Tuesday, April 12, 2022

A Ranked Paragraph About Every Book I Read in 2021 (part 1: 2021 Books edition)

36) My Annihilation (Fuminori Nakamura) (2022)

A mystery about identity, electroshock therapy, subliminal messaging, and revenge. I was not fond. More on No! No Buzz

35) Grievers (adrienne marie brown)

I have not been a fan of adrienne marie brown's writing since reading Emergent Strategy. I think this book is clunkily written. (way too much) More on No! No Buzz

34) Everybody has a podcast (Except You) (The McElroys)

Maybe it's my fault for having started over a half dozen podcasts already, but I found this book pretty useless. Which is fine. They're fine to listen to talk. Honestly this short post is way more useful, however many years later.

33) Ida B. the Queen (Michelle Duster)

A sort of YA biography of Ida B Wells written, I believe, by her daughter. I found it peculiarly unilluminating and weirdly centrist? It's been a while, but I don't have a ton of positive vibes about the experience.

32) An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed (Helen Tursten)

This slight mystery was super forgettable, honestly. The kind of thing that seems like it is playing on expectations that are completely alien to me.

31) Chlorine Sky (Mahogany L. Browne)

A young adult book-length poem about basketball and high school. It was fine.

30) Blood on the Fog (Tongo Eisen-Martin)

Eisen-Martin's third collection of poetry didn't hit as hard for me as his second (or even his first, honestly), but some of that is a headspace thing. The major theme seemed to be prayer, or theodicy. The man can still write an incredible line and wrench your head right around with an image. Definitely on a list to revisit at some point when I can process poetry again.

29) Comfort Me With Apples (Catherynne M. Valente)

A slight story, in the style of those feminist retellings of Disney/Brothers Grimm fairy tales. From what I recall, it's The Bible meets Wayward Pines. In all honesty nothing about it particularly stands out to me, in retrospect.

28) Detransition, Baby (Torrey Peters)

The popular trans book of the year, as far as I can tell, is about trans girls in NYC - one currently living her life, one who has detransitioned - who broke up. It's about family and bugchasing and queer community and navigating complex gender dynamics. I found it kind of insufferable, honestly.

27) A Spindle Splintered (Alix E. Harrow)

A slight story, in the style of those feminist retellings of Disney/Brothers Grimm fairy tales. From what I recall, it's Sleeping Beauty meets the multiverse. In all honesty nothing about it particularly stands out to me, in retrospect.

26) The Death of Francis Bacon (Max Porter)

I listened to this as an audiobook and know basically nothing about Francis Bacon except the screaming saints, so I probably have the worst possible take on it. It plays in the same space as Eternal Sonata, though it's more experimental fiction than High Anime. I can't say that it did much for me.

25) Kill The Mall (Pasha Malla)

An overeager narrator gets a residency at the mall, and shit gets weird. Told mostly in book report-style summaries, it has heavy "critique of consumerism" (as opposed to capitalism) vibes, which I generally find offputting. The hair that sprouts from the narrator's tongue, that floods the mall, that mind controls people? That part I was very cool with.

24) Remote Control (Nnedi Okorafor)

Sankofa (née Fatima) is a fourteen year old girl who, after a seed dropped from the sky on her favorite tree, gained power over death. She wanders Ghana looking for the seed that was stolen from her, pacifying those who are at their end and sometimes killing those who threaten her. There's something here that I expect I would have appreciated more had I read The Book of Phoenix & Who Fears Death, which share a world, and there is a solid emotional throughline which connects technological expansion to colonialism and the ravages of capitalism.

23) The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart (Chesil) (2022)

A Zainichi Korean is about to be expelled from school in Seattle. She goes to a cabin and writes about her experiences about her first expulsion, from a Korean school in Japan. A fuller thing is this episode of No! No Buzz

22) Victories Greater than Death (Charlie Jane Anders)

A big goofy space opera trilogy-opener about a girl who knows she was born with an alien inside her getting called up to duty in a galactic conflict. Like a lot of YA the themes feel sometimes insultingly on the nose. The action is mostly good, the emotional moments tend to pay off, and mostly it's just kind of there, honestly.

