Thursbitch, by Alan Garner — The worst thing about this book is the title, which seems to refer to a disagreeable woman who visits every Thursday. The only reason I picked it up was because it’s by Alan Garner, the man who wrote all those wonderful YA books like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service and Red Shift, and I’m very glad I did. Thursbitch turns out to be a place, and Garner is matchless at conjuring up a landscape, a writer who knows every ridge and brook and stone his characters encounter.
Jack lives in 1755 and travels far from home to bring back wonders for his family: his father and mother and wife or partner Nan Sarah. He’s also something of a shaman; he cooks up a drink out of mushrooms and serves it to the townspeople, then becomes the central figure in a ritual involving the death and rebirth of a bull.
Ian and Sal live in the present, and are connected in ways large and small to Jack and Nan Sarah. Sal is dying of some horrible progressive disease, and she wants to see as much of the area as she can, while there’s still time. As with Garner’s earlier Red Shift, past and present here are fluid, one flowing into the other. Sal’s journey and Nan Sarah’s echo and re-echo, and so do Ian’s and Jack’s, and each has something to say to the other.
I spent maybe too much time wondering about Jack’s religion. At first, because of the bull, I thought it was Mithraism, brought over by the Roman soldiers stationed in England and then changed and modified over two millennia. There are other symbols that fit, like bees and constellations (at least according to Wikipedia), but not all of them. Now I think it comes partly from real rites and customs and partly from Garner’s imagination. It’s utterly believable, though — if he made up the songs and myths and rituals scattered throughout the story, and I think he did, he’s even more amazing than I thought.
Spoonbenders, by Darryl Gregory — I considered putting this on last year’s list but for some reason I didn’t. Then I kept thinking about it. The thing that really impressed me was the plotting, which, because of a character who can see the future, has to go off like clockwork. The character, Buddy, works slowly and meticulously toward an end that only he knows, and Gregory manages to make every part of his intricate plan come together as perfectly as a Rube Goldberg machine.
There’s more to the novel than just that, of course. Almost everyone in the Telemachus family has some psychic ability, so you’d expect them to be famous or at least rich from investing in the stock market. It doesn’t work that way, though — poor Buddy, for example, can barely figure out what time he’s in. Another character, his sister Irene, can tell when someone’s lying, but this proves less helpful than you would think, especially when she’s on a date. It’s an unusual take on psychic powers.
All of the characters are interesting and believable and true to life, if life included people with psychic powers. And the book’s very funny in places. I especially liked the scene where Irene applies for a job and realizes her prospective employer is lying to her. It’s truly satisfying, and highly recommended for people who hate job interviews.
A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge — Makepeace has a terrifying talent: she can feel the souls of the dead reaching out to her, trying to take her over. Her family might be able to help, but her mother refuses to talk about them, hinting only that they’re dangerous. Then her mother dies, and Makepeace goes looking for her father.
Her mother was right, of course. Makepeace finds the family home, which has the wonderful name of Grizehayes, and the first thing they do is lock her in a tower. And there’s something wrong with them, at least the older ones: “It feels…when I look into his eyes…it’s like when the dead things in my nightmares…” Makepeace says to her half-brother, the only person there who treats her kindly. She knows she has to escape, but how?
The action moves swiftly, as Makepeace escapes from one danger only to find another one waiting. She’s a terrific character, stubborn, resourceful, doing the best she can with what little information she has. And she has one other thing going for her — early in her journey she attracted the soul of a dying bear, and now it lives within her. I loved this part — there are any number of times in life where a fierce and powerful bear can be a great help.
Jackalope Wives and Other Stories, by Ursula Vernon — Some of these stories subvert a fairy tale or a folksong, or, in the case of “Godmother,” all the fairy tales at once. Some sound like folktales passed down from one generation to the next. Some cross the line between animal and human so effortlessly that you barely notice it when an animal starts to talk. Sometimes the prose turns into poetry. All the characters are worth knowing, even the witch who finds the company of bug-eating plants “congenial.” All of these are tales from a true story-teller, beautifully told. (More here) The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead — The Intuitionist is a less ambitious and weighty book than Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but I liked its strange charm. It conjures up a world where, as I wrote, “elevators have all the allure and excitement of the automobile industry.” Lila Mae Watson is the first black woman hired by the Department of Elevator Inspectors, and when an elevator she inspected crashes she decides to investigate. “Along the way she discovers other groups and other conspiracies, friends and foes and spies, and an astonishing truth about the founding of elevator science.” It’s a lot of fun, but it can be serious too, and like The Underground Railroad it has things to say about race and racism. (More here.)
I don’t know why I only found five books to recommend this year — and one of them, as I said, I read the year before. There were other books I liked, perfectly good books, but none of them gave me that feeling of reading a really great book, as if you’re watching someone balance across a gossamer tightrope, your mouth open in amazement at every step.