It should come as not too much of a surprise that if there’s a new McKillip novel published in any given year, it’s likely to be near, or at the top of this list. Now, it’s not a given. Patricia’s books are coming more slowly in recent years, and there were a couple of story collections to fill in some gaps, but somehow, the quality of her stand-alone novels just doesn’t diminish. Believe me, I’m waiting for it. Nobody’s streak can last this long. Each time I pick up one of her books I think, this will be the one that disappoints me. And while I certainly do have favorites, I have yet to really be disappointed. Her latest novel, Kingfisher is no exception, and features all the McKillip hallmarks that I love so much.
It may be cliche, but I must start this review with, “How does she do it?” Without being at all formulaic, Patricia A. McKillip has managed to write a stunning series of stand-alone novels (shocking in the fantasy genre) that consistently weave wonder, magic, romance, adventure, and stunningly complex characters, male and female with such startling consistency and nary a misstep in over thirty years!
In her latest novel, Kingfisher she creates an astounding number of well-define, diverse characters in a fantastic world that blends modern day, with the time of knights, and the remains of magic. Each character is distinct and memorable, even when they don’t appear for chapter on end. She also deftly creates several factions all seeking the same goal for different purposes, but in such a way that the reader is never quite sure who to root for? Is there one group that is in the right? Another working for nefarious purposes? It’s hard to tell, right up to the fantastically mystical denouement.
As usual, her prose drips with exquisite language that in and of itself is a joy to experience. And again, coupled with a complex and delicious stories mainly centered around food, in fact, and the magic inherent in the creation of a superb meal. Patricia A. McKillip, admittedly, is my favorite author, so take this review with a grain of salt, but I stand by it.
And now a recap of my top books read in 2016:
Kingfisher by Patricia A. McKillip
The Weaver by Emmi Itäranta
At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh
Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
Mercury by Margot Livesey
Christodora by Tim Murphy
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Hanslett
An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao
Opportunity Knocks by Alison Sweeney
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by KJ Charles
And a few other titles I enjoyed last year:
A Wild Swan and other stories by Michael Cunningham
A Case of Possession and The Magpie Lord: A Charm of Magpies by KJ Charles
Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly
In an upcoming post I will talk about some of the other books I read including graphic novels, children’s books and plays. In addition, there were a few books I read that I did not like, or I did not finish, but I won’t be mentioning those here. And I’m off to a good start in 2017 too!
And now we go full-on fantasy. It’s been a while since I’ve found some really great fantasy novels to top my list of books read in a given year. What’s so great about these next two books is that they took me completely be surprise, with one being an author I had never heard of before, and another being an author whose debut I had read and liked well enough, but her new novel blew me away.
#3 – At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Storiesby Kij Johnson
Those who know me, know I am fascinated by bees, and this eye-catching book cover and title could hardly fail to catch my eye despite it’s 2012 publication date. What an extraordinary find. This collection of mysterious and magical stories captivated me quickly and did not let go. I am thrilled to have discovered this new author and hope to read many more works form her pen.
From the first couple of paragraphs of “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” I knew this collection of short stories by Kij Johnson was going to be something special. Johnson’s stories explore the lives of animals, and their relationship with humans, but also explore realms of science fiction — alternate earths, or alien lifeforms. While every story is enjoyable, the standouts for me revolve around the inner lives of every day animals. The monkeys in the aforementioned tale are delightful and mysterious. The protagonist of “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” is as heroic as any literary protagonist as she makes her way from Japan’s capitol city to The North. And the mysteries of the swarm in the title story includes a benevolent queen whose kindness will break your heart.
There are some dark stories as well, including the horrific “Spar”, the devastating yet hopeful “The Horse Raiders,” and a shockingly brutal take on the entire “My Little Pony” phenomenon as told in “Ponies.” Johnson’s longer tales, including the title story, the afore-mentioned “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles,” and the powerful science fiction story, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” could easily be spun into full novels. I look forward to reading her novel, The Fox Woman, which surely emerged from her story included here, “Fox Magic.” Kij Johnson plays with language as deftly as she plays with ideas and preconceived notions. This is a magical collection for anyone who enjoys a little imagination in their stories.
#2 – The Weaver by Emmi Itäranta
What an extraordinary surprise, and what was so lovely, was that even after just a couple of chapters, I knew I was going to love this book. I did. Emmi Itäranta is a Finnish novelist , who writes in both her native language and English. She impressed me with her debut novel a couple of years ago, The Memory of Water, which boasted strong, lyrical writing, and in intriguing story, but fell short of really reaching greatness. Itäranta writes in the acknowledgements of The Weaver, how difficult it is to write that second novel. Well, it may have been difficult, but the hard work paid off. I wouldn’t be surprised to see The Weaver near the top of my books read for 2016.
The world Itäranta has created is mythic, complex, intriguing, mystical, harsh and fascinating. Eliana is a young woman living on the island, a weaver in the House of Webs. When during her night-watch, she finds another young woman who has been brutally attacked and left to die, her life is suddenly altered with the discovery of her name tattooed in invisible ink on this woman’s palm. This discovery leads to a journey so unexpected, so imaginative, and so compelling that I didn’t want it to end.
The characters are rich with nuance, from the mysterious young woman Valeria, to The Spinner, monstrous, wise and ancient. Alva, the healer at the House of Webs, and Weaver, who runs the house and retains her own council. The intricate society revealed in The Weaver is as fascinating as Frank Herbert’s Dune, (and fully realized in half as many pages!) I can only hope Itäranta revisits it again someday.
The Top 5 — and there are some really great authors and titles here along with a couple of new finds/surprises! Anchoring the Top 5 are a couple of reliable favorite writers who turn in some pretty impressive stuff.
#5 – Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh
Jennifer Haigh tackles a challenging, often polarizing subject, and somehow manages to interweave dozens of characters and a compelling story in to a thoroughly absorbing novel that doesn’t take any easy shortcuts.
With Heat & Light, Haigh’s ambitious novel about a town experiencing its controversial second shot at life, the Bakerton trilogy comes to a close. After years of prosperity as a mining town, Bakerton, PA falls into the quintessentially American depression that comes with progress. Then unexpectedly, fracking comes to Pennsylvania, a process by which oil and natural gas is obtained.
There’s nothing simple or black & white about the issues Jennifer raises in Heat & Light, as people struggle to get by suddenly find themselves with an opportunity to make some money by leasing their land to the fracking companies. In addition, drill workers are brought into town to do the work, thereby stimulating the economy to some extent. Yet environmentalists and other concerned townspeople feel very different, worry about the long term effects that fracking could cause. It is here that Haigh draws parallels to the Three-Mile Island incident and the ill-defined that catastrophe had on nearby residents.
Jennifer juggles multiple points-of-view deftly, infusing her skilled prose with the thoughts and beliefs of her character, whether it be the salesperson trying to lease a resident’s land, a corporate exec, a concerned environmentalist, or a lonely bar waitress. This is a dense, complicated novel that takes on issues that are hard to dismiss. Whether Bakerton has yet another renaissance in its future is unknown, but Jennifer Haigh is certainly an author on the rise.
#4 – Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Wow. Ann Patchett has written a family drama that perfectly captures both the absurdity and the heartbreak of domestic life. This is what Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone should have been. The Cousins and the Keatings, two Califorina families forever intertwined by infidelity, and permanently shattered by it. Bert Cousins leaves his wife Teresa to raise four children on her own, to be with Beverly Keating, with two children of her own. She leaves her husband Fix and travels with Bert to live in Virginia. The six children are forced together every summer where they forge a childhood bond not based on love or admiration, but the combined disappointment in their parents. As adults, they find their combined families’ stories suddenly revealed in a way they couldn’t possibly expect and are forced to reexamine some of their drama-forged relations.
Patchett chronicles each character’s life over the span of 50 years or so in the most remarkable way; joining them at a particular moment in time and bringing the reader up to speed on their lives and loves in a way that is both natural and effective. Even one character who I thought was getting the short shrift in the book got her moment near the conclusion. Her writing is compelling and elegant, and her story, while skimming the surface of a brilliant AM Homes satire, emerges as heartfelt and real.
And here is where I know that I read some really good books in 2016. Both of these books should be much closer to the #1 slot in a normal year. From here on up, these books all thrilled me in some way or another. It’s great to finish a book that really satisfies you, and these certainly fit the bill.
#7 – Mercury by Margot Livesey
A new Margot Livesey novel is always something to look forward to. Her thoughtful and incisive writing tantalizes and my literary mind every time With Mercury, Margot Livesey tackles obsession and how it can have catastrophic effects on a family. Donald is an optometrist living in suburban Boston after a childhood spent in Scotland. After a particularly difficult illness, Donald’s father dies, and Donald finds himself a little adrift. His wife, Viv, has found renewed passion in the form of a horse named Mercury, who is stabled at the ranch where she works. Gradually, Viv begins devoting more and more of her time on Mercury, to the point that Donald believes she is keeping things from him, and putting her family second to the need of the horse.
When Viv and Donald’s actions, or sometimes lack of actions, lead to an unimaginable accident, both must confront the realities of their behavior and how many other must suffer the consequences. Livesey doesn’t make it easy for any of her characters, and the outcomes do not fall in the happy-ever-after category, but she creates compelling, believable characters and weaves stories that are compelling and urgent. Mercury is a novel that has lasting impact.
#6 – Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
When it comes to imaginative, creative, funny, emotional debut novels, Steven Rowley’s Lily and the Octopus definitely tops the list. While coming in at #6 overall, it’s my top debut novel of the year, and I so thoroughly enjoyed it. Reading Lily you can so clearly see the love and care that so infuses the writing that we can’t help but fall in love with Lily as well.
Anyone who has lost a pet knows how that pain of that loss defies explanation. Of course there is sadness and grief, but there’s also that niggling, irrational sense that other people don’t take it seriously, after all, it’s only a pet. After his own dog died, Hollywood screenwriter Steven Rowley decided to write a short story about the experience to help cope with his own grief. That short story turned into Lily and the Octopus a novel of great emotional impact that truly had me laughing out loud on one page, and weeping on the next.
Ted is a writer living in L.A., who noticed one morning that there is an octopus perched on the head of his beloved dachshund, Lily. He’s not sure where it came from, but he’s certain it’s not a good thing. What follows is a man’s journey through denial to realization and how his reactions to his Lily’s impending fate may have more to do with his own life than hers.
Rowley is a good writer: his humor unexpected and quirky, his moving passages authentic and without overblown pathos. There is a slight edge of that entertainment-business cynic present, but it’s offset by Ted’s inherent geekiness. The narrative uses magical realism beautifully, giving both Lily and the octopus unique, satisfying voices, and sending Ted and Lily on a daring sea adventure the likes of which ballads were written.
I also appreciated how Ted’s emotional roller coaster was so much different than my own, when my beloved, 22-year-old cat passed away nearly a year ago. Rowley explores not just the sadness of loss we feel, but how our emotional state and view of life shape that grief. It’s a beautiful and highly entertaining book, and my heart is warming up just writing about it.
Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone received a lot of pre-pub acclaim, and I was quite excited about reading it. Perhaps it was the anticipation, but I was left slightly disappointed after reading it. For such an emotionally charged subject, there was a distance from the characters that undercut the effectiveness of this family drama. Still, this is a smallish quibble in what is mostly a masterful read.
Adam Haslett has produce a beautiful novel that tells the story of a family struggling with depression. When Margaret learns that her fiancee has been hospitalized due to his severe depression, she has to think hard as to whether she want to enter a life with him. It is 1960’s London, and depression was treated very differently than it is today. Several years later, Margaret and John are living in New England with three children, Michael, Celia and Alec. Touching in with this evolving family while the kids are young, then again as teens, and as adults, we see the arc of the life of a family struggling with an illness that effects them all.
