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: Jim, a blogger at www.yayeahyeah.com and a reviewer at www.thebookbag.co.uk. You can also find him on Twitter at @yayeahyeah (normally when he’s really promised himself he’ll read a book or write a blog post!)
Please give it up for Jim!
I was extremely pleased to be asked to take part in Smugglivus because The Book Smugglers is a fantastic blog, so I immediately said ‘yes’ without really thinking what I could write about. After an initial panic I realised that after years of reading mainly realistic YA fiction I’ve fallen out of love with it slightly this year (not that there hasn’t been some brilliant books in that genre, but there’ve also been some disappointments) and it’s been replaced in my heart by MG sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal and adventure, which seems to have had an outstanding 2014. I’ve tried to keep it to my very favourites but there have been a lot of really amazing ones, so apologies for the length of the post.
Kicking things off with a stand-alone (there will be a LOT of series books mentioned later on); I was completely enchanted by AF Harrold and Emily Gravett’s stunning novel The Imaginary. Despite being lucky enough to get an invite to the launch of this one, I was actually planning on holding off getting the book because I have so little space at the moment that I’m trying to avoid hardbacks where possible and wait for the paperback to come out. I was resolved and determined – until about three sentences into AF’s reading from the book, when I came to my senses and realised that there was no way on earth I could wait months to read this.
This is the story of Amanda and her best friend Rudger, who’s always there for her – even if, strictly speaking, he doesn’t exist. Rudger can only be seen by Amanda, until the sinister Mr Bunting turns up. Rumour claims that Mr Bunting eats imaginaries. Does this fate await Rudger after he’s separated from Amanda, or can he somehow survive?
With brief flashes of colour – the eyes of a cat, the villain’s shirt, a bright pink dinosaur – amongst the black and white illustrations, this is one of the most visually stunning books of the year. (I’d say the only one that can match it is another from Bloomsbury, Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell’s magnificent fairytale The Sleeper And The Spindle, which does something similar with its black, white and gold pictures.) Emily Gravett’s art captures the changing mood of AF Harrold’s book – sometimes scary, sometimes playful, sometimes sad – wonderfully. As fantastic as the pictures are, though, the words are a match for them. Harrold’s characters are vivid ones and this is an utterly entrancing read.
Two of my favourites of the second half of the year have been inspired by much older novels. In The Last Of The Spirits, Chris Priestley takes a look at the events of A Christmas Carol through the eyes of two children who encounter Scrooge at the start of the story. Sam swears revenge on the skinflint as his begging meets with a harsh response from the businessman, but after he resolves to attack Scrooge, Jacob Marley’s ghost appears to him to warn him off. Sam and his sister Lizzie are caught up in the events that are so familiar to readers from Dickens’s original novel, and Priestley weaves them into the plot superbly. It’s a short novel which took me just half an hour or so to read – a real pageturner – but has stayed with me since then; it’s deeply moving.
Kate Saunders does just as good a job of bringing fresh life to new characters in her sequel to E Nesbit’s classic Five Children And It. Five Children On The Western Front sees The Lamb, a baby last time we saw him but now 11, and new sibling Edith take centre stage as the Psammead’s reappearance coincides with the outbreak of World War I. This is absolutely heartwrenching – I started crying before page 1 (there’s a seriously emotional prologue) and didn’t stop until a few hours after finishing the book. The grumpy sand fairy of the originals is much darker here but is still recognisably the same character, and it’s a real testimony to Saunders’s skill that revelations about his past are shocking but believable. For me, this actually manages to improve on a much-loved children’s classic, and is one of two front-runners for my book of the year.
2014 was also the year of many amazing series starters! With Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus and Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant coming to an end this year there seems to be a gap in the marketplace for a new huge series; I’d love to see one (or more) of the below fill it.
Two of my very favourites from the year – one which I read in January and another which I only finished a few weeks ago – featured magic and piracy. Magic Marks The Spot, which opened Caroline Carlson’s Very Nearly Honourable League Of Pirates series, features a wonderful heroine in Hilary, turned down by the titular League for being a girl and instead sent to a boarding school. Aided by her companion the gargoyle, she wastes no time in escaping and teaming up with a freelance pirate called The Terror Of The Southlands. As the pair and their companions search for the kingdom’s lost magic, we’re treated to a huge amount of excitement, some truly surprising plot twists, and a whole heap of fun. I think the sequel – Magic Ahoy in the UK and The Terror Of The Southlands in the USA – is out here on New Year’s Day; I know what’s likely to be the first book I read in 2015! For another brilliant mix of pirates and magic, The Map To Everywhere is sensationally good. Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis have created an exceptional cast of characters, with a superb lead pairing. Fin, a master thief from another world who people forget as soon as he’s out of sight, and Marrill, the girl from our world who ends up boarding a mysterious pirate ship and meeting him in that world, are a stunning partnership. It’s amazing to see their friendship develop as Fin realises someone can finally remember him, while the plot of this one is a brilliant romp, and the humour throughout the book is fabulous. Longer to wait for the sequel to this one, sadly, but it’s high on my ‘most wanted’ list.
Egmont were one of the most consistently strong publishers this year, I think, and got 2014 off to a brilliant start with some fabulous reads for 9-12 year olds in the first four or five months. Jane Hardstaff’s historical paranormal adventure The Executioner’s Daughter, which starts with the title character forced to collect the head of Thomas More after her father chops it off, has one of the best openings I’ve read in a long time. Jason Rohan’s The Sword of Kuromori, set in Japan and featuring a lot of monsters from the Japanese culture, is an intriguing and exciting read, while Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall tells a brilliant story of children sent to Mars to train as the next generation of warriors and take up the fight against the aliens who’ve invaded Earth. The three books have very different settings but a fair amount in common – all three are thought-provoking reads, have great pairs or groups of friends, and provide some interesting villains with real depth. The next by these three authors are all ones I’m desperate to read. (The sequels to the first two are called River Daughter and The Shield of Kuromori; I don’t believe Sophia McDougall’s revealed the title of the follow up to Mars Evacuees yet.)
Post-apocalyptic story Ironheart by Allan Boroughs was yet another really impressive debut novel this year. Boroughs’ plotting for this post-apocalyptic adventure story is superb, as is his world-building, while India Bentley, who leaves home to join tech-hunter Verity Brown and her android bodyguard Calculus in the hope she can find her father, is a wonderful lead character. Some very interesting character development for a couple of the supporting characters towards the end left me really excited to read upcoming sequel Bloodstone.
So there were many great series which started this year, but also one which continued. Jon Mayhew’s Monster Odyssey got even better with the release of Wrath of the Lizard Lord, while I’ve been lucky enough to read the upcoming Curse of the Ice Serpent early. Inspired by Jules Verne, this is a thrilling series with lots of action, incredible monsters, and a great amount of well-known characters, both real and fictional, joining the fray. I’m not sure whether I’ve seen this or whether it’s just wishful thinking but I think we might get a fourth book in the series next year as well as Curse of the Ice Serpent – I’m definitely hoping so.
I’m not sure a story with an 18-year-old main character can really be counted as MG, but the novella Courting Magic by Stephanie Burgis is the sequel to arguably my favourite MG series ever, the Kat Stephenson trilogy, so it would be rather ridiculous not to mention it at all. Despite Kat’s advanced age, and the off the charts chemistry between her and her love interest here, there’s nothing that would make this particularly unsuitable for younger readers anyway. Kat’s family are as awesome as ever – I love the relationship she has with her two older sisters – while Stephanie Burgis’s world-building has never been better, bringing both Regency England and the magical world of witches and guardians brilliantly to life. We see Kat ready to make her debut in society here. As fans of the original three books can imagine, it doesn’t go quite to plan, but the chance to catch up with the vivacious heroine is one not to be missed; I’m hoping it’s not the last we see of her!
And finally, one which is YA rather than MG, but which is my absolute favourite of the year, edging out Five Children On The Western Front, so can’t be missed out. Bone Jack by Sara Crowe ranks alongside Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere as the best debut I’ve read since I started reviewing 5 years or so ago. Reminiscent of classics by Susan Cooper and Alan Garner in the way it weaves supernatural forces into our world, it’s at once thoroughly modern and completely timeless. Lead character Ash is chosen to be the stag boy in his village’s Stag Chase, following in his father’s footsteps, and wants to make his dad proud. However his dad returns from war suffering from PTSD and his best friend, grieving after his own father’s suicide, is acting creepily. Both the supernatural side of things and the real world problems of PTSD and foot and mouth disease, which has ravaged the rural community, are handled with incredible skill. An utterly breathtaking read.
Finally, a quick look ahead. Most of my most-anticipated books of next year have already been mentioned as they’re sequels to fantastic releases from this year; however there’s one series starting in 2015 I’m incredibly excited about. I’ve been lucky enough to read The Dreamsnatcher early as I know Abi Elphinstone slightly. I always find reading books written by people you like to be quite nerve-wracking – what if it’s no good? Thankfully no such issue with The Dreamsnatcher; Abi’s debut is a thrilling read, reminiscent of Philip Pullman in the bond between heroine Molly and wildcat Gryff. Containing fabulous comic relief in the shape of Molly’s friend Siddy and his pet earthworm Porridge The Second, and truly scary villains, this is a stunning book and I have a feeling that the sequel Soul Splinter will be top of my must read list in 2016.
Great list, Jim!