Noel Rappin Writes Here

Books That Made Me Happy: 2021

Posted on March 13, 2022

Welcome. Because of the exact kind of person I am, it’s always bugged me when people put out year’s best lists in early December – the year isn’t over, what if you read or see something on, like, December 29th that changes your whole list. (I realize this is a very silly thing to be bugged by.) I traditionally get around this by putting out my favorite book lists sometime around the Ides of March.

Here’s how I do these lists these days:

I keep a running list of books I read, and at the end of the year, I run them through my nerdy little comparison program to create rankings. This doesn’t take much time really, and it’s kind of fun, just getting to be judgmental over and over.

Eventually, this ends up producing a list of books and I start at #1 and scan upwards to see how many books I want to recommend or think I have a couple of sentences I can say about or something clever or any connection with.

This year there are 40. Believe me, I’m sorry, too.

As usual, don’t take the rankings seriously, book links go to Amazon Kindle pages, and I try to explain the book using an elevator pitch, a “recommended if you like” list, or a weird math problem, which ever one I thought was most clever for each book.

Hope you find something here you like.

40: Imperfect Union by Steve Inskeep

Do The Math: Free Land + Free Soil + Free Men + Frémont

Recommended If You Like: Quote-unquote “Dad Books”, if you’ll excuse the expression.

If you are like me, you were vaguely aware there was a guy named John Frémont who was the first Republican Party presidential nominee in 1856. And you might have vaguely wondered how that came to be and why he seemed to have no particular impact on the fairly major events afterward. This book gives the answer, and part of the answer is that he had an extremely well-connected and savvy spouse who tended to his fame while he gallivanted off, exploring the American West in what is maybe not quite as competent a way as you’d like to believe.

I also want to mention this as a place holder for two other biographies that just missed the list – “Hero of Two Worlds” by Mike Duncan, which is about the Marquis de Lafayette, and “True Believer” by Abraham Riesman, which is about Stan Lee, both of which were also great.

39: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Do The Math: “San Junipero” + Boston Charlie on the MTA + Breakfast foods

This is your classic meet-cute scenario between August, a new NYC resident who doesn’t believe in love, and Jane, a too-cool-to-be true woman she meets on the subway. But it turns out that Jane is trapped on the subway and has been since the 1970s in a kind of magical spin on the MTA song (did she ever return?). I liked it. The ending doesn’t make any sense (the magic part, the character part works just fine), but I never really expected it would, so I just kind of let it be charming?

38: The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Do The Math: murder on the orient express - trains + your guide to not getting murdered in a quaint english village + groundhog day + cyberpunk dystopia, maybe? Recommended If You Like: time loops, murder mysteries, inexplicable endings

This one actually isn’t a 2021 book, if anybody cares for the slightest reason…

Our hero comes to himself in the middle of the woods, with no memory of anything. In the fullness of time he learns that he is in the British boonies at a fancy, if down-at-its-luck, manor. He is told that he has seven days to prevent the death of a woman named Evelyn Hardcastle and learn who the name of the person who intends to kill her. The catch is that instead of seven consecutive days, he will experience the same day seven times, in seven different bodies. Oh, and there are two other people also tasked with the same thing, and only one of them will solve the puzzle and escape.

For most of this book, it’s really fun, combining an Agatha Christie style mystery setting with a time loop, as the main character learns more about what’s going on and how he uses his future personages to help the earlier ones – it’s all very clever.

And then the book decides to try and explain why any of this is happening, and, look, I don’t want to spoil anything but it’s… well I didn’t like that part, but the first part was good enough for the book to make the list this year.

37: When Sorrows Come by Seanan McGuire

This is the 15th book in the October Daye series and I don’t think it’d be a big surprise to say that it’s not a great starting point.

I want to recognize how ridiculously prolific McGuire is. In 2021, McGuire published:

  • An October Day novel
  • An InCrypted novel
  • A novella in the Wayward Children Series
  • A novel in the highway ghosts series
  • A middle grade novel as A. Deborah Baker
  • A standalone novella as Mira Grant
  • 12 monthly Patreon stories at least one of which was short-novel size

This has basically been McGuire’s rate of output for about a decade, (she’ll do almost exactly the same thing in 2022) and it’s just remarkable. Like, a bunch of years ago Scott Westerfeld published nine books in three years (when Uglies came out), which is a) about half of what McGuire has done every year and b) he said it wiped him out.

