A list of my favorite Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novels (2020 edition)

Individual Novels

This category is dedicated to books as standalone books that may or may not be part of a longer series of books. The dividing line for this list was whether I thought you could read just the one book from a series as a self-contained story. If the answer was no, then the series likely appears below. As with my list of favorite novels, this is both recommendation and not. The list is a product of personal taste and dim memory of when I read these books, which often speaks as much to who I was when I read them as to the overall quality.

Tier 3
27. The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings (2000)
26. The Armored Saint, Myke Cole (2018)
25. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
24. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
23. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (2012)
22. Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
21. Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)
20. The Postmortal, Drew Magary (2011)
19. Neuromancer, William Gibson
18. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
17. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)

Tier 2
16. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab (2015)
15. Ilium, Dan Simmons (2003)
14. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008)
13. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2007)
12. The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (2015)
11. Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
10. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
9. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
8. Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
7. Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)

Tier 1
6. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemison (2015)
5. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
4. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
2. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon (1990)
1. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)

Series

This category is dedicated to fantasy books that I think of as series rather than as individual books. These series range from three to fourteen books. Not all of the series are complete and in fact my top two and four of my top ten are as-yet incomplete. The only caveat to this list is that I have to have read all of the books in the series that are out, which eliminates series of books that I quite enjoyed, including some of the books on the above list.

Tier 3
14. Star Wars: X-Wing, various authors
13. Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
12. Kushiel’s Legacy, Jacqueline Carey
11. Tao Trilogy, Wesley Chu

Tier 2
10. Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson
9. Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb
8. Dandelion Dynasty, Ken Liu
7. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson
6. Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb
5. Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tier 1
4. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
3. Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin
2. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin
1. Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss

RIP Oscar

When I met my partner nearly a decade ago she had three black cats, brothers that she had rescued from a poor situation. (I never knew the fourth brother.) Star was a one person cat and did not like me. Rupert was large and loud and generally okay. Then there was Oscar. By the time we moved in together Star and Rupert had passed away, leaving the old man Oscar to be joined by two girls, Billie and Libby––they’re not young anymore, but I still think of them as kittens.

Oscar passed away Monday morning, just shy of his 18th birthday.

Despite being the clumsiest cat I have ever seen and his fondness for eating string and ribbon, and therefore for chewing on shoelaces, Oscar was also the best cat. He was gentle and friendly and cuddly and was ready to purr at the drop of a hat. His back legs haven’t been working well recently and he’s lost a lot of weight, requiring twice-daily pills thyroid medication, but he didn’t run from pills and certainly didn’t hold it against you for giving it to him.

We transitioned to working from home this week and doing so without Oscar around has made the change all the more difficult. Our new normal would have been his dream and while we do have the other two cats it just isn’t the same. RIP Oscar.

A List of my Favorite Novels (2020 edition)

A few years ago I published a list of my favorite novels. At the time I had intended to update this list annually, but never did, in part because there wasn’t much movement on the list and because the initial series included capsules that took a lot of work to write.

I have read a lot of really good books since publishing that list, with the result that not only is the list more than twice as long, but also that there has been substantial movement within it. For instance, the original list was entirely male and overwhelmingly white; it still leans heavily that direction, but also contains more than a dozen books by non-white authors and about a quarter of the new books were written by women, all of which entered the list in the last two years. These demographics are entirely based on the demographics in the books I read, so I fully expect that the list will continue to diversify as I read more widely.

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 11
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2017 (American War and Exit West)

Tier 5

66. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
65. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
64. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
63. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
62. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
61. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
60. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
59. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
58. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
57. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
56. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
55. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
54. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
53. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Tier 4

52. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2016)
51. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
50. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
49. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
48. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
47. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
46. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
45. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

44. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
43. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
42. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
41. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
40. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
39. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
38. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
32. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

My 2019: Resolutions

As is custom (starting last year), my year-end navel gazing series ends with my resolutions for the new year, a little delayed because my iPad keyboard died while I was on the road.

ΔΔΔ

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable.
  • Smile more often.
  • Exercise to improve health, diet, flexibility and fitness, particularly since my schedule last semester got in the way of these healthy routines.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, something started off doing well in 2019 but had largely stopped by the end of the year and intend to do more regularly in 2020.

The specific, concrete, actionable

  • Take at least one day each weekend not working, as defined by no work email, no grading, no preparing for courses, and no academic writing.
  • Take ten minutes every afternoon for quiet meditation and reflection.
  • Complete the book manuscript that I’ve been working on based on my dissertation.
  • Complete the (2) article-length pieces that I didn’t quite finish in 2019 and draft (1) new one.
  • Find (1) new book to review.
  • Complete the next piece of my research project on bread in ancient Greece.
  • I have gotten away from reading academic books for reasons other than class or research, and I want to get back to reading for professional development. My target for this is at least (12), or one per month.
  • I didn’t quite hit my reading goal of 52 books for 2019, but will re-up at the same level
    • 33% of those books should be by women
    • At least (5) should be by African American authors
    • These books should represent at least (10) different countries and (7) different languages

ΔΔΔ

Finally, to conclude this series a message for readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas of posts coming down the pipe in 2020, including a revised list of my favorite novels, but, as usual, content here will reflect my year, what I have the energy to write about, and the fickle fortune of pursuing an academic career.

Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, may the coming year be one of warmth and joy for you as we all work to build a better future.

Recapping My 2019: best* posts; by-the-numbers; listicle; using words.

My 2019: Using Words

Judging solely on the resolutions I made for 2019, this was a year of best intentions come up short. At least two failures mirrored even minor successes, and, on the cusp of 2020, I mostly feel exhausted.

However, this assessment is colored by the fatigue I still feel from a particularly grueling semester. This year was broadly similar to the last, which was broadly similar to the one before that and the one before that. I had a few more professional successes in the past years, but I also had significantly fewer teaching responsibilities and more research support. Plus ça change.

Add in that I have now been in Columbia, MO for a decade and am currently without prospects for a permanent job in the area, and what I am feeling might be more appropriately described as stagnation.

All the same, I managed to deliver a paper on bread baking in ancient Greece last spring at the CAMWS meeting in Lincoln, NE, wrote a book review, and drafted two article-length pieces, one for an edited collection, and one I want to submit to a journal. Frustratingly, only the conference paper saw the light of day this year and I was once again unable to complete my first book manuscript (though I did make progress on it). I need to remember that this hardly counts for nothing when also teaching seven classes of my own (five new), picking up additional grading to make ends meet, and applying for academic jobs, all while also setting ambitious reading and exercise goals, and aiming to maintain a healthy relationship

I wrote last year about my recent struggles with anxiety and again earlier this year about struggling to write while depressed. These two emotional states dominated my year to the point that I tried to find a therapist in early September before the semester spun out of control. I received an initial evaluation and was prepared to spend quite a lot of money before my insurance would cover visits, but ended up not following through after being told the wait for start appointments.

Beyond simply the anxiety of the semester, I was (and am) particularly concerned about my career. The academic job market is the stuff of campfire horror stories for many reasons, but the long and the short of it is that most universities remain under regimes of austerity and those that aren’t are not generally not investing in full-time ancient historians. Add in a decade’s worth of accumulated PhDs and you have a recipe for, in some cases, hundreds of applicants and dozens of perfectly qualified candidates for every open position.

Nothing about these realities softens the notification that the job went to someone else.

My application materials are competitive and I have been receiving interviews, but I can’t help but wonder whether this will be the last year I get to do this job that I genuinely love, which, in turn, creates a negative feedback loop on my academic projects. For the work that I have been doing recently, this lack of stability is at least as much of an impediment as is the lack of research support. I have a long and growing list of things I want to do, but I have found myself in a position where I am disinclined to aggressively pursue the most ambitious ones without some promise of stability on the other side because the emotional toll and the cost to my personal relationships is too great. Perhaps I should take more risks, perhaps it wouldn’t matter. But, when combined with the significant amount time spent securing employment, often semester by semester, these issues create a contingent faculty Catch-22.

Professional anxiety was omnipresent last year, but it is worth remembering that there is more to life than this. I was able to reconnect with old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, I spent time learning how bake things like croissants, and I remain in a long-term committed relationship with an amazing woman who helps keep me grounded.

I don’t know what 2020 has in store for me, but the new year is upon us so I guess I am about to find out.

ΔΔΔ

My year-in-review series is running behind, but this essay trying to make sense of my year is the penultimate entry. It follows a collection of my best* posts, a list of statistics, and a listicle.

Past essays in this series: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

My 2019: By the Numbers

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, that started with a list of best* posts of the year, and continued with a series of lists. Today is a list of numbers, data that somehow defines my year.

ΔΔΔ

There are any number of numbers that have been used to quantify the experience of 2019, including how much average temperatures rose, fires in Brazil and Africa, stock market tickers, shady phone calls, dollars spent on political advertising and for national defense, body counts from Yemen, total human population on Earth, instances and casualties of mass- and police-shootings—plus happier statistics that aren’t necessarily kept such as weddings, child-births, mitzvoth, or trivialities like cups of coffee, diapers, or speeding tickets. Here are some numbers about my year.

  • 7 – classes taught (across 2 semesters)
    • 5 – classes taught for the first time
    • 2 – self-paced online classes for which I was the instructor of record
    • 162 – students (excluding the online classes)
    • 5 – courses scheduled so far for 2020
    • 2 – letters of recommendation written
  • 16 – Job applications
    • 2 – interviews
    • 1 – interviews scheduled for 2020
    • 2 – campus interviews
  • 111.5 – Hours spent writing or editing academic work (YtD)
    • 1 – papers delivered
    • 1 – book reviews written
    • 0 – articles published
    • 2 – article-length pieces drafted
  • 52 – Books Read (YtD; not counting academic reading)
    • 17,462 – total pages
    • 342.39 – average pages per book
    • 21 – non-fiction books
    • 19 – books by women
    • 6 – books by African or African-American authors
    • 5 – Original languages
    • 2 – Graphic novels
  • 60 – Blog Posts (YtD)
    • 48,853 – words written
    • 814 – average words per post
    • 34 – book reviews
  • 3008 – site visitors
  • 3975 – site views
  • 8 – states visited
  • 2505 – Tweets (YtD)
    • 208.75 – average Tweets per month
    • 977,800 – Twitter impressions, per Twitter analytics
  • 173.8 – miles run
  • 1 – video game system purchased

As usual, these numbers mean nothing, anything, and everything. There are other metrics, but they are proprietary of NUDEan-inc, a private analytics organization. A NUDEan spokesperson is cagey when asked to share the areas of life quantified while keeping the actual numbers secret, leading one to speculate that the data is only being haphazardly recorded. Whether this situation is a product of gross incompetence or because many aspects of human life cannot or should not be quantified is unknown.

ΔΔΔ

Previous installments: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

My 2019: Lists of Note

Every year around this time I try to make sense of my year that was. The series kicked off with a collection of the Best* posts, followed by a series of lists that double as recommendations from this past year.

Six favorite novels I read this year:

Seven favorite non-fiction books I read this year:

Books I’m looking forward to (maybe) reading in 2020:

  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
  • The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño
  • A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab
  • Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz

TV shows I loved watching this year

  • Elementary
  • Watchmen
  • Killing Eve (season 1)
  • The Good Place

Movies that were totally worth the price of admission:

  • Knives Out

Video games I enjoyed getting lost in:

  • Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

While I mostly listen to singles, these albums dominated my listening:

  • “Chime,” Dessa (2018)
  • “Old Time Reverie,” Mipso (2015)
  • “Dark Holler Pop,” Mipso (2013)
  • “Me Oh My,” The Honeycutters (2015)
  • “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World,” Johnny Clegg and Savuka (1989)

Find the past lists here: 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

My 2019: Best* Posts

It is time again for a series of posts that I use to reflect on the year that was. First up, I want to highlight some of my favorite posts to this point in the year. These are not necessarily the best or the best-trafficked, but rather things I wrote that I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

This was a down-year for me in terms of output mostly because heavy teaching loads left me too little time to write. Unsurprisingly, most of the substantial writing I did here were related to teaching, academia, or related topics:

I didn’t write much about current events or politics this year, but I did write about the Salute to America event this past summer, reflecting on commemoration, ceremony, and identity:

Finally, I published one long post about the reception of Sherlock Holmes:

See also Best* of 2018, 2017 and 2016.

What’s Making Me Happy: Country Music

This is an occasional series following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment. I use some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I grew up listening to a lot of country music, both the recent vintage from the 1990s and classic artists like Johnny Horton. To this day, I regularly put on country albums or songs when I want to scratch a nostalgic itch, so I was thrilled to learn that the latest Ken Burns project is the history of country music, now airing on PBS.

The first episode of the series explores the origin of country music and the associated instruments, including the fiddle, the banjo, and the acoustic guitar before turning to examine the first stars of the genre, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The second episode continues the story westward to Texas during the Depression.

Burns makes a couple of specific choices in the first episode that make it one of my favorite installment in any KB documentary.

Burns chooses to identify all of the talking heads––an all-star mix of writers, singers, and musicians from Merle Haggard to Roseanne Cash to Ketch Secor to Rhiannon Giddens to John McEuen––by their state rather than by their job, profession, or title. Although he goes away from it for the second episode, this decision makes country music a national genre rather than uniquely Appalachia and underscore the power of place. At the same time, it underscores other themes of the episode such as how groups like the Carter Family came from rural Appalachia, others, like the Atlanta factory worker Fiddling’ John Carson, consciously adopted a rural aesthetic––a presentation that the record companies later encouraged their stars to do.

Another thematic point that I appreciated in the first episode is how Burns explores intersection through its connection to the Blues and early Jazz. Some of this was negative like Henry Ford anti-semitic diatribe against jazz that accompanied his decision to sponsor country dances of his youth, but much more was neutral or even positive. Burns examines how A.P. Carter (the problematic character behind Sarah and Maybelle Carter) acquired music for the group, including from black churches and how Louis Armstrong performed on Blue Yodel #9 with Jimmie Rodgers.

In addition to the substantive intersection between these genres, Burns also explores the power of the record labels and radio stations (complete with John R. Brinkley and the station he created to promote his xenotranplantation procedure that restored male performance by putting goat testicles in humans). In Burns’ telling, the earliest record labels that put out country music were the labels that put out music for ethnic minorities. The original Grand Old Opry radio show on NBC, by contrast, followed immediately after performances classical music and opera.

Suffice to say, I am not disappointed. This is a recognizably Ken Burns production, complete with Peter Coyote and slow panning shots of old pictures, and, for all of its detail, there are points where he has to leave out the complexities of early pioneers in order to tell the story of the people whose contributions most shaped the genre. The second episode largely picks up where the first one leaves off, but gave back a couple of the subtle points like the identification of people by place. Nevertheless, the first two episodes are a richly-textured story of a genre interwoven with the currents of American history.

Programming Update, September 2019

The summer heat hasn’t broken Missouri just yet, but the semester is fully underway––and rapidly closing in on the halfway point. I have managed to stay one step ahead of all of my responsibilities to this point, but the week that just ended drove home to me just how little downtime I have allotted myself, particularly after accounting for maintaining personal relationships.

What this means for this blog is that posts are going to be intermittent for at least the next few months. Whatever “spare” time I have for writing needs to be spun toward my academic work, at least to the extent that I have the brainpower for it.

This is not a total blackout. I have a few thoughts about the handful of books I have managed to read this month, perhaps for a quick-hit post, as well as a “what is making me happy” post I want to have up this weekend, and there is always a chance that inspiration will strike. Rather, I am relieving myself of the anxiety that comes with the feeling that I need to write, ironically in the hope that it will help the words flow.