January 20, 2022

2021 By The Books

It's time once again to look back at my most recent year of reading and celebrate my favorites among the many good books.

I read 39 books in 2021, which is fewer than the previous year, and the same number as the year before that. I noted in 2019 that two-thirds of the books I read were published that year, and 2021 had the same fraction of new releases, with most of the rest from the past couple of years. Other than newness, there's little pattern to what I read, and I enjoyed sinking into a wide range of stories, genres, styles, and worlds. All my reviews are available in my monthly recaps, and each recommendation below includes a link to the month containing the full review.

My reading year started off with an excellent collection of nuanced short stories, THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS by Danielle Evans (January). Later in the year, I made a renewed effort to read more short stories, particularly in speculative genres. I was impressed by two speculative fiction anthologies, IT GETS EVEN BETTER: STORIES OF QUEER POSSIBILITY edited by Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin (September) and NEW SUNS: ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR edited by Nisi Shawl (November/December). Both contain a fantastic variety of inventive, effective stories.

In pursuit of writing more effective stories myself, I read a couple of writing guides that proved both useful and entertaining. THE CYNICAL WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY by Naomi Kanakia (August) discusses tactics for making manuscripts more appealing to publishing gatekeepers. NEVER SAY YOU CAN'T SURVIVE by Charlie Jane Anders (October) offers practical techniques and encouragement for producing first drafts even during difficult circumstances. I recommend either book for writers who need advice in those areas. The other advice book from last year that I recommend to anyone is SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson (September). This graphic guide pairs thoughtful words with personality-filled illustrations to help in the pursuit of being a better human.

As usual, novels made up the bulk of my reading year. These stand out as my favorites:

MATRIX by Lauren Groff (October) follows a twelfth century nun from her unwilling arrival at an abbey through a long, fascinating life of service and leadership. It's a beautiful, unpredictable story about a complicated woman claiming power and wielding it for good.

HAMNET by Maggie O'Farrell (August) also features a woman taking charge to the extent she can in a time and situation of little power, when the plague infects her family. Like MATRIX, this story is spun from the scant details known about historical figures, and the result is a surprising and compelling narrative.

THE FINAL REVIVAL OF OPAL & NEV by Dawnie Walton (April) is pure fiction, written as such a convincing oral history that it's easy to believe the characters really skyrocketed to brief musical fame in the early 1970s. Music is at the heart of this outstanding novel, but it covers so much more about race, gender, loyalty, and time.

GOOD COMPANY by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (May) also takes a hard look at how the passage of time changes relationships and allegiances. This emotional story provides a portrait of four friends and their evolving lives in the acting worlds of New York City and Los Angeles.

THE FIVE WOUNDS by Kirstin Valdez Quade (May) balances the deep emotion of its family story by finding humor in the absurd details of life. Three generations are thrown together while they're all facing huge challenges, and I was quickly invested in these sympathetically flawed characters.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead (October) also makes great use of humor in telling the story of a family man and schemer who's pulled between straight and crooked paths. I enjoyed getting to know all the excellent characters in and out of the crime world and watching New York City change around them in the early years of the 1960s.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker (August) plays out in a changing New York City as well, while the title characters from THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI continue their immortal, secretive existences through the first decades of the twentieth century. This rich sequel expands and further complicates the already expansive story and magical characters of the first book, and I recommend reading both.

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones (February) is recommended only for readers who can tolerate extremely grisly images for the sake of an incredible story. The carefully structured plot follows a group of friends haunted by elk they hunted years earlier, and the story is far more than scares, with a lot to say about relationships between people and relationships with the past.

FOLKLORN by Angela Mi Young Hur (July) concerns another character haunted by an elusive being from her past. In this ambitious, unconventional novel, a scientist is visited by her childhood imaginary friend, leading to an investigation of folklore, family mysteries, and the questionable boundary between story and reality.

WE RIDE UPON STICKS by Quan Barry (January) also tests the bounds of reality when a high school field hockey team taps into local witchcraft to improve their playing. The novel is quirky, funny, and at times quite moving, packed with 1980s nostalgia and tales of young women finding ways to wield power.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Tom Bissell, who has written magazine pieces, nonfiction books, stories, and for television and video games, summarizes the writing process in each medium: "Do reporting. Visualize piece in your mind while reporting. It will be long, thoughtful, discursive (but not too!), and definitive. Longform will link to it. It will be glorious. Start writing. Not glorious. Nothing about this is glorious. When stuck, create multiple graphs and flowcharts to illustrate how scene work, reporting notes, and research notes will crosshatch and enrich one another. Frown as they do not crosshatch and enrich one another."

