Last year I enjoyed so many books that I had to split up this post into three — speculative, non-speculative, and non-fiction. This year, The Year of the Reading Slump, I have 15 books in total that have made it onto the list, which is an indicator of how much my reading year kind of sucked, sadly. So, the fact that these books managed to stand out in the middle of one of my worst reading years ever should tell you how good they are!
They are absolutely in no particular order except maybe kind of chronological, going in order from December to January, but honestly, even that’s not accurate. Oh well. Doesn’t matter.
Onto the books!
How the Word is Passed
“…I’m left wondering if we are all just patchworks of the stories we’ve been told. What would it take – what does it take – for you to confront a false history even if it means shattering the stories you have been told throughout your life? Even if it means having to fundamentally reexamine who you are and who your family has been? Just because something is difficult to accept doesn’t mean you should refuse to accept it. Just because someone tells you a story doesn’t make that story true.”
It’s been a while since I’ve read a book rooted in American racial history, and I’d forgotten that that is literally one of my favorite historical topics. Clint Smith writes beautifully about various locales in the United States (and one abroad) that are inextricably connected to slavery and the United States’ history of race, such as Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, and even New York City. I didn’t necessarily learn new information, but I had information that I already knew cemented and highlighted, if that makes sense. Like, I’m pretty familiar with this country’s horrific history of slavery and beyond, but there were certain details included in this book that, again, I was vaguely aware of, but they were hammered home very well, making for some pretty harrowing and devastating narratives.
The Love Hypothesis
“She would have loved to run to the edge of campus and scream into the void until modern civilization collapsed, but that wasn’t exactly a pressing matter.”
I mean. What can I say. Is this book — based off a popular Reylo fanfic — totally silly and ridiculous? Absolutely. Did it also bring me pure, unfiltered joy? Yes. I read it in two sittings. I squealed like an unhinged fangirl. I laughed. I shipped. I loved all the fanfiction tropes.
She Who Became the Sun
“The greater the desire, the greater the suffering, and now she desired greatness itself.”
Despite not really being fantasy, this book feels epic in the same way that fantasy does, and it is certainly very cinematic. It’s an interesting exploration of destiny and gender, with excellent characters that get you super emotionally invested in what can sometimes feel like a slow narrative. The writing is also lovely: understated but still packs a punch.
The Colour of God
Ayesha S. Chaudhry
“So the lesson I learned was this: the powerless have only a merciful God to rely upon, whereas the powerful can rely on the mercy of the state.”
The author, who is a professor, weaves personal narrative and political commentary in his memoir. It’s a very, very easy to read, but occasionally she’ll deliver a powerful statement that requires you to pause and re-read and marvel at its cleverness.
Love and Luck
Jenna Evans Welch
“Labels aren’t big enough for people. And once you try to categorize someone, you stop looking for who they actually are.”
Much like The Love Hypothesis, this book was pure joy. It’s about a teenage girl and her brother road-tripping across Ireland with her brother’s friend. It’s just got so much great sibling relationship stuff and great friendships, plus there’s also a personal aspect for me: in college I also did a tour of Ireland, and it was probably the best three weeks of my entire life, so getting to read about all those locales again was super fun. It was just sweet and happy and wholesome without being saccharine.
“I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other.”
Considering this book’s length, I was so apprehensive about reading it, but I ended up flying through it and loving it. This had all the charm and wit I’ve come to expect from Austen. It is incredible to me that Emma is deemed an unlikable heroine — even by Austen herself — when I think she may have just become one of my favorite literary heroines of all time. Yes, she’s flawed — she’s snobby and elitist and condescending and she’s not gonna be winning any medals for tearing down class barriers any time soon — but she is also absolutely charming, confident, clever, mature, practical, and so delightfully self-aware (for the most part).
And I mean: “I cannot make speeches, Emma. If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” and “faultless in spite of all her faults” I DIE. The genuine friendship and mutual respect between Knightley and Emma is SO GOOD. This book has also become inextricably linked with Johnny Flynn’s Queen Bee song at the end of the new Emma movie and I adore that song to an unhinged degree so that might be why this book has me so much in my feelings.
Half a Soul
“She had little effort to spare for making unpleasant men more comfortable.”
Once again, joy. This is set in an alternate Regency England where there are wizards and fairies, and it is just!! so cute!! A super shippable romance and great female characters and trope subversion and a really intriguing mystery plot. And really funny in a very subtle way.
A Master of Djinn
P. Djeli Clark
“Fatma blinked at the tirade. Of all the djinn these two had to go and wake up, it had to be a bigot.”
