Ana: Hello, I’m Ana.
Thea: And I’m Thea.
Ana & Thea: And we are…BOOK SMUGGLERS!!!!!!!
*play facemelting riffs on air guitars*
We’ve brought you some of our favorite authors and bloggers with their reflections on 2012 and plans for 2013… We’ve brought you a crapload of wallet-killing ‘best of’ lists… But now it’s finally time to get our own hands dirty! We have scoured our personal libraries, gone through all our reviews for the year, and we are happy to report that we finally have our final picks ready to go.
We Smugglers are proud to present you with our Most Excellent Books of 2012!
MOST EXCELLENT BOOKS OF 2012
Ana’s Most Excellent List:
I feel like 2012 was another brilliant reading year despite several (and I mean, SEVERAL) disappointing wall-bangers (Prepare To Die, Pillars of Hercules, Only Superhuman: I am looking at you). I gave 5 books a perfect 10 (same as last year) and only two of those were to books published in 2012 (Code Name Verity and The Shadowed Sun). That said, my average grade assigned to a book was 6.5 (higher than last year’s 6.3).
Now for the fun part: random stats!
I read and reviewed 154 books, more than ever before. The vast majority were YA and SFF, although I read quite a few Middle Grade novels (36, 23%) especially in the second half of the year. I also read 35 Historical novels and 49 (!!) oldies (ie not published in 2012) which is awesome and this means that I met my goal for the year. Out of the 154, a whopping 104 were books written by female authors (67% , higher than last year) and 34 (22%) books featured POC characters prominently. My favourite random stat: I read 32 adult books in a variety of genres. Out of those, about 12 got rates below 5 and these were all SFF books meaning that sadly, 37% of the adult books I read this year were well…crap.
Finally, the best thing about 2012? This is the year where I discovered some of my new favourite authors: Shirley Jackson, Frances Hardinge and Dorothy L. Sayers.
And now, it is finally time to reveal my top 10. I really struggled with my picks this year because there were so many awesome books to choose from. Here is my top 10 of 2012 – in no particular order:
10. The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis
A Historical novel set in Indiana around the time of the Great Depression, The Mighty Miss Malone features the Malone family, whose youngest member Deza is the narrator of this story. It is a Superlative Stupendous Story about a family at its heart, and about a country, in the great scheme of things. It is a historical piece but also extremely relevant to the present as one can draw parallels between Deza’s heartbreaking realisations about books and characters of colour and recent cases of whitewashing and the underrepresentation of People of Colour in literature. It has superb writing, a plethora of wonderful characters, a family that is both ordinary and extraordinary, and a main female character written with complexity, agency and an inspiring voice.
9. Peaceweaver by Rebecca Barnhouse
Peaceweaver is a Historical Fantasy, which begins with its main character Hild about to take over the honoured position of mead-server in her uncle’s household – she hopes one day to become a peaceweaver and effectively become a political adviser. When she is unjustly accused of treachery and sent away, Hild must carve a new place for herself. Part Coming of Age, part Adventure Quest, Peaceweaver is a fun book that is ALSO a thoughtful piece about diplomacy, politics, honour, slavery and gender roles. It should be required reading to those who think that Medieval-inspired Fantasy can only portray women as either saint (mothers, wives, daughters) or whore.
8. The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin
Maybe I am cheating but I had to include Jemisin’s Duology of Awesome here. Both books are great (although I think I preferred The Shadowed Sun a bit more) and are set in a beautifully realised Ancient Egypt-inspired world where dreaming is very much real. These are books about power and politics, intrigue and war, gender roles and religion, love and sex which also feature NINJA PRIESTS. I am not even kidding. These are two of the finest Fantasy novels I’ve ever read and cemented Jemisin as one of the best SFF writers out there.
7. HHhH by Laurent Binet
Review HERE (complete with a comment by Binet)
Ah. I completely surprised myself by picking this one. When I reviewed this book earlier this year I was unable to say whether I loved it or hated it. Ostensibly, HHhH is the non-fictional account of the events that led to and closely followed, the assassination attempt of one of the biggest Nazi Officials during WWII, Reinhard Heydrich, head of Gestapo (among other positions) and the main architect of the Holocaust. Heydrich was Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man and everyone in the SS used to say that “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” which in German ends up as the acronym HHhH (Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich).
