10ish Favorite Books – A Smugglivus List by Rachel Neumeier

Welcome to Smugglivus 2017! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2017, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2018, and more.

Today’s Smugglivus guest is Rachel Neumeier – writer of adult and YA speculative fiction whose recent works include The Keeper of the Mist, The White Road of the Moon, and Winter of Ice and Iron .

Please give it up to Rachel!

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When the Book Smugglers invited me to write a post about my favorite stories from 2017, I thought: Wonderful! This year, I encountered so many great things – novels and stories and nonfiction, graphic novels and podcasts and music – and puppies! Which was good, because marvels and wonders were so important in an year that was sometimes pretty tough in other respects.

I also thought: OMG! How am I ever going to pick out a top ten list of favorites from all this?

But sure, I’ll give it a stab. At least I know how to start. And how to end.

For me, 2017 was a year bookended with my own novels’ releases, and also with puppies. My beautiful Honey – that is, Champion Anara Honeysuckle Rose RA – had her first litter of puppies on January 4th. Her pregnancy was, as expected given her maternal history, difficult, but (with a good deal of help) Honey managed to carry her litter almost all the way to their proper due date.

January 3rd, the last day of waiting, was extremely tense. Laura Florand kindly sent me an advance copy of A Crown of Bitter Orange to help me get through the day. I read few contemporary romances, but all of Florand’s books are charming and engaging, witty and moving. They are filled with beautiful writing, and with sympathetic characters getting their lives sorted out. The Vie en Roses series focuses on family – the romance is important, sure, but the family relationships are central. I love all of Florand’s books, and Bitter Orange was the prefect story for a long, anxious day.

Thankfully, everything worked out exactly as hoped.

All three puppies were healthy and beautiful. The two I kept myself are doing great in the show ring, earning championship points right out of the puppy classes.

To cap off the spring, another kind of baby birthday occurred in March for my sixth young adult fantasy, The White Road of the Moon:

Then late in the year, Honey had her second (and last!) litter, after a similarly difficult and worrisome pregnancy. As it happened, Laura Florand’s next Vie en Roses novel, A Kiss in Lavender came out right in time for me to once again spend that last tense day of waiting immersed in the fragrant warmth of Provence, France. Apparently Laura’s books carry luck in their pages, as Honey and I successfully welcomed four more puppies into the world.

And along with Honey’s second litter, I saw the year bookended with another book birthday as well, this time for my sixth adult fantasy Winter of Ice and Iron.

In between came many beautiful things. Let’s see if I can pick out a top ten list…

1) Freedom’s Gate, Freedom’s Apprentice, Freedom’s Sisters by Naomi Kritzer.

Here we have fantasy with a good dollop of history. In Kritzer’s world Alexander lived a long, long time and eventually became a god, casting down Zeus, whom he imprisoned under a mountain. Thus the story is set in a world where the Greeks are dominant. Now the subjugated people they conquered are edging toward revolution, enslaved djinni complicate matters, working magic inevitably leads to bipolar syndrome, and ethical dilemmas multiply. This is a story where romance is minimal while other kinds of relationships are of central importance. A great favorite of mine for the year, this trilogy has certainly put Kritzer firmly on my radar.

2) Walk on Earth a Stranger, Like a River Glorious, Into the Bright Unknown by Rae Carson.

This one is a brilliant historical fantasy trilogy with just a touch of magic. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like reading about the wagon trains to make the reader appreciate modern life. Dust, mud, rivers, mountains, desert – ugh, that desert! There’s scenery everywhere you look, not to mention loads of people with gold fever heading west with their children, their livestock, and occasionally their dining room furniture. Lee, the protagonist, is a thoroughly sympathetic protagonist because of her own sympathy for everyone around her. Her concentrated effort to view everything charitably from the other’s point of view sets her apart even more than her gift for gold dowsing. A memorable, immersive trilogy.

3) Clash of Eagles, Eagle in Exile, Eagle and Empire by Alan Smale.

Apparently 2017 was a year that put me in the mood for novels with a strong emphasis on history. Here Romans from a Rome that never fell meet the Cahokian mound builders in a particularly imaginative alternate history trilogy, filled with adventure, battles, tense alliances, complicated personal relationships, and lots and lots of the most amazing hang-gliders. Definitely a must-try for fans of history twisted around and tilted sideways.

4) Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.

