Thursday 5 January 2017

Best books of 2016

I read around 100 books in 2016. Considering that I managed only 3 or 4 books in July, September, October and November combined I'm reasonably content. There will be little here to surprise readers of this blog or those who keep up with the book world, but, that said, it's been a great year for books. I get most of my ideas from the Guardian, Strange Horizons and from the writers and critics I've learned to trust. 

I would urge any book lover to try some of these if you haven't already.

My favourite fiction of 2016:

Barkskins - Annie Proulx

Days Without End - Sebastian Barry 
The Underground Railway - Colson Whitehead
Homegoing - Yaa Gyasi
The Sellout - Paul Beatty
The Vegetarian - Han Kang
Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson
Central Station - Lavie Tidhar
What is Not Yours is Not Yours - Helen Oyeyemi
The Arrival of Missives - Aliya Whiteley
The Shore - Sara Taylor
Speak Gigantular - Irenosen Okojie

Francis Spufford - Golden Hill
Jenni Fagan - The Sunlight Pilgrims
Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Max Porter

Special mentions:

I see a number of people are putting The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts on their lists and I'm happy to repeat myself and do the same. It came out right at the end of 2015 and I read it immediately. This novel and his previous one Bete, deserve to be read widely. They are brilliant. Please keep pushing the envelope.
I despair that more people haven't talked about Alexis Wright's The Swan Book. 

Finally Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins - like the Roberts, I read on the cusp of the New Year and loved.

Passions (new and ongoing): Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Taylor, W. G. Sebald and Jane Gardam.

Finally read and loved: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier and Miguel Street by V. S. Naipaul (thanks Lavie Tidhar!)


This is VERY predictable but it doesn't matter. If you haven't read Amy Liptrot's The Outrun, Olivia Laing's The Lonely City and Lara Pawson's This is The Place to Be then you need to get on and read them asap. They all made me cry and gasp and re-evaluate my life and my ways of thinking. They'll all get reread in 2017.
Late in the year I loved Roy Scranton's Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous People's History of the United States. They are fantastic companions to many of those fiction texts above.


The outstanding discoveries of the year are Alex Wheatle's Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights and Robin Stevens' Murder Most UnLadylike series. Other great books are Katherine Rundell's The Wolf Wilder, Gary D Schulz's Orbiting Jupiter, Sarah Pinborough's The Death House and Alexia Casale's The Bone Dragon. I've also discovered Emma Carroll, Melinda Sainsbury and Edward Carey.  

New Year

I have so much to catch up on you wouldn't believe. Hopefully, at some point soon, I'll start writing again. 

This year I want to read more non-fiction. When I was an activist probably 80% of my reading was non-fiction but this year I'd be happy with something approaching a 50/50 split. 

Thanks to all the writers and critics who have inspired me in what was easily one of the most difficult years of my life. 

Finally book lovers, if you don't listen to the Backlisted podcast you really should. Their enthusiasm and love of books is infectious.

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Best films of 2016

I haven't kept a record but it's the first year I can remember when I might have seen less than a 100 films. I'm not sure. I've seen about 45 of the Guardian's Top 50, plus most of the blockbusters, etc. However I've hardly watched any old favourites and nor have I discovered any old greats. Worse perhaps, I haven't had the time to rewatch most of the films I mention below so I'm trusting to instinct and experience much more than usual.

Thus this year I've done a Top 10 with an additional highly recommended extra 6. 

These are the films I can't let go of: images, ideas, performances that seem imprinted on my mind.

The Assassin (Hsiao-Hsien Hou)
Son of Saul (László Nemes)
The Witch (Robert Eggers)
American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Tamika Waititi)
13th (Ava DuVernay)
Our little Sister (Hirokazu Koreeda)
Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari)
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
Divines (Houda Benyamina)

I'm happy to say it's all about the women. 4 female directors; brilliant performances by young actresses - Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch, Sasha Lane in American Honey and almost all the young women and girls in Mustang, Our Little Sister and Divines; plus fascinating, mature and enigmatic roles for Qi Shu in The Assassin and Narges Rashidi in Under the Shadow.  

The Assassin is perhaps the hardest sell: intellectualism meets sublime aestheticism; puzzling and oblique; painterly. In 2017 I'm gonna search out all Hou Hsiao Hsien's films. I love it.

Son of Saul had the same kind of impact that Come and See had on me. It is a great, great, movie and I commend it to everyone. Watching it for the first time was also the moment I decided that I wasn't going to look away ever again - on climate change, Syria, refugees, the growth of nationalism and fascism - and that I would try to face the realities of our world head on. A bit melodramatic perhaps, but that's me.

