Of the 80+ books I read this year, here are my favorite 20.
FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHER by Angeline Boulley
Wonderful. Devoured this in two days. Daunis’ narrative voice is so refreshing and real and hyper-intelligent and observant and clever. I loved this journey, even though this span of her life has some real grief and hardships. Felt very real and immersive (with a deft and light touch. It’s not huge bulky descriptive paragraphs. Life and community insights are revealed so naturally). And there’s a compelling mystery/thriller wrapped around everything that kept the pages turning. Loved learning about herself and her community in Sault Ste Marie and the Sugar Island Ojibwe reservation. Seeing her lifelong complicated navigation between these two cultural identities. Themes of identity and truth and wearing a mask and secrets and hiding. All handled deftly and interestingly. Strong teenage emotions while dealing with very real high stakes issues (set in early 2000’s as meth is causing awful harms in both communities). Also, the cover is flippin’ gorgeous. But it’s the journey that’ll stay with me for quite awhile.
From the NPR review, “But Firekeeper’s Daughter is so, so much more than a thriller or a mystery. The author’s love for and connection to her culture is so deeply engraved into the very heart of this book and it beats in rhythm with each new plot development. As a non-Indigenous reader, every depiction and explanation of Ojibwe philosophy and traditions felt like a gift, and every depiction of injustice felt like a call to action. Some books take you where they’re going with such confidence and grace that you find yourself at the end, breathless and hard-pressed to believe that it’s over.”
PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke
This is a beautiful and heart-aching book. There is such a tenderness to Piranesi and the way in which he sees, documents, and tends to his world. Not only his care for the dead, but his world-view and self-view of his connection to the House and all it provides. The story is revealed as he journals and carefully logs each day, with loving descriptions of the different statues and flooded basements and tides of this strange house. As the reader, you’re quickly hip to the fact that all may not be as it seems. But honestly, the unravelling and revealing of the mysteries (while satisfying and sad and lovely) felt less The Point. Or at least, not the Only point (maybe not even the most important?). These descriptions of solitude and finding meaning (imbuing meaning) into everyday tasks, as well as large events outside of ones control. There’s melancholy and grief (and some of the insight and history from our world is pretty intense). But this is also an examination of living with intentionality and care. I’m trying to write obliquely to avoid spoilers (although this haunting little novel wouldn’t be spoiled by knowing the ending and discovered facts ahead of time. In fact, several pals from Book Club read this twice. After learning some of the facts, they re-read to see how that flavored and changed the experience). It was also interesting in our book club discussion to see the different interpretations each of us had, of what the facts and reveals meant. Some were “all in” on a world that included magic, some felt this was all clinically explicable, and others felt it was some mash-up of richly imagined interiority, psychosis, breaks from reality, and also some bits of magic/supernatural actions. The ending chapters I found the most touching: again, the care and respect Piranesi is shown, the way he is still given agency in making his own choices, and then the choices and internal justifications he chooses…I have rarely seen such an approach and I was touched by the gentleness of it. (In a story/plot that is often the total opposite, jarring and violent and awful).
THE TOWN OF BABYLON by Alejandro Varela
|Purchased this on the recommendation from my local bookseller “It’s only March but this may just be the best book I’ll read in 2022! A beautiful novel about coming home, confronting the past and embracing the future. This book put me in ALL MY FEELS and I haven’t been the same since.” This is a fantastic novel. A man returns to his unnamed suburban town to help his mother care for his ailing father, which has him in town for his 20th high school reunion. He decides to attend, with mixed and complicated results. This story is such a beautiful in-depth discussion and breakdown of American suburban life, and those who seek opportunity and escape to the Big City, and those who stay behind. Shows humanity in all kinds of different flavors and ways of being. The complicated issues of race and gender and class and sexual orientation and religion. The hope and struggle of parents, and the role of parochial schools in this system. It’s an examination on the meaning and NEED for community. On what happens when one doesn’t fit into the community around them. On the struggles to fit in, to remain true to oneself, to seek community where one can find it. Told in very funny and wryly observed present paragraphs and some powerful and illuminating flashbacks. Different narrators sharing the complicated backstories we all have. Everyone is fully fleshed out and human and nothing is easy nor perfect. But it is all devastatingly but also banal-ly real and average and immediate. The pin-point accuracy with which Varela puts the American suburb under a microscope is powerful and skewering. The character of Andres would be my contemporary, so reading about the American suburban catholic school experiences of someone in school in the 80’s and 90’s was really powerful as I felt so connected to many of these experiences, although obviously a lot of Andres’ journey was vastly different than mine. Totally deserving of all the awards. This is a gorgeous and powerful and affecting novel, that’s also funny and very easy to read and heartbreaking and touching and beautiful and is often describing just regular everyday things, but with such a precise vision that it reveals so many layers and deep meanings. The lens of Andres as a Professor of Public Health adds a fascinating new view onto the different peoples of his previous community. This is a very very good book. Took me a month to write this review, because so much of this novel has been percolating and rolling around my brain, I wasn’t yet ready to try to distill my responses into words.|
I’M TELLING THE TRUTH, BUT I’M LYING by Bassey Ikpi
This is a stunning collection. Ikpi is startlingly vulnerable and raw in this beautiful and sometimes heart-rending exploration of her life and her mental struggles. It is powerful and gorgeous and so so sad at times and hopeful and powerless and your heart aches watching her struggle with the cycles of her bipolar brain. There is joy. There is hardship. There is the full spectrum of life experiences. She is a powerful writer. It’s not always easy to read, but the writing always flows powerfully and easily. It’s just that there’s sure been a lot of unpleasant and sometimes awful to depict. But honestly, reading about many of the highs and celebrations is sometimes just as hard, when she’s so honest about her manic-phase experiences. Really powerful. Really great. And blessedly, really short. Because SO MANY EMOTIONS AND RAW TRUTHS are crammed into this small, beautifully crafted work. The title, an honest declaration about the murky nature of human memory, right at the start. This is a “cards on the table” type of book. Truly. I also really loved the acknowledgments section, as she dedicated a small paragraph to each person, which felt lovely and hopeful. The cover design is gorgeous and effective, too.
LITTLE WEIRDS by Jenny Slate
This was unexpected and wonderful, as well as wonderfully strange. Thanks for the pal who recommended listening to Slate on the audio book, as her unique voice and personality added even more flavor. A dreamy little collection of thoughts and essays and journals and personal introspection and amusing lists. It feels poetic and float-y…very dream-like. It is frank and powerful and quietly resilient. I expected the funny and the sweet bits (as a fan of her for many years). I didn’t expect the beautiful sentences and thoughts. Lots of introspective stuff about past hurts and finding oneself and finding the daily strength to be true to our soft inner animal selves, especially difficult in a world full of sharp edges and dangers. How to be resilient and, after finding ourselves, how to nourish ourselves with the love and care we deserve. Some wry observations about being alive, especially as a woman in the current state of things in the States. Ways to work through grief. Her lifelong ache for love and partnership, and coming to grips with a world where finding that love is proving elusive. Learning to be okay, More than okay, with her current state of being. All mixed in a riot of images and words that are at turns exuberant and flowery and then featuring laser-precision. Loved hearing the awe in her voice at some new realizations. When a landscaper mentions, “The only thing is that dogs love to smell the blossoms and they are actually very sticky, so your dog will have flowers on his face, and I don’t know if you’d like that.” Slate gets to declare “I would like that” and then revel in her acceptance and assertion and self-realization that she is the type of person who would love it if her dog’s face was sometimes covered in flowers, and that as an adult living her own life, she has the power to make those declarations and decisions. Playful turns of phrase and surprisingly delightful descriptions: wonderful hearing her narrate the observed joy of a baby holding a large bag of potato chips (a bag almost as big as it’s whole body), and the baby’s parent providing a bottle for deep satisfying gulps of water followed by a lip-smacking “Ahhhh” sound of satisfaction. More of it “hit home” than I’d expected. It’s full of whimsy and sweetness but somehow didn’t become twee or “too much” for me: but your mileage will vary. I can understand that this isn’t the dreamy thoughtful journey for everyone. But sure worked for me. Loved her declaration that she’s done trying to sour her sweetness in an effort to appeal to diners at a restaurant that is probably bad anyway. Highly recommend. “As the image of myself becomes sharper in my brain and more precious, I feel less afraid that someone else will erase me by denying me love.”
WHAT BIG TEETH by Rose Szabo
This was deliciously creepy. Not what I was expecting. Or rather, the bones of this novel are exactly what I was expecting: a gothic YA coming-of-age story. But the flesh and skin and fats laid upon those bones elevated this into something so much more unique and wonderful. Szabo’s power of descriptive language is wonderful. Somehow, with just a few key details, they paint truly unsettling and oft horrifying pictures, in this elegant Victorian manse that is full of secrets. But, unlike many gothic novels, the menace and secrets under the surface are also joined by lots of unexpected above-the-surface Not Secrets and Not Mysteries. Having so many things monstrous be revealed so clearly and so early was a delightful surprise to the reader. And made the search for deeper answers and understanding even more satisfying. Szabo has a strong sense of the history and tropes of these different monsters and magics stories, but spins the narrative and characters into beings entirely their own. None of the family is particularly good (They’re terrible at communicating with each other. They make rash decisions. They lack impulse control. They rarely look out for each other or demonstrate any empathy) and even our narrator often isn’t making the most moral of choices. And yet I found myself caring deeply for them. This is also the story of GENERATIONAL TRAUMA, and it’s powerful to see the way that the horrors of the past have been passed down, and still hold the family tight. The glimpses into Grandpa’s silent village are chilling, as are the flashes of Grandma’s earlier life. The way the narrative unfolds is such a delight. The use of the journal, which Eleanor is trying to translate, and where entries have been written in the margins, out of chronological order and squeezed in where there was room. This novel is just full of powerful metaphors. This was also an interesting twist on an unreliable narrator, because it’s not that she’s intentionally relaying incorrect facts, but rather that she is often so wrong in her assumptions and observations. I sometimes found her pacing and choices super frustrating (so passive when I wanted her to take action or ask questions, and then impulsive when I wanted her to stop and think!!) but it kept me turning the page. I had just expected this to be a fun little book to read, and it was that. But it also carries so many deep emotions and big thoughts and ideas, and really impressive visceral descriptions that burned themselves into my mind’s eye. Identity, immigration, grief and loss, power dynamics, complicated marriage dynamics, love and jealousy and loss and revenge and fear. It’s been swirling around in my brain for days. Really really excellent stuff. Yes, it is a perfectly fun Young Adult coming-of-age gothic novel. But it carries a lot more heft and depth and delightfully creepy elements than I’d expected, in this deceptively light packaging. Bravo.
