Tag Archives: 2015 books

Best of 2015: Favorite Books

2015, just objectively, has been an amazing year to be a reader, and it’s highly unfortunate that breaking my foot in May sent me into a reading slump that prevented me from getting to enjoy as much of what was published this year as I hoped to. I came in right at ten books behind on my goal of reading two books a week, and I can think of probably twenty books off the top of my head that I would love to have gotten around to this year.

Still, I made it through over ninety books in 2015, most of them new releases, though I did read a couple of classic sci-fi novels and check out a few things that were being adapted to film or television. While most of what I read was excellent (Yay, me, for making good choices!), there were a couple of disappointments (I’m looking at you, The Dinosaur Lords). It was a good year, and it was tough to pare this list down to a reasonable number of favorites. Obviously, “reasonable” is a subjective term.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin quickly became one of my favorite authors when I discovered her a couple of years ago, so The Fifth Season was one of my most anticipated 2015 releases. Jemisin didn’t disappoint, delivering a new fantasy epic that is both enormous in scope and deeply personal. If only for Jemisin’s mastery of her craft, this is one of the most important novels of the year. There’s very little to say about it without spoiling the whole thing for those who haven’t read it, but I will tell you that it’s the most devastating thing I read in all of 2015. The Fifth Season just destroyed me. In a good way.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

This delightfully original space opera is the only book I read twice this year. It’s a sort of space road trip story told in vignettes that take place over the space of some months on a ship that is traveling to a remote part of the galaxy to drill a wormhole that would connect an unstable but resource-rich planet to a kind of galactic federation. It’s a book about family that exemplifies the old adage that home is where the heart is, but it’s also a book about gender and sex and war and politics and what it means to have humanity. It’s funny, smart, and poignant in turns, and while it’s a book that wears its progressive ideals very much on its sleeve, it never turns sanctimonious.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I had read and enjoyed the first couple of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels some years ago, but hadn’t really followed her work very closely until I saw Uprooted getting an enormous amount of buzz in the early months of 2015. Having pleasant memories of Novik’s earlier books, I thought I’d give Uprooted a try, and I quickly fell in love. Agnieszka is a wonderfully funny and clever heroine, and she’s got a friend, Kasia, who figures largely in the story as well, which is important as it prevents the novel from being a straightforward kind of “Beauty and the Beast” romance. Instead, Uprooted is primarily about a young woman learning her own power, growing up, and finding her place in the world. If you like Robin McKinley, Patricia C. Wrede, Diana Wynne Jones, and Tamora Pierce, you will love Uprooted.

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

Radiance had me at “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery.” You know, if I wasn’t already definitely going to read it because, honestly, I would read the phonebook cover to cover if it had Catherynne Valente’s name on the byline. I will say that I think my opinion of the book suffered a little from my own exceedingly high expectations, but it’s a remarkably ambitious tome that is largely successful in its aims. It’s experimental and literary, but not inaccessibly so, and Valente’s lush prose is always a delight. Valente also published a couple of novellas in 2015—Speak Easy, which is a sort of retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in the 1920s with Zelda Fitzgerald, and Six-Gun Snow White, which had been previously published before but is definitely worth rereading.

Updraft by Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde’s debut is probably my favorite debut of the year. It definitely feels almost more like a YA book than most of the other work I’ve been interested in recently, with its teenaged protagonist and coming-of-age themes. Where Updraft really shines, though, is in bringing to life one of the most unique and interesting fantasy worlds I’ve read about in ages. With a heroine, Kirit, who eschews all of the most common and irritating YA protagonist tropes, it’s an absolutely winning combination and one of the year’s most inventive and original books.

JoWaltonThessalyThe Just City and The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

The Just City was one of the first books I read this year, and I was thrilled to learn that it had a sequel coming out just a few months later. These books, the first two in a planned trilogy, explore what might happen if the goddess Athena gathered thinkers, philosophers, and dreamers from every end of human history to try and build Plato’s Republic on an island in antiquity. Apollo becomes a human so he can learn about equal significance, and Socrates shows up to debate with everyone and instill revolutionary ideas in the community’s robots. If you love philosophy and think that a book whose climax is a lengthy debate between Socrates and Athena sounds good, you should read this series before the final volume arrives in mid-2016.

