My Favorite Reads of 2017

Another year, another best-of list.

When it came to writing and posting reviews this year, I fell down on the job, hard (although I am proud I was able to read and review all the freely available short fiction nominations for the Nebula and Hugo awards).

Nevertheless, I read a ton of incredible books this year. So without further ado, here’s my long, in-chronological-order-of-when-I-read-them, list of the best books I read in 2017.

the-devourers

 The Devourers by Indra Das
The first book I read in 2017, and I immediately knew upon finishing it that I would be including it in this very list. I love stories about stories and the creation of histories, narratives, mythologies, and peoples, and this three-part epic saga in which werewolves absorb the memories and histories of their prey masterfully combines all these things into an evocative, gruesome, and beautiful story.

 

 

 

newJimCrowBookCoverThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
I’m late to the party on this one, but glad I finally got around to joining. A thorough examination of the anti-black racist roots behind the U.S.’s criminal justice system, Michelle Alexander breaks down the racist origins of the War on Drugs, the militarization of the police, and the way each element of the criminal justice system—apprehension by the cops, charges pressed, the prosecutors’ demands, the composition of the jury, time served inside prison, and the parole system for those released—is consciously, deliberately, consistently meant to arrest and imprison black Americans and Latinos. I learned a lot, and I finished this book with a better understanding of the racism inherent in the U.S. criminal justice system and a long list of Supreme Court cases I copied from the book summarizing all the curtailed civil rights of civilians and inordinate liberties granted to cops.

downloadThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I’m not sure what to say about this book that hasn’t already been said, but here goes—it’s good. It’s really fucking good. Starr Carter was with her childhood friend Khalil when a white police officer pulls them over and shoots Khalil, killing him. Now Star has to survive the aftermath, at home, in her neighborhood, and at her mostly-white prep school, all while speaking out against the police and to tell the true story of what happened that night. Starr is a fantastic protagonist (really every single character is fully fleshed-out and alive), the writing and interconnection of every plot element is flawless, and everything about the story—especially Starr’s family—is filled with so much love it hurts. It is 100% a perfect and perfectly written book.

3027951432565582Dreadnought and Sovereign by April Daniels
Superhero books aren’t typically my jam. On the other hand, all other superhero books don’t feature a teenage trans girl named Danny Tozer who a) became a superhero when the then-Dreadnought died and b) in addition to getting his superpowers, had her entire body transformed via Superpowered Gender Confirmation Surgery in the process. Hooray! No more dysphoria! All that’s left for her to deal with are her transphobic and abusive parents, lack of entry into the city’s ultimate superhero fighting league, figuring out how her superpowers work, brand-new friends in the form of a vigilante named Calamity Jane and a mad scientist named Doc Impossible, and various nemeses who want to download all of humanity into the internet, kill all “men” in a fit of TERF rage, and rule the universe, respectively. I loved the writing and world-building, the too-real relatability of Danny’s teenage thoughts and reactions, and—well, I have an essay’s worth of words in me about how I loved the portrayal of Danny’s trans-ness and the way she’s trans as a superhero but also trans as herself, but suffice to say, I loved everything about that.

29939270Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
This book reminds me mostly of The Devourers, despite the fact that subject, setting, and character, and writing style–wise, these two books are nothing alike. What Amberlough does have in common with the above book (aside from being excellent in all of the above characteristics) is color, otherworldliness (despite there being no magic whatsoever), complicated gender and sexuality explorations, and a grimness and brutality that offsets and emphasizes the moments of beauty and hope. Set in an alt-universe version of the 1930s-era Weimar Republic, complete with vibrant artistic scene and fashionable modernity, two men—a modern man–type spy and a flamboyant cabaret emcee slash smuggler, who are lovers—and a striking, street-savvy female dancer play an intricate game inside and outside each other’s orbits as they attempt to save themselves and each other under the growing shadow of the powerful, new fascist political party.

