19 Reads I Recommend from 2019

Here are 19 works I read in 2019 that I am still thinking about. I’ve divided the list into fiction and nonfiction, but that’s the only organizing principle at work here. Please note that while I read these works in 2019, not all were published in 2019.

Fiction

  1. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir — Novel (Content Warnings for violence, body horror, and a whole bunch of necromancy). Are lesbian necromancers in space your thing? If so, read Gideon the Ninth immediately. If not, reassess why you feel that way, then read Gideon the Ninth immediately.
  2. Programmer at Large by DRMacIver — Novella (Content Warnings for social anxiety, privacy, and discussions of gender. Based loosely based on the Qeng Ho from Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky”, DRMacIver explores updating millenia-old computer code alongside discussions of how society might evolve with computer mediation. You don’t need to have read Vinge’s work (and, in fact, I haven’t read “A Deepness in the Sky”).
  3. Operation Spring Dawn by Mo Xiong, translated by Rebecca Kuang — Novella (Content Warnings for human extinction). Xiong also examines a potential future, with the story of a super ice age playing out over tens of thousands of years. The story isn’t a happy one, but it is meaningful.
  4. This microfiction by O. Westin — Flash Fiction (Content Warnings for ghosts). This story is just a couple of lines long, so go read it. I’m not going to write a critique of a story that’s longer than the story itself.
  5. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather — Novella (Content Warnings for virulent illnesses, violence, and Religion). Rather’s world-building in this novella is exceptional, with small details that elevate the story from yet another story of the aftermath of an interstellar war. 
  6. Hot and Badgered by Shelly Laurentson — Novel (Content Warnings for violence, smut, snakes, and ableism). Let me preface this item with a confession: I read romance novels of all kinds, including novels about shapeshifters. Especially about shapeshifters. There’s a certain level of absurdity that goes with the standard plots of shapeshifter romance novels which I adore. The pinnacle of that absurdity may very well be “Hot and Badgered,” in which a honey badger shapeshifter finds true love. 
  7. Ironheart by Eve Ewing and Kevin Libranda — Comic Books (Content Warnings for racism, violence, and ageism). Marvel’s “Ironheart” is just finishing a 12-issue run. Superhero Ironheart, AKA Riri Williams, is a genius who reverse-engineered Tony Stark’s Ironman suit when she was 15. She’s awesome, though enjoying her series may be hard if you don’t have at least a vague idea of the marvel universe. Watching “The Avengers” probably covers the bare minimum of background knowledge.
  8. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal — Novel (Content Warnings for racism, sexism, natural disasters, and anxiety). The Calculating Stars won the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Kowal’s alternate history of the space race won those awards for a reason.

Non-fiction

  1. Malfunctioning Sex Robot by Patricia Lockwood — Article (Content Warnings for misogyny, sexism, and John Updike’s particular brand of weird sex writing). Lockwood’s review of a recent reissue of John Updike’s work is a truly beautiful piece of criticism. She sets the tone from the start, exclaiming “You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.” and slogs through Updike’s career with an admirable persistence. The article is probably better if you’ve read any of Updike’s work (watching “The Witches of Eastwick” doesn’t count).
  2. American Radicals by Holly Jackson — Book (Content Warnings for slavery, racism, sexism, and violence). “American Radicals” offers background on the organizations and activists who championed slavery abolition, universal suffrage, and a variety of other causes during the 19th century. Jackson provides the context that reading about these movements on their own just can’t provide. I enjoyed the book thoroughly. My sisters, however, may not have appreciated me reading this book because, when we watched the new “Little Women” movie, I kept wanting to talk about Louisa May Alcott’s references to transcendentalism. 
  3. The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones — Interactive Website (Content Warnings for slavery, racism, and violence). The 1619 Project comprises essays, poetry, photography, and more — all of which are worth your attention. Hannah-Jones developed the project to observe the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first african slaves in America. 
  4. Jurassic Emoji by Courtney Milan — Proposal. Milan is a phenomenal romance novelist, but her application for the expansion of dinosaur emoji options is a great piece of writing and even includes scrupulous research into the need for such emojis. Milan has also created a timeline, if you’re curious about the process of creating new emojis.
  5. The Israeli Black Panthers Haggadah translated by Itamar Haritan — Booklet (Content Warnings for Zionism and racism). Created in 1971 as a protest of the treatment of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, this haggadah uses the story of the exodus as a uniquely Jewish way to protest. 
  6. Being “Polite” Often Gets Women Killed by Scaachi Koul — Article (Content Warnings for murder, sexual violence, and stalking). Koul’s deep dive into the culture and communities of true crime podcasts is fascinating (kind of in the same way that true crime shows are fascinating). She uses the topic as a way to examine women-oriented media’s ability to cover the reality that women face violence at higher rates than men in our culture.
  7. Algorithmic Colonization of Africa by Abeba Birhane — Article (Content Warnings for racism, colonialism, and privacy). A discussion on the ethics necessary for new technologies, Birhane highlights the way startups are recreating destructive systems in digital form. In particular, the article highlights how importing technology means importing the ethics of that technology’s creators.
  8. You Should Have Asked by Emma (Content Warning for emotional labor and gender). Emma managed to sum up some of the feelings I’ve had about emotional labor. If comics aren’t really your thing, Zoe Fenson’s article, It’s so much more than cooking is also a good read.
  9. How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr — Book (Content Warnings for colonialism, racism, violence, genocide, incarceration. If I’m being precise, I still have a few chapters to read in this book, but I’m already convinced that every American needs to read this book. I like to think of myself as fairly conversant in the history of this country, but Immerwahr surfaces new information and offers new context to the point that I feel like I’m relearning centuries of history as I read.
  10. How Desire Built One of the Best Information Archives Online by Thursday Bram — Article (Content Warnings for privacy and links to sites that may host explicit material). Since this is my list and I make all the rules, I’m allowed to include my own work. This article is probably my favorite piece of my own writing from this year. Basically, my editor let me write about information architecture, fan fiction, and how sexy stories set new expectations for privacy.
  11. Reasons and Strategies for Avoiding Obsolete Terms by Erin Grace — Article (Content Warnings for slavery and racism). Editing this article caused me to immediately change how I wrote about certain topics. Sure, I’m biased because I worked on the project, but reading this article improved my writing.