A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

I didn’t read a ton of epic fantasy this year because I’ve been more focused on reading diversely and broadening my horizons to include more science fiction and more literary work, but I couldn’t help but pick up this one. It’s almost a pastiche, though I’d say it plays most of the regular epic fantasy and grimdark tropes just straight enough to not be altogether outside the genre. That said, A Crown for Cold Silver is definitely a genre-critical and self-aware novel that, at the same time, doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s every bit as violent and bloody and morally ambiguous as The First Law or A Song of Ice and Fire, but with a sense of humor that makes it a much more enjoyable read.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Ken Liu has coined the term “silkpunk” to describe what he’s creating in this first novel in a new trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty, and I’m happy that I’ll be able to look back many years from now and know that I read this stuff before it was “cool.” The Grace of Kings is a captivating mix of Eastern and Western literary and historical influences that is worth reading if only because it’s so unique as a work of epic fantasy. While this first installment in the series is mostly focused on male characters, it’s not devoid of interesting and diverse women who are set to figure more prominently as the series continues. The book itself is a slow starter, but once you get into it you’re almost guaranteed to fall for its rather rakish charm.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant has the distinction of being the most technically perfect novel I read in 2015. It’s just, objectively, absurdly good—well-conceived, perfectly paced, tightly plotted, just excellently written overall. It’s also incredibly dark and perhaps a little more pessimistic than I would have preferred in the end, but I think I could forgive this book almost anything because it gave us the character of Baru Cormorant. As I get older, I find that my favorite characters are, increasingly, women of the complex and ruthless variety, and Baru is definitely that. She’s not a woman who I’d ever want to be, but she’s exactly the sort of woman I love reading about.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

This conclusion to Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy was everything I could have wanted it to be. It’s a wildly entertaining and fast-paced finale to one of the most compelling original space operas in recent years, and it manages to wrap up the series in a satisfying way while also leaving plenty of room for sequels—a somewhat likely possibility as the author has said she intends to write more in the Imperial Radch world in the future. While I loved to see how things work out for all my favorite characters from the first two books—Breq, Seivarden, and Tisarwat in particular—Ancillary Mercy introduces a couple of new characters that I found surprisingly endearing. All in all, a solid finish even if it doesn’t quite match the sheer inventiveness of Ancillary Justice.

CixinLiuThree-BodyThe Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

Though The Three-Body Problem was technically a 2014 release, I read it this year after it was nominated for a Hugo Award and then just had to read The Dark Forest when it came out a couple of months later. These might be the most unusual books I read this year as I seldom read translated fiction and had never read anything translated from Chinese before. I’m so glad I did, though. This pair of books were definitely not easy reads—they’re very cerebral, heavy on philosophy, and owe a great deal to a lot of classic “hard” sci-fi that I haven’t read (as well as to a lot of previous Chinese SF that I’m, of course, also not familiar with)—and the fact that the two books have different translators makes them feel subtly stylistically different, almost as if they had two different authors altogether. Even still, they’re some of my favorite reads of the year, if for no other reason than I appreciate the chance to read something written from a perspective and in a context so different from my own. If you do read these, I highly recommend buying them; with any luck, commercial success for this series will encourage the publication of more translated work in the U.S.

Queers DestroyQueers Destroy SF!

I’ve been following Lightspeed Magazine’s Destroy SF projects since their very first Kickstarter, and they really only get better over time. This year, Queers Destroy Fantasy! was by far the best issue of the bunch, but they are all worth checking out. I’ve discovered several new authors in the pages of these magazines; the reprints prove that diverse authors have always been around if you just keep an eye out for them; and the essays and author profiles are fascinating and often powerfully written. 2016 will bring us POC Destroy SF!, with the Kickstarter planned to start in mid-January. In the meantime, it’s not too late to buy the past issues of Women Destroy and Queers Destroy.

Tor.com NovellasTor.com Novellas, Various Authors

Tor.com has been publishing great fiction for years, but this was the first year that they published novellas, and this has been one of my favorite developments in the world of SFF this year. I’ve always loved novella-length work and felt like shorter novels don’t get enough attention, but that seems to be starting to change. The first round of Tor.com novellas was published this fall, and they were all at least good. My favorites were Kai Ashante Wilson’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, and Angela Slatter’s Of Sorrow and Such. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss, and Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell were also strong titles.

