Bookish High Fives of 2019

As promised, a post highligting our best reading experiences of the past year 🙂 Though originally we wanted to limit the best to top five, it turned out to be more difficult than expected – so the title should be treated more metaphorically than literally 😉

Piotrek: I wanted to title the post “year in genre”, but I moved a bit from genre this year… our post summing up year 2019 grew too big, so we decided to split it and tell about our reading and watching in a separate one.

I will start, as in our previous post, with some stats, and Goodreads was kind enough to prepare a Piotr’s Year in Books presentation. 79 books read (it’s 81, actually, already, but the stats are not updating fast enough 😛 ) – not as many as in previous years, but, well, life happens. Still not a bad result, and what’s interesting is not the amount, but the composition. And there were some interesting changes in what books I was reading in 2019. Not a radical change, but a slight move in non-genre direction. I’ve read more non-genre lit and non-fiction than I tended to, this decade. Mostly Polish stuff, but it included this year’s Nobel Prize laureate, Olga Tokarczuk. Highly recommended, and there’s even a movie. Her Nobel Lecture is powerful, and beautiful, audio and text available here. Just one quote, but she touches many topics in a very interesting way…

I think we have a redefinition ahead of us of what we understand nowadays by the concept of realism, and a search for a new one that would allow us to go beyond the limits of our ego and penetrate the glass screen through which we see the world. Because these days the need for reality is served by the media, social networking sites, and indirect relationships on the internet. Perhaps what inevitably lies ahead of us is a sort of neo-surrealism, some rearranged points of view that won’t be afraid to stand up to a paradox, and will go against the grain when it comes to the simple order of cause-and-effect. Indeed, our reality has already become surreal. I am also sure that many stories require rewriting in our new intellectual contexts, taking their inspiration from new scientific theories. But I find it equally important to make constant reference to myth and to the entire human imaginarium. Returning to the compact structures of mythology could bring a sense of stability within the lack of specificity in which we are living nowadays. I believe that myths are the building material for our psyche, and we cannot possibly ignore them (at most we might be unaware of their influence).

I’m going to read more Tokarczuk in the future, that’s for sure! But well, that’s Tokarczuk, what about my reading in 2019? It’s been marked by the finishing of my great Discworld re-read. And then I’ve re-read The Trilogy (Tolkien). Both were, in different ways, as good as I remembered them. I’ve also re-read American Gods, while visiting America for work, and it was also a great experience. I will continue to re-read more, there are too many new books published all the time, I will not read them all anyway, and every encounter with my favourites brings so much joy and new observations!

Ola: As a Goodreads non-user, I base my stats on an old good Excel file – which doesn’t show all the nice pics, but is just as reliable (meaning – ultimately only as reliable as my own entries ;)). So, in the end, I know my list is not complete, as I tend to omit the less memorable comics, and usually forget to include audiobooks (there aren’t many of them, only 3 or 4 a year, and I did my best to count them here ;)). All in all, I have managed to read (and record that I have indeed read) 92 books this year, and started but haven’t finished, 2 more. With all the comics I haven’t included, I’ve probably reached the magic number 100.

Of the books I have read this year, 10 were non-fiction, 5 – literary fiction, 4 – re-reads, and 18 – comic books, two of which were beautiful hardcover Hellboy omnibuses (no, I don’t own them, the library does, but oh, I do wish I did!). No books by Polish authors, though – and only four translated to Polish. The price of living abroad, I guess – I got out of sync with Polish literature. Nevertheless, my copy of Tokarczuk’s Księgi Jakubowe will be with me soon  😉

Piotrek: I will limit myself to books read in 2019 for the first time. My top 5 – favourite novels, not ranked, as they are too different for direct comparisons, and a few words about my non-fiction readings.

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Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne (1992)

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Guy Gavriel Kay… a guy who helped Christopher Tolkien prepare Silmarillon for publication, and then started his own career as fantasy writer. He has his distinct style, he has his fans. I’m one of them, Ola isn’t. Just compare these two quotes from our reviews of Tigana:

A successful lawyer, a philosophy student who helped Christopher Tolkien in The Silmarillion edits, a reasonably well-known author of award-winning fantasy novels, Kay is a veritable jack of all trades. He prefers to set his novels in historical periods, but in imaginary settings, which allows him to create interesting parallels without the burden of fact-checking

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Guy Gavriel Kay got his genre credentials early, when as a 20-year-old student he was chosen to help Christopher Tolkien edit Silmarillion. From my point of view – and I love Silmarillion – it’s like a rookie demi-god was asked to edit Bible. How to start your own religion after that? Kay paid homage to his tolkienian roots with excellent Fionavar Tapestry (1984-1986) and moved on to create his own blend of semi-historical fantasy epics. Starting with Tigana (1990). And since I started with religious vocabulary, let me say that I consider this blog’s May 3 review of Tigana a blasphemy

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Tigana – a different view

Guy Gavriel Kay got his genre credentials early, when as a 20-year-old student he was chosen to help Christopher Tolkien edit Silmarillion. From my point of view – and I love Silmarillion – it’s like a rookie demi-god was asked to edit Bible. How to start your own religion after that? Kay paid homage to his tolkienian roots with excellent Fionavar Tapestry (1984-1986) and moved on to create his own blend of semi-historical fantasy epics. Starting with Tigana (1990). And since I started with religious vocabulary, let me say that I consider this blog’s May 3 review of Tigana a blasphemy 😛

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I won’t say all Ola’s concerns are invalid, and I agree that a book aiming high has to be judged more harshly than a casual time-killer. But did Kay fail to such a degree? While harbouring Law & Justice-like (borderline fascist) ideas about nation, memory and gender? Well… no? I’ll try to show why I like the book and what is good about it while challenging some of Ola’s conclusions.

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Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (1990)

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A successful lawyer, a philosophy student who helped Christopher Tolkien in The Silmarillion edits, a reasonably well-known author of award-winning fantasy novels, Kay is a veritable jack of all trades. He prefers to set his novels in historical periods, but in imaginary settings, which allows him to create interesting parallels without the burden of fact-checking ;). Although it may be a bit unfair to judge him so harshly – I think that writing responsible historical fiction is a very difficult task and I’m the last to blame anyone if they prefer to concentrate on character development or creating worlds of their own.

And Tigana is set in such a world: one strikingly similar to Renaissance Italy, called Peninsula of the Palm and divided into nine separate provinces sharing a long, not always benevolent or peaceful history. Tigana is the name of one of the provinces; when two warring tyrants with magical powers conquer the subsequent pieces of land, Tigana is the last one to be subdued. In the battle there the son of one of the tyrants, Brandin, dies. Stricken by grief, Brandin decides to erase the name of Tigana and all of its history from the human memory. But there are survivors. One of them is Alessan, the last prince of Tigana. The others – Catriana, Dianora, Devin and the duke Sandre d’Astibar – he gathers around himself as he prepares his vengeance against Brandin.

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