Haslett brings this family so thoroughly to life, with moments of great sadness, and sudden hilarity. The caustic and embellished diatribes from oldest son Michael are so outlandish I found myself laughing out loud. The story is told from all point-of-view, so the hearts of each character are explored and laid bare. As the powerful novel nears its conclusion you will no doubt recognize some part of your own family despite the unique and sometimes tragic humanity of this fictional one.
#8 – Christodora by Tim Murphy
I picked up Tim Murphy’s Christodora based on a recommendation by Scott Heim and was very pleasantly surprised. Focusing on an iconic building in the East Village, and spanning decades Murphy explores elements of the historic AIDS movement through the lens of a diverse group of artists whose paths cross in unexpected ways. Milly and Jared are a young couple coming of age in the 90’s, exploring their art, and struggling with their pasts and their future together. They adopt a 5-year old boy named Mateo, whose single Mom has died of complications from the AIDS virus. This is the central core of this sprawling story that includes Milly’s Mom, Ava, who worked for the Department of Health; their neighbor Hector, once a pivotal force in AIDS activism, now a drug addict who can’t let go of the past; Drew, Milly’s best friend, who overcame her addiction, fled New York City and found success as a writer, and Yssa, a young Latina woman who left a small but powerful impact on the world after contracting the AIDS virus and fighting to show that women get AIDS too.
The narrative jumps around through time, with interesting revelations emerging at surprising moments. It’s a compelling read, with flawed characters… some almost to the point of alienation, but Murphy manages to skirt that pitfall. His descriptions of heroin use are visceral and disturbing, and the complex relationships between characters are kaleidoscopic.
One of two epic books about New York City that I attempted to read, and unfortunately, the only successful one. I enjoyed what I read of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire but something is just preventing me from completing it.
Yes, it’s true, I’m a big fan of Sami Brady, the character Alison Sweeney played on Days of Our Lives for year. But you know what? Sweeney rights some darn entertaining books too! Opportunity Knocks is the third novel that Alison has written, following The Star Attraction and Scared Scriptless. They’re pure chick lit, but Ms. Sweeney has two things in her favor: extensive knowledge about television and the entertainment industry that brings such color and character to her novels, and she can actually write!
With her third outing, Alison tells the story of Alex, aspiring make-up artist, who moves from L.A. to New York to prove herself to her parents, her boyfriend, and most importantly herself. Opportunity knocks, and she answers. But how could Alex know that in mere weeks, while successfully serving as make-up artist to a popular cooking show host with severe diva tendencies, it would all come crashing down, threatening not only her newly found independence, but her very welfare!
Fortunately, Alex has caught they eye of super-celebrity actor Billy Fox, perfect specimen of gorgeousness, and eager to help Alex get out of the incredibly tight spot she has found herself in. While some of the romantic elements of the novel slightly undercut Alex’s true road to independence, Sweeney works hard to keep Alex as the primary focus and agent of her life. As Billy points out to her, there’s a difference between letting others make decisions for you or swoop in to save your bacon when you’re in trouble, and asking friends for some help.
#10 – An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao
Shobha Rao has created a powerful and elegant collection of short stories around the separation of India and Pakistan in 1947. While the stories take place all around the world, the characters in this story are all experiencing the effects of the uprooting and displacement of families. Women in particular face a rough ride during this time and in this culture, but Rao spares no one in this hard-hitting, yet thoughtful collection that explores race, class, religion, sexuality, and love during a tumultuous time.
In addition to writing a sparkling collection of writing, Rao is one of the most delightful and engaging authors I’ve met over the course of the year. An Unrestored Woman heralds the debut of a talented and lovely writer. Each short story is like a drop of water in the desert, leaving a parched throat aching for more. I can’t wait to see what Rao does with a full-length novel.
2016 has come and gone, and I didn’t read as many books as I’d hoped, but more than I thought. Of course, many of them were graphic novels and some were plays, so there’s that. One thing that did surprise me was the number of really good books I read. My list of books worth listing is a little shorter than usual, coming in at thirteen, but the number of those thirteen that I really liked a lot was much larger than usual. So all in all, a good year for books.
#13 – The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by K. J. Charles
2016 was the year I completed my first ebook. It was also the year I read my first gay, erotic, historical, paranormal, fantasy romance. And surprise, it was the same book, this book, by K. H. Charles. I stumbled across this book in a very unusual way as well. While vacationing in St. Martin last January, I met a lovely British lad whose sister-in-law is the author in question. He was charming and delightful so I told him I would try one of his sister-in-law’s books. He recommended I start with this one, which I did. I was surprised to find it well-written, sexy, and a great deal of fun.
Some might say the plot is really irrelevant, but I find it adds a lot to my enjoyment. Simon Feximal is an imposing, well-respected, and some might say notorious occultist who is called upon to help out with hauntings, possessions, and other manner of dark dangers. A solitary man, he comes into contact with journalist Robert Caldwell during one particularly troubling haunting that forces the two men in quite a compromising position (or several). Fortunately, the mutual attraction was already there, and thus begins a long, shared life for the two men, through harrowing challenges and several near-deadly encounters with the paranormal, or with government officials using unsavory methods to coerce the two men to do their bidding. This is the first in a series of books, which were also quite entertaining, but this first made the biggest impression, hence it’s place on this list.
#14 – Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel is a highly readable modern tale of immigration and the challenges faced with tackling the American Dream… especially during a recession. Jende comes to America from Cameroon with big dreams, and through the help of an earlier transplant, his cousin Winston, gets a job as a chaffeur for a wealthy, Wall Street executive, Mr. Clark, driving him, his wife and two kids around and making a fairly good salary doing it. Certainly a salary that is astronomically more than he would make in Cameroon. His pregnant wife, Nemi, and their son arrive soon after, and she embarks on an educational mission to become a pharmacist. It’s all going wonderfully, with savings accumulating and bosses who appreciate them, but there’s one problem. they’re in the country illegally, and despite the fact that it takes months for any action to be taken, it is likely they will be deported sometime in the future.
Then fortunes turn as Wall Street implodes. Their lives, so optimistic and seemingly certain, take a precarious dive as their relationship with the Clarks and with each other, start to fray. Mbue captures the essence of the ups and downs of the immigrant experience beautifully, and while there is an element of char throughout, the challenges faced by those struggling to make it in America is not downplayed. This is a debut novel that demands attention, and resonates strongly with today’s America.
Recently The Daily Telegraph ranked Kate Bush’s 31 singles from worst to best. I was struck how low some of my personal favorite were, and how well some of the ones I was more indifferent to were ranked. Perhaps it’s a function of being here in the States, where Kate never really broke out, as opposed to England where she did quite well. I thought I would offer up my own ranking, and will include The Daily Telegraph’s ranking and how high the song reached on the British charts as well.
from Director’s Cut; ranked #21 by The Daily Telegraph; #87 on the British charts
This track utilized the Trio Bulgarka a Bulgarian vocal ensemble to great effect in its original version lifted from The Sensual World, and it was still a bit cheesy. When Kate re-recorded it for her Director’s Cut album, substituting her son Bertie as the voice of the computer it just didn’t work at all.
from The Red Shoes; ranked #25 by The Daily Telegraph; #26 on the British charts
Kate gets bluesy with a little help from Eric Clapton on this album cut from The Red Shoes. I always used to skip over this song when I listed to the album. Not really my cup of tea.
from The Glory of Gershwin compilation; ranked #14 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #27 on the British charts
This fairly straightforward reading of a Gershwin classic was one Kate Bush song I hadn’t heard until I found this Daily Telegraph list! Kate does a nice job with this song, but alas, it’s not a Kate bush song…
from Lionheart; ranked #8 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #14 on the British charts
This was the first single off the much-anticipated follow-up to Kate’s groundbreaking debut, The Kick Inside. It’s a daring little confection about trying to keep theatrical performances fresh while performing them day-in and day-out, week-in, week-out, with references to bitchy queens and vaseline, but it’s over-dramatic (appropriately so) howling chorus does wear on me after awhlie.
from The Golden Compass (soundtrack); ranked #13 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #187 on the British charts
Lovely, sweeping vocals play over the closing credits of the sadly disappointing film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantastic teen novel, The Golden Compass. It hit the British charts on the strength of its Digital Downloads alone. A bit of a throwaway, but a nice song. (I wish they’d included Be Kind to My Mistakes, Kate’s offering from the 80’s film Castaway, wasted as a B-side. That would have possibly cracked my top 10!)
from 50 Words for Snow; ranked #12 by the Daily Telegraph; reached #73 on the British charts
The lead, and only single from Kate’s last album, Wild Man is reminiscent of her previous single, King of the Mountain — interesting and heralding something new from a notoriously slow to produce artist, but in context, rather straightforward although this one has a rather intriguing chorus with some funky vocals.
#25 – Rocket Man (1991)
from Two Rooms; ranked #28 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #12 on the British charts
Offering her own version of one of Elton John’s beautiful classics, Kate puts her own reggae spin on Rocket Man taken from an early 90’s tribute album. Nice to see Kate having a little fun in the video.
#24 – King of the Mountain (2005)
from Aerial; ranked #22 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #4 on the British charts
Twelve years or so in the making, King of the Mountain heralded a triumphant return as the lead single of a double album masterpiece. It’s one of Kate’s highest charting single, but strangely enough, I never really appreciated it until I saw it performed live with the majesty and menace that lay hidden within.
#23 – Don’t Give Up (1986)
from So; ranked #16 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #9 on the British charts
This duet with Peter Gabriel off his masterpiece album, So, features Kate as the solitary ray of hope trying to reach a defeated man. A review in Rolling Stone magazine said this about Kate: “Don’t give up,” she breathes with the voice of life itself…” That’s Kate. The voice of life itself.
#22 Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) (1985)
from Hounds of Live; ranked #11 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #3 on the British charts (#37 on the U.S. charts!)
Kate’s only Top 40 U.S. single, also cracked the top 5 in Britain, this propulsive, rumination on seeing the world through your partner’s eyes has a lot of mileage for a deceptively simple song… although Kate’s simplest songs are more complicated that most pop singers can even imagine. I was surprised that this didn’t make the Telegraph’s Top 10. One of her best videos though…
#21 – Them Heavy People (Live) (1979)
from Live at the Hammersmith Odeon EP; ranked #26 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #10 on the British charts
American audiences weren’t ready when Kate appeared on Saturday Night Live singing about Gurdjieff and Jesu. This live track taken from her first concert tour captured her musical talent, her dancing daring, and her wackiness perfectly.
#20 – Babooshka (1980)
from Never for Ever; ranked #9 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #5 on the British charts
Bush’s third album saw her reaching toward the gorgeous madness that culminated in what many feel is her masterpiece fourth album, The Dreaming. Yet somehow, even as the edges of her music frayed with brilliance, she retained a strong pop sensibility while howling out, “I’m all yours, Babooshka!” This is a fun song, but not deserving of the Top 10 spot that The Daily Telegraph bestowed upon it.
#19 – This Woman’s Work (1989)
from The Sensual World; ranked #5 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #25 on the British charts
Kate wrote this song for the John Hughes film, She’s Having a Baby, and it’s an interesting take on the power of childbirth from the man’s point of view. It’s a gorgeous ballad, with Kate’s voice at it’s most emotional, starting of tremulously, then building with a grand crescendo that will chill you. Still, I rank it far lower than The Telegraph, which has this song at #5!
#18 – Hammer Horror (1979)
from Lionheart; ranked #20 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #44 on the British charts
Kate mines her love of horror films, particularly the classics produced by this movie studio, to spin a tale of a dead colleague who can’t let go of life. It features her trademark swooping vocals that soar into the stratosphere before plunging deep into the ocean. And a great little video too.
#17 – Breathing (1980)
from Never for Ever; ranked #17 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #16 on the British charts
Here is the moment when Kate began to take control of her musical career, and it’s fitting that it’s where The Daily Telegraph and I agree. Tackling a powerful subject, a song sung from the point of view of an unborn child who doesn’t want to be born into a post-apocalyptic world, Kate starts to move away from the child-like vocals and introduce a darker element to her music. It’s a chilling song, and the video is a mini-masterpiece, complete with cheesy 70’s special effects!
#16 – Experiment IV (1986)
from The Whole Story; ranked #19 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #23 on the British charts
When Kate released her greatest hits collection to introduce her music to America, she included one new track, the haunting, dystopian Experiment IV. Kate likes to imagine a dark future, and in this track, she imagines a world where scientists have created a sound that can kill from a distance. In the dark vision of Ms. Bush, this takes the form of a demonic entity played by the musician herself. The video features appearances by Dawn French, Hugh Laurie and Gary Oldman. I thought as a follow-up to Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) Kate might have another Top 40 hit in America. Shows you what I know.
#15 – December Will be Magic Again (1980)
stand-alone Christmas single; ranked #10 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #29 on the British charts
Only Kate could release a Christmas single that’s also a love letter to England. With her trademark vocal swoops and dives evident in full force, this is an easy song for non-believers to make fun of, but it’s just beautiful, and it captures the magic of Christmas and England beautifully.
#14 – The Dreaming (1982)
from The Dreaming; ranked #31 by the Daily Telegraph; reached #42 on the British charts
While it lacks the polish of Hounds of Love, The Dreaming may actually be my favorite Kate Bush album. It was a commercial flop, but it is so audacious; so insane, that it pushes the boundaries of pop music. For the title track, Kate tackles the plight of the aboriginal in Australia, and the mystic place between life and death called the Dreamtime. This was The Daily Telegraph’s lowest ranked single, but for me it’s sheer boldness merits a place in the Top 20 — and it’s multi-layered sound is rather amazing.
#13 – Love & Anger (1989)
from The Sensual World; ranked #29 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #38 on the British charts (and #1 on Billboard’s Modern Rocks chart!)
To kick off The Sensual World, Kate chose a logical follow-up to her triumph of Hounds of Love. Lots of drums, guitar by David Gilmour, and a cool video kept Kate in the American consciousness. Kind of the grown-up version of the fuck-you/adolescent cockiness of Sat In Your Lap. It’s a solid Bush song.
#12 – The Red Shoes (1994)
from The Red Shoes; ranked #30 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #21 on the British charts
Kate’s 1994 album, The Red Shoes was pretty hit and miss with me, but the title track was a explosive, manic dance number driven by Irish melodies, pipes and strings, and Kate’s intense vocal delivery. It was the high point in a bold, yet nearly conventional album that left Bush with an eleven-year gap between albums. Here, and with the previous Love & Anger is where The Daily Telegraph and I really differ.
#11 – The Man with the Child in His Eyes (1978)
from The Kick Inside; ranked #7 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #6 on the British charts
She wrote this song when she was 13. That’s all you really need to know about this exquisite ballad that rivals those written by musicians years her senior. Simple, understated, and beautiful. It just misses my top 10.
#10 – Army Dreamers(1980)
from Never for Ever; ranked #24 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #16 on the British charts
As Bush started to spread her wings lyrically and musically on her third album, she tackles one of her most devastating ditties, about young men going off to war and coming back in coffins. Sung as a lilting waltz, she marries a light musical touch with serious lyrical overtones. I’ve always loved this song, and its accompanying video. It’s a strong anchor for my Top 10.
#9 – Wuthering Heights (1978)
from The Kick Inside; ranked #4 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #1 on the British charts
Here’s the song that started it all. The precocious Kate Bush released a debut single not about falling in love, or getting your heart broken (although really, it’s about both of those things) but about Heathcliff and Cathy, the characters from Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights. More specifically, about Cathy’s ghost haunting Heathcliff forevermore on the moors. It was like nothing heard before on pop radio and it kicked off a career that is unparalleled still today.
#8 – Moments of Pleasure (1993)
from The Red Shoes; ranked #1 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #26 on the British charts
In what is most likely Bush’s most personal song, this beautiful, emotional ballad is clearly inspired by the death of her mother as she fondly remembers loved ones who have been part of her world. Although slightly overblown production-wise, you can’t deny the power of Bush’s delivery and turn of melody. And when she sings, “Hey there, Michael, do you really love me?” The answer is a resounding yet.
#7 – Cloudbusting (1985)
from Hounds of Love; ranked #3 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #20 on the British charts
Despite the mainstream success of Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) it was the other three singles from Hounds of Love that were the triumvirate of pop genius. Cloudbusting, coming it at #7 on my list, and #3 on The Daily Telegraph’s ranking, is epic in scope, complete with a 7-minute movie/video starring Donald Sutherland to accompany it. As the closing encore to her Before the Dawn concert in 2014, it left the audiences gloriously uplifted.
#6 – There Goes a Tenner(1982)
from The Dreaming; ranked #18 by The Daily Telegraph; did not make the British charts
The only Kate Bush single to miss the British charts completely, I attribute that to the backlash against The Dreaming album, which for me is sheer genius, and evident by the #6 ranking of this delightfully quirky, and hilarious ditty about a bank robbery gone wrong. I loved the videos from The Dreaming ear as well, and this, another mini-epic, is delightful. (In fact, my favorite non-single by Bush is arguably from this album, Suspended in Gaffa.)