Book Review: Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

I read Why Not Me? as part of my last ditch (and probably doomed) effort to catch up on my 2015 Goodreads challenge and finished it in just a few hours. Like Mindy Kaling’s first book, this one is a fast, enjoyable read with a moderate amount of insight into all kinds of things that Mindy Kaling is interested in. Also like Mindy Kaling’s first book, this one makes me want to be best friends with her, because she seems to be utterly delightful.

I say that, of course, with the full understanding that Mindy Kaling is obviously not going to be delightful to everyone. In fact, she’s clearly a little self-absorbed, a little out of touch, super smart, somewhat nerdy, and not above being occasionally awful. Basically, Mindy Kaling seems like a real human being, albeit far more successful most of the rest of us.

What I love best about Mindy Kaling, though, is that her real human being-ness never feels like a schtick or an act or a ploy to make us like her. Sure, she’s endearingly self-deprecating, but always about actual flaws. She kind of weirdly humblebrags about her McDonald’s addiction, but I suspect that she really does eat too much McDonald’s, and I can relate to that because I, too, eat too much McDonald’s. Her story about dragging B.J. Novak to a play against his will sounds exactly like the sort of thing a real person might do. So, also, does her story about the time she gave a teenage girl a kind of bullshit answer to a serious and worth-answering question.

The advice that Kaling offers at the end of her book is thoughtful, but not too obnoxiously wise. Her thoughts on her work and career are amusing and sharply observed, but delivered without rancor. There’s definitely a little bit more of “work hard and good things will come to you” advice, but it’s not offered without at least a basic awareness of the role played by luck and privilege.

Why Not Me? is not a great work of literature, but Kaling is a clever and funny essayist who isn’t weighed down by pretension. I enjoyed Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) but this follow-up book is altogether better and showcases a Kaling who is more confident, more assertive, and even more readable than she was before.

Magazine Review: Fantasy Magazine, December 2015, Queers Destroy Fantasy!

Perhaps it’s because fantasy is my first and forever true love under the SFF umbrella, but I’m convinced that the Fantasy Magazine entries in the DestroySF project are the best. At the very least, they’ve been consistently my favorite magazines in the series. Queers Destroy Fantasy has, hands down, the best fiction in any of the Destroy issues so far.

A new Catherynne M. Valente story is always a treat, and “The Lily and the Horn” is a near-perfect fairy tale where wars are waged by pitting poisoners against unicorn horns. Like much of Valente’s work, it’s a story concerned with interrogating very old fantasy tropes, and it’s full of her characteristically beautiful language and meticulously structured prose.

Kai Ashante Wilson is a newish author who I only discovered this year when I read his Tor.com-published novella, but I quickly fell in love with his work. I was thrilled to see a new story by him in this magazine, and “Kaiju maximus®: ‘So various, So Beautiful, So New’” did not disappoint.

“The Lady’s Maid” is a weird and subversive and deeply unsettling tale by Carlea Holl-Jensen. It deals with a maid who is charged with caring for a strange mistress and the mistress’s many interchangeable heads. I actually enjoy being unsettled by stories, so of course I loved this one.

Richard Bowes’ “The Duchess and the Ghost” takes a turn towards more magical realism than simple fantasy, and it’s a haunting story about identity and the tradeoffs and compromises we make in order to survive in a world that is often hostile and unsafe.

The first of the reprints, Shweta Narayan’s “The Padishah Begum’s Reflections,” somewhat mirrors Valente’s “The Lily and the Horn” in tone. It’s similarly in the fairy tale vein, though “The Padishah Begum’s Reflections” is more like a steampunk Arabian Nights story than anything else, being told from the point of view of a clockwork princess. This is probably my favorite story in this magazine.

“Down the Path of the Sun” by Nicola Griffith is a fantasy with an almost post-apocalyptic feel to it, although the setting is never quite explained. It’s the only story in this issue that I didn’t care for, but that is largely a personal preference as I found the brutal rape described in the story to be highly unpleasant to read and not nearly as effective as the author seemed to think it would be.

Austin Bunn’s “Ledge” starts off slow, even boring, but it rewards the patient reader by delivering a great and very memorable ending.

Finally, “The Sea Troll’s Daughter” by Caitlin R. Kiernan is a nice piece of sword and sorcery with a woman character in the sort of gruff, tough adventurer role that is too often reserved for men. It’s not a particularly groundbreaking story, but it’s fun.

