Posted by Sari
As the number of books I read (for pleasure) has been dwindling year by year, I decided to set myself targets this year and see if that would help. I decided I would be content if I managed to read on average a book per week which would – unsurprisingly - mean grand total of 52 books per year. This turned out to be an excellent idea: on New Year’s Eve I was about forty pages shy of finishing book number 61. This means I almost doubled my reading from last year. Below are a few words on the four most impressive books I read last year and four most disappointing ones.
Sorcerer of Wildeeps and The Thing Itself
Two of my favourites I introduced already in my Hugo posts in early 2016 – at least to those of you who read Finnish. Both of them made my Hugo Ballot. The first, Kai Ashante Wilson’s short novel/novella Sorcerer of Wildeeps was a beautiful and impressive story, a mixture of fantasy and SF-tropes told in bold and innovative language. The second was Adam Roberts' The Thing Itself, a novel about aliens and Immanuel Kant. And God. It is funny, stylistically masterful, and handles its high concept premise with aplomb. It is so near a perfect science fiction novel I have come across that I will even forgive the fact that Roberts’ protagonist was once again a selfish and self-loathing middle-aged man.
Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch was a book that I feel could have been even better, but as it successfully represents a genre I wish would be more popular it has earned its place on top five. Mead is a journalist and an English major, who maps her life on top of her favourite novel, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. For the last fifty or so years literary studies have been interested in Theory, and have used actual fictional works as samples to illustrate some particular aspect of their vision of reading and literature. That is all fine and dandy if you are interested in post-structural cultural theory or reader-response criticism or cognitive literary studies or whatever, but it is sad for us who want to understand better or differently the works of fiction we read. Mead’s contemplation on Middlemarch takes perhaps too much time with Eliot herself, but it was an enjoyable dip into a novel which I appreciate but have never loved.
I was never a fan of Wolf Hall and its sequels. Though Hilary Mantel is an excellent writer, Henry VIII’s reign has been done to death, and I did feel that her stated aim of representing Cromwell in a good light and Moore less so interfered with my reading. I am also on record stating, that I generally dislike historical novels where main characters are real historical persons. So I did surprise myself by being blown away by Mantel’s earlier novel A Place of Greater Safety. It is a novel of the French Revolution focusing on Robespierre, Danton and Camille Desmoulins. It is long, meandering and has a huge cast of characters, but I found its tumbril-like journey towards the inevitable ending almost hypnotic.
As for the disapointments, with Seanan McGuire’s novella Every Heart a Doorway, I think the problem was the considerable hype I was aware before reading the work itself. In addition, I actually liked the concept of post-portal fantasy trauma quite a lot. So when I found both the plot and the execution of the novella to lack substance, I was a bit disapointed. If I had read it without knowing anything about it, I might have liked it better, now, despite few excellent character moments, the concept seemed wasted.
The Matriarch by Anne Edwards was extremely middle-of-the-road biography of Queen Mary. Though the subtitle of the work is Queen Mary and the House of Windsor, the amount of time the biographer uses on other members of the royal family is annoying.. There are many interesting things about May of Teck from her relatively impoverished childhood and the engagement to prince of Wales Albert Edward before her marriage to future George V to her brazen way of collecting jewelry and other valuables and her distant relationship with her children, that the gloss this biography gives to her life was disappointing.
Louis Auchincloss is one of my favourite writers, but this novel, one of his last, did not work for me. It aims to create a march of history by series of cameos narrated by the members of the same family, well-to-do Manhattanites based on Auchincloss’s father’s family. The portraits are well drawn, but the whole was a bit disjointed and shallow.
The only book I read last year that I really failed to connect on any level was Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, first of her Neapolitan novels tracing the friendship of two south Italian girls from 1950s onward. I am willing to admit that she writes well – at least in English translation – and that her characters are very life-like. But dear lord, was that ever a boring book. As nothing really happened, you had to be invested in milieu, the society and the inner life and friendship of the girls to enjoy the novel, and I wasn’t. Yawn city.