Whoo! *roar of crowd!* Hello everybody and welcome to the (belated) first annual TEN BEST BOOKS list! *someone finger-whistles loud and shrill, audience dies down*
Okay, but seriously, I’m pretty excited about these books. I read fifty-two books and fiction magazine-issues in 2016, which was a lot more than last year. Of those fifty-two, I’ve finally narrowed down the top ten that really rocked my socks. These aren’t necessarily new books, in terms of publication dates, just new to me. I’ve even ranked(-ish) them! So in true top-ten-list fashion, we’ll count-down from:
10 – The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
I loved the hell out of this book, even going into it without the slightest expectations, given that it fits squarely into the YA-VAMPIRE subgenre. But I’d been meaning to read something by Holly Black for a while, and boy, am I glad I did. I listened to this one on audiobook, which I highly recommend, and even being a fairly distractible person, I couldn’t help but pay close attention to the story. The world-building and characters are fantastically fun, and while I felt the ending was a bit–nnnnyeah, too easy–it’s a great book to study the concept of “try-fail-try-succeed” in plot construction. It’s quick-paced, tight, and you really do kind of fall for all the characters–even the jerks, oddly enough. But then, nobody charms like a vampire charms, you know?
9 – Trees, Vol. 1
This was my first introduction to Warren Ellis (I KNOW, I KNOW, GOSH, STOP YELLING), and I picked it up after he’d referenced it on one of his fabulous email newsletters (which I started reading at another writer contact’s recommendation, and seriously, if you think you’re busy, check this thing out, because whoa.) In short, TREES is not only beautifully illustrated by the fantastic Jason Howard, but it’s a wonderful mashup of multi-storylines spanning the globe after aliens land on Earth and just…sit there. Giant towers, called trees, just hang out around major and minor places on Earth, and nobody has any freaking idea what they want. It’s a strange, eerie, fantastic, bizarre invasion story, and it also brings in a whole lot of diverse perspectives, which I very much enjoyed. I can’t wait to check out Vol. 2!
8 – Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
I really enjoyed all 600+ pages of this one. While the first hundred were a teeny-tiny bit slow for me (lots of architecture talk regarding her grandfather and father, which wasn’t exactly boring, but I kind of wanted to get on with it), when it picks up, boy does it pick up. I read this one in about four days on a manic binge because I SIMPLY COULD NOT STOP. It will make you look at her work with fresh eyes, though I do recommend reading at least “The Lottery” (and The Haunting of Hill House, and particularly We Have Always Lived at the Castle) before diving into this one, as there are exhaustive discussions of her work in detail that yeeeeeah, will give stuff away if you haven’t. (Though if you’ve gotten through school in the US without having read “The Lottery” I’d be surprised.) Wonderful, exhaustive biography that feels immensely intimate. Reading this book also got me hooked on Florence & The Machine, because something about both this look at her life and the aesthetics of F&TM are uncannily twin to each other.
7 – The Ocean at the End of the Lane
I am ashamed to admit I haven’t read a huge amount of Neil Gaiman. Now and then, I’ve read a short story, and I’ve seen plenty of his writing advice circulating (and even once wrote a story, on a dare, using only his direct writing advice quotations, which was actually pretty fun). A long time ago I picked up American Gods, but never got around to reading it. I loved the movie adaptation of Coraline, but hadn’t ever read the book. You see what I’m getting at? But as my first real foray into Gaiman territory, I have to say, I really enjoyed this one. It’s a perfect balance of nostalgic myth, fantasy warm-fuzzies, and seriously creepy goings on all balled up into one. I listened to this one audiobook-style, and enjoyed it so much. It’s the kind of book that half makes you want to live inside it, and half makes you glad you don’t!
6 – Waiting for the Barbarians
Read this one on the recommendation of a well-read and brilliant friend, who said I had to check out Coetzee’s streamlined, elegantly simple prose. I am so glad I listened to her. Waiting for the Barbarians is one of those books that can change your way of looking both at real life and at the construction of fiction. It’s so short, so tight, and yet it feels immense, like a chunk of gold. Really enjoyed this one, and some of the super-efficient imagery is still etched in my mind.
5 – Annihilation (and Authority)
Oh, Jeff VanderMeer, what is there to say about how much I loved this book(s)? Another first-introduction read, as I’d read some of his non-fiction, but not his fiction before. It’s definitely not everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’ve got any familiarity with Lovecraftian-styled existential horror, even if you don’t totally love Lovecraft (lol, love…Lovecraft… XD), you’re going to enjoy this one. I listened to both as audiobooks, and highly recommend that method, if only because the reader for the Biologist in Annihilation does such a fabulous job, and Control in Authority is just as good, though entirely different. It’s just the perfect slow-burn horror as everything gradually gets eerier and eerier, and the more you understand, the creepier it gets. So. Much. Fun. The third one in this (trilogy?) series is high on my list for this year.
4 – The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
This was a revolutionary book for me (pun intended). I’d been aware that Alexandre Dumas (the author) was at least partially of African heritage, but I didn’t know anything about his father, Alex Dumas (the general). Oh, man, am I glad I did. Beyond simply illuminating the racial situation of 1700s revolutionary France, it also taught me a ton about both the end of the Revolution and the beginning of Napoleon’s era. And I dare you not to fall head-over-heels for Alex Dumas. He’s fierce, sweet, charming, daring–seriously, everything one could ever want in a dashing adventure story straight out of his son’s repertoire. Heroics abound, history entices, and you won’t leave this book the same. (I read this one in print, e-book, and audiobook, and all versions are quite accessible. The audiobook narrator is quite good, but the voice carries through in the writing, too.)
3 – Being Mortal
Being married to a physician, conversations about death and end-of-life care isn’t entirely foreign ground, but Dr. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal really digs into the heart of the conversation: what do you want (really) when you’ve only got weeks or months to live? What makes life living, for you personally? What about when you’re seventy-six and can’t quite live on your own without help? What about after a stroke, when you can’t move your dominant arm? It’s not a light subject (lol, duh), but although the first quarter has that death-leaded-weight feeling (ah! I’m convinced this headache is now cancer!), by the end, I promise, it’s an uplifting, empowering book. You really need to read this one. I mean it. It’s all about what will make you truly happy in your final days. The answers vary for everyone. And It’s so, so, so important to be aware of what hospitalized end-of-life care looks like. If you take nothing else away from this one, let me just emphasize: you don’t want CPR at 85. I promise you. TV shows have really glamorized CPR as a few quick bumps on the chest, but it does a lot of damage. For a ten year old, or a forty year old, or hell, even a 70 year old, when you’ve got time and stamina to heal from it, it’s probably worth it. But once you’re frail and suffering from other conditions, it’s really awful. This is a reality doctors know very well, but often the rest of us don’t because we don’t see it until we or a loved one is right there in the middle of it. And there are better, gentler ways. Even if it seems like a scary thing to think about, this book has given me so much insight into and encouragement about what old age can be. As far as I’m concerned, every living person should probably read this book at some point.
2 – The Buried Giant
How much did I love this novel…let me count the ways. 1) The world Kazuo Ishiguro has built here, encompassing the post-Arthurian-legend years in medieval England is fantastic. It feels both eerily realistic and yet breathes with subtle magic and the unexplained. 2) The themes in this one…man, talk about themes. Memory, loss, betrayal, war, forgiveness, death–it’s beautiful, sublime even, the things Ishiguro makes you think about in this one. 3) The characters are so engaging. I’m not even entirely sure why, but I just…want to know them better. They’re not just handsome or beautiful people engaging in mad-cap action; they’re thoughtful, deliberate, kind, and deeply tormented by the things they can’t remember. 4) The pace. I know everybody loves a fast-paced car-chase and all that, but for me, I really love it when an author can take it nice and slow, like a stroll through a park, and let the story gently unfold before my eyes. No rush, yet somehow still driven by a deep, powerful need to know how everything ends. Still waters and all that. It’s beautiful, and if I recall correctly, I think this one made me cry a little at the end. It’s a wee bit anticlimactic, but somehow that didn’t bother me. If anything, that felt right. Present action isn’t so important in The Buried Giant, so much as past actions. It’s a beautiful book, really loved it. And it’s fabulous as an audiobook.
1 – If He Hollers Let Him Go
Wow. Just…wow. I am so glad I read this one. I’d never read anything by Chester Himes before, but I absolutely will from here on out. His writing is electric, emotionally driven, and just…WOW. I mean, this one took my breath away. Himes is an absolute master of conjuring emotion out of the reader, I mean talk about the craft of making the reader experience the story! I was completely swept away, completely in-line with the main character, just…wow. Even thinking back on it, it leaves me breathless. This book made me feel so much rage, so much elation, so much frustration and loneliness and fire, all from the POV of the main character. And boy, does it illuminate some things from the Black v. White/White v. Black racial dynamic. I mean, yes, this was set in the 60s, but I was horrified, too, by how much of this could probably still happen today. It will light your insight. Himes is hands down one of my favorite authors now. If you want to learn about tension, pacing, character-driven plots, and how to get your readers to really live the story, you need to read this one. Himes is a mind-blowing craftsman.
Hope you enjoyed this list! I’m fairly convinced that I probably won’t be hitting 52 books again this year, so next year’s list may be a bit shorter to accomodate, but last year’s reading was so much fun. I hope you get a chance to check out some of these great reads!
(P.S. – Apologies for the funky spacing–Wordpress is rebelling against me today…)