Whenever I rate a book, I have a system. A four-star review means I loved it. I’ll probably reread the book at some point and also read any sequels if it’s part of a series. I know right away if a book merited four stars.
A five-star review is different. Five stars isn’t just about a book being enjoyable; it has to stick with me for months or years after I’ve finished it. I reserve five-star ratings for a book that has a special something to it. Something that lives on in my mind and makes me think about the story, the characters, or a lesson I learned from it long after I’ve read the last page. Today I’m going to talk about five books (in no particular order) that I’ve read over the past few years that merited five stars.
1. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
I’ve read fantasy for so long that I’ve become pretty jaded. It takes something really different and fresh to excite me. After being unimpressed with several newer fantasy novels, I was pleasantly surprised by A Memory Called Empire. Martine crafts a unique future society that feels real enough to touch. The plot has something for everyone; part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part space opera, yet not bound by the tropes of any of those. I couldn’t put this book down until I knew how it all turned out.
I’ve read several reviews by people from immigrant backgrounds who say that Martine did a fantastic job writing cultural displacement. I can’t personally speak to that, but my history education does make me sensitive to portrayals of imperialism and colonialism. Martine displayed the personal impacts of these phenomena without making the story feel like a history lesson or a direct allegory.
There are so many reasons to check out this book, I can’t name them all here, but if you like diversity, cool technology, subversive poetry, and relatable heroines, then you might just love A Memory Called Empire.
Bonus: The sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, was just released, so you can binge-read them both.
2. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
This novel follows the experiences of Count Alexander Rostov. The story begins in 1922 with a Bolshevik tribunal that convicts Rostov of being an “unrepentant aristocrat” and sentences him to house arrest in a posh hotel across the street from the Kremlin. What follows is a gripping account of one man’s struggle to cope. Will he adapt to his imprisonment or give in to despair? What about his political ideals and the hopes he has for his country? Can he change anything while confined to a hotel? Towles covers a lifetime in a book that seems to pass in mere moments, handling the story so that it never seems slow.
I read this book in 2019 and found it profoundly moving. Most people have found themselves dealing with unforeseen circumstances at some point in their lives, and this novel was relatable and inspiring in that context. Count Rostov’s resilience was on my mind throughout 2019, but after 2020 the story took on a whole new meaning for me. I think many people will find Rostov’s challenges even more moving now that we’ve all been through our own versions of house-arrest. This is a book I know I will return to again and again. I think you will too.
3. The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
Lost cities and ancient curses meet modern technology and scholarship in this non-fiction read that is fascinating and terrifying by turns. It tells the true story of researchers who went into the Honduran jungles in 2015 to search for the legendary White City or City of the Monkey God. Spoiler Alert: They found it.
This book kept me captivated from the very first page. Deadly jungle adventure that feels like a more realistic version of Indiana Jones coincided with lessons in pre-history, history, and modern science. A lost city isn’t all they found in La Mosquita. Many of the people involved in the project also contracted a horrible illness, one that affects millions of people around the world.
Preston uses his story of incredible discovery to take readers into the lives of the ancient people who were most likely wiped out by European diseases and highlight the millions of people worldwide who live with tropical diseases and extreme poverty. This is not a story about white researchers exploiting or stealing artifacts in an underprivileged country. The Honduran government was involved in the research (Preston speaks honestly about the pros and cons of that), and many locals were employed as guides, researchers, and scientists.
The story of the White City is still being uncovered, but what’s been found so far reads like an object lesson about the fragility of human societies. Some of the numbers in this book about disease rates among Native Peoples during the Colonial Era are bone-chilling. Preston makes readers see the people behind the numbers. He also talks about the incredible Native civilizations as they existed before European contact and shares written records from Native People who lived through the cataclysm of epidemics that devastated their societies.
The past intersects almost seamlessly with future concerns as Preston traces the effects of climate change on tropical diseases and predicts that some of these illnesses will be common in North America by 2080. His conversations with epidemiologists about the possibility of future pandemics seem especially prescient in light of recent events (this book was published in 2017). If you are looking for a quick education in a broad variety of subjects and a hair-raising adventure story, you will find it all here.
4. The Chaos Walking Series by Patrick Ness
This series is technically written for middle school-aged children, and the entire time I was reading it, I went back and forth over whether it was really NOT for children or whether it should be required reading for every child. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more emotionally true portrayal of fascism, colonialism, and warfare. Ness has an incredible understanding of human nature. He shows how toxic leaders can manipulate even the most innocent and kind-hearted people into doing unthinkable things. He also shows that empathy and kindness can be the best weapons against sociopaths and despots.
As far as trigger warnings go, these books (there are 3) should be labeled “everything.” They are so intense that I had to take breaks and read rom-coms between them. I know that may not sound like a recommendation, but the truth is these books aren’t for everyone. Having said that, if you want to deepen your understanding of the darkest sides of human nature and become a more educated citizen, voter, and human being, then I can’t think of many better books you could choose to help with that.
Oh, and they take place in the future, on a different planet where people can hear each other’s thoughts. I mention that as an aside because they are so reflective of Earth’s sad history that you’ll forget they take place somewhere else.
5. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
If I had to pick just one word to describe Tchaikovsky’s brilliant science fiction novel, it would be “weird,” but in the best possible way. When I read this book’s description and saw that it involved sentient spiders, I was worried that it would be cheesy. I never expected the spiders to be my favorite characters. Tchaikovsky uses evolutionary biology to build an incredible society that is at once alien and relatable.
I’m sometimes put off by “hard” science fiction, but I also like stories that are more grounded in science than space opera is. I felt this book struck a nice balance. There was plenty of science, but it always propelled the story forward. It reminded me a lot of Ender’s Game because of some of the questions it raises and ideas it explores.
If you are looking for a science fiction novel that will broaden your mind and change the way you look at things, then I highly recommend Children of Time.
Note: I wrote a full review of Children of Time right after I read it. You can find it here.
These aren’t all the books I’ve given five stars to in the past three years or so, but these were some of my favorites. I hope this list helps you find your next favorite book. Please let me know if you’ve read any of the books on this list and what you thought of them. As always, I’d love to hear your recommendations.