or, My Year of Reading Speculatively
Hello and happy 2020 one and all!
2019 was an exceptional reading year for me. I finished my thesis in the spring and graduated in June, which left me with ample time to dedicate to reading (And before I graduated reading was a favourite procrastination pastime, so win-win either way). This meant that by the end of the year I had raked up a tally of 102 books! That’s WAY more than any recorded year prior, so I’m pretty pleased with myself. I have no idea if that trend will continue in the new decade, but I will try my best to make sure it does!
In the previous years I have included some musings on my reading habits, goals, achievements and stats in this post alongside the top 10, but this year, to spare you from a mile long blog post, I will save my stats and goals and such for a separate blog post. So keep your eyes peeled for that if long lists and pie charts are your thing! But as you can probably tell from the top 10 list already, last year I ended up reading a whole lot of SF/F, a genre which barely made an appearance on 2018’s list, so it’s definitely a different bag this time around. There’s still some YA and I actually read a ton of excellent nonfiction too, but more on that later.
As usual, I will only be giving the briefest (and vaguest) of synopses, if they can even be called that. I suck at summarising plots (especially of books that I read a long time ago) and I feel like my clumsy descriptions never do the books justice, so I won’t even really try beyond the broadest outlines. I recommend checking Goodreads for the official blurb if you’re interested in the particulars, I will focus on my personal reading experience and relationship with the book. Also no spoilers!
I read so many wonderful books last year that I’m actually struggling to identify a definite number one to start with. What a wonderful problem to have! And while I have always maintained that my lists are not in order of preference, I have noticed that the last spots are the ones I fill a little half-heartedly, so in order to avoid making a decreasingly enthusiastic list, I shall list the books in strictly chronological order. So there truly is no preferential treatment on this list at all, slot ten is as likely to be my favourite as slot one. So make sure to read until the end!
Here we go!
1. An Unkindness of Ghosts (Rivers Solomon)
This was my first five star year of 2019, read way back in January. Since it’s been a full year since I read this, the details of my reading experience have faded somewhat. But I still feel very confident in saying that this book is AMAZING! It’s also SUPER BRUTAL, but so very good.
This is a sci-fi story set on a spaceship with a society whose structure is eerily reminiscent of antebellum South and it tackles themes of slavery, power and its abuse and a whole variety of heavy subjects along those lines. So it’s not exactly what I would call a fun book. It’s probably the darkest SF/F book I read last year, as I am more prone to enjoy somewhat softer hopepunk-ish stories (more on those later!), whereas this story felt utterly hopeless a lot of the time. But oh, how I loved it anyway.
Another thing this book has going for it is the wealth of excellent representation. Many characters fit somewhere on the queer and trans spectrums, even though their identities are not necessarily spelled out in the most obvious ways. Rivers Solomon has since clarified that the main relationship is a f/f relationship between an intersex woman and a trans woman (both of whom also fit under the nonbinary label), but they also admitted that the fact that this has been unclear to many means they probably didn’t make it obvious enough in the text. So don’t feel bad if you miss it. But anyway that is a pretty unique dynamic even in current day SF/F so it made me very happy!
The main character is also neurodivergent and I found that very wonderful and even more rare in SF/F (at least to see positive representation of it), so that also made me happy. But keep in mind that I’m neurotypical so I’m not really qualified to comment on the quality of that aspect of representation.
So yeah, this book made me real upset, but I still loved it. My limits for reading about violent and brutal things remain a mystery, but this one was worth the pain, even though there was a lot of pain to be had! There were some signs of debut novel-itis and could’ve maybe been developed/edited a bit more in some places, but overall it was a very strong, unique story that I fully recommend… if you like suffering at least!
2. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (Patrisse Khan-Cullors & asha bandele)
This is the only nonfiction on this list, so I can’t make it a double feature like normally. Hate to break a trend, but the competition was just too stiff this year! But I digress.
