I’m a voracious reader. I read fast and I read a lot. Everything is grist to my mill: literary and genre fiction, all kinds of nonfiction, magazines, newspapers and the myriad offerings on the internet. Heck, I’ll read a cereal box if there’s nothing else handy.
But this year has been a particularly big one for reading. Since late January 2017 I’ve been understudying a Broadway musical, and after the show finally opened and the dust settled, I found I had a lot of time on my hands. I have to be present backstage for every performance, which translates to a lot of sitting around, waiting. Since I must always have at least part of my attention on the show, that means I can’t really listen to music, watch movies or play computer games. Reading was the logical – and for me, the most natural – way to pass the time.
By my count (and backed up by my Goodreads reading list) I’ve wolfed down more than sixty books this year. One or two were a struggle to finish, a few more were merely so-so, a larger amount were enjoyable, a fair number were very good, and a handful were truly outstanding reads. Here are my top five reads this year:
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders.
An extraordinary story, part history, part fantasy, set in the cemetery where little Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s young son, has just been laid to rest in a family friend’s mausoleum. The cemetery is populated by ghosts of those both recently and long dead, and by Lincoln himself, who cannot bear to let his little boy go. It’s Saunders’ first novel, and stylistically it’s such a departure that you almost have to train yourself how to read it. (After the first two chapters, I backed up and started over just to be sure I understood the way the story was structured, and if that sounds like drudgery to you, I assure you it was not.) It’s a beautiful study of grief, love and the afterlife that I cannot recommend enough.
American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse. From 2012 through 2013, a series of inexplicable arsons rocked the blue-collar community of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. More than seventy fires (often more than one a night) were set in derelict buildings across Accomack County, a once-prosperous area that has suffered a significant economic downturn in recent years. Hesse’s crisp, efficient prose is the perfect vehicle for this story of dogged firefighters, determined investigators and finally, the arsonists themselves and the strange motive behind their crimes. (Note: I visited the Eastern Shore last fall for a birding festival, and found it an intriguing, evocative landscape – so much that I’d like to go back there, even though it was rife with mosquitoes. Author Hesse captures the moodiness of that landscape perfectly.)
The Shepherd’s Crown, by Terry Pratchett. I was a latecomer to Sir Terry Pratchett’s rollicking Discworld fantasy series, starting it only after Pratchett’s 2015 death and the subsequent outpouring of sorrow from his fans around the world. There are some 40 books in the series and yes, I’ve now read them all. The Shepherd’s Crown is the last of them, and the fifth of Pratchett’s books featuring YA heroine (and witch-in-training) Tiffany Aching. It’s not as crisp as some of Pratchett’s earlier books (in his last years he suffered from Alzheimer’s, and the story lacks some of his usual polish and verve), but it’s still a warm, wise and wonderful story, and gives a fitting sendoff to my favorite Discworld character (hint: it’s not Tiffany).
Welcome to Hard Times, by E.L. Doctorow*. A western so bleak, in a style that’s so terse, at times it’s reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s work. I think this is one of Doctorow’s most successful books; his stark but beautiful prose is particularly effective in this story of a doomed town and its stubborn survivors.
*I must add that I worked with Doctorow on the 2009 Broadway revival of the musical based on his masterwork Ragtime. Of a company that included luminaries like playwright Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, only Doctorow’s presence left me shy and stuttering. Flatteringly (and somewhat comically), he kept mistaking me for our star Christiane Noll, and that only endeared him to me more.
The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, by Douglas Starr. An exceptionally good nonfiction book about the crimes, the hunt for and trial of 19th century French serial killer Joseph Vacher, set against the rapidly developing science of criminal forensics. Fast paced and fascinating. **
**I just noticed something rather interesting. Of my five books, two involve shepherds. I’ve actually read a fair number of books involving shepherding this year (among them Amanda Owen’s The Yorkshire Shepherdess, William Henry Hudson’s A Shepherd’s Life, and James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. I also follow Ms. Owen (@AmandaOwen8) and Mr. Rebanks (@herdyshepherd1) on Twitter (you should, too – if only for their photos). All the foregoing was a form of research for Books 3 & 4 of my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone (I have a supporting character who was formerly a shepherd), but it seems that research has crept into my everyday reading as well.
I said those were my top five reads this year. I should add the caveat: so far. It’s only October. With a few more months left in 2017, there’s still plenty of time for more reading and more great books.
What were your favorite books this year?