This past decade brought change and opportunity, perhaps none more for me than a renewed commitment to reading. It didn’t really start until 2016, when I finally started to see my Goodreads challenge as more than just a perfunctory exercise. I started keeping up with books as they were published, following authors and publishers on their various media, and engaging with book reviewers and reading communities.
The world opened before my eyes.
2016 and 2017 were near miraculous years in genre publishing as far as I’m concerned, but the whole decade was full of beautiful, inspiring stories that continue to push the bounds of what we can, as storytellers, accomplish.That said, here are my top 15 books of the decade (presented in chronological order by publish date).
Packing For Mars
Mary Roach; 2010
There are a lot of reasons to love a book like Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, from her devotion to telling personal stories to illuminate larger-than-life concepts, to her unique blend of comedy, wistfulness, and blunt fact. Nobody does “popular science made human” quite like Roach, and this story of “the gross, the bizarre, and the uncomfortable aspects of space travel” is a must read as our relationship with space travel is just beginning.
Brian K. Vaughan; 2012
I am so glad to have encountered Saga when I did. This graphic novel tells a truly epic story, with rich, complex characters pitted against each other and a backdrop of a universe of chaos and beauty. Rarely have I encountered characters so easily realized, so thoroughly alive, and whose strife is equal parts entirely human and thrillingly epic. Vaughan is a master of his craft, and this story (continuing to unfold) is one that shouldn’t be missed.
Andy Weir; 2014
Andy Weir’s The Martian made one hell of a splash when it was published on paper in 2014, thanks to the unique relationship Weir had with his readers, who had been with him as he initially self-published this story chapter-by-chapter on his website. With hindsight, it’s easy to see why this book became an immediate best seller and the movie an instant success itself, but part of what will always place this book on my “best of” lists is that quiet period, before its big splash, when Weir and his readers first formed that uniquely personal relationship. In so many ways, this story is an example of the best storytelling accomplishments of the decade.
Emily St. John Mandel; 2014
By the time Station Eleven was published, we were already collectively feeling a kind of post-apocalypse fatigue. Up to our necks in stories of the worst of humanity struggling to survive in the dark days after the collapse of society (for one reason or another), St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven truly felt like a breath of fresh air. Using that same tragic and chaotic backdrop, St. John Mandel alone finds beauty in not just the survival of humans, but of humanity itself.
Neal Stephenson; 2015
Stephenson’s much anticipated Seveneves was another instant success by every measure. Fans lined up for this book, and the reviews that poured out were overwhelmingly positive – to a point. In true Stephenson fashion, this book is thrilling, action-packed, and tells a huge story (of humanity’s race to survive after the moon explodes) of ingenuity and strife. And in true Stephenson fashion he is determined to tell the story he means to tell, reader expectations be damned. Rarely has a story this large been told this well.
Hope Jahren; 2016
Hope Jahren exposed a very personal story of her journey to (and through) a career in geochemistry in this autobiographical novel from 2016. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything so raw, so wise, and so vulnerable as Lab Girl – and I loved it. In addition to being a world-class scientist (a Fulbright scholar and multi-award winner), Jahren turns out to be a heart-wrenchingly beautiful author to boot.
Naomi Alderman; 2017
Lauded everywhere as “this era’s The Handmaid’s Tale”, The Power is a frank look at what could happen in the world if girls around the world suddenly developed an incredible power: the power to inflict pain. Alderman writes an immediately recognizable near future and populates it with relatable people who face difficult choices with far reaching consequences.
Marina J. Lostetter; 2017
This book begins with what I think is a truly beautiful question: “Once we’re ready to explore outside our solar system, where do we go first?” Noumenon answers this question in a fascinating and poetically conversational collection of vignettes across time, following this interstellar exploration to its destination (and perhaps beyond). While Lostetter’s approach may feel familiar to readers of science fiction, that only extends as far as the surface. This book is unique and poignant, through and through.
Meg Howrey; 2017
Three astronauts train for man’s first ever mission to Mars in this fascinating and thoroughly realistic story from Meg Howrey. Cultures and personalities clash, and tension builds and builds, never letting up. Somehow Howrey builds that tension not just to but through the last page, creating in the reader a feeling that will stick with them far after they’ve popped this award winner back on its shelf.
Note: this would be a particularly good read for a book club.
