Friday, December 30, 2016

Best of 2016

Well, strictly speaking I'm supposed to be on holiday right now, recovering from a hard year's work and reading my Annual Holiday Epic, but one of the many small pleasures of the Christmas season includes sitting down to look back at the year's reading and hand out some tiny awards.

Also, it's terribly sad this year, but I haven't started the Annual Epic yet. After The Song of Roland last Christmas, I wanted to read another chanson de geste, the Spanish Song of the Cid this time. Unfortunately, I ordered it in at the library in the delicious and toothsome-looking new Burton-Raffel translation - and it hasn't yet appeared. Instead, I'm tiding myself over with Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave - finally.

Otherwise, it's been a really good reading year. According to Goodreads, I got through 113 books this year, which is only slightly down from last year's 119.

Favourite Re-Reads

For me, to re-read a book is in itself a major recommendation, so it often seems unfair to have my re-reads compete against my new reads. In 2016 I re-read 16 books. Here are my top five:

The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart - I appreciated this story far more the second time around - a moody gothic romance complete with mistaken identity, mystery and murder. I thought it also had a bit more substance than I usually find in Mary Stewart's novels.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome - Another readaloud with my sisters, this book is a comedic gem from Victorian England that somehow manages to be every bit as fresh and funny today. Packed full of quotable gems and outrageous situations, it's hard to believe this classic started life as a travel guide. Full review here.

Paradise Restored by David Chilton - since I'd only read it once, many years ago, this one was well overdue for a re-read. Still my favourite theological work, it's an excellent introduction to the interpretation of biblical typology, and a great introduction to optimistic eschatology.

The Song of Roland, trans. Dorothy Sayers - my Annual Epic for 2016 and a vital bit of cultural research for OUTREMER, this poem came alive for me this year in a way it never had before. Probably written during or shortly after the First Crusade, it's a magnificent glimpse at the mindset that produced it. See my detailed review here.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien - you knew this would be on here. Words fail me. Still the best. Book of the year. Some thoughts are available here.

Non-Fiction of the Year

My non-fiction schedule is pretty crowded these days, as my constant fiction output requires a constant, and strenuous, non-fiction intake, whether historical/cultural research or writing and marketing craft. But I do get to read a bunch of books for my own enjoyment: this year, some of the standouts include theological tomes from Ray Sutton (That You May Prosper) and William Symington (Messiah the Prince), William Dalrymple's outrageous romp of a travel book In Xanadu, and Dinah Roe's quadruple biography of a unique artistic family, The Rossettis in Wonderland. And this year, I think I'm actually going to tie two books for Non-Fiction of the Year, because they were both so important in different ways.

Saving Leonardo was every bit as good as I'd hoped, and then some. You could call it a course on art history from a philosophical standpoint, or you could call it a philosophy course with really, really high-quality illustrations. Pearcey focuses mainly on modern schools of artistic expression, and ably explains exactly what philosophies undergird cubism, expressionism, surrealism and more. And while she critiques each of these philosophies from a Christian perspective, she's quick to demonstrate how each of these different schools have been used by Christian artists. It's incredibly rare to find an approach to fine art that both respects it for its philosophical and artistic value, and critiques it from a Christian viewpoint. Saving Leonardo is an absolutely essential book - I can't recommend it highly enough.

The other must-read in my non-fiction stack this year is The Tyrannicide Brief, a gripping and illuminating biography of John Cooke, the humble barrister who was sent the brief to prosecute Charles I. As a QC practicing in the very areas he's writing about - war crimes and tyranny - Geoffrey Robertson is uniquely qualified to provide a detailed, yet never dry analysis of the legal and political issues at stake in Charles I's trial and execution. In three sections, the book deals with the history of tyranny and war that led up to Charles's trial; the unprecedented event of the trial itself; and the denouement ten years later, when John Cooke and a small group of fellow regicides were put cruelly and arbitrarily to death. It is a long-overdue recognition of a man and a movement far ahead of their time, who did more perhaps than any other single generation in history for liberty and justice. I cried.

Fiction of the Year

Coming up with a single fiction book to recommend each year is about as much fun as pulling teeth, and I've made it hard for myself by disqualifying re-reads (and thus The Lord of the Rings), but let me try. This year I read Pierce Brown's whole Red Rising trilogy, and I read it immoderately, in three gulps, until it was done, and then sat up and begged for more. It's a genre-busting, blood-soaked dystopian space opera extravaganza, with about three times the smarts, three times the conviction, and three times the heart of just about every other YA bestseller I read this year - with one important exception, which was everything I read by Rosamund Hodge. 