HHhHis also the story of the author’s research (books, films, first-hand accounts), his preparations for and the eventual writing of this book. The narrator – Binet himself – stops the narrative quite often with remarks about his struggle to write this book and about the differences between fiction and non-fiction.
Regardless of how I felt about most of what the narrator says about fiction (mad, infuriated, frustrated), this book is still a fascinating depiction of writing struggle as well as a fabulous and heart-wrenching analysis of the dangers of Nazism and the heroism and bravery of the people from the Czechoslovakian’s Resistance Movement. I still think about it months after reading and have recommended it to several people. As such, I think it deserves a top 10 spot. It also needs to be said that I had a lot of fun writing that review. I tried to emulate the book itself in its formatting and in inserting my struggles as a reviewer.
6. A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Whenever I tell people about Frances Hardinge’s awesome books, I always say that her writing is amazing; that hers are some of the most imaginative books I’ve had the pleasure to read; and they feature layers and layers of sophisticated world-building, thought-provoking and smart plots that are no less engaging, fast-paced or fun for it; and finally, amazing female characters. This is true of A Face Like Glass as well, which is (just to confirm the bit where I talk about “imaginative books”) “a stand-alone tale of deception, cheese-making, betrayal and strategic amnesia” set in a underground world where people have to learn facial expressions (by paying for them). Its young heroine Neverfell’s arc is about growth, tragedy mingled with happiness and above all, revolution.
5. The Spark by Susan Jane Bigelow
The Spark is the last book in The Extrahumans Series (nooooo) and it finishes what has been an immensely delightful SciFi series with bittersweet aplomb. I am loathe to spoil the series by talking about its third entry in specific so suffice it to say that on the whole, The Extrahuman Series is set in a dystopian future where political upheaval are the words du jour, featuring space travel, other worlds, aliens and superhumans struggling with their powers both in terms of personal identity and their role in the world. It’s all that good SciFi should be and can be.
4. And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst
Yes! Another SciFi entry in my top 10 (and the only self-published book here). Most of And All the Stars takes place in the first few months of an Apocalyptic Earth in the first stages of contact with an invading alien civilisation as a small group of teenagers band together to try and survive. Although not a perfect book, it is a book that captures that first encounter as well as the possible scenarios coming out of it, perfectly. It’s a character-driven novel featuring an intimate story of friendship, love, growing up and survival and an incredibly gripping, imaginative opening act that has stuck in my mind ever since. Andrea K. Höst: remember this name. I bet you will hear it quite often soon enough.
3. Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
Living Puppets! Magic! Gothic Shenanigans! Victorian Orphans! Splendors and Glooms is a Victorian gothic tale that has ALL THE THINGS I love: creepiness and magic, friendships and awesome girls, melodrama and poignancy and a sympathetic trio of children protagonists that stem directly from the Great Book of Awesome Children Characters. Laura Amy Schlitz’s prose is incredible and this is the kind of Middle Grade book that I want to (gently and fondly, of course) shove down the throats of those who berate children’s literature.
2. Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
The more I think about Three Parts Dead , the more I find things to like about it. Despite its cover which screams UF to me, this is a legal thriller in a high fantasy setting, with a dying God whose (potential) death leads the story to an engaging and thought-provoking observation of faith and power. It’s also a super fun story full of incredibly creative ideas and three main female characters with agency, different motivations and who also happen to be total badass, powerful characters in their own right.
1. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein
I saved the best for last. Code Name Verity is by far, the best book I read this year and one of the best books I have ever read, period. It is another historical piece set in World War II, an epistolary novel about Maddie and her best friend Queenie (“Verity”) who are a sensational team, a pair of unlikely best friends. The former, a pilot for the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) with a passion for flying; the latter a Scottish aristocrat, a spy working with the SOE (Special Operations Executive) both doing their part for the British War Effort. One of them gets captured by the Gestapo and becomes one of those dreaded collaborators. Or does she?
