February 16, 2018

2017 By The Books

It's pretty far into 2018 to post about my favorite reads from 2017, but I didn't want to skip an opportunity to rave once more about the books I loved last year.

In reviewing my previous reading year recaps, I see it's tradition to begin by declaring how many books I read. In 2017, I read 31 books, a bit of a decrease from recent years. The decline can mostly be attributed to all things house-related consuming much of my reading and writing time, so my usual three books a month became two for a while. As I've said before, though I do sometimes get focused on the number of books as a statistic, it's less that I care about the number and more that I always wish I'd read more of the great books I heard about during the course of the year.

But happily, I did fit in quite a few great books. It turns out that the set of books I want to rave about includes at least a third of what I read in 2017, so I'm overall very pleased with my selections. I'm also enjoying the amount of variety in my top picks, with most of the books different in genre or style from anything else I read last year, or in some cases ever. The only commonality on this list is that almost all of these were new releases in 2017 (as was the bulk of my reading).

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid (recommended in my March recap) is one of the stories that isn't easily categorized, and also one of the year's biggest standouts for me. A young couple falls in love in a city on the brink of war, while around the world, mysterious doors begin appearing that transport people from one part of the globe to another. Hamid gorgeously balances the big and small stories, depicting both how the flow of instant migrants changes the world's cities, and how migration changes one couple's relationship.

THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle (July) is a work of horror (a genre I don't often read), but it masquerades as a realistic family story (one of my preferred genres) until a third of the way through. Then the lives of two new parents and their baby take a very dark turn. I was impressed by how many unexpected directions the story went in, while continuing to portray the characters and their relationships with believable care and detail.

STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND by Samuel R. Delany (June) is the only book I read last year that wasn't published within the past decade. It's from 1984, but the progressive ideas and prescient technology make it age very well. The story involves two characters from very different planets who come together in unusual circumstances, and I won't say more, because I adored Delany's gradual presentation of the story and the intricately imagined worlds.

THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin (August) and its two sequels form a gripping trilogy that also awed me with intricate worldbuilding. Earthquakes are a constant threat in the Broken Earth series, and people with the ability to quell the shakes are a necessary part of society, but feared and despised. Jemisin explores how these power dynamics play out as she puts her wonderful characters through harrowing and often heartbreaking experiences.

DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay (January), a short story collection, is another work that depicts painful experiences with great thought. Gay's gorgeous writing exposes the emotional core of her characters' difficult lives. Her powerfully honest memoir, HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY (June) also makes my list of best books of the year.

AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon (October/November) continues my unintentional theme of beautiful but dark books. On a generation ship with no clear destination, the population is sharply stratified by class and race, and those from the lower decks are subject to lives of slavery and abuse. The engrossing story follows a skilled lowdeck scientist who finds hope for herself and the entire ship in the engineering notes left by her mother.

SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan (September) provided a delicious slice of lighthearted fun, for a change. It's the entertaining, geeky tale of a robotics engineer who discovers a passion for baking and finds her way into the Bay Area food world. Sloan's writing is funny, clever, and deftly combines the familiar with the slightly improbable.

PROVENANCE by Ann Leckie (October/November) tells an exciting, twisty story of family politics and interplanetary conflicts. The less-favored child of a powerful leader embarks on a wild scheme to change her fortunes, and it immmediately goes wrong, leaving her to return to her home planet with an even more far-fetched plan. The plot speeds along through tense exploits, long-held resentments, and cultural conflict, and Leckie portrays all of these with nuance and charm.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders (March) is stylistically unlike anything else I've read, and part of what I enjoyed so much about this novel was figuring out how it operated. The unusual narrative centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln's young son, a real event that happened near the beginning of the Civil War. With characteristic compassion and humor, Saunders presents a huge cast of distinctive and memorable characters, mostly ghosts, to tell an emotionally effective story of grief, death, and life.

NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME by Rakesh Satyal (May) is an excellent novel about people longing for types of connection they can't understand or express. In Cleveland, two people who immigrated from India long ago have little else in common -- one appears to live the model immigrant life, the other is isolated by shameful secrets. When they befriend each other, their worlds shift and open up in messy and unexpected ways.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng (September) also explores what happens when carefully ordered lives spin out of control (and happens to also be set in the Cleveland area). A perfect family in the perfect planned community of Shaker Heights takes the generous step of welcoming in some newcomers, and the connection has a different and far-reaching impact on each member of the two families. Ng does a fantastic job creating believable scenarios in which characters fail to understand each other, and she packs tension, mystery, and emotion into every page.

I loved reflecting on these books again and remembering what a great reading year I had in 2017. My 2018 reads are already nicely continuing the trend. Happy reading!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Zachary Littrell of Book Riot does the math on cases when book critics and bookworms disagree: "For instance, while Goodreads users rated 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History at a healthy 4.03 stars, the majority of critics panned it. The average reader seemed to enjoy the sweeping tale of President Roosevelt learning about the truth about the Holocaust. Critics, meanwhile, were left unimpressed by the information, and annoyed by the size."

February 8, 2018

December/January Reading Recap

In becoming reacquainted with my regular life, I finally got to the point of catching up on a backlog of book reviews. Here's what I read during the past two hectic months of moving and settling in:

→ Early in SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE, Ijeoma Oluo addresses the fact that you may not, in fact, want to talk about race: "...we have to talk about race. Race is everywhere and racial tension and animosity and pain is in almost everything we see and touch. Ignoring it does not make it go away. There is no shoving the four hundred years' racial oppression and violence toothpaste back in the toothpaste tube." Oluo is this clear and direct throughout the book about why there need to be more conversations about race and racism, particularly between (white) people who are often able to opt out of the discussion. This book is a great guide to understanding, recognizing, talking about, and acting on racial discrimination in all aspects of society.

Each chapter covers a different topic, such as intersectionality, affirmative action, and cultural appropriation, and starts with a personal story about a time or way the topic connected to Oluo's life. While many examples explore how a racist system impacted her as a black women, she's also upfront about situations where her own privilege or biases caused her to mistreat others. Everyone has more to learn when it comes to racism, and the rest of each chapter provides detailed information about the topic and suggestions on how to discuss and counteract it.

Part of this material was review for me, but that's only because of reading so much online writing by Oluo and other activists in recent years. I knew little about these topics and understood even less before I started putting effort into become more educated. The thorough, approachable SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE offers a lot of important knowledge all in one place. I read the book quickly, but I'm going to be absorbing it for a while.

THE STONE SKY by N.K. Jemisin is a strong conclusion to the intense, imaginative trilogy that opens with THE FIFTH SEASON. Essun has learned what she needs to do to save humanity from the extinction of an endless Season, but first she has to save the community and friends she's unexpectedly grown to care about. Along with the story of saving the world, this final installment presents the story of how things first went wrong thousands of years earlier.

As with the rest of the trilogy, this book is a harrowing, fascinating read. Many terrible things happen to the characters, all of whom I've become fond of, and there are numerous surprises and intriguing pieces of the puzzle filled in. I was glad to learn more about the stone eaters, who seemed somewhat disconnected from the rest of the worldbuilding in the earlier books. While I didn't get every answer I was hoping for, I found the ending emotionally satisfying.

The Broken Earth series is an impressive, compelling work. I'm not usually drawn to epic fantasies, so some elements of the story were less to my taste, but my overall feelings are positive. I definitely recommend this trilogy.