I keep trying to return to the heyday of reading 100 books a year, which wasn’t that long ago, but I keep failing. This year I managed a paltry 39! I spend some time writing and publishing books, it’s true, but have to admit I spend too much time on youtube and playing video games. Ah well. I still had time to read a lot of great works.
As always, these are books that I read this year not necessarily that were published this year. I read much more nonfiction this year, and I enjoyed it, but as the order of this list shows, I’ll pretty much always prefer good fiction to good nonfiction. I think it takes more craftsmanship, perhaps much more, to create great fiction. That’s a matter for another day, though.
10. Rebel Without a Crew
This isn’t great writing, of course. But it’s a compelling story of a work-a-holic genius who rose to success in the early 90’s. That era is long over, and few randos with a camcorder can approach the skill of Robert Rodriguez, but this is fascinating look at the time and all that Rodriguez was willing to do to pursue his passion.
Quote: “He said that I had creative talent, but what I really needed to do
if I wanted to be successful was to become technical. He said that just about
anyone can become technical, but not everyone can be creative. And there are
a lot of creative people who never get anywhere because they don’t have
technical skills. Part of what makes a person creative is his lack of emphasis
on things technical. My boss said that if you are someone who is already
creative, and then you become technical, then you are unstoppable.”
Tom Juravich & Kate Bronfenbrenner
Nonfiction at its most grand in this amazing real life account that ultimately pits striking workers in Pennsylvania against a literal BOND VILLAIN. It’s not an always an easy book to read, and a lot of people and names and organizations blend together. But it’s worth sticking to for the highlights.
Quote: “When the Ravenswood Aluminum Company locked out 1,700 workers on Oct. 31, 1990, it hardly looked like a big opportunity for labor.”
8. Hidden Life of Trees
My mom recommended this book to me and it blew my mind. It redefined how I saw forests and how I saw trees. It’s worth a read for anyone who ever strolled through a woodland glade, or is ever likely to.
Quote: “When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you ‘help’ individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”
7. Last of the Giants
Campbell is deceptively good at writing compelling stories and this is pop-science at its most engaging.
Quote: [On The Elephant Bird] “Arab merchants, who called Madagascar the Island of the Moon, began trading with the Malagasy around the ninth century. Eventually, they brought back gargantuan eggs, too big to believe, along with frightening tales of the terrible bird who laid them. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo heard these stories while traveling through Arabia and concocted his own version of the infamous Roc.”
A life’s work of effort went into this shattering expose of neo-liberal tyranny. It doesn’t matter how cynical you are, how little you believe in the government, how invasive you imagine the US government is, this book will shock you.
Example: “The FBI’s files on Mario Savio, the brilliant philosophy student who was the spokesman for the Free Speech Movement, were especially detailed. Savio had a debilitating stutter when speaking to people in small groups, but when standing before a crowd and condemning his administration’s latest injustice he spoke with divine fire….. Hoover ordered his agents to gather intelligence they could use to ruin his reputation or otherwise ‘neutralize’ him, impatiently ordering them to expedite their efforts.”
5. The Dark North
Dark fantasy short stories illustrated by a bevy of Scandinavia’s finest artists.
Reading the words without the art wouldn’t do it justice. See below.
4. Fire & Blood
George R.R. Martin
It kind of blows my mind though that Martin uses 732 pages and gets fewer than 157 years into the 283 year span of Targ rule. But he totally nails it, exploring historiography and creating compelling stories and characters as few other writers can do. It’s his Silmarillion only it’s actually fun to read.
Quote: “This is a night for song and sin and drink, for come the morrow, the virtuous and the vile burn together.”
Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda
It’s amazing. The characters, the world-building, especially the art, and especially especially the dialogue are all incredible. It’s sort of like Moorcock, but via Studio Ghibli or Tank Girl.
Quote: “There’s more hunger in the world than love.”
2. Jade City
This went on to win the 2018 World Fantasy award and rarely, in my opinion, has book been more deserving. Jade City engages with great world-building; it’s the rare spec-fic book with a setting that actually feels like a well-thought out secondary world. Sure, it’s fantasy 70’s Hong Kong but the little details all create a very satisfying feeling of verisimilitude.
Although the structure includes multiple POVS, it’s really Hilo and Shae’s story-their arcs of being consumed by familial duties that carry this story. Lee understands that virtue and flaw are two sides of the same coin, and it’s fascinating to see the applications of this.
Quote: “’Any old horse will run when it’s whipped, but only fast enough to avoid the whipping,’ Hilo said. ‘Racehorses, though, they run because they look at the horse on their left, they look at the one on their right, and they think, No way am I second to these fuckers.’”
1. The Ritual
One of those books that you have to recommend to your friends the second you finish reading it. It feels like a mishmash of other books, sure, and the second half is kind of a wasted opportunity, sure. Doesn’t even matter. For those interesting in either hiking or horror, this is a must-read.
Quote: “Everyone is fucked up, Luke. Damaged. We’re all messed up, underneath. Doesn’t matter what kind of house you live in.”