Columns > Published on August 30th, 2016

My Favorite Reads Of 2016 So Far

As all of you know, the publishing industry never stops. Big, small, and macro presses are constantly churning out new books week-after-week for public consumption. And week-after-week, publishers send out hundreds, sometimes thousands of books to clowns like me in hopes that we’ll feature one or ten of them in a review. As a reviewer, the sheer mass of books I’m sent is staggering. On average I receive anywhere between two and fifteen books a week, and as much as I would love to review all of them, I kind of like doing other things like sleeping and eating. However, in 2016, I made the conscious decision to only read the books I wanted to read, and only review the books our intrepid Review Editor, Cath Murphy, assigned me.

This little bargain with myself, of course, only lasted a month or two as the advanced copies started flowing in. But I have, more or less, only read books that have really interested me, and more than a few of them have impressed the shit out of me. So much so that they’re at the very tippy-fucking-top of my best of the year list. Now that doesn’t mean they’re going to end up on it, but at the very least, I wanted to give them a mention and a micro-review.

Thus I decided to write this little column.

But before I get started, I’ll give you a heads up—not all of the books appearing in this article were published in 2016. Some were 2015 releases and others are even older but definitely worth your time. Also, I’m not going to be mentioning any books that LitReactor reviewed this year. Don’t get me wrong, Donald Ray Pollock and Paul Tremblay are the shit, and Stephen Graham Jones may have very well written the best novel of the year with Mongrels, but they’ve all gotten a shit load of attention from LR, so do they really need any more? By the way, I’m also not going to include any of the books I’ve reviewed for the site, either.

Anyway, enough of my bullshit, let’s get to the books.

First The BIG Mother*cking Books

Every year for as long as I can remember, I’ll choose two or three monster books to choke down. Most of the time, I’ll select career spanning collections or mountainous anthologies to chew my way through. But occasionally I’ll pick an epic novel as well. 2016 was no exception, and here are the books that have been occupying my spare reading moments when I have an hour or three to get lost.

'Collected Fiction' by Leena Krohn

I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of this massive collection from Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s Cheeky Frawg imprint, and to be honest with you, I had every intention of writing a long, feature length review (because trust me, it deserves it). Unfortunately, mine and Mrs. Rawson’s new little bundle of awesome decided to show up and I went AWOL for a few months and the review was never written (although there’s a better chance than not I’ll be dedicating more page space to it in the near future). This ended up kind of being a blessing for me in more ways than one. Firstly, because my youngest daughter showed up happy and healthy and secondly, I hadn’t finished reading the book.

And it wasn’t because I found the book to be a slog or anything like that. It was because I found myself going back and re-reading certain passages and stories over again. Krohn’s prose has an almost hypnotic feel to it that sucks the reader in and refuses to let go. The fiction (it includes both her stories and novels) in this massive collection are eerie and spellbinding and while reading it, you too will find yourself going back and re-reading certain passages and stories because of their overall beauty and emotional gut punches. This is a truly masterful collection and one that I’m going to miss once I actually finish reading it.

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'The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard"

Let’s get something straight—Ballard was the British Philip K. Dick. Their careers and ideas were eerily similar, particularly when it came to the overall repetition of their themes. The only real differences between the two of them was the reading public embraced Ballard’s books during his long, storied career, and Ballard wasn’t a drug addicted schizophrenic. But like Dick, I absolutely love Ballard. I started reading him at a point in my life where I needed to see there were different worlds other than the grimy desert town I was living in.

And like Dick, Ballard’s short fiction had a far greater impact on me than his novels. I got this fifteen-hundred-page behemoth as a Christmas present and literally ever Sunday night, I sit and read it before bed so I can wake up in a happy place the next morning. Although, I will warn you that Ballard repeated a lot of the same themes and ideas over his long career (particularly in his early and late career), and some of the stories start to blend together, but the collection is definitely worth your time.

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'City On Fire' by Garth Risk Hallberg

Every few years or so, a novel comes along that just puts a stick up the butt of writers and the literary press alike. The stick in the butt is usually caused by the fact that the book sells for an ungodly sum of money, and writers being writers, they start picking pepper out of gnat shit in hopes of somehow damaging the book. Whenever this happens, all the uproar and collective hatred usually does nothing but pique my interest. Which is how I started reading Hallberg’s massive 70s NYC epic, City On Fire.

First off, let me start by saying that the only reason most bloggers and writers started picking City On Fire apart is because of the same reason they pick Infinite Jest apart, because they’ve never—and never will—read it. Sure, they’ll pretend they’ve tried cracking it just so they can shit on it online. But I’m here to tell you, it’s really not all that bad. Hallberg manages to accurately capture the grime and despair of the bad old days of NYC and create some fairly compelling characters and storylines along the way. It’s a bold, risky novel, and no, it’s far from a masterpiece—a few of the characters are way too soap opera-y—but in the long term, I think it will hold its own and find a cult of readers who will sing its praises just like Gravity’s Rainbow and the aforementioned Infinite Jest. And like Jest, it is a serious time investment. But unlike Jest, it’s far more readable.

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Shit That’s Apparently Way Too Mainstream For Us To Review (Or because the writer teaches here)

If you regularly read reviews here at the old LR, you’ll notice that we tend to not review the really BIG books. I mean, sure, we’ve reviewed Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Joe Hill in the past, but for the most part, LitReactor has a certain taste in what we review and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With the sheer volume of literature that’s being produced, sometimes you need a publication that focuses on the smaller releases. But I sometimes think it would be okay to slip a mega-seller into the mix because of the sheer force of the writing (and our students may very well benefit from reading what the monster selling writers are churning out). Another wee pet peeve of mine is that we’re not allowed to review books by individuals who teach on the site, because us lowly hacks might show bias towards novelists who we’ll most likely never meet or interact with.