Just wanted to mention that.

Anyway, this is the umpteenth Toby Daye novel, Toby gets married, it really happens, she doesn’t dramatically sacrifice her happiness to save the world or anything, and it’s all fun and satisfying if you’ve read the previous umpteen books.

36: Paladin’s Strength / Paladin’s Hope by T. Kingfisher

Do The Math: Bujold’s Chalion - those gods + different gods

There’s a great trope in romance novel series where sequel books in the series won’t pick up the future of the main couple, who after all, are supposed to have gotten a happily ever after, but rather follows one of the side characters, gives them a romance plot, and usually checks in on our main couple so we can see that they are still happy.

It’s a great way to structure a series that you don’t see much in SF/Fantasy, but these books, which are rom-coms set against a fantasy world, uses the pattern to solid effect. The group being covered are a group of down-on-their-luck paladins, in Paladin’s Strength one of them falls for a woman who can shapeshift into a bear, and in Paladin’s Hope one them falls for a man in what I guess you’d have to say is the noted and common fantasy trope of one’s a paladin, one’s the city’s chief forensic medical examiner.

Anyway, they are exactly the kind of thing I like, charismatic, funny, warm, and taking themselves exactly as seriously as they need to for the character bits to land.

35: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Do The Math: The Mutter Museum + Wayward Children or maybe Piranesi + Alternate History + Being Really Creepy

I think Kingfisher had two books really close to each other last year, too…

In addition to writing charming fantasy rom-coms, Kingfisher also writes really creepy contemporary horror books. In this one, a woman who helps run a small museum of random curiosities finds that the museum borders on a portal to… well, some kind of meta-world that has a lot of portals. There’s some body horror, some being alone in a museum full of creepy exhibits that are coming to life, you know, all the bases.

34: Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders

This is based on a series of essays that Anders wrote for about using storytelling in scary and difficult times, especially as a way to imagine better futures.

33: The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

Do The Math: first wife + second wife + third wife + i think you get the joke by now

The setup here is really simple. A woman learns that her ex-husband has created and is living with a clone of her that has been modified to be more… compliant? palatable? Not quite sure what the best one-word adjective is.

Anyway, the clone turns out not to be as compliant as designed, and therein lies the story.

It’s creepy both in terms of what the husband does and how the two women have to come to terms with it, and what it suggests about what behavior is… socially acceptable might be the phrase? (This is a strong entry in the Books With Negative Amazon Reviews That Prove The Author’s Point).

32: Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original by Mitchell Nathans

Elevator Pitch: Like, if you aren’t in from the title, you probably aren’t the target audience Recommended If You Like: Ball Four, pretty much

When I was maybe 11 or 12, I came upon a copy of Bouton’s best selling tell-all memoir Ball Four. I was, I think it’s fair to say, way too young for it. But I was entranced, maybe even a little obsessed for a while. Bouton’s writing is so witty, and the glimpses of what it’s really like to be a pro baseball player (pre-players union) were so tantalizing. Bouton also was sort of an outlet for an idea that was starting to form in me that I would never fit in with the athletic kids, even if I was good at athletics.

Anyway, interesting guy, who did a lot of interesting things, and maybe a memoir written when the author is 30 is not a great place for full self-reflection about a person’s character. The bio puts the memoir in context, and then goes through its fallout, Bouton’s time as a sports broadcaster (he really was about 10 years ahead of the world there), and then later as he made money via the development of Big League Chew. A good bio of a person I genuinely wanted to know more about.

31: Battle Royal by Lucy Parker

Elevator Pitch: What if Paul Hollywood and Kimjoy fell in love?

I liked this book fine, Lucy Parker has a nice touch with a romcom.

What I want to use this space to talk about, though, is the Netflix show Baking Impossible, in which bakers are paired with engineers to do things like build edible remote control cars that have to survive obstacle courses. The show is bananas, and is 100% the fictional show inside a romcom novel where the enemies-to-lovers protagonists start as the baker and engineer and learn to work together as they fall in love.

