Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 in Review

With each passing year, I try to be more conscious of keeping up with what's happening in the world of books. In 2012, I spent the month of December reading books published earlier in the year that had caught my eye. I decided to up the ante for 2013, and made an effort to read noteworthy/interesting books throughout the year. Some were really, really great. And of course, I thought some were awful.

1. Life After Life -- Kate Atkinson
This experimental time-travel historical fiction novel was the book I have thought about over and over for almost an entire year. What an incredible creation.

2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane -- Neil Gaiman
My favorite Gaiman book. The sort of thing you read and internalize like fever dreams that return to frighten you or make you laugh at times when you least expect it.

3. The River of No Return -- Bee Ridgway
Ridgway's debut is the definition of mash-up. Time-travel (again!), Regency period historicism, Dan-Brown-secret-society stuff--this novel has it all. Seriously. My pick for most underrated book of 2013. Don't waste a moment in getting yourself a copy (I bought three).

4. The Golem and the Jinni -- Helene Wecker
A fascinating fantasy-historical-romance (a mash-up in in its own right) set in 1890s New York between two mythical beings. The memories of this book have been glowing in my soul like small embers since I turned the last page.

5. Burial Rites -- Hannah Kent
This debut is a chilling, atmospheric novel of 1820s Iceland and a convicted (historically real!) murderess. Guaranteed to soak into your skin and then cut you up from the inside. Ugh (the good kind of ugh).

6. Tampa -- Alissa Nutting
Cheers to the most nauseating, skin-crawling, deliciously mind-warping book of 2013. Celeste Price is the one of the most intoxicating, interesting villains ever. Also, she's a pedophile.

7. The Screaming Staircase -- Jonathan Stroud
I just want to tell everyone I know about how fun this book is. Seriously. Teenage ghost hunters! Alternate history London! GAH! It's for the 8-12 set, sure, but it's enjoyable for every age group, surely.

8. The Luminaries -- Eleanor Catton
This New Zealand Gold Rush novel got a lot of attention for its author being young and its style being experimental, but I was really blown away by how well Catton works her way through a cast of characters and sets them up for a delicious, twisty plot.

9. Joyland -- Stephen King
One of the two new Stephen King books from this year, it's a really good/sad coming-of-age but a less good murder mystery thriller. I care mostly about the first part. Still give it a shot because it's a fun amusement park novel regardless.

10. Tenth of December -- George Saunders
Short stories that will simultaneously fill you with disgust and sadness. "Why would I read it?" you ask. Because George Saunders is that good. You will want the despair.

The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson)

I mentioned in an earlier review of mine that adult fantasy is a realm I find inaccessible. Once again, I returned to the land of kid/teen magic with Brandon Sanderson's series-initiating The Rithmatist. I was a bit leery because Sanderson is by trade an epic fantasy author--he was chosen to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, which is basically the embodiment of all things I fear and loathe in adult swords-and-sorcery--but it turns out my fears were a bit misplaced.

We are in an alternate version of history, at the beginning of the 20th century where Europe is ruled by some sort of East Asian power and the United States is actually a collection of islands called the United Isles. One island, Nebrask, has a mysterious Tower on it where creatures called chalklings dwell: living beings made out of chalks. A group of select citizens practice the art of Rithmatics, magically using chalk to create complex defense systems and chalklings of their own.

There are eight academies spread out across the isles where Rithmatists (chosen by a religious ceremony) study their arts, eventually spending four years fighting at Nebrask before returning to civilian life. Joel is a student at one of the universities, Armedius Academy, but much to his own disappointment, he is not a Rithmatist. His deceased father was a chalkmaker for the university and his mother is a cleaning woman.

One day, a newcomer professor named Nalizar challenges Professor Fitch, one of the old guard at Armedius. Through a chalk duel, Nalizar deposes Fitch from his position as a tenured professor of Rithmatic theory, a fact which angers and shocks Joel. Not soon after, a series Rithmatic student disappearances strike the campus, and Joel, Fitch and a failing Rithmatics student named Melody are on the case.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tampa (Alissa Nutting)

Tampa was one of the most-talked about books of 2013 simply because of its subject matter--it's the story of a female teacher preying on her eighth-grade male students. On Goodreads, it has a 3.27 average rating, and I can't help but feel that the poor reception is simply a knee-jerk reaction of disgust and moral superiority. I'm going to be real with you, this book was good, even if it did gross me out.

Celeste Price has designed her entire life around getting access to teenage boys. She is an eighth-grade teacher who has married into a rich family so she can afford all the best  youth treatments to stay attractive and young. When the first day of class hits, her body aches, aflame with desire for some new meat, and as her trailer-classroom fills up with pubescent boys, her hunt begins.

This book has been getting a lot of comparison to Lolita, but I think that's a bit too obvious, so I'm going to steer clear of such comparisons. Celeste is one of the most disgusting, horrifying, interesting characters I've ever read. She is a mash-up of every truly nightmarish woman out there, feasting simultaneously on naivete, virginal innocence and mommy issues. She doesn't feel in the way that normal humans do, nothing several times in the narrative that she has to consciously inflect her voice to provide a socially acceptable reaction (and she makes these comments offhandedly, which is just one of the many facets of Nutting's genius).

Our narrator is very devious, taking a lot of measures to ensure she never gets caught. The amount of careful planning she lays out before beginning her adolescent affair is frightening, like a terrorist planning a massive, devastating attack. And perhaps that's what it is, on a tiny scale: Celeste knows exactly how damaging her flings will be for her teen boy victims, and even that turns her on.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The School for Good and Evil (Soman Chainani)

More fairy tales to wind down the year. Yay! The School for Good and Evil is the debut novel (and first in a series) by Soman Chainani. The premise: once every four years, two children are kidnapped from the town of Gavaldon by the School Master, never to be seen again, except that's not quite true. They resurface down the road as characters in new fairy tales, stories which appear in mysterious books at the local book shop. One child is always Good and one is always Evil.

Accordingly, this event strikes fear into the heart of children everywhere, with one exception: Sophie wants to be taken. She wants out of Gavaldon, and, being the beautiful blonde that she is, aspires to one day be a princess. She works hard to perform acts of charity and even befriends a gruesome girl named Agatha, who lives in the graveyard. She is convinced that they will be taken together, Sophie for Good and Agatha for Evil. Agatha is less excited at the thought of being taken, especially since it means a lifetime of misery and solitude as she becomes a villain. And on the night of the kidnapping, Sophie is right. She and Agatha get taken.  But when the School Master drops Sophie in the School for Evil and Agatha in the School for Good, they are both convinced there's been a grave error and set out to correct it.

Of course the idea of a metafiction approach to fairy tales appealed to me. It was obvious that I was going to read this book. Chainani's manipulation of our familiar tropes is excellent and often humorous; the concept of a school that creates fairy tale characters is wonderful, and his execution of that concept is equally delightful. The Evers (that is, students of Good) get Groom Rooms where they can beautify themselves in hopes of finding true love (a concept which the author recognizes as ridiculous and lightly mocks in a very smart way), while Nevers take a class on Uglification. The book is overflowing with delightful nuggets like these.

And for the most part, the characters are just as delightful. I really enjoyed Sophie and Agatha especially, but Tedros, the son of King Arthur (who is interesting for his constant fear of any woman pulling a Guinevere on him, a trait I applaud for its intelligence and maturity), as well as a variety of side players like Hort and Beatrix and Dot, were interesting and well-created.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton)

Through various times in my life, I have flirted with the idea of being a literary snob. There are periods in which I buy four or five books that are winners of the Booker Prize or perhaps the National Book Award (all at bargain price, of course) and, after two+ years of not reading them, I get rid of them. The problem with literary awards, at least in my mind, is that they intentionally ignore popular novels that deserve praise (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, obviously) and load praise onto obscure books that no one cares about that turn out to be rather boring anyway (I was going to include an example but seriously, just pick any major prize winner from the last decade). The Luminaries is the 2013 Booker Prize winner, and I only talked myself into buying it because it sounded interesting and I had actually heard of it prior to its award-winning buzz. So here I am, ten days after I began reading, to tell you how I feel.

There are two major things about this book that get mentioned when it comes up: the first is that the author, Eleanor Catton, is only 28, which makes her the youngest-ever winner of the Booker Prize and that her books is 830+ pages, which also makes it the longest book ever to win the award. The second thing you'll hear is a discussion of its experimental structure, where the book is divided into 12 sections ever diminishing in size with characters representing astrological figures; the book makes use of star charts in its representations of characters.

But I'm here to argue that all of that stuff doesn't matter--those are reasons that are not relevant to why The Luminaries is a good book, because it certainly is. The novel is set in 1860s New Zealand during the gold rush, and in my opinion, that's reason enough to read it--it's like a mashup of Victorian London drama and Wild West adventure. Why haven't more people written about New Zealand? Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika, a mining town, at the same town that it experiences a big scandal: a man named Crosbie Wells is found dead, a prostitute named Anna Wetherell is found nearly dead of opium overdose and a miner named Emery Staines has gone missing.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Splintered (A. G. Howard)

I cannot resist the allure of fairy tales. Fortunately/unfortunately, the trend is very popular right now; fortunately because it provides me with a lot of material to explore but unfortunately because a sizable portion of it is, frankly, not good.

I know Alice in Wonderland isn't a fairy tale, but it's fairy-tale-esque and is often reinterpreted, so I include it in this category (see also The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). I am a big fan of Lewis Carroll's original books and I get very defensive of them; I hate when people swear that the book was written after an acid trip (LSD wasn't created until 1937 and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is from 1865), trying to cite the hookah-smoking caterpillar as evidence of something drug-fueled and insane, because I think if that's all you get from the book, then you've missed the point: that it's a funny, relentlessly punny story.

So imagine my displeasure every time I encounter a reworking of the trippy fantasy that focuses only on how bizarre and twisted a place Wonderland is. There is this cultural desire to tell stories about returning to Wonderland to find it a dark, threatening place: The Looking Glass Wars, the 2010 Tim Burton film, the 2009 Syfy miniseries, and American McGee's video games are all examples. I quickly get tired of these versions. I would argue any day that The Phantom Tollbooth is a better retelling of Alice than anything out there because it manages to capture the spirit of wacky, pun-heavy humor that I value so much in the originals.

Despite all of my reservations, I gave Splintered a shot. This time, we're with the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, the girl who served as inspiration for Lewis Carroll when he wrote his quirky stories. The woman descendants of Alice are cursed: they hear plants and bugs whispering to them all the time. Alyssa (our narrator) has been hearing bugs and plants whispering to her for awhile and uses bugs to make bizarre but beautiful art. Her mother is locked in the asylum after an incident where she attacked her daughter in a fit of madness.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud)

I have a weak spot in my heart for children's fantasy, I really do. I can barely tolerate the adult counterpart (it often takes itself too seriously, gets caught up in having weird character/place names and invented languages while characters go on big, annoying quests to do...whatever it is they must do), but something about the playfulness of children's fantasy draws me back again and again.

One series in particular that I loved at an age where it was appropriate (I mean I was in the age group it was written for) was the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. Those books captured my attention in a way that few series did--that is, I still remember them now as fondly as I enjoyed them then, which is not the case with a good many fantasy series I read back then. So when I saw the release of a new series by the same author, I jumped at the chance. Why wouldn't I?

The premise behind The Screaming Staircase is an alternate-history England in which ghosts are real and are a very serious problem. If a ghost touches you, you swell up, turn blue and die. And they're everywhere. Of course, a ghost-hunting industry pops up to combat the problem. The catch, however, is that children are far more sensitive to spirits than adults--they can see (and sometimes hear) ghosts, while adults can only occasionally sense their presence in the case of a manifestation.

So businesses appear all over England comprised of teenagers who can hunt ghosts, but they're generally controlled by adults. Except Lockwood & Co., a group of three who run themselves. These are our heroes: Anthony Lockwood, Lucy Carlyle (our lovely narrator) and George Cubbins. The story begins with their investigation of a haunting reported by a recently-widowed woman by a spirit she suspects is her husband. The problem turns out to be more complicated and leads to a burnt-down house and a larger mystery of a socialite from 50 years previously who disappeared mysteriously.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Burial Rites (Hannah Kent)

Sometimes books just reach out to you from the universe and beg you to read them and you can't shake them until you do. Burial Rites is one such book--the moment I discovered it existed out in the world, the thought of its existence has been slowly burning in the back of my brain. Fortunately, I finally treated myself to reading it, but now that I've read it, but it will continue to smolder in my mind for some time to come.

This book tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an Icelandic woman from the 1820s who really existed. Historically, she was accused of killing a man and was beheaded for her crimes, widely regarded as a villian by the community. Kent's delicious debut aims to provide Agnes with a voice to speak about the crime and the result is absolutely spectacular.

Before reading this book, I had no idea about Agnes' existence or story. If you haven't, either, don't worry. This isn't the sort of historical fiction that requires you to know a lot about the original history to understand, and thank goodness. Those are generally very annoying books. If you decide to read this book (and I beg you, please read it), you needn't worry about lacking context.

Burial Rites is overflowing with goodness. The novel is breathtakingly atmospheric. I felt swept up inside ~1828 Iceland in the way that tells me how good the book is--I felt trapped there, enwrapped and ensnared in the unforgiving landscape. The last book to capture me in such a way was The Snow Child. In both instances, I never wanted to leave behind even the setting. For most books, the writing about a setting is a throwaway for me as I rarely care where a book happens. But Kent made me belong to this time and place. Incredible.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The House of Hades (Rick Riordan)

Ah, the fourth book in the Heroes of Olympus series. So nice to see you after a few months off. In my earlier reviews of Rick Riordan's latest Greek myth stories, I noted my weariness of his tropes. I was worried about reading book four, The House of Hades, for fear that I would burn myself out on what is a fairy well-crafted universe because of how formulaic the author is. I am happy to say, then, that the newest book in this series defied my expectations--Riordan navigates new waters with his characters, and dang if the results aren't interesting and captivating!

When we left our cast in The Mark of Athena, Annabeth had just recovered the magical, giant statue of Athena and she and Percy had fallen into Tartarus. It was, I admit, a great cliffhanger. And it finally allows the narrative some room to breathe! Thank goodness. Percy and Annabeth make everyone else promise to meet them on the mortal side of the Doors of Death, and the quest begins.

One of the reasons this book is so great is because we get a lot of Percy/Annabeth-only time. Clearly, this is what the people want, and Riordan doesn't fail to deliver in spades. There are tons of great moments between the two of them, with Percy delivering his trademark (actually funny!) humor. Oh, and Bob, the Titan whose memory Percy erased once upon a time, joins them on their trip through Tartarus. Bob is a really fun character. Sometimes he made me really sad. In a good way.

I care less about the other five characters on the quest--Jason and Piper are pretty boring people, as is Frank; Leo aggravates me more often than he amuses me, but Hazel's pretty interesting. The House of Hades is a great book for character development, though--Hazel learns how to control the Mist, which is a fascinating concept, and Leo has a whole episode that convinced me to like him (and then it broke my heart). Nico di Angelo also goes through a moment of really sad, really great character development, and I think his moment most of all is going to be what sticks with me until the next book comes out. No spoilers, of course. But the revelation about Nico is definitely the best part of the book.