’m probably not the intended audience for this book.

  41. At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien.

    2016-12-04. 85%

    Extremely clever and enjoyable, with fantastically accurate-seeming dialogue, and many fun episodes, but despite having read it before, the sharp turn in the final paragraph took me by surprise again and makes me wonder what about the text I missed.

  42. Everfair, Nisi Shawl.

    2016-12-07. 65%

    I wasn’t impressed; I was never able to get into it or any of the characters, or feel like it was realistically presenting events; I also thought the supernatural elements were unnecessary and in some ways a cop-out.

  43. Desolation Angels, Jack Kerouac.

    2016-12-15. 70%

    Some strong writing in this, and Kerouac’s strength with language is clear, but I found it very difficult to stick with.

  44. Daughter of the Forest, Juliet Marillier.

    2016-12-17. 80%

    I enjoyed this a lot but have trouble deciding between a 75 and 80 rating. The ending was good but somehow felt more YA than the rest of the book. Overall, I thought this dealt well with Irish mythology and handled its fantasy aspects quite well, and I thought that the protagonist and most of the main characters were well done, only occasionally veering into territory where the conflicts seemed overly simplistic. The strength of the writing overcame a number of its other weaknesses.

  45. The Sellout, Paul Beatty.

    2016-12-31. 75%

    The humor didn’t come across for me, and the humor is clearly a huge part of the book. It’s a better book than a 75 rating suggests, but it just didn’t do it for me. Its commentary on race in America didn’t fully work for me either, and though they’re very different books I can’t help but compare it unfavorably in that regard to Americanah.

  46. Wool, Hugh Howey.

    2016-12-31. 75%

    Good worldbuilding for the most part, but often I found the writing somewhat clunky, and for all the good worldbuilding it let down by not delving into some of the intricacies. The ending, also, was extremely unconvincing and a major point against it, particularly because it seemed to take a lot of complexity and overly simplify it. It also suffers from an extremely two-dimensional antagonist.

[1] Hugo Award for Best Novel, IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, Man Booker Prize for Fiction, National Book Award for Fiction, Nebula Award for Best Novel, PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

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