Welcome to Smugglivus 2014! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2014, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2015, and more.
Who: Sunil Patel, a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. His plays have been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival, and his story “The Gramadevi’s Lament” will appear in the upcoming anthology, Genius Loci: The Spirit of Place. When he is not writing, he is consuming stories in all forms in order to extract their secrets and put them to use. Plus, he reviews books for Lightspeed. Find out more at ghostwritingcow.com, where you can watch his plays, or follow him @ghostwritingcow. His Twitter has been described as “engaging,” “exclamatory,” and “crispy, crunchy, peanut buttery.”
Everybody, please, a warm welcome to Sunil!
Greetings, Smugglinauts! The Book Smugglers were kind enough to invite me to join the long-hallowed tradition of Smugglivus and foolish enough not to give me any restrictions. Best books I read in 2014, you say? Do they have to have been released in 2014? No. Do they have to be SFF? No. Do they have to be novels? No. Do I have to choose a reasonable amount? No.
As I sorted my Goodreads ratings for the year, I found that my five-star books had one thing in common: strong narrative/character voice. It wasn’t just the stories that were told but how they were told. The words they used, the rhythm of the prose. That’s what made them stick with me all year. That’s what made them the kind of books where I wanted to grab the nearest person by the collar and yell at them to READ THIS FUCKING BOOK RIGHT NOW.
So now I present to you the Best Books I Read in 2014 (along with links to my Goodreads reviews for extra gushing). (For the record, I haven’t finished The Martian yet but the first line is “I’m pretty much fucked” and I want to quit life to finish reading it so I sense that it would belong on this list.) (This is another sentence in parentheses.) (Maybe this is my narrative voice.)
The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes
TIME-TRAVELING SERIAL KILLER. Need I say more? I guess I do. Before this year, I had only read Zoo City. This year, I read The Shining Girls, Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom, Moxyland, and Broken Monsters, and The Shining Girls is definitely my favorite. There’s a reason this book has been lauded in the realms of mystery, thriller, science fiction, and horror (not to mention ~*literary fiction*~), as it succeeds on so many levels. While “drifter travels through time killing a diverse selection of women because misogyny” doesn’t sound like entertainment, Beukes turns the female-victim trope on its head by making these women more than just the beautiful corpses they so often are in these narratives. So many different voices. As the one woman who got away tries to find him, I was completely riveted, and the climax is so emotionally cathartic I nearly burst into tears in public. This is a fantastic book, complex, intense, suspenseful, and even funny. And the prose is hauntingly gorgeous, the sort of language you want to savor.
“He lunges for the handle. The door swings open on to a flash of light, sharp as a firecracker in a dark cellar, ripping through the guts of a cat.
And Harper steps into sometime else.”
“There is some Vegas-level David Copperfield shit going on in here. Must be mirrors and shit. Because what looks like a picked-over ruin from the outside is a decked-out crib when you get in. Old-fashioned, though, like something out of a museum. But who cares, long as it’s worth something.”
“The bar is a dive. It smells like stale cigarettes and expired chat-up lines.”
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker
Stop what you’re doing right now and go read The Golem and the Jinni. It is a beautiful, rich, heartbreaking, heartfilling book about two mythological creatures from two very different cultures finding each other in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York. It’s driven by the power of its prose and the strength of its characterization: I found myself sinking into this world, simply wanting to spend time with these characters. Even if the plot seems light at first, everything clicks into place at the end so satisfyingly that I appreciated how intricately constructed it all was. I loved the lush language and the mythic yet personal tone, where even the Ice Cream Man is treated with care and importance: each supporting character is the main character of his own story, after all. A unique novel, a treasure. For my money, this was the best book of 2013.
“The Golem heard all of it, their words and needs and desires and fears, simple and complex, helpless and easily solved.”
