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Print is not dead yet: The best of 2015’s written word (so far)

Publishers may be scrambling to cover their loses as digital innovations bring books to new formats, but that doesn’t mean the quality of stories has diminished. The first six months of 2015 brought with them a rash of quality novels, imports, autobiographies, and books that don’t quite fit into an easy descriptor. The A.V. Club here presents our favorites of the year so far; good for reading any time of the year, you may also consider it a summer reading recommendation guide, as maybe you’re the type of person who buys books to read under the glaring sun of summer vacations. Kick it now and indefinitely with these books and comics, and when your snarky friend snarks that print is dead, direct them here.


Best page-turner: The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen


The Rabbit Back Literature Society goes beyond the typical murder-mystery novel, venturing far into Twin Peaks territory by presenting more mysteries than can be neatly solved and a chilling, eerie atmosphere that makes for positively creeped-out reading. When protagonist Ella returns to her small Finnish town, she’s absorbed into the world of a secret society, paranormal occurrences, and a missing children’s author. Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s website helps sort out the clues planted throughout the book, guiding the readers where to look for answers without providing any easy ones. Which is good, because the thrill of this novel comes from attempting to piece it together. It’s a rare thing that an author trusts his readers this much. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Best memoir: Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

From her opening line—“I started out in a green house with a red door in a small town, where mysteries abounded”—Kate Mulgrew proves it’s unfair for such a talented actress to be an equally talented author. Her memoir Born With Teeth depends not on name-drops and Hollywood gossip, but the heartfelt, captivating story of her lifetime journey from Iowa to beloved soap-opera heroine Mary Ryan to Star Trek’s Admiral Janeway to Red, head of Orange Is The New Black’s kitchen. Mulgrew inhabits all of her parts completely, and in this book, explains in detail how she does so. She also juggles various relationships and her large family while maintaining her strong, stubborn personality throughout her theatrical life. If only all of our lives made for such a riveting read. [Gwen Ihnat]

Best installment in a YA series: The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson


Maureen Johnson is well known on Twitter for her zany sense of humor, but it wasn’t until her Shades Of London series that she really channeled that into one of her fictional characters. Fortunately for readers, that character is around for the long haul as the protagonist in Johnson’s four-part Shades Of London series. The Shadow Cabinet, the third book, was one of this winter’s most anticipated YA releases, and Johnson uses it to explore the places between life and death. Rory, said protagonist, continues to sidestep easy stereotyping, and the resulting story is both character- and plot-driven, which isn’t always the case in the YA world. Although you’ll need to start with the first two books in the series, The Shadow Cabinet succeeds as YA fiction and as a ghost story for readers of any age. [Laura M. Browning]

Best book on cats (to be taken seriously): The Good, The Bad, And The Furry by Tom Cox


Tom Cox’s Twitter is just about the best the platform has to offer, thanks to his sense of humor, sharp wit, affinity for the mundane, love of music, and good, solid writing. He applies all to his book, the latest to be released Stateside, creating a story that’s ostensibly about his cats but more about getting through life as best he can, with the help of his cats. The Bear, whose ridiculously sad eyes can be seen above, is a soulful character in Cox’s life, and an ideal personality though which to examine big and little questions. Anyone who has ever had a cat—or pets, really—will appreciate Cox’s apt understanding of living with animals, especially those most contrarian of pets. The Good, The Bad, And The Furry is a charming, thoughtful book, and seriously, don’t take it as a novelty, internet-cat-crazed money-grab. It’s a real book, and really worth your time. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Best book to get its long-overdue acclaim: A Brief History Of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas


I raved earlier this year about the new English translation of Enrique Vila-Matas’ A Brief History Of Portable Literature, and with good reason: I finished reading this slender book almost two months ago, and its questions and literary curlicues are still echoing in my mind. Vila-Matas writes in the tradition of Borges, but with an archly humorous bent all his own. A wholly invented recounting of a secret society of artists called the Shandies, A Brief History spins around the globe, attending parties and retelling the Shandy manifestos with dry verve. The seemingly absurdist nature of the enterprise takes on a surprisingly affecting turn at the end, as the book suddenly reveals itself to be not just a lighthearted goof, but a deeply serious work about the creation of art, the nature of creativity, and the fears that plague anyone who ever put pen to paper. [Alex McCown]

Best book for a book club: I Am Radar by Reif Larsen


Assuming your book club takes its time to read a lengthy tome, I Am Radar is the perfect material to dig your teeth into with the help of others. It’s packed with story, electricity, and a weird (real!) group called the Kirkenesferda who perform political theater with puppets. Taking it chapter by chapter with other book readers will make it easier to swallow, as there are several stories obliquely linked together, overlapping characters to sort out between them, and a whole lot of plot to get through to make sense of it all. Reading it on your own is good too—that’s what I did—but it sure would’ve been nice to have other librophiles on hand to discuss my latest theories and thoughts. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Best book by which to examine your life choices: Primates Of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin


If you have a modicum of self-reflexivity, you’ve taken a moment to examine your privilege, whether it comes from gender, race, inherited wealth, upbringing, etc. It’s a necessary thing to do, and a healthy way to see how you fit into the gross inequality between populations in the U.S. and worldwide. Which is why reading Primates Of Park Avenue is such a pleasurable exercise of the “love to hate” variety, with a healthy dose of schadenfreude thrown in for good measure. Reading about the lives of the insanely, unnecessarily super-rich and all the horrible things they do to each other is infuriating, but it’s also a nice way to analyze how you, the reader, are not as much of an asshole as the people you’re reading about. Plus, after finishing the book you’ll want to burn the system down. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]


Best primate period piece: The Humans (Image)


1969’s The Planet Of The Apes imagined a future Earth taken over by evolved primates, but what if the story had actually been about contemporary American culture heading into the ’70s? Writer Keenan Marshall Keller, artist Tom Neely, and colorist Kristina Collantes answer that question with The Humans, a riveting period drama about a biker gang of primates that rides fast, parties hard, and kicks huge amounts of ass. The high-octane antics of The Humans give the book intense energy, but much of the substance comes from the personal struggle of Johnny, a former member of the gang who is back on his bike and suffering severe PTSD after his time in Vietnam. The story flawlessly juggles madcap drug-fueled comedy, dynamic vehicular action, and introspective character drama, and Marshall Keller’s work is elevated by the rich detail, animated expression, and inventive design of Neely’s and Collantes’ artwork, making this a series as engaging as it is off-beat. [Oliver Sava]

Best college dramedy: Giant Days (Boom!)


Daisy, Esther, and Susan are three incoming freshmen at university dealing with new romance, airborne contagions, and campus chauvinism in this charming Boom! miniseries by writer John Allison, artist Lissa Treiman, and colorist Whitney Cogar. Allison has established himself as one of the premier writers of young adult characters in his webcomics Bad Machinery and Scary Go Round, which Giant Days spins out of, and he captures all the drama and joy of this turbulent period in his scripts for this series. The three leads each have their own distinct personalities and perspectives, and much of the fun of the book is seeing how these different characteristics change the dynamic of these new friends. Treiman is a Disney animator making her first foray into comics with this series, but hopefully it’s not her last, because she brings a huge range of expressions to characters that have that slightly gawky, not-quite-adult look of college freshmen. [Oliver Sava]

Best new superhero: Divinity (Valiant)


The new Valiant Comics has had solid success reviving ’90s Valiant superheroes for a modern audience, but it needed some new blood in its stable of characters if it was ever going to truly rise above its former incarnation. Giving writer Matt Kindt free rein to create a new hero was one of the publisher’s smartest decisions, and the story of Abram Adams, a cosmonaut sent into space by the Soviet government who returns to Earth decades later with godlike abilities, is the kind of high-concept plot that works to Kindt’s strengths as both a superhero and history buff. Abram’s debut miniseries by Kindt and penciller Trevor Hairsine, inker Ryan Winn, and colorist David Baron has proven to be a huge commercial success for Valiant (the first issue is currently in its fifth printing), but it’s also a creative high-point for the publisher, telling a more sophisticated, cerebral story that makes an argument for more new Valiant heroes. [Oliver Sava]

