In no particular order, but grouped together in ways that make the most sense to me, here are my favorite reads this year:
Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead defied all expectations and proved to be so much more than the mystery I thought I would find. The characters, the setting, the dialogue, all were most compelling. But it was the backstory that Gran created that really put this over the top. I dream of a sequel like you would not believe. Another mystery also impressed - Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand. Graphic, brutal, the very definition of cold and hard, this one takes you into the recesses of a heroine's mind as it threatens to splinter apart. No one wants to grow up to be like Cass Neary and yet Hand makes you care deeply about her anyway; she's damn near majestic in this novel.
The Mirage by Matt Ruff should not work, really, but it does and brilliantly. Seeing 9/11 in this mirror world gives Ruff lots of room to play with big ideas. It's not a "gotcha" book either, but a very smart and thoughtful one. Ruff should be a household name as far as I'm concerned.
Lincoln's Dreams by Connie Willis was overlooked by me for far too long. I loved the history bits, obviously, but also the mystery, the relationships, and the ending slayed me. I'm just never disappointed by Willis. (And like Ruff, she does twisty-turny better than most. It's the very definition of interstitial.)
The Birding Life by Laurence Sheehan is a great big coffee table book with lush photos of birds and bird life in art and interior design and literature. It's the kind of book you page through again and again. A luxury read.
Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma was recommended by Kelly at Stacked and it proved to be one of the creepiest YA titles I've ever read. It's subtle but sinister from start to finish and for all that it is impossible it is also utterly believable. This is an author to watch for sure.
Other YA I gulped down with glee were the Book of Blood & Shadows by Robin Wasserman and The Diviners by Libba Bray. Wasserman's book is a thriller of the first order but even better than most as it incorporates so effectively the issues of trust and love that first come up in the teen years. I also love the history here - and how compellingly she brings the distant past to life. Bray has written fabulous horror in The Diviners, which is NOT paranormal romance but rather a mystery, a set piece, some Bradbury, some King, some Buffy at her Scoobies-loving best and an enormous bloody valentine to 1920s NYC. Both books are good for what ails you.
Polar Wives by Kari Herbert and Visit Sunny Chernobyl by Andrew Blackwell are both straight-up nonfiction of the best sort - compelling, clearly written and full of the authors' own thoughts on their subjects. Herbert shines a light on the long overlooked wives of several great explorers and Blackwell hits some of the planets hellspots. The books could not be more different in subject matter but are easy to dip into and crack with literary energy.
Zeuglodon by James Blaylock is my MG read of the year - funny, outlandish, full of adventure, exactly what the average ten-year old could want. It reminded me of childhood reads in a good way and made me long yet again for Dick Van Dyke, circa Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, to be my father figure. (They lived in a windmill! A WINDMILL!!!!!)
Dotter of Her Father's Eyes by Bryan & Mary Talbot. Bryan Talbot is one of my favorite gn authors and artists and his illustrations for his wife's book are lovely. Her story though, about her own life as the daughter of a Joycean scholar and the parallel life of James Joyce's troubled daughter Lucia, is extremely compelling. This is the sort of subject I think is made for the gn treatment - the pictures illuminate the tale and in the end, oh how your heart will break for Lucia. (I should note I knew nothing about her which really annoyed me after studying Joyce's work in high school.)
Glaciers by Alexis Smith is a very quiet book about ordinary people that will appeal hugely to bibliophiles (a book conservator!) but mostly it is about how we get along, who we hope to be, the little things we do each day as we inhabit the same workspace. It's about friendship and romance and humanity if that makes any sense. Or I could just tell you it's about a man and woman and how they come to know each other. The quietest book I read all year and yet one of the most powerful. A textbook on how to write well.
I heard Kathleen Flenniken read from Plume at the Mazama Book Festival in August and it has stayed with me every since. This collection about the Hanford Nuclear Facility in eastern WA (where her father worked and she grew up near) reminded me so much of my father's career working for the DOD. So eloquent, so powerful, so sad. The power of poetry, for sure.
Redshirts by John Scalzi is the funniest book I've read in ages. I bought a copy for my brother, who made me watch Star Trek when we were kids, and I told him it was written for people like us. It's not easy to do funny well and the plot Scalzi crafted here is really something to behold. Greatness.
As I posted a couple of weeks ago, I like a good romance but it's hard to find a balance between hot and story. Everyone's talking about getting to the "good parts" of the Fifty Shades books - well if the story sucks then I'm done. (Really - when the sex parts are the best part then I think you need to just call it porn and stop trying to wrap it in a literary bow just to make yourself feel better.) Riveted by Meljean Brook is a steampunk book set in her version of Iceland that has a rocket to the moon, a hidden colony of women and a hero that is every bit the damaged stoic type that readers love. Brook is having so much fun with this series, each entry just makes it more intriguing.
The Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare is much more traditional - pretty standard historical (Napoleonic Wars period) but the women are wholly unexpected, especially in the second book where the protag is a geologist desperate to get to a conference in Scotland. Smart, sassy, struggling to find a way to matter in a social construct that doesn't give them much value, and funnier then heck as they interact with their romantic leads. Plus hot. Totally.
Best final pages of a book I read this year go to Blackwood by Gwenda Bond. This is a mystery/thriller with paranormal elements and I expected it all to be wrapped up nicely but Bond goes big in the final pages and doesn't give her characters a break but rather the conclusion they earned. Sad (but also hopeful). This really elevated the book for me.
And finally, the best confrontation between parents and children occurs in the poignant drama Happy Families by Tanita Davis. There's a moment when the two teens are in counseling with their cross-dressing father and the therapist asks the kids what they want for the future - essentially their goals. One of them (I think it's the boy) just unleashes, demanding to know why it matters what they want when as the kids they are just stuck with whatever their parents decide and have to deal with it. Their plans have already been upended and likely will be again and again because parents - even good nonabusive parents - sometimes really screw up and the kids are along for the ride whether they like it or not. This resonated so powerfully with me and illustrated something YA gets wrong a lot, when readers are given a false sense of empowerment by a novel. Most of us are just stuck at that age, and Davis gets that - she gets it in every book she writes and is why I feel she really is a writer to watch.
Be sure to check out Jenny D.'s year in reading as well! (Thanks for including me in it!)