Now that we’re into December, I’m taking time to look back at 2019 in various ways. This week I begin by listing a dozen books I read this year that I really enjoyed. I found I couldn’t rank them from most to least favorite, so they’re in the order in which I read them.
- All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (James Alan Gardner) In this world, Superheroes and Creatures of the Night (vampires, ghosts, demons, and the like) don’t mix well together. This delightfully geeky story throws them into a pot, stirs in a pile of snarky humor and a dollop of pop-culture references, mixes well, and makes it all work. I love characters who are sometimes unsure or confused but always smart and determined, and I give props to the book for featuring a gender-fluid Asian Canadian hero.
- Blackbirds (Chuck Wendig) Miriam Black has a horrible magic power. When she touches someone’s skin, she immediately sees a vision of their death. She initially tried to prevent those deaths, but concluded that it was impossible. As you might expect, this made her emotionally unstable, and she’s a difficult character to like: vulgar, violent, and self-destructive. Though her story took me into some uncomfortable places, it was compelling and pulled me right along to a conclusion that was satisfying to a degree but leaves loose ends that pull me into the next volume in this series, where there is now some hope for her redemption.
- Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America (Beth Macy) This is detailed, exhaustively researched look at the opioid epidemic that’s killing thousands and tearing apart families and communities. You can’t read it without becoming depressed and infuriated, which is right and proper. You also leave it encouraged by the tireless work of those trying to fight the menace.
- Angelmaker (Nick Harkaway) The son of a legendary small-time gangster in London is trying to live a quiet, upright life as a clockmaker, but he gets dragged into a web of intrigue dating back to the 1950s and a near-mythical doomsday device. I loved the humor and the characters, who were simultaneously quirky and realistic. It sometimes slowed down a little too much, sometimes felt a little too tricky, but it always managed to pull itself together in the nick of time, rather like its protagonist.
- Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik) In this lyrical fairy tale, two women from opposite ends of their social world must learn to navigate the treacherous magic they’ve been drawn into, to save not only themselves, but those they love and two kingdoms besides. Though it focuses on these two women, each strong and capable in her own way but facing tough challenges, it’s populated by a whole stable full of other characters, with chapters and scenes from a variety of points of view, so that occasionally I lost track of whose head I was in for a moment. It was worth that small degree of fumbling, though, for the rich, deeply explored worlds and compelling characters.
- Flex (Ferrett Steinmetz) This is the first of a fantasy series with a fascinating magic system. When someone becomes completely obsessed with anything, from anime to zoos, their passion can grow so great that it deforms reality, and they become ‘mancers. However, the universe objects, and something somewhere else in the fabric of reality has to shift to compensate. For this reason, using magic in this way is forbidden, and ‘mancers are hunted down and “corrected.” This book is a galloping, fun ride through this alternate world, where ‘mancers fight for survival. It’s packed with pop culture references, especially relating to video games, and some wonderful characters who are not stereotypically white, thin, and rich.
- An Unkindness of Magicians (Kat Howard) This fantasy about a society of magic users hiding in plain sight in our contemporary world is dark, twisted, and lovely. It explores the nature of power and what some people do to collect it and keep it, and how each person has to decide how far is too far. This world is intricate, with families that intertwine and compete, and by the end of the first chapter I’d gone back to create a web giving all the many, many characters and their relations with each other. It was packed, almost overpacked, like a whole season of Game of Thrones in one book, and rushed through the end, but I loved it.
- Spoonbenders (Daryl Gregory) A complicated but ultimately very rewarding story about several generations of a family of people with paranormal powers. They start out as carnival acts, complete with an appearance on Johnny Carson that goes badly, and things go downhill from there. Their powers are the class example of a blessing that’s also a curse, and their attempts to work through how to use them and live with them in the real world is touching, heartbreaking, and hilarious. Some of the reveals I figured out early, but nothing fully prepared me for the stunning three-ring circus of a finish.
- Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (Kory Stamper) The author is a long-time editor at Merriam-Webster, and digs deeply into how dictionaries reflect language. She give an intimate picture of what it’s like to think deeply about how a word is used, the kind of person who spends a life doing that, and what dictionaries do and do not tell us. Stamper is brilliant, funny, and down-to-earth. Recommended for anyone who loves words and English.
- Fall, or Dodge in Hell (Neal Stephenson) This is a sprawling story about many aspects of how people relate to technology, focusing largely on a future technology that will allow people to have their brains scanned on their death and uploaded into a virtual system where they can live on in a digital reality. It takes a lot of detours getting there, including a gripping but ultimately unrelated side trip into a future of social media and information feeds, and makes some unquestioned assumptions that don’t always work for me, but it still had me turning pages to find out what happens next.
- Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944 (Joseph Balkoski) This nonfiction book details in gripping detail the events of that historic day, starting from the planning and preparations and up through that night and into the following morning. It is a closeup look at one small but pivotal piece of the Normandy Invasion that marked the turning point in World War II, focusing on the mostly-American fight for this one particular beach. I’m not a huge fan of military history, but this story was fascinating.
- The Curse of Chalion (Lois McMaster Bujold) This is the first in a Hugo Award-winning series of fantasy novels, set in the World of the Five Gods. I loved the world-building, the realistic and distinct characters, and the sense of humanity struggling against great odds to do the right thing. I will definitely read the others in this series.
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