Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Best Stuff I Read in 2014

I know I've committed the cardinal sin of blogging by not having any new posts for the last nine months.  I apologize most abjectly.  I was too busy reading numerous excellent books, some of which I shall share with you below.  (Same disclaimer as last year: these are the best books I read in 2014, but they weren't necessarily published in 2014.) 

(1) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress

This dystopian time-travel yarn weaves three storylines together.  In one, after Earth has been ravaged by a series of ecological disasters, a handful of children and adults are saved by a race of kindly aliens, who build the Shell for them to live in while the Earth recovers.  The Shell is a sealed, sterile environment that the aliens endowed with the bare necessities for human survival, and a device that lets one person at a time travel into the past to collect supplies.  Since there are only a dozen or so people in the Shell—not nearly enough for a breeding population—one of the supplies that the time travelers try to collect is, to put it baldly, children.   

The second storyline is set in the present day, and describes the efforts of an FBI consultant who is developing an algorithm to predict the next in a series of unexplained kidnappings.  When her algorithm starts to work, she starts on a collision course with the time travelers (who, you may have figured out, are the perpetrators of said kidnappings).

The third storyline is that of the Earth itself and the changes the planet undergoes.  I can't write too much about this one without major spoilers. 

This story stuck with me for a long time after reading it.  The emotions are convincing and the characters are realistic.  The point-of-view the first storyline is told from is hard to read - he's a teenage boy who's lived his entire life circumscribed by the Shell, the few people living in it, and their needs for survival. Unsurprisingly, he has some anger issues and a limited understanding of normal relationships.  Being a mom of a young child myself, the kidnappings are fraught with anxiety and ambiguity for me.  Reading them was a weird mix of "Go go go!  Humanity has to survive!" and "GET YOUR HANDS OFF THAT CHILD YOU MONSTER!"  But isn’t that a mark of good storytelling, when you’re uncomfortable reading a book but still unwilling to put it down?  Overall, it's a quick but interesting and satisfying read.

I should mention that After The Fall won Nancy Kress a Nebula award.  

(2) Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton

This is an easy book to summarize:  take a Jane Austen novel and replace all the characters with dragons.  And I mean real dragons, who fly and breathe fire and rip their prey apart with bloody abandon— these dragons haven't been given the “sparkly vampire” treatment.  But at the same time, they’re civilized dragons with a complex social and political structure.  In the same way that many type of human success are measured in wealth, in this dragon society success is measured in length—that is, how many feet long a dragon has grown from nose to tail tip.  And the only way for dragons to grow is to eat other dragons usually after dying of natural causes.  (Note the “usually” there and recall I said these are real dragons.) 

This story starts with the death of the dragon Bon Agornin, and how his body is divided up among his children for consumption.  There's one son in the clergy, one who works in the city, a married daughter, and in the tradition of all Victorian novels, two younger daughters who need to make successful matches of their own.  Agornin's son-in-law, who is really quite unpleasant, takes more than his share of the body on some pretext, which of course then lessens the other children's shares and subsequent social and career prospects.

If you like the novels of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, I think you'll enjoy this book.  If (like me) you've loved the idea of dragons since reading Bilbo match wits with Smaug at a tender age, I know you'll like this book.  

 (3) The Crane Wife, Patrick Ness

The Crane Wife is a retelling of the Japanese folktale about an injured crane who, when helped by a human, repays that help by becoming human and weaving her own feathers into beautiful cloth to sell. In Patrick Ness's version, George Duncan discovers a great white crane in the backyard of his house in London.  He takes the arrow out of the crane's wing and watches her fly away.  The next day, George's rather humdrum life is turned upside down by the entrance of the mysterious Kumiko into his print shop. The story of George and Kumiko's developing relationship is cut with bits of a fable about the Destroyer and the Forgiver, that try to illustrate bigger truths about the nature of relationships.  Or maybe about the dual sides of everyone's own psyche - to be 100 percent honest, I'm not sure I quite grasped the allegory of this book.  But I enjoyed trying to figure it out. 

