2016 Books of Awesome, Part One

It’s that time of year again! Time to look back at the books I read and share with you the ones I enjoyed the most – the ones I would recommend or the ones that just struck me deeply.

It’s always interesting to me to look back at what I’ve read, because it gives a broad picture of what I was up to, what interested me, and where I ended up. It’s a more subjective measure of my year than anything I could come up with on my own.

This year I only read 31 books. Life kind of… happened. Between learning a new job, struggling to write, three months of total exhaustion, moving across the country, having a baby, and then struggling to write again while also juggling said baby (not literally, of course – I’m not a monster), I found it difficult to fit in as much reading as I once could.

Taken in a different light, I should really be saying – wow! Somehow I read 31 books! But that doesn’t please the perfectionist in me, so we’re just going to skirt around numbers and dive straight in to the best part: talking about books.

I made a goal at the beginning of the year to read mostly women, mostly fantasy, and especially aim for voices outside the mainstream white, straight, & male. I did end up with a few of those, but otherwise I stuck to my goal, even if I didn’t finish my 2016 TBR list. And interestingly enough, although I “only” read 31 books – a far cry from last year’s 52 and the prior year’s 70 – they were top notch. I loved almost all of them, which is why even though I read less this year, I still have ten awesome books to share with ya’ll.

Without further ado, here are my 2016 Books of Awesome, Part One:

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

“Criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone. For his crew, he pulls together: a convict with a thirst for revenge; sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager; a runaway with a privileged past; a spy known as the Wraith; a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums; and a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes. Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction — if they don’t kill each other first.”

I loved that the world in this book was so heavily Slavic. It made for a nice change of pace. Speaking of pace, it’s a bit breakneck which made it very, very difficult to put down. I read this in two days. It’s so much fun and I never saw what was coming next. Even better, it’s a complete story in itself, but enough threads were left open for a sequel – which is definitely on my TBR list.

 

The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn

“Nineteen-year-old Bill Shunn is a man on a mission—a Mormon mission, that is, trolling for converts door-to-door a thousand miles from home. This riveting memoir—by turns hilarious, provocative, and thrilling—traces his accidental journey from that humble beginning to hunted fugitive and international terrorist.”

I love me some funny yet poignant memoirs occasionally, and this one did not disappoint. This was a delightful and informative look into the world of Mormon missions and just what those pairs of well-dressed young men are doing in your neighborhood. Interwoven is the story of Joseph Smith, the man & the myth behind Mormonism. I learned way more than I’d expected and had a fun time at it, high praise in my book.

 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

“Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep the Wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.”

I picked this up based entirely on the idea of a dragon preying on a small village that wasn’t actually a dragon. I loved this because of the cranky wizard at its heart and the actually-quite-terrifying Wood. The MC is plucky and equally cranky and the story runs ahead at equal amounts trot and gallop. There’s even a kick-ass best friend to help balance out the romance.  This is the kind of fairytale for grown ups that I adore.

 

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

“January 29, 2035.

That’s the day the comet is scheduled to hit—the big one. Denise and her mother and sister, Iris, have been assigned to a temporary shelter near their hometown of Amsterdam to wait out the blast, but Iris is nowhere to be found, and at the rate Denise’s drug-addicted mother is going, they’ll never reach the shelter in time.

Then a last-minute encounter leads them to something better than a temporary shelter: a generation ship that’s scheduled to leave Earth behind and colonize new worlds after the comet hits. But each passenger must have a practical skill to contribute. Denise is autistic and fears that she’ll never be allowed to stay. Can she obtain a spot before the ship takes flight? What about her mother and sister?”

Ooooh, I love Duyvis’ writing so much. First her magnificent YA fantasy, Otherbound, and now an apocalyptic YA with both equal amounts terror and grace. But the terror is all in who is considered useful enough to live post-apocalypse and who gets to decide. When the marginalized have a hard enough time in daily society, what happens during the end of the world?

For an apocalyptic story, it was surprisingly hopeful. I loved how Duyvis never focused on chaos and anarchy, and instead drew more than enough tension from mundane questions, which in turn made the worldbuilding feel especially realistic.

 

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.”

