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.
Let’s give a warm welcome to Max, folks!
Winter is the reader’s season.
Every other time of year, we readers struggle to make our case. “Come frolic,” say the flowers of spring. “Let’s hike!” say our friends. “Or grill! Or dance!” Our families arrange get-togethers involving croquet mallets and picnic baskets beneath the Day Star. We accompany loved ones on trips to beautiful locales, and even when we do manage to scrape together a few hours to sit by the waves and ignore the bathers and the ocean view, we’re conscious of the oddity—why, exactly, are we reading Moby Dick when, raising our eyes, we could watch whales breach?
Winter, though, is ours. The more vicious our climate, the more we own those dark months. Frolicking is minimal; a fresh snowfall occasions a pleasant romp, a snowball fight, an excursion to hunt hot chocolate fixings, but, those boxes being checked, friends and family wrap themselves in blankets near the fire. And for one brief shining moment, we have our books to ourselves.
It’s even possible to construct such opportunities—merely volunteer to shovel the front walk first thing in the morning, request in exchange a loved one’s provision of hot chocolate for reward, and rest joyfully undisturbed and blanket-swathed for the rest of the day.
Winter, as a result, is the time for serious reading. Summer is beach read season, perfect for novels with titles that consist of your choice of two words from the following list: a Greek letter, e.g. “Omega,” “Delta,” “Omicron”; a title of nobility, e.g. “Duchess,” “Princess,” “Lord”; “Scotsman”; and some synonym for “plan” or “lie,” e.g. “Scheme,” “Orchestration,” “Blueprint,” “Deception,” “Order,” “Betrayal.” (The Duchess’ Order. The Omega Deception. Lord Omicron!) Winter, though, is the literary deep end. Winter’s the time for breaking out reads that will keep us occupied ’til spring. Winter is the only time to read Infinite Jest, or Moby Dick. Winter’s when that shelf-long doorstopper fantasy series starts to look awfully appealing—or, at least, achievable.
If you’re in search of winter novels, why not try some of the following?
Wolf Hall, by Hillary Mantel — The year is 1532, and Henry VIII waives the rules. Our guide to the Tudor court is Thomas Cromwell, polyglot, mercenary, world-traveler and builder of empires, a common man who rose to the highest offices of England through a combination of cunning, determination, and raw competence. Mantel’s novel builds a court of knives and thorns, a realm of nobility elegant and foolish and utterly dangerous to a common man like Cromwell, who works to control the world for his own protection, and his family’s—but whose growing power sets them all at risk.
The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett — Masterful and ambitious in her worldbuilding, dementedly intricate in her intrigue, rainbow-varied in her characters and mood, Dunnett is an F-18 among the Sopwith Camels of the conventional medieval political thriller. Starting with The Game of Kings, Dunnett’s flagship series follows the adventures of brilliant, mad, swashbuckling Francis Crawford of Lymond through the mid-16th century from North Africa to Constantinople to Moscow to war-torn Scotland. Nobody writes a swordfight like Dunnett. Nobody writes repartee like Dunnett. Nobody writes cities like Dunnett. Nobody writes like Dunnett. Because of that, you might find her unsettling at first, as if someone switched your iced tea for rotgut whiskey while you weren’t paying attention. Slow down. Read sentence by sentence. Savor.
Hild, by Nicola Griffith — Imagine Sherlock Holmes incarnated as a young girl in 8th century Northumbria, and you have a shade of the fascination of Griffith’s Hild. The titular character becomes a seer to her king and people, due to her ability to identify patterns in nature—which offers her new opportunities and dangers. As with Mantel’s Cromwell, the more power she gains to protect herself and those she loves, the higher the tightrope upon which she walks. Hild‘s depth of natural detail astounds. Much historical fiction highlights social structures and the built world, abandoning the nature or treating it cursorily. Hild‘s primary interest lies in bodies and the environment, which feels deeply authentic and hammers home the precarious nature of human life in this novel. If ever there was a book for making you feel glad of your fire, this is the one.
Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi — A change of pace, here; Mr. Fox is shorter than any book I’ve mentioned so far, but its intricacy and depth fits the season perfectly. Oyeyemi’s Fox is a writer with a penchant for killing his female characters, locked in a love triangle with Mary Foxe, his muse, and Daphne, his wife—or he’s a sadistic demiurge locked under a lake by a matriarch who trains young boys for marriage—or he’s a shut-in sought out by a young writer through letters—or he’s a wounded fox tended by an old woman in a snowscape—or he’s Mary Foxe himself, or, or, or. A wonderful folkloric maze of a book. Wander in, and you may not wander out again.
Little, Big —John Crowley’s novel tells the tale of a family and an ending world over decades, slipping from Christmas to Christmas and winter to winter as the chance of spring grows ever more remote. Read it, re-read it, let it wash over you. This is a book for slow unraveling. Little, Big is a Christmas present the unwrapping of which yields another package, larger, wrapped in even more glorious paper. Also, should you want something more fun and sparkly than visions and transcendence and life deeply lived (which, I mean, okay, but why?), this is still the book with Uncle Trout and Arianna Hawksquill, High Magus to the Conspiracy that Controls the World.
Dhalgren — Samuel R. Delany’s novel may seem an odd choice given that winter never figures in its pages. In the city of Bellona it’s always a tense summer, verging on a season of fires. We follow an uncertainly-named protagonist into this surreal, almost-dangerous landscape which both is and is not America, and through his adventures, his art, and his love affairs scratch away at layered mysteries of setting and identity. Dhalgren reads the science fiction genre to itself, defending and breaking it by turns until arriving at a higher literary vision. This is an end-of-winter book—in its cycles we meet new possibilities. Read it as the snow melts. (Though you might want to give it a miss if, for some reason, you dislike sex.)
Go forth. Immerse yourself. And remember: shovel snow first, read undisturbed for the rest of the day.