 (Disclaimer: Googling to find a cover image for this book, I've discovered some rather mediocre reviews of it. Hmmm, guess not everybody liked it.  You'll have to decide for yourselves.)

(4) A Corner of White, Jaclyn Moriarty

This is the first book in a series called the Colors of Madeline.   It tells a story of two worlds; the real Cambridge, England, and the imaginary kingdom of Cello.  In Cambridge, the main character is Madeline Tully; in Cello, it’s Elliot Baranski.  Both Madeline and Elliot have missing fathers, Madeline because her mother left her husband, and Elliot because his father is believed to have run off with another woman.  (Whether or not he really did is a bit of a mystery.)  Madeline and Elliot start history’s longest-distance penpal relationship, trading letters through a crack in reality.   They’re both likable characters (Elliot a little more so than Madeline); basically good kids, trying to negotiate the perils of adolescence and their feelings about their broken families.

What made this book stand out to me was Cello; it’s a charming little fantasy land, full of details that give it life and character.  Cello’s political issues are sketched out in a series of newspaper dispatches written by the kingdom’s two rather silly princesses, who are on a tour of the region.  The color storms are an original idea; storms of certain colors can cause everyone in the area to feel a specific emotion intensely.  Red causes people to be angry, for instance, which as you can imagine, is a bit dangerous.  Elliot believes that his father was abducted by a rogue Purple, rather than running off as everyone else believes (it’s never quite explained what a rogue Purple actually looks like).  The people of Cello are fairly realistic characters, with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and faults (not often found in fantasy, which I admit can tend toward black and white thinking).  It’s a fun, easy read and I’m looking forward to the publication of the next book in the series.

(5) The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson

The start of a new series by the excellent Brandon Sanderson, The Rithmatist is the story of Joel and his thwarted desire to be a Rithmatist, a magician who can draw chalk pictures and make them come to life.  Joel is the son of the now-deceased chalk-maker at Armedius Academy; he and his mom are allowed to continue living at the school on a kind of sufferance, and Joel is allowed to attend classes with the Rithmantic students.  More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist and defend the American Isles from the wild Chalkings on the frontier in Nebrask.  He knows everything there is to know about Rithmancy, and would be one of the best….if he only had the inborn talent that would let him do the magic.  Alas, there’s not a hint of it in him.

One day, students at Armedius start disappearing, and through series of coincidences that persist despite all the adults’ efforts to keep him out of it, Joel is drawn into the investigations.  He forms a friendship with Melody, another Rithmantic student who has the talent Joel lacks, but zero desire to do anything with it.  As you might guess, they form an unlikely team and mysterious events ensue.

I know what you’d say to me at this point:  “Hedgie, this is clearly derivative of every other YA quest story ever published!  Can you say ‘riff on Harry Potter?’” And my answer would be: “Yup!  Who cares?  It’s still a good story; it has some original, clever details and an engaging mystery; and you’ll have fun reading it.” 

Also, let me digress a bit on the subject of Brandon Sanderson.  His big talent, the thing that I think makes him stand out in the field of current fantasy writers, is that he comes up with these fantastic systems of magic.  I’ve read probably a dozen or so of his novels, and in only of those did I find the magic to be a bit weak (Warbreaker; it’s still a good read even with this fault).  If you like your irrational, impossible magic to operate by clearly defined rules (like me), hop over to Brandon and poke around his bibliography.  And then come back here and finish reading!

(6) Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

There are two authors I’ll admit to being a fangirl of:  John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (naturally) and Jasper Fforde.  Fforde’s most popular series, about Thursday Next, has so many things to love: time travel, characters from Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, absurdly complex plots, villians so evil not even their own mothers could love them.  They’re books for people who love books; go find The Eyre Affair to start the series.   I’ll be waiting here when you come back to thank me.

