While I’m not sure how I managed to miss reading Northanger Abbey back in my teens when I devoured all Jane Austen, somehow, I did. But no matter. I read it back in April and grinned the whole way through. Austen’s prose sparkles off the page, and in this satire of the de rigueur gothic romance, she does not disappoint. Though my favorite part just may have been her famous defense of the novel1—and as a romance novel reader, I found myself fervently agreeing with every word of it.
Born out of the original Hogarth Press, founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917, Hogarth now is an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group. They recently embarked on a project where they tapped some of today’s most celebrated novelists to retell a Shakespeare play of their choice.2 Of the five currently published, I’ve read four; my favorite is Hag-seed (The Tempest). Honorable mention goes to Shylock Is My Name—The Merchant of Venice as told by Howard Jacobson. What these two have in common is how the characters interact with the text being retold. Rather than a strict transplant of the play into contemporary settings, with no sense of if the main characters know the source material they are acting out, the main characters of Hag-seed (Felix Phillips/Prospero) and Shylock (Simon Strulovitch/Shylock & Shylock—yes, and) are aware—to varying degrees—of what they are doing and how their life is currently modeled after the play. I particularly loved Atwood’s take on Miranda and Ariel. Reading Hag-seed and so thoroughly enjoying Atwood’s writing renewed my interest in her novels, which had waned after getting through half of The Handmaid’s Tale last year.
Lady Susan was an absolute joy to read, and a quick one. Sparkling prose abounds, and I enjoyed the epistolary form. Heartstone is Pride & Prejudice plus dragons—what more can this regency novel- and dragon-lover want more?! *swoon*
Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear (I’ve read books 1-4 of the series. And am holding myself—or trying to, at least—to a book a month.)
Jacqueline Winspear’s writing is some of the best I’ve read this year—which is a hard thing to say, as I have truly enjoyed the writing of everyone on this list. Maisie Dobbs is a delightful character, and while highly intelligent and existing somewhat apart from her supporting characters, she doesn’t fall into my most despised of female archetypes, one I find in mystery novels more than in other genres—the “only one of her kind,” she is a possessor of much gumption (a dog whistle for me); is one of the boys, but always feminine; and often hasn’t a single female friend. No thank you. Maisie has a rich cast of supporting characters, male and female, and genuinely loves her work for the help and closure she provides her clients.
(So as not to let Austen down by pretending I don’t read romance novels, let me briefly expound on my love for them)
Anything by Julia Quinn or Eloisa James.
But seriously, anything they write is my favorite, and this year was a stellar one for both.
A brief description of their corners of the romance market: Quinn’s novels are incredibly witty and funny, and some of the best lighthearted, escapist fantasy. Comparisons to Austen are apt. James, on the other hand, specializes in rip-my-heart-out emotion, making me fall deeply in love with all the characters, almost bringing me to tears (this is difficult).
To my delight, in addition to being set in Revolutionary War America (a time period and location in which I wish more quality romance novels were written, even if the protagonists are unrepentant Redcoats), Girl was also a fall-in-love-through-letters story, one of my favorite romance tropes. Maybe my favorite.
Seven tells the love story of two characters we first met as young children in her Desperate Duchess series. James writes the most alpha of alpha heroes, yet manages to balance on the right side of the line that would tip them into insufferable and unbearable. In short, her heroes are delicious. And her heroines are always their equal, never beta, a quality I appreciate in a romance novel. Eugenia and Edward are a delightful pairing, and Edward comes with two small children (half siblings) in tow who provide enough antics to offset the emotion.
An Accident of Stars & A Tyranny of Queens, Foz Meadows (books 1 & 2 of The Manifold Worlds)
The Codex Alera, Jim Butcher (6 book series)
The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman (book 1 of The Invisible Library)
Wow, am I waiting with bated breath for book 3 of The Manifold Worlds. This is fine portal fantasy. Meadows sets up a rich world for her series, and I can’t wait to find out more about these worlds. While the first book—and the second—had slow starts, once I got past that invisible barrier the story just moves. Even better, the main characters are predominantly female. I’m also fairly certain not a single character is strictly heterosexual—I think everyone fits somewhere on the LGBTQIA spectrum. I want more of this world, and I want more of this representation in novels to be normal.
The Codex Alera were among the first books I read this year, and I already want to reread them. I started reading the first one, thinking it would be a good fit for my dad and wanting to read a bit of it before purchasing it for him. I immediately sunk into the book and didn’t want to leave—I actually missed my bus stop that first night home. Which I never do, no matter how engrossed. I snapped up the rest of the series immediately—my original plan was to read it slowly, one a month—along with a copy of the first book for my dad. I finished the whole series in January.
I read The Invisible Library just this past weekend and was immediately hooked. There’s a passage in Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods:
“All libraries, everywhere, are connected by the bookworm holes in space created by the strong space-time distortions found around any large collections of books.
“Only a very few librarians learn the secret, and there are inflexible rules about making use of the fact. Because it amounts to time travel, and time travel causes big problems.
“But if a library is on fire, and down in the history books as having been on fire …
… scrolls thought to have been destroyed in the Great Ephebian Library Fire turned up in remarkably good condition in the Library of Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork.” (Small Gods, p. 217-218)3
The Invisible Library is as though Cogman took that idea and RAN with it, adding a heaping portion of steampunk, and a generous dash of Sherlock Holmes. She delves a little bit into Language—the language that all Librarians know—circling around lexicography, noting how every new book added to the Library changes Language. I would love to see her actually explore this idea as she continues the series, or at least use it more.
If I ever play a role in shaping a young mind through literature, I would hand them Martin’s novels. While not shelved with YA, they are entirely appropriate for younger readers. While Martin’s characters are sadly a little one-dimensional, her world is a joy—despite the cognitive dissonance of kings and queens in a world inspired by different North American landscapes. Despite my issues with the first book, I still liked it enough to pick up the second, and am waiting to read the third.
I fell in love with Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series when I read the first four two years. While she tied up all the loose ends in the fourth book, she wrote one more book, a coda, as it were. I finally got around to reading it this year, though it took a comedy of errors to get there.4 It was lovely to visit Gillengaria again, and Shinn gave the heartbroken Wen—a minor character in the first four books—a beautiful story of her own.
1Jane Austen’s defense of the novel, Chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey (p. 42-43 in the 1996 Signet Classic edition)
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss—?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
2While not written in response to this book project, by chance I read this article shortly before reading The Gap of Time, the first book in the Hogarth Shakespeare project (based on The Winter’s Tale). It’s an interesting read, discussing the trend in theater to modernize Shakespeare’s work, rather than present it as is.
3This is the only passage of all of the solo Terry Pratchett I’ve read that I’ve liked.
4There was a comical bit of book changing of hands, where I finally bought it at Christmastime, but then immediately loaned it to my dad, even though he already had a copy and was in fact waiting for my sister to return his copy, who borrowed it almost immediately but hadn’t even started it yet. But Dad didn’t finish reading it before I went back to DC, so he passed if off to my sister (that very same sister who borrowed his copy) to return to me, since she would see me before he would. Are you exhausted yet?