I feel like the best year-end wrap-up posts arrive a few months into the next year to make sure that they are totally relevant. That’s why I’m dropping this post about 2018 halfway through March of 2019 – to strike while the iron is warm but not so hot that it might burn me because who wants that?
The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher — Audiobook, 21 hrs and 46 mins, 2015 — I’m a fan of Butcher’s Dresden Files series, which is especially good in audio form, but I’ve been a little hesitant to try his other books because epic fantasy isn’t my bag. The Aeronaut’s Windlass might have convinced me to give the rest of his stuff a try, though. It definitely has an epic length, but it also has steampunk trappings and talking warrior cats. It helps that it doesn’t fall prey to the clichés of epic fantasy that I remember turning me off when I read The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth back in the day. The early chapters were a little slow going, but after I dug deeper into the world, it had me hooked. It also helps that it reads like a standalone even though it’s the start of a series.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells — Digital, 156 pages, 2017 — This novella has easily one of the best and most compelling narrators I’ve come across in a long time. Murderbot, as they secretly call themself, is a corporate security android who hacked their own governor module so that they could watch endless soap operas and ignore stupid orders from humans. All they want is for the humans to leave them alone, but when danger arises, they decide to help despite their scorn for humanity and general social anxiety. Hijinks ensue, and the humans learn the shocking truth that their security robot is a thinking and feeling being.
American Gods (Tenth Anniversary Edition) by Neil Gaiman — Audiobook, 19 hrs and 39 mins, 2011 — I first read American Gods back in 2001 in hardcover. I loved it then, and I’d thought about re-reading it over the years, but it wasn’t until I watched the Starz adaptation that I finally decided to take the plunge. The show is fantastic, but it made me realize that I’d forgotten everything that happened in the book aside from one or two scenes. The show is a pretty faithful adaptation – surreal and rambling and sometimes plotless, just like the book – but it only covers about a fourth of the story. The best parts of the book are still to come on the show, and I loved listening to those parts of the audiobook. I’ve been a little disappointed by the last few Gaiman books I’ve read, but American Gods has only gotten better with age, and the excellent audiobook adaptation elevates it into a masterpiece.
Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido — Digital, 256 pages, 2014 (first published 1982) — A young British girl comes of age, surrounded by the cleverest family of sarcastic hooligans and ne’er-do-wells ever put to page. They bring her into their orbit for a time when she is young, but after an inevitable heartbreak, she leaves and takes her lumps from the world. A funny, touching slice-of-life that still resonates. I don’t remember where I first heard about this book, but something drew me to it, and I’m glad I read it. Trapido has a flair for characterization and can definitely turn a phrase.
Countdown City by Ben H. Winters — Audiobook, 8 hrs and 18 mins, 2013 — I loved The Last Policeman and can’t recommend it enough, but for some reason it took me years to get around to reading the second book in the trilogy. In this sequel, Hank Palace is still stubbornly upright in the face of the continuing degeneration of the pre-apocalyptic world and still trying to solve crimes despite the consternation of everyone around him. I couldn’t help but root for him to make right some small part of his doomed universe. An end-times noir that is both tragically funny and absurdly sad.
Extreme Makeover by Dan Wells — Paperback, 416 pages, 2016 — I’ve listened to the Writing Excuses podcast on and off for years, but this is the first Dan Wells book I’ve picked up and read, and holy shit is it a doozy. Let’s suppose that a cosmetics company accidentally invented an anti-aging crème that has the unintended side effect of overwriting your DNA with the DNA of the last person who touched the crème. Then let’s suppose that the executives at this company decide that DNA-rewriting crème could make them filthy rich, and imagine the worst possible things that could happen as a result of their greed. And then keep reading, because Wells runs through every possible horrible outcome, one after another, with a kind of insane glee. The result is both darkly hilarious and terrifying.
