As the first week of January 2017 draws to a close, I’m looking back what I read in 2016. To do it in style, here’s a list of sixteen superlatives to sum up the 54 works I read last year. Note that in certain cases, I did list two books in a category if one of them was a reread.
- Favorite Books:
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King
Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson (reread)
My father-in-law is a great fan of Stephen King and recommended his collection Different Seasons. Since one of my 2016 reading challenges included reading short story collections, I thought that it would be a great fit. The second story, Apt Pupil, ended up being much too much for me, and I only read the first – Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. That was enough though. It’s a nearly perfect story. It brought me to tears and cemented my respect for Stephen King as an amazing author.
I also had a lot of fun rereading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy this year. It’s one of my favorite series of all time. If you’re a fantasy fan who hasn’t read it yet, I’m envious of the possibility of reading it for the first time – please add it to your TBR! If you’re not a fantasy fan, this probably isn’t the best introduction to the genre – I would suggest The Hero and the Crown (which all you fantasy fans also need to add to your TBR if you haven’t already read it!).
- Most Underrated (in My Opinion): Six Months, Three Days, by Charlie Jane Anders
(The link above sends you directly to the story, which is available for free online.)
I determined the most underrated and most overrated works by comparing my own Goodreads rating to the average. This story won the 2012 Hugo for Best Novelette (a work between 7,500 and 17,500 words), so I’m clearly not the only one who thinks it’s a five-star read. However, the average rating on Goodreads is just 3.66. Part of me wonders if the ratings were affected by the Hugo kerfuffle that’s occurred the past few years. Or perhaps, it spoke to me more than others. Whichever is the case, this story is short enough and easy enough to obtain, that I think you need to give it a shot – it’s the story of two people who can see the future and how it affects their everyday lives. I found it moving and thought-provoking; Anders is now on my list of authors to read more of this year.
- Most Overrated (in My Opinion): Calamity, by Brandon Sanderson
Oof. I feel obligated, even though I’ve already spent time in this post extolling Sanderson’s Mistborn series, to say that he is one of my favorite authors – one of the few authors whose work I will automatically buy. But this final volume in the Reckoners trilogy was unimpressive. Usually, the conclusions of his books and his series are the very best part, but Sanderson’s characteristic climax scenes were nowhere to be found and the overall explanation for the changed world of the story was sorely lacking. I’m still a Sanderson fan, but I was disappointed with Calamity.
- Least Favorite Book: Romancing the Duke, by Tessa Dare
I’m sorry, Tessa Dare. Despite a steadfast and strong-willed heroine with a devoted fandom (don’t ask), I couldn’t bring myself to even like the hero of the story, which is fairly essential for a romance novel. I gave this two stars on Goodreads, but gave Dare another try with Do You Want to Start a Scandal, which was better.
- Best Return to My Reading Roots: the Beka Cooper trilogy, by Tamora Pierce
Like many fantasy-loving girls growing up in the new millennium, I loved Tamora Pierce. Scratch that – I still love Tamora Pierce. Most of her books are set in a fairly standard fantasy world – feudal kingdoms with mythical creatures and magic; her protagonists, though, are typically young women who are breaking down the glass ceilings too often found in this standard fantasy setting. In this series, Beka Cooper, our main character, is a member of the Provost’s Guard, essentially a medieval police officer. I read all three books of the Beka Cooper series in three weeks and it refreshed my endless love for Tamora Pierce and her books.
- Favorite Book Published in 2016: This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, by Melody Warnick
I only read five books published in 2016 last year, and quite honestly, none of them were on my top ten list. However, as a person in the process of settling into her home and trying to invest herself in her community, I liked This Is Where You Belong – I would recommend it to fans of Laura Vanderkam and Gretchen Rubin.
- Newest Book: Do You Want to Start a Scandal, by Tessa Dare (published September 27, 2016)
I’m still feeling my way around the romance genre and I picked this one because the summary sounded a lot like the board game Clue. And I kept saying the title to the tune of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman.” There wasn’t too much mystery after all, but still a pretty good read – I gave it three stars on Goodreads.
- Oldest Work: Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare (published 1601)
I read this to prepare myself for seeing Twelfth Night in Louisville in January and it reinforced my belief that the worst way to learn about Shakespeare is by reading his work silently and on one’s own – the play’s the thing! I’m glad I read the book (script) beforehand, but seeing it on stage makes his work come to life: after all, that’s how it was meant to be seen.
