Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best of 2012

The tradition of the year-end list, especially for reviewers, is an ancient and hoary one which I can hardly overlook on a blog like this. And so I have gone over my Goodreads page with a fine-tooth comb and a squint, looking for those particular gems which will make my end-of-year most-highly-recommended list. 

This year I read a grand total of 89 books, averaging out at nearly two per week and beating last year’s record of 75. However this was something which, I felt, came naturally. 


Some people ask, How do you do it? I consider constant reading a lifelong discipline essential to any writer, and none of this reading came at the expense of my other responsibilities. While I was in New Zealand for 4 weeks last May I fitted in 6 light novels around my day job of sewing from 9 AM to 6 PM, and was probably rather slack with my reading. 

I do admit that I am a fast reader. Maybe it’s because I had a solid foundation in phonics, grammar, and spelling as a child (thanks Mum!). Maybe it’s because I read enough to keep my mind sharp, so that I can gulp through a good quantity of lighter reading without even noticing it. However, my sister Elizabeth who doesn’t share my verbal aptitude also reads pretty widely with the help of an iPod full of Librivox recordings. 

Anyway, that said, let me go on to my Best Of list: my most highly recommended books of the year.

Best Re-Reads
Of course, I don’t usually re-read a book unless I’m going to love it. So consider these doubly recommended:
Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
Angels in the Architecture by Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson
Leaf by Niggle by JRR Tolkien
Greenmantle by John Buchan
It’s (Not That) Complicated by Anna-Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin
Othello by William Shakespeare
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
The Dancing Floor by John Buchan
Huntingtower by John Buchan

Best New Reads
The Discarded Image by CS Lewis
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S Whitney
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
The Dragon’s Tooth by ND Wilson
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs
Brothers at Arms by John J Horn
The Drowned Vault by ND Wilson
Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson
All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams
Money in the Bank by PG Wodehouse
City of God by St Augustine

This was certainly my year for re-reading a little John Buchan. Every time I go back to read some Buchan I feel myself wondering if I’ll find him as good as last time; maybe, you know, this is a misplaced affection. After all, can one writer really be that good? The answer is yes. Yes, he can.

Favourites

It's so hard to choose a non-fiction favourite this year, and you’re not even seeing the books I left off this shortlist, like Piper’s classic Desiring God or Douglas Jones’s side-splitting parody Mantra of Jabez. The obvious choices include my very favourite non-fiction book of all time Angels in the Architecture, a dazzling new book from the Botkin sisters, Donald S Whitney’s eye-opening how-to book on the Christian life, Douglas Wilson’s excellent little writer’s handbook, and that little book from an obscure bishop in North Africa—The City of God. While it feels bad ignoring Angels and Augustine, I think that for this year specifically my favourite non-fiction book was It’s (Not That) Complicated

Anna-Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin’s second book is not just a technical improvement on their first book, it’s also the best book currently available on how young Christian ladies should be thinking about their brothers in Christ. This book is hard-hitting, funny, encouraging, sensible, wise, and Scriptural. However the most important contribution they make to this area is a concept most of us girls have never even thought of. If you don’t know how to treat other Christians as “brothers, in all purity,” say the Miss Botkins, then you really need to start at home being a good sister to your actual brothers. Folks may disagree as to exactly what this looks like in practice, but this basic vision is the reason why I try to lend this book to as many friends—no matter what their marital status—as possible.

My favourite fiction book this year is also difficult to pick, but that never comes as a surprise. Money in the Bank deserves mention, as it is an unusually good Wodehouse book which I was pleased and surprised to discover. 

Not on this shortlist are two very venerable (and huge) books I read this year: Anna Karenina and Bleak House, both of which were challenging and rewarding reads, but did not enchant like some of the others on this list. The two other very venerable novels that did romp easily onto this list—Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers—were thoroughly enchanting, while in the world of children’s fiction I conceived an unabashed love of John J Horn’s Brothers At Arms and lost myself in ND Wilson’s non-stop pack-of-thrills Ashtown Burials series. Still, I’m going to say that my very favourite novel of 2012 was an old favourite, John Buchan’s Greenmantle.

Greenmantle is so many things. Primarily, it’s a gripping spy thriller chock full of disguise, peril, escape, secret identities, and screaming tension. But other elements weave through it. Providential coincidences illumine the plot with a sense of purpose and hope. The discussion and portrayal of Islam is thought-provoking, especially given Buchan’s inside information on spying in the Middle East. The action is hair-raisingly suspenseful without once succumbing to sensationalism. The book ends eucatastrophically, with a cavalry charge and a prayer of praise. And my favourite element—the sense of euphoria that takes hold of the characters toward the end of the book, as their position becomes more and more dangerous—is created and maintained so deftly that the readers feel as light-headed as the narrator. It was not as good as I remembered it. It was better.

New authors

This year I made the acquaintance of a few different authors. Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentinian writer of truly mind-bendingly odd short stories. A postmodern agnostic and an author of lit fic, I’d probably have avoided him if it wasn’t for people I trusted recommending him. However, Borges writes with humility in the face of a puzzling universe—true humility which seems to recognise the possibility, not just that Ultimate Truth exists, but also that someone else has already found it. Meanwhile his stories revel in the strangeness of creation and the importance of context. He looks at things with an almost Chestertonian eye, the thousandth glance that transmutes the ordinary into the astonishing. He took dazzling ideas which could have formed the base of a science fiction trilogy and turned them into brief and simple short stories. The result is breathtaking.

This year was also the year I broke years of ice and read a Dickens book, which was much more fun than I expected and will certainly soon be joined by more. Barchester Towers was not my first Anthony Trollope book, but it was the one that made me a fan.

Finally, Elizabeth Gaskell was an author I tried for the very first time this year. I read Wives and Daughters in February and North and South in August. I enjoyed both of them, although I found the emotional tension in both books rather difficult to cope with. In fact, if there’s one guilty pleasure book I loved this year, it would be North and South, which was awash in melodramatic romantic tension (and yes, I liked it better than the BBC miniseries).

One book not mentioned anywhere in this post is the one I’m reading, and don’t expect to finish until later next week. Still, I can already tell you that it will be on top of next year’s Best Of list!

Happy New Year to all my readers. I hope you’ve enjoyed Vintage Novels this year, and I hope to have many more reviews coming up in 2013.

4 comments:

Radagast said...

Some of those books I also loved; some I can see I should read!

Lady Bibliophile said...

89 books. *gulp* That's more than impressive. I think you win the best bibliophile standing amongst all of my acquaintances. :) My list beats last year's record, so those I was mourning to about how much less time I had to read this year were less than sympathetic. :) But I shall save the final number until Tuesday.

John Dekker said...

I did a rough count of the number of books I read in 2012, and came to 87, not including picture books.

Caleb said...

Fine list. I read a few of the same books in 2012.

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