book reviews

2017 Books Of Awesome

After quite a few nights/days spent rocking a sleeping baby and reading a book, I thought I’d also rock my to-read list this year.

Ahahaha.

Turns out, sleeping newborns turn into not-sleeping infants turn into crawling, interested-in-what-you’re-reading babies. And if they’re not trying to pry the book from your hands, then you’re trying to pry the cat bowl from theirs.

In short, I quickly realized I wasn’t going to read as much as I’d like. While humbling, this was also freeing. Since I have so much less free time between baby, dayjob, writing, and well, generally keeping the house from descending into cat hair chaos, I was much pickier about the books I read. And – surprisingly! – I ended up loving almost all of the books I read this year.

Also interesting how this list is much more solidly fantasy than previous years… hmmm…

Because I don’t have as much time as I used to, I’m going to cheat and use/expound upon the tweet thread I already made for my #2017InBooks. Sorry/not sorry.

So here are (almost!) all those books, in no particular order, for you & for posterity & for a better year-in-review than I can ever do, in 140 (280?!) characters or less:

    • A Darker Shade of Magic* by V.E. Schwab – Fun! You’ve probably read this! I was late to the game but I can see what everyone was talking about. Pirates, magic, doom & gloom & good gay times. Honestly, the whole Shades of Magic series.
    • Hellspark by Janet Kagan – linguistic sci-fi will always always be my jam. What is sentience? What is language? Why is that spider-thing crawling up my leg?
    • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – timely YA insta-classic take on police brutality that pulls NO punches. We’ve got racism, riots, and class tensions with subtlety and nuance in >80k words.
    • The Nightmare Stacks* by Charles Stross – because Stross’ Laundry Files will always be my curl-up-with-hot-cocoa-and-Lovecraftian-nightmares series.
    • The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden – Demigods! South Africa! Robot revolts! Dik diks! Positive trans potrayal! Wholesale destruction! Need I say more?
    • Amberlough* by Lara Elena Donnelly – dear god I’m still having dreams about this book. Disturbing. Delightful. So gay. Do you like spy thrillers and cabaret and too-parallel politics? Then yes.
    • The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin – Stone magic meets astronomy with apocalyptic adventure and a mother-daughter relationship that friggin shattered me. This whole series is definitely core SFF canon now, by the way.
    • Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer – I honestly still don’t know what to think about the Ignota Terra series except that it’s a) full of intense worldbuilding and b) not even slightly what I expected. Did I mention it’s intense? It’s… intense. But rewarding.
    • Winter Tide* by Ruthanna Emrys – You got some social commentary in my Lovecraftian horror and I like it.
    • The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis – Airships! Explosions! Adventure! Snarky fops! No central romantic plot!! Honestly just a lot of fun and a great way to end the year.

* – Consumed in audiobook form.

book reviews

2016 Books of Awesome, Part One

It’s that time of year again! Time to look back at the books I read and share with you the ones I enjoyed the most – the ones I would recommend or the ones that just struck me deeply.

It’s always interesting to me to look back at what I’ve read, because it gives a broad picture of what I was up to, what interested me, and where I ended up. It’s a more subjective measure of my year than anything I could come up with on my own.

This year I only read 31 books. Life kind of… happened. Between learning a new job, struggling to write, three months of total exhaustion, moving across the country, having a baby, and then struggling to write again while also juggling said baby (not literally, of course – I’m not a monster), I found it difficult to fit in as much reading as I once could.

Taken in a different light, I should really be saying – wow! Somehow I read 31 books! But that doesn’t please the perfectionist in me, so we’re just going to skirt around numbers and dive straight in to the best part: talking about books.

I made a goal at the beginning of the year to read mostly women, mostly fantasy, and especially aim for voices outside the mainstream white, straight, & male. I did end up with a few of those, but otherwise I stuck to my goal, even if I didn’t finish my 2016 TBR list. And interestingly enough, although I “only” read 31 books – a far cry from last year’s 52 and the prior year’s 70 – they were top notch. I loved almost all of them, which is why even though I read less this year, I still have ten awesome books to share with ya’ll.

