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: Rachel Neumeier, amazing writer of adult and YA speculative fiction and now a Smuggler-favorite author.
Recent Work: The wonderful House of Shadows, which Thea read and loved.
Give it up for Rachel, everyone!
Thank you, Thea and Ana, for your invitation to participate in Smugglivus 2012! It’s always a pleasure to take this opportunity to look back over a year’s worth of reading, even if it’s hard to decide which books really made my own personal 2012 Top Ten list. It’ll be fun to see how my personal list matches up with those of other Smugglivus participants – fun and a little dangerous, since I know my wish list will suddenly and dramatically expand as I read the other entries.
For 2012, I decided to try to pick one Best novel for (almost) every month of the year. So here we go –
January: The Valor series, by Tanya Huff – a fantastic surprise that offered great writing, excellent plotting, and one of the best female characters of the year.
I’d read one or two fantasy novels by Huff over the years, but was never inspired to dash out and buy up her complete backlist. I’m not sure why I picked up the first book of this series, which is military SF. But it was a revelation! What makes the Valor series such a stand-out? Well, the great characters, of course! (I’m a character reader, so that goes without saying.) The protagonist of the series, Torin Kerr, is a mere sergeant, not a captain or commander or general. This was an inspired choice on Huff’s part, because Torin is a fantastic protagonist, and part of what makes her great is her role as sergeant. Every one of the books in this series is excellent, with snappy dialogue, tight plotting, and plenty of action as well as great characters. I totally recommend ’em and really hope to see the series continue.
February: Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.
This amazing debut novel offers wonderful writing! It’s just word-perfect all the way through. The prose doesn’t call attention itself at all, but just disappears into the story. I didn’t even know you could do that with first-person present-tense. Wow. Also, the setting! Sort of a pseudo-Mexico-South-America. I have absolutely nothing against ordinary Tolkeinesque or medieval European settings, but all these jungles and deserts are wonderfully different. I love the religion that’s almost-but-not-quite familiar. It’s both integral to the plot and flawlessly integrated into the setting. The main character, Elisa, is fantastic. I would love to quote this one bit where Elisa realizes why God chose her to bear the Godstone, right on the second to last page of the book, but I can’t because it’s too good and you should read it yourself. Elisa’s a great character to begin with, and then she changes and grows as a person and gets even better.
March: Wide Open by Deb Coates.
For me, the mystery element didn’t work that well – it was obvious who the bad guy was and he was pretty much a stock villain. But I didn’t care, because I loved the protagonist, Hallie. I loved the relationship between Hallie and her father, and the slow development of the relationship between Hallie and the male lead (“The Boy Detective”). I loved the setting (South Dakota!) – I’m such a sucker for a great setting. Plus, Coates has a real talent for dialogue that feels completely real. I’m really looking forward to the second book in this new series.
April: I don’t remember offhand what I was working on during April 2012, but obviously I was working hard, because I didn’t read any books at all during this month. I know, right? Painful even in retrospect.
May: I must have arrived at a stopping point in May, because I read 14 books that month. My pick? Hands down, The Scorpio Races by Stiefvater.
This one is probably my top pick for the whole year. The Scorpio Races is not paced super-fast; there’s room to appreciate the world and the unfolding story. Whether you lean more YA or more adult, I think you’d stand a very good chance of falling in love with this book. I love Sean Kendrick. I love Puck Connelly. I love the fact that there’s no insta-romance between them, but instead a relationship that develops slowly and even awkwardly. Not only that, but I love the way they both have to win the Scorpio Races – when naturally it has to actually be one or the other. I even believe how this worked out in the end – because Stiefvater is that good a storyteller. I do particularly love the bit when Finn, Puck’s brother, saves the day right at the end. Brilliant! And yet obvious in retrospect.
June: During June, I was starting to read Hugo nominees. My pick for the month, unsurprisingly, was Among Others by Jo Walton.
You know what’s interesting about this (epistolary) novel? Nothing happens in it. The actual conflict with the scary mother? Completely anticlimactic. In fact, it’s like the whole big plot occurred earlier, in the backstory, and the book itself is set after the real story took place. This all works perfectly, because the book is really a character study and a paean to SFF – not an adventure.
