Today is the Winter Solstice, so it is quite fitting that it is time for the annual book review as there’s no better way to spend the longest night of the year than curled up with a stack of wonderful books!
Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
To start off the list, I’ll begin with the oldest book that I read this year. Penned sometime in the first decade of the 1600s, this marvellous play still resonates today. Themes of war, familial obligations, breaking (or keeping with) tradition are ever-present in society, and are emphasized as conflicts across the globe cause strife for civilians and the loyalty of participants is tested as beliefs trump national obligations. Coriolanus was one of the last tragedies that Shakespeare wrote before his death, and it is clear that he has come quite far as a writer. Simplistic themes of star-crossed lovers have been replaced by greater societal motifs that revolve around a citizens duty to the populace - a topic that may have been on Shakespeare’s mind since his popularity as the leading playwright of the era demanded fresh performances for royal audiences and the people alike. What struck me most about this play are Shakespeare’s explorations of the various relationships that Caius Martius Coriolanus has with the people around him; he is a loyal son who follows the path that his mother made for him, but he is also driven by the ambitions of his pseudo-father Menenius, yet is also influenced by the domestic obligations to his wife and child. His relationship with Tullus Aufidius is the most fraught throughout the play, and is one that reveals much about the nature of competition and friendship between men.
Trolls by Brian & Wendy Froud
Part whimsical picture book, part pseudo-scientific textbook, the Froud’s collaborative exploration of the Trolls of the wildwood was a quick pick for this year’s top 5 books. I’ve been a fan of the Froud’s artwork for years (getting my first taste in the macabré Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book), but Brian Froud hasn’t produced a book this comprehensive in many years. The wait was worth it though, as each page is packed edge to edge with Wendy’s sculptures and Brian’s illustrations, which are carefully balanced with whimsical (but still readable) typefaces to create a wonderful designed book. The layout was often reminiscent of the classic scientific series for children Eyewitness (which explored various topics such as Ancient Egypt or gemstones), which some readers might think detracts from the fragments of “collected troll stories” but which I found absolutely charming and offset the truly fictional portions.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I’ve read a lot of books on World War II, both fiction and non-fiction (and sometimes in-between the two), but nothing is quite like this stunning novel about a young German girl who is orphaned and adopted at the beginning of the war. Unlike most young protagonists in WWII novels, Liesel is not Jewish. She isn’t really much of anything in fact, yet this is what makes her story so intriguing and so unique. Liesel sees her adoptive parents struggle to make ends meet (life isn’t easy for a painter - especially one who has Jewish sympathies), sees them risk everything to hide a young Jewish man as a favour to her stepfather’s deceased friend, and sees their eventual deaths as their city is bombed. What struck me most about this novel is that Liesel is an observer of everything horrific that is going on around her - not always realizing the severity of the situations - but is still able to learn and grow into someone who takes risks for the things that she loves (books - she is definitely my kind of girl) and retains the ability to live a relatively happy life by finding the joy in small things.
The Fifth Beatle by Vivek J. Tawary & Andrew Robinson
To me, the Beatles are synonymous with art from their creative album artwork to their carefully styled fashion choices, so I was very pleased with the presentation of this graphic novel. It tells the story of Brian Epstein (the manager of the Beatles), but the artist clearly drew on the artistic motifs of the Beatles themselves to depict his fascinating story. Presented in a larger format than in standard for a graphic novel, and published as a book rather than serialized and then collected, this piece of art breaks a lot of boundaries for the graphic novel industry. Relying on the most unified sense of story and art that I have seen in years, this book elevated the story of Epstein - which is actually quite tragic - to a place that is much more accesible. Themes of inspiration, music, adventure, youth, and love abound in an emotional play that is extremely successful. I hope that this collaborative team continues working on Beatles stories and artwork, since they are the perfect fit!
Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
At the outset of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy Taylor paves the way for what could have been just a love story; with the final novel she proves that the story of a reborn chimera girl, Karou, is so much more. Once realizing who and what she is (clearly not human) Karou must face the choice to rejoin her warring chimera brethren and their savage leader or to reject them in favour of her angel lover and the wrongs committed in the past. Her choice is unexpected, even for readers, and the strategic gamble that she enacts is one which finally brings an end to the war between the races. Much more occurs in this novel than can easily be summed up, to the point of Taylor setting up an entirely new series and mythos (please, please, please make it happen!), but she still makes time to reunite Karou and her angel in the final pages, which is sure to please longtime readers of the series. Sometimes we all need to have our cake and eat it too!
*images courtesy of Goodreads