Best of: Summer Reading 2015

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For years, summer was the time I was able to read the most, and I’ve been meticulously documenting my summer reading for years. Now that there’s no school to segregate summer reading as a separate entity, I tend to instead track my reading by the month and by the year. Except this year, where I’ve been planning out my reading per season as well (although I am constantly changing and updating my plans, of course). And even though summer doesn’t mean a break anymore, a long stretch of uninterrupted reading, there’s still something special about reading in the sunshine. So here are my top five summer reads of 2015, in no particular order (again, these aren’t books necessarily published this summer, just my personal summer reading highlights–but I do highly recommend them all as unconventional beach reads!):

  1. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: I love books that are unique. Books that can surprise me by circumventing or challenging established genre tropes, or that immerse you completely in a world that isn’t like anything you’ve read about before. The Fifth Season does this extremely successfully. It takes place in the Stillness, a world named ironically, since it suffers devastating disaster events with relative frequency. Its civilizations have developed to survive these events (volcanoes, epidemics, earthquakes, etc) and this shapes both historical precedents and daily life. N.K. Jemisin’s worldbuilding continuously impresses me with every book of hers that I read–it’s just so well thought out. She doesn’t just tell you, hey, this is what this particular culture/island/city is like–she shows you why it developed that way by providing historical and political context. I don’t want to summarize or spoil the plot, but I will say this: the book begins by telling you that “This is the way the world ends. For the last time.” It only gets more intriguing from there. There are people with powers to control the earth, who are feared and hated by the general population; an empire that expanded despite the continuous extinction setbacks; mysterious beings referred to as “stone eaters,” survivalist texts that take on an almost religious significance; and hidden mysteries underlying all of it. If you like fantasy with great worldbuilding, that has realistic characters in a fantastically destructive setting, then I highly recommend this book.
  2. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt: A thin child living in the English countryside during World War II, too young to fully comprehend the war that is consuming her world and that has taken her father away to fight, reads a book about Norse mythology that helps her to comprehend the horrors occurring far away in her world. It’s part historical fiction, part mythology retelling, and part philosophy. I’m honestly not sure why it’s gotten such low ratings; personally, I was blown away by Byatt’s prose. It’s simple on the surface but has so much depth. I loved the parallels that were drawn between the modern world and the world of Asgard: Byatt doesn’t throw it in the reader’s face, but lets you draw your own conclusions. It’s about the purpose that myths serve humans, how they shape our world, and how they can help us ultimately better understand it.
  3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: I’ve been meaning to read this book for approximately forever. Intertwined narratives, ranging in genre from historical fiction to scifi? I’m completely on board. I was really impressed with Mitchell’s range as a writer; if I didn’t know better, I’d be entirely convinced that each section in Cloud Atlas was written by a different author. The only issue I had was that I liked some of the stories much better than the others (one in particular I absolutely hated). I did, however, really enjoy the challenging aspect of picking up on the subtle ways in which the stories intersected, and I was a big fan of the creativity of not just the book’s structure but the individual stories as well.
  4. All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: This is a fantastic book for English and Writing majors, anyone who has spent time workshopping pieces of their writing, and for writers and poets in general. It’s subtle and beautiful, and it meditates on the nature of writing, success, creativity, and love. It spends a great deal of time exploring the question of whether writing can truly be taught, and whether an individual’s writing ever truly improves.
  5. Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman: In the past I’ve struggled to finish short story collections–not because they weren’t good, but because each story was so emotional and like a mini-book that I needed time to recover before moving onto the next one. Smoke and Mirrors isn’t like that. Each story is well-done and resonates in a different way, but after you finish one you crave more, so that you keep promising yourself you’ll only read one more before you go to sleep. And then you think, oh, but the next one sounds really good…Smoke and Mirrors has the loose theme of illusion, but the stories are all very different. There’s a lot of fantasy, some horror, and even a bit of science fiction, which I haven’t really seen from Gaiman in the past. There’s also a god variety in formatting: some stories are extremely short, others are a bit longer, and there are also a bunch of poems–some short, some longer and narrative. Some of my favorite stories were: “Changes”–a science fiction story about a scientist who discovers a cure for cancer, but doesn’t realize the profound consequences of the drug’s side effect of switching the patient’s gender; “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale”–a creepy cautionary tale about bargains; “Murder Mysteries”–about a murder mystery involving angels; “Only the End of the World Again”–reminded me of American Gods, in a good way; and “The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories”–an English writer goes to Hollywood to adapt his bestselling novel. I also love that Gaiman includes an introduction (with a hidden short story inside!) that discusses each story individually. He explains his inspiration for the stories, where they originally appeared, and how he feels about them putting together this collection years later. I liked getting the writer’s perspective on his own work and hearing about how he gets his creative ideas. I didn’t love every single story in here–particularly toward the end, some felt weaker to me, but overall it was great.
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