In December I reviewed 65 books, plus I deal-hunted the Kindle book deals for December. The deals list seems to be consistently large (hovering around a thousand books), which means that if you're willing to pick through a lot of drek, you can get a lot of great reading for cheap. Or you can just have me pick through the drek for you!
If you're going to read one book I reviewed this month, make it Infomocracy, by Malka Older. (Or rather, you should pre-order it on Amazon - it doesn't come out until June.)
Here's an excerpt from my review:
So what were my favorite things about the book?
First, I loved how much the book was actually about politics. That may sound like strange praise for a political thriller, but a lot of political thrillers separate the politics from the thrills. Older deeply integrates them; when Ken spends days sorting through ballots, you are biting your nails right along with him. That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of tense dramatic moments and action scenes, but they feel like just another part of the daily experience of politics in a time of turmoil.
Second, I loved how much Older’s world feels like, well, the world. Older’s characters chase each other from Tokyo to Jakarta to Paris to Dubai. Each location is deeply realized and realistic, and the minor characters fully human; you never feel like they’re being used as exotic props. Instead, it’s clear that Older has thought outside the usual geopolitical tropes, drawing on deep experience in international aid and policy, and her innovation pays off in the success of her world-building.
Finally, I loved how Older uses her imaginary parties to comment on political tendencies, from stodgy, by-the-numbers Heritage to neo-conservative Liberty to well-intended Policy1st. This isn’t just a book about cool political operatives doing cool things in a cool world. It’s a book that uses cool political operatives doing cool things in a cool world to make any number of clever, thoughtful points about how politics operates, and how people use it both to express their highest aspirations and their worst selves.
In short, Infomocracy? Highly recommended to anyone who likes politics, science fiction, or both.
Since Older's novel isn't available yet, have a second recommendation - Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312.
When I read Robinson’s Mars trilogy, I recognized it was good, but there were long stretches where I was bored out of my skull. The scientific and political extrapolation was cool, and there were some great action scenes, but the characterization was inconsistent and I could have done with a lot fewer rapturous descriptions of geological features. But guess what? Robinson has radically improved his craft. 2312 has sharp analysis of a possible near future, especially at the intersection of politics and technology, and features compelling conflicts between factions. The pace is snappy, and even when he slows down to wonder at the glories of the solar system, he keeps his awe relevant to the characters and plot. But best of all, he nails the characterizations. I wanted to find out what happened to the solar system, sure, but I also really wanted to know what happened to mercurial Mercurian artist Swan Er Hong and saturnine Saturnian politician Wahram as they investigate a terrorist incident. (Okay, I didn’t get what Robinson was doing there until three-quarters of the way through the book. But I got it, and it’s very clever.)
A few things I especially liked about Robinson’s future: accelerated speciation. What it takes to hide things from AIs. The culmination of the gender revolution. Quantum computing. Sunwalkers, who stay just ahead of the terminator line on Mercury. Organized crime on Venus. Robots pretending to be human and humans pretending to be robots. Darkliners, where guests take their space travel entirely without light. And these are just a few of the things you’ll encounter. Highly recommended.
I also put together a list of my favorite books of the year:
Monkey: Journey to the West, Wu Cheng'enFour ill-assorted monks go on a quest to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures; trickery and monster-fighting ensue. The most meditative, hallucinatory reading experience involving sky-shattering battles I’ve ever had.
The Enchanted, Rene Denfield
A heartbreaking, lyrically written look at death row, from the perspectives of a lawyer, a priest, and a condemned criminal.
Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series
Six books, set between 1546 and 1560, about how Francis Crawford is really, really awesome and also really, really screwed. Very smart, very dark, wonderful characterization. I’ll be re-reading this soon.
Crooked, Austin Grossman
The funniest book about Richard Nixon you will ever read. Follow along with the ambitious, bitter, hapless president as he bumbles into, then attempts to thwart, a devastating supernatural conspiracy.
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
A breath of fresh air for the genre of epic fantasy. This story of two friends who end up on opposite sides of a civil war develops meaningful moral conflicts, great central and secondary characters, and a world whose legends feel resonant and real, without an ounce of flab.
Infomocracy, Malka Older
A political thriller that actually makes politics thrilling, coupled with a smart vision of what near-future politics might look like. Come for the sci-fi, stay for the political maneuvering – or vice versa. They’re both equally good.
Night Film, Marisha Pessl
A haunting puzzle-box of a novel about art, love, truth, and the violence of the creative life. Follow washed-up reporter Scott McGrath as he tries to prove cult horror filmmaker Stanislas Cordova is a murderer – then try to figure out how much of what you learn is true.
Pedigree, Lauren Rivera
A beautifully researched, brutal, brilliant expose of the processes that keep elite professions rich and white. It’s not just an indictment of injustice, it’s one of the best pieces of qualitative research I have ever read.
I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of their Time, Laura Vanderkam
Some high-achieving women make family and career work together, but Vanderkam realized there was no good data on how. She went out and collected some, then turned it into actionable insights to help other women do the same. This book had the most practical impact on my life of anything I’ve read this year.
Emile Zola's Rougon--Macquart series
Zola’s journalistic, encyclopedic series transported me to the Second Empire, and got me to care deeply about the fate of the entire Rougon-Macquart clan. Start with L’Assommoir in the Oxford translation if you’re not ready to tackle the whole thing.
Other books I loved:
Servant of Birds, A. A. Attanasio
American Elsewhere, Robert Jackson Bennett
Zoo City, Lauren Beukes
The Compleat Traveller in Black, John Brunner
Raymond Chandler's Marlowe novels
Spirits Abroad, Zen Cho
Kate Elliott's Jaran series
The Guest Cat, Takashi Hiraide
Anthony Horowitz's Holmes novels
Ann Leckie's Ancillary series
Courtney Milan's Brothers Sinister series
Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, John Julius Norwich
Robert Reed's Marrow series
Sunset Mantle, Alter S. Reiss
Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series
Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
You can find the full reviews, along with all my book reviews since 2012, collected here: