Friday, January 24, 2014

Best of: Books I read in 2013

Just in time for your weekend! Here are my favorites from last year's reading list, in no particular order.

My pick for Best Bromance (protagonists Locke and Jean really take the cake there) AND my introduction to the Sanza twins, who officially fill my docket for Preferred Fictional Threesome Partners.The first book in Lynch's incredible "Gentlemen Bastards Sequence", Lies follows Locke Lamora---brilliant thief, weak swordsman, and sore loser---through an affair much larger than any of his previous heists. Set in the dizzying and cutthroat city of Camorr (an alchemically-powered fantasy version of Renaissance Venice), where organized crime, ancient alien architecture, an extreme divide between rich and poor, and female shark-wrestlers are the order of the day. FEMALE. SHARK. WRESTLERS. Bloody, smart, and full of side-splitting dialogue, plus a refreshing lack of romantic subplots. Don't worry, those come later in the series, as do some truly kickass female characters. As for Lies, it shines a light on the boys alone. Books II and III (Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves) are also out now, with four more books planned for the series. Don't walk, run.

Kushiel's Legacy Series
Jacqueline Carey
My second-favorite series. I spent the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 on this two-trilogy masterpiece. Books 1-3 (Kushiel's Dart, Kushiel's Chosen, and Kushiel's Avatar) follow Phedre, a woman indentured from a young age to the exquisite and highly respected pleasure houses of the City of Elua, capitol of Terra D'Ange, a nation of fancy folk who claim angelic bloodlines and value pleasure in all its forms. Early on, we learn that Phedre has been "marked" by Kushiel, the god of punishment, as denoted by a red mote in her left eye and her fascination with pain. Long story short: girlfriend likes a good spanking. And not only does she like a good spanking, but getting one can make her feel downright transcendental. And in this city of wealth and political intrigue, there are men and women who will pay bank to spank, whip, bind, and otherwise debase such a creature. Recognizing this, a certain nobleman pays off Phedre's contractual servitude and educates her to be a perfect spy, hoping she can ferret out important information from her high-profile patrons. She does, and thus begins Phedre's long life of international adventure, saving queens, wearing magnificent dresses, learning new languages, and having super good spanky sex everywhere she goes. I have yet to meet a protagonist that I love more than Phedre. She is brave, compassionate, polite, unapologetically vain, and above all, a constant scholar.

The second trilogy (Kushiel's Scion, Kushiel's Justice, Kushiel's Mercy) follows one of Phedre's family members--a male protag with a lot of sexual and emotional hangups. Essentially: less spanking, more angst, but I liked it. The protag is great in his own way and Carey's world-building is just too good to pass on, and there was still plenty of Phedre for me to admire in these books as well.

If you are of Applachian heritage and grew up in your grandma's wallpapered kitchen listening to your family casually discuss the gruesome details of various relatives' deaths, then you will understand and enjoy this book. If you didn't, then I don't really know what you'll make of it, but it's worth a read. Pure poetry for the homesick. I may not be able to get a Tudor's biscuit in Seattle, but I can pick up this book and soothe my soul.

Craig Thompson
Alternate title: Lindsey Strain Will Hate This Book. I made an effort to finally start reading graphic novels last year, because I know I've been missing out. This one was a thing of beauty, basically an illustrated bible of the trajectory of your typical adolescent long-distance relationship. Questioning Christian teens, mixed tapes, furtive kisses, and lots of snow. It will make you sigh and think back on the days when you used to talk to a boy for hours on the phone and mail him handmade presents before ever even kissing him. Can you imagine doing that now? Me neither. It's nice to remember.

Saga, Volumes I and II
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Another perfect graphic novel. Blessed with fucking glorious artwork and humorous details of the finest subtlety, Saga follows Marko and Alana, star-crossed creatures whose races have been at war with one another for centuries. They're on the run with a baby, and encounter ghost babysitters, nobility with televisions for heads, a giant lie-detecting cat, and the greatest bounty hunter character ever:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Stalk.

I don't often find non-fiction that doesn't make my eyes glaze over, but books like Seabiscuit make me feel like taking a break from novels and browsing for more. This book reads like an American tall-tale, and it has every right to. In an age when gumption alone really could get you from the slums to the top in America, three men---an industry mogul, a horse trainer, and a jockey---team up to shape up the nation's favorite and fastest horse. So many extraordinary stories. And racing facts! The accounts of the jockey lifestyle alone is worth the read. Did you know that jockeys used to dig big holes in giant mounds of sundried manure to create saunas for themselves? Or that one such mountain of crap once came apart in the rain and took out an entire Mexican casino with a terrible poop avalanche? Neither did I!

The Scorpio Races
Maggie Stiefvater
I would call this YA literary fiction, or speculative fiction due to its elements of fantasy. I love this book. It's as if Stiefvater had a fever dream about Chincoteague Island and then wrote it all down. The setting: the hard-luck island town of Thisby, where meat-eating horses emerge from the sea each autumn and go mad trying to return to the water if caught. The protagonist: Teenage girl Puck Connolly, determined to keep her family's house by winning big money in the Scorpio Races, a deadly annual event in which the island's men race their carnivorous water horses along the shore. The fantasy and superstition surrounding these horses is hardly the story's focal point. Scorpio Races is a powerful story of community, hard choices, and courage in the face of tough odds. There is also the beautiful and cautious affection between race veteran Sean Kendrick (Puck's rival and love interest) and his prize-winning stallion Cor, a beast he loves beyond measure---despite the fact that it would kill him the instant he lets his guard down. There has to be a life metaphor in that somewhere, but I just realized that there is Fudge Ripple ice cream in my freezer and so I am done here, people.

Also, the phrase "terrible poop avalanche" is still making me laugh, so I'm not sure if you even want to trust my taste in books. But if you do, the links are all up there. Read on, friends!