Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly discussion hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl (and formerly hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), and this week’s topic is the top ten books that surprised you (in a good way or a bad way), and I’m going to go with the more positive route, because usually if books are surprisingly bad, I just stop reading them or choose to forget about them (unless they’re legitimately awful. And that’s pretty rare).
My list will focus on the top ten books that surprised me in 2017, so it’s functioning sort of as a recap for last year’s reading as well, since I was a little lazy and perturbed by the lack of functioning keyboard to have any desire to write anything. Anyway, this list is not in ranking order, but in order from when I read it in the year, from the beginning of 2017 to the end of the year.
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I think I read this many, many years ago when I was much younger and much less aware of what science fiction could do in terms of exploring humanity and culture instead of merely exploring space. Ai, the main character of this book, is at first unsettled by the sense of duality and ambisexuality on Gethen, and this unsettled feeling is a direct exploration of how gender functions in our own society (granted, in 1969, the much-broadcast definitions were a little different than the conversations we’re having today, so some of it feels outdated). However, a lot of it feels so relevant, and it made me think and it made me wonder, and I think that’s what some of the best science fiction should do. “It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness… how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.”
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. Ever since I got my hands on an ARC from the table at work, I’ve been telling everyone I know to read this book. It’s relevant, it’s nuanced, it’s heart-wrenching. Though often hilarious and heartwarming at times, Thomas’s novel further reveals to us the consistent, prevalent institutional racism and broken criminal justice system in America in which so many people (without consequence!) continue to violate the civil rights of thousands because of the color of their skin. It will break your heart; it will make you angry. Read it. “Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right.”
The Stars are Legion, by Kameron Hurley. I read this book a year ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s sci-fi just how I like it. It’s gross, it’s visceral, and it’s an angry yell into the void of space. I mean, don’t you want to read about asexual ships that give birth to whatever the ship needs, cannibalistic women who eat their deformed young, and womb/uterus/placenta references (with all of the associated fluids) all over the place? Yes, you do. I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot or the characters because half of the enjoyment of this is getting to discover that for yourself. Just read it. ASAP. “When you understand what the world is, you have two choices: Become a part of that world and perpetuate that system forever and ever, unto the next generation. Or fight it, and break it, and build something new. The former is safer, and easier. The latter is scarier, because who is to say what you build will be any better?”
The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu. The thing I liked most about this collection of stories, aside from Liu’s deft skill at writing and blending several different genres, is that so many of the stories focus on the idea of storytelling and what that means for us as people and as a society. In the collection, you’ll read about the ways in which species across the universe record their stories for the present and the future (“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”), the ways in which society tells us stories to keep us controlled and how difficult it is to break the illusions (“Perfect Match”), the literal power of words (“The Literomancer”), and the literal preservation of memory to be “read” and its upsides and pitfalls (“Simulacrum”). “Time’s arrow is the loss of fidelity in compression. A sketch, not a photograph. A memory is a re-creation, precious because it is both more and less than the original.”
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Moby-Dick functions best for you, dear reader, when you are familiar with the history of the novel. I think I read this at a pertinent time in my life. Had I read it before I learned the history of the narrative, the novel, the American novel, religion and its function in the American novel, the personal life of Melville (and by extension Hawthorne), and postmodernism (and one can argue whether or not this novel is considered postmodern, but it’s different than anything else I’ve read from the time period and knowing how postmodernism works in a literary setting adds to my own consumption and enjoyment of the novel on some level because its lucidity is very much like James Joyce’s style), I probably wouldn’t have appreciated it as much as I do now. It’s a hefty novel, a undertaking, but it’s so incredibly worth it. It’s a love story, and you will wonder whether or not you are chasing your own white whale. “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”
The Whole Art of Detection, by Lyndsay Faye. I am so particular about my Sherlock Holmes pastiches. It’s so difficult to capture the essence of Doyle’s original stories while simultaneously making it new, and Faye does this with exemplary flair. All of these stories feel at once rooted in time and timeless, and Faye manages this with her effortless, captivating writing. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes in any capacity and love a good historical mystery, read this right away. Dust and Shadow, a mystery in which Holmes and Watson discover the true identity of Jack the Ripper, is just as engaging. “In the broad light of day, I could not give his tale nearly so much credence as I had granted it when sitting rapt before a midnight fireplace whilst the tempest without erased the natural world.”
Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer. This is one of those cerebral post-apocalyptic dystopian novels that will linger with you long after you finish it. This standalone novel from the author of the Southern Reach trilogy explores how humans abuse science and nature for technological or monetary gain, and Borne shows us the aftermath of that greed. The novel also explores what it means to be a person, what it means to love and then to let go of love, what it means to live and then to die, and what it means when one finds beauty in the midst of so much chaos. VanderMeer manages to pack so much description, emotion, and longing into such a short novel, and it’s a novel that will make you reread passages and sentences again and again because of their beauty and complexity. The companion novella, The Strange Bird, is just as compelling. “He was born, but I had borne him.”
Wake of Vultures, by Lila Bowen. This is a supernatural Western, and it’s AMAZING. This follows Nettie Lonesome, a half-black half-Comanche young woman, who sets out to discover herself, her identity, and her place in the world only to discover that there are monsters lurking everywhere. This is steeped in Native American folklore with a hefty dash of that Old West mythology. Nettie is resilient, disguises herself up as a man and takes on a new name or two in order to get what she wants out of life, and begins to use her skills for the betterment of herself and others once she realizes she has the capacity to do so. It’s also a fantastic story with so many twists and turns, and you won’t be able to put it down, because I certainly couldn’t. I can’t wait to read the rest of this series. “Your heart is not a rock that stands unchanging. It’s like water. It flows, it moves, it allows neither boulders nor canyons to stand in its way. It hardens and softens and expands to fill new spaces. You are still becoming yourself. And you have a lot to learn.”
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I really didn’t know what to expect from this when I received it as part of BookSparks’s summer reading challenge, but I didn’t expect to read a heartfelt story of a woman of color navigating that man’s world called Hollywood. It was such a breezy, gossipy (but deep) read, and it’s about Evelyn Hugo coming clean about her life and owning up to her flaws and essentially wanting to become real after being put on a pedestal her entire life. It’s about coming to terms with the reality that behind someone’s “perfect life” is a person who struggles with themselves and their daily lives just as much as the rest of us. I don’t really cry at books, but this one got me teary-eyed more than once, and that’s saying something. “They are just husbands. I am Evelyn Hugo. And anyway, I think once people know the truth, they will be much more interested in my wife.”
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang. I have so many feelings about this book (and this series), and all of them are good. SO GOOD. If you like -punk genres, you need to read this. If you like stories exploring identity and gender and what it means to be a person, you need to read this. If you just like engaging fantasy, you need to read this. In Yang’s Protectorate, gender is chosen (or not) by the person and sexuality is fluid, and it’s such an amazing exploration on those subjects. It made me feel less alone on the subject of presentation, and I think it’s one of those books that will make other people feel less alone on so many fronts. The second part is just as moving, and I am eagerly awaiting the third. “The saying goes, ‘The black tides of heaven direct the courses of human lives’. To which a wise teacher said, ‘But as with all the waters, one can swim against the tide.'”
After compiling this, a majority of the books have a similar theme: identity, discovery, and what it means to be yourself, and for me, 2017 was a lot of that, so it’s interesting to note that the books I read last year that have stuck with me reflect that theme as well.
Set within a system of decaying world-ships travelling through deep space, this breakout novel of epic science fiction follows a pair of sisters who must wrest control of their war-torn legion of worlds—and may have to destroy everything they know in order to survive.
On the outer rim of the universe, a galactic war has been waged for centuries upon hundreds of world-ships. But these worlds will continue to die through decay and constant war unless a desperate plan succeeds.
Anat, leader of the Katazyrna world-ship and the most fearsome raiding force on the Outer Rim, wants peace. To do so she offers the hand of her daughter, Jayd, to her rival. Jayd has dreamed about leading her mother’s armies to victory her whole life—but she has a unique ability, and that makes her leverage, not a leader. As Anat convinces her to spend the rest of her life wed to her family’s greatest enemy, it is up to Jayd’s sister Zan—with no stomach for war—to lead the cast off warriors she has banded together to victory and rescue Jayd. But the war does not go at all as planned…
In the tradition of The Fall of Hyperion and Dune, The Stars are Legion is an epic and thrilling tale about familial love, revenge, and war as imagined by one of the genre’s most imaginative new writers.
