Top Ten for 2012

It's year-end list time & I'll contribute with my top ten favorite reads of 2012. Not necessarily published this year, but discovered & loved by me since January 1, 2012. Presented in alphabetical order:

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore - Kristin Cashore is one of those authors who just works for me. Everything she writes, everything about her writing. She's the preacher, I'm the choir. I loved Graceling so much I didn't think Cashore would be able to top it -- but what makes the Seven Kingdoms books so amazing is that she didn't try to hit the same bull's eye over and over again. She built different targets and took fresh aim; Fire and Bitterblue are so different from Graceling and from one another.

Bitterblue is the most ambitious of the three; it's less perfect than Graceling, which plucked every string of my heart and left me in a swoon, but also bigger. It tackles bigger issues in a more nuanced way; it places the heroine in an impossible situation where escape is failure, and her goal is incremental change rather than success.

As an unpublished author, the story of how Bitterblue was written -- outlined with photographs in this post  -- is pretty inspiring.

The Information by James Gleik - An excellent book that shows the extent to which how we think affects what we think; that the methods of communication available to us (speaking; writing; the telegraph; the internet) mold and shape our view of the world, ourselves, everything.

This is another pet subject of mine -- I love thinking about how the medium affects the message (and the messenger), and discussions of how we offload parts of our brain onto the material world -- and this book is the best treatment of it I've run across since a favorite volume that Gleik cites in his first chapter, Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy.

Riveting, entertaining, thought-provoking. Give the first chapter, about African talking drums, a try. It totally hooked me.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant - Hands down the best historical romance I read this year, the best straight-up genre romance I read this year, and then, of course, just plain one of the best books I read this year. I explain why I loved it so much in my review, so I won't go over all the reasons again.

I read the second in Grant's Blackshear Family series, A Gentleman Undone, and admired it on its own but also as a companion piece to A Lady Awakened - the two books are mirror images of one another, stand-alone romances that are nonetheless more satisfying read in combination than in isolation. A good example for other romance writers who want to create series that are more than the sum of their parts.

Dirty by Megan Hart - Dirty was a revelation to me. It was the first, but not the last, erotic romance I read this year and showed me that erotic romance provides a really different set of narrative possibilities than the mainstream offerings. Dirty contains very explicit sex scenes, it's about the early stages of a relationship, and it closes on a positive note, but Dirty is pretty much never romantic.

It's darker and grittier than most romances, and even at the end the heroine's ability to trust and commit is uncertain. It's also beautifully written.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman - The word that comes to mind when I think of Seraphina is sublime. This YA fantasy is set in a sort of...late-medieval/early-Renaisance world and the heroine is a musician. It's a story about the clash of cultures (dragon vs human, in this case) and all the ugliness of war and prejudice are here, in an unstable peace treaty and everyday acts of violence, but what I remember most is the exquisite, gothic-cathedral perfection of Hartman's pantheon of saints, the way Seraphina is transported by music, the joyful strangeness of her garden of grotesqueries. The prose is exquisite, too, and it contains a very lovely romance.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq - Houellebecq is one of my favorite authors, partly because every one of his books builds on his previous work in such interesting ways. I adored The Possibility of an Island and, perhaps, he couldn't get any more Houellebecquian than he did in that book with its definitive mix of brilliance and guttermouth filth, of pulp and erudition, of critique and fantasy. I call him post-individualist.

In any case, The Map and the Territory went in a different direction - he tackled the myth he's created of himself by making himself a major character & did so with, of all things, a wicked sense of humor. The book is overtly about making art, in isolation and in the spotlight, and about the experience of fame, which he seems to have finally grown comfortable with. It's amazing and thoughtful and way, way less virulently misanthropic than his earlier books (despite the fact that the main characters are still misanthropic loners).

Adrien English series by Josh Lanyon - I love a good mystery/romance series, and I loved Adrien English in particular for the dexterity of Lanyon's writing. I took a photography course back in college, long ago enough that we spent as much time learning to develop pictures in a darkroom as learning to take them. One thing my professor said that's stuck with me is that one indicator of a well-shot black and white picture is that it contains the whole range of shades from pure white to pure black. A lot of writers tend to get stuck on one side of the scale; light and funny or dark and angsty, but Lanyon's books hit every shade on the scale. As a character, the titular hero Adrien is good-natured and witty but also sensitive and frail, and Lanyon's prose can switch gears from invisible to lush at the drop of a hat.

The Adrien English books also pulled m/m (male/male) books out of the ghetto for me, which has led to a whole slew of other wonderful discoveries.

Captive Prince by S.U. Pacat - For example! Captive Prince is not a published book (yet). It is free online fiction and if I had to pick an overall favorite among the books I've read this year, it might win the top slot. It is, hands down, the best enemies-to-lovers romance I have ever read. And enemies-to-lovers is just about my favorite trope.

If you want to know why it's so great, check out this post that the author wrote for Anna Cowan & accept my assurance that the author understands tension because she executes it so perfectly in her books. Or just read Captive Prince. I think the beginning is a little rough but the first two volumes are complete and, by the end, I was book-drunk in a way that doesn't happen all that often anymore.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio - Most of these books arrived on my list thanks to a home-team advantage, as it were. I was already a fan of Cashore's prose and world; of Houellebecq; of mystery/romance series; of enemies-to-lovers; of information theory. Wonder is the exception. It hits none of my buttons. I do not seek out middle-grade books. I do not like 'issue books'. And yet I loved Wonder; it made me cry happy tears and it stunned me as an authorial tour de force.

R.J. Palacio's prose is simple. The chapters are short and straightforward. Really, this is a book for kids. And yet it is ultimately so complex, so nuanced, so open-hearted and generous. It's the multiple points-of-view that made the book for me, along with how effortlessly Auggie holds center stage.

Ember by Bettie Sharpe - And now we arrive at a book that didn't just push all my buttons - it mashed at them with a sledgehammer. It's an Angela Carter-esque erotic retelling of Cinderella that reimagines Cinderella as a black witch, Charming as a cursed prince, and the evil step-mother and step-sisters as cunning prostitutes. It picks up every element you remember from the Disney movie and either inverts, subverts, or perverts it.

It's perfect.


Story vs. Ideas

I see literature on a sliding scale with other kinds of fiction, genre and general, and I think it's important to draw a distinction between different kinds of books that isn't based on good vs. bad but, rather, on a fundamental difference in nature.  To me, that difference is story vs. ideas. The more literary a book is, the more important the ideas behind it are.  If you read a 10/10 book of pure literature, and someone asked you what it was about, you wouldn't even mention the story in your reply.  The story would be irrelevant to you, and recounting it wouldn't give your listener the slightest idea why the book was worth reading.

Just think about it.  Nobody reads Ulysses because they can't wait to find out what happens when Leopold Bloom visits the library.  Nobody reads Remembrance of Things Past because the S&M is so wild (it is, though), or opens up Lolita because they love this Humbert Humbert character, and can't wait to spend a little more time with him.

And when you pare those books down to the stories they tell...well, they often boil down to a pretty short thread.  "Captain Ahab of the Pequod is determined to hunt down the whale that took his leg.  Ahab finds his whale, but Moby Dick sinks his ship and kills him.  Only Ishmael survives to tell the tale."  That's pretty much the story long is Moby Dick?

It takes a lot longer to describe the plot of a Harry Potter book, or The Hunger Games.  I think Harry Potter and The Hunger Games fall somewhere in the middle of the scale - amazing stories enhanced with interesting ideas.  If you try to describe the ideas in Harry Potter or The Hunger Games and leave out the plot, you'll strip away a lot of what makes the books unique, compelling, charming.  You take away the magic.

When you read a good story, the plotting is much denser, and if you can tell what's going to happen next the author hasn't done his or her job right.  A good story outsmarts you.

Think about that.  People talk about literature as though it's all this fancy pants smart stuff, but I think literature fails when the author tries to outsmart the reader.  Literature is very much about making abstract ideas material and concrete, and I think good literature makes it feel easy to follow along.

It's the thrillers and the mysteries and the romances where the author really needs to stay one step ahead.  Where the author needs to make sure that someone who's read a hundred other mysteries, or a hundred other romances (or several hundred, or a thousand) can't figure out whodunnit, or how the hero and heroine will get their happily ever after.  Where the author tries to trick you.

We've all read a book where we get to some dramatic twist or turn that leaves our hearts in our throat, jaw hanging open, thinking, "Oh, no way, you did not just do that!"  Sometimes I'll be too wrapped up in the story - too swept away - to stop and do a doubletake, but sometimes I'll picture the author as a little bobblehead floating in a cartoon bubble over the page, snickering at me.  And next to the little bobblehead, in all caps: GOTCHA!

What does all this mean?  It means that there's no reason to dig a moat around Literature and post guards at the drawbridge, letting only a select few authors cross.  It means that when someone tries to sneer at you for reading genre novels, you can know - and tell that person - why their bad attitude makes no sense.  It means there's no intelligence cap - or floor - anywhere on the scale.  Just different goals, and different markers of success.

Why Vampires?

I don't find the current vampire craze very mysterious, and I find my interpretation of it to be so stunningly obvious that I can't really claim it as an original idea.  But for anyone out there who's wondering why people (and girls especially) are so into vampires - and asking the heavens when this vampire craze will end - here's my take on the subject.

I think it's all about feminism.  Hit the jump to find out how and why.

I'm going to generalize here, but not wildly, so bear with me.  Girls today are brought up believing that a good relationship consists of two equals who respect and admire one another, who split responsibilities both professional and domestic.  It is marked by compromise and negotiation, and any attempt by one partner to dictate, commandeer, and control the other will meet with stiff resistance.

So when women have fantasies about a different kind of relationship, and a different kind of man, they run into a problem playing them out.  Remember the 70s?  Bra-burning, Roe v. Wade, Title IX, the Equal Pay Act, etc., etc.?  That was also the heyday of the bodice ripper - all the visible progress made by feminists had a strong undertow as romantic heroes in pulp novels became more and more violent, always ravishing their TSTL (too stupid to live) heroines, usually to the tune of her feeble, blushing protestations.  A lot of those fantasies were put at a safe distance, set in an assortment of far-off places and times where the leading ladies could not be expected to know any better.

Eventually, the mood changed: a lot of women today refuse to self-identify as feminists, even as they fiercely guard the rights that feminism won for them.  Some of the old guard think that we're slipping, perhaps losing the ground we've gained, or at least slowing our progress unacceptably.  At the same time?  Well, the bodice-ripper has fallen out of favor.  Historical romances these days are oddly proto-feminist stories - the heroines in them are always busily laying the groundwork for 20th century advances, running small-scale businesses, volunteering with astonishing professionalism, called to a vocation if not a career.  And Mr. Jerky Rapist Dude is not a turn-on for this new brand of leading lady.

To me, the implications are really clear.  Women are no longer comfortable engaging in fantasies about men they'd turn down flat in reality.  Our new historical fantasies are full of continuity - women have always been bold, purposeful, and doing-it-all, they say.  Women have always craved independence and nourished goals of their own.  They've always wanted a marriage of equals, founded on mutual respect.

But.  There's always a 'but,' and this one is pretty significant.  Those bodice-ripper fantasies haven't really gone away or died.  They've just been displaced. The imaginary past is no longer distant or safe.  Instead, our unacceptably controlling, violent, dominant heroes have themselves become...imaginary.  They're vampires and werewolves now.  They are figments of our imagination, and they are not human.  That's two new axes of distance that we've created.  Axis one: these are impossible creatures, creating an explicit, pure fantasy.  Axis two: they belong to a different genetic pool, so readers are excused from the need to expect them to conform to human standards.

It's the latter qualification that I'd like to examine in more detail.  The imaginary creatures that feature most prominently in these new fantasies are vampires and werewolves.  Team Edward and Team Jacob, in the popular vocabulary.  But the Twilight series is just a variation on a theme, expressed repeatedly in other books and TV shows.  Vampires and werewolves represent, pretty consistently, a unique type of unacceptable fantasy: vampires are Masters, and werewolves are Brutes.

Vampire/Master: lordly, dominant, controlling, frightening, superior, unemotional (or rarely moved to emotion).  In almost every vampire mythology circulating right now, the vampires build insular, feudal societies - they are aristocratic, chaining their bloodthirsty natures through the rule of law and elaborate ritual.  They are cold and noble.

Werewolf/Brute: hot-tempered, instinct-driven, family-oriented, hyper-protective, unpredictable, high-energy, openly aggressive, often affiliated with the military or military in spirit.  Gentle, faithful, and tame in an intimate family setting, modern werewolves in fiction exult in their animal natures.  They're primitive, back-to-basics cavemen types.

They're just two versions of the classic alpha male, re-imagined with fangs or fur.  The important thing is that they can't be changed or reformed.  It's in the nature of vampires to be Masters, just like it's in the nature of werewolves to be Brutes.  The heroine is released from the need to find a better specimen; if her vampire is resisting his urge to drain every last drop of blood from her body, he's already head and shoulders above the rest.  If her werewolf is jealous - well, if he can resist the desire to tear other potential suitors limb-from-limb, he deserves a reward.  They only have to meet the high standards of their type, they are excused from meeting the qualifications the same woman would demand of a human male.

There are a lot of other issues at play here.  One, for example, is choice - it's been much noted that unlike in the old bodice rippers, it's up to Twilight'sBella to pick her poison.  The other, of course, is the fact that masculine identity is very much in the hotseat now; but that's a discussion for another day.  In the meanwhile, I think it's safe to say that vampires and werewolves aren't going away any time soon.  Not until we find a new variation on the theme, anyhow - or until we hit a major shift in gender relations, and head off in a new direction.