The top left picture is cover art for Six Months, Three Days featured on Tor.com; the bottom left picture is a minimalist movie poster I found on Pinterest; and the picture on the right is the cover art on my copy of The Beacon at Alexandria.
- Longest Books:
And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts – 656 pages
The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson (reread) – 796 pages
These are some decently long books, but I’ve got some 1000 pagers on my shelf, so let’s see if I can beat this in 2017!
- Shortest Work: Six Months, Three Days, by Charlie Jane Anders – 26 pages
See, it’s short enough for you to read right now!
- Favorite Nonfiction: And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts
And the Band Played On covers in a period too close to modern times to be covered in history classes, but long enough ago to be a distant thought for most young people today. The reality of the AIDS epidemic in the 1970s and 1980s is hard to believe, but essential to understand. Shilts writes clearly and straightforwardly, brilliantly communicating what it was like to live through those times.
- Favorite Mystery:
A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters
Have His Carcase, by Dorothy Sayers (reread)
My favorite new mystery, A Morbid Taste for Bones, was the start of a series, thank goodness! I’m looking forward to hearing what happens next to Brother Cadfael, the unofficial detective of his twelfth century Welsh monastery.
And of course, I can’t neglect one of my most favorite mystery series of all time. Rereading Have His Carcase, starring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, reminded me just how much I love this Golden Age mystery series. If you’ve liked Agatha Christie in the past, but wished for more characterization, Sayers is the author for you.
- Favorite Historical Fantasy: the Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik
I originally had categories for both fantasy and historical fiction, probably my two favorite genres, but had trouble picking favorites. When it comes to historical fantasy, though, there was a clear winner. In this series, Novik reimagines the Napoleonic wars – with dragons. More fun than a 800-page history of Napoleon and more nuanced than Anne McCaffrey – a real winner in my book. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series in 2017.
- Favorite Science Fiction: Bloodchild and Other Stories, by Octavia Butler
Wow. Butler is more famous as a novelist than as a short story writer, but this collection showcases her talent exquisitely. I can hardly pick a favorite.
- Most Read Author: Brandon Sanderson – 4 books
Okay, this is the last time I’ll bring up Brandon Sanderson. I read the three books of the original Mistborn trilogy plus Calamity.
- Most Likely to Reread:
Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
The Beacon at Alexandria, by Gillian Bradshaw
Cold Comfort Farm is a perfect parody of the Gothic novel that is excellent even for those who love them (and I count myself among those numbers). Flora, our protagonist, ends up at a ramshackle country manor with her depressed relatives, both of which are supposedly cursed, and proceeds to wonder why they don’t spruce the place up and get out more. It’s very funny – for self-actualized Bronte fans.
The Beacon at Alexandria is the kind of book I really like to reread – an adventure story of a young woman making her own place in the world without giving up on her dreams. (See Tamora Pierce, above.) In this case, in the fourth century of the common era, Charis dreams to travel to Alexandria and study medicine. Unique and recommended.
Top Ten Tuesday belongs to The Broke and the Bookish.
This week’s prompt asks us for the best authors that we read for the first time in 2016. In no particular order, here are mine.
- Gillian Bradshaw
I read Bradshaw’s The Beacon at Alexandria, the story of a young woman growing up in the fourth century of the common era who yearns to be a doctor. Reading that book, which, sadly, appears to be out of print, opened my eyes to the rest of Bradshaw’s impressive oeuvre of historical fiction. Next up? I think The Sand-Reckoner, a fictional take on the life of Archimedes.
- Ellis Peters
There’s nothing like a good series, especially a good mystery series. I’d been feeling a lack of one to follow for quite some time, until I read the first book in the Brother Cadfael series, A Morbid Taste for Bones (mentioned in my post on crime-solving clergy) – and just like that, problem solved.
- Charlie Jane Anders
I read Anders’ short story Six Months, Three Days online for free and it did just what it was supposed to – made me interested in trying out more of her work! Next, I’d like to read her novel All the Birds in the Sky, which is sold as a cross between science fiction and fantasy, my two great loves.
- Zen Cho
I read Sorcerer to the Crown in February and I am eagerly awaiting its sequel. In the meantime, I have the novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo to tide me over.
