Book Review: Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey

Babylons_AshesA solid entry in the series, but starting to strain the suspension of disbelief that the same six-seven people are constantly at the center of these epochal, shattering moments for humanity. So, on that note, I’m glad that they’re moving into the “final” trilogy of The Expanse with the following book, Persepolis Rising.

As for THIS book, it brings a generally satisfactory conclusion to the story of Marcos Inaros and his Free Navy’s rebellion against Earth/Mars/OPA. I’m basically just glad to see Marcos go away (spoiler, but c’mon, you knew it was coming) because he’s a paper-thin caricature of an evil bad guy who was never really developed much beyond being a necessary plot agent. His background with Naomi was rather insubstantial, his relationship with their child almost Darth Vader-ian in its comical abuse… what he did to Earth is genuinely disturbing, and I almost wish they spent more time dealing with the effects of the attacks, but the background info we get via Avasarala does a pretty good job of conveying just how fucked things are.

That said, the fact that the 1300 new worlds and many new colonies that we know are out there spend this entire book basically out of sight entirely is distressing; I get that we have to settle our home solar system’s story here, but Jesus Christ do I hope that the final trilogy takes place amongst these new worlds already (I know the first book is already out and thus I could already know if that’s what’s going on, but I’m saving the entire final trilogy to binge on once it’s all released, inshallah).

So, while not quite as cool as the first trilogy (Marcos is no Miller in terms of being Holden’s primary foil), Babylon’s Ashes does a solid job of fulfilling the usually-difficult mission of wrapping up the middle act of a series. If you’ve enjoyed the series to this point, I doubt you’ll not enjoy this entry as well.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

IstanbulI’ll be blunt: this book is a goddamned triumph.

I liked this book so much that I read all 800 pages of it even though the e-book had a glaring processing problem that caused it to insert a space after every double-f in the text (and some other cases I couldn’t pin down a precise cause for). So, every time like “offered” was in the text, which was a surprisingly large number of times, it showed up as “off ered”.

This was AMAZINGLY distracting. And normally the sort of thing that would cause me to bail out and wait for Amazon to fix the copy or something, but not in this case. The book, from Page One, was just too good.

Admittedly, I’ll basically read anything even tangentially related to the Byzantine Empire. But even if you don’t particularly care about that narrow topic, say you’re just a “history buff” in general, this is the sort of work you absolutely should read.

Why? Well, Ms Hughes pulls off the herculean task of integrating classic history of the “which ruler sent what general to fight which enemy for what reasons” type, with the more modern aspects of “and how did that affect the culture, economy, mores, religion, etc., of the common man/woman/eunuch/slave of the polity?” type, AND does it all with a measure of style and competence that few authors are able to pull off successfully.

The book moves roughly chronologically through the “Three Cities” of the title; starting with the ancient Greek polis of Byzantion, then moving through the long epoch of the Roman/Byzantine Constantinople, then wrapping up with the world capital of Ottoman/Islamic/Turkish Istanbul. For such a long book, it moves remarkably briskly, helped along by economical chapter lengths and a vibrant writing style that generates that almost novel-esque sense of “just one more chapter” that few works of non-fiction ever achieve.

While firmly a history book, each chapter tends to start off with a wonderful and personalizing vignette from the author’s own experience of researching for that chapter, situating the historical time about to be discussed in the modern age, which really helps pull the reader in and serves additionally as just great color. It also forces the reader to occasionally consider the randomness of history at time; sometimes your ancient relic becomes the still-venerated Hagia Sophia hundreds of years later. Other times, you’re an equally-stunning ancient mosaic buried in the basement of a kebob joint behind a cell phone store. Such is fate.

VERY few histories give any nods to these also-rans of importance, and that Hughes does in this book jarred me into thinking for a bit about the caprice of history, the undeniable fact that what we today consider important about the past may not have been what the past considered important about itself, and that so much is left to the random chance of what managed to survive the millennia between a building or work of art’s original period of importance and the reignition of interest in that original period by a much-later time. Basically, how many Michelangelo’s “David”s are we missing out on today because nobody cared three hundred years ago and repurposed something beautiful into a roof for a barn?

