Authors should read books as well as write them. That seems like a no brainer, but when you’re in the middle of a first draft sometimes picking up a book to read isn’t that appealing. Maybe it’s the fear of having one’s voice polluted. Maybe it’s just laziness. Whatever the case, I generally feel like I don’t read as much as I should. I tried to rectify this in 2012 by forcing myself to read – if only for ten minutes – every night before going to bed. As a result I made it through thirty books this year which is approximately twenty five books more than I read the year before. That’s a win.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of my favourites though please pay no attention to the order. The books are relatively disparate in terms of style and genre so putting them against each other just seemed redundant.
The Wind Through The Keyhole by Stephen King
There seems to be a commonly held perception in the blogger community that Stephen King isn’t as vital a writer as he once was. Bullshit. I’d point to 2011’s Full Dark, No Stars and his most current release The Wind Through The Keyhole as some of the best stuff he’s ever written. The latter in particular is a wonderfully creepy fable full of the kind of suspenseful horror sequences and vivid characterisations that King excels at. You don’t have to be a Dark Tower fan to appreciate the book, but it helps as there are numerous references, both direct and oblique, to King’s magnum opus.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
After learning this is one of Neil Gaiman’s favourites I had to pick up a copy. It’s not that I’m a slavering Neil Gaiman fanboy it’s just…well…er – no, I am a slavering Neil Gaiman fanboy. That said, this book is a blast. While the heft of it is slightly formidable, the sly wit of Clarke’s prose makes diving into the story a breezy pleasure. Separate from the compelling central drama between Strange and Norrell, history buffs will appreciate the way Clarke artfully weaves her mythology of the Raven King and Faerie into significant English historical events such as the Battle of Hastings. I am not a history buff though feel like I know a lot more about 19th century England after finishing this book than I did before. The BBC have just announced they’ll be turning Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell into a TV series so I suggest you jump on the bandwagon now before it inevitably becomes a pop culture phenomenon ala Game of Thrones.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
I’ve read quite a few online interviews with this Franzen fellow and the impression I’ve formed is of a hyper-intelligent, deeply sensitive, and distinctly misanthropic character. Keep in mind this is only my impression, and the real Franzen might be the sort of guy you’d happily share a few beers with at the local pub. Doubtful, though.
This is why I’m constantly surprised at how much heart is evident in his novels. Both Freedom and The Corrections are filled to the brim with neurotic, selfish and objectively unpleasant characters, yet Franzen writes them with such affection it’s hard not to love them. He’s also surprisingly hilarious for such a serious author, displaying a propensity for scatological humour that make his frequent digressions into wanky intellectualism a whole lot easier to swallow. The Corrections doesn’t end on quite the same beautifully bittersweet note that Freedom managed, but by the turn of the final page I felt like I’d read some worthy and great and human which is more than I can say for most books.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Reading Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) was one of the most thrilling and intellectually satisfying literary experience I had this year. Not only a compelling adventure rendered in sparkling prose, this series is also about ideas. Big ideas. Audacious ideas. Wonderfully challenging ideas. One of Pullman’s motivations for writing His Dark Materials was for the books to serve as a refutation of the Christian propaganda in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. And so His Dark Materials is about a man who sets out to kill God.
Yes, God. Harry Potter, this aint!
While taking down Christianity may be his central agenda, Pullman doesn’t stop at this, also layering in complex references to metaphysics, theology, gender politics, string theory, and philosophy but never at the expense of the narrative. This isn’t a book weighed down by its ideas but one that uses them to scale heights rarely reached by fantasy fiction. It’s exciting heady stuff and should serve as a benchmark for any writer working in the genre. By that, I don’t mean every fantasy writer should seek to destroy organised religion, only that every writer should strive for the same level of intellectual and creative curiosity in their work.
This is the sort of book that makes me wish I had children so I could give it to them to read. There would undoubtedly be questions afterwards. Questions I might not have the answers for but the sort of questions that lead to healthy conversation. Which is precisely what I think Pullman intends. He’s not trying to convert the reader into an atheist – despite what I may have suggested, I don’t think these books are anti-spiritualism or even anti-God (only this book’s God) – instead, I think His Dark Materials is more interested in starting a dialogue about free will and the dangers of blind faith.
And so we reach the end of my ‘2012’ posts. I hope you enjoyed them. I had a ball writing them. Please feel free to drop by the comments section to share your thoughts or any suggestions you may have for books I’ve missed.
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell TV adaptation (kottke.org)
- Nerds! Get Excited. The BBC Is Adapting JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL (badassdigest.com)
- Philip Pullman to Focus on His Dark Materials Sequel in 2013 (geekosystem.com)
- The Amber Spyglass: A Religion For Me (throughthefringe.wordpress.com)