Best creator goodbye: Convergence: The Question (DC)

Greg Rucka’s departure from DC Comics just before the New 52 hit was a considerable blow to the characters of Renee “The Question” Montoya and Kate “Batwoman” Kane, and the creator never got the chance to give the two heroines a proper goodbye. This year’s continuity-shattering Convergence event gave Rucka the opportunity to bid farewell to Renee and Kate with The Question miniseries, and he delivered a heartfelt story about Renee saying goodbye to her dying father and coming to terms with their troubled relationship. Renee’s dilemma works well as a metaphor for Rucka’s relationship with DC Comics with Rucka as Renee, learning to accept the flaws of DC Comics editorial so that he can have one last go at these characters, and Rucka’s personal connection to the material makes The Question a stand-out Convergence tie-in. [Oliver Sava]


Best feminist mob story: The Kitchen (Vertigo)


Mob stories with multi-dimensional female characters are hard enough to find, but mob stories with multi-dimensional female leads are even more of a rarity. The Kitchen bucks tradition with a tense drama about three mob wives that take over their jailed husbands’ territory in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen, learning quickly that there are plenty of people that won’t take women seriously in this line of work. Written by Ollie Masters with art by Ming Doyle and colorist Jordie Bellaire, this miniseries does phenomenal work transporting readers to the gritty world of ’70s New York City, telling a familiar tale about aspiring gangsters that becomes fresh and exciting by having women in roles typically reserved for men. Doyle makes the central trio come alive with period-perfect hair and costumes, and the fashion sense of these women is second only to their criminal ambition. [Oliver Sava]

Best use of rodents: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Marvel)


Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is notable for a number of reasons: It’s a superhero comic that prioritizes joyful fun; it’s one of the most laugh-out-loud funny series currently on the stands; and it provides an excellent entryway to the Marvel Universe through the plucky perspective of its young woman lead. Doreen Green is the kind of optimistic young hero that comics could use more of, and her connection to squirrels is used as both a source of comedy and a source of power, particularly when she puts on her squirrel suit. Her superpowers are silly, but that doesn’t make Doreen any less of a threat, and this creative team has done wonderful things by leaning into the humor of this superhero concept while embracing Squirrel Girl’s unbeatable might. [Oliver Sava]

Best teenage identity crisis: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson


A shapeshifting character is a great way to explore the fluidity of adolescent identity (see: the current Ms. Marvel run), and Noelle Stevenson dives deep into this idea with her webcomic-turned-graphic novel Nimona, following a teenage girl who becomes a villain’s new sidekick. Stevenson explores morality, grief, and responsibility in her story as Nimona tries to figure out what kind of person she wants to be, bending the lines between good and evil as she helps Lord Ballister Blackheart in his fight against a corrupt government. The setting may be a high-fantasy kingdom, but Stevenson grounds the narrative with nuanced character development and a dash of political commentary. Stevenson gradually reveals new information that changes the characters’ roles in the plot, and Nimona’s place in the world becomes clearer once she has a stronger grasp on what she’s fighting to protect. [Oliver Sava]

Best visualization of anxiety: The Worrier’s Guide To Life by Gemma Correll


Not since Allie Brosh penned her depression sagas in Hyperbole And A Half has an illustrator as aptly captured what it’s like to live with anxiety, depression, insomnia, and the general malaise that accompanies living life with any of the above. Gemma Correll’s new book, The Worrier’s Guide To Life, is full of cute pictures that show a very real struggle for mental health. It also contains a lot of fun, sly pokes at millennials—demonstrating both the absurdities and the annoying, incorrect stereotypes of the generation—and puts sexist double standards into hilarious perspective. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

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