The non-fiction in Queers Destroy Fantasy was somewhat disappointing, with only Ekaterina Sedia’s piece on fashion standing out, but the author profiles are, as always, wonderful and well worth reading.

Book Review: Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

I’m always torn, when reading anything by Catherynne M. Valente, between feeling just incredible awe at her skill as a wordsmith and storyteller and being overcome by crushing feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing because she’s so brilliant and talented and only a couple of years older than me. I’m always happy when she’s written something new, and Radiance was perhaps my most-anticipated novel of 2015. Even better, it’s everything I dreamed it would be.

The most wonderful thing about Valente’s work is that it’s all the same, but also that it’s all remarkably different and unique. Radiance is like nothing I’ve ever read before, but it’s also very reminiscent of Valente’s other recent work. Earlier this year, I read her novella, Speak Easy, and Radiance has much in common with that shorter work, to the point where I get the feeling that both stories grew out of some of the same research. What is certain, though, is that these two works represent a sharp shift in Valente’s adult work. Radiance, in particular, seems to represent a decided shift away from some of the author’s fairy tale themes, in favor of gothic romance, noir, and proto-sci-fi influences.

Valente’s work has always skewed literary and is often avant garde, and this is her most ambitious and experimental (or at least most successfully so) novel yet. In Radiance, Valente eschews traditional prose forms in favor of presenting the story in the form of found objects: newspaper clippings, movie scripts, interviews, and so on. While this decision can be occasionally frustrating and even confusing at times (mostly in the first third of the book), it pays off in the end as Valente creates a haunting portrait of a mysterious woman that also functions as a love letter to a part of cinematic history that many readers may not be familiar with.

Radiance is a masterpiece of non-linear storytelling, and Valente deftly weaves together numerous threads to build a world that is beautifully surreal and create characters who are wonderfully compelling. Every detail Valente includes works towards the overall effect of the book, which is whimsical and melancholy and epic in scale and deeply personal all at once.

There are no words to adequately encompass any Valente novel, though. You’ve simply got to read it for yourself. When you do, I highly recommend opting for print over the ebook, as this sort of found object style is highly tactile and benefits from being read on dead trees. My only complaint is that Tor Books didn’t print the book particularly well. It’s fine, and I do love the cover, but the interior design is average at best. I would have loved to read this in a format that utilized page layout and typography to enhance the reading experience. It would have been just that much more magical.

Book Review: Genrenauts #1, The Shootout Solution by Michael R. Underwood

Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution is the first in a new series of novellas by Michael R. Underwood that explores and interrogates genre tropes with a premise that is basically like what would happen if the mid-90s television show Sliders got mashed together with the popular fiction section of a Barnes & Noble. It’s a fun idea, and it more or less works.

Leah Tang is a great protagonist who’s funny, smart and resourceful. It’s not often that an Asian-American woman gets to be front and center in a speculative genre, and this makes her a great choice to take the lead in a story that is very overt in its critical examination of genre standards. It’s nice to see Leah’s race and gender considered as positive job qualifications that, along with her background as a stand-up comedian, make her uniquely and especially qualified for the work the Genrenauts are doing.

Starting the series off with a look at the Western genre, which isn’t widely read these days by the under-60 crowd, is an especially smart move on the part of the author. I expect that this is the genre that younger readers will be least familiar with, which makes it a perfect introduction to the Genrenauts world and an ideal backdrop for establishing characters and easing the audience in to some of the deeper ideas that Underwood is concerned with.

As an exploration of genre as a concept and an in-depth look at some of the more widely used tropes of genre fiction, The Shootout Solution feels a little simplistic, though it hints at more sophisticated genre analysis to come. Hopefully, future books in this series will raise the stakes and broaden their scope, as this one never felt particularly dangerous, and the actual solution, when it’s discovered, was obvious and too-heavily telegraphed to surprise anyone with a higher than 101 level understanding of literary criticism.

The author himself has referred to this book as the “pilot episode” of this series, and it definitely reads like one. Much of what we get in The Shootout Solution is worldbuilding, character introductions, and set-up for the rest of the series, so this volume ends up a little light on plot. Like many a promising pilot, The Shootout Solution feels just incomplete enough on its own to make me want to come back for more of the series.

