Reading Roundup: Best of 2016

It’s been a quiet past month – an a rather chaotic end to the good old year of 2016, which means this post is coming late. But, as I did last year, I’d like to dedicate a post (in lieu of my Currently Reading for December) to spotlighting some of the best from the last twelve months. If only so people can argue with my choices, because I have come to believe that is the sole purpose of “best of the year” lists.

That being said – going through my list, I read a lot of good books last year. The total came to 121 books read in 2016, and a fair number of those I enjoyed. I don’t know that I’d say there was a real knockout on the level of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, but that’s setting a high bar – and unkind to a number of stellar authors I really enjoyed.

Without further ado. It took a fair amount of work to whittle my original list of 18 down to 10, but what’s a best of list without challenges? (The ones I removed are still here, though, listed at the bottom as honorable mentions.)

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

I read something recently about a shift, for those fascinated with things like ghosts and cryptids, from questions of “is it real” to “why is it important to people”, and that’s what drew me to this book (as someone for whom that’s very much been true). A couple years ago I wrote a short essay examining the distribution of ghost stories in the Pacific Northwest, and discussing how they tended to be localized around either landmarks or historical sites, and the ways in which people use ghosts to connect to the past – or a past.

Colin Dickey discusses a range of hauntings across the United States in the context of what they suggest about American narratives of hauntings and history. One particularly intriguing section discussed the white-washing of a former slave market – ghost sightings were primarily of white people, with little to no mention of the atrocities that happened there. Ghost stories, he concludes, can both recapitulate or reinforce an existing narrative, or raise concerns sublimated in mainstream culture.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This book was sci-fi that extended itself to fulfill a potential that I think is often lost – delving deep into the lines along which an alternate culture – totally alien to our own – might evolve. Almost more of a treatise on hypothetical evolution – but a thrilling, cinematic one – than conventional narrative, Tchaikovsky weaves together the stories of exiles from a destroyed Earth and an unusual “people” growing to maturity, concluding on a hopeful note that offers something other than unilateral annihilation as a possibility for alien coexistence.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Sometimes a book reminds you why you learned to read. This book – the first in a series – was that for me. It was delightful without being twee, the best kind of new fairytale. Entirely original, it reminded me of books like The Phantom Tollbooth and The City of Dreaming Books that are as much commentary on literature and reading and stories as they are stories themselves.

September chooses to be spirited off to Fairyland by a Leopard, and there finds that all is not well. Bringing in sacrifice, friendship, and adventure in the spirit of the best fairy tales, reminiscent of Wizard of Oz but with a sharper edge, this was a book that made me sigh with pleasure when it was over – and start looking for the sequel immediately.

Excluded: Making Feminism and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano

When a book makes me whisper “yes!” out loud in a coffee shop, I know I’ve found something special. Julia Serano is a nuanced theorist who writes with deep compassion and understanding about the problems with feminist and queer movements, and the ways in which all too often they simply form new binaries and hierarchies in place of the old. As someone who has been involved with both of those communities in the last few years, this book spoke to a lot of my frustration with the movements, dissecting them in clear, articulate ways and offering new ways forward.

I’m looking forward to reading Julia Serano’s other work, if Excluded is any kind of representative example.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I do not read a lot of realistic fiction, as the rest of this list makes evident (and the general condition of this blog). When a book brings me out of my comfort zone, it’s almost always something exceptional – and Homegoing was unquestionably exceptional. It took my breath away and stands out among the best novels I’ve read, possibly ever. This was Yaa Gyasi’s debut, and I really hope to see more from her.

Homegoing weaves together the stories of two families that originate from two half-sisters in West Africa. One marries a British officer, remaining in Africa; the other is sold into slavery to what becomes the United States. Moving through generation after generation, Gyasi tells beautiful, painful, and heartfelt stories of each family member, their lives both singular and unique and intimately connected – with their ancestors and with their family far away.

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

When I was deciding which books from my original 18 to keep and which to bump, one of my criteria was “uniqueness” – how much did this book push the boundaries of what I thought the genre could do? Redemption in Indigo is a standout in that category. Chaotic, oral in writing style, short and quick and clever, this folktale-inspired book was a delightful surprise. When Paama leaves her husband to return to her family, she stumbles into possession of a powerful magical artifact – whose original owner wants it back.

The playful and unique voice of the writing in this book is what stood out to me most, but the story itself was also a bright spot in a darkening world.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

I love Lovecraft. I really do. And Lovecraft is horrendously, hideously racist.

So I’m really enjoying this new trend of writers who take on Lovecraft’s legacy and face his prejudices, not ignoring them or trying to cut them out, but making them an integral part of their world-building, acknowledging them and metabolizing them into the story. Victor LaValle’s novella this year is the gold standard so far of that storytelling. After all, next to the banal horror of racism, what is there to fear from indifferent cosmic entities?

(In the honorable mention category is another book that fits very nicely with this one: The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, which I also recommend, in addition to Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.)

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

The language in this book, oh my god. I have not read a writer who uses language like Sofia Samatar did in A Stranger in Olondria in a long time. It’s beautiful, sensual, so incredibly lovely that I just got lost in the words themselves sometimes and lost track of the plot.

Which is fitting, for a book that is really about the power of books and texts themselves.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

I’d like to sneak in a recommendation for the entire Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, because all of it is amazing and I love the world building, but this one might be my favorite so far. An attendant for a group that creates custom gods for various purposes stumbles into something larger that may threaten the entire structure of her society.

The Craft Sequence plays a lot with the relationships between gods and worshipers in a way that I find extremely compelling. Also, if this is the sort of thing that matters to you: the main character is trans. Not much is made of it in the context of the book itself, but it is definitely there, stated in text, which is neat.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

It feels a little like cheating to list a sequel here, but City of Blades also stands just fine on its own (though it is the sequel to City of Stairs, and probably is better read in sequence).

Following General Mugharesh, pulled out of her retirement to deal with a crisis situation in the city of the (deceased) goddess of war, like the first book it deals with a lot of very heavy issues without feeling – well, heavy. The aftermath of war is even more apparent here than it was in City of Stairs, especially its psychological cost – both on the narrrator herself and the city she is tasked with investigating. Powerful, smart, and compelling, this book was another home run for Robert Jackson Bennett that sets me up to be thrilled for City of Miracles coming out this year.

Honorable Mentions: Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World by Sharon Waxman, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, The Devourers by Indra Das, The Trespasser by Tana French, The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold.

There you have it. Looking forward to 2017, there are a number of very exciting releases to anticipate – one of which I’ve already read (Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey) and others of which are waiting for me on my brand new e-reader (The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley). I’ve also set myself up for a Wheel of Time reread this year, so I’m looking forward to a lot of fun reminiscing about the series that made me a real fantasy fan (well, that and The Belgariad).

Until the end of this month, and the first Currently Reading of 2017. Happy New Year!

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