Favorite Books Read in 2020

Tracy,

Holy crap! I’ve been using reading (especially gripping, escapist fiction) as a mental escape, self-care, and coping strategy the last few years, and that really ramped up in covid-19 stay-at-home pandemic times. I knew having 9 months of evenings at home (unusual for me) had increased my number of books read, but it wasn’t until I started compiling this list that I saw just how much. My reading number basically doubled. Most years it’s between 50-80 books. This year I read 136 books!!! Holy crap! Now, several were novellas, a few YA, and there’s always 4-6 children’s books (as I’ve got to make sure the book gifts for kiddos in my life are worthwhile). But still, dang! So I expect this list of my favorite books will also be longer than normal. You’re welcome.

“Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Fascinating. The writing is affecting, with a strong flavor and sense of place. The details were sometimes small but I always had firm visions of what was happening. Cassiopeia is a wonderful character, and watching her journey was a joy. The interplay and interactions with the gods and the mortal world was well done. Often surprising in their responses, but the responses always felt true. And the chapters from her cousin’s perspective were very powerful. Seeing his incensed male rage and unrecognized privilege. The knots he’d twist himself into when convincing himself he was a good person, wronged by the world because a woman dared to defy him (or just dared to begrudgingly do his bidding).

“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead

Wow. I really loved this strange story. It took me a little bit to get into it. I quickly realized this was a “full attention” novel, so by giving myself the dedicated space to start reading it and pay attention, then I found myself gliding in between these sentences and parsing out this world, that is at once our world but also slightly not. But not because we can’t see ourselves in this world, the characters and plots and society are all too real and all too familiar. It’s just…all about elevator maintenance inspectors. Like, so so much about elevators. And this wild concept of “intuitionists” and theoretical elevators. Deep thoughts about the power and promise of verticality. It’s wild. There are some gritty noir elements. And it gets under your skin. You find yourself dreaming about these concepts. The power dynamics, the racial politics, the societal issues…these are all things of our world. And by putting this strange elevator framework around it, it’s like a magnifying glass. Also, just as a novel, it’s a gripping plot, with dark secrets and surprising moments of laughter. This is High Concept in capital letters. But it’s also a deftly plotted quest, peopled with fascinating characters and so much philosophical discussions intertwined with discussions of elevators. Leaves you thinking so many thoughts, both big and small. Loved it.

“Red, White, and Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston

Ah, this was pretty dang close to perfect. And exactly what my soul needed in the dark weeks after the holidays. It was such a necessary bright spot in January 2020. I was skeptical (as I’m not often a fan of modern romances) but enough people I trusted told me to give it a try. I’m so glad I did. It’s so charming and sweet and full of enough West Wing style political wonkery to keep you totally engaged. It’s fast paced. I want to live in this near-reality to ours, where the world is still tough and it’s still a struggle to do the right thing, but there’s just a bit more hope and possibility. Plus the two leads are adorably awkward and sweet. I’m going to post the Third Place Books staff review that finally had me purchase the book “This is not your great aunt’s romance novel; this is as if Queer Eye did a makeover on the 2016 Presidential Election and the result is tender, funny, suspenseful, political, and super hot. I haven’t read a romance in decades, so I wasn’t sure I’d finish this book, much less stay up until 1 am to do it. I expected to blush, but I didn’t expect that I’d also laugh out loud, cry, and at the end, feel more hopeful than I have in months. Give it a try.” (Notes from Jan 2021…I don’t remember that the intimate scenes were blush-worthy, but everyone has their own expectations and reactions, of course. And it’s been a year, so maybe things were steamier than I remember. Who knows)

“Jude the Obscure” by Thomas Hardy

Oh man, I do thoroughly enjoy Hardy’s writing. The observations and descriptions are so so good. This story is so melodramatic and so sad at times. But then at other times I’m laughing. It was fun to finally read (listen) to it. I listened along with the “Obscure” podcast wherein Michael Ian Black read the book and commented as he went. It was a delightful way to explore this novel, and so wonderful to have a friend along for the ride, sharing the laughter and the heartache. And sharing Black’s dry humor and observations while listening to him read me this story *chef’s kiss* A wonderful way to listen to this classic Literature. Such a strong sense of place and insight into the daily lives during this time period.

“Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren

Fantastic. When a pal was trying to convince my skeptical self that this was actually a totally engrossing read, she said to me, “in between the memoir/autobiography of her lab work, she includes chapters about Trees!!” I just gave my pal a blank stare. That sure didn’t sound like it would be engaging, but boy was I wrong. Jahren is an amazingly accomplished writer. Her sentences sing, her descriptions are so vibrant, there are so many emotions and true Human moments, there’s such love for her work as well as fascinating and heartaching shared stories of just how brutal/difficult the life of a research scientist can be (always grubbing for new grants, chasing the dollars, trying to revitalize ancient equipment). Yet her passion for growing things just leaps off the page, and I found myself caring So. Damn. Much. Plus, parts of this are friggin’ hilarious. Some truly wild anecdotes. Some truly touching moments. She is so frank and honest about herself and her foibles and her lifelong struggles with mental illness throughout. Shockingly honest. It’s just powerful, yet it’s also a totally pleasant and engaging read. Thank you to my friends for making me give this book a shot. Had Jahren not found such a passion for her scientific work, she’d have had an accomplished career as a writer, so it was such a blessing to have these gifted words to tell her story.

“Penric’s Demon” series by Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve enjoyed almost everything Bujold writes, and this is no exception. Plus, having novella length adventures was such a joy in the hot mess that was early months of the pandemic. With all the stress and uncertainty, focus proved difficult. Yet committing to these shorter stories felt less daunting. Plus, they’re such delightful page turning adventures, that I was instantly gripped. It’s such a novel and charming concept. Pen is a fantastic character and his respectful treatment of the multi-lived demon trying to possess him leads to such a wonderful partnership. I devoured the entire series.

“The Queen of Nothing” by Holly Black

Thoroughly satisfying conclusion to a good trilogy. I appreciated this take on the Faerie, full of menace and danger to mortals. These Fae are not easy sparkly magic beings. Something Wicked this way comes. The rules are harsh and strict, but also unfailingly enforced (until they’re not). There’s always menace and it’s often really awful. Our heroine is ridiculously resilient. Like, shockingly so (she even shocks the Fae). Dude. I cringed often at her disregard for physical harm in the pursuit of her goals. Lots of deception and trickery and it’s hard, but also really satisfying, and reads easily.

“Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield

Like the eponymous River, this novel is a really lovely, sweeping, meandering, inexorable, implacable, shimmering, and reflective experience. (Am I stretching a metaphor? Quite possibly). But this was just great. The scope is at once quite large but also hyper local, focusing on how this lost and presumed drowned little girl and how this river connects everyone in the area. It’s full of amazing details and character observations. Some truly sad moments but also some great laughs. Good mysteries, too. Discussions of love and family and faith and loyalty. And how to scrape by and eke out a life. How we are all interconnected. Some of the truly best/most impressive characters, even when faced with the worst villainy. And some truly arch villians. And people caught in between. Honestly, reminded me of Thomas Hardy, a bit. I listened to the audiobook and it was a wonderful journey. Strong themes and metaphors. Powerful and very well written.

“Network Effect” by Martha Wells

The worst part about reading the Murderbot novellas? How quickly the stories ended. The best part about reading the Muderbot novellas? Everything else. So it was such a joy to have a NOVEL sized addition to this series!! I love these characters so so much. And I’m so glad my sister recommended I re-read the 4 novellas before starting this. One, because re-reading them made for a fantastically fun week. And two, because this novel makes several references and continuations that I’d have missed/not fully appreciated. The PACING is always wonderful, page turning with tiny breaks just when you need them. This snide and snarky SecUnit is such a wonderful narrator. The stories continue to be such a joy. (I’m normally NOT interested in the tech-heavy types of SciFi, but in this world the tech itself has consciousness, and is used in such surprising and effective ways. And it makes for such a unique and wonderful adventure. Fascinating narrators and exploring the different consciousnesses from the different types of AI is a true delight, too. Such delicious snark). Note from Jan 2021. Apparently there’s a short story “Home” from Dr Mensah’s perspective that I haven’t read yet. Now I’m so excited to spend more time in this world, but I wonder how I’ll connect to a different narrator, as Murderbot’s voice is so iconic!

“The Western Wind” by Samantha Harvey

I was so surprised by this novel. It’s a mystery, set in a small village in 1490’s England. It’s told in reverse order (starting 4 days after the murder, and slowly moving back in time, day by day). It’s an unusual and unusually effective structure. As we’re slowly finding out the instigating spark of events we already saw play out the chapter previous. It could’ve been tedious or infuriating, but instead it was so damn compelling. And this book is so evocative. The way that it makes medieval England come to life. The writing and the characters are so real and lived in. You’re almost sure you can smell the muck and damp and feel the poverty and hardship but also celebrate the small joys. Our narrator, the village priest, is a fascinating character. I found him incredibly sympathetic and appreciated his frankness (dealing with the often tedious confessions and needs of his wayward flock), even as it’s becoming more clear that he’s maybe not the most reliable of narrators. This is a world with few clearly all Good or all Evil characters. But there sure are plenty of deplorable actors, and few saints, and mostly folks trying their best to be good, or to at least find some joy and comfort. The visiting Dean/supervisor is such a great menacing presence and throws Fr Reve into such circles of doubt and worry. This whole thing was unlike most things I’ve read before. That structure of going back in time to find out “who done it”… it has just stuck in my brain. SPOILER/DISCLOSURE: While we do find out the who, how, and why, the novel does end with a different cliffhanger decision unmade. Which way will Reve proceed? It’s intriguing but also normally the type of ending that would have me screaming and tossing a book across the room. (I’ve still got residual rage from when my 13 year old self read “The Lady or the Tiger.” You’re the artist: Make a damn choice!). And yet, in this case, I found it endlessly effective and intriguing to leave the reader hanging and to make ones own conclusions about which choice will be made. But I did want to disclose that, so you’ll be forewarned.

“Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin” by Michael Warr

This is a flipping gorgeous book. It’s large coffee table sized, but paperback and feels fantastic to hold. So much care went into the creation and curation of this collection of poems. There are beautiful and evocative headshots of each poet, photos full of life and movement and personality. And this giant full paged photo precedes each poem, accompanied by a mini autobiography, where each poet recounts their life’s history with reading and writing. Sometimes I found the artist’s statements move moving and beautiful than the poems that followed. It’s really powerful. Themes emerge. Humanity is displayed on every page. Raw and joyful and angry and sorrowing and celebrating and fighting back and offering succor. The poems are often great, and so varied in style and themes. It’s a really wonderful collection.

“Bonds of Brass” by Emily Skrutskie

This was a delight. Page-turning space action. Fun and quirky characters. Exciting settings. And so much pining between the best pals. Just lovely. Any action-based space resistance plot will inevitably have Star Wars comparisons, as does this, and I can see how many readers inserted Finn and Poe into these roles. But I also appreciate that these characters were their own men (not just SlashFic two dimensional stand-ins). I really liked watching these characters unfold and show hidden depths. Yes, it’s mostly exciting plot adventure after adventure, but some moments of real depth and heart shine through, too. And it’s maybe not the most accomplished of writing. It’s perfectly serviceable but sometimes read more like a great movie script rather than a Novel. Less about the crafting of beautiful sentences, and more about painting a scene and letting action unfold. So it’s a fun adventure but unlikely to warrant a re-read. Also, argh!!! I want to know what happens next so so badly. This is the first in a trilogy and things end on a tense note! And the second book isn’t even written yet (spring 2021!!). Waiting is so hard. If I’d realized it was first in an incomplete trilogy, I might have waited to read it. Still, I’m so glad that I did. Stuck in one room of my house, keeping an injured dog company while he is on restricted movement for two weeks, it was wonderful to just spend a day reading an entire book. It’d been awhile since I did that. And this was a great brain vacation.

“The Toll” by Neal Shusterman

This was fantastic. just, woah. The first book was a perfectly good story with really intriguing world set-up and characters. Then the second book was so much more impressive. And this third book delivers on promises I didn’t even know were being made. It gets so meta, and thought-provoking, while still delivering a very enjoyable plot-based adventure. The continued discussions of AI and morality are very interesting. Issues of unchecked power (who watches the watchmen) and examples of people ignoring truly terrible actions because they don’t want to get involved. Or going along with bad acts for political expediency. And my theological studying heart was so excited when the Tonist Scriptures were presented, followed by some initial historical scriptural analysis (from maybe 100 years after the events of this book) and then later further-into-the-future scriptural analysis of THAT previous analysis. For a book that plays with timelines and is already set a few hundred years in our future, this was still such a surprise. What a brilliant way to add some further world-building. As we’re seeing events in real time, Schusterman has also imagined several moments in the future (how current events become changed before being written as scripture 100 years later. And then how those sacred texts are interpreted several hundred years later. And then how those interpretations are again re-examined and changed several hundred years after that! *Mind blown* For realz!!). It’s wonderful. And the chapter playing with the Requiem format?!? *chef’s kiss* Just a joy to read. Plus the actual plot is a good adventure, too. Loved the character of Jerico. Was initially a little worried that Jeri’s character would be treated too flippantly. But ended up quite liking that journey and presentation. And I’ve always appreciated that these are imperfect humans (as all humans are). With weaknesses and faults. Watching people struggle to still do good, sometimes failing or giving up (a frustrating but true choice by many). And watching other people be so power hungry and dangerous, but self delusional and convinced of their own rightness. The parallels to post-2016 politics are huge. Really a great adventure through these three books, but also providing so much fodder for big ideas and ponderables. Impressed. One can read these three books just on their surface and have a perfectly good time. But the opportunity for reflection and deeper thoughts is a wonderful bonus.

