Book Reviews, Reviews

Reading During the Plague Year

I read twenty-two books this year. It started out with a great Christmas present, Snow Hunters, by Paul Yoon and ended with a friend’s memoir. Again, I trended toward science-fiction this year as I needed escape. While not some definitive ranking, the books are in a rough semblance of those I enjoyed the most down to the least.

  • Circe by Madeline Miller was more than just a retelling of the Odyssey from Circe’s perspective. The novel is Circe’s life story and the roles forced upon women by patriarchy.
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu was unlike any book I read. It’s a satire that skewers racism against Asian Americans. The frame of the book is a screenplay for which Asian people can only fit certain roles.
  • Snow Hunters was wonderful. It’s a quiet, slim novel full of humanity.
  • Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons are late 80’s and early 90’s science-fiction. The plot was incredibly complicated and the structure of the first novel drew upon The Canterbury Tales. These novels feel like a counterpoint to The Culture Series by Iain Banks.
  • The Ghurka and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Hossain was a delightful mashup of science-fiction and fantasy with a vein of humor running throughout the novel. I feel like this is book may have been missed by a lot of readers, but it was a total treat to read.
  • How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang took familiar Western tropes but placed them in a novel where the main characters are Chinese. As in Interior Chinatown we witness racism baked into the United States. The novels pair well together as they examine both the physical and existential places that Asian Americans have been relegated in American society.
  • Rosewater and The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson took place in Nigeria where an alien invasion has upset the power balance and is proceeding at a slow burn. I haven’t read the final book in the trilogy, but intend to as these novels are wonderfully inventive.
  • Network Effect by Martha Wells was another fun “Murderbot” novel.
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett was both enjoyable and forgettable. My main take away was the ending rushes upon the reader.
  • Watershed by Mark Barr was fun to read. Mark is a friend and his first novel was tightly written and delivers the reader to Tennessee as electricity is being brought to the region through the creation of hydroelectric dams.
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal was another fun read, partly due to its being set in the 1950s and written by a current writer. Science-fiction from the ’50s is full of casual misogyny. Women are wives, mothers, or secretaries. Robinette Kowal pushes against that sexism with her main character who is a smart, brave woman who desires to become an astronaut.  I’ll probably read the other two books in the series.
  • The Light Brigade by Cameron Hurley involved time travel and corporate soldiers. I don’t remember much more beyond enjoying it. There’s a Starship Troopers meets Twelve Monkeys vibe to it.
  • The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern was a little bit of a miss due to a structure that tried to create its own mythology through fragments of stories. I enjoyed the book; but, it could have been tighter.
  • Sawbill: A Search for Place by Jennifer Case was a memoir written by another friend. Jennie and I both attended the same writing program in Nebraska, though at different times, and I enjoyed her perspective on the prairie and Lake Superior, another area that holds special meaning for me. Having identified a place that was home to her, she struggled with making home elsewhere as her career carried her further from the North Shore and Boundary Waters.
  • Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky was deep into the world-building and imagining alien evolution at the expense of effective storytelling. 
  • Chances Are… by Richard Russo was pretty bland. I would call it a self-congratulatory baby boomer novel. I picked it up at a little free library and returned it after I finished the book.
  • Luster by Raven Lailani was a novel that received a ton of buzz this year. However, at times I didn’t believe in the overall narrative and didn’t care much for the book. Again, maybe I was not the right audience for the novel.
  • The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain Banks was bloated, meandering, and somewhat pointless. One of the later novels in The Culture Series, it lacked the originality of previous books in the series.
  • Best Served Cold by Joe Ambercrombie was best served not at all. The “revenge story” is so tired that if you don’t do something original with it, then don’t do it at all.
  • Find Me by Laura van der Berg was set in Boston during a, wait for it, pandemic. Ha! The novel didn’t work for me and I either didn’t finish it or skimmed the ending.
  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir was like a young adult novel that felt off to me. Either I was the wrong audience or the writer has a lot of room in which to grow. Anyway, I abandoned the novel and didn’t look back.

What books do you recommend for this year?