January 4, 2022

November/December Reading Recap

I wrapped up my reading year with a lot of great books:

NEW SUNS: ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR edited by Nisi Shawl: This anthology offers a great range of styles, tones, and genres, presenting science fiction, fantasy, horror, and stories less easily classified. Every story made an impression, but these are the ones that will stick with me most:

• The first story, "The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex" by Tobias S. Buckell, quickly drew me in with an Earth dominated by alien tourism and the problems of the tour guide protagonist.

• The engrossing "The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations" by Minsoo Kang is written as a scholarly analysis of archived documents that uncover the truths behind a misunderstood historical event.

"Burn the Ships" by Alberto YaƱez is a gut-punch of a story about a husband and wife taking two different approaches to magic against the colonizing forces that have imprisoned their people.

• "The Freedom of the Shifting Sea" by Jaymee Goh tells an intense, sexy, constantly unexpected tale of love with an immortal sea creature.

• I loved the subtle shifts in "The Robots of Eden" by Anil Menon, a family story that gradually reveals its science fictional aspects.

• The anthology ends strong with the inventive "Kelsey and the Burdened Breath" by Darcie Little Badger, in which the lingering last breaths of the dead need to be herded onward by the human main character and her dead sheepdog.

BLUE-SKINNED GODS by S.J. Sindu: Since he was a little boy, Kalki has been told he's the tenth human incarnation of Vishnu. The proof is that he has blue skin, and Kalki accepts these facts about himself, believing he's a god. His parents raise him in an ashram, where villagers come to pay tribute and receive Kalki's healing blessings, and little of the outside world filters in. When Kalki is ten years old, he first begins to doubt his powers after a sick girl he tries to heal is slow to recover from her illness. As he gets older and learns more about the world, he has many more questions, and far more doubts.

I like the way this story develops, starting with Kalki narrating as a child who yearns to understand the events happening around him but has little information to go on. The plot takes many surprising turns as he grows up, and I never knew what to expect but was always deeply invested. Kalki is a complex character facing a slew of conflicts, both internal and external, and the members of his family also receive nuanced depictions. The novel wrapped up faster and sooner than I expected, and I was sorry not to learn more about how Kalki's life turned out.

SEVERAL PEOPLE ARE TYPING by Calvin Kasulke: Gerald finds himself in a strange workplace predicament: He's somehow trapped inside his company Slack. One moment, he was at his desk at home, and the next, he's a disembodied entity within the corporate chat application. None of his coworkers believe him when he explains this, of course, and they think he's abusing the work-from-home policy. But it turns out he's a lot more productive without the distractions of a body, and anyway his colleagues are all dealing with their own problems, some of which end up being almost as strange as Gerald's.

This workplace comedy written entirely in Slack messages is very weird and very funny. I had a great time getting to know these characters and following along with their jokes and dramas. The story really is odd, and the humor is quirky as well, but it worked for me. The book is a short, fast read, so if you're intrigued, I encourage you to check it out, though if you don't know anything about Slack, I expect it will be harder to get into.

THE PLOT by Jean Hanff Korelitz: Jake teaches writing at a third-rate MFA program because his career as a novelist fizzled after an early success. Every year he resents his job more, and he never expects to find any talent among his students. Of course it would be the most arrogant jerk in his class who demonstrates some skill, but Jake is skeptical of the guy's claim that he's working on a novel with an unbeatable plot. Then the blowhard privately reveals the plot, and Jake is seized with the jealous realization that this unworthy person is going to produce a bestseller. So when some time later Jake learns that his student died before ever completing the novel, it's easy to justify that he should bring the amazing plot to the world himself in a book that does indeed become a huge bestseller. After all, nobody will ever know, right?

This was a lot of fun to read. The insidery parts about the publishing world delighted me, the humor made me laugh, and I enjoyed guessing at what was coming next. While I did figure out most of the twists (brag, brag), I still found the story clever and well constructed. Much suspension of disbelief is required, but I was willing to go along with that in order to appreciate this entertaining thriller.

PERHAPS THE STARS by Ada Palmer concludes the Terra Ignota series, an ambitious story of politics and power set in the twenty-fifth century. In this fourth book, the systems that have kept the Earth peaceful for centuries have broken down due to pressure and corruption, and world war has erupted. While the major divisions of global society are divided into two sides, many smaller factions and hidden conflicts complicate the conflict. Everyone is fighting for what they see as the best path toward the future, and nearly everyone wants as little loss of life as possible, but war is still hell. This final installment switches up the narrator but continues to provide an insider's chronicle of world leaders as they scramble to gain control, maintain their principles, and eventually achieve a new peace.

Many aspects of PERHAPS THE STARS captivated me, many others left me frustrated, and I kept wishing I was reading a shorter novel. I've consistently praised these books for their ambitious scope, but in the third and fourth installments, I felt the story was attempting too many things that didn't all land successfully. I'm glad I read this series, which contains so much that's going to stick with me, but I'm sorry to not end up as enthusiastic as I was after the first two books. The story's culmination was still extremely satisfying, and I remain so impressed by the world Palmer has created.