In January, I set out to catch up on some reading. I tend to be something of a dinosaur/Luddite/technophobe who loves the classics and will read the same books over and over again. So with the start of a new year, I decided to return to the twenty-first century (or at least make it to the twentieth) and fill in some huge gaps in my reading list.
As someone who’s been involved in education pretty much my entire life, either as a student, teacher, tutor, or spouse of teacher/parent of students, I’m hardwired to regard autumn as the actual start of the new year. Autumn makes me reflective, and so I’ve been thinking about the books I’ve read thus far in 2014 that have had the greatest impact on me.
I’ve been reading a great deal of Young Adult fiction this year, particularly fantasy. I imagine that the feeling this gives me is not unlike that experienced by people who taste-test chocolate for a living. I read stuff I love, and inform people that I am “researching the market.” In the course of my YA fantasy ramblings, I’ve stumbled across some excellent books. Lauren DeStefano’s novel Perfect Ruin, the first in her Internment Chronicles, is an eerily dreamy tale of a city in the clouds, a seeming Utopia that, on closer examination, isn’t so perfect. DeStefano’s worldbuilding is spot-on, her narrative voice wistfully compelling.
My favorite YA fantasy this year is Lena Coakley’s debut novel Witchlanders. It’s a standalone–something of a flying unicorn in the current YA fantasy market–and is a gorgeously written story that feels at once epic and intimate, immediate and timeless. Among the novel’s standout features are its focus on a friendship between two boys–NO LOVE TRIANGLES! HUZZAH!!!–and Coakley’s spine-tingling descriptions of the cold. A writer who can make me shiver on a warm day is always a winner.
In the broader “speculative fiction” category, Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies truly astounded me. It’s one of those EVERYTHING novels. I laughed out loud. I did mental calisthenics. My heart broke at least a couple of times. Warm Bodies, made into a zombie flick by the same title, is so much more than a zombie story. In a way, it isn’t a zombie story at all. It’s philosophy which happens to contain sort of dead people who eat brains, and while this sounds like a disgusting cliche, the book manages to be brilliant, funny, and profound.
The Dangerous Angels books, by Francesca Lia Block, almost defy description. I adore books that can’t be easily categorized, and Block’s novels read like fantasy, faerie tale, serious literature, and myth all rolled into a delightful, shimmering kaleidoscope of wonder, darkness, and beauty. Reading Dangerous Angels is like eating something amazingly delicious and then discovering that it is actually good for you. Plus, Block has accomplished something I didn’t dream was possible–namely, she has made me want to move to L.A.
Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly, also has a magical element. It’s a fascinating blend of contemporary, historical, and fantasy that interweaves the story of a 21st century Brooklyn girl with that of a young woman living during the French Revolution. While there’s much to praise about this novel, its greatest strength is in the narrative voice that Donnelly has created. Brilliant, bitter, cynical, hopeful, damaged, tender, funny, and profane, Andi is a completely believable teenage protagonist, and her narration is thoroughly compelling.
On the more realistic end of YA, I’m especially impressed by Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. Like Donnelly’s, Rowell’s narration is flawless, her characters deeply believable. Humor and pathos mix and meld beautifully in this story, as Rowell gives equal voice to her male and female protagonist. In this book, the characters seem like kids you actually know. Rowell avoids the cookie-cutter fabulously gorgeous teens of most YA fiction in favor of people who feel so authentic that long after you’ve closed the book, you find yourself looking for them on the sidewalk and in the grocery store.
Another utterly believable teen is the smart, tough-yet-vulnerable Lemon of Kristen-Paige Madonia’s debut novel, Fingerprints of You. This story, set in a small-town South so real you can feel its summer heat, begins with one of my favorite opening sentences: “My mother got her third tattoo on my seventeenth birthday, a small navy hummingbird she had inked above her left shoulder blade, and though she said she picked it to mark my flight from childhood, it mostly had to do with her wanting to sleep with Johnny Drinko, the tattoo artist who worked in the shop outside town.” Lemon’s story is like an On the Road for the teenage girl, an American odyssey of self-discovery and an ode both to freedom and to the things that bind us together. Madonia’s second novel is coming out soon, and I’m eagerly awaiting it.
I did manage to read some adult fiction, too. Laline Paull’s The Bees is yet another debut novel, and it’s hard to believe that this is her first. The story follows Flora 717–yes, an actual honeybee. It sounds strange, but Paull handles her nontraditional heroine as deftly as Richard Adams renders the rabbits in Watership Down. Paull’s book is very much in the same tradition, examining the lives of small and seemingly insignificant creatures, and drawing profound connections between theirs and our own. As an amateur beekeeper, I’m especially impressed by Paull’s in-depth understanding of honeybees, and her empathy for them.
My favorite recent read on the nonfiction front is Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. If you haven’t read it, you really should. Dillard’s writing is profound, lush, resonant, and piercing. Her meditations on writing have an air of the sacred about them; after all, writing is a godlike endeavor, requiring, as it does, equal parts hubris and humility. Writers will find both challenge and comfort in her pages, and non-writers will get a little glimpse inside the glorious tumult of their writers’ crazy, beautiful brains. Annie Dillard is amazing. I’m trying to figure out how to get her to adopt me.
I have fueled much of this year’s reading and writing with tea. Tea has also provided me with yet another research rabbit hold to fall down, and I enjoyed reading The Chinese Art of Tea, by John Blofeld. It gives an excellent account of the significance of tea in Chinese culture, its origins and history. Tea is a most writerly drink–it releases its caffeine gradually, and its past is thick with stories. Blofeld tells many of them, from that of Lu Yu, China’s tea saint (yes, saint–the Chinese know what’s what) to stories of ordinary men and women, all of which revolve around the power and magic of tea.
I’m almost finished with my White Peony tea, so I’ll end this for now. What books have influenced you this year?