This book was very very good! Memoirs are hard to rate but I was really impressed and engrossed with this one. The book chronicles the life of Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM is naturally heavily featured in the title and blurb, but this was a look on Cullors’ whole life from childhood to present day, the personal and the political, and what a life it has been! Her story is very impactful and the writing thoroughly enjoyable.
I don’t feel like I’m qualified to comment on the subject matter as such, and what can you say about the story of a memoir, really? It’s her life. I guess I’ll just settle with saying that the book dealt with very important topics and it was beautifully written and very engrossing. It was interesting to learn more about the beginning of the wonderful and revolutionary Black Lives Matter movement and about Cullors as a person. Definitely worth a read for those interested in matters of social justice – or just wonderful, important memoirs in general!
3. All Systems Red (Martha Wells)
I FREAKING LOVE MURDERBOT!!!
Having read An Unkindness of Ghosts (which I loved) and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti (which had potential but didn’t seem to fulfil all of it) in January, I was in the mood for more SF/F, but it took a few months for the sci-fi spark to turn into a flame. Those months were spent queuing for my library’s single electronic copy of this novella. I finally gained access in April, and BOY WAS IT WORTH THE WAIT!
This freaking novella. It really is a masterclass in how to write SF/F short fiction. I was completely invested from the first sentence, became familiar with and invested in all the characters within pages, and was enthralled with the plot from start to finish. I feel like the reason I haven’t read that many SF/F novels in the past is my struggle with immersion and worldbuilding in the beginning, which discourages me from grabbing the bigger tomes. But All Systems Red felt very approachable, being only 150-ish pages, and it showed me that it’s possible to become immersed in an unfamiliar world very quickly and easily if the author has enough skill to dip me into the world gently and through the most lovable murderbot main character.
Most of this book’s charm is just how wonderful Murderbot is as a character. They are the socially awkward, anxious, snarky, misanthropic killer android I never knew I needed in my life, but now that I know them, I can’t get enough! Murderbot’s voice is the carrying force of this series and Wells writes them just so deliciously, I cannot even. I love the other central characters of this first one in particular a lot, but Murderbot is just next level excellent. (Fun fact: While Murderbot is obviously genderless, throughout the series I read them as female-coded, but my friend who listened to the audiobook always thought of them as masculine. That’s just wild to me, and makes the character all the more interesting.)
During the rest of the year I read the remaining three novellas in the series as well. The middle ones were a bit less mindblowing for me and somewhat harder to follow, but that is not to say they weren’t enjoyable as well. The fourth one was more my jam again, and I feel like upon a reread I would get more out of the middle two as well. (So uh, please publish an omnibus edition so I could freaking afford to own these books!!!) But the first one is definitely the most shining diamond among them and I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially for people who, like me, are a bit scared of SF/F being too lengthy and complicated to get into. That being said, there is a Murderbot novel being published in 2020 and I could not be more excited!! I NEED MORE MURDERBOT, STAT! AND SO DO YOU.
4. The Fifth Season (N. K. Jemisin)
I discovered so many new favourite SF/F authors last year, and perhaps at the very top of the list is N. K. Jemisin. I bought her short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? in February when I was in Stockholm and started reading it in April. Her short fiction convinced me of her storytelling mastery and led me to pick up The Fifth Season in May. And boy did it blow my mind! In fact, I loved the book so much I gave it a full review on my blog, something I practically never do! So if you want to read a more detailed account of my thoughts and more rapturous praise, feel free to check that out.
Since I already wrote a full review of it, I won’t go into great detail here. But I would like to emphasise that Jemisin truly is a master of speculative fiction, and I cannot recommend her work highly enough! The Fifth Season is a little dense, especially in the beginning when you’re still getting to know the world, so I understand how this might not be for everyone, but still, I beg you to give this book a chance! If you make it through to the epic reveal in the latter half of this book, it will make it so worth the initial struggle! Again, MIND. BLOWING.
