Note: Most of these books were not released this year. The only qualifying factor is that they had to have been picked up in the past 12 months, by yours truly.
Reading Robert MacFarlane’s Underland first thing in the new year might be my greatest regret. Inventive, far-reaching, and exploratory, this stunning work of nature writing sets unfathomably high standards for the casual nonfiction reader, and upon finishing, you must confront the sad truth that there is simply nothing like it. In its pages, we greet the world underneath, in all its forms, from remote caves to the Paris catacombs, with culture, history, and introspection woven in. It’s nonfiction that reads like an odyssey. Science that reads like magic. If you “don’t like nonfiction”––nonsense. You will like this.
There’s something rare and precious in Caitlin Doughty’s memoir, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, which follows her time working at a crematory, and, after, at mortuary school. It isn’t just that it shines a wry light on an oft-avoided topic; it probes the depths of that very avoidance with memorable and beautifully rendered detail. What Doughty does with dead bodies––giving them humor, fashioning them identities, noting an eerie beauty in their blue-tinted skin––makes for a reading experience that is just as much reassurance as it is profound unease. These tonal contradictions, wielded in tandem, make quite the mark.
On every front, Magonia really shouldn’t work: we spend almost a third of the book in the ordinary, before magical happenings unravel the heroine’s sense of normalcy, and once they do, we follow bird-people who steer sky-ships, straight out of the pages of an obscure medieval manuscript (the Annals of Ulster, for those wondering). But Maria Dahvana Headley is entirely at home in the weird. She has a keen talent for realizing outrageous fantasy concepts with perfect sobriety, resulting in a high fantasy novel that feels like a quiet work of fabulism––intimate and infinite. This one sings.
Though The Horse and His Boy falls victim to some regrettable tropes, it’s still an ebullient fairy tale, and a downright romp. An adventure in the Chronicles of Narnia that diverges from the main timeline, it follows a new character in the same world, as he teams up with a talking horse, an intrepid heroine, and her talking horse, and endures various shenanigans as he searches for belonging. Lots of fantasy novels can lay claim to a sense of humor, but rarely is it as situational as it is here. This book is funny in a way that cannot be separated from its substance, and its substance––earnest, hopeful, and no small part whimsical––is its own reward.
Like many beloved novels, The Once and Future King has a notorious Big Cry at the end, so be warned: you think it won’t work on you, and then it does. Equal parts familiar and inventive, this unconscionably beautiful book injects distinctly modern meaning into Arthurian myth by way of tactful anachronism, tackling areas of subversion that don’t often enter into retellings, and bending genre with aplomb. It’s also downright unfair, frankly, that this same book also manages to twist the knife in terms of the myth’s staple tragedies: if you know King Arthur, you know how it ends. The Once and Future King is just fresh enough to make it hurt.
In the same vein, Erin A. Craig’s House of Salt and Sorrows also makes use of a touchstone, recasting the twelve dancing princesses as doomed heiresses in an eerie, seaside town, with possibly-magical, possibly-murderous happenings at the heart of mysterious deaths. As the first book to be reviewed on this blog, it’ll probably always be a personal staple, but more than that, it reunites the fairy tale with its gloomier, gorier implications and takes on a deliciously unnerving dark-maritime aesthetic worthy of a menagerie of stories––that House of Salt and Sorrows stands alone makes it all the more dear.
Some pairings just work––Kiera Cass and palace love triangles are one of them. In The Betrothed, Cass dips her toes into secondary world fantasy, but with a deeply personal focus: we follow a hesitant maybe-future queen as her friendships weather the accompanying pressure and scrutiny, her conscience finds itself unmoored in the halls of power, and the King (unknowingly) goes up against a commoner for our heroine’s affections. Intrigue unfolds, and threats are brandished, but the book focuses these forces on the ties of love and family, capturing a truth rarely at hand in fantasy adventures: events of historical note ruin everything.
Fanny Price, Mansfield Park‘s lead, is more timid than most famed heroines of her stripe. When her wealthy adopted family victimizes her, she bows her head and and silently plays along, denying us the invigorating release of a tirade, but in cooperation with––or perhaps resulting from––this, Mansfield Park‘s satire makes a clean and memorable bite. Jane Austen looks at polite society with the eyes of a perpetual outsider denied the safety to defend herself from it, and it is through this that its duplicity, hostility, and exclusion come under harsher fire than they do in some of her other work. I’m calling it now: Austen’s most disliked also happens to be her best.
Loving Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is an inescapable curse. Though its wholesome American moralizing can grate on a modern reader, it offers kind glimpses at early artistic endeavors, warm but complicated family relationships, and an authentic grasp of the perennial adolescent question: in a world where you’re free to choose, but not free from necessity, where do you seek your future? Alcott gives us four sisters, and compelling answers among them, but the greatest gift of her novel is forgiveness; the assurance that, should you choose not to follow your dreams, you are still worthy of love.
Far less forgiving are the disquieting pages of Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s memoir of her time at three tech industry startups. Several years of distance have dimmed her––and our––faith in Silicon Valley’s ability to save the world, but this book’s slow burn of disillusionment takes those fallen hopes and makes them flesh, from the vaguely athletic clothes everyone at the office seems to be wearing to San Francisco’s fading culture. An off-kilter collectiveness to some of the prose––we realized it, but we didn’t say anything––only serves to refine the book’s unnerving core: the halls of power assume (and want) us to match them in every way.
Beth Revis’ Shades of Earth finishes her always memorable, always heart-wrenching Across the Universe trilogy, a generation-ship sci-fi adventure that, despite being quartered on an aging hunk of metal floating in empty space, has worlds of surprise up its sleeves. As a finale, it shoulders the kind of responsibility under which innumerable third books flounder, but Revis keeps the series alive with a widening gyre of paradigm-altering revelations that change things drastically without ever feeling like whiplash. Its immaculate pacing, unflappable faith in humankind, and imaginative worldbuilding set it favorably against standout episodes of Doctor Who, and, knowing me, that is among the highest compliments I can give.
Wide in scope and brilliantly executed, Isabel Wilkerson’s history of race in America, Caste, keenly observes and skillfully deconstructs how our flawed country both wilts under and feeds white supremacy. Wilkerson’s thesis, that we live under an arbitrary hierarchy that reinforces itself at the expense of talent, stability, and even life, paints a clearer picture of the tumultuous politics of recent years than many others––as Wilkerson describes, frankly and finally, any explanation that ignores racism as a vital component is incomplete. This book gets the United States, at an intuitive, deep-cutting level. It’s about the big geology and the human beings standing on the faults, as well as what awaits us if we allow the insidious scaffolding of our history to go unchallenged. Essential reading, for any American.
Magic is a fact of life in Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe, a fantasy adventure where the federal government regulates fairy circles and monsters are very much real. Ellie Bride, a Lipan Apache teenager with an investigative streak, is an illuminating protagonist to watch at work. With the ghost of her family dog, Kirby, at her side, as well as the occasional wise-cracking best friend, she unearths the true circumstances of her cousin Trevor’s untimely death, in a murder mystery that shines a light on the politics of magic in a world much like our own, while also nursing an adventurous spirit and an absorbing mythology. It’s almost staggering, everything this book manages to be at once, but it pulls it off like it’s nothing.
What books have you read and loved this year? Inquiring minds want to know, in the comments.☟