- Barbara Vine
Although I enjoyed reading A Dark-Adapted Eye when I was in Colorado this year, something about it didn’t click with me until I realized that Vine’s books were more works of suspense than mystery. Now her A Fatal Inversion is on my list.
- Shirley Jackson
After reading “The Lottery” in middle school (I know, what were they thinking?), I took a fourteen year break from Shirley Jackson. Although I was a bit nervous about picking up a “horror” novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle‘s masterful writing and characterization (with a good helping of suspense!) struck just the right note with me.
- Randy Shilts
Shilts’ And the Band Played On, a history of the AIDS epidemic in the 1970s and 1980s, was my favorite nonfiction read of 2016. He’s also published a biography of Harvey Milk and a history of gay and lesbian soldiers. If he tells their stories as well as he did in And the Band Played On, they are more than worth reading.
- Amy Stewart
Normally, I couldn’t care less about the Roaring Twenties. But Girl Waits with Gun, where the protagonist is the one of the first women to become a sheriff’s deputy in the United States, is an exception. Luckily, Stewart written a sequel, Lady Cop Makes Trouble.
- Mary Stewart
For our second author named Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting was an excellent example of modern Gothic suspense – next time you’re in a Gothic mood, check her out!
- Daniel José Older
I read Half-Resurrection Blues, the first book in the Bone Street Rumba trilogy, and I really wish it had been longer. Luckily, the sequel (Midnight Taxi Tango) is already out – and focusing on a minor character who I really wanted more of! The final book is expected to be out in 2017, so don’t be left out, fantasy fans! Catch up on this trilogy soon
Readers Imbibing Peril is an annual event, hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings, focused on reading horror, mystery, suspense, etc. during the months of September and October.
This is my first year participating, but I hope not my last! In order of how much I enjoyed them, here are my RIP reads.
- Have His Carcase, by Dorothy Sayers (note: this is 8th in a series, so don’t start here!)
- The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Angela Carter
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
- A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters
- A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine
- Half-Resurrection Blues, by Daniel Jose Older
- The Lotus Palace, by Jeannie Lin
Nonfiction November is an event encouraging us to dive into some real-life reads this month! This week, we’re writing about 2016 in nonfiction (so far).
So far in 2016, I’ve read seven nonfiction books – three of them in May alone!
These seven reads are ordered by how much I’d recommend them.
- And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts
Hands down, this is the best nonfiction I’ve read all year. It recounts the AIDS epidemic of the 1970s and ’80s – a time too recent and a subject too “controversial” to be taught in history classes. I learned a great deal about science, culture, and public policy, but Shilts makes this tome (it does clock in at over 600 pages!) read like a page-turning novel. Highly recommended.
- This Is Where You Belong, by Melody Warnick
A great read for when you’ve just moved to a new place, this book is similar to works by Laura Vanderkam and Gretchen Rubin. It’s full of practical tips about getting to know and getting to love where you live (even if you’ve lived there for quite some time). It sparked some interesting conversations at my book club!
- Thirty Million Words, by Dana Suskind
I didn’t rate this book too highly on Goodreads, largely because I read an article that covered most of the highlights, so I felt as though the longer version dragged. But this subject – frequently talking to children, even before they can talk themselves – is so important, that if I gave out parenting advice (ha!) I’d recommend this all the time. Recommended for people thinking about becoming parents or people interested in language.
- Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell reminds me a bit of Bill Bryson – she puts her own humorous spin on a subject, but always manages to help you walk away smarter for having read her work. In this work, she journeys to locations associated with the United States’ first three presidential assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley). However, between traveling and splitting time between the three men, it felt choppy at times.
- Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl
Ruth Reichl was once the food critic for the New York Times – a job that required her to don disguises while eating at restaurants to keep management and waitstaff in the dark. I enjoyed it, but if you’re looking for food memoirs, I’d recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle or Julia Child’s My Life in France. A+ title though.
- The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean
I have a couple of orchids in my office at work and it was fun to learn more about them. However, orchids are really only half the book – the titular orchid thief (who stole endangered species from public land) was the other half, and he’s not nearly as interesting.
- The Confidence Effect, by Grace Killelea
This book is supposed to give advice to career women, but I don’t feel like I learned anything. There’s plenty of books out there with the same themes, so I’d check out something else instead.
