Oh my god, it’s winter break. So much sleep. So much reading. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Now that the year is drawing to a close, it seems only right to tally up some of the best books I read this year and decide which ones were my absolute favorites, and oh my goodness were there some really amazing ones. To make it a little bit easier, I’ve split them up by genre this time around.
I really gravitated towards contemporaries this year, meaning that I also really stepped back from fantasy for awhile, which is a little strange considering fantasy books are a large part of what made me fall in love with reading and start this blog in the first place. (Hence the first review being about The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.) But that does not at all mean that I don’t still adore great fantasy books, and oh my god were there some fantastic ones.
An Ember in the Ashes was the first fantasy I read after a looong stretch of mostly reading contemporaries, and it was the best re-introduction into the genre I could have asked for. This story of two very different characters living under the rule of the brutal Martial Empire–Laia, a slave girl, and Elias, an extremely accomplished soldier–is absolutely captivating, filled with complex characters and a plot that makes you feel like you’re constantly holding your breath as you turn the pages. There’s magic, an amazing setting, and some of the highest stakes I’ve ever read about, and it is fantastic. This is the kind of book I want to throw into people’s faces just so they’ll read it and can freak out about it with me. Especially Helene, because oh my god Helene. (I also went to a book event featuring Ms. Tahir at Politics and Prose in D.C., and she is absolutely lovely, not to mention hilarious.) (Full review here.)
The Wrath and the Dawn is another fantasy that grabbed me, pulled me in, and refused to let go. Renée Ahdieh’s retelling of One Thousand and One Nights is so full of talent and skill that it still makes my head spin, and its story of Shahrzad and Khalid swept me up and made it near-impossible to put the book down for even a second. Shahrzad and Khalid are both so amazing and complex, not to mention all the other characters, and I fell in love with them so completely that I think I’m still recovering. Ahdieh’s writing is downright gorgeous, and she paints the world of Khorasan so masterfully that it only absorbed me even more. I loved so many things about this book–the plot, the characters, and especially the friendship between Shahrzad and her handmaiden Despina, because yes to awesome female friendship in books. Not to mention the romance, which made me fall in love so completely that it’s arguably the best ship I read about all year. This book made me forget lunch, guys. It’s so good. (Full review here.)
White is for Witching is the most recent fantasy I read, and it’s also one of the most interesting things I picked up all year, nightmares and fairy tales mixed with the very real dangers of the world into a captivating cocktail. Helen Oyeyemi’s tale about Miranda Silver, and the lives of the Silver women who came before her, is something like labyrinth, weaving together what is real and what is not, what is light and what is dark, and and what the reader can and cannot trust. She writes in a way that draws the reader in and then doesn’t let them go, and uses the magic and darkness of her story to also touch on the very real issues of our world. Miranda and the other characters are drawn in a way that makes them feel real and human, despite the supernatural voices that haunt their lives, and the narration is done in such an interesting way that I was caught almost from the beginning. It’s the kind of story that you just can’t look away from, and I loved being swept up in it. (Full review here.)
This year led to me realizing that contemporary is one of my favorite genres in pretty much ever–I love reading about characters in high school, going to work, carrying out their lives in the very same times we live in. While there likely isn’t going to be any pixie dust or dragons, contemporaries can have some amazing stories, and falling headlong into some of them this year led to a lot of great discoveries.
If I had to name one book I read this year that was closest to my favorite, it would be The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. I’d been meaning to read this book for ages, and when I received it as a present at the start of the summer, it wasn’t long before I finally tried it. Junot Díaz writes in a way that I fell in love with, and I adored learning about Oscar’s life and those of the people around him, especially the unnamed narrator that we finally meet more than halfway through the book. He narrates in a voice that draws the reader in and makes it incredibly hard to escape, and the characters are all so human and flawed that by the end I felt as if I really knew them. The plot covers generations of Oscar’s family, taking the reader from his home in New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back again, and it’s filled with conflict, romance, and tons and tons of stories. I loved it so much that I bought the short story collections Drown and This Is How You Lose Her right afterward, which were just as amazing, and my only regret is that I sped through them so quickly that now I don’t have anything else new from Díaz to read. Let the rereading commence.
Purple Hibiscus is another contemporary I read this year that I became completely absorbed in and absolutely loved. I’d never read anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before, and her first novel was more than enough to convince me to read anything else by her that I can get my hands on. Purple Hibiscus focuses on the lives of Kambili and Jaja, two children living in the household of their fanatically religious father, and Adichie tells the story of their growth and education (particularly while visiting their aunt’s family in Nsukka) in a way that makes it all seem so real and vibrant that I was totally drawn in. She paints the picture of Kambili’s family’s lives in a way that makes the reader feel as if they actually know them, and each of the characters is incredibly real, with their own complex emotions and desires. I loved getting to read about all their conflicts, both internal and external, and part of me wishes that the book had gone on much longer just so I could have read more.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is one of the many great books of 2014 that I missed out on, but I absolutely adored falling into it this past spring. The story of Lara Jean Song and her hidden (and then not-so-hidden) love letters totally drew me in, full of cookie-baking, fake dating, and sisterly love. I loved getting to know these characters, especially Lara Jean and Peter K, and it was so much fun to see the way they bounced off each other and interacted. Han’s writing and Lara Jean’s narration was as addicting as the cookies Lara Jean bakes, and I loved reading about her family’s interactions and her friendship with her sisters. This is the kind of book that I started reading and just couldn’t stop, and when everything was mixed together–the characters, the details, the romance–it made my little reader heart so very happy 🙂 Not to mention more than a little hungry.
