So, 2016, amirite?
From a personal standpoint, my year wasn’t half-bad – I finished grad school, got a new job (albeit in something way outside my field, but still! Job! That pays well!), and didn’t have any major mental health breakdowns (which is a huge improvement from last year!) Other than that, I and everyone around me got to have fun watching a screaming orange toddler with a penchant for fascism, white supremacy, and sexual assault get elected to the presidency.
I had a difficult time coming up with this year’s best-of list. Compared to last year, it seems as though I’ve read fewer books I’ve truly loved with both my head and my heart. Which isn’t to say I read terrible books, but that fewer reads instilled in me that mysterious, alchemical (and highly biased/personal) feeling of transcendence and love and deep-seated knowledge that a book is For Me, that it speaks to my soul. As such, my “books I enjoyed” list is almost twice as long as my “favorite books” list. So it goes.
Without further ado, and presented in chronological order of when I read them, from earliest to latest:
Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez
One of the few historical fiction books I read this year, and inarguably one of the best. This book hurts, in the best possible way, and confronts racism, classism, sexual assault, widespread tragedy, and rewriting of personal and larger narratives in all their ugly reality while honoring the love and tenderness and core of steel possessed by Naomi Vargas and shared between her and Wash Fuller and her siblings Cari and Beto. Out of Darkness caused grapple with what it means to write historical fiction honestly and with integrity.
Illuminae and Geminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
These books are so much fun – epistolary space opera with crazy plots, serious consequences, ridiculous (by which I mean fantastic) senses of humor, and (heterosexual) romances that AREN’T TERRIBLE. Illuminae is in the vein of my beloved Battlestar Galactica in terms of plot and stakes, and Geminae ups the ante even more so.
The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
I am simultaneously crying that I read these books on the very year current events aligned to lead us down a path that will very likely resemble the future portrayed within them and relieved that at least I read them and can now walk into that future with further-opened eyes. Octavia Butler is a grandmaster of science fiction for a reason – she’s really fucking good at it.
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
The year one of my best-of lists doesn’t contain a Frances Hardinge book if one was released is a year that doesn’t exist, and if it does the year will need to have a do-over in order to set things right. The Lie Tree may be the best of hers I’ve read yet – wonderful, witty, and incisive writing, fantastic horror and mix of genres and stories and exploration of truth and unreliability of both people and narratives, and in the writing Faith Sunderly, Hardinge continues to write the kinds of stories about gender and women and being people that I love best.
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
Fairytale art sister love. That’s it, that’s the book. Kat Howard has written the most fairytale book of the year and it is a heart-gauger in its honesty and meaningfulness when it comes to the power of art and creation, and what art means as something individual and as something shared. Also “Tam Lin.”
Rise: A Newsflesh Collection by Mira Grant
Reading this ginormous book of short stories and novella-length fiction set in the Newsflesh universe felt like coming home. I continue to love Mira Grant’s worldbuilding, and even more so I love her characters, all of them fighting to survive in the ways they each know how in a world where the dead are no longer sacred and the rules regarding survival are as harsh as they are deadly.
Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
In the first line of my review I wrote “I am Pen and Pen is me.” That statement, the way I explained it, continues to be true. The story of a butch lesbian having strength and confidence in her appearance and who she is against her friends and family who tear her down – all while getting a girlfriend – is a book I love not just because it’s well written, but also because it’s one of those rare books that I personally have that recognizable instance of “seeing oneself” in literature, in a way that’s meaningful.
Radical by E. M. Kokie
I have a type, and that is butch characters in my fiction. And this year I got to read TWO books with butch protagonists. Bex plans to survive anything that happens – she knows how to prep, she knows how to shoot, and she’ll continue practicing even if no one in her family takes her seriously or truly cares about who she is. But when her brother gets himself, and her family, involved something truly dangerous what is Bex willing to do to survive? And who is she doing it for? This book ripped out my heart and crushed it into itty-bitty pieces. Also – actual, explicit F/F sex scene in a YA book from a mainstream publisher! Contemporary is typically not my jam, and E. M. Kokie’s books are one of my favorites in YA.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This is a perfect book for someone who loves history, specifically the intersection of history as personal as national as personal—seven generations of two branches of a family, one in Ghana and the other in the United States, one side growing out of aiding and abetting in the Atlantic slave trade and the other side forged out of its direct experience of tyranny and brutality under it, connected through their shared history of the slave trade and thrown apart because of it. Yaa Gyasi is a beautiful writer, evoking both fourteen (!) separate historical milieus and fourteen different POV characters with equal skill and grace.
Books I also really enjoyed:
Out of a total of 68 books read in 2016 (including nonfiction and print novellas), 30 were by authors of color (44%), and out of 43 book reviewed on this blog, 21 were by authors of color (49%). My aim for this blog is for half the books I review to be written by authors of color, a parity I almost achieved. I am still much more likely to unthinkingly reach for a book written by a white author, one reason being I’m still used to unthinkingly reaching for white-authored books as a matter of course, and another reason being those books tend to be more immediately available in the library, and individual titles are more likely to be present in larger amounts of copies. For next year I need to start putting more forethought into what my immediate TBR pile looks like (including which books are on my holds list), which requires awareness of which books I’m likely to acquire more quickly in conjunction with awareness of what kind of story I feel like reading at any given time.
This coming year I will also be planning to incorporate a bit more adult historical fiction and nonfiction into my reading list. (The nonfiction will not be getting reviewed because no, I am no longer in school, and I refuse to succumb to any guilt I might feel for not doing a full academic analysis instead of a book review).
Happy end of 2016 (finally!) and best of luck in the coming year. May we all survive the best ways we know how.