“A War in Crimson Embers” by Alex Marshall

What a delightfully entertaining meaty treat. This trilogy was fantastic, and this 3rd book delivered on the promise of the premise. Epic in scope and in action. Darkly witty observations, great dialogue, and amazing descriptions of a fascinating and varied world. It’s been great fun following this huge journey of quests and war and revenge and religion and attempts at brokered peace, and vastly different fully realized cultures and ways of thinking. The descriptions in general are fantastic and often visceral, particularly of Jex Toth (a newly risen demonic realm full of insectoid creatures and caves that seem to be made out of living flesh *shudder*).
But it’s the characters that really make this journey sing. They are each so unique and different and entertaining and heartbreaking and human (with all our shades of grey). It was such a delight. Zosia as a woman in her 60’s and leader of the rebellion is such an often un-seen character in Fantasy. And she’s such an entertaining and understandably cynical crank. All of these characters won my heart, and represented so many different ideas. Maroto’s journey in particular was my favorite (watching someone struggle through addictions, looking for redemption, his heart and emotions so huge but continuing to be wrong-footed all the time, often with the best of intentions. Yet not giving up. And making more friends/helping more than he could recognize). As soon as I typed that Maroto’s journey was my favorite, my brain started arguing “What about Keun-ju? Sullen? Purna?” Richly layered characters abound.
Written in that multi-character narration style where each chapter follows a different journey. But you have to read them in order (I just recently learned my sister sometimes in these types of books will SKIP AHEAD to follow a cliffhanger chapter ending) because they sometimes overlap and interweave in fascinating ways. The Black Pope’s visit to Jex Toth wouldn’t have been nearly so effective if we hadn’t previously seen this same land through Maroto’s eyes, for example.
These are those giant fantasy type books that I don’t often pick up anymore, because of intimidating page count. But I’m so glad the staff at my local bookstore had me start this series last year. Great adventures and a satisfying ending. This world and these characters will stay in my brain for a long time. And I can easily find myself re-reading this trilogy in a few years. Definitely should hold up well to re-reading, like the best fantasy adventures can do.

“New Kid” by Jerry Craft

Really really great. Truths and reality shared with humor and emotions. Super approachable and so readable. Lots of poignant moments. And doesn’t provide easy pat answers or a fake happy ending where all the unconscious bias and prejudiced systems and racist actions are magically erased. (One memorable moment: when Jordan notices white teachers consistently calling the few black students by the wrong name, one of the few black faculty tried to console Jordan, saying that it’s just because they’re new. And then that teacher is mistakenly called Coach by a white teacher. Even though he’s taught there for 14 years). Real world middle school injustices, and embarrassing parents, and cafeteria politics abound, as well as navigating race and priviledge. It’s a very fast read and it’s a very powerful story. Deserving of all the praise it’s gotten. Excellent springboard for discussing all kinds of things that affect middle schoolers. And the artwork is engaging and creative and inviting.

“The Brave” by James Bird

One of the most fascinating narrators I’ve read in a long time. Collin has such a unique voice and reading his thoughts and observations are a joy. He’s a deep thinker and a deeper feeler, working through his emotions as he is growing up. The treatment of his OCD ticks is really interesting, and I LOVED when he addressed the readers directly in the first few chapters. Really intriguing approach. I appreciated that the other characters, even tertiary adults, are complex and three dimensional. And was very impressed at Collin being able to see adults’ struggles and appreciate the things they are working through as well. This is a book about love and magic and family and it is very sweet and powerful. I admit I had to stop about halfway through to research a bit more about the author. And was reassured to see he was Native/Ojibwe. I was having a bit of hard time with Collin’s learning experiences on the reservation. Collin’s broad stroke generalizations about “being Native American” made sense for his character, and I really loved his mom and her approach/responses. But I wasn’t seeing some more nuanced understandings as much as I’d hoped from Collin as time passed. The continued sense of exoticism and Other-ing and presenting things as “how all Native Americans think” was making me a bit uncomfortable. It was a bit reassuring to learn that Bird is Ojibwe himself. And perhap because this is a YA book, a goal of instilling Native pride may have been more important than showing that, too. Not every book can do ALL the things, nor should it attempt to. Overall, this was a really lovely and complicated story that is very easy to read, almost deceptively easy as big ideas are effortlessly a part of the narrative. So glad my friend made me read this.

“The Demon King” series by Cinda Williams Chima

This was exactly what I was looking to read right now. (Recommendation from my sister). Very enjoyable, easy to read, long enough to sink your teeth in and play awhile, but not so long that it’s intimidating. There’s some character development (but not so much the reader is swimming in shades of grey and moral complexity). I generally love books with grey areas and challenging ideas and deep dives and intensive world-building. But right now, it was so pleasant to just read along in a nice young adult fantasy world, knowing pretty dang clearly who the Bad Guys are and who the Good Guys are. It’s got a decent amount of foreshadowing, so that the reader can feel smugly satisfied at having guessed most things before they come to pass (and before the characters figure it out), but there are still a few twists and surprises to keep your interest. I appreciated the way many of the adult characters interacted with our teenage leads. Asking probing questions and encouraging them to think for themselves/reach their own conclusions. And in later books, our teenage leads find themselves at the helm of some real world/high stakes situations and choices. I was slightly uncomfortable at the Indigenous-inspired Clan people. I’m not sure of the author’s background. Still, the pacing is great as plot lines meet up and interact in ways expected and unexpected. Also so much action. Pages turn. Constant tension on a short time frame (in books 3 & 4, especially). It’s a very satisfying adventure.

“The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa

This is such a lovely, quiet, and desperately sad novel. It’s an exploration of loss and grief, of identity and memory. Themes of power and control, and of quietly accepting that totalitarian control until one is literally dependent upon it/loses any sense of identity without it (The novel within this novel, about the Typist who loses her voice, is super powerful and so unsettling). The idea of the disappearances is such a shocking concept, and the totalitarian overtones of the Memory Police, enforcing the destruction of “disappeared” objects and arresting/disappearing non-compliant people, are a chilling presence. And yet, there’s such passivity in our lead, and indeed, in almost the entire populace. People shake their heads and mumble as new objects are disappeared, but they quickly learn to adjust and never question or fight back. There is such care and loving appreciation in the smallest of pleasures (a honeyed pancake, finding fresh celery at the market, a music box), and focus on small daily tasks. But asking the Big questions and trying to look for Big actions or change seems beyond everyone. Our lead once marches to the Memory Police headquarters to make inquiries, but that one big attempt is enough to cement her impression that nothing can be done. Character R, who retains his memory and must go into hiding, has such a heartbreaking quiet struggle as he tries to re-ignite memories in his friends. Not only are his friends unable to remember, but R cannot even really ignite any passion or action or drive in them to TRY to remember. They go through the exercises to make R happy, but that’s it.
The occasionally spoken worry (about what will happen to people when everything is disappeared) is so pervasive, and yet perhaps because it is Such a big idea and people feel so powerless, there’s no struggle against it. This isn’t an action packed dystopian novel where our heroes attempt revolution. This is the frog being slowly boiled to death, with incremental heat increases, and still barely any resistance or pushback. Even when the disappearance of calendars forces the island into perpetual winter. Even as scarcity reigns. Even as (spoiler) actual body parts are disappeared. The lack of response is what’s most shocking and powerful. The translation of this Japanese novel is masterful, there’s such a sense of place and character. The language is so precise, and grows more sparse as disappearances continue. Really quietly powerful stuff. Beautiful and achingly sad.

“Grimspace” series by Ann Aguirre

This series is just so much dang fun. Fast paced, drops you in the middle of the action, snappy dialogue. A cast of interesting characters. Lots of sarcasm and banter, but there’s heart and hurt and emotions, too. High stakes and low stakes. A rollicking good time adventure, engaging and had me caring about the characters. Probably helped that in the first scene, Jax reminded me of Ripley from Aliens, so some extra nostalgia affection there. As the books continue, our poor gang of adventurers and former mercenaries can’t ever seem to catch a break or catch their breath. But it does keep the pages turning. I appreciate the snappy dialogue and hijinx, as well as the glimpses of darkness and real consequences. It’s interesting dynamic when our hero suffers from mind-game manipulation-induced paranoia, but also sometimes everyone IS out to get her. And the author introduces some clever (yet still believable) ways to keep adding difficulty and conflict. We can’t have everything too easy for our team, now can we? I’m seriously asking, because it sure would be nice if they could catch a break… instead of grasping a small break out of the jaws of defeat each time. I mean, intellectually I know I probably wouldn’t enjoy stories as much if there wasn’t conflict. But I definitely was feeling like this team should’ve gotten a month vacation before heading back into the shit after second book. It could’ve happened off screen/off page as it were. But just knowing they had some down time would’ve been nice. Ah well). Books 3 and 4 each take things in a new but interesting direction, too. Adding some political wrangling in book 3 and warfare plots in book 4. Very satisfying yet easy to read adventures. (note from Jan 2021. I did not enjoy the 5th book. It was frustrating, as suddenly characters and choices didn’t feel authentic anymore, and I wasn’t engaged. There are only 6 books total, so here’s hoping the final book is good. But I endorse the first 4 books, at least).

“When Stars Are Scattered” by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson

Powerful, lovely, sad, and hopeful. Graphic novel about being in a refugee camp for years and years. Small human moments. Made me cry. Made me smile.

“A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle

This was such a cozy experience. The pacing is just a lovely wander. Approaching month 10 of pandemic, escaping to Provence was the vacation I needed. I’d read this 15-20 yr ago, and it holds up beautifully. There’s something so refreshing in this travel memoir from the 80’s as he’s contrasting the busy “Modern” life in London vs the slow priorities of their new life in provence, I kept thinking just how quickly modern tech has changed since this was written. Decrying an answering machine feels so quaint. But I still get the sense that the focus and priorities of this region won’t have changed too much, even with smart phones and social media. At least, I hope not. The focus on eating well, drinking well, conversation and shared drinks with neighbors, walking the woods with your dogs, a full day spent seeking the perfect ingredient for your meal. These really feel like our current pandemic joys, too. I mean, we can’t host dinner parties. But fix-it tasks around the house, gardening, meal planning, good wine, walking in nature, these have become the highlights of my pandemic experience.
His descriptions of the colorful characters in town, of brash tourists and shady contractors: they’re engaging and delightful. Although I wondered how this book was received. As they lived there for decades after this was published, were some neighbors suffering hurt feelings? I hope not. In any case, it was so nice to just read the next 20-30 minute chapter (one per month of the eponymous Year) to see what joys and tribulations the next month would bring. Wonderful armchair travel.

“Spoiler Alert” by Olivia Dade

Very sweet. As the book opens, April is already embarking on some big life choices, with a new job in her field and deciding to be more open about her life. And she’s confident and earnest yet real, with those all too human chinks in the armor. Marcus is more complicated than one would initially guess, and the metaphor with April being a geologist (thus loving looking for hidden depths) works surprisingly well, while also being super cheesey. They don’t NEED each other in order to be whole, or make changes (they both have full lives and a strong sense of self already). They complement each other and help each other sort through issues (with good emotional intelligence, actively listening, great communication).
I also appreciated the way author set up the 3rd act “Issue” that would come between them (before they inevitably get back together). So often in these RomCom books, it is a misunderstanding that is so infuriatingly stupid (or that could be easily cleared up with one very short convo). It was refreshing to have “the problem” be understandable without offering a super easy fix, and still following the character’s internal logic. Also, the interstitials are a true joy, as the author includes sections of scripts from past movies and selections of the Fan Fiction stories the characters write and read. There is some really sharp and hilarious satire about the film industry. I chuckled, often. Coming up with pun-filled titles and terrible plots for some of Marcus’s previous movies must’ve been a great joy. And the Fic glimpses are funny and/or great plot devices. Everyone felt like a real person, with complex emotions and real lives. It was so refreshing. One quibble was just that reading the internet dialogue (with all the long usernames) is awkward. Not sure how to get around that. Appreciated that she gave the main characters pronounceable acronyms right away. But those group discussions are necessarily clunky on the page. Ah well. Translating online communities to novels always seems a bit awkward. “The journey to self-acceptance is never easy, and Dade doesn’t shy away from that, but she makes it just as beautiful and gentle as the love that blooms between Marcus and April” -Kirkus Review

“Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor

What a wonderful story. Imaginative world. Our heroine has such a strong voice and sense of self. The introduction of other cultures and alien species is fascinating. I always appreciate when an author respects her audience, doesn’t provide much hand-holding; instead allowing the world-building and exposition to be discerned as the action unfolds. That said, I did find myself a little confused/lost a few times, but I trusted and was able to get back on board. There is a LOT of new concepts and worlds and vocabulary and ideas packed into this novella. It didn’t go where I expected, but it ended exactly where it needed to go.

“Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” by Lori Gottlieb

I never would’ve picked this up, if it hadn’t been a bookclub selection. But I’m so glad I did. I loved this. Lori Gottlieb is an accomplished writer, her prose flows easily, with some excellent descriptions and observations. And the structure of this book is so so clever. The combination of patient case studies along with her own life/mental health journey is very effective. She cleverly begins with a patient who is a huge narcissistic asshole and then follows with some juicy personal gossip. But then she starts peeling back layers, revealing hidden depths and unguessed at complexity. This parallels with how she explains treatment goes (presenting issue, getting to know someone, deeper issues, working through emotions and revelation and growth, ending in a much more complex picture that often is unrelated to the presenting issue). Also, it is peppered with so many deep thoughts and observations and prompts, I’d find myself pondering and engaging in some self examination. And there’s so much humanity on the page… she chose/amalgamated these case studies well, to give the reader a broad spectrum of experiences and issues and consequences and blind spots. It was fun and easy to read but also can lead to growth and big ideas. I feel like I better understand what therapy is, how it works, and it’s goals (at least according to her). Very helpful.

“The Empress of Salt and Fortune” by Nghi Vo

This was such a delicate and sly little thing. I first attempted reading it a few months ago, but after a few pages I could tell it wasn’t the time yet (I wasn’t in the proper mindset, nor willing to give it the attention it needed). Returned to it recently, in a more settled headspace, and I instantly sunk into it’s lovely words. It manages to provide a depth of emotions and character development with precision (as good novellas must, because of their shorter size). Yet the descriptions and writing were full of lush, rich detail. The rhythms of the story were so pleasing, and the subtle subtle ways that Big things were revealed… masterfully done. I don’t think I’ve read what feels like a story of Injustice and Big Rebellion wrapped in such a deceptively sedate slow package before. Wonderful. The importance and meaning hidden in seemingly innocuous objects, the importance of recording everything…just a fascinating world and way to let a story unfold.

“Bad Indians” by Deborah A. Miranda

Found this through Powell’s Books’ list to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. Really really loved the mixed media approach. The combination of narrative, news articles, personal memoir, poetry, history, thought experiments…it was a fascinating way to compile a book. And mirrored the scattered way I love to absorb information. Important and powerful and heartbreaking and rage-inducing. I wish it had a deeper bibliography and a suggestion of further resources, though. A lot of this information (historical and her family’s history) is devastating. That’s a place where the mixed format was a true blessing and really made this easier to read and finish. By breaking things up in both format and subject, it was more digestible chunks, allowing you to stop reading at relatively steady intervals, taking a break to think, to cry, to plan, to research, to make resolutions. I also was impressed at how Miranda found ways to offer hope. Some clear -eyed appreciation of reality, but recognizing how broken things can sometimes be recreated into something new. Powerful metaphors and some concrete actions. Very important and touching book.

“The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield

What an unexpectedly gripping story. I’d found this on some recommended list months ago. When my library hold became available, I was a bit concerned whether it would hold my attention. Been reading mostly escapist fiction right now, so capital L Literature books (which I normally love) are not always the right fit for my pandemic brain. But I was hooked within the first two chapters. Just enough of a mystery to keep the pages turning, plus I really liked the writing, and intriguing characters. The story starts off quite small in scope. But the richness is revealed slowly, adding delicious layers to the experience. Totally shares some Gothic Novel vibes, and in fact is often referencing other famous literary works of the genre (Jane Eyre, Woman in White, Wuthering Heights, Turn of the Screw). Hilarious moment when the governess scoffs at Henry James’ ghost story: clearly the man never knew any children or governesses. Ha! Themes of identity and loss and dark secrets and siblings/twins. But it never felt like a downer/super depressing. I had some very vivid creepy dreams a few times. The gothic novel atmosphere is done very sparingly, yet I’d find myself with the shivers, or wanting to turn on a bedroom light. This one will stick in my brain for a bit, for sure. The author is fantastic at crafting characters, and I’ve always enjoyed the “story within a story” format. (And I didn’t realize that I’d read and loved another novel by this same author earlier in the year until I was compiling this list. “Once Upon a River” is very different in tone and scope, but also a masterfully told story full of richly described characters and surprisingly interwoven narrative.

—— honorable mentions—–

“Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik

I quite liked this but did not LOVE it. (I loved author’s previous book “Uprooted”). Fascinating setting, complex characters, no easy answers. A very real world brutality in this reimagined fairy tale. And maybe that was my issue with it. I’ve been reading so much escapist fiction as self-care in this time of global pandemic. And so the real world, real human brutality towards others (from child abuse to pogroms), it was really darkly powerful (but not a fun escape). Had I read this in a different headspace, I know I would’ve loved it. The story unfolds in such an interesting way. The author’s descriptions are great, and gives little glimpses as we are figuring things out along with the main character.

“Pet” by Akwaeke Emezi

When I first started reading it, the world felt too silly and oversimplified, and I was skeptical. But the richness started to show itself. And the use of oversimplification is intentional and powerful. Variety of big topics (gender issues, the role of communication and sign language, who are the real monsters, the dangers of blindspots when you convince yourself that bad things couldn’t happen in your neighborhood, coming of age, art and identity). And it’s an interesting journey.

“The Liar’s Daughter” by Megan Cooley Peterson

Read this through Audible offering free books during the “shelter in place” pandemic orders. Not sure I’d have picked it up otherwise. But it was a fascinating listen. Gosh, I wish there was a way to read this without knowing the plot…it would’ve been even better, as the story unfolds (jumping between “before” and “after” sections). Our narrator is really interesting and seeing her process the world and new information is gripping. Lots of emotion, and some good tension, too. But don’t read the description if you can avoid it. Knowing it’s about a girl taken out of a cult is enough. Let the rest of her journey unfold through the narrative.

“The Penderwicks” by Jeanne Birdsall

Just a lovely middle grade reader. Characters feel real but also intriguingly larger than life in some of their quirks and adventures. It’s all mostly low stakes (but the type of low stakes that feel like THE END OF THE WORLD when you are a kid). Made me chuckle. Made me care. And such a wonderful escape during the summer of 2020.

“The Last Day” by Andrew Hunter Murray

Fascinating premise for apocalyptic fiction. The earth’s rotation has slowed down, leaving most of the earth in either endless frigid shadow or blazing sun. There’s only a thin strip of the earth that’s in a more habitable climate for humanity. England happens to be in this section, but things are not going well for the creatures of the Earth, as one might expect. Enter our heroine, who is reluctantly dragged into some thriller intrigue stuff (shady government dealings, murder, coverups, secrets, roving gangs). Ya know, all the things one might expect. Very intriguing new setting for this type of story. The body count is high, the stakes are real, successes (when they happen) are not happy or even really offering much respite. They were hard earned and don’t always seem worth the cost. But what other options are there? It’s grim, but interesting, and the pages move along at a good pace. But unlike Young Adult Dystopian, there didn’t seem to be as much hope scattered among the hardship. It’s just hard, with a few brief bright spots, but felt much more realistic. It was a good journey (But it’s not “escapist” in these dark covid times, at least, it’s not a “the good guys win and everything is made right again” type of story).

“Clean Sweep” series by Ilona Andrews

The premise is a fun new twist on paranormal fantasy. In this case, all the supernatural beings are actually aliens (there’s a werewolf planet, vampire planets, etc). And special Inns are used as galactic waystations and neutral ground for traveling fantastical beasts. And when the Inn is on Earth (which doesn’t know about all the aliens yet) offworld visitors have to work to preserve the secret. And then adventures and hijinx happen to our innkeeper as she’s trying to run her business. Perfectly fun page-turning distraction. They get a bit more complicated and offer more satisfying adventures in books 2 and 3. The stakes keep increasing steadily as the plot unfolds (& it’s mostly only plot, peppered with bantering dialogue and with very little character development), so one keeps turning the pages to see what happens next. Unfortunately these were published online chapter-by-chapter, reacting to fan comments and input. Cute way to interact with your fan base, I guess, but they would be tighter and better books if they weren’t written/published online chapter by chapter and then compiled together. Instead, if they had the time to go back and edit and make changes and insert foreshadowing for plot twists and character traits only discovered later in the writing process, then it would be a better book. Also, it would be less repetitive. You’ll find yourself reading essentially the same paragraph recap several times. Like, a lot!

“The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language”  by Mark Forsyth

A fun word history journey, flowing from one concept to the next, tracing shared origins and surprisingly not-shared origins. Some dry humor and some clunker, low-hanging fruit jokes too. Lots of interesting little tidbits. Doesn’t provide much detail for each word explored, but they’re presented in satisfying little circular word journeys. I listened to the audio, and the narrator was bland bland bland. Definitely did not add to the experience (found myself wondering if it was text-to-talk program, almost). And definitely something that needs to be read in short 20 min bursts. Need some time to absorb and then do other things. Listening for long stretches and it started to all blend together. But fun little audio companion while driving for errands or walking the dog. Full of lots of “oh, isn’t that interesting” moments.

“The Leavers” by Lisa Ko

Maybe because the Themes and Story feel so important (immigration policies, separated families, interracial adoption, family, abandonment), I found myself having a hard time writing a review. But I’ve decided I’m just here to say my thoughts. This was full of really interesting characters. And so many little memorable moments and interactions. I keep thinking about all of it, two weeks after having finished it. And I’m really so impressed with Polly as a character. She’s got so many depths and dreams and such survival and drive and she is flawed and she wants to follow her own dreams but she’s also so sad and often powerless. A total survivor. A character I’ll be thinking about for a long time. I appreciated seeing such intriguing nuance on the page. Felt very real.

“The Raven Tower” by Ann Leckie

I loved Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice” series and was excited to see her take on the fantasy genre. And I was conflicted about the experience. She continues to write stories with fascinating/unusual narrators/points of view. In this case, there’s a lot of POV from an Ancient Stone God Spirit. And our main narrator is also interesting. But while many in book club loved this, I didn’t fall in love while reading the book. I always thought it was an interesting story well told, but I wasn’t emotionally gripped. Still, I found myself thinking about these characters and this world for MONTHS after I finished it. So there’s obviously something powerful here. Thus, this makes the “honorable mentions” list.

“Ghostly Echoes” by William Ritter

Gah!!! Cliffhanger ending. Oh dear. I was thinking there seemed a lot to wrap up in the final pages. But apparently that’s because it wasn’t going to be wrapped up!!! At least the next (and final) book is already published. This Jackaby series has been fun, but not great. Following the wonderfully plucky Abigail Rook, an independent woman who went to find her own life and own adventures, against the strictures of her mother and society in the late 1800’s. And finds herself working with a quirky supernatural detective, and learning all about the supernatural beasts and magics that surround them. Full of delightful little details and hilarious asides. Snappy dialogue. Fun characters. The first two books were more stand alone detective mysteries, and not quite as strong as this one (they’re definitely 3 out of 5 stars, whereas this book was a 4 out 5). This one saw lots of threads start coming together into an over-arching evil supernatural plot. But I really had expected there to be a bit more resolution by the end. Instead we’re left with bigger (& interesting) questions. Thanks to my lovely local bookstore (Elliot Bay) for recommending I start reading these.

Favorite Books Read in 2019

Tracy,

Browse archives for February 2, 2021
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This year featured a lot more escapist fiction as personal and national and international news was rough! That said, I still read some really amazing “Literature” novels, and some of the more escapist fiction was fantastic as well. My record keeping was more sporadic. I logged about 70 books this year, but a lot of that was after the fact, scrolling through kindle and my physical bookshelves, so I know some of my read books are missing from my master list. Aw well. Now here are the best things I read this last year: 

“Circe” by Madeline Miller

Hoo boy! Favorite book of the year! The lush lyrical descriptions couple with really skilled observations of the world of the gods and mortals. Characters are fascinating and deep. So many layers. It’s so smart and so good. And watching Circe’s personal journey, from innocent nymph just begging for any scraps of attention, into bad-ass “shoot first, ask questions later” witch queen of her island, is amazing! The moment when Hermes’ jokes about how easy it is to sexually assault nymphs (“they’re so very bad at running away”), and Circe hears this clarion bell and snaps. And you start to see her gaining confidence and power, and then you can see the righteous indignation fester and grow. Really interesting stuff. Gorgeous new perspective on her story, and all the Greek myths. Plus all the bits about her famous siblings, too. I hadn’t realized she was related to so many of the other gods and myths. Her relationship with her sister was particularly interesting. Loved every page of it. The sentences are crafted beautifully. The characters unfold and grow so organically and with such sly care. It’s not stated outright, but instead you watch a person start to notice more and change their perspective, the way real people do. Realizing previous narration wasn’t always so reliable because her younger more naive self hadn’t yet had her eyes opened to the truths around her. Very effective and very powerful stuff.

“An Excess Male” by Maggie Shen King

This was really good. Fascinating near-future world. Issues of police state surveillance and overpopulation and the consequences of culture and “one child policy” in a future China, trying to deal with so many men without potential Chinese brides. (The solution being a regimented polyandry system). The details are unveiled in such an organic and clever way. There isn’t a chunky “three paragraphs of exposition” beginning. The story just unfolds, and as you’re watching these people’s lives, you start learning more and more about their world. It’s chilling, and fascinating, and compelling. I had such strange dreams while reading this. Characters are complex and intriguing. Even the basic domestic situations are engaging, and then there are some much higher stakes issues, too. Seeing the ripples and inter-connectedness as the story continues…definitely a fascinating page turner.

“Hazard” by Devon Monk

This is just plain silly fun. My sister made me read it, even though it’s ostensibly about hockey and I don’t like hockey. No regrets! It follows an aspiring hockey player who is also a wizard in a world where paranormal people (werewolves, shapeshifters, etc) are not allowed in the NHL. Funny dialogue. Fast pacing. A great way to spend a few nights.

“Hawkeye 2012-2015” by Matt Fraction and David Aja

This giant hardbound collection of this Hawkeye series is so so good. Really clever storytelling. Some innovative and totally surprising options (one entire arc is told from the dog’s point of view, another in ASL without translation, after a character has a hearing injury). Dynamic and unique illustrations. While I’m a fan of graphic novels, many of the traditional big name Superhero arcs don’t grab me (I bailed after trying several issues of the newer Batwoman, Jane Foster as Thor, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther). But this, this I really loved it. Very satisfying journey.

“Confessions of the Fox” by Jordy Rosenberg

Fantastic. Retelling of the Gentleman Jack and Bess stories. And it just presents layers of story upon story, as we meet the college professor who has found this historic manuscript and is working to define its authenticity or not. Footnotes in fiction!! Be still my beating heart. (God, it’s just my favorite thing, as it mirrors the way I think). And these footnotes get out of control, sometimes going for literal pages and telling totally different stories. Some super arch condemnations of the modern University system (the back and forth with new administration and corporate deals to maximize profits are priceless and too real and too depressing because they’re too too real). Full of tons of great history, too. Some of the footnotes are not stories and anecdotes, but instead actual footnotes, referencing scholarly works and historical texts to provide amazing context to the roles of gender and race in the England of the 1600s. Enjoyed every moment of it. So clever and emotional and with big ideas, in such a fun package.

“Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman

Rare case where I think SEEING THE MOVIE FIRST is way better. The film is so languid and beautiful and emotional. Not surprising that the novel was also gorgeous. And reading this after the film is such a joy, getting to dive deeper into this story. (I know I would not have enjoyed the novel nearly as much, if I hadn’t seen the movie first. Also then, the novel is such a treat, as it continues the story beyond the film’s ending). Also, don’t actually read the novel…instead listen to the audio book read by Armie Hammer. You can get it from your library. It’s honestly so powerful (see the link at the bottom of this paragraph). The novel is full of such longing and lovely descriptions. It’s also dripping with lustful teenage angst, and gorgeous italian countryside. The way Elio will wax rhapsodic about the site of an elbow, or a billowy shirt. Those teenage hormones! (honestly, I’d find myself scrambling to hit pause on the audiobook when my housemate would come home. Even the most tame of descriptions were so full of sexual longing that they felt super scandalous!!) Paints such vivid pictures with words. Add to that the vocal talents of Hammer and his voice/performance is amazing for this. While I do not generally find Armie Hammer attractive (although I thought he did a fantastic job in this film), his narrative performance is super powerful and affecting. His narration of the audio book is perfect! Vulture wrote this thirsty article about Hammer’s voice in the audio book, and if this won’t convince you, nothing will. https://www.vulture.com/2017/09/just-20-descriptions-of-armie-hammers-voice.html

Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer.

Start with “Cinder.” There were 4 books total, I think. Great fun and clever retelling of fairy tales, in a modern Sci Fi world. The plots are engaging, and interweave in a satisfying way across all the novels. The characters are mostly three dimensional. It’s a satisfying good guys vs bad guys fantasy arc. Not too complicated, but with enough heart and clever twists to make them very satisfying. Some very sweet moments. Super clever in the ways that different aspects of the Fairy Tale stories are represented (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Rapunzel). I don’t want to give any spoilers (they are more Easter Eggs, than spoilers) but I’d find myself realizing, after the scene, “Oh! That’s kind of like plot point X from the fairy tale story. What a fun twist/reinterpretation”)

“Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man” by Thomas Page McBee

Powerful stuff. Compelling non-fiction about a trans man training to fight in a boxing match at Madison Square Garden. But it’s about SO MUCH MORE. Honestly, I hate boxing but I loved this book. It’s uncompromising and surprising. It’s thoughtful. It asks big questions. It provides some fascinating insight into all aspects of gender in our society, and violence, and complicated relationships with family, friends, and partners. I found myself highlighting so many passages. BIG QUESTIONS are asked. Shocking revelations. Surprising and un-surprising outcomes. There’s so much humanity here, and so much ABOUT humanity here. Also, it’s a pure delight to read. The writing is crafted beautifully. These are strong lovely sentences that are also providing big ideas.

“Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland

This was great. I keep thinking that zombies are played out and I’m over them, but people continue to create new and interesting takes on the genre. In this, it is zombies during the Civil War, and the complicated social and racial dynamics during a battle against the undead. Good character development in this alternate history.

“Amal Unbound” by Aisha Saeed

This was a simple and powerful story. A spirited 12 yr old girl lives in rural Pakistan, studying poetry with dreams of University. Her life takes a sudden and terrifying turn when, out of spite, she is forced to basically become an indentured servant to the local powerful landlord family. It’s recommended for ages 10 and up, and is so smart and powerful, with lots of real world suspense for our intrepid hero.

“All the President’s Men” by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

A choice by my bookclub. I’d seen the movie and learned about this in history class, of course, but I was surprised how engaging the book was. It’s not flashy or sensationalist, and it unveils its narrative in a methodical way. But I found myself very interested and engaged throughout. Keeping track of all the names was a bit cumbersome, but still. Good reporting. And super fascinating reading this in Jan 2019. Parallels to modern events are pretty striking. Worth reading.

“The Queen of Blood” by Sarah Beth Durst

Recommended by the staff at Third Place Books. The back of the paperback has a terrible description, but I trusted the staff enough to try it. Glad I did. Fascinating world-building, with an interesting new take on worlds of magic and magical schools. Here the ever present spirits are violent, wanting nothing more than to rend and destroy humans, and it’s only through the queen’s magic (chosen from the school candidates) that their bloodlust is held at bay. Our lead is such a quiet focused child. She’s not “the chosen one” and she has to work so much harder at learning her craft. I found it very compelling and satisfying. Not as dark as some of the grittier fantasy, but with lots more darkness than I’d been expecting. Appreciated it.

“A Crown for Cold Silver” by Alex Marshall

This is some fun, fast paced, epic fantasy battle and world building. Honestly, it seems to be all battles and politics, all the time. Lots of narrators. Complex worlds and politics and plots. Really excellent characters. Truly fascinating. Such a wide variety of peoples and ideas. Dealing with the fallout and the “next” war, after the previous BIG war revolution was won 20 years before this book begins. The storytelling is very accomplished. Things unfold at a great pace, with those irritating cliffhangers at the end of the chapters and then suddenly you’re following a new character. Vengeance. Justice. The realities of battling with giant fantasy armies and the realities/fall out of what happens after (it’s ugly, it’s exhausting, it’s confusing and hard and complicated. There are no easy “happily ever afters” here). Really engrossing stuff. If you’re looking to escape on an epic fantasy for several hundred pages, this will do that for you!

“Thunderhead” by Neil Shusterman

I loved “Scythe” so was excited to read the sequel. This was very entertaining. I enjoyed the continued world building, and the multiple perspectives. The Thunderhead “thought pieces” in between each chapter were very fascinating. Good stuff. Intrigued to see where this story continues. While I appreciated the lack of hand-holding of its readers, it had been awhile since I read the first novel, and the author didn’t spend ANY time re-establishing anything, so it took me a little bit to remember/catch up. If it’s been awhile since you read Scythe, you may need to pop online to read a synopsis first.

This is How You Lose the Time War” by by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone This book was powerful and fun and surprising and lyrical. There’s mystery and danger and emotions (never before has meeting up for a cup of tea felt so clandestine and scandalous). The world building unfolds in such gorgeous and unexpected ways. This is the unlikely correspondence between two time assassins on opposite sides of an ongoing battle across space and time. There are some big ideas, and very small but so important relatable issues. Great big thoughts about timelines and multiverse. Great big thoughts about emotions and love and war. It was truly lovely. I believe everyone in book club loved this novel. Here are two raves about it:”This book has it all: treachery and love, lyricism and gritty action, existential crisis and space-opera scope, not to mention time traveling superagents. Gladstone’s and El-Mohtar’s debut collaboration is a fireworks display from two very talented storytellers.” – Madeline Miller, award-winning author of Circe. “Poetry, disguised as genre fiction. I read several sections out loud — this is prose that wants to be more than read. It wants to be heard and tasted.” – Kelly Sue DeConnick, author of Captain Marvel

————————————–Honorable Mentions———————————————–

“Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser

Read this for my book club. It was FASCINATING and so well researched and full of details. But boy is it ever LONG!! It reads along at a good pace, but when my kindle told me estimated reading time was 18 hours, I couldn’t quite believe it. Yikes! Rose Lane, her daughter, is often the worst ever (but maybe she’s more complicated than straight villain). Fascinating. Especially to see all the fictionalized ideals of this life, ignoring the fact that no matter the hardwork or “bootstrap” mentality, this type of life and farming wasn’t really possible to be successful for the vast majority of people. Total scam, romanticized and continues to be sold as this perfect ideal when it never worked in the first place. And the author has done so much research to share so many stories about the real Laura Ingalls Wilder and her complicated COMPLICATED daughter. Wild stuff. This isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoyed these books or show, then you’ll want this deep fascinating dive into the real stories of Little House on the Prairie.

“Carry On” by Rainbow Rowell

I loved “Fan Girl” by Rainbow Rowell so much. Heartaching, made me cry, fantastic stuff. Then a few years later she actually wrote the fictionalized Wizarding School books mentioned in the “Fan Girl” novel in this story, “Carry On,” which I read in 2017 and quite enjoyed. But she’s just come out with a sequel to “Carry On” and I honestly couldn’t remember much about Carry On, so I decided to re-read it before starting the sequel. Glad I did. Perfectly pleasant way to pass the time. If you enjoy the Harry Potter world, this is a fun new take. (I find it more satisfying if you’ve read Fan Girl, but this is a stand alone novel) Update from Jan 2021: I remember that I also enjoyed the sequel “Wayward Son.” It’s more complicated and doesn’t offer as clean a “happily ever after,” but really appreciated the effort to tell the “what happens next” story.

“Amberlough” by Lara Elena Donnelly

Pretty decent and interesting noir story, set in alternate world with a strong 1920’s styling. Took me a bit to get into it, because there’s a lot of politics and details/exposition initially. But once I sussed out what was going on, it’s a steadily paced runaway train to inevitable disaster. Shades of grey and complexity in all our characters. No clear heroes. No good choices to be made. A tragedy of circumstances and some of their own making. Intrigued to read more in this world.

Favorite Books in 2018

Tracy,

Browse archives for January 31, 2021
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Over 80 books this year, and most have been satisfying (helped along as I’ve been using escapist fiction as “self care,” an effective way to distract my brain. That means lots of fantasy, sci fi & authors I know I already love or continuing series, etc). It was also a year in which I discovered some new authors/series that I love to pieces (Murderbot, Behind the Throne, Chronicles of St Mary’s). 

“The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps” by Kai Ashante Wilson Gorgeous, powerful, beautiful. I read it twice in a row. (Novella length). Plays with language and culture and vocabulary and time and narrative style. Takes some focus to start reading but the rewards are immeasurable. Such flavors and world building, often revealed with the smallest of hints and descriptions, but it’s amazing. And it’s short enough that reading it twice is easy, as well as a joy and very rewarding. The first time you read it, part of your energy is spent on following the plot and non-linear story, putting things in the proper order. So the second read is pure passion, luxuriating in the words and worlds and emotions. We need more voices like this in fantasy. Amazing. Plus, FOOTNOTES IN FICTION!! Be still my beating heart. (Discovered this randomly when James McAvoy recommended it on his instagram. I was skeptical, as I’ve no clue if I agree with McAvoy’s literature tastes, but a quick search online about the book confirmed it was something I had to read). It’s so hard to describe, I think I’ll put some of the quotes about it here. “The unruly lovechild of Shakespeare, Baldwin, George RR Martin and Ghostface Killah — this was a book I could not put down.” – Daniel José Older. “Wilson is doing something both very new and very old here: he’s tossing aside the traditional forms of sword and sorcery in favor of other, older forms, and gluing it all together with a love letter to black masculinity. The result is powerful and strange and painful in all the right ways.” N.K. Jemisin. “Seamlessly knots magic and science in a wholly organic way… it will catch you by the throat and hold you fast until the last searing word.” – Alyssa Wong. “At its heart, this book is a beautiful yet brutal fairy tale about gods and monsters, loneliness and love. At 208 pages, the journey may not seem far but it will stay with you for a long time afterwards.” -Michaela Gray. “This rich, delicately crafted world is stocked with vibrant characters… and supports a powerful story told in a delightful series of wrenching moments.” –Publishers Weekly Starred Review. 


“The Lost City of the Monkey God” by Douglas J. Preston DEVOURED this book. I’m a huge fan of travel memoirs in general, and this one is one of the best. Travel memoir and a mysterious disease, too! Immediately engaging narrative voice, fascinating, great pacing (often a problem in these books), I found all of the historical background and anecdotes and data almost more interesting than the actual exploration (which never happens!). So much information and I wanted to quote/share all of it with my pals. Well done. Just, woah! 


“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin I don’t even know where to begin. If you haven’t heard of this trilogy, know this: all three books won the Hugo Award. That’s a full sweep: three years in a row of Jemisin having written the best book, and shows that each one kept getting better. First time that’s ever happened in Hugo Awards history! Intricate and extraordinary. Beautiful storytelling. Powerful characters. Fascinating worlds. Honestly, I loved her “hundred thousand kingdoms” trilogy so much, that it was such an unbelievable surprise to see an author accomplish even greater heights at world building, and at super memorable, complex, and heart-breaking characters. The reader is instantly engaged, even before you’ve entirely figured out what’s happening. Beyond wonderful. Moments that will stay in my brain forever. But also, it’s just fun to read, too! I think I’ll, once again, include some quotes from reviewers. “Astounding… Jemisin maintains a gripping voice and an emotional core that not only carries the story through its complicated setting, but sets things up for even more staggering revelations to come.”―NPR Books. “Jemisin’s graceful prose and gritty setting provide the perfect backdrop for this fascinating tale of determined characters fighting to save a doomed world.”―Publishers Weekly (Starred Review). And here’s a link to her speech accepting the third/final award for this trilogy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lFybhRxoVM 


“Tigerman” by Nick Harkaway Harkaway’s book “Angelmaker” is still one of my favorite books ever, so I was really looking forward to this. But it sat on my shelf for two years after an aborted start awhile ago. I found this one initially harder to get into. However, once I felt myself slipping into this world and writing style, I was hooked. Gorgeous descriptions. His sentences and use of words are wonderful. Truly memorable characters, who are unique and layered and fascinating. The entire concept of the novel feels so timely, and sad, but it’s also really heart-warming and inspiring, too. Nothing is too pat or easy of a solution, but it was a truly lovely book to read and world to visit. Set on a fictional island, former british colony, that is set to be destroyed/nuked out of existence by the UN (because the island’s volcano has been leaching some toxic gasses). Deals with issues of global politics and sovereignty, and environmental science, and forgotten peoples, and what happens to an island community that’s literally facing a death sentence? With the nuclear bomb timeline, most are choosing to relocate, but what happens to a community with a firm end date? How to maintain law and order and inspire hope in the time before everyone evacuates? Who uses this as an opportunity to cause harm? Which governments choose to look the other way? Who will stand up for what’s right? 


“Behind the Throne” by K.B. Wagers Loved it! Great pacing, great characters, fascinating world-building, but doesn’t bog you down in details at all. Reveals the complexities easily as the plot advances. Just great fun stuff. Reluctant leader is always a fun dynamic to explore. And this former gunrunner forced to return to try to help rule her Empire is just a wonderful narrator. I quickly consumed the entire trilogy. Entertaining and engaging stuff. Characters you care about, real stakes, great action. (warning: don’t read the 4th book yet. The first three are a complete arc. The 4th ends in a stupid cliffhanger. Argh!) 


“Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor HOW DID NONE OF YOU NOT TELL ME ABOUT THESE BOOKS?!?! Pure joy. So much fun reading about these historians using time travel to be really good at history. Great action adventure!! Hilarious situations. Funny fast dialogue, ridiculous situations, some history lessons (sort of) snuck in there. I devoured about 3 of them in a month. “The Chronicles of St Mary’s” series is wonderful. They’re just delightful. And there’s 8 or 9 books too, so lots of chances to return to this world. I’ve now read 6 of them and all have been enjoyable. 


“Locked in” by John Scalzi This was fantastic. Great world building and characters. Fascinating idea. Good pacing and good action. Fun new way to have a police procedural. And definitely has room for more explorations in this world. The sequel was also good, but I found this one a bit more compelling. Enjoyable exploring this near-future world where a disease has caused a small but significant percentage of people to be “locked in” with active minds but paralyzed bodies. Government built a complicated online world, as well as robots they can control to walk around the real world, and it’s just very interesting. Plus, it’s got a decent mystery/FBI case to solve, too. 


“Velvet” by Ed Brubaker This is great graphic novel. What if the Moneypenny secretary character is secretly the best super spy? It’s slick and sexy, the graphics are lovely, fun cold war spy stuff. And wonderful to have this noir-light spy story starring a middle aged woman. Not quite as dark/noir as Brubaker’s Criminal series, but the man’s got strong writing themes that still come through, and I found this more enjoyable (probably because it’s not quite as dark or gritty as Criminal). 


“Love Letters to Melville” by Jaime Zuckerman Gorgeous book of poems I found at the Brooklyn Poetry shop. Evocative. Powerful. Emotional. They are actually, as the title implies, a series of poems and letters addressed to Melville. Almost enough to make me want to read Moby Dick. Almost… 


“The Colossus of Maroussi” by Henry Miller Guys, this Henry Miller guy is really good at words and stuff. Ha. Honestly, the writing in this is so rich and gorgeous and sometimes playful and always descriptive and good. I read this as inspiration for my trip to Greece. Miller’s travelogue from his pre-WWII Grecian travels is wonderful. He’s such a grumpy misanthrope most of the time, but he writes beautifully and evocatively and powerfully while he’s constantly complaining about other people and heat and travel delays, etc. And when he finds something he loves (a new friend, an amazing meal, a great vista), the words just sing. But his writing is also engaging and powerful when he finds something he hates. I had this on my kindle and I feel like I highlighted 80% of it. For real, it’s gorgeous stuff. His characterizations of other people and cultures is often problematic and he is often unlikable, too. But there’s a reason this book continues in popularity and publishing. With a healthy grain of salt, it’s a really wonderful thing to read, to let his sentences slide through your mind and your soul, you can almost taste the food, smell the smells, etc. 


“All Systems Red” by Martha Wells MURDERBOT!! It’s a series of four novellas. My sister told me to read them. I hesitated, despite the awards they’d won, because of the shorter lengths. But I’m so glad I did. I love Murderbot so much! Super interesting. Very unique idea and great characters. Following an AI bot who has hacked its control module, but uses its autonomy to binge watch tv shows instead, and gets really irritated when it has to pretend to still be under control when it’s asked to do its job. And the stories progress and become more layered and nuanced. They’re fast paced and really wonderful world building. And I think they get even better and more interesting as they go along. Wonderful snark and action, too. The praise and awards are well deserved. 


“An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” by Hank Green This was great. Better than I expected and a totally different plot experience than I’d expected. Fun solving the mystery and seeing the twists/turns. Felt very current. It moves along well, very easy to read, unfolds the plot in an engaging way. And there are definitely some bigger ideas discussed (what happens when one has unexpected viral success online. How to navigate that world, how that changes your relationships and your life, and what to do about it. As well as an intriguing mystery as the central plot).

–honorable mentions and some guilty pleasure books–
“Truly Devious” by Maureen Johnson ARGH!! So frustrating. I hadn’t realized that this was the 1st in an unwritten series. And so having a mystery novel with a cliffhanger is NOT a satisfying reading experience. I like Maureen Johnson, and she writes fun believable characters and interesting situations. The narrative style swapping between the historical crime and present day is very interesting, as is the fictional school setting. So I was REALLY enjoying this. But I wish I’d known the book trilogy wasn’t complete…I’d have waited until they were all written. Next one doesn’t come out until Jan 2019. I’ll likely have forgotten all the details by then. Oh well. So instead of reading this until she’s published all three books, I’d recommend her Name of the Star series (Modern setting, Jack the Ripper’s ghost, fun stuff). Update from Jan 2021. All three books are now available. As predicted, I’ll need to re-read the first one, but I imagine it will be a satisfying mystery arc (at least, that was the case with the Name of the Star trilogy

“Mission Improper” by Bec McMaster For fun action fantasy books with the occasional steamy romance scene, set in a world with vampires and werewolves in a Steampunk version of Victorian England, I recommend this “Blueblood Conspiracy” series. The previous “London Steampunk” series set in this same world is only perfectly adequate, but not great. Those had some decent moments and plot, but they were mostly forgettable, the writing wasn’t always great, and the characters didn’t have the greatest of depth or arcs (they definitely improved as that series progressed). Also the first in that Victorian steampunk series, the hero is Cockney and she writes the accent and I just couldn’t get Eliza Doolittle’s dad out of my mind. Total turn off. I ended up deciding it was a heavy Northern accent and casting Sean Bean, which helped a bit. *laughs*). But this “Bluebood Conspiracy” spin-off series, expanding upon that same world, is much more compelling. And I don’t think you have to have read the first series to understand. Maybe I’m just a bigger sucker for the world of spies, rogues, and femme fatales, so I liked this Blueblood Conspiracy series more. I found these spy stories set in a fantasy world compelling page turners. Actually, I think the writing and character development is stronger, too. The world-building is more established. And the stories/plots are better crafted. It was a really satisfying journey through these 5 books. The titles are all terrible James Bond/Spy title spoofs that are a bit embarrassing to say out loud. But I quite enjoyed them as escapist adventures. Reminded me of Ilona Andrews “Magic Bites” series, for entertaining fast paced adventure and intrigue in a world with magic and shapeshifters. Entertaining fluff. Perfectly fun and not too complicated. Definitely what my brain needed this year. Unless you’re a completist, you don’t have to read the original London Steampunk series to read/enjoy this spin-off (Even if the Sound of Music tells us starting at the very beginning is a very good place to start. Maria is NOT the boss of you). I mean, some of those characters make cameo appearances, but these 5 books stand on their own, and should provide you with the backstory you need. (And as I found that London Steampunk series just mediocre, I fear starting there might prove a deterrent from reading this more fun series. Instead, if you find yourself loving this series, then maybe read the London Steampunk as a prequel series, afterwards).


“The Lawrence Brown Affair” by Cat Sebastien Cat Sebastien has written a series of very good historical romances. Dialogue is fun, the pacing is great, and they move along quickly. This was my favorite of the three books: having an agoraphobic inventor as a character was a novel idea. All authors writing M/M historical romance sometimes have to twist themselves a bit to allow for these stories in the historical world, and the common romance trope of having a series follow a set of relatives starts to get a bit stretched (really? All of the brothers are gay? What are the odds?). But it’s a quite fun read. 


“Magic Triumphs” by Ilona Andrews Finally ending the Kate Daniels series, and it’s a satisfying conclusion. These are fun, page turning, silly urban fantasy. Enjoyable fluff with fast dialogue and a fun fantasy world (and they definitely got better as the series progresses). 


“Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch Plot moved at a great pace, with some interesting concepts, and kept the pages turning. It has neither the depth of character nor craft of writing to become a classic, but like other “page turning, fun to read one time” popular thrillers (like Gone Girl) it’s definitely an engaging summer read. 


“Diplomatic Immunity” by Lois McMaster Bujold The Vorkosigan series continues to be a great reliable “go to” when I need something with clever dialogue, fast paced, with characters I love. And they’ve been around long enough, finding the next one at a used bookstore is pretty easy. I’m approaching the end of them, so am more slowly pacing myself, as I don’t want Miles’ adventures to end. 


“Magic’s Pawn” by Mercedes Lackey Oh man, I was obsessed with these books in junior high. It was great fun to re-visit (Our book club challenged everyone to re-read a beloved book from their childhood and see how it’s changed). They held up way better than I’d expected. Still great fun and good characters and world building. I mean, they’re not amazing and some of the ideas feel outdated, but it was still a decent fun world to revisit and a nice way to pass the time/block out the ugly in the real world. Tragically sad romantic lead plus you get a magical telepathic horse as your best friend/companion?!? *Insert sound of my 13 year old self swooning*

Favorite Books Read in 2017

Tracy,

Browse archives for January 28, 2021
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This was a year in which I re-read some treasured books of yesteryear, along with reading new stuff. I haven’t done much re-reading in the last 10 years, mostly because I can be overwhelmed by the vast amount of amazing books waiting to be read. But it was such a joy to return to beloved stories, a real balm to the soul, offering new delights and wonders. Of the 60 books I read this year, here are my favorites: 


The Thief” series by Megan Whalen Turner I just realized a 5th book in this series came out (“Thick as Thieves”), so I read that, and then found myself re-reading the entire series, which was such a joy. Her phrasing is economical and tight; she’s never stingy with an adjective but neither is she superfluous. Pacing is steady and then pages turn very quickly. Plot is revealed in new and exciting ways. Great surprises and twists and turns, with adventure and humor and heart.The books stand alone, but are so much richer if you have read the previous books, giving you a more fleshed out world and characters. Fictional historical setting, following small kingdoms in ancient Greece-like islands (although with some shades of the Byzantine Empire), these are a true joy to read. I became so emotionally invested in these characters and their world. There’s a new narrator each book, and it’s masterfully done. These can appear simple on the surface, but they are so well-crafted. A true joy as surprises are revealed.


The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas Might be my favorite book of the year. Our narrator Starr has such a clear voice as she tries to navigate the world, code-switching between her mostly white private school and her neighborhood, sharing her funny observations and joys and her confusion and pain and uncertainty, too. This book made me cry often, my heart aching for these complex true people and situations that don’t offer an easy solution. But Starr has an amazing support network and grows into herself and her voice. It’s powerful and beautiful and heart-rending and thought-provoking and enjoyable and something everyone should read. Everyone. (Also, I didn’t know anything about the plot when I grabbed this book to bring with me to jury duty. So then I was the weird quietly crying lady in the corner. Awkward) 


Not a Hazardous Sport” by Nigel Barley Found this when I was looking for travel memoirs related to Bali and Indonesia. I do so love a travel memoir, and reading about a place I’m about to travel to is wonderful. I found this to be a pretty entertaining read. I was a bit nervous about it’s age, as the field of anthropology 30 or 40 years ago wasn’t as culturally sensitive as one could hope, and so reading older anthropology memoirs can sometimes be awful. But this was actually okay, and there were only a few moments that had me raising my eyebrow or cringing. Funny narrative tone. Good stories. Memorable characters and the narrator often acknowledges himself as the butt of the joke, rather than mocking the “other-ness” of the folks he meets. 


How to be Both” by Ali Smith This was wonderful. It’s told in two parts, one narrated by the ghost of a real Renaissance painter, and one narrated by a young modern teenager. In a whimsical (and effective) author/publisher choice, the book is printed in TWO different versions. In half the versions, the girl’s story is told first. In the other half, the painter’s story is told first. And I love that people seem to have a fondness/loyalty to whichever order their version was. Mine was Painter first, then Girl. Although I can see that it’s probably a slightly easier read with Girl first. At least, you have to pay more attention with Painter version if you don’t know the Girl backstory yet (the Painter narrative, being told by a ghost observing the girl and remembering their own life, is told with moments of confusion and floating timeline). But I loved it in this version. And I think having to pay attention can be a powerful important thing in a book and leads to a much more rewarding experience. And I personally didn’t find it hard to follow. But reading reviews online, some folks had a harder time with painter first. So I guess, if your novel is published that way and you’re worried about it, you could easily read the 2nd half first. Beautiful and fun and intriguing use of words and language. Evocative descriptions. Characters that are true and engender lots of emotional response in the reader. Funny and sad and lovely. Great stuff. Interesting discussions of art and gender and life and loss and love. Big themes, told in gorgeous prose and with sometimes sparing details. Powerful small moments. Truly wonderful. 


The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by NK Jemisin Devoured this book in a day. It was such an engaging and fun read, full of lovely writing but with a very easy flow. Fascinating fantasy world-building. Great characters. I haven’t spent an entire day focused on reading one book in awhile. It was kind of the best Saturday ever. I’d have to take some breaks to walk the dog and stretch my body, but so good. Immersive fantasy world with an intriguing history and culture and religions. Very good stuff. 


The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi Soooo good! Characters and descriptions are powerful and interesting and it’s solidly great. A very believable near-future. Clean drinking water is becoming scarce and this near-future US is struggling, with water-refugees from desert states (like Texas and Arizona) roaming the country, seeking survival. And tall tales about the mossy rain-soaked pacific northwest are shared in shantytowns across the southwest. Chilling at moments. But very exciting and fast-paced plots. Enforcers and gang lords and corporate overlords (Warlords?) and the small regular people trying to survive. Plucky journalist and damaged people meet in unexpected ways. Some ridiculous OVER THE TOP action hero tropes (in that folks are surviving/enduring pretty intense injuries) but it’s great stuff. Very entertaining action story with some interesting themes and ideas. I’ve liked all of Bacigalupi’s works I’ve read, and found this to be a more approachable/easier read than “The Windup Girl” and so totally different from the also excellent “Ship breaker.” 


Landline” and “Carry On” by Rainbow Rowell Oh, Rainbow Rowell continues to write compelling evocative characters with very real emotions and geniune-sounding dialogue that tugs on my heart strings. “Landline” is a rare NOT young adult novel from her, and it’s very very good. A couple struggling with their marriage and their lives, asking if love is “enough”? Can they find a way to stay together? What are the ramifications for their young girls if they divorce? It plays with the timeline in unexpected ways and was really great. It doesn’t offer any easy answers, keeping the story real and powerful, and unveiling some moving truths of life and career and family. “Carry On” was born out of “Fan Girl” (an earlier Rainbow Rowell novel, and probably my favorite of hers. Well, maybe I love “Eleanor and Park” more. Maybe they’re tied in my affections). The narrator of “Fan Girl” writes fan fiction about the Simon Snow books (a fantasy world, much like Harry Potter, that the author created for Fan Girl). And in “Carry On,” Ms Rowell WRITES those actual Simon Snow stories. It’s kind of meta in its creation/existence, but it totally works and is a supremely satisfying ‘boy wizard’ story on its own. While “Carry On” could be read as a stand alone fantasy story, I think it’s MUCH better/richer if you’ve read “Fan Girl” first. For real. Do it! (Also because Fan Girl is a really amazing story, with a narrator dealing with family and her fears of mental illness and being broken and finding her way through college and she spoke to my heart) 


Parable of the Talents” by Octavia Butler Hot off the presses!! (sarcasm because everyone knows this) Octavia Butler is an amazing author!! One of the best ever. There’s a reason her name is mentioned so often and with such reverence. I read “Parable of the Sower” a few years ago and loved it very much. But this sequel is EVEN BETTER. Read it on my kindle and found myself highlighting almost every single paragraph. It’s gorgeous. It’s powerful. Evocative language and heart-rending situations. Complex characters. The discussions of religion are so prescient and moving. And it is fricking TERRIFYING how much this story of post-apocalyptic United States, published in 1998, mimics the USA in 2017. Shockingly upsettingly prescient. Holy crap!! Bone-chilling. But perhaps there is some hope in the teachings of Earthseed. EVERYONE MUST READ THIS (but read Parable of the Sower first). 


Frog” by Mo Yan This was one of our book club choices. And I wavered on whether to include it in this list, as it was hard for me to become fully engaged (partly my lack of knowledge about this history of China and the many cultural references, partly writing style or translation?). The dispassionate telling of traumatic events seems intentional (whether character choices or different cultural approach, I’m not sure) but my very “Western” brain took awhile to submerge myself into the story. And yet, it’s full of some really memorable characters and moments, and it’s a fascinating story. I find myself thinking of it often, and I’m glad to have read it. Definitely a distinct narrative voice and a viewpoint I often don’t read about. 


Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too” by Jomny Sun This is a weirdly perfect little book. It’s quirky and sweet and sad and hilarious and full of touching little cartoons and misspellings. More graphic novel in presentation. But strangely powerful and the images and ideas have lingered in my consciousness. 


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot The story is even more fascinating than you’ve heard. Skloot describes these people with compassion and humanity, pointing out her own flaws and uncertainty and her role in this story, and her struggles with how to report this story without furthering the exploitation of this family. In a less deft hand this could’ve been really rough reading. The subject matter is upsetting enough, thank you very much. Compelling non-fiction, offering some great scientific information and history, and showing all of the questions for which we are still seeking answers. Questions of ownership and autonomy and medical research and greater good vs financial remuneration and how murky these waters quickly become when billions of dollars are on the line. 


