Thank goodness for fiction. It’s been a rough reality today – I just cannot believe the results of the UK election! But then, I never believe it when right-wing, racist, climate-change-denying, xenophobic fundamentalists get elected and yet here we are, with Boris in UK, Trump in USA, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in Philippines, Netanyahu in Israel, Putin in Russia, and Modi in India. Even in Canada, the Liberals lost their majority this year. The world is a garbage fire so yeah, thank goddess for books and stories we can escape into.
It’s that time of year when I check my Goodreads challenge (59 books read on a challenge of 50, hah) and pick my top ten favorites. I read a lot, and this is always a difficult task. But here they are, my recommendations from what I read this year. Note: these are books I read this year, not those that were published this year. I’m often a year late with my reads. And some of these were published several years ago.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, 2004
A brilliant, unique book. I wasn’t quite sure I’d give it 5 stars until the end, because there were some things I found a bit dissatisfying, but ultimately the writing and the ideas expressed trumped my small discontent. Here are six narratives, six completely different voices, in six different time periods, linked in a way that is both tenuous and intimate. My favorite voices were Sonmi and Robert Frobisher. My least favorite was the section titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”. It was a chore to read because it is so far in the future (post nuclear fallout) that the way of talking has changed and this apparently needs to be shown on the page through made-up words, weird spelling and speech patterns. Gave me a headache. But I did love the rest of the book. If you enjoy complex narrative arcs and big ideas, this one is for you.
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin, 1984
A dystopic feminist SF book that depicts a 23rd century world where women are completely subjugated to men, with absolutely no autonomy on who they marry, the children they bear, even what to shop for. They are legally not adult, and are treated as working animals and breeding stock. In this hellish scenario, the women secretly begin developing a language called Laadan just for themselves, which includes words and expressions for things which have no equivalent in the patriarchal tongues of the Earth. The reasoning being that language is the best means for bringing about social change, and we are constricted in our perception of reality by the structures and metaphors of the languages we use. A difficult read, but an important one, I think, in a world in which the patriarchy, and the violence that props it up, is still going strong.
Excession by Iain M. Banks, 1997
At last! A Culture book I enjoyed. No thanks to the human characters, that remain disappointingly flat. One would think that humans with a 400-year life span and options for immortality and absolutely no need to work in a post-scarcity society would have progressed in other ways as well, but no. They are a selfish, immature and hedonistic bunch. I didn’t like a single one. No, what I loved were the ship Minds – the incredibly advanced and idiosyncratic AIs that run the massive Culture ships. Their interactions were so entertaining, sometimes hilarious, and it was this that lightened an otherwise convoluted conspiracy plot.
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman, 2018
Am I allowed to have favorites within my favorites? This would be the one then. I loved this book so much. In a land where women are expected to be ladies, Tess is a troublemaker and an alcoholic to boot. She sets off on a journey, disguised as a boy, burdened by her past, with only a pair of trusty boots. Her trials and her journey of healing and self-discovery will resonate with many women.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, 2018
A lovely, layered and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin from the POV of Miryem, the daughter of a poor Jewish moneylender, who steps in to collect her father’s debts. She is so successful she gets the reputation for changing silver to gold, and this attracts the attention of the dangerous Staryk king. Highly recommended if you like gorgeous retellings of fairy tales, and even if you don’t.
Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip, 2002
An odd, beautifully written fantasy. There is a city, a shadow city, a dead king, a child prince, an evil regent, a sorceress and her waxling, a cast-out mistress, and the artist who might hold the key between worlds. The ending left me a bit dissatisfied, as did a certain lack of clarity, but the writing more than makes up for it. Recommended for fans of unusual, dreamy fantasy books.
Circe by Madeline Miller, 2018
A searing, beautiful book written from the POV of the sorceress Circe, daughter of the Titan Helios. Far more than just a re-imagining of a Greek myth, this book is about what it means to be a woman in a world dominated by powerful, greedy Gods and men. I can’t recommend it enough.
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, 2008
A brilliant and moving retelling of the epic Mahabharata from the POV of Queen Draupadi. I loved every page. You don’t have to be familiar with the story of the Mahabharata to enjoy this book, but imo your enjoyment will be deeper if you are familiar with it, because then you realize just how subversive the author has been in this retelling. The surviving versions of the epics and Vedas have all been written by upper caste Hindu men to cement their power in society. It is much more interesting to get a woman’s view point.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, 2018
This book is about exactly what the title says: a beautiful, sexy sister who is also a serial killer of men. Boyfriends, specifically. A dark, brilliant little novel that will unsettle you and subvert your expectations. I don’t want to give anything else away. It’s a really fast read, but it’s not exactly a pleasant one. How far would you be willing to go to protect a sister?
Vita Nostra by Marina Dyachenko and Sergey Dyachenko, translated from Ukrainian by Julia Meitov Herse, 2018
An unusual, page-turning dark fantasy which starts with the trope of students arriving at a special school of ‘magic’ (although it is not called that and no arrives by their own free will) and becomes steadily stranger. If you liked the Magicians trilogy, you will probably like this book too. But be warned – there is little closure, and not much understanding. However, I enjoyed the read, which can at times be a bit dense and opaque. It adds to the atmosphere of this novel as the protagonist Sasha slowly transforms from being an ordinary girl to the most gifted student at the institute, to being something other than what we think of as human. I look forward to reading the sequel.
That’s it from me for now. Brew a cup of tea, snuggle up with a good book, cuddle your cat if you are fortunate enough to have one, and stay warm this winter.