Monday, December 28, 2015

BestReads2015: My Favorite Books I Read in 2015

My favorite thing about BestReads is remembering how many special books I encountered in a year. It's easy to take great literature and fun stories for granted, but when I put them side-by-side like this, I feel privileged.

My picks are not ranked. Ranking is generally ridiculous for the arts, but obscene when you're compiling what art moved you the most. As always, the rules are you can list whatever you read for the time this year. You're not limited to what came out this year, as my first pick shows.

If you do your own BestReads2015 post, hit me up in the comments and I'll link you at the bottom of this post.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Reading this was like going to Elementary School. It's written in a dialect I've heard for my entire life, but never seen written down, and as I was exhilarated to recognize all the speech patterns Walker had captured. Of course, she employed those to capture a massive hole in the U.S. Literary Canon: a black woman's experience in the American South in the 1930s.

It has much more to say about race in America than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and is even more consumably written, its short chapters alternating between vignettes and updates in her life that were like pieces of popcorn. It shouldn't be this easy to guzzle tragedy, but that's the brilliance of Walker's craft. It's not just a great novel, but one that challenged my whole view of what American Literature can aim for. Shame on any school that bans such a book.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The 2015 novel that's stuck with me the hardest across this year. I'll be vacuuming, or loading the dishwasher, and randomly think of and marvel at the end of a certain character's arc. It has some of the best character payoffs in Epic Fantasy, while also engaging with cultural issues throughout. Over the course of it we see a hegemonic empire replaced by two revolutionary armies with different ideals. Can the land be divided into rivaling states, or is a well-intentioned monarch better?

The nation's culture is the main character of the novel, charting how values shift. The trickiest case is when the long war causes a shortage of male soldiers. Sexism was onerous, but now it's untenable. Liu makes sure to point out that soldiers who lose limbs have them replaced with bamboo prosthetics so they can keep going. It's at once exhilarating to see social pressures change culture, and awful to see these people "rewarded" by being sucked into the war machine.

Some press has gone to Gin Mazoti, the brilliant female commander who goes from a footnote to one of the architects of victory. By the end she was one of my favorite characters in fiction all year, while others have endings that have downright haunted. No spoilers, but God damn, Liu.

Also there's the bit where a storm floods the city and sharks swim in the streets. Liu is so good at keeping those wild bits coming, stray details of genuinely shocking worldbuilding.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Probably the next ebook I'll be pelting my friends with the next time it goes on sale. Every ten years the Dragon selects a girl from the local village as his sacrifice. Except "Dragon" is just his title, he's a grumpy old man, and he trains the girls as wizards and monster hunters. Agnieszka is one of the least promising pupils he's chosen, and one of my favorite protagonists in recent fiction. She's so charmingly normal. Soon her biggest complaint about being the sacrifice is all the downtime in an empty tower. When she takes his hand and finds him burning hot, she worries how much that'll suck if they bang. She cannot help making a mess of her clothes no matter how fastidious she is.

Agnieszka is capable by asserting herself over and over - Novik succeeds at making a hero who feels like they actually struggle to understand and succeed. And Agnieszka has plenty to struggle against, as the evil forest behind the tower begins reaching out to her old home town, and soon threatens to ensnare the kingdom. It's a refreshing Fantasy novel that thrives on personality.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

The other side of the coin from Uprooted, Baru Cormorant is a girl from a doomed island culture in the shadow of the Masquerade Empire. She gets the chance to work for the empire, and diligently tries to rise through its ranks, hoping to sabotage it from within and give her people a chance at survival. As she climbs, she has to decide who to help, and what good causes to let die in favor of her own. It stretches to the last act, when she helps pull together a rebellion that threatens the empire's very existence, but might not actually help her cause. It's a fascinating Fantasy that I gobbled in eighty-page sittings.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

If this were published today, it would be heralded as a fresh voice in Horror. Morrison's spins the tale of a runaway slave in the 1850s, who was so traumatized by her life that she killed her own baby to spare it growing up into the life she'd led. The revenant of that child seems to haunt her, or her house, and perhaps finds the perfect way to haunt her relationships. The only name the baby had was "Beloved," and after it is exorcised, a young woman shows up in the yard claiming the same name, and wanting a part in her family. It's a novel of everything that can be stolen from a person, with lines that can physically hurt to read.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

My favorite of the Craft Sequence so far, in a series that is doing some of the most interesting work in all of Fantasy. Gladstone writes about Fantasy worlds where mages have Boards of Directors instead of cults, and corporate mergers have literal blood sacrifices and darken the sky. In Full Fathom Five, Gladstone takes us to magic's own Cayman Islands, the offshore culture where "craft" power harvested from gods is stored, hidden, and manipulated. There's more than corruption going on - there's something alive in the ideas floating around the islands, and it wants our attention.

