My Best Reads of 2016

Every year, I try to read one hundred books. I’ll be closing out this year with a total of 103. Below I’ve listed my top ten, the ones that most stuck with me and moved me. My top reads this year were almost unfailingly harrowing and dark, possibly a sign of the times?

Here are a few diagnostics on my reading, as I do like to keep track of my reading diversity lest I slip into bad reading habits.

Fiction vs. non-fiction: 79/21

Poetry: 3

Male authors vs. female: 31/70

Multi-author anthologies: 2

Books written by PoC: 16

Indie-pubbed books: 11

pre-19th century books: 1

19th century books: 1

20th century books: 23

21st century books: 78

And my top 10 reads for 2016:

Blood & Earth, by Kevin Bales (2016): An unflinching look at modern slavery. One of the key points emphasized throughout the book was the way in which climate change and deforestation are related to the exploitation of people. Chilling, because the problem is so big, and humanity has so little ability to overcome its own weaknesses to fix these massive and likely world-destroying problems. I read this right before the election of Donald Trump, and I was pretty much in a dark hole of depression for weeks. Not sure I’ve crawled out of it yet, but I prefer to be informed rather than not. Required reading for understanding the massive and complex problems of slavery and deforestation and how they are related.

The Fifth Season, by NK Jemison (2015): Complex and fascinating adult fantasy with a well-constructed world and completely new and different magic. Like all the best fantasy, the book explored themes relevant to the world we live in today in symbolic layers.

Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose (1996): All the well-researched details of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in one well-told tale! My favorite things in this book were the details: men ate up to 9 pounds of meat per day, native women in Oregon wrapped ropes around their legs to create “swelling” that was a sign of beauty and status, squirrels made massive seasonal migrations with millions of animals traveling together. I enjoyed the treatment of the white men involved in the story (not so much any of the women or Native Americans. Although Ambrose did try, he’s an historian of the old-school, and if the historical record did not record much, he didn’t fill in gaps with supposition) I thought this book was, on the whole, a complex and fascinating exploration of a strange and particular dream and how it manifested, and a compassionate analysis of the men who pushed it into reality.

Sold, by Patricia McCormick (2006): A realistic tale of a girl’s harrowing life in Nepal and India, told in verse. This book has been much criticized for being “missionary” in tone, but my feeling is that it was a genuine attempt to explore a real problem and the existing means by which young women sold into sex slavery can get out. Many missionaries do vital human rights work, doing more to help, I imagine, than the folks criticizing the book because a white westerner happened to be the person who helped our main character out of her tragic situation. Yes, cultural differences need to be respected, but girls who are exploited and oppressed by the culture they live in deserve basic human rights, and it often IS well-meaning “westerners” who have the means to help, and in my opinion, that is a moral imperative to do so.

Men Explain Things to Me (2014): Rebecca Solnit’s seminal work about what it’s like to be a woman with a voice in the world. Her essays are always engaging and offer a fresh and unwavering perspective on Feminism today. She is an excellent essayist, able to capture complex thoughts and make new connections in her language.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (1996): This book wins the award for most un-put-down-able this year. Krakauer’s true story about climbing Everest exposes the extraordinary hubris in the mountaineering community, and its fatal and disastrous consequences. This book will also make you think about the moral ramifications of “eco” and “adventure” tourism in a new light. I’ll be staying home to walk in the (very manageable) Marin hills, thank you.

The Gilded Hour, by Sarah Donati (2015): Rich historical fiction about two women supporting the initial emergence of birth control in Gilded Age America. The story was very engaging, but more, I appreciated the deep exploration of the lives of women during this era, and what birth control meant to them, versus what it means to someone like me, who has always had easy access to it. It was, quite literally, a matter of life and death for them—and yet the cultural resistance to allowing them access to it was deep and strong. This book showed the effects of this devaluing of female life in both harrowing and compassionate ways. It made me think about how many women in the world today are still in this exact same situation—unable to choose or control their pregnancies, their bodies literally falling apart with every successive pregnancy, their existing children threatened with loss of their mother with every subsequent birth.

The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski (1965): A disturbing tale  about how WWII affected a young boy. Reading this book was like looking at a painting by Salvador Dali—surreal and creepy, but almost perfectly executed. When I was reading, I didn’t think I could bear it, and I didn’t think it would make this list by any stretch of the imagination, but the resonance it still holds in my mind confirms it is a read of power and endurance. I need a stronger word than harrowing to describe this one, especially after reading a bit about Mr. Kosinski’s real life.

The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah (2015): Another disturbing tale of World War II, though this one was completely different from The Painted Bird. This one is about how war affected women, and I really enjoyed the intimate look at two sisters’ lives in France during the war. Like nearly all the books in this list, this one made me cry, but in this one it was because I was so invested in the two characters’ lives and story (rather than just from all the harrowing realities). If an author can get me to care so much about a character, that’s good story-telling.