30: We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

Elevator Pitch: I’m honestly not sure, this one defies description.

Okay, I’ll try it. Most of this book takes place in 1989 and follows a Massachusetts high school field hockey team that may or may not have resorted to witchcraft to help itself win via a notebook adorned with a photo of Emilio Estevez. As one does. The viewpoint whips around all the team members, and in at least one case, the apparently sentient hair of one member of the team. This is probably not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but I thought it was very well written on a line-by-line level – it’s clever and funny and weird.

29: The Thursday Murder Club / The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Do The Math: Miss Marple * 4 + (James Bond + 40 years)

These are the first two of what looks like a longer series where the mystery solvers are four septuagenarian residents of a retirement home in the UK. The four bond over their shared love of true crime (though one of them also has a mysterious past as a spy). And they solve crimes. It’s really that simple sometimes. A little banter, a clever mystery, characters you root for.

Richard Osman came to my attention via the UK show Taskmaster, which I also recommend, first eight series available free on YouTube.

28: Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson

Do The Math: Neal Stephenson + Neal Stephenson to the Neal Stephenson power

In the beginning of this novel, Stephenson spends about ten pages describing an airplane flight that ends with a crash caused when the plane hits a pack of feral pigs just before landing, a thing that I will now never not think of when I’m on an airplane. Then, Stephenson spends about thirty pages giving us the back story of the guy who comes out of the woods to shoot the lead pig. That’s the first 40 pages of this book, which eventually gets around to being about an eccentric billionaire, who is neither the shooter nor the pig, launching sulfur in the air to mitigate global warming.

Large chunks of this book take place in the contested border between India and China where firearms are forbidden and there is just hand-to-hand combat. And if I’d ever bothered to think about it for more then a few minutes, I would have come to the conclusion that the only surprise in that sentence was that Stephenson hadn’t already written a book in that setting – it’s hard to imagine a near-future extrapolation and an author more suited to each other.

All of which is to say this is a very Neal Stephenson novel. It rambles, it’s sometimes satirical and sometimes serious, and sometimes both at once. The title makes no sense, and the ending is abrupt. There’s probably a comparison to be made with KSR’s Ministry of the Future but somebody else is going to have to make it because I found the KSR book too depressing to get through.

27: The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel

Do The Math: Easiest one of these on the board: Neal Stephenson + WP Kinsella

When I was a kid, I devoured pretty much every kids baseball book in the local library. There was one book, and I absolutely can not find it online, which is bugging me, but it was kind of a mix of an SF story and a non-fiction book explaining science through a baseball game being played by space aliens, for some reason. I remember very little of it, except I think there was a player whose body had swiss-cheese like holes in it, and the game winning home run was definitely hit by a super-strong alien named S.T. Atlas (for Stronger Than). I know it existed, but I can’t find it, and it’s one of those things that seems to defy Google.

Anyway, The Body Scout takes place in a future where baseball teams just straight-up bio-engineer players, and the scouts search far and wide for the scientists that can build a better player. Our main character is such a scout, and he watches his brother die at home plate when he basically dissolves from all his body modifications backfiring. It’s a wild chase through weird billionaires, improbable biotech, even more improbable cybernetics, and baseball. Lots of improbable baseball.

What I’m saying is that this book was engineered in a lab to appeal to me, and while I did enjoy it quite a bit, the fact that it isn’t in the top ten despite that fact might give you pause if you aren’t a kid who grew up on the adventures of S.T. Atlas.

26: From Little Tokyo With Love by Sarah Kuhn

Do The Math: cinderella + japanese food + soapdish, maybe?

Sarah Kuhn has rapidly become one of my favorite writers, splitting her time between a fun superhero series and a few very sweet YA novels where nothing really bad happens, and there’s a super-strong sense of place and community, and just very charming characters and plots. (She also writes pretty strong graphic novels, and apparently a middle-grade Archie series I haven’t read yet). This is one of the YA novels, a riff on Cinderella set in LA’s Little Tokyo.

25: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Do The Math: Aliens + Demons + Music + Gender Identities + Donuts (To be fair, the book jacket describes it as Good Omens + The Long Way to as Small Angry Planet, and that’s not bad either, but it does skip the music part)

I don’t even know where to start. Let’s start here – this book is good, it’s fun, it’s joyful despite covering dark topics. It also does as good a job as anything I’ve ever read at explaining to me – a musical ignoramus – what musicians hear when they hear music.

