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Best Books of the Decade

Chongqing Zhongshuge Bookstore in Chongqing City. Image by X+living

The second decade of the twenty-first century is now concluded. Time marches ever forward, carrying us inexorably towards death. On the other hand: listsicles! I started keeping logs of my reading in 2003, so the teens are the first decade where I’m able to look at my entire reading history and sum it up. And if you know me, you know that’s an irresistible lure.

A few conclusions presented themselves while reviewing the decade’s reading for this list. First, I had a bit of a reading slump around the start of the decade, going down to 30-40 books a year, whereas these days I usually average between seventy and ninety (though the fact that I’ve started reading more graphic novels and comics trade collections also helps bulk up that number). Second, I’ve gotten better at picking books as time went on—you’ll notice that there are more books on this list from the second half of the decade than the first. Third, that skill didn’t stand me in good stead in 2019. Only one book I read from that year made the cut, though there are still so many 2019 books left in my TBR that I suspect I’ll discover more than a few favorites of the decade in the coming months.

I don’t pretend that this list is definitive or comprehensive. It reflects my reading tastes—there’s no nonfiction on it, for example, because I read all of twelve nonfiction books in the entire decade, and hardly felt qualified to offer an opinion on the field (though if you must know, the best of that small lot are The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, and Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievitch). It’s also a list that veers far more towards genre writing than I was expecting. This is the decade where I discovered writers like Nina Allan, Bernardine Evaristo, Frances Hardinge, Rachel Hartman, Gwyneth Jones, Elizabeth Knox, J. Robert Lennon, Helen Oyeyemi, Sofia Samatar, and George Saunders, and though they aren’t all on this list (sometimes because their best books were published before 2010) they’re all authors who have made my reading richer, and I recommend seeking them out. It’s also a decade in which I reread Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Dune, read a whole bunch of the Moomin books as well as discovering Tove Jansson’s writing for adults, and finally made it all the way through Dorothy L. Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels, so there was a lot more to my reading during these ten years than just standout reads published between 2010 and 2019.

Unlike my regular best books of the year list (the most recent of which was published on my blog a few days ago), I’ve restricted this list to books published between 2010 and 2019 (though I’ve made exceptions for books published in other languages and translated into English during the decade). But I’ve also added an extra list at the bottom of the best non-teens books I read during the decade. It’s rather long, but I read more than 600 books this decade, so I figure 5% excellence is a pretty decent ratio.

Best Books of the Decade

  • Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (2018) – Smart, funny, outrageous stories about race, class, and the American obsession with consumerism that range between realism and science fiction. The influence of George Saunders is strongly felt, but Adjei-Brenyah takes that approach to places that are all his own.
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016) – The Handmaid’s Tale for the twenty-first century. What happens when women develop the power to deliver powerful, even fatal electric shocks? And what does this tell us about the role of violence, even in our supposedly civilized, non-violent society?
  • Milkman by Anna Burns (2018) – In near-stream-of-consciousness, a young girl tells us about being sexually harassed by an older man, who happens to be an IRA officer at the height of the Troubles. Perfectly captures the stifling horror of sexual violence, especially when folded into the horror of sectarian violence, and of a community that tolerates the former out of lingering trauma over the latter.
  • Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho (2014) – Bringing fairyland decisively to her home of Malaysia, Cho writes stories full of humor and wit, twisting familiar tropes and introducing ones that will be new to a Western audience.
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010) – A novel about time and its ravages, which skips back and forth, visiting bewildered children and meeting them again as contended adults, introducing us to people in their dissipated middle age and jumping back to their hopeful youth. No other novel I read this decade has so perfectly captured the sadness of the passage of time.
  • My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One by Emil Ferris (2017) – A stunning, obsessively realized graphic novel about monstrousness in all its forms. A young girl growing up poor and brown in 1970s Chicago comes to terms with her sexuality while also investigating the death of her neighbor, a Holocaust survivor who may have done unspeakable things to stay alive. A mystery, a tragedy, and a journey of self-discovery, all guided by astonishing artwork.
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017) – A short, lyrical novel about refugeeism, new beginnings, and how love is strained by both. Hamid starts from a fantastical premise—doors that allow people in war-torn countries to materialize in the relative safety of the West—and uses it to tell a deeply personal, and deliberately universal story.
  • Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand (2015) – A pitch-perfect ghost story that is also a brilliant pastiche of the behind-the-music biopic. This perfectly-formed novella charts the last recording session of a folk-rock bank riven by personality issues and long-simmering rivalries, even as the country house they’ve retreated to begins to reveal its sinister secrets.
  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (2014) – In letters, testimonials, diary entries, and document fragments, this novel charts the complicated career and fractious personality of a cantankerous, misanthropic, brilliant female artist. A stunning meditation on art, work, and the challenges the world places before women who want to participate in both.
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (2015) – No science fiction novel written in the teens turned the genre on its head as much as Jemisin’s Hugo-winning trilogy-starter. Approaching shopworn tropes with renewed energy and a hell of a lot of anger, it forces readers to reexamine their core assumptions, injecting ideas about race, prejudice, and systemic racism into a setting that wasn’t built to support them, and then standing back to watch the destruction.
  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy (2017) – In a first-person narrative that flits between past and future, and that often resembles poetry-in-verse more than a novel, Kandasamy examines an abusive relationship, charting the way that the husband dismantles his wife’s every defense, trying to undermine the fundamentals of her sense of self. By holding on to her identity as an artist and a writer, the heroine is nevertheless able to maintain her humanity and finally make her escape.
  • Human Acts by Han Kang (2014, English translation 2016) – A multifaceted portrait of the 1980 Gwangju Massacre that follows bystanders, participants, and even victims in the days, months, and years after. As the survivors try to make their way in the world, they are haunted by a single question: how can human beings do these things to one another? And how can you go on living with the knowledge that such acts are possible?
  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru (2017) – A brilliant, chilling ghost story about the theft of black labor, art, and lives, and the supernatural vengeance that ensues. Kunzru finds a unique angle on his subject, focusing on white artists who sample and resell black music, but he ties it into the US’s entire sordid history of creating and then monetizing black pain.
  • Berlin by Jason Lutes (2018) – A quarter-century in the making, this study of the titular city in the years of the Nazis’ rise to power went from historical to achingly relevant from first publication to conclusion. Drawn in orderly, minutely-detailed panels, Lutes follows a wide cast of characters as they observe the city’s slide into fascism with indifference, enthusiasm, and despair, and challenges us to find better ways than they did to stop it.
  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (2017) – In eight stories that straddle both humor and horror, Machado examines the relationship between women and their bodies, and the way that society intrudes on that connection in ways that leave it diseased or even severed. Funny and wildly inventive, this is one of the essential short fiction collections of the twenty-first century.
  • Embassytown by China Miéville (2011) – Most of Miéville’s best fiction work was done in the aughts, but Embassytown nevertheless stands out in his bibliography. A consciously old-fashioned novel—a planetary romance set in what feels like a mid-twentieth-century diplomatic mission—it also juggles many mind-bending ideas, about language, consciousness, and culture. It’s meat-and-potatoes science fiction with a twist that is both cerebral and radical.
  • The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (2013) – This baggy, overwrought modern Gothic novel follows a prominent 19th century New England family as, one by one, they are felled by a mysterious curse. Oates combines fairy tales, literary pastiche, and broad hints about generational sins against Native Americans and black people into something that shouldn’t work, but somehow does, and whose power lingers long past the final page.
  • Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi (2011) – In a series of linked stories, Oyeyemi examines the so-called crime of passion from the position of both metafictional enquiry and bone-deep rage. Why do male authors kill their female characters? Why do men kill women? And where does female authorship come in? Drawing on the titular fairytale, Oyeyemi riffs on it in forms both arch and deeply-felt, drawing intimate connections between art and life, reality and fiction.
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) – Studying the world from the vantage point of trees, Powers offers a deeply-felt environmental argument, and a profoundly science-fictional approach to the familiar, reminding us that we share our world with other lifeforms, and that their differences from us do not make their lives less worthwhile—or less necessary for our own survival.
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2015) – Perhaps no other work so perfectly and succinctly sums up the way that the public conversation about African-American life and experiences has changed and reformed during the teens. Ranging from the ever-expanding litany of the names of black people killed by the police, to an examination of how Serena Williams has been misrepresented and policed by the media, Citizen is eye-opening and vital, a touchstone text for the last decade, and the ones to come.
  • 2312 (2012) and New York 2140 (2016) by Kim Stanley Robinson – Robinson had a great decade in the teens, which is particularly astonishing when you consider that he’s been working steadily since the 80s. These two novels, separately and together, capture the mingled hope and rage that have come to characterize his work in twenty-first century. They imagine humanity spreading throughout the solar system, and fixing our problems through ingenuity and hard work. But they also envision ecological catastrophe, driven by ravenous capitalism against which the institutions of democratic society are helpless (or suborned). To read them is to feel at once despairing and invigorated.
  • A Stranger in Olondria (2013) and The Winged Histories (2016) by Sofia Samatar – This duology of novels upends the epic fantasy genre in a way that seems almost impossible to come back from. In gorgeous prose and with worldbuilding whose breadth feels almost effortless, they address empire, colonialism, and the place of women, all through the medium of stories. The characters in these novels use stories as inspiration and as weapons, but also see them as the tools of their oppressors. The central question of the novel is whether these stories can be reclaimed, or whether the only real triumph comes from stepping outside of them.
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013) – This collections continues Saunders’s fascination with the intersection between American capitalism and America’s national myths, and it examines them with a broad streak of the absurd running through it. But there are also moments of deeply touching grace here, of kindness and compassion, that remind us why Saunders is one his generation’s finest writers.
  • The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (2019) – A wide-ranging novel of Zambia’s past, present, and future, The Old Drift flits between realism, near-future science fiction, and surrealism (parts of the novel are narrated by a swarm of mosquitoes). At the center of all this is a multigenerational family saga that charts the fledgling country’s emergence from colonization, and the lingering currents of race and class prejudice that influence it even in independence.
  • Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh (2018) – In this collection, Singh offers high-concept science fiction and achingly current predictions of how environmental catastrophe will play out, especially for India and the rest of the Global South. The stories here are both rage-filled and wildly imaginative, reminding us that it is the poor and underprivileged who suffer the most in a global catastrophe, and that it is those who have nothing left to lose who most often come up with new ideas and new systems.
  • Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (2010) – Straddling fiction and non-fiction, Red Plenty is a history of the Soviet Union that charts its rise and fall through economic terms, and introduces us to people who try to manage and even thrive within its planned economic system. It’s a shock to the system in many ways, challenging both our assumptions about literary genres, and our understanding of history.
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009, English translation 2018) – An eccentric old woman tramps back and forth across a rural landscape on the Polish-Czech border, introducing us to her neighbors and telling us about her past, as all the while a series of mysterious deaths occur. A brilliant character study, and a subtle allegory about being the last humanist standing in a society that is turning towards nationalism and a thirst for power.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) – An instant classic, Whitehead’s examination of the ravages and psychological toll of slavery not only literalizes its title, but uses the resulting fantastic conceit to visit the different forms that oppression has taken over the course of American history, and tie them all together into a single, harrowing story.
  • The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley (2014) – A deeply weird and disturbing novella about a society of men in a world where all the women have died out, who encounter what appear to be surviving women. The outbreak of horror is no less gruesome for being predictable, and the story’s set-pieces will linger with you long after the last page.
  • The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson (2015) – Defiantly reclaiming epic fantasy, Wilson reimagines it as something queer, black, and of our moment (characters speak in AAVE, because hey, it’s no more or less realistic than elves with an English accent). Gruesome, bloody, and achingly romantic, this novella packs a punch that few full-length novels have managed.

