Books of 2017

dessaix

1. Arabesques by Robert Dessaix. At the beginning of the year I took a holiday to Marrakech and was asking around for recommendations of books set in Marrakech. It’s so much more fun to read books set in the actual places one is visiting! My college said that I must take his copy of Arabesques with me to enjoy. Part travel memoir, part biography, part philosophical musings, this book traces Dessaix’s fascination with the author Andre Gide, a mid-century French novelist whose work was famously banned by the Vatican for its (homo)sexual content. I had never heard of Gide before — nor Dessaix — and not only was this book a rich romp through parts of North Africa I had never visited, but also a deeply thought-provoking read. Sexual ethics were one topic, to be sure, but also the nature of Protestantism, encountering strangers, how to communicate directly (and if that’s even possible) and existentialism. Had many good debates about it whilst sitting on rooftops in the Marrakech medina. Also a bonus: saw the photograph which features on the cover in the Photography Museum. Meta-win?

2. Leo the African by Amin Maalouf. Found this one near the Jardin de la Majorelle in Marrakech — happy accident! ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS go to weird, out of the way bookshops with tiny English-language sections when in foreign countries. ALWAYS. This book was a traveller’s joy, full of intrigue and cliffhangers and chutzpah. Leo was a historical figure, a refugee, businessman, traveller, diplomat and writer, originally named Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, who lived in 15th/16th century. He’s most famous for his book, ‘A Description of Africa’ and apparently had one of those lives worth writing a book about. Maalouf’s novel really made this time and setting come alive for me, and employed just enough dramatic prose to keep me on my toes the whole time. I heartily recommend this book.

3. The Gap of Time by Jeannette Winterson. This ‘cover version’ of Shakespeare’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’ was thoughtful, funny, and at times incredibly beautiful. I appreciated how Winterson framed the story with her own story, with her own comments on Shakespeare and what he was doing in his final plays: encountering and discussing the possibility of forgiveness in all its joys and imperfections. It is clever and I was sad when it ended.

4. Beauty’s Field by Laurence Freeman. A collection of short newspaper columns by Freeman, a Benedictine monk and current leader of the World Community for Christian Meditation. This book helped me see both my religion (Christianity) and my faith (my spiritual practices, including meditation) in a much wider, more challenging, more generous, light. Little grace-filled stories. Highly recommended.

5. Living Stones: The story of Malling Abbey by the sisters of St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling. Picked this one up when on retreat at the eponymous religious house. Juicy details! Also puts lots of fears about ‘the decline of English monasticism’ WAY into perspective. (That is, we haven’t got Henry VIII going around dissolving them these days, at least…) Whilst reading this I got at least three ideas for novels I want to write.

6. A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Complicated space diplomacy, punching holes through subspace (not THAT kind) for cross-galaxy travel, interspecies faux pas and discussions about the nature of family…this book did not disappoint. Chambers’ debt to Firefly is clear — she focuses on the drama of a small crew of the slightly-ramshackle ship Wayfarer, and also her mechanic Kizzy is a dead ringer for Wheedon’s Kimmy. I only wish that this book had been longer; some of the Wayfarer‘s crew were drawn more compellingly than others, and the ending seemed a little rushed. But I am told there’s a sorta-sequel? Hurrah!

7. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. One review I read of this book suggested that it resembled a literary Rubik’s cube, ever shifting from angle to angle, revealing more story and mystery. I think that about sums it up. I’m not sure I know enough about astrology to get how cleverly designed this book really is; but I could appreciate the massively intricate plot, brilliantly researched setting (the word ‘most piratical town on the South Island of New Zealand’ came to mind more than once, pace Dickens), complex (and myriad!) characters and an underlying sense of urgency that propelled me through the book’s 800+ pages. It is to most novels what a television series is to a film — that much more material, characterisation, plot-twisty-ness, and adventure.

8. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.  Thoroughly loved this one. Metric tonnes of atmosphere. Strong-willed widow and would-be palaeontologist Cora Seagrave goes to Aldwinter in the marshes of Essex to investigate rumours of the titular Serpent, befriending William Ransome, the local Rector, leading to a science-versus-religion clash that winds up being about neither science nor religion, but rather friendship in the face of the fearfully unknown. Cora’s son’s autism is depicted with generosity: the strangenesses of her child are drawn not as deficiencies but differences; I got a sense of the particular mix of love and pain that comes with parenting an autistic child. Perry also delights gothically over the ‘blue delirium’ that overcomes a consumptive character whose otherworldly (and lengthy!) demise lends much to the dread that underpins the story. Other highlights include a socialist revolutionary ladies’ maid who drags various characters around the awful slums of…Bethnal Green! I envisioned all these scenes taking place in some version of Voss Street, E2.

9. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley.  This little bit of SF was charmingly steampunk and I enjoyed it, despite its flaws. Clairvoyance is explained by a woman scientist trying to prove the existence of ‘luminiferous ether’ — I’m not sure I’ve heard of anything more steampunk to be honest. Oh wait, I have: the watchmaker’s pet, a mechanical octopus named Katsu, who likes stealing socks. Katsu serves as a kind of shadow or foil for the watchmaker himself, Keita Mori, who I found difficult to picture and engage with.  This book, I think, would make a good film, and the film might be able to address some of the book’s pacing problems. Thaniel, one of the main characters, is synaesthetic — a clever decision on the author’s part which makes the leap from everyday Victorian London into depictions of clairvoyance less than it otherwise might be.

10. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Similar to what A.S. Byatt did in her myth-retelling Ragnarok, Gaiman sets out here to acquaint the contemporary reader — who may or may not gain most of her mythological knowledge from grade school and from Marvel Comics — with some of the juiciest, most epic bits of nordic lore. In fact, thinking about the differences in tone and theme between Byatt and Gaiman was the best part about this book, for me. Of course Gaiman’s writing is good, but I think I like him better when I’m hearing about his own mythical characters.

11. Hame by Annalena McAfee. I wanted to like this one more than I did. The author does a great job with her world-building, but I found I couldn’t care as much about the protagonist as I wanted to. I liked the style, and the bit of ‘literary mystery’ about it which didn’t take itself as seriously as, say, an A. S. Byatt novel but was enjoyable nonetheless.

12. John the Pupil by David Flusfeder. MONKS ON A ROAD TRIP. Scientific discoveries by Bacon being delivered to the pope? I liked this book, but I thought the ideas weren’t executed as fully as they could have been. Then again, I was reading an uncorrected proof, so perhaps the final product was different? My favourite thing about this book was how the dates were given according to church feasts and festivals, saints’ days and so forth.

13. The Golden Compass / Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. I was ill, and read this and The Subtle Knife on a sick day. It was good escapism, and fascinating to read again 15 years after my first time reading them, with all the intervening years and hype! I am not really planning to read the ‘Book of Dust’ trilogy that Pullman is beginning to publish now, but getting back into Lyra’s head was good. Had many discussions with Max about the Jungian dimensions of the ‘daemons’ and the ‘aletheiometer’ because he was also reading this for a course.

14. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. The thing is, I don’t think this book is all that good. It is fascinating in how it ties together the other-world that Lyra inhabits and ‘our world’ where Will lives, playing in a narrative way with multiple-universe theory. But essentially Will is just not a very engaging character.  The complexity of his relationship with his mentally ill (or does she have good reason for paranoia?) mother is depicted heartbreakingly, but beyond that, Will is flat. It’s as if Pullman has written himself into a corner by painting Lyra’s world of daemons so vividly reflective of the characters’ inner lives, that when we are given a daemon-less, normal-world character, he’s just…meh.

What’s more, the disparate narrative is driven by events too far away from the central characters to command much emotional weight. Lord Asriel is ‘somewhere in another realm preparing to make war on the powers of heaven’, and a Latvian witch called Ruta Skadi goes to see him, with the help of some angels. This otherwise fascinating bit of plot is sketched over with overhasty exposition. The Subtle Knife suffers the typical ‘middle of a trilogy’ problem, and I just couldn’t get into it — not when I was grade school, not now.

15. Slow River by Nicola Griffith. Nicola Griffith has written about 10 (?) novels and each one is a treasure in its own way. I haven’t read them all yet, preferring to wait a while in between them so I can savour them properly. Slow River wasn’t next on my list of Griffiths — I thought I might tackle her detective trilogy next — but when I found it in a bookshop one day, I couldn’t leave it behind! The story focuses on Lore, an heiress who is kidnapped for a ransom her family refuses to pay. Three different story-levels exist in the novel: Lore as a child/adolescent; post-kidnap Lore and her life with her partner/abuser/boss, Spanner; and Lore trying to build a new life after having left Spanner. This structure allows Griffith to play with our perception of ‘what happened’ at key points in Lore’s life, and, as with all memories, as ourselves if what we think happened is really the whole story. This is cyberpunk at its best: an anonymous north European city rendered with all of Blade Runner’s ominous sic-fi-ness but not the same bleak outlook.

