The 60 Books I Read This Year, Each Reviewed in 60 Words or Fewer
Narrative experiments, classics revisited, genre fun and lots of comics.
Last year I read 19 books. This year I read 60.
That’s more than a book a week, which is surprising — probably to me more than anyone else. Last year, when I realized I had averaged more than a book a month, I felt like giving myself a big pat on the back. I didn’t think I could ever top that Barry Allen-esque speed.
The difference, I guess, is that this year I decided I wanted to read a lot of books. That’s it. And for some reason, unlike my relationships with the gym, yoga, meditation or eating healthy, this one stuck.
It was a process. At the start of the year, I was reading a couple books a month; by summer, I had ramped up closer to one a week (on average, of course — including a lot of shorter books and graphic novels). There are a ton of YouTube videos about how to read more, and the advice usually boils down to “start a habit” or “have a routine.” I figured out a few things that helped me read more this year, which I’ll mention below my reviews.
I decided to give myself a word limit for these reviews, because I don’t want this piece to run overly-long, and because quite honestly a lot of these books ran together in my mind. My retention isn’t the best, to the point where I’ll often leave a room for something and forget what it was almost immediately. If I hadn’t kept a running list of the books I read, I probably wouldn’t even have remembered the titles, let alone what they were about.
Going back and writing these reviews reminded me of what stood out about these books, so they’re less about which books are “good” or “bad,” and more impressions about what was different, striking, intriguing or missing from each one.
Finally, if you’re looking at this list and thinking, “60 books isn’t really that many…” Fine. I could always do better. Maybe next year I’ll read more books — I have a to-read pile that’s always growing, including some Christmas presents that I’m really looking forward to. Or maybe I’ll read less. But no matter how much I read, it’s undeniable that these books helped me make it through a tough year, and helped me see things from a variety of perspectives.
Fire & Blood
by George R.R. Martin
I’d read the previously-published sections of this book in the anthologies Rogues and Dangerous Women, so I went in knowing it would be right up my alley: the history of Westeros, written in pop-history style by the maesters. People are disappointed Martin hasn’t finished Winds of Winter; I couldn’t be happier to have this book in the interim.
The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammet
The first of a few books I read this year to fill gaps in my reading knowledge. Even knowing the famous twist, and looking past some of the unfortunate portrayals of any character who isn’t straight and white, this was a rollicking read — perfect pacing, some of the coolest turns-of-phrase I’ve ever read, and hard-boiled style to spare.
Fury from the Tomb
by S.A. Sidor
I picked up this thick paperback for a weeklong work trip (long plane ride, lots of time in lines) and enjoyed the hell out of it. I was expecting a little more Indiana Jones, but Sidor makes his archeologist main character a bit of a wimp, so his cool supporting cast of vampires, mummies and supernatural cowboys shines even brighter.
by Haruki Murakami
I’m a big Murakami fan and his latest is a return to weird form after the more grounded Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. It’s got little mythical creatures who talk like strange gangsters; a trip to an alternate reality; a dark hole with supernatural properties; an ambiguous ending; and all the usual Murakami sex tics. Fun read all around.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams
Reread. I go back to the Hitchhikers Trilogy every few years to remind myself how fun and inventive writing can be. Beyond the unabashedly fun prose that flies off the page, there’s a sense that Adams was confident to run with practically every idea that came to him and somehow make it work. This should be required reading.
Black Leopard Red Wolf
by Marlon James
James’ writing is beautiful, but this book felt like work to me. Critics have called it “difficult” and “dense” and talked about taking notes to follow things — to me, those sound like digs, not compliments. As much as I liked some of the characters (Team Sadogo, 100%) and epic story, I often felt like James was trying to defeat me.
by Esi Edugyan
There’s so much inventiveness and whimsy in this book that it’s easy to forget it starts from deep tragedy—until you’re forced to remember. In turns an adventure story, travelogue, historical science fiction and a meditation on the legacy of slavery, privilege and race relations.
Record of a Spaceborn Few
by Becky Chambers
This third installment of Chambers’ Wayfarers series is like Crash, but good. Where the first book was just about one ship, and the second focussed mainly on a single character, this one is about an entire colony, told through the eyes of a few very disparate characters. A touching story with fascinating ideas about the possible future universe she’s created.
Martians, Go Home
by Fredric Brown
Fredric Brown is one of my favorite short story writers, mixing humor and sci-fi in flash fiction and long shaggy dog stories. This is the first novel of his that I’ve read, and it’s a fun one, with enough diversions to keep the threadbare plot chugging along.
The Long Take
by Robin Robertson
This is the first novel I read this year that totally surprised me, both with its form and with how much I ended up loving it. It’s really an epic poem masquerading as a novel (or maybe the other way around?), dripping with hard-boiled noir style, historical details and a deep story about trauma, bigotry and societal progress.
by Warren Ellis
Just Ellis being Ellis. Like his first novel Crooked Little Vein, this is a crime/detective story; but where that book went into absurd, over-the-top satire, this one leans into the procedural beats of the genre while still allowing Ellis long stretches of trippiness, drugs, unhinged characters spouting non sequiturs and bursts of technobabble.
Conversations With Friends
by Sally Rooney
I started this book ready to dislike it. I gravitate towards genre, and once dismissed all literary fiction as “sad people having affairs.” Well — that’s exactly what this book is about, and it’s incredible. The humanity Rooney shows towards her characters as they fumble forward is a hard thing to sustain for an entire novel. She makes it look easy.
by Toni Morrison
This was another book that I started to fill a void in my reading history; I’d never read any Toni Morrison before. This is a heartbreaking, beautiful book, with no easy decisions and lots of harsh consequences for the characters. I loved the way Morrison hops from character to character in her town, framing chapters with the advancing years.
Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
I kind of burned out on Saunders’ in college; after reading Pastoralia and a few other short stories, I felt like he had a small bag of tricks that he used over and over. Then, this. From the arc of the narrative to the form itself, this book is like nothing I’d ever read before. Funny, heartbreaking and endlessly inventive.
The Three Body Problem
by Cixin Liu
There’s so much fascinating stuff going on in this book that a lesser writer would have spread it over a few different novels. The premise – what if the first person to contact aliens had a deep-seated grudge against humanity – spins off into a story about survival, authoritarianism and the value of life and critical thinking.
by David Mitchell
I found Cloud Atlas at a Goodwill, and all I knew about it was this: it was supposedly impossible to turn into a movie; the Wachowskis did it anyway; and I never watched it. The nesting doll format of the book, with a half-dozen totally unique and fascinating voices, was endlessly surprising. I couldn’t put it down.
by Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson somehow never made his way into my fantasy reading queue until I needed a nice thick paperback for a long camping trip. I really enjoyed this book; the “hard magic system” (a Sanderson term) reminds me of Rothfuss’ system in The Name of the Wind, and the novel’s plot simultaneously twists and honors classic genre tropes.
The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath
I never read much of Plath’s poetry, so I didn’t know much about her or this book (other than it’s reputation as a real downer). I was surprised by how modern the writing is— it reminded me again and again of Conversations With Friends, not just in the language but also in how it approaches relationships and human artifice.
by Isaac Asimov
I heard somewhere that Asimov is better with ideas than he is with people, and this book — my first Asimov — definitely proves it. His ideas about the decline of an intergalactic society and the science of “psychohistory” to predict the future are fascinating; his characters are cleverly written, sometimes funny, but pretty hollow.
The Water Dancer
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates’ first novel has a lot of fascinating and challenging things to say about slavery, white supremacy and toxic masculinity, but he has a tendency to introduce characters and have them monologue about these ideas. I love Coates’ writing and thinking and there’s a lot to love here—it just isn’t a seamless transition from essays to fiction.
by Jim Butcher
This one is just a bit of fun — the first book in Butcher’s The Dresden Files. It’s about a private detective in “our” Chicago… but the detective is a wizard and our world has (secret) warlocks, vampires, monsters and magic. A little too macho, and some of the comedy doesn’t land, but a lot of fun.
by Drew Magary
I picked this up and abandoned it last year, but this year it clicked. It doesn’t feel totally cohesive — more of a slipshod “what if this happened, then what if this happened, then it would be cool if this happened!” — but it moves right along and scratched the D&D / video game pleasure center in my brain.
