Bookhound Review of the Year 2016

Janus - watercolour by Tony Grist.
Used under a Creative Commons License.
And yet another year has gone by....

I was confident at the end of last year that 2016 was bound to be better than 2015, which had been a fairly awful year; but to be honest I'm more than glad to say goodbye to 2016. It was without doubt one of the worst years of my life with just a few stand-out good moments - a wonderful trip to Iceland at the start of the year, and a relationship which though short was great while we were together.

For various reasons (mainly related to the horridness of the year) my reading has been rather down on previous years: just 98 books in 2016, my lowest number for quite a few years. The To Be Read Challenge continued to elude me, though I did manage to whittle another 27 books off my bulging bookshelves (exactly the same number as last year). My re-reads were up a little more than last year - mainly children's books and classic crime. This is probably not that surprising as these are the ones that I always turn to when life is serving up lemons.

Fiction still dominated, though I read some great non-fiction books; and even among the fiction reads there were a fair number that were strongly influenced by fact.

Having read another blog recently which looked at what the blogger learned through reading this year, and having enjoyed it, I thought I would do something similar for this year's Bookhound review, though nothing can beat the pure joie-de-vivre of CrossExaminingCrime's review.

So what did I learn this year? Quite a few literary things actually....I learned how important a translator can be when re-reading my favourite novel, Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, first in my old Penguin edition (translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) and then in an earlier edition, which seems to be beloved by American fans of the novel, translated by Mirra Ginsburg. The Penguin edition is wonderful with a great preface and copious footnotes, and I loved it from the first time I read it. If it has slightly more depth in some ways, Ginsburg's translation has flow. In Ginsburg's translation Master and Margarita becomes a gloriously effortless read. Ginsburg is best known as a writer of children's fiction, and I think it is this that enables her to present the surreal and slapstick sides of the novel in a playful way that rather eludes the more serious Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. Whichever translation you read is fabulous, but try both, and see which you prefer.

New approaches to difficult subjects can be incredibly helpful - from Julie Myerson's science fiction fable Then, which may be pure science fiction, or may (and I think this is persuasive) a view of a mental breakdown. Speaking of mental breakdowns, Rubyetc's cartoons about depression and anxiety were comforting, while Matt Haig's Reasons to stay alive was inspiring. On a lighter note, I learned unexpectedly that science fiction can be a surprisingly good way to learn about history. Connie Willis' time-travelling World War II novels managed to educate and entertain while presenting history both from the inside and the outside. Superb.

I also learned the importance of not rejecting an author because you don't enjoy one novel. If Ismailov's The Railway didn't grab me, his The Dead Lake most certainly did. It was also an insight into the long legacy of nuclear testing in the Soviet Union, which haunts former members of the nation to the present day. This was a part of history that was completely unknown to me, it was both enthralling and deeply disturbing.

What else have I learned this year? I learned that an empty soup tin can be a hamster hidey-hole (thanks, Janet Evanovich), that camels come from America (who'd have thought?) but are actually most widely distributed in the wild in Australia(!!!), and the bizarre fact that many Jews escaping from Europe post-World War II travelled to Germany trying to find an "easy" route to Palestine.

If I was a male pirate, I would definitely benefit from Richard Hughes' assertion that cross-dressing pirates found it easier to board ships, and I discovered courtesy of Val McDermid that there is a Pictish cemetery in the heart of St. Andrews. Agatha Christie reminded me that tennis racquets are great depositories for precious stones, but it will play havoc with your serve, while Judith Flanders explained why I'd never seen a spittoon in a painting. More to the point, she reminded all of us how paintings of home can be less about reality than about aspiration.

Theodor Reik's The haunting melody answered some of my queries about ear-worms (a particular enthusiasm of mine), while Colette reminded me that some things never really change, however much you might want them to.

The Master and Margarita continued to cheer and inspire, while Enid Blyton's R-Mystery series (to be reviewed later this year) reminded me why I had got into crime fiction in the first place. They were also much better written than I had remembered. I enjoyed discovering authors branching out in different directions with Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' First World War set family series and her mystery novels especial favourites. J.K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith is, as always, enthralling.

Richard Dawkins reminded me that some things can remain difficult to talk about, while Truman Capote showed how a childlike wonder can make a journey into the unknown a completely magical experience. The Muses are Heard was one of my stand-out books of the year.

A very Happy New Year to all Bookhound readers. May you have a happy and healthy 2017, and lots more books to burden your shelves, warm your heart, and stimulate your brain.


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