Highlights of my 2017 reading year

I read 74 books this year (counting the two graphic novels, which I do).  I was surprised by that, because my best year was 75 and it really felt like I was treading water for a lot of this year.

Looking through my list, this was a pretty good year in terms of quality.  By quality, I mean how much I liked the books I read, so I’m going to have to be really picky if I want to finish this post today.

Fiction first:

Facebook advertised Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale at me and it sounded like just my thing, but one shouldn’t trust Facebook advertising so I got it from the library.   It’s a sort of fairytale set in post-Mongol invasion Rus about a local landowner’s daughter who sees spirits, etc and the battle between those spirits and the new Orthodox priest’s clampdown on traditional ways.  I enjoyed it immensely and will definitely look out for her work in the future; however, there was something that I couldn’t put my finger on that stopped it from being one of those books which falls into the “go away, I’m reading!” category.

I have to do a shout out for Andy Weir’s The Martian.  It’s not great literature but it made me laugh out loud, a lot, and still told a fun adventure story.

Next up is New Worlds, Old Ways edited by Karen Lord, a collection of Caribbean science fiction and fantasy.  A wonderfully varied collection.  I learned that Trinidad & Tobago has repressive government issues.  My personal favourite was the Caribbean Gothic story set on Bermuda.

I read the latest three books in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series.  They’re really compelling mysteries but convey the fact that Henry VIII’s time was a reign of terror & what that does to people better than any history book I’ve ever read.

Nathan Carson’s Starr Creek is a Lovecraftian horror novella set in rural Oregon in the 80s.  The prose is a bit clunky at first but it rewards the little effort needed to finish it.  I’ll stay in the city where it’s safe, thanks.

Emma Newman’s After Atlas is essential reading if you want to be really angry about everything that’s wrong with the world. And be gripped by a most excellent thriller.

I encountered Catriona Ward on panels at the Nine Worlds convention in 2016 but it took me till this September to read her book, Rawblood, a gothic novel set in a crumbling Devon farmhouse.  At first I didn’t think she was as clever as she thinks she is (being one of the few people who has read *all* her source material, including Melmoth the Wanderer), but it picks up the pace and ends up being very good indeed.

I’m a big fan of Ken Macleod but for some reason had never read The Restoration Game. It has replaced The Night Sessions as my favourite of his books.  Spies, a breakaway Georgian enclave that doesn’t exist and a video game as propaganda – what’s not to love.  It’s so good that I wasn’t even put off by the conclusion belonging to a trope that usually makes me want to throw the book at the wall.

Things got really difficult for me towards the end of the year, and two books got me through it: Charles de Lint’s The Wind in his Heart – a trademark de Lint fantasy story fusing Celtic and native American mythology; and the first Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind.  I suspect the latter may not be as good as I think it was, but it had a story that kept me turning the pages and characters that I really liked and wasn’t too hard to read at a time when I really needed some escapism.

Two books that I liked less than everyone else were Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Both are fine novels that just didn’t speak to me.

I don’t usually like to be negative, but I have to single out The Girl on the Train as the worst book I read this year.  For some years, even.  It was so awful I felt dirty reading it.  As I said in my introductory post, when it comes to bus-reading thrillers I have pretty low standards, but this was just vile.  All the male characters are controlling and abusive and the women are all the same person basically and pretty repellent too.  I only finished it because it’s a mystery and I had to know Who Done It.

Non fiction:

Lots of good stuff but two that really changed my life:

Adam Nicholson The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters.  I couldn’t put it down.  I have been getting more interested in all things Bronze Age for a while and this put that interest on steroids.  I read both The Iliad and The Odyssey right away.  I had tried to read The Iliad straight out of undergrad when I had a bit of knowledge of classical Greece but without understanding that it is another culture entirely, and in an unengaging translation.  Reading it and understanding the context, I ended up actually liking The Iliad better than The Odyssey (which modern readers are not “supposed” to do).  Even if the interpretation “and Achilles sulks in his tent” is a valid viewpoint too.

Alan Bewell Romanticism and Colonial Disease.  The subject matter is right next door to that of my incomplete PhD.  I might have finished if this had not come out the year after I dropped out.  I was bogged down in a lot of theoretical crap in order to get to the point I could tell my story whereas this is about how the Romantic poets actually responded to the phenomenon of colonial disease, both in England and in the Empire.  This book made me read *and appreciate* Wordsworth.  (You can go into a room full of Romanticists and tell by looking at people who studies Wordsworth.  All the “normals”.  As a goth scholar of Byron and Blake I was contractually obliged to hate Wordsworth.) And it’s got me reading Romantic poetry again for the first time in about 20 years.

There were so many books about Russia and the Revolution that I might come back to those for a future post.

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