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City
by K.J. Parker
Parker’s “Amor Vincit Omnia” is one of my favorite fantasy short stories, but this was my first Parker novel. I’ve never read anything quite like it. It’s about the siege of a city, from the POV of a medieval-ish engineer. No magic, monsters, or prophesied heroes; just interesting problems and how one kinda jerky guy tries to solve them.
All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries)
by Martha Wells
Sci-fi novellas are super interesting to me, because they have to do a lot of world-building in a short time, and tell a story that feels bigger than a short story but not as big as a novel. Wells’ novella — and her Murderbot — easily clear those bars. Tense action, a nicely twisting story and a great protagonist.
Binti: The Night Masquerade
by Nnedi Okorafor
These novellas wrap up the Binti trilogy, which I started last year. Home was kind of misfire for me; there were character decisions that made no sense to me, and some editorial inconsistencies that took me out of the story. The Night Masquerade, however, regains its footing and brings Binti’s story to a satisfying close.
by Sylvain Neuvel
This started with an interesting play on form —the narrative framed as responses to the British Citizenship Test—but I’m not sure it followed through. There was a twist that came too early, then it became less of a compelling story and more of an (interesting) thought experiment. Some great dystopian ideas worth checking out, though.
The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett
A love letter to books and reading. It begins with a simple premise: what if the Queen of England never had the chance to read for fun? Where would she begin, what would she read, and how would it change her? The cheeky premise goes a little too far in the end, but it’s charming the whole way through.
Hammers on Bone
by Cassandra Khaw
Geez, I read a lot of detective stories this year. This Lovecraftian, eldritch horror take on the genre is really interesting – lots of oozing stuff, extra eyeballs, tentacles and mental instability. I’m not sure there’s enough to sustain a whole novel, but I hope Khaw writes more novellas in this vein.
Short Story Collections
How Long ’Til Black Future Month?
by N.K. Jemisin
I love Jemisin (I read her Broken Earth Trilogy last year) and her short story collection is fantastic. There were only one or two stories in here that didn’t completely land for me, and for each one there were other stories (“The City Born Great,” “L’Alchemista,” “The Effluent Engine,” “Cuisine des Mémoires”) that I could read again and again.
Nonfiction & Essays
by Maxine Gordon
This biography of hard bop saxophonist Dexter Gordon was written by his widow, which works to its benefit and detriment. There are a few spots where it feels like she’s trying to grind an axe with people who wronged Gordon in his lifetime, but their closeness allows for insight and details no other biographer could capture.
What I’d Say to the Martians
by Jack Handey
I would have been happy with 200 pages of Deep Thoughts, so I was predisposed to like this book, which also includes SNL scripts and essays from The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Outside and more. Best in small doses – the essays to get a little formulaic – but totally entertaining, full of his signature wild swings and goofy turns.
Travels With Charley in Search of America
by John Steinbeck
A thrift store find that I was really glad I stumbled across. This travelogue—Steinbeck and his poodle Charley taking a camper van around America — mixes William Least Heat Moon and E.B. White in the best way, with beautifully clear and engaging writing (though it’s probably not actually nonfiction).
Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV
by Warren Littlefield
I’m a sucker for oral histories, and this one about the TV lineup that influenced me throughout my youth – Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, Law & Order and more – was a great guilty pleasure beach read. Littlefield engages in a little too much self-congratulation, but it’s full of fascinating anecdotes and stories about letting creative people follow their vision.
Utopia for Realists
by Rutger Bregman
Bregman focuses this really engaging book on three big ideas: universal basic income, a 15-hour workweek, and open borders. Written in a conversational, easy-to-follow style, it lays out the totally reasonable and convincing arguments for why these ideas are achievable, and left me infuriated that we haven’t done more to advance them.
Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
We Were Four Years in Power was one of my favorites last year, filled with expertly-reported essays that I slowly pored over. This year, I couldn’t put down this book. Nobody has framed the ideas around privilege and white supremacy better than Coates; where his last book was more intellectual, this one is a punch straight to the gut.
My Custom Van
by Michael Ian Black
A great book to have in your bag, because each short essay is good for a quick laugh. While they get a little formulaic in places, there’s enough weirdness here — titles like “One Day, I’m Going to Open a Scented Candle Shoppe” and “I No Longer Love You, Magic Unicorn,” for example – to keep coming back for more.
