Monday, January 01, 2018

10 Novels I Read in 2017

Happy New Year, everyone! Before I get into the last year in movies, I want to talk about some books I read this year. These aren't all from 2017; they're just ones that I read for the first time last year. And they're not the whole list of books I read, either.

According to my Goodreads log, I read 34 books last year. I'd set a goal for myself of 24, so I met that, even when you consider that six of those "books" were short stories. Thirteen were graphic novels or collections of comics (a lot of Tarzan, but also some '70s Batman and Marvel collections). Those totally count, but I'm not talking about them here. I also left off some re-reads (a couple of Burroughs' Tarzan novels) and a couple of books that would need more space to write about than I want to give here (those are Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Zorro: The Complete Pulp Adventures, Volume 1). If you're doing the math, that's a total of 23, but I'm going to talk about the 24th when I talk about one of the ten below, because they're thematically linked.

What's left are ten novels that I read in 2017, listed from least to most favorite.

10. On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers



You know I like pirates, right? I may have mentioned it. And Tim Powers' book was either an inspiration for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie or shared enough common elements with it that Disney paid for the title. Since I was disappointed by that movie, I thought I should read the book and get the original take on Blackbeard's search for the Fountain of Youth. Sadly, this was disappointing, too.

It's very well written in terms of craft. Powers knows how to create captivating characters and give them distinct voices. He's also great at period details and introducing a compelling mystery. Where the book lost me though was halfway through when the story's magical elements fully took over the nautical adventure. At that point, it becomes full-on fantasy and the villains might as well be wearing pointy hats with stars. It was also grating to realize that the one female character is actually nothing but a MacGuffin for the hero to chase after and try to protect. This is the only book on the list that I didn't finish.

9. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad



This was another disappointing book and a couple of things contributed to that. One was that its psychological terror had been hyped beyond its ability to deliver. But the other is that Apocalypse Now (which is a loose adaptation of it) had also raised my expectations about how disturbed I would be. The novel never got there for me.

Nor did it answer any of the questions I had about Kurtz or what went wrong with him. That's probably the point, but I was still looking for some insight that the book doesn't deliver. There's a lot of talking about how strange and wonderful Kurtz is, but I never experienced his profundity for myself or related to Marlow's intoxication with him. There are some great themes in the book, though (I love the warning about how thin and easily cast off the armor of civilization is), and some unforgettable scenes (particularly during the journey upriver and the arrival at Kurtz' camp).

8. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline



I'm not usually one to read a novel before seeing a movie adaptation. Generally, I prefer to see the film first and then enjoy the book afterwards. I tend to like both versions when I do it that way, instead of watching the movie and comparing it to the book.

But I was in the mood for some science fiction at some point last year and Ready Player One is so well spoken of by my friends that I chose it, even though Spielberg's adaptation is about to come out.

I very much liked the plot and the puzzle-solving and of course all the references to '80s pop culture. I didn't as much enjoy the trash-talking and posturing of the socially awkward main character and his friends. In fact, there was a point early on where I considered giving up. But I pushed through and was pleased that the arrogance lessened as the stakes increased, the characters' relationships deepened, and they all had to focus on other things.

If you want more detailed thoughts on the book, I highly recommend Nerd Lunch's discussion of it. I didn't participate in that, but they did an excellent job covering the novel's strengths and weaknesses.

7. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L Frank Baum



I've wanted to read this for years and finally pulled the trigger this holiday season. And I liked it quite a bit.

It's usually a drawback for me when a book's chapters are episodic like they are here, but it works in this. First of all, it's a children's story and easy to imagine Baum sitting in a nursery and telling these tales to a group of eager, young listeners. But also, the individual adventures work together to build towards the completed mythology of Santa as we know him today.

Baum's writing voice is pleasant and I enjoyed spending time in the world he created. It beats Rankin-Bass' version of Santa's origin story, Santa Claus in Coming to Town, in almost every way, though R-B did also adapt this novel and now I'm super curious to see that.

6. A Room with a View by EM Forster



The film version of this book is very solidly an '80s movie, but I always think of it as a '90s film, because it started two of my strongest '90s obsessions: period dramas (especially ones produced by Merchant Ivory) and Helena Bonham Carter.