The Flintstones, Vol 1 by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh — Digital, 170 pages, 2017 — Someone had the genius idea to write a Flintstones comic that takes the characters seriously within the framework of a dark-but-funny social satire, and it works better than it has any right to do. Fred suffers from PTSD after his war service, household objects have existential crises, and consumerism is a newly invented scourge. The art is also fantastic, and it’s amazing seeing the characters drawn in a more realistic style.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt — Audiobook/Digital, 32 hrs and 29 mins, 2013 — What if Harry Potter was an accidental art thief who never recovered from the trauma of his mother’s death? The protagonist of The Goldfinch goes to live with his shit-head father in the wastelands of suburban Las Vegas and finds himself lost among scam artists and gangsters. The lingering effects of drug use and dissipation from that time haunt him well into his adult years, along with the guilt and paranoia from stealing a priceless artwork. The Goldfinch is a sprawling, tragic, hilarious coming-of-age tale that ends with a white-knuckle heist. I loved the characters, and I loved every minute I spent with them. Although I mostly listened to this one in audio, I did jump back and forth between the Kindle and audio versions so that I could keep reading even when I didn’t have the time to listen. This combination of audiobook and e-book is definitely the best way to read a massive book.
IT by Stephen King — Audiobook, 44 hrs and 57 mins, 2016 (first published 1986) — IT is another book I decided to read after watching an excellent adaptation. In this case, it was the 2017 movie version, which covers about half of the story, give or take. King is one of those authors that I read voraciously back in high school, but I haven’t kept up with the habit in recent years. IT was worth reading, though. The book has an imposing length, but every page adds up to an indisputable masterpiece. King is writing at the top of his form here, and it’s obvious he knows it. One of the most skillful scenes occurs early in the book, and involves a shift in perspective from one character to another when the power balance changes. I listened to the audiobook version, read by Steven Weber, and it was a pitch-perfect reading. Those 45 hours sped by in a flash, although I did read the last few chapters on Kindle because I was so caught up in it.
The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman — Audiobook, 16 hrs and 27 mins, 2014 — The Magicians was a great but flawed book; The Magician King built on that foundation to create something stunning, and this, the last book in the trilogy, brings it all home in excellent form. Quentin does what he can to learn and grow, even if everything he does still doesn’t work out. The Magician’s Land is about coming to terms with adulthood and reality, even if that reality still offers the ability to cast world-changing spells. I loved spending time with these characters and in this world, and the only reason I took so long to read this book is because I wanted to savor it.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie — Paperback, 448 pages, 2016 — I will be the first to admit that I picked up this book because it has a squirrel on the cover. That drew me in, but the synopsis sold me. Veblen and Paul are a young engaged couple. Veblen spends her free time as an amateur translator of Norwegian texts and Paul is an engineer working on a medical hole-punch for combat-ready craniotomies. They might be in love, but they’ll have to deal with Veblen’s neurotic mother, Paul’s ethically challenging work and Veblen’s obsession with a squirrel that she thinks she is falling in love with. It’s light, it’s funny, and it’s just a little weird.
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory — Audiobook, 14 hrs and 2 mins, 2017 — A multi-generational story about the family of a con artist, Teddy, and a psychic, Maureen, who fell in love. When they were young, The Amazing Telemachus Family travelled the talk show circuit to show off their amazing feats, but after a skeptic debunked them on live TV and Maureen died of cancer, the family never recovered. Imagine a family dramedy crossed with con artists and supernatural abilities, and you’ll get the basic idea of this hilarious, wonderful book. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted a sequel and a TV adaptation. I loved the hell out of the book, which surprised me since I thought Harrison Squared, one of his earlier novels, was a bit disappointing.
Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski — Audiobook, 12 hrs and 47 mins, 2015 — I’ve played bits and pieces of The Witcher games, but I’ve never finished one. Even still, I played just enough for the world and the characters to intrigue me, so I decided to pick up some of the original books that inspired the games. The series starts off with two short story collections before getting into the meat of the “saga” that inspired the games. The first collection, The Last Wish, consists mostly of fairytale retellings, but this, the second collection, is where the world of The Witcher starts getting deeper and more interesting. Characters that will become significant later are first introduced here, and we begin to understand more about what drives Geralt. I definitely enjoyed reading this collection, and the audiobook version is especially good. It’s narrated by Peter Kenny, who also reads most of the Iain M. Banks Culture novels.
