By H. E. Remus
This year, I was proud to finish a dozen books. Twelve books may not seem like a lot, but I savored every one of them. Reading was not a competition this year. It was a privilege.
I started off the year with a lazy re-read of one of my favorite fantasy books, A Feast For Crows, from the Song of Ice & Fire series by George R. R. Martin. There are two huge things that reading the books that became Game of Thrones taught me. Number one, do not just reveal something to the reader outright. Reveal it through the dialogue. Number two, do not rely on one or two characters to drive your entire story. I think this is a huge rookie mistake for many young writers like myself. You need a huge network of people in your world to make it real. Think about all the people we each know. They teach us about the world.
My second book choice was less lazy, but still I lacked the reading voracity of my childhood. In late January I started The Serpent’s Children, a story by Laurence Yep about feudal China in the mid-1800s. It was a YA novel, so it was a quick read. The story, however, is brutal. A young girl fights to keep her brother and father together while the family struggles with poverty and basically slavery. There are parts of Asian cultures that we will never understand in America, and I believe part of that is the longevity of a family history. In America, a family may live here or there and spread their story across the states. Maybe they even originated elsewhere a hundred years ago. In China, families had been in the same spot for a thousand years. The story of the serpent’s children is one that broke my heart and taught me some invaluable lessons on family history. It opened a new world for me.
I read books three and four simultaneously. I don’t know how this happened, but sometimes it does. Grendel by John Gardner, and Women by Chuck Bukowski, both captivating reads. These two books were very different from one another, so it was hard to put either down in favor of the other. Grendel was a zigzag read, as incoherent as the gruntings of the dark monster from Beowulf’s childhood nightmares. That made it more real, more sad when bad things happened to a violent creature, who knew almost nothing of the idea of the self, yet still explored it.
Women was similar in its own way, the main character, Chinaski, grunting his own way through existential crises. His crises involved less violence and more sex, more alcohol, more fascinating women than Grendel. After all, that’s the title of the book. Chinaski’s crazy adventures with young women who love his poetry, his regular dames who return and break his car or steal his stuff, and the one cool cat who lives upstairs with her swinging husband, seem as if they will never end. Bukowski’s portrayal of drunken, messed up sexuality and relationships is definitely a fascinating world I again found myself apart from, but learned so much about.
Wow, so City of Dark Magic, a book about Beethoven, history, and Prague by a pair of writers who call themselves Magnus Flyte. I cannot express to you enough how much this book touched my soul. It crossed the dimensions of time, science, mystery, beauty, love, music… I mean, damn. This book has it all. It was raucous, sexy, funny, and I ate it up in less than a week back in late March. Go read it. It does not matter what kind of fiction you like. It’s all there. You will find yourself unable to put it down.
The sixth book I read is called Cleopatra’s Daughter. It was not on my list of intended reads this year. I happened to choose it from the $0.50 book bin at Bullmoose, a fantastic local media store with the best used book pile I have ever found. This is exactly the kind of book I typically scoff at, but the writing was good when I read the first chapter at the store. I was instantly hooked. I was transported to a world where Cleopatra’s children are scorned for their royal blood, for their Egyptian mixture with their father’s Roman genetics. In Rome, the children of Antony and Cleopatra are paraded about as trophies because of who their parents were. This novel was full of a racism I had never thought of before, the racism of old that they don’t speak about in the noble myths. Michelle Moran did a wonderful job portraying the culture, the children, and the scenery of historical Rome. The story feels real, and bittersweet. It was a beautiful read.
Lucky number seven was another cultural shock read for me. I grew up on a lot of white, conservative Christian books that did not speak much of the views of those in other countries. Other countries were like foreign worlds to me; the only context I had for them was as a land missionaries went to minister to. So when I read Amy Tan’s book, essentially the history of her mother’s experience in pre-World War II China and during the war, I learned a lot. I learned that women can still be bought, sold, and treated like slaves. The Kitchen God’s Wife was a terrifying and poignant read, and a good wake up call for me. The world was and is full of more danger and fear than I realized. It is also full of more hope than I realized. To read about the tenacity of a Chinese woman who was beaten, raped, and abused yet chose to fight tooth and nail to continue living and hoping for a better future gave me hope. I highly recommend this. If this woman can survive what she survived, any of us can keep trying, despite the staggering odds or dire circumstances.
My eighth read this year began after a two month lapse. June and July were tough months. In August, I found Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin sitting in one of my numerous stacks of to-read books. This book immediately snatched my attention away from everything else. I wanted to read, read, read, and never stop. I didn’t want the story to stop. The Blind Assassin is one of those rare books where there are actually about four stories going on. Each chapter is a new and different iteration of each story, wrapped within another story I was reading elsewhere in the novel. I wondered all the time, “When will the stories connect?” Then I saw them connecting, saw the threads drawn together to weave a glorious tapestry of a tale about two sisters in Canada during the industrial revolution and the Depression. It was mythical, beautiful, ominous. I loved this book. This made me want to write a thousand stories and interlock them all.
Rogue in Space was my ninth book read this year. I found it in a huge book barn in Midcoast Maine at the end of August. My husband and I were on vacation with some best friends at Acadia National Park. On the way home we perused a massive antique store, and book barn. I found some science fiction treasures that warmed my heart. This book was fun, simple, silly, and a quick read. At 163 pages, Crag’s journey in space with a mad doctor and a beautiful, noble lady was exactly what I needed to end the summer. I’ve heard this may not be Fredric Brown’s best, but for pulp fiction, it was just right.
I took another long reading break until November, struggling as I started a few books and got distracted. Finally I felt inspired by a friend’s self-publishing efforts, and I read through The Blackthorn Chronicles, by Benjamin Holmquist. It was almost as pulpy as Rogue in Space, my previous read, but do not let the beginning of the book deceive you. The cheesy one-liners sprinkled throughout the pages draw you in, and then the story becomes dark. Time after time the way the tale turned surprised me. It was pulp fiction and science fiction and fantasy and adventure in 156 pages. His sequel just came out, and I still need to acquire and read it. I have to find out what happens to Noggin.
Both my eleventh and twelfth books were holiday gifts from my husband, opened on Christmas Eve. The first was a raucous, inappropriate, and borderline disturbing graphic novel called Megahex, by Simon Hanselmann. A depressed, disturbed stoner witch and her cat have awkward misadventures and prank their roommates and friends over and over again in each new comic. I’m truly hoping for a second book of comics after this, as Hanselmann leaves the reader hanging. I read this in a day on Christmas, and it made me laugh and gasp at different moments. This title isn’t for everyone, but if you can handle a little mortification… You’ll laugh your ass off.
The second book I received was called Queen of the Tearling. I will try hard not to rant on and on about this one, because you have faithfully read about every other book I took on this year. But, it was the best one of them all. It was the queen of queen books. Do not get me wrong, all of the other books I started and finished this year were really good. Yet, it seemed like Erika Johansen had written Queen of the Tearling for me, every step of the way. It seemed like my kind of book all around, and Kelsea Raleigh was my kind of Queen. Not pretty, but courageous and determined, rightful heir to the Tearling throne Kelsea is center stage. She struggles through assassination attempts, hard realities about political intrigue, winning over her countrymen, and her foster parents gone missing. The bad guys are truly loathsome, the good guys rule, and the people who waver in between are, as usual, the most interesting. This book made me cry when it ended. It was full of compassion, kindness, heartbreak, death, frustration, ugliness, and magic. If you like history, futuristic dystopia, mythology, and badass Queens, read this book.
I barely finished my twelfth book on time. Queen of the Tearling ended around midnight last night for me. I could not believe I had actually finished twelve books this year. A lot of other things happened, but who reads those, “2015 recap” posts, anyway? I’d rather read about books. I hope you enjoyed this list of amazing reads, and that you will find something here to enjoy yourself. Thanks for joining me on The American Woman.