Welcome to Smugglivus 2016! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2016, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2017, and more.
Today’s Smugglivus guest is Jenny who screams about books and feminism at the Reading the End blog and podcast.
Coming into the end of 2016, it’s been hard for me not to add my voices to the chorus of those who claim this year was an irredeemable garbage fire. If asked, I would compare 2016 to that sinking sensation you experience when you are reading a seminal (word used advisedly) work of speculative fiction and you get the part where the (male—does this need specifying?) protagonist’s lengthy consideration of the kinds of sweaters his female assistants are wearing. You know what I mean? I’ve felt more resigned than shocked: Oh, okay, so we’re doing this now. Of course we are. So what I want to do with this Smugglivius list is to highlight some pieces of media that shook me out of my weary old-lady cynicism and reminded me that the world is more than the pain and disappointment with which 2016 has flooded us all.
Genius, by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman, art by Afua Richardson
The premise of this 2014 comic from Image is that the gangs of Los Angeles unite under the command of a tactically brilliant black teenage girl, stockpile weapons against anticipated attacks from the LAPD, and secede from the city. Though I am personally an advocate of (and participant in) nonviolent methods of resistance, it was strangely therapeutic to spend a couple of hours in the world of Genius, where the characters—despite their disadvantages and disenfranchisement—nevertheless believe in their power to change their unfair circumstances.
Hard Knocks and Acute Reactions, by Ruby Lang
Earlier in the year, we all mourned the loss of the feminist weirdness that was The Toast, but one side effect is that I made Twitter friends with a whole bunch of brilliantly strange women in the aftermath of the site’s closure. A couple of them pointed me towards romance novelist Ruby Lang, who has written two (so far) contemporary romances that light up my heart. As you might expect from a former Toast contributor, Ruby Lang writes fantastic, funny, dry banter between her protagonists, even as they’re grappling with the knotty (yet uncontrived!) emotional dilemmas that keep them apart until it comes time for their happily-ever-afters. Make Ruby Lang Super Famous 2K17.
The Swan Riders, Erin Bow
Very virtuously, I’ve only included one sequel in this list, and only because I am so wildly in love with Erin Bow’s Prisoners of Peace series. The premise is that an AI called has taken over the world and keeps war to a minimum by taking the children of all the world’s leaders hostage. If two countries declare war, their leaders’ children die. Greta, our (brilliant! diplomatic! canonically bisexual!) protagonist, is one of these Children of Peace at the beginning of The Scorpion Rules. I can’t get too deep into describing the plot of The Swan Riders without significantly spoiling Scorpion Rules, so instead I’ll just say that where The Scorpion Rules felt, plotwise, much like riding a bucking bronco, The Swan Riders is a far quieter, more reflective book. I loved it beyond reason. It’s kind of a story of revolution, but it’s far more the story of how love limits us and how it makes us greater than ourselves. Also, a twitchy, damaged genius experiences feelings. You don’t know how soft I am for that kind of thing.
An Inheritance of Ashes, Leah Bobet
With every passing year, I become more and more devoted to aftermath stories. Leah Bobet’s YA fantasy novel An Inheritance of Ashes follows two sisters after the narrow defeat of the armies of the Wicked God, as their farm begins to show traces that the god may not be as thoroughly vanquished as they had believed. It’s perfect on the scars—physical and mental—that war leaves behind on the people whose lives it touches, and it’s perfect on the ways we hurt and are hurt by our loved ones. I am holding Leah Bobet’s first novel, Above, in reserve for some time in the future when I need something that will tear my heart to shreds the way An Inheritance of Ashes did, and I dearly hope that she’ll have a third book for us sometime soon.
Gabi, a Girl in Pieces, Isabel Quintero
To my permanent shame, I missed Gabi, a Girl in Pieces the year it came out, which was 2014, and I’m so glad that the wonderful Aarti brought it to my attention in 2016. It’s about a Mexican American teenager, Gabi, and her struggle to find her way as a Latina girl, a daughter of an absent father, a person with new(ish) sexual desires, and—in case your heart wasn’t already singing—a writer and a feminist. I was afraid this book would feel like a classic “problem novel,” which I understand is out of fashion and which I feel scowly towards for reason I have not exactly pinned down but I suspect they can be attributed to Lurlene McDaniel; but it’s fresh and sincere and completely wonderful.
Peas and Carrots, Tanita Davis
Speaking of problem novels, we need to talk about Tanita Davis and the way she makes me read middle-grade books even though they are totally not my thing. I loved Peas and Carrots so much that it made me question the entire heuristic that had me passing by middle-grade novels in the first place. It’s the story of a scared teenager who gets fostered by a family that prizes kindness, courtesy, and boundaries. Y’all should know that I love boundaries more than I love just about anything else in this life, and it was wonderful to see the foster care system depicted in a way that’s honest about its failures as well as its successes. For more on why this book entranced me so much I ignored the conference booth I was supposed to be manning, you may inspect the files in my heart labeled “sisters,” “building up mutual respect,” and “endings where some issues remain unresolved because sometimes life is like that.”
Face Value, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
One of my problems with pop sociology books (no shots) is the way they tend to set up binaries: Either we do a thing for this reason, or we do it for that reason. Even before I articulated to myself the life policy of Distrust a Binary, I was suspicious of this. Human motives are complex! We rarely do anything for just one reason! So Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives was balm to my soul. Whitefield-Madrano explores the way women think and talk about beauty and the beauty economy, and she wonderfully ignores neither the ways that beauty culture harms women nor the ways that it gives us joy. I highlighted passages on approx. 83% of the pages in this book, and I have no regrets.
Roses and Rot, Kat Howard
I heard about this book several times before adding it to my TBR spreadsheet, because every time I heard about it, I thought I must have dreamed it. In, you know, a dream where the universe provided me with a book tailor-made to my specifications. It’s a Tam Lin retelling. With sisters. It’s also a story of aftermath (our protagonist and her sister are survivors of an abusive childhood), and it’s basically set at a boarding school (okay, it’s an artists’ colony—you know, a boarding school, but for grown-ups). The only way Roses and Rot could have been more on-brand for me would have been if it were also epistolary. Roses and Rot is a gloriously assured first novel from Kat Howard, and it’s left me frantic for more of her work.
Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman
I suspect not coincidentally, a high number of my best-of books came from my trip to New York earlier this year. (I saw Hamilton. NBD. It was an irresponsible fiscal decision that I do not regret.) If you are planning any trips for 2017, Yuri Herrera’s novella Signs Preceding the End of the World, which tells the story of a girl called Makina who comes to the States from Mexico to find her brother, makes a wonderful little travel companion. Herrera’s writing is so gorgeously devastating that I didn’t manage even to review this book when I read it in March: Any review I could have written would just have consisted of excerpting long passages, then typing a long string of exclamation points, and it’s better for you to discover this book for yourself.