As usual, Seanan spins the creepiest, most entertaining yarns. I always love how she’ll take a particularly common cliché and worry at it until she’s completely turned it on its head, yet it still remains achingly familiar. This knack shines brightest with fairytales, her forte, and here she is, exploring the inevitable, yet unexplored, consequences of all those tales: what happens to the children who come back?

There’s much more to the story than just that question – like murder and mystery and a self-identified ace main character- and it’s all somehow wrapped up within the confines of a novella.

 

To be continued!

2016 TBR List Update, April

Another four books read from the list means another update! An airplane ride this past month meant I got to read two books back to back and I’ve been overall devoting more time to reading, since my brain has been so foggy.

I just finished Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, a sci-fi-esque exploration of what would happen if aliens showed up off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. I say sci-fi-esque because while yes, there are aliens, it features a lot of supernatural elements, too, and science is never at the forefront. I loved it for that and I loved it because it’s just so refreshing to read a story where aliens don’t destroy New York or something else ridiculous. Yes, more of this please.

Keeping with the books I absolutely adored theme, have you read On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis yet? You should read it. Seriously. Go. Now. I’ll wait.

*drums fingers*

*checks watch*

Ah – you’re back? You read it? Good. Now we can squee together about how awesomely amazing it is to have a YA book tackle so many real things and present the end of the world in such a hopeful, humanitarian way. I loved that all of the characters were fully fleshed out, human beings with flaws and hopes and dreams, and no one was Evil, but no one was Good, and it was just beautiful on a number of levels and that ENDING, yes yes, and the cats and yes I cried about the cats every. single. time. they came up.

Gah. Real contender for favorite book of the year, right there.

Before those two, I read (see: listened) to Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. This made it onto my TBR list largely because it was such a big hit last year and I kept reading/hearing about it everywhere. I like to keep up to date.

It was, however, not a book for me. It was well written overall, but I was just not drawn into the story. I think this was largely because it retread a lot of YA themes that have been popular in the last few years that I haven’t enjoyed, but others (obviously) have.

And last, but not least, I finished Gates of Thread and Stone by Lori M Lee way back in March. This made it onto the list because it a) features a female main character who shares my name (rare!), and b) TIME POWERS.

While I enjoyed the story and the characters, I was thrown a bit by the sudden change in direction of the plot. Also I was a little disappointed that there weren’t a lot more fights using said TIME POWERS. Honestly. The world needs more epic battles with TIME POWERS.

That said, it looks like this is the beginning of a series, so I will keep an eye out for the sequel. Which will hopefully include more TIME POWERS.

  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (YA)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik
  • The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab
  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
  • Gates of Thread and Stone by Lori M Lee
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
  • The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn
  • The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  • Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Sons of Thesian by ME Vaughan
  • Too Like the Lightning Ada Palmer
  • The Shadowed Sun by NK Jemisin
  • Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (YA)
  • The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
  • Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu
  • The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
  • Prophecy by Ellen Oh
  • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
  • Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz
  • On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyviss (YA – 2016)

2016 TBR List Update

I have been making fairly steady progress on my 2016 TBR List of Awesome. Considering there are a number of other books I’ve read in the meantime, I think getting through five in two months keeps me right on track. I’m glad I put this list together because it’s very easy to get distracted by new/shiny books and ideas and to go down a path of research, without actually making progress reading the new stuff in my own genres. Also, so far, they’ve all been fun!

I just finished Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which was just the kind of fantasy I love. Fun and full of magic and more than a bit of adventure. It very much felt like more of an adult Tamora Pierce or Dealing with Dragons kind of story.

Before that, I finished The Accidental Terrorist which was not at all fantasy, but memoir, and absolutely fascinating. I’ve always been curious about Mormons and what, exactly, they’re doing out walking the streets in their crisp white-collared shirts, and this severely humanizes them. Plus, it laces quite a bit of Mormon history into the story, interestingly paralleling the author’s own experiences. Illuminating and surprisingly hard to put down.

The Ghost Bride was a different sort of fantasy – much more ethereal, much less full of magic – that I enjoyed. I think this one was published in an earlier year, but it was worth making the exception to add it to my list. Driftingly dark and occasionally disturbing and honestly, I never quite knew where it was going to go next.