Code Name Verity is a book Made For Ana: epistolary narrative, an unreliable narrator, a WWII setting and the roles women played then and also the most incredible friendship…and how is this not one of the best quotes about friendship ever?
“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”
This is a sensational book. And just writing this gives me goosebumps and makes me slightly weepy all over again. If you have to read ONE book from my list, please read this one.
There you have it: my top 10. I think it portrays really well my overall reading year with its 3 YA and 3 MG novels, its 3 Historical novels and the remaining, SFF books.I am most pleased.
Thea’s Most Excellent List:
Like Ana, 2012 was a great year for books – overall, I read and reviewed 155 books, which is 8 more books than I read in 2011. (HUZZAH! I’m proud of myself, especially as I finished my thesis this year!) Of those 155, my average assigned rate was a 6.85 (median 7), which is higher than that of last year (6.83). In terms of age/category breakdown, 58% of the books I reviewed this year were YA novels (90 titles), with a nice sprinkling of Middle Grade fiction in the mix (10%, or 15 titles), and the remaining 32% were adult titles (50 books). Of all books reviewed, 47 were fantasy novels, 29 were science fiction, 25 were dystopias/apocalypses, 16 were horror, and 13 were historical fiction, with the remaining titles spread across urban fantasy and “other” speculative fiction. All in all, it’s a pretty nice mixture of genres, with less dystopias and more science fiction in the mix.
But the coolest part is, 74% (115) of the books I read in 2012 were written by female authors! Last year, I was much more male-author skewed, and made a conscious effort to get more female authors (especially female SFF authors) in the mix in 2012. Mission Accomplished!
And now, without further ado, let’s dive into my top 10. This was without a doubt the HARDEST Top 10 list I’ve put together since we started The Book Smugglers – the books I read this year were that good.
10. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
I read this book all the way back in January of last year, but it was one of those really good ones that sticks with you, and for that reason I had to include it on my Top 10 list of the year. Myfanwy Thomas wakes up, drenched in rain, wearing latex gloves, and surrounded by dead bodies. The kicker? Myfanwy has no idea who she is. Luckily, she finds a letter in her jacket, addressed to her…from herself.
Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.
Myfanwy soon learns that she is an elite member of a secret order, dedicated to saving the world from paranormal threat. While this might sound like a fairly familiar setup (amnesiac heroine, secret society, paranormal threats), I assure you that The Rook is simultaneously unique, memorable AND badass.
9. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
A young adult fantasy title about a heroine that straddles the worlds of dragon and human, Seraphina is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in a very long time. Seraphina takes an amazingly nuanced approach to human-dragon relations (one that breaks away from the usual magical humans-riding-dragons rut), and features an AMAZING heroine in the eponymous Seraphina. This young woman walks the line between the human and dragon worlds as she hides a secret that would mean her death, but she bravely follows her heart (and music!) even though it could be her doom. I loved every single word of this beautiful book, and I cannot wait for the next entry in the series.
8. What’s Left of Me by Kat Zhang
What’s Left of Me caught my eye with its wonderful premise: the conceit of two souls living in one body, one fighting for dominance over the other, is fantastic. But beyond the underlying concept, What’s Left of Me is even more impressive with its strong characters, beautiful writing, and its wonderful examination of the bond between sisters Eva and Addie. Bonus: the dystopia in this novel is an actual dystopia, with shades of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and a thorough examination of xenophobia. In short, this is a thought-provoking, wonderful book (and the only proper dystopian novel on my list this year!).
7. The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
This was the first novel I had the pleasure of reading from Jennifer Nielsen, and I cannot wait for more in the Ascension series. With its charming lead character, Sage, a cunning sneak thief who gets sucked into a plot to be a false prince to the throne, The False Prince is a delightful, charming and surprisingly emotional read. There are plenty of twists and turns to this book, and even though a few are predictable, the smart narration more than compensates. I freaking loved this novel and cannot wait for book 2.
6. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
Before this year, I’d only had the pleasure of reading Nora Jemisin’s first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I thoroughly enjoyed (and which was highly acclaimed and nominated for a slew of awards). Needless to say, I was thrilled to see she had a new duology in 2012 – I was even more thrilled to find that this new book is superior to the Inheritance trilogy in All The Ways. The Killing Moon takes place in the city state of Gujaareh (aka the City of Dreams, or Hananja’s city), which uses religious magic derived from the four dream-humors to achieve peace and stability – the most revered among them, dreamblood, harvested by priests called Gatherers. But corruption and sickness lurks under the Gujaareen veneer of order, and a monster roams the city streets… It is up to an unlikely trio (priest, apprentice and foreign diplomat) to save the land from death and war.
I loved The Killing Moon for its complex world, it’s challenging characters with their many shades of gray, and its tight plotting. Not to mention, this is a fantastical society inspired by Egypt, with PoC characters and tackles its society’s view of gender roles and sexual orientation. This, in my opinion, is Jemisin at her very best; while I enjoyed the second book in this duology (The Shadowed Sun), which also came out this year, to me The Killing Moon is easily the stronger of the two books. SO if I’m not cheating and just pick one, it’s this one.
5. Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst
Like The Killing Moon, Vessel is set in the desert and features an awesomely complex world. And, like The Killing Moon, in my mind Vessel is the best book to date from its author, Sarah Beth Durst. In this particular world, different desert clans serve different deities, who inhabit the healthy young bodies of “vessels” every generation. Vessel is the story of a young girl named Liyana, who has prepared her whole life to die; that is, to have her soul vacate her body, leaving the husk to be taken over by her beloved Goddess. But on the day that Liyana willingly gives up her body, her deity does not come; nor have any of the other deities come to the vessels of the other dessert clans. The gods have gone missing, and it is up to Liyana and her fellow vessels to figure out why. And along the way, they start to question the stories they have been told their entire lives…
This is a truly stunning book, with strong characters and challenging questions of faith and honor. Main character Liyana is a hell of a heroine, who manages to be strong and kind without being cliched or Mary Sue-ish. And the slow-burning romance, ancillary to the main storyline, is utterly awesome. Bonus points: Vessel is a standalone fantasy novel (always a nice plus).
4. This is Not A Test by Courtney Summers
This is not a test. Listen closely. This is not a test.
The world as we know it has ended, and life has succumbed to the insatiable hunger of the undead. But for Sloane Price, the world actually ended months earlier, when her older sister ran away leaving Sloane at the hands of her abusive father. So, when the zombies do rise, she has little to lose. Banding together with a few classmates and holing up in their high school gymnasium, Sloan struggles with the meaning of life, with the reality of death, and confronts her own broken heart in a broken world.
This is the one apocalyptic novel on my list this year (apparently also the requisite zombie novel on my list, as I always seem to – unintentionally! – have one in my top 10), and it is so, so good. Written in sparse, stark prose, with a heartbreakingly believable heroine, This is Not a Test is my first Courtney Summers book, but it certainly will not be the last.
3. Losers in Space by John Barnes
In the year 2129, peace and affluence are commonplace, and the only thing that people want for is status. Losers in Space is the story of a group of intrepid A-lister wannabe teens as they make a last desperate gambit to boost their ratings and jump into the highest echelon of the social strata before their time is up. Losers in Space is also a detailed, impressive work of hard science fiction. I know, I know. The title and cover look kitschy as hell. Let me assure you, fellow scifi fans – this is no hand-wavey science fantasy book. It’s actually incredibly detailed and accurate when it comes to physics, and surprisingly accessible and granular when it comes down to the actual science. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan, and while this is a standalone title I am looking forward to more from John Barnes.
2. The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper
This year, I made the decision to read and review a title I had previously written about for another freelance review gig. That book was historical YA novel A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper, which tells the story of an impoverished aristocratic family on the (fictional) island nation of Montmaray. After reading and remembering all the reasons I loved A Brief History, I quickly ran through The FitzOsbornes in Exile (Book 2) just in time for the release of the third and final book in the trilogy, The FitzOsbornes at War. And HOLY SMOKES, EVERYONE I love this series. I love it very, very much. Each book in the trilogy is better than the one that came before it, and with each entry, Sophie and her siblings change and grow in both subtle and dramatic ways.
