It has been a goal of mine for years to spend less time on the Internet and more time reading books, and this is the year I started to get somewhat close to where I want to be. Overall, I’m thrilled, but an unfortunate side-effect is that less time on the Internet means less time talking about what I am reading, and some wonderful books failed to get a signal boost this year.

So, to make up for lost time and in no particular order, here is my Top 10. (Well, 9 and a series, but who’s counting?)

Glamourist Histories, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Glamourist Histories are what might have happened if Jane Austen’s novels took place in an alternate Regency in which illusion magic (“glamour”) was one of the accomplishments of talented young women alongside dancing and embroidery.

By all rights, I shouldn’t have been this series’ target audience. I’m not a big romance fan, and I’ve been picking up and putting down Pride and Prejudice (and Sense and Sensibility and Emma) for over ten years. Yet… I loved these books. It helped that the protagonist is whip-smart and proud of her accomplishments in magic, and her intelligence and artistic talent are seen as assets by her suitors rather than consolation prizes.

Who should read it? Fantasy fans who would appreciate a magical system in which the ability to create things of beauty is the measure of skill rather than the power to destroy.

Pair with… Earl Grey tea and scones—on the good dishes.

Heated Leather Lover, Annabeth Leong

After adding this book to my list, I considered revising my position on romance, but I decided against it because Heated Leather Lover is erotic romance (which is something else, dah-ling) and as different from the Glamourist Histories as a motorcycle ride is from high tea.

Heated Leather Lover is about being brave in the face of personal demons so entrenched they practically have a mother in-law apartment with its own entrance. Which doesn’t sound like the kind of book you’d want to bring to bed. Yet…somehow…the heavy themes don’t make the story any less hot.

There are books that are notable in themselves, and there are books that challenge the limits of a whole genre. When I put down Heated Leather Lover, all I could think was, “That’s what erotica can do.”

Who should read it? Who’s to say? YKINMKBYKIOK

Pair with… Plum nail polish and/or a leather jacket.

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things is not an easy book, and it’s not an easy book to talk about. At over 500 pages, it’s a commitment, and even those familiar with Elizabeth Gilbert’s literary precursors to Eat, Pray, Love will probably find it challenging. It certainly asks readers to persevere in ways most books would never dare.

And yet. And yet…

This book changed how I think about time. Time in narrative, yes, but that’s boring. I mean actual time. It was the first time I’d considered that individuals can exist on different time scales the way rocks and cornstalks do, and not just in a “damn kids and their twitters” kind of way.

Who should read it? Renaissance folks and anyone who has ever dreamed of traveling by whaling ship.

Pair with… A long vacation. Preferably off the grid.

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if it hadn’t been for the endorsement by J.K. Rowling on the cover. As it was, the book sat for months on the shelf because I couldn’t believe that a diary of a teenage girl living in a ruined old castle in the 1930s could be interesting (or anything but depressing).

How wrong I was. Cassandra is another smart protagonist, and while the scope of her observations extends only to bits of London and a small English village, the depth of her insight into the characters around her more than makes up for it. The book was written by an English author living in the United States, and it is full of the loving detail that you would expect from someone writing about home from a distance.

Who should read it? Writers, people who are close to (and irritated with) writers, and those who like snooping in other people’s diaries.

Pair with… Nothing. You’ll feel guilty pairing it with anything else.

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

How did it take me until I was almost thirty to read The Wind in the Willows? I have no idea, but I’m glad that I was finally able to put things right.

In case I’m not the last person in the world to read The Wind in the Willows: The book is about talking animals who wear clothes and paddle around in boats and have picnics and drive way too fast and end up in jail and escape from jail and fly south for the winter. I should probably put a spoiler warning before this paragraph because I pretty much just gave you the plot of the book, but if you’re reading The Wind in the Willows for plot, you’ve, well, lost the plot.