The Fire Next Time
by James Baldwin
I picked this up specifically because Coates cites it as an inspiration for Between the World and Me, and it was interesting to read them back-to-back. They seem to be almost in conversation, with echoes, rhymes and disagreements that highlight places of unanimity and places where they saw the world very differently.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
by Haruki Murakami
A reread for me. While I’ll never be an athlete like Murakami – the man is 70 and still runs marathons and triathalons — I do think the parallels he finds between writing and exercise are fascinating, and there’s a big chunk of the book that serves as a memoir for his early career as a writer.
The Life You Can Save
by Peter Singer
The most affecting book I read, this treatise about charitable giving and “effective altruism” has challenging ideas about wealth and philanthropy. Like Bregman’s Utopia for Realists, it left me furious that the world isn’t doing more; but its chapters “A Realistic Standard” and “What One Person Can Do” had a transformative effect on how I’ll approach giving in the future.
Plays & Screenplays
Wet Hot American Summer: The Annotated Screenplay
by David Wain and Michael Showalter
I’ve been a big Wet Hot fan since seeing it in college, and a screenplay nerd for even longer, so this was right up my alley. Along with fun anecdotes from the cast, there are great notes about rejected jokes, cut scenes, and innovative solutions to structural and production challenges. Comedy and indie filmmaking gold.
by Rod Serling
There’s more to Rod Serling than the Twilight Zone. This collection of made-for-TV-movie scripts contains some fascinating stuff, from his A Few Good Men-type military courtroom drama about what we expect of soldiers, to a comedy about an elderly pitcher who spontaneously gets a golden arm. And his foreword about being a working writer is amazing.
Comics & Graphic Novels
by Tom King
Leave it to King to make me care about a character with some of DC’s wackiest mythology. King gets weird and takes the 9-panel grid used so often by Alan Moore to new and interesting places. The comic-y stuff with “the anti-life equation” is great; everything about love, fatherhood and L.A. is even better.
Batman: Year One
by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Batman’s origin has been told and retold so many times that each retelling sounds more and more formulaic — pearls, bats, a cowardly and superstitious lot, etc. By focusing this story on the start of Batman’s career instead of his trauma, and on Batman and Jim Gordon as two similar men struggling in Gotham, Miller takes the retelling to new heights.
Batman: The Long Halloween
Batman: Dark Victory
by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
The same way that Miller found a new angle on Batman by focusing on the Batman-Gordon relationship upon their arrival in Gotham, Loeb and Sale use these books to focus less on Batman punching everything and more on Batman as a detective. Lots of mystery, intrigue and chasing down clues – perfectly balanced by Sale’s over-the-top artwork.
The Immortal Hulk Volume 1: Or is he Both?
The Immortal Hulk Volume 2: The Green Door
The Immortal Hulk Volume 3: Hulk in Hell
by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett
Ewing’s turn with Bruce Banner reimagines the hero’s starring series so it’s less “what big things can Hulk punch” and more of a horror book in the vein of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. The angry green giant gets some new elements of body horror and maliciousness that put focus on how scary an unkillable mutating monster would be.
by Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert
Flashpoint is a big deal in the DC Universe, but this was fast food — I wanted a comic to read, I read it quickly, and it didn’t leave much of an impression. It has the same “the character you know, but different!” antics as Secret Empire, and the only cool thing I remember is Thomas Wayne as Batman.
DIE Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker
by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans
The perfect combination of tabletop RPGs, comics and fantasy tropes, mixed together in dark horror. Gillen’s take on roleplaying powers and archetypes is particularly interesting – the action hero who wins by bombast, the real ramifications of a “charm spell.” And the essays about RPGs at the back of the volume (and Gillen’s core rulebook) are well worth reading.
My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
I picked this up because I’ve read and liked Brubaker’s stuff in the past (Daredevil, Captain America, Criminal) and it was a cheap standalone graphic novel. Brubaker’s script drips noir style, but the light story about a junkie who loves the glamor of drugs and sex and can’t be trusted was pretty forgettable.
