Looking for a good read over the Christmas holidays? A late present? Look no further.
The reviewers of the Portico Good Reading Guide present a selection of titles from 2012 considered to be well worth a reader’s time. The favourites cover Fiction, Nonfiction, Young Adult and Children's books, and also a list of those that were not enjoyed so much. Titles marked with * make up the Guide’s overall Top 10 for the year.
*The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce The story of a retired man who has fallen asleep at the helm of his own life, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry both wrenches and warms the heart. Set within a framework reminiscent of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the novel follows Harold’s journey, friendships, and epiphanies as he treks six hundred miles up the centre of England to comfort—as well as thank—a dying friend.
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway A big, cool and ambitious work of contemporary science fiction, Angelmaker follows a weapon of mass destruction through the three generations who conceive, invent, and seek to control it. It is the story of good intentions and unintended consequences, as well as a spectacular showdown between the forces of evil and those of the sort-of-good.
*The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani Two young Italians leave the Alps to start afresh in America: that great land of opportunity across the sea. Their story is one of love, family and friendships, hard work and the willingness to combine tradition with innovation. It is an epic which makes real the immigrants’ sacrifice, their patience and generosity, their honour, dignity and love, their vision and their hope.
*Live by Night by Dennis Lehane A crime thriller set in Prohibition Era America, Live by Night follows Bostonian Joseph Coughlin as he tries to walk the line between being an outlaw and being a bad person. It is the story of love, loyalty, and criminal ethics, as well as a powerful parable of violence begetting violence.
*The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom “It is never too late or too soon. It is when it is supposed to be.” Albom’s recent novel introduces three characters who have lost sight of the meaning of time and are consumed by a desire to measure it, to speed it up or to slow it down. A deceptively easy and enjoyable read, it nevertheless raises questions about how we value—or perhaps waste—time.
*Truth Like the Sunby Jim Lynch The story of an aging Seattle mayoralty candidate and the newspaper journalist who doesn’t know whether she’s trying to investigate or destroy him, Truth Like the Sun explores the differences between intention and perception. It is also a powerfully nostalgic novel which asks readers whether their knowledge of someone—including themselves—is ever complete, accurate, or relevant.
The Technologists by Matthew Pearl A blend of historical and ‘scientific’ fiction, The Technologists draws attention to the early developments of the practical sciences and their public ramifications in post-Civil-War Boston. The scientific mysteries are intriguing, and when married to a sinister plot to destroy the city, pressure mounts to a disastrous climax.
Railseaby China Miéville An eminently readable balance between worldbuilding and storytelling, Railsea places readers in a realm where the watery seas between island countries are replaced by monster-haunted stretches of soil. Only an endless tangle of railways provide means of passage, at least until a group of explorers discovers evidence of an almost unbelievable place—a stretch of land with only a single set of rails leading over the horizon…
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton In this classic Kate Morton mystery, history is searched to reveal family secrets that tell the protagonists about the past and about themselves. Moving between the present day and 1940s WWII London, Morton crafts a story of love, friendship, sacrifice and self-centredness, culminating in one of Morton’s characteristically dramatic twists that makes everything fall satisfyingly into place.
Bright Empires Series Book Three: The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead Just over halfway through its exciting, philosophically stimulating, and very promising five-book series, Bright Empires has followed the journeys, conflicts, and revelations of a group of dimensional travellers, in particular their common quest to recover a map to the Omniverse etched on human parchment. Using the ancient energies of prehistoric ley lines to leap among time periods, Kit Dobson and his friends seek to secure the life-restoring Spirit Well before their enemies can turn it to their own dark uses.
*Summa Philosophica by Peter Kreeft Kreeft considers the most important questions we should ask, and then answers them using Aquinas’s ‘Summa’ method of question, objection, argument and refutation. Directed at the general reader rather than the analytical philosopher, this book serves as a comprehensive reference to all that is, what we know about it, and how we know it.
The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G K Chesterton by Dale Ahlquist Ahlquist asserts that Chesterton’s genius is not only that he has written about everything, but that he puts it all together and is therefore a ‘complete thinker’. Complete thinking may not be efficient, Ahlquist explains, but it makes us consider what is important, what is worthwhile, and what is the coherent connection between all that we know is true.
*The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind by Bruce Bawer. A patient and studious indictment of victim-based arts and humanities curricula in current higher education, The Victims’ Revolution explores the origins, developments, and consequences of Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, and Chicano Studies in American universities. Apart from being a damning exposé, Bawer’s study is an excellent guide to understanding how and why higher education has become so close-minded.
On the Shoulders of Hobbitsby Louis Markos Following the author’s belief that stories are tremendously important for communicating what is good and worth striving for, On the Shoulders of Hobbitsmines the works of Tolkien and Lewis for virtue, considering them not only for their own sake, but for what they say about life. Appealing to both the Christian and the classical understanding of virtue, each chapter sheds light on the stories and applies their ideas to our own lives and culture.
How to Get the Man of Your Dreams by Jonathan Doyle This fresh look at relationships acknowledges the way things are for many young people today, and helps us see how they could be. Real relationships are a path, a journey, not the experience of a moment. They are between two persons who value and respect themselves and each other.
The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth by John C Maxwell Maxwell realises that most of us would like to grow—in our character, relationships, professional development or education—but we lack the time or concrete determination to make it happen. His 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth narrow down the process so that we can focus on one step at a time, helping us change attitudes, reassess circumstances and forge habits that enable us to grow.
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer This fascinating study on human creativity considers the work of artists, performers, inventors and business professionals to see what activities help or hinder our creativity. Perhaps most heartening is that all creative projects require moments of inspiration and prolonged hard work, so according to this book there’s creative hope for us all.
Elizabeth the Queen by Sally Bedell Smith Published on the 60th Anniversary of her queenship and told with great warmth and personal insight, Elizabeth the Queen is a very human portrait of Britain’s royal monarch. Though somewhat sensational in its description of grandiose ceremonies, the biography also includes discussion of British and international politics and of Elizabeth’s diplomatic role in Britain and the Commonwealth.
Young adult favourites
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman Hartman offers highly original fantasy that is beautifully and simply told. Superb central characters bring the story to a dramatic climax that shows the beauty of making the right choice and living in hope. Series expected.
Secret Letters by Leah Scheier In this Sherlock Holmes style detective novel the young, intelligent protagonists spark their wit against each other as they work to solve mysteries which involve people they know.
The Maid of Fairbourne Hall by Julie Klassen One of Klassen’s better historical fictions, The Maid of Fairbourne Hall tells the story of a young woman forced to flee her comfortable home and take cover as a maid below-stairs. Appealing to the current interest in Downtown Abbey details of the lives of people from all classes, this novel also shows significant development of character in one who learns to switch between them.
Pure #1 by Julianna Baggott Yet another gritty dystopian that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Every bit as harsh as the destructive event it opens with, Pure nevertheless features strong characters who are determined to understand, fight for, and heal their world.
Insurgent(Divergent #2) by Veronica Roth Book two in Roth’s dystopian series shows significant improvement in the story’s—and characters’—maturity. As expected it is packed with action and drama, but it is also surprisingly real and unforced. Even more surprising is that the characters learn from mistakes and make decisions that prove it.
*Wonder by R J Palacio August Pullman was born with a genetic defect that changed his face. After being home schooled by his loving and protective family, the decision to send him out to school in grade five was not taken lightly. This book is the story of that year, told from the perspective of each member of his family—including August himself—and it is an unbelievably inspiring, life-changing journey.
*The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy One for all ages, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is the funniest, cleverest, most entertaining story of the year. It tells the adventures of the princes from four well-known fairy tales, princes who were not even named, much less appreciated. With the witty word plays of its incorrigible protagonists it is perfect to read aloud, and doing so may also excuse the reader’s sudden and uncontrollable outbursts of laughter.
The Invaders (Brotherband Chronicles #2) by John Flanagan This action-adventure from the author of The Ranger’s Apprentice features character development, friendships, battle strategies and action scenes that are even better than the first book in its series.
Palace of Stone (Princess Academy #2) by Shannon Hale An outstanding sequel to Princess Academy, Palace of Stone is a much richer story than the series title suggests. As the teenage friend of the princess-to-be, Miri moves to the kingdom’s capital and is able to continue her exploration of the meaning of life, education, friendship and love.
The following titles certainly made waves this year, but we didn’t enjoy them quite as much as we expected.
The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling Nominally a story about municipal politics, the plot of A Casual Vacancy provides little more than an excuse to explore the secret and not-so-secret vices of the many people involved, resulting in a rather unappealing mess of death, family strife, drug addiction, cruelty, misery, betrayal, lurid sexuality, rape, and all-around wretchedness.
All That I Amby Anna Funder In this award-winning novel, set in the early years of Hitler’s reign between the two World Wars, the central characters have set themselves the brave task of informing others about the dangers of Nazism. The range of ideologies they put forward in its place, however, recommends the book more as a case study for Bawer’s Victim’s Revolution than as entertaining historical fiction.
The Fault in Our Starsby John Green This award-winning and New York Times bestselling novel—an admirable attempt to convey the personhood of two teenagers suffering from terminal cancer—is a perplexing mix of not-so-edifying graphic realism, profound poetical quotes, warm-hearted family moments, deep (but unrestrained) teenage romance, and existentialist musings on life and death.
Code Name Verityby Elizabeth Wein This multi-award-winning young adult novel deals with the harsh circumstance of being caught and interrogated by the enemy during a war. Attempting to convey a postmodern, revisionist type of heroism, it uses an emotive and extremely personal story to assert that the end should justify any means.
Behind the Beautiful Foreversby Katherine Boo Named by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year, this narrative non-fiction should require that the reader study the author’s note before reading the rest of the book to possibly prevent it seeming like Days of Our Lives set in Indian slums.
Beneath the Darkening Skyby Majok Tulba Recounting the life of a child soldier from an unspecified country in Africa, Beneath the Darkening Sky presents wave after wave of extreme, horrifying violence and explicit sexual descriptions surrounding the protagonist’s rapid progress from modest youngster to aspiring rapist and killing machine. Sure to appear on award short-lists next year.
Home by Toni Morrison At only 145 pages, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s Home reads like a collection of nightmares excised from a dream journal and strung into a story, ranging from battlefield dismemberment, through child prostitution to involuntary gynaecological experimentation.
Beautiful Ruinsby Jess Walter A New York Times Notable Book of 2012, Beautiful Ruins is a book whose beautiful setting, penetrating characterizations, and literary finesse are continuously undermined by its emphasis on misery, deception, and disappointment.
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan According to the protagonist of The Lifeboat human virtue is a luxury owed solely to the comforts of civilization. Take away our security, our serenity, and the surveillance of our arbiters, and we will immediately become pitiless barbarians who will murder and possibly eat one another. One of TheGuardian’s Best Books of 2012.
Ready Player Oneby Ernest Cline This New York Times bestseller is homage to 1980s video games and represents an almanac of that early audio-visual fan culture now better known as ‘geek’. What appears to promise a lot of fun, however, is ultimately a faithful rendition of how geek culture awkwardly combines childhood obsessions with adult institutions of behaviour.
These were our favourite and not-so-favourite reads of the year; we’d love to hear yours.
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