What I Read Last Year: Fiction

I only have stats going back to 2008, but I'm pretty confident that I've never read as much over the course of a year as I did in 2016. Because of this, I'm going to break up my annual roundup of books into four separate posts in a possibly counterproductive effort to be less overwhelming. A lot of this volume is related to the fact that I finally tallied up just how much I have left to read before I'm done this project, which has put the spring back in my step when it comes to the Top 100 books.

I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that novels I didn't bother to review were the largest category of books I read last year, so let's start there while the new year is still fresh.


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, 491 pages

I'm pretty sure I've written about my relationship with Little Women on this blog before. My mom had a copy that she gifted me when I was very young, and I'd read it multiple times before finally realizing about six years ago that it is an abridged edition. I finally got around to reading the full text this year, and it was everything I had no idea I needed. The novel is about four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, growing up, and it is beautiful and sweet and it filled me with hope. There is a lot of God Stuff in it that might make some readers uncomfortable, but it's intrinsic to the themes in the book and I wasn't bothered. There is no way for me to be objective about this book.

Rage by Richard Bachman, 170 pages

I needed my own copy of The Long Walk so I got an old copy of The Bachman Books at the used bookstore, one that includes Bachman/Stephen King's infamous school shooting novel, which has been out of print for quite a few years now. I was hoping for something of the calibre of The Long Walk, but Rage is boring, unbelievable, and half-baked. Taking this out of print might have given it more credit than it deserves.

The Running Man by Richard Bachman, 214 pages

I haven't seen the movie of this, but I hear it doesn't do the book justice. And I had a ton of fun reading this. A man volunteers to star in a reality tv program to get money to treat his baby daughter who has pneumonia. The reality tv shows seem to be one of the only ways to earn money in this dystopian future, where the air is polluted and occupational health and safety is nonexistent. The action ramps up to a thrilling and gory climax.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, 452 pages

In a city abandoned by its gods, there are hundreds or thousands of stairways to nowhere, formerly leading into magnificent buildings that disappeared at the same time as the gods did. This is the setting for a murder investigation led by a young spy named Shara and her "secretary," giant one-eyed Sigrud, but it soon becomes much more than a murder investigation. I had a really hard time connecting with this book. But on the other hand, my sister loves it and so did pretty much everyone else in my book club, so my opinion is definitely not the prevailing one in this case.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, 328 pages

I've previously raved about Black's book The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. This book wasn't quite as good as that one. Hazel and her brother Ben live in a town in a forest surrounded by fairies. The people of the town mostly live in harmony with the fairies, except for growing unrest and rumours of a monster. There is also a horned boy sleeping in an unbreakable glass casket in the woods, and the site is a tourist/bush party destination (this is a very cool subversion of the sleeping princess trope, if nothing else). Holly Black does teen angst like I've never seen it before, and this book gets deliciously dark and PG-13 sexy but unfortunately it feels a bit scattered and the ending fizzled. The LGBT content felt a bit self-conscious, as well. I'll be reading more of her work for sure, though.

One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski, 839 pages

So. Danielewski announced The Familiar in September 2010, and I got my copy of the first volume not long after it was released. It's his most fonty, colourful book yet (at least of the ones that I've read—there are two more volumes of this series released as of now), and although I still think what he's doing is interesting, I'm not prepared to buy TWENTY-SEVEN BOOKS that are this headache-inducing. A little girl named Xanther finds a kitten that is maybe not a kitten, and then there are a thousand other plot threads that have escaped me because they weren't as interesting. I will get the next volume from the library, hopefully sooner rather than later, but I may be forced to abandon this series.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, 530 pages

Doerr's novel won the Pulitzer Prize but it mostly made me aware of my general disinterest in magical realism. If this book were just the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a young German orphan boy, I would have liked it a lot better than I did given the addition of a subplot involving a diamond called the Sea of Flames which may or may not have magical properties. This was the last selection for my book club for the year, and I'm looking forward to discussing it more, since discussion usually helps me to nail down my thoughts on books a little better.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, 243 pages

In the five years since I posted my review of The Parasites, du Maurier has become one of my favourite authors, because her books get me right in the Gothic core of my being and she herself is such an interesting and bizarre figure. So I had to introduce her to my book club, and I (randomly) chose this. After her mother's death, around the year 1800, Mary Yellan goes to live with her aunt and uncle in—you guessed it—Cornwall. She's immediately plunged into the various criminal activities her uncle is involved in, trying to protect her battered aunt. She's also caught up with her uncle's devilish but charming brother and a local priest. She probably walks a total of 500 miles over the course of the events of the book. Not du Maurier's best work, but I loved it, although reviews from my book club were mixed.

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 181 pages

Because I had three more of Hawthorne's works in the same volume with The Scarlet Letter, I decided to read them. That was a mistake. I believe this is known as Hawthorne's haunted house story, and it is garbage. The details and excessively descriptive language that are the strengths of The Scarlet Letter are the downfall of this novel (and also of The Customhouse, so maybe I should've known). The book builds in a way that kept me reading to see what it was all leading to. Spoiler alert—it was nothing. I think you know which book I'd recommend instead.