The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited
by The McElroys and Carey Pietsch
The graphic adaptation of The Adventure Zone continues to be good, filled with in-jokes that honor the series and minor narrative tweaks that steamline and improve the whole thing. For some reason I had a few more issues following some of the pages in this one than the last, but I’m 100% in for the rest of the series.
by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta
This feels of a piece with Mister Miracle—a limited-run series exploring the weirdness of a classic character. Vision gets the treatment here, with a touching story about what it means to be human, the worlds we build for ourselves, and what we do to hold onto them. Also: one big-ass superhero fight and a Vision dog.
by Nick Spencer and Steve McNiven
This book got a lot of flak for its central premise (fascists secretly, magically replaced Captain America with one of their own) that I don’t think it entirely deserved. Spencer rewards readers with a plausible enough explanation in the end, and while it does fall prey to many big crossover excesses, it has some really fun “Mirror, Mirror” hero showdowns.
War of the Realms
by Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman
Where Secret Empire tried to be gritty and dark, War of the Realms went the opposite direction, bringing loads of B-listers (Blade? Ghost Rider?) for a realm-hopping adventure. Fun, light and fast. While a lot of the jokes didn’t land for me and it felt too close to Snyder’s Metal, it’s a nice palate-cleaner.
Black Science Volume 1: How to Fall Forever
by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera
Black Science is Rick and Morty, but pitch black and deadly serious. Take the same portal-hopping scientist, throw in some Rusty Venture, and replace the teen with a crew, and you’ve got Black Science—perfect for the comic book format, since you can totally jump worlds every couple issues.
by Jonathan Hickman
Before Jonathan Hickman wrote Fantastic Four, Secret Wars and the latest relaunch of the X-Men, he created this semi-nihilistic, anti-corporate-media manifesto (which I read for the first time in college). With journalists under very real threat today, some of this hasn’t aged well, but Hickman’s fusion of comic book art and graphic design is still fascinating.
by Ezra Clayton Daniels and Ben Passmore
Gentrification, appropriation and privilege meet Lovecraftian tentacle-and-eyeball monsters. This is not only a great read, but also a great argument for physical books; the cartoony style, bright colors and landscape format remind me of old 6-panel newspaper comics, which is a perfect counterpoint to the dark and creepy story.
Strangers in Paradise (Pocket Book 1)
by Terry Moore
It took a little while for this book to get its hooks in me — some of the dialogue and character interactions seemed extremely dated — but once it did, I was in for the ride. Moore’s artwork is great, but his pacing and storytelling are the stars, including multi-page sections where he slips from graphic art into straight-up prose.
Tips: How to Read 60 Books in a Year
Make it Routine
This is probably the biggest hurdle that I had to get over, and the one that had the greatest impact on my reading. I made time to read almost every day. It wasn’t necessarily an hour-long chunk where I sequestered myself from the world; more often it was the fifteen minutes between breakfast and getting in my car to go to work. Those fifteen minute sprints add up.
Find Your Reading Spot
As important as finding the time to read was finding the right place to do it. For me, those places were the camp recliner on our deck; the clawfoot bathtub in our apartment; and the public boat launch between our apartment and my office. I read so much in these places that the act of reading there became inextricable from the place itself, and it became natural.
Have a To-Read Pile
I find it easier to get through a book and start right away on a new one when I have a pile of books just waiting to be read. Take this with a grain of salt, since I have bookshelves bending under the weight of books I got that I haven’t yet read, but I think having a next book as something to look forward to makes cruising through a stack easier.
I have trouble reading more than one book at a time (characters and plots get mixed up in my head) but when it comes to collections of essays or short stories, I find I can have a couple going at once. When I don’t have to follow an intricate plot, jumping back and forth seems to make things go faster.
Mix it Up
Instead of sticking to one genre and one form (say, sci-fi novels), I tried to read widely this year: novels, novellas, short stories, essays, nonfiction; sci-fi, literary, humor, sociology, fantasy, drama. I rarely read two “like” books in a row, so I jumped from short pieces to long ones, sci-fi to literary, humor to scripts—which really kept things fresh.
Keep a List
Keeping a running list of my reading throughout the year was a surprisingly good motivator. I loved seeing the list get longer, and I could really feel the cumulative weight of book after book adding up. I used the notetaking app in my phone, which also meant I always had it on hand — so if somebody asked what I had read lately, I had good recommendations ready to go.