When you understand what the world is, you have two choices: Become a part of that world and perpetuate that system forever and ever, unto the next generation. Or fight it, and break it, and build something new. The former is safer, and easier. The latter is scarier, because who is to say what you build will be any better?
I read this book in March, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it or recommending it since. Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion is on its way to becoming (if it’s not already there) one of those must-read science fiction books if you’re into even the barest sliver of science fiction. Science fiction often explores that question of “what if” and reflects on current aspects of life that are problematic in some way. Today, women’s bodies are policed. They are often told they cannot choose for themselves when and how to reproduce, and if a woman is control of her sexuality, she is seen as a threat. I sell this as a “politically charged womb-punk space opera that will thrill you and make you rage, oh, and there are no male characters in this at all.” Most of the time, I get a look like “… what?” My roommate even thinks that me liking this book so much is weird, but this book, at least for me, speaks of certain aspects of an experience that is difficult to convey to someone who doesn’t have a body part that has been consistently policed by men in positions of power.
Aside from this being an amazing space opera, The Stars are Legion has a cast of brutally unlikable characters, blood and gore up the wazoo, and feels like it could have come right out of that wave of sff that was written in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The characters are unlikable and cruel and you can’t trust anyone, but you’ll be rooting for them in the end. The Stars are Legion is a an angry, visceral yell into the void of space, and the world within the covers is just an expanse waiting for you to live in it for a while, get pumped up, and want to go kick some ass in the real world.
I mean, don’t you want to read about asexual ships that give birth to whatever the ship needs, cannibalistic women who eat their deformed young, and womb/uterus/placenta references (with all of the associated fluids) all over the place? Yes, you do. I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot or the characters because half of the enjoyment of this is getting to discover that for yourself. Just read it. ASAP. The hardcover is out now, the ebook is h*ckin cheap, and the paperback is out in November.
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme thing hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is best reads (so far) of 2017! As of writing this post, I’ve read 65 books this year, and here are the ten that I think absolutely shone. Some were released this year, but not all of them! These are also not in any kind of order!
The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher. I think, like a lot of people, I regret not having read any of Carrie Fisher’s writing before her death. This memoir is one of the funniest memoirs I’ve read in a while, and she writes with an openness and a frankness I someday aspire to have.
Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman. It’s Gaiman. It’s Norse mythology.
The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden. A really lovely, atmospheric fairy tale with bits of Russian and Western fairy tale essences woven in. I’m really excited for the followup because so much excitement of the story seemed to happen in the last third.
Moby-Dick; or The Whale, by Herman Melville. Uh, if you would have told me a couple of years ago that Moby-Dick would become one of my top favorite novels of all time, I might have laughed in your face. But seriously, my dudes. This is a classic case of learning about the history surrounding a novel and then diving into it, because it makes the experience all the richer. I devoured this monstrous beast of a novel in mere days. DAYS.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. So heartbreaking, so touching, so relevant. I’ve been telling everyone to read this book.
The Stars are Legion, by Kameron Hurley. I pitch this to people who are looking for new science fiction to read like this: Do you like military-esque, dramatic sci-fi? Do you like weird sci-fi? Do you like gross sci-fi? How do you feel about womb-punk? (What? they often ask.) I respond with a: this book is like a birth-is-war and war-is-birth kind of thing. I generally get one of two responses: I’M SOLD OMG and YOU READ SOME WEIRD SHIT, MEG. Read it, now.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu. THIS JUST WON A LOCUS AWARD and has a lot of other accolades. The stories range from fantasy to sci-fi and are all well written and full of life. It’s just a good anthology, period.
The Whole Art of Detection, by Lyndsay Faye. I don’t think I can stop babbling about this or thinking about this collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches. They’re just so well done and evoke Doyle’s atmosphere so well while at the same time being fresh and modern. I’ll read anything Faye writes, and she’ll always be at the top of my recommendations lists.
Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer. Flying bears? A blobby, morphing person-thing? Examinations on what it means to be a person? Yes, yes, yes. This feels like an Atwood extension that’s thoroughly VanderMeer’s stuff. If you’ve read his Southern Reach trilogy and liked it, why haven’t you picked this up yet? It’s dystopian, but it’s not an in-your-face one. Everything is centralized, and the characters are so well developed.
