This was a year in which I re-read some treasured books of yesteryear, along with reading new stuff. I haven’t done much re-reading in the last 10 years, mostly because I can be overwhelmed by the vast amount of amazing books waiting to be read. But it was such a joy to return to beloved stories, a real balm to the soul, offering new delights and wonders. Of the 60 books I read this year, here are my favorites:
“The Thief” series by Megan Whalen Turner I just realized a 5th book in this series came out (“Thick as Thieves”), so I read that, and then found myself re-reading the entire series, which was such a joy. Her phrasing is economical and tight; she’s never stingy with an adjective but neither is she superfluous. Pacing is steady and then pages turn very quickly. Plot is revealed in new and exciting ways. Great surprises and twists and turns, with adventure and humor and heart.The books stand alone, but are so much richer if you have read the previous books, giving you a more fleshed out world and characters. Fictional historical setting, following small kingdoms in ancient Greece-like islands (although with some shades of the Byzantine Empire), these are a true joy to read. I became so emotionally invested in these characters and their world. There’s a new narrator each book, and it’s masterfully done. These can appear simple on the surface, but they are so well-crafted. A true joy as surprises are revealed.
“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas Might be my favorite book of the year. Our narrator Starr has such a clear voice as she tries to navigate the world, code-switching between her mostly white private school and her neighborhood, sharing her funny observations and joys and her confusion and pain and uncertainty, too. This book made me cry often, my heart aching for these complex true people and situations that don’t offer an easy solution. But Starr has an amazing support network and grows into herself and her voice. It’s powerful and beautiful and heart-rending and thought-provoking and enjoyable and something everyone should read. Everyone. (Also, I didn’t know anything about the plot when I grabbed this book to bring with me to jury duty. So then I was the weird quietly crying lady in the corner. Awkward)
“Not a Hazardous Sport” by Nigel Barley Found this when I was looking for travel memoirs related to Bali and Indonesia. I do so love a travel memoir, and reading about a place I’m about to travel to is wonderful. I found this to be a pretty entertaining read. I was a bit nervous about it’s age, as the field of anthropology 30 or 40 years ago wasn’t as culturally sensitive as one could hope, and so reading older anthropology memoirs can sometimes be awful. But this was actually okay, and there were only a few moments that had me raising my eyebrow or cringing. Funny narrative tone. Good stories. Memorable characters and the narrator often acknowledges himself as the butt of the joke, rather than mocking the “other-ness” of the folks he meets.
“How to be Both” by Ali Smith This was wonderful. It’s told in two parts, one narrated by the ghost of a real Renaissance painter, and one narrated by a young modern teenager. In a whimsical (and effective) author/publisher choice, the book is printed in TWO different versions. In half the versions, the girl’s story is told first. In the other half, the painter’s story is told first. And I love that people seem to have a fondness/loyalty to whichever order their version was. Mine was Painter first, then Girl. Although I can see that it’s probably a slightly easier read with Girl first. At least, you have to pay more attention with Painter version if you don’t know the Girl backstory yet (the Painter narrative, being told by a ghost observing the girl and remembering their own life, is told with moments of confusion and floating timeline). But I loved it in this version. And I think having to pay attention can be a powerful important thing in a book and leads to a much more rewarding experience. And I personally didn’t find it hard to follow. But reading reviews online, some folks had a harder time with painter first. So I guess, if your novel is published that way and you’re worried about it, you could easily read the 2nd half first. Beautiful and fun and intriguing use of words and language. Evocative descriptions. Characters that are true and engender lots of emotional response in the reader. Funny and sad and lovely. Great stuff. Interesting discussions of art and gender and life and loss and love. Big themes, told in gorgeous prose and with sometimes sparing details. Powerful small moments. Truly wonderful.
“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by NK Jemisin Devoured this book in a day. It was such an engaging and fun read, full of lovely writing but with a very easy flow. Fascinating fantasy world-building. Great characters. I haven’t spent an entire day focused on reading one book in awhile. It was kind of the best Saturday ever. I’d have to take some breaks to walk the dog and stretch my body, but so good. Immersive fantasy world with an intriguing history and culture and religions. Very good stuff.