Best Pre-2010 Books Read in the Teens

  • Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge (2009) – A YA fantasy that touches on prejudice, genocide, and generational trauma. Hardinge’s gift for worldbuilding reaches its greatest heights in this novel, which, like the rest of her writing, holds great compassion and hope for its damaged heroines.
  • Life by Gwyneth Jones (2004) – A science fiction novel that is also about women in science, and the challenges placed before them even as they make a discovery that could shatter our understanding of gender.
  • The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (1998) – In 18th century France, an angel meets a lonely young man, and the two form a lifelong friendship that is at turns mentoring, romantic, and domestic. Strange and hard to define, concerned with everything from history to theology to the making of wine, this is one of the most distinctive, unforgettable novels I read this decade.
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967) – Far better than any of its adaptations, and a great deal less obsessed with the disappearance at its center than its reputation would lead you to believe, this is instead almost a social novel, about early twentieth century Australia and the social and racial currents that control its society.
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974) – What more can be said about this classic, in which Le Guin imagines a utopian anarcho-communist society and then introduces us to a man who both deeply believes in it, and finds himself compelled to rebel against it. Social SF at its very best.
  • The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning (1960, 1962, 1965; NYRB Classics edition 2010) – Based on Manning’s own experience of being stranded in Eastern Europe with her diplomat husband during WWII, this is a take on the war that is completely different than anything I’d read before. Along the way, it’s also a study of a deeply flawed, but also deeply loving, marriage.
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