Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.
Who: Karen Healey, a Smuggler favorite author of awesome Young Adult contemporary fantasy and speculative fiction.
Give a warm hand to Karen, folks!
For my New Year’s Resolutions this year, I resolved to blog every day (nope!), read the 17 Shakespeare plays I hadn’t read yet (… there’s still time left in the year!) and read all the Brontes’ novels.
That last and most successful resolution started well. Early in the year, I ripped through Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey, adored Villette, hated The Professor… and crashed right into Wuthering Heights.
UGH. Wuthering Heights.
Undeniable work of genius. Amazing Gothic doubling. Incredible psychological portrait of torment and obsession.
I can’t stand it.
I started reading Wuthering Heights in May, and finished in October, and I only managed that because my friend Sarah Rees Brennan, of whom you have heard tell, released her much more likable modern Gothic romance Unspoken and I wanted to do a comparative review.
In the six months I was mostly not reading Wuthering Heights, I read a lot of other old books, out of a misplaced sense of virtue. If I couldn’t finish that one, at least I could read some other classics, right? And that leads me, Smugglivus celebrators, to my holiday list for you:
Karen’s Top Five Old Books Of The Year(all available for free at Project Gutenberg, forever bless its name!):
5. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
Credited with being the first detective novel, the protagonists here are trying less to figure out whodunit, but to figure out what the heck was actually happening when it was dun. This is the story of a somewhat boring man and a totally great lady investigating what has happened to the lady’s sister. Is she dead? Is she imprisoned in an asylum? Has she swapped places with her spookily similar lookalike? What is going on?
The Woman In White is an epistolary novel, a narrative conceit I’ve always liked, and the best parts of it are Marian’s diary. MARIAN. Marian is a smart, tough, roof-clambering detective lady with a mustache. To know her is to love her.
4. The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton
The most recently written book on this list, The Custom of the Country is a story about a totally amoral and very beautiful woman who blithely goes around causing havoc in the lives of all she meets through her avarice.
Wait! Wait! It’s better than it sounds, I promise. Sociopathic (though not malicious) Undine isn’t exactly a sympathetic character, but she is very interesting.
Wharton’s pen is biting on the stupidity of an American society that equips women of the middle and upper classes with absolutely no business education and no practical method of acquiring an income except through marriage. It’s Wharton, so you know there are plenty of sly witticisms and satirical social portraits, as well as finely drawn characters with very human motivations for their errors and their triumphs.
3. Shirley, Charlotte Bronte
“Holy crap!” I declared when I’d got twenty pages into Shirley. “Charlotte Bronte has a sense of humor! Who knew?”
And so she does! There is some excellent snark in her character portraits here, almost worthy of Miss Jane Austen, a lady who takes the top three spots of my Best Old Books Of All Time.
Shirley also has a great plot, and some sterling commentary on the social issues of the time it describes, though coming from a very classist perspective, because Brontes. Cloth mill owner Robert Moore is having trouble with the workers he’s laid off breaking the machines he’s buying to replace them, and he is our hero. Despite this, he’s not a bad hero, except for the child labour, which was totally normal (and still is today, in much of the world) but still freaks me out.
His heroine is Caroline Helstone, his cousin (sort of? I think not by blood, not that this would disturb Charlotte, because Brontes) who is a very nice young lady with some decidedly passionate views. Her best friend is the eponymous Shirley Keeldar, who is GREAT. Swashbuckling Shirley, who’s all like, there’s an attack on the mill? We must run over hill and dale in the middle of the night to help out! Defiant Shirley, who’s all, Uncle, marry this dude just because you think I should? I think NOT! Brave Shirley, who’s all, a potentially rabid dog just bit me? I shall cauterize the wound with a laundry iron!
Then there’s her boyfriend, who I don’t like, whatever, SHIRLEY.
Shirley has some beautiful descriptive passages and a lot of quietly subversive things to say about the limited roles of women, and it is very funny, buuuut it’s kind of hard to forget that Caroline and Shirley are loosely based on Anne and Emily Bronte, respectively, and that they died during the writing of the book. I cannot imagine what finishing that manuscript must have been like. “Oh, well. Guess I’d better write a chapter from the perspective of my dead sister. And then maybe a passage from the point of view of my other dead sister!”
2. Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
One of the first novels in the classical English tradition to be, like, hey, maybe Jewish people can be pretty cool? Not all moneylending stereotypes who refuse Christianity out of spite? Who’da thunk! Daniel Deronda is the story of the titular Daniel, a young man struggling with his murky heritage and trying to realise his destiny, and that of Gwendolen, an uncommonly beautiful and spirited young woman who marries an emotionally abusive asshat and relies on Daniel for spiritual and emotional support. Travels by yacht! Archery competitions! Learning Hebrew!
It’s a beautiful novel, although I eyebrowed so hard at the ending for Gwendolen (it’s not unhappy, but it’s not as great as it should be!) that I had to invent a head canon of my own for what happens ten minutes after the book finishes.
1. Villette, Charlotte Bronte
Villette was the book written entirely after the deaths of Emily and Anne, and it’s an incredible study of grief and depression.
The plot, such as it is, is hardly relevant, because it’s the amazing psychological impact of Lucy, the narrator, that gives the book such appeal. But if you insist! Lucy goes to Europe, becomes a teacher at a girls’ school, is frenemies with the richest, most beautiful student there, has silent obsessive love for two men, makes friends with a little delicate lady, some other stuff – oh wait, the school play where she plays a male role! Can’t forget the play. And that time she wore the pink dress with the black shawl and it SCANDALISED one of her manly loves! And that time she wandered around a pseudo-Egyptian festival high on opiates.
That actually happens, I swear.
Lucy also has the occasional psychotic break and lies to the reader all the time and spends a lot of time railing about how AWFUL Catholicism is while being in love with an extremely Catholic man. She is fascinating and sharp and intense, and sort of frightening, really, in the strength of her suffering, in how strongly she attempts to smother her feelings under a heavy blanket of rationality, in how brightly her temper flashes out when sparked.
If you like Jane of Jane Eyre, you will love Lucy of Villette.
That was my year of Old Books, Smugglivus celebrators (which was also my year of Teen Movies – check out this blog post for more about my essays on those). This is ironic, in a Morissettean way, because my next book is very much concerned with the future.
When We Wake (Little, Brown, March 5th) is the story of Tegan Oglietti, who dies on the best day of her life in 2027, and wakes up a hundred years later into a very different future. Many things have changed for the better, and many… have really not. Tegan has to decide between keeping her head down and staying quiet, or standing up to speak.
Tegan is a fan of old things too – in her case, it’s the music of the Beatles, who were old well before her time, and are forgotten in the future.
I have an ARC of When We Wake to give away to Smugglivus readers. To enter, tell me which old cultural product you would choose to champion in the future. Pride and Prejudice? The rock art of Olary? The poetry of Imru’ al-Qais? Comment here and enter the draw!
Karen Healey writes books and lives in New Zealand. She’s the award-winning author of Guardian of the Dead and The Shattering, and she’d probably try to get the future enthused about Josie and the Pussycats. You can learn more about her at http://karenhealey.com or follow her twitter account at @kehealey
Thank you, Karen!
Now, you heard the lady, comment away to enter the giveaway of one ARC of When We Wake. The giveaway is open to ALL and will run till Saturday December 22 2012 11:59PM EST. Good luck!