Ancillary Sword” & “Ancillary Mercy” by Ann Leckie I loved this book and series. Characters are amazing. Themes are strong and presented in organic and surprising ways. Space Opera is where my love of Sci Fi really shines! This series is not really about tech/robots (thank goodness), but cultures and politics. Fascinating characters and unique narrators and big ideas, and so many evocative powerful small details. It’s a joy watching this story unfold. Surprising and fun! Agitating and sometimes challenging with questions of identity and gender and social strata and community, but it’s such great fun and a relatively easy read. Plus most of the action takes place on worlds (not on space ships!) And so much tea drinking *laughs * The cultures created, the social groups and strata are fantastically real and complex. World building and character building at its finest. 


Beat the Reaper” and “Wild Thing” by Josh Bazell Hot damn, “Beat the Reaper” is a fun wild ride!! I first read it years ago, and remember saying “Oh my god” multiple times, out loud to myself, in the final scenes. Plus I’m such a sucker for footnotes in fiction!! And the sarcastic narrative voice is so great. Mobster thriller in the world of medicine, it’s just a great way to spend a few nights. I re-read this because my bookclub had us read “Wild Thing” (which continues the story). “Wild Thing” was also fun (it not only has footnotes in fiction but also has about 25 pages of end notes, too!!!). Although I think “Beat the Reaper” 10/10 and “Wild Thing” is 7/10. 


Scalped” by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera Gritty and evocative and fascinating graphic novel series. Almost noir, following crime and undercover investigators and complex relationships on and off the a fictional Reservation in South Dakota. It’s not easy and it’s very violent and ugly at times. But Jason Aaron writes complex characters, all with baggage and damage, but all maintain their humanity (even those often written-off by society, whether because of addiction or past choices, etc). R. M. Guéra illustrations are dynamic and powerful and unsettling. Issue #6 or #7 was my absolute favorite, as it was all short stories and vignettes, sharing character backstory and folklore. Lovely rich textures. I cared more for the setting and world than for the plot, if I’m honest. 


Vorkosigan series Lois McMaster Bujold In a year this chaotic with such voices screeching their hate at top volume, my heart and soul can get overwhelmed. And Lois McMaster Bujold is such a powerful “port in the storm.” I’m still making my way through the Vorkosigan series. I pick up missing books at used bookstores over the years, and I parse them out, like good medicine, as needed. I read three more this year. The story of Miles Vorkosigan and his world continues to be wonderful and complex and page-turning fun, full of plot and politics and high adventure. But several of the stories were small in scale and scope this time, yet none the less powerful or meaningful. It’s so worth reading all of these. (Her Curse of Chalion books, which are more fantasy-based, are also wonderful). These books are balms, ways to stay up way too late reading and caring and feeling and occasionally crying for these characters, with lots of laughter and smiles and gasps, too. 


Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly This story and history is really interesting and Shetterly has done the world a great service in all of her massive research and interviews and compilation of a rarely told story. That said, the reading experience isn’t super engaging. It feels like a series of facts and events, but there’s no strong cohesive through line. I feel like you could read the chapters/sections completely out of order and be almost totally fine. She obviously had so much history and she wanted to share so much (and as it’s available nowhere else, that’s a good instinct!!). I don’t know if it needed a stronger editor or something, but I found reading it to feel like homework sometimes. And also, I could pick up and put it down without feeling like I’d lost anything. At times there is extensive technical discussions (which are necessary in order to explain the roles being performed at NASA) and at other times I felt like important details were left out. Still, I learned a lot and I’m glad I read it. But, unlike most book/movie combinations, I was actually really glad I’d seen the movie first. It was fascinating to see all the changes the film made to make a better narrative story, but also, having some emotional connection to these women from the film, it helped insert some heart into the reading of this. 


Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett It was very pleasant to re-visit this book. It’s very fun, full of word play and silliness; the quirky characters and wordplay for which both of these authors are known. It’s not perfect and I’m not sure it’s worthy of the evangelism some bestow upon it, but it’s a very fun story.

Favorite Books Read in 2016

Tracy,

Browse archives for January 26, 2021
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This was a really great year, finding myself wanting to list over half of the 66 books I read this year. But I’ll try to keep it manageable and just list the best of the best.

The Wake” by Paul Kingsnorth. Author has created his own language based upon Old English, but with changes to make it more intelligible to modern readers, in this story of 1066 England. It takes a bit of effort to get started. Basically, you have to give it your full attention and focus on it for the first 30 pages or so, until your brain gets into the rhythm of it. I also found that reading aloud was very helpful. It was SO MUCH FUN! The language is amazing. There is such personality and character and absolutely immerses you in this world. The language is visceral and immediate (with a much smaller vocabulary and with adjectives of the world of 1066. Things are fire and meat and ash and tangible. The language flavors and builds the world it’s describing. Our narrator is delightfully misanthropic and arrogant and a huge hypocrite and kind of a terrible person, but there’s a part of him that’s endearing, and even when he’s being awful (most of the time), I still very much enjoyed reading it. Just…wow. BE SURE TO READ the partial glossary in the back, and the note on language because it has some crucial pronunciation guides (how “c” is always a hard “k” sound and how “g” can be a hard g, or like “y” at the end of “day.”) 

Station Eleven” by Emily St John Mandel This was lovely post-apocalyptic tale of a traveling theatre troupe. Storytelling unfolded in compelling way, with a nice structure moving between times and settings and characters, adding layers and revealing deeper meaning. And a more beautiful hopeful bent than lots of post-apocalyptic stories. I mean, it’s still a major bummer, but our inner humanity shines through in moments. And I loved the role that theatre and music play, as integral to the human experience and to our rebuilding of society. 

Shrill” by Lind West So good. Funny, moving, real, important, powerful, made me laugh a lot, made me cry occasionally. Amazing collection of memoirs, stories, personal essays. Whether you’re already familiar with Ms. West’s writings or not, this is a really wonderful read.

The Only Kayak: A Journey into the Heart of Alaska” by Kim Heacox Jaw-droppingly beautiful writing. The prose is powerful and clear and gorgeous and I was reading it on kindle and found myself highlighting whole pages, just line after line of beauty. And it tells a really wonderful story about a man’s connection to place. How much he loves Glacier Bay is obvious, and I found myself longing for this land as well. His retelling of history and factoids is engaging, the writing is always inviting. Thank you to my book club for making me read this. Wonderful! 

Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie I forgot how much I love the “Space Opera” subgenre of sci-fi. While heavy descriptions of robots and tech and spaceships leave me bored, I LOVE political intrigue and the anthropological discovering of different worlds/cultures and societies. This was fantastic. A VERY unique narrative voice, as our narrator was once part of a hive-mind ship (stay with me, now) and so approaches things and thinks in ways colored by that multi-consciousness history. It’s really fascinating. Also, her native langue and culture had no concept of gender, so everyone in the book is referred to as she/her. And you watch our narrator really struggle with mis-gendering people and their varying degrees of annoyance/hostility. It was unique way to experience this world and very effective. Great storytelling, too, as narration jumps between timelines and plot is revealed in fun ways. Author is good at providing small details that provide a strong response. (1st in a series of three books. I’ve heard the 2nd/3rd are really more like one long sequel). I made my book club read this and almost everyone enjoyed it (even the person who doesn’t like sci fi novels at all, she found moments to love). (Update from Jan 2021. The 2nd/3rd books are also fantastic, but best to read them together/back to back. The story continues to be revealed in surprising ways. Clever, smart, great fun).

The Last One” by Alexandra Oliva Thank you, Queen Anne Bookstore, for the recommendation. I do love a dystopian survival novel. A “Survivor” style reality TV show is filming when some type of a world-ending event takes place, but our contestants believe what they’re seeing is all part of the show. Provocative and sophisticated, makes you think about the role of media in determining our perception of reality and how easily the human mind is manipulated. Really fresh take on one of my favorite genres.

The Bookseller” by Mark Pryor Mystery novel. Fast paced. Narrator is retired FBI, current security at US embassy in Paris. Investigating disappearance of a friend, one of the booksellers along the Seine. Just a fun, solid mystery novel. 

Stilleto” by Daniel O’Malley Sequel to “Rook,” And I loved it even more than the first. Switching between multiple narrators was lovely and we met so many great new characters and learned so much more about this world. Dealing with the Grafters was great. Also, it is LONG! But never felt long to read. Still, 600 pages!! This was wonderful and so much fun. Funny and fast paced, interesting world building, in a secret government agency tasked with controlling magic in modern Britain (with a modern populace who doesn’t know magic exists). 

The Golem and the Jinni” by Helen Wecke Not what I expected, in a good way. It was a book club choice. I’d expected more traditional fluff and fantasy. Instead it’s a lovely layered historical epic with tiny bits of magic that feel very grounded and real. The characterizations are rich and beautiful and flawed and very real, again. It’s also LONG! It never felt slow while reading it but it did take me much longer to finish than books generally do for me. But it’s a wonderfully evocative travel through different immigrant communities in turn-of-the-century New York City. Worth reading. Characters that stay with you. 


“Scalped” by Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera Graphic novel series. It’s gritty and violent and dark, a crime/western series. It’s sometimes darker than my heart/soul wants to read, but at other times, it’s perfect. And #6 in the collected books is truly amazing compilation of powerful short stories, beautifully illustrated (Even when the stories told are full of murder and sadness and drugs and corruption and never-ending poverty and despair). 

Bitter Angels” by C.L. Anderson Thanks to Elliot Bay Bookstore for reminding me that I do sometimes enjoy sci fi stories. It’s a stand alone story. Great world building. Lots of politics and things to uncover. Double crossing and government secrets and a murder mystery, too. The writing is very good, too, in a world that’s often gritty with believably flawed characters. And fun to have an older female lead, retired from service with three adult children, re-enlisting to investigate a colleague’s murder. Implications of what happens to humanity when our life spans are increased to several centuries, too. 

Sorcerer to the Crown” by Zen Cho Soooo good. 1800’s London, there is a royal thaumaturgy society in a world that has some magic. Fascinating characters, plot is revealed in interesting ways. Made me smile and laugh often. Just a really great novel with some fantasy elements. (Update from Jan 2021. My bookclub had us read this in Sept 2020. I’d retained almost none of the plot, so it was fun to discover this world all over again)

The Gospel of Loki” by Joanne Harris So, the woman who wrote “Chocolat” now writes this first-person narrative about the rise and fall of Loki. It’s entertaining, Our narrator is as irreverent as you’d expect from the Trickster God as he tries to set the record straight about all of his activities in Norse mythology. Turns out I don’t actually know very many details of the Norse myths, but this sure filled in a lot of those gaps in my knowledge. Wasn’t as 100% wonderful as I hoped it would be…after awhile it begins to feel one-note/repetitive. Still, it was entertaining.

Favorite Books Read in 2015

Tracy,

Browse archives for January 25, 2021
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Shoot. Forgot to compile my list in January. Let’s see how much I remember about my favorite reads of 2015:


“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz This is a gorgeous gorgeous book. The economy of phrasing makes it all the more impressive how profound and big these ideas are, presented in such heart-aching simplicity. It’s truly great. It’s perfect. The language is so gorgeous and precise and sparing and the perfect words are chosen. Your heart will ache. Your mind will be engaged. It’s just lovely. I read it twice in one month (it’s a quick read). And I’ve just learned Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) narrates the audio book, so I’m considering giving that a listen.
“Lafayette in These Somewhat United States” by Sarah Vowell Vowell’s books are always entertaining and informative. The timing of this one with the Hamilton musical phenomenon is probably a huge blessing for her sales. It’s a great look back at this influential french revolutionary, during the American Revolution, and his triumphant trip to the US 30 years after the revolution, representing one of the only things our country could agree upon.
“Kindred” by Octavia Butler Oof. This is a very good and sometimes challenging novel (not challenging to read, but in the ideas presented). A pal recommended it, and somehow I got the wrong impression (I knew time travel of a modern black woman back in history, so I knew things would be tough) but hadn’t known Dana was powerless over her time traveling in these situations. The relationships (especially between her and Rufus) are fascinating and fully realized. It’s a page-turner and really really good. Also, how had I never read any Octavia Butler before now?!? Glad that was rectified.
“The Thief” by Megan Whalen Turner This series is great. Narrative voice is clear and intriguing and the writing style is slightly different and captivating. Unexpected turns, very economical writing voice. Well done. Fully-fleshed, interesting, unique characters. Later in the series you get into some lovely complex political intrigues and wars and treaties and strategy.
“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley Great fun. Action with fantasy elements. Modern britain. Our protagonist has amnesia and is finding notes she left herself. Also, surprise, she works in a secret part of the British government that deals with supernatural creatures. And there’s danger and spies and someone is out to get her.
“Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradberry This was gorgeous and just about perfect. Lovely little vignettes. Powerful images. Truly capturing the zeitgeist of this 12 year old boy’s summer in 1928. Definitely has a poet’s soul. Found myself underlining on almost every page. Beautiful.
“Bitch Planet” by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro This graphic novel series is EVERYTHING! It’s powerful and clever and rings so true. While normally I prefer to read graphic novels once they’re collected in the larger volumes, for this one it’s best to read them individually. Each issue includes a wonderful essay at the end as well as some wonderful letters. And that material has been left out of the collected volume due to publishing costs. Which is a shame and really diminishes the power of this world building, by removing the essays that directly discuss the parallels between this world and our real world right now, today. If I were a person who got tattoos, I’d 100% have a “Non Compliant” tattoo already. Keep up the great and important work, ladies!!
“Fan Girl” by Rainbow Rowell This was perfect. Funny, engaging, great characterization and clever descriptions. Good world building. Felt very real. And halfway through it made me cry so hard i gave myself a headache. But it was so so great. It’s just life and relationships and your passions and going to college and family problems, and it was beautiful and captivating and felt so true. My heart was very invested.
“Them: Adventures with Extremists” by Jon Ronston An entertaining, sometimes upsetting, sometimes informative collection of interviews and experiences had by British humorist John Ronston, conspiracy theories, the KKK, Ruby Ridge survivors, Jihad training camps, and Bohemian Grove. Ronston feels fair in his reporting, showing humanity and presenting events for the reader.
“The Name of the Star” by Maureen Johnson Really good. I’ve always loved Maureen Johnson as a person on social media and videos, but most of her books have never struck a great chord with me. My junior high aged niece loves them but I always thought most of them were just fine. (Although “Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes” is the perfect YA)
But this, this I quite liked. There was the perfect amount of spooky menace combined with some charming anecdotes. Good story. Interesting concept. American transfer student in modern London. Jack the Ripper style murders are happening. Is Jack’s ghost back? There’s a series of 3, and they’re all good, but I found this first book to be the strongest. And this one can be “stand alone.” The second book ends on a cliff hanger.
“Thirty-Three Teeth” by Colin Cotterill Fun and unique, following 72 yr old doctor in Laos, forced into being the National Coroner by Communist Party leaders in the late 1970’s. Investigating series of strange deaths and animal attacks. Quirky and fresh, with some great humor, too.
“Saga” by Fiona Staples & Brian K. Vaughan This graphic novel series is gorgeous drawings and a great story. Very imaginative, with Vaughan’s characteristic smart writing.
“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl It was good to revisit this book after first reading it in high school. Still very affecting and important, and Frankl’s often dispassionate narrative style is more powerful than an emotion-choked retelling would be. Big ideas. True horrors of the holocaust. And powerful important discussions about meaning-making as a human when there can be this much suffering around us.
“Dust” by Hugh Howey Satisfying conclusion to the “Wool” trilogy. I love Howey’s world building and character development.

