2021 Retrospective: Favorite Fiction Reads

The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald

A lovely and simple old world fantasy that remains influential for the ways it helped establish a genre and set the stage for others to shape its landscape. It’s about characters and the paths they travel as lives intersect, offering characters who exist beyond caricatures of good and evil while existing within a world where good and evil is nevertheless a reality.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

A classic that explores the nature of identity and how it is that choices shape us, how memory shapes these choices into a narrative, and how these narratives fit in a world where choice is an illusion. It’s a deftly written critique of modernism that is steeped in spiritual concern while also reflecting a beautiful portrait of childlike quesitons meeting adult cynicism and being called back into the wonder of mystery.

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker

The first book explored the nature of individual human will in relationship to the creator, bringing togteher a mix of real world setting and grand mythology to ask big questions about what it is to exist in this world. This book takes the somewhat rushed conclusion of the first that in my opinion failed to capatilize on the books really strong premise and intriguing questions and catapults us straight back into the world that informed these main characters, adding some cast members, locating the story well within points of actual history and mythology as it expands such questions of the relationship between human and the divine into how this then works within the messiness of this earthly reality. It’s the stronger of the two books using its magical realism to challenge and broaden our view of reality and digging deeper into some of the allegorical subtext such as the immigration theme along with exploring the nature of the human will in relationship to the creator which is its source.

The Orchard by David Hopen

That a big part of this films story is shaped by a philosophy class at a religious school is certainly part of what made this book so cumpulsively readable to me. It’s one of the few this year that I legitimtaely could not put down. As it follows this Jewish girl from a humble, conservative family as they move to an upper class liberal Jewish community and school the book begins to unpack the kind of questions that might emerge from such a culture clash. This is simply the stepping off point for the books deep dive into the sorts of religious and philosophical challenges that inform our lives at these sorts of intersectinos between faith and doubt, demonstrating the idea of God as a persistant and intruding force that pushes back on our materialist nature. Faith and doubt are upheld as necessary parts of the process, allowing this book to really challenge our assumptions of what is true, what it means to exist, and what it means to live in relationship to an oter.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

Does a life still have meaning if it is forgotten? This existential concern informs this narrative which sees its central character spanning the normal constricting boundaries of space and time in search of an answer. This question has been asked many times over in numerous likeminded stories of course, but the premise does contain an edge of uniqueness as it weighs the balance of our finiteness with the notion of immortality. Full points to the book for restisting oft temptations to sentimentalize the struggle by romanticizing death and the idea of our finiteness in less than honest ways- this idea that we will be forgotten poses real challenges to how we see and experience life. It takes the struggle seriously while never deviating into easy answers, instead carrying the tension forward into an exploration of its possibiilties, consistently trying to point us outwards beyond ourselves in order to offer us greater perspective on those deepest struggles and unquenched longings.

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

I fell in love with this book the minute I picked it up with its deeply formed philsophical and spiritual interest wrapped up in a childrens story about recovering wonder and mystery in our lives. That this comes through the relationship between a girl and a super hero squirrel makes it that much more profound.

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

McMahon shows a real handle on the horror genre, employing a deliberate pacing and a compelling backstory to draw out the growing terror of the mystery. There is a necessary moral and emotional core that is waiting to be teased out as well, and McMahon uses the final third of the book to bring this to surface. It’s a bit expositional at this point, but it fits with the developed characters in a way that makes their collective experiences and their journies extremely worthwhile.

The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende

The film was an important one from my childhood. I never knew it was based on a book until recently, and so I was super excited to check this one out. I was blown away by how much more the source material breaks open this world and the ideas contained with it that we find in the film. The film is still perfect in its own way in my opinion, but the experience of reading the book takes the questions and wraps them up in a journey worthy of an epic, delving deep into the darkness in order to recover the light and accentuating this sense of childhood wonder set alonsgsde our adult cynicism.