So, we’ve got a violin teacher who made a deal with a demon and provides musicians who are willing to trade their souls for success. And we’ve got an alien starship crew that is currently fixing their spaceship under the guise of running a donut shop.

These are not two things you often see in the same book, and that’s even before we get to the runaway violin prodigy escaping her home and people who are unwilling to accept her gender identity.

It’s a lot, and yet somehow it all works together. If anything about this seems interesting to you, read this one.

24: Soulstar by C. L. Polk

Elevator Pitch: It’s the third book, Charlie Brown. You probably know if you like it by now

I’ve liked this series, which follows a fantasy world something like WWI era Britain, which is first learning of, and then overcoming, the terrible war crime of how they have treated their own magic wielders. Which makes it sound depressing, which it’s not, in part because there’s some solid character work, good romantic storylines, and it’s not grimdark.

23: Stoneskin / The Blackwing War by K. B. Spangler

Elevator Pitch: What if space was sentient and a kind of scary? Do The Math: Star Trek + “It’s a Good LIfe” + “Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics”

Genuinely interesting SF concept here. Teleportation exists, but it’s handled by interacting with an alien superintelligence called The Deep, which wants to be helpful, so it moves things around the galaxy for us when we ask nicely. Access to The Deep is strictly controlled by a central group that therefore has a huge logistical advantage over everybody else. But what is The Deep? And what does it want? Does it matter how we treat it? And can you control it, as a group, without being corrupted? Stoneskin is kind of a pre-book about the main character, the real action starts in Blackwing War. I really like Spangler’s books, and this series looks to be really cool.

22: Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Elevator Pitch: Epic fantasy, but with pre-columbian american mythos.

This one got a bunch of award nominations. I liked it fine, but maybe not award nomination level. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of neat stuff here, gods and mermaids, and power struggles, and odd fantasy cities. But it’s very much book one of a series and it ends on a big change, so it’s hard to really evaluate.

21: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Elevator Pitch: What if everything you were ever taught about pre-writing people was wrong?

This is a big book, meant to seriously change the conversation about human history. The thesis here is that he conventional story of hunter-gatherers becoming farmers becoming civilized is both wrong and much less interesting that the full and rich truer story. Separately, the authors also argue that Native American thinkers were a much larger influence on European Enlightenment thinking than has been previously acknowledged. I admit to being a little unclear as to why those two arguments are being made simultaneously. (Okay, it’s actually because the authors are trying to explain how the conventional story of history came about.)

Anyway, I’m not competent to debate the factual parts of their argument – I’ve seen serious rebuttals, and I’ve also seen rebuttals that seemed to misunderstand the argument being made. I do like that they grant the early humans the idea that they might have thought as deeply about ethics and how to live together as we do, rather than just dismiss them as “primitive”. It does feel like their conclusions get ahead of their data in some spots, but the basic argument “history is more complicated than we thought” seems hard to dispute.

20: Amoralman by Derek DelGaudio

Elevator Pitch: What if a David Mamet character wrote a memoir?

Derek DelGaudio had a one-person show off Broadway a couple of years ago called In and of Itself, which is somewhere between a magic show and a performance art piece – if you go in to it expecting a lot of magic tricks, you’ll be disappointed, but if you go in expecting a weird exploration of how illusions can affect and manipulate an audience, it’s really worth it. (I should say, I didn’t see it live, but the fimed version is excellent.)

Anyway, one of the stories in In and of Itself is about DelGaudio’s time as a dealer in an illegal poker game in LA. He was there to cheat, of course. This book is sort of about how he got there, what it was like, and why he left. It’s also cheerfully unreliably narrated, so it swings between fun and unsettling kind of quickly.

19: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

Do The Math: The Goblin Emperor - The actual goblin emperor + a murder mystery

Long-awaited sequel of sorts to one of my favorite books, The Goblin Emperor, this book follows the aforementioned Witness For the Dead – a side character in the original book – as he settles to a new city, dead-witnessing or whatever he does to fill his time. Eventually, of course, there’s a mysterious death and a truth to find out. It’s a solid fantasy mystery, the characters are good, the world remains excellently built out.