The Bear and the Nightingale
Katherine Arden; 2017
2017 kicked off a lovely trend of female-lead fairytale-based fantasy taking place in a Russian winter, and Arden not only sparked this trend, she dominated it. Arden’s background in Russian studies certainly helps her borrow from Russian fairytales in a way that feels both authentic and wholly natural, and the wintery setting serves the increasingly dark and oppressive story well. And when I look back on this past decade of characters, this story’s Vasya absolutely stands out.
Eliza and Her Monsters
Francesca Zappia; 2017
The only young adult novel to make this list, Eliza and Her Monsters truly earned its place here. Particularly for any young adults who are artistically or creatively minded, this is a story that deserves to be read. Zappia also is the only author I’ve yet encountered to get the reality of modern living powered by the internet “right”.
Madeline Miller; 2018
Miller made blog headlines in 2011 with her debut The Song of Achilles, but it was Circe seven years later that cemented her as a powerhouse with a truly golden touch. Circe is a triumph; an instant bestseller, it explores the life and passions of the character Circe from the 8th century’s classic tale The Odyssey.
Note: Circe is now being adapted for an 8-part miniseries by HBO.
The Calculating Stars
Mary Robinette Kowal; 2018
Another instant success, Kowal’s alt-history begins with absolute catastrophe and a complete rewriting not only of the world’s nations, but of the trajectory of humanity’s race to the stars. Following women pilots and calculators (and their families), readers will experience faith and hope, love, loss, and dauntless ambition in Kowal’s beautiful story.
Caroline Criado-Perez; 2019
Who doesn’t love data-driven social analysis? Even for those who aren’t immediately drawn in by that description, Caroline Criado-Perez will draw you in with her beautifully researched data and unimpeachable conclusions – delivered in a fun and engaging way. This is an excellent book to revisit over time, reading bits and pieces as the mood takes you; I know I found some of its realities overwhelming after a long read.
Ted Chiang; 2019
Ted Chiang is a marvel. I knew I would love this collection, and eagerly awaited its release. There’s something about the way he uses his short stories as a hook to slowly draw your emotions out your eyes as you read that leaves me astounded. All exaggeration aside, I wept, I laughed, I wept, I laughed, exactly as I knew I would. Chiang knows where my heart is kept, and he very well might have written these stories just for me. Maybe they’re written for you, too?
The Wrong Stars
Tim Pratt; 2017
When I first finished The Wrong Stars, I was honestly unimpressed. It was good, but not great – but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Week after week, for months, the world and the characters Pratt created would return to me and I’d find new aspects to appreciate. Now, it’s one of my favorites. I’m in awe of how much Pratt managed to fit into this one story without making it feel unwieldy or overburdened. It didn’t make a huge splash in the community, but when I look back on my decade of reading this book will always stand out to me.
Every Heart a Doorway
Seanan McGuire; 2016
This critically acclaimed novella is the first in McGuire’s Wayward Children series, and tells the story of a boarding school for teens who have found themselves on the “other” side of magical doorways. This story does amazing work exploring themes of abandonment and otherness and the unique feelings young adults so often must navigate on their own as they journey toward adulthood. Poignant and on the dark side of lovely, this series has a lot to offer.
The Paper Menagerie
Ken Liu; 2016
If you’re only going to read one short story from this decade, make it Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie”. The whole collection is stunning. Words in Liu’s careful hands become magic, and he pairs lovely fancy with breathtaking emotion throughout these stories. Rightly, the titular story is its triumph.
The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man
Dave Hutchinson; 2019
How often do books make it on “best of” lists because they’re just excellent reads? Hutchinson’s most recent story comes after a stunningly long and well-lauded career in science fiction writing, and is simply a thrill. It’s clear throughout that Hutchinson is an excellent writer, and he’s got suspense, thrill, intrigue, comedy, introspection, and more well in hand as he writes. Honestly, this book is just grand.
Too Like the Lightning
Ada Palmer; 2016
Now, this is the book I wish everyone loved. As with Ted Chiang, you could tell me Palmer wrote this series just for me and I’m fairly sure I’d believe it. It’s excellent science fiction, delving deeply into the inner workings of an astoundingly rich and complex world Palmer has created, and exploring deep and twisting machinations of troubled and morally ambiguous characters who somehow still feel more human than caricature even when set against this astonishingly detailed and convoluted world.
So what do you think? Which of this decade’s books will stick with you? Which did I miss?