This is hopefully enough reading material to keep everyone out of trouble for the next few months.

Why No Negative Reviews?

Not too long ago, I was asked why I didn’t seem to ever post a negative review here. As a matter of fact, very few of the reviews I write are negative, no matter where they appear. The reason why I don’t seem to write negative reviews is simple: it’s because I actually don’t write negative reviews.

If I think a book or a product is junk, I simply won’t write about it, in most cases. I’m certainly not going to waste space on it here and I’m not going to waste my own time on it either. I have only so many hours each day and I really have no interest in reading something that is poorly put together in any way. I receive plenty of review copies I never write about. I even buy more than a few products specifically for reviews that I wind up not writing about. That may be life, but I don’t feel a need to put less-than-great stuff in front of you.

Similarly, unless I have a very good reason, I’m not going to pitch one of the editors I write for on a review of something that their readers don’t need or want. It’s partly a matter of making sure that I land the assignment and get paid, but it’s also is due to the fact that I’d prefer to review something that I find enjoyable to write about. Finding a pleasant and new way to express that a particularly book will hopefully be remaindered soon is not a great use of my time.

The Exceptions

There are some situations in which I will write a negative review, although they are few and far between.

  • If I find a product that seems to be universally reviewed well but I find problems with, I’ll write up those problems in the form of a review.
  • If an editor requests a specific review, I will do it — I do like my paychecks, after all.
  • If a review, even negative, is truly relevant to what I’m writing about. This category is particularly rare and is typically limited to ‘You’re doing it wrong!’ reviews.

I don’t give positive reviews just because I know the author of the book. If I did that, I’d have to read books that family members have written, such as how to manage the serial collection at a large library — I love my family and far too many of us are writers of some sort.

I also don’t give positive reviews due to affiliate programs and other monetary considerations. While a nice steak dinner may bump a book to the top of my to-read pile, that’s as far as financial considerations will extend. I will promote (vigorously, even) products that I believe in and if they have an affiliate program, so much the better. But we have to be talking about a quality product to begin with. And any time I post an affiliate link, you’re free to use it in such a manner that I don’t get a commission, if that’s a big concern for you. I’d rather you don’t — I have hosting fees and a mortgage — but it’s not a big deal to me either way.

Interview: Mary Lewis

Today, we have an interview with the fabulous Mary Evelyn Lewis, of the brand new Blog Stop Book Tours, which organizes blog tours for authors, and the Virtual Wordsmith blog.

What is your background, writing-wise?

I’ve always been a writer. I took as many English classes as I could in High School. I had an editorial published in the Portland, Maine newspaper when I was a teenager. I worked as a writer, and editor, for a public relations company for six years. And, I love to read!

What prompted you to choose freelance writing as a career?

I chose freelance writing as a career for many reasons. First of all, it allows me the flexibility to work at home, so that I can be here for my four children. It’s incredibly important to me that my children know that they come first. Second, I don’t do so well in a corporate setting. Third, I suffer from an affliction I call got-to-know-itis. I’m incurably curious! So, when I discover something new, I want to share it. What better way than to write about it?

What prompted the idea of Blog Stop Book Tours?

The idea for Blog Stop Book Tours began a little over two years ago. A friend of mine was promoting a book for an author, and we talked about utilizing bloggers in the marketing plan. We could see the beginnings of what has become commonplace now – connecting the author with the reader via the blogging community. She decided not to pursue the idea, but it’s percolated in the back of my head ever since.

Then I was approached by another virtual book tour business, asking if I’d be interested in reviewing books for them. I agreed, and reviewed books and interviewed authors at Virtual Wordsmith (my blog). After doing that for awhile, I decided I’d like to start my own blog book tour business.

What have been the key differences for you between running a business based on writing, such as Blog Stop Book Tours, and freelancing?

The big difference between my freelance writing and my business is the process. Blog Stop Book Tours requires a lot of networking and organization – administrative duties. And I don’t actually do a lot of writing for it. Freelance writing requires fresh ideas, and focused original writing. I’m enjoying both activities immensely, but they are definitely not the same experience.

What advice do you have for writers trying to expand their businesses?

My advice to writers trying to expand their business is to remain open to possibilities and opportunities. Pay close attention to what’s going on around you, always keep a notebook handy, and when an idea pops, get it down before you become distracted and forget. And don’t limit yourself to the big glossy magazines. Trade journals, e-zines, newsletters, press releases, copy writing, writing for the web, all need to be written by someone.

Mary has upcoming articles in the following magazines: