Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Favourite Reads of 2012

I suppose this post is a bit belated, but at least it's still January.  Without further ado, I give you my "best of" list for 2012.  I've starred my five most favourite books in honour of their outstanding quality (Caveat: these were hard to pick and I may well change my mind in the future.)

(For my favourite books of 2011, click here.)

Published in 2012

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein*

I bought my copy in February, pretty soon after publication, because the cover had attracted my notice in Blackwell's.  I think this may be my single favourite book of 2012 and perhaps the one I would most recommend.  You should read it because it's a fantastic YA historical fiction novel about espionage, flying, and female friendship in World War II.  This is an emotionally gripping, tighly written, and twisty turny novel that made me absolutely sob at the end.  Also, in recent years, I've become much less of a re-reader, but I think I may need to read this one again soon.  It's just that good.  I reviewed it here.  (YA historical fiction)

The Brides of Rollrock Island, Margo Lanagan

This was the novel that introduced me to the magicalness that is Margo Lanagan's writing.  Her prose is luscious and beautiful, but she does everything else well too.  Brides takes place over several generations on Rollrock Island and encompasses the revenge the witch Miskaella takes against its inhabitants by introducing seal wives to the island's weak-willed men.  A great take on the selkie story.  I reviewed it here.  (YA fantasy)

The Montmaray Journals (2008-2012), Michelle Cooper

This trilogy comprises A Brief History of Montmaray (review), The FitzOsbornes in Exile (review), and The FitzOsbornes at War (review).  For some reason, my reviews for this trilogy have become some of the most visited pages on this blog.  Go figure.  But I'm more than happy to spread the word.  This YA historical trilogy follows the royal family of the fictional island of Montmaray into exile in England, through the years leading up to the outbreak of war, and through the Second World War itself.  The characters, including narrator Princess Sophia, are incredibly well-drawn, so much so that I had metaphorical fingers crossed for everyone during the final book in the series and, you guessed it, sobbed at the inevitable loss of a beloved character.  The alternate history aspect of these books is incredibly well done, as Cooper weaves various historical figures through the books, including the Kennedys and the Mitfords,  Also, I learned a great deal about the Spanish Civil War from these books.  Great fun and highly recommended, especially to anyone who loves Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, which the first book in the series is delightfully reminiscent of.  (YA historical)

Black Spring, Alison Croggonn

I loved Alison Croggon's fantasy quartet The Books of Pellinor, so I was so, so excited to find out her next novel was a dark fantasy reworking of Wuthering Heights, possibly my favourite book ever.  I reviewed the novel here.  Croggon follows the plot of the original quite closely but makes absolutely fascinating tweaks and changes, shifting the politics of the book, using magic and a vendetta code to externalize and embody aspects of the original novel.  If you like Wuthering Heights, I think you probably need to read this novel.  (YA fantasy)

Days of Blood and Starlight, Laini Taylor

Oh my goodness.  Days of Blood and Starlight is the second book in what is fast becoming one of my favourite fantasy trilogies ever.  I included its predecessor Daughter of Smoke and Bone on my list of favourite books from 2011, and I think Days may be even better - bigger, bolder, darker.  There's a strong thread of romance running through these books, though Days focuses mainly on the pain of thwarted romantic love.  The main character, Karou, is amazing, and she's backed by fabulous, hilarious friends from her Prague art school, while the angels and demons (or seraphim and chimaera) are fascinating and the love interest Akiva is properly smouldering, while also having his own story and challenges.  A must-read series if you like YA fantasy.  The third book is due to come out in 2014 and I can't wait, especially because Taylor finished the second book (and the first, for that matter) with a terrible cliffhanger! Review here.  (YA fantasy)

Maggot Moon, Sally Gardner*

I was already a fan of Sally Gardner when I picked up this, her most recent novel, but now I love her even more.  Maggot Moon is set in an alternative, dystopic 1950s England and narrated by Standish Treadwell, who is dyslexic and therefore at risk of being sent away for lacking "purity".  His best friend Hector, as well as his parents, have already been disappeared.  This novel is a wonderfully imagined story of friendship and bravery in spite of all odds.  The ending also made me cry.  (Crying seems to be a good indicator, as far as this "Best Of" list is concerned.)  It's already won the Costa Children's Book prize and is well worth a read.  Review here.  (Speculative YA?  Hard to categorize)

And here's some non-fiction to finish up the 2012 section of this post:

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, Kate Summerscale

I loved Summerscale's previous book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which told the story of an influential Victorian murder case which contributed to sensation and detective fiction (and made my best of list last year).  This book was also fantastic, following Isabella Robinson, a middle-class woman trapped in a loveless marriage and the diary she kept, which detailed - or did it? - her adulterous affair with a younger doctor.  The affair led to a much-publicized divorce trial and Summerscale is very good on the ins and outs of divorce law in the period, the history of diary-keeping, and the place of women in Victorian society.  A great read.  (Non-fiction; history; social history)

Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England, Sarah Wise

I read this lengthy-ish book in four days.  It's absolutely gripping.  In each chapter, Wise gives the case history, as it were, of a nineteenth-century man or woman incorrectly certified as insane, often because relatives wanted to gain control of said person's money.  Wise deftly traces the evolution of the laws surrounding lunacy and gives the details of the various ways people could be incarcerated.  I learned that in the first half of the century, men, who controlled more money, were probably more likely to be comitted to an asylum or doctor's private care than women.  I also learned that if control of wealth was to be transferred to, say, a family member in the event of a relative being comitted, there had to be a Chancery trial to determine if the lunatic was capable of managing his or her own wealth.  The whole book was fascinating and read really well and, perhaps most important to me personally, sparked off a train of thought that led (I think) to me figuring out the plot of my next novel.  I owe Sarah Wise a lot for that.  (Non-fiction; history; social history)

Books Published before 2012

A few things irked me about many published "Best Books" lists for 2012.  For one thing, it seems only capital "L" literary fiction and non-fiction titles were mentioned (no YA? Fantasy? Mystery?) and the lists were heavy on 2012 titles, which is strange seeing as how the great majority of fabulous books were published in the years leading up to 2012.  Now, I'm a bit guilty of this myself, because I read a lot of books last year that were 2012 releases.  But I'm more than happy to feature the pre-2012 titles I loved best here.

Young Adult

Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan*

Having read and loved The Brides of Rollrock Island early in the year, I made the very wise decision of try reading Lanagan's previous novel, Tender Morsels, again.  I had tried to read this novel a couple years ago back home in Saskatoon, but couldn't get past the first fifty pages or so, because this novel includes terrible sexual violence right up front.  Lanagan is very careful in her portrayal of such acts and really one's imagination fills in most of the blanks (perhaps that's why the first section is so powerful), but I just wasn't ready to read the novel then.  This time I read all the way through and was bowled over by the heartbreaking power of it.  The novel is a retelling of the Grimm's fairy tale "Snow White and Rose Red" and involves a young woman, Liga, who becomes the mother of two girls and raises them in her "heaven" because of the torment she has suffered.  In her "heaven", men are kind and she and her daughters are safe.  But it isn't real and soon enough, they all must face reality; however painful and flawed the real world is, that is where true beauty and love are to be found.  I can't do it justice.  It's an immensely sad and immensely beautiful novel and I'm so glad I read it.  (YA fantasy)

How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff*

This novel was strongly recommended to me by a fellow Oxford-area SCWBI member, Jo Wyton (who blogs at Let's Get Serious).  I had a really fabulous, intense reading experience with this novel.  It's quite short - about 200 pages long, I think - and it was so good and so gripping that I read it over the course of one bath, one evening.  And the ending made me sob.  It's narrated by American Daisy who arrives in the UK to stay with her aunt, uncle, and cousins and to recover from her anorexia.  However, she winds up alone on a farm with her cousins when war is declared and must escape with her younger cousin and seek safety, leaving behind her lover, Cousin Edmond.  Her escape and her homecoming are brilliantly told in Daisy's distinctive, idiosyncratic voice.  This novel also taught me that I really need to read more of Meg Rosoff's novels, something I can hopefully do in 2013.  (YA - hard to characterize - just read it!)


Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

It was with a degree of sadness that I read this novel, because it was the last of Sarah Waters's novels unread by me.  Now I just have to hope she has a new book published really soon.  It's been a long time since I raced through an author's entire oevre the way I raced through this body of novels.  I can now say categorically that they're all fabulous!  This one seemed especially formed to please me, riffing as it does off Oliver Twist and The Woman in White, encompassing madhouses and pickpockets.  This novel features sudden reversals, revelations, romance, and crime.  It's just great.  (Though Water's most recent and the first I read, The Little Stranger, may still be my favourite, but it's really hard to say).  (Historical fiction; neo-Victorian fiction)


In a Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu

The best Victorian book I read last year was Sheridan Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly, a collection of Victorian ghost stories connected by the frame narrative of Dr. Hesselius, who looks into psychical phenomena.  The stories (though two could be considered novellas) are fabulous.  Le Fanu really was among the very best Victorian ghost story writers, carefully constructing each so that it is ambiguous: real ghosts? psychological abnormality?  Hard to say.  Probably my favourite part of the collection was Carmilla, which features a female vampire and was written a good twenty or so years before Dracula (and, I think, was an influence on it).  Just great stuff.  (Victorian; ghost stories)


Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain*

I ended up reading this autobiography/memoir after reading some of Rohan Maitzen's blog posts on planning her Dalhousie seminar on the Somerville Novelists.  Somerville College was one of Oxford's women's colleges (they're all co-ed now) and bred an inordinate number of notable novelists in the post-war genration, notably Brittain, Winifred Holtby (of South Riding fame) and Dorothy L. Sayers.  Having the great advantage of living in Oxford, it was easy enough to pop down to visit Somerville, which Tim and I thought resembled North American universities more than many of the other colleges (maybe it was all the brick architecture?).  Anyway, I was so pleased I had visited the college shortly before I began reading Brittain's memoir, because I could picture her time at Somerville as an undergraduate reasonably accurately.  It was quite a revelation, seeing how hard Brittain had to fight for the Oxford education that her brother was granted almost as a default.  The narrative quickly shifts into her time as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse during World War I, following her through postings in London, France, and Malta.  The book shows the pain of the loss of her brother and fiance and her return to academia after the war.  Brittain writes of making friends with Holtby after the war, her involvement in the pacifist movement and League of Nations, and falling in love with her eventual husband in the 1920s.  It's just an amazing book in terms of its view of women's education and women's role in World War I.  I'm so glad I read this.  It made me realise (yet again) how lucky I am to have had a university education and to be at Oxford.  (Memoir; autobiography; World War I)

1 comment:

  1. Your book choices are FANTASTIC.
    The covers truly inspire me.
    I wanna read all dis shit 4eva