Ade Thilen (Finalnd, 1852-1933)
This year was the first year I managed to achieve my goal of reading 52 books (one book a week), beating last year's total of 51. I must admit I managed this by reading quite a few graphic novels and a handful of children's novels too. I also try each year to read some books from the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, but this year I only managed 2. Oops.
I keep a notebook of the books I read, with the details of the title and author, a brief description of the book (so I remember what it's about), my comments, and a rating out of five stars. For 2012 it was slim pickings - I just didn't read that many outstanding books as previous years. However, these were the five star books:
A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire #5) by George R. R. Martin (2012)
I agree that the combination of the blockbuster cover, the inclusion of "dragons" in the title, and the fact that it is number 5 in a series will render this very offputting to non fantasy readers. However this is not really traditional fantasy - ok there are dragons but there are no elves or dwarves, and very little magic. Really it is more like a pleasingly well-written Renaissance court drama, full of intrigue and backstabbing and poisonings. Plus it has some rather wonderful female characters who are complex and not always pleasant. I'm sold.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1962)
I read this when I was a child and loved it, and it is just as lovely as an adult. Set in an alternative 19th century England under the reign of James III it is a rollicking adventure story with villainous baddies and delightful heroines. The cousins Bonnie and Sylvia, with the help of Simon the Goose Boy attempt to thwart the evil plans of their governess Miss Slightcarp in who's care they have been left.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
I don't quite know why it took me so long to read this book, which is of course, brilliant!
By the Waters of the Danube by Alexandra Orme (1952)
A memoir of life in Hungary and Poland in 1945, after the fall of the Germans, which follows the previous book Comes the Comrade! Orme (the pen-name of Litka de Barcza) was born in Poland but married a Hungarian, and in 1945 found herself sharing a tiny flat in war-torn Budapest with her husband and seven other people. She recounts the harsh conditions of everyday life and the constant fear of being arrested at any time by the Soviet police with humour and dry wit. A gifted storyteller, Orme combines adventure, humour and a philosophical musing on the nature of humankind into a very readable yet at times quite shocking tale. The translation from Polish is a work of art and it's hard to believe it was not written in English.
Although there weren't many five star books, there were a lot of four star ones, great books that didn't quite make it to the excellent category. Here are some of them:
Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King by Antonia Fraser (2007)
Antonia Fraser never disappoints, and this chatty and well-researched book about the mistresses of Louis XIV is fascinating.
Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power by Virginia Rounding (2007)
In a similar vein is this detailed and even-handed biography of Catherine the Great, focusing on her relationships with her courtiers, family and friends. There are many excerpts from Catherine's own letters which are surprisingly modern and amusing, and Rounding brings to life the world of the Russian court vividly.
The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak (2012)
An historical novel about the early days of Catherine the Great (before she became Empress) as seen through the eyes of her (fictional) lady-in-waiting and court spy, Varvara. Catherine had a quite horrendous early life at the Russian court, and Stachniak manages to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere and constant fear that ran through the court.
The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory (2011)
I know a lot of historical fiction readers love to hate Philippa Gregory, but I find her very readable and a competent writer who obviously does her research. This novel is about Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, and Gregory does a good job with what I imagine would be very limited source material, without becoming too romantic and silly, and while still having believable characters.
The Kingmakers' Daughter by Philippa Gregory (2012)
I also enjoyed Gregory's latest book, about Isabel and Anne Neville. Daughters of Richard "The Kingmaker" Neville, Anne also married the infamous Richard III. Gregory does a great job presenting the sisters (who were basically the enemies of Elizabeth Woodville) in a sympathetic light, and showing how much they feared the queen and her supposed malevolent powers.
Imagining Ancient Women by Annabel Lyon (2012)
I came across this while shelving at work. It's a lecture given by Canadian writer Annabel Lyon about how writers and readers of historical fiction imagine the lives of women in ancient times. Lyon also discusses the three weaknesses of historical fiction - easy moral outrage, love stories that don't add to the storyline, and too much description for description's sake. She argues that an historical novel needs speak to the reader in the same way as a novel set in the present day is expected too, and should not become just a regurgitation of research about how people lived in that period. Some very interesting thoughts.
Edith Head's Hollywood by Edith Head & Paddy Calistro (1983)
Written after the famous costume designer died from her tape-recorded memoirs, this is a fascinating look at how she worked her way up literally from the bottom. It also gives a great glimpse at the behind-the-scenes workings of costume designing in Hollywood films from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (1941)
I started reading this half-way through watching the TV show, and I probably shouldn't have, as the show is mostly made up of word-for-word dialogue from the book, so it was like a strange echo. Set in 1930s California, Mildred Pierce, housewife, kicks out her shiftless husband and becomes a waitress, much to the horror of her frightful daughter Veda. Mildred isn't a particularly likeable character, but you have to admire her determination. It's a cracking read with a suitably dramatic conclusion.
Thirteen of the books I read this year were comics/graphic novels, and some of them were rather fantastic. These were the ones that I gave five stars to:
Habibi by Craig Thompson (2011)
This is one of my favourite books of all time. It's huge, it's lush, it's something that will take several days to read. Dodola and Zam are slave children living in the desert. When Dodola is kidnapped and sold into the Sultan's harem, Zam sets out to find her.
The artwork is simply stunning, and Thompson uses the beauty of Arabic calligraphy and geometric patterns to weave in details of the Koran and Islamic stories. The story and illustrations work seamlessly together and create something that is so much more than the sum of their parts. Brilliant.
Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle (2008)
Delisle, a French-Canadian animator, records his impressions of Burma while living there with his wife (who works for MSF). Delisle stays at home to look after their baby son, and experiences daily life in Burma. It's charming, very funny, but looks seriously at the political situation there and how this shapes the way everyday citizens lives. Delisle is a genius, I love his illustrations and his quirky sense of humour.
Cinema Panopticum by Thomas Ott (2005)
A young girl at a carnival finds the only amusement she can afford is the Cinema Panopticum. The following five stories are the short films she watches: The Hotel, The Champion, The Experiment, The Prophet, and The Girl: Each wordless little story has a twist at the end which are actually quite quirky and disturbing, in the vein of some of the better Twilight Zone episodes.
The art is lovely, scratchboard white on black which gives a dark, atmospheric quality to the work.
The Professor's Daughter by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert (2007)
(Originally published in French as La fille du professeur in 1998)
A charming story of love blossoming between an archaeology professor's daughter and an Egyptian mummy in Victorian London. The story becomes quite slapstick and silly, but is so gleefully amusing.
The artwork, tiny sepia-toned watercolours is enchanting. Lovely.
Laika by Nick Abadzis (2007)
Brilliant and moving graphic novel about the first living thing to be launched into orbit by the Russian in 1957 - a dog called Laika. The story is incredibly touching without ever being sentimental, and Abadzis skillfully blends fact and fiction to create a sad but lovely story that will stay with you long after you finish reading. The artwork is rough but works perfectly.
What books did you enjoy last year?