Book Review: Winter by Marissa Meyer

This entire series of books has been middling at best, and Winter is no different in that regard than its predecessors. Still, it’s an enjoyable read. The biggest problem with Winter is simply that it’s enormously overlong. At over eight hundred pages, and broken up into nearly a hundred chapters, most of which are very short, it’s a monstrously lengthy read. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough going on in Winter to justify all that length, and while I did enjoy it, my biggest feeling when I finished was resentment at how long it took to finish.

The first three books in this series (I’m not counting Fairest, which I haven’t—and don’t intend to—read) were each one better than the one before. Although none of them exhibited any particular excellence, there was definitely a trend towards improvement that unfortunately seems to have plateaued—and that’s only if one is being generous. To be honest, Winter is just a huge disappointment.

I loved Cress in her book (after feeling very lukewarm about Scarlet), and I had hoped that Winter would be a similarly interesting character. Sadly, she’s not. For most of the book it felt as if even the author wasn’t sure exactly what to do with Winter, and the princess often languishes in the background, both figuratively and literally. While Marissa Meyer has often utilized fairy tale elements in interesting ways in this series, her choice to include Snow White’s poisoning and the glass coffin was simply a mistake. It had no significant effect on the story, never felt as if Winter was in any real danger, and was just one of the many ways in which Winter was kept sidelined and ineffectual in her own book.

The truth about Winter is that, for all its ridiculous length, not much actually happens in its pages. It’s as if all the story was told in the first three books and this one is just eight hundred pages of tying up loose ends. Winter’s personal story never manages to feel like much of a story at all, and while I appreciate that Meyer didn’t end Winter’s tale by having her be cured of her mental illness, I rather felt as if Winter was actually forgotten by the end of the novel, which focused mostly on wrapping up Cinder’s story. I mean, good, I guess, that Winter gets her man in the end, but that’s frankly more irritating than not, since it’s just part of the compulsory romantic pairing off of all the series’ characters.

This isn’t to say there’s nothing to like about Winter, but there’s absolutely nothing about this story that deserved such a lengthy treatment. Meyer does a nice job of cramming a happy ending into the last fifty or so pages for everyone, but it’s all really just a little too neat without having any particular dash of cleverness or panache. Even Cinder’s decision to reject being queen in favor of turning the Lunar government into some kind of democracy (it’s rather vague) just feels too on the nose and follows less from the story or character Meyer has created up to this point than it does from sheer convenience. The author wants Cinder to give up being queen and go back to Earth, and so she does.

It’s this sort of writing for narrative convenience that makes this series’ ending ultimately unsatisfying. After four books (six if you count a prequel and the upcoming collection of short stories that correspond to each book) and eight hundred pages in this one alone, all filled with things supposedly happening, none of it matters. We get the ending Marissa Meyer wanted to write, but it’s not an ending that feels real or earned or at all worth the journey to get there.

The best thing I can say about this series is that it’s an enjoyable read, but it’s got so little substance that I can’t recommend it except as pure guilty pleasure fluff reading. That may have its place, but this final book stretched too long to even be as enjoyable as the previous entries in the series.

Book Review: Domnall and the Borrowed Child by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Domnall and the Borrowed Child is the definitely weakest of Tor.com’s novellas published to date. It’s not bad, but it’s a little too short and doesn’t have any standout qualities to elevate it above the ordinary.

The story has the kernel of an interesting idea, but it’s not very well-developed, and even just hours after finishing the book I find myself struggling to remember details of it. I like the concept of a faerie people in decline and struggling to survive on the margins of modern society, and this is alluded to throughout the story, but the story is too small and too personal to be really effective at communicating anything substantial about these hinted-at themes. I could see it being a nice fit for a larger collection of work exploring these ideas in greater depth, but it falls a little flat as a standalone tale.

None of the characters are particularly distinguished, and the elderly Domnall’s sexual interest in his young protégé is just plain creepy. Domnall had the potential to be an interesting character, but I just never felt like he truly came alive. The characters that I found truly fascinating were Micol and the human girl the fairies entranced, but neither of these characters gets a point of view in the novella and the human girl doesn’t even get a name. Sadly, what this means is that there are more interesting stories here than Domnall’s, and that knowledge colors the whole experience of reading Domnall and the Borrowed Child.

It’s bad enough reading a dull story; it’s far worse to read a dull story with potentially wonderful stories trapped inside it.