18: The Hands of the Emperor / Petty Treasons by Victoria Goddard

Do The Math: Goblin Emperor * 2 - plot + family dysfunction?

It’s funny that this winds up right after the Addison book.

Hands of the Emperor is a decent entry point into a sequence of about a dozen or so loosely interlaced books from Goddard that take place over a wide sweep of time in a fantasy empire that spans worlds. The empire suffers a magical calamity and is shattered and healed. (Petty Treasons is a prequel novella covering an event alluded to in Hands). All that stuff sounds interesting, doesn’t it? All that stuff is has already happened when the book opens.

Our lead character is Cliopher, lead attendent to the Emperor, and a couple of other things besides. Over the course of this, like, 900 page book. Well… not much actually happens. Cliopher helps run the empire, the Emperor learns to live with Emperor-ing, and there’s not much in the way of conflict. To put it a different way, Goblin Emperor has an attempted assassination attempt that takes one chapter, and we spend the next many chapters dealing with the aftermath. Hands has an assassination attempt of sorts, it takes about two pages, and everybody more or less is happy again five pages later. The last something like 200 pages are literally Cliopher walking around his home town gathering reasons for people to tell him in front of his family what a wise and good person and public servant he is. I cannot emphasize how really, really weird the structure of this book is and how it dispenses with your likely understanding of things like “plot”.

Naturally, I loved it. Really. I inhaled it. It’s delightful. But if you want to read it, eyes open…

Sidebar – there’s a weird strain of fantasy novel that is “absolute monarchy that is actually actively well-run and benevolent” – this book, Goblin Emperor, even Barrayar, though that’s SF. I know there are a bunch more. It’s weird.

17: Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel

Elevator Pitch: This is a case where the title makes the argument

This is more of an extended rant than a book. Baddiel, who is a UK comedian and writer, is making the argument that the progressive movement does not treat antisemtism the way they treat other forms of racism, either ignoring it outright (or worse, participating in it), or treating it as less important than other racisms. (This is about where I usually feel obligated to point out that I am Jewish).

Baddiel puts eloquently something that I’ve felt but couldn’t quite put into words, and it’s one of those books where, having seen the argument, I’m now seeing supporting data all the time (to be fair, I was seeing all the things before, just not putting them into a consistent story). The book has not gone out of my head, I recommend it to people all the time.

16: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

Elevator Pitch: The author has admitted that the pitch for this was “Spider-Verse, but for Sleeping Beauty”

When I tell people the elevator pitch for this one, I often get an “ooooh” in response. It’s a really cool idea, and the book is fun. Short, but fun.

15: Four Lost Cities by Annalee Newitz

Do The Math: Çatalhöyük + Pompeii + Angkor + Cahokia

In some ways, this is a much more focused look at the same kind of argument that The Dawn of Everything made. Newitz focuses on cities, and in particular cities that were abandoned, as a starting point to talk about why we have cities, and how they run and why they might be abandoned. There’s a lot of first-hand archeological experience, and in particular the Pompeii chapter does an excellent job of evoking what the city might have been like (in part because Pompeii is the most recognizable as a modern city).

14: We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

Do The Math: Elon Musk’s Neuralink + Time + Money

There used to be an idea that SF novels should read like mainstream novels from the future. This book, about a family that is upended by the existence of a digital neural enhancement technology, is very much consistent that tradition (granting that Pinsker and the editor who is most associated with that idea would, to say the very least, not get along). Pinsker is very smart about what the gadget actually does – it doesn’t make you a cyborg, it just helps you focus and multitask.

Pinsker’s Song for a New Day got a lot of credit for being prescient about what pandemic lockdowns would feel like. This book, with its focus on who should get medical interventions and how to deal with those who can’t get them or for whom they don’t work, feels prescient in a completely different way.

13: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Elevator Pitch: Murderbot!

The latest Murderbot book, this one is takes place between the end of the original four novellas and the full novel Network Effect. It’s a murder mystery during Murderbot’s first days on Preservation Station, as they are trying to fit in. It’s a pretty good murder mystery, because it’s a prequel there’s a little bit less suspense than the others, but it’s still great.

