My Favourite Five Reads – 2016

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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 Dickensdavidcopperfield

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?)

 

JonathanStrangeMrNorrellbySusannaClarkeJonathan 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 HardingeTheLieTreebyFrancisHardinge

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]

TimWintoCloudstreetCloudstreet 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]

EchoPamMunozRyanEcho 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

Three Things Dickens Taught Me

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It took over a month, but I finished listening to the audio version of Dickens’s David Copperfield. It now sits at the top of my list of all-time favourite books. As much as I enjoyed the reading experience, I also got a lot out of it as a writer. Yes, it’s long and dense and would probably be rejected by today’s publishing professionals. But there’s still lots to learn from this master of the English literature canon.

Here are three things I gleaned from Charles Dickens.

1) Readers will forgive almost anything if you tell a good story.

David Copperfield opens with this sentence:

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Sentence two:

“To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.”

In most cases, when a book starts at the moment of the protagonist’s birth, it’s a bad sign. A very bad sign. When I read the above sentences, I laughed. Aren’t writers supposed to start in media res?

When I stopped chuckling, I checked the length of my audio recording. Thirty-six and a half hours. Flip! Turns out the physical book has 800+ pages!

Lucky for me, I listened to Audible’s wonderful audio version performed by Richard Armitage of Thorin Oakenshield fame (The Hobbit, the films). Highly recommended. I can’t gush fast enough to convey how much I enjoyed his performance!

I loved every minute. So what if Dickens is long-winded? Who cares if he starts where no one (today) would dare start a story? He’s Dickens, and he did it well. Besides, there were legitimate plot reasons for starting at day dot.

The plotting in David Copperfield is heaps of fun. There were a few times when I yelled, “Get.Out!” and “NO! Not her again!” and “Yes!!” with an air punch. Admittedly, by the end I began to see the pattern of Dickens’s braided threads, but the payoffs were so rewarding that I didn’t mind that I could guess what happened next.

2. Tell the truth about the lies people tell themselves.

I can relate his 19th Century characters to my 21st Century friends. Seriously, those Micawbers—ever waiting for “something to turn up.” The pair of them reminded me of a couple I know. How did Dickens manage such timelessness? By slicing the human psyche into parts–the portrayed self and the true self. He observed that we all tell ourselves lies, and that sometimes we have no idea we’ve dabbled in falsehood and hoodwinked no one but ourselves.

He nailed the fact that everyone, even beloved David, is flawed and many-faceted. As a child, David was too trusting. As a young man, he was too enchanted by superficial beauty, yet he (eventually) grew into a principled, loyal man. Watching David come of age was a wonder, the nuances of every stage captured in tiny brushstrokes. I especially loved David’s late adolescence, when he felt awkward in his inexperience and youth. David burned with the shame at having no whiskers to shave off and with humiliation for paying for top-shelf brandy but being served the dregs.

Even the quintessential villain, Uriah Heep, is not pure evil. As villains go, he’s pretty darn bad, but he wuvs his mummy and looks after her as a good son should.

Dickens revelled in reminding his readers that there’s always more than meets the eye with humans. We behave in ways that belie our good intentions. We say one thing and do another. Or we think we have pegged someone’s character, only to find we’ve misjudged them most unfairly.

Take Betsy Trotwood, David’s kooky aunt, who is cantankerous to the point of rudeness, but she brims over with genuine compassion, quiet wisdom, and snarky wit. She surprised me right through the book.

3. Make your characters suffer—really suffer.

It’s easy to fall in love with Dickens’s books because he forces us to care about his characters. Then he toys with his readers’ emotions by tormenting the characters he’s made us love. He no sooner gives one a lollipop than he rips it away, throws it in the dust, and stomps it to smithereens. Except it isn’t a lollipop; it’s a deepest desire, an object of dire necessity. All good writers do this, but Dickens is the Maestro of pathos and comeuppance. He makes the reading experience like a radical roller coaster ride.

Dickensian Caveats

My biggest concern about reading Dickens is that the flowery style might be communicable. I know that I have a tendency to  absorb the rhythm and style of what I read. I remember years ago after studying the King James version of the New Testament, the letters I wrote to my parents came out with a biblical cadence. It was scary. While I want to acquire the ^above^ lessons, I don’t want my writing to break out in a hideous purple rash.

So I’m thinking it might be a good idea to follow up David Copperfield with some sparse literature. Hemingway, maybe. Got any recommendations? Leave a prescription in the comments!