Best Books of 2013 (Sort Of)

My post on heroes is delayed. Here’s what blogs are SUPPOSED to do at year-end.

Let’s be honest: I didn’t read all the books that came out in 2013 and neither did you. In fact, a lot of the books that I read this year came out a while ago.

How on earth can I put a list together? I thought about this and decided to give three different number ones.

The Best Book I Read in 2013: Published in 2013

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers & Saints is a set of two graphic novels about the Boxer Rebellion, “a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement which took place in China between 1899 and 1901.” I’m not sure I would classify this as a children’s book, but the protagonists are young, and I’ve seen this work recommended for high school.

The two books are sold separately, but you need to read both of them in order to get the full effect. You need to see how they contrast and inform each other. The first book, Boxers, is longer and more colourful. It sets up more of the history and the motivation of the boxers, who see themselves as Chinese Opera heroes. The second volume, Saints, is a bleaker more reserved look at the consequences, humanizing the people on the other side who are massacred in the first work.

Some of  Yang’s earlier works–American Born Chinese and The Eternal Smile–used outside the story twists solutions for their endings. I wouldn’t quite call them deus ex machina, but I didn’t find them satisfying. As I neared the end of the second book (Saints), I worried that something similar would happen, but Yang pulls it off something splendid. He achieves the combination of unexpected and inevitable that good endings strive for, and it has a resonance that echoes all the way back through both volumes.

More importantly for this work about war and perspective, the ending doesn’t take an easy way out.

The Best Book I Read in 2013: Published Earlier

The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

I was motivated to read this book due to the recently created Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Sunburst Award has had a young adult category since 2010, but the Monica Hughes award is the first (to my knowledge) Canadian award for children’s fantastical writing.

The novel is set on the planet of Isis, as Olwen who lives alone on the planet learns that new colonists are coming. Explaining much more of the plot gives away the revelations which make the book oddly enchanting and immersive. The planet she creates isn’t hard sci-fi realistic, but it is definitely believable. I look forward to finishing the trilogy in 2014.

Hughes stated that the main theme she wished to explore in the novel was loneliness, but explorations of otherness are so strong that it’s hard to believe that she didn’t create them consciously. She said she didn’t become aware of themes of prejudice in the novel until children pointed them out to her.

I need to read more of her work to get a better understanding, but when measuring contemporary authors against Hughes, the three things that stand out for me would be world-building, organic theme, and empathic situations.

*Sidenote: Congratulations to Rachel Hartman who won both the Monica Hughes and the Sunburst in 2013 for Seraphina! This was my runner-up for best book I read in 2013, published in 2013, even though it was actually published in 2012.

Book Published in 2013 That I Really Want To Read

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

I get distracted easily. Sometimes I find a writer I like, and then forget to read more of their books. Kate DiCamillo was one of the first children’s writers that I got into but I’ve missed out on her last two novels.

Her newest is about a superhero squirrel. It’s gotten rave reviews and appeared on almost all the other year’s best lists that I’ve looked at. Many have called it “magic realism” which I find rare in children’s literature. At least, it’s rare when that it actually achieves the kind of spell-binding enchantment that Gabriel Marcia Marquez is known for. Too often it’s ruined with nonsensical explanations of the magic, rather than just letting magic be magic.

It also combines pages of text and sections of comics. I don’t have a lot of experience with this, although it seems to be a growing trend (Wonderstruck, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, etc.) I’m hoping that the superhero comic sections borrow ideas from Captain Underpants.

To end, here’s an interview I enjoy with Kate DiCamillo where she talks about her writing process. Of particular interest (4:02), she says that even if things are going well, she doesn’t write more than two pages a day.

Why Love Triangles Aren’t Triangular

Minor Spoilers for Spider-Man and Boy Meets Boy

You know what’s almost never shaped like a triangle? A love triangle. Think about it–they’re almost always shaped like Vs, or maybe (in theory) an hourglass.

love V

love hourglass

Even when the people involved aren’t heterosexual, you’re unlikely to get a triangle. Think about the “love triangle” in Boy Meets Boy.

still not a triangle!