It’s this effect of the book I enjoyed most; at times I would read something that would force me to put the book down and just let my mind wander down a path it never had before, to consider some arcane detail of 1700’s Constantinople that I hadn’t thought of.

The breadth of knowledge Hughes shows here is also commendable; being able to write authoritatively about how an ancient Greek polis organizes itself politically is typically an entirely separate discipline from say describing in detail the personal politics of a reform-era Ottoman Sultan’s harem. She handles both, and all of the other disparate topics that come up in a history of this breadth, with aplomb.

Bottom line, this book is just a delight. If you like good history, read it. If you’re a fan of anything Byzantine or Ottoman, read it. If you like just plain good writing, read it. It’s got that kind of cross-genre appeal few books pull off without being “lite” in their treatment of the topic, an accusation that absolutely cannot be laid at Ms Hughes’ feet here; it is that rare bird, the Serious Work of History that is also an absolute joy to read. It gets my highest recommendation.

Book Review: The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin

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Link to Series on Amazon

(Putting this on the third and final book of the series because spoilers but it’s a review of the series as a whole, not just The Stone Sky)

I’ve never been a huge fantasy guy. Tried a couple of times to get into The Lord of the Rings as a kid; always bounced off within the first 100 pages or so. I’ve never read it, or seen the movies. Never got into D&D at all. Harry Potter, I’ve read not a word of nor seen even a minute of the movies. Game of Thrones, the books, I tried and got through like two of them and had to just bail. I do enjoy the show still, but the actual fantasy elements, like the Dragons and the White Walkers, are the least-interesting part to me. I prefer the politics and the personalities of the humans involved.

So, even though over time I’ve gotten a little more tolerant of Orcs and Dorks, it’s still not really my jam. Which explains why I just got around to reading The Fifth Season this year instead of when it came out in 2015 and won every award for fantasy worth winning. A solid review from my friend Smeebs put it over the edge and I finally grabbed and started reading the first book of the series.

And here we are, less than two weeks later, and I’ve finished reading the entire trilogy. It’s that good.

Even though it’s considered firmly in the fantasy camp, there’s a wonderful lack of the usual tropes; no dragons, no elves, and the world refreshingly resembles 14th-Century England not in the slightest.

Instead of all of that, we get a bracingly original set of conceits to revel in, many of which make the world seem thoroughly exoctic and foreign, instead of the more-typical fantasy trope of “like Earth, but older, with a touch of magic”.

Magic does exist in this universe, but in a more defined, important way than the usual “it just exists” manner we’re more familiar with. It is generated by the Earth itself, and interacts with its inhabitants in different ways depending on what type of inhabitant they are.

And those inhabitants are a varied, creative lot. The main protagonist and many of the main characters are Orogenes; humans who can detect and manipulate the tectonic activity of the Earth itself. They can therefore unleash crazy amounts of hell in this hyper-tectonically-active world, and are therefore despised by the majority regular humans, called “Stills” by the orogenes for their inability to feel the near-constantly moving Earth. On the flipside, a properly-trained and/or powerful-enough orogene can also deflect or even stop earthquakes locally, which makes them very valuable, if they can be controlled.

Author N. K. Jemisin is VERY subtle about this, but she makes some inciteful commentary and analogies between how the orogenes (who are commonly referred to by the Stills as “Rogga”, a word that’s basically the N-word of this universe) are treated in this world and how African-Americans are treated in ours. Again; it’s SUBTLE. She does not beat you over the head with it, which is appreciated in a work of fantasy fiction. But there’s some meat to chew on here.

Orogenes are either bred by the ruling society in creches heavily guarded by, well, The Guardians, a wonderfully creepy class of overwatches/parental surrogates who have… complex relationships with their charges, or they are “feral” and only discovered as having their unique powers when, typically as children, they lash out with their uncontrolled powers in a moment of fear or anger and Everybody Dies. This complex interplay between utility, power, and threat colors every bit of their existence and relationship with the society they inhabit.

My favorite of the invented races in her universe are the Stone Eaters. Much of what they are besides the obvious feature you can deduce from their name would ruin the story, so let’s just say that they’re… super fuckin’ interesting.

