[Note: This is a LONG intro, so feel free to scroll down to the actual list portion! But if you’ve snuck a peek and are wondering why there are photos of janky art underneath the gorgeous book covers, then read on]
Yup, I see you squinting at the title! And I’m here to tell you that you read it right.
So you might be thinking, “But Kathy, we’re over halfway through 2019. People are posting lists of their favourite 2019 books already! There’s late and there’s fashionably late and then there’s THIS. Why didn’t you post it back in January like all the normal people did? What the heck have you been doing?”
Well, I’d love to give a really cool answer to that. Like, “I’m a secret agent for a society that seeks out artifacts that cause temporal rifts and I spent 6 months in Peru doing reconnaissance.”
Or “I was kayaking out in the ocean and a freak storm blew me off course, but I was rescued by pod of killer whales who then whisked me away to their cavern lair. I spent the last 6 months trying to convince them that I am not, in fact, their great whale goddess reincarnated into human form.”
But my actual, not-so-cool answer? Anxiety.
So for those who don’t know or remember, I started getting into art–specifically watercolour–11ish months ago (you can read about my art angst here). And in January, while I was compiling my Best of 2018 list, I got this brilliant idea: I should paint the characters from the books posing with the awards, but instead of giving them fancy trophies, I can pretend that I only had a $20 budget, so I had to raid the dollar store for cheap badges, balloons, and flowers instead. That’ll be fun, right?!
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about watercolour, it’s that it’s a lot like what I imagine babysitting monkeys would be. The idea is super attractive–they’re spontaneous and independent and kind of unpredictable, which is what makes them so charming and fun. This will be EASY.
And then a week later the monkeys have completely taken over your house. There’s one swinging from the ceiling lights, another one’s chucking produce out of the refrigerator, and you’ve locked yourself in the car, as they swarm around you, wondering how your life took such a turn.
Which is to say…it’s not easy.
And it didn’t take me long to convince myself that this award idea was the worst ever. I was getting tired of drawing balloons, I wasn’t happy with some of the paintings but I also didn’t want to redo them, and the thought of showing these to authors whose works I admire made me want to stick a chopstick in my eye. So I ended up burying the post deep in my draft folder.
And today I’m digging it out of the ashes.
Because here’s the second thing I learned about watercolour: it demands that you be brave. It pushes you to try things without not really knowing what will happen, and knowing it could very well mess up the entire piece. It forces you to look at your mistakes and just shrug.
So this is me shrugging.
And I’m going to start by taking you all on a little trip!
Where, you ask?
Through space and time, my friends. WE’RE TRAVELING BACK TO JANUARY.
Pick your poison!
Hop in! Strap up! Brace against the railings or walls or whatever safety mechanisms are inside the TARDIS (I’ve watched a grand total of 3/4 episode of Doctor Who in my life. I have no idea what the inside of a TARDIS looks like). And if you chose the time turner, tuck your elbows in and take ten deep breaths.
Okay. You ready?
Here we go!!!!!!!
*Runs around waving my arms and making swooshing noises for 15 minutes*
[15 minutes later]
Oh hey there! I’m so glad you could join me on this glorious January day to go through my Best Reads of 2018 list.
So here, in no particular order, are my favourite books of 2018 and paintings of characters from said books posing with the balloons and flowers I’ve “awarded” them (you can click on the titles to see the full reviews).
(Two of the books are missing art, which I feel super bad about, but I’d messed up those pieces badly the first time and I just didn’t have the energy to redo them.)
Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer
Fire Dance, the continuation to Last Song Before Night, is proof of what I already know: 1) Ilana Myer writes like her soul is on fire, and 2) I can’t talk about this series without reverting to vague pieces of imagery and too many comparisons to Damien Rice.
And those are my favourite kinds of stories–the ones that make me feel like I’m doing a disservice by breaking them down to plot, characters, and worldbuilding (but FYI, Fire Dance nails all three to perfection).
I think what I love most about this book is that it’s not afraid to be sad and that’s not something I often find in epic fantasy. And I’m not talking about the unbearable, soul-crushing kind.
