As I look through the books I read in 2016, I note a couple of themes, and I’m thinking I should move away from them. Or maybe not…
Not really meaning to, I read mostly British novels, and mostly post-war or wartime themes. Without much apology, I have had a lifelong fondness for British novels. Maybe that love affair began with AA Milne when I was very young, with the beautiful turn of the phrase, and moving on to Shakespeare and then Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, the Brontë sisters, Daphne DuMaurier, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–and all sorts of literature in between.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, O Jerusalem, Justice Hall, A Letter of Mary. The year began with a series of books from Laurie R. King, who takes the retired Sherlock Holmes and his relationship with a young woman. He takes Mary under his wing and trains her. It certainly helps that she is a genius in her own right–would Sherlock bother with someone who wasn’t? The books stay true to the Holmes universe, though at times they get a bit long-winded. King has quite a long series of books, and I made my way through the first five (beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) before deciding to take a break. They are quite good, and I will probably return to them at some point.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hall. Beginning in 1939, this is the story of two sisters in France whose lives take very different turns–one as a member of the Underground, and the other who works to protect her family and the children of Jews around the region. It is dark, hopeful, and devastating. Hall compelled me, all the way to the very end.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Told from the points of view of two children who grow up during World War 2, this is another beautiful and heartbreaking novel. A blind girl’s father constructs a tabletop reproduction of their village so she can learn how to find her way. An orphaned German boy who shows remarkable talent in electronics is conscripted to serve in Hitler’s Youth to detect the source of broadcasts by the Resistance.
Since I usually enjoy British detective novels, I tried the first book in three different series, sort of dipping my toe in the waters. Not every one of my attempts turns out well, but they are always worth a try. A Test of Wills by Charles Todd begins the Ian Rutledge series. Rutledge has returned from serving in the First World War, and now he is trying to settle back into his investigative work with Scotland Yard. The voice of Hamish, a Scotsman, lives in his head and mocks him. The psychological part of this novel was too dark and depressing, but it is understandable, given the darkness of the times. But as the book didn’t leave me satisfied, but rather depressed, I won’t return to the rest of his books.
On to another dismal series of British mystery books: the Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Windspear. Maisie lives in the post-World War 1 era as well, and her world is just as depressing as Ian Rutledge’s. The two probably should never meet up and join forces, I’m thinking, because the end product would be simply miserable. So I only read that first book, Maisie Dobbs, and won’t be moving on to the next.
A little gun-shy, I picked up the next British mystery novel that had been recommended to me: A Man of Some Repute by Elizabeth Edmondson. This series begins post-World War 2 with a returning veteran named Hugo Hawksworth. Hugo has been injured in some mysterious manner (which the reader hopes will be revealed at some point–and probably will be connected to some plot or deception we will encounter in a future novel). He is unable to resume his former position as a detective with Scotland Yard, so he is assigned a somewhat bland desk job in the countryside. But, as most novels go, this does not turn out to be bland drudge-work at all. I liked the novel enough that I picked up the next book, A Question of Inheritance, and it did not disappoint. I’ll pick up the third at some point this year.
Yet another British detective series crossed my desk this year, beginning with A Beautiful Blue Death, by Charles Finch. This is the Charles Lenox series, of which there are currently ten novels. Lenox, according to the Amazon description, is a “Victorian gentleman and armchair explorer,” who leaves his armchair to help out his lovely neighbor and good friend, who reports a mysterious death. A decent read, well done, and might be a series to which I’ll return sometime soon.
So on we go to another British mystery novel, one that never fails, is the latest installment in the Flavia DeLuce series: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley. I’ve mentioned these books before on this blog site. Flavia is a 12-year-old genius/chemist/sleuth in post-World War 2 England, who finds herself in one adventure after another. Never mind how strange it is that in a quiet town in the countryside can be visited with so many strange deaths, nor how this young prodigy is always nearby to help solve them. That’s the fun in a novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I highly recommend this series (which you need to read in order!).
Another novel that disappointed me was To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. It comes highly recommended, and has won awards, but it couldn’t hold my attention. This one is a time-jumping multiple-genre mystery/comedy/sci-fi. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the characters, and the mystery just didn’t interest me.
Okay, enough of British mystery/detective novels for a while; on to other genres.
I was very excited to pick up JK Rowling’s newest work, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, written as a script for a stage show that is currently playing in London. I’m sorry to say that it didn’t satisfy at all. It’s a quick read, but a disappointing one. She tells an interesting story, picking up some 19 years after the final Harry Potter novel ends, but it doesn’t work for me. The Harry Potter universe needs to be magical and quirky. The story she tells here is both, but I fail to see how that can be done adequately on-stage. (On the other hand, I found the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them absolutely delightful, fitting right in to the Harry Potter Universe!)
This was also a year for re-reading, for different reasons, and all of them were worth the time.
First, Animal Farm by George Orwell and Lord of the Flies by William Golding because I taught Logic to an 8th grade nephew. If you haven’t picked them up, or have never read them before, they are both very quick reads but worth some worldview discussions around the dinner table or in a classroom.
Then Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. His allegory is rich and full of myriad points of discussion. Many of my former students had read this as young kids. Why not pick it up again and have an adult discussion about it?
Finally, Harry Potter. It never gets old. And while we are madly packing and cleaning in preparation for a cross-country move, the familiar story pulls me in with a smile.
To read and finish reading in 2017:
Worldview books such as Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey and The Cross of Christ by John Stott. I’m not done with them, but the first is the newest from Pearcey, whose Total Truth is a must-read for Christians wanting to think more “worldviewishly,” a term with which my former students and their parents should be familiar! How do we combat the subtle shift of thought in a post-modern world? By knowing without a doubt what we believe, and by recognizing counterfeits of supposed biblical doctrine.
The Cross of Christ, our pastor told us, can be used as a devotional. Contemplating the meaning of the cross from a biblical perspective is a refreshing reminder of the central object of our faith: Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and second coming.
While in the midst of revising my textbook, Biblical Worldview Rhetoric, with my oldest son, I’ve picked up two books to study. If you are a student of Rhetoric, you might enjoy them: Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Traditions by George Kennedy, and Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth. Don’t roll your eyes at me–if you didn’t already know I am a geek, then you don’t know me at all!
Others on my to-read list (all recommended by various friends and relations):
- Troubles by JG Farrell
- Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
- Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- The Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
- The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki