Saturday 31 December 2022

2022: My Year in Reading – A Retrospect

Happy New Year! For the last two years, I’ve taken part in the Goodreads Challenge and posted a retrospect on all the books I’ve read to round out the year (check out the 2020 and 2021 editions here). It’s New Year’s Eve today which means it’s time for the 2022 round-up.

As in 2021, I read 60 books in total. To keep myself on track that meant I aimed to read 60 pages a day (sometimes more than matching that goal and sometimes falling behind). I read 47 novels and 13 works of nonfiction, marginally more nonfiction than in the previous two years. Thirty-eight books were by women and 22 by men (again more balanced than in previous years). Just under half of the books (28) were historical fiction, the genre I write in, and 10 books were published this year, meaning I read them when they were hot off the press. 

Favorite Fiction Read

As ever, it’s difficult for me to compare such different books, but some of the best novels I read this year were: Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens (2022), a ghost story about the spirit of a fourteen-year-old girl haunting George Sand and Frederic Chopin during their time in Mallorca; Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), a classic for a reason; Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001), a masterclass in point of view; and The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith (2018), which did a great job weaving together narratives from different centuries.

Favorite Neo-Victorian Voices Read

The book I most enjoyed reading for my Neo-Victorian Voices series of blog posts on books written in the twenty-first century, but set in the nineteenth, was Julie Cohen’s Spirited (2020)—check out my review here

Favorite Non-Fiction Read

The non-fiction books I read this year covered a range of topics—from French culture to the Yorkshire countryside; from race relations to witchcraft trials; from Native Americans to Scientology; from a nineteenth-century serial killer to both World Wars, and many more. I most enjoyed The Exit Visa by Sheila Rosenberg (2019) and Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwyne (2010). 

Feeling Fantastic?

One theme I noticed in my reading this year was that I read more books that fall into the Fantasy genre or were historical with a Fantasy twist. Three I’d recommend are Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2021), The Library of Legends by Janie Chang (2020), and A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin (2016). 

Looking Forward to 2023

I’m planning to go a little easier on myself in 2023, aiming for a minimum of 50 books again, as I did in 2020, rather than 60, as in the last two years. After the holidays, I have an impressive stack of new volumes on my TBR begging to be read. However, as always, I’d love your recommendations. Let me know what books you’d like to see me read and review next—I’m always on the lookout for reads with a nineteenth-century connection for this blog so let me know here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Hester, Laurie Lico Albanese (2022)

Welcome back to the Neo-Victorian Voices series, where I review books written in the twenty-first century, but set in the nineteenth. Today it’s the turn of Laurie Lico Albanese’s 2022 novel, Hester, which was inspired by one of the great American nineteenth-century novels—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850).

The title of the novel may be Hester, but our protagonist is the fictional Isobel, a young Scottish wife to an opium addict husband who immigrates to Salem, Massachusetts. There she encounters aspiring writer Nat Hathorne (who hasn’t yet altered the spelling of his name) and becomes a model for the character of Hester Prynne in his most famous novel.

Nat and Isobel’s emotional and romantic connection is at the core of the story, but the book isn’t just about Isobel as a muse—she is also an artist. A talented seamstress and embroider, just like Hester, Isobel has synesthesia. She sees letters in color, including, you guessed it, a scarlet “A,” but the condition isn’t one that’s talked about or understood. Isobel fears her ability may be magic passed down to her from an ancestor once accused of being a witch, a concern that dogs her when she learns the history of the 1692-1693 Salem witch trials, and the Hathorne family’s role in them. 

Familiarity with The Scarlet Letter is a plus, but not a prerequisite, for enjoying this historical novel, which errs on the side of realism over high drama. I most enjoyed the point of view of a character with synesthesia, the detailed descriptions of needlework, and the picture built up of nineteenth-century Salem. Short episodes detailing the exploits of Isobel's and Nat’s ancestors provided atmospheric background but didn’t add much to the overall plot. And the secrets harbored by Isobel’s Black neighbors were a little predictable, even though they were a welcome reminder of a broader historical context to the novel.

Overall, I’d recommend the book to lovers of nineteenth-century America settings and those who like their #histfic with just a hint of supernatural spice.

What novels would you like to see me review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.