ROMANTIC OUTLAWS: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIVES OF MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT AND HER DAUGHTER MARY SHELLEY by Charlotte Gordon
Really fascinating. Very well researched. I was surprised at just how many primary source documents there are, detailing the lives and rich interior thoughts of these two women, as well as the people around them. So many journals and letters back and forth. And so many different motives for contemporaries to cast these characters into very different roles and traits. Also, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how tragic and powerless so much of their lives were. The role and power of societal pressures, how little agency women had, the constant pregnancies and dying infants and toddlers. Like, I knew about it, but I hadn’t spent so much time closely examining it. Really engaging double biography, and the framework of switching between their two lives, chapter by chapter, was effective and helped draw some fascinating compare/contrast opportunities. Also wild to learn just how recently some of these sources have been brought to the public’s eye. To quote my sister, who also read this, “Man, f*ck Godwin.” As often happens with me and reading biographies, I started to lose steam/interest in the final third. But the very final chapters here re-engaged my interest, going through all the impressions throughout the centuries since they lived and how many of those need to be re-examined.
THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS by Micaiah Johnson
Fantastic and engaging. The story did not go where I expected, but I was totally along for this ride, and the places this plot takes us were way more interesting and offered more depth than I’d been expecting. Starts with a world where multi-dimensional travel exists, with a refreshing narrative voice and perspective (Cara isn’t from a powerful class. She’s a small vital cog in this giant corporate business using this multi-verse tech, but she’s always aware of how precarious her position is. And her outsider perspective on this “Shining City” leads to intriguing observations. Things start off moving rather quickly and don’t let up, trying to navigate through murky politics and complex interpersonal relationships (the very real foundations of this world, and probably of all worlds, eh?). Glimpses into this world’s histories and individual backstories are revealed organically and sometimes haphazardly, in ways that feel authentic to this narrative voice and satisfying to the reading experience. I’m trying to write this without any spoilers or details. The pages keep turning, the plot advances apace, emotions are complicated, motives are hazy, it’s just good stuff. Surprised to see such mixed reviews, because this felt like a slam-dunk 5 star book to me. Some of the negative reviews are people who clearly just wanted straight multi-verse “science” and “rules,” seemingly without the messy human elements. But it was that human-ness and mess and emotions that gripped me, for sure, and made this book a stand out! All the underlying ideas of identity, and implications of seeing 300+ different versions of yourself and people you know across the 300+ different versions of Earth that we’ve explored. Fascinating stuff. Big Ideas. Wrapped up in some intense plot with high stakes and real peril and no easy choices. This isn’t clear White Hats/Black Hats territory. And a lot of the revealed truths feel inevitable and True and disappointing but also maybe with glimpses of hope. I mean, reading this didn’t feel deeply depressing or Dark. But some of the subject matter and content is rough (extreme poverty and a clear societal divide between those living within the shining walled city and those living in the Warlord controlled wastelands…well, that’ll lead to some bleak realities). So there are dark realities here. But I found it super engaging and satisfying story-telling with characters who have made an impression and spent weeks rolling around in my brain.
SPEAR by Nicola Griffith
Who doesn’t love well-crafted and well-researched Arthurian lore? I LOVED Griffith’s previous book “Hild,” which was full of gloriously gorgeous descriptions and sentences. Spear is much shorter, and sharper; more finely honed into a different type of novel entirely. (Although Griffith clearly is a scholar and a lover of these same centuries). Its words are carefully chosen and it demands the reader pay attention, to fully immerse into this story, that is often being revealed in surprising ways. Like the gorgeous cover art and images throughout, Griffith’s words paint with sinuous brush strokes, curving and lush and sometimes revealing the story only by the negative space those brushstrokes reveal. The story is fun, with some good adventure and some real hilarity (oft displayed in wry little observations), as well as some high stakes and struggles. But this is not for casual reading, with music on, only half paying attention while also seeing what’s happening around you. If you tried to read this while distracted, you’d miss the gloriously complicated tapestry it’s so deftly weaving. It’s not HARD to read; it’s neither dense nor dry. But it can be so sparing in its words, or it might drop a hugely important detail in just one little sentence, that you should be focused on what you’re reading in order to get the full picture. I ended up reading the author’s end notes and historical sources information Before reading this book, which was a fun way to approach things (gave me some greater insight into the spear fight that I wouldn’t have picked up on just reading it). I’d initially flipped to the backpages hoping for a glossary and a pronunciation guide, what with all the old Welsh and old English or whatever other language sources are being used. Sadly, none to be found. Name choices were made with such care (and a few are defined in those end notes, at least). But I think this really could’ve benefited by more easily letting readers (who maybe aren’t experts in all of this) glean some further meaning and histories behind those choices. I would recommend reading the end-notes first, however, to help provide some structure and insight into some of the choices and naming conventions. This novel is a fascinating new take on some of these legends, and crafted some powerful images in my mind.