Like any Gladstone novel it's full of creative bits, like Penitents, great suits of armor that force the guilty occupants to see what their owners wish them to see until their worldview breaks. It's creepy and brilliant and has one of the best damned endings to any Thriller in years. If you even consider writing Fantasy, you should be reading the Craft books.

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg

In Afghanistan there are underground countercultures of girls who dress and present as boys until puberty hits and they can't "hide it" anymore. Some are trans who legitimately feel gender-male, while others just want to play sports, or do it to avoid misogynistic rules. Some are disguised by their parents, where others win the approval of parents.

It's alternately empowering to see the "underground girls" living against toxic norms, and understandable against widespread problems like domestic violence against women. One kid dressed male so she could work in the family store - their family needed all the hands they could get to put food on the table, but local law would've prohibited a girl from visible labor. Nordberg counterpoints this other transitions: a female politician running for Parliament, multiple attempts on her life and coolly lecturing on Qu'ranic law to anyone who dares call her phone to harass her. Nordberg also tries to fit in as a local, and fails not just because of skintone, but because the social differences are too great. It's a fascinating book full of sides of a country that U.S. media never supplies to us.

Strangers Drowning: Living by Drastic Choices and Extreme Ethical Commitment by Larissa MacFarquhar

MacFarquhar profiles several people who live by principles of radical altruism - the people who make us feel uncomfortable and selfish. She slices through our nonsense of them being saints or psychotic, showing how normal they are, and how mundanely they go about adopting orphans, bringing medical treatment to poor countries, and designing more humane chicken farming.

The author also contrasts how such altruists and do-gooders look down on each other, for focusing on non-human suffering, or emphasizing self-deprivation over doing good. It's hard not to be inspired by the woman doctor who did service in a misogynistic culture in order to force them to shift how they saw women. The chapter on how Literary Fiction has long been the house of ideals while hating do-gooding characters would be my top contender for Essay of the Year. It's an endlessly interesting book that I began rereading as soon as I'd finished the last page.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

The kind of comic I would have loved, and been terrified by, when I was little. Carroll crafts a series of campfire-like Horror stories over a century or two near the same ominous woods, about people who disappear in it, or who reappear changed, or who lose themselves in its shadow. Her art is stark and creepy, and her sensibilities are macabre in the way modern parents try to shelter their children from, as though children can ever have such things hidden from them. Whenever my sister has kids, she'll be annoyed with how often I try to sneak this to them.

Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura (Volumes 19-27)

One of the great Epic Fantasies, Historical Fantasies, Manga, and any other categories you want to toss it into. It's a privilege to watch how Manji and Rin's original goals, which seemed so grave and important in early books, have paled, flaked away, and come to look downright petty in the face of the national conflict they come to live in. Fantasy usually minimizes original goals by upping scope - you wanted to save your family but now must save the country. Blade of the Immortal instead shows your vengeance is misplaced, and what you observed as great wrongs were small in the face of context.

Plenty of manga turn a villain like Annotsu into someone sympathetic. Rarely does that sympathetic figure come to feel paralleled with another antagonist, until the entire field feels grey, and anyone winning will be a tragedy much bigger than one warrior being slain. The scope is never reduced to saving the world, but rather, the direction their little part of the world will take. What a great journey it's been, going from Manji's desire to end his immortal life, to testing that immortality so greatly that you fear he won't live to see the bigger picture through.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

The book that ruined SF&F with religious characters for me for the rest of the year. Our genres are usually painfully trite in depicting believers, reducing them to blurbs about "taking it on faith" and caricatures of intolerance or ignorance. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, the first conflict is a monk confessing too many trivial sins until his superior assigns him to the desert, hoping he won't find anything to inspire annoying confessions out there. The novel is set long after a nuclear holocaust, the survivors rose up against the scientific community that made nuclear weapons possible, destroying much of the historical and scientific record.

The man who came to be known as "St. Leibowitz" was an engineer who converted to Catholicism and formed a monastic order dedicated to the maintenance for knowledge, not unlike what monks did throughout European history. Years later, when things like "fallout" are considered mythical illness-creating demons, the monks of his order discover great relics: cargo containers, broken lamps, and blueprints they're incapable of reading, but are fascinated by. The takes on faith are provocative but unusually ingenious for Science Fiction, like once a functioning lamp is invented, they debate over whether to keep the crucifix on the wall in honor of God, or to replace it with the lamp so His work of study can be done at night.

More BestReads from:
-Cat Russell
-Katherine Hajer
-Kat Clay

-Elephant's Child
-Ross Dillon
-M.E. Garber 
-Alexia of Open Seas 
-Lisa Vooght 
-Marc Nash
-Cindy Vaskova 


  1. Well, damn it, John! Now I've got TWO MORE books on hold at the library! 😆

    1. I've succeeded! I know you were looking at Canticle, but what's the other mystery book?

  2. I also really liked Uprooted. I read The Color Purple in grade school so it may soon be due for a re-read.

    1. I wish The Color Purple had been assigned in my school. I can imagine a PTA board refusing it for having lesbianism, and a young woman discovering her clitoris. Teens can't know what those are! It'll destroy society!

      It has so much of value to say, and is so concise about it. It was such a great kick in the pants to my Canonical reading.

    2. It wasn't assigned, but it was in our middle school library. I didn't understand it until I was older. I'm sure it's probably banned altogether these days.

  3. Here's my list:

    Happy New Year!

  4. I just finished reading your list -- definitely some of these are going on my to-be-read list! Did I ever tell you that I studied The Color Purple and A Canticle for Leibowitz in the same year at uni (for 20th c American Literature and Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Romance, respectively)? Funny you read them both in the same year as well.

    1. If they were for the same teacher, you took one rad course.

  5. I loved The Color Purple, Beloved and A Canticle for Leibowitz. And read the last again quite recently. And can see I have some more books to track down.
    My post is up.
    I will be back later to fully explore yours (and other people's) lists.

  6. I have come back. Thank you. And drat you. I already have several unread towers and now I itch to add to them. Uprooted and Strangers Drowning in particular.

  7. Here's mine:

  8. The Color Purple was on the reading list for my Advanced Placement English class only, ostensibly because "the subject matter could be considered inappropriate for less mature readers". However my AP class contained its share of immature clowns soooo...
    My Mom riffled through it and that led to THE most uncomfortable discussion in my life.

    I also read the Underground Girls of Kabul and enjoyed it. Eye opening look deep inside a different culture. I just put Strangers Drowning on my TBR list, thank you.

    I almost forgot the BestReads2015. Just posted.

    Happy New Year, John, I wish you a peaceful and healthier New Year.

    1. Yeah, I could imagine that leading to awkward talks at home! Do let me know what you think of Strangers Drowning.

  9. Here's my list:

    "Uprooted" is on my "to be read" list, and may be moving up a slot or two since you rated it so highly. And the "Traitor Baru," as well.

    I loved "The Color Purple"--just listened to it last year, in fact. Wonderful! Also, "Canticle for Leibowitz" was amazing! Glad to hear you loved it too.

    1. From our chats about books, I'd recommend Uprooted first. It even pings positively off some of your own work. Though I think you'll appreciate Baru, Uprooted is totally your bag.

  10. Well I've just added three books to my to-read list - thanks, John! Strangely, just this morning I heard an interview with Larissa MacFarquhar. She was very interesting, and I'm looking froward to reading her book.

    My list is here

    1. That's uncanny timing! Uncanny, too, that I just bought a book that wound up on your list.

  11. Alright now, Canticle does itrigue, so I'm definitely putting it on my list. The Traitor Baru Cormorant and Beloved went straight to my to read list.

    I think I've heard about Through the Woods regarding how cool the art in it is, so that one is to be checked too!

  12. You make Canticle sound so interesting. The Gladstone book and Grace of Kings is also on my TBR list.

  13. Nice list John! I read Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead in 2015 and thought it was a really well plotted book. There are quite a few here on my to read list so hopefully I'll get through them in 2016.


Counter est. March 2, 2008