But here I’m supposed to be talking about Mr. Fforde’s new series, which starts with Shades of Grey.  (Please do not confuse this with that horrible slice of misogyny Fifty Shades of Grey; they’re not the same thing at all.)  In Chromatacia, social order is defined by how high you can see on the color spectrum.  Red is outclassed by yellow, followed by green, blue, and purple.  Those unfortunate souls who can see only shades of grey are at the bottom, as sort of an untouchables class.  Everyone in Chromatacia knows that there was some terrible event in the recent past that caused people to have limited color vision and that resulted in the current extremely regimented social order and authoritarian government.  But nobody seems to know what actually happened.  In Shades of Grey, Eddie Russet is hoping to start his career in the Color Control Agency.  Eddie’s first mission is a courier job to the remote village of High Saffron.  Little does Eddie know, he’s embarking not only on a journey, but on an investigation into the aforementioned mysterious event, and possible government conspiracy and cover-up.  Oh, and he meets an Interesting But Unsuitable Girl along the way. 

I’m waiting impatiently for the next book in the series, Painting by Numbers, to be published.  (June 2016?!?  I’ll never make it.)

(7) The Curiosity, by Stephen Kiernan

Fans of the TV show Sleepy Hollow would enjoy this book; it starts from a similar, albeit less mystical, premise.  Judge Jeremiah Rice has been frozen in the Artic shelf ice since 1906, until Dr. Kate Philo and her team carve him out of a glacier.  It happens that Dr. Philo is in the Artic looking for samples of flash-frozen small sea life; she’s part of a research team developing cryogenics techniques.  Dr. Philo takes Jeremiah back to their lab and revives him (of course).  I know the science here is probably a little dubious; just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the story, ok?  Inevitable questions about the ethics of using humans as research subjects and claims of scientific hoaxing rise as Jeremiah’s fame grows.

There are a lot of things to like about this book.  I like that one of the two main characters is a successful female scientist, and that she takes her career seriously – she doesn’t immediately sacrifice her reputation or scientific ethics for the chance at fame or love.  I like the ethical questions that come up – when someone’s life is saved by experimental science, what is that person’s obligation back to the science that saved them?  At what point does research become exploitation?  But the thing I like best about this book is Jeremiah.  He’s a realistically drawn gentleman of the early 20th century (at least he is to me; I admit I don’t have first-hand knowledge).  There are just enough humorous, fish-out-of-water moments as he encounters the wonders of the 21rst century to be pleasant.  And that element isn’t overdone; he’s able to grasp that computers and cell phones are applications of the same science that people were working out in his own time, not magic.   (I always find it insulting to the people who came before us when time travel stories make them out to be cretinous rubes.)  The primary story, about Jeremiah’s revival and what happens to him, is interesting and well-paced.  The secondary story, about the gentle romance between Jeremiah and Kate, is also really well done.  The author doesn’t dismiss the fact that while Jeremiah’s wife has been gone for decades, from Jeremiah’s perspective he just left her on the docks a few weeks ago.  The Curiosity is part The Time Traveler’s Wife and part Jurassic Park (or maybe Encino Man is a closer parallel), and wholly enjoyable.  

(8) N0S4A2, by Joe Hill

I don’t usually read horror novels; I’m as surprised as anybody that N0S4A2 is in this list. At the beginning of the story, Victoria (Vic) McQueen is a young girl – maybe 10 or 12—who’s just discovered she has an unusual ability.  She can find missing things by riding her bicycle to a rickety covered bridge, and when she crosses that bridge she ends up where the missing thing is.  Of course, for the rest of the world the bridge was torn down years ago.  Obviously, riding a bicycle across a nonexistent bridge to magically find missing things is not a thing that normal, sane people can do.  And dealing with her unusual talent takes a toll on Vic and her family, finally tearing her parents apart and landing Vic in a mental health facility as a teenager.

The villain of the piece is Charles Talent Manx, a kind of vampiric creature who can transport children in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith to Christmasland, where he absorbs their youth or life or whatever you want to call it to keep himself eternally alive.  Manx is definitely a Thing That Should Not Be; allow me to give you this mental image:  fishhook teeth.  Shudder.  Anyway, Manx and Vic clash on one of her trips across the bridge.  Being the butt-kicking kind of lady she is, Vic manages to take Manx out, putting him in a kind of coma for a decade or so.  She goes on to live an unhappy sort of life, partnering up with a good man called Lou and having a son with him, whose name I’m sorry to tell you I cannot remember.  But the kid is right in Manx’s age range when the story picks up again, and of course he manages to come back from the dead and target Vic’s son.

I think the thing I love about this book is Vic – she’s so broken but at the same time, so brave and determined to do what’s right.  Despite her faults and weaknesses, Vic is nobody’s victim; she’s determined to be a good mom and as good a partner to Lou as she can.  At times this was a hard book for me to read – I sometimes have to put books down if the plots feature children in danger.  (I read big chunks of this one with “It’s only a story, it’s only a story” on an endless loop in my head.)  But it’s a fast-paced read (hard to achieve with over 700 pages) and obviously I found it compelling enough to finish.  If you’re in the mood for a scary story, screw up your courage and give N0S4A2 a try.

(9) The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

Kelsea Raleigh Glynn has lived all of her 18 years in a cottage in the forest, with just her two foster parents for company.  Until the day some royal guards arrive, saying it’s time for her to go be Queen of the Tearling.  Kelsea knew this day would come eventually; she wears an enormous sapphire pendant that marks her as the heir, and has received a royal education from her foster mother. Kelsea did not know that she would also be stepping into a mystery surrounding her mother’s life and death, an unsuitable love interest, threats from the conquering kingdom next door, and assassination attempts.

This is an excellent, classic coming of age/quest story.  The best thing about it, I think, is Kelsea herself.  Despite her uncertainties and inexperience, she has a natural gift for leadership.  It’s interesting to read her internal thoughts and worries about what the hell she’s gotten herself into, and then watch that talent lead her through various events.  Another thing I love about Kelsea is that she’s plain.  And I don’t mean “I think I’m plain because I have no self-confidence but really I’m GOOOORGEOUS” (I’m looking at you, Bella Swan).  She’s too tall and too broad to fit the usual parameters of femininity; her eyes and hair are of average brown, neither sultry or sleek; she has no cheekbones to speak of.  And naturally, she’s kind of insecure about her plainness; Kelsea wishes she were beautiful and worries about who is going to be interested in a girl who looks she does.  It was a refreshing change of pace from the parade of beautiful, sloe-eyed, slender waifs that populate a lot of fantasy worlds.  Kelsea is an ordinary girl, doing extraordinary things by dint of wits and courage.  And I like that.

10) The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, by Catherynne Valente

The absolute BEST thing I read in 2014 was the fabulous Catherynne Valente’s first Orphan Tales book.  For those of us who remember the vocabulary from high school lit class, it’s a frame tale, a story within which the characters tell their own stories.  Think The Canterbury Tales, or Hyperion by Dan Simmons for a 20th century example.  (Hyperion is one of the best books I’ve read that I totally didn’t get, at all.  You guys go read it too and come back and explain to me, ok?)  Anyway, in this garden outside the Sultan’s palace there’s an orphan girl.  She has to live to live out in the garden, because the people who live in the palace think she’s a demon.  They think she’s a demon because she has thousands of tiny words tattooed on her eyelids; nobody knows how they got there.  One night the Sultan’s heir dares to come out the garden and start talking with the orphan girl.  They strike up an unlikely friendship and she starts telling him the stories tattooed on her eyes, which are, of course, the stories that make up the bulk of the book.

The sheer number and originality of the stories in this book are stunning.  (I’m currently reading the sequel and it rises to the same level.)  There are some completely original elements – dog monks, the Leucrotta (I’m still not sure what it is), the Papess, living Stars as incarnated demigods.  And there are some familiar elements – witches, princesses, sea monsters and their ilk- but done in original ways.  As you read farther in the book, you start to realize that the stories are interwoven – character A from this story is character B from the next, but recognized from another perspective.  I wanted to draw an organizational chart to illustrate the relationships among the stories, but restrained myself.  (I Must!  Keep!  Nerdiness!  To-A-Minimum!)  Valente has created a complex, complete mythology, with a definite style and atmosphere of it’s own.  It’s as distinct and recognizable as say, the Wheel of Time universe, or Middle Earth.  There appear to be only two books in this series, which is a pity; I could keep reading them forever.  

Go forth and read, my friends.