HARROW THE NINTH by Tamsyn Muir
|I love this series so god damned much! Waited a few weeks to write this review, because every time I started, it was just a rambling list of things I love about it. I’m accepting that that’s the only way I know how to talk about this book, so let the gushing of appreciation commence: I’d delayed reading this sequel for many months, because I’d loved Gideon’s narrative voice in book 1 so strongly, I wasn’t ready to let a different narrative voice in this world into my heart, and I wanted to give Harrow a fair chance. I’m so glad I read a rather exhaustive chapter by chapter recap, or I’d have been a bit lost and missed so much of the joy of this book (by not remembering all the details of the 1st). Muir does NOT hold her readers’ hands. What Muir does, instead, is write some of the cleverest, most imaginative stories I’ve ever read. This future space necromantic universe is wild, and wildly entertaining. It is a dark and visceral setting, but supremely human and relatable, and told with such a light touch. Not only are the world-building and settings imaginative and fascinating, but the characters are so fully formed and realized and multi-dimensional and relatable, you find yourself caring for most, if not, all of them. And still being compelled by those you don’t care for. Plus, it’s all told with such a deft and light and fast-paced touch at times, especially in the dialogue that just races across the page, in often hilarious back-and-forth ways. You have to pay attention while reading this, but that’s never a chore, nor is it something you need to remind yourself. You WANT to pay attention while reading this…it isn’t just paragraphs of exposition (although those are great, too) but so much sly and clever and wildly imaginative stuff is happening. When we meet characters who have lived for literally thousands and thousands of years, their initial interactions might be surprising to the reader. But they make total sense. At least, it did to me. That’s probably how most people might be after millenia of life and shared existence with the same group of people. But I adored that the author doesn’t ever feel the need to explain that (there isn’t the paragraph where our narrator explains an insight). It’s all just there on the page, in their actions and dialogue, and it’s up to you to suss it out and draw conclusions. And you do, and it’s often darkly hilarious. Plus, this one is such an interesting foil to Gideon. Gideon was our amazing athletic swordswoman, who didn’t care about the necromantic science, and whose only solution was sarcasm and punching the monster in front of her (a solution that worked more often than not). She reminded me of Vasquez from Aliens!! Harrow is the brilliant necromancer, and so her book is much more layers of skin and bones and muscles and fats. And Harrow’s supreme skill at it, her intense paranoia, her love of bonecraft, it’s such a new lens into this world. It’s fascinating. And THEN it’s even more interesting and complicated, because Harrow has some huge memory gaps and hallucinations and can’t trust her own senses. An unreliable narrator who doesn’t trust herself. Plus much of it is written in the second person, which works better than it should. And while we’d seen how dour and rough life in the Ninth realm (planet? Empire? Castle?) was, and how hard Gideon’s childhood was, we hadn’t really examined what Harrow’s life was like. And it’s equally (maybe even more) heartbreaking. The weight of being one of only two remaining in an entire generation of children, that survivor’s guilt and epic loneliness. Plus the weight of being sole heir to the kingdom, the immense pressures and expectations. It was lovely to get to see others being so frequently gobsmacked at Harrow’s abilities (Because she spends her life feeling Never Enough). In a whole Universe of necromancers, the Ninth is the most stark and dour of all, and these two young women may have been formed and hardened and bruised in that darkness, but never broken. And again, I want to stress, that these books are FUN TO READ! Even though the subject matter and trappings can be DARK! It’s not “Battered Woman of the Month” Book Club type stories. The setting and worlds are grim, but the dialogue and descriptions and adventures are great fun (even though there’s a high body count). I don’t know the magical alchemy that allows this story to be such a great time, because describing the plot makes it sound plodding and depressing as hell. And it’s not. The emotionality of the characters (oft suppressed in Harrow and others) is so truly realized. (Plus, we get flashbacks to the first novel, so get to spend more time with that whole insane Scooby Gang. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed them all until they started showing up again. Maybe I need to re-read Gideon the Ninth. I’ll probably wait until I’m ready to read the third book, and then reread both of these first, as this is a series where fresh knowledge of the previous books pays huge dividends). There’s great mysteries to solve, and bad guys to fight, and Harrow’s confused memories to sort through. It’s a total brain trip, that keeps pages turning and keeps raising the stakes. The character of Mercy is such an understandable grump, I loved her so much! Long story long, I’m just saying this book was bloody fantastic (pun intended), and took the story to places I did NOT predict. And I can’t wait to see where things go next.|
THE KAIJU PRESERVATION SOCIETY by John Scalzi
This is pure popcor. It’s a delightful confection that may be lacking in nourishment and sustenance, but it’s a wonderful treat that will put a smile on your face. It’s good fun, with quippy dialogue, a splashy premise, big ole monsters, great adventure, lots of pop culture references. It’s a feel good easy summer read. Delightful. In the author’s note at the back, Scalzi talks about his troubles in trying to write a different novel during the pandemic days and dark times. The hard but necessary choice to scrap that book, and then the joy he found in crafting this. It’s light, it’s fun, it’s the Kaiju Preservation Society!