Six of Crows was more in line with contemporary YA, but without most of the dreary and cliched trappings I’ve come to expect. Somehow, the author pulled off a great book with a twisty plot and relatable characters, even when one of those characters would normally be described as a horrible human being. I loved the Slavic flavor of the magic and the cultures. I’m so glad to be seeing more and different cultures used as a base for fantasy in lieu of the traditional European.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps was not at all what I expected and perhaps much too short. I only realized after the fact that this was actually a novella, but it could easily be expanded further. The ideas were there, and the themes, but alas. I enjoyed it, even as I also recognized this book wasn’t quite for me.

So there we go – five down, sixteen to go. I’m hoping to be halfway through in the next two months, while somehow juggling all the research I suddenly need to do (whole ‘nother blog post).

  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (YA)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik
  • The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab
  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
  • Gates of Thread and Stone by Lori M Lee
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
  • The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn
  • The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  • Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Sons of Thesian by ME Vaughan
  • Too Like the Lightning Ada Palmer
  • The Shadowed Sun by NK Jemisin
  • Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (YA)
  • The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
  • Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu
  • The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
  • Prophecy by Ellen Oh
  • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
  • Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz
  • On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyviss (YA – 2016)

2015 Books in Review, Part Two

Here is part two of my 2015 Books In Review. Part one is here.
 

Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis

“Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.”

This is the kind of book where I finished it and immediately looked up the author and everything else she has written. Unfortunately, this is Duyvis’ debut, but fortunately she has another book coming out this year.

All that’s to say that this was a YA that made me so, so happy. Interesting fantasy world: yes. Awesome female main character: yes. Awesome bi main character: yes yes. Very high stakes that keep getting higher: yessity yes yes. No love triangle: OMG YES. Fun(?) moral choices: yeeessss.

I don’t often unequivocally recommend books, but here you go. Read it.

 

Clariel by Garth Nix

“Sixteen-year-old Clariel is not adjusting well to her new life in the city of Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom. She misses roaming freely within the forests of Estwael, and she feels trapped within the stone city walls. And in Belisaere she is forced to follow the plans, plots and demands of everyone, from her parents to her maid, to the sinister Guildmaster Kilp. Clariel can see her freedom slipping away. It seems too that the city itself is descending into chaos, as the ancient rules binding Abhorsen, King and Clayr appear to be disintegrating.”

My last WIP had an ace main character, so before I started the draft zero I wanted to see what kind of ace representation was already out there in the YA world. Answer: nothing. Real answer: well, almost nothing. Clariel is the only one I’ve found so far with an ace MC, and boy is she awesome.

I’m a fan of the Abhorsen series, so I’m surprised I didn’t pick this one up sooner. If you haven’t yet, and you like necromancers and fairyesque worlds, you should read the first in the series: Sabriel. This one is a fun, if sometimes exceedingly dark, worthy successor in the series. The only downside is that the audiobook isn’t read by Tim Curry. 🙂

 

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

“After a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, Dellarobia Turnbow has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks a momentary escape with a younger man. As she hikes up the mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. For her, it’s a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders, and the media.

The bewildering emergency acquaints rural farmers with urban journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a biologist personally invested in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.”

You know me and literary fiction: there’s a reason most of my favorite list is fantasy. But goodness, this was a fulfilling, yet restless, book. Most descriptions bill it as a story about global warming, but it is so much more than that: a story of chaos and transformation.

Of course, I loved the parts about the butterflies the most, and all the detailed information about their lives. Absolutely insane what they go through. On top of that, I loved the depiction of science and scientists. As someone married to a scientist, I understand the frustration of watching your research be willfully misinterpreted. That careful underscoring of what, exactly, is science as well as why, sometimes, people ignore science was what really made the book.

 

I am Princess X by Cherie Priest

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window. A sticker of Princess X.”

A breathless chase through Seattle, where I never quite knew what was going to happen, ending with crazy madness and excitement. The comic portion integrated very well with the story and it was cool to see what May had been talking about just the page before play out in the comic.

It’s one of those this-is-a-cool-idea! books that could have gone horribly wrong, but Priest has enough chops that it not only works, it works well. It’s also a super quick, super fun read – I actually finished it in a day. That doesn’t happen often. 🙂

 

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

“Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.”