I love the film version of A Room with a View so much that I have most of it memorized and when I finally read the book last Spring, I was surprised at just how faithful the movie is. It's so faithful that I experienced very powerfully the thing that most Read the Book Before Seeing the Movie people cite as their main reason for preferring that order: It was tough not to imagine the film actors in their roles as I read. Or read the dialogue with anything other than the inflections those actors used.

But there are differences between the two. Some things, the movie does better, like the ending. It's not drastically different, but it does make Lucy's climactic revelation more emotional and exciting. In the book's favor, though, I appreciate the additional insights it provides. For instance, I never picked up on why Lucy chose Schubert instead of Beethoven when playing for Cecil's family. Forster's still subtle about it, but he makes it clearer than the film does. And there's a whole subplot about George's mother that's left out of the film. All in all, it's a lovely book that made me want to revisit the movie as soon as I finished it.

5. The Monk by Matthew Lewis



After I spent Halloween 2016 talking about gothic literature, I've been slowly digging in and reading some. I'm a big fan of Castle of Otranto and have re-read it multiple times, but Mysteries of Udolpho was a slog and put me off the classics for a while. The Monk has renewed my interest. It's lurid and super spooky.

The trick I've learned with early gothic literature is to not grow impatient with the plot, but to immerse myself in the details of the moment. This is especially rewarded in The Monk (with the Bleeding Nun segment being an awesome sidebar to the main narrative, and arguably the best part of the whole novel). I'm also finding it working for me as I try The Mysteries of Udolpho again, though. I hated it on first reading, but am thoroughly enjoying it the second time around.

It was cool reading this alongside The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter by Ambrose Bierce, which I also read in 2017. Both stories go different directions from the same concept. They start with a virtuous monk, then put irresistible temptation in his way to see what happens. But while Lewis' character needs an outside influence to pull him towards sin, Bierce's falls all on his own.

Lewis has the more thrilling story, because it's so racy, but Bierce's (which does go to some ghastly places as well) is the more effective warning. Not just for religious people, but for anyone tempted to justify selfish, prideful activity in the name of trying to "help" someone.

4. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson



This got on my reading list when someone described it as Southern gothic and it does have creepy, gothic elements to it. What I enjoyed most though was the mystery of the Blackwood family and what exactly happened to make them such pariahs in their town.

It's not a difficult mystery to figure out, but getting to the solution is a hauntingly beautiful process as Shirley Jackson slowly reveals not just details about past events, but about the present mental states of the surviving family members. It's a lovely, unsettling book.

3. Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty



This is another one that I picked up because it sounded rather gothic. I was browsing at a book fair and liked the cover with the spooky house. The back cover blurb pulled me in further, talking about a young girl with a cryptic past who lives in the cellar of Biltmore House and is pulled into a mystery of disappearing children.

It's not really all that gothic, but it is a great mystery in a cool setting and with characters I got very fond of. There are supernatural elements, but the novel never crosses into true urban fantasy territory (a genre that's a tough sell for me). The supernatural bits are used sparingly and don't retread territory I've been over in other stories. Beatty is way more interested in the way that Serafina has been isolated her entire life and finally begins to connect with society. I liked that a lot and am looking forward to reading the sequel.

2. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame



My only association with this classic has been through Disney, first through Mr Toad's Wild Ride at Disney World as a kid, and later through their animated adaptation that's packaged with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad. I finally went back to the source and I'm glad I did. I loved it.

It's a beautifully pastoral book. The opening chapters read like a series of short stories about the same, recurring characters. Since I was mostly familiar with Disney's focus on the irritatingly hyper Mr Toad, I was surprised and pleased to find so much of the book concerned with Mole and Rat. They're pleasant characters who live in a pleasant place and Grahame's wonderful descriptions make me want to live there, too.

I love his prose and especially the observations he makes about human (or animal, I guess) nature. I was completely hooked as soon as I read Mole's thoughts about vacations: "...he somehow could only feel how jolly it was to be the only idle dog among all these busy citizens. After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working." Grahame gets me.

There are stories about hospitality and homesickness and curiosity and traveling and worship. They're all lovely. As they progress, Badger and Toad also enter the tales and the stories start to become more connected, so that there's a strong narrative pushing through by the end. That's the part that Disney latched onto, and it is entertaining, but it's not the best part to me. The earlier, quieter chapters are the ones that are going to stick with me for a long, long time.

