Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao. My kid asked me about this book when I was about 50 pages into it. I said, I’m not sure I’ll finish it. He asked me about it again when I was about 100 pages into it. I said, I’m going to finish it now. He asked me why. I said, I wasn’t sure what was going on at first, but the book makes sense to me now, so I’m going to finish it. Sometimes a poet writes a novel and it can be a lot of work. In this case, I think it was worth it. Navigating the loss of children through a kind of mythologizing. The sentences reminded me of John Ashbery’s poetry.
Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet. There’s so much charm in these rough and ready drawings plus watercolors (?). There are moments of casual adult cruelty toward children that will stick with me for a long time. Haunted.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Epic, millenia spanning science fiction. Clearly inspired by David Brin’s Uplift novels (a craft in the novel is explicitly called the Brin). Sentient spiders, crazy AI computer systems, the slow social-breakdown on a generation ship traveling for hundreds of years, and more: this book has so much going on. I very much enjoyed it.
Mind’s Eye by Håkan Nesser. I keep reading detective and spy stories. (And also watching things like True Detective.) I’m not sure what’s driving this, what I find comforting in these fictions about people attempting to conceal and reveal the truth. This novel’s detective, Van Veeteren, is delightfully world-weary. There’s a pretty satisfying courtroom secene, too.
Death Will Have Your Eyes by James Sallis. What if a poet wrote a spy novel? This is about what you’d get, I think. Not sure why I’ve been reading so many spy and detective novels lately. Perhaps there’s some solace in these archetypal roles. An escape from the tyranny of the real. Perhaps they just suit my current melancholy frame of mind.
Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. One of the reasons I read books is to meet people who are very different from me. It helps me understand the ways I am a stranger. Strongly recommended.
Lanny by Max Porter is more about a community than the boy in the title and the magic that comes from human beings living in one place for hundreds of years. The terror of parenting.
I kept reading books. Here are some from 2019 that stuck with me in a big way. Maybe you’ll enjoy some of them too? (I realized as I put together this list that there were a LOT of books I really liked this year. An embarrassment of riches, really. There were even some books I left off, not because I didn’t think they were worth mentioning, but because this list was getting foolishly long…)
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu: There must have been dust or something in the air when I was reading the title story in this book because…. OK, there wasn’t any dust. I was full on crying. This guy can really write. (They’re mostly science fiction, fantasy, and such.)
The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem: Almost everything I love (and some of what I hate) about California is in this book. It’s a weird sort of noir mystery story.
Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra: A history of mostly forgotten thinkers from the early 20th century. A fascinating take on where our world is at today (and has been for a hundred years or so) and suggests an answer to why so many men are determined to find their answers in violence.
The Blue Hawk by Peter Dickinson: The type of story that isn’t much written anymore. All the action swirls around the progonist’s rejection of his social and cultural and religious role. Mystical and numinous and long out of print. (The library is your friend. My copy hadn’t been checked out in about 20 years.)
The Quatrian Folkways by Tim Boucher: http://www.timboucher.ca/quatria/ A friend of mine has been writing these alternate universe myths, history, what have you that remind me quite a bit of some of Tolkien’s more obscure writing. Worth checking out, for sure.
Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier by Michelle Cuevas: Sometimes I read a writer and I’m jealous of how exceptional a writer they are. This one is for kids, but the writing is so good, I think anyone would get something out of it. After this one, I promptly read everything else she wrote.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Read this for my book club. I’d been meaning to read it for years, but sometimes you need an extra little shove to read a 600+ book of history. An excellent work of history. A good reminder that there are no giants in history. Only people who choose to do the best they can and those who don’t. (A vast oversimplification, I realize.)
Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White: A few unlikely people bounce off each other in 1950s Australia. Fascinating and weird and deeply mystical and, I guess, totally my cup of tea. Also, this one had some beautiful sentences in it, if you’re into that kind of thing.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: Another book club book. The story of a friendship between two girls in 1950s Italy. Yeah, this one’s great.
There There by Tommy Orange: Many different characters converge on a Native American powwow in Oakland. Its multi-character viewpoints are used to excellent effect (sort of like GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones, but I’d say more effective and not needing several volumes to get there).
Famous Men Who Never Lived by K. Chess: What if you were a refugee from an alternate reality? I was beguiled by the title, but the rest of the book had me. There’s also a bit of a mystery here. The author’s first book, it’s got some first book-y problems, but impressive.
The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe: (Really four books.) I’d been hearing about this book for a long time, but a friend finally pressed it into my hands. Some of the strangest science fiction I’ve ever read. It never went where I was expecting and eventually I just gave up trying to predict and went along for the ride.
The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil: Sometimes a book has a kind of echo with the present as this one does from the 1930s. I only got through volume 1, because it’s quite long. Also, there were some sentences that made me laugh out loud, which is pretty great.
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton: Whodunnit as video game or Quantum Leap, basically. For how much I seem to love the whodunnit genre, I read precious little of it. This was a perfect airplane book. (Shoutout to Knives Out, another whodunnit, and maybe my favorite movie of 2019.)
Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson: Aliens (or their representative) show up, abduct a science fiction author, and technomagically prevent all violence on Earth.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: Another excellent airplane read. A SF novel about an ambassador making her way through an extremely alien culture. A bit of a mystery here, too.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: A memoir of a woman training a hawk and wrestling with grief at her father’s death. Raw and deeply personal, but also extremely well-written. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it.
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang: Stories by one of my favorite science fiction writers. Didn’t disappoint.
Lolly Willowes, or, the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner: One of those old books that might’ve been written yesterday. Not much happens and everything happens, or, a woman finds her place in the world.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover: Sometimes books deserve their popularity. This is one of those.
Middlegame by Seanan McGuire: (I’m definitely getting tired of writing this list, but I’m almost done…) If you like Tim Powers, you’ll like this one. Also, it’s got a kind of time travel thing to it, which I always love.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone: A short book, I would’ve happily read several hundred more pages of it. Two secret agents fight each other through time and space, writing letters to each other, and eventually falling in love. Sounds cheesy, yeah, but the writing is so so good.
The Dragon Waiting: A Masque of History by John M. Ford: Another one that’s long out of print. (Interlibrary loan, y’all.) An alternate history 15th century Europe with a drop of magic in it. Many good things to say about this one.
Gideon the Ninth by Emily McGovern: The last book I read in 2019. Space necromancers + a whodunnit. What’s not to love? Also, some really top notch sword fights. Entertaining, just a lot of fun.
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
A short, powerful love story. A master class in subtle world-building. Set in what seems like a loose Phoenician-style city, with other characters that seem like Greek (or possibly Roman-style) soldiers. Throw in aliens/gods and parallel universes. There’s a lot going on, but it all sort of comes together in this short novel.
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
A collection of stories by one of my favorite science fiction writers. Read for “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, and “The Great Silence”. LeVar Burton read “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” on his podcast, which you can listen to here.
300 Arguments: Essays by Sarah Manguso
As Sarah Manguso says, this is “a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” Describes it perfectly. A delightful book.
Normal by Warren Ellis
Sort of a mystery story. Futurists and other big picture thinkers have nervous breakdowns and go to a sort of asylum in the Oregon coastal mountains. It’s pretty funny and weird. I don’t really remember how it ended, but the body made of bugs was pretty memorable!
Shaolin Cowboy: Start Trek by Geof Darrow
Extremely violent, nonsensical, and borderline unfathomable martial arts comic. That’s some crab!
Rise of Empire (Riyria Revelations, v2) by Michael J. Sullivan
Epic fantasy. I’ve read a bunch of these now. Very readable and the relationship between the honorable ex-soldier and the mostly amoral thief/assassin is what keeps these books cooking.
Killing Gravity (The Voidwitch Saga, v1) by Corey J. White
Yeah, telekinesis would be pretty handy in space for wrecking things.
Grandville Force Majeure by Bryan Talbot
An alternate reality 1930s (?) London peopled entirely by anthropomorphized animals. (I kept thinking: What would this book be like if they were human people instead?) I realized upon finishing this that it was the finale of a series. Pretty good detective yarn, although probably it’s worth starting with the first in the series, in retrospect.