I also read the sequels, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky, and I enjoyed them too, although I struggled with both of them a bit more than the first one. The second one especially was a bit slow, but I still recommend the whole series whole-heartedly. This is some good SF/F right here. But if the Broken Earth trilogy seems a bit daunting, I do recommend picking up How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? which is more approachable, and a full five star collection of stories in its own right. It deserves to be on this list as well, but the contest for spots on this list was so stiff that I limited myself to one book per author. Consider it an honourable mention.
5. Picture Us in the Light (Kelly Loy Gilbert)
Okay, we finally get to the YA section, I promise that’s still a thing that I read and enjoy! In fact, I read a whole lot of quality YA in 2019 and the amount of YA with central f/f romances was a delightful trend in 2019. Which is why it’s a bit of a shame that none of those made it to this list. But some of them are already listed in my YA recommendation list, and I’ll be updating it with more recs in the near future, so keep an eye out for that.
This book was pretty intense! It’s a book about secrets, secrets between family and friends and lovers. It’s about loss and trauma, but also about love. Basically, be prepared for a lot of feelings. This book was a wild ride, and even though it wasn’t perfect, it was narratively and emotionally impressive and hit home with my feels, so I had no choice but to award it five stars. The plot was complex to the point of being convoluted at times, but it was also engaging and intriguing enough for me to want to devour this book very quickly.
The downsides: I’ll admit that the family drama was pretty overdramatic, but it was still a compelling plotline and raised the stakes of the story, so I didn’t really mind. Likewise, the sense of mystery with the friend plot was somewhat overhyped and too aggressively hinted at in the beginning to make the payoff feel worth it, but the plotline overall felt meaningful and was overall well handled so it’s easy to let go of those small misgivings. The timeline skipping when it came to that reveal was also an impressive trick and kept the tension high from the get-go.
Also as far as the romance goes, it was definitely a slow burn and I would’ve maybe liked a bit more development, but the eventual payoff was very enjoyable and gave me a whole bunch of feels, so I’m not complaining!
I guess it would be a fair assessment to say that this book was a little overdramatic overall, but it was dramatic in a way that I didn’t mind and that didn’t feel manipulative to me. Kelly Loy Gilbert was able to handle the high stakes and make the drama feel justified and real enough not to feel cynical or calculated. So I do recommend this for fans of hard-hitting contemporary YA!
6. Patron Saints of Nothing (Randy Ribay)
In a similar vein, this is also one for all the hard-hitting contemporary YA fans! This is a very intense story about a Filipino-American teen boy travelling to the Philippines to find out the truth behind the death of his Filipino cousin. It was a very intriguing story that tackled many heavy topics with genuine grace and insight.
To boringly quote the blurb on Goodreads: “As gripping as it is lyrical, Patron Saints of Nothing is a page-turning portrayal of the struggle to reconcile faith, family, and immigrant identity.” That about sums it up! As you might gather from these two YA top picks, I really like stories about family histories and tensions and immigrant stories, and both this and Picture Us in the Light did a perfect job telling those stories! I was unprepared for how thrillingly intense this story would get at times, but it was a great ride precisely because of the impeccable tension! This one wasn’t really a tear-jerker for me, but a very impactful read all the same!
Possibly the only downside was the main romance, which I wasn’t super invested in, but as far as straight romances in YA go, it wasn’t too bad. Kidding, kidding. No but honestly it was mostly fine, just not something that really got me in the feels. So the romance was unnecessary and kinda meh, but not bad enough to take away from my enjoyment of the story overall.
7. This Is How You Lose the Time War (Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone)
THIS BOOK DESTROYED ME!! I bought this on a whim in Bristol in July, probably mostly because I remembered this being pretty hyped and because I loved the title and the cover. I read the blurb, but I guess I wasn’t really paying attention because for some reason I didn’t fully grasp that this was a f/f romance until I actually started reading it many months later. BUT BOY IS IT EVER. It’s the most wonderful time travel enemies to lovers epistolary f/f romance you’ll ever read! (Not that there is probably much competition in that category… But there should be, damnit!) But seriously, holy crap.