#5 – Rubberband Girl (1993)
from The Red Shoes; ranked #23 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #12 on the British charts
I’m not sure why I love this song so much. Maybe because it’s such a mainstream, pop ditty from Kate Bush. It’s basically one chord with some funky instrumentation and trademark swooping Bush vocals. Why on earth EMI elected to release the far more mundane and less interesting Eat the Musicfor the American single is beyond me. This is a far better choice. I’ve included both the UK version (from The Red Shoes film) and the US version of the videos because they’re fun.
#4 – Sat in Your Lap (1982)
from The Dreaming; ranked #6 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #11 on the British charts
This was the single that heralded a new day for Kate. It was the lead single from The Dreaming, and I’m sure some people thought she’d lost her mind. Especially when they say this whack-a-doodle video (one of my favorites). I just love this song about the challenge of staying motivated to improve creatively. Something Bush clearly knew a lot about with this change in musical direction. It never stopped after The Dreaming. Nice to see the high ranking on the Telegraph as well… and that the British public responded pretty well too – almost getting her back into the Top 10. And come on, isn’t this the best video?
#3 – The Sensual World (1989)
from The Sensual World; ranked #2 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #12 on the British charts
There is no song out there that better embodies the sensual, the sumptuousness of lush, sexual beauty, than Kate Bush’s The Sensual World. And to add to that this song is actually the soliloquy Ms. Bush interprets for James Joyce’s Molly Bloom, plucked out of the novel Ulysses and set free to feel and experience that real, sensual world, as opposed to the literary world of words. And surely one of the most gorgeous videos ever made as Kate/Molly dances through the woods as the seasons change, in a gorgeous, form-fitting, velvet dress. The breathy vocals, and that last look into the camera as the song comes to a close. Wow. Look how close The Daily Telegraph and I are on this one. There’s no denying it. You just need to experience it.
#2 – The Big Sky (1986)
from Hounds of Love; ranked #27 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #37 on the British charts
For the longest time, The Big Sky was my stock answer when asked what my favorite Kate Bush single was. As you can see, that has changed, but it’s still pretty close. I love the joy Kate expresses in this song… it’s so exultant and fun — a celebration of the sky, but at the same time a bit of a diss to the press, and a song about putting things into perspective. Such a gloriously fun video too. The audience is filled with members of the Kate Bush Club, and I remember thinking the first time I saw it, if I had been in the audience when Kate ran down the catwalk blowing kisses into the crowd, I would have swooned. I don’t know what The Daily Telegraph is thinking by ranking this single to low. They’re just wrong in this case.
#1 – Hounds of Love (1985)
from Hounds of Love; ranked #15 by The Daily Telegraph; reached #15 on the British charts
Over the past 10 – 12 years, Hounds of Love has emerged to be my favorite Kate Bush song. It’s a perfect song for me. From the spoken intro, “It’s in the trees, it’s coming” and the tribal pounding of the drums, you know something amazing is about to start. The rhythmic driving of the strings provide the perfect combination of propulsion and menace beneath Kat’s frantic vocal that is both filled with fear, and filled with longing. The song is a perfect allegory, the fear of love and commitment being likened to a fox fleeing the hunt… it’s the hounds of love are hunting… and Kate captures the range of emotions beautifully. The title track off her seminal album, this song just lifts me up to glorious heights until Kate’s final exultant cry, “I need love, love, love, love, love, love, yeah,” puts the transcendent cap on the this perfect pop song.
And there it is, Kate’s 31 British singles ranked from least favorite to most favorite according to me. I definitely skew to mid-career — The Dreaming and Hounds of Love being her pinnacle for me. Although I always thought How to Be Invisible from Aerial should have been a single, and it would have ranked very high on this list. I will leave you with one of my favorite non-singles from Kate that she also happens to have made a video for. Suspended in Gaffa was taken from The Dreaming, and I’m not sure why she made the video since it wasn’t released as a single, but I’m sure glad she did.
Here they are, my top 5 titles from Marvel that are currently being published. Five solo titles… unprecendeted. Four female-led titles… shocking. Four of these titles are brand new, having started publication within the past year. They are titles that I never thought would be published. The fifth has been around for a long time, but has radically changed beyond all my wildest expectations and is more fun than I’ve had with a comic for a long time. Two years ago I never would have predicted any of these titles to be in my Top 5.
#5 – Vision
Tom King, writer
Gabriel Hernandez Walta, artist
As a kid, I loved the Vision. He was cool looking, had original powers, and his romance with the Scarlet Witch was legendary and dramatic. Of course, like most comics, and many written by John Byrne, the Vision (and the Scarlet Witch) were put through the ringer in the 90’s and in my opinion, came out the other end a lot worse for wear. I lost a lot of my interest in the Vision, and few writers have really used him all that effectively since then.
Then along comes Tom King, with an entirely new look at the android Avenger, penning a domestic, suburban, horror story that’s part Frankenstein, part Stepford Wives, and can only lead to misery and heartbreak. Vision want a family; so he creates one. A loving wife, and a pair of teenage siblings; all with the same abilities as his. Their behavior is modeled on a traditional loving, suburban family, but while the Vision has had years to perfect his humanity, the rest of his family is quite new to it, and must rely solely on the programming Vision has provided. Add to that, the very humanity Vision seeks to own, and provide for his family, sometimes results in decisions made form the heart rather than the head. King explores the rich history of the Vision’s past to create a disturbing and powerful examination on the desire to belong. Gabriel Hernandez provides beautiful artwork that conveys both the emotional needs and the horror of the Vision family’s situation.