I was intrigued by Cruel Beauty and its bitter and bracing look at sin and guilt, and I loved her Gilded Ashes novella, but it was Hodge's second book, Crimson Bound, a Red Riding Hood retelling with some serious teeth in it, which reduced me to tears and made me a confirmed fan. Hodge writes about guilt-ridden bad people undergoing long and painful repentances, all wrapped up in YA fantasy trappings of love triangles and fairytale references. How dark do you like your chocolate? This is 85%.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, a more classic YA novel, was so good that after reading it for the first time this year and loving it, I went on and read it a second time, aloud, with my sisters. It only improved on closer acquaintance. Not just an exciting tale of adventure and (perhaps) magic in Elizabethan England - this book is something more, a beautiful and sometimes heartwrenching story of trial and redemption.

Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset is probably the book I should be naming Fiction of the Year. It's a solid five star, it's the grand finale to the wonderful Chronicles of Barset, and it came packed not just with adorable characters and horrifying plot twists, but also with social commentary that had me cheering in delight. Trollope ranks about level with Jane Austen in my pantime of Great Authors now, and this was my favourite book of his yet.

All the same, I can't help being me, and so Fiction of the Year goes to...

As you know, I've been living and breathing Crusader history for the last two years, and The High Crusade (see my full review!) probably did better than any other book I read this year (with the sole exception of actual original source materials like Letters from the East or The Song of Roland) at expressing the delightful quirks and contradictions of the medieval character. 

Also, knights versus aliens. How could anything be better?

2016 in Writing

In 2016, I managed a total raw wordcount output of about 325,000 words, give or take, which included:
  • finishing the first draft of OUTREMER, my mega-project on the 200-year history of the Crusader States;
  • second-draft and polishing on Death Be Not Proud, a romantic suspense fairytale novella now available as part of the Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales collection;
  • the first drafts of two new fairytale novellas, Ten Thousand Thorns (which is Sleeping Beauty in the style of a wuxia martial arts epic) and Lady Disdain (which is King Thrushbeard in the style of a vintage swashbuckler). 
As you can imagine, I'm now rather badly in need of a holiday. So, farewell! I'll be taking January to relax and recharge, and will see you all in February with more reviews, and hopefully some more news on upcoming projects! Merry Christmas (it's not Epiphany yet, after all) and a happy new year to all of you!


Cindy B said...

I love Antony Trollope!

Melanie S. said...

I found myself reading The High Crusade this fall and enjoyed it, though probably not top of 2016, that might be Napoleon of Notting Hill or Nicholas Nickleby/Dickens in general. Have you read G.K. Chesterton's reviews thereof? Best of both worlds. I've always found the best recommendations on your site and good reading too, so here's a big thanks and happy new year.

Jamie W said...

Enjoy your time off! It's well-earned.

Melanie, I love The Napoleon of Notting Hill! It was one of the first Chesterton novels I read other than Father Brown. Delightful.

Anonymous said...

I have a couple books on English history begging to be read, but I just had to rush out and buy The Tyrannicide Brief. And early modern English history is also U.S. (and Australian) history.

Unknown said...

Merry Christmas! Have you ever read Honour and the Sword, by A.L. Berridge? I loved it, and it seems right up your alley.

Anonymous said...

if i might make a suggestion, the estimable Mr. John C. Wright is one of the better authors in Sci-Fi / Fantasy today.

The Golden Oecumene or Orphans of Chaos are good entry points.

he has converted from Atheism to Catholicism since those series were published.

Suzannah said...

I'm back!

Cindy, I can't figure out why Trollope isn't better known and loved than he is - I confess I much prefer him to Dickens.

Melanie, I'm so glad the blog has been enjoyable for you! I loved THE NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL too - and Chesterton is one of my all-time favourite authors, far ahead of Poul Anderson, so I can't fault your choice in the slightest. I'm aware of GKC's writing on Dickens - I've just never got around to reading them (though I adore his essay on Sir Walter Scott).

Jamie, my time off has been most enjoyable!

HP, you bought TYRANNICIDE BRIEF? Awesome! You'll have to tell us what you think!

M, I haven't read that book, but it looks like fun. I'll bear it in mind!

Bob, I'm very familiar with John C Wright and have read both the series you mention. The Golden Oecumene was particularly good.


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