The Wind in the Willows is an experience in the way that the original Winnie the Pooh stories are an experience, which is why you can forgive Kenneth Grahame for taking way too long to describe everything. Did I say “forgive”? I meant to say “thank” because every minute spent in the book is a minute spent in a fairy ring: If you can ever manage to escape the only thing you can really say is, “What was that all about?*

Who should read it? You. And you. And you can come, too, lead foot.

Pair with… Your most comfortable pajamas and/or a country picnic.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs

It’s difficult to say anything about this book without giving spoilers, so I will only say what would be immediately obvious if you had the book in your hands: This is a beautiful book full of pictures of spooky children doing odd things.

Miss Peregrine’s is as dark as you would expect from a story in which one of the major characters fights monsters and Nazis, but what sets it apart from other dystopian YA is a terrible beauty, as if the spirit of the island permeated the book itself.

Best of all, though, are the characters. It would have been easy in a book like this to assign powers and stop character building there, but everyone in the book is memorable for their personality as much as for what they can do. I read it twice and actually found it more enjoyable the second time.

Who should read it? History buffs, Emerson fans, and flea market junkies.

Pair with… Cotton candy and old love letters.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, MR James

This was the year I discovered MR James. Like many I found him through his literary child HP Lovecraft. James was an academic. In fact, he was so successful as an academic his obituary didn’t even mention his ghost stories, but we have him to thank for the idea that the creepiest stories involve people like us in places that we are familiar with instead of rich people in gothic castles. Since he was such a fan of keeping his demons close to home, his stories involve inscrutable documents and old libraries and university faculty. While that doesn’t really describe my life anymore (sniffle), I found Ghost Stories of an Antiquary scary as hell.

Who should read it? Lovecraft fans and Oxbridge dons.

Pair with… Modern Alchemy Ex Libris candle…and a flashlight, just in case.

Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, Michael E. Bell

I grew up about an hour from where most of the stories in this book are told, yet I had no idea until I found this book on a library shelf in Oregon that there is a vampire tradition in New England folklore.

Readers hoping for Dracula-style (or, help us, sparkly) vampires will be disappointed. The “monsters” that appear in these legends are more like forces of nature than personalities. But it is hard to argue that an unseen corpse that sucks the life force out of members of their family one at a time isn’t creepier than…well…just about anything else.

Who should read it? Lovecraft and Poe fans and anyone who thinks vampire lore is getting a bit stale.

Pair with… A road trip to look for New England burial grounds that ends with dinner at a colonial inn.

The Gift of Good Land, Wendell Berry

The Gift of Good Land is a collection of 24 essays that follows Wendell Berry “through the highlands of Peru, the deserts of southern Arizona, and Amish country as he studies traditional agricultural practices” (goodreads).

It is rare to find a book of essays over thirty years old that isn’t dated, especially when you consider that a thirty year difference in agricultural technology means there are essays in here that ask questions like, “Should I bother switching from a scythe to a weed whacker?” But the readability of The Gift of Good Earth is extraordinary. It helps that the book isn’t really about farming issues in the 1970s but about technology as-such and Berry’s attempts to figure out his place in it.

Who should read it? Technologists, ethnographers, and people who like words like “mindfulness” and “sustainability.” Writers and artists should keep an eye out for interesting connections between sustainable agriculture and a healthy creative process.

Pair with… Waxy heirloom potatoes with flaky salt.

My Life in France, Julia Child

Every few years I go through a Julia Child phase and binge watch every episode of The French Chef I can get my hands on, but I avoided reading My Life in France for years because I couldn’t imagine the things I loved about the show translating into a book. In a way, those fears weren’t unfounded. The book is like a prequel to *The French Chef.” But when I read it, the story of how a bored newlywed in her thirties who couldn’t make a béchamel became a not chicken dropping French cooking force of nature was exactly what I needed.

Who should read it? Late bloomers, armchair travelers, and people who like food.

Pair with… Sole mueniere and a skinny baguette.

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