These races interact in a world where the Earth itself is basically ripping itself apart. Every so often, a cataclysmic event happens that fucks up the weather so bad the inhabitants call it The Fifth Season, and much of their cultural lore concerns how to just survive through these periods of horrific climatic and environmental upheaval.

Even in between the Fifth Seasons, the planet is much more active than ours, and it basically prevents society from advancing beyond its essentially late-medieval level of wealth and functioning, even though there is much evidence of “deadcivs” lying around that indicates that, at some point in the past, their ancestors had effectively reached our own “modern” level of advancement. And even in calm periods, people have to prepare and set aside any excess wealth into storage to help them survive the next Fifth Season, which can strike at any time.

The story has elements of the classic fantasy “quest”, but it’s also more than that. It’s a grand rumination on how a society chooses to function, the cost/benefit analysis that has to occur in moments of extreme strife and privation, and, most essentially, what makes somebody “human”?

On a closer level, there’s an examination of what it means when a society’s well-being depends on the forced labor of a specific subset of it. This is where the uncomfortable analogies to our own society are strongest, and, again, without spoiling anything, I like how the author covers this aspect.

The hard part of reviewing a series like this is that the reviewer can’t go too deep into the world or what happens without spoiling the journey, which I don’t want to do. That said, let’s examine a lot of the aspects of the series I found particularly rewarding:

  • The protagonists are mostly female. This is refreshing, and I don’t give two shits what the Sad Puppies (Google it, I’m not covering these shitheads at any length here other than to say that these guys whine about any book that doesn’t feature a white male lead, and go about their complaining in absolutely vile ways) have to say about it, and they’ve said more than enough. Morons.
  • Most of the “good” characters are brown. Most of the “bad” ones are white. Just by description; our world’s color dichotomy doesn’t exist in this one. Again, tough shit to whoever’s feelings are hurt by this. It’s good to not instantly feel comfortable and familiar with the protagonist of a novel, which is the default state of a white male reader of fantasy fiction. It’s certainly more interesting, and isn’t that something we WANT in our books? To be clear, the brown=good, white=bad thing isn’t absolute, and this is not a universe where ANYONE gets through without making some morally dubious choices. But, from a purely literary standpoint, it’s just fuckin’ refreshing.
  • One of the dominant themes is the nature of parenthood, particularly in times of societal upheaval, that is not at all the norm for books of this genre. I like her examination of this, even if it often verges on absolutely heart-breaking.
  • There are elements of sci-fi as well, but only via the aspect of “ancient” civilizations having existed thousands of years before the book’s present-day that were way more advanced than that present-day culture. This isn’t a particularly original idea, but her treatment of it, is.
  • I like that she doesn’t go too crazy with inventing words to replace things that already exist and have names in English. There’s a bit of that, which is just plain necessary to worldbuild and remind the reader that it’s not _our_ world this story is taking place in, but I like that even her invented words tend to be sensible enough to be immediately understandable by the reader. A child is a child, not a “birthling” or some dumb shit.
  • That said, people and place names are wonderfully foreign but have their own internal consistency that is pleasing and believable. A lot of books fuck this up.

Overall, The Broken Earth is an absolutely rewarding read. There’s more than enough original ideas in the series to make it feel much fresher than most fantasy, many aspects of the series are wholly original, and the emotional flavor and impact are deep and not in the usual ways we are used to from the genre. Basically, if you’re at all a fan of fantasy or sci-fi, you’re a fool if you don’t read this series.

The Books of 2017, #3: What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of American, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe

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I think I’m a pretty fast reader. I don’t claim to be a speed reader, because speed reading is bullshit and the people who claim they read 40 books a week aren’t retaining jack shit of any of them but just trying to impress their idiot friends with a dumb stat, but I read at a pretty good clip and I devote a lot of time to reading every week. This book still took me a solid fucking three weeks to get through, and one of those weeks was spent on vacation so I was reading way more than usual.

At 904 very, very dense pages, What Hath God Wrought is a THOROUGHLY comprehensive look at everything about the United States from the end of The War of 1812 through the end of The Mexican-American War.

What it is NOT is: a pop history, on par with the usual “book version of a History Channel, Discovery or BBC show” that dominates the history section of Amazon these days. It is a proper scholarly review of the period in question, excessively sourced and footnoted, with a wonderful bibliography that alone will take you a day or so to properly digest itself.

