The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2020

And here. We. Go.

I am currently on book 137 for 2020, and depending on how much time I spend reading over the next several days I’ll likely be on 138 or maybe 139 by the time the year ends, but one of those is going to be a reread and the other is not super likely to set the world on fire, so it is officially Safe to Put the List Together, and write what has consistently been my favorite post of the year during the time I’ve been writing here. This is the second year I’ve gone to 15 books; it didn’t feel quite as necessary as last year but I figure honoring 11% of my favorite books at the end of the year instead of 7% isn’t going to end the world or anything.

As always, these are books that are New To Me, not necessarily new releases, although a lot of them did come out this year. Also, don’t take the rankings too seriously– if I did this again tomorrow they’d probably be in a slightly different order– and in particular the top five or so were tough. Basically, I know you got some gift cards for Christmas, hie thee to a local bookstore and pick something up; they’re all good.

Here are the last seven years’ worth of lists:

15. THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A BIOGRAPHY OF CANCER, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This is both the oldest of the books on the list, dating all the way back to the hoary days of 2010, and the first book on the list that I actually read. In fact, I started it in 2019, after last year’s list was written, but didn’t finish it until the first week of January. Siddhartha Mukherjee has shown up on this list before, with The Gene: An Intimate History coming in at #14 last year, and despite their relative positions I think Emperor is a stronger book. It is, as the title states, a history of cancer, or rather a history of cancers, as the book makes repeatedly clear that part of what makes this disease so difficult is that there are so many different types of cancer and it affects the body so differently depending on where and when it appears. It’s a fascinating piece of work; a little less technical (and thus a touch more accessible) than The Gene, which was already impressively accessible, and frankly everyone knows someone who has passed of cancer, so you’re going to feel a personal connection to this book while you’re reading it whether you want to or not.

14. DOCILE, by K.M. Szpara. There are a couple of books on this list that need to come with content warnings, and part of me kind of feels like Docile needs to come wrapped in brown paper with a big sticker on the back that says Are You Sure? on it. It’s a book about free will and brainwashing and capitalism and sex slavery, set in a future where debt has been made inheritable and people are literally signing decades of their lives (and sometimes their entire lives) over to the few remaining ultrarich to act as their servants in order to erase their family’s debts. They are given a drug that makes them into a Docile, which is basically a pliant, personality- and free-will-less drone who exists only to do the will of their masters. When they are released from their contracts, they remember nothing from their time as a Docile. And they don’t always come back right. The main character is Elisha, a young man who becomes a Docile but refuses to take Dociline, meaning that he is expected to perform exactly as the other Dociles but actually feels and remembers everything he is experiencing.

It’s a hard book to read, on a lot of levels, but this was another real early read in the year and it’s really stuck with me. I don’t know that I want a sequel or anything but I’m definitely in for whatever Szpara comes up with next.

13. ANGER IS A GIFT, by Mark Oshiro. I read two different books by Mark Oshiro this year, this and Each Of Us a Desert, and I went back and forth several times on which one deserved to be on this list more. I feel like Desert is a better book on a technical level, so to speak, but Anger is a Gift affected me emotionally far more than Desert did, so it gets the nod. This is another book that’s going to kind of beat the hell out of you while you read it; it’s the story of Moss Jefferies, a young man from Oakland, California who lost his father to police violence six years before the events of the book begin, and is still struggling with panic attacks and PTSD from the aftereffects of his dad’s murder. Now a high school sophomore, Moss is forced to deal with the increasing militarization of his urban high school and, as he finds himself drawn further into demonstrations and protests, has to reckon with police violence again. There is a sequence in this book that made me so angry I nearly tossed the book across the room, and it was harder to read it as a teacher than I think it might be for most people, because I spent a substantial amount of time very, very angry with the adults who are supposed to be protecting the kids in this school. This book is technically YA, the first of several on this list (I read a lot of YA this year) and it’s probably the most adult-feeling of the books on the list. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

(Disclaimer: Mark read, and enjoyed, The Benevolence Archives: Vol. 1 for his Mark Reads Stuff series on YouTube. I wasn’t familiar with him before this happened– someone else got him to read my book– and while I’m not going to lie and pretend that that series wasn’t the reason I picked up Anger in the first place, it’s not the reason Anger is on the list.)

12. YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN, by Leah Johnson. So, uh, compared to the rest of the books on the list, this one is maybe going to stand out a little bit? Y’all know me. I like speculative fiction, stuff with dragons and wizards and ghosts and unspeakable evils and laser guns and exotic alien worlds. Even when something is set in the “real world,” I like to see a tinge of the supernatural here and there.

You Should See Me in a Crown is basically a Disney movie set to prose. It’s the story of Liz Lighty, who ought to be a superhero, a young nerdy Black girl attending an ultra-rich Indianapolis high school. She has her entire life planned out– the college, the extracurricular activities, the careers afterwards– and then critical financial aid falls through and throws the whole thing into doubt.

So she decides to run for prom queen, which for some reason comes with a massive scholarship award at her high school, and she and her friends basically Voltron up to marshal the forces of all the not-traditionally-popular kids at the school and make Liz the prom queen.

It’s fucking delightful. Like, this book ought to have a giant blinking NOT FOR LUTHER sign on it, and it was bloody delightful. I loved Liz, I loved her fumbling, tender relationship with Mack, her girlfriend, and I even managed to buy into the high school being a real place by the end of the book. (Every so often I wonder if my high school was really weird or if every other portrayal of high school is nonsense. I was on the prom committee in high school. The “popular kids” were largely also the geeks and the nerds. It was a weird place.)

11. THE WEIGHT OF INK, by Rachel Kadish. Now, this book, on the other hand, should have come with a giant blinking FOR LUTHER sign on it. I was a Jewish Studies and Religious Studies major in a previous life, and have a Master’s Degree in Hebrew Bible, so if you hand me a book that’s basically about a couple of historians digging through a recently-discovered treasure trove of documents written by a female Jewish scholar and philosopher in London in the 1660s, I’m going to be halfway done with the damn thing before you actually get finished handing it to me. The book bounces back and forth between the two historians reading the documents in the modern day and the blind rabbi and the woman who is scribing for him (and, later on, writing her own treatises and corresponding with the likes of Spinoza) in the seventeenth century, and it’s probably the densest read on the list but Damn is it rewarding. This was recommended to me after a post where I complained about not really appreciating Literature, and this is the closest to Literature of everything I read this year, but don’t hold that against it. If you’re into history or really any kind of scholasticism at all this book will have something for you in it. Beautifully done.

10. THE VANISHING HALF, by Brit Bennett. We’re on a bit of a roll here, as both this book and the next one could probably be termed Literatures as well, but don’t hold that against any of them. The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational family saga, the story of a pair of inexplicably light-skinned Black twin sisters, born in a Southern town so small that it doesn’t appear on any maps.

On their sixteenth birthday the twins flee their home together, heading to New Orleans, and several years later one of them abandons her sister and runs again– to marry a white man who has no idea of her race or her background, and to disappear into wealthy white society. The other sister marries the darkest-skinned man she can find and eventually ends up back at home again.. Both women have daughters, and their daughters’ lives interact at various points throughout the story, neither of them having any idea who the other is or even that they have any cousins in the first place. The book starts in the Deep South and as it moves from the 1950s to the 1990s it widens its scope across the country. Bennett’s writing is lovely, and her characters feel like real people even when they’re placed into a setting that can at times feel a little metaphorical.

9. CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora. This book is a great example of something I was talking about earlier, a book that is mostly rooted in the real world and classy enough to be a Literature but works in just enough of the supernatural to keep weirdos like me interested. I read Conjure Women and The Vanishing Half pretty close to back-to-back, and they have a lot of similarities– both are family sagas to one extent or another, although this one doesn’t have literal twins in it, setting the relationship between an enslaved woman, her daughter, and their master’s daughter as the relationship it explores. The mother is a midwife and a healer, and her daughter Rue is reluctant about following in her footsteps, and is assigned as a playmate to the master’s daughter, Varina. Then the Civil War hits, and … well, things get interesting.

