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
“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.