What it is, is: a VERY good book. But it’s also a commitment on par with, say, marriage, or having a child.

That is fitting with its role as Vol. V of the Oxford History of the United States, a series I’ve been working through for the last few years at one or two volumes per year, enjoying each volume very much so far.

The title comes from the “first” transmission over a telegraph line by Mr. Morse of Morse Code fame (though, as the book gets into, neither claim stands up to scrutiny), an event which illustrates the central them of the book: that the divorce of communications from physical transport revolutionized every aspect of American life in fundamental ways.

Howe illustrates this wonderfully with a discussion of how long it took a piece of news to get from, say, New York City to other points in the US at the time the book begins (1815). Even to get to nearby Philadelphia or Boston, a trivial hour or two jaunt down the ACELA for us moderns, took DAYS in 1815. There was no way for news to travel faster than a person verbally carrying it or a piece of paper with said news on it could physically cover the distance.

Howe takes us through this transformation wonderfully, explaining how it affected everything from where Americans lived to how long they stayed in one place, to the food they ate, to how they worshiped, etc.

Howe doesn’t keep the focus just on the big actors of the day; yes, the politics and wars are covered quite thoroughly, but the author also is careful to spend a lot of time going over how regular people were faring under the decisions of the “important” figures of the era. Small vignettes from individuals who aren’t as well-known as Andrew Jackson or Henry Clay are liberally sprinkled throughout the narrative to bring life and a personal touch to the grander themes being covered. As I vastly prefer comprehensive histories that cover social and economic factors along with the military and the political ones, this really helped keep me engaged through the very long read.

The second major theme of the book is a refutation of the common declaration amongst historians of this era as being “Jacksonian” first and foremost. While his bias towards the Whigs ideal of national economic development and anti-slavery is clear, it is also supported. Howe presents an argument that Andrew Jackson and the Democrats bear the brunt of the responsibility for driving America towards the future Civil War, as well as being generally bad leaders of the nation while in charge. The argument is persuasive.

Howe further does not shy away from bluntly stating that America under Jackson’s rule and that of his successors was devoted to maintaining and expanding a system of white supremacy. It’s hard to argue with his argument for this, and it’s something that needs to be said and hammered home more often in the canonical histories of the era.

A lot of time is spent on the religion of Americans, which may strike the reader from this more secular age as odd, but Howe makes it clear that religion was a VERY dominant factor in almost everyone’s life in this era. And it intertwined with many other aspects of life, such as how one felt on the slavery issue, women’s rights, immigration, etc. The sections on religion are long and sometimes bewildering in the range of differences, major and not, that are discussed, but they are pretty essential to understanding how Americans thought about these things in those days.

The book closes with a fierce look at the American war with Mexico, which Howe positions rightly as one of the most impressive military campaigns ever waged as well as one of the least-justified wars ever launched. President Polk was borderline despicable in his machinations to maneuver Mexico into a war it didn’t want for the sole purpose of aggrandizing American territory at their expense, with the primary goal of expanding slavery through much of it. The struggle of the Whigs to show their opposition to this war without actually defunding soldiers in the field will resonate with opponents of recent wars in our history.

Overall, while somewhat exhausting, What Hath God Wrought stands as a brilliant telling of the era, a bona fide classic of historical writing that anyone even remotely interested in the period covered should check out immediately.

The Books of 2017, #2: The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, by Mark Levinson

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When I was very, very young, the A&P was our corner grocery. Since we didn’t have a car, we walked down to that A&P a lot. It quickly converted into a Butera and now is a Supermercado of some sort, but I remember the A&P logo on it most strongly.

When I mentioned I was reading this book to a buddy about 10 years younger than me, it was made clear that he had never even heard of A&P. Given that A&P was the world’s largest company for 43 straight years, I find this kind of amazing. They were the Wal*Mart of America for a very long time.

So I grabbed this book when it popped up on my radar. In The Great A&P, Mark Levinson does yeoman’s work in describing how A&P came to occupy such a domineering position and why they fell so hard, so fast, that adult Americans today can credibly say they’ve never heard of them even though there were thousands of A&P stores across the country in living memory.

Telling this story is complicated by the fact that a) A&P wasn’t a publicly-traded firm and b) the men of the Hartford family who ran it were notoriously private. Therefore, I can appreciate the archaeology the author had to do to bring this story to light with any level of detail.

The rise of A&P in the late 19th and early 20th Century consumes the first half of the book, where the reader is given a lovely look into the frankly disgusting world of pre-refrigeration grocery selling. A somewhat predictable tale of effective utilization of economies of scale plus advertising mastery thus follows, with the rapid advances of transport and refrigeration technologies playing a strong role in the changeover of America’s food shopping habits from being primarily conducted at tiny corner stores run by independent owners to the chain store-dominated landscape we’re all too familiar with today.

Where the book gets particularly interesting is in the government’s rather persistent attempts to curb A&P’s growth, if not destroy them outright. Thanks to one particularly stubborn Southern Congressman who made his nut latching on to the issue of chain stores being bad for America (just in case you thought idiot populism was something new in our culture…), A&P found itself fighting the Federal Government from about 1930 through to the Eisenhower presidency nonstop. And while I’m generally in favor of strong government regulation of just about everything (because almost all entrepreneurs are also raving psychopaths who should be prevented from having unlimited funds to push their agenda in all possible arenas but I disgress…), Levinson makes a very, VERY strong case that the government’s arguments against A&P were entirely baseless from any economic or consumer-protectionist perspective.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, both for the history aspect of how shopping for food, something every person has to do on a regular basis, changed over time, with a lot of that change pushed by A&P’s innovations in its own business in ways that quickly reverberated through all retailers of food in the country. I further enjoyed the bizarre history of the government’s attempts to take A&P down for literally being TOO GOOD for consumers, by lowering prices too much. It’s a clear case of the kind of almost vindictive government overreach that leads far too many people to assume that ALL regulation is bad, and is precisely the sort of thing those of us who believe in strong but careful government regulation need to look out for.

The last bit of the book covers how, after finally putting the government’s crusade against it to bed, mostly successfully, a change in previously-entrenched leadership quickly led to the rather rapid demise of America’s largest chain. While those of us who have been living in the Age of Disruption (rolleyes) are unfortunately used to seeing legacy industries with tens of thousands of workers suddenly go under in disturbingly quick fashion, A&P might’ve been the first to go through this process, and it did so before Silicon Valley was around with its life mission of murdering traditional companies for profit.

I would’ve liked for Levinson to spend more time on this process, but it’s presented more as an epilogue to the story than an integral part of it. I guess it would be hard to spin a dramatic, engaging narrative out of bad managers consistently making wrong little decisions (and avoiding making any big ones) day after day for years until younger, more aggressive and more nimble competitors are eating your lunch and you go under.

So, in the end, I can recommend this book to anybody interested in the various topics covered within. It’s a deep look at a by-gone era of American business and government, with a side order of weird, private bachelor dudes running a company together for many, many decades with very little in the way of outside input and doing it damned well. Levinson obviously saw something uniquely American in The Great A&P and told that story here well.

The Books of 2017, #1: The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, by Robert Gerwarth

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Started off the year with a fun one, I did…

Wars are exhaustively covered in Western literature. No human being can read all of the books, even just in English, much less in other languages, that have been written about World War II, for example. That war is covered in many excellent volumes that cover the war as a whole, from a nice high overview, down to increasingly specific topics like the experience of individual German squads on the Eastern Front in 1943.

The point being, when it comes to wars, particular of the “modern” era, you can probably find at least one, if not many, books that speaks to whatever about that war you wish to know about in greater detail.

That is, unless what you’re interested in is: What Happened After?

Fortunately, this genre has been picking up steam in recent years. For World War II, there’s the excellent Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe, which tells the sad but necessary epic of the decade after VE Day, when an entire continent basically smashed to bits had to try and rebuild and also have a reckoning with what they had done to each other for a second time in a generation now. In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia by Ronald Spector does the same thing for the Pacific Theater. There have been many volumes rethinking the “Fall of Rome” and going into great detail regarding the century after 476CE in Europe.

And now, it’s The Great War’s turn.

