Welcome to Smugglivus 2014! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2014, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2015, and more.
Who: Catherine Faris King, a Los Angeles based writer who studied English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing at Whittier College, and French Literature at the Sorbonne, in Paris. She made her publishing debut with Book Smugglers Publishing this year, with the novellete The Ninety-Ninth Bride, a wonderful retelling of Arabian Nights.
Give a warm welcome to Catherine, folks!
An Enneagram of Books
A major part of reading, for me, is anticipation. Admiring the lush cover illustration, poring over the chapter titles to get a taste of what’s ahead. The anticipation is sweetest when you have a date on your calendar marked and circled – the publication date, when you know you’ll be going back to the Old Kingdom, or Sept-Tours, with spells at the ready. Clariel, by Garth Nix, was marked on my calendar months in advance; so was Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life.
Sneaking in between my plans, other books took me by surprise. My roommate loaned me a peculiarly mathematical novel to read in between-times while I stayed in Oxford. An assignment from my workplace turned into an engrossing read. And books I picked up on a whim at the library swept me up in adventures of adolescence. I couldn’t anticipate how these books would delight and affect me, and that surprise helps me to look forward to all the books I’ll read in the year to come.
I’ve selected nine books, grouped three by three, to review here in brief, including Clariel and The Book of Life (spoiler-free!). If you’d like to slip them into the stocking of the bibliophile in your life, or just want to get next year’s reading list off to a good start, any one of these comes with my recommendation.
Historical Fiction: I love historical fiction that manages to fully inhabit the past as a separate culture, with different ways of thinking and different pictures of heroism. Don’t give me modern thinkers mouthing the author’s opinions in a Masterpiece Theater setting: help me understand life back then. By coincidence, all of these turned out to be YA.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly: Eleven-year-old Calpurnia is tired of chafing against “propriety” in 1899 Texas. By chance, she develops a curiosity about science and animals, and her grandfather – himself a naturalist – takes her on as a student. Calpurnia’s developing mind is wonderfully written, and the relationship between her and Grandaddy is very moving. I especially liked the ambivalence of the ending – it’s not a blandly optimistic “spunky girl wins all” tale. Kelly shows just how hard Callie is going to have to work to keep her ambition alive in a world resistant to it. (2009, a Newbery Honor winner)
Murder Most Unladylike, by Robin Stevens: At a girls’ boarding school in 1930’s England, a dead body has appeared and then vanished. Hazel Wong, Hong Kong transfer student, teams up with school darling Daisy Wells to solve the case. Daisy fancies herself Sherlock and Hazel as Watson, but the story has other ideas, as the relationship between them develops with a deft and subtle hand. Stevens realizes the boarding school setting with superb detail, and if the mystery could use a bit more fleshing out, that’s alright. I expect some great things of Ms. Stevens. (2014 – a NaNoWriMo novel that’s made good!)
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia: Delphine shepherds her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, on a cross-country trip from New York City to Oakland, CA, on their first visit ever to their mother. The flight itself is perilous enough, for three black girls on their own. But when they arrive, they meet an aloof artist who sends them to a day camp run by the Black Panthers. Williams-Garcia captures strained but somehow harmonious family relations as perfectly as she does the simmering sensibility of the Civil Rights Era – which is extremely apropos nowadays. A layered and powerful book. (2010, Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner and Newbery Honor Winner and Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and National Book Award finalist. Dang.)
Psychological Fiction: I should probably just say “literary,” but I so distrust that term. These books, having no historical context to establish, dive right into immersing you in the world of the mind, and oh, the fun they have there.
The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder: Our narrator is the tenth housekeeper to be hired to take care of a brilliant mathematics professor who, after an accident, has a memory that only lasts eighty minutes. The housekeeper and her son soon come to speak the old man’s language, a language of mathematics and the numbers that secretly connect the cosmos. The reader feels like they are in on a secret, briefly part of a patchwork family. This is a powerfully affecting novel, all the more so for its gentleness and deceptive simplicity. (Hon’ya Taisho Award winner, 2005)
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James: A governess takes on the care of two children, in an isolated house, under the peculiar instructions of their uncle. The governess soon suspects that the house is haunted, and then begins to see one conspiracy unfolding after another. The first-person narrator is hard to read at times, but that’s precisely the point. The narrator, who sees childhood innocence as sacrosanct, grows increasingly horrified at her charges’ depravity. But ultimately, James leaves open the question of whether the children are corrupted, or if the narrator’s perception is what’s truly twisted. (1898, “an oldie but a goodie;” the 1961 film adaptation “The Innocents” is superb.)
An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine: In modern day Beirut, recluse and bibliophile Aaliya reflects on her seemingly insignificant life – marriage, war, friendship, and most of all, books – with the dry wit and stream-of-consciousness narration you might expect from an old auntie reminiscing over a cup of coffee. This keenly observed novel about Beirut – which Aaliya dubs “the Elizabeth Taylor of cities” – name-drops great books so frequently you’ll find yourself drawing up a new reading list just from Aaliya’s ramblings. I didn’t expect to like this book, but I fell in love with it, shivering in Aaliya’s fears and relishing her victories – even those over herself. (Finalist for the National Book Award, 2014)
Serial Fantasy: One of these novels ends a series, the other stands outside of a completed story, the last novel begins a new series. It’s a big task – writers must create worlds and make magic, while keeping true to human hearts and the demands of story. But no matter what the world, these books have room to stretch and awaken wonder within the reader.
The Book of Life, by Deborah Harkness: Back from their extended sojourn in the past in Shadow of Night, it’s time for witch-mystic-scholar Diana Bishop and her vampire-sex on wheels-husband Matthew Clairmont to face the crises of their own time. Armed by great powers she’s beginning to master, and backed by a destiny she dimly understands, Diana is off to fulfill any scholar’s dream: to find, repair, and understand a long-lost tome of ancient magic. With heartfelt and engaging characters, a sweeping scope, and stakes as high as the fate of the human race, urban fantasy doesn’t get much better – or more ambitious – than this. When I call this series “a grown-up Harry Potter,” I mean it. (2014, the conclusion of The All Souls’ Trilogy.)
Clariel, by Garth Nix: Welcome to the Old Kingdom, a land where hideous magic revives armies of Dead to prowl the land… except for when it doesn’t. In this book, it doesn’t. The actual plot: Wannabe ranger Clariel finds herself at the center of political plots meeting. She seeks to carve her own path in the struggle, unaware of how her very soul lies in the balance. I anticipated this book as hotly as anyone, but was frankly a bit disappointed. The plot feels incidental, with little investment in either faction. And there’s something frustrating about returning to a fictional universe you love, only to explore it with a main character who hates everything that isn’t a forest. (2014, a companion to The Old Kingdom.)
Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman: In Goredd, a treaty has kept a fragile peace between dragons and humans for forty years. With the treaty’s fortieth anniversary coming up, a gifted musician named Seraphina finds herself the possible key to lasting peace – even though she really wants to be left alone, to guard a secret that threatens her very life. This novel grew on me slowly, but by the end I felt like a part of the world, affected by the political upheaval and the human drama. (2012, first in the Seraphina series, of which the next book is due in March. Also, winner of the 2013 YALSA Morris Award for Best YA Debut Novel.)
Oh, one last thing – the title of my article! An Enneagram is a nine-pointed star, a shape for which I have a particular fondness. Nine is a nice, complete, square number, and it seemed a fitting frame for this year’s best reads. Happy Holidays, and happy reading in 2015!
Happy reading, Catherine!