“The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi Soooo good! Characters and descriptions are powerful and interesting and it’s solidly great. A very believable near-future. Clean drinking water is becoming scarce and this near-future US is struggling, with water-refugees from desert states (like Texas and Arizona) roaming the country, seeking survival. And tall tales about the mossy rain-soaked pacific northwest are shared in shantytowns across the southwest. Chilling at moments. But very exciting and fast-paced plots. Enforcers and gang lords and corporate overlords (Warlords?) and the small regular people trying to survive. Plucky journalist and damaged people meet in unexpected ways. Some ridiculous OVER THE TOP action hero tropes (in that folks are surviving/enduring pretty intense injuries) but it’s great stuff. Very entertaining action story with some interesting themes and ideas. I’ve liked all of Bacigalupi’s works I’ve read, and found this to be a more approachable/easier read than “The Windup Girl” and so totally different from the also excellent “Ship breaker.”
“Landline” and “Carry On” by Rainbow Rowell Oh, Rainbow Rowell continues to write compelling evocative characters with very real emotions and geniune-sounding dialogue that tugs on my heart strings. “Landline” is a rare NOT young adult novel from her, and it’s very very good. A couple struggling with their marriage and their lives, asking if love is “enough”? Can they find a way to stay together? What are the ramifications for their young girls if they divorce? It plays with the timeline in unexpected ways and was really great. It doesn’t offer any easy answers, keeping the story real and powerful, and unveiling some moving truths of life and career and family. “Carry On” was born out of “Fan Girl” (an earlier Rainbow Rowell novel, and probably my favorite of hers. Well, maybe I love “Eleanor and Park” more. Maybe they’re tied in my affections). The narrator of “Fan Girl” writes fan fiction about the Simon Snow books (a fantasy world, much like Harry Potter, that the author created for Fan Girl). And in “Carry On,” Ms Rowell WRITES those actual Simon Snow stories. It’s kind of meta in its creation/existence, but it totally works and is a supremely satisfying ‘boy wizard’ story on its own. While “Carry On” could be read as a stand alone fantasy story, I think it’s MUCH better/richer if you’ve read “Fan Girl” first. For real. Do it! (Also because Fan Girl is a really amazing story, with a narrator dealing with family and her fears of mental illness and being broken and finding her way through college and she spoke to my heart)
“Parable of the Talents” by Octavia Butler Hot off the presses!! (sarcasm because everyone knows this) Octavia Butler is an amazing author!! One of the best ever. There’s a reason her name is mentioned so often and with such reverence. I read “Parable of the Sower” a few years ago and loved it very much. But this sequel is EVEN BETTER. Read it on my kindle and found myself highlighting almost every single paragraph. It’s gorgeous. It’s powerful. Evocative language and heart-rending situations. Complex characters. The discussions of religion are so prescient and moving. And it is fricking TERRIFYING how much this story of post-apocalyptic United States, published in 1998, mimics the USA in 2017. Shockingly upsettingly prescient. Holy crap!! Bone-chilling. But perhaps there is some hope in the teachings of Earthseed. EVERYONE MUST READ THIS (but read Parable of the Sower first).
“Frog” by Mo Yan This was one of our book club choices. And I wavered on whether to include it in this list, as it was hard for me to become fully engaged (partly my lack of knowledge about this history of China and the many cultural references, partly writing style or translation?). The dispassionate telling of traumatic events seems intentional (whether character choices or different cultural approach, I’m not sure) but my very “Western” brain took awhile to submerge myself into the story. And yet, it’s full of some really memorable characters and moments, and it’s a fascinating story. I find myself thinking of it often, and I’m glad to have read it. Definitely a distinct narrative voice and a viewpoint I often don’t read about.
“Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too” by Jomny Sun This is a weirdly perfect little book. It’s quirky and sweet and sad and hilarious and full of touching little cartoons and misspellings. More graphic novel in presentation. But strangely powerful and the images and ideas have lingered in my consciousness.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot The story is even more fascinating than you’ve heard. Skloot describes these people with compassion and humanity, pointing out her own flaws and uncertainty and her role in this story, and her struggles with how to report this story without furthering the exploitation of this family. In a less deft hand this could’ve been really rough reading. The subject matter is upsetting enough, thank you very much. Compelling non-fiction, offering some great scientific information and history, and showing all of the questions for which we are still seeking answers. Questions of ownership and autonomy and medical research and greater good vs financial remuneration and how murky these waters quickly become when billions of dollars are on the line.
“Ancillary Sword” & “Ancillary Mercy” by Ann Leckie I loved this book and series. Characters are amazing. Themes are strong and presented in organic and surprising ways. Space Opera is where my love of Sci Fi really shines! This series is not really about tech/robots (thank goodness), but cultures and politics. Fascinating characters and unique narrators and big ideas, and so many evocative powerful small details. It’s a joy watching this story unfold. Surprising and fun! Agitating and sometimes challenging with questions of identity and gender and social strata and community, but it’s such great fun and a relatively easy read. Plus most of the action takes place on worlds (not on space ships!) And so much tea drinking *laughs * The cultures created, the social groups and strata are fantastically real and complex. World building and character building at its finest.
“Beat the Reaper” and “Wild Thing” by Josh Bazell Hot damn, “Beat the Reaper” is a fun wild ride!! I first read it years ago, and remember saying “Oh my god” multiple times, out loud to myself, in the final scenes. Plus I’m such a sucker for footnotes in fiction!! And the sarcastic narrative voice is so great. Mobster thriller in the world of medicine, it’s just a great way to spend a few nights. I re-read this because my bookclub had us read “Wild Thing” (which continues the story). “Wild Thing” was also fun (it not only has footnotes in fiction but also has about 25 pages of end notes, too!!!). Although I think “Beat the Reaper” 10/10 and “Wild Thing” is 7/10.
“Scalped” by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera Gritty and evocative and fascinating graphic novel series. Almost noir, following crime and undercover investigators and complex relationships on and off the a fictional Reservation in South Dakota. It’s not easy and it’s very violent and ugly at times. But Jason Aaron writes complex characters, all with baggage and damage, but all maintain their humanity (even those often written-off by society, whether because of addiction or past choices, etc). R. M. Guéra illustrations are dynamic and powerful and unsettling. Issue #6 or #7 was my absolute favorite, as it was all short stories and vignettes, sharing character backstory and folklore. Lovely rich textures. I cared more for the setting and world than for the plot, if I’m honest.
Vorkosigan series Lois McMaster Bujold In a year this chaotic with such voices screeching their hate at top volume, my heart and soul can get overwhelmed. And Lois McMaster Bujold is such a powerful “port in the storm.” I’m still making my way through the Vorkosigan series. I pick up missing books at used bookstores over the years, and I parse them out, like good medicine, as needed. I read three more this year. The story of Miles Vorkosigan and his world continues to be wonderful and complex and page-turning fun, full of plot and politics and high adventure. But several of the stories were small in scale and scope this time, yet none the less powerful or meaningful. It’s so worth reading all of these. (Her Curse of Chalion books, which are more fantasy-based, are also wonderful). These books are balms, ways to stay up way too late reading and caring and feeling and occasionally crying for these characters, with lots of laughter and smiles and gasps, too.
“Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly This story and history is really interesting and Shetterly has done the world a great service in all of her massive research and interviews and compilation of a rarely told story. That said, the reading experience isn’t super engaging. It feels like a series of facts and events, but there’s no strong cohesive through line. I feel like you could read the chapters/sections completely out of order and be almost totally fine. She obviously had so much history and she wanted to share so much (and as it’s available nowhere else, that’s a good instinct!!). I don’t know if it needed a stronger editor or something, but I found reading it to feel like homework sometimes. And also, I could pick up and put it down without feeling like I’d lost anything. At times there is extensive technical discussions (which are necessary in order to explain the roles being performed at NASA) and at other times I felt like important details were left out. Still, I learned a lot and I’m glad I read it. But, unlike most book/movie combinations, I was actually really glad I’d seen the movie first. It was fascinating to see all the changes the film made to make a better narrative story, but also, having some emotional connection to these women from the film, it helped insert some heart into the reading of this.
“Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett It was very pleasant to re-visit this book. It’s very fun, full of word play and silliness; the quirky characters and wordplay for which both of these authors are known. It’s not perfect and I’m not sure it’s worthy of the evangelism some bestow upon it, but it’s a very fun story.