Welcome to Smugglivus 2015! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2015, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2016, and more.
Who: Zen Cho, author of the ever fabulous Sorcerer to the Crown, one of Ana’s Notable Books of 2015
Give a warm welcome to Zen Cho, everybody!
As I was thinking about this post and what I was going to put in it, I realised that there was a unifying theme to the books and stories I loved in 2015. They were stories about the things we think we know – tellings and retellings that cast a new light on familiar landscapes.
Of course, there were books and shows I loved that don’t fit into that theme and which I have discarded heartlessly for the purposes of Smugglivus. (Nadiya’s speech in the final episode of The Great British Bake-Off was one of the most intense emotional moments I had this year, for example … ) So this isn’t a list of things I loved best this year, but a selection of unexpected collisions of medium and message – not all of which came out in 2015 – that really worked for me.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew
This graphic novel became a local bestseller when Singapore’s National Arts Council withdrew a publishing grant on the eve of its launch because of its “sensitive content”. The book is hard to describe – it’s a memoir of a fictional Singaporean comics artist who comes of age at the time of the creation of Singapore as a modern nation-state. It’s an inventive, intelligent take on the story of Singapore – a story that is intertwined with the story of Malaysia, in a way that perhaps both countries tend to forget. It’s about a very specific history, but it’s also about art and success – and comics, of course. If you’re interested in any of those things I would definitely recommend it.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Like everyone else I loved Uprooted. It’s fantasy in the fairytale vein and it pays loving tribute to the tropes of that particular kind of fantasy – the dark wood, the mysterious sorcerer, the plucky young heroine. But it also feels totally fresh and exciting. The two things I loved most about it was its focus on women – on a female tradition of knowledge and magic, and on the female friendship at the heart of the novel – and its effortless incorporation of Novik’s Polish cultural influences, which gives the novel its weight and depth. I’ve struggled with melding together the culture I live and the stories I love reading, and it’s good to have models of how it can be done.
Again like everyone else I fell in love with the Hamilton musical upon listening to it – its verve, cleverness, energy and love for its subject are irresistible. Even though it’s about America’s Founding Fathers, a subject which doesn’t have a lot of inherent interest for non-Americans, it is a rich enough piece of work that you can take all sorts of things from it. I don’t pretend to be remotely as talented and driven as its charismatic creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I recognise Miranda’s project in Hamilton, as well as his debut In The Heights — the project of incorporating all the different parts of you into the storytelling form you love. I also think of Hamilton as being the same thing as The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – works that use an unexpected medium (comics, musical theatre) to reflect on a country’s image of itself.
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
Tidhar’s novel about Hitler as a private investigator in an alternate London is another project that uses the trappings of low culture to talk about something pretty damn serious. Tidhar uses pulp fiction to talk about the Holocaust. It’s elegantly executed noir: dark, funny, prurient and deeply moving. It shouldn’t work, but it totally does.
The Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell TV series
I adore Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which – among its other virtues – showed readers a side of Regency England that’s generally gone unseen, with its interest in class, gender and race. The BBC adaptation had its flaws, but nonetheless I loved it. It’s beautifully shot, with some very fine acting. The characters are not quite who they were in the book, but they are alternate versions I find credible and interesting. I was particularly pleased by the fact that the women had a more prominent role than in the book, especially the ball-busting Lady Pole.
The Way That Lives in the Heart: Chinese Popular Religion and Spirit Mediums in Penang, Malaysia by Jean DeBernardi
This is an insightful academic account of the religious practices of Chinese Malaysians in Penang. It’s a really personal choice, and doesn’t quite fit with the rest, not being fiction – but it did show me a new face of something I’d thought I’d known. As a layperson I found it accessible; as someone who more or less grew up in the culture described I found it reasonably respectful. I’d already known I wasn’t quite writing fantasy when I drew on Malaysian beliefs about the supernatural in my short stories, but until I read this book I hadn’t quite realised that I was writing about religion all along.