The Books That I Have Loved

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Now is the time of year when a lot of people are putting out year end lists (myself included - check out my post on recommended podcasts here), but I realized recently that I'm woefully out of touch on books that have been released in the last year. It's not for lack of interest or anything; I love reading, and do it on a pretty much daily basis, but over the past few years I've become someone who usually checks books out of the library instead of buying them. I primarily read fantasy and sci-fi, and even though the Chicago public library system is pretty amazing, they don't seem to get as many of the newer novels in those genres as they do, say, the latest hit in literary fiction.

I recently went through my bookcase, and I was surprised by how easy it was to finally pull out some books to donate, something I've resisted doing for quite a while. I've always been a bit of a book hoarder, but so many of them were series' that I'd read multiple times before, or slightly random books that I'd picked up on a whim because I needed something to read a few years ago and had never read again. It's actually kind of nice to look at the books that I have left and think "yeah, I'd read that right now" about any one of them. So, instead of trying to cobble together a "best of 2017" list from the few books that I read that were actually published this year, I thought that I would just put forth a general recommended reading list - books that I've read and loved that have stood the test of time.

The Orphan's Tales by Catherynne Valente

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I've mentioned Catherynne Valente here a few times - I most recently wrote about her novel Radiance here - and she is, without a doubt, one of my favorite authors. The two volumes that make up The Orphan's Tales (In the Night Garden and The City of Coin and Spice) are two of her most exquisite works, an Arabian Nights inspired collection of interconnected stories. There is a characteristic sweetness and sadness to her writing, and with her lush prose and vivid imagery, she creates worlds that I just want to live in.

Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

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If you've read this series, you will be as tickled as I am that my step-mother gave me the first two books when I was 15 years old because they were on a "free books" table someplace she was staying and she knew that I liked fantasy. If you haven't, let me put it this way - it's a fantasy series set in an alternate history version of medieval France where the French are descendants of rebellious angels and the main character is a masochistic prostitute/spy. Put that way, it sounds ridiculous, but it is utterly gorgeous. The writing is vivid, the story heady and romantic and genuinely fraught - it's the rare book where the danger that the character is in feels real and immediate, not least because her own predilections make that kind of danger attractive to her. I mean it as a compliment when I say that I'm always a little depressed after I finish these books because I wish the real world were as beautiful. While Carey has written other books set in this same universe, the ones that I recommend are the original trilogy, sometimes called the Phedre Trilogy after the main character. 

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

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It seems weird to recommend a book that I gave up on twice before actually reading it all the way through, but here it is. Want to read a door stopper of a novel about monk mathematicians, astronomical phenomenon, and parallel universes that doesn't really get going until about 500 pages in? No? Yeah, I didn't think that I did either, but this book is much more than the sum of its parts. While it takes a bit of patience to settle into the rhythms of the book, once you do it's deeply rewarding, delving into math and quantum physics and philosophy in a surprisingly accessible way. I freely admit that there is a lot in this book that I don't totally understand, not being especially adept at math, physics, or philosophy, but it actually makes me want to know more about them, to the point where I wish that I'd read this book at a younger age, when it might have inspired me to major in something a little more practical in college.

Embassytown by China Mieville

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I was an English major in college, but I always found a lot of the nuts and bolts of the study of language itself to be frustratingly opaque. Semiotics? Langue and parole? Michal f-ing Foucault? My eyes tend to glaze over just thinking about it. Much like Anathem, though, Embassytown takes something potentially snooze-worthy and makes it fascinating and engaging. In the distant future, a young woman named Avice grows up in a (mostly) human colony on a planet where the indigenous language has one very peculiar feature - they cannot lie, or even speak metaphorically or speculatively. The alien planet (and, really, the entirety of this books' universe) is fascinating in its own right, but the novel really gets going when, in a power play, the colonial power introduces a narcotic version of their language to the native hosts, causing addiction, chaos, and destruction. It's beautifully strange and surprisingly gripping, with characters and images that will stay with you long after you've finished the book.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of all of my favorite books. I do want to include some honorable mentions - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna ClarkeSmall Gods and Night Watch by Terry PratchettAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman, and To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis - which are eminently readable and delightful, but haven't had quite the same impact on my life as the other books that I mentioned.

I'm curious to know - what are you reading habits like? Are you a re-reader (Brian thinks it's really weird that I am, while I think it's perfectly natural to revisit favorite books)? Do you keep up with the latest releases, or do you pick up book as you stumble across them?