My Favorite Reads of 2016

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.

Anyway.

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

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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

illuminae gemina-by-amie-kaufman-and-jay-kristoffThese 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

parable of the sower parable of the talentsI 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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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Review: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

the lie tree

Do you like historical fiction novels?

Do you like horror novels?

Do you like novels with a light touch of the fantastic?

Do you like novels written for teenagers that are far superior to many novels written for adults?

Do you like novels about the roles of women and men but especially women set in Victorian England?

Do you like novels about the history of science and scientific exploration?

Do you like murder mysteries?

Do you like prose that is as perfect as prose can be?

Do you like novels about girls who lie, who sneak around and keep secrets, who want revenge, who can be cruel, who constantly defy expectations and face danger and punishment for either being themselves or for being female to begin with?

If you said yes to these questions, then you have no excuse not to read The Lie Tree.

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My Favorite Reads of 2015

I read a lot of really good books in 2015, to the point that it was annoyingly difficult to put together a “Best of” list, or even a “Favorite Books Read This Year” list. But I did manage to make some hard decisions and cobble together a list of some titles that unequivocally blew my mind. Note: not all of them were published in 2015. Links are provided for my reviews if they’re available.

Listed in chronological order of when I read them:

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

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The story of a young girl who wakes up one day to concerned parents, an insatiable hunger, cobwebs for tears, and a screaming younger sister who swears that thing isn’t human. The story of a changeling child fighting for life and to save her counterpart at the cost of her own life. Frances Hardinge’s writing is as clever and beautiful as always, and her stories are consistently top-notch.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

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The story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses set in Prohibition-era twenties’ jazz clubs? Devastating writing and storytelling that’s brutal in its economy and how much it conveys in so few words? Hard-hearted female protagonists who make hard decisions to protect her sisters and because no one else can? Fairytale mystery and grandiose allure juxtaposed with city, real-life grittiness, drama, sweat, fear, and danger? Yes, yes, yes. Yes to it all.

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

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The fantasy/science fiction story of a woman born and trapped in a skyscraper, a genetic experiment whose skin can burn brighter and hotter than her captors ever dreamed, a story rooted in various African peoples’ stories and magics and histories, a story rooted in anti-colonialism and survival, fear, love, and rage. Entry #1 in “Women Full of Rage Who Destroy the World.”

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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The story of a world wracked by cataclysmic earthquakes, where apocalypses are common occurrences. The story of three women with the power to manipulate the forces of the earth, hated by everyone around them, forced to submit their bodies and their power to a body that tells them they are sub-human, isolated and controlled for their and everyone’s protection. This is a story of endings—the world itself and the individual worlds of all three women. First entry in a trilogy, and Entry #2 in “Women Full of Rage Who Destroy the World.”

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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A deeply personal letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son Samori about the ins and outs of being a black man in the United States and the violent history and logic behind race and anti-black racism in the United States. It’s about a story white people have created and continue to believe and enforce, and it’s a story Coates tells his son in order for him to understand whilst condemning the necessity of the telling.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

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The story of Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe, leader of England’s Society of Unnatural Philosophers in Napoleonic England, and his erstwhile student, the polite hellion Prunella Gentleman. A hilarious and pointed Regency tale of racial, gender, and class politics, fairies, international diplomacy, manners, and Polite Society, written in pitch-perfect Regency-esque language. Fun for the whole family.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

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The story of Alison Bechdel’s exploration of her identity through the lens of her relationship with her deceased father. A beautifully and sophisticatedly written nonlinear, multi-narrative memoir that encompasses Alison’s childhood, her father and mother’s courtship, the house she grew up in and her father’s pride and joy, her father’s complicated relationship to his sexuality and sense of self, Alison’s coming out as a lesbian, and her father’s subsequent death. The book of the year where I had no clue how much it would blow me away.

Ancillary Mercy By Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryMercy_COVER

The conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy and the story we were all waiting for of how Breq, Seivarden, Tisarwat, Mercy of Kalr, and Presger Translator Zeiat integrate themselves into Athoek Station and thoroughly subvert Anandaar Minaai. Having loved the other two books to bits, this one was the perfect conclusion and I am still crying that this trilogy is over.

The Shadows Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn

final-Shadow-cover

The story of Chloe, the youngest of the three Fates who spin, measure, and slice all mortals’ life threads. The story of how she falls in love with Aglaia, a mortal girl with a beautiful life thread, and the devastating truths she and her sisters learn when they entangle themselves in the fates of mortals. Written with prose that’s so crystal-clear I want to tear my hair out at how good it is. Entry #3 in “Women Who Destroy the World.

And because this year was such a good reading year for me, here’s another list of books I really enjoyed reading:

  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
  • Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
  • Greenglass House by Kate Milford
  • Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
  • Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon
  • Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
  • About a Girl by Sarah McCarry
  • Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
  • Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

One other thing I’m pleased by is how much re-reading I was able to accomplish this year. In addition to re-reading the Circle of Magic and Circle Opens quartet for Mark Reads, I re-read Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (in preparation for the third book), and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.

Earlier this year I had committed myself to K.Tempest Bradford’s challenge to not read any books by cis straight white men for an entire year. I mostly succeeded—I slipped up a few times here and there (6 times to be exact), but the majority of authors I read did not fall into all four categories.

I also specifically tried to read more authors of color. Approximately a third of the books I read were authored by people of color, as were a third of the actual authors in question. When I started this blog, my goal was for half the books I reviewed to have been written by authors of color. In this I was not successful—only 5 of the 13 books I reviewed were written by authors of color—so my goal next year is to actually achieve and maintain equal parity.

On a professional level book-wise, I also had a good year. I worked on several books for Ooligan Press this year, including the recently-published YA novel A Series of Small Maneuvers by Eliot Treichel and the upcoming 2016 short story collection Siblings by Kait Heacock. Most excitingly for me, Allison Green’s travel memoir The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, whose publishing team I joined last fall, came out this past June. Leading up to and after the launch, I got to do publicity outreach, proofreading, and designing of the epub version of the book. The highlight of 2015 was being able to cross off “appearing on the radio” from my bucket list—in addition to arranging for Allison Green to be interviewed on the radio show Bookworm, I briefly appeared alongside her to talk about Ooligan.

Personally, I did have some setbacks. I kept getting sick the first third of the year and my mental health decided to take a hike a few months later. Thankfully the latter has been on the mend recently. (I would say the former was getting better too if not for the fact I’m currently stuck in bed with a bad cold and fever on the very last day of the year. Go figure.)

Things I’m looking forward to next year? Finishing my Master’s program and graduating (I’m ignoring for now the part where I’ll be frantically applying for jobs in the meantime.) Working on the publication of Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s as-yet untitled third entry in her YA Jewish-historical fiction-time travel series. (I’ve already read the manuscript and it’s going to be awesome.) Re-reading even more books than this past year, and maybe even throwing in some more literary and nonfiction titles amidst my fantasy, sci-fi, and YA reads.

May your 2016 not be too terrible (it’s Election Year after all) and may it be filled with lots of good books and friends in the meantime.