Roughly in the order that I read them: My favorite books of 2019:
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Hank Green, Dutton, 2018
I started the New Year (well, when I woke up after a party) by reading the first five chapters of Hank Green’s debut on my roof, before having to shelve it for a while to finish my year end lists. When I picked it back up I basically read the rest of it in a day. It’s good, real good, in unexpected ways. The story of a young woman who ends up famous by making first contact with statues that appeared overnight around the world, it’s less a story just about aliens, and more about branding, the effects of fame, and the weaknesses of human character that break relationships. It also features a main character that is queer–and while I do have reservations considering the author is a straight white man–it felt reasonably authentic. It’s just a real good book y’all.
Feet of Clay, Terry Pratchet, Harper Prism, 1996
I should have started reading more Pratchett a long time ago–he’s one of those authors that are genuinely funny; not just utilizing cheap gags but with a sense of situational humor normally only seen on the stage. Feet of Clay is one of only two Ringworld novels I’ve read but that’s something I intend to fix — the setting is vibrant and the prose is hopping and I can’t wait to get back.
Uncomfortable Labels, Laura Kate Dale, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019
I’ve been following Dale’s work for a few years now, as a games critic, but mostly haven’t interacted with who she is as a person. Her memoir is both clinical and personal, laying her triumphs alongside her faults and inviting judgement for both. She’s had to face a lot, but I hope that writing and releasing this book has been helpful for her.
All The Crooked Saints, Maggie Stiefvater, Scholastic Press, 2017
Stiefvater writes closer to how I think than I ever would have expected when picking up the book–a book I definitely snagged thinking it was something else entirely. The story of a family in the middle of nowhere America with a mission and the power to grant “miracles” is one that kept me engrossed as every now character and problem was introduced and has cemented its place on my bookshelf.
I want to also stop and to talk about examples of the prose. From the back of the book:
Here is a thing everyone wants: a miracle. Here is a thing everyone fears: what it takes to get one.Stiefvater, 2017
That construction is used to introduce characters, and while I certainly wouldn’t want every book to use the technique, it gave you a great sort of baseline for every character in a large cast–and that want/fear dichotomy is important to understand to understand how the miracles work. Very well done.
Blue Bedroom, Rosamund Pilcher, St. Martin’s Press, 1985
I spent a lot of time reading fantasy, science fiction, and other speculative works that use the real world as at best a springboard to another land; another set of rules. Blue Bedroom does not do that, being a collection of short stories as heartfelt as they are domestic; a cup of tea and a scone at the end of a day of dreaming. Unexpected, pleasant, and pleasantly unexpected.
Binti Trilogy, Nnedi Okorafor, Tor, 2015-2017
The Binti novellas are one of those singular works of science fiction that broadens what you expect from the genre and becomes a touchstone that other books are compared against. For instance, Mass Effect did jellyfish aliens first — but Binti did it far better, giving the creatures such a wealth of personality and belief that I’m unsure I’ll ever not think of the book when I see such a being. And that’s just one aspect: the mathemagic, Binti herself’s culture–a number of things from this series of novellas jumped out at me and hopefully shall color my perceptions moving forward.
The Astroboy Essays, Frederik L. Schodt, Stone Bridge Press, 2007
I have never seen an Astroboy cartoon, or read an Astroboy comic, or played an Astroboy game, but I know who he is all the same. He’s a staple of Japanese animation in a way few figures can be, and this book detailing where he came from and the life and other works of Tezuka was an engrossing read and one that left me with so many other works to pursue. [See; Princess Knight, which I’ll talk about in the comics roundup.]
Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland, MacMurray and Beck, 1999
A novel of vignettes, Hyacinths tells the story of a painting, possibly a Vermeer, as it was passed through time, eventually ending (at the start of the book) in the study of a private school teacher. Each piece functions as a stand alone tale–the painting an impartial background character as you move from the 1960s through World War II and into slices of time in the Netherlands that I’ve never thought of, let alone read about.
Broken Irish, Edward J. Delaney, Turtle Point Press, 2011
Broken Irish hurt to read. Not due to being poorly done, but from the sheer darkness in the pages. An inspired-by-reality story of the poorer parts of Boston, it tells several interlocking tales; tales of a drunk, a victim, a mother, a priest, and more. No one ends happy, few really get what they want, and I have no idea what to do with this book, which feels stuck to me like a blister I can’t bring myself to pop.
Hear the Wind Sing, Haruki Marakami, Penguin Random House, 2015 (Translation)
Reading a Murakami piece is like getting off of the subway and the sun is in the wrong place in the sky, and your brain starts reciting a Robert Frost poem but you’ve forgotten his name and the last line and so you’re looping and everything is tilted slightly to the left. His book 1Q84 is specifically about sort of crossing a threshold into a world that isn’t quite right, but Hear the Wind Sing has the same timbre, the same taste of grey ink as your pen runs dry. Everything is normal, little is happening, but there must be some meaning, some reason that the main character is just some jerk crossing streams with a woman who misses the dream part of the manic pixie dream girl in favor of having no resolved tension and a propensity to quote an author neither of them should care about. In short, it is a novella that made me feel displaced but not alienated, and I enjoyed it.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Kathleen Collins, Harper Collins, 2016
A collection of short stories, focusing on couples with one or more Black partners–another painful book. There’s a lot of evil that has been done in America; a lot of pain caused by people unwilling or incapable of looking past skin color. It isn’t simple, it isn’t solvable simply from force of heart, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Few works I’ve read drill that lesson home as hard or as painfully.
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday, 2019
I read The Nickel Boys in two days on my commute, lapping up the pain it contained, pain I still could see reflected in the people around me. What is detailed within is a horrific fictional account based on real crimes committed by real people in the good ol’ US of A. I’m white and between my current neighborhood and uncomfortably overwhelmingly white friend group, I don’t come face to face with the level of racial hate in our recent past, or our present. Here’s a 2020 goal for y’all; do better at that. All of us need to.
Books I read that didn’t make the cut but I still have something to say about and you’re still reading this so I guess I didn’t waste my time writing it.
Artemis Fowl Files, Eoin Colfer, Miramax, 2004
A collection of some info docs (including a language key for gnomish, which takes the fun out of that) and a couple of ok short stories. Was never going to be the thing that got me to care about Artemis Fowl again. It was just sort of trying to fill in narrative gaps that didn’t need to be filled.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, Public Domain, 1876
I’m quite conflicted about Tom Sawyer. It paints a picture of people I barely recognize as being American compared to today’s age, with one of the few constants being the racism. It was a fun adventure in its own right, and I do love Twain’s tendency to end chapters with things like “Let’s draw the curtain on that scene” and not dwelling on things with known outcomes, but I kept bouncing off of the sensibilities of the characters. I might re-evaluate after I read Huckleberry Finn.
Ticknor, Sheila Heti, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005
This is a very, very strange book. A fictionalish biopic about the biographer of a historian, himself an academic, that echoes and wraps around the actual biography in question. I feel like I need to read the original piece to really understand what we’re dealing with. The voice of the main character also takes some getting used to–I had to read the first dozen pages aloud and add inflection just to keep his thoughts in order–but by the end it had painted quite a dashing picture of a miserable, miserable man, kept warm not by his own merits but only by the light of a friend he mooched off of.
NP, Banana Yoshimoto, Grove Press, 1994(Translation)
NP is trying to be a Murakami book(or rather, is coming from the same sort of voicing), and succeeding where he fails in not being quite so goddamn creepy as the sex in his books tends to be. It’s almost impregnable in its oddity–months later I can remember flashes of scenes and themes and almost nothing concrete–but there was something to Yoshimoto’s work that I simply can’t seem to shake. I’ve picked up another of her books to see if it was a good Author match but not quite the right book for me.
Wonder Woman Psychology: Lassoing the Truth, Travis Langley and Mara Wood, Sterling, 2017
Pop psychology – fine I guess but extremely repetitive. An interesting counterpoint to Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman, which dramatizes some of the events talked about in the collection of essays.
More Than A Flag, Monica F. Helms, MB Books, 2019
Biographies are hard to read, and autobiographies even more so, being as much a judgement of the words on the page as they are the person or persons being discussed within. I found no real issues with the prose in More Than a Flag, which details the life and activism of the creator of the Trans Pride Flag, but I did find issues with the author herself, a woman I realized as I was reading that I likely would not like in person, but whom has contributed something to my life central enough that it will likely be inscribed on my skin. I’m trying not to think about it too much. It’s very likely that what it comes down to is that the environment in which I am transitioning is radically different from when she did and that certainly impacts some of her choices, but her flaws shine through perhaps more than her accomplishments in her book.
Pinball 1973, Haruki Murakami, Penguin Random House, 2015 (Translation)
Where Hear the Wind Sing left me displaced, Pinball 1973 left me simply discomforted. From the plodding pace to the lackluster protagonist; from the fetish twin supporting characters who seem to only exist because someone liked the idea of sleeping with sisters to the callbacks the Hear the Wind Sing that barely advance the character arcs from that novel, Pinball 1973 just felt a mess; a real shame considering how much I liked the prior book.
Through a Glass Darkly, Kathleen Burkhalter, Firefly Press, 2013
There isn’t anything remarkable about Through a Glass Darkly; a collection of short, purportedly true tales of oddities in one woman’s life; but Kathleen is not just any one woman. She was a force of nature, a force for good, a powerhouse of a woman who’s passing her family feels every day, and my life is richer for knowing that she was in it, and my shelf blessed to have her words upon it, even if I don’t feel most others would resonate with them in the same way.