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 137 pages

This book gets the same comments as the previous one, except that instead of being about a haunted house it's about a commune. I will add one nice thing: both of these books have one (1) really amazing scene. Neither is worth the agony you'll go through reading the entire novel.

The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, 246 pages

I spotted this at the used bookstore and had to get it because long long ago the art in this book was part of my bedtime reading, and the concept of water babies has been deeply embedded in my consciousness ever since. An overt religious parable that gets kinda racist sometimes but also depicts the life and death of a chimney sweep in gut-wrenching clarity, it certainly wasn't what I expected or remembered from being a tiny girl. It led to me reading about chimney sweeps, which is something you should probably never do because it will make you very, very, very sad.

Bird Box by Josh Malerman, 262 pages

After encountering various rave reviews of this book I had to pick it up, but I almost didn't read it after getting home and discovering the entire author bio on the back flap was that the author is a guy in a band. Malerman scored one for guys in bands with this novel though, let me tell you. I started reading at around 7 pm and couldn't stop until I was done because I was too tense, so it's a good thing the book is short. In this novel, a woman takes a journey down a river with two young children, and all three of them must remain blindfolded. The bulk of the novel consists of her reminiscences about how she ended up in this situation: the apocalypse arrived via something that drove people mad upon glimpsing it.

Slade House by David Mitchell, 238 pages

Ostensibly a haunted house story, this short novel is loosely connected with Mitchell's other recent novel, The Bone Clocks, which I read back in 2014. While I did enjoy that previous work, I found the fantastical elements of it a lot less interesting than the various characters and their relationships. What carries over most into this novel is said fantastical elements, unfortunately. People enter Slade House at nine year intervals, beginning in the late 70s, and are never heard from again. This attracts the attention of various other people. This book was fine but it wasn't at all the scary haunted house story that it wanted to be. Again, you should be aware by now of my gold standard of haunted house books.

The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata, 405 pages

This might be the first military sf novel I've read since Starship Troopers a long time ago, and I was really hoping I'd like it more. I don't even know what to say about it, honestly. There were some cool fight sequences but I don't remember anything about why they were happening? I didn't like the love interest or the sex scenes? I dunno.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman, 936 pages

See also this post. A big giant doorstop about Richard III. Too fucking long and somehow too historically accurate.

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett, 287 pages

After my commemorative reading of Small Gods and Mort following Pterry's death in 2015, I had to take a break from his work. It probably sounds like a joke to say it was too painful to read, but it really was. A year or so after his death, I decided to read Reaper Man this spring, and things were back to normal. Death decides he's going to get a job on a farm. And although I was ready, I cried, because of course Reaper Man is one of the Death books, and so of course people die and of course Terry Pratchett is dead now too. It was funny and sad and perfect.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, 375 pages

Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon. Everyone knows that, or at least I knew that, so it was frustrating that so much of this book is about Percy figuring that out. A lot of people love this series, but this is one of those cases where I am very much too old and not the target audience for this. The Pendragon books are better, even though they get so much less love.

Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger, 202 pages

Unfortunately for me, it appears that this was the year of discovering that the authors who wrote some of my favourite books didn't write gold universally. Franny and Zooey is about Franny and Zooey Glass talking to people or each other. Franny is having some sort of crisis (pregnancy, I thought initially, but possibly just ennui) and Zooey gives her shit about it in extreme, tedious detail. The Glass family consists of several child stars and some of them have committed suicide, which is so interesting and so wasted in this book. It was awful, but of course I'm going to keep reading Salinger.

Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer, 342 pages

Sawyer is one of the more recognizable names in Canadian sf, especially since no one will let Margaret Atwood forget her astoundingly ill-informed comments about the genre from 13 years ago. He's not exactly the greatest prose stylist, however. This novel is about a psychologist and some physicists who discover that most of the world's human population consists of mindless robots called p-zeds, and the rest are psycopaths with a scattering of thinking people with consciousness and conscience at the top. There are many huge problems here, though, and I found the book wildly entertaining but also concerning when it came to its ethics and implications.

Joe Hill by Wallace Stegner, 381 pages

I'll just go ahead and reiterate my point about being disappointed by authors this year. There's a reason this isn't one of Stegner's more well-known novels, i.e. it is pretty boring. In the early 20th century, the real Joe Hill was a labour activist and songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies, aka the One Big Union. The little bits of actual history of this time period in the labour movement are extremely fascinating, and they're what kept me reading for long enough that it became too late to quit. The character of Joe Hill is neither likeable nor very interesting as portrayed by Stegner, who seems sympathetic to the cause but not to the man or the methods. I'd like to read more non-fiction about labour and unions soon, but can't recommend this novel.

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