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Saturday, December 26, 2020

2020 Review / 2021 Preview - Ilana C. Myer


My 2020 in Books 



This was going to be a big year for me—the year my fantasy trilogy, The Harp and Ring Sequence, was completed. I’d planned to do book events around the country, attend more conventions, in a last bid to give my trilogy a push…and we all know what happened next. 



Still, all was not lost this year: The Poet King, the final volume in the trilogy, made two Top 10 lists of 2020. So while I didn’t have the chance to give the book the send-off I wanted, it didn’t vanish altogether. 

My first book, Last Song Before Night, is a tale of poets and dark enchantments that draws on a combination of Celtic myth and the historic troubadours. The second novel, Fire Dance, expands the stage of conflict to a global scale and introduces elements of Middle Eastern mythology. And The Poet King circles back to the origin story of the poets, because there are perils—as we know—to forgetting the past. All these books are about character, because that’s what I believe is the ultimate use of enchantment: as a means to explore the human heart. 

Which brings me to what I read and enjoyed this year. In a normal year—or what passes for one these days—I try to challenge myself with what I read. But this year, that was just not going to happen. Between trying to figure out how to literally survive, and trying to psychologically cope, I fully embraced reading as an escape. My evening ritual involves putting my phone in another room—because if it is anywhere near the bed, I will end up online—and diving into a book. Preferably something character-driven, my lowest difficulty setting. 



Two of the books I read in 2020 were published this year—I read The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel along with everyone else. I loaded it on my Kindle the day we went into lockdown. The prose is breathtaking because that’s Mantel—especially the version of Mantel we get in her Tudor saga, where, in keeping with the setting, the details are sumptuous. But the book by Mantel that fantasy readers should check out is Beyond Black, her ghost story. It’s shocking, bleak, and hilarious. And it’s about living with trauma. I reread it this year and enjoyed it more than ever. 


I read an early copy of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi for review. As many have remarked, the timing of this book with a universal lockdown is strange. But the book will continue to have relevance past 2020. Though very short, and on the surface straightforward, I believe it is “bigger on the inside.” 



This year I returned to a book I hadn’t read since I was seventeen—Possession by A.S. Byatt. I liked it okay as a teen, and knew enough to know that I didn’t fully get it. Byatt is an intimidating writer—there seems to be almost nothing she can’t do. I savored the scenes of Victorian life in particular, where emotions were heightened—everything was more intense, yet elegant. I vowed not to skip the poetry this time, and quickly broke my promise. That Byatt is capable of such literary ventriloquism is impressive, but it soon starts to feel superfluous. 


Two books that I read this year were notable for their wonderful narrative voice. One was The Observations by Jane Harris. The narrator, Bessie—a domestic servant with a mysterious past—is riotously entertaining. I laughed out loud so many times reading this book. Another book distinguished for its narrative voice is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Apparently I was supposed to read this as an adolescent and I wish I had, but it was a delight to read it now. 



I got to visit Venice this year—alas, only in spirit—with Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series of murder mysteries. The story was not that important to me, I just loved the way Leon makes you feel as if you are experiencing the city—and its people—as an insider. The insularity of Venice, its symbiotic-yet-complicated relationship with tourists, the way people recognize each other in the streets, reminded me of life in Jerusalem, where I grew up. But in Venice, everyone owns an espresso pot. 



Before the craziness of everything fully hit, I did read some nonfiction this year. Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman blew my mind. It turns out, all those questions I had in Orthodox day school did have answers. For someone like me, who grew up with an intimate relationship with these texts, in their original language, yet never learned their historical context, the book is a revelation. 



The most entertaining nonfiction book that I read this year was The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney. Mostly because I’m a sucker for Victorian London, despite knowing full well I would never want to live there. For one thing, there were no vaccines for plague. 

On that note—what I’m looking forward to most, in terms of books in 2021, is eventually having the mental wherewithal to challenge myself again. I still keep meaning to get around to Moby Dick. If I get there, you’ll know life got just a bit more relaxed. 

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