#4 – Patsy Walker a.k.a. Hellcat
Kate Leth, writer
Brittney Williams, artist
If any character needed to capitalize on the movement Ms. Marvel started at fun comics aimed at teen girls, it’s Patsy Walker. Rich in Marvel history, but with origins in romance comics, Patsy became a superheroine in her own right in the 80’s adopting the costume worn by the feminist heroine, The Cat, to become Hellcat. She’s had a bumpy road to 2016, marrying the Son of Satan, committing suicide, and being rescued from hell, but now she returns to her roots, with a 2016 twist. Patsy, the comic book character, is embracing her past as a romance comic star, although it’s definitely something she’s embarrassed about. She’s also making some new friends to go along with her old friends that give the fun-loving Patsy lots of fun people to interact with.
Squarely aimed at younger girls, in both storylines and artwork, Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat really launches forward from where Ms. Marvel set things up. Friendships are paramount, whether it’s She-Hulk or her former Defender teammate, Valkyrie, or her new friends and roommates. Gay themes are front and center, reflecting a much more modern social society that lots of younger adults are comfortable with. Patsy has always deserved a fun book, and with her “cheese & crackers” personality, it makes total sense to aim this thoroughly at teens. I don’t know how long this book will last, but I’m hoping for a nice long run.
#3 – Scarlet Witch
James Robinson, writer
The Scarlet Witch was always one of my favorite characters through the 70’s and 80’s. Passionate and feisty, with interesting powers, she was a mutant that wasn’t associated with the X-Men. She was a good team player, and her romance with Vision was unique and well played-out. Then Byrne kind of ruined her, Kurt Busiek tried to rehabilitate her in a way I didn’t like, and Bendis utterly destroyed her character. It has taken years for Wanda to recover and become a viable character in the Marvel Universe again, so I was interested to see what James Robinson would be able to do with her character. Especially as the lead in a solo title, which she has never successfully accomplished before.
The result has been weirdly interesting and utterly enjoyable for me. Robinson explores her use of chaos magic, given Wanda a centered, assured demeanor, and sent her on an exotic journey throughout the globe. While using a different artist for each issue is an intriguing idea, it does make the look for the book less cohesive, but the overall design of the book is fairly consistent, thanks to David Aja’s gorgeous covers. For however long Wanda is able to maintain her title, Robinson has created a new, intriguing chapter in her life, one that gives further definition to a long-standing character, and gives her a platform from which to grow. Wanda should have a prominent place in the Marvel Universe, and I’m thrilled to see that coming to pass.
#2 – Mockingbird
Chelsea Cain, writer
Kate Niemczyk, artist
Perhaps it’s too soon for Mockingbird to appear so high on a favorite comics list, but never has a title so quickly provided me with so much enjoyment. After only three issues and a special one-shot, best-selling author Chelsea Cain has given Bobbi Morse a strong, three-dimensional personality, a fascinating story, and a book that’s fun, sexy, and exciting. Delving into her origins as a scientist and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and riffing on her period on the television show, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., while deftly acknowledging, but not dwelling on her most definitive history as Hawkeye’s wife and an Avenger, Cain allows Bobbi to soar.
What it comes down to is that Cain has made Bobbi cool. Maybe not as cool as Black widow (yet) but certainly more fun, and just as competent as the Russian super-spy. I’m sure the book will eventually delve further into Bobbi’s past, and I’m looking forward to Cain’s view of her time as a more traditional superhero. The book is smartly written, with gorgeous art by newcomer Kate Niemczyk enhancing the experience. If Mockingbird comes in at #2 this early in its life, I can only hope the quality continues, and possibly even top this list in the months to come.
#1 – The Mighty Thor
Jason Aaron, writer
Russell Dauterman, artist
Marvel’s Thor, the Asgardian god of thunder, has been around for a long time. While Thor himself was never a favorite (although I liked him okay), I’ve always had a soft spot for the Asgardians. A few years ago when Sif headlined Journey Into Mystery, it was my favorite title, and remains, to this day, one of my favorite comic runs. Never would I have predicted that The Mighty Thor would top a list of favorite comics. Even when Marvel unexpectedly removed the usual guy wielding Mjolnir and replaced him with a mystery woman, did I expect to love it so much. The fact of the matter is, Jason Aaron has breathed now, vibrant life into Thor and reimagined the character as a kick-ass superheroine to boot!
I was already enjoying the Thor comic before the gender swap occurred. Things Asgardian have been well-handled in recent years, from the afore-mentioned Sif, to the outstanding books involving Loki. I was enjoying the Thor title before Odinson became unworthy and lost the hammer to the new Thor. The stories were interesting and fun; the lead character and supporting cast were entertaining. When the new Thor took hold of the hammer, her interaction with the Odinson was priceless, and her evolving relationship with Thor’s former family and colleagues has been so much fun to watch. Aaron has spent a great deal of time defining and exploring the new Thor, all while keeping the threads from the Odinson’s title percolating in the background, and ready to explode in coming issues. He’s also given us a great mystery and sense of drama with the new Thor’s identity and condition when not wielding Mjolnir. All of this adds up to one fantastic book that leads the charge of what is surely a Marvel renaissance for this particular reader.
And there you have it. My favorite Marvel titles being published right now, and a couple that recently concluded. I may continue this with my favorite DC titles being published right now, but as they’re about to relaunch their entire line, I may take a different look at them. I sure hope Marvel can maintain the quality and diversity of their output. I never would have expected this to be possible ten years ago. Now all we need is the return of the Invisible Woman and someone to fall in love with and use Mantis a bit more, and I will be the happiest comic reader around.
The final team book shows up to anchor the Top 10, and it’s something of a surprise! Then we’ve got a mix of two male solo titles, and two female solo titles. Also two characters who have been around for a very long time, and two more recent characters. And one of the titles is new characters in long-time roles.
#10 – All-New X-Men
Dennis Hopeless, writer
Mark Bagley, artist
Despite my checkered past with Brian Michael Bendis, his re-imagination of the all-new X-Men, bringing the original five students from early in their careers into the future in the hopes of convincing the present day Cyclops the error of his ways, turned out to provide some really interesting stories that have evolved into this latest incarnation written by Dennis Hopeless. Now, with Jean Grey off with another faction of the team, and with the all-new Wolverine taking her place, as well as a handful of the other newer mutants in the X-Men stable, we’ve got some “old favorites” mixing it up with newer characters in something that breathes fresh life into a tired Marvel staple.