July: July was a great month! I read 16 books during the month, including the SF thriler Deep Sky by Patrick Lee, which was fabulous – see how I sneak in an extra title here? But my pick for the month was actually Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher. It has a fairly dreadful cover, alas:
Other than the cover, however, I’m having a hard time thinking of anything about this book that isn’t perfect! It’s a contemporary YA, not a category I’m much interested in, but this one instantly turned into one of my top picks for the year. The writing is excellent. I even loved the prologue, and I hate prologues! There are some hilarious scenes that are just brilliant; I’m thinking of the bit with the McDonald’s toys. I’m not going to describe it; you need to read it yourself. The characterization is really excellent, not just the main characters but right down the line to the secondary and even the minor characters. The plot? Well, here’s what School Library Journal says: “A small-town Missouri boy’s world is rocked when he falls for the new girl at school, and she eventually confesses that she is a biological male. . . A remarkably “clean” book dealing with sexuality and identity, this is neither preachy nor didactic . . .” Can you believe a book with this kind of subject wouldn’t come across as preachy? But it really doesn’t. That’s how well-written it is.
August: August was also a great month for discovering fantastic books. It turns out I’m even more conflicted in trying to pick a single title for August than I was for July. Excuse me while I dither. In Pursuit of the Green Lion by Judith Riley? It’s possibly the greatest historical fantasy ever. But how can I pick even that beautiful novel over The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells, with its wonderfully baroque world and winged shapeshifters? In fact, though, I’m actually going to choose, as my top pick for the month, a lovely, quiet, magical-realism novel that I first heard about from Angie of Angievill during last year’s Smugglivus: The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen.
What a charming little book! It’s the first one of Allen’s I’ve ever read, and a genuine delight, all about friendship and family loyalty and what it means to be adult and the bonds we feel to the past. There’s romance, too, but the book really does emphasize friendship rather than romance, which for me was part of its charm. After reading this one, I immediately picked up another by Allen, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m enjoying the anticipation.
September: Whew! Much easier to pick a top read for this month – it was definitely The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennen.
Nick may be just about my favorite protagonist ever. He’s certainly unique, having a very circumscribed range of emotions. I can see why some readers might find Nick hard to like as the point-of-view character, but I thought he was fabulous. One of the things that makes this book so fascinating is that the reader gets the subtext that Nick misses, and one reason the book works so well is that the really strong sibling relationships, so important in the story, come across so vividly even though Nick misses so much of the normal interaction among the other characters.
October: My pick for October wasn’t actually a “read”, but a “listen” – I finally joined Audible, thus making long drives almost a pleasure, and picked up a lot of Terry Pratchett’s books in audio format. I’d never read them, having suspected I’d eventually buy them in audio form. They are just as fantastic in audio as I expected they would be, and during October, I finally listened to Thud! This is a splendid satire disguised as light fantasy, as only Pratchett can do, and it’s one of the novels in which his continuing characters gain considerably in depth and complexity. This is the one where Sam Vimes must make it home to read to young Sam every single evening without fail. I still find myself thinking, “Where’s My Cow?” at odd moments, and laughing out loud.
And finally, November: I was actually working on my own project during November, so I didn’t read a great many books. However, the one I enjoyed most was probably Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold.
This is a quieter book than the ones featuring Miles, but then a wild manic ride wouldn’t suit a story about Ivan at all. Slow through the middle, it’s comfortable rather than exciting. Not that it lacks moments of excitement, however. Plus, I laughed out loud twice while reading it. In fact, I’m already looking forward to re-reading it – it’s that kind of book. It’s rather bittersweet, since I suspect that this is the last book Bujold is ever going to write in the Vorkosigan universe (I would love to be wrong).
For those who, like me, are committed fans of the Vorkosigan universe . . . may I wrap this year up full-circle and suggest you look up Huff’s Valor series? It’s not at all the same, of course, and yet . . . if you’ve never given military SF a try, well, let me suggest that the subgenre quite definitely blurs into space opera, and this is one series where you can expect the best of both worlds.
That’s it for 2012 for me! I’m already looking forward to 2013 . . .
Thank you, Rachel! You’ve reminded me I need to catch up on all the Vorkosigan books and also start Huff’s Valor series…