~Six Excellent Books~
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
YA historical fiction. The story of two girls who are part of the British war effort during World War II. A fantastic portrayal of friendship, sacrifice, and finding humanity in the midst of brutality. I can't say too much about the plot because it is twisty and layered and there are surprises and reversals. But it starts out with one of the girls writing her "confession" to her Nazi captors. There is a wealth of historical detail which might be overwhelming to some, but I loved it. If this book works for you, it will rip your heart out and then give it back to you, a little broken but a little brighter, too.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
YA fantasy. A brilliant and gorgeous fantasy setting, with some of the best world-building I've read lately. The title character has a marvelous voice, telling her own story with humor and prickly charm. Some of the blurbs about this book give away a certain plot element you might want to discover on your own, so read them with care. The short version: Seraphina is a musician in a kingdom of humans who have had a long and conflicted history with a race of dragons. The dragons are almost Vulcan-like, valuing logic and science. But the dragons can also take human form, and in that way experience the span of messy, dangerous, fascinating human emotions. This makes for a marvelously rich and nuanced political setup, which Seraphina needs to navigate from her unique position, to try to preserve peace between the races and keep safe those she loves.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Adult Science Fiction. A giant love letter to video games and 80s pop culture. As a child of the 80s, I loved it. Wade Watts has to live up to his alliterated superhero name and find an Easter Egg hidden in the most popular virtual reality game in the world, to claim the enormous monetary prize, which he desperately needs to improve his own wretched life (and to keep an evil corporation from taking over the game). Fast-paced and funny.
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Nonfiction. Sooo dense, but worthwhile! It took me the better part of the year to get through this, but it was a fascinating exploration of happiness and finding satisfaction in your life. "Flow" is the author's term for the optimal experience of getting so absorbed in an activity that you lose your sense of time and gain a sense of being fully present and engaged in life in the moment. Some of the most interesting sections discuss how these "flow" activities are (surprisingly) not mindless entertainments, but active work: surgery, chess, mountain climbing, listening attentively to music, running, even daily chores.
Renegade Magic by Stephanie Burgis
MG historical fantasy. More of the delightful tale of Kat, a Regency-era girl with a large, lovably-flawed family and new-found magical powers. Full of humor and adventure, but also quite a lot of heart. I was especially impressed by how well this book worked as a sequel, reminding the reader what happened in the first book (Kat, Incorrigible).
American Primitive by Mary Oliver
Poetry. Simple, stunning, gorgeous. Most of these poems feature imagery from the natural world, but they also raise profound questions about humanity and how we live our lives.
I read many more books that I enjoyed this year, including a number of re-reads of old or recent favorites. I've avoided re-reading in the past, but decided this year that it would both be fun and also useful from a craft perspective to try to study how my favorite books do what they do. And I am glad I did!
My full 2012 reading list is here. I'm afraid there's not a lot of detail in my "reviews" but you can generally assume that if I finished it, I found something about it compelling!
Little Furnace by Jim Guthrie (Sword & Sworcery LP - The Ballad of the Space Babies)
My love for this song is mixed up with my love for the video game it is featured in (see more on that below). There's something sad and sweet that gets me every time.
3326 by Olafur Arnalds (Eulogy for Evolution)
A shortened version of this song was featured on So You Think You Can Dance this year, which is where I first heard (and loved) it. Stark and emotional, even harsh in places, but beautiful.
Invocatio by Irfan (Seraphim)
Short but hauntingly beautiful. I love many songs by this Bulgarian group, which reminds me a lot of another favorite band, Dead Can Dance, and it has become a staple of my writing soundtrack for the book I've been working on for the past two years.
Infinite Legends by Two Steps from Hell (Invincible)
Listening to this makes anything you are doing more heroic and epic. Even chopping carrots or doing the dishes. The entire album is worth a listen if you like this one.
Starlight by Muse (Black Holes and Revelations)
This just grabs my heart.
In the End by Snow Patrol (Fallen Empires)
I seem to have a thing for slightly melancholy yet fast-paced songs. The video is quite cool too!
~Six Other Entertainments~
THE LEGEND OF KORRA
This animated series is the follow-up to what I currently feel is THE best television series I have ever watched, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The new series has the same glorious animation and complex Asian-inspired world as the original, with the added interest of being several decades in the future and thus now featuring more advanced technologies. I love Korra herself: strong, loyal, impulsive, (over) confident and yet still struggling with some of her Avatar powers and responsibilities. And I am so thrilled to see a character like Lin Beifong: a tough, middle-aged, metalbending woman in a position of authority (Chief of Police). The pacing is a bit too quick for my tastes, and it seemed to me that everything was wrapped up too easily and abruptly in the end. But I blame that on the network, which only ordered the single season at first. (Which seems crazy to me, given how popular the first series was! I wonder if it was due to concerns that a girl MC could not carry the show?). Thankfully they have now ordered three more "Books" of the story, so I hope that the creators will be able to slow things down a bit.
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from this animated film about the "bad guy" from a video game trying to become a hero for just a little while, but it definitely exceeded my expectations, especially in the variety of female characters and themes. This post on The Mary Sue pretty much says everything I would, but much more coherently, so I will point you there.
THE GOOD WIFE
A show about lawyers and corrupt politicians isn't normally the sort of thing that calls out at me, but after reading a number of positive comments from friends, I did finally check this out. And I am so glad I did! The acting is top-notch, and the character interactions and relationships subtle and complex. And it explores so many fascinating questions about gender issues and ethics, and presents a number of diverse characters (including my favorite, Archie Panjabi's Kalinda Sharma, a fearless, intensely private, somewhat misanthropic investigator who breaks my heart when she does show the cracks in her fierce shell). Also, it's got Alan Cumming, who I would watch reading a phone book. Even if he has an American accent here!
THE LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES
A re-telling of Pride and Prejudice developed by Hank Green and Bernie Su, in the form of a video blog by modern grad student Lizzie Bennet. There are currently 75 short (3-5 min) videos, with more on the way about twice a week, as well as tumblrs, tweets and videos by other characters. For anyone familiar with the source material, these are so much fun! I love seeing how the story has been adapted to the modern times, and the acting is quite amazing (especially Ashley Clements, Julia Cho, Laura Spencer, and Mary Kate Wiles who play the four main characters, Lizzie, Charlotte, Jane and Lydia). I am really looking forward to how some of the remaining pivotal plot points are interpreted in this modern setting!
There are so many more cool and fun board games available these days than I remember as a kid. I mean, I did love CLUE, and had fun playing Balderdash in college. But they are nothing like the cool (mostly German-made!) games I've discovered in the past few years. My parents and brother moved to Maine over the summer, and we've been getting together with them to play all sorts of new games: Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Agricola. We also just got Dominion and Risk, and are looking forward to trying those out.
SWORD & SWORCERY
Up until this year, I had not touched a video game in at least a decade, possibly two. As a kid I played ZORK on my grandpa's cassette loaded PC, Lode Runner on our AppleIIe, and occasionally a round of Street Fighter2 or Gauntlet. But then I got into LARPing and ended up focusing all my gaming energy into that. Then, this year, I read this post on the Mary Sue blog about a game called Sword & Sworcery. The suggestion of a faintly tragic storyline, the description of how atmospheric the game's art and music are, and the fact that the main character was a warrior woman known only as "The Scythian" all compelled me to check it out. Bob and I ended up playing the entire game together, alternating the role of mouse-clicker to send the Scythian exploring her lovely, magical world, fighting wolves and dark horrors, and learning more about her "woeful errand." And by the time we finished, I had somehow put a part of me into the game (I still am trying to figure out how that happened, since it is a quite simple game and you don't actually learn all that much about the characters). I was kind of useless for several days after finishing, poking around the internet for fan art and listening to certain songs over and over again. And there are even some elements of the game that have worked their way into my brainstorming for my next book project (more on that in a future post, perhaps).
The art is simple (the Scythian herself is a rather retro, pixelated little figure), but oddly compelling. Here's an example:
[Click to embiggen]
So that's it!
And if any of you have your own favorites to suggest I would love to hear your recommendations (especially for fantasy/sf/YA books and atmospheric writing music. Bonus points if it's world-music inspired like Dead Can Dance!). I have some gift cards for bookstores and iTunes ready to go!