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*