Over the course of 2016, I managed to read a total of twenty-eight books, both non-fiction and fiction. Yep. So close to thirty. So very close. That’s 2017’s goal sorted then. That can go on the New Years Resolutions.
And so, for the first post of 2017, I’m going to list four books I particularly enjoyed reading; that have stayed with me since finishing them, that I would gladly read again, and which I would recommend to try if you haven’t already in your own reading lists this year!
Some I have omitted, not because they weren’t similarly enjoyable or memorable, but simply because I plan on writing about them ad nauseum in the future, or perhaps because they’re just so well known, or ‘classics,’ that really I don’t need to say more on the topic. Others were also excellent, but eh, they don’t really need to be mentioned here just yet. However, see the end of the post for some ‘special mentions.’
(Note: images belong to respective publishers, used here for illustrative purposes!)
Ready Player One (2011) – Ernest Cline:
James Halliday, the genius reclusive creator of the cyber reality known as OASIS, has died – and triggered history’s greatest Easter Egg hunt, in which three keys may be found by users of the program which will lead to not only inheriting Halliday’s multi-billion fortune but also ownership of the OASIS system itself. Wade Watts lives in the ‘stacks’ – a low income tower made of old caravans/winnebagos – one of billions of OASIS users who spends nearly all their time within the program, socialising, learning, and gaming. Operating as a lone ‘gunter’ (a nickname for those engaged in finding the Easter Eggs), he is soon dragged deeper into the hunt when he locates the first key. Fighting off the cruel machinations of the IOI (a huge corporation and internet provider which has a murderous streak when it comes to finding the keys) as well as the billions of users around him who are also vying for the huge winnings, Wade (as his alter-ego Parzival), must fight friends and try to survive both online and off, to beat Halliday’s challenge.
One of the more recently published books I’ve read this year (I’M STUCK IN THE PAST KINDA. SEND HELP.), this book has stormed its way into bestseller lists and innumerable other book lists over the last few years and for good reason. Already there is a film adaptation in the works, and it’s unsurprising due to the book’s stellar plot and fantastic world-building that any science fiction writer would be jealous of.
Very quickly, Cline beautifully sets up this world through a relatable and far-from-perfect protagonist, and a plot which is like a Willy Wonka nightmare. The story is peppered with references to gaming both past and present, to movies and songs (one memorable challenge sees the competitors having to re-enact accurately the entirety of the movie War Games to proceed to the next level), and everything in-between, creating an effective link to our own present and the dystopia of this novel. The real world is presented as bleak, struggling, and largely uninspiring, with the new cyber reality far more engaging and bright, yet ultimately just as dangerous as the real-world is.
When reading, it brings to mind the current popularity of virtual reality consoles (yes, me from 1996, VR is actually happening and you will feel so carsick after twenty minutes but, man, it’s good fun) as well as throwbacks to the Atari Swordquest series – an unfinished real-world contest in which players could win huge amounts of money and ‘mythical’ artefacts (featuring ACTUAL JEWELS), which ended unfinished and, to this day, is shrouded in urban legend.
There are even some traditional tropes, such as the megalomaniacal corporate bigwig villain, but these work as they reference back to the numerous pop culture works and themes which influence the story anyway – they work because they’re expected, but at the same time they call-back to the movies and games of the 80s and 90s, of which a lot of material is drawn from and played with effectively.
Overall, Cline has created an incredibly memorable and entertaining book. I was recommended this by my brother and I’m happy to report I flew through the book this last spring. Whether your interest has been piqued by the movie adaptation news, or if you’re looking for a great example of new science fiction but with some very relatable references and a genuinely engrossing plot, then do yourself a favour and start 2017 with Ready Player One.
Hard to be a God (1964) – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
Anton is a Russian scientist who, alongside other operatives from Earth, lives on a distant human-populated planet, living undercover as a nobleman (known as Don Rumata), observing and encouraging the intellectual development of the people there. Residing in a country known as Arkanar, he helps the persecuted literate escape from the anti-intellectual regime which is in power; the government keeping the populace in an eternal ‘dark ages.’ As Rumata, he helps those chosen to escape to other, more liberal, foreign lands, or off-world entirely. Despite his benevolent efforts, Anton finds that the increased religious zealotry and the constant massacres have worn him out. He is increasingly disgusted and disparaging towards the humans he is encouraged to monitor, and as the political paradigm shifts towards the ever more violent and despotic, he begins to struggle more and more, often butting heads with his fellow scientists.
Ever since reading about the 2013 film adaptation (which I will admit I haven’t got round to watching bar a couple of scenes, but may appear as a blog post in the future…), the plot synopsis stuck with me. The idea of a scientist trapped on a planet by his contract, encouraged to help a Renaissance emerge on this alien world, so much like our own was hundreds of years previously, through which he is forced to experience and witness an eternal repeat of the dark ages, all the while pretending to be something he isn’t, and increasingly hateful of those he is sent to observe…well, let’s just say everything about that huge sentence sounds amazing and nightmarish, so, of course, I hurried to pick up a copy.
And I was not let down at all. Though the shortest read of the four I’m discussing here, this book made me think the most. It’s ripe for analysis if you’re still stuck in the literary mindset, but at the same time it’s the best science fiction that can interlace a moral dimension to an already captivating plot. Anton/Rumata is cold and cruel at times, even to the few around him he likes; he is a man frustrated by the stupidity or naivete of his subjects, and his arrogance makes him even harder to like (he has chosen an ancestral backstory that he is a part-god, and lives in wealth and splendour, whilst the humans he watches struggle in the mud and in abject poverty). He mocks those around him, pals only with the local ‘dons’ (lords), and, in one memorable sequence, enjoys (literally) kicking the peasantry into the mud for a quick laugh.
The moral ambiguity and the arrogant nature of Anton brings up questions of why the Earthling scientists want to intervene with the development of Arkanar and its surrounding countries: what do they have to gain? This is also an interesting take on the aliens-among-us trope: here, it is we who are the advanced alien race. The frustrations of Anton, as he tries to save the few around him who are fledgling writers, artists, philosophers, doctors, or scientists, only for them to be tortured, imprisoned, and/or murdered, is palpable. How can Anton assist a humanity that ultimately disgusts him? It also makes one wonder if the dark ages here has some stranger, deeper significance for its persistence – and also begs the question, for how long can a dark ages last, as it has in Arkanar continued almost ceaselessly for centuries? The very title brings up this feeling of disquiet: even when a god, life is not so easy. As Anton tries to intervene (the spacecrafts like heavenly chariots), he is still unable to save lives – he is a powerful but not omnipotent god. He is painfully mortal and reminded of this constantly (evidenced by his rigorous hygiene regime and need to keep secret his true origins). He also exclusively only saves those deemed worthy of saving: the intellectual, not the common man, is the one who can be saved. There are so many moral dimensions to this novel, that it can really make your head spin. There is a constant sense of unease and disquiet and the moral ambiguity here lingers on and on. For every question that comes up, there’s a quagmire of more questions. I wish I had half the time and space to explore them…
It is a bleak and miserable novel – but ultimately, there is a little hope in Arkanar, despite the violence of the regime and the cold cruelty of the Earthlings observing. There is the hope of change and, despite the efforts of the reigning government, a chance for the humans living there to develop more autonomy. Yet, this remains a darker science fiction read, one ripe for analysis, which will certainly make you wonder long after shutting the book.
The Stranger Beside Me (1980, etc) – Ann Rule
Ann Rule first met Ted Bundy when they worked on a suicide prevention hotline together – little did she know, she was acquainted with one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. Rule’s beautiful and emotive writing blends the cold facts of the police investigations (of which she was also involved in) and the following court events, with the tragedy and horror that surrounded Bundy as he travelled across the country, responsible for the murders of numerous women. Rule is delicate in the way she describes the events, never slipping into sensationalism, and remaining respectful towards each of victim of these horrendous crimes. Due to her personal experience of Bundy as a co-worker and friend, she seamlessly blends his outward personality and his true horrifying one together, painting the image of a psychopath who few suspected. A heart-breaking read, but utterly fascinating at the same time, Rule has created one of the definitive true crime titles.
I was able to read the revised edition of this – Rule updated the book numerous times over the years after it was first published – and this has certainly cemented my current interest in reading true crime non-fiction, something I previously had little experience in. Recommended by a good friend, and certainly encouraged by a number of similarly themed podcasts (an insight into my daily life there…), this is a large read and one which covers all the different aspects of this notorious period.
Rule delves into the life of Bundy, his childhood and relationships, but she does not sympathise or sensationalise him – she makes clear that she knew only one side of him, and that side was clearly a veneer for something much more inexplicable and terrible. She saves her sympathies for the victims, whom she discusses in detail – not their deaths, but their lives. She reminds us of those who are so often forgotten when we read or discuss serial killers – our fascination with the terrible can often make us forget the very real lives that are lost in the process. She also makes clear all the processes of the court system – which is good for a reader such as myself who is not 100% on the American justice system – and also, interestingly, the feelings of those who were reading about the case in newspapers. She was a journalist and often assisted the police, and yet had no clue she was friends with the man they were searching for: often at times, Rule will discuss how impossible it seemed that it could be the Ted she knew, and how many who knew him would joke about how closely he fit the description of the man the police were seeking.
Rule questions the psychology at play and what could have been done to stop these crimes, or what drove them in the first place, but ultimately she does admit this is futile: we are given the strong impression that some things have no meaning, and evil such as this is largely unexplainable.
The revisions update the book constantly, as they eventually lead to his execution, and these certainly improve the work, especially as they include more details on the ever-changing personality of Bundy in his final years. Ann Rule’s biography, and half an auto-biography at times, makes for thoughtful reading, and a must for true crime readers. One of a number of nonfiction works I read this year, it is this one which will remain with me longest, and one I am already looking to re-read. It is no surprise that most of my current t0-read lists involve a number of other nonfiction/true crime works by Ann Rule.
The Secret History (1993) – Donna Tartt
Richard Papen escapes the mundanity of his Californian home to enrol at a distant New England liberal arts college, in Hampden. Whilst there, he learns of a Classics tutor who only takes on five students, exclusively, to teach Greek philosophy, literature, and language to. A pleasant, yet mysterious man, Julian Morrow, the tutor, is something of an enigma, and curiosity drives Richard to seek him out and ask to be included in the classes. After a chance encounter with the notorious five students, Richard is brought into the circle and becomes the sixth of the group. He comes to be intimately involved with the strange students, led by the beguiling and haughty Henry (a highly intellectual but cold young man, harbouring many secrets), and when a man is found murdered in the surrounding countryside, Richard is horrified to realise his group may be the cause. Enamoured with them, but repulsed at the same time, Richard is drawn into their secrets, their interest in the bacchanalia, their strange family ties, and ultimately to the deaths at their hands. When one of the group threatens their stability, Richard is caught up in a web of lies and deceit that he cannot escape from.
I had seen Donna Tartt’s other novels (primarily The Goldfinch) on sale in numerous bookstores for a while now, and had been seeing her works pop up on recommendation lists, but had never really thought to sit down and read some. A huge mistake on my part. The synopsis of The Secret History was interesting enough to get me reading, and I couldn’t put it down. That old saying, “I couldn’t put it down!”, rings true enough and if I’ve said it before I’ll say it again – I really couldn’t stop reading it. To the detriment of my eyes. I need contact lenses, like, I’m not kidding, I really was getting tired eyes reading it. And believe it or not…that’s a compliment.
Far from a short novel (at 522 pages), the novel is one of the most gorgeously written I have read in a long time. The prose is beautifully constructed and paints this almost surreal and at time humorous but always so aesthetically-pleasing-to-the-mind’s-eye image that I honestly felt a lot of jealousy reading this. As a practising writer myself, Hard to be a God’s plot was one which I had a real “Damn, I wish I had thought of that…” feeling towards, whilst this not only had a plot which I could barely resist but was written in such a way that I felt JEALOUS of how well Tartt constructs just…SENTENCES! If I’m getting louder, it just means I’m really passionate about this damn novel.
It is one of those books you wish you knew about sooner – it is not only a pleasure to read, but the mystery and the characters (all of whom are perfectly weird and characterised so clearly) keeps you thoroughly entertained. It was a real joy to read and a novel which I keep wanting to recommend to people around me. When they double-check I’m not screaming about some movie I’ve seen, it just goes to show how engaging the novel is – a perfectly painted picture, I’m amazed it hasn’t been adapted. Though then we’d lose all that lovely prose and…SIGH.
The plot is one I don’t want to go into in too much detail for fear of spoiling anything – but you know from the outset that there will be blood (just read that opening – I challenge you to not want to keep reading after it…). Suffice to say, there are enough twists and turns and moments of extreme tension (of all kinds…), plus enough bad choices made by the characters that’ll make you scream internally: this is a thriller through and through. Peppered with humour, and such gorgeous imagery, I am sorry I didn’t pick up a Donna Tartt novel sooner and it’s no surprise most of her current bibliography is on my to-read list. Please, PLEASE, go read this.
As promised… Honorable mentions:
Dark Places – Gillian Flynn; In Other Worlds – Margaret Atwood; The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss; Dune – Frank Herbert; Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier.
(^Keep an eye out on the blog as these will likely be mentioned/have been mentioned in other posts!)
And that’s it! It was hard picking just four but I went with the four which I remember the most vividly. There were, of course, a few books I read this year that left next to no impact (come one, I know you wanted to know if there was); a couple of crime fiction books blurred together so much I have a hard time telling them apart (thank you handy-dandy book journal for keeping me in the know); and one of them I entirely forgot everything about bar one mental image (and I won’t name names because this is more a fault on my behalf -my memory is dreadful – I have too much useless trivia in there and I’ve exceeded my brain bandwidth…). That’s not always a bad thing though. Some books are entertaining for the moment and may not be memorable to you personally, but I’m thankful for them anyway. Besides, those same books will make other people’s must read lists. Likewise, sometimes it helps to read books you might not engage with as thoroughly as you hoped, and that’s okay too. We are complex consumers of text. We can’t like everything. Though we might try. And ultimately what we don’t like in literature makes us all the more in-tune with what we do like. And finding a memorable book to return to year after year is certainly a gift.
So in your own reading lists, don’t be afraid to try something new. Try that book at the library with the super weird cover. Try the book your Amazon recommendations page is CERTAIN you’re gonna bust a gut over. Read physical copies, kindle editions, new versions, revised versions, translated versions, untranslated versions, folio editions, library books, hardcovers, secondhand, stuck together with sellotape, dusty tomes, borrowed from a friend books, lost at the back of the shelves books, that-looks-super-boring books, and every other book in between.
Here’s hoping I can read thirty of them this year. And no, they won’t be 80% novellas…
NEXT UP: House of Leaves (first section)…