SEASONAL READS OF 2022
A fast-paced Christmas season needed some peaceful moments - at the end of a busy touring run for His & Hers Theatre Company's The Wizard of Oz, these were the little moments of literary magic I brought with me for the Christmas, New Year - & sexy wife's birthday - holiday!
More about that amazing lady later (she's the pretty one in the picture!) - but first...
THE FATHER CHRISTMAS LETTERS (JRR TOLKIEN)
I'll start with the best. In this delightful little tome, Father Christmas replies to the children who send him letters every year - with the help of Ilbereth the elf secretary, and a sorry-I-made-a-mess-I-was-just-trying-to-help Polar Bear. This is actually one of the earliest depictions of Father Christmas in his now-traditional red and white fluffy suit. I wasn't expecting to say this about a charming classic children's book, but the ending had me on the edge of my seat! In his letter for Christmas 1939, as Britain entered the war, Tolkien seems to be trying to warn his children of what's to come, as Father Christmas says there might not be any presents this year as the North Pole is besieged by goblins. And when Father Christmas blows a mighty horn to summon an army of elves to the rescue, guess what other Tolkien book that reminded me of!
THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (JOHN BUCHAN)
And now to the worst. Why is this book so famous?! Hero character Richard Hannay became a British literary standard in his day, and this one of his adventures has been adapted again and again for stage and screen. But why?! It's not that good! In brief: A spy comes into Hannay's apartment and is killed. Hannay takes the dead man's notebook, full of codes and conspiracies, and runs, pursued by the police who think he's the killer. As he takes refuge in different neighbourhoods, the author sticks in satire in between action scenes, of all the different bickering political groups across the country - and that's what makes the book so painfully outdated now, a century later, as he throws around phrases like "radical liberals" and "Jewish anarchists". I won't spoil the ending, but it's dull and disappointing, even if some of the chase scenes along the way were kind of exciting.
CATRIONA (ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON)
We've done the best, we've done the worst, this one sits in the middle. The sequel to the much more famous KIDNAPPED, it wasn't at all what I was expecting. In the first book, young Davie Balfour is the heir to a fortune and title; his greedy uncle makes him disappear so he can't claim it, but he escapes with the aid of the rebel Alan Breck. Now, in the next part of the story, Davie enters into his new position, and finds a trial going on in the town. After a chance encounter in the first book, he has eyewitness evidence to present - but this is a sham trial to preserve the political status quo, and as a friend of the notorious Alan Breck he is shunned and his testimony struck off. Along the way he has fallen in love with Catriona, who has no love for the status quo either, and with Alan's help they run away together. What follows, instead of an adventure thriller, is a satirical sideways glance at "polite society", as the lovers look upon it as outsiders for the first time. Sometimes slow, but always charming.
VITTORIO THE VAMPIRE (ANNE RICE)
Another lesser-known book from a famous series, this one sits in the middle too. After Vampire Chronicles 1-5 told a tight and engaging story arc with bitter but captivating characters, Rice followed up with a series of side quests revealing their untold origin stories. This one fits in there; but Vittorio isn't any of the vamps we've come to know and love/hate from the earlier series - he's a new character, who also never appears again, as far as I know, which makes it hard to engage with him or understand why we're spending time with his story. But this is Anne Rice, so of course the writing is irresistibly beautiful anyway, even if the "love story" doesn't make sense. As a link to the other main books, it seems to imply the origin of a priceless collection of religious art that played a big part in book 5, MEMNOCH THE DEVIL, which is one of my favourites of the series so far. This isn't a favourite, but it was fun, and I do wish we could have met Vittorio more in the other books.
VAMPIRE ACADEMY (RICHELLE MEAD)
Where to start, with this one? If your worldbuilding is this intense and intelligent - and it is, I'll give the writer that - then spread it over the series, instead of cramming it into one book so the story drowns in exposition. And if your characters are morally grey, so I'm left genuinely wondering which will choose good or evil, try to make some of them likeable? Just one? Maybe - here's a thought - the one we're supposed to be relating to and rooting for? Anyway, moving on. A genuinely gripping chase starts the first chapter. A genuinely gripping chase ends the final chapter. In between is so much bullying, bitching and backstabbing that I could be reading Pretty Little Liars. But with vampires. When I say vampires, I mean characters called "vampires" to cash in on the Twilight/True Blood trend that was huge at the time, but so different from other vampires that the story could easily work just as well with witches, werewolves, or whatever. I will, having had my rant, give the author one gold star, for her empathy and sincerity in handling of the topic of self harm. But I'll let you read that for yourself.
VAMPIRE PLAGUES, 1: LONDON (SEBASTIAN ROOK)
I already know I'm not the target audience for YA vampire fiction, so I decided to go into this one with that in mind - especially as it was one I picked up on impulse for £1 in a charity shop, ages ago, and left on the shelf, reading it now because it was staring at me complaining about being neglected for so long. But it's brilliant! Its plot follows the same pattern, and hits the same points, as the classic of all classic vamp movies, Nosferatu - and it has to be deliberate, to be done so well. Swap the tumbledown Transylvanian castle, for a ruined Mayan temple of a bloodthirsty god; the lead married couple and their bodyguard, for young brother & sister Ben & Emily & their street urchin protector Jack; the vampire hunting professor, for Dr. Adensnap the Mayan expert at the British Museum; and you're there. The fact that I read this while staying in Mexico made those parts of it doubly atmospheric; and the voyage back to England is especially evocative of the classic this copies from - much more skillfully done than I'm used to seeing in a "kids' book".
DAWN EXODUS: ROBOT EMPIRE BK 1 (KEVIN PARTNER)
I downloaded this free audiobook to pass the time for a couple of plane journeys, and didn't expect myself to get quite so drawn in to this slice of sci fi. What I was expecting to be generic, formulaic sci fi actually turned out to be a multi-layered adventure drawing on surprising sources from classic literature and taking them into the space age. Not to spoil it by comparing to a story with a famous twist, but the simplest way to sum it up, is: it's The Wizard of Oz, in space. A lonely girl on a farming planet is whisked away to an interstellar adventure - with actual tin men, Artificial Intelligence brains that can be given to people who don't have them, and a starship commander with a surprising secret identity. It left me on a cliffhanger ending, that I don't know when I'll find out what's on the other side of, but it was a fun ride!
STEINBECK & THE MATTER OF ARTHUR (A. PICKERING)
A lesser known piece of literary history, is that the award winning modern American socialist writer John Steinbeck was first inspired with a love of reading and writing, by the books of legends of King Arthur he was given from England as a child; and that he later spent his retirement in the south west corner of England where so many of those stories are rooted, researching the landscape behind the myths, and preparing his own retelling, as a gift to his wife and children. He died leaving the promised epic unfinished; but this delightful retelling of Steinbeck's own story, by a local historian in the sleepy village of Bruton where he and his wife Elaine had their cottage, is a lovely whistle-stop tour of literature ancient and modern, and the things they have in common.
TALES FROM THE ROOFTOP (SANDRA TENA)
Also known as CUENTOS DE LA AZOTEA, this bilingual short story collection's beautiful creator is right here on Vocal - give her stories and blogs a read HERE. I've read it before, but this time I had the pleasure to be part of a performance promoting its sale at a great new bookshop in Mexico over the Christmas break, and just before her birthday. From the philosophical wanderings of "Poem In Thirteen Parts" ("Poema En Trece Partes"), to the quirky comedy of "Pigeons" ("Las Palomas"), this eclectic set of stories, poems, and flash fictions - a playful but unexpectedly deep style of short writing, that I was introduced to by this very book - is a delight that gives a great insight into the talented mind of its writer.
I hope this gives you some inspiration to start your own 2023 on a literary note - there's bound to be something in here you can get lost in! That's one of the things that I love about the last book - its range of styles highlights what a multi-talented lady the author is (I told you I'd say more about the pretty lady in the picture at the top! Happy reading for 2023 everyone).