Version Control by Dexter Palmer — Audiobook, 18 hrs and 52 mins, 2016 — This one was a slow burn, but that was also true about The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Palmer’s début. At first, Version Control feels like a near-future family drama about grief and marital intimacy, but as you keep reading, you start getting hints about something far deeper and stranger going on. This book does take a bit of patience, but that patience is more than rewarded by the end. It helps that the characters are sharply drawn, and they live in a chilling, believable semi-dystopia with just an edge of satirical social commentary.
The Vision, Volume 2: Little Better than a Beast by Tom King — Digital, 136 pages, 2016 — Holy shit, The Vision is so good. Amid all the endless reboots and event series (which I have done my best to ignore), Marvel has still managed to produce some groundbreaking comics over the past few years. Volume 1 was on my list for 2016, and Volume 2 more than delivers on that promise. The entire series is a perfect stand-alone story arc even if you don’t know much about the greater Marvel universe. It’s also incredibly brutal, bleak and thought-provoking.
Wisp of a Thing by Alex Bledsoe — Audiobook, 9 hrs and 14 mins, 2013 — I love the feel of this series about magic and the secret power of music made by country folk living in the Appalachian region. So far, every book in this series is essentially standalone, although there are recurring characters throughout. I think the best way to describe the Tufa books are as grounded fairy stories told through the lens of magical realism. It helps that Bledsoe is a talented, evocative writer, and the audiobook versions have one of the best narrators in the business thanks to Stefan Rudnicki.
The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde — Audiobook, 10 hrs and 58 mins, 2012 — I’d forgotten how much I loved and missed this series until I finally listened to this, the most recent Thursday Next novel. Fforde fills these books to the brim with weirdness and satire. Most authors would stop after setting up a main character who travels inside novels to solve crimes, but he throws in lifelike humanoid doubles, genetically engineered dodos, time travel, contraband cheeses, authoritarian mega-corporations and much, much more. The sixth book, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, was a bit of an unfortunate misstep, but The Woman Who Died a Lot puts the series back on track. That said, it came out in 2012, and I’m starting to wonder if Fforde will ever return to the series. It doesn’t help that the end of this book definitely sets up a potential sequel. I may just have to re-read these books from the beginning, especially since I finally read Jane Eyre and might understand those references this time around.
I love reading Best Of the Year lists even if I don’t always agree with what they’ve picked. After all, a really great list might introduce me to some awesome book, album or movie that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. Even a list full of willfully contrarian selections has some entertainment value. The worst thing a year-end list can do is be boring and predictable.
Of course, reading dozens of year-end lists is completely different from sitting down and trying to write your own. Writing an objectively comprehensive list requires an exhaustive knowledge of your chosen field of pop culture. That level of knowledge isn’t really possible unless you’re an obsessive or write for a living, and even then there’s only so much time in the day.
In my case, it doesn’t help that I’m rarely current on pop culture. My library of unread books is so deep at this point that I’ll never catch up unless I invent a way to freeze time and/or live forever.
That means it makes more sense for me to write about the books that I loved reading in 2016 rather than focusing on ones released this year. Of course, it turns out that a lot of my favorite reads were actually recent releases.
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Anders, the former editor of io9, made her debut as a novelist with this strange, far-reaching story about the complicated romance between an inventor and a witch. Touching, hilarious and weird. By the end of this book, I just wanted those two crazy kids to survive the apocalypse and work things out.
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. Bone Gap is lyrically beautiful and full of just the right hints of gothic atmosphere and menace. A teenaged boy living in a small town deals with the aftermath of a beloved young woman’s mysterious disappearance, only to discover that something far stranger may have happened.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This is one of those classics that everyone says you should read, so I decided to finally take a crack at it this year and listened to the audiobook. Turns out I really loved the story, and especially enjoyed the ever-ratcheting tension as the main character tries to live with his terrible actions.
Glow by Ned Beauman. I enjoyed the hell out of Beauman’s earlier novel, The Teleportation Accident, but the two books have very different tones. Glow is a paranoid conspiracy thriller populated with druggies and people living at the fringes of society. The occasional surrealist touches paired with the relaxed pace and laugh-out-loud humor made for a highly entertaining read.