It’s like when you’re watching March of the Penguins and you see the penguins huddled together to stave off the cold and some of them inevitability freeze to death and it’s terrible and sad to watch, but you also know that’s just the way of nature. And there’s raw beauty in that. There’s beauty in the resilience of these animals and characters, and there’s sadness in the penguins’ deaths, as there’s sadness in the way these characters long for things that lie just beyond their reach, because that’s what people do.
It’s the kind of sad that, after all the tears are shed, makes the world seem a notch brighter.
Ilana writes some of the most complex and real characters in modern fantasy, and Fire Dance weaves together music, magic, and the foibles of humans into a symphony that leaves the edges of my heart tattered. I sometimes do a double take when I remember she’s only published two books because it feels like I’ve been reading her stories forever.
This is a six-coloured cloak and I swear the six colours are all in there somewhere!
The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth
I’ve never read a book that so perfectly describes the feeling of drifting. Of feeling so removed from your life that you’re floating above it and the weight of nothing becomes heavy enough to suffocate. And that contradiction–of being free but still so trapped–threatens to break you.
While that might seem like a strange praise–“This takes me back to some of the worst moments of my life and that’s why I love it”–this is one of those books that made me feel seen, and I will forever be grateful for that.
The Light Between Worlds is portal fantasy stripped bare–a story about sisterhood and strength and belonging. And it’s a ray of light for all of us who are lost and trying to find a way home.
…I should definitely redo this one at some point using better paper because this was a nightmare to work with.
Mr. Big Empty (Hollow Folk Series) by Gregory Ashe
Yes, I’m cheating and lumping the series into one. Think X-Men: Queer Rural Town edition with addictive plotting, stunning–absolutely stunning–mental health rep and character work that makes you shake your head and go, “This can’t be real. I’m having a fever dream. No one writes this well.” I swear, Gregory Ashe takes character writing to a level I rarely see. It might be on par with, dare I say–
Brain: “Oh, no. Nonononononono. I know what you’re going to say and you can’t just say that.”
“I’m gonna say it.”
Collective gasps sound from my mini-me’s manning control center. One drops a stack of papers. One shuffles to a corner and starts crying softly. Another swoons with a plaintive “Catch me!” (No one does).
…So you know I wouldn’t say that lightly.
There are books that are hard-hitting and emotionally resonant.
And then there are books that opens veins.
Guess where this falls into?
This piece is a LOT darker than the other ones because I didn’t actually paint it with this post in mind; it was just meant to be fanart. But it features a flower (an orchid), so I thought why not include it. Definitely doesn’t look like he’s here to collect an award, though. 😅
The Last Sun by K.D. Edwards
“Kathy, is this list just going to be a sad tear-fest?”
Okay. Fine. You want a happy book? Here’s a fucking happy book.
The Last Sun is exquisite. If I put on my Very Serious and Professional Content Creator voice, I can say that it’s got textbook-perfect pacing that never relents but doesn’t sacrifice worldbuilding or character work in the process. Its world is at once familiar and new, merging modern day societies with mythos from various cultures, all wrapped up in a dynamic tarot-based system of governance and magic. The story drags you up through adrenaline-pumping action and brings you down to quiet, vulnerable moments. It explores the fluidity of human connections and the idea that love between two or more people doesn’t start and end at “Wanna bang?”
My Professional? Who Am I Kidding voice:
I think I’ve done almost all I can to promote this book, so really there’s only one thing left for me to do….
Ahem. Pyr, here’s my proposition to you. I am willing to do video promotions for this series in the form of interpretive dance and poetry. My credentials? Four months of ballroom lessons I took with a friend when I was 17 because he was convinced there would be waltzing at the prom and wanted to be ready (spoiler: as we weren’t in the 19th century or Hogwarts, there was no waltzing) and on-and-off years of spoken poetry.
Please. Call me.
In all seriousness, though, this is one of those stories that quietly creeps into your heart and decide they’re going to stay indefinitely. And you wake up one morning to find them pattering in the kitchen, setting out coffee (and just how the hell did they know exactly how you take it?) and then sitting across from you and chattering away like you’re old friends until you do become old friends.
And if you say, “You know, I haven’t had the best relationship with urban fantasies in the past. I just don’t think we’re compatible,” this book gives you a molten smile, reaches out a hand and says, “Let me show you something.”
And you nod and smile back like an idiot because it’s had you seduced from the first word.