This was absolutely ridiculous. But in a good way! I wish I’d had it for Halloween, because it would have been a perfect all-night read. Just spooky enough without actually being scary. Just odd enough to be hilarious. And a perfect commentary on working in the modern retail environment.

The illustrations of the various Orsk products were also brilliant, devolving along with the story. I liked finding all the easter eggs in both the drawings and the story. Another book I read all in one sitting, because it was just too much fun to put down.

 

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

“This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.”

Jemisin has solidified her place in my Absolute Fave Authors A++ category with this novel. It is haunting. It is gorgeous. It is surprising. It may or may not be paying a direct homage to Portal 2 with that ending.

It is, in a nutshell, everything I want from modern fantasy. Diverse and interesting and fully fleshed characters. Diverse and interesting and fully fleshed worlds. Several did that just happen?! moments. New magic systems that make me go why didn’t I think of that?? Moral questioning. Moral darkness. And a very on-point critique of our own society.

The Fifth Season is by far and away my favorite novel of 2015. If you take nothing away from this list, at least do yourself a favor and read this.

2015 Books in Review, Part One

It’s that time of year again! Time to look back at the books I read and share with you the ones I enjoyed the most – the ones I would recommend or the ones that just struck me deeply. It’s always interesting to look at all I’ve read, because it gives a broad picture of what I was up to, what interested me, and where I ended up. It’s a more subjective measure of my year than anything I could come up with on my own.

That said… it’s telling that I read a lot less this year than last. 76 in 2014, but only 50 (give or take, probably give considering there are two weeks left in the year) in 2015. Part of this was due to my changing work life: I no longer have the luxury of listening to audiobooks for a large chunk of my day. Part of this was just my own failure to prioritize reading.

Which needs to change! If nothing else, reading will be a big goal for me in 2016. Reading is just as important as actually putting words on a page for a writer. Also I need to make a dent in this TBR pile. Honestly, it looks like it might fall over and crush me at any moment.

Here are my 2015 Books of Awesome, Part One:

The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin

“In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers – the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe – and kill those judged corrupt.”

THIS BOOK. This. Book. It is everything I love in fantasy: beautiful, well-crafted characters, interesting and new settings, diverse cultures, grappling with complex issues, fun! and fast! and just hooks its claws into you and doesn’t let go until you’re on the last page and then you need to take a few days to recover. Jemisin is one of those amazing writers who can write beautifully and plot tightly and characterize brilliantly and I just – go. Go read her. Now. I’ll wait.

 

Lock-In by John Scalzi

“Not too long from today, a highly contagious virus makes its way across the globe. Most who get sick experience nothing worse than flu, fever and headaches. But for the unlucky one percent – and nearly five million souls in the United States alone – the disease causes “Lock In”: Victims fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. The disease affects young, old, rich, poor, people of every color and creed. The world changes to meet the challenge…”

If you like Scalzi, you’ll like this. If you like fun, fast, and hilarious mysteries, you’ll also like this.

 

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

“There are those who believe and those who don’t. Through the ages, superstition has had its uses. Nowhere more so than in the Discworld where it’s helped to maintain the status quo. Anything that undermines superstition has to be viewed with some caution. There may be consequences, particularly on the last night of the year when the time is turning. When those consequences turn out to be the end of the world, you need to be prepared. You might even want more standing between you and oblivion than a mere slip of a girl – even if she has looked Death in the face on numerous occasions.”

Losing Pratchett this year was hard. He was a big, formative influence for me and many others. To celebrate his life, I immediately read some faves of his. Hogfather is one of his best and a good introduction to his writing.

 

Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

“André Deschênes is a hired assassin, but he wants to be so much more. If only he can find a teacher who will forgive his murderous past – and train him to manipulate odds and control probability. It’s called the art of conjuring, and it’s André’s only route to freedom. For the world he lives on is run by the ruthless Charter Trade Company, and his floating city, Novo Haven, is little more than a company town where humans and aliens alike either work for one tyrannical family – or are destroyed by it. But beneath Novo Haven’s murky waters, within its tangled bayous, reedy banks, and back alleys, revolution is stirring. And one more death may be all it takes to shift the balance.”

