Some people evaluate the passing year in wins; others in sales, gigs, or publications. I have a tradition of summing up a year in titles. Out of the (nearly) fifty books I read in 2016, here is my annual list of best reads.
My Favourite Five
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
I blogged about this one shortly after reading it. (Read it here).
I confess that I loved this book so much I was compelled me to buy a special (used) Folio Society edition as a keepsake. (Hey, don’t judge me. I write Victorian fiction. It’s an investment in a resource, right?)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Gosh, I loved this book, but it isn’t one I readily thrust into friends’ hands. I’m not entirely sure others will love it as much as I did. It is weird and dark and really long. I put off reading it for years, because its oozing footnotes seemed like they’d be a dreary chore to read. (They weren’t!)
Ultimately, its brilliant premise won me over: What if once upon a time English Magic existed, but it faded into obscurity and is all but forgotten? And what if one man seeks to revive it for the good of the realm?
Mr Norrell is a magician and a pernickety, reclusive man who, after years of rigorous solo study, performs powerful magic that makes him an instant celebrity. Soon the English government is calling on his services to rectify civil disasters and gain military advantage over enemies. English Magic is making a comeback so big he has to take on a student. Enter the charismatic Jonathan Strange, quite a different character altogether. Together, they do great good for England, and all is well until the teacher and the pupil clash.
Susanna Clarke’s world building is extraordinary thanks in part to the footnotes I mentioned. She references a fictitious canon of books of magical scholarship. It’s fascinating how much plausibility and texture this quirky little device added. I listened to the audio version (which was exquisite), and surprisingly the footnotes weren’t a bother at all. (Reviews of the digital version indicated that the footnotes were a nuisance.) In an interview with the New York Magazine, she explains how she achieved such realism in a book about magic. “One way of grounding the magic is by putting in lots of stuff about street lamps, carriages and how difficult it is to get good servants.”
So who is Susanna Clarke? Here are some fascinating facts:
- JS&MN is her debut novel (but she works in publishing).
- She put ten years into the manuscript, sometimes fearing she’d never finish it.
- After two rejections by publishers, Bloomsbury offered her a £1 million advance on an unfinished manuscript! (2003)
- She (apparently) hasn’t written another novel.
Clarke didn’t have a name for the book’s genre, though there are plenty of possibilities offered, from pastiche to fantasy to alternative history. I believe it is gaslamp fantasy, which means it is an alternative history with a magical twist. (Read about gaslamp fantasy here.) The subplots were intriguing; the characters unforgettable; and the settings vividly eerie in their coldness. Set at the dawn of the Nineteenth Century with the Napoleonic Wars brewing and raging, Lord Byron and Lord Wellington play important parts in the book.
If you’re not up for a 36-hour audio book or an 800-page book, check out the BBC’s TV mini series. If I haven’t convinced you, consider this article that says Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is “just as magical as Harry Potter.” I’d love to know if you’re as smitten as I am. [For grown-ups (and precocious younger readers who love footnotes)]
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year, this was another title in my gaslamp fantasy binge. I’d seen a flurry of articles about Frances Hardinge online, and was intrigued by the woman who wears a fedora for its sense of adventure. She’s a master storyteller: her writing in The Lie Tree is utterly captivating, the plot is surprising, and the themes are big and important—everything we bookworms hope a book could be.
The protagonist Faith, 14 and stuck in a ‘training corset’, grapples with heady topics: societal conventions and limitations on women, the discovery of the flaws in her father’s character, the clash of science and religion in Victorian England, and the mob mentality of people. Big ideas, fresh characters, and lovely writing made this one deliciously memorable. [MG]
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
I mistook Cloudstreet as an ordinary tragicomical family drama, which didn’t overly excite me even if it’s considered a modern Aussie classic and one of Australia’s favourite books. But when I saw it classified as magical realism, I was instantly intrigued. I knew I had to read it as research for my WIP Finding Graceland.
The audio version is performed to perfection by Peter Hosking, who brought Tim Winton’s lush writing into full Technicolor splendour. Read it—you’ll never forget the characters or how the book gripped your heart. [For grown ups]
Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan
I mentioned above I was seeking magical realism books to read, and this was one of them. I loved its light touch, but most of all I was impressed with the book’s beautiful structure.
Echo tells the stories of three young people in the WWII era, who are connected by, well … an enchanted harmonica. Now, as weird as that sounds, it is an amazing tale, full of music and heartbreak, pathos and redemption.The whole thing is bracketed in an original fairy tale. The ending is one of the most satisfying I can remember. Don’t let the harmonica-fairy tale thing throw you. This book is swoon-worthy. [MG/YA]
Over to You
Have you read any of the titles above? Leave your thoughts in the comments. Happy reading in the coming months!
Image Credit: Ian Schneider, CC0, via Unsplash