16. Mancunia by Michael Symons Roberts. I loved hearing him read from this collection at Greenbelt, and after enjoying his Drysalter and Corpus I knew I’d buy this as well. Was not disappointed.

17. Parable Island by Pauline Stainer. Thrift shop find. Scottish islands, light and mellow and stick-with-you language.

18. An End to Running, by Lynne Reid Banks. I have long loved Lynne Reid Banks’ brilliant The L-Shaped Room and so bought An End to Running as I prepared for my summer holidays. When it arrived I was surprised at the cover of the book (!) which was much more ’70s bodice ripper’ than the average book cover found on my shelves. The story does start off with a rather messy affair between two characters, but then radically shifts to a Kibbutz in Israel/Palestine, and deals with the fallout of the couple’s choice to explore what their life would look like in a communitarian, Jewish environment. It was gutsy and sad and I found it weirdly compelling.

19. Midwinter of the Spirit by Phil Rickman. A televised version of this was aired last winter (I think?) and I knew I was going to have to start reading these books eventually. Rickman writes about Merrily Watkins, parish priest in the village of ‘Ledwardine’ in the Welsh borders / Hereford Diocese, single mom, and…exorcist! Or, ‘Diocesan Deliverance Consultant’ if you want the church lingo. Rickman has written at least 14 books in this series so far and they are rather compulsively readable for someone like me — which should come as no surprise. Merrily’s encounters with the supernatural are everything from mundane (her own prayer life is ‘like a lamplit path leading towards blue and gold’ which description I LOVE) to the fantastic (curses, angry spirits, hauntings, etc). And yet, Rickman cleverly walks the line between ‘is this something supernatural/occult?’ and ‘is this a mental/social-psychological phenomenon’ with skill, and keeps the reader guessing at every turn.

This series is a series of mystery/crime novels, of course, and so has some of the same problems as the ‘Grantchester’ series: crime-solving priest appears to do lots of solving but do they do any parish work at all? Of course the humdrum of the day-to-day parish is not quite the scintilla of mystery/supernatural novels, but a few more nods to that life and its demands would, I think, increase these novels’ credibility. (She writes about a series featuring an exorcist. I know, I know!)

20. The Crown of Lights by Phil Rickman. Yep. I read about 4 of these in a row, very quickly, on holiday. They’re that good.

21. The Cure of Souls by Phil Rickman. Really. You should read them.

22. The Lamp of the Wicked by Phil Rickman. Right now. You’ll thank me.

23. Realms of Glory by Catherine Fox. The end of the Lindchester Chronicles! What’s a long-time fan of Catherine Fox to do, now? Perhaps it was hormones, perhaps it was the way that Fox depicts grace so freely and fiercely in this book — I was never far from tears or from laughter while reading. Don’t get me started on the slow demise of Barbara Blatherwick — as someone with many older people in her congregation(s), I found it touching and all too realistic. Fox know exactly how to poke through the armour of all the ‘parties’ in the Church of England, and I think only en ego bruised by this teasing could give a negative review to her wise, timely, satirical work in Lindchester. Yes, the form of blogged-weekly novel with its Dickensian & Trollopian structures and features has its limitations; but so do most forms of writing. I look forward to see what she’ll do next.

24. The Historian …OK, this one was a re-read for me. Every few years I get the desire to go read about academics tracking down Dracula whilst they around Iron-Curtain-era Bulgaria, Romania, Istanbul, and about a dozen other wonderful European locations. An impressive novel for a debut (!), it’s not perfect, but is very well worth the travel and the atmosphere.

25. The Mime Order. More Samantha Shannon steampunk-ish SF set in London.

26. Mythos by Stephen Fry. Blatant, airport-purchased holiday read for the last week of the year spent in the Cyclades & Athens. Good choice! Myths retold with a dash of Fry-wit.

What’s to come in 2018?

 

 

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