Tentacle by Rita Indiana
A deeply strange time-traveling, body(and gender)-swapping story about environmental catastrophe and oceanic ecological collapse. The writing is extremely raw and there’s much (justified) rage over the despoiling of the natural world.
The New World by Ales Kot
A Romeo and Juliet story, basically, in a near future authoritarian dystopia. It’s pretty fun.
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
OK, what if Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley were vaguely sympathetic and grew up having to wrestle with being non-magical and having a wizard brother? In this, the non-magical sister has to investigate a possible murder at the magical school where her sister teaches. I always want to figure out the twist, but I never do. This book explores some complicated family dynamics in a fastinating way. Also, really gets into how annoying dealing with magical teenagers would be.
Dead Lions by Mick Herron
I liked Slow Horses enough that I didn’t wait very long to pick up the sequel. I’m a sucker for spy stories and this one doesn’t disappoint. File it under: intelligence agencies are their own worst enemy.
Empty Space by M. John Harrison
The third in a gonzo sf trilogy. Capitalism will wreck the future, just like it’s messing up now. Definitely read the first one first, Light. It was so long since I’d read the first two that I’d basically forgotten what happened completely beforehand. I think these books pretty much stand on their own there.
Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories by Angela Carter
Angela Carter sure can write! I had already read a bunch of these stories in another collection, but Carter’s always worth a read.
That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime (v1) by Fuse
Incredibly silly. Exactly what it says on the tin. I have no idea where this strange story is going to go.
Lolly Willowes; or The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner
A charming book in which not much happens and also everything happens. Also, the Devil’s in it. I’ll definitely be reading other books by her.
The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden
Kind of a kitchen sink sci fi yarn. There’s psychic abilities and weird mind and body altering drugs and ancient gods. Ambitious! Probably the most charming character, for me, was the politician/drag queen.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki
I wish there had been books like this, about adolescence and relationships, when I was one. Maybe there were and I just missed them? This comic’s got some important lessons in it, told in an entertaining style.
High Crimes by Christopher Sebela
A spy story told through a trek to the top of Everest. Pretty dark. I still can’t say I understand why people want to climb to the tops of mountains, but at least this protagonist had the threat of death to motivate her.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
A friend said that this book kicked his butt. That was very much my experience. There was much in it that hit a little bit too close to home. Extremely good, nevertheless.
Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
Reminded me very much of Tim Powers’ books, especially Earthquake Weather and Last Call. A sort of time travel story. I enjoyed this one very much.
The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji
There’s a Japanese mystery genre called “shin honkaku” that roughly translates to “new orthodox”. Puzzle box, locked room mysteries. Detective in the drawing room style. This one’s very stripped down with the characters almost like puzzle pieces. I did not solve the mystery, but it’s very clever, and I didn’t feel bad for not piecing it together. (I first read about the book on Robin Sloan’s blog/newsletter here.)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
It’s so strange reading a novel with characters as children and teenagers in the early 2000s. Thanks, novel, for making me feel old. A beautifully written book. I could tell it was written by a poet.
Prince of Cats by Ron Wimberly
A comic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet told as a non-linear modern gang war. I never really got the Montague/Capulet feud until I read it here. R&J is so raw because it’s all teenagers.
Paper Girls (v6) by Brian K Vaughan
The conclusion to this series. I used to think that Saga was my favorite of Vaughan’s books, but I’ve gotta go with Paper Girls. I mean, it has time travel, which is a winner for me every time. Definitely start this series at the beginning.
Die: Fantasy Heartbreaker (v1) by Kieron Gillen
That RPG game turned real! Some good stuff here. I’ll definitely read more.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Based on the title, I was always going to read this book. It did not disappoint. It’s a book that seemed completely written for me. I only wished it was a little longer, but in a way, it was the perfect length. After I read it, I ran across this nice, brief write up of it on the Letters and Sodas blog here.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
Another book that would’ve been extremely helpful to have read in my late teens and early 20s. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while. Holds up well for a book written in the 1950s, a decade that I don’t have much fondness for, generally, fictionwise.
In his newest book, Fall, or Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson describes the internet (specifically the social media end of it) as “the Miasma”.
I’m pretty sure we should all start using this term. That is all.