“It would’ve come as a great shock to his neighbors to know that the man they called Ice Cream Saleh, or Crazy Mahmoud, or simply the strange Muslim who sells ice cream, had once been Doctor Mahmoud Saleh, one of the most respected physicians in the city of Homs.”
“In his mind he spoke his name to himself, and took some reassurance from the sound. He was still one of the jinn, after all, no matter how long the iron cuff remained on his wrist. He comforted himself with the thought that although he might be forced to live like a human, he’d never truly be one.”
City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett
For my money, this was the best book of 2014. I haven’t been able to shut up about it since I read it; whenever someone asks for a book recommendation, it’s the first thing out of my mouth. An epic fantasy, murder mystery, political thriller, and spy novel all wrapped up into one, it is an absolute fucking pleasure to read thanks to its dazzling worldbuilding, which takes elements from South Asian and Eastern European cultures, its interesting characters, which include three women of color (two middle-aged), and its enchanting narrative voice, which brings a sense of fun to a very dramatic tale. The present tense gives the action immediacy, and yet there’s a certain cheekiness to the writing, as if Bennett is telling you the story personally and trying to make it the best story ever, busting out with some casual language here and some—look, I can’t even put into words why I love this book so fucking much, I am flipping through it trying to write this and I just want to read the book again. On top of everything else, it has the greatest telegram in the history of fiction, so there’s that.
“Because right now, in CD Troonyi’s office, Shara is about to perform a miracle.”
“It took Sigrud several years to understand this saying, but it took many more for him to learn to be like the fire: merely alive, and no more.”
“The gush of blood is positively tidal. Shara feels a little disgusted at herself for thinking only, This will definitely make the papers.”
The Girl with All the Gifts, M.R. Carey
This incredible book doesn’t even want you to know what it’s about before you open it, and discovering what it’s about in the opening chapters is a real treat, largely because the protagonist, Melanie, is a child with a very limited view of herself and the world, and she doesn’t realize how much we can read between the lines of what she’s saying. Carey switches between several different characters, each with a voice so distinct you know whose head you’re in from the first few sentences. But the overarching narrative voice, the omniscient writer expressing third-person-limited thoughts, gives the book a devastating, brutal sadness. I loved the compelling characters and visceral action but the writing, my God.
“Parks is shouting at her—something about needing to get inside—but there’ll be time for him later.
If she’s too late, all the time in the worthless fucking world.”
“The fungus spreads through the ant’s body and explodes out of its head—a phallic sporangium skull-fucking the dying insect from the inside.”
“She wrestles with a wild animal, and the animal is her.
So she knows she’s going to lose.”
Vicious, V.E . Schwab
I began reading Vicious on my way to work. When I got to work, I wanted to call in sick from my desk so I could finish reading. That is how incredibly engaging and addictive this book is. It’s a riveting revenge tale starring two superpowered villains, and Schwab’s use of non-linear narrative and multiple POVs kept me turning pages furiously. I wanted to know what was going to happen, what had happened, what was happening, and perhaps most importantly…who was I really rooting for? I love being in the hands of a master storyteller who is clearly manipulating the narrative to provide me, the reader, with the best possible experience without making me, the reader, feel manipulated.
“The zeal peeked through at the corners of his mouth, the fascination around his eyes, the energy in his jaw. Victor watched his friend, mesmerized by the transformation. He himself could mimic most emotions and pass them off as his, but mimicking only went so far, and he knew he could never match this…fervor.”
“Without warning, pain tore up her arm and through her small body, crashing over her in a wave. It was worse than drowning, worse than being shot, worse than anything she had ever felt. It was like every one of her nerves was shattering, and Sydney did the only thing she could.
“There are times when the marvels of scientific advancement expedite our processes, making our lives easier. Modern technology provides machines that can think three or five or seven steps ahead of the human mind, machines that offer elegant solutions, a selection of contingency plans, Bs and Cs and Ds in case A isn’t to your liking.
And then there are times when a screwdriver and a bit of elbow grease are all that’s necessary to get the job done.”
We Are All Completely Fine, Daryl Gregory
I read this book in two hours on the plane home from Loncon and just holy shit. It is gripping from start to finish. Five survivors of horrific, horror-movie-style trauma are brought together for group therapy, and it goes about as well as you’d expect. It’s dark and disturbing, as you, the reader, slowly uncover the mysteries of who these people are and what they’ve been through, and what they have yet to face. Daryl Gregory employs a POV trick that shouldn’t work, that should be irritating and confusing, but instead pulls the reader in even more: each chapter begins in first-person, as if narrated by one of the main characters—it could be any of them, in any chapter, or it could be the same each time, if you wish—before fluidly switching to a more detached third-person. This story belongs to all of them, and they are not completely fine. Not by a long shot.
“We were all surprised every time Stan made it to another meeting. If he wasn’t knocking at death’s door, he seemed to be rolling up the access ramp to it, huffing into his mask, hauling his collection of failing organs with him.”
“She cut through the world like a knife, and the scars she left behind were deeper than any made by the dwellers.”
“What the patients didn’t understand was that this was the human condition. The group members’ horrific experiences had not exempted them from existential crises, only exaggerated them.”
Spirits Abroad, Zen Cho
Dear authors, if you are incredibly entertaining on a panel, I will go buy your book and attend your Kaffeeklatsch so you can sign it because I love your personal voice so much. That’s what happened with Zen Cho, and her narrative voice reflects what a delight she is in person. Spirits Abroad collects her published short stories with a few originals, and it is a must-read, not only because of its portrayal of Malaysian culture and mythology, which I was unfamiliar with, but also because it’s so damn fun. Cho has a uniquely dry, offbeat sense of humor, and I laughed out loud in public many times while reading these stories. (That delightful humor is also well present in her historical romance novella, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, which has the greatest sex scene I have ever read.) Of note, the stories abound with unitalicized Malay, but there’s usually enough context clues to understand their meaning. Zen Cho is not unknown, as I first heard of her when she was nominated for a Campbell Award, but I’m hoping this collection brings her to the attention of many more people.
“The aunts had a horror of talking about death. In life this had been an understandable superstition, but it seemed peculiar to dislike the mention of death when you were dead.”
“Prudence was only listening to about 40% of what Zheng Yi was saying, which was good because Zheng Yi only meant 40% of anything he said.”
“Why did lions like eating cabbage? Perhaps, being magical creatures, they could taste metaphor, and eating cabbage was like having the golden flavor of prosperity lying on their tongue. Lions were also fond of wine, but this was an inclination that did not require explanation.”
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern, read by Jim Dale
Two rival magicians, two star-crossed lovers, a mysterious circus, magic, mystery, mayhem: The Night Circus is utterly enchanting. It spans continents and decades, slyly connecting the lives of many people pulled into the orbit of Le Cirque des Rêves. Erin Morgenstern uses simple but evocative language, and as read by Jim Dale, the book completely sucked me into its world, making me feel as if I were right there witnessing the events as Dale described them to me. I was so into one chapter that even when I reached my destination, I sat in my car and listened to the end of it. Other times I screamed at plot twists delivered with subtle grace rather than a direct gutpunch, forcing me to rewind because no that did not just happen did that seriously just happen what the fucking fuck. It’s a lovely, engrossing novel that lives up to the hype.
“Clearly he must be doing something wrong. If his productions are merely almost transcendent, when the possibility of true transcendence exists somewhere nearby, waiting to be attained, then there is something else that must be done.”
“What had been a heavy wool coat becomes a long piece of black silk that ripples like water over the chair. The flames vanish. Only a few lingering wisps of smoke remain, along with the sharp smell of charred wood that is slowly changing to the comforting scent of the fireplace, tinged with something like cinnamon or clove.”
“You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.”
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, read by Kirby Heyborne and Julia Whelan
A twisty-turny story of a fairy-tale marriage gone horribly wrong told by two unreliable narrators: the man accused of murdering his wife—who straight up tells the reader he’s lying to the police—and the wife herself—whose diary accounts of their relationship don’t fully match his recollections. This book is amazing, a brilliantly constructed mystery told in exquisite prose that also examines gender dynamics and the media. And although Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are beautiful people, “my” Nick and Amy will always be Kirby Heyborne and Julia Whelan, who delivered one of the most memorable audiobook experiences of my life. It was as if Nick and Amy were in my car, telling me their stories, and voice is absolutely key here for a reason I cannot mention. Also, Nick and Amy, get out of my car, holy fuck.
“It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.
And if all of us are play-acting, there can be no such thing as a soul mate, because we don’t have genuine souls.”
“I am fat with love! Husky with ardor! Morbidly obese with devotion! A happy, busy bumblebee of marital enthusiasm. I positively hum around him, fussing and fixing. I have become a strange thing. I have become a wife.”
“It is a do-it-yourself era: health care, real estate, police investigation. Go online and fucking figure it out for yourself because everyone’s overworked and understaffed. I was a journalist. I spent over ten years interviewing people for a living and getting them to reveal themselves. I was up to the task, and Marybeth and Rand believed so too. I was thankful they let me know I was still in their trust, the husband under a wispy cloud of suspicion. Or do I fool myself to use the word wispy?”
Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein, read by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell
The next time someone tells you that young adult novels are inherently lesser than “adult” novels, shove this book in their face and tell them to shut the fuck up. A tour-de-force of narrative structure and character voice, Code Name Verity grabbed me immediately with its setup: the narrator is writing a confession to Gestapo agents while being held in a prison in Nazi-occupied France. But good goddamn, that is not all she’s doing. She’s telling her story as a bid to stay alive, she’s chronicling her emotional breakdown, she’s spitting nails at her captors, it’s compelling as fuck. A relationship between two young women is at the heart of this story, one a spy and one a pilot, and it’s so powerful I am tearing up just writing about it. I’ve found that with few exceptions, my favorite audiobooks are first-person because the reader can truly embody a character and give a fully realized performance. And holy shit, Morven Christie made me cry, she made me laugh, she haunted my very soul with her singing. Read this book, listen to this book, stroke this book lovingly, it’s the real deal.
“I don’t believe for a minute—that we wouldn’t have become friends somehow—that an unexploded bomb wouldn’t have gone off and blown us both into the same crater, or that God himself wouldn’t have come along and knocked our heads together in a flash of green sunlight. But it wouldn’t have been likely.”
“A whore, we’ve established that, filthy, it goes without saying, but whatever else the hell I am, I AM NOT ENGLISH.”
“Nothing like an arcane literary debate with your tyrannical master while you pass the time leading to your execution.”
Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
Stop! Come back! This comic is not about people who commit sex crimes! It is about people who commit crimes with sex! Um, because they stop time with their orgasms and they do the only reasonable thing in that situation: rob banks. It’s a surprisingly mature and frank discussion of sexuality and relationships in the modern age, and it breaks the fourth and also possibly the fifth wall at times, allowing Suzie and Jon to give their perspectives on their sexual past and present, inserting themselves into their own flashbacks. Their voices are endearing, and it’s a mean feat that with such a high concept, Fraction and Zdarsky really hook the reader on the characters rather than focusing heavily on the fantasy element. It’s sweet, strange, and hilarious. Image puts out good shit, and after Chew, Morning Glories, and Saga, Sex Criminals is the latest comic I keep recommending to everyone.
“That’s how weird it all was. I was enveloped in silence and color. An ocean of warm silence and color that I could, apparently, make explode out from inside me.”
“I think I thought that sex was something like taxes: a thing grownups did. I just hadn’t figured out why I wanted to do my taxes so goddamn bad.”
“Two lives full of sex and sadness and weird shit and distance and then suddenly—Suddenly, there he was. There we were. Me and this guy. This fucking guy.”
Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Kamala Khan made headlines for being the first Muslim superhero to headline her own comic, but I loved this Pakistani-American Jersey girl for being completely adorable. Absolutely read this comic for its positive portrayal of Muslim culture, but definitely read it because Kamala Khan IS THE BEST. She’s like Peter Parker but way dorkier, endearing as fuck. Although her struggles with a new shapeshifting ability aren’t necessarily relatable, her struggles with her identity—as a Muslim, as a teenage girl, as a human being—are a teen angst goldmine, but make no mistake, this book is fun as heck because—I’m not sure how many different ways I can say this—Kamala Khan is supercute. Wilson writes her with a charming self-awareness (she posts Avengers fanfic on freakingcool.com), and Alphona can give her a lovable expression with nothing more than a squiggly line. I’ve been telling people to read this comic every month since it came out, and now you, too, can join the Kamala Korps!
“I always thought if I had amazing hair, if I could pull off great boots, if I could fly, that would make me feel strong. That would make me happy. But the hair gets in my face, the boots pinch, and this leotard is giving me an epic wedgie.”
“What does it mean to have powers? To be able to look like someone I’m not? What if I don’t fit into my old life anymore? Like it’s a pair of pants I’ve just outgrown? Would I still be Kamala?”
“Just like a boss fight in World of Battlecraft…just like a boss fight in World of Battlecraft…”
That list comprises nearly all of my five-star books for the year, the books I loved with evangelical fervor. But as I made it, I noticed that it was overwhelmingly white. Here I was, centering my post on voices, and it was mostly white voices! I read and enjoyed plenty of books by people of color as well, so I wanted to recommend them as well. If you trust my taste by this point, then I hope you’ll check these out!
Babel-17/Empire Star, Samuel Delaney: Space adventures! Cerebral yet fun, both books go to mindbending places with plot twists within plot twists.
Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson: Canadian dystopia that melds science fiction and Caribbean folklore with a dash of horror.
A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar: Prose so fucking gorgeous I want to die. A love letter to the power of stories. Also there’s a ghost.
The Silence of Six, E.C. Myers: Topical hacker conspiracy thriller full of geeky references.
California Bones, Greg van Eekhout: A half-Mexican bone magic wizard leads a heist against the Emperor Palpatine of bone magic wizards.Great worldbuilding, and next year’s sequel, Pacific Fire, is even better.
The Girl from the Well, Rin Chupeco: Incredibly tense, massively creepy horror story about a vengeful ghost with influences from Japanese horror movies and folklore.
All You Need Is Kill, Hiroshi Sakurazaka, translated by Joseph Reeder: The book Edge of Tomorrow was based on, and absolutely worth reading, especially since the movie was a very loose adaptation. Highly addictive time travel military sci-fi adventure with a strong narrative voice.
Arranged Marriage, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Short story collection featuring mostly stories of Indian-American women whose husbands are dicks, leading to an unhappy marriage full of regrets. But each one is unique and tugs at your emotions.
Kaleidoscope, Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein: A great collection of young adult SFF short fiction that includes diverse writers and diverse characters (diverse in more than just skin color).
Same Difference, Derek Kirk Kim: Lovely and funny graphic novel about young Korean-Americans in the Bay Area dealing with regrets.
Seconds, Bryan Lee O’Malley: Hilarious narrative voice, with the main character and the narrator often contradicting each other. A time-bending, reality-altering magical adventure.
Hi! It’s me again. I just wanted to say goodbye and thank you for making it all the way to the end. If you read one of these books and like it, drop me a line @ghostwritingcow. Nothing brings me more joy than introducing something I love to someone else. (Except maybe milkshakes.) (Or nachos.) (Here I go with the parentheses again.) (Happy reading!)