Unsung's Best Books of 2016

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman

It’s the power of uncertainty, that Aickman uses so well. In what is a fantastically mundane collection of stories, he excels at knocking individual blocks, single ideas, so that the whole becomes unstable. Sometimes it’s funny, like 'The Hospice' (Fawlty Towers in Royston Vasey), sometimes it’s frightening like 'The Same Dog'. More often than not though, it’s simply weird. He personifies time, but doesn’t let us in on exactly why that haunts a woman; he links sexual awakening with swords but refuses to clearly reconcile the violence; the war is still lurking just under the surface, strangers left on the shore in 'Niemandswasser'.

It does the same thing to me that The Beauty does, where I try and explain the stories and all that happens is I reveal something of myself in how I do that. We don’t need genre metaphors to access the irreal, Aickman shows us it’s there all the time. 

Crime and Punishment by Feodor Dostoevsky

Almost a year later and Dostoevsky’s claustrophobic, visceral prose has stuck with me. There’s a sickly, heady quality to the blood on the carpet, Roskolnikov’s palpitations, the frenetic rush of his paranoia. Same as Rebecca, it doesn’t make for comfortable reading, but the power and honesty of his dualised mental states is timeless.

Inventing zombie fiction aside, when the warnings in work written 150 years proves entirely resonant with your own times the appreciation is bittersweet. The truth of it is Roskolnikov is a man torn apart by the times and his moral justification to kill is born of poverty and a deep sense of the wrongness of inequality, embodied by the pawnbroker. The communal illusion of society is a compact, a contract, and what happens when the terms of that contract are broken?

Frustrated anger, without an clearly identifiable target, is a dangerous thing for both individuals and societies. At the end of 2016, that message feels more pertinent than ever.

Rawblood by Catriona Ward & Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

What is it about gothic tales of women enduring an isolated life in the West Country that makes for such good books? It’s lead to a dead heat for Catriona Ward and Daphne Du Maurier, whatever it is. Whilst very different in tone and execution I found these to be spiritual kin. 

As with Crime and Punishment, I found a true sense of anxiety and self-doubt in Du Maurier’s writing. More than a narrative device, Rebecca really nails the ongoing nature of it, the incessant questioning of every decision, how the unknowable grows out of all proportion, the potent ways that changes a person. You see the world as it is to another person, making every character another step removed from you. The narrator in unreliable, but she can’t help being anything else.

Rawblood is a very different beast, much more intense and uncompromising. Ward has a sophisticated and accomplished style – especially so for a debut – and uses ghost story dynamics excellently. There’s a lot going on between family curses going back generations, feuding compatriots and forbidden relationships, steeped in a powerful sense of place. If I’m being honest though, the reason it’s on this list is the asylum sequence, which is one of the most vivid things I’ve read in a long time. 

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy by Gabriella Coleman

I want anyone who ever tries to write a hacker character to read this: the zany outcasts; the dysfunctional teens locked in dark rooms; the clichés and stereotypes all. Anonymous represent one of the better known aspects of a significant and capable part of global society. So when Gabriella Coleman undertook to study their methods and behaviour respectfully, with their knowledge, we all gained something.

It’s a fascinating portrayal of another form of governance in action. It’s a history of some key narratives of recent times. It’s a debunking of every lazy media representation of something they don’t understand. Sure, they’re a strange and complex set of people. All the more reason to try and understand them, as Coleman has.

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

One of my favourite things about Lavie Tidhar is that he clearly doesn’t give a flying monkeys what any of us think. It’s the same reason I love Chris Morris, because it allows for a black and sharp wit to poke holes in all sorts of things.  

It’s vulgar and profane, it’s high concept, it’s classic noir, it’s frequently surprising, it’s kinky, it’s pulpy, it’s very intelligent, it’s funny, it’s heartbreaking – most of all, it’s difficult to relate to when you start probing the details. Wolf is an antihero, one we all know deserves everything he gets. Except that’s our Wolf we’re punishing, not Tidhar’s. There’s a problem with pre-determinism here. You understand why Shomer is doing it, what’s harder to reconcile is why we’re doing it? It’s fetishising a tragedy for entertainment; it’s catharsis and trying to understand societal trauma through art; it’s a bunch of S&M gags with a fall man no one minds seeing depraved.