This book is the story of two time agents from opposing sides of a long war over the dominion of, well, time. Red and Blue start out as enemies and rivals, who happen to foil each others’ plans all over battlefields of time. They exchange taunting letters gloating about their victories, but slowly and steadily the letters become more personal, and as they get to know each other better they begin to question their loyalties and… there’s no non-cheesy way to say this, FALL SUPER DEEPLY IN LOVE. Honest to god it is SO CUTE. The writing style is out of this world. It’s downright poetic, full of rich imagery and feeling and I love the characters SO MUCH. I KINDA WANT TO CRY A LITTLE JUST THINKING ABOUT IT.
There are times when I worry I’m too cynical to enjoy full-blown romance, but dear god the romance here was beautiful. It’s Romeo and Juliet but queer and they’re shapeshifting time agents and not dumb teens, what more could you possibly hope for????? Reading this book made me want to scream, it was so lovely and heart-crushing and aaaaaaaaaaaa!! Maybe it’s a bit too florid and sappy for some, but it was exactly my cup of mushy, romantic scifi tea, and I bet it could be that for many of you as well! It’s a short book and not a big time investment, so there’s no reason not to give it a go! Give yourself the gift of love condensed between two covers! You won’t regret it.
8. Gideon the Ninth (Tamsyn Muir)
I had heard a seemingly endless amount of buzz about this book on Twitter before it was released, and being the contrary old geezer that I am, I worried that that would inevitably mean that I would be disappointed in it. Because logic! But even so, the blurb mentioned lesbian necromancers. LESBIAN. NECROMANCERS. I never stood a chance! I bought this book fresh off the new releases shelf on a trip to Stockholm, but procrastinated reading it for a while because of my fears of being let down. But when I finally picked it up, OH BOY WAS IT A GOOD TIME.
2019 taught me a lot about reading SF/F, most importantly that sticking with a book through the initial confusion of trying to piece together the worldbuilding and character dynamics, which sometimes tend to trip me up early on, is almost always completely worth it. For the first few chapters of Gideon, I was left a little cold. The humour seemed to consist mostly of saying the word “butt” a lot and Gideon being a little shit, and that didn’t really appeal to me, and I was pretty confused about the rules of the world and all that. But I persisted, and once the plot got rolling, I was enraptured! The setting of the competition, the necromancer/cavalier dynamics, the fascinating cast of characters, the endless mystery… it was delightful! Even the humour found its feet eventually and this book did have me laughing out loud on multiple occasions. Gideon remained a little shit but I just started loving it instead of finding it childish and annoying.
I also became ridiculously invested in the romance plot of the story. SLIGHT ROMANCE PLOT SPOILERS START HERE (BUT NOTHING MAJOR IF YOU ALREADY KNOW THE MAIN SHIP)! Even though only one entry earlier I described This is How You Lose the Time War, perhaps my favourite book of the year, as enemies to lovers, it’s not actually my favourite relationship trope by a long shot. Initially, Gideon and Harrowhawk’s relationship had all the hallmarks of a ship I would not enjoy; the bully-victim dynamic, the actual slavery/ownership aspect and general power imbalance, the seemingly very real vitriol between them… I’m just not into that. But goddamnit if they didn’t end up winning me over all the same! If any of you are in the Les Mis fandom, you will know what I mean when I say that Gideon is actually for-real Grantaire, and once I realised that, there was no turning back. Gideon’s brand of desperate, masochistically self-sacrificing affection for Harrow ended up hitting all the right buttons for me, and I became VERY invested in that aspect of the story. And oh boy am I looking forward to the sequel!!! OKAY SPOILERS OVER! GO READ THIS BOOK!!!