31915219A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Any best-of list written by me is required to contain a Frances Hardinge book. I don’t make the rules, it’s simply the truth. And A Face Like Glass has somehow, incredibly, among all of the other excellent books she’s written, become my favorite. In the underground world of Caverna, where its inhabitants are masters of creating enticing, intoxicating delicacies, as well as court intrigue and assassination, Neverfell, a young girl with no memory of her past and who’s seemingly more than a bit mad, is like no other person in Caverna. You see, she has more than three or five or fifty facial expressions at her disposal. Unlike everyone else, she can manipulate her face at will, to infinity, and without even trying. In a world where deception is required for survival and prosperity, Neverfell’s transparency will shake the foundations of Caverna to its very core. Everything I’ve written about Frances Hardinge’s writing in the past is true here, and in this book her imagination is fully on display, and oh, how magical and exciting and scary and full of hidden depths and wondrous it is.

2604276729808780The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
The reason these two books are excellent is because the characters are nice to each other. Also the writing is good and the world-building is fun and I loved all the different alien species and their different physiologies, cultures, and languages, as well as the way Becky Chambers writes A.I. characters as their own entities who aren’t computer program copies of humans. But the reason I really and truly love these books is because all the main characters—human, alien, and A.I.—form kind, caring, and supportive friendships and families with each other where they figure out how to live and work alongside each other both despite and because of their differences, making jokes and working through misunderstandings along the way. This kind of science fiction, and this kind of storytelling, is soothing to my soul.

25657130All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
The first book I’ve read of Jason Reynolds and not the last. (I went on to read two more of his books this year, both of which are included in my “Honorable Mentions” list.) This story of police brutality is told from two perspectives—Rashad, a black teenager who was brutally beaten on a cop for allegedly stealing something in a convenience store, and Quinn, a white classmate of Rashad’s who witnessed the beating and who knows the cop by virtue of being best friends with his brother. Both Rashad and Quinn struggle to come to terms with the unexpectedness of the police brutality and what it means for them, individually and for the rest of their town. Reading Quinn’s POV as a white person hit close to home. His story goes beyond a simplistic “Hey, what happened to Rashad was because of racism, and racism is bad!”and has him actively struggle to find words to describe what happened, and then struggle to actually say them out loud, both among his white friends and family and his basketball teammates who are friends with Rashad. At its core, All American Boys is about voice and communication—conversation, art, and protest being only a few examples—and Rashad and Quinn learning how best to use them in order to speak about what happened to Rashad.

ninefox gambit30691976Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
The irony is that last year Ninefox Gambit was on my “Honorable Mentions” list because I couldn’t follow what was going on, but when I re-read it in preparation for reading Raven Stratagem, I freaking loved it. I love the world-building behind the hexarchate, the sardonic sense of humor (Mikodez is going to get shot one day due to excessive driving-his-subordinates-and-everyone-around-him-crazy behavior), and I love the twisted paths Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao’s arcs have taken them. I cannot wait for Revenant Gun in 2018.

28458598When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
I am exceptionally critical when it comes to the portrayal of romance in popular media, especially YA, so the fact that this is one of the best books I read this year says a lot about just how good it is. Our heroine and hero are Dimple Shah, a snarky, aspiring tech developer who is totally not into her parents’ attempts to find her an “ideal Indian husband” and Rishi Patel, a self-effacing closet artist who is totally into meeting his supposedly future wife—Dimple—at the web developers summer program they’ll both be attending. Their “meet-cute” moment is pitch-perfect, and the resulting budding relationship is built off of a shared sense of humor, learning about each other, shared interests and experiences, working through differences, and moments of vulnerability and intimacy. It’s a fun, comforting, and satisfying read.

24885533The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
While I didn’t fully enjoy every single story in this collection, the vast majority were very, very good such that the collection is on this list. I love the way Ken Liu uses Chinese, Japanese, and American history, collective memory, culture, language, and social mores to tell both intricate and heartfelt stories, and that many of them are about the creation, use, and response to the collection and dissemination of knowledge and the resulting construction of stories and narratives and memory, particularly through the lens of nineteenth and twentieth-century history.

 

25978892The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller
This is probably the hardest book I read this year, not just because the subject matter is difficult for me to read anyway (the physical reality of eating disorders has always freaked me the fuck out), but because the story, in which a gay, Jewish teenager named Matt living in small-town upstate New York seemingly develops superpowers as the result of his eating disorder, is so incredibly raw. Matt’s pain, fear, anger, loneliness, gallows humor, and absolutely unhealthy thought processes are on full display, and it is real as heck. This is the kind of book with no clear-cut or happy ending, but one that’s a process in learning to figure out how begin to see yourself as someone with value and deserving of respect and love, from others and from yourself.

31817749The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
The conclusion to N. K. Jemisin’s Ston Earth trilogy is both excellent and a fitting end to all that came before. I don’t want to say much more due to spoilers, but we learn the origin of the Stillness and the Stone Eaters, and Essun, Nassun, and Hoa each undertake the final leg of their arduous journeys to do what must be done—save the Stillness, kill the Stillness, destroy what came before, and start again, anew.

 

 

32735037An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
In the midst of the traditional, deadly contest of duels between New York City’s leading magician families for the House that will lead them in the coming years rises a newcomer with a plan to win and an agenda to fulfill, concerning the future of magic, which will irrevocably change the nature and the balance of power held by all magicians. In two books, Kat Howard has become an auto-read for me. She writes similar kinds of stories to Neil Gaiman and has a similar manner in which she writes the intersection of the magical with the mundane, except her stories and her writing are far, far better.

 

26810460The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente
Catherynne M. Valente can seemingly write a story about anything, and I’ll fall in love with it. A fantasy novel in which the Brontë siblings as children are transported into their shared make-believe universe of Glasstown (which I learned is actually a real make-believe world the Brontës created while growing up!) seemed like a hokey premise when I first read about it. But because this is Catherynne M. Valente, The Glass Town Game ended up being charming and and witty and clever and oh-so-creative and full of imagination.

 

Honorable Mentions

  • Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz
  • Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
  • Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer
  • The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley
  • A Conjuring of Light by V. E. Schwab
  • Clariel by Garth Nix
  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells
  • American War by Omar El Akkad
  • The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
  • The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden
  • Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds
  • Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells
  • More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
  • Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy
  • Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
  • Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo
  • Tool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
  • A Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
  • Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

Same as last year, my goal was for fifty percent of all books I read in 2017 to be written by PoC authors. This year I read 83 books total (includes fiction, nonfiction, and novellas), and 40 were by PoC authors (48%). Honestly I’m astounded this number is higher than last year’s (43%). I did a good job for most of the year averaging one book by a PoC author for every book by a white author, but sometime during the fall I dropped the ball and mostly read books by white authors, some of which was due to scrambling to fit in reading some fall releases before the end of the year. My goal for 2018 is to continue to aim for a 50-50 parity between white authors and PoC authors. I’m also going to start paying attention to the individual races of PoC authors of books I read to see if I’m inadvertently reading more books by authors of one race and fewer books by authors of another race.

In the beginning of the year I tried to read more nonfiction and ended up crapping out because there are always too many fiction books I want to read, and reading fiction takes a much easier kind of brain energy for me than reading nonfiction. As a result, my total read this year was a measly 6 books. I’m going to try again in 2018 and read more nonfiction, but I’m not holding myself to any hard promises.

Aaaaand that’s about it. Happy new year everyone, and I hope everyone has the best 2018 that they can.

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2017 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Short Stories

It’s that (late) time of year again, in which I read through the Nebula short fiction nominees!

(I also plan on doing the Hugo’s this year, since this current ballot is not a trash fire.)

In reverse order of what I did last year, I’m reviewing the short stories first. An important caveat concerning my response to two of these stories, both of which were hugely popular upon publication, is that I am a cranky agender person who is still working through feelings about feeling obligated to relate to stories “about” “female experiences” (especially gendered violence). They’re lovely stories, but they’re not for me.

The above caveat applies. Prose-wise, “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” to be a beautifully-forged weapon of a story. Brooke Bolander is a fierce, forceful writer with a supreme grasp of how to wield words and language like a metaphysical sword.

The above caveat applies. This fairytale, which intertwines the stories, and love, of a woman condemned to walk the world until she wears through the soles of seven metal shoes and a princess self-imprisoned on top of a glass hill, is a solid entry. Amal El-Mohtar’s prose is consistently lovely and elegantly crafted.

  • Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff, (Clockwork Phoenix 5, ed. Mike Allan)

A Prohibition-era story that amiably ambles along up to the very end, a coming-together that illuminates all that came before it. Malka, a nine-year-old Jewish girl, starts a budding friendship with David, an almost-thirteen-year-old African American boy. Despite her father’s irreligiousness, Malka invites David over the next night for Shabbat dinner, which causes her father to embark on a quest to obtain kosher wine in a time when alcohol has become scarce. An ostensibly simple, quiet story that ties together loss, racism and hegemonic brutality, and memory.

Sam J. Miller’s stories are trippy, constantly overflowing with seemingly disparate ideas and concepts and images that somehow fit together into a “this shouldn’t work but somehow it does and it feels right” kind of whole. Also like his other stories, “Things With Beards” is wholly rooted in the real world, with the speculative hiding in its very midst. A story of a white gay man who pretends to be masculine straight man, who suspects he has a monster hidden inside him, a story of New York City in the 1980s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis changing those infected from the inside out, the story of ongoing, never-ending police brutality against Black people, a story of being hidden, of monsters being hidden. It’s thinky and gut-punchy and real, it works really well, and it’s my favorite of the nominees.

A cute, brief story of a young child writing letters over the years imploring that the Gatekeeper reopen the door to a magical world where their best friend Zera lives. It’s sweet, if not substantive.

Alyssa Wong’s prose isn’t flashy or poetic—it just is. In this short story about two sisters who share powers to manipulate the weather and rearrange the future, Wong seemingly effortlessly captures the texture of grief, despair, futility, and loss as Hannah endlessly destroying the universe in order to keep Melanie alive and in this world. The story itself is ethereal, almost too much so, but damn that prose.

You have a weird rash on your arm, so you head to the medical clinic in search of a cure. In your way stand impenetrable bureaucracy, predatory aliens, nurses with a penchant for amputation, and your own mortal clock ticking towards your death. Good luck. Normally I’m not a fan of “Choose Your Own Adventure”-inspired stories. Caroline M. Yoachim’s version worked for me because it retains a somewhat linear narrative and meta-narratively taunts the reader for following—or failing to follow—the directions. A fun, quick read.

My vote: I am fully on Team “Things With Beards.” I suspect the actual outcome will be a toss-up between “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, and “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers.”

2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Short Stories

YES, I finished reading all the short fiction nominees in time!

More so than the other Nebula short fiction categories, there’s a common theme shared by many of the stories of connecting (or failing to connect) with other humans on an internal, mental level. Three of these stories are from the perspective of artificial intelligence bonding to, caring for, and/or looking after humans’ welfare. Two of these stories take place heavily inside the protagonist’s mind as the result of taking certain drugs.

I’m curious as to the reason behind the selection for this section of the ballot, and a small part of me wonders to what extent the seeming growing interest, or possibly rise, in fiction featuring A.I. protagonists and the boundaries between them and humanity is the result of the popular and critical acclaim of Ann Leckie’s books, The Imperial Radch trilogy. (David D. Levine’s in particular seems to be playing in a similar sandbox.) Regardless, I very much enjoyed reading almost all the stories on the ballot, and even the ones I wasn’t 100% a fan of were still very good.

  • Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar (Lightspeed 6/15)
    A short, bittersweet story about loss, mourning the past, and finding a new future, in which a young woman named Madeleine is experiencing strange, incredibly detailed episodes in which she relives her childhood memories of her mother before she died of Alzheimer’s, only she keeps seeing the same unknown figure appearing in her memories. The visual rendering of the memories is evocative and poetic (as per usual with Amal El-Mohtar’s writing), and the description and metaphors surrounding death and grief were equally eloquent.
  • Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld 1/15)
    The Internet just wants to help you. After all, it already knows everything about you, and it has the power to improve your life and make you happier. Isn’t the Internet causing harm through its own inaction by letting humans suffer? So you should really take notice of and click on those ads that keep showing up on your screen about new houses, new jobs, affordable therapists in your area. Listen to the Internet, and all your problems will be fixed. All it wants in return are cat pictures.

    It’s more a conceit than a fully-fledged story, but it’s a really fun conceit. And I loved the Internet’s voice: eager to help, smug at knowing exactly what all humans should be doing, and huffy that humans are incapable of taking it’s help when everything could be perfect if they just did what it says.

  • Damage” by David D. Levine (Tor.com 1/21/15)
    The story I referenced in the Intro, “Damage” is a story told by a fighter vessel nicknamed “Scraps” who’s made up of parts of two different vessels and whose memories of their violent deaths it still has, causing it to grapple with it’s ability to feel emotions and programmed love for its captain withs its programming to carry out inexcusable actions in war. The experience of reading this story is what I imagine it would feel like to be the Vipers that the pilots flew in BSG. It’s an action-packed, emotional story about a ship reconciling who it used to be and who it was programmed to be with who it is.
  • When Your Child Strays From God” by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld 7/15)
    A trippy, horrifying journey into the mind of a middle-aged evangelical Christian wife and mother who takes psychotropic drugs that connect her via “webbing” to the minds of other people on the same drug dose in order to search for her missing son (in more ways than one). It’s an uncomfortable story to read, but that aspect ends up becoming a sign of how well it works as the reader explores the layers of truth and untruth and hidden or suppressed knowledge and feelings of the housewife and mother. There’s an incredibly astute paragraph at the story’s climax about the double-edged nature of empathy as experienced through spiderwebbing that I want to print out and tape to my wall. On the downside, the progression of the story is somewhat convoluted, and it’s also a bit message-y at the end.
  • Today I Am Paul” by Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld 8/15)
    The second Nebula short story nominee to take on the subject of memory and grief, this time prior to actual death. “Paul” is a medical android programmed to build modules of various figures in order to emulate whichever family member or associate the elderly, Alzheimer-afflicted Mildred believes is currently there with her. The more the android emulates these various peoples, the more a nascent identity of the android’s own emerges as he balances fulfilling it’s hospice-care programming and maintaining the psychology of the emanations interacting with Mildred.

    It’s an intriguing piece regarding identity-formation through emotions and relationships, the idea of needing to be a certain kind of person, or a certain person when the other person is in pain. Similar to the A.I. in “Cat Pictures, Please,” the android observes and learns and stores away information regarding human behavior and strives to please certain humans—the meaningful difference is that this android reacts to Mildred’s moods and flickering memory rather than trying to steer her. It’s interesting actually that this android is the only A.I. in all these stories that fulfills its protocols and doesn’t do anything outside its boundaries, yet also has its own internal story arc about identity of how—or who—to be the person, or android, someone needs in times of trouble.

  • Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong (Nightmare 10/15)
    Mmmm, what a succulent story. And now having wrote that sentence I am officially afraid of myself. Written for the “Queers Destroy Horror” edition of the online magazine Nightmare, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” (which is a fantastic title, and everyone should say it out loud at least once) tells the story of a young woman named Jenny who is a monster—she feeds on the harmful, violent, and evil thoughts (obtained through dates on Tindr) in order to survive, but also in order to keep herself from eating the woman she loves. After eating the thoughts of a murderer, she’s famished, unable to find any thoughts as deliciously filling as his until she meets a woman—another monster—who promises her the most potent, pleasurable meals she’s ever tasted.

    This is the first of Alyssa Wong’s stories I’ve read after seeing her work praised to the skies all last year, and dear god if this story is anything to go by, her writing deserves so much praise. Chilling, compelling, so good at the visual manifestations of all these fat, glistening, creepy-crawly thoughts, and causing my heart to break with emotions for Jenny and Aiko.

My vote: This one is so hard, and I’d honestly be thrilled if any were to win (with the possible exception of “When Your Child Strays from God.”) From a writing perspective, all of them are exceedingly good. So going off of pure enjoyment, I’d go with either “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” or “Damage,” with “Cat Pictures Please,” following just behind.