Take a close look at the cover, there, which isn’t initially as striking as some of the covers to books I enjoyed this year (random note: 2020 was a great year for book covers!) but is probably among the best covers of the year once you read the book and realize what you’re looking at. This and Vanishing Half are definitely an example of a situation where if I put the list together tomorrow they might flip places on the list. If you liked one, you’ll likely enjoy the other so get ’em both with that gift card I know you have.

8. THE GIRL FROM THE WELL, by Rin Chupeco. LOL, this one is about an angry murder ghost in case you thought I’d forgotten what kinds of books I usually read. You might look at the cover to this and think to yourself wait, isn’t that the girl from The Ring? And, well (heh), you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, as the ghost in The Ring and the ghost in The Girl from the Well are both based on the same Japanese myth. This book wins the Can I Eat This Author’s Brain and Claim Their Powers award for this year, as it’s the book I’d most like to have written myself of everything on the list. It’s actually told from the perspective of the angry murder ghost, and Chupeco’s prose is creepy and alien in a really remarkable way; the ghost really doesn’t feel human at any point in the book, and that’s something that I feel could get out of control and ruin the book really easily if the author isn’t careful and skilled enough. I also read the sequel to this this year, The Suffering, which does have the ghost as a main character but is told through the perspective of another (human) character from this book. I enjoyed it quite a bit but it didn’t floor me as effectively as this one; Chupeco’s voice in this book is outstandingly well-done, and this was easily the scariest thing I read all year.

7. THE BURNING GOD, by R.F. Kuang. Right about here is where it started getting really difficult to rank the books, by the way, and if anything this book got downrated a little bit by being the third book in a trilogy, making it a little tricky to recommend on its own. I loved the first book in the trilogy, The Poppy War, and had some trouble with the second, The Dragon Republic, at least in part because I didn’t remember the events of the first book as well as I should have. So I reread the first two books before reading this one, and … damn, y’all.

This series is another one that could stand for a trigger warning or two. One of the central events in the first book is modeled on the Rape of Nanking, and it’s absolutely horrible, and none of the characters are ever the same afterwards. The first book ends with a literal genocide, as an entire nation is set aflame. PTSD, rape and drug abuse and addiction are major themes of the series. But, my God, R.F. Kuang, who is somehow only in her early twenties, is a hell of a writer, and if you’re not someone who feels like they will suffer lasting psychological effects from reading this kind of book, in the final evaluation it’s one of the finest fantasy trilogies I’ve ever read. I didn’t give Dragon Republic enough credit when I first read it– which was exactly why I did the reread– and while placing seventh on this list might seem like a drop-off in quality when The Poppy War was third the year it came out … like I said, don’t read too much into the specific rankings. But read the books. Definitely read the books.

6. SPLIT TOOTH, by Tanya Tagaq. Okay, I promise after this one I won’t use the phrase “trigger warning” again, and I won’t make fun of myself for being bad at Literature again either, but I’ve gotta do both for this book. Tanya Tagaq is a Canadian Indigenous author, and I read an interview with her where she describes this book, set in Nunavut in the 1970s, as a “mythobiography,” and that’s as good of a description of it as I can imagine. It’s not precisely a memoir, and it’s not precisely an autobiography either– I don’t imagine that Tagaq thinks she was impregnated by the Northern Lights, which happens to the protagonist in this book– but the mythical and supernatural elements of the book somehow manipulate the “real” events of the book into being more shocking than they might have been otherwise. This book is beautifully written– the prose is among the best I’ve ever encountered and probably 15-20% of the wordcount is actually poetry and I loved the hell out of it anyway. Growing up poor and indigenous in Nunavut in the 1970s was no picnic, and this is another one to be careful with, as child abuse and neglect and sexual assault are definitely themes, but this is an amazing book and among the best surprises of 2020, as I effectively bought it blind when I realized I hadn’t read anything by indigenous women yet in my #52booksbywomenofcolor project and more or less grabbed it at random. I love it when that works out.

5. SAVAGE LEGION, by Matt Wallace. We are about to enter into a series of “first books of fantasy series,” as four of my top five books this year are Volume 1 of what will turn out to be at least trilogies if not, in some cases, longer. I just took a break for lunch, as I’ve been working on this post for three hours, and I swear to you that I sat back down and again considered rearranging the next set of books, so call all of them the best book of the year if you want. I won’t tell anybody.

At any rate, Matt Wallace’s Savage Legion is a hell of a book, and what was the most fascinating thing about it for me was the way it somehow manages to simultaneously absolutely bathe itself in tropes and cliches of the genre and come off as something fresh and new, and frankly that’s a hell of a trick to have pulled off. Legion employs the rotating-third-person-POV construct that’s become popular since Game of Thrones came out, but the really interesting thing about it is that you don’t figure out that several of the characters you’re reading about are the bad guys until everything starts slowly knitting itself together at the end. His characters are definitely modern, as he manages to knit together an interesting, diverse cast of POVs without succumbing to The Nation To The South Is Like This and The Dwarves Are Like That sorts of tropes. Also worth pointing out: one of the POV characters is in a wheelchair, which I think is the first time I’ve seen that in a fantasy novel. Generally when fantasy interacts with disability it’s to cut off a limb in combat or sometimes to have a character who is Blind But Not Blind, and I swear I wrote that before realizing that GoT does both. This is not that, and this book deserves a lot more attention than it got.

4. LEGENDBORN, by Tracy Deonn. Let us first take a moment to appreciate that cover, please.

Legendborn is not only the first of a series, it’s author Tracy Deonn’s debut as well, and … man, I loved it. I loved it. Much like Wallace’s Savage Legion and Kuang’s Poppy War, this book starts off feeling very familiar and very tropey. YA can get away with that to a slightly larger degree than books that are supposedly aimed at adults, but it’s still there nonetheless. The main character is not quite off at college, as she’s in high school, but she’s participating in a program that is located at a college and she lives in a dorm. And she’s off at a party and she Witnesses Something She Shouldn’t Have Seen, and then there are Secret Powers that Must Be Hidden, and there’s a Secret Society, and then like thirty pages into the book Tracy Deonn starts pinpointing exactly what you think is going to happen and gleefully curb-stomping the hell out of all of it, and yes eventually there’s a Powerful Boyfriend and a Smolderingly Sexy Antagonist who is the Boyfriend’s protector and best friend but hates the main character because of Secret Reasons, and this is one of those books that is difficult to describe properly because it sounds so clichéd but you just have to trust me that Tracy Deonn knows exactly what she’s doing and everything is going to be delightfully subverted by the end, and there’s even a Big Twist at the very end that I absolutely did not see coming and led to a fun bit of self-examination where I had to decide if I’d missed it because I’m white.

This is the third YA book to appear on this list, and as I’ve already said I read a lot of YA this year, but you absolutely should not let that get in the way of your reading this. Go get it and put it in your head now, please.

3. LEONARDO DA VINCI, by Walter Isaacson. There’s always at least a couple of nonfiction books on this list, but Leonardo da Vinci was the first one that was in serious contention for the top spot. This book is a combination of a biography of Leonardo himself and a book about art history, and it is filled with pictures of his artwork and detailed analyses of his paintings. This is the second book of Isaacson’s I’ve read, his first being a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and I will likely read his biography of Einstein sometime this year. Isaacson’s thing is that he really likes writing about geniuses, and the most notable thing about this book, above and beyond the fact that Leonardo himself is endlessly fascinating, is the sheer enthusiasm that Isaacson brings to discussing his subject. Art history is one of those things that I don’t personally know a whole lot about, but I love listening to and reading people who do know a lot about art talk about it, and both parts of the book were done exceptionally well. Descriptions of art can slide into the sort of half-gibberish that music reviews can turn into if the author isn’t careful, and I have to admit that a lot of the time I’m taking his word for it when he does things like describe facial expressions of the various subjects of a painting and such, but this is an amazing book about an amazing person and I very strongly recommend it even if you don’t necessarily think Leonardo is someone you want to spend 600 pages with. Because, seriously, you don’t want to read about Leonardo da Vinci? Quit being weird and go pick this up.

