I read 31 books this past year, which is somewhat of a disappointing number given that my goal was 40 and I spent half the year with way more free time than I had for the last three. Alas!
Anywho, these are my top five favorites. The first couple I read fairly recently so I have a lot to say about them; the last three are from earlier in the year, so I don’t quite remember them as much in terms of specific character and plot points, just how I felt about them.
Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary.
That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.
I love Young Adult fiction. I’m also frequently frustrated by Young Adult fiction, especially in the Fantasy genre. Sometimes I feel like I’m reading the same book over and over again, only with different character names and slightly varied locales. Every book seems to feature some brand of ‘chosen one’ with some sort of extraordinary skill (special witchcraft, special fighting, special power) who I’m constantly told is very special but who has no real defining traits or personality. There are love triangles where everyone is equally awful and unlikable. And world building, a facet of fantasy I think is essential to the genre, is often cast off and treated as a distant fifth priority (behind describing the specialness of the protagonist, the cheekbones of her first suitor, the dark eyes of her second suitor, and all the makeovers she gets to have).
This duology was like a fresh breath of air for both genres. I was so impressed with it, especially given the fact that Bardugo’s previous trilogy sometimes fell into the same tired tropes that I see so often in Young Adult Fantasy. This duology ditched the chosen one narrative and instead presented us with six scrappy pov characters who were actually all interesting and engaging by their own merits. I didn’t need to be hit over the head with just! how! special! they! are! – I got to see what they did and how they acted and what they felt and came to that conclusion on my own. It also gave me two of my favorite fictional characters, probably of all time – Kaz Brekker and Inej Ghafa. No love triangles in sight, but romances abounded that were all unique and easy to root for (it also gave me a new OTP – Kaz x Inej). The first book is a great heist story, while the second one is a revenge and redemption story. Both the books (and the sequel is one of those rare ones that lives up to the original) are not only well-plotted (the plot twists and turns are so astounding), but well-written (the amount of quotes I could flail over are endless) and feature three-dimensional, well drawn characters. And not just one or two – but six characters that were all distinct and likable. These books were not only my favorite of this year, but likely to be on my favorites of all time list.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
“Loving someone is like moving into a house,” Sonja used to say. “At first you fall in love with all the new things, amazed every morning that all this belongs to you, as if fearing that someone would suddenly come rushing in through the door to explain that a terrible mistake had been made, you weren’t actually supposed to live in a wonderful place like this. Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there, and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfection, but rather for its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it’s cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without them creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home.”
The best way that I can sum up this story is with a quote from G.K. Chesterton – that sometimes a “thing must be loved before it is lovable.”
I can see why this can be a difficult story to enjoy. The Ove we’re initially introduced to is not easy to like. Though the words “grumpy old man” are bandied about, they actually undersell how prickly, bitter and acrimonious he can be. But a quick read of the summary basically lets you know that this story will be like Up, only this time the old man’s new lease on life stems with his burgeoning familial relationship with a pregnant Iranian woman and a raggedy cat rather than a chubby Asian cub scout and a dopey dog. Unlike Up, though, the story lacks a grand adventure and instead operates at a leisurely pace, its characters concerned with things wholly mundane and everyday.
And yet, it it had a way of turning those mundane things beautiful.
This is a simple story about one man’s small life. But I don’t mean small the way that we often use – unimportant or petty or limited. Only that Ove’s life is humble and modest – yet because he has love, it is also enough. But then the love of his life dies. And suddenly, nothing can be enough. So Ove begins to plan for ways to join her. That is, of course, until an Iranian woman and her two daughters bully their ways into his life, until his wife’s former student shows up on his doorstep, until his oldest friend needs help one last time. And through this all, he finds out that he doesn’t have to do it all alone any more. That he never did. That there is life after grief, that there is still love worth sharing even if it isn’t with Sonja.
This book had a story I loved written in a style I adored. I laughed out loud multiple times, either at the author’s consistently creative metaphors or at Ove’s unique way of handling life around him. I also flat out sobbed multiple times too – at the quiet depth of love between Ove and Sonja, at the overwhelming feelings of loss after her death, at the redemptive powers of love and empathy and compassion. The greatness of this book lies in its simplicity, in its power to transform every day things – a train ride, a driving lesson, a grumpy old man – into things of beauty. May we all love our spouses the way Ove and Sonja love one another. And may we all have the courage to keep on living the way Ove learns to if they end up passing away first.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
We always look for the signs we missed when something goes wrong. We become like detectives trying to solve a murder, because maybe if we uncover the clues, it gives us some control. Sure, we can’t change what happened, but if we can string together enough clues, we can prove that whatever nightmare has befallen us, we could have stopped it, if only we had been smart enough. I suppose it’s better to believe in our own stupidity than it is to believe that all the clues in the world wouldn’t have changed a thing.
I’m always wary of stories that tackle mental illness. There’s a tendency in popular media to either glamorize it or soften it, as if all it does is make you an off-kilter eccentric or tortured artist, as if it can be healed by just loving someone hard enough. That’s why I’m so grateful to have this book, which treats mental illness with an honesty and an openness that was unflinching yet – eventually – uplifting.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over
I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I do have a real soft spot for historical fiction stories set in World War II. I read this and All The Light We Cannot See in the same year and actually really enjoyed both of them. While they were both well-written stories told from duel perspectives, this one came out on top because of the nature of the story that it told.
This book was about two sisters who loved each other but didn’t know how to love one another. About how two sisters learned to live with war and in war and through war. About how two sisters came to love each other again despite a war. Beautifully written with engaging characters, though heartbreaking and tragic in the way that World War II stories often are.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.
I’m no stranger to post-apocalyptic fiction – it’s by far my favorite sub-genre of fiction. I’ve read all types of post-apocalyptic scenarios, from zombies to robots, from natural disasters to world wars, from aliens to bio-terrorism. And while some of them have been great (World War Z, Earth Abides, The Girl with All the Gifts, for example), few of them have stuck with me like this book.
Not because it’s especially well-written or well-plotted, though it is both of those, but for how alarmingly plausible it seems. The idea of individual states fighting it out over water rights and Phoenix having to deal with an increasingly hostile environment without its water cut a little too closely for me to be wholly comfortable with. A great novel about a near future apocalyptic scenario set right here in my hometown.