An Unnecessary Woman follows a plot that is just about as far away from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before as possible, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it just as much. Rabih Alameddine’s story of a 72-year-old woman working as a translator in her book-filled apartment in modern Beirut was incredibly hard to put down, especially because of the amazing narration of Aaliya, the main character. Aaliya’s voice is one that I fell completely in love with, telling her own stories and those of other characters in a way that made her almost irresistible. She has the best way of putting things, full of wry and cutting remarks, and describes them in a way that made my weakness for amazing descriptions all the more apparent. She paints a picture of Beirut that made it seem so real I could almost reach out and touch it, a city wracked by the Lebanese Civil War and home to everything she loves. I loved seeing everything through Aaliya’s eyes, and the other characters were just as much fun to read about, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and always interesting. What made it even better was Aaliya’s deep and abiding love of books, written in a way that made it seem as if it was almost a living thing, radiating from the pages. It’s yet another one of my weaknesses, and for that I adored the book all the more.
When I came to this category, I realized that I read very little historical fiction this year, which is a definite lamentable fact. Historical fiction can be so extremely well done (see: Ann Rinaldi), and I’m not entirely sure how I ended up reading so little of it these past 12 months. Hopefully I’ll get to some really amazing reads in 2016, but for now, there is one book that totally bowled me over in a way that only the best books can.
I finished The Valley of Amazement about two days ago, and I think a part of me is still reeling. It’s the first Amy Tan book I’ve ever read (I know I’m disappointed too), and after finishing it late at night it took me forever to finally fall asleep, because oh my god feelings everywhere. Tan tells the story of Violet Minturn, a young girl growing up in her mother’s courtesan house in Shanghai during the early 20th century. But when a web of lies ends with Violet being forced to become a virgin courtesan, it sends her on an entirely different track in life, one that Tan captures with so much mastery it left me wondering what to do with myself after I was finished. Tan’s writing is amazing, and the story of Violet’s life, interspersed with those of the myriad of other characters, made it near-impossible to put the book down. Each of the characters is original and flawed, and by the end I felt as if they had actually existed, wondering what happened to them after the pages were closed. The writing itself only drew me in more, capturing the expansiveness of the story and switching capably between different points of view. It tackles feelings of love, hate, and abandonment, and I loved it so much that my only problem now is moving on from it and picking which of Tan’s books to read next.
Like historical fiction, nonfiction is not a genre that I focused on very much this year, despite my newfound love of historical musicals about Alexander Hamilton (seriously, don’t get me started because I could ramble on about Hamilton for literally hours without pausing) (>resists the urge to start singing<). But of course, there is one book that stands out as one of my favorite nonfiction books of the year, and also ever.
I adored the first book in Congressman John Lewis’s March series for many reasons–the illustrations, how vibrantly it tells the story of his childhood, the look it gives into the Civil Rights Movement. And I was just as captivated by March: Book Two, if not more so. It’s true that it’s very different from the first book–it’s more violent, more mature, and it gives a much deeper look into the people of the movement and the challenges they faced. Lewis writes unapologetically about these challenges, describing in detail the vicious brutality with which the protests were met, as well as the conflict within the movement itself. Powell’s illustrations only make the book more absorbing and striking, stark black-and-white images accompanying each of Lewis’s words. It brings the racism and brutal history of our country–one built on the genocide and exploitation of black people–to terrifying life, in a way that made me more furious than any other book this year. It’s the kind of book that I want everyone to read, especially in times when the racism of the United States is still alive and well and affecting people in a million ways. It tells a story that’s wholly human and that needs to be told, and if there’s one book people read from this list, I hope it’s this one. (Full review here.)
And that’s about it for my favorite books of 2015. I’m hoping I’ll find myself reading many more in the next year, and hopefully (>crosses fingers<) writing about them as much as I can. It’s true that I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to this year, but many of the books I did get to were absolutely fantastic, and I can’t recommend them enough. And now I’m going to go make Christmas cookies, because it doesn’t need to be the actual holiday to use copious amounts of decorative sugar.
Hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season, and Happy New Year!
P.S. I feel like it says something that the little blurbs I write for books are now just about as long as the first reviews on the blog. A master of brevity I am not.