Slipppery, complex stuff. I normally have a lot of problems with postmodernism as well.

Honourable mentions

  • Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison – I loved for much the same reasons I loved Robert Aickman. Read both immediately.
  • Marshland by Gareth Rees – short fiction and non-fiction set on and around the Hackney and Walthamstow marshes. The only book to make me laugh out loud in 2016.
  • Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter – As with the excellent Nick Cave documentary, One More Time With Feeling, Porter understands the truth of grief is in the interpersonal. Your experience of it is unique, in many senses incommunicable – between that and other people is the thing with feathers.
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – When she’s on form Le Guin is the boss of everything. 

Gary

Despite a year of horrors and calamities, I read some great books. I don't have space to write about all the excellent novels I read this year, so here's five notables.

 

From Blue to Black by Joel Lane

Hooked on Joel Lane's writing after picking up Where Furnaces Burn at Fantasycon in Scarborough, I went and tracked down a second-hand copy of his debut novel From Blue to Black, the story of a cult Birmingham post-punk band around the time of the Tory reelection of 1992. Though not falling into the weird fiction category Joel Lane is known best for, stylistically this is very similar to Where Furnaces Burn in its hard-edged but beautiful descriptions of Britain’s post-industrial landscape. The country described is broken down, knocked down or only partially rebuilt. The IRA are still a threat, decaying factories are sprayed with swastikas and KEEP BRITAIN WHITE graffiti. The pubs are full and people drink like there’s no tomorrow. 

Writing about music well is very difficult, especially rock music, but Lane really pulls it off here. There’s a clear love for the music described, as well as a keen awareness of its flaws and absurdities. Anyone who has been a fan of Felt, Nick Cave, The Cure or Hüsker Dü will find something to love (the book made me dig out all my old favourite Bob Mould songs such as this one), 

From Blue to Black is about the power of music, about Birmingham, about Irishness, about destroying yourself with booze, and importantly it’s about gay men not adhering to the cliches of what gay men are supposed to be. As one character comments: ‘I don’t know any other gay men who are into rock. It’s either opera or musicals. Rock is just so uncouth.’ 

I don’t think I can recommend this book enough. Go and read it. 

Cove by Cynan Jones

This felt in many ways a cousin to Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast, published earlier in the year. Both novellas feature male protagonists lost and injured in a wild environment they chose to enter alone. In the end, Cove is the superior book for me, with a protagonist more sympathetic and a natural world more indifferent and terrifying than the one evoked by Kingsnorth. It would be easy for this one-man-and-a-boat story to veer into a macho tale of man versus the elements. Instead we get distilled prose poetry, philosophical and at times surreal, and simply fantastic writing. Man doesn’t do very well against the elements either. 

The Race by Nina Allan

A novel that my thoughts keep returning to again and again, practically demanding a reread. I loved the science-fiction elements of a blasted Romney Marsh where people liven up dreary existences racing smartdogs. I loved the parts in contemporary Hastings. I loved how everything began to bleed and blend together. An enigmatic book in the tradition of M John Harrison and Christopher Priest, The Race was one of my most enjoyable and intriguing reads of 2016.

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Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo

Not a memoir of one man's interaction with the alt-right, but actually a deep, and disturbing, interrogation of what ‘wildness’ really means, and how it may be something essential we're barely aware we are lacking. 

Johanna Sinisalo’s novel exists in an alternate Finland where trolls are not just things of myth and folklore – rare enough to approach that status, rarely seen and seldom glimpsed, but very real. A fantastic slice of Finnish weird and one of the best novels to address the common trope of man V nature. 

Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers

Not a novel for the faint hearted, this is a caustic but beautifully written piece of anti-pastoral fiction. Diving headfirst into a nightmarish world exposed by Operation Yewtree, in the gorgeous surrounds of the Yorkshire Dales, Turning Blue identifies something very rotten in British society and tackles it head on.

I loved it. Though love is probably the wrong word here.

Other great books AKA Honourable mentions

  • The Many by Wyl Menmuir
  • Furnace by Livia Llewellyn
  • Creatures of the Pool by Ramsey Campbell
  • Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie
  • Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon
  • The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
  • Whitstable by Stephen Volk
  • A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
  • The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson