Thursday, December 27, 2018

My Favorite Books That I Read in 2018

Books! Why would you bother living without them? Even slowed down by life and depression, this turned into one of my favorite reading years thanks to some stunning debuts and absolute gems in my backlog. In the post-Christmas haze I've gathered up some scary stories, a Pulitzer winner, a New York Times favorite, and novellas and a lovable killing machine for you. Let's read.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

This is an Epic Fantasy about the real world destroying your adolescent notions of what matters. For the first chunk of the book, Rin throws herself into life at a military academy, exploring connections between drugs and the gods. The worst things in her world are an unfair teacher and her equivalent of a Draco Malfoy bully. But then she graduates and has to serve alongside her classmates in a brutal war with civilian death tolls and a nightmarish parallel to the Nanjing Massacre. The book lets us take Wizarding School tropes for granted and then rips them in half with reality. Hopefully one one reading this ever has to deal with the horrors of war, but Rin's revelation is an extreme version of the experience of so many people who hide from reality inside education systems and then have to confront the world. From this conceit, Kuang creates one of Fantasy’s greatest origin stories, showing us how Rin grows from desperate, to ambitious, to vengeful, to ruthless. We see all of the social pressures and life events that forge her into one of her world's great villains.

Witchmark by C.L. Polk

I meant to read part of Witchmark on my flight, but the book was too good, and so I finished it before we landed. Miles Singer is a healer in a Fantasy world in the shadow of a war akin to World War I, using his talents to help traumatized veterans when they come home. Something is causing his patients to become dangerously violent, possibly using their PTSD to turn them into weapons, and Miles has to solve the mystery to save them. It’s a deeply compassionate novel about trying to help those harmed by war, bolstered by a supportive romance between Miles and Tristan, another man ensnared into the plot. At one point Miles is exhausted and unkempt, and Tristan gives him a shave. Apparently allosexual read this as ridiculously hot. My ace ass read this as soothing, because the trust between them is so clear. It made me relax on a plane where I had no elbow room. Witchmark is thoroughly charming.

The Outsider by Stephen King

This might be my favorite book into King’s new Bill Hodges Universe, and makes the explicit turn to opening the supernatural there. Without spoiling, it elevates some characters into protagonist roles that will make any sleuthing against monsters way more interesting, while paying homage to the restless retiree who started it all. Here we have an identity mystery: a pillar of the community is witnessed having committed an absurdly grisly crime and have to figure out how it’s possible that evidence puts him in two places at once. We know something supernatural touches this crime, but can’t be sure what since the Hodges Universe began without any of the supernatural. King has created a great uncertainty over how much human behavior explains things, as opposed to Castle Rock where there the shadows always had thoughts. This is covered in one of King’s richest webs of characters, every point of view connecting powerfully to another, until we have a robust appreciation of how feverishly the community reacts to the news. I didn’t think there needed to be a fourth book in this series. Now I’m quite excited for a fifth.

Impostor Syndrome by Mishell Baker

If you haven't read the series so far, just go get Borderline. It's amazing.

If this is the end of the Arcadia Project series, then it's a poignant send-off and also the most fun the characters have been. Most of your favorites from the first two books band together with Millie for something that's half heroic adventure, and half psychedelic heist. My favorite part was seeing Millie's team come together as so supportive and aware of where intervention might be important for helping neurodivergent characters. Respecting the agency of our friends is hard in real life when we know they're at risk, and it's refreshing to see that reflected in something better than the duality of "hands off" or "you have no choice." The scene where Millie might be concussed and not taking her own health seriously is where we start to appreciate how far the characters have come. There are explosive events, but more important are the conversations and developments between people who didn't trust each other a few books ago.

All Systems Red & Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

I haven't read Books 3 and 4 in the Murderbot Diaries series because I'm saving them for bad days. SF&F publishing doesn't give me books like these very often and I need to ration the good vibes. The Murderbot Diaries are warm-hearted and revolve around the emotional growth of a killing machine who just wants to watch TV and be left alone. He's not a slacker hitman; he's rental equipment who longs to understand others and be emancipated. These books have some adventure and risk, but their heart is in weird bonding sequences watching soap operas with a ship's navigation computer. They are warm without avoiding heavy material, and without settling for arcs that ending in gritty choices. The heaviness is in who we want to be. This series is a modern treasure.

Space Unicorn Blues by T.J. Berry

Now this is my kind of worldbuilding. Space Opera where it turns out planets are populated by unicorns, dragons, and faeries? And they need space ships to try to outrun human colonizers? Heck yes. We’re talking about a great found family of disabled people, and queer people, and magical beings, and humans who know they’ve messed up, going on perilous adventures to create a better life for themselves. My favorite trick Berry plays is shuffling the characters, plot, and worldbuilding. Our half-unicorn hero may get stuck in a miserable spot thanks to the plot, but Berry keeps the tone light by explaining that spot through hilarious worldbuilding like the brand of pie that has a density dangerously close to black holes. When the plot gets more dangerous, the characters banter it out. One element is always allowed to be grave, and is lightened by another, turning the novel into something consistently inventive and fun.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Not a lot of Dystopia novels let you see the Dystopia form. The Power puts its Dystopia into motion, from the start of women developing skeins and gaining the ability to instantly electrocute anyone they like, to boys being segregated from them in schools, all the way to upheavals in culture and political systems. It’s a world where women suddenly have superior capacity for violence than men. This way it easily could have languished as a 1984-like about a downtrodden man chaffing under a system of oppression, but Alderman puts her world into motion. We see the changes and new orders from the perspectives of male journalists, poor women, and aspiring politicians, each of whom give us different angles of satire and angles on the world. I’d love an anthology of short stories covering more parts of this world, and almost wrote one about what would change in disability communities.

The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

A Cosmic Horror novel about a very bad tree. Sarah Crowe has wicked writer’s block, and fears that this time she won’t resurface and will lose her contract and career. The novel has Kiernan’s hallmark ability to get deep inside a messy character’s head as their mental health and personal life unravels. But there is a peculiar tree in the woods behind Crowe’s rented house, visible from her upper bedroom window - and that no matter how long she walks, she cannot reach. The pursuit of the tree is both a metaphor for her writer’s block, and intrinsically related, since the fascination leads her to research seemingly similar trees related to horrors that have happened throughout the region. Could they all be the same tree? Has she been attracted to it because she has similar flaws as previous people caught in its web? I bothered so many friends with my theories for weeks after finishing it. The book is a few years old, but certainly one of my favorite Horror things of the year.

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

Douglas Blackmon went from county to county across the southern U.S., reading court records from almost a century ago to prove how emancipated slaves were treated. What he found was a long trail of people charged for petty crimes or held without an explicit charge, often with no evidence or even oral arguments in court, and sentenced to manual labor that was contracted out to friends of the court. This way saw thousands upon thousands of people trapped in a new slavery that could be extended at the whim of their “employer,” who could charge as much as they wanted for room and board that the convicted people couldn’t refuse. They were sent into the deepest mines and most rundown mills, and when many of them died from conditions or unsafe labor, they were made to disappear. It’s a bitter book, rife with cruelty that more than one president willfully ignored. These parts of our history are ignored at our peril, and the peril of the most vulnerable going forward.


  1. Bookie lust ignited. Thank you.
    And the last sounds fascinating and sadly not surprising. Only the name changed, while the slavery continued (continues?).

  2. Thanks for sharing these books! Have a great 2019!

  3. Nice article as well as whole site.Thanks for sharing.


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