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."

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