Bear has been on my TBR list for way too long and Undertow made me wish I’d read her sooner. I’m much more of fantasy girl than a sci-fi fan, but this book hit all the right spots. It was nerdy enough without being complete technobabble, it has giant talking frogs, and at one point it just goes completely nuts – but in the best way possible.

 

Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots by Seanan McGuire

“Velveteen lives in a world of super-heroes and magic, where men can fly and where young girls can be abducted to the Autumn Land to save Halloween. Velma lives from paycheck to paycheck and copes with her broken-down car as she tries to escape from her old life.

It’s all the same world. It’s all real. And figuring out how to be both Velveteen and Velma is the biggest challenge of her life, because being super-human means you’re still human in the end.”

Pretty much anything written by Seanan is going to be an A++ gimme, but there’s just something more and beautiful about the Velveteen universe that made me shell out real cash for something I had already read (for free!) on her website. It’s hilarious and poignant and yes, I cried a few times, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it when it was all over.

 

The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

“An antique violin, an Erich Zann original, made of human white bone, was designed to produce music capable of slaughtering demons. Mo is the custodian of this unholy instrument. It invades her dreams and yearns for the blood of her colleagues—and her husband. And despite Mo’s proficiency as a world class violinist, it cannot be controlled.”

I’m just going to read everything in the Laundry Files series and recommend it every year, because it’s good and you should read it. The Laundry Files is Elder Gods meets government bureaucracy, except it’s become so much more than that.

 

 

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey

“The news headlines are all abuzz about a local string of killings that share the same morbid trademark: the victims were discovered with their eyes missing. Then a beautiful yet eerie woman enters Ellie’s circle of friends and develops an unhealthy fascination with Kevin, and a crazed old man grabs Ellie in a public square and shoves a tattered Bible into her hands, exclaiming, ‘You need it. It will save your soul.’ Soon, Ellie finds herself plunged into a haunting world of vengeful fairies in an epic battle for immortality.”

I read this specifically because it included an ace character, and then I ended up having way too much fun along the way. I loved that it was set in New Zealand, I loved that it focused on Maori myth and culture, and I loved that the characters were fully fleshed out and real.

To be continued!

Research

In gearing up for my next project, I’ve been brainstorming what I’m going to research, how I’m going to research it, and in what format I want to share that research here. Because it’s going to be all magical girls, all the time, it’ll be a lot of fun – I’m planning to binge watch most of the classic anime series and I’ve been scouring the online world for anything with hints of magical girlness in the book world. From what I’ve seen – so far at least – there isn’t much.

Granted, this could mean that there simply is no market, but I’m willing to bet my time (and possibly sanity) that that is not, in fact, the case.

But as I mused over these things, I realized I’d never shared any of my preliminary research for my current, actually done, novel here. Partially because I was so involved with the process at the time, but also partially because I didn’t think anyone would actually be interested.

Then I thought – I was interested. Surely there might be other people, too.

So I’m going to do a short little series delving into the background of my current novel, The Impossible Contract, the research, and what all came together to make it more than just a tromp through some sandy places.

When the idea for this story first popped into my head, I knew it was going to be set in a desert much like our modern day Sahara. Although I currently live in a bona fide desert, it doesn’t quite have the range of extremes that the Sahara does. That’s when I knew I’d need to read some first hand accounts of what it’s like not only surviving, but thriving, in that kind of environment.

Little did I know the size of the rabbit hole I was about to fall into.

The Sahara and its people and disparate cultures are absolutely fascinating subjects. It is the endless dunes that come to mind when you merely think the word, and it is rocks and wind and mountains and oases, wells and flies and camels and deep underground aquifers, gods and demons and unnamable madness.

But it’s also, you know, everyday people living their lives.

I read more than a dozen books on the Sahara alone, but to start you off, I’d recommend these in particular:


Men of Salt by Michael Benanav
This is a first-hand account of travel with a salt caravan from a western perspective. It’s absolutely fascinating and a great way to introduce yourself to the region, if you don’t previously have any knowledge or experience. Since it’s an outsider’s perspective – and a tourist’s at that – it doesn’t get into the nitty gritty of cultural details and makes some assumptions, but it’s a quick, fun read and I found with follow-up research that most of it was spot on.


Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King

Also an absolutely fascinating account of shipwrecked Americans adrift in the Sahara. This novel is based on a true story in the early 19th century and was especially interesting to read right after Men of Salt, because so little has changed. While the story suffers from both an overabundance of minutiae and the problematic outsider viewpoint, it shows a lot more of the everyday culture and just what it takes to survive in the Sahara.


Sahara: A Natural History by Marq de Villiers & Sheila Hirtle

This book. This book. If you want an overview of the Sahara – its history, its cultures, its geography – then you should read this. This book made me absolutely fall in love with the Sahara. It made me wish I’d majored in something other than Classics. It’s certainly not perfect, but I think it accomplished what it set out to do, which is to really make you understand just how complex the Sahara is. And how recent! The great, empty expanse of sand as we know it is only a few thousand years old – the ancient Egyptians certainly experienced it much differently than we do now.

Altogether, it was more than enough to make me wonder why there aren’t more stories set in deserts. And then I might have gone on a reading binge of what novels I could find that met that criteria. But that comes later.

2014 Books in Review, Part One

I love and hate Goodreads. Okay, that’s not true: I mostly love Goodreads. I’m hesitant about the direction they’ve taken, but I love having a place where I can keep track of all the books I want to read, have read, and loved. I also love their little yearly book challenge, where you can set your own goal of reading one or a hundred books – or anything in between. I’m not sure how much this has affected my reading aside from encouraging me to drop those books I don’t particularly enjoy a lot sooner, but looking back I’m glad to see that I still consistently read a lot.

I also enjoy pausing at the end of the year and looking back at all I’ve read. The year’s books are telling in their own way: what came out, what I was interested in, what inspired me, as well as what finally became available at the library.

Goodreads says I’ve read 76 books so far this year. More than a handful were no-finishes – that is, I started them only to become unimpressed quickly or realize it just wasn’t for me. I used to review every book I read, but I’ve since realized that a book that just wasn’t for me or wasn’t any good at all isn’t worth the effort. I would rather spend my time writing reviews or spreading about really awesome books, and I also realized that I would rather hear about those books, too.

Therefore, while looking back over the books I read this year, I picked out a few to share here, with you. You might like them. Or you might be able to psychoanalyze my year.

Here are my 2014 Books of Awesome, Part One:


Brilliance
by Marcus Sakey

“Since 1980, one percent of people have been born as one of the “brilliants,” a class of human with extraordinary abilities. Nick Cooper is among them; a federal agent, Cooper has gifts rendering him exceptional at hunting terrorists. His latest target may be the most dangerous man alive, a brilliant drenched in blood and intent on provoking civil war. But to catch him, Cooper will have to violate everything he believes in – and betray his own kind.”

This book was fun, engaging, and fast. The women characters weren’t completely flat and you’re never quite sure who is on which side, plus I feel like it did a good job of updating the traditional mutant/superpowers story to the present, terrorist-filled day and post 9/11 world. Definitely a good, fast read for the airplane or bus.

Parasite by Mira Grant

“A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of sickness and disease. We owe our good health to a humble parasite – a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them. But these parasites are getting restless.”

Mira Grant did her research and it shows. If you read and liked her first series, Newsflesh, you will like this. It’s sci-fi horror with more science and less jump scares and even if you can spot the ending from three miles away, it is still satisfying to watch the narrator realize – and then try really hard to ignore – the truth for herself. I also especially loved the MC for being complex and amazing and just… she’s just really well written, acts believably, and doesn’t fling herself unnecessarily into danger. I could just see her being a real human being all around – which, in a way, is even more frightening.

Another thing to note about this author: her cast of characters are not just all white & straight and I love her so much for that. It’s so refreshing to see a lesbian couple as just part of the world and Mira (or should I say Seanan McGuire, because Mira is an alter ego) does this in all her books. Love love love.

After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

“Most people dream of having superheroes for parents, but not Celia West. The only daughter of Captain Olympus and Spark, the world’s greatest champions, she has no powers of her own, and the most exciting thing she’s ever done is win a silver medal in a high school swim meet. Meanwhile, she’s the favorite hostage of every crime boss and supervillain in Commerce City. She doesn’t have a code name, but if she did, it would probably be Bait Girl, the Captive Wonder.”

