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.