Since it is the start of a new year, I wanted to do a quick post about all the books I read during 2016. The total number — 31 — seemed fewer than I expected, but actually more than I’ve read in a year during the last few years.
Writing about the books is also kind of fun because I get to revisit them — and most of the books I read this year were really good, so it is a good revisit!
Most of the books were fiction, with an emphasis on fantasy and science fiction. I did manage to squeeze in a few non-fiction works here and there. I also ended up immersed in multiple different series this year, so I’ve been left hanging, waiting for the next volumes to be published. This is a little unusual for me — in the past, I’ve managed to wait to start a series until most of the volumes were available, so I could just go from one to the next. Not so this time — I’m waiting on the sequels to Binti, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, The Obelisk Gate, and Oddfits. This wasn’t intentional; it is just how things happened with the books I picked up to read in 2016.
Alas, the sequel to The Obelisk Gate (The Stone Sky) is not coming out until August, so I have a long wait. The two books I read in that series were my absolute favorites of the year.
A few of these books were re-reads, but I still count them because the first time I read them was so long ago that I didn’t remember much.
Twenty-five of the books this year were fiction. Ordered by title:
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. I think I read this way back in eighth grade, but I barely remembered anything. Wanted to revisit a classic.
2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke. This one I had never read before. Entertaining, but I wasn’t inspired to continue with the series.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. This one was short and fairly quick to read. I picked it up because it won the Best Novella Hugo award this year, and I was not disappointed. I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel (Binti: Home), due out at the end of January.
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison. A novel taking place in post-apocalyptic world that is especially harsh towards women. The author wrote a post explaining the big idea behind the book, and in this case, her big idea was: women are people. If that seems obvious or not that impressive, I suggest you read her words here and think hard about how women are often portrayed in science fiction. This was a terrific book. I started it right at the beginning of November and finished sometime after the election, so its description of a post-apocalyptic world seemed particularly apt in the moment. The sequel, The Book of Etta, is due out in February…again, another pre-order for me.
The Broken Earth series by N. K. Jemisin — I read the first two books of this series:
These were incredible, and without a doubt my favorite books of the entire year. I picked up The Fifth Season because it won the Best Novel Hugo award this year. The way Jemisin tells the story is highly unusual — alternating between second person narration (“You are…“) and more typical narration, but somehow it works. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world roiled by earthquakes and volcanoes. A certain class of people are able to control these seismic events with their minds (“orogenes”), but instead of revering them, the “normal” people (the “stills”) fear, hate, and enslave them. Somehow the author managed to tell a story about oppression in an entirely unexpected and new way.
I finished the second volume (The Obelisk Gate) in late October. There is a passage in the book that has haunted me since I read it, especially given the real-life political climate. Without reading the full story it may be a little hard to fully understand the context. Essun is an orogene who has spent much of her life either enslaved or in hiding, but is currently living in a community (“comm”) where she is a full citizen and mostly considered to be human. Her comm must decide whether to join with another comm (“Rennanis”) at a high cost — Rennanis does not want the comm’s orogenes, so a significant segment of the comm would be cast out. There has already been some violence (some directed at children), as the comm members revive their hatred and fear of those who are different. The decision is supposed to be made by vote. There is a ballot box, and the community members are dropping in their ballots:
You walk into the center of the circle, and the man holding the ballot box scrambles back from you, leaving it there. Ykka frowns and steps forward and says, “Essun—” But you ignore her. You lunge forward and it is suddenly instinctual, easy, natural, to grip the hilt of the pink longknife with both hands and turn and swivel your hips and swing. The instant the sword touches the wooden box, the box is obliterated. It isn’t cut, it isn’t smashed; it disintegrates into its component microscopic particles. The eye processes this as dust, which scatters and glitters in the light before vanishing. Turned to stone. A lot of people are gasping or crying out, which means they’re inhaling their votes. Probably won’t hurt them. Much.
Then you turn and lift the longknife, pivoting slowly to point it at each face.
“No vote,” you say. It’s so quiet that you can hear water trickling out of the pipes in the communal pool, hundreds of feet below. “Leave. Go join Rennanis if they’ll have you. But if you stay, no part of this comm gets to decide that any other part of this comm is expendable. No voting on who gets to be people.”
That last bit just got me. “No voting on who gets to be people.”
Anyway, I very much recommend these books and I can’t wait for the third volume due out in August!
Deceptions: A Connor Hawthorne Mystery by Lauren Maddison. This was an older lesbian murder mystery, originally published back in 1999. It started out quite good, but then went a bit downhill when it introduced a villain that was pure caricature. I imagined him twirling his mustache and plotting world domination, like a cartoon character. I liked the main two characters, so I was a bit bummed that it just veered off into this weird, unsatisfying place. There are sequels with the same characters, but I’m not planning on reading them at the moment.
Gift of the Winter King by Naomi Kritzer. This was a collection of short stories that I picked up after reading Kritzer’s Hugo-winning short story Cat Pictures Please. Several really good stories, including some set in the same fantasy world as her novels, which are now on my “to read” list. I think my favorite story was St. Ailbe’s Hall, which effectively used dogs (talking dogs, even!) to show just how brutally awful humans can be.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne. So this one was a little odd, as it is the script for a play, not an actual novel. I like the overall story about Harry’s young son, but I wish Rowling had written this as a normal novel. Reading a script felt strange. It did go much faster than I imagine a novel-version of the story would have. I believe I finished it in just a few days during our camping trip in the Beartooth mountains.
His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman:
- The Golden Compass
- The Subtle Knife
- The Amber Spyglass
The first two (The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife) were technically re-reads. I read them both back in 2008, but got sidetracked before moving on to book three. So since it had been so long, I started over and read the whole series.
After I finished the books, a vague memory prompted me to hunt around find some old book-journal type notes I had written when I read these books the first time. Apparently, the first time I wasn’t crazy about The Subtle Knife — I felt bogged down and it didn’t grab me as the first book. This second time, I really enjoyed the book. So, I guess reading tastes and perspectives can change quite a bit in eight years? I’ve become much more disciplined about journaling, particularly about the books I read, so it may be interesting to revisit some of this year’s books in, say, 2026 or so.
I was a little bummed when I finished these, as I really wanted to spend more time in Lyra’s world, where your soul takes the form of an animal “daemon” that is always by your side.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. This one was technically a re-read, as I listened to the audio version many years ago (before moving to Montana, when I had a driving commute).
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Also a re-read — I had read this one back in college, but I had forgotten most of it. This book is not really a true novel — it works more as a collection of short pieces that center around two Native American families and a huge collection of characters.
The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao. The title of this one is quite appropriate — the book was odd, the story was odd, the characters were odd. I stumbled across this one because I get one free “kindle first” book a month through Amazon Prime. This was a sort of fantasy taking place in the “real world” in Singapore. Although it wasn’t as compelling as some of the other series I read this year, I’m still planning on picking up the sequel once it comes out (The More Known World, due out in August).
Slow River, by Nicola Griffith. Another one with an interesting story structure. The story centers on one main character, but uses three different points of view to tell her story (the author writes about how she came to this story structure here).
This is the second novel by Griffith that I’ve read (I read and loved Ammonite several years ago). She also was an editor for the anthology Bending the Landscape: Gay and Lesbian Science Fiction, which I bought in Chicago probably in the early 2000s and still go back to re-read from time to time.
The full Tales of the City series (9 books) by Armistead Maupin:
- Tales of the City
- More Tales of the City
- Further Tales of the City
- Significant Others
- Sure Of You
- Michael Tolliver Lives
- Mary Ann in Autumn
- The Days of Anna Madrigal
I wanted to read the last two novels in this series, but figured it has been a long time since I read the others, so I should catch up first. So I re-read them all over a few weeks in the middle of summer. These are also a very quick read, very entertaining, although I do have to say, the early volumes feel pretty dated now. I’m sure I miss a lot of the San Francisco in-jokes as well, but they were still fun to re-read.
I read just six non-fiction books this year, but they were all good:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Enlightening and heartbreaking.
The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. This is another one I read during our camping vacation in the summer. In particular, I really liked the portions where they presented parts of her court opinions and dissents with analysis. Reading this book in the summer, I did expect a different election outcome and the idea that perhaps she would retire. Now I’m wondering if RBG can stick it out another four years…
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. Another in the handful of non-fiction I read this year. Lindy West can be hysterical, so there was a lot of humor in this one, although at the same time, reading about the abuse and harassment imposed on women online was infuriating. Interestingly, just in the last week, Lindy West has left Twitter:
”Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.”
The Way Of The Heathen: Practicing Atheism In Everyday Life by Greta Cristina. Another fairly quickly read. This book consisted of several essays, some of which I had previously read on the author’s blog, but it was nice to have them collected together in one volume.
Writing A Novel with Ulysses by David Hewson. Ulysses is the app I currently use for all sorts of personal writing on both my Mac and iPhone/iPad. I picked up this book even though I don’t have any immediate plans to attempt a novel right now. I do have a terrible, not-fully-finished draft of a novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo back in 2011 that I occasionally consider revisiting, so this seemed like it might be useful.
Writing: A User Manual: A practical guide to planning, starting and finishing a novel by David Hewson. What can I say? I like reading advice about writing. It is probably a bad habit — should spend more time actually writing and less time reading about writing. Maybe I’ll do better in 2017.
I’d like to increase the number of books I read in a year, so I’m aiming to hit about 45 in 2017. This may be a bit ambitious. I can’t remember a year in which I read that many books, but I’m looking forward to trying!
I’ve already checked my first of 2017 off my list: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I started reading it during the holidays, and then it nearly made me miss by bus stop a couple times once I went back to work.
My kindle is currently full of books and samples for books that I’ve been adding to my list — there are more “I want to read this” books on my list than I’m ever going to finish, so maybe this is an achievable goal. Some that come to mind that I’ve been wanting to read:
- Hild by Nicola Griffith
- The Book of Etta by Meg Elison
- Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
- The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
- Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago by Octavia Butler (I started on Dawn before the holidays, then got sidetracked with Between the World and Me. I do want to get back to this series at some point.)
- Emperor of the Eight Islands: Book 1 in the Tale of Shikanoko by Lian Hearn. (I’m curious about this one — years ago I read the Tales of the Otori series by this author and loved it, so I added this to my list.)
- Fires of the Faithful by Naomi Kritzer
- Lock In: A Novel of the Near Future by John Scalzi (I’ve read several of his science fiction books, and I love his blog. I read a short story based in the world of Lock In and found it interesting)
There are a ton more — this is just a start. We’ll see what I have to write about in January 2018!