Faye, Faraway by Helen Fisher

It is a bit heavy on the exposition but what I love about the story, and what made it a book I had a hard time putting down, was its sense of heart, its sense of adventure, and the way the author uses these two things to bring us in on a story that is as embedded in the real world struggle and experience of its characters as it is in the creative and poetic interest of the working metaphor about the intersection of spiritual revelation. Even if it stumbles a bit getting there, the way the author structures the story and brings the different threads together was quite brilliant and exciting. I probably could have guessed some of the twists if I had thought about it hard enough, but I was too busy enjoying the ride to really care to think about it. So it actually caught me by surprise. This is a book that if you go in cold you will likely get the most from it, because its a bit unconventional, even if it is in a slightly conventional way. Its the unconventional parts that play the biggest role in the books success. Simply go in expecting a bit of magic and wonder, some real struggle and doubt, some family dynamics, a tightly focused personal story, and a working mystery that will take you as a reader on an unexpected journey into the souls longing to be made whole.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Took me back to being tweleve and absorbing books like The Westing Game, an apt comparison. Its a quick and breezy, hard to put down read with memorable characters that more than make up for any possible over wrought elements some might find in the films theoretically rich premise. Its a story you are simply meant to go with and let take you into its relatable and grounded yet imaginative world. And if you do find yourself quibbling with the theoretical elements (in a “its trying to be too smart for its own good” kind of way… similar I suppose to the way people quibble with Christopher Nolan films), be assured that the book is self aware enough to write that conflict straight into the story. Checked off a number of boxes for me when it comes to personal loves.

Born To Battle by D.A. Stewart

This was recommended to me by someone who knew I loved Stephen Lawhead (my favorite author), and I was privileged enough for the author to have caught wind of this and send me an advanced copy to review. As a fan of Lawhead I loved it. It tells the story of Saint Illtyd, the 6th century abbot teacher from the Wales village Llanilltud Fawr. Author D.A. Stewart leads us into his story by way of famed historian Gildas, who pens, recounts and then retells Illtyd’s story to us in the form of the pages of this book. As it is with Celtic history, the world Illtyd inhabits is vast, full of unrest and filled with stories of warrior peoples, tales and adventures. This is one story that stands important in history for founding one of the ealiest centres for learning, and as Stewart underscores in his wonderfully researrched take on the legend, this notion of school and learning plays a vital role in his own journey. Gildas actually emerges from this place of learning.

One of the things I noted early on this book is how author D.A. Stewart makes the choice to take what is a broad story and narrow the focus to the intimacy of Illtyd’s personal journey. This is unusual in this field and genre, as typically these stories have a sprawling presence that intersects with the activity of all the people groups that intersect with these particular stories in different ways. Stewart writes a story that is linear, concise, simple and fluid, making this small in scope by very easy to read. The stuff that surrounds Illtyd’s story stays generally out of sight and on the periphery’s, realities that are alluded to but which don’t clutter the story. I imagine the mileage will vary on this approach. I would say it bears out much reward in the first half, and it’s when we start into the final third that the lack of scope threatens to hold this back, if only slightly. If you are someone craving the big battles, the massive stakes, and building depictions of a world far removed and yet rich in intrigue, you might find this element of the book frustrating. For myself it was actually the element of the story I appreciated the most. I’ve read enough books in this genre to know that the world building often takes center stage. Stewart’s take represents a fresh approach with its emphasis on character and their spiritual and deeply human journey and it resonated for me personally.

Beautiful Joes Paradise by Marshall Saunders

What a pleasant surprise to hear that a childhood favorite has a beloved sequel. I reread Beautiful Joe, which reminded me of why that book was so forming for me growing up. This book uses the character of Joe to imagine the creatures of this world as part of the life that is bing restored, using Joe as our guide through the new creation world and the new cast of characters as a way of commenting on the ongoing battle between the cruelties of nature and the redmptive possibilities of a true nature emerging through the use of what is a Christian imagination (to borrow from Lewis). A wonderful treat and a real blessing

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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