Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

hogfatherBook – Every year on December 32nd, the Hogfather climbs into his sleigh pulled by four wild boars to delivers pork products to all the good girls and boys (and sacks of bloody bones to the bad ones). At least, every year before this one. This year the Hogfather is missing in action, and it’s up to Death to make sure the holiday goes forward as planned – and Death’s granddaughter, Susan, to find out what’s happened to the real Hogfather.

Hogfather is the 20th in Terry Pratchett’s sprawling and renowned Discworld series, a collection of novels all set on the fantastical world in the shape of a disc which travels through space on the back of four elephants on the back of a turtle, a place where magic works and the laws of nature are somewhat more literal than they are in our own. You don’t have to have read any of the earlier novels to enjoy this one; in fact, Hogfather is one of the earliest novels I recommend, as I think the series is better in its later incarnations. (The newest novel, Raising Steam, is #40.)

Pratchett’s books all have an edge of satire to them, and this one bites just a little bit: it’s full of holiday spirit, but it also skewers the consumerism of the holiday and the sanitized nature of modern stories based on old myths. There’s also a rather fantastic TV adaptation of Hogfather, which is in my regular holiday movie rotation.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark

strangeBook – Mr Norrell is a practicing English magician. He actually does magic, which is considered beyond strange by all of his colleagues, who focus on research and analysis. And he is about to make a name for himself when Jonathan Strange appears. Jonathan Strange is also a practicing magician, and what’s more, he is young and handsome and a part of Society, which is not really something Mr Norrell can manage. Of course they will study together, and of course they will be rivals.

This is not a book for everyone. It’s long. There are rambling, divergent footnotes. It combines Regency romance sensibilities with war narratives and an approach to magic that’s based more on medieval English folklore than on The Lord of the Rings. There’s a tonal shift three-quarters of the way through that reminds me of nothing so much as Jane Austen writing the adventures of Richard Sharpe. And if you’re like me, that makes this book perfect. This is one of those books I would like to recommend to everyone, even though I know there are so many reasons why many people would not like it. I just love it so much, I would like to be able to share that love with everyone. Do you have any books you feel that way about?

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

zooBook – Zinzi December finds things. It’s her Talent, the mildly useful side effect that comes along with her Sloth, a physical manifestation of her guilt over her brother’s death that also renders her unfit for work in polite society. She only finds lost things, not lost people, but when her latest client is murdered, she has to take on a missing persons case. Songweza, half of the twin teen pop sensation of the moment, has disappeared, and her manager needs her back before the new record drops.

I had a fantastic time with this book. A South African urban fantasy with a heist plot, it was very different from Beukes’s outstanding serial-killer thriller The Shining Girls, but just as excellent. This feels like it should be a movie, the better to show off the contrast between Zinzi’s lower-class lifestyle and the glitzy pop music glamor of her employer’s world. I also really liked the way Beukes recast the animal companion trope – they’re a little bit like the daemons of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy with a grittier edge. Anyone who’s a fan of Jim Butcher or Seanan McGuire should enjoy Zoo City.

Some Enchanted Eclair by Bailey Cates

some enchantedBook- Katie Lightfoot is a baker with a twist, she’s recently found out that she’s a lightwitch. What exactly that is, she’s not sure and is slowly figuring out. In this installment, Hollywood has taken over Savannah’s historic district. From her boyfriend Declan on security, to her friend Bianca as an extra, Katie’s whole group is involved while she’s happy to keep out and run her bakery. A fired caterer, a fixer, and an enterprising spirit pull her into the production and a dead body keeps her there.

The fourth in the series, Some Enchanted Eclair, is a fun romp through a deep-Southern community. I enjoyed revisiting the characters from earlier books and look forward to seeing exactly what a lightwitch is and how it impacts Katie’s life. Not only that, but the twist near the middle that shakes things up a bit is fodder for many more stories! If you’re looking for a fun, light read this as well as the earlier books in the series will surely delight.

Mushi-shi (2005)

mu2TV Series – Ginko is a mushi-shi, a scholar of those invisible, mysterious creatures called mushi which sometimes, through no fault of their own, cause serious problems for the humans and animals with which they interact. Each episode of the show follows Ginko’s attempts to resolve a particular situation caused by mushi, from the family who cannot leave a bamboo forest no matter how hard they try to the boy whose drawings come to life but only if he draws with his left hand. Because Ginko himself attracts mushi, he can’t stay in one place for too long, so he wanders from one place to another, helping others with their problems while he attempts to understand the creatures that cause so much trouble.