Favorite Books Read in 2014

Tracy,

Browse archives for January 23, 2021
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2014 was a great reading year for me. Almost all of my 77 books this year were decent or better, so picking my favorites proved a harder task, as there were so many great reads. What a lovely “problem” to have. (Also, the 15 graphic novels this year really helped my book count *smile*) Here you go:

The Martian” by Andy Weir: One of my favorites of the year, and it was a good year for me. I laughed aloud often. The tone and sarcasm of the main character’s narration felt just like my best pals. And it’s a harrowing story, as well, that does a good job of not getting too bogged down in the tech of staying alive when stranded on Mars. I devoured it. Very fast-paced read. Truly wonderful. Not sure it will stand up to repeat readings, but for one time through, it was a great adventure.

The Girl with All the Gifts” by M. R. Carey: Fun new take on the apocalyptic zombie story. Nicely written with good pacing. Good adventure, fascinating scientific look at the mechanism of zombieism within this world, and some interesting character studies, with some decent creepy/horror elements, but not too overtly “horror.”

West with the Night” by Beryl Markham. I’m a travel memoir junkie, and this always tops the lists of the best. Finally read it. Gorgeous. Powerful. Clean, crisp writing. Great adventure. Great stories. Here is what Ernest Hemingway had to say: “…She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true…I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.”

Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein: recommended by Seattle’s famous librarian Nancy Pearl. It’s a lovely inspired-by-true-events story about plucky young british women in WWII. Spy stuff. Female pilots in early aviation. Very clever story-telling device, as our plot is revealed through interrogations of a captured fighter. Smart. Fun. Easy to read. (the plot and characters are entirely fictional. But it’s inspired by the roles of women in aviation and spy craft during WWII)

The Guards” by Ken Bruen: Gritty Irish police novel. Lots of ambiance. Decent mystery. Unique formatting and interesting authorial choices in setting up new chapters means that there are lots of half-pages, so it’s even shorter than it looks. You’ll finish it in a few hours. So maybe search out a used copy, as the dollars to time spent reading ratio isn’t great. But Bruen has a really great voice and this was a solid and quick read.

Locke & Key series by Joe Hill. Really enjoyable spooky graphic novel series. Not so much blood and guts horror, but lots of good creepy ambience. Family moves to ancestral home after their dad is murdered. They start finding magical keys, each with a different property. Kids vs Demons. I found the illustrations gorgeous and rich. There are six books total, and they tell a complete story.

Hild” by Nicola Griffith: Oh, how I do love historical epics. Gorgeous full story inspired by the seventh-century woman in ancient england who would come to be revered as Saint Hilda, who worked as the Seer to one of the kings. One reviewer said it was as “immersive as a river in rain. Her prose is so startlingly beautiful that reading description never feels like work — which is no mean feat, considering that many of her descriptions are about the running of medieval households.” It’s lovely and complex and well researched with taut/complex political maneuvers and clever and wonderful.

Romancing the Duke” by Tessa Dare: I am not genereally a fan of the romance genre. I find so much of it to be sex-negative with some worrisome consent issues, as well as formulaic drivel. But a pal recommended this to me, and I’m glad I trusted her. It was an adorable and fun little romp. While the plot might still be formulaic, the characterization and some of the backstory is refreshingly unique. Our heroine is entertaining and spunky, and the writing is vibrant and has some decent jokes, too (maybe not “laugh out loud” moments, but quirky smiles, at least).

The Criminal series, by Ed Brubaker: Fantastic graphic novel series. Very Noir. Lovely dark atmosphere and brutal stories. Also great that each of the six stories stands alone. Read together, they’re interconnecting, as they’re in the same town and sometimes ancillary characters appear in other volumes. But I appreciate that they are each their own story. Good stuff.

The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown. Mr Brown was the keynote speaker at the fundraiser dinner for UW libraries this year. He’s engaging and well-spoken, but I still was reluctant, as non-fiction isn’t my favorite, and I just do not care about rowing. Like, if I was going to care about this sport, I’ve had ample opportunity over the years. One of my college roomies was on the UW rowing team, and when she and the other women were competing, even, I was excited for her personally, but still didn’t really care much about the sport (honestly, all the “racing” sports aren’t my thing). But I’m SO GLAD I finally read it. There is so much early Seattle and Washington state history about which I was totally ignorant. This is a well-crafted novel, providing great characterization and engaging writing style. I rarely felt bored, and found myself caring about the outcomes of races from 80 years ago, even though I KNEW the ending already. I am still filled with so much rage/hurt towards Joe’s parents. ARGH! So yeah, I was engaged early and my attention was held. Well done (although sometimes it felt a narrative stretch to interconnect the boys’ stories with Germany’s preparations of the Munich games. Still, it was always interesting information told in a mostly engaging way).

Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck: Not sure how I hadn’t read this until now (as I’m a travel memoir junkie, and Steinbeck ain’t too shabby a writer). It’s lovely and sweet and funnier than I expected, and not as horribly dated (ie. racist or sexist) as I’d feared. It’s a short little book following his cross-country road trip with his giant poodle.

The Last Policeman” by Ben Winters: Great. Fascinating idea, following a newly promoted detective in modern times. Unfortunately Earth will be struck by an asteroid in 6 months time and there are NO viable plans to avoid the catastrophic end of humanity. This isn’t about avoiding the end of the world. It’s about how to keep living when we know the termination date. How does modern society continue and how does it break down with six months left to live? And who stops doing their jobs well, etc. We follow this detective as he tries to investigate a murder in a world that is, mostly, giving up. Very interesting concept and an easy read.

An Imperfect Offering” by James Orbinski: Oof. Amazing non-fiction by the former leader of Doctors Without Borders. Sometimes this book will make your soul ache, as there is so much ugly in the world and the Doctors without Borders folks are in the very heart of it all. But it’s so important. And so well-written. And uplifting at times, showing humanity struggling against the ugly. Also eye-opening (to me) to learn the roles of the many local people actively involved in working at a Doctors without Borders camp, who often face much greater personal risk than the foreign nationals. And it offers actionable suggestions and offers some hope and ways to continue and strive for a better world. Vital. Powerful. True.

Wool” by Hugh Howey: Tightly written post-apoclyptic story of humanity surviving post-nuclear world in an underground silo. Great world-building. Really really well done. Interesting characters. Good page-turning plot. There are two more books in the series. But this can also be read as a stand-alone. (I still haven’t read the 3rd book yet. The 2nd is a very accomplished and satisfying prequel). Update from Jan 2021. I read the 3rd book a few months later was was also quite satisfied with it.

Under the Skin” by Michel Faber. Delightfully weird story. Atmospheric. Unsettling. Strange. I happened to read this months before I heard it was being made into a film. Still haven’t seen the film. Recommended reading, but it’s a weird little thing. I suggest NOT reading ANYTHING about the plot, because the story slowly being revealed is part of the joy of reading this.

The Vorkosigan saga by Lois McMaster Bujold .This author is such a joy, and a used bookstore purchase reminded me of that. (I loved her “Curse of the Challion” fantasty series a decade ago, and then read a few of her more famous sci-fi Vorkosigan series back then). These are STAND ALONE stories (bless you, Ms Bujold) with fast pacing and sarcasm and plot twists and they’re just satisfying pulpy fun. There are over 15 of them total. While it’s recommended to read in internal chronological order (not the same as published order) it really doesn’t matter. (Clearly, as they’re written as stand alones, they show up in different periods of Miles Vorkosigan’s life. So if you see one at a used bookstore, pick it up. They’re fun. She’s won a TON of Hugo and Nebula and other awards and you’ll see why. Smart and fun and fast-paced. Speaking as someone who is often bored by the technology part of sci-fi, these are tight, character driven, often fun political manuevers involved in the battle scenes. Good humor, too. Starting with Cordelia’s Honor is a nice beginning point, or begin with The Warrior’s Apprentice or The Vor Game (by itself or re-published in the compendium Young Miles).

I re-read Scott Lynch’s “Lies of Locke Lamora” and “Red Seas Under Red Skies” to remind myself of what happened before I tackle the 3rd in the series that was just released. This is some of my favorite world-building fantasy series. Great humor. Great characters. Think Ocean’s Eleven style heists in classic medieval fantasy realm. It starts out all fun and then the stakes get REAL and there’s still half the book left. Page turning with memorable characters and unexpected events.

I also re-read the Harry Potter series. Hadn’t done that since their original publications. They hold up well. The first two are pretty generic and not that great, but as JK Rowling progressed, they become really wonderful. Re-reading #6 was a particular joy, as I’d forgotten how much of the complex story was left out of the film.

Savages” by Joe Kane. I was reading Ecuador-related works in the months leading up to my travels. This is an engaging account of a journalist’s experiences with an indigenous Ecuadorian group trying to prevent oil companies from drilling on their land in the Amazonian rain forest. World politics, and different cultures, and economics, and the environment, and all the other complicated interests involved in this fight. (Further complicated when a community doesn’t share western ideas of ownership and contracts).

Favorite books read in 2013

Tracy,

Browse archives for January 22, 2021
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Favorite books read in 2013

Here goes, the best things I read out of last year’s 76 books.

The Eyre Affair” “Lost in a Good Book” “The Well of Lost Plots” by Jasper Fforde: 

Hands down favorite discovery of 2013. Delightful, whipcrack smart, very funny, clever, and some decent adventures, too. Literature cops, pet dodos, time travel, and alternate history hijinx. If you love literature and/or adventure, don’t miss the Thursday Next series. I can’t believe someone didn’t tell me about these before now. Glad to have finally found them.

Angelmaker” by Nick Harkaway:

highly recommended. Maybe tied for absolute favorite with the Jasper Fforde series above. Best stand-along novel, for sure. Craziness, but in such a good way. It’s smart, full of adventure, great layering and storytelling, full of memorable scenes and characters. The Guardian called it a “fantasy-gangster-espionage-romance novel.” Honestly, the less known going in, the better. Ostensibly following the life of a British clockmaker whose father was a notorious gangster in the 70’s. But really, the plot is so much more, and also a framework to hang these delicious sentences and events upon. Grand in scale but never slow/hard to read. Adventure!

Shipbreaker” by Paolo Bacigalupi:

I LOVED Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl” so thought I’d see what he did with the young adult genre, instead. It’s powerful, concise, engaging storytelling. And I loves me some dystopian future novels.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home” by Carol Rifka Brunt:

flipping gorgeous. Achingly true portrait of sisters, coming-of-age, love, the early days of AIDS, life. Truly worth reading. And it’s a very easy read, too. Never weighty or self-important, the novel’s truths are revealed clearly and beautifully.

The Raw Shark Texts” by Steven Hall:

Oof! What a ride. This novel is crazy, in a good way. It’s intense and sometimes will break your brain, but so worth it. Crazy-smart and sometimes just crazy, it’s an intellectual thriller.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman:

lovely. Haunting. Gaiman’s typically great wordplay. Not as much fantasy as several of his works, but that really appealed to me right now.

Stiff: The Curious lives of human cadavers” by Mary Roach:

Roach writes great pop-science. Fascinating, engaging, funny, and learning!

Protector of the Small” series by Tamora Pierce:

Pierce is still the queen of young adult fantasy. Fun to discover there was another series set in the world established in the Alanna books (which had been a favorite when I was in junior high).

The Language of Flowers” by Vaness Diffenbaugh:

great novel, framing the protagonists experiences (often with the harshness/ugly of the world, bouncing between foster homes and then trying to be an adult) with her love of flowers and their ascribed Victorian definitions. Interesting, fast read, some unexpected events. Felt real.

Seraphina” by Rachel Hartman:

decent young adult fantasy story about medieval girl with a secret she must keep.

Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn:

Not amazing literature, but very fast-paced and engrossing plot. It’s a satisfying page-turner, but doubtful it would stand up to re-reading.

Adventures of Superhero Girl” by Matt Fraction & Steven Sanders:

lovely canadian superhero. She’s very real and this is a great collection.

Fluffy fantasy books that were decent, but not great:

Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke & Bone” and it’s sequel. Intriguingly created world. There are a few stand-out moments, but it’s mostly decent, not great. (I know a few 12/13 yr olds who love them dearly, as they should, being the intended audience)

Karen Chance’s side trilogy (Midnight’s Daughter, Death’s Mistress, Fury’s Kiss) are way better than the main series. I mean, it’s still “urban fantasy” silliness, but these are much stronger/more interesting than the Cassandra Palmer series. Characters have some depth and real emotions.

Ilona Andrews’ “Magic Bites” series. I kind of hate myself for reading/enjoying these, as they are so clearly calculated to follow the “urban fantasy” formula and to sell quickly, rather than written out of a love for storytelling. And the speed with which they’re written/published (at least 1 per year, often 1 every 6 months) means there’s nothing really redeeming about the language/writing at all. But they are a fast engaging plot, you can finish each book in a day or two, and I did read all of them, so there it is.

Favorite books read in 2012

Tracy,

Browse archives for January 20, 2021
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Overall, I was kinda underwhelmed by the 52 books I read this year. There were a handful of significant standouts (seen below) but also some real duds and slogs and unenjoyable messes. Seems every other book I read this past year was disappointing…so here’s hoping for a brighter literary 2013.  Still, there were some amazing stars, too. Here’s my list of a dozen or so.

“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

Time Magazine named it the best book of the year. This is a perfect book. It’s not a cancer book, because (as the lead points out) “cancer books suck.” Some of its teenage characters do have cancer. But this book isn’t about that, or not just about that. It’s about life and love and novels and relationships and travel and family and video games and high school and finding who you are and everything. It’s lovely and funny and a very fast read, and yes, there will be tears (don’t make the mistake my pal Joseph did, and read the second half on the subway). EVERYONE should read it. Everyone.

“Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny

Neil Gaiman has often recommended this novel, and I can totally see why. It’s amazingly brilliant (and definitely a huge influence on Gaiman’s style and writing sensibilities). It’s smart, it’s got great wordplay, it’s complex in plot and scope, it’s funny. One of my absolute favorites of the year. Anyone who enjoys fantasy, and/or smart writing with fun wordplay and/or Neil Gaiman will definitely love this novel.

“Big Dead Place” by Nicholas Johnson

Fascinating and engaging account of the support staff who live and work in Antarctica. Nicholas started as a dishwasher and moved to sanitation, in one of the world’s harshest environments. But it turns out to be the institutions and bureaucracy that prove the hardest to deal with. Alternately funny and frustrating situations as everyone is just trying to stay safe and sane. Not a typical “Travel Memoir,” but really great reading.

“As God Commands” by Niccolo Ammaniti

Hoo boy, this novel is INTENSE! At the halfway mark, I felt that we were speeding over a cliff at 100mph and there was still HALF OF THE NOVEL to go. Hold on tight, because this ride is getting OUT OF CONTROL!! Translated from the Italian, this novel is really really great. Gritty and real, following a variety of characters in a small italian town. Most of the folks are down on their luck and don’t do very likeable things. And yet I still found myself engaged and even rooting for many of them. I LOVE IT when folks create characters with true shades of grey. If you like “The Wire,” this is definitely for you. Even if you didn’t, I’d recommend this for sure. I think everyone who read it for bookclub ended up liking it.

“Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

I’m conflicted about recommending this. It deservedly made many many “best” lists. It’s a gorgeous first novel, full of vibrant descriptions and really unique settings (the juxtaposition of a dying themepark and a modern waterpark and the quirky characters who work at each). It’s been almost a year and these places and characters (honestly, the settings ARE characters, as well) are still rolling around in my brain. It’s definitely “literary fiction.” Doesn’t mean it’s hard to read, but it does mean that it’s true, crafted writing. So, why am I conflicted about recommending it? Because there’s a loss-of-innocence towards the end that broke my heart/soul a bit. (I didn’t have this problem with Donahughe’s “Room,” but know some people who did). And so. It’s gorgeous and has made an indelible impression on me…but a part of it hurt my heart. Consider yourself forewarned.

“The Dwarf” by Pär Lagerkvist

I was initially hesitant to read this 1944 novel about a medieval court’s dwarf, because I expected some old-timey hatefulness towards little people. But that wasn’t really an issue. This is a dark, twisted tale seen through the eyes of the a very memorable misanthropic court dwarf. Great stuff. Loaded with philosophical questions, the dwarf’s twisted morality makes for a fascinating filter as the Renaissance is happening around him. Really enjoyed this.

“Redshirts” by Jonathan Scalzi

Perfect summer reading. Entertaining concept, well told, with some surprising plot turns. Young ensigns (wearing redshirts) start their exciting voyage across the galaxies in a Star Trek-like world. The group soon learns that working “away missions” is a dangerous proposition. Very funny. And Star Trek (and its tropes) permeate our society, so even fellow-non-trekkies should find this quite entertaining, as it takes the genre to task for all its flaws.

“Three Bags Full” by Leonie Swann

Fun take on a mystery novel, as it’s the story of a flock of sheep trying to solve their shepherd’s murder. The author obviously knows sheep well (not the brightest of creatures) and it’s entertaining to watch the flock try to reason through their world to find clues. Very decent sheep-world-view. Plus, there’s a tiny drawing of a sheep jumping over fences in the bottom corner, so the book can be a giant flipbook, too.

“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender

I LOVE Aimee Bender so so much. Her stories are delightfully strange, yet very real and powerful. This wasn’t my favorite of her works, but that’s only because I loved “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” and “An Invisible Sign of My Own” SO SO MUCH. Still, it’s a uniquely strange and slightly floaty novel, with real, complex, fascinating people.

“Bonk” by Mary Roach

Roach’s narrative voice is engaging, fun, and informative. This history of scientific sex studies is great. I had it with me on our trip to Alaska, and had to keep reading small factoids aloud to my sister (the chapter on inseminating pigs is particularly hilarious). Great stuff.

“Sharpe’s Tiger” by Bernard Cornwell (all of the Sharpe novels)

Okay, the actor Sean Bean is dreamy…especially 15 years ago. So I’ve watched all of the BBC films where he stars as Richard Sharpe, a British soldier fighting in the Napoleonic wars. But I just had no interest in reading these books. Finally was convinced to do so by my siblings. And I was blown away by how much I enjoyed them. I mean, I think there are 30 friggin books at this point. I just read 3 or 4 this year. But they’re engaging and fast paced, with some historical notes for those who care. I’ve never been a big fan of “war books,” but these have great pacing and I was fully invested. Fun fun.

“Rampant” by Diana Peterfreund

Silly, fast, and entertaining young adult novel. Modern day times. A young woman discovers her mother’s crazy stories are true: unicorns exist, and they are venomous killing machines. As a descendant of Alexander the Great (just go with it), she’s got special skills to be a unicorn hunter, and so gets shipped off to a training school in Italy. So yeah. If you’re looking for a fast escapist read, this one was fun. Not great, but fun.

“Layer Cake” by JJ Conolly

Loved the film, and who doesn’t want to spend a few days reading about British gangsters and drug dealers? This was quite good, lots of twists and turns. It is chock full of dialect and slang and many many terms I didn’t know. But mostly you can follow along through context, yes?

“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole

Loved it. Wasn’t sure I would, but LOVED IT! And it’s crazy funny, too. Comedy of the absurd, as things just keep getting out of hand. Toole’s love for the characters of New Orleans is apparent. As with most of the Pulitzer Prize winners, there are sentences to get lost in and roll around with the great words. Memorable characters. Just..it’s madness, but of a brilliant kind.

“The Well and the Mine” by Gin Phillips

I was resistant to reading this, even though it was recommended by several people whose taste I trust. I just didn’t think I wanted to read another story about growing up in a poor southern family. But I am SO GLAD I did. This was truly one of the best of the year. It’s writing is gorgeous. It’s narrator is delightful. It’s just a lovely lovely novel. I was hooked within the first few pages because Phillips’ skill is very apparent.

“Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart 

Smart story set in a VERY possible near-future. Honestly, I was just so blown away by how possible/real it all felt. Shteyngart has earned all of his accolades. I enjoy epistolery novels, but this format works particularly well here. The different styles of traditional journal entries, social media blogging, chatting/texting, etc: all are powerfully utilized. Just…woah. The author has our society clearly pegged, and these characters and events are so so real. I mean, hopefully things won’t come to pass as they’re portrayed, but it sure felt like I was reading truth. Yikes. (note from Jan 2021. Just double-yikes on how many predictions Shteyngart got correct, and here’s hoping we as a society can make changes to avoid further predictions)

“Mink River” by Brian Doyle

Delightful. Great use of images and language. The combination of Native American and Irish folklore in this small coastal town in Oregon…it works surprisingly well. Lovely lyrical writing. Philosophy, allegory, metaphor, day-to-day triumphs and losses. It’s just lovely. The type of book where you want to underline great phrases, and will quickly find you’ve underlined the whole novel.

“Last Night at the Lobster” by Stewart O’Nan & “Dear American Airlines” by Jonathan Miles

Both of these are short, really interesting glimpses into modern life. The first follows the last night of business for a particular Red Lobster restaurant. The second follows a man stuck at the airport because American Airlines canceled his flight. Great everyday characters and non-traditional novella settings. Not exactly plot driven…just a peek into their lives. Definitely only 1 or 2 days worth of reading (I mentioned they’re short), but both stuck around, percolating in my brain.

Favorite books read in 2011

Tracy,

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Okay, this year’s rough total is 74 books (I used to be SO compulsive about keeping accurate track. Now I’ll spend a few weeks, here and there, not recording things. This is probably a healthy thing, actually. In any case, here were the best things I read this year:

Set This House in Order  by Matt Ruff

Fascinating, well-paced, easy to read, great fun novel about a man with multiple personalities (SO INTERESTING). I now know 12 people who have read this book this year (8 from bookclub and I’ve loaned it to 4 others) and EVERYONE has liked it. That’s kind of shocking, actually. It’s set in the greater Seattle area, which is always fun. Honestly, I feel like I learned a lot and it was very engrossing throughout (never felt weighty or like homework).  The ending is a bit rushed, which is a shame, but it’s a minor blemish on a very good story.

Mare’s War  by Tanita Davis

Great stuff. Very readable and entertaining story of two teenage girls trapped on a cross-country road trip with their grandma. Throughout the journey she recounts her experiences in the army in WWII.  The characters are quirky and feel very real, and throughout the novel there are postcards the girls send back to their friends. The voices feel real and it’s a quick read. Also, it won the Coretta Scott King Award.

All the King’s Men  By Robert Penn Warren

This is so gorgeous. That silly wine-tasting phrase “mouth feel” applies here…the words have such an amazing mouth feel.  Honestly, the prose is so poetic and gorgeous. This is definitely Literature with a capital L, but it never felt like WORK. I still can’t quite believe that I hadn’t read it before, but am so glad that I finally did.  Worth it!!

The Homeland Directive  by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston

This is a fantastic graphic novel, about some deep serious conspiracy level stuff in the US govt. It’s gorgeously represented (each story arc/character plotline has a different graphic representation, which works quite well). It’s a pretty quick read, following an outbreak of a new disease. Very cool stuff. (OMG, reading this description from 2011 now in January 2021 and I’m curious to reread this in light of current events)

Light Boxes By Shane Jones

I LOVE this little book…love love love it. Read it three times this year (it’s small). It’s definitely not for everyone, however. It’s this gorgeous poetic metaphor allegorical journey through winter and depression. The descriptions are amazing…it’s full of smell and taste and touch. Flight has been banned and there is eternal winter and I love it so so much. Honestly, I’ve written so many notes on the inside cover and underlined things like crazy (habits I haven’t really done since college). Here’s part of the bookcrossing.com review I did for it “This is a strange and gorgeous experience. Small vignettes. Playful with font, text size, and placement. It’s like diving headfirst into the deep end. No, that’s not true, as that’s an abrupt forceful action. It’s like slowly sinking or wandering into the deep end, never quite realizing when your head has sunk under the water. Lyrical. Musical. Deeply disturbing at times. Challenging, and yet, very easy to absorb if you stop fighting it. Read it like a song…”

Name of the Wind AND Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Wonderful epic fantasy. Great page turning adventure. Fun characters. Well developed world. Not nearly as grim or WEIGHTY as “Game of Thrones.” It’s just fantastically fun. And I think it’s pretty approachable by those who don’t generally read fantasy, as well. Good times.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Delightful easy read about an american high school student spending her senior year at a school in Paris. It’s sweet and silly and made me laugh and made me care about these characters. It’s Young Adult, but it’s quite good.

The Sweet In-Between by Sheri Reynolds

Holy CRAP, this is a fantastic novel!! It’s such an amazing new version of some of the best southern writing (ghosts of Flannery O’Conner and Carson McCullers). There’s poverty and tragedy in this southern town, but the characters have dignity and beauty. It’s heartbreaking and amazing and gorgeous. I loved loved loved it, and desperately wished I had a literature class hiding in my closet, because I totally wanted to sink my teeth further into this. The narrator is amazing and perfectly speaks to our world now. I just want to give her a hug and make her feel safe. great accomplished stuff. This IS Literature (with a capitol L) and the author definitely knows what she’s doing.

Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

Fun graphic novel horror story. The art is lovely and the plot is decently creepy. Found these when the internet began showing the trailer for a TV pilot that wasn’t picked up. http://www.slashfilm.com/locke-key-trailer-comic-adaptation-fox-passed/ (News flash/update from Jan 2021 in which there now is a TV series, which I haven’t watched yet. Too much “dead da” plot line for me right now).

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Really good non-zombie novel set in a zombie world. Fascinating look at the bureaucracy and the clean-up. Months after the zombie outbreak, we follow a clean-up crew. It’s well written, and asks a lot of questions about what happens after the traditional zombie books/films end. Very enjoyable

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke

Phew, THIS is a hell of a story. Censored in his native China (the publisher had to write a big retraction and they were only allowed the initial printing) it tells the story of one of the Blood Villages in rural China (blood donations became BIG money, until HIV spread like crazy). It’s depressing as hell (obviously), but very powerful. Also, it’s based upon true stories, and this was the “toned down” version the author wrote to try to avoid censorship. The mind boggles at what else he must’ve excluded. It’s pretty cutting/scathing at times, and DEFINITELY worth reading. Upsetting, effective, powerful.

Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger

Re-read it this year. Still love the Glass family so SO much! “Catcher in the Rye” never spoke to me the way that this family does (NINE STORIES is also fantastic). Classic. Love!

Celine by Brock Cole

Wonderful high school narrator. She’s an artist and has such powerful observations of the world around her. Great story. Moves very quickly. Lovely.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

I debated whether to include this in the list. It’s an interesting story, changing between narrators and timelines. I didn’t LOVE it, but I found it consistently interesting, and months later, I still find myself THINKING about it. So, obviously, there’s something worthwhile there.

Union! by Ish Klein

I won a few poetry books  at a raffle this year. Haven’t read just a collection of poems in years. This was definitely my favorite of the group. It’s playful. It’s got really lovely meter and flow. I read them aloud (as one always should to get the best feel/experience with poety, imo) in an evening. Klein is definitely sorting through some demons (depression, failed relationship, etc), but it is often PLAYFUL and bright, and many times it is super funny. Honestly, this little book of poems is a delight.

Dreadnaught by Cherie Priest

I was underwhelmed by BONESHAKER…I loved the alternate history/steampunk Seattle world Ms Priest had created, but couldn’t find myself caring for the characters…at all!  However, DREADNAUGHT (the 2nd in the series) was much better. Mercy is a very interesting person, and following the alternate history civil war experience was fascinating (and normally I find the civil war boring boring BORING). If you read the first one and liked it (or even just thought it was ok), I think it’s worth trying this one. I quite liked it, and I’ve now purchased the 3rd, so we’ll see. (News flash/update from Jan 2021. I don’t think I ever got around to reading the 3rd book in this series)

MASH by Richard Hooker

Fun to read the source material for a cultural phenomenon, eh? Could only see Alan Alda’s face the whole time. However, while the bones of the TV series are located here, it’s a different story. Grittier, darker, which makes sense. Like much of the great dark comic tales of war, it’s quite good and interesting to read.