I didn't see Ava Duvernay's 13th until the Christmas holiday but it feels like it's the film we should be showing and sharing everywhere. It's about the history of racism and inequality in the USA and you couldn't hope to see a more relevant film. What a shame it didn't get a cinema distribution - sort it out Netflix.

The Witch and Under the Shadow are feminist horror films. They are perfectly formed things of small wonder: disturbing, beguiling, political and creepy in all the right ways.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople was the most joyous movie experience of 2016. Like Our Little Sister and Mustang it is about friendship and solidarity. Divines is almost a companion piece to last year's Girlhood only with shades of Scorsese and De Palma: I was wowed by its ambition and energy.

And then there is Andrea Arnold's American Honey, a film that manages to be painful, discursive, hypnotic, melancholy and exuberant all at the same time.

And another 6....

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
Things to Come (Mia Hansen Løve)
Arabian Nights (1-3) (Miguel Gomes)
Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone)
Notes on Blindness (Pete Middleton)

These, like The Assassin, might be too slow or abstruse for some tastes. But they deserve an audience for their politics, daring and subtlety. Mia Hansen Löve's Things to Come, which I really wanted to squeeze into my Top 10, will be far too bourgeois for some but you'd be wrong. She just gets better and better and Isabelle Huppert's performance is so good you'll just want to watch the movie again immediately.

Best moment

Moana should probably be in that Top 16 but without doubt the best part of any film this year was the Mad Max/Kakamora sequence. Genius.

And so....Family films

It's been the best year for children's films and family films that I can remember: Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, Queen of Katwe, Zootropolis, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the lovely Sing Street. The best popular films? I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and I quite enjoyed Star Trek Beyond. I wasted my money on all the big films - I don't seem to be able to help myself - but I can't remember anything remotely memorable. And that includes Doctor Strange. 

US Indie gems

Paterson, Little Men, The Witch, American Honey, Hell or High Water and Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa. The latter is The Guardian's film of the year and it's certainly a singular achievement. The animation and various formal and structural features make it really interesting. Ultimately though it's not a film I'm looking forward to watching again. Even David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, as amazing as they are, can't imbue the main characters with enough humanity for me. Thewlis' character is so vile and Leigh' so timid that I found it hard to find any sympathy with anything the film was trying to do.


Widely praised, I found Love and Friendship, Nocturnal Animals and Hail Caesar empty with extra wide open pockets of emptiness. I could see the artistry at certain points, and the humour, but I have no desire to watch any of them again.

The elephant in the room

I liked the gloomier second half of I, Daniel Blake a lot but overall...some of the acting was terrible and I hated how all the working class folks are seemingly immune to racism, sexism and unkindness. This is NOT the UK in 2016. As a socialist I do, of course, recommend it anyway - it's an excellent piece of socialist propaganda that tells truths about the UK that many people won't know about. It has a big heart that yearns for us all to empathise and unite. Moreover it infuriated Tories and the mainstream press - always a fantastic achievement. But is it a great film? Nah.


I enjoyed Rogue One and Arrival quite a lot but my suspicion is that both will prove to be fairly forgettable on second viewing. Hopefully not. The Girl with all the Gifts and High Rise were minor gems however.

Oscar bait

I always find it difficult to put the big Oscar contenders into my best of year lists. January seems SO long ago, plus all these films benefited from huge amounts of publicity. Yet Spotlight, Room, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant were a good crop. Do watch.

Foreign movies

Distributors are finding it more difficult to sell foreign films so it felt even more difficult than ever to see the variety I normally cherish at the cinema.  Except for Mustang, A Bigger Splash and Julieta I saw these on the small screen: Things to Come, Tale of Tales, Dheepan, Arabian Nights (1-3), Our Little Sister, Victoria, The Club, Cemetery of Splendour.


Not a bad year though, determined not to buy so many DVDs, I've not seen that many.  My favourites however were Dangal, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Kapoor and Sons and Dear Zindagi. Hopefully I'll catch up in the next month and put up a separate post.

Guilty pleasures

I may as well own up: Sorrentino's Youth, Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven and then (not so guiltily) Ryan Coogler's Creed and Jennifer Lawrence in Joy. No excuses - I am a BAD human being.

To see

Couple in a Hole, The Neon Demon, The Childhood of a Leader, My Feral Heart, The Survivalist,  

Desperate to see

Your Name, The Wailing, Train to Busan.