The immediate postwar era of World War I is even more fascinating due to how those five or so years made the Second World War basically inevitable. And this is the ground The Vanquished covers.

From the “end” of what we refer to now as World War I in November of 1918 until about 1923, everything from the Rhine to the Pacific coast of Russian, from Finland south through the Balkans and into Mesopotamia, experience further violent conflict. Even the victors, with the sole exception of France, suffered additional violence and chaos (Britain with the Irish uprisings and Italy thoroughly enmeshed in the former Austro-Hungarian littoral on the Adriatic as well as suffering internal convulsions).

Gerwarth walks the reader through this tangled muddle as best he can, grouping events like revolutions, civil wars, interstate wars, irredentist conflicts, etc., together, in an admirable attempt to make sense of it all. To give an idea of the difficulty of the task, Wikipedia (not an authoritative resource but, again, to just give an idea) lists SEVENTY distinct violent conflicts in Europe from the end of 1918 through 1922.

The Vanquished tries to avoid descending into just an unending narrative of violence and cruelty, even though this is what the period was about, and instead tries to show the causes of the violence and the longer-reaching effects. I’m not personally certain that there was any result other than the breakup of the four empires that ended World War I and directly resulted in the chaos of the aftermath covered here that was possible, but Gerwarth makes a fairly convincing argument that it would have been difficult to fuck up the details and implementation of those breakups any worse than the Allies actually did.

Worse, the mismanagement of the “peace” contributed directly to the fall of democracies across this entire region and the resulting, even worse conflict of World War II. A lot of folks are aware of the correlation between the harsh Treaty of Versailles and its effect on the defeated Germans, but Gerwarth gives equal time to the equally harsh Treaties of Sevres and Trianon, each of which also carried great weight as contributing causes to World War II.

Trying to make sense of all of the horror that happened in the immediate half-decade following World War I is a tough task for any author, but Gerwarth manages it well here and this is a great one-volume overview of the entire period. If you wish to dig deeper into any specific aspect of it, I’ll just mention here that, per my Kindle, the narrative ends at 60% of the book. The remaining 40% is just to cover all of the documents and other books referenced in said narrative. Yeesh.

 

 

The Books of 2016: Fiction

I read more non-fiction than fiction, but the books that have stuck me most strongly this year tended to be from the latter category. To wit, here are my favorite fiction reads of 2016 (note: doesn’t mean they came out in 2016, just that that’s when I read ’em):


The Dog Starsby Peter Heller

I love me some apocalyptic fiction, and The Dog Stars is one of the finest examples of the genre, particularly those focused on the impact of a global catastrophe on a very small group of people. If you like this genre mostly for the disaster-porn aspect of reading about society collapsing and all the bad shit that attends that, this isn’t the book for you (not judging you for that; I love that shit, too, but that’s just not what this book is about).

If, rather, you’re cool with picking up the story of how basically one man, his dog, and the less than a dozen folks he’ll interact with for the rest of his life post-apocalypse get on in the face of such sorrow, this IS the book for you. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but this book gives the reader at least a smidge of hope that, even if everything were to crumble, if you can survive that, there are ways to hold on to your humanity and even perhaps find happiness even given everything you had grown to love and live with being destroyed.


The Nix: A novel, by Nathan Hill

I’m an admitted sucker for the classic Iowa MFA-style of “Big Books About Families”. If this debut is any indication, Mr. Hill is going to be an author on my auto-buy list for years to come. Imagine a Franzen novel where you didn’t loathe every major character and wish them harm. Where the author didn’t revel in their misery. Where bad shit happens, because bad shit happens to everyone, but there may actually be reasons and redemptions along the way.

That’s how The Nix read to me. Spanning generations of a family, from Norway in the 40’s to Chicago in the late 60’s to modern suburbia and even the Internet itself as a place where people form relationships, The Nix explores the many ways the urge to conform to the mores of a time and place can affect people, from outright rebelling against them to taking comfort in such boundaries, if at a cost that will be paid tenfold later in life.

If you at all like the sort of fiction that NPR can’t shut up about, embrace that about yourself and pick this book up. It was wonderful.

Tomorrow, we’ll hit some books that didn’t quite make the cut as my personal Best Of for last year, but are still totally worth reading.