2014 was the first year I set two reading challenges for myself. That year they were focused on my own books and habits – specifically, an “off the shelf” challenge to read books I already owned and a rereading challenge. I intended to read 12 of each, but that proved to be too much! (In 2015 and 2016, my goal was to read six books per challenge.)
Off the Shelf Challenge
- The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
- The Skull Mantra, Eliot Pattison
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
- Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
- Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
- The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
- Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
- The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
- Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen
- Nerilka’s Story, by Anne McCaffrey
- Watership Down, by Richard Adams
- Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie
- A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
In some ways, these two challenges were extremely successful – Death Comes for the Archbishop and Life After Life are two of my favorite books now and rereading Watership Down showed me that it was so much more than a children’s classic.
However, there were some parts that fell flat. I’d been looking forward to reading The Stars My Destination for some time – it’s a science fiction classic based on The Count of Monte Cristo for goodness’ sake! Except it’s grossly sexist and glorifies rape. I ought to do a critical reading to post here, but that would require reading it again, and I’m not sure I’m up for it.
Soon, I’ll post my 2015 challenges and following that, my progress on my 2016 challenges!
Top Ten Tuesday belongs to The Broke and the Bookish.
This week’s prompt asks what books are on our fall to-be-read (TBR) lists. Here’s mine, with bonus stats at the end.
- This is Where You Belong, by Melody Warnick
My book club with coworkers voted on reading this book, a memoir of sorts along the lines of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project or Happier at Home that focuses on loving the community you live in, beyond the four walls that make up your house. I will be hosting our discussion in October, so it’s nearly guaranteed that I’ll finish this one!
- Dream Cities, by Wade Graham
The book club that I co-run as part of a professional organization is reading this September through December. Yes, it’s a short book that probably doesn’t require the span of four months to get through, but we go chapter by chapter and host discussions online. Dream Cities traces the history of urban planning through theoretical and actual visions of the future, from skyscraper cities to suburban malls.
- Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, by Lisa Randall
This is my third and final nonfiction pick, which I received for Christmas in 2015. And before anyone says it’s an unusual present, I’d like to point out that the theme is interconnectedness between the large and small, between our lives and the cosmos – a perfect theme for the holidays, I think. I was recently reminded of this book when the author appeared in Discover magazine discussing the periodic nature of mass extinctions on Earth. Fun!
- The Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson (reread)
Earlier in 2016, I read the three books of Brandon Sanderson’s original Mistborn series in preparation for reading the newest books set in that world. If you haven’t heard of this series and you’re a fantasy fan, start on it as soon as you can. It’s a very traditional fantasy set-up, but Sanderson does amazing things with it. The Alloy of Law, set a few hundred years after the original trilogy, is followed by two books that I haven’t read yet: Shadows of Self and The Bands of Mourning and I’m excited to see what comes next.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Written in 1938, Hurston’s book is the oldest on the list and the only one old enough to be considered a classic. I’m looking forward to it because (from what I understand) it focuses on telling the story of Janie’s life instead of having a driving plot, a quality that many of my favorite classic books have.
- A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny
From here on out, all the books will be eligible for Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) XI, an event focused on reading “dark and stormy” books (mysteries, gothic novels, paranormal tales, etc.) in the months of September and October. This is the second book in Penny’s Inspector Gamache series that I began last year. Though it’s set in Canada, the first book (Still Life) reminded me of nothing so much as a classic English countryside mystery with deeper characterization. I’m in need of a new mystery series, so let’s hope the rest of the books are just as good as I’ve heard.
- Half-Resurrection Blues, by Daniel José Older
I’m a couple chapters into Half-Resurrection Blues, a book I was reluctant to get start: it’s an urban fantasy with a contemporary setting, which I rarely read, preferring either historical fantasy or invented settings. Dealing with the undead in New York isn’t usually my jam. And … it’s got a bad cover. So far, though, I’m liking it – strangely, it reminds me a lot of So You Want to Be a Wizard, the first book of a favorite series from my youth.
- Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
Speaking of the undead in New York actually – here we are again. Zone One is a different take on the zombie apocalypse, narrated by a first responder who’s helping to secure Manhattan in the aftermath. Colson Whitehead has been in the press a lot recently for his latest book, The Underground Railroad, which has been nominated for a National Book Award and selected for Oprah’s Book Club. If your library’s all out of his latest though, check out Whitehead’s backlist and give Zone One a try with me.
- Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal
I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey in 2014 because it described as a fantasy novel written by Jane Austen. Even with that promising recommendation, it fell flat for me. But Kowal intrigues me and I’m glad to have a new book of hers to try. She’s sticking with historical fantasy for this story, but in this case, it’s set during the Great War (World War I) in England, where our protagonist is a medium for the Spirit Corps aiding the war effort by collecting intel from those killed in action. I have high hopes for this one, especially considering that it’s been recommended by Brandon Sanderson (see above!) on Goodreads.
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
To close out the list is another historical fantasy: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is set in an alternate England, where magic is possible, during the Napoleonic Wars. I say possible because magic has been purely theoretical for a long time … until, that is, the titular protagonists appear on the scene. Though this may not seem to fit the theme of Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) XI, as I said earlier, I’ve seen this book on many lists of modern Gothic novels (conveniently, my other passion after historical fantasy).
- 7 fiction / 3 nonfiction
- 10 English language authors
- 5 works of speculative fiction
- Shortest: Their Eyes Were Watching God (227 pages) / Longest: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (782 pages)
- Oldest: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) / Newest: Ghost Talkers (August 2016)
- 9 living authors / 1 deceased
- 8 U.S. authors / 1 Canadian / 1 English
- 7 white authors / 2 black authors / 1 Latino author
- 6 women / 4 men
I discovered C.C. Benison‘s Father Christmas series in 2014, reading the three published books in the span of three months. Last year, however, I discovered that the next book in the series is indefinitely on hold.
Turning to Benison’s Jane Bee mysteries is a viable option, but in the meantime, I’ve collected a short list of other crime-solving clergy in fiction, some of which I’ve read and some which are new to me.
- The Innocence of Father Brown, by G.K. Chesterton, fulfills the classic slot for this category as well as the short story slot. Given that I am working on both reading more classics and reading more short stories, this ought to be next on my reading list. Making it even easier, it’s available for free on Project Gutenberg in the U.S. Published in 1910, the stories follow Roman Catholic priest and amateur sleuth Father Brown in England. Be forewarned that Chesterton was also the author of several religious tomes and these stories feature religion more than most books on this list.
- The Skull Mantra, by Eliot Pattison, on the other hand, doesn’t quite fit this list. Our protagonist, Shan Tao Yun, is not a man of the cloth himself, despite being held in a Tibetan prison with Buddhist monks. However, the land of Tibet and the world of Buddhism is essential to the plot and I couldn’t help but include it. This is not an easy book to read at times – personally, I struggled with keeping the military hierarchy and Chinese bureaucracy straight in my head – but I can promise you it’s worth it. The Skull Mantra is highly recommended.
- A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters, has been on my “to read” list for a while. For someone who read and reread Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice in my younger days, the story of Brother Cadfael of Shrewsbury Abbey seems right up my alley. The series (oh yes – did I mention this is the first of 20 books?) explores more than than just murder and mystery, but also the Wales of the 12th century history.
- Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akunin, features our first woman detective of this list, the titular Sister Pelagia, a Russian Orthodox nun. Taking place at the turn of the 20th century, she aids her bishop in his family affairs with some of her less ecclesiastical skills. If The Sound of Music‘s Maria turned to private detection instead of romance, I’m pretty sure this is what would’ve resulted. I’ve read the first book in this trilogy, and I look forward to reading the others.
- The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, is more renowned for the author’s scrupulous historical research than the mystery. But what’s not to like about a 14th century Italian abbey where not all is as it appears? Translated from the Italian, Brother William is our hero, who must take on duties beyond his job description and discover the motivation behind serial murders at the monastery.
- The Novice’s Tale, by Margaret Frazer, is the first of more than a dozen mysteries taking place at an English convent in the 1400s. Our heroine Sister Frevisse must investigate the death of one of St. Frideswide’s patrons who has come to prevent her niece from taking her vows. Whether it’s the convent politics or those focus on women in the medieval age, I can’t wait to read this one.
I’m incredibly fond of this microgenre – the only thing that’s missing is some nonfiction! If anyone out there knows some true stories, hook me up!