First of all, I managed another successful NaNoWriMo this November, writing 50111 words over the course of the month. Hopefully this will finally be the year I actually stick with the story and continue working on it. Because of NaNo, I didn’t do as much reading as I usually might, but I still managed to read a couple of the best books I’ve read all year. Plus, plenty of reading from October. Choosing my end-of-year best-ofs is going to be tough this year for sure.
I’ve split them between fiction and nonfiction and put them roughly in order of how much I liked them.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
Fewer mermaids brushing their long beautiful hair while perched on rocks; more crypid creatures that come from the depths to devour humans, please, especially if the result is going to be as good as this. Really atmospheric and creepy, with an array of great characters as well. Particularly adored Olivia, the cosplaying, autistic, lesbian, badass presenter and camerawoman who is determined to either share the story of what not-so-mythological creatures take sailors to their watery graves, or at least to leave a record if she follows them. Also loved Hallie, whose experience translating for her Deaf sisters might hold a key piece in communicating with the mermaids. In the story’s elements, I love the incorporation of science and biology—loved the exploration of the evolutionary advantages the mermaids would have developed and why, rather than just a handwavy “they exist, somehow” explanation. And the way it leads to the climax is just perfect. Definitely a new favourite SF/horror novel.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
THIS is why I find it so difficult to DNF a book. I found this one really slow to get into, so slow that I almost decided it wasn’t for me, despite the myriad of glowing reviews that convinced me to pick it up in the first place. I was nearly a quarter of the way through before it really grabbed me, but once it did, it refused to let go. Smart, funny, surprisingly tender, this book crept up on me and became one of my favourites of the year. Yes, it probably requires some handwaving on the science (or maybe not — but when some of the breakthroughs are conveniently based on hypothetical future technology that hypothetically exists in the future, I imagine this is the case), but I didn’t read this novel to learn the intricacies of interstellar travel, so I can’t complain. The protagonist is clever and likable, but the real star of the show (without giving away too many spoilers) is the friend he makes along the way. Probably one of my favourite depictions of an extra-terrestrial. Just a fun, fun, (fun) read, with enough heart behind it to elevate it to the next level
Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo
Note to self: Oh what, you loved a book about self-destructive boys and the paranormal (and non-paranormal) things that haunt them? Where everyone is repressed and unhappy and bad at communicating? And it’s a twisty atmospheric southern-gothic-dark-academia-family-secrets-and-curses story that at its only most optimistic can even be described as bittersweet? You loved that one? I, for one, am shocked.
This story requires an investment, it’s not a light and breezy read. But it’s lush and sad and raw and deep and visceral and worth the time. The pacing is off sometimes, and I could not bring myself to care about anything to do with the cars/car races, but it drew me in completely nonetheless.
Matrix by Lauren Groff
An expansive book that I felt hard to pin down yet enjoyed nonetheless. It takes place over decades, but moves between the vast and the minute in scenes that don’t necessarily have an overarching plot except in the broadest sense that it tells the story of a 12th-century nunnery and the historical woman who comes to lead it (to my understanding, very little is known about her real life so the author takes endless liberties and benefits from not being beholden to a known biography in integrating fantastical details at times). Ambitious and surprisingly exciting, I didn’t love all of this but I found it captivating throughout.
Asking for it by Louise O’Neill
This is a hard book to review because it’s not “enjoyable” to read — there’s nothing fun about a teenage girl getting raped at a party, having her town turn against her because “you’re ruining those nice boys’ lives with your accusations when you were probably drunk/wearing a short skirt/lying/asking for it.”
One of the most important elements to me is that Emma is not a “perfect” victim. She’s an absolute mean girl, and she eagerly participates in rape culture herself prior to her own rape — using slut-shaming nicknames for other girls she knows and telling a friend who is sexually assaulted herself that she should get over it and not make waves. This may make her difficult to like, but also shows the pervasiveness of rape culture and also how easily people will find reasons not to empathize with an imperfect victim.
As a book, the novel is somewhat uneven. O’Neill really captures Emma’s psychological decline and her isolation. However, most of the other characters are flat and one-dimensional. In some ways, this reflects Emma’s self-centeredness both before (when she is a completely self-absorbed teenager) and after (when she can’t focus on anything but what happened to her), but it makes it hard to keep track of the various characters or care about their influences on Emma’s life or their reactions to the events.
After the Silence by Louise O’Neill
The inspiration for this novel feels obvious — a murder in a small, remote area of West Cork, the prime suspect an English outsider who proclaims his innocence but revels in the attention, and remains in the area despite the suspicions and unhappiness of the locals, a documentary crew who comes some years later to dig up the past and attempt to find answers… however, instead of focusing on the suspect, the protagonist of the novel is instead his wife (who is native to the island but treated with equal suspicion by her neighbours due to her involvement with the suspect). The exploration of abuse in its various forms is more of the focus than the murder mystery itself (which, unlike Sophie’s murder, is resolved by the end of the story, although not to anyone but the reader and the perpetrators), and although a bit heavy-handed at times was mostly very effective and powerful.
Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
I appreciated the viscerality (visceralness?) of the writing in this short novella. You can visualise the horrors to good effect for sure. However, I found the story and its characters to be too self-aware. All horror fans think about how they would react if they actually encountered a supernatural entity (rip to your fave but I would simply not go inside the spooky house on the hill in the middle of the night, etc. etc.) but this sort of fourth-wall-breaking trope discussion isn’t actually as interesting on the page as it is in our hypotheticals. Incredible cover though.
A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman
There are definitely moments of the uncanny, particularly the scene with the basement and the pool, that I think are enough to tip it into the horror, or at least horror/[insert whatever other genre you feel it is] genre. That said, it’s not good horror. The couple are barely developed, their dialogue is stilted, and their “we won’t ask how or why” pact seems more an excuse for the author not to flesh out his premise than to create an atmosphere of mystery. Also gotta love that they apparently go from never touching diving gear to flitting around twisty overhead environments without ever once running into trouble, silting the place out out, etc. Sure, sure, handwave, handwave. Would’ve DNF’d this one if it wasn’t so short.
How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (audiobook)
This is a truly extraordinary book. Each chapter explores a location in the United States (and one in Africa) that looms large in African-American history in relation to slavery. Smith offers not only a history of the place itself, but a reflection on how that history is shared today — is it truthful or sanitized, laid bare or avoided? Who tells the story? Who writes the story? Smith is a poet, and it shows in both the writing style and in the richness of the emotion he evokes in his personal thoughts on each location in addition to the imagery he creates to explain the history and present-day settings of each place. An unbelievably well-written, thought-provoking, and important book.
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib (audiobook)
This is just an extraordinary book. Hanif Abdurraqib is and has been one of America’s great culture writers, and this collection of smart, rich, multidimensional, and poetic essays cements that with feeling. Weaving music, history, sociopolitical elements, biography, performance, memoir, and more into an absolutely stunning set of pieces that traces Black culture and performance through American history and through a variety of contexts and media. Not only sharp and insightful, but also beautiful. An expansive and essential work.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk
A fascinating and insightful book. I especially appreciated the way it explored the importance of the mind-body connection in a way that is actually compatible with science and medicine (e.g. not “just try yoga and your clinical depression will be cured” but instead “yoga can be used in tandem with other practices to create a well-rounded response to dealing with trauma and mental illness”; not “pharmaceuticals are bunk,” but “pharmaceuticals are not a one-size-fits-all solution and are useful for many but can avoid addressing the underlying causes of trauma”). I found some of the descriptions of individual traumas to be unnecessarily detailed in places, almost to the point of feeling voyeuristic, but overall a well-written, accessible book on the topic of trauma-informed care and psychology.
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach
I’ve never met a Mary Roach book I didn’t like, and Fuzz is no exception. Yet again tackling a broad and common topic, in this case the interaction between wildlife and human society, and delving into its more unexpected and quirky aspects with trademark humour and thoughtful reporting. As funny as it is insightful, this book looks at human-wildlife interaction through the lens of symbiosis, environmentalism, and yes, the law. Not my absolute favourite of her books, but still a worthy addition to her body of work.
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach (audiobook)
Everything Tara Brach writes and says is brilliant. A Doctorate in clinical psychology and longtime meditation teacher, she integrates her meditative learnings from Buddhist philosophy with elements of western psychology to explain concepts of self-reflection and acceptance in a spiritual yet accessible way. She doesn’t advocate for passive acceptance, but active reflection and actively putting into practice methods of dealing with shame, discomfort, and of cultivating self-worth and self-love. With guided practices at the end of each chapter and personal reflections throughout, this is a solid and thoughtful book for those looking to practice radical love and kindness toward themselves and others.
Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination by Robert Macfarlane (audiobook)
Macfarlane’s work is as endlessly astounding as his subjects. While it’s obvious that this is one of his earlier books because the writing isn’t as lyrical as some of his later works, it’s still poetic and full of imagery, capturing the awe-inspiring nature of the places and things about which he writes. Capturing our human fascination with mountains and summits through a historical, artistic, and natural lens, he puts into words the pull toward these vast formations that so many feel.
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang (audiobook)
This book doesn’t necessarily say anything about Facebook that hasn’t already been known or said, but it provides a thorough and well laid-out crash course on the history, aims, and issues of the platform, the company behind it, and the founder. Even if the information isn’t groundbreaking, it remains angering. Also, reading it this week made the epilogue, in which the authors speculate that “by the time you are reading this book,” Facebook could have morphed into something entirely new, perhaps shifting focus to AR technology, felt extremely prescient.