Mushi-shi is a faithful adaptation of the manga series by Yuki Urushibara, originally published in Japan from 1999-2008. It’s absolutely beautiful, with gorgeous animation reminiscent of both Studio Ghibli films and the watercolor paintings used for the book covers. The stories are similarly haunting, emotional pieces very like ghost stories in most cases. Since there’s no overarching plot, they’re great to watch one at a time and savor.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess MMovie – This animated feature film was the highest-grossing Japanese film of its time. The director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), sometimes described as the Japanese Walt Disney, is a pioneer of anime. In this epic adventure set in pre-industrial Japan a young prince incurs a life-threatening curse and sets off to find a cure. He becomes a central figure in a war between man and nature when a mining clan battles a variety of forest gods led by Princess Mononoke, a young woman raised by wolves. This film portrays mythology and surreal characters that are uniquely Japanese.

The viewer definitely picks up on the anxiety of the Japanese about the diminishing of their natural environment.  Although there is beautifully painted animation, it also contains some violence and it is not a story for young children. I appreciate that the characters and the social issues addressed in the film are complex and thoughtfully presented. A budding romance develops between the Prince and Princess Mononoke, but they often place duty above their personal relationship. This English version of the film was adapted by Neil Gaiman (Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane)  and it is voiced by actors that include Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Burning Your Boats by Angela Carter

burning your boatsBook – Short stories are funny things. They’re short, of course, which means you don’t spend very much time with them, but somehow they can pack even more emotional punch than a novel. Some writers can write beautiful novels and their short stories fall flat; some writers write incredible short stories but their novels meander strangely. For my part, I think of Angela Carter as the second type: her novels are deeply weird in a way I don’t enjoy, but her short stories are incredibly powerful.

This is an omnibus collection of Carter’s work, so there’s a lot of variety here. Some of my favorite stories are “The Fall River Axe Murders,” a narrative about Lizzie Borden; “The Bloody Chamber,” a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale; and “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” a story Carter wrote after someone argued that the only thing a story needed was for something to happen. (Nothing actually happens in “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” but it’s a moving story nonetheless.)

This is a big collection, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to read it all at once anyway – there’s too much going on. But if you’re looking for a little flicker of something brilliant, this is a good book to dip into.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

goblinBook – Maia may have been an emperor’s son, but he never expected to amount to anything. His older brother was the heir, after all, and Maia had been exiled from court when his mother died, so the chances of Maia ever leaving the backwater estate he’s grown up in are small. But when the Emperor – along with all of his other heirs – die in an airship crash, Maia is the only one left, and he will have to learn everything there is to know about the court before he suffers the same fate as his father.

Katherine Addison is the new pen-name of Sarah Monette, who I’ve already written about as one of my favorite authors. With The Goblin Emperor she switches gears from the dark, emotionally fraught stories she’s known for to a more optimistic mood. Maia has a hard life, but he does well in it, gaining confidence by leaps and bounds as the story progresses. This is a coming-of-age story that starts where most leave off (usually becoming Emperor is the reward at the end of the quest) and it’s an extremely satisfying one. I’m happy to call this already one of the best fantasy books of the year.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop

written redBook – In Written in Red Anne Bishop introduces a world where humans are perceived primarily as prey by the “Others”, a variety of earthy creatures spanning folklore descriptions from shape-shifters to furies. In this urban fantasy the Others have the power, but they allow human communities to exist because of the interesting products humans produce. A few marketplace communities that are operated by the Others exist where humans and the Others mingle very tentatively, and Meg Corbyn finds sanctuary in one such community when she is hired as a Human Liaison for the Lakeside Courtyard business district. Yet, is she technically human? And from what does she require sanctuary? The entities populating the Lakeside Courtyard find themselves taking a keen interest in their new liaison and must decide whether she is worth their protection. Meg’s process of settling into her new community is told with an amount of domestic detail that makes this a cozy read at times. Suspense builds when Meg’s hiding place is discovered and the human world breaches the Courtyard walls.

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

princesBook – Awakening alone and thoroughly bandaged in a hospital room, Corey can’t remember who he is or how he got here. He is sure, however, that he really ought to get out. He manages to bluff his way through meeting two of his siblings before he confesses the truth of his amnesia, and they help him to remember: he is Corwin, a Prince of Amber, the only true world, and if he doesn’t act quickly, his hated brother Eric will crown himself king.

This is hardboiled fantasy, snappy, sarcastic, and to-the-point. If Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett got together to write a fantasy novel, it might have come out like this. Some of it is a little dated – everyone smokes almost constantly, and when was the last time you heard someone use “dig” to mean “understand?” – but hey, it was published in 1970, you have to make some allowances.

I was struck when reading this (for the first time since high school) at how much of a debt George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire owes to Amber. Sure, it’s all in one family instead of spread over several, but there’s just as much politicking, backstabbing, and fighting for the throne. If you like the one, I bet you’ll like the other.