21) Colorful (Eto Mori)

A spirit gets a second chance at life after dying through a lottery system that puts them into the body of a boy who recently attempted suicide. I don't read for plot and even I saw the turn coming in the first ten pages. It's a pleasant thing that touches on, well, the things I just described, and it has lingered with me more than I thought it would after reading it.

20) Matsutake Worlds (Faier & Hathaway, eds)

The only academic book I read this year, and I did so under the impression it was something similar to Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing's The Mushroom at the End of the World rather than an essay collection (she is a member of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group that put this together and a contributor). I can't say I fell in love with it, or that it was equally compelling the whole way through, but I am glad I read it and hope I do more reading like it (in format if not in content) in the near future).

19) Rabbits (Terry Myles)

A spinoff of a podcast with aspirations of being one of those popular postmoderns, most obviously The Crying of Lot 49 without any of the fun shit (or pretension, if you dislike it). A gamer gets caught up in an Alternate Reality Game called Rabbits which is kind of like Michael Douglas' The Game, but more speculative by the end. I organized this list around this book, because it needed to be dead center. Neither good nor bad, just there and readable.

18) Aftermath (Preti Taneja)

Transit Books' Undelivered Lecture series is cool. This book was really complicated to read. More on No! No Buzz.

17) The Last Fallen Star (Graci Kim)

I unfortunately found out this year that the Rick Riordan Presents books are kinda solid. The way they scream #Representation made that seem really unlikely. In this, an adopted young girl named Riley Oh tries to trick her way into magic and ends up leaving her sister on the precipice of death. The prose sometimes hovers at the edge of grating (to someone for whom the YA Voice has grating as a default, which I attribute more to editors/publishers than authors), but it manages to stay on the right side of the line and tell an affecting story.

16) Heaven (Mieko Kawakami)

Kawakami's second book translated into English in as many years is, for my money, better than the widely-lauded (not wrongly!) Breasts and Eggs. A slim volume about a young boy with a lazy eye and an unkempt girl, both 14, who exchange notes and philosophies on the brutal bullying they both face. The central conflict seems to be between Kojima's martyr obsession - she is unkempt because her mother remarried a rich man and is seeking to reflect her father's poverty and struggles and finds weakness holy - and one bullies right wing nihilism - he bullies because nothing means anything, effects and causes are decoupled, so the strong cull the weak because they are able. As a left nihilist I tend to read books as being refractions of the mode of production, every one of them capable of showing us how social relations are structured by the material conditions that underly them. To that end, this is a pretty successful one, full of what we might call (un)sympathetic characters who have recognizable motivations that speak to the ways in which society amplifies those motivations. Plus I think I remember the sentences being super clean.

15) Hao (Ye Chun)

A collection of short stories that I remember feeling pretty high on at the time that I read it, but which seems to have slipped away from with a lot of other things from this year, among them my ability to communicate with loved ones. Which is relevant, I guess, because the titular story is about a grad student who suffers a stroke and as a consequence can only say Hao, meaning good or well. I remember, vaguely, that Ye's writing has a kind of honest lyricism. I remember also that none of the stories felt extraneous or lacking in emotional weight. I wish I could remember more.

14) A Country of Ghosts (Margaret Killjoy)

I keep meaning to read more Killjoy, and this one somewhat suffers from my general dislike of Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Which is mostly about style, to be clear. I did quite like this despite that for other reasons, though. More on No! No Buzz.

13) Velvet Was the Night (Silvia Moreno-Garcia)

This was probably the novel I was most disappointed I didn't like more, given how brutally hard I fell for Mexican Gothic in 2020 and how much of 2021 was defined by me finally exploring mysteries as a genre. I think in part that's because this book relies a lot more on character work, the aspect of Moreno-Garcia's writing I find the weakest, and probably just timing. The story of Elvis and the missing girl never really clicked for me. Which doesn't mean it isn't great; Moreno-Garcia is still an impeccