Wednesday, 13 August 2014

I like lists. I like books. I like lists about books. Thus: (constantly belated, because I am never on time) Top 5 Wednesday

I figured it would be fun. It'll probably be fun. So hey, let's have some fun.

Top 5 Books You Read So Far This Year (2014)

1. Cinnamon and Gunpowder, by Eli Brown
Master chef Owen Wedgewood, whose only sense of adventure belongs firmly in the kitchen, is one day kidnapped by the fearsome pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot as a sidestop on her quest for vengeance. As she has a taste for the finer things in life, he is charged with cooking her one amazing meal a week. Failure to do so will result in him being keelhauled, painted with actors rouge, or whatever else poetical description the pirates have for grisly punishments usually resulting in death. Fun job.

This is a book I want to inhale, swirl in a fine crystal glass to better admire the beautiful colors, and sip slowly, drawing out the rich, bursting flavors to make them last as long as possible. It's impossible to read this book without reaching for something to eat, and then experiencing a vague burn of disappointment because what you're eating isn't anywhere near as delicious as Eli Brown's words on paper. 

2. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Mr.  Norrell's not entirely altruistic goal is to revive magic in England (practical magic, rather than theoretical). Along the way, he picks up a student: the brilliant and reckless Jonathan Strange. Together, the two take England by magically-induced storm, flooding the news with feats of wonder and (in Jonathan's case) winning a war or two. Little do they realize that reviving magic also means awakening mystical forces that have been sleeping for centuries and are all too ready to claim England for themselves.

You may take it for granted that this book is stuffed with exciting and breathtaking events, magical and otherwise. Stone statues will sing of ancient crimes, rivers will change courses, and mysterious pillars of shadow will cloak characters in unending night. Of course they will--what use is a book about magicians without impressive feats of magic? The real star of this book, though, is Susanna Clarke's amazing voice. All the characters are marvelously flawed and delightfully idiosyncratic, as Clarke pokes fun at their stuffy and charming British ways. Should this be optioned for film, no doubt the VFX teams will have many opportunities to amaze, but the loss of Clarke's voice of deadpan wonder would leave it just short of a masterpiece.

3. The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser
The Bible dubs women as "the weaker vessel," in comparison to men, implying that, compared to men, women are physically and spiritually less robust. Antonia Fraser begs to differ. To lend proof to her objection, she examines life in 17th century England during the Civil War, a period in which women had no shortage of dangerous ways to die to choose from--constant childbirth, the ravages of illness, war and political strife, domestic abuse, and even popular opinion, to name a few.

Fraser fills the book with fascinating stories of women from all walks of life: from the glittering ornaments of the court to the miserable old crones on the road, every single tale bears witness to the triumphs and tribulations of women. There are stories of women who defended their castles against relentless sieges, of the rise and fall of famous mistresses of the theater, of heiresses who, in spite of many kidnappings and familial conflicts, end up finding true love. The weaker vessel, they may be called but life as a woman--especially one in the 17th century--is no joke.

4. The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey
It's best not to know too much going into this amazing rollercoaster of a book. All you need to know is that there's something about intelligent little Melanie that's special and so scary that armed guards need to strap her tightly into bed every day.

My heart did a lot of migrating during the course of this story -- sometimes it was in my throat, soaking up the uneasy tension and making me too scared to breathe. Other times it swelled three sizes too big and choked me up at the tender affection of Melanie and Miss Justineau's relationship. Generally, though, it was fit to burst out of my chest, Alien-style, because damn if Carey doesn't make you feel every single bolt of terror his characters feel. The man manages to combine intellectual and scientific discussion with insane bursts of action that feel perfectly natural and necessary. Not a single page dragged its feet behind the others. You know how it is when you finish a book and there's this sense of a very quiet devastation inside you, but it feels just right? That was me at the end of this raw, terrifying, yet oddly hopeful book.

5. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker
What a magical book! Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell may be books about magic, but Helene Wecker's debut novel about two mystical beings meeting in 1900s New York is magic itself. Gentle and intelligent Chava, a Golem, travels New York with her master, who unexpectedly dies en route and leaves her without anyone to serve and curb her dangerous impulses. Ahmed, a jinni from Syria, emerges from a metal flask only to discover that he had been trapped for hundreds of years and taken far from his desert home. The two struggle to fit into their separate expatriate communities and eventually strike up a wary friendship, unaware that a ruthless wizard with an unnatural yearning for eternal life is secretly hunting them down.

It may be because this is the last book I finished, but I am still utterly in love with this book. The ghostly beauty of the cover perfectly conveys the atmosphere of an ancient and quiet wonder that pervades this book. Even the commonplace scenes of Chava baking rolls and Ahmed carving metal birds feels imbued with a mundane kind of magic. It's a quiet book full of scenes of every day life in New York, flying swiftly from character to character to form a tableau of a lively community that's domestic and foreign at the same time. Chava and Ahmed form contradictions of each other -- one wishes to serve and make others happy, while the other cares little about anything beyond his own desires. They shouldn't work, but they do, and I was deliriously happy to watch them fall in love.


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