Well, ‘best’ is subjective. The ones I enjoyed the most? The ones that stuck with me hardest? Those don’t make for snappy post titles, though, so ‘best’ it is. And, on the understanding that 2016 isn’t over yet (somebody save us…) and something might still come along in the next month and upend this list, here we go!
1. The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood.
…and I start by cheating, as this was published in 2015 and I read it then – but only just – and 2016 was when it really blew up and I saw Charlotte Wood speak about it at Writers’ Week, so I think I can get away with it.
It’s not just the central concept that puts this book at the top of my list – the precise and bitterly accurate exploration of misogyny, rape culture (done without a single sexual assault being portrayed in the book, a deliberate choice on Wood’s part) and victim-blaming. It’s also the characterisation, of Yolanda and Verla and all the others around them in their outback prison – they’re portrayed with empathy, but their flaws are not spared and drive the plot as much as the situation itself does. And it’s the language. Wood’s language is beautiful – spare and exact, producing stark images and startlingly beautiful ones, and moments of unexpected, gut-wrenching humour. It reminded me of a long-time favourite author, Patricia A McKillip, but with a singularly Australian quality. I read it almost a year ago, and images and turns of phrase are still haunting me. That’s how good it is.
2. Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee.
Over at the science fiction end of the spectrum, I came across this during one of my regular lurks over at Whatever, was intrigued by the description, and fortunately had a little cash to spare when my library wouldn’t get it in for me.
It’s a hard book to describe – a creatively-inclined soldier and an insane, disembodied tactical genius team up to defeat an empire-breaking heresy in a universe in which mathematics is a technology, a methodology, a social organiser and very nearly a religion? Huh? But the characterisation is wonderful (Kel Cheris’s stoic demeanour and the mercurial restlessness of Shuos Jedao make for an excellent combination) and the unravelling of the truth about history (particularly the bits Jedao was responsible for), the mathematical systems on which the Hexarchate is built, and the heresy in question makes for an intriguing plot. Like The Natural Way of Things, this put images into my mind that still echo there several months after I closed the book for the first time.
I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.
3. The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader.
My next-door neighbour loaned me this one. I’m glad she did. It’s the story of a young woman in thirteenth-century England who elects to be walled into a cell in a church as an anchoress in an attempt to escape from her grief for her sister and mother, not to mention avoiding the attentions of a young nobleman who really doesn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘no’. It’s a fascinating exploration of faith, growth, the effects of near-total isolation, and what it means to live with almost every tiny detail of one’s life governed by literal rules. In particular, Sarah’s imagined relationships with the two previous anchoresses who lived in her cell – the terrifyingly pious Agnes and the vow-breaking Isabella – and the way she manages to find a life-saving path between their different ends are fascinating.
The end of the book avoids overly easy resolutions, and shows that even within a locked cell seven paces across by nine, character growth and change are not only possible but necessary.
4. Under Cover, Craig Munro.
This was just fun. I picked it up at Writers’ Week and listened to Craig Munro’s presentation while reading it. Not only is it extremely well-written (as you’d expect, given that Munro was a publisher at UQP for decades), it’s an hilarious, energetic look into a past era of publishing in Australia – the blokey, boozy, kinda batshit period when Australian publishing was just stretching its wings and coming into its own power. It was eye-opening for a student editor, giving me a sense of just how much has changed over the years…and just how much we stand to lose if parallel importation restrictions go the way of the wind.
5. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley.
A serendipitous find at the library – there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned shelf browse. This is at the fantasy/alternate past end of the scale, and again shows my weakness for beautifully-used language and subtle characterisation. And, apparently, clockwork octopodes.
It’s the story of a man who, worn down by circumstances, lives his life like clockwork in the Victorian civil service until, one day, a bomb goes off and in the aftermath he meets and falls in love with the prescient Japanese watchmaker whose gift saved his life (the bomb is a literal bomb)…and from there, things just get stranger. The precise, structured language depicts Thaniel’s numb depression, Mori’s difficult backwards life and Grace’s frustration and (not entirely unwarranted) paranoia without commentary, and the plot unfolds with the precision of one of Mori’s clockwork devices, as is only appropriate. Plus, Gilbert and Sullivan drop by!
Oh, and the clockwork octopus is both adorable and very important. Trust me.