LONGBOURN by Jo Baker
Detailed historical fiction is often total catnip to me. That being said, I wasn’t initially excited to read this, but it was a bookclub choice so I forged ahead. And I’m so glad I did. I found the writing and descriptions to be so visceral and visual and evocative. Really sets you WITHIN the scene, even though most of these scenes are not something you’d want in “scratch n sniff” technology: the realities of life during Regency England (specifically during the events of “Pride and Prejudice”) and especially the daily hardships and tasks and struggles of the servants of the household. But it’s so much more than that. This powerful time machine doesn’t just explore the life of servitude and running a manor house, we explore the small village and trips to London and grand houses. And the scenes following soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars were jaw-droppingly powerful; stark and evocative prose that was some of the best I’ve read with that setting. It felt like an almost entirely different book, which totally worked, with a different narrator and with the way it all was woven into our story. But even when not having a starving freezing army sludge across the continent, the stakes and the truths of small everyday tasks are presented with such care and importance. Plus, the “gimmick” of the novel (behind the scenes at Pride and Prejudice) works wonderfully, too. Wickham is even more wicked (not surprising). Mrs Bennett gets more layers. Mr Bennett gets some necessary and well-earned critiques, as do the whole family. The characters we meet and follow in this novel are wonderfully realized. Often just a small aside or short sentence can provide intense insight into who someone is. The realities of life in service in Regency England are rough and constantly demanding. But it’s wonderful watching these people each finding their own ways to carve out some joy and peace and meaning, small moments of rest and beauty, amid the constant work and constant worry (the staff’s livelihoods are also greatly in peril with the impending change of ownership of Lonbourn). Very stressful at times. Very hard and sad at times. But also super lovely and offering some definite hope against all the odds there at the end. Quite enjoyed it. Baker’s descriptive powers are impressive, and with so so so many details of tasks and daily life, it still never felt impenetrable or a slog. It just felt so Lived In and Fully Realized, transporting the reader fully to this life.
BEFORE MARS by Emma Newman
I’d somehow forgotten just HOW GOOD Newman is at propulsive writing, at crafting a narrative in such a way, unveiling new facts and new mysteries that just keep you turning the page. I don’t like to read a series all at once. I prefer to read a few books in between. But then I kind of forgot about this book, and other holds came in from the library, and life happened, and suddenly it’s been months since I read the second book. I am so glad I finally picked this one up. I remembered that I liked the other two books, but had forgotten how much I liked them (for the record, I liked the first and adored the second). Each book has been its own creation, following a different cast of characters set in the same larger Universe(s). Although I felt the tethers to the other two books more strongly in this one: connections to the people following the Pathfinder across the galaxy in book 1 and connections to the Future Earthbound people in book 2. Especially as these events on the Mars station are happening concurrently with the murder investigation on Earth in book 2. What I’m trying to say is, this was a fantastic book, in a fantastic series. Featuring fascinating and flawed and complex people, following varied and flawed and complex reasonings, in a disparate and flawed world. Propulsive is really the word for how this story unfolded, even though the story is sometimes small and slow in scale (dealing with confusion and trying to determine what is reality and what is delusion). Does being confined to a 5-person Mars Station count as making this a Locked Room Mystery? It was great to read, either way. Newman continues to explore really interesting and unique characters. I appreciate so much both the author’s fearlessness in crafting complex individuals (in exploring their histories with mental struggles) and her unconcern with keeping everyone “likeable.” They just continue to feel very Real and True. Good stuff.
THE MARROW THIEVES by Cherie Dimaline
This deserves all the awards it has received. Unique take on dystopian YA stories. In addition to climate disasters affecting our continent, most people have lost the ability to dream, but not the First Peoples. This leads to a world where the Canadian government is hunting and kidnapping Indigenous peoples to harvest their bone marrow in an effort to find a way to resume dreaming. Classic “on the run” storyline, which always keeps the pages turning. But interspersed by the different personal stories of this found family. Powerful and emotional. While their current world is apocalyptic, the real lived histories of indigenous peoples in North America also carries dystopic and genocidal wrongs, and the layers and reflections add up. The importance of sharing and keeping their stories and identities alive, while also struggling for basic survival, it’s a powerful read. Hadn’t realized this is the first in a series. But it can be read as a stand alone. Still, the ending definitely lets you know there’s more story to be told and more struggle to be fought. Glad my bookstore recommended this.
FUGITIVE TELEMETRY by Martha Wells
More Murderbot is always a great thing! This series continues to be such a friggin’ joy. This time Murderbot has to help investigate a murder, requiring way more interaction with a dubious security team than they’d prefer (their preference would be zero interactions). As ever, the pages turn quickly, the snark is highly satisfying, surprises and conclusions are revealed with the perfect tone. You get to share in their irritation and their skills and their continued internal journey on deciding their identity and purpose.
A MARVELLOUS LIGHT by Freya Marske
Oh, this was just lovely. Fantastic world-building. While the “19th century England, But With Magic” genre feels like it’s everywhere right now (and I do tend to enjoy them), I found this one fresh and refreshing and top of its class. The world-building is great. The rules of magic and its usage were super interesting. And very effective having Robin as our entry point into this world: a curious chap in an extreme fish-out-of-water scenario, who finds himself facing immediate peril, without any understanding as to Why. Plus, the opposites-attract, slow-burn attraction between the two leads is really lovely to watch. It was very sweet watching them slowly falling for each other, and then quite quickly leading into a steamy scene. Issues of class and wealth and race and all the other restrictions of this time period abound, plus the “some of us secretly do magic” thing, too. The mystery and investigation plot is really interesting. Things are not resolved too easily. And I found the complications (of secrecy and family politics and keeping up appearances, etc) to be believable (rather than just frustrating road blocks inserted solely for plot purposes, because “plot hindrance goes here.”). The writing is really stunning at times, too. The prose is lovely and powerful. And it’s full of dry wit and heated glances, and real peril. In what could have been just a flowery confection of a book, it’s not only better written than that, but it’s got Real Stakes and some fascinating dangers, too. I really appreciated that these characters felt fully fleshed out, with real dimension.
LONG WAY DOWN by Jason Reynolds
Oh, I thought I knew what I’d be getting with this story, but I was so wrong. I hadn’t expected it to be written in verse, playing with language and sentence structure. Big emotions and hard truths presented in such powerful ways. And it reads fast, and the text is endlessly taking us down down down each page, mirroring the fateful elevator ride of the tale. Very good. Very short to read, but it’ll linger in your brain for days and days.
THE FIVE: THE UNTOLD LIVES OF THE WOMEN KILLED BY JACK THE RIPPER by Hallie Rubenhold
Surprised by how much I liked this book. Meticulously researched, and presented with an almost overwhelming amount of details. Yet the writing is evocative and engaging. It truly transports the reader. And we learn so much about the lives of these five women, and about their surrounding conditions. About the homeless encampments in Trafalgar Square. The truly deplorable workhouse conditions and requirements, leaving many preferring to sleep rough in the streets. While this is an era oft depicted in various media, I appreciated this look into poverty, the working poor, lower middle classes, and the truly precariousness of everyone’s lives. I was surprised to learn the early lives of these women. Their hopes and dreams. Their loves and heartaches. Their success and their hardship. The role that bad luck, trauma, high infant mortality, complicated family relationships, lack of a safety net, and drink played. Was also surprised to learn the current thinking that Jack the Ripper’s victims were killed while sleeping outdoors, rather than sought out as sex workers. Also that only one of these women was actually a sex worker. Not that that should devalue her life or make her deserving of murder, of course. But this book examines the extreme sensationalism and inaccuracy of the reporting of the day. I really appreciated that this book is not about describing brutal murders. It truly is painting a 360* view of these women as women. Their lives and the world around them. It doesn’t go into the violence because this book is trying to re-center them and their stories. It’s not about this murderer. It’s about these women. Each story carries its own heartbreaks and sadness, as would need to be when telling the personal histories that lead to someone sleeping rough on the street. But there’s such humanity here, as well as so much interesting details about this time period. I learned so much, which lends such a richer understanding to other books and movies set during this time.
A STUDY IN SCARLET WOMEN by Sherry Thomas
I’m 4 books into this gender-swap Sherlock Holmes series, and it’s really bloody fantastic. Charlotte Holmes is complicated and fascinating. She’s on the autism spectrum, as are some of her sisters. She struggles and chafes under the extreme restrictions of her day. And finds herself embroiled in a huge scandal, which leads to her becoming a consulting detective (albeit one who has to use subterfuge to hide her identity and gender). These are also well written mystery novels. They’ve a good propulsive energy and rarely feel like they are dragging much. The author’s descriptions are wonderful and engaging. These are better than they need to be, as I feel the premise alone would find readers. The second book introduces Mrs Hudson’s niece, a young medical student and helpful addition to our team. The women all feel real and capable, and I enjoy reading about the ways they circumvent the strictures of society. (Although the constant worries/jokes about maximum tolerable chins is getting a bit tedious and harder to overlook). And then in the 4th book, they’re planning a HEIST!! Be still my beating heart. Our Scooby Gang of characters are off to France for an art heist, with mysterious past loves, and more intense costumes and disguises. As Kirkus said, this book is “For fans of etiquette-flouting heroines who desire truth while being true to their desires—gastronomic, romantic, and cerebral.”
