Best of 2020: BOOKS

Well. 2020 was . . . yeah, catastrophic. But the books, at least, were delightful.  Last week I posted a list of all the novels and novellas I read over the year; today, we’ll be discussing some of those books in more detail.

(A quick reminder: any book I read in 2020 is eligible for these Best Of’s, no matter when it actually came out. If I only discussed books published in 2020, well. Let’s just say this would be a much shorter list.)

FASTEST READ

The Game – Linsey Miller

Listen, I am always, always up for Murder Games of any kind, so this YA–where a high school senior discovers that one of her classmates is killing people for reals in their game of Assassin–was basically my dream premise. I read most of this in one sitting, which is unusual for me; I love to read, obviously, but I don’t have half the speed or focus of many people I know. So, it’s always a delight to find something easy and fun to sink into. Plus, you know. MURDER. Murder is my ultimate jam.

Honorable Mentions: When We Were Magic – Sarah Gailey;  Proper English – K.J. Charles; Silver in the Wood & Drowned Country – Emily Tesh; Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo; Pet – Akwaeke Emezi; My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

FAVORITE MYTHOLOGY STORY

Goddess of the North – Georgina Kamsika

Okay, I talked about this book last week, I know. But it’s such an entertaining and original urban fantasy. I especially enjoyed the Hindu mythology because I feel like we don’t get to see enough South-Asian myth in UF, or at least I haven’t. There are honestly so many deities from so many different pantheons here, and it’s a lot of fun to guess who’s going to pop up next. I also really love the complicated relationship between our protagonist and her mother because while tricksters do frequently pop up in fantasy novels, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a Trickster Mom before. The mother-daughter relationship here is easily one of my favorite parts of this whole novel.

Honorable Mentions: Circe – Madeline Miller; Gods of Jade and Shadow – Silvia Moreno-Garcia; A Song Below Water – Bethany C. Morrow

FAVORITE GRAPHIC NOVEL

Velvet, Vol. 2: The Secret Lives of Dead Men – Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting

Velvet Templeton is such a great character. Not that this is news: I’m aware I’m still catching up on five-year-old trades. Nevertheless, the world needs way more awesome middle-aged lady spies. And this volume, in particular, ends on one hell of a conclusion. I should probably dream cast this series, at some point.

Honorable Mentions: Velvet, Vol. 3: The Man Who Stole The World – Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting; Zodiac Starforce: By the Power of Astra – Kevin Panetta & Paulina Ganucheau

FAVORITE ROMANCE

Proper English – K.J. Charles

Okay, an F/F country house murder mystery romance novel? Holy Jesus, yes. This book is delightful: charming, witty, and actively queer, the last of which just isn’t something you get in Golden Age detective fiction, unfortunately. Proper English is definitely romance first, mystery second, but I enjoyed both aspects of the story: Pat is a likable, sensible heroine, and it’s a lot of fun to see her and Fen fall for each other and, also, solve crime. I’d like to see this story as a movie immediately.

Proper English is also something of a spinoff-prequel to Think of England, and you can better believe that novel’s already on my 2021 To-Read List.

Honorable Mentions: The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics – Olivia Waite; Silver in the Wood – Emily Tesh

FAVORITE MYSTERY

The Santa Klaus Murder – Mavis Doriel Hay

Like I said, I’m a huge sucker for a witty country house murder mystery. These kinds of books are the ultimate comfort read for me, and I suspect I came across this one at just the right time. One of the things I specifically like here is the character work: we get multiple POVs for the first five chapters, and while it’s a bit strange, structurally speaking, it also allows the reader more time to really get to know our suspects. Plus, I had no idea how reliable these accounts actually were, so I had an especially fun time looking for discrepancies and clues. The Santa Klaus Murder is also the very rare Golden Age novel that actually ends on a hilariously fitting line, rather than just sorta clunking to a stop. I love this period of fiction, but some of those endings are just oof.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all Christmas stories are improved by a homicidal Santa; thus, this book also wins for FAVORITE CHRISTMAS STORY.

Honorable Mentions: A Morbid Taste for Bones – Ellis Peters; The Skull Beneath the Skin – P.D. James; The Broken Girls – Simone St. James

FAVORITE NON-FICTION

TIE!

Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith – Colin Dickey
Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction – Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson

I’ve never read a non-fiction writer whose prose inspires me as much as Colin Dickey. His sentences are thoughtful and elegant, and I always have at least seven new story ideas by the end of one of his books. The material here, too, is fascinating, not just because I find early Christian history interesting, but because of how the saints are analyzed and interpreted here: as punk saints, saints as rejects, etc. Dickey’s most recent book is called The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession With the Unexplained, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Meanwhile, Monster, She Wrote is a remarkably quick read for non-fiction and makes for a fantastic reference guide. I jotted down all kinds of short stories, novels, and authors who I’m shamefully unfamiliar with. I especially enjoyed reading about women authors of the pulp era because that really seems to be a period where women have been selectively deleted from history. Also, seeing The Migration by Helen Marshall get a well-deserved shoutout was a delightful surprise. Helen, buddy, you rock.

Honorable Mentions: The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards

FAVORITE MIDDLE GRADE

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – T. Kingfisher

This one’s a bit tricky: ostensibly, Ursula Vernon’s books are for children, while T. Kingfisher writes for adults, but in this case that appears to be a marketing decision; as Vernon discusses in her author’s note, she visualized this story as a dark children’s novel. That’s certainly how it read to me, so I’m placing it here, marketing be damned.

Shocking no one, I adored this book. It’s sort of warm and fluffy and laugh out loud funny, while also having these fantastically dark and weird bits that I absolutely love. One of the things I particularly like is how this novel discusses responsibility and heroism and never fully lets any of the adults, even the likable ones, off the hook for depending on children to save them. That all felt very real to me. There is also, as you might imagine, quite a bit of bread-related humor. The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is charming, and probably best enjoyed with something to snack on.

Honorable Mentions: Riverland – Fran Wilde; Peapsrout Chen: Battle of Champions – Henry Lien

FAVORITE YA

Pet – Akwaeke Emezi

There are books you spend years waiting to read, and then there are books that you’ve never heard of before, but which absolutely blindside you with just how goddamn brilliant they are; Pet was the latter for me, just so imaginative and exciting and wholly original. There’s so much voice in this book; I don’t quite know how to describe it, but I could really hear the language somehow, and I loved listening to it. In her review on Tor.com, Alex Brown mentions that the dialogue here is “as poetic as the narrative text itself,” and that definitely rang true to me.

The utopia in Pet is fascinating, particularly because it’s flawed without being secretly sinister or cruel. Jam is a great MC; in fact, I enjoyed all the characters, especially Pet. And monster-hunting creatures that emerge from paintings? Come on. That’s just cool. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more books from Emezi in the future.

Honorable Mentions: Blanca y Roja – Anna-Marie McLemore; A Song Below Water – Bethany C. Morrow; Cemetery Boys – Aiden Thomas

FAVORITE CONTEMPORARY FANTASY

Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

Despite absolutely loving Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, I didn’t run straight to the bookstore for a copy of Ninth House, mostly because secret society mysteries aren’t always my jam; I often have trouble taking them seriously. But I straight up loved Ninth House, like, okay, it definitely reminded me that I know absolutely nothing about Ivy League academia and rich people shit? But it also has so much amazing noir energy, like, this is exactly what I want from modern noir: interesting characters making morally dicey choices for reasons you understand. (As opposed to assholes being assholes for Asshole Reasons). The characters are great here: Alex is a fantastic protagonist, I liked Darlington straight away, and Dawes is kinda the best. Also: Turner and Mercy. I’m really into the world, too: the various houses and their different types of magic. And the way this one ends, I mean, damn. I NEED THE SEQUEL, PLEASE.