With the third and final book in the trilogy, The FitzOsbornes at War, we get a very different type of WWII novel; instead of being a book about spies, intelligence officers and soldiers (all of which are awesome, don’t get me wrong), I love that The FitzOsbornes at War tells the quieter story of a family struggling to live in a world of rations, bombs, and refugees. Sophie and her cousin Veronica live together in London during the Blitz, doing their part to contribute to the war effort while Toby and Simon are fighting with the British. While the historical research and setting is thoroughly impressive, I was most thrilled with the growth and change the main characters undergo over the series. The Sophie in book 3 is a very different woman than the teenager in book 1 – and older and wiser woman that has had her doubts and her crushes, but who since has learned the desires of her own heart and understands just how valuable she is to her family.
In short, I am so gland I decided to get back into this series just in time for the third and final book because it is a beautiful, heartbreaking sendoff.
1. Flame of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier
This is the sixth (and perhaps final?) Sevenwaters book, and yet another beautiful sendoff to a series that is near and dear to my heart. As per Juliet Marillier’s usual, Flame of Sevenwaters is rich detail, strong in character, and features a compelling romantic subplot (enough to warm the heart of even the most jaded reader). The most amazing thing about this book, to me, is its heroine Maeve, who has lost the use of her hands in a devastating fire as a child. Maeve is independent and strong without being abrasive; she’s also intelligent and resourceful, and it comes down on her to save the future of Sevenwaters from the clutches of Mac Dara. Flame of Sevenwaters is the embodiment of everything I have come to love about the Sevenwaters series, and is easily one of my favorite books of 2012.
Most Honorable Mentions of 2012
Holy crap, we read a ton of awesome books this year. While we couldn’t squeeze all of them into the top 10 (and let us tell you, it was a a very close call), we are thrilled to give the titles on the extended list a shout out here. We apologize in advance for the length of this list (after making the painful 10 title cut, there was no way we were going to limit this list to only 10!) In no particular order:
Ana’s Most Honorable Mentions:
1. Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst
2. Railsea by China Mieville
3. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M Valente
4. The Broken Lands by Kate Milford
5. Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan
6. The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells
7. The Fault in our Stars by John Green
8. The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats
9. The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson
10. The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
11. The Obsidian Blade by Pete Hautman
12. Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
13. The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
14. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand
15. Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan
Thea’s Most Honorable Mentions:
1. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand
2. The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner
3. Jane by Robin Maxwell
4. Above World by Jenn Reese
5. The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima
6. Deep Sky by Patrick Lee
7. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress
8. Renegade Magic by Stephanie Burgis
9. Redshirts by John Scalzi
10. Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
11. Incarnate by Jodi Meadows
12. Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
13. Secondhand Charm by Julie Berry
14. House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier
15. Darkbeast by Morgan Keyes
Most Excellent Books Published PRIOR to 2012
Last list. Promise. There are a treasure trove of awesome pre-2012 books we have read this year, and here are a few of our favorites:
Ana’s Most Excellent Oldies:
1. The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell
2. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
3. Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells
4. The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman
5. A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
6. The Boneshaker by Kate Milford
7. Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge
8. Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge
9. Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge
10. Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge
11. Reefsong by Carol Severance
12. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
13. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
14. Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
15. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
Thea’s Most Excellent Oldies:
1. The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce
2. A Gathering of Gargoyles by Meredith Ann Pierce
3. The FitzOsbornes in Exile by Michelle Cooper
4. Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis
5. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
6. The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye
7. The Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip
8. Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold
9. A Posse of Princesses by Sherwood Smith
10. The Comet’s Curse by Dom Testa
11. The Web of Titan by Dom Testa
12. A Beautiful Friendship by David Weber
13. The Breach by Patrick Lee
14. Ghost Country by Patrick Lee
15. Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge
And with that we, your Friendly Neighborhood Book Smugglers, close the books on 2012. Bring on 2013 and don’t forget:
Be Excellent to Each Other, dudes!