But, whatever …

Once again, let’s get to the books.

'The Underground Railroad' by Colson Whitehead

Let me start off by saying that I’ve been expecting Whitehead to write this book since his Pynchonesque debut, The Intuitionist. And over the years, he’s poked and prodded at the subject matter of The Underground Railroad, and has created some truly memorable works such as the hilarious, and slightly sad coming of age novel, Sag Harbor, and his zombie novel, Zone One, as well as some truly memorable nonfiction.

But the fact is, The Underground Railroad is the novel Whitehead was born to write. It’s hopeful, heartbreaking, and at times absolutely gut churning. (The scene where the book’s protagonist, Cora, arrives in North Carolina is one of the most horrific scenes I’ve come across since the baby eating scene in McCarthy’s The Road. More or less, I’m never going to be able to get it out of my head.) And, yes, I know the Big O selected this as her bookclub pick, but please don’t let that bit of mainstream attention deter you from picking this masterful book up.

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'Between The World And Me' by Ta-Nehisi Coates

To be blunt, I don’t know if LitReactor reviewed this one or not? But if we didn’t, we should have. There’s a reason why this slim volume has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and won the National Book Award. Not only is the writing engaging and insightful, but it may very well act as a catalyst for Americans to start truly discussing the divides created by the myth of race. I’ve both read and listened to the audio version of this book since it came out (I’ll definitely recommend the audio version for the overall emotional charge of Coates narration), and Coates' ideas and experiences have stuck with me and reshaped my perception of what it is to be the ‘other’ (the ‘other’ being non-white males) in American society.

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'The Small Backs Of Children' by Lidia Yuknavitch

Yup, another 2015 release (although the paperback just hit the streets a couple of weeks ago), and yet another novel that’s stuck with me, one that I’ve re-read a couple of times since my initial blistering read-through. Like The Underground Railroad, there is so much hope and beauty here, yet you have to wade through so much horror and suffering to get there. For me, The Small Backs Of Children is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Its pacing is almost thriller like in its intensity and is so full of heart and emotion that I found myself tearing up with certain passages. And this NEVER happens to me when I’m reading. The Small Backs Of Children is an equal mix of pain and beauty, and a deft lesson that there is not one without the other.

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Thugs, Thrills, and The Horror, The Horror…

Wow, this column’s gone on way longer than I intended it to, and if you’re still here, I hope you’re enjoying my picks, because I’ve got a few more. But don’t worry, I’ll be wrapping things up soon enough. But I’ve got to mix in my favorite genres first before I go.

'Riot Load' by Bryon Quertermous

This is the second book in Quertermous’ Dominick Prince crime fiction series, following his well-done debut, Murder Boy. Now don’t get me wrong, I liked Murder Boy a lot. It was a fun, ultra-violent piece of noir-boiled fiction. But, there was something almost too measured and precise about the novel. (Please don’t let that deter you from picking it up, because it is good). But I often find this to be the case with most first novels. The author has taken years to write it and has most likely gone through countless drafts. But with Riot Load, there almost seems to be a recklessness to Quertermous’ prose that allows him to really let go and truly shape Prince’s voice and character. Riot Load is a funny read that seems to channel both Elmore Leonard and Michael Chabon simultaneously.

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'Killfile' by Christopher Farnsworth 

Yeah, I love me some CIA thrillers, particularly if they’re not marred by overt political agendas (which, sadly, is happening more and more often within the spy sub-genre). It also helps when the writer of said thrillers can actually write, and Farnsworth has some serious chops. Killfile is a lighting paced thriller that’s meant to be read in one sitting. Farnsworth’s mind reading spook, John Smith, is an engaging enigma. For those of you who shy away from thrillers for whatever reason, you should shed your prejudice and snap this one up simply for the fact that Farnsworth is a master of storytelling economy.

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'Perchance to Dream' by Charles Beaumont

I LOVE The Twilight Zone. Love it. Rod Serling wrote the bulk of the episodes of the legendary weird series, but he did use a few key writers to fill in for him. One of those writers was the legendary Charles Beaumont. Beaumont was mostly known as a screenwriter, but he also wrote a massive number of truly great horror stories. In the 80’s Tor released a complete anthology of all of Beaumont’s fiction titled The Hollow Man. Tor, of course, let it go out of print and once again Beaumont slipped into obscurity. At least until Penguin Classics released Perchance to Dream. Beaumont’s stories are essentially Twilight Zone episodes (quite a few of them made it onto the show), so if you like your weird fiction with a hard twist at the end, you’re going to love Perchance to Dream.

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Shit That I’m Currently Reading, But That I Really Like

We’re finally in the home stretch, and I just wanted to mention a few books I’m a hair away from finishing that I wanted to include because one or two of them might end up in my top ten reads of 2016.

'I Am Providence' by Nick Mamatas

Nick teaches for LR, so no review (although Rob Hart interviewed him right here and you should definitely check it out). This is a pretty damn funny book and probably Mamatas' most accessible novel to date, and a hell of a lot of fun to boot.

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'A Better Goodbye' by John Schulian

I love sleazy L.A. noir, and boy, is this fucking sleazy. Plus, Schulian is one hell of a writer.

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'Nothing Short Of Dying' by Eric Storey

I haven’t been able to put this one down. It’s a rural hardman thriller with some serious heart and great action.

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Anyway, gang, thanks for sticking around so long and I hope you’ve found something to sink your teeth into. And typically I’m not big into the comments thing, but if you’re so inclined, drop a few suggestions of what you think are the best books of 2016 (or the best books you’ve read that weren’t published this year) so far.

About the author

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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