9. To Be Taught, If Fortunate (Becky Chambers)
I originally rated this four stars and wasn’t going to put this on the list. I mean don’t get me wrong, I LOVED this novella, it filled me with hope and awe and appreciation for humanity and space and good writing, as Becky Chambers stories are wont to do. But the trouble with Becky Chambers books is that the first one, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was so brilliant and heartwarming that it set the standard way too high for all follow-ups. I gave Long Way five stars and have given every subsequent book four stars for various reasons, but let’s set the record straight here: EVERY SINGLE BECKY CHAMBERS BOOK IS A FIVE STAR BOOK. I’ve been rating them in comparison to each other, but set against any other book out there, they’re always going to be worth the full five stars and then some. So to correct this bias I did end up bumping this to five stars. And Record of a Spaceborn Few, the other Chambers I read this year is definitely at least an honourable mention, it was also excellent and heartwarming and ughhh I have so many feels.
This story was the first Becky Chambers story not set in the Wayfarers universe, and at first I thought that would bother me because I love the Wayfarers world so fucking much and I want to read a million more stories from it, but once I managed to convince myself that the world and rules are different but just as good in this one, it wasn’t very hard to stay immersed in it. This book was slow to start, but once I got into it, I wanted to LIVE IN IT.
This was a lovely story about space exploration and humanity and family and identity and AAAAH I CAN’T SUMMARISE IT PROPERLY BUT I LOVED IT SO MUCH, ALRIGHT? I continue to be the worst at blurbs, but this story was just so darn lovely. As I like to say, a story by Becky Chambers is like an injection of hope and awe. I will never understand how she manages to make these books about space travel that are simultaneously such hard sci-fi and the softest humanism, and just so all-around LOVELY. The characters were all so human and flawed and amazing and by the end they all felt like family. I loved the chill take on sexuality and love (this is the future I want!!) and simultaneous emphasis on the importance of connection and found family. The setting was almost utopian and I cannot tell you how refreshing that was after the decade-long dystopian bender SF/F scene seems to have been having. Like I said, this book was a bit slow to start, but it builds up to enormous ideas and feelings and I felt like crying from sheer joy and love so many times while reading it. Freaking Becky Chambers, man. I feel very fortunate be taught by her stories.
10. The Farthest Shore (Ursula K. Le Guin)
This book was the last to make its way to this list, bumping Tara Westover’s Educated off at the last minute. But honestly I’m happy about that change; while I thought Educated was a masterfully written, gripping read, I wouldn’t necessarily say I enjoyed it or would like to read it again. Therefore The Farthest Shore, which had me crying, screeching and feeling many feelings but in a happy-sad enjoyable sense, feels much more like a top 10 book for me. It also gave me a lot of relief on a more meta level, as I FINALLY found an Earthsea book I enjoyed as much as I wanted to!
I read The Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan back in summer of 2018, both for the first time since somehow I skipped this series as a kid, and I was hoping to love them, but… eh. I truly appreciated both books and thought they had a lot of merit and many enjoyable aspects. On paper, they were great. In my personal experience… something was missing. I wasn’t emotionally engaged the way I hoped to be and finished both books with a sense of disappointment (though more in myself than the books as such). But when I came across The Farthest Shore on a bookcrossing shelf, I figured I’d give it a home so it would be within arm’s reach if I ever felt like giving it a go. And much later (in mid-December, as I realised I was tantalisingly close to a 100 books in 2019) I suddenly felt compelled to pick up this quite short book from my shelf and dive back into Earthsea. And OH BOY!
I don’t know if it’s the fact that I read the first two in Finnish and this one in English, but this book felt MUCH more engaging to me! In many senses it’s very similar to The Wizard of Earthsea, there’s a physical and emotional journey and it’s still very introspective and philosophical, and quite slow in some parts. But this time I fully enjoyed all that! I think the first book was too lonely, in a sense. Too much of a solitary hero’s journey and the character’s relationships felt a little thin. But here, seeing Sparrowhawk from Arren’s perspective made me feel much closer to both of them. The relationship between Arren and Sparrowhawk took my breath away and made me cry a whole bunch, I LOVED IT. I have rarely seen the relationship between a boy and his mentor described in such terms. I loved how Le Guin didn’t shy away from the romance of Arren’s crush and didn’t discount the love between the two, just because it wasn’t the typical heterosexual romantic/sexual/whatever relationship. (And I do feel the need to stress that obviously their relationship wasn’t sexual or romantic in the usual sense, because some of y’all nasty). But still. It was beautiful and it caught me off guard.
