At least as far as my reading went, 2016 wasn’t a great year for fiction, but I did have more time for reading fiction than I’ve had since I was a grad student and that was my job. This isn’t the usual kind of thing I do with this blog, but here are thirty or so one-or-two-sentence reviews of some of the novels that I read for the first time this year (sorted roughly in decreasing order of importance they had for me).
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989)
This book was published in 1989, but somehow I don’t remember ever hearing anything about it before this January (if I had known anything about it I would have read it immediately). Just go read it if you haven’t.
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (2013)
I went into this series without many expectations (people said it was good, I liked the covers). I definitely had no idea that it would be the most compelling fictional portrayal of the excitement and opportunity and frustration of software development I’ve ever read.
The development phases of the programs are really wonderful. The operational phases a little less. The cards often jam and break in the sorters. Very often a container in which the cards have just been sorted falls and the cards scatter on the floor. But it’s great, it’s great even then.
This is the third novel in the series, and probably my favorite.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (2014)
Lila, near the end of the book:
One can’t go on anymore, she said, electronics seems so clean and yet it dirties, dirties tremendously, and it obliges you to leave traces of yourself everywhere as if you were shitting and peeing on yourself continuously: I want to leave nothing, my favorite key is the one that deletes.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011)
Somehow I read a lot of novels this year about childhood friends who grow up to lead very different lives, but this was the most confident portrayal of the childhood part.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (2012)
I found the second novel in the series a little more slow-going than the others, but that was in March—all the stuff about anti-fascist organization and action would probably feel more relevant now.
The Childhood of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee (2013)
While I was a grad student in the English department at the University of Texas at Austin I learned that forty years earlier Coetzee had also been a grad student in the English department at the University of Texas at Austin. We were both interested in quantitative methods, but he did stylistic analysis and I mostly worked on literary-historical projects. Also he finished his Ph.D. in half the time it took me to drop out.
That doesn’t have anything to do with this book, which isn’t my favorite Coetzee, but is still worth reading before the sequel comes out in February.
The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst (1994)
I read this immediately after The Stranger’s Child, which I had found kind of disappointing. This old Hollinghurst is brilliant, though—I don’t know how I missed it until this year.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (2016)
This book made me ashamed of the fact that I’d never read any Zadie Smith before (I’m fixing that in 2017).
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt (2016)
This is like if Stephen King had a sense of humor and knew how to write women.
The Nix by Nathan Hill (2016)
This book starts with a lot of unfunny, unoriginal satire about MMORPGs and how undergraduate women talk, but on the whole I’m glad I made it through.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (2012)
I never read any of the Harry Potter books, and I picked this up after reading Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels, which I thought were pretty fun. This is far better than the Strike novels, though—it’s a really nice balance of mean and funny and humane.
All That Man Is by David Szalay (2016)
I usually avoid short story collections, and I didn’t know that’s what this was when I started it, but I’m glad I got tricked into reading it (thanks Booker Prize people).
Like a talkier, male-er, thriller-ier Swing Time (but not nearly as good).
Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (2015)
For whatever reason I didn’t read much sci-fi this year, but this was excellent, and I’m looking forward to the sequel in March.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)
Before this year the only Shirley Jackson I’d read was “The Lottery”, because of course it was. I picked this up after reading Geek Love because of some comparison in some review somewhere, and I like it for a lot of the same reasons I liked Geek Love (although it’s much quieter and less entirely fucked up).
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
I didn’t enjoy it as much as We Have Always Lived in the Castle but I still feel like I should have read it years ago.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)
Because retreating into your own little world of elegant pleasures gets more tempting every day.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2016)
I read this immediately after A Gentleman in Moscow and the non-stop nastiness was a good palate cleanser.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (2013)
Together with The Casual Vacancy this has almost convinced me that I need to read Harry Potter.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2016)
The thing I like about the nineteenth century is all the excitement about finally being done with religion, and this book does a good job of capturing that.
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (2016)
This would be the best gothic horror novel of the year if it weren’t for Mr. Splitfoot. (It’s much better than the similarly-named and otherwise kind of similar The Many, which didn’t make my cut but somehow did make the Booker long list.)
His Bloody Project by Graeme MaCrae Burnet (2016)
This never really turned into the book I wanted it to be, but I’m not sure it’s a bad thing that it stays so small and literal.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2016)
I don’t tend to like books that try this hard to be funny, and I didn’t appreciate this one as much as a lot of people seem to, but it’s one of the most surprising books I’ve read this year, and parts of it are really beautiful.
The Long Walk by Stephen King (1979)
For some reason I read a bunch of old Stephen King books over the summer. I don’t know why—I don’t like Stephen King that much. This is the one that stood out—it’s small, it’s actually kind of disturbing, and it stays sharp all the way through instead of devolving into sentimental saccharine crap like most King novels.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (2016)
I don’t know much about the airport thriller genre, which I’m assuming this book falls into (mostly since I’ve seen it at airports but not anywhere else), but it was pretty fun.
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (2011)
I love Hollinghurst and I love novels about biographies of authors, but this just didn’t work as well as it should have for me.
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (2015)
Maybe not a terribly good mystery novel but by this point it’s just the Strike and Robin show anyway.
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (2014)
Quite a bit weaker than the other two Strike novels.
The Fireman by Joe Hill (2016)
Kind of silly but there’s just enough interesting world-building for it to make the list.
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters (2016)
This barely made the cut, but I’m a sucker for alternate histories.