I’ve read a good bit of books this year, some good, some not so good.
Here’s a quick list of the books I read this year that stood out.
1. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
This is a really wonderful, odd, dark little story. It was the cover that caught my attention at first, and when I saw it was a book by Shirley Jackson I just had to have it. It tells the story of two women who live in a large house with their wheelchair-bound uncle. The rest of the family had been killed during a meal a few years back, when someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. The sisters are shunned by the people in town and only Merricat, the younger sister, ever leaves the house, once a week for supplies. The townspeople taunt her, and the children sing songs about them. And we are left guessing…who put the arsenic in the sugar bowl?
2. City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
A city exists at a bend in a river. It was once settled by odd grey people but conquerors killed them off and took the city for their own. Weird fungi grow in all corners of the city, and large mushrooms appear suddenly in the street, where you are sure the street was clear that morning. Can mushrooms really grow that fast? Did it… move?
This city is called Ambergris, and the only way to get here is by placing a book by Jeff VanderMeer in the inside pocket of a large overcoat and getting on the #5 train from Chicago to Vernon Hills (though, of course, you won’t find a #5 train listed). You will not be getting back.
City of Saints and Madmen has 4 novellas (and a few atmosphere-adding stories in the back) that tell of the history and people of Ambergris, and falls squarely in what some call “the new weird.” If you like China Miéville, you’ll like this collection. I certainly did.
3. The Stranger by Albert Camus
This book, a classic of European post-war literature, was both the best and the most over-hyped book I read this month. I imagined it involving all at once spying, international intrigue, aliens, a man whose identity must remain hidden or the world will end. Alas, Camus’ The Stranger has none of these things. The first half of the book is best described as the everyday banality of a man leading a lonely and uninteresting life in Algiers, Algeria. He goes to his mother’s funeral and then back home. The first half ends, however, with the main character killing a man on the beach, with whom he had an altercation. The second half of the book centers around his trial, of which he himself seems mostly disinterested, even after being sentenced to death.
The Stranger, however, is a book made infinitely better by its introduction, where the themes are explained. The main character is a stranger only because he doesn’t react to his environment in a manner expected of him (he doesn’t seem to mourn the death of his mother, and this is the strongest part of the prosecution’s case against him). He is a stranger to the times in which he lives. The book demands to be re-read, to have its first half scrutinized to see if the judge is indeed right.
I’ve found that there’s a reason, most of the time at least, that classics attain their status. Often, these reasons are not readily apparent while reading the book. Getting a few gentle pointers often lifts them from the mundane to the remarkable. This was certainly the case with The Stranger, a book I read with disinterest (much like the main character during his own trial) but found remarkable after reading the introduction.
4. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
There are four Londons in this excellent fantasy by V.E. Schwab; Grey London is the normal Londob we all know and love, Red London is a London in another world, filled with magic and wonder, White London is a harsh place, full of wickedness and a stark desperation. And then there’s Black London, but we do not speak of Black London. Kell is a magician who travels between the Londons, an act that is forbidden, and he smuggles items between them. But when he accidentally ends up with a stone from Black London he knows something is very wrong.
Chased between Londons by sinister magicians and aided by a not-entirely-helpful thief from Grey London who oddly appears to be somewhat apt at magic, Kell tries to make his way to Black London to destroy the stone.
A Darker Shade of Magic has everything fans of fantasy want; a complex and complete fantasy world with great characters and a touch of the darkness of George Martin’s Ice and Fire books, though less of the vulgarity. With nothing held back, V.E. Schwab has created quite a book. Highly recommended.
5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
These days as an adult you can’t just read Harry Potter; you venture into what is a publishing phenomenon knowing that the series has sold hundreds of millions of copies, that there is a theme park and movie franchise and merchandising. It’s not a book, it’s a company.
Anyway, I had a great time with it but was very conscious that I was reading Harry Potter while I was reading Harry Potter (if you know what I mean?). It’s a fun ride of a story and I completely understand kids’ love of it. Great, fun storytelling, well deserving of the praise and millions of copies sold.
6. Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland
Scrum started as a system for organizing software creation, born out of ideas from Toyota. It is intended to help those making software to work in teams to make prototypes faster and then iterate in response to reviews and feedback. This way, the software created faster and, once delivered, has fewer bugs and cost less.
This book is required reading now at Dohop, and I’m glad it is. The book really got my team at Dohop going in the right direction and has helped us focus on the important things, ignore the rest and just plain old get stuff done.
And it turns out, you can use Scrum for a lot of things besides just business. If the creators of Scrum are right (and they make a convincing argument) the companies that don’t use Scrum will simply be left in the dust by their Scrum-using competitors. The book really does a great job of both convincing us of Scrum’s value to a business, and of explaining how to implement it. If you work in a business and you feel that things are taking too long or costing too much, this is one of those rare times that a book may actually change your life. Trust me.
7. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Doctor Avrana Kern wanted to save the human race. She had worked hard and just as the moment looms, a group of monkeys to be delivered to a terraformed new Earth along with a nanovirus designed to speed their evolution, a saboteur destroys the space station. Kern manages to have the cargo delivered and gets herself into an escape pod just as the station explodes. Thousands of years later, the last humans arrive in an arc ship to the planet but Kern, driven mad by all the years of cryo-stasis and solitude, bans them from making the new planet her home. Further, the monkeys all died and Kern’s World is now inhabited by super-intelligent spiders.
Children of Time is a fantastic page-turner of a multi-generational science fiction novel, exciting to the very last paragraph. Tchaikovsky has created something amazing here, with chapters about spider politics (as odd as that sounds) that are just as exciting as chapters about the world’s last humans attacking a roving satellite holding a mad human/AI hybrid with superior firepower. While the theme is our dismal treatment of the planet we live on, to the point that we may be destroying it, and our inability to stop killing each other, he leaves it in the background, choosing story over the underlying message of pacifism and environmentalism that would be easy to draw out in a book of this scope. But no. Tchaikovsky gives a stunning and intelligent page turner with a focus on story.
8. When We Were Animals
When the moon was out, you could be aware of all the pieces of night—you could see all the things you didn’t see during the day, all the subtle little fragments that the world uses to join its wholes.
When you read on your Kindle, you can higlight passages you like. You know this, right?
While I use this feature when beta-reading to highlight things I think need work (adding a note) I also highlight passages that I think are writing magic.
I just finished Josh Gaylord’s When We Were Animals and oh my God did I highlight a lot of passages!
The writing is fantastic. The book tells the story of Lumen Fowler, a teenager growing up in a town where teenagers go a bit feral when they hit puberty. They run wild and naked outside during the full moon and fight and fuck with reckless abandon. But not our Lumen, at least not at first. Lumen knows that her mother never “breached”, the term for the state the teenagers enter, and neither will she.
Promises are easy to make. You utter a word or two, and it’s done. But those are magic words, too. They speak of a defined future to which you are required to adhere. They commit you beyond the length of your experience. What they do is they take away possibility. Promises are the opposite of hope.
Or what? Lumen stays inside and watches the other kids “breach”, some of them coming to her window to call her out. As her friends enter and leave the period of breaching, leaving Lumen behind, she starts to worry more and more about her place in the world.
We all have stories to tell. Our demons are sunk deep under the skin, and maybe we use stories to exorcise them—or at least know them truly.
I found When We Were Animals less compelling of a read than Gaylord’s The Reapers are the Angels (an action-packed zombie novel written under the pen name Alden Bell), and a little harder to reccommend, at least story-wise. Gaylord’s writing in the book, however, makes it an easy recommendation for people to whom the writing in a book is of equal importance to the story. I can also imagine teenagers passing this book around in school (it contains a wollopping bunch of sex and violence) and Joshua’s publisher is probably hoping that the book be banned in school, to cement its notoriety and guarantee sales.
To look at someone’s naked body in the moonlight is to know that person in a new way. Lumpy humanity laid bare. A person stripped of all masks. For surely, I realized, that is what we do. We start with one pure and concentrated version of ourselves, then we modify and mold, we layer defense over pretense over convention. By the time we’re done getting dressed in the morning, there is little left of who we really are.
The book also focuses on Lumen’s relationship with her father, a thing that at first seems spotless and sincere, but changes as Lumen breaches.
I thought he would tell me he loved me, but I hadn’t heard that from him in a long time. When I was a little girl, he would say it routinely. He seemed compelled to say it. But the declaration had gone the way of tall tale and myth. As though the love between a father and daughter were only a childish thing. As though womanhood made obscene that which had previously been precious and perfect. And so did we all fall—and in such a way were a million Edens lost.
Lumen falls uneasily into her breach, almost as if she is a spectator of herself a she rushes into puberty, and it brings out a mean streak in her that she then tries to excorcise.
You could fall in love with it all—and you could want, finally and truly, to set a match to it.