Good old year-end wrap-up. I should have done this a day or so ago, but I claim exemption due to New Years being my dad’s birthday as well. We had a little party. Happy birthday, Dad!
Anyway, time to run down my favorite reads of the year. As usual, these books weren’t necessarily published in 2014 — though I think most of them were! Yay me for reading vaguely current material!
Without further ado…
Johannes Cabal: The Detective, by Jonathan L. Howard.
I’ve already mentioned this book in an earlier post, so I won’t discuss it deeply, but I did finally get around to reading the first one too. I rarely read books out of series order, but I have to say I’m glad I made that mistake this time. Not that there’s anything bad about The Necromancer — it’s an interesting Faustian tale involving a demonic circus and the titular character’s attempts to steal souls — but as I really enjoy necromancers in fiction, I didn’t find any of it to be surprising. I was pleased with Johannes’ brother, though.
In reading The Detective first, I think I bonded to the character more because he’d already gone through the events in The Necromancer and so just hinted at them, making me curious about their mystery but not really needing to know. The Detective is more of a steampunk whodunnit adventure, and very entertaining, though there’s one sword-fight/aftermath scene that confused me a bit as to what it wanted to accomplish. Anyway, I’m glad I read both, but also glad I read them in the order I did — and I’m looking forward to The Fear Institute, whenever it bobs to the surface of my To Read list.
I read whatever looks interesting, no matter where it comes from in the library. This year, I discovered the Ash Mistry Chronicles, and they are fantastic, okay? Nerdy, action-packed, and full of tidbits of Indian history and mythology, while also touching on a lot of the impact and lingering connections of the old British Empire. The main character is a chubby British Indian kid who reads Harry Potter and plays RPGs, but when he’s sent off to India to visit his aunt and uncle, he stumbles into a centuries-old sorcerer’s plan to revive the demon king Ravana — and discovers that he’s the reincarnation of an ancient hero.
For kids, these are some bloody books. I won’t go into specifics, but Ash gets tangled up in a lot of trauma and danger, and learns to dish it right back out because of his connection with a Hindu deity and his past lives. All the while, he struggles to retain his own modern identity and his friends back in England, including his crush — but the spiritual and physical changes he goes through may come to endanger his friends and family as much as his enemies do! And I think all of that angst and struggle was presented really well, not annoyingly overextended as can happen in some middle grade/teen books.
Plus there are the rakshasa, from Parvati and Jackie to Khan, who are all well-realized characters with their own extensive back-stories and agendas. Everyone here has centuries — if not millennia — of common history due to their reincarnations, sometimes intersecting as friends and sometimes as foes. It’s a great adventure, but I’d say it edges toward teen territory because of the violence. (Then again, pretty sure lots of kids will look at what Ash Mistry can do and just say ‘cool!’)
Beyond the Rift, by Peter Watts.
I don’t read a lot of short story compilations, so this isn’t a terribly competitive category, but this one jumped off the shelf at me and I’m glad for it. This is a collection of sci-fi stories dealing with topics that range from sentient storms to dystopian religious fanaticism to deep-sea isolation, but all of them really focus on humanity’s ability to adapt to different societal or environmental pressures.
Or not adapt, as the case may be.
I found it really interesting because there’s a lot of sci-fi that shows people becoming monstrous in extreme situations, but not a lot (in my experience) to show that sometimes not being ‘monstrous’ is the maladaptive response. Particularly in the deep-sea isolation story, and apparently in real life, it showcases how what we think of as normal human social behavior can be incredibly detrimental in some environments, and that people who are fringe-dwellers in modern society may in fact be better suited to these kinds of missions.
Not all of the stories are about this, of course, but I was delighted to learn that the deep-sea stories are part of Watts’ larger Rifters world. They’re new to me, so I have plans to check them out in the future.
This one was a toss-up. I read a lot of graphic novels and manga (they make up over half of my Goodreads list), and I tore my way through almost ninety this year. But I think the two I enjoyed the most were:
And I liked them for somewhat similar reasons. Both were origin stories of non-Caucasian superheroes, one set in the Comics Golden Age of the 40s, the other very current. Both dealt with issues of cultural and superheroic identity as contrasted with the local mainstream — the Shadow Hero being set in a Chinatown oppressed from within by organized crime and largely ignored by the police and standard superheroes, and Ms. Marvel following the exploits of a fangirlish Pakistani Muslim teen in Jersey City. Both protagonists look up to the superheroes of their day but don’t see themselves reflected in them. They’re aspirational but not represented, so they end up stepping forth to represent themselves.
The Shadow Hero is particularly interesting because it’s a sort of prequel/reboot to an actual comic that ran during the Golden Age, The Green Turtle. This short-lived superhero never showed his face and had almost comically pink skin, leading some to believe that his Asian-American creator intended to imply him as the first Asian-American superhero even though his editors wouldn’t permit it. Panels from the original comics are included in the back for reference; tellingly, unlike many WW2-era superheroes, the Green Turtle didn’t end up punching Nazis but instead defended China from the Japanese.
In other aspects, though, these superheroes are polar opposites. The Green Turtle (Hank Chu) doesn’t initially want to be a superhero; he just wants the law to protect his community the same way it protects others. His mother pushes him into it, to the point of sewing him a costume. (His mother is awesome.) In contrast, Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel jumps into heroism with both feet, imagining herself first as her idol (and former Ms. Marvel) Carol Danvers before striving to create a separate heroic identity for herself. And while Hank Chu is supported/pushed into the heroing life by his family, Kamala Khan goes through a more typical teen-hero regimen of sneaking out, getting in trouble, and otherwise having to hide her double life from her concerned parents. They’re both entertaining protagonists though, with exciting and funny stories and great artwork.
I didn’t read much nonfic this year, which is unusual for me. I’m a sucker for adventure- and disaster-nonfic, psychology, survival and true crime, but it seems I spent most of my time in the fiction shelves.
However, Strong in the Rain by Lucy Birmingham really hooked me. I’ve always been interested in Japanese history and culture, to the point of getting a minor in it in college (side note: Giving Up the Gun is fascinating), but between Mount Fuji and the threat of hurricanes and tsunamis I can barely understand how people live there. (For all my interest, I am a natural disaster chicken, which is why I live in Arizona where the worst that can happen is I dry up and blow away. Unless Yellowstone explodes, in which case we’re all screwed.) So I read this book with a sort of creeping visceral horror, because it’s all about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, with character viewpoints from all along the devastated coast.
I read during my breaks at the Day Job, so for a couple weeks I was there in the corner with my sandwich and teary eyes, wrapped up in the devastation. More than that: because this was a disaster of the modern age, the book actually references Youtube videos uploaded by people caught in it, including this terrifying vision of how quickly something that seems entertaining can become a complete horror. One of the interviews in the book is from a guy who appears briefly in that video as a dark speck running across the near-side of the furthest building about eight minutes in.
I think the enduring message I got from this book is that the sea will fucking eat us if we give it the chance.
Lastly, I want to recognize The Plains of Kallanash, by Pauline M. Ross, for making me care about a romance plot. I don’t read romance. It’s really not my thing. But sometimes I’ll take a shot at a fantasy-romance or a superhero-romance with the intention of turning a blind eye to all the lovey-dovey (or smutty-smutty) stuff so that I can still experience the rest of it.
This book? Dude. First of all, the setting is really interesting (and I hope to learn more when the second one comes out), but far more than that is the fact that I enjoyed the romance. And not even for the main characters. They were fun and all, but the third-wheel guy who would end up evil, dead, discarded or all three in another tale ends up…I can’t even talk about it or I’ll ruin the story, so I’ll just make enthusiastic noises over here, okay? Team Dethin!
And that was my year in books.