This is a book set in an alternate 1920s Cairo featuring a lesbian police detective. There really was never any chance I wouldn’t like this, but I’m very pleased with how much I went absolutely feral over it. I’ve been obsessed with this universe ever since I read Clark’s short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo, which did such a fantastic job of depicting Egyptian cultural mores and idiosyncrasies that I had to go research whether Clark was, in fact, Egyptian. This book is just so good on so many levels. It’s hilarious, first of all, with that kind of elegant writing that recalls old Victorian literature without actually being dry. It delves into so many intersections of race and privilege. It’s got a lesbian detective who dresses in dapper suits, and she has a girlfriend who is awesome. There are so many funny side characters. There’s shade thrown at the English. It’s GREAT.
Working on a Song
“I know that Hadestown is–and this goes for any creative endeavor, I reckon–so much more than what meets the eye or the ear. What is seen and heard onstage is the blooming flower, but most of the plant is underground. Every line, verse, or chorus–every idea any of us who worked on it ever had, even the ones that never saw the light of day–they’re down there. They’re the roots of the plant, and the flower wouldn’t exist without them. The ones who bloom in the bitter snow bloom because they are supported below by a thousand tries and failures.”
For context: I first listened to and loved the original album way back in 2010, spent years and years hoping it would one day make it to the theater, rejoiced when it premiered at the New York Theater Workshop, and proceeded to attend three times. The NYTW production was a magical experience, all three times. So, the nostalgia factor here is strong. Essentially, this book is a paean to the creative spirit, to the joy of creating both individually and communally. This peek into Mitchell’s process really is a love letter to art, creation, writing, music, theater, collaboration. At the close of the book, she states that the process of writing has for her been one of failing repeatedly, but that there is value and strength in trying again (and failing again!), that there is value in the attempt itself, which, for any writer, is a wonderful message to take away.
“Having a sister, mom says, is a place only the two of them will share, made of secrets they never have to say aloud – but if they did, it would be in a language only the two of them could speak. Having a sister is a promise no one but the two of you can make – and no one but the two of you can break.”
Despite the fact that I think this book would have benefited greatly from being adult rather than YA, I still think it did a spectacular job depicting the insularity and attraction of cults. The cult leader in this is a fascinating character, and I really enjoyed watching the way he twisted people around into his narrative, even the main character, who is driven by a singular desire to find her sister. It’s bleak and sad and disturbing and very memorable.
Down Comes the Night
“It takes incredible strength to be kind in this world. To endure suffering instead of further it.”
I don’t know what it is about this book, but I just look back on it so fondly. Perhaps it was partly the reading experience; I vividly recall sitting in bed by dim light and reading into the night, which was very fitting for the book’s Gothic vibe! Anyway, something about Saft’s writing and characters was just so utterly compelling, and I found the mystery really fun and engaging. I also think Saft does atmosphere super, duper well, and that was probably my favorite aspect of the book: being trapped in this strange, dark Gothic manner with a weird host.
A Dowry of Blood
“You could have kissed me or slit my throat and either would have made as much sense.”
A kind of retelling of the story of the brides of Dracula, written in absolutely gorgeous and lyrical prose. It depicts Dracula as abusive, which makes perfect sense, and the brides (two women and a young man) have to come together to support each other against him. I think this was such a clever re-imagining of this particular tale, and I really, really loved the writing.
The Vanishing Half
“Her death hit in waves. Not a flood, but water lapping steadily at her ankles. You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.”
Most of the world loved this book, so I’ll just join the bandwagon. Reading this felt like sitting around a campfire and being told a very old story by an exceptional storyteller; there was an oddly epic feel to the tale, which I think was because of the elegant and omniscient writing style. I really enjoyed the diversity of characters and experiences as well.
Midnight in Cairo
“At its core, this was a group of women demanding to be heard as they asserted their wishes, claimed their rights, and made space for themselves.”
Obviously, this is an extremely niche topic, and I’m sure I loved it as much as I did partly because it’s so personal to me, but I also think Cormack does a great job of narrating this in a way that makes it engaging for the layman as well as the academic. I came away from this with the basic knowledge that the Roaring 20s in Egypt were one heck of a party, filled with fascinating men and women.
Our Women on the Ground
Zahra Hankir (Ed)
“Those sorts of stories accumulated until they formed an archetype: the tragic yet resilient Iraqi woman, a metaphor for the country itself. In hindsight, it seems so facile to see Iraqi women only through the prism of their war-ravaged lives, but how else do you report a story where pain is etched on the face of every woman you interview?”
War journalists are truly another breed. Their courage and resilience is a running thread throughout the various essays in this book, as well as the importance of their jobs in bringing to light stories from regions where most ordinary people cannot venture. There’s also a focus on the stories themselves, as the above quote highlights, and it was generally a heartbreaking reminder of everything the people in the war-torn Middle East have suffered and continue to endure.