12: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

Recommended If You Like: Joy

One thing I look for every year is a book that feels “Pratchetty”, not in that it is particularly funny, but that it is particularly human, and generous and warm to its characters. This book, about a sad man in a somewhat stylized world, who goes to investigate a mysterious school for magical children, is probably the winner here. The characters are adorable, the book is kind, I really liked it. (Late note, as much as I love this book, the winner of this particular honor this year is almost certainly The Galaxy and the Ground Within. This book, though, is still great and you will probably like it.)

11: How Lucky by Will Leitch

Do The Math: Rear Window + The Internet

Leitch, who used to be the managing editor of Deadspin, is another writer who I’ve followed online for a while. Our lead character has limited mobility and uses a wheelchair due to a chronic and degenerative disease. He works in chat-based customer service, then he sees something suspicious and a local college student is reported missing. It’s a genuinely good mystery/thriller, which like Rear Window gets some of its power from what is required by the main character to even take on the challenge.

10: A Psalm For The Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Elevator Pitch: One of them is a monk who just wants to make perfect tea, the other is a robot who wants to help humans. Together they fight… ennui?

A friend thinks I am way in the tank for Becky Chambers books and its hard to deny (look about ten slots down for confirmation). I will say that I really liked this book, but it’s probably not for everyone. Even by Chambers’ standards, this book is quiet and low-stakes, with two characters who are on very different journeys of self-discovery encountering each other and helping each other on their journey. It’s deliberately cozy.

9: The Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson

Do The Math: “Truly Devious” + Meatballs (especially the part where Bill Murray tells The Hook story)

A fourth book in the Truly Devious trilogy, this follows teen detective Stevie Bell on her next adventure. I like mysteries, though I don’t read very many of them (I might have weird standards for what I like, and I’m not clued in enough to always know what authors are in that circle. Actually, I’m exactly the same way about romance novels).

Anyway, having solved the Truly Devious mystery, Stevie is hired by an eccentric tech billionaire to solve a 70s era murder mystery in a small summer-camp town and incidentally promote his true-crime podcast about that mystery. Johnson has a good sense of when to have fun (the tech bro), and when to be serious (the long-term effects of the crime), and this is a good, very satisfying mystery.

8: The Night The Lights Went Out by Drew Magary

Elevator Pitch: Ever wonder what it’d be like to be in a coma for two weeks?

One night in December, 2018, something happened to Drew Magary. Exactly what is unclear, but it ended with him collapsing, fracturing his skull in three places, and a medically-induced coma that lasted two weeks.

The first half of this book is an oral history, where Magary interviews his friends and loved ones to discover what happened the night of the accident, and then through the subsequent weeks. It’s a harrowing story of frantically getting medical care, notifying relatives, and then the hurry up and wait of the actual coma.

The second half is Magary talking about his recovery, which included significant hearing loss and loss of taste and smell. It’s not a quote-unquote inspiring memoir, it very honest about his anger, what was and wasn’t easy to deal with, and how long it took him to really come to terms with how much help he needed.

This is two really good, but different, non-fiction books on the same topic bolted together.

7: Chaos on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer

Do The Math: CatNet ^ 2

This is a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet, a book I very much enjoyed. They are both YAish SF novels involving a group of teenagers who meet on a chat room that is moderated by a sentient AI who loves pictures of cats, and just wants to help everybody.

This time around, we have a second AI, who seems to be deliberately causing chaos (see, it’s the title) and distrust on social networks, and the gang needs to stop it. These are books that are very generous to the characters, effortlessly represent different groups, and subtly point toward a more optimistic future.

6: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Do The Math: Godfather + Martial Arts + James Bond + Magic

The third and final book in the Green Bone Saga Trilogy, this one covers a much greater sweep of time going forward, and is much longer.

I enjoyed this way more than I expected, honestly. I liked the first two books, but would not really have expected this one to be in my top ten. But it’s really good. Lee wrote an article for about how she studied the ends of trilogies that worked to help her structure the how to stick the landing. And you can see it – this book is wide and sprawling, but in the end also very focused on wrapping the stories of the characters we care about in a satisfying way.