1. Hope and Red by Jon Skovron



If you're looking for great book recommendations, I highly recommend following author Kelly Sedinger on Goodreads. His reviews have added several books to my reading list, including my favorite book I read in 2017. I hope to get to the others this year.

Jon Skovron is primarily known as a YA fantasy author, but with Hope and Red he breaks free from the restrictions of YA. That means that there’s sex and cursing, but unlike some other authors who’ve made the same transition, the adult elements in Hope and Red never feel gratuitous. The sex is hot, but emotionally real. And the language is the natural result of the story's being set in a seaside slum with its own particular slang. (I always get nervous when fantasy books include a glossary, because it’s always annoying to me to stop reading and go look up a word just to understand dialogue. But Skovron’s glossary is there for flavor, not homework. The slang in his world is largely based on ours and even when it’s unfamiliar, I’m still able to figure out meaning from context).

What Skovron absolutely brings over from YA is fast-paced adventure and compelling characters with strong, emotional cores. Hope and Red are the names of the leads and even though they don’t meet until deep into the book, their individual stories are equally fascinating. I never found myself wishing that Skovron would wrap one part up and move on to the other. By the time they met, I knew them both well and was eager to see how they would affect each other's lives.

What makes the whole thing especially palatable for me is that it’s set in a fantasy world of oceans and islands. This is the pirate fantasy that I wanted from On Stranger Tides. Hope begins her life living in a remote island village, but when something horrible happens to the rest of the community, she’s rescued and sent to live first with an even more remote group of warrior monks and then aboard a merchant ship. For his part, Red grows up in the aforementioned slums and spends some time as a pirate. You might expect them to meet from Red’s group attacking Hope’s, but Skovron has something else in mind. Which describes my whole experience with the novel. Skovron consistently twists and swerves around expectations and completely hooked me into wanting to know what’s going to happen next.

That's something that he does with the ending of the novel, too. He picks a great place to put a break in the Empire of Storms series, but it is a cliffhanger to be resolved in the next volume. I can't wait to read it. Not just because I have to find out what happens next, but because I really really want to spend more time with these people.

3 comments:

Siskoid said...

I'm kind of jealous that you managed to read so much this year. I got into some real bricks that really reduced my own pace, especially non-fiction books. Got a lot of novels sitting on my shelf begging me to pick them up in 2018.

Heart of Darkness with a Mike Mignola cover? Wow, that's cool of you Penguin Classics! (I also like their We Have Always Lived in the Castle" cover.)

As for Player One, I've had the reverse experience as my friend who tried to get through it warned me well away. Not just because of the characterization but because it reads as a ton of gratuitous references in search of a story. The pages I've glanced at bear this out, and I feel like the movie will be an exercise in pausing the DVD to spot characters and cars in the background, sort of a Roger Rabbit for action movie nerds. We'll see, but it kind of looks like Tron Legacy with licensed characters pasted into the background. Not that I didn't like Tron Legacy, cuz I liked it fine.

Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

Thanks for sharing your book recommendations Michael! I've been fortunate to read quite a bit this summer (its easy to pick up were you left off with a book than TV) but I typically tackle non fiction/biographies. So I perked up when I saw L Frank Baum's book about the Life of Santa Claus, which is a figure that probably has more reinterpretations and reimaginings than most superheroes. I would love to see an annotated book that compares and cross references the Kringle Canon.

Michael May said...

Siskoid, I should put quotation marks around "read," since 6 of those 10 were audiobooks. I'm a horribly slow reader, so being able to listen to books on my commute is super helpful.

Your friend's not wrong about Ready Player One and I expect you're right about the movie. I enjoy those kinds of reference hunts, so they're usually worth my time, but that's a very different thing from reading a well-told story.

Erik, a Kringle Canon would be awesome! I kind of hinted at wanting to develop something like that on the latest Dragonfly Ripple when David and I were talking about Ernest Saves Christmas. I agree with David that contradicting that canon would never affect my love for a good Santa story, but it would be a lot of fun to put together a list of what I considered canonical movies and TV specials. Might be a fun topic for the blog next year!

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