This is the first year I’ve failed to meet my reading goal.
Every year of my life since I can remember, I’ve read at least one hundred books. This year, I’ve managed half of that. I can blame part of that on writing, and I can blame part of it on edits, critiques, and the abject hell that is moving—but if I’m honest, it’s just been a hard year. It’s been a hard year for everyone I know; the world is a hard place to be right now, and the small personal struggles we all face feel unbearably magnified. For so many of us, 2018 has been a year of loss and grief: we’ve lost jobs, pets, friendships, relationships, health, family members, children, and a good measure of hope.
It’s been a hard year, and I haven’t been reading as much as I usually do. When I have been reading, I’ve been gravitating toward books that are kind to their audience, that treat the reader like a partner rather than an adversary.
Here are some of the books that helped me to navigate this impossible year:
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
Elephants, radiation, injustice, rage.
In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.
These are the facts.
Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
This novelette is gorgeous, heartbreaking, and completely overwhelming. I read it on a train on my way to the airport, on my way to fly home from a speaking engagement at a college near my hometown. For the duration of that train ride, this book completely absorbed me. The trip to my hometown and the event at the college left me all crumpled up; the prose in The Only Harmless Great Thing left me wrung out, line-dried, and pressed smooth. After I finished reading it, I thought in poems for the rest of the day. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since, and I don’t intend to.
Fortitude Smashed by Taylor Brooke
Love, lust, fate, vulnerability.
After scientists stumbled across an anomalous human hormone present during moments of emotional intimacy, further research created the ability to harness the direction of living energy and pinpoint when two lines will merge. Personalized chips are now implanted beneath the thumbnails of every infant, where glowing numbers count down to the moment they will meet their soul mate.
Fate is now a calculation.
But loving someone isn’t.
When Shannon Wurther, the youngest detective in Southern California, finds himself face-to-face with Aiden Maar, the reckless art thief Shannon’s precinct has been chasing for months, they are both stunned. Their Camellia Clocks have timed out, and the men are left with a choice—love one another or defy fate.
Very shortly after I heard about Fortitude Smashed, I got into a car accident. I read this book with a heat pack on my neck, between the kinds of phone calls you make in the week or two that follow a wreck. I used chapters of this book as incentives to make myself deal with those logistics, and it worked: Fortitude Smashed is so good that it made calling my insurance company seem worthwhile. The premise is sweet, and the story itself is even sweeter. I love books about people who are trying their best, and about people who want more than anything to understand each other, and about people who are growing the entire time you know them. Brooke delivers all of that here, and it’s perfectly lovely.
Anger Is A Gift by Mark Oshiro
Grief, tenacity, courage, community.
Six years ago, Moss Jefferies’ father was murdered by an Oakland police officer. Along with losing a parent, the media’s vilification of his father and lack of accountability has left Moss with near crippling panic attacks.
Now, in his sophomore year of high school, Moss and his fellow classmates find themselves increasingly treated like criminals by their own school. New rules. Random locker searches. Constant intimidation and Oakland Police Department stationed in their halls. Despite their youth, the students decide to organize and push back against the administration.
When tensions hit a fever pitch and tragedy strikes, Moss must face a difficult choice: give in to fear and hate or realize that anger can actually be a gift.
I read this book in the middle of three weeks of travel: Pennsylvania, New York, Utah, Montana. I was exhausted and gripped by the kind of anxiety that comes from seeing too many people all in a row. That whole time, I hadn’t been able to read or write at all, and I was afraid that I’d forgotten how to do it. Then I read Anger is a Gift, and I remembered how to sink into a story. I remembered why I love to read. I cried on the plane from New York to Utah, immersed in the deep generational grief of Oshiro’s characters. This is a book that welcomes anger and sorrow and hope, all at once, and that doesn’t draw any divisions between which one of those emotions a person is allowed to feel.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson
Anxiety, restlessness, defensiveness, exile.
Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.
This does not need to be said but I will say it regardless: Shirley Jackson’s prose is unparalleled. We Have Always Lived In The Castle is haunting and lovely and builds to an ending that is, for the point-of-view character, a happy one. This book understands the relationship between fear, self-protection, and isolation. Ultimately, the main characters find the safety they’ve been yearning for, even if they find it in absolute solitude. After a year spent in a new state, grieving lost things, I found We Have Always Lived In The Castle immensely comforting; here is a book that understands the moments in which ‘alone’ is the safest place one can be.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Obsession, depression, understanding, empathy.
When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.
H is for Hawk lived in my to-read pile for far too long. When I finally read it, there was something oceanic about it, something tidal and irresistible. I had planned to go out and buy myself a glass of champagne to mark the finalization of my divorce, but instead I stayed in with this fundamentally perfect book. This is a memoir wrought in gorgeous prose; even more than that, it’s a study in grief and obsession, and the way a new self can crystallize out of both of those things. H is for Hawk told me that grief is a tunnel you swim through, not a well you dive into. It left me feeling like there was enough air in the room, after all.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Tenacity, cunning, ruthlessness, survival.
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed—and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.
But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth—especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.
I read Spinning Silver while sleeping on a couch in Los Angeles, waiting for everything I owned to arrive. I didn’t have a bed for two weeks, because the moving company sent all of my possessions to a nightmare dimension, but it was alright, because I had this book. Spinning Silver is lush and chilling and completely absorbing. The characters in it are fierce; they’re unwilling to buckle under impossible pressure. They carve themselves a place in the world, they make demands, and even when they’re afraid, they act with immense courage. I could have kept on reading this book forever.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Friendship, joy, trust, potential.
Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are.
But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.
I read Nimona while sitting in a comfortable chair in my new apartment, with a dog at my feet and loved ones nearby. I read it in one sitting, and then I turned back to the start and I read it again. It is sweet, honest, and heartfelt. Nimona wades through sorrow and loneliness, and it fights injustice and complacency, and it celebrates hope and joy. It’s fun as hell. Ultimately, it doesn’t flinch away from a deep examination of the ways people can hurt each other—and the ways people can recover, even when things seem beyond repair. Nimona is about destroying terrible things, and building beautiful things, and often, the beautiful things the characters build are relationships. I read Nimona, and I looked at the year I’d been through, and I knew that no matter how terrible things had been, there was beauty there, too. And there will be more of that in the year to come.
Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award finalist Sarah Gailey is an internationally-published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their work has recently appeared in Mashable, the Boston Globe, and Fireside Fiction. They are a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. You can find links to their work here. They tweet @gaileyfrey. Their American Hippo novella series—River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow—is available from Tor.com, and their upcoming novel Magic For Liars publishes June 2019.