I want to note a weird technical thing – this series takes place over decades, starting from a tech level that is… 1960s ish. Over time though, the tech level changes, both in terms of some specific plot related things but also just in the background, eventually there are computers, and networks, and better tech, and it kind of there subtly in the background without really being commented on, and I thought that was very skillfully handled.

5: Together We Will Go by J. Michael Straczynski

Elevator Pitch: Honestly, the whole book is a content warning

I’ve described the setup to this book and had a person nope out before I finished, so I’m pretty sure it’s not for everybody. A man, thinking himself a failure, buys a bus and sets up a trip of people who all want to end their lives. They gather on the bus, document their feelings, and then the bus plans to drive off a cliff into the Pacific at the end of the trip.

It’s hard to really explain the book that follows. The group of people gather, with different reasons and different levels of commitment. Some are not what they present themselves to be. Eventually, things get complicated, in some ways that you’ve likely predicted and in some you likely haven’t. It ends up being – well, less depressing than you expect, but also in some ways just as depressing as you expect? It’s uncomfortable, but also really sweet in spots?

4: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martin

A sequel to A Memory Called Empire – Martin says this is a duology, and if there are other books in Teixcalaanli space, they will follow other stories.

Anyway, this picks up a few months after the first book, Mahit is back home, but her loyalties are suspect, given her actions in the first book, (fair, honestly), and Three Seagrass basically retrieves her to help communicate with what appears to be an alien attack force in an attempt to avoid a war and to navigate internal Teixcalaanli politics. The Teixcalaanli culture is fascinating, and Mahit’s feelings of being drawn to it while remaining outside it are well done.

3: The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

Okay, look, I get that the venn diagram of people who are going to read A Desolation Called Peace, this, and Victories Greater than Death is probably just me.


This is a simple book. Posnanski lists the top 100 players in baseball history and writes an essay about each of them. It’s been done before, it’ll be done again.

What sets this apart is first, off Posnanski’s… impressionistic approach to the ranking. Players who could plausibly be associated with numbers from their career tend to be ranked there (Joe DiMaggio at #56 is the most obvious example). Posnanski is not interested in convincing you that the rankings are correct, he is interested in giving you a sense of why each player mattered to baseball history. Posnanski reaches beyond MLB and into the Negro Leagues to squarely include those greats.

Finally, the essays are great. Varied, but with common themes, and with the common goal of telling the story of what was distinctive, or interesting, or unique about each player. I’m not saying this book will make you care about baseball, I am saying that if you do care about baseball, this book will make you care more.

2: Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

This is the beginning of a YA space opera trilogy. Tina Mains, hidden on earth, is actually the genetic clone of a galactic hero. As the book starts, she’s called back into space, but finds it more confusing and much more dangerous than expected. She and her friends try to integrate with the galactic culture, while she struggles with not being able to live up to her clone and also fights a villain with the terrifying power to not only kill you, but make all your loved ones retroactively hate you (seriously, it’s creepy). There’s a lot going on here, from a galactic history where non-biped species were apparently wiped out, to a mostly good government that is rapidly falling to a bad one, to the personal journeys of the characters. It’s a rich world, and a cool story

1: The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

Do The Math: Star Wars + Come From Away - Any sense of danger or menace + Sesame Street

Someday, if I am very lucky, I will figure out why this book works so well.

Three different aliens are forced to wait a few extra days when an accident blocks a stargate. They all end up at the same… let’s go with space motel. They all have places to be, but they are all stuck together.

And then, to a first approximation, nothing happens. We learn about the characters, they learn about each other. There’s some conflict, sure, but nothing that goes past yelling (at least not until the very end…)

And it’s riveting.

Each character’s needs and wants are vivid, the contrasts between them are clear (it’s not an accident that all the characters have suffered for being more open to interacting with aliens than others of their species). They come to find how to help each other in surprising ways. They literally (probably) change the galaxy (offscreen).

It’s funny, kind, heartfelt, and gripping. It’s also, per the author, the last Wayfarers book, which is too bad because I’m really curious how this plays out.


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Copyright 2024 Noel Rappin

All opinions and thoughts expressed or shared in this article or post are my own and are independent of and should not be attributed to my current employer, Chime Financial, Inc., or its subsidiaries.