A COURT OF MIST AND FURY by Sarah J. Maas
I’m also 4 books into this series. And I Would not have bothered to read the second in the series, if I hadn’t gone into the series being warned the first is mediocre and irritating at times, but that they get Way Better. So I do need to qualify that I still had low expectations when I started book 2. But I devoured it in two days. Having not read any synopsis of any of the books, I was totally surprised (pleasantly) by where this story went. The 1st book is a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast (with all the slightly worrisome imbalanced power dynamic and Stockholm Syndrome elements). I never was that enamored of the Hero Tamlin, but whatever, Feyre saves the day (through the power of Love and EXTREME grit and determination). And a heavy physical toll. Then there’s a trite and predictable magic to lead to “Happily Ever After.” And so, starting book two was a real TONAL SHIFT. Things are NOT so happily in this Ever After. There is extreme trauma and PTSD (from, ya know, all the torture and bad stuff from book 1). But also, the many issues with their relationship from book 1 are explored and on full display now that the Big Baddie has been neutralized. Without that all-consuming focus, the cracks and imbalances and abusive controlling behavior begin to show. I really DID NOT expect this book to tackle all of this. It’s a real 180* turn and watching Feyre learn to examine her feelings and interpersonal relationships was really fascinating. And then, re-enter stage left Rhys, our brooding goth night Fae. I just really enjoyed that this turned the entire world and characters from the first book on its head. (Honestly, it’s like the 1st book is just a trope-heavy prequel. Necessary to set the scene for the interesting more complex journeys to come). We meet a fantastic new group of characters at the Night Court. Our Scooby Gang is Loveable and Quirk-heavy. I mean, it’s not that this book doesn’t still have it’s share of tropes, but I found the characters and world and plot much more engaging and interesting. Also, the first book was such an irritating read, because so much of the plot conflict came about from Feyre being intransigent for no good reason. Eye roll. Here, characters are more true to their internal logic (and while there were still one or two times this happened, at least it only lasted for a day or two). I just loved that this ended up telling a completely different story from what was promised in the first book. We spend more time with Feyre’s sisters in the human realm, and they get some more character development, too. This series turns out to be engaging adventures in a Dark Faerie Fantasy world, with battles and kingdom politics and delightfully messy interpersonal relationships. Also, it’s really satisfying having watched Feyre blossom into such a capable and powerful and cunning character. One of the things that’s so appealing about her later relationships is that others are both consistent and insistent that she claim and use personal agency throughout. It takes her awhile to fully learn that she is both always able to and actually required to make her own choices. Un-learning those previous abusive controlling patterns, and learning that her ideas and voice and desires and choices are valid and sought after and respected. Watching her learn to spread her metaphorical wings is very satisfying. Lots of this might still be trope-heavy, but there’s tons of good adventures and plot that keep the pages turning. The stakes are high and only getting higher. We’ve got a few characters with some interesting shades of grey. And my cousin who convinced me to finally read this series says there’s some Super Spicy bits in book 5. I’m not there yet, but FYI. *Laughs*
CRYING IN H MART by Michelle Zauner
Memoir isn’t always my favorite genre (unless it’s travel memoirs or stories from Naturalists), but this was my book club’s selection. Enjoyed learning Michelle Zauner is in Japanese Breakfast, as I’ve been jamming to her latest album all spring. This was a very intriguing and open story of her mother’s cancer diagnosis and death when Zauner was only 25. The roles of Korean food and culture mixed with Zauner’s experiences in Eugene and the East Coast, her complicated relationships with her mom and her dad and her extended family, learning to be an adult, a struggling musician, trying to find herself and her own identity, and then getting this phone call… it can be pretty raw. It was touching and powerful at times, but didn’t make me cry (I’d expected it would) but I don’t know how much of that lack of crying was because my sub-conscious was building a barrier/protective distance from the story? In a non-scientific small sample size of our bookclub, a few folks cried and a few didn’t. But we all appreciated reading the story, and we all now definitely want to go out for more Korean food. The role of cooking and showing affection through food is powerful in this narrative.
QUEER DUCKS (AND OTHER ANIMALS): THE NATURAL WORLD OF ANIMAL SEXUALITY by Eliot Shrefer
Easy to read, entertaining, and interesting. What more can you ask for in a pop science animal behavior book? Full of lots of great little stories and facts, and interjected with humorous animal skits and wry observations. Very approachable. The interviews with different researchers were great, too.
THE LIBRARY OF THE DEAD by T. L. Huchu
Spunky and streetwise Ropa is a wonderful narrator with a unique voice and a strong flavor to her observations. The world-building in this not-too-future Edinburgh is fantastic. The small glimpses we see through Ropa’s every day interactions have huge consequences (some previous climate catastrophe and wars have altered our world and our cities. There is an authoritarian government in place (characters must always greet each other with some formalized “god save the king” call and response, and are often seen looking over their shoulders, etc). The sense of powerlessness against the system is ever present. The descriptions of a changed and partially flooded Edinburgh are powerful. The extreme economic inequality and the way this new world functions is all too believable. It’s powerful having this very bright ghost-talking 14 year old as our guide, watching her be the primary bread winner (for her aging grandmother and younger sister, who Ropa is determined won’t have to drop out of school like Ropa did). Her Zimbabwean heritage shines through, as does her Scottishness. The slang and the observations are so Lived In and real, and give such a strong sense of character and place. The plot itself is interesting, with some real spooky haunts and terrible monsters. As well as a somewhat endearing underworld group of thieves. It’s an easy read, and the main plot beats aren’t ground breaking (bad guys using children for evil magical power), but I enjoyed the way Huchu set up magic and rules in this world. Ropa’s use of musical instruments to communicate with the dead. The snobbish upper-class magic class and their very scientific theory=based approach to magic. There are some creepy images, and some peril situations where you have to remember that Ropa is still 14, so you forgive her her poor choices. The atmosphere and setting are so thick and Lived In, that I’ve found myself still thinking about this world last several days (whereas plot alone wouldn’t have done that. But the dressings and flavorings around the plot are really wonderful).
OATHS OF LEGACY by Emily Skrutskie
A very satisfying sequel. It was totally unexpected (to me) to switch perspective/narrator in this second book. Gave it a new flavor and made it feel super fresh, providing a broader understanding of this galaxy, by now having a different character’s knowledge and life experiences flavoring all they observe. The first was told from Ettian’s perspective, and this book is all Gal. Which was fascinating, as he’s held hostage for much of it. So there’s lots of scheming and lots of unknowns about what the other characters are going through. I found it really effective to see inside his head, as he’s had all this training and grooming and skills for Empire Leadership since birth. And seeing all that regimented hardness and guile and impulsiveness laid out was interesting, and it made for very intriguing observations and criticisms of Ettian’s completely different approaches and choices. Also fun to see the slow self-examination and questioning going on. And I absolutely loved Wen’s character arc in this. In the first book, she was a fun premise but felt more like quirky plot device than fully rounded character. Here she really had some great emotional moments. This trilogy has been silly and cinematic fun so far, and can’t wait for the third. Pages turn quickly and the author is great at describing intense battle scenes (big and small, planetary and in space). It all still feels like reading a movie. It’s not Important Literature, but it is very fun genre adventures.
GRAVE RESERVATIONS by Cherie Priest
This one is just light fun. Very different in tone and subject matter to other Cherie Priest books I’ve read. Well written page turner, all plot and snappy dialogue. Pages turn, jokes are quipped, mystery is solved. The end. It’s not the type of thing you’ll treasure and re-read, but it’s an enjoyable way to pass the time. Seattle travel agent with minor psychic abilities connects with a local cop, and they join forces to help solve a crime. The body count was higher than I expected. The band of quirky side characters were on brand, and not quite as fleshed out as I would’ve hoped. I mean, there isn’t generally a lot of character development in these things, but I’d hoped for SOME. Instead you mostly get to know what a person looks like, what they are wearing, and where they rank on the Sass-o-meter. Ah well. Always fun reading about my city. Perfectly pleasant little escape. Definitely can see the potential for this series to continue.
THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz
Hoo boy, this novel hits differently since the Dobbs decision. The struggle and rage and fear and importance of Doing The Work and Finding Community…all of those are still true, just more so. Much of the “speculative fiction” premise has become actual reality. I only knew this involved Time Travel and was recommended by a friend. So it was a bit unexpected the twists and turns. I generally prefer reading books without knowing too much about what’s going to happen. But dang, this proved more violent than I was expecting. And harsher, with more real world horrors, than I’ve generally been seeking in my escapist reading. It’s fantastic and unique world building. The Time Travel mechanics are unlike anything I’ve ever read before, with these few geologic structures found around the globe that allow for time travel. And with people moving up and down the timeline, constantly editing and changing things. And the way that travelers sometimes return to a world with memories of a timeline that has been erased. Chilling and fascinating. And the actual logistics of global travel in all different times of history. The rock formation takes you in time, not space. So you’ll be landing in the past in the Middle East or Canada or wherever and then need to take era appropriate travel to get to your preferred destination. So the time spent traveling across the globe is a necessary impediment. The Daughters of Harriet vs the Comstock followers, both illicitly making edits in the past for their own societal aims. It’s wild. And the chapters switching between the traveler and the early 90’s Riot Grrrl teenage life in the Valley…very effective structure. Our characters are on a messy fumbling journey in this messy fumbling life we all live. There’s more violence than one would hope for (ain’t that always the way?), and I don’t always agree with choices made or their internal morality. But it’s fascinating. Lots of big ideas and great discussions. Really enjoyed some of the glimpses into the bigger scholarly debates around time travel and it’s rules within this world. The struggle never ends, but finding and working within community bring about satisfying ends.
LEXICON by Max Barry
Been awhile since I’ve read a Max Barry book, and this one delivered same as all the others. Gripping action keeps the pages turning, with smart fast-paced dialogue and fun plot twists and turns. It’s just a fun adventure, although the plot of this one has a pretty high body count. But his books aren’t really about deep emotional connections, so it didn’t carry a heavy emotional weight for me. And it’s not about a rich deep interiority. It’s about thriller adventures. In this world, there is a secret organization who has learned how to use certain nonsense words to compel and control other people. As one can imagine, this power is not used for good. There’s missing memories and being on the run from danger and the mysteries are revealed at a satisfying pace that keeps you reading until the book is done. These always feel clever rather than Smart, but in a still satisfying way. Enjoyable way to pass the time and I do stay up too late trying to find out what happens next. But unlikely to be the type of thing I’d want to re-read. There maybe isn’t a huge amount of depth, although Barry tries to explore (or at least mention) some Big Capital Letter Ideas, but that’s not really the point or super effective. Like most adventure or mystery stories, it’s more surface-level plot, and that’s perfectly fine.