Wake of Vultures, by Lila Bowen. THIS ONE CAME OUT OF NOWHERE?? I’ve seen lots of writers I like mention this and blurb for it, so when it was a Kindle daily deal, I bought it. I didn’t start reading it until a bit later, and it was everything I needed at that moment: a protagonist dealing with gender identity and expression, the old west, MONSTERS and creepy things, AH so many things that I’ll get into in a proper review soon.
THIS CONCLUDES THE TEN. I’m thinking I’ll do a ten best for the second half of the year and then do a final post narrowing those twenty down to the overall best ten of 2017!
#TomeTopple is a readathon I found on Twitter at the end of March, and I decided to take the challenge! Readers were challenged to read “tomes” from their TBRs, and the books had to be 500+ pages! I picked the following titles to read:
The Mirror Empire – Kameron Hurley (608 pages)
Moby-Dick, or The Whale – Herman Melville (896 pages)
A Gathering of Shadows – V.E. Schwab (512 pages)
The Dinosaur Lords – Victor Milan (592 pages)
I picked four thinking that I’d get through at least two of them with a decent chunk out of the third, but I ended up finishing three! I read a total of 2,016 pages for those first three tomes, and I know I read a couple hundred pages from other books that I’ve been reading (mostly from my Kindle because I was too lazy to hold up those bricks in bed).
I really enjoyed all three of the books I read, and Moby-Dick was probably my favorite read out of the three. After reading Melville’s letter to Hawthorne that was all over the internet literature sphere last year and after having read Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story, Moby-Dick shot up on my TBR. I think it’s one of those classics that truly benefits from historic and personal context. I also really enjoyed the second in the Shades of Magic trilogy and can’t wait to read the final book. And I’m also looking forward to reading the next book in the Worldbreaker Saga!
This was my first readathon ever, and I can’t wait to participate in the next one!
On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past... while a world goes to war with itself.
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. At the heart of this war lie the pacifistic Dhai people, once enslaved by the Saiduan and now courted by their former masters to provide aid against the encroaching enemy.
Stretching from desolate tundra to steamy, semi-tropical climes seething with sentient plant life, this is an epic tale of blood mages and mercenaries, emperors and priestly assassins who must unite to save a world on the brink of ruin.
As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war; a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family to save his skin; and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father's people or loyalty to her alien Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.
In the end, one world will rise - and many will perish.
And some of us believe in freedom of the individual over the tyranny of the common good.
After reading Kameron Hurley’s Stars are Legion, I immediately wanted to read everything else she’s written. I picked up The Mirror Empire at work because it was the only other thing aside from Stars are Legion that we had in stock by her at the moment, and I started reading it as my first pick for a Tome Topple read-a-thon this month. I wasn’t disappointed, and it was one of the best epic fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time.
The Mirror Empire subverts the popular tropes found in epic, patriarchal fantasy. While not as visceral and gross as Stars are Legion, this world Hurley has created in The Worldbreaker Saga certainly skeeved me out at times. Some of the buildings are organic, some of the weapons are organic (and attached to bodies by way of seeds in the wrists, of which I imagined coming out much like Wolverine’s claws???), some of the magic is blood magic. It’s the sort of fantasy with the perfect balance of violence and horror that gives you chills and thrills down your spine.
The story is complex and ambitious and takes a little while to get used to because nearly everything about the worlds in The Mirror Empire is different from our own familiarities. It calls into question our own ideas and expectations of gender, gender roles, family structures, and “how things have always been done.” The way in which Hurley does this is subtle. The questions and observations about our own society are covert but become a series of questions you as a reader begin to ask yourself as you explore the lives of the main characters in the story. For example: why is it generally acceptable to us as a society for women to be kept small, beautiful, and always ready for (male) consumption, but when it’s subverted and the men are kept small, beautiful, and always ready for (female) consumption, it’s striking and odd? I enjoyed the trope subversion immensely, and I want to keep reading the series to see where she goes with it next.
It’s certainly a mirror that reflects the best and worst of the expectations of the fantasy genre and our society, and if that’s an intentional pun, I like it. I think if you like epic fantasy and are looking for something new and different in the genre, you should check this one out!