My Year in Reading

Happy New Year! This has been an enormous year for me in terms of both reading and writing. I completed two biographical entries for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 391, due to be printed in 2023. I researched and interviewed two prolific YA authors whose novels I’ve enjoyed for years, Maggie Stiefvater and Elizabeth Wein, and tried to distill their professional lives into informative and interpretive articles.

For the Historical Novels Review journal, I interviewed novelist Danielle Daniels about her lovely new book, Daughters of the Deer, and also interviewed (again) Elizabeth Wein about her exciting upcoming novel Stateless. The Daniels article saw print in May; the Wein article will be published this coming March.

I’ve been writing reviews for HNR for seven years now, and it’s been a fantastic experience that has broadened my knowledge of the publishing world and sharpened my ability to communicate the heart of a novel’s intentions in a few words. I’ve learned a lot about the editing process as well as trends in historical novels as well as other genres.

I’ve put that experience to good use while helping my colleague Larissa N.N. Davila start up a small publisher, Stone Raven Press. We’ve release TWO terrific novels this year — Shorn and its sequel, Cael’s Shadow — with the final two novels in the series to be released in 2023-4. And we’ll be planning an anthology of short fiction to come soon.

I haven’t really completely shaken off Pandemic Mode yet — not much traveling or socializing — so I’ve read over 60 books this year. Here are some of my five-star reads:

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

I really admired how Mandel managed to create metafiction out of her own experience doing a world tour for Station Eleven — and also out of the pandemic. She brings together the plague and moody space setting from Station Eleven with the lovely, lonely setting of the island of Caiette from The Glass Hotel, remixing these elements into a trippy but also sweet time/space travel puzzle box of a novel.

Joan, by Katherine J. Chen

(My review of this book appears in Historical Novels Review issue 101 (August 2022):

You might think Joan of Arc’s tale has been told enough times, but this detailed, lived-in portrait puts the legendary historical figure firmly into her own time and place, imagining the martyred saint as a fierce, funny, resourceful giant of a teen whose escape from her abusive father lands her in the midst of the corrupt political world of France near the end of the Hundred Years’ War.

Life in Domrémy in 1422 is rich but complex; far from being simple peasants, the citizens are politically astute and upwardly mobile in spite of periodic attacks by the allied forces of England and Burgundy. The disaster of Agincourt is recent, and Joan is raised to despise the memory of English King Henry and revere the efforts of the Dauphin of France to reclaim his throne. A tragic ending to a mock-battle between the children of neighboring villages inspires 10-year-old Joan to use her talent for fixing what is broken to benefit her entire community; as she grows into her remarkable size, strength, and charisma, she catches the attention of the jaded aristocrats in exile who mistake her organizational genius for divine mystique. The reader almost forgets Joan’s tragic fate as we marvel at her ability to fix her mind on the goal of a unified France, while also possessing the practical ability to communicate with and inspire people from all walks of life.

Chen is interested in the human Joan, not the visionary, and the voice she creates for her is unforgettable: blunt, sarcastic, affectionate, and insightful. Her religious “voices” in this version are rendered as flashes of forward-thinking insight into potential military and political outcomes. This is the richest characterization of a historical figure I’ve encountered since Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, and Chen’s achievement belongs in that august company.

Spear, by Nicola Griffith

What a gorgeous little gem of a novel, bringing to luminous life a little-known adventure from the huge Arthurian canon. Griffith imagines the legendary Sir Peredur (the Welsh version of Percival) as a half-wild, half-fairy girl who grows up communing with nature but dreaming of knighthood. Fans of Griffith’s Hild will adore the many details of medieval life and lore that infuse the magical world of ancient Wales.

Godmersham Park, by Gill Hornby

Hornby wrote the brilliant 2020 novel Miss Austen, about Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, and followed it up with this enthralling story of one of Jane Austen’s best friends — a real-life woman named Anne Sharp, who tutored Jane’s beloved niece Fanny and became part of Jane and Cassandra’s inner circle. It’s fascinating to see the Austen family through the eyes of a woman who understands the rich and privileged but cannot truly be part of their world — much like Jane herself. Hornby makes Anne a witty, dry-humored observer of the Regency world, much like Jane, but adds a melancholy self-awareness of just how difficult life can be for a woman alone. She leaves the reader wondering if Anne would have been as well-known an author as Jane if she had had the emotional and financial support of loving family — not to mention a room of her own — that Jane had.

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