I read and reviewed over 300 books last year. I honestly do not know how I did that, and I’m hoping I won’t have to continue that patently absurd rate of reading this year, especially since I’ve started designing tabletop games and would like to spend more time and effort doing that instead. Ofc, I’ve already read (and mostly enjoyed!) ten books so far this year, so my forecast is admittedly less than encouraging. I shouldn’t complain when it’s my own greed that has me reading so much tho. One day, I’ll learn how to say no to the wonderful new books coming out so constantly, or at least to having to review them on a schedule.
That said, it’s been discouraging to read some of the absolute crap critics have been getting across the board in 2021, almost as if the fan culture wars happening in primarily film have spilled over to book criticism. I can understand creators wanting to hear only from fans instead of receiving honest critique — and no one needs to hear the dumbshit trashing some people substitute for reasoned discussion — but the cult-like mentality from some of those fans, ready to jump down the throats of anyone who disagrees with them, even as the creators they’re stanning for smarmily encourage this silencing… it’s a big eh. I’ve lost a lot of respect for a lot of people over this past year, and that’s even before watching people react in truly childish, insufferable ways to actually important things like the pandemic and politics. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people whose instinct in the face of adversity is to regress to immaturity. Grow up.
Rant aside, I fully acknowledge that there was lots to enjoy and be grateful for. Of the books I read in 2021 (that also came out in 2021,) I’ve selected these 12 as my very best:
1. Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley — By far my best book of the year, this vital narrative follows the life of Daunis Fontaine, a biracial, unenrolled member of the Ojibwe who often struggles to reconcile the many different aspects of her life as an 18 year-old in Michigan. When she’s recruited by the FBI to help foil a drug ring targeting her people, her struggle to keep theme safe imperils everything she holds dear. This labor of love was Ms Boulley’s debut novel, and the amount of craft and heart poured into it are both palpable and outstanding.
2. The Portrait Of A Mirror by A. Natasha Joukovsky — Second on my list is another author’s dazzling debut. This modern-day comedy of manners is, like its Jane Austen-penned forebears, extremely white yet extremely relatable. Four beautiful, privileged people come together and fall apart on America’s East Coast, as Ms Joukovsky cleverly riffs on love, narcissism, ethics and recursion. My polymath brain loved this so hard.
3. Punch Me Up To The Gods by Brian Broome — I’m not big on memoirs usually, but this frank look at what it meant to grow up as a gay black male in late 1900s America left an indelible mark on me. From an Ohio childhood terrorized by a homophobic dad and failed by a racist society, to an adulthood in a colorist dating scene where drugs seemed to offer the only nonjudgmental solace, Mr Broome lays it all out, vividly evoking every milieu he describes and plainly depicting not only what was done to him but how he learned to, if not outright overcome, then at least cope. Skip the awful introduction, by a more “established” author, tho.
4. The Album Of Dr Moreau by Daryl Gregory — I am 100% nominating this for a Hugo this year. Combining a murder mystery with boy band shenanigans and a sci-fi twist, the only fault of this glorious, hilarious mash-up was that it was too damn short. I cannot wait to read more from Mr Gregory.
5. Slingshot by Mercedes Helnwein — Ms Helnwein found my boarding school diaries and fictionalized them here for her YA debut, and I still don’t know how to feel about it. Okay, that’s not what actually happened (as I’m pretty sure my mom trashed all my journals, thanks, Mom,) but the story of precocious, Smashing-Pumpkins-loving 15 year-old Gracie Welles felt so lifted from my own life that it was sometimes hard to breathe reading this, a testament to the realism of this wry look at growing up and first love.
6. Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley — I am a huge fan of Ms Whiteley’s and I think this may be her best work yet. I can’t explain the plot without giving too much away, but it is sci-fi/horror that it is really good and really gross. More of her genius on display.
7. Perfect On Paper by Sophie Gonzales — Smart and funny, this charming YA starts out as enemies-to-lovers but has a much deeper message to convey about being LGBTQIA. I legit cried at one climactic scene, so loved and accepted did I feel by Ms Gonzales’ inclusive words.
8. Gigantic by Ashley Stokes — Only the British would write something so tragic and market it as comedy. Mr Stokes describes the interior life of a cryptid-obsessed middle-aged man with humor and sensitivity, which only makes the pathos come as a punch in the gut. It’s as if Alan Ayckbourn wrote a sci-fi novella.
9. Like Other Girls by Britta Lundin — This YA novel deftly navigates modern femininity through a lesbian lens, as a teenage Mara Deeble learns that the best kind of solidarity comes from finding people who encourage you to be true to yourself, whether that means playing football and/or being one of the girls. It’s a smart exploration of the many ways young lesbians are pressured to conform, particularly in rural societies, and ultimately a celebration of being yourself.
10. Salt Magic by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock — I read a lot of middle-grade and graphic novels this year, but this was far and away the best of a very competitive bunch. With a unique take on Americana, this beautifully illustrated story follows Vonceil Taggart as she tries to lift the curse that salted the well on her family’s Oklahoma farmstead.
11. Fan Fiction by Brent Spiner — Finding out the background of this mem-noir by the famed Star Trek actor only made me more deeply appreciate what Mr Spiner has done here, fictionalizing his own past in an effort to reclaim the narrative from his stalker (who’s ultimately treated very kindly in these pages given what she’s put him through!) Star Trek fans and nerds of all stripes will absolutely enjoy this book, but anyone who’s pondered the ethics of fandom will find lots to think about in these wildly entertaining, surprisingly reflective pages.
12. Jane Darrowfield And The Madwoman Next Door by Barbara Ross — The best cozy mystery of the year by the best living cozy writer. Link will go up when the editor at my other site posts the review (updated!)
Honorable mentions go to, first, my favorite art/science book of the year, The Bird by Philip Kennedy for being gorgeous, sweeping and surprisingly affordable. The mantle of Best Self-Help goes to Catherine Baab-Muguira’s Poe For Your Problems. Fabrice Erre and Sylvain Savoia’s Magical History Tour, ostensibly a children’s graphic novel series, had two more excellent installments come out in English this year, and should be read by people of all ages. I also deeply enjoyed two trade paperbacks from 2020, penned by the multi-talented Kieron Gillen: Once & Future Vol I is likely the more accessible title, but Die: Volume II had me shrieking with fangirl excitement. Another standout from 2020 was Jenna Guillaume’s terrific body-positive YA debut, What I Like About Me.
That all said, there were several books I acquired that I have not yet had time to read so far, but hope to be able to cover soon. There are three novels that came out in 2021 that I actually bought in hardcover as a treat for myself, so I’m very much looking forward to enjoying Cassandra Khaw’s The All-Consuming World (which I admit I purchased because it came with a free journaling game from the amazingly talented Jeeyon Shim,) Lily King’s Five Tuesdays In Winter, and Bethany C Morrow’s Little Women remix, So Many Beginnings. But since I’ve rather foolishly scheduled coverage for over thirty books this January alone — I know, I have a problem — we’ll see when I can actually get to them. My, urm, May schedule looks pretty light!
Here’s to another great year of reading, friends! You can check out more of the books I really enjoyed this year at the link below: