Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best Books of 2014

Well, well, dear readers--another year races to a close!

Thank you for sticking with me through another year of muttering angrily about books. I hope you've found some amusement here and perhaps a new favorite story or two. I've got a number of fun reviews set aside to kick off 2015, as well as a new feature on the blog. Be looking forward to it!

To wrap up the year, let me bring to your attention my top dozen books of the past year, in alphabetical order.


1. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein 
(YA historical fiction, 2013 Edgar Allen Poe Award winner) 

What it's about: a prisoner in Nazi-occupied France feeding false information to her jailers, hoping that her pilot friend survived their capture and will save her.
Why you should read it: because I cried buckets about female friendships and courage and lying narrators and stuff.


2. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold 
(adult fantasy, 2002 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award winner)

What it's about: a brutalized war veteran training a king's niece to face the treacherous court he would personally rather never see again.
Why you should read it: because of faith and free will, and surviving trauma, and adventure stories that gallop across the finish line.


3. Far From Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters 
(YA contemporary fiction, 2005)

What it's about: a teenager in rural Kansas trying to reclaim the family plumbing business after her father's suicide, while wooing the ostensibly straight new girl in town.
Why you should read it: because the narrator and the narrator's family are the truest, most well-rounded characters you'll find in YA literature this decade, and because you remember what it's like convincing yourself that your crush liked you back. 


4. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison 
(adult fantasy, 2014)

What it's about: an unwanted half-breed son unexpectedly inheriting the elven crown after a lifetime of neglect and abuse, and choosing how to shake off his father's ugly legacy.
Why you should read it: because this is the book I never knew that I wanted to write.


5. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg 
(adult historical fiction, 1964)

What it's about: a schizophrenic teenager navigating between the outdated psychiatric ward where she is imprisoned and the seductive fantastical world that used to be her refuge from reality.
Why you should read it: because it's smart and lavish and will wind around your imagination for years, even if you aren't all about stories of mental health and illness like I am.


6. The Orphan's Tales by Catherynne M. Valente 
(adult fantasy, 2008 Mythopoeic Award winner)

What it's about: a Scheherazadesque layering of original mythic stories in an unfamiliar world that all tie together and drag the narrator along.
Why you should read it: because you can never have enough fairy tales.


7. The Patron Saint of Ugly by Marie Manilla 
(adult contemporary, 2014)

What it's about: a hideously birthmarked child in rural West Virginia convinced by her Sicilian grandmother that she is the reincarnation of an ancient saint.
Why you should read it: because it's sizzling and funny and memorable in a way that I don't often find in contemporary fiction.


8. Port Eternity by C.J. Cherryh 
(adult science fiction, 2000)

What it's about: a crew of androids, named and programmed for their owner's love of Arthurian lore, shipwrecked in deep space with an unknown monster and the tape which gives their shallow programmed lives a deeper cause.
Why you should read it: because it's the only story which gives me The Once and Future King feelings besides that book itself.


9. The Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw
(YA historical fiction, 2000)

What it's about: a young Archimedes of Syracuse reluctantly turning his genius to make war machines for his city's defense, and his Roman slave struggling between loyalty to his warring family and to his new home.
Why you should read it: because Bradshaw is the greatest novelist of the ancient world and this story about nerds warms the cockles of my grim little heart.


10. The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob 
(adult contemporary fiction, 2014)

What it's about: a family of Indian immigrants unable to either settle in America or to return home, haunted by a legacy of sleep disorders which has already claimed the lives of several members.
Why you should read it: because sometimes you have to take a book on faith and this one I'm asking you to read.


11. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell 
(adult contemporary fiction, 2011 Andrew Carnegie medal finalist)

What it's about: a family-run amusement park in the Everglades sinking into decay, whose younger members turn to the occult to try and save it.
Why you should read it: because it's surreal and ghastly and charming in the most horrifyingly casual way.


12. The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner 
(YA historical fantasy, 1997 Newbury Honor winner)

What it's about: a street thief hired by the king's advisor to steal an ancient sacred treasure, and the double-dealing that follows on the crankiest of all possible road trips.
Why you should read it: because even I, knowing this old favorite like the back of my hand, am still amazed by this narrator's cleverness and effrontery.


13. The Wolf Hunt by Gillian Bradshaw 
(adult historical fiction, 2001)

What it's about: a novice Norman nun (say that three times fast) kidnapped by her Breton enemies, who investigates a local werewolf legend after her only protector goes missing.
Why you should read it: because this is an absolutely perfect marriage of history and mythology, and because it takes a lot for me to recommend as unabashedly romantic a story as this one is.


Happy reading, dear friends!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas! + "Dealing With Dragons"

Merry Christmas and a happy impending New Year, dear readers!

Working over the holidays has been a little bonkers, so none of the... three? reviews that I've been drafting are ready to appear before you. In their stead, let me fall back on one of my side projects: the read-alouds of fairy tales and short novels that I've been recording.

Back in July, I posted the first batch of short stories from fantasy greats authors Patricia C. Wrede, Patricia McKillip, and Peter S. Beagle. Now I've finished (yes, finished!) recording "Dealing With Dragons," a lighthearted story about a princess who volunteers to be kidnapped by a dragon, in order to keep away all the nonsense of knights, princes, and marriage. The dragon who takes her in doesn't need a princess so much as a librarian/cook/maid/co-conspirator.

It's an old favorite of mine and yours. I hope I do it justice.

This present is specifically for my friend Sarah, but the rest of you are welcome to listen, too!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: "Imperial Purple" by Gillian Bradshaw

Even slaves are honored to work with Tyrian purple, the rarest and most expensive of dyes in Byzantium. Demetrias, who weaves silk tapestries for the emperor, is luckier than most. But the honor turns to danger when Demetrias is secretly ordered to weave an imperial cloak in dimensions she knows are not the emperor's.

The secret commission is evidence of treason, and Demetrias wants no part of it. As a slave, though, she has no choice but to follow orders. After the conspirators escape with the finished cloak, Demetrias herself is seized as evidence of the plot and dragged a thousand miles from home to the court in Constantinople.

Her husband Symeon, a state slave himself, fishes for the murex shells which give the dye its hue. When Demetrias is kidnapped by the investigators, Symeon sails his tiny boat across the sea to follow her and force the powers of the state to return her home. But it was Symeon's well-meaning attempt to protect Demetrias that revealed the conspiracyand endangered her in the first place.

4 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review: "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed's name is no accident. At twenty-six years old, she has lost both father and mother, ended her marriage with her deliberately self-destructive habits, and struggled with the siren call of heroin. When she sets foot on the Pacific Crest Trail for the first time, she is nothing more than a stray.

Cheryl believes that hiking the PCT--from California through the Mojave Desert and across the Sierra Nevada into Washington State--will bring her insight and peace. But this stray has nothing but an oversized backpack, an outdated trail map, and determination to carry her forward. The kindness of her fellow hikers on the trail helps her onward, but not as much as Cheryl's hope.


3 out of 5 stars

(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: "The Queen of Attolia" by Megan Whalen Turner

(The Queen of Attolia is the second book in a series. I reviewed The Thief, the first book , here.)

"My" cover of The Queen of Attolia,
which apparently other fans despise.
The Queen of Attolia has not forgiven the thief Eugenides for outwitting her and escaping her judgment. When she captures him a second time in her own megaron, she invokes the historical punishment for thieves and orders his right hand be cut off before sending him home to his people.

The maiming of the thief becomes the catalyst for a war between three countries. The invading Mede Empire waits to overrun the first one weak enough to allow them a foothold. And Eugenides, one-handed and shaken, is called upon once more to snatch an impossible victory.

4.5 out of 5 stars

(grump + breakdown below the cut)


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review: "Watership Down" by Richard Adams

Hazel's brother Fiver is special--given to strange visions of the future, able to understand things outside of the ordinary rabbit's experience. When Fiver warns that the entire Sandleford warren will be destroyed, not by predators or plague but by some vast, unthinkable disaster, Hazel believes him when most others laugh. With a handful of others who either trust Fiver or chafe under warren life, they go into exile, daring the unknown.

But the English countryside is dangerous to rabbits without a safe place to run. Hunted by a thousand enemies, guided by Hazel and Fiver, the Sandleford exiles search for a safe place of their own.

3 out of 5 stars

(grump + breakdown below the cut)