(Rune on the left, Brand on the right. Rune is supposed to have black hair but he somehow ended up with weird bleached highlights)
The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
As someone who studies memories it’s so incredibly gratifying to come across a book that highlights their beauty in a way that’s as off-the-walls fantastical as this.
Peng Shepherd draws on the horror of memory loss and juxtaposes it with the beauty of human connections, and the result is unlike anything I’ve read before. “Genre-bending” doesn’t even begin to cover what this book does.
The Book of M has raised the bar for post-apocalypse stories and now I expect them all to include magical shadows and shifting realities.
Smoke City by Keith Rosson
I’m a girl of simple tastes. You say, “A story about the reincarnation of Joan of Arc’s executioner who goes on a road trip to seek redemption from a possibly reincarnated Joan of Arc,” and I say, “Well, I was born to read this.”
Smoke City was the first ARC I ever read and reviewed which might suggest a wee bit of bias, but really, this is one of those “very me” books that I’m unerringly drawn to. Reincarnated historical figures (and Joan of Arc, at that, who I happen to adore)? Check. Road trips? Buckle up. Fantasy bleeding into reality? Affirmative.
Keith Rosson takes a premise that has no business of working and creates a beautiful, imaginative, soulful piece of narrative that ruminates on pasts and mistakes and the forgiveness that we deserve but can never offer to ourselves.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
So this is an interesting one because I can’t exactly say I had a good time reading it and there were issues I had with some parts.
But here’s the thing: I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And eventually I called up a friend (who’s Japanese-Chinese and hasn’t even read the book but is blessed with a brain that actively craves–and I mean really craves—spoilers) and bullied her into a three-hour discussion on our countries’ histories and the slippery slope between loyalty and nationalism, and whether the pursuit of justice is worth it if in the process you lose all sense of who you are.
For me, that’s the mark of a book that deserves a spot on this list. It may not have been the most perfect book I read in 2018, but it was one of the most unforgettable.
A Lite Too Bright by Samuel Miller
So, by the end of November I was pretty confident in my best of 2018 choices. I didn’t think it likely that I’d come across another incredible book within the next month.
And then this book came along.
And one day I found it leaning on my doorway with its 70’s sweater and smiling eyes and the words of angels falling from its lips and, to take a page from Angelica Schuyler, I forgot my dang name.
A Lite Too Bright is the one non-speculative sheep of the group which should make it easy to describe but I actually find it harder because it’s, well…it’s a little bit of everything. Legacy, mental illness, 60’s/70’s protest culture, the relationship we have with our grandparents, life and the winding route it takes, and love and its ability to burrow so deep inside us that it’s what remains when everything else fades.
And poetry. Heartstopping poetry.
Miller writes with the insight of someone far older than his years and so, in turn, does Arthur Louis Pullman, the fictional author who’s at the focus of this story. Pullman is one of those people who seem to possess an inherent understanding of the world, but with that understanding comes neither cynicism or apathy but a desire to feel more keenly. His writing brims with aching amounts of passion and love–of life and the people that inhabit it–and it kills me that he’s not an actual person.
There’s a universe nestled in just a handful of his words. And I would need a universe’s worth of words to explain what this book makes me feel.
Jade City by Fonda Lee
I can talk about how incredibly rich the world of Jade City is. I can talk about its vibrant characters and a plot that seamlessly mixes politics with action. But my most favourite thing about it is that it nails the Asian family dynamic to the core. And it made me miss my own extended family badly–my roudy tight-knit family of eight cousins, four aunts and uncles, and grandparents who, despite their years, still try to look after us all.
Now, the Kaul family had to take a raincheck on this ceremony–they kind of have their hands full, what with a war and all–but they were gracious enough to send an underling to receive the awards on their behalf (Translation: I couldn’t remember what the Kauls looked like and I was too lazy to draw multiple people)
And he looks truly ecstatic to be here. I mean, look at him!
(Be a Finger, they said. Prestige and honour, they said.)
The shades are there to save you from getting blinded by the sheer joy that’s emanating from his eyes.
And the flowers on his head are gladioli–derived from gladius, which is a sword–and they represent strength and integrity. I thought that was pretty fitting for the Kauls.
Whew! Applause to you and me both for surviving that!
Same time next year? 😀
(Also, Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadians!)