Without further ado, here are my 2016 Books of Awesome, Part One:

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

“Criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone. For his crew, he pulls together: a convict with a thirst for revenge; sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager; a runaway with a privileged past; a spy known as the Wraith; a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums; and a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes. Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction — if they don’t kill each other first.”

I loved that the world in this book was so heavily Slavic. It made for a nice change of pace. Speaking of pace, it’s a bit breakneck which made it very, very difficult to put down. I read this in two days. It’s so much fun and I never saw what was coming next. Even better, it’s a complete story in itself, but enough threads were left open for a sequel – which is definitely on my TBR list.

 

The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn

“Nineteen-year-old Bill Shunn is a man on a mission—a Mormon mission, that is, trolling for converts door-to-door a thousand miles from home. This riveting memoir—by turns hilarious, provocative, and thrilling—traces his accidental journey from that humble beginning to hunted fugitive and international terrorist.”

I love me some funny yet poignant memoirs occasionally, and this one did not disappoint. This was a delightful and informative look into the world of Mormon missions and just what those pairs of well-dressed young men are doing in your neighborhood. Interwoven is the story of Joseph Smith, the man & the myth behind Mormonism. I learned way more than I’d expected and had a fun time at it, high praise in my book.

 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

“Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep the Wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.”

I picked this up based entirely on the idea of a dragon preying on a small village that wasn’t actually a dragon. I loved this because of the cranky wizard at its heart and the actually-quite-terrifying Wood. The MC is plucky and equally cranky and the story runs ahead at equal amounts trot and gallop. There’s even a kick-ass best friend to help balance out the romance.  This is the kind of fairytale for grown ups that I adore.

 

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

“January 29, 2035.

That’s the day the comet is scheduled to hit—the big one. Denise and her mother and sister, Iris, have been assigned to a temporary shelter near their hometown of Amsterdam to wait out the blast, but Iris is nowhere to be found, and at the rate Denise’s drug-addicted mother is going, they’ll never reach the shelter in time.

Then a last-minute encounter leads them to something better than a temporary shelter: a generation ship that’s scheduled to leave Earth behind and colonize new worlds after the comet hits. But each passenger must have a practical skill to contribute. Denise is autistic and fears that she’ll never be allowed to stay. Can she obtain a spot before the ship takes flight? What about her mother and sister?”

Ooooh, I love Duyvis’ writing so much. First her magnificent YA fantasy, Otherbound, and now an apocalyptic YA with both equal amounts terror and grace. But the terror is all in who is considered useful enough to live post-apocalypse and who gets to decide. When the marginalized have a hard enough time in daily society, what happens during the end of the world?

For an apocalyptic story, it was surprisingly hopeful. I loved how Duyvis never focused on chaos and anarchy, and instead drew more than enough tension from mundane questions, which in turn made the worldbuilding feel especially realistic.

 

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.”

As usual, Seanan spins the creepiest, most entertaining yarns. I always love how she’ll take a particularly common cliché and worry at it until she’s completely turned it on its head, yet it still remains achingly familiar. This knack shines brightest with fairytales, her forte, and here she is, exploring the inevitable, yet unexplored, consequences of all those tales: what happens to the children who come back?

There’s much more to the story than just that question – like murder and mystery and a self-identified ace main character- and it’s all somehow wrapped up within the confines of a novella.

 

To be continued!

book reviews

2015 Books in Review, Part One

It’s that time of year again! Time to look back at the books I read and share with you the ones I enjoyed the most – the ones I would recommend or the ones that just struck me deeply. It’s always interesting to look at all I’ve read, because it gives a broad picture of what I was up to, what interested me, and where I ended up. It’s a more subjective measure of my year than anything I could come up with on my own.

That said… it’s telling that I read a lot less this year than last. 76 in 2014, but only 50 (give or take, probably give considering there are two weeks left in the year) in 2015. Part of this was due to my changing work life: I no longer have the luxury of listening to audiobooks for a large chunk of my day. Part of this was just my own failure to prioritize reading.

Which needs to change! If nothing else, reading will be a big goal for me in 2016. Reading is just as important as actually putting words on a page for a writer. Also I need to make a dent in this TBR pile. Honestly, it looks like it might fall over and crush me at any moment.

Here are my 2015 Books of Awesome, Part One:

The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin

“In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers – the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe – and kill those judged corrupt.”

THIS BOOK. This. Book. It is everything I love in fantasy: beautiful, well-crafted characters, interesting and new settings, diverse cultures, grappling with complex issues, fun! and fast! and just hooks its claws into you and doesn’t let go until you’re on the last page and then you need to take a few days to recover. Jemisin is one of those amazing writers who can write beautifully and plot tightly and characterize brilliantly and I just – go. Go read her. Now. I’ll wait.

 

Lock-In by John Scalzi

“Not too long from today, a highly contagious virus makes its way across the globe. Most who get sick experience nothing worse than flu, fever and headaches. But for the unlucky one percent – and nearly five million souls in the United States alone – the disease causes “Lock In”: Victims fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. The disease affects young, old, rich, poor, people of every color and creed. The world changes to meet the challenge…”

If you like Scalzi, you’ll like this. If you like fun, fast, and hilarious mysteries, you’ll also like this.

 

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

“There are those who believe and those who don’t. Through the ages, superstition has had its uses. Nowhere more so than in the Discworld where it’s helped to maintain the status quo. Anything that undermines superstition has to be viewed with some caution. There may be consequences, particularly on the last night of the year when the time is turning. When those consequences turn out to be the end of the world, you need to be prepared. You might even want more standing between you and oblivion than a mere slip of a girl – even if she has looked Death in the face on numerous occasions.”

Losing Pratchett this year was hard. He was a big, formative influence for me and many others. To celebrate his life, I immediately read some faves of his. Hogfather is one of his best and a good introduction to his writing.

 

Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

“André Deschênes is a hired assassin, but he wants to be so much more. If only he can find a teacher who will forgive his murderous past – and train him to manipulate odds and control probability. It’s called the art of conjuring, and it’s André’s only route to freedom. For the world he lives on is run by the ruthless Charter Trade Company, and his floating city, Novo Haven, is little more than a company town where humans and aliens alike either work for one tyrannical family – or are destroyed by it. But beneath Novo Haven’s murky waters, within its tangled bayous, reedy banks, and back alleys, revolution is stirring. And one more death may be all it takes to shift the balance.”

Bear has been on my TBR list for way too long and Undertow made me wish I’d read her sooner. I’m much more of fantasy girl than a sci-fi fan, but this book hit all the right spots. It was nerdy enough without being complete technobabble, it has giant talking frogs, and at one point it just goes completely nuts – but in the best way possible.

 

Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots by Seanan McGuire

“Velveteen lives in a world of super-heroes and magic, where men can fly and where young girls can be abducted to the Autumn Land to save Halloween. Velma lives from paycheck to paycheck and copes with her broken-down car as she tries to escape from her old life.

It’s all the same world. It’s all real. And figuring out how to be both Velveteen and Velma is the biggest challenge of her life, because being super-human means you’re still human in the end.”

Pretty much anything written by Seanan is going to be an A++ gimme, but there’s just something more and beautiful about the Velveteen universe that made me shell out real cash for something I had already read (for free!) on her website. It’s hilarious and poignant and yes, I cried a few times, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it when it was all over.

 

The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

“An antique violin, an Erich Zann original, made of human white bone, was designed to produce music capable of slaughtering demons. Mo is the custodian of this unholy instrument. It invades her dreams and yearns for the blood of her colleagues—and her husband. And despite Mo’s proficiency as a world class violinist, it cannot be controlled.”

I’m just going to read everything in the Laundry Files series and recommend it every year, because it’s good and you should read it. The Laundry Files is Elder Gods meets government bureaucracy, except it’s become so much more than that.

 

 

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey

“The news headlines are all abuzz about a local string of killings that share the same morbid trademark: the victims were discovered with their eyes missing. Then a beautiful yet eerie woman enters Ellie’s circle of friends and develops an unhealthy fascination with Kevin, and a crazed old man grabs Ellie in a public square and shoves a tattered Bible into her hands, exclaiming, ‘You need it. It will save your soul.’ Soon, Ellie finds herself plunged into a haunting world of vengeful fairies in an epic battle for immortality.”

I read this specifically because it included an ace character, and then I ended up having way too much fun along the way. I loved that it was set in New Zealand, I loved that it focused on Maori myth and culture, and I loved that the characters were fully fleshed out and real.

To be continued!

book reviews

2014 Books in Review, Part One

I love and hate Goodreads. Okay, that’s not true: I mostly love Goodreads. I’m hesitant about the direction they’ve taken, but I love having a place where I can keep track of all the books I want to read, have read, and loved. I also love their little yearly book challenge, where you can set your own goal of reading one or a hundred books – or anything in between. I’m not sure how much this has affected my reading aside from encouraging me to drop those books I don’t particularly enjoy a lot sooner, but looking back I’m glad to see that I still consistently read a lot.

I also enjoy pausing at the end of the year and looking back at all I’ve read. The year’s books are telling in their own way: what came out, what I was interested in, what inspired me, as well as what finally became available at the library.

Goodreads says I’ve read 76 books so far this year. More than a handful were no-finishes – that is, I started them only to become unimpressed quickly or realize it just wasn’t for me. I used to review every book I read, but I’ve since realized that a book that just wasn’t for me or wasn’t any good at all isn’t worth the effort. I would rather spend my time writing reviews or spreading about really awesome books, and I also realized that I would rather hear about those books, too.

Therefore, while looking back over the books I read this year, I picked out a few to share here, with you. You might like them. Or you might be able to psychoanalyze my year.

Here are my 2014 Books of Awesome, Part One:


Brilliance
by Marcus Sakey

“Since 1980, one percent of people have been born as one of the “brilliants,” a class of human with extraordinary abilities. Nick Cooper is among them; a federal agent, Cooper has gifts rendering him exceptional at hunting terrorists. His latest target may be the most dangerous man alive, a brilliant drenched in blood and intent on provoking civil war. But to catch him, Cooper will have to violate everything he believes in – and betray his own kind.”

This book was fun, engaging, and fast. The women characters weren’t completely flat and you’re never quite sure who is on which side, plus I feel like it did a good job of updating the traditional mutant/superpowers story to the present, terrorist-filled day and post 9/11 world. Definitely a good, fast read for the airplane or bus.

Parasite by Mira Grant

“A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of sickness and disease. We owe our good health to a humble parasite – a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them. But these parasites are getting restless.”

Mira Grant did her research and it shows. If you read and liked her first series, Newsflesh, you will like this. It’s sci-fi horror with more science and less jump scares and even if you can spot the ending from three miles away, it is still satisfying to watch the narrator realize – and then try really hard to ignore – the truth for herself. I also especially loved the MC for being complex and amazing and just… she’s just really well written, acts believably, and doesn’t fling herself unnecessarily into danger. I could just see her being a real human being all around – which, in a way, is even more frightening.

Another thing to note about this author: her cast of characters are not just all white & straight and I love her so much for that. It’s so refreshing to see a lesbian couple as just part of the world and Mira (or should I say Seanan McGuire, because Mira is an alter ego) does this in all her books. Love love love.

After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

“Most people dream of having superheroes for parents, but not Celia West. The only daughter of Captain Olympus and Spark, the world’s greatest champions, she has no powers of her own, and the most exciting thing she’s ever done is win a silver medal in a high school swim meet. Meanwhile, she’s the favorite hostage of every crime boss and supervillain in Commerce City. She doesn’t have a code name, but if she did, it would probably be Bait Girl, the Captive Wonder.”

Another really fun, fast read. I’ve come to appreciate these more as I get older because I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to write something that is both fun and interesting and fast without being also incredibly shallow and/or otherwise problematic. Apparently I was on a superhero kick early in the year.

The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells

“Nicholas is a passionate, embittered nobleman consumed by thoughts of vengeance. But at night he assumes the guise of a master criminal, stealing jewels from wealthy nobles to finance his quest for vengeance the murder of Count Montesq, the man who orchestrated the wrongful execution of Nicholas’s godfather on false charges of necromancy. But now a series of eerie, unexplainable, even fatal events have interrupted Nicholas’ murderous mission.”

I don’t know how to explain this one. I picked it up on a lark and even though it was the second in a series I’d never heard of, it was still really good. It’s a high fantasy set in some weird, not-quite-Victorian place that also has underground elves (?? I think that was from the previous book), but the characters were ridiculously fun and the plot never stopped and I cared about everyone and no one was particularly tropey or flat and even though the Real Plot wasn’t revealed until nearly the end, I never felt cheated. If you like high fantasy and are tired of how dull and manpain-centric most of them are, you’d probably like this.

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

“More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles. Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students learn the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery.”

Sanderson. Oh, Sanderson. I have waxed poetic about this man in the past and I will continue to do so forever. He can not only write complex characters and well-paced plots, but his world building is excruciatingly beautiful. I will read anything he writes at this point, and I know I will like it.

Rithmatist was no exception. It’s YA (I think?), but that doesn’t matter. How does he come up with all these magic systems? I just. I don’t even.

Cress by Marissa Meyer

“In this third book in the Lunar Chronicles, Cinder and Captain Thorne are fugitives on the run, now with Scarlet and Wolf in tow. Together, they’re plotting to overthrow Queen Levana and her army. Their best hope lies with Cress, a girl imprisoned on a satellite since childhood who’s only ever had her netscreens as company. All that screen time has made Cress an excellent hacker. Unfortunately, she’s just received orders from Levana to track down Cinder. “

This is the 3rd in basically what is a fairytale retelling merged with a Sailor Moon fanfic series. It’s good and fun and surprisingly dark. I’ve enjoyed picking out all the little nods to the original stories and Cress was by far the darkest and – unsurprisingly – my favorite. I want Winter to come out now.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

“Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind, who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t, then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. “

Ah, so ridiculous! So delightful! Valente has a way with words, and by that I mean she can spin ridiculously beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence and you just want to eat it up. Paired with a fun, occasionally dark, story set in Fairy and you have a winner.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

“When her master dies during the voyage, the golem Chava is unmoored and adrift as her ship arrives in New York in 1899. The jinni Ahmad, born in the ancient Syrian desert but trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, is released by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. A powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice. “

Technically, this is “literary” fiction and not just ye olde fantasy, but it’s still good. It took a while to get into and really get going, but once it does it’s a gorgeously written story and I couldn’t stop. It’s the kind of story that gets into your brain and lingers there, whispering, for days after you finish and put it down. Just warning you.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

“An Atlantic correspondent uncovers the true cost-in economic, political, and psychic terms-of our penchant for making and buying things as cheaply as possible.”

Don’t read this if you really, really like cheap shit. In short: There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. I’ve always had a basic understanding that cheap things are cheap for a reason – and usually a bad reason – but never fully grasped how deeply the notion that things should be cheaper than they are – and fuck the consequences – has become an Ideal in our culture and economy. I would make this required reading for any Economics class.

Farm City by Novella Carpenter

“Urban and rural collide in this wry, inspiring memoir of a woman who turned a vacant lot in downtown Oakland into a thriving farm”

I also went through an Everything Farming!! phase earlier this year, and of the handful of books I read, this was my favorite. The author was a seriously-no-kidding urban farmer who raised bees and geese and chickens and grew all sorts of plants in a not-so-pleasant urban setting. It’s a cute, honest memoir that really just reinforces the notion that farming is for everywhere and everybody.

To be continued!