Honorable Mentions: The Library of the Unwritten – A.J. Hackwith; Riverland – Fran Wilde; Blanca y Roja – Anna-Marie McLemore; Goddess of the North – Georgina Kamsika

FAVORITE NOT-SO-CONTEMPORARY FANTASY

Silver in the Wood & Drowned Country – Emily Tesh

I’m counting The Greenhollow Duology as one entity here because I could really see these stories as separate halves of the same novel; also, this is my blog and I make the rules, so. Silver in the Wood has a lovely folkloric/fairy tale feel, while I guess I’d characterize Drowned Country as more of a seaside gaslamp fantasy? Both novellas are charming as hell (which is why they also win for BEST NOVELLA) and feature an interesting world, fantastic supporting characters, and an M/M romance to root for throughout. Tobias/Silver, I ship you madly.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Not-So-Contemporary Fantasy: Gods of Jade and Shadow – Silvia Moreno-Garcia; The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow; A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – T. Kingfisher

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Novella: Exit Strategy – Martha Wells; Come Tumbling Down – Seanan McGuire; Ring Shout – P. Djélì Clark; Made Things – Adrian Tchaikovsky

FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION

TIE!

A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine
Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir

A Memory Called Empire has just about everything I love to see in SF: murder, political intrigue, and an in-depth focus on identity and culture. The world-building here is incredible, and I was fascinated by all of it: the naming conventions, the linguistics, the profound impact of colonization on one’s sense of self.  Also: the imago tech that connects our heroine Mahit to her dead predecessor, Yskander. Anyone who’s ever wanted more weird Trill shit from Star Trek, well, this is the book for you. Plus, Mahit is an awesome heroine; in fact, I really enjoy the whole cast of characters. I’m eagerly looking forward to the sequel coming out later this year.

But Gideon the Ninth was pretty fantastic, too, a dark and irreverent SF/Fantasy mashup with monster battles, necromancers, creepy nuns, dangerous challenges, and–once again–murder, just like, a LOT of violent, gory murder. Gideon, herself, is incredibly fun: punk, buff, cheeky as hell. This book’s got voice and then some. Also: serious cosplay potential, which isn’t something I usually find in novels. (I’m not great at visualizing stuff, TBH.) Gideon the Ninth also surprised me at multiple points, especially at the very end. Things get pretty bleak for quite a number of characters, which sounds depressing and, occasionally, kind of is. But it’s also easily one of the most entertaining books I read all year.

Honorable Mentions: Velocity Weapon – Megan E. O’Keefe; Exit Strategy – Martha Wells

FAVORITE HORROR

The Only Good Indians – Stephen Graham Jones

This book. Damn. It’s strange and challenging and, like the very best horror, it lingers long after you’re finished reading it. One scene, in particular, honest-to-God shocked me, and while I don’t find most horror novels scary as a general rule, I will fully admit this scene creeped me out in the best of ways. As always, I love Stephen Graham Jones’s prose: the words he uses, the words he leaves out, the way even his shortest sentences can punch you in the gut.

In her review of The Only Good Indians at Locus, Paula Guran says, “The book will be seen as effective ‘social commentary,’ but it is not ‘commentary’: it is simply the truth displayed and injustice portrayed clearly for all to read.” And that feels about right to me. There’s a lot of truth in this one.

Honorable Mentions: Ring Shout – P. Djèlí Clark; Disappearance at Devil’s Rock – Paul Tremblay

FAVORITE NOVEL

Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir

Per usual, I vacillated like crazy over this decision. Ultimately, however, I picked Gideon the Ninth because–in a year full of fear, incompetence, deliberate cruelty, and a little more fear– this book was just sheer irreverent fun, and I very much appreciated that.

Here is the rest of my Top 10 (not in any particular order).

2. Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo
3. A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine
4. Pet – Akwaeke Emezi
5. Silver in the Wood/Drowned Country – Emily Tesh
6. Proper English – KJ Charles
7. The Only Good Indians – Stephen Graham Jones
8. Velocity Weapon – Megan E. O’Keefe
9. The Library of the Unwritten – A.J. Hackwith
10. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – T. Kingfisher

Somehow there are always a few fantastic books on this list that I don’t end up individually discussing, so a couple quick shoutouts: Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe is a space opera with political intrigue, BIG twists and turns, and characters who are allowed to be both likable and complicated.  Meanwhile, The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith is full of myths, banter, teamwork, and literary tropes. Also, angels. Also, Hell. It’s a very enjoyable read chockfull of excellent quotes. Both books already have sequels out, and they are very much on my To-Do list.

Honorable Mentions For Top Ten: Ring Shout – P. Djèlí Clark; The Santa Klaus Murder – Mavis Doriel Hay; Goddess of the North – Georgina Kamsika; My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite; Circe – Madeline Miller

That’s it for now. 2021 Books, here we come!

2020 Reading List – Novellas, Novels, Graphic Novels, and Non-Fiction

Well. 2021 approaches, finally. Coming to the end of 2020 means a vast number of things, but for today, it means I’m posting the official list of all the books I’ve read this year. Also to be discussed: unsurprising reading trends, a few fanfic recs, upcoming SF/F novels I’m looking forward to, shameless promotion for my super talented friends, and of course, ALL THE QUOTES.

Shall we get started?

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“What Kind of Killer Do You Think Stops to Save a Dying Fish?”

Well, the Clarion West Write-a-Thon finished up last week, and I succeeded in writing things! Perhaps they weren’t the stories I should have been focusing on, necessarily, but it’s been a dark year, and it’s still only August. Sometimes, the joy of fanfic is more important than the projects that might someday get you paid.

Per usual, I offered up a movie review/essay as a possible reward, and two sponsors took me up on it. The first sponsor, Tom, has donated to the WaT several times now and has delighted in making me watch everything from classic SF that I’ve never seen (Dune) to laughably terrible movies about Big Foot that no one should see (Night of the Demon). Today, however, we’ll be discussing a film I have watched before, albeit not in a very long time: the late 90’s SF neo-noir, Dark City.

To my relief, it actually holds up pretty well.

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Year of Monsters: It Came From Outer Space

Today’s film–chosen randomly because I like a little organized chaos in my life–is It Came From Outer Space. This is a fantastic title: evocative, mysterious, charmingly cheesy. And the movie was based on a story treatment by Ray Bradbury, which, that’s clearly a good sign, right?

Alas, my friends, I must inform you that in the case of It Came From Outer Space, I vastly prefer the title to the actual film. Continue reading

Best of 2019: BOOKS

Normally, I enjoy celebrating the books I’ve read with some silly and–inevitably–lengthy superlative lists, including awards like Favorite Villain, Best Booyah Moment, and Super Ability I’d Most Like To Steal. This year, however, that just sounds kind of daunting? And not terribly fun, which is obviously antithetical to the whole point. So instead, I present you with my only sorta-lengthy Best Of list, i.e., a list of my favorite books in various genres and sub-genres. (From any year. I read all of these in 2019, but one of them was written in 1937, so, yeah. I wouldn’t exactly characterize these recommendations as super current. If you’d like the full list of everything I read, go ahead and click on the link.)

No spoilers were produced in the making of this post.

FAVORITE FAIRY TALE STORY

The Seventh Bride – T. Kingfisher

Bluebeard is one of my favorite fairy tales, specifically Mr. Fox–like, I’m the weirdo who actually adds Post-Its with be bold, be bold . . . but not too bold to bedroom doors and the like. So, when I realized that Ursula Vernon (a.k.a. T. Kingfisher), one of my very favorite writers, had published her own Mr. Fox retelling*, well, obviously, I was ecstatic. Like nearly every T. Kingfisher book I’ve ever read, The Seventh Bride features a compelling heroine, a cool animal sidekick, and a lot of humor, weirdness, and heart. Also, some truly creepy shit. Also, a fantastic supporting cast: Maria is my absolute favorite. I really enjoyed the hell out of this–it also wins for FAVORITE NOT-SO-CONTEMPORARY FANTASY–and I’m looking forward to reading T. Kingfisher’s other fairy tale retellings, namely Byrony and Roses and The Raven and the Reindeer.