Some high points include Iceman’s revelation that he’s gay, Cyclops’ struggling not to become the slightly crazy, megalomaniac his older self has turned into, and the burgeoning romance between Angel and the all-new Wolverine. Mark Bagley’s sleek, clean artwork adds a lot to the appeal of the All-New X-Men, and I’m hopeful this title can maintain its high quality even while it gets sucked into some of the larger X-Men series crossovers.
#9 – Silver Surfer
Dan Slott, writer
Michael Allred, artist
Dan Slott replaces his goofy humor with a sweet simplicity, perfectly matched by Michael Allred’s fun, cartoony art to reimagine the classic Silver Surfer into something fresh and new as seen through the eyes of the human, Dawn Greenwood. This terrific new series started out as a cosmic adventure where Silver Surfer takes Dawn into space to show her the wonders of the universe. Then after providing critical assistance to repairing the universe after it was merged with other multiverses during Secret Wars, Silver Surfer returned to earth with Dawn taking on a new role as earth’s protector after his former love, Shalla Bal, and the people of Zenn-la tried to reimagine Surfer’s adopted home in their image.
Slott usually approaches his titles with considerable humor, and some smart use of continuity. Silver Surfer is fun, and often funny, but there is an underlying sweetness as he and Dawn slowly develop a romantic relationship, all while revisiting past allies and foes on an epic journey through the universe, and then across the globe. Michael Allred, along with his wife, colorist, Laura Allred, create a wild, Ditko-esque tapestry against which the Surfer uses his considerable power to protect those less fortunate. I had difficulty imagining how Slott would maintain his creative storyline, but this title is consistently surprising in its fresh look at a long-time hero.
#8 – Ms. Marvel
G. Willow Wilson, writer
Takeshi Miyazawa, artist
G. Willow Wilson’s re-imagination of legacy heroine, Ms. Marvel as a teen, Muslim, Kamala Khan, took Marvel by storm, and opened the floodgates of the superhero comics to young women everywhere. A smash hit, it struck comparisons to Spider-Man and his early appearances, about a young hero trying to learn responsibility, fight crime, keep her identity secret, do well in school, and wrestle with young love all while trying to meet curfew. Ms. Marvel took the comic book world by storm, even becoming a member of the All-New Avengers, and fighting alongside her namesake, idol, Captain Marvel.
While Wilson’s Ms. Marvel retains its appeal, deftly balancing the young heroine’s many challenges, her larger acceptance, as member of the Avengers, has actually dampened my enthusiasm slightly for the title. While still in my Top 10, I think Ms. Marvel would have been higher in the list had I made it a year ago. Takeshi Mayazawa’s art is strong, giving Kamala her unique look, and cartoony appeal. Ms. Marvel has so much potential, and G. Willow Wilson has proven to be a writer that can handle a wide variety of stories. And as a trailblazer for blasting open the doors to mainstream comics to young women, I top my hat to her.
#7 – The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
Ryan North, writer
Erica Henderson, artist
Now here’s an unexpected hit about a rather unexpected creation. Squirrel Girl was created as a joke in a back-up Iron Man story where she defeated Dr. Doom. After some notable appearances in the Great Lake Avengers, then as Luke Cage and Jessica Jones’ nanny in the New Avengers, she got her own title for the first time, where Ryan North and Erica Henderson capitalized on the runaway success of Ms. Marvel to create one of the most fun, funny, and original series ever. Taking full advantage of today’s technology (Squirrel Girl and her pals tweet incessantly) Squirrel Girl is a book for the youth of today and an inspiration for young girls everywhere. Optimistic, confident, and powerful, Squirrel Girl takes on all sorts of criminals, from common thugs to Galactus and Thanos, Squirrel Girl takes no prisoners.
North creates an adorable heroine for the ages, and infuses Squirrel Girl with lunatic humor, warmth and girl-power. With heroic friends like Koi Boy and Chipmunk Hunk you can’t help but smile as this plucky crime-fighter works with her sidekick Tippy-Toe to make the world a better place. Erica Henderson’s art is cartoony but accomplished, and Squirrel Girl is one of the few titles that my friends who don’t read comics seek out. This unlikely hit is so deserving, and while the convoluted time-travel, multi-issue arc wasn’t quite as fun as the previous issues of the series, I still look forward to this comic every month.
#6 – Doctor Strange
Jason Aaron, writer
Chris Bachalo, artist
I’ve always enjoyed comic series revolving around magic, and I’ve usually enjoyed the various incarnations of Doctor Strange that Marvel has published. One of the big draws of Doctor Strange was always Clea, who has not appeared in this new series, but surprisingly, I’m still loving it. The good doctor is facing an otherworldly threat that is destroying all magic in the multiverse, and slaughtering those who use it. With various guest stars such as Scarlet Witch, Magik, Shaman and Talisman, Aaron is bringing in many of the magic users in the Marvel Universe, and creating a compelling, accessible story about the nature of magic. It’s fun, a bit irreverent, steeped in Marvel history, and modern all at the same time. Stephen Strange is updated and kind of cool but still recognizable as the character that has been around since the 60’s.
Then there’s the art… an important consideration for Doctor Strange given his origins and how Steve Ditko defined the Marvel magic universe. Chris Bachalo is more than up to the task. His unorthodox panels, cryptic, insane monsters, and inscrutable faces all work perfectly for Drocto Strange. If Aaron and Bachalo can maintain this quality and pace, Doctor Strange should have a good run leading up to his cinematic debut. And if they bring Clea in, even as a guest star, I’ll be just thrilled.
And we’re down to my Top 5. Anyone have any guesses as to what’s on the top of the list?