I also did enjoy the larger arc of the story and the meditations on life and death and magic and loss, even if the message was hammered home pretty hard at points (the fact that the book’s previous owner had underlined many of the passages talking about it probably didn’t help that effect!) but I truly enjoyed it. Not the most exciting of adventures in many ways, but very emotional for me all the same! So if some of you are still sleeping on this series, do give it a go if only for this one book! I do intend to give the first two another try at some point, just to see if the language – or the fondness for this book applied retroactively – will affect the experience. Here’s hoping! Spoilers, I started my 2020 with Tehanu, the next book in the series, and absolutely adored that as well, so me and Earthsea are still going strong! More on that later, possibly.
So here we are! As usual, I am dreadfully late with my lists (and there’s an even longer year-end musing blog coming your way even more dreadfully late), but I still wanted to put a nice bow on the year 2019 and celebrate some of the amazing reading experiences I had. This list was way too short to fit in all of them, so here are some quick honourable mentions:
- Maresin voima/Red Mantle (Maria Turtschaninoff): The last book in the Red Abbey Chronicles series. I loved it. Feminist young adult fantasy written by a Finnish author (originally in Swedish, but still). Count me the FUCK in! I loved where this story took Maresi’s character and its explorations of society and gender and all sorts of other cool themes. I wasn’t super crazy about the epistolary format, but once I got used to that it was such an enjoyable read!
- Educated (Tara Westover): This was the last book to get bumped off the list. I wouldn’t exactly say I enjoyed this book, but it was definitely every bit as powerful as everyone says it is. A shocking, thrilling reading experience, but not one I am looking to repeat any time soon or possibly ever.
- Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change (Chelsea Kwakye & Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi): A very informative and evocative book about being a person of colour in the UK education system and especially highly esteemed institutions like Cambridge. Part memoir, part manifesto, part survival guide, this book was definitely an eye-opening take on race and privilege in the UK and its schools and necessary reading for people all around the world.
- How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (N. K. Jemisin): As mentioned in the list above, Jemisin was my favourite new author of 2019 and this short story collection was my introduction to her work. Thoroughly wonderful, supremely imaginative and highly recommended!
- An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (Hank Green): I’ve been a fan of John and Hank Green since 2012 and I was very excited for the younger Green brother’s literary debut. And I really liked it! The story was a fun, fast-paced whirlwind adventure and I deeply enjoyed it. The only downside was my too close parasocial relationship with the author himself, which made it hard to separate his voice from the main character’s voice sometimes, especially when the voice was used to give slightly paternalistic lectures on social media and publicity. But aside from those bits it was a great book and I can’t wait to read the sequel!
- Record of a Spaceborn Few (Becky Chambers): Guaranteed Becky Chambers greatness. I had trouble getting started with this book, but once I did, it was every bit as enjoyable as all Chambers books have been for me. It celebrates the connectedness of humans and the societies and families we build for ourselves. It also celebrates history and archives and the people who keep them, which is a great take and I loved it. It’s a slow and soft book as ever Chambers can deliver and I will be returning to it for years to come, I’m sure!
Alright, that was that for real this time! I’m already 11 books deep into 2020 so the reading adventure continues, but it was nice to revisit these gems of 2019 one more time before turning my gaze to new books and new adventures! One more 2019 blog to come with ALL THE BOOKS and ALL THE STATS and then I’m done with it for good. Huzzah!
So once again, happy 2020 and happy reading, y’all! Also let me know your top picks of the year in the comments if you haven’t forgotten all about 2019 already.