*In nearly every review I’ve seen, this book is described as a Bluebeard retelling, but personally, it strikes me more as a Mr. Fox/Rumpelstiltskin mashup. I know it doesn’t have some of the bigger earmarks of the latter–no naming game, no “I’m gonna steal your baby” stuff–but Rhea is literally a miller’s daughter, and her parents play an arguably significant role in why she’s in this mess in the first place. Plus, “do this impossible thing, or I’ll do something horrible to you” is a plot structure from Rumpelstiltskin, not Bluebeard/Mr. Fox. Also, let’s be real here: the King in Rumpelstiltskin is totally a villain. Like, make me gold or I’ll kill you; make me more gold and I’ll marry you?” Fuck this guy.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Not-So-Contemporary Fantasy: The Black God’s Drums; Clockwork Boys; The Killing Moon; The House of Shattered Wings

FAVORITE CONTEMPORARY FANTASY

Undead Girl Gang – Lily Anderson

Oh, this was a delightful book. I loved so much about it: the voice, the dialogue, all the humor and Feels. Undead Girl Gang is laugh out loud funny, but it also handles grief in a very real way, and I enjoyed that. The characters are all great; Mila, in particular, is a wonderful protagonist, and I related so hard to how she finds hope and laughter and a certain measure of control in Wicca. (Oh, you don’t even know the middle school flashbacks I was having while reading this one.) The fat positivity in this book was also really refreshing, especially in a year where I managed to stumble across even more fat shaming than normal.

This was easily my FAVORITE YA BOOK I read all year, something I’d happily give my teenage kids if I, you know, had any. As is, I’m just gonna have to keep enjoying Lily Anderson’s writing for myself.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Contemporary Fantasy: A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark; Magic for Liars

FAVORITE HORROR

The Cabin at the End of the World – Paul Tremblay

What’s interesting about this, to me, is that I don’t generally consider myself a big fan of psychological horror, but I absolutely love this novel. It’s occurring to me, finally, that it’s not the entire sub-genre I dislike, just stories where the narrative tension is largely drawn from the majority of characters (plus the reader) questioning the MC’s sanity. That’s just not really my thing; thankfully, it’s also not quite what’s happening here.

And this book, man. It’s a wildly clever and entertaining page-turner (which is why it also wins for FASTEST READ) with a solid conclusion and some absolutely brutal moments. This is my first Paul Tremblay book, and I can absolutely guarantee it will not be my last.

Honorable Mention for Favorite Horror: The Sundial; The Migration; The Twisted Ones

Honorable Mentions for Fastest Read: Undead Girl Gang; Magic for Liars; A Man Lay Dead; The Twisted Ones; From Here to Eternity: Traveling The World To Find The Good Death; The Seventh Bride

FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION

TIE!

The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowall
Artificial Condition – Martha Wells

I enjoyed the hell out of The Calculating Stars: it’s an equally fun and fascinating alternate history, and I really like our MC, Elma. I especially appreciated how this novel explored her anxiety, like, that was just phenomenal. I also enjoy Elma’s friendships with other women in the novel, particularly Nicole and Helen. Elma and Nate, too, were a joy to read: it was lovely to find such a healthy, supportive romantic relationship in this story. I’m very eager to continue with the Lady Astronaut series in 2020.

But no way could I choose between The Calculating Stars and Artificial Condition, which was an amazing follow-up to All Systems Red. (In fact, I actually liked it even more than All Systems Red, which is incredibly impressive.) It is the rare novella that feels like it’s exactly the right length–one of many reasons it’s also winning FAVORITE NOVELLA–and I just absolutely adore MurderBot’s somewhat antagonistic friendship with ART. People. I was invested. This series is so damn good.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite SF: Alice Payne Arrives; Rogue Protocol; Record of a Spaceborn Few; To Be Taught, If Fortunate; An Unkindness of Ghosts

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Novella: The Black God’s Drums; In an Absent Dream; Alice Payne Arrives; Rogue Protocol; To Be Taught, If Fortunate

FAVORITE GRAPHIC NOVEL

Die, Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker – Kieron Gillen + Stephanie Hans

I mean, just the whole concept of this: teenagers being sucked into a fantasy RPG, experiencing massive amounts of emotional (and in some cases, physical) trauma, and then having to return to the game years later as adults? It’s like It meets D&D. Or, as Kieron Gillen apparently describes it: “goth Jumanji.” People. You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to read goth Jumanji.

This one is such a creative and exciting comic, full of fun plot turns and great characters and just awesome magical abilities. Highly recommended.

Honorable Mentions: Young Avengers: Style > Substance, Vol. 1 – Kieron Gillen + Jamie McKelvie; Teen Titans: Raven – Kami Garcia & Gabriel Picolo

FAVORITE NON-FICTION

From Here to Eternity: Traveling The World to Find The Good Death – Caitlin Doughty

This is both an incredibly informative and fascinating look at how different cultures around the world handle death and death rituals, and while it is occasionally hard to read because of, well, death anxiety, it’s also just vastly neat. There were so many things I didn’t know. Learning more about Indonesian death customs or the ñatitas in Bolivia or the fertilization experiments in North Carolina . . . it’s all just so immensely interesting. I might actually have been most surprised by the open pyre ceremonies in Colorado; I honestly didn’t think that was a thing you could do in America.

I also didn’t know that family had the option of viewing cremations (the more standard kind), though I confess reluctance at the possibility of viewing any myself. Doughty brings up excellent points in its favor, especially as she discusses the idea of giving grieving family members meaningful tasks–but when I imagine going back and witnessing my own father’s cremation, my whole brain just balks in horror. I don’t know. It’s an obviously difficult subject. Regardless, this was a pretty great book, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in cultural anthropology, or books that frankly discuss death without looking down on readers for their own death anxiety. That’s big for me.

Honorable Mentions: The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick – Mallory O’Meara

FAVORITE NOVEL

Busman’s Honeymoon – Dorothy Sayers

I’ve been slowly making my way through the Lord Peter Wimsey novels for years, but to my very great surprise, it’s this final book in the series that’s been my absolute favorite–and not just of the series but also of the whole year. (Also, it wins for FAVORITE MYSTERY, in case that wasn’t already glaringly obvious.) Busman’s Honeymoon is regularly characterized as either a “detective story with love interruptions” or a “love story with detective interruptions,” and to my very great joy, I found the balance of murder mystery and established romance utterly delightful. (Many mysteries from this time period include a hasty and thoroughly underwhelming romance, but Busman’s Honeymoon has been building the Peter/Harriet ship for several books and literal years, and I am so thoroughly obsessed with them.)

The mix of witty banter, murder, and newlywed shenanigans are really the best, and I was both extremely surprised to see the novel actually come back to Peter’s PTSD in a surprisingly emotional way. So many Feels with this one. An instant comfort read.

Honorable Mentions for Favorite Mystery: The Nine Tailors; Magic for Liars; The Song Is You; A Rising Man; Gaudy Night

Finally, here is the rest of my Top Ten of 2019, not in any particular order. (With links for the books that I didn’t already link above.)

2. The Cabin at the End of the World – Paul Tremblay
3. An Unkindness of Ghosts – Rivers Solomon
4. The Seventh Bride – T.K. Kingfisher
5. Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers
6. Artificial Condition – Martha Wells
7. The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowall
8. To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers
9. The Twisted Ones – T.K. Kingfisher
10. Undead Girl Gang – Lily Anderson

Happy New Year, everyone! I’d love to hear your favorite books of 2019 in the comments!