Another really fun, fast read. I’ve come to appreciate these more as I get older because I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to write something that is both fun and interesting and fast without being also incredibly shallow and/or otherwise problematic. Apparently I was on a superhero kick early in the year.

The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells

“Nicholas is a passionate, embittered nobleman consumed by thoughts of vengeance. But at night he assumes the guise of a master criminal, stealing jewels from wealthy nobles to finance his quest for vengeance the murder of Count Montesq, the man who orchestrated the wrongful execution of Nicholas’s godfather on false charges of necromancy. But now a series of eerie, unexplainable, even fatal events have interrupted Nicholas’ murderous mission.”

I don’t know how to explain this one. I picked it up on a lark and even though it was the second in a series I’d never heard of, it was still really good. It’s a high fantasy set in some weird, not-quite-Victorian place that also has underground elves (?? I think that was from the previous book), but the characters were ridiculously fun and the plot never stopped and I cared about everyone and no one was particularly tropey or flat and even though the Real Plot wasn’t revealed until nearly the end, I never felt cheated. If you like high fantasy and are tired of how dull and manpain-centric most of them are, you’d probably like this.

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

“More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles. Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students learn the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery.”

Sanderson. Oh, Sanderson. I have waxed poetic about this man in the past and I will continue to do so forever. He can not only write complex characters and well-paced plots, but his world building is excruciatingly beautiful. I will read anything he writes at this point, and I know I will like it.

Rithmatist was no exception. It’s YA (I think?), but that doesn’t matter. How does he come up with all these magic systems? I just. I don’t even.

Cress by Marissa Meyer

“In this third book in the Lunar Chronicles, Cinder and Captain Thorne are fugitives on the run, now with Scarlet and Wolf in tow. Together, they’re plotting to overthrow Queen Levana and her army. Their best hope lies with Cress, a girl imprisoned on a satellite since childhood who’s only ever had her netscreens as company. All that screen time has made Cress an excellent hacker. Unfortunately, she’s just received orders from Levana to track down Cinder. “

This is the 3rd in basically what is a fairytale retelling merged with a Sailor Moon fanfic series. It’s good and fun and surprisingly dark. I’ve enjoyed picking out all the little nods to the original stories and Cress was by far the darkest and – unsurprisingly – my favorite. I want Winter to come out now.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

“Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind, who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t, then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. “

Ah, so ridiculous! So delightful! Valente has a way with words, and by that I mean she can spin ridiculously beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence and you just want to eat it up. Paired with a fun, occasionally dark, story set in Fairy and you have a winner.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

“When her master dies during the voyage, the golem Chava is unmoored and adrift as her ship arrives in New York in 1899. The jinni Ahmad, born in the ancient Syrian desert but trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, is released by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. A powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice. “

Technically, this is “literary” fiction and not just ye olde fantasy, but it’s still good. It took a while to get into and really get going, but once it does it’s a gorgeously written story and I couldn’t stop. It’s the kind of story that gets into your brain and lingers there, whispering, for days after you finish and put it down. Just warning you.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

“An Atlantic correspondent uncovers the true cost-in economic, political, and psychic terms-of our penchant for making and buying things as cheaply as possible.”

Don’t read this if you really, really like cheap shit. In short: There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. I’ve always had a basic understanding that cheap things are cheap for a reason – and usually a bad reason – but never fully grasped how deeply the notion that things should be cheaper than they are – and fuck the consequences – has become an Ideal in our culture and economy. I would make this required reading for any Economics class.

Farm City by Novella Carpenter

“Urban and rural collide in this wry, inspiring memoir of a woman who turned a vacant lot in downtown Oakland into a thriving farm”

I also went through an Everything Farming!! phase earlier this year, and of the handful of books I read, this was my favorite. The author was a seriously-no-kidding urban farmer who raised bees and geese and chickens and grew all sorts of plants in a not-so-pleasant urban setting. It’s a cute, honest memoir that really just reinforces the notion that farming is for everywhere and everybody.

To be continued!