(Also, one more thing: this book wins for the best book as a physical artifact for the year. The paper is creamy and thick and the book feels great, and since it’s full of artwork that is begging for analysis the print itself is of a really high quality. I only spent like $12 on it brand new, and that’s ludicrous.)

2. BLACK SUN, by Rebecca Roanhorse. We’re back to Volume One of A Fantasy Series territory here, and Rebecca Roanhorse has become one of my favorite authors over the last several years, someone whose books get bought on release day and leapfrogged over whatever else happens to be in the queue at the time.

Anyway, let’s stare at the cover for a moment.

Black Sun is second-world fantasy, heavily influenced by Mesoamerican history and culture in much the same way that The Burning God is influenced by Japanese and Chinese culture. And you’re about to see another theme between this and the book that ended up being my favorite of the year, because the thing I loved the most about both books was the worldbuilding. I don’t know how many books are planned for this series but I hope it’s a million, because I could read about this world forever. It’s also one of those books where the ending kind of upends the status quo that’s been set up throughout the book, so we’ll see where Roanhorse goes with the second volume, which hopefully will be out really soon.

1. SCARLET ODYSSEY, by C.T. Rwizi. This has been the frontrunner for most of the year, and I did go back and forth a couple of times on whether I was going to have it or Black Sun as the top book of the year, but in the end it won out. And, well, there are some definite similarities between the two: second-world fantasy inspired by a culture that you typically don’t see a lot of in fantasy literature, this time being Central Africa rather than Mesoamerica, and absolutely outstanding worldbuilding. What ended up giving Odyssey the edge was slightly stronger characters and a more detailed (and math-based!) magic system, existing alongside multiple detailed religious systems and a complicated politics to boot. This book also features rotating 3rd person POVs, although it’s clear that 18-year-old Musalodi, a mystic who achieves a place of power and influence among his people and is immediately sent forth on an Important Quest, the actual purpose of which is to get rid of him, because men aren’t supposed to be Mystics and no one in his home really wants to deal with him. Genderflipping traditional roles is kind of a thing throughout this book, and Salo’s journey and the people he encounters along the way are all fascinating. There are also hints at another culture, possibly much more technologically adept, sort of on the outside of the events of the story but watching closely, and I can’t wait for the sequel, Requiem Moon, which comes out in March and which I’ve already pre-ordered. It is the best book I read in a year full of good books, and you need to read it.

HONORABLE MENTION, in no particular order: TERRA NULLIUS, by Claire G. Coleman, A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN, by Roseanne A. Brown, THE VANISHED QUEEN, by Lisbeth Campbell, MOON OF THE CRUSTED SNOW, by Waubgeshig Rice, THE FIVE: THE UNTOLD LIVES OF THE WOMEN KILLED BY JACK THE RIPPER, by Hallie Rubenhold, SPIDERLIGHT, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING, by Alexis Henderson, and DEATHLESS DIVIDE, by Justina Ireland.

The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2019

It’s that time of year again— it’s in between Christmas and New Year’s, and I’m not completely in love with the book I’m reading right now and it’s gonna take at least another day to get through, so there shouldn’t be any late surprises that might cause me to want to modify this list. I read 133 books this year, and that number’s likely to grow by at least a couple more by the end of the year, and (he says, for the second year in a row) 2019 was an utterly shit year across the board except for the quality of the books I was reading. I had to go to fifteen this year, y’all. I might go back to ten again next year, we’ll see, but this year it had to be fifteen.

As always, “new” in this context means new to me, not came out this year, although I think this is the youngest batch of books I’ve had — I think the oldest book on this list is no more than four or five years old– and not that I think anyone will, but don’t get too het up about the rankings of the books past the top five, maybe; if you think #7 should be #10 or whatever chances are I’ll agree with you if I’m writing this on a different day.

Here are the last six years’ worth of lists:

15. MIDDLEGAME, by Seanan McGuire. Seanan has been making consistent appearances on this list since the beginning, and while her Into The Drowning Deep, which was #4 on my list last year, remains my favorite of her books, Middlegame is probably her best book on a technical level. It’s one of those books that it’s best to go into as blind as possible. Needless to say, there’s a hell of a lot going on here– Middlegame features alchemy, quantum entanglement physics (yes, in the same book,) time travel, parallel timelines, twins, wicked experiments, Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, The Midwich Cuckoos, and a whole lot of other stuff. One of the things I’ve always liked about McGuire is that she writes fairly straightforward, entertaining stories; this book is every bit as entertaining as her previous work but the story structure is a level of magnitude more complicated than anything I’ve ever seen from her before.

14. THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I read this book on the rarest of recommendations: my brother, who does not read nearly as much as I do but if he tells me he thinks I would like something it is a sign I should sit up and pay attention. You already know what the book is about; the title is not exactly subtle: this is a history of the study of genetics. Mukherjee is a hell of an author, though, and he takes what could be a very dry and complicated subject and makes it clean and accessible. His book The Emperor of All Maladies, which is a history of cancer, got ordered right after I finished this, and frankly has been sitting on the shelf for too long waiting for me to get to it. If you’re a science person, you probably ought to check this out, and even if you’re not a science person it never hurts to learn anything new. Well worth the time.

13. THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015, by P. Djèlí Clark. This is the second of P. Djèlí Clark’s novellas I’ve read, after his The Black God’s Drums in 2018, and it just blows my mind how solid Tor’s novella line has been since the beginning. I don’t have the money to read all of them, but it’s something I’d seriously consider trying to do if I did. The novella is set in an alternate version of Cairo, where an agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities is called upon to exorcise a possessed tram car. So it’s a great mix of magic and mid-level technology set in a (still) Islamic culture. You will note that a ton of the books on this list got extra points for sheer inventiveness; I got a lot of enjoyment this year out of reading stuff I’ve just flat never seen in books before, and this is a great example. Read diverse books, y’all. It pays off.

12. REVENANT GUN, by Yoon Ha Lee. This one’s a bit of a rarity; it’s the third book in Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and the first and second books did not make the list. How did this happen? Well, first, I accidentally bought the second book of the trilogy first. Then I tried to read the first book, which was complicated as hell, and couldn’t get through it. Then the third book came out and I randomly heard about it and, feeling bad about bailing on the series on book one when I already owned book two, tried to reread the first one, and this time it clicked and I quite happily read all three of them. At any rate, this is outer space military science fiction, only most of the technology used in the book is based on the calendar in a way that eventually makes sense but be prepared to be puzzled for a while when you’re reading it. This series is rewarding as hell but you are going to have to work for it. I just wasn’t in the right headspace the first time I checked it out.

11. THE TIGER’S DAUGHTER, by K. Arsenault Rivera. The morning after I finished reading this, I got in touch with a former student and ordered a copy of it for her. The Tiger’s Daughter is a cross-cultural lesbian love story set in a fantasy analogue of China and Mongolia, told from the perspective of one of the lovers, who is definitely a princess and may be a goddess as well. It is mostly told as an epistolary sort of novel, and the main characters are kept apart for the majority of the present-tense portion of the story. The most impressive thing about it is the ending; The Tiger’s Daughter might have the single most perfect ending of any book I read all year, and I was in tears as I finished it. There are two sequels out– I’m not sure if it’s a trilogy or if there are plans to go beyond the third book, but I’ll know soon as it shows up today. I was not as enchanted by the second book as I was the first, which is probably the reason this isn’t slightly higher on the list, but it’s still worth recommending. Tiger’s Daughter reads quite well on its own, though.

10. THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE, by Samantha Shannon. I effectively bought this book at random– I was wandering through Barnes and Noble and it jumped off the shelves and into my hands, mostly because of the interesting cover and title and the fact that it’s huge. This is a standalone fantasy novel, no sequels are planned, although I’d be happy to see them. The overall plot is a trifle on the been-there-done-that side; ancient evil awakening, world in peril, blah blah blah, but it makes up for it by involving damn near every corner of the globe in the story, an interesting and yes, fruit-based magic system, and an interesting cast of characters dominated by women and fairly heavy on The Gays as well. The plot isn’t the most original but it does some really interesting stuff within that framework and I ended up enjoying the hell out of it.

9. CHASING NEW HORIZONS: INSIDE THE EPIC FIRST MISSION TO PLUTO, by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon. I am, as most of you probably know, a huge astronomy nerd, and I was all kinds of excited with the New Horizons spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto a few years ago. This book isn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be when I bought it– I was expecting more space science, when in fact it’s really a book about politics more than anything else– an inside look at NASA during the (many) years that it took to get the New Horizons mission off the (literal) ground and out to Pluto. This isn’t a book about Pluto, it’s a book about what it took to get to Pluto, told by a couple of insiders to the entire process, and while that’s not what I wanted when I bought it I’m enough of a NASA nerd that it was a fascinating look at what it takes to get these sorts of multi-year, massively expensive projects approved and funded. If that sounds dry to you, don’t worry about it; Stern and Grinspoon are a talented couple of authors and this is an engaging read throughout.

8. THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE, by Lindsey Fitzharris. I first encountered Lindsey Fitzharris through Twitter, where she is awesome, and you should all be following her. This book almost didn’t make this list; in fact, it almost didn’t get read, as I made it through the detailed description of a bladder stone removal in the first few pages, put the book down, and walked away to cross my legs and keep them crossed for a week. I have never been gladder to be alive in the age of anesthesia and antibiotics than I was after reading this fascinating little book, and you are absolutely going to have to have a strong stomach to be able to read this– Fitzharris has a ridiculous eye for detail, only since she’s talking about hospitals and surgeries in the early days of both none of the details are anything you want to hear. The book could have been the words “It sucked” over and over again and it would have been fine, but if you have the constitution to make it through the read you’re going to enjoy the journey a lot.

7. QUEEN OF SHADOWS, by Sarah J. Maas. Consider this a stand-in for the entire Throne of Glass series, which is eight books and five thousand pages long and which I read in its entirety this year. The books themselves vary in quality somewhat, as you might expect, but the good news is that they get much stronger after the first book and continue to improve as the series continues on. Queen of Shadows was probably my favorite of the lot so it gets the actual slot here, but if you’re a fan of epic fantasy fiction you should go grab Throne of Glass and The Assassin’s Blade right now and get to readin’. Don’t be put off by having to wander into the YA section to find the books, either; I think that was a publisher mandate, not a decision Maas made, and by the third book or so it’s clear that she was being allowed to write whatever the hell she wanted without any interference.

6. THE LUMINOUS DEAD, by Caitlin Starling. So here’s how these lists work: as I read throughout the year I add books that I think might make the list to a Goodreads shelf. I don’t remove anything from that shelf over the course of the year, and then on the day I’m going to write this post I sit down and organize the books into the list. There are usually 20-30 books on the shortlist; this year there were 32. And The Luminous Dead wasn’t one of them, and I got partway through my list and realized I hadn’t shortlisted it at the time, and went wow, forget that and put it onto the list. There is, obviously, an element of how well the book stays in my head in addition to how much I initially liked it, and … well, man, did Luminous Dead manage to stick around. This is a book with some definite flaws to it, chief among which is that the basic premise wouldn’t make sense if the book was set today, much less set a few centuries into the future, but this is one of the most atmospheric and creepy books I read all year, and the story– an exploration of an extrasolar cave, and yes, that’s it– stayed with me to a degree that very few other things I read this year managed to do.

5. WAR GIRLS, by Tochi Onyebuchi. Nigerian science fiction is a thing, y’all, and I think I read four or five books this year at least that were either by Nigerian authors or set in Nigeria or both, and Tochi Onyebuchi’s War Girls was the best of the lot. He apparently pitched the book as “Gundam in Nigeria,” which is accurate in the sense that the book is set in Nigeria and does in fact involve giant mechs beating the shit out of each other, but it leaves out the part where the book is also about the Nigerian civil war, and family, and Afrofuturism, and slavery, and sisterhood, and oh also cybernetics which isn’t quite as, like, serious but is damned cool. This book is listed on Amazon as being for 7th through 9th graders, which is bananapants crazytalk; I mean, I would have enjoyed it at that age, but it doesn’t feel like a YA book at all and there’s plenty of adult complexity there for older readers. I loved it.

4. WANDERERS, by Chuck Wendig. The second book on this list– well, chronologically the first I read, but whatever– that I’d describe as a massive level-up by the author, Wanderers has been described, not unfairly, as “Chuck Wending writes The Stand,” and it’s on par with that book, which is one of King’s best. Wanderers is interesting in that the world-ending plague doesn’t start to be a thing until a good chunk of the way through the book; until then, it’s a horror mystery about a group of steadily-growing group of sleepwalkers who are heading … well, somewhere, and the concerned family members and CDC people who are staying with them and trying to discover what’s wrong. It’s three times as long as anything else he’s ever written and I loved every word of it; there aren’t a lot of books on the list this year that I’d describe as horror novels, but Wendig hits this one out of the park. Even if you’ve read something by him in the past and haven’t enjoyed it, this is different enough from his previous work that you should check it out anyway.

3. ESCAPING EXODUS, by Nicky Drayden. Nicky Drayden is a madwoman, y’all, and I actually didn’t manage to finish her first book (due for a reread early next year) because of how nuts it was but I figured if I stuck with her my patience would be rewarded, and oh man was I right. Escaping Exodus is about the occupants of one ship in a fleet of living generation ships. Everything about it is endlessly fascinating, from the different subcultures within the ship to the family structures to the way the ship is maintained and kept alive (and, later in the book, the look at how other genships’ occupants have kept their ship-creatures up and running) and yet another intensely satisfying Juliet-and-Juliet, cross-class romance. I swear that I didn’t go out of my way to read gay-themed love stories this year, but I appear to have come across quite a few of them, and several of them were just great. The book is completely insane and I was completely enthralled from start to finish.

2. CHILDREN OF TIME and CHILDREN OF RUIN, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I read both of these books this year and they were both amazing, so following on the fine and previously-established tradition of “my list, my rules” we are going to honor both books with the #2 slot for 2019. The series is about a posthuman future where Earth is gone and the only human beings remaining may well be the characters in the book. Children of Time follows the entire evolutionary path of an intelligent species of Portiid spiders, and Ruin adds two more alien species to the mix along with the handful of human characters. The amazing thing here is Tchaikovsky’s amazing talent for writing what feel like genuinely alien cultures; he includes just enough Earth touchstones to give the reader something to grab ahold of and everything else is there to be puzzled out. Children of Time is an amazing enough achievement on its own; the fact that Children of Ruin is equally good is incredibly impressive.

Speaking of amazing sequels…

1. JADE WAR, by Fonda Lee. And, let’s be real here, there was never any doubt once I read it that this was going to end up the top book of the year. Not only did Jade City end up as my #1 book last year, and by a not-uncomfortable margin, but Jade War was actually better than Jade City. If Jade City was The Godfather, this was The Godfather, Part II, and it is not just the best book I read in 2019 but it is one of the best books I have ever read. I cannot overstate my affection for this series, and I will eventually be building an altar to Fonda Lee somewhere in my house and attempting to start a world religion. There’s literally an entire-ass church for sale not too far from my house and I’ve been looking for an excuse to buy it. Starting the Church of Fonda Lee seems like probably the best reason I’m going to get. This year was amazing, and this series is amazing, and this book is amazing, and if you ignore the other fourteen times I said “you need to read this” through this post you need to pay attention to it this time. If nothing else, being the first author to get two books in the #1 slot, much less in two successive years and two successive books, is pretty damned impressive.

HONORABLE MENTION, in NO REAL ORDER: ON THE COME UP, by Angie Thomas, CIRCE, by Madeline Miller, A STORM OF LOCUSTS, by Rebecca Roanhorse, THE HUNGER, by Alma Katsu, BODY BROKER, by Daniel M. Ford, QUICHOTTE, by Salman Rushdie, INTERNMENT, by Samira Ahmed, FRESHWATER, by Akwaeke Emezi, THE OUTSIDE, by Ada Hoffman, THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS, by John Wyndham, and THE WATER DANCER, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2018

WE’RE BACK! I have a few posts that I generally do at the end of the year, or at least at the end of most years, but this post is the only one that I’ve written every year the blog was in operation. I’m reading my 105th book of the year right now, and will probably be at 106 by the end of the night tomorrow, but as both of those books are Walter Mosley mysteries they won’t affect the rankings any. That said, check out the Honorable Mention section at the end.

As always, “new” in this context means “new to me,” not “came out this year,” although for the first time almost all of the books on this list actually did come out in 2018. Also as always, don’t pay a huge amount of attention to where something shows up on the list– the top 5 in particular are really tight, although I’ve had a good idea what #1 would be for months now. Also also as always, you should be my friend on Goodreads, where this list gets constructed as I read throughout the year.

Previous years’ lists:

And off we go:

10. DOOMSDAY BOOK, by Connie Willis. This is the oldest book on the list, originally written in 1992. I went back and forth between it and another book several times before realizing that I could describe the plot of this book quite a bit more clearly than the other one, which is what tossed it the win– I read so many books every year that “I remember what this was about” is actually a pretty goddamn clear indicator of quality. At any rate: this is about the end of the world, which is gonna sort of be a theme today, only it’s about the end of the world in the fourteenth century at the beginning of the Black Death. It’s a time travel book, and the main character is a researcher sent from 2048 back to the fourteenth century, and then all sorts of things go wrong in the modern day, making it difficult for her team to pull her back out. I had some gripes about it when I initially read it, but the gripes all make the book more charming somehow; the author did not very well anticipate future technological advances from her lofty perch in 1992, and this is one of the most British books ever written. Let’s use the word “quirky.” You should read it.

9. THE ARMORED SAINT and THE QUEEN OF CROWS, by Myke Cole. The first of the Sacred Throne books is what got this book on the list, but I read them both this year, so I’m including both here. These are extraordinarily well-crafted, tight little books– both, I think, are technically novella-length, clocking in at barely over 200 pages, but Tor was confident enough in them that I own both of them in hardcover, and honestly I think it was worth it. The books are set in what initially feels like a more-or-less standard European fantasy setting, only with an Inquisition-style religious government in charge of everything, prosecuting the use of magic to the extent of scouring entire villages when they find a mage, and a decent chunk of steampunk elements– as you can probably see from the cover, the titular “Armored Saint” is wearing a suit of medieval power armor. She’s also a queer teenage girl, and she didn’t exactly mean to become, uh, sanctified, or lead a rebellion, or any of the other stuff she kinda tumbles bass-ackwards into over the course of, in particular, the first book. There’s a heavy “What if Joan of Arc …” thing going on here, but it’s well-told; again, Cole’s craftwork is what makes the series shine. I shoulda been taking notes while reading these.


Hell of a title, innit? I didn’t read a ton of nonfiction (again) this year, but what I did was well-chosen, and you basically know what this book is about from reading the title: it’s a history of Earth’s multiple mass extinctions, with detours into both the geology behind figuring out how and when those extinctions happened and the social history around the science. Despite the title, it’s not really one of those “here’s a bunch of ways the planet is going to kill us!” books that leaves you convinced that everything is hopeless because the Yellowstone Caldera is gonna erupt any second now and we’re all gonna die. It’s mostly a book that’s going to leave you terrified of carbon by the end of it. Carbon sucks, guys.

At any rate, despite talking about sciences and eras of deep history that most folks don’t really have a lot of experience with, this book does a great job of presenting extraordinarily complicated shit in a clear and understandable fashion; this is science journalism at its best.

7. BECOMING, by Michelle Obama. I just wrote a full review of this a couple of weeks ago, so in the interest of not repeating myself too terribly much (it’s good! Michelle is awesome! Buy it in hardcover, because this book is weirdly fun to touch!) I’ll talk about how I’m an idiot, which is always a fun theme around here: I always make sure to caution folks to not take the actual rankings too seriously as they’re reading through this list, right? This book is exactly why. It’s one of only two nonfiction books on the list, the other one being the #8 book. And I swear to you, just now, as I was resizing the cover image so that it was roughly the same size as the others on the list, I thought “I can’t have this at #7! That puts the two nonfiction books right next to each other!”

Which … what? Stop that. Quit being stupid.

6. EMPIRE OF SAND, by Tasha Suri. This is the most recent of the books on the list; I just finished it on the 23rd and I read it in a day, which you’re going to notice will be a theme for most of the rest of the books on the list. The main character is Mehr, the daughter of a governor in a Mughal India-inspired fantasy world. Mehr’s mother is a member of a prosecuted and occasionally magic-wielding minority and she quickly finds herself in an arranged marriage and shipped off use her abilities to keep the Emperor alive and in power and his empire thriving early in the book. This isn’t a YA book despite the very YA-heavy themes, or if it is it skirts the edge of adult fiction enough that I barely noticed; the star here is Suri’s writing, which I couldn’t get enough of. The reviews of this one are surprisingly mixed and the main knock against it is that it’s slow to unfold; turns out you don’t notice that if you only put the book down once so that you can sleep while you’re reading it. The magic system is fascinating and the way the servitude to the Emperor is dealt with is also a highlight. This coulda been a top 3 book for me any other year; pretty much everything after this is absolutely stellar work.

5. FOUNDRYSIDE, by Robert Jackson Bennett. I have, I think, all of Robert Jackson Bennett’s books, and I’ve enjoyed his previous work quite a bit, but Foundryside is quite simply a massive level-up on his part; this book blew me away. The main character is a young woman by the name of Sancia Grado, a thief in a setting that is, to coin a word, magicpunk– sorta steampunky, but with magic instead of steam, if that makes any sense, and in this world magic actually imbues objects with a (mostly) limited form of sentience. Brandon Sanderson blurbs it and is the top review of it on Goodreads, and while I’ve soured on his work a little bit this book really does have a touch of a “What if Robert Jackson Bennett wrote a Brandon Sanderson book?” thing going on, and the answer to that question is awesome things happen. The characters are the highlight of this book, particularly Sancia herself and Gregor Dandolo, a city constable who starts off as an antagonist and is something else entirely by the end of the book. I can’t wait to see where this series goes next.

Also, you should follow Bennett on Twitter; he’s hilarious.

4. INTO THE DROWNING DEEP, by Mira Grant. Mira Grant, pen name of the ridiculously prolific Seanan McGuire, has shown up on these end-of-year lists before. She writes something like 97 books a year and I read as many of them as I can get to (That’s not a joke. I have, on more than one occasion, thought I was caught up on her new releases and then discovered she had more than one new book out that I was unaware of– and once it was an entire new series that I’d never heard of previously) but Drowning Deep is my absolute favorite of all of her books under either name. Cryptids are a favored theme of hers, and one of her series is explicitly about a family of cryptid hunters, but this one takes a tighter focus, following a boatful of oceanographers who are hunting for mermaids.

Mermaids are fucking terrifying, as it turns out. The book starts off with a ghost-ship mystery, basically, and there’s a lot of “Wait, really? Everyone was eaten by mermaids?” going on at first, and there’s a lot of very satisfying cryptid science going on– all of the characters in this book are very bright people with a wide array of academic specialties, and I’d love to know how Grant found the time to research all of this shit– and when the book turns into a slasher film for the last 40% or so (with an especially cool late-book twist) the momentum just builds and builds and builds and oh GOD would this make a great movie. I want a sequel to this book, bad, but I want to see it on the big screen first. Go read it.

3. THE POPPY WAR, by R.F. Kuang. This is another book that sort of starts off feeling like a YA book; I described it early on to my wife with something along the lines of “Harry Potter, only Hogwarts is a Chinese military academy and Hermione is the main character.”

And then Hermione deliberately burns out her own uterus because menstruation distracts her from her studies, and then everybody goes to war and it turns out that the Rape of Nanking is a big part of the inspiration for this fantasy series, and yeah when it goes adult it goes adult hard and it goes adult fast. In fact, this book really needs a bit of a content warning– R. F. Kuang does not fuck around, guys, and while I loved the book and can’t wait for the sequel there are some of you out there who aren’t going to be able to finish it because of the events of the story– genocide is absolutely a theme, and if you don’t know what the Rape of Nanking was you might want to click on that link and read a bit before you decide to get into this one. It’s a Goddamned brilliant book, but more than anything else on the list, it’s not gonna be for everybody.

2. TRAIL OF LIGHTNING, by Rebecca Roanhorse. The genre of this book is Navajo post-apocalyptic urban fantasy.

Navajo. Post-apocalyptic. Urban. Fantasy.

There’s no point to writing any more, because you already should have stopped reading this and headed off to Amazon or a local bookstore to buy the goddamn book, because that ought to be all you need. And, okay, it’s fair to say that a book needs to be more than its genre, but I get the feeling that Rebecca Roanhorse could write an 800-page book about the life cycle of a specific breed of orchid or some shit like that and she’d still produce something I wanted to read. I loved this book, I loved the setting, I loved the characters– Maggie, the main character, is a great example of a character who is an asshole but she’s a compelling and interesting asshole and she’s fascinating to read about; I had a couple of books this year killed by unlikeable main characters and this is a masterclass on how to do that right. You should probably brace yourself for Roanhorse’s general disregard for anyone’s discomfort with Diné orthography; if seeing words like yá’át’ééh sprinkled through a text is going to bother you … well, you need to get over that and go read the book anyway. This is yet another debut book of a series (GOD, was 2018 a great year for fantasy series debuts!) and I can’t wait for the next one.

1.JADE CITY, by Fonda Lee. Let me be clear about something: this 2018 list is the strongest top 10 I’ve had since I started doing this. 2018, for all its faults, was an absolutely phenomenal year for books, and I finished reading JADE CITY on February 2 and knew immediately that it was going to be top 3 if not one of my favorite books of the year. JADE CITY is a family epic; imagine The Godfather, set in Japan, written by George R. R. Martin and with jade-enhanced superhumans in it, and you have a decent idea of what’s going on here, only in this scenario the Five Families are also the government and the scope of the book starts getting aggressively multinational in scope by the end, to the point where if the second book in the series doesn’t have significant spy novel elements I will be really surprised. And the best thing about it was that I bought it effectively at random because I had a gift card burning a hole in my pocket. Everything about this book is great: the writing pops, the setting is refreshing and fascinating, the characters are all interesting people with understandable and well-drawn motivations; it’s great it’s great it’s great. It is the best book I read in 2018, and again: this was an outstanding year, so that’s higher praise than usual. Go read it right now.

(RANDOM NOTE, BECAUSE IT’S ANNOYING ME: That missing space after the period and the 1 up there is not a typo. It’s there because if I leave it out WordPress tries to convert the block to a fucking numbered list and indents everything, and if I then change it back to a paragraph it deletes the number. Rinse and repeat. I love that Gutenberg is still finding new ways to be Goddamned obnoxious.)

HONORABLE MENTION, in NO PARTICULAR ORDER: The Easy Rawlins mysteries, by Walter Mosely, which I’m blowing through at high speed but some of which are rereads and others new, thus making them ineligible for this list, AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon, DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland, CROOKED GOD MACHINE by Autumn Christian, THE OUTSIDER by Stephen King, BLACK WOLVES by Kate Elliott, VOID BLACK SHADOW and STATIC RUIN by Corey J. White, A STUDY IN HONOR by Claire O’Dell and THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle.

WORST BOOK OF THE YEAR: SWAN SONG, by Robert McCammon. No competition.

The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2017

It’s that time of year again!  I am not a huge fan of the book I’m reading right now, and with three days left in the year it’s not likely that I’ll finish anything that merits addition to the list, so here are the 10 best new books I read this year, where “new” means “I never read it before,” and not “it came out this year.”  I read 89 books this year, a bit off my usual pace, which I blame on my job and the general “wouldn’t dying be easier?” tone that 2017 left all over absolutely every single thing in existence.  As always, once we get past the top 3 or so, don’t pay huge amounts of attention to the specific ranking.

(Also, are you my friend on Goodreads?  You should be my friend on Goodreads.)

Before we get started, though, the list from previous years:

9359808#10: THE DESERT OF SOULS, by Howard Andrew Jones.  I have a weakness for Conan books, and the sword and sorcery genre in general, and Howard Andrew Jones’ DESERT OF SOULS seriously scratched an itch for me.  I found it through Twitter, recommended by Saladin Ahmed, who tends to know his Arabian Nights-inspired prose pretty damn well.  There’s at least one more book in the series, which didn’t hit me quite as hard as the original, and some other pieces after that that I’m having some trouble tracking down for some reason.  The story is set in the real world– 8th century Baghdad, to be specific– but there’s magic and evil monsters and all sorts of fantasy fun to be had, and the voice of the main character is a pleasure to read.

07d#9: WHAT HAPPENED, by Hillary Clinton.  One thing that is sorely missing from this year’s list is nonfiction; I tend to swing back and forth on how much I’m reading (my book collection is probably at least 40% nonfiction) and this year definitely represented a marked swing away from nonfiction and toward escapist fiction.  WHAT HAPPENED was one of a very few examples to the contrary. I almost didn’t read it, as politics makes me ill enough on a daily basis without reading an entire book about the worst, stupidest election America ever had, but it turns out that Clinton is good at a lot of things, and one of those is writing books.  I would not have been strong enough to write this after going through what she did, and if I was strong enough, my book would have featured many times more uses of the word “motherfucker” than hers did.  It also would have been called “You Morons,” not “What Happened.”  There’s a good case to be made that everyone who voted for Clinton ought to read the book in the pure interest of history, but it’s still a good read on its own merits, especially if you’re able to temporarily disconnect yourself from the terrible consequences of the events it describes.

the-stars-are-legion-final-cover#8:  THE STARS ARE LEGION, by Kameron Hurley.  I keep seeing pictures of this book with LESBIANS IN SPACE as the title instead of the actual title, and I honest to God don’t know if they’re real or not.  I definitely want one if they are.  The hook of the book is pretty simple; there are no men, none at all, anywhere, and everything and everyone in the book identifies as female, but while that’s initially intriguing it’s not quite enough to hold an entire book together.  Luckily, it doesn’t need to be, as the story is typical Hurley Weird: dueling worldships hurtling through the void, decaying societies, rebirths and reincarnations, time loops, and genocide.  Y’know, YA stuff.  This book’s meaty as hell and is probably going to get a reread sometime this year.

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 1.45.39 PM#7: KILLING GRAVITY, by Corey J. White.  This year’s winner of the Warren Ellis I Want To Eat Your Brain And Steal Your Writing Powers award, KILLING GRAVITY is the book whose pure wordsmithery blew me away the most this year.  I am admittedly mostly a story guy; I can overlook workmanlike writing if the story is awesome, but it isn’t terribly often that beauty of language can overcome a bad story.  Luckily, this book has both; the tone and voice of the book are phenomenal, and the story itself, involving psychic assassins, cloned squirrel-thingies, and a shitton of just general badassery is absolutely enough to keep me enthralled.  This is somehow the only exemplar of Tor’s novella line on the list, which surprises me, as I liked their output a whole lot, and at 160 pages it’s probably the best pound-for-pound read on the list, if that phrase means anything.

71BbpPa_l8L#6: AUTONOMOUS, by Annalee Newitz.  I’ve read one of Annalee Newitz’ books previously, SCATTER, ADAPT AND REMEMBER: HOW HUMANS WILL SURVIVE A MASS EXTINCTION.  I bought this having forgotten I’d read that book, as once an author gets slotted in my head as a Nonfiction Person I don’t always remember they exist when and if they switch to fiction.  With respect to Ms. Newitz, I don’t want any more nonfiction from her, because AUTONOMOUS is so Goddamn good and I want lots more stuff like it instead.  I wouldn’t think that patent law and pharmaceuticals would really make for one of the best books of the year, but I guess that’s why I didn’t write it.  The main character is a pirate who lives in a submarine in the bottom of the ocean and produces illegal generic versions of patented drugs.  One of her drugs goes wrong and produces instant addiction, followed by unpleasant consequences, and we’re off to the races.  Throw in a romance between a human and a war robot and one of the more subtle takes on global warming I’ve seen in a book lately and I’m a happy reader.

51s465hRHsL#5: WAKE OF VULTURES, by Lila Bowen.  Lila Bowen, also known as Delilah Dawson, is an author who I’ve read several books by and had always bounced off of me.  She runs around with a crew of other writers whose work I like a lot but after four or five of her books falling flat I was ready to declare her work Not for Me and move on.  Well, okay, maybe Delilah Dawson is Not for Me, but Lila Bowen?  I’mma read the hell out of Lila Bowen’s next book.  WAKE OF VULTURES is basically urban fantasy, but transplanted into the Old West and with a former slave as the main character.  (So, uh, okay, maybe not so urban, but I hope you know what I mean.) I’m a hard sell for urban fantasy, but the setting change makes it work, and Nettie Lonesome’s voice as a character makes for a compulsively readable book.  I took way too long to get to this book– it sat on the shelf for forever, and there are now two more books out in the series.  I’ll be getting to them soon.

9780345548603#4: A PLAGUE OF GIANTS, by Kevin Hearne.  Speaking of the cool people that Lila Bowen hangs out with, Kevin Hearne’s been on my list of faves for a while, and when I heard that he’d started work on a proper Epic Fantasy Series as a follow-up to his excellent IRON DRUID series, I was insanely excited.  A PLAGUE OF GIANTS is different enough from his previous work that I’d have been hard-pressed to identify him as the author after reading the IRON DRUID books, but that versatility is a strength, and the framing device of the story– a bard basically giving a multi-day oral history lesson to a large crowd, by taking on the appearance and speech patterns of the people talking while performing, is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  I’m chomping at the bit for the next installment on this one; it’s getting pre-ordered the second I find it available on Amazon.

33128934#3: STILLHOUSE LAKE, by Rachel Caine.  I read STILLHOUSE LAKE in two or three huge gulps, staying up much later than I wanted to to finish it because I couldn’t stand the idea of going to bed without knowing how it ended.  I’m a big fan of Caine’s, and this is her only series without even a whiff of the supernatural about it– it’s a very 2017 type of horror novel, where the main character is both the ex-wife of a serial killer and the target of an army of relentless internet assholes who have decided she was an accomplice in her husband’s crimes and deserves to be punished for her actions.  It’s a chillingly realistic type of horror and one of a very few books that genuinely scared me while I was reading it.  I just finished its sequel KILLMAN CREEK, and while it doesn’t quite stand out as strongly as STILLHOUSE did (and also lacks that amazingly evocative cover, which would have sold me the book all by itself) it’s a great follow-up.  There’s a third book coming soon but I think the series works well as a duology.  We’ll see where they go next.

f043712f-4655-4c8a-b60f-fca1e4c6ca9f#2: THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas.  While not my favorite book of the year, I think THE HATE U GIVE is probably the most important book I read in 2017, and in particular I think this book needs to make its way into a whole lot of school libraries.  All of them, in fact.  The title is a Tupac reference; he once claimed that THUG LIFE stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” and… well, we’ll just say the book is well-named.  The story is about a young woman whose best friend is killed by a police officer, so it’s a bit triggery and, well, on point given the current fucked-up society we live in.  It’s a hell of a book and everyone should read it, or at least see the movie when it comes out sometime next year.

(SIDENOTE: I also read DEAR MARTIN, by Nic Stone, which is a very similar book in a lot of ways– in fact, the biggest difference is that DEAR MARTIN is about a male character and not a young woman.  I think DM suffered from having read THUG first, and while it’s absolutely worth your time it didn’t blow me away the way THUG did.  Read them both, but read THE HATE U GIVE first.)

30279514#1: DREADNOUGHT and SOVEREIGN, by April Daniels.  Here is the most impressive thing about DREADNOUGHT:  I read it in February, and it is still so much on my mind in December that there was no real competition for it being the best book of the year.  As much as I loved the other books on this list– and you don’t get on this list unless I loved your book– there was never anything this year that came close to how much I loved DREADNOUGHT… unless it was SOVEREIGN, the sequel, which also came out this year and was just as good.  That’s practically impossible.  Superhero prose is pretty rare in general; comic books have such a stranglehold on the genre that most people don’t even really consider superheroics as proper fodder for a prose novel.  Teen Danny Tozer accidentally inherits the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s premier superhero, and one of the first things Dreadnought’s powers do is reshape Danny’s body into his own personal ideal, which means Danny becomes Danielle.  It’s a great superhero book, a great teenage coming-of-age book, a great exploration of how society treats trans people (the main villain of the second book is a TERF) and all around a fantastic pair of novels and the best two books I read in 2017.  I finally got my wife to start reading DREADNOUGHT a couple of days ago, and she hasn’t been able to put it down much either.  Go buy this, guys.  You’ve got Christmas money lying around, I know it.

Honorable Mention, in no particular order:  DEFY THE STARS, by Claudia Gray; YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN INNOCENT, by James Duane, HAND TO MOUTH: LIVING IN BOOTSTRAP AMERICA, by Linda Tirado; FLYGIRL, by Sherri L. Smith; THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE, by John Scalzi, THE TRESPASSER, by Tana French; A SONG FOR QUIET, by Cassandra Khaw, and DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES, by Seanan McGuire.

Worst book of the year: ORIGINS, by Dan Brown.  I literally don’t think he can write a worse book than this one.  Let’s all hope he never tries.

The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2016

I do this at the end of every year: the top 10 new books I read during that calendar year for the first time, where “new” means “new to me.”  That said, this list has turned out to be pretty heavy on 2016 releases for some reason; the oldest book on here is from 1989 and the second-oldest from 2005.  The order other than the top three or so doesn’t matter all that much, and had I written this on another day it might be a bit different; anything mentioned on here is gonna be a hell of a read.  I read 103 books this year, and it might be 104 depending on my free time today, so there’s a fair amount of competition.

And, just in case you’re curious, here are the 2015 listthe 2014 list and the 2013 list.

Read all that?  Okay, here we go:

10) THE FAMILY PLOT, by Cherie Priest.  I once got into a (civil) conversation on Twitter with a noted female horror writer about how there didn’t seem to be very many female horror writers.  By the end of the conversation I was convinced that the largest part of the problem was a weird definition of “horror writer” that I had in my head, one that only had room for Stephen King (notably, a dude) and no one else.  Well, fully a third of this year’s entries are horror novels by women writers, and we’ll kick it off with Cherie Priest’s The Family Plot.  This is that most simple of all horror stories: a haunted house.  It is not, I will admit, the most original thing you will ever read, although the hook of the house’s victims being pickers hired to tear the place apart to resell its guts at a profit is a nice touch.  But this book creeped me the hell out, and I stayed up much later than I ought to have two or three nights in a row in order to finish it.  It’s a nice stylistic change for Priest, too, who is turning out to be an impressively versatile author; I’d not have been able to guess she wrote this had I not seen her name on the cover.

9) DEAD SOULS: A NOVEL, by J. Lincoln Fenn.  Fenn is a new author for me this year, and I think I encountered this book through John Scalzi’s Big Idea series.  I have a second book of Fenn’s waiting on the shelf for me to get to it already.  In many ways I could write the same exact paragraph for this book that I just wrote above for The Family Plot, except that instead of a haunted house this book is about a deal with the devil, and with the added detail that this book has easily the creepiest ending to anything I’ve read in years.  I probably should have seen it coming, at least in part, but the ending catapulted the book from something I was really enjoying reading to holy shit find more books by this person and tell everyone they should read this one.  Very nicely done, and I look forward to reading more of Fenn’s books.

161308) ALEXANDER HAMILTON, by Ron Chernow.  I didn’t read a ton of nonfiction this year, and I went back and forth on whether I should rank this book or the next one on the list higher and eventually decided I didn’t care– but Chernow’s bio of Hamilton is a masterwork, and if you’re even vaguely interested in American history you should definitely make time for it.  Make a lot of time, actually, as the book’s big enough to kill small animals with.  For added fun, do what I did and memorize the soundtrack to the Hamilton musical before reading the book, as it will provide a nice accompaniment to the book in your head and will also shed some interesting light on some of the side details that Miranda included in his musical.  Most disappointing: that Alexander Hamilton did not actually punch a bursar while attempting to be enrolled at Princeton.

51ykx5hd5pl-_sx331_bo1204203200_7) AND THE WALLS CAME TUMBLING DOWN, by Ralph David Abernathy.  From biography to autobiography; I actually reviewed this after I read it, so feel free to click over to that for a more detailed look at the book, but the gist of it is this: Abernathy is doing several things here, writing his own autobiography, a history of the Civil Rights movement, and a biography of Martin Luther King, all at the same time and in the same book.  Also true about Ralph David Abernathy: he’s a bit of a dick, and uses the book for some score-settling from time to time, including with King himself, who Abernathy knew better than anyone.  It’s a reminder throughout that some of America’s greatest heroes– and Abernathy should be rightfully counted among that group, even though he’s less well-known than many of the people he discusses– were people, and not the bloodless icons that they’ve been turned into over the decades.  Very much worth reading.

256679186) BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor.  One of the very, very few positive things about 2016 was the reemergence of the novella as a Thing that is Available to Read.  There are three novellas on this list, and a fourth that really probably ought to be.  Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti was the first I read of the bunch, and it’s a doozy: a sci-fi tale of a woman leaving her home and her culture behind to study at a prestigious university on another planet.  One problem: it’s in the midst of a war zone.  Okorafor can be a bit hit or miss for me; I also read Akata Witch and Lagoon by her this year, and I loved Akata but wasn’t too enthralled by Lagoon.  This one’s outstanding, though.  And that cover.  Damn.

114702775) GOD’S WAR and INFIDEL, by Kameron Hurley.  This is book one and two of a series, and book three is on the shelf waiting for me to get to it.  I went back and forth a bit trying to decide if I was going to include one or both and whether I liked one more than the other and my answer ended up being “Screw it, my list, my rules.”

This series is some of the most original sci-fi I’ve ever read, a story of an assassin living on a planet-wide war zone where all of the men are off fighting in a holy war, the wider culture is loosely based on Islam, and advanced technology and magic are both based on bugs.  Yes, bugs.  There’s gene piracy and organ selling and I think the main character has died three times in the space of the two books already and it’s all fucking brilliant and you should read it immediately.

268835584) THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM, by Victor LaValle.  I said already that this was the Year of the Novella, and this and the next book are both products of Tor’s new novella line– a line I have (I think) bought every single release from and which have all been uniformly excellent.  Kij Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe really ought to be in the top 10 as well, but three Lovecraft-inflected novellas on the same list seemed a bit much.  Black Tom is Tommy Tester, a hustler in 1920s New York, a guy who does what he can to get by, which includes dabbling in moving the occasional magical artifact.  If that setting’s not enough for you to want to pick up this book all by itself, I don’t want to be friends with you.  If you haven’t read Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, you might want to do that before reading.  Or not, I suppose it’s up to you, and it’s not one of his better stories.

301993283) HAMMERS ON BONE, by Cassandra Khaw. This book features my favorite writing of any of the books on this list, writing that makes me want to absorb Cassandra Khaw’s powers so that I can write as well as she does.  It’s another Lovecraft-flavored novella, about a private detective who is hired by a ten-year-old to kill his stepfather.  The stepfather is not what he seems.  Neither, as it turns out, is the detective.  But to hell with the plot, as I said, the writing is the star here, a bizarre Mickey Spillane/ Lovecraft/ James Ellroy-esque pastiche that stays with you for days afterwards.  I would love to be able to write a book like this.  I want to be able to write a book like this.  Cass Khaw already did, and she is awesome.  She’s also got a full-length novel coming soon and a sequel to Bone; I can’t goddamn wait.

172350262) THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, by Mike Carey. I know Mike Carey primarily from his comics work, and wasn’t aware that he wrote prose books as well.  I only found out about The Girl with All the Gifts from the trailer for the movie adaptation, which still isn’t available Stateside anywhere I can see it, which makes me very upset.

Mike Carey should write more books.  The Girl with All the Gifts starts off feeling a bit run-of-the-mill; my wife is reading it right now after being harassed about it for most of the year and just asked me today if the book was basically a novelization of The Last of Us.  But the farther in you get the more enthralling the book becomes, and by the end it’s its own thing and while, yes, it’s still a zombie story, it’s a bloody goddamned great zombie story, one that despite having a damn movie made out of it still hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention.  I didn’t know what I was getting into when I picked this up, guys.  It’s phenomenal.

189523811) THE WALL OF STORMS, by Ken Liu. This is the rarest of things, folks: a second installment in a planned long-run megaseries that is better in every way than the first book.  I liked The Grace of Kings quite a lot when I first read it, but by the end of the year the shine had worn off a bit and it only ended up (“only,” he says) in the Honorable Mention section of that year’s list.  The Wall of Storms fixes every single thing that is wrong with the first book and improves on the large quantity of stuff that was amazing.  Liu calls his China-flavored fantasy fiction “silkpunk,” and the discovery of electricity plays a big role in this novel.  So do dragons.  Sort of.  The title of the series, The Dandelion Dynasty, should also be taken seriously.  Note that last word.  It’s kind of important.  Storms doesn’t quite have the poetry of language that Hammers on Bone does, and isn’t quite as pulse-poundingly exciting as The Girl with All the Gifts, but that doesn’t keep it from being a tremendously inventive and rewarding piece of fiction from an author who keeps getting better.  It’s the best book I read this year.  You should read it.  Now.

Honorable Mention, in no particular order: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson, Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith, Invasive and The Hellsblood Bride by Chuck Wendig, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West, The Rising by Ian Tregillis, The Secret Place by Tana French, Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine, My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due, Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, and Bloodline by Claudia Gray.