There’s no reason we couldn’t have an arrow between Kyle and Noah to complete the triangle. And there’s another gay boy in the novel named Tony. Why not throw him in there too and get some crazy X’d off square?

Because it wouldn’t make the story better. Depending on where you are on the love V, you either fight to win somebody’s heart, or you feel like yours in torn in half because you have to choose. Completing the triangle would make things muddier.

Character A: I’m fighting so hard to make B love me! But… well, I guess I can go with C.

Character B: Oh no, I have to choose between A and C! Or… wait, they chose each other. I guess my choice wasn’t necessary after all.

A full triangle actually alleviates tension. They can create chaos and unexpected reversals (ex. Being John Malkovich), and it can be argued that this muddiness is a more accurate reflection of what life and love feel like. It depends on the kind of story you want to write. This muddiness often comes at the cost of thematic clarity. 

This is also the reason we are more likely to have love Zs than love hourglasses. 

Korra Z

The team from Avatar Korra. Sorry, Bolin, nobody likes you romantically, despite what the fansites want to believe.

Let’s consider Boy Meets Boy. In our diagram, Paul is at the apex of the V, so you’d expect him to have to choose. But notice the arrow only goes from Kyle to Paul, and not back from Paul to Kyle. Paul is actually fighting to be with Noah: being with Kyle is never truly considered. His relationship with Tony creates another obstacle to being with Noah, because of a misunderstanding.

Bang! All the tension is in one place. Paul wants Noah, but he’s got obstacles.

When we think of a HERO, a super awesome person leading by example, they usually have to choose.

1) Superman: Wonder Woman or Lois Lane? 2) Spider-Man: Gwen Stacy or Mary-Jane Watson? 3) Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel or Spike? 4) Katniss Everdeen: Peeta Malark or Gale Hawthorne?

I think this works for me when the characters chosen between reflect a choice in values. Wonder Woman and Lois Lane show a value in superpowers vs. humanity. Peeta vs. Gale emphasizes showy displays of emotion and sacrifice vs. passion and history.

This does not work for me when the characters chosen between are interchangeable babes, or when it doesn’t suit the character to be in a choosey position.

If we take the theme of Spider-Man as “with great power there must also come–great responsibility!” then it doesn’t make sense for him to be in a position of power, choosing. He should be fighting his butt off to have a somewhat normal life.

Which is how things start with Gwen Stacy. Spider-Man’s superhero identity gets in the way of their relationship several times, ultimately ending in her death. Later, Mary-Jane’s fierce independence brings up new struggles related to responsibility and independence.

Each relationship works, and they even have some nice obstacles in the form of competition from Harry Osborne and Flash Thompson. But when you put them together, we lose theme.

Basically…

This is more complicated, but less compelling. (Spectacular Spider-Man, 2008)

This is clearer and more tense. (Ultimate Spider-Man, 2012)

My main comment is that I think the Spider-Man story works better if Gwen Stacy and Mary-Jane Watson do not overlap. You’ll notice that usually they don’t: they haven’t in the movies yet. And Spectacular Spider-Man (depicted above) actually made Mary-Jane seem to not be interested in anybody, and then they moved her to a different school. Spidey, despite appearances, never really had the choice.

There are so many spins on the Spider-Man story that a few times you get spidey in a position of power. This can be push and pull, making the story into a roller coaster. It’s true that having a blast is part of the Spider-Man character (see professional wrestling, pre-ghost). So let me add a caveat to my stance: 

Gwen Stacy, Mary-Jane and Spider-Man can work as a love triangle, but only if it’s for a short amount of time, and we have Spider-Man fighting his butt off for each of them, never really in a position to simply choose what he wants.

I talked a bit about heroes today. In two weeks I’ll list off my top five heroes in children’s lit!