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. This one came out of nowhere and grabbed me by the throat. It’s dark, hilarious, and full of wild narrative misdirection. It requires a little patience in the early chapters, but pays huge dividends if you stick around for the ride. I want to walk up to people on the street and insist that they read this unsung bizarro masterpiece.
Paper Girls, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Curtis and Matt Wilson. Paper Girls hits the same sweet spot of surrealism, horror and nostalgia that Stranger Things exploited so masterfully, but even in this first volume, it seems clear that BKV and friends are shooting for something much more subversive. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on by the end of the first volume, but I was definitely hooked.
Rachel Rising, Volume 1 & 2 by Terry Moore. I bought the complete Rachel Rising in a sale on Comixology, and I’m definitely glad that I did. Terry Moore’s story of a small-town girl who is mysteriously resurrected after being murdered starts off small and then slowly builds to something horrifying and apocalyptic. I’ve only read the first two volumes, but I love the gothic tone and Moore’s way with dialogue and characterization.
Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley. O’Malley’s first book in this series, The Rook, reads like The Bourne Identity by way of Terry Pratchett, and I loved it. Stiletto manages to live up to that initial greatness even though it changes much of the formula; instead of focusing on the misadventures of amnesiac Myfawnwy Thomas, O’Malley introduces two new characters and turns it into an ensemble piece. It took a little while before I warmed up to these changes, but I ended up loving the book overall.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. This book is billed as a short story collection, but it’s really a stealthy patchwork novel about loosely connected characters living in and around Chechnya. Each story shifts styles and perspectives, slowly building into a whole that is laugh-out-loud funny and full of sharply drawn characters who are simultaneously comical, ruthless, tragic and sympathetic.
The Unnoticeables by Robert Brockway. I literally picked up this book on a whim and read it because of its awesome cover design and blurb. Luckily, those didn’t steer me wrong. The Unnoticeables is gruesome, funny, and occasionally flat-out terrifying. It’s both a Hollywood satire and an apocalyptically nostalgic tale about crust-punks in 1970s New York City. As soon as I finished it, I bought the second book.
The Vision, Volume 1 by Tom King, Jordie Bellaire and Gabriel Hernandez Walta. Marvel is doing some of its best work with second-tier characters like Hawkeye, Howard the Duck and now The Vision. In this series, The Vision builds a family for himself and tries to live a “normal life” in suburbia. Things go tragically, horribly wrong almost immediately, and the book traces The Vision’s slow but inevitable downfall while discussing heady topics like existential questions about the true nature of humanity.
Vox by Nicholson Baker. Vox has a simple (now quaint) conceit: a wide-ranging phone conversation between two people on a phone sex line. Although their conversation does occasionally get steamy, the book is more about the real human connection between two strangers who are nothing but voices on a line. By the end of the book, both characters feel incredibly sharply drawn thanks to the glimpses Baker gives us into their innermost private thoughts.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. A family saga with a twist, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is quietly devastating, but it’s also funny and strange and next door to the unreal. Reading it made me misty-eyed more than once, and I always consider that a point in favor of a book. I absolutely loved it.
2014 was the first year in a good long while where it felt like I might fall short of my reading goal. I’d originally challenged myself to read 75 books – I’ve easily read at least that many for the past few years – but it wasn’t long before I walked that back to 52.
Why the slowdown? I listened to a lot fewer audiobooks, for starters. I no longer have a job that is well-suited to audiobook listening, and I haven’t been going for walks like I used to. I also read during almost every lunch break at my old job, but I haven’t been doing that as consistently since getting my current job. All of these things combined to cut into the time I spent reading this year.
Number of graphic novels: 25
I got back into graphic novels in a big way thanks to my regular use of the Comixology app on my iPad. It helped that comic books and graphic novels are usually quick reads and made it easier for me to work in some reading time without feeling like I was committing to yet another book I might not finish.
Number of audiobooks: 14
This number is definitely low compared to previous years when my Audible membership was the primary way I did my reading. It didn’t help that two of the books I listened to took half the year to finish. Of course, they’re also the longest books I read all year.
