Every year is different for an avid reader. Some years, there are so many great books it’s hard to narrow it down to ten favourites. Some years, there are a few great ones, and a lot that are just “okay.” The latter was one of these years. I read a lot, and I read a lot of good books, but there were only a few that really lingered with me for months after reading.
I read fewer books this year than I usually do — just 65 books, partly because I got into a few really long books, and also because there were times when I wasn’t really finding anything to read that I loved, so I was reading kind of slowly.
I read 50 novels and 15 non-fiction books, but my Top Ten list is made up entirely of fiction; while I enjoyed many of the non-fiction books I read this year, none made a huge and permanent impact on me. 49 of the books I read were by women writers, 15 by men, and one by various authors.
The “Top Ten” list I finally came up with actually has thirteen books on it; there are two series that I counted together because all the books involved were equally good and quite similar. While there were more “so-so” books than usual this year, there were also some real stand-outs, and of the ones I enjoyed most, these are the books that I think will linger with me longest.
1. Acts and Omissions and Unseen Things Above by Catherine Fox
2. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
3. Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb
4 .Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown by Jo Walton
5. The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
6. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce
7. The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
8. Lamentation by C.J. Sansom
9. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman
10. A Little Life by Hanya Nanagihara
The last book I’m reviewing this year is NOT the last book I read this year. It’s a book I read and loved back in the spring, posted the draft of a review for, and then … forgot to write the review. But I’m glad I realized that before the end of the year, because it was actually one of my favourite and most engaging books this year.
Queenie is the companion volume — not a sequel — to one of my favourite books of 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In that novel, a message from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, who is now dying, is the catalyst for Harold’s long and strange journey across the length of England and into the depths of his own life. Queenie remains a shadowy figure throughout that book; though she is the ostensible reason why Harold is inspired to walk, it becomes clear that Harold never really knew Queenie all that well, or understood why he was important enough for her to reach out to after all these years.
The story is complete when you read Queenie’s side of it, which is as poignant, beautiful and insightful as Harold’s. Queenie steps out of the shadows in this haunting novel to become a fully rounded person with hopes, loves and fears. The other character who moves from two- to three-dimensional in this book is Harold’s son David, who skirts the edges of his father’s story but becomes a living, breathing person in the pages of Queenie’s book, as we realize that his father’s friend and co-worker knew David, in some ways, much better than his own father did.
There are tragedies at the heart of both Queenie’s and Harold’s stories, so this could never have been a story with a simple happy ending. But it is a story that reminds us of the tremendous potential, even in the midst of tragedy, for moments of kindness, warmth and human connection. I am so glad that Rachel Joyce wrote this second book, because the story would not have been complete without it.
For someone like me who doesn’t normally love short stories, this young adult collection was a pleasant surprise. I gave it to my daughter last Christmas and read it myself this Christmas, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Twelve popular YA authors each contributed a story about love during the holidays. Although the stories were all quite different (with some very nice diversity of race, religion, gender and orientation represented), and obviously I liked some more than others, they were all sweet, engaging and kind of heartwarming. As a YA book it should come with the warning I sometimes give, that many of the characters are college-aged so some material (references to drinking and drug use in a few stories) may not be appropriate for younger teen readers, but I think most readers will find a few seasonal love stories here to enjoy.
Over the years I’ve read a lot of Biblical historical fiction; having written in that genre myself I appreciate finding a writer who can bring these ancient stories to life in a way that is both respectful of the original source material but also transcends the “devotional literature” genre by not only writing well, but asking tough questions about beloved characters that the Scripture sometimes leaves unanswered. There’s a lot of bad fiction written about Biblical characters, but there’s also great fiction. The best work in that genre somehow manages to convey the almost alien strangeness of life in the ancient world, while somehow also making these ancient people real flesh-and-blood humans whose struggles we care deeply about even if we can’t entirely relate to them. Of course, this is what all good historical fiction should do, but it can be more difficult in the case of Biblical characters because those of us who have grown up reading the Bible and attending church or synagogue have seen these characters through a veneer of holiness that sometimes makes it harder to imagine them as real-life people.
All this intro is to say that Jewish writer Geraldine Brooks has written one of the best novels about a Biblical character that I’ve read in a long time. It’s as gripping as Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, the gold standard in this genre, while taking fewer liberties with the original story — probably because in the story of King David, there’s so much great original material there already that there’s less need for invention. (For those keeping score at home who only like Biblical fiction if it sticks strictly to the Bible, I’ll let you know: there are only two major deviations, that I saw, in The Secret Chord. The whole census/plague/threshing floor story is left out of the narrative, and the friendship between David and Jonathan definitely does have a sexual element which many readers feel is hinted at, but it certainly by no means explicit, in the Biblical account).
The narrator of The Secret Chord is the prophet Nathan (or rather Natan, as Brooks uses the spelling of proper names that is closer to the Hebrew — Shmuel/Shaul/Shlomo for Samuel/Saul/Solomon, for example). Natan is associated with David from the days when the future king is a fugitive leading a band of outlaws on the run from King Saul, throughout his rise to power and the heartbreaking disintegration of the royal family in the later days of his reign as David’s sons turn against him and each other. David is already a larger-than-life character and the best example of the fact that the Hebrew Bible has no problem portraying the flawed, human side of its heroes. Brooks’s story humanizes the hero and places him in the context of the world in which he lived, fought and loved. This was a great read and I thoroughly recommend it to those who like to explore the stories of the ancient world through fiction.
If you’re planning to pick up the latest book by Jenny Lawson aka The Bloggess, you should expect more of what you get on her blog, or what you got in her first book, Let’s Pretend this Never Happened. That is to say, you’ll get laugh-out-loud funny tales of situations so bizarre, painful and twisted that you almost feel guilty laughing at them. It is, as the subtitle says, “A Funny Book About Horrible Things,” so don’t say you weren’t warned. This is almost certainly the funniest book ever written about living with mental illness (or at least, it’s on a par with Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half), so if you want to laugh at the things we don’t usually talk openly about, this is the book for you.
After dealing with the Greek gods in the Percy Jackson books, the Roman gods in Heroes of Olympus, and the Egyptian pantheon in the Kane Chronicles, Rick Riordan has a new series out, and it’s probably inevitable that he would look north to the colourful characters who populate the halls of Asgard.
This new book follows familiar territory for readers of Riordan’s books. Magnus Chase is a teenage boy who’s been homeless on the streets of Boston ever since his beloved mother died several years ago. Magnus never knew his dad, and as it turns out there’s a very good reason for that: his dad’s a Norse god. When an unfortunate encounter gains him an entry to Valhalla (and his own personal Valkyrie), Magnus learns the truth about his complicated family tree and, of course, learns that he has to save the world.
Riordan’s trademark humour, and his ability to weave ancient myths into the fabric of modern teen life, carries this book as it has all the others. I find these books very funny, enjoyable, and a great way for kids to learn about mythology. Fortunately there are enough polytheistic religions (with a history of human-god interaction to produce demigod children) to keep him busy for awhile. I’m hoping after Asgard, we’ll get to explore the gods and goddesses of Hinduism, which may give Riordan enough material to keep writing till he’s ready for his next reincarnation.