It’s the new year! Otherwise known as the time for “Best Of” lists of everything from “best memes” to “best essays”. It’s not a bad time, because I do love lists.
Since I had a rather disappointing December in terms of books, in lieu of a Currently Reading post for the month I’m writing a recap of the overall best books I read this year (a little late, as usual). Some of them I’ve reviewed previously on this blog; others I read earlier in the year and (unless you follow my Goodreads) I haven’t mentioned them before.
I bid 2015 a medium fond farewell, and hope that 2016 is full of a new crop of awesome books.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Jemisin’s work is a consistent pleasure, and her newest series is no exception. I’ve seen this book break what I think of as the “genre barrier” on Best Books of 2015 lists, which it definitely deserves. Another fresh world populated with complex and fascinating characters. The only drawback is that as the first book in a series, it definitely left me craving more right now.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. I am still gushing about this one, and probably will be for a while because I still have not found anyone else who has read it and I desperately need other people to read it. A fascinating story about empire and power, following a young woman’s rise to prominence as she attempts to subvert the tactics of the conquerer to save her homeland. One of the most original fantasy books I’ve read in years, brimming with politics and intrigue but also genuine emotion. Apparently there is a planned sequel. I am waiting intently to hear about a release date.
Augustus by John Williams. I have been saying for years (okay, since first reading the Res Gestae and Suetonius) that there should be fiction about/centered on Caesar Augustus. Apparently there was at least one and nobody told me. John Williams’ book, styled as an epistolary novel (with smatterings of field reports, diary entries, and public proclamations) is a stunning writing of the chaotic early days of the shift from the Late Republic to the Early Empire in Rome. Augustus both captivated me as a novel and delighted me as an (amateur) classical scholar. Highly recommended.
Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb. Robin Hobb is an old favorite of mine, so going back to this series was like returning to an old friend – and finding that friend not only unchanged, but matured and deepened by the years. Robin Hobb hasn’t lost her touch in the least for writing tightly plotted, multi-layered works that nonetheless evoke powerful emotion for their flawed characters – especially the middle-aged FitzChivalry, who has found a little bit of peace and quiet after years of strife only to find the drama of the wider world encroaching on his life once again. The first and second book in the planned trilogy are out, with the third on the way in 2017.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. A mixture of horror, suspense, and mystery, Beukes’ novel about a murderer in Detroit creating grotesque works of art out of human bodies winds several threads together to create a story both mezmerising and horrific, with touches of the surreal. The (only slightly heavy) commentary on the “ruin porn” surrounding Detroit adds a thought-provoking layer to this book.
Missoula: Rape in a College Town by Jon Krakauer. This book, centered specifically on a few rape cases at the titular university, is about a subject that isn’t unfamiliar to me. I recently graduated from college, after all – one deeply embroiled in reconsidering its own policy of dealing with sexual assault on campus. Nonetheless, Krakauer’s powerfully written analysis reminded me all over again why we are still talking about this, and why we can’t stop talking about this. The issue is still very relevant, not just in terms of college and the extra sympathy for high-value athletes, but also the ways in which the legal system stymies and frustrates even those victims who do come forward – and the even fewer who manage to get their attackers charged. Rape culture is real, kids. You might be tired of hearing it, but as long as it exists it’s still worth talking about.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. This book came out of nowhere and became one of my surprise favorites. I’d been interested in it for a while and finally got around to actually reading it, and discovered a lovely, heartfelt story reminiscent of a folktale and centered around two of my favorite literary characters of the year. The meticulously researched New York of immigrant neighborhoods was an extra bonus. This was Wecker’s first book: I really hope to see more from her soon.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates. The book everyone was talking about this year – and with good reason. I reviewed this one previously, but it remains a stunning read, brimming with powerful emotion and hitting like a punch. Coates is a powerful writer. I try to avoid calling books “necessary” but this one might deserve the label. (I mean, Toni Morrison called it “required reading”; maybe if you won’t listen to me you’ll listen to her.
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. Apparently I’m on a “fantasy that deals with empire and power and also heavily into religion” kick, or maybe that has always been my thing and it’s only recently that I’ve found the books to fit it. City of Stairs is half fantasy and half mystery, set against the backdrop of a city ruined by the destruction of its empire – and the death of its gods. Into this enters a spy looking into the murder of an official who finds herself rapidly embroiled in a conspiracy that runs deep into history. And more than that I dare not say.
Angry White Men by Michael Kimmel examines what he calls the “aggrieved entitlement” of white men in America, tracing its sources and following several threads of how it is expressed, frequently with violence. Kimmel sympathizes with the struggles of these men without endorsing them, noting that much of the anger has real causes but is misdirected – for instance, directing anger at lack of jobs to women and minorities rather than the pressures of capitalism and mechanization carving away chunks of labor opportunities. A work that gives clarity to the often incomprehensible positions of lower-middle class white men.
Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. This series, beginning with Annihilation and continuing in Authority and Acceptance, is a trilogy of three fairly short books centering around a peculiar phenomenon known as Zone One. Like Vandermeer’s other fiction, this series is weird, surreal, and touched with a strange, unique beauty. I have been delighted to see this series get the attention it has – Vandermeer is a writer I’ve liked for several years and it’s great to see other people picking him up.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Everyone and their mother recommends this book – with good reason. An eloquently written, painful-to-read account of the prison/justice complex and the ways in which it has developed to keep black people – particularly black men – as a nearly permanent underclass. A convincing and comprehensive book, and I think it is impossible to read without changing the way you think about the justice system in the United States – and how fundamentally it needs drastic reform.
Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I was very late jumping on this series. I debated whether I could in fairness include them both on this list, since technically I read Wolf Hall at the end of 2014, but since I read Bring Up the Bodies this year I decided it counted. The third book in this series following the life of Henry VIII’s notorious advisor Thomas Cromwell is forthcoming, but don’t wait until it’s out to pick up the first two. Mantel’s writing is beautiful, and while books on the Tudor period are a dime a dozen, her writing from Cromwell’s perspective lends a fresh gloss to familiar events. A delight for historical fiction and literary fiction fans alike.