Next year I’m going to continue to try to read more non-fiction and diverse literature. I’d like to try to read more work from earlier times.

Here’s a link to my complete Goodreads challenge if you’d like to see all 103 books I read this year: https://www.goodreads.com/user_challenges/3762052

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My Ten Best Reads of 2015

Every year I make a goal on Goodreads to read one hundred books. My book selection process is pretty loose—a lot of serendipity is involved. I tend to read books that fall into my lap or that I can get for free at the library, although this year I was actively trying to read more non-fiction.

Here are a few stats from my reading year:

I read 110 books that I reported on Goodreads: 79 were fiction, 3 were volumes of poetry, and 28 were non-fiction. I guess it is hard to change a reader’s stripes. Even so, 28 non-fiction books was an increase from the year before.

I tend to favor books by women, although I don’t actively seek out books by author gender. I read 59 books by women, 42 by men, and 9 that were anthologies or co-written with both genders represented.

After reviewing my stats I decided that next year my main goal will still be to read more non-fiction. I also want to whittle away on my Goodreads “to-read” list, so I’ll actively seek out books from that.

Here’s a link to my 2015 reading challenge.

Here is my list of my ten best reads of 2015 in no particular order. They weren’t necessarily published in 2015, I just happened to find and read them this year.

1) Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler

This was my first Octavia Butler book but it won’t be my last. I loved the vast scope of the historical story and the abstract mythos of masculinity and femininity that was carefully woven through the plot and characters. A work of an intelligent and broad imagination.

2) All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Any best books list of 2014 was probably topped by this book; I was just a bit late to the party to read it. Carefully crafted and well-edited, this story was spare and perfect; reading doesn’t get much better than this. I especially enjoyed the empathetic writing and the historical scope of the novel.

3) Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Another historical novel for my list—I fear I am biased towards historical fiction. This book took an underexplored topic—female pilots and spies in WWII—and blasted it open with a rip-roaring plot and layered characters I couldn’t help but love.

4) Dust and Light, by Carol Berg

If only I could write such perfect, packed sentences as Carol Berg. She takes fantasy writing to new levels of intricacy and craft. I love the slow build of her plots, the deep development of her characters, and the final, perfect weaving of all her disparate story threads into satisfying conclusions. More people should read and know her work.

5) The Underground Girls of Kabul, by Jenny Nordberg

This non-fiction book explored the fascinating topic of young girls born into families without sons in Afghanistan. Apparently sons are so prized there that it is considered a great shame to have only daughters, so much so that families are willing to disguise one of their daughters as a boy until she reaches puberty, to gain the status and privilege that having a son bestows. This was a well-written and sensitive exploration of the lives of these girls, showing the conflict between an old misogyny and an emerging possibility of equality.

6) A Path Appears, by Nichloas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This inspiring read followed up Kristof and WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, in which the situation of women and girls the world over was put beneath a magnifying glass. A Path Appears is a hopeful book, a book that looks towards the future with a big social conscience. Its goal is to get more people involved in philanthropy by presenting case studies of the results and positive rewards of charitable giving. For a layperson utterly uninvolved in the world of non-profits and charity, it was interesting and eye-opening, and I think this book represents an important first step towards creating a better world.

7) The Bronze Horseman, by Paullina Simons

This historical novel was pure reading pleasure—an addictive story that I could not put down. Romantic and epic, it tells the story of a love affair between Tatiana and Alexander, denizens of Leningrad during the siege of 1941-1944.

8) Ash and Silver, by Carol Berg

Carol Berg was the only author to double-dip in my list—and it’s because she is that good. The two books on the list are a duet covering one story that details the life of Lucien de Remini, a thwarted sorcerer who is wanted by his government for crimes he did not commit. What I love so much about Carol Berg is that she’ll take on a big, psychological theme, in this case, identity and memory, and weave it into an amazing, action-packed plot that perfectly expresses her theme. Highly recommended for fans of character-driven fantasy that defies formulas.

9) Redeployment, by Phil Klay

These short stories were tight, impactful, and of the moment. I particularly liked that they gave a soldier’s eye view of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, complete with all the complexities and dangers they face. Told in spare, controlled writing that left an impression long after reading.

10) Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson

This is probably the strangest book on my list—I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book quite like it. One part historical novel, one part allegory, one part satire, one part spec fiction—this is the work of a complicated imagination chewing on difficult questions. It’s not a read for people who cling to convention in their fiction, but if you like novels of ideas that force you ponder big issues via subtle story telling, this might a read for you. Complicated and engaging on many levels at once, this small book left a large thought-crater in my mind.

I’m looking forward to more reading in 2016. What books are you planning to read?