Physical books vs. digital books: 16 to 37
Good thing I have so damn many unread physical books sitting on my shelves, right? A lot of the digital books I read were comics in Comixology, but the number also includes a few library books and all the review copies I received from Netgalley and finished during the year.
Books with female authors or artists: 13
Several of these include graphic novels written by a man but illustrated by a woman (Saga) or short story collections that include work by both men and women (Dangerous Women, Rip-Off!). I definitely need to do better on this count.
Longest books: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and Dangerous Women by various authors
The Luminaries weighs in at a solid 848 pages in hardcover. I listened to the audiobook version, which lasts 29 hours and 14 minutes and took me from June to November to finish. Ultimately I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, but after a certain point I stuck with it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
Dangerous Women is 784 pages in hardcover, but the audiobook version is 32 hours and 49 minutes long, possibly because the narrators read their stories at varying speeds. I listened to this collection from December 2013 through July 2014, and wrote a detailed review of my impressions once I finished.
I raved about Lexicon as soon as I finished it. I loved the premise and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the audiobook version. It’s especially interesting that I loved this book so much, considering the fact that my only previous exposure to Max Barry was Jennifer Government, which I thought was pretty terrible when I read it back in the day.
Least favorite book: Pretty Deadly, Volume 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick
I had a great year of reading in 2010. I read even more than I did in 2009, and easily beat my previous record of 60 books in one year by finishing 68 in 2010. To be fair, that does include all 6 of the Scott Pilgrim books, which are fairly short and took about 1-2 hours to read, on average, but a book is a book, that’s what I say. I figure as long as I’m not counting Little Golden Books in my numbers I’m doing alright.
2010 was also a big deal for me because I decided I needed to do something about my ever-expanding collection of paperbacks and hardcovers. Carting around several dozen boxes full of books every time I move doesn’t get more fun the more I do it. Accordingly, in the hopes that it might help de-clutter my life, I bought myself a Kindle. The Kindle doesn’t dominate my reading life yet – I still have hundreds of physical books to read, and the public library is never far away – but I hope that in time it will at least prevent me from needing to buy another big bookcase to store my ever-expanding collection.
I also started an Audible membership this year, mostly because I was in a book club and needed to read the new David Sedaris book quickly, but also because they have a snazzy iPhone app and I thought I might like having a regular stream of audiobooks to listen to at work. Audible also happens to fit in quite nicely with my desire to avoid new physical book purchases.
The Sedaris was a bust – one of the two truly terrible books I read last year – but Audible has been a huge winner for me. The iPhone app has a lot of really cool features, especially the ability to view your entire Audible library and add and remove new books on the fly so that you don’t worry about taking up too much space. My favorite listens so far have been the First Law books by Joe Abercrombie, but I was also excited to pick up a collection of Woody Allen books read by the man himself. Listening to audiobooks at work has really been helping make the days go by quicker. I think it even makes me more productive some days.
Of course, no year-in-review post would be complete without a best-of list, so I’ve included a list below of all the books I read in 2010 and rated 10 out of 10. These are the books that blew my mind and made me love reading just that much more.
Another year has come and gone, and as I have since 2006, I kept track of my reading. Last year I managed to read (or listen to) a total of 60 books, which is a personal record. I think what helped me along was the large amount of traveling I did this year. I went on more than one business trip, flew to Pennsylvania for a friend’s wedding, and drove from Redmond, Washington to Sugar Land, Texas with my brother over the Thanksgiving break. That’s a lot of time spent on planes, in airports, and on the road.
Also, I may have read more books this year, but the total number of pages for 2009, 21,718, Is actually lower than my 2008 total of 23,411. I think my ’08 page count is much higher because I read a few giant books that year – The Count of Monte Cristo, which came in at 1488 pages, Cryptonomicon at 1168, Clash of Kings at 1040, and so on. A lot of the books I picked up in 2009 tended to be quick reads, and were comparatively short as well.
A lot of my reading for the year was pulled from the Hugo nominees for best novel, which was an excellent place to find some good books to read. As you’ll note, a number of the books I thoroughly enjoyed last year were nominees. After the jump, I’ll include the list of my favorite books read in 2009, in the order that I read them.