Contemporary and post-apocalyptic by turns, Station Eleven is a story that circles through time, its narrative woven through with viewpoints that merge and separate and merge again. A good deal of the story takes place before the fall of civilization; even more takes place twenty years later. The reader is shown very little of the fall itself, the story being much more concerned with braiding together and illuminating the five main characters than with showcasing the adventure of those living through the disaster. This is a story that I’m sure will reward a second and third reading.

5) The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess.

I was captured from the very first sentence of this historical novel, with its grounding in the 1930s and its echoes of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. There’s a tiny bit of romance in this story, but primarily it is about family – a father gone terribly wrong, a helpless and absent mother, and most of all sisters who are each other’s friends, allies, and defenders. It’s a beautiful story, and just as with her near-future SF novels Persona and Icon, I found myself amazed that Genevieve Valentine can write such claustrophobic stories and make them work for me. At this point, I’m definitely up for anything she writes.

6) The Science of Herself, by Karen Joy Fowler.

With my background in evolutionary theory, a story set during the dawn of paleontology is tailor-made to appeal to me. Add forgotten Mary Anning, never widely recognized for her contributions to the field and now almost entirely forgotten; juxtapose her with Anne Elliot of Persuasion; and you have an unbeatable story that will stay with me forever.

7) Art book . . . Novel . . . Graphic novel . . . Above the Timberline, by Gregory Manchess, is practically unclassifiable.

Set in a future where tectonic catastrophe has dramatically altered the world, where eternal winter has descended and our present-day cities have been smashed to rubble and then locked within the ice, it’s the artwork that makes this story a must-read. Polar bears and ice leopards and wooly rhinos, glaciers of green ice with the northern lights dancing above them, biplanes and airships – this is truly a perfect work to pick up as winter sets in.

8) The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal

Franciscus Bernardus Maria “Frans” de Waal is a primatologist – and the single best popular writer for primatology and ethology of the current day. His works focus on the evolution of morality, an ethical sense, and other complicated social qualities. This is not his best work, but it’s well worth reading as de Waal offers many compelling examples that illustrate the capacity for empathy in wide range of mammal species His fundamental argument is that compassion and empathy and sympathy are all important core qualities of human nature. It was always reductive and simplistic to define humans in Hobbesian terms as selfish or violent. De Waal’s many books help counteract that common view.

9) Quiet: The Power of Introversion in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

A compelling nonfiction book about the psychology of temperament, the strengths of introversion, and what modern American society has lost, and is still losing, by treating a big, showy personality as more important than character and by defining extroversion as the only acceptable temperament.

10) Lore by Aaron Mahnke

I’ve finally started listening to podcasts this year, and what I seem to like best are nonfiction snippets of science, psychology, statistics, and history. Particularly snippets of weird history, which is what Mahnke offers: little stories about strange occurrences. I’m a tough sell for things like Bigfoot and weird flying creatures and mysterious curses, but I enjoy stories about them.

11) Hamilton

This is cheating a bit because I actually first listened to “Hamilton” late last year. On the other hand, it’s not cheating all that much, because I’ve been listening to it this year as well, on almost any drive that’s long enough. What a wonderful musical. I still get chills down my spine when George Washington makes his entrance in “Here Comes the General” – and tears in my eyes when Eliza forgives Alexander in “It’s Quiet Uptown.”

12) Court and Country

I was very pleased this year to catch a performance of the a capella group Court and Country, appearing at WindyCon in Chicago. It was the second time I’ve had a chance to hear them perform a collection of Medieval songs, plus a few more modern ones. This time I was even more pleased because they’ve produced a CD, which I picked up in the dealer’s room and which is playing now as I read this. I’m not familiar enough with music to be able to describe the group, so I’ll just say I never expected a capella music to appeal to me one bit, but this did.

From the earliest underpinnings of sympathy through Medieval music to contemporary romances, 2017 offered a broad sweep of wonderful media and stories. And, of course, there were the puppies. Excuse me now – I had better take the babies out again. Housetraining four puppies in late fall and winter certainly keeps you busy! But very soon a couple of the babies will be toddling off to new homes, and then I will have time to start a new writing project for 2018 . . .

Rachel Neumeier started writing fiction to relax when she was a graduate student and needed a hobby unrelated to her research. Prior to selling her first fantasy novel, she had published only a few articles in venues such as The American Journal of Botany. However, finding that her interests did not lie in research, Rachel left academia and began to let her hobbies take over her life instead.
She now raises and shows dogs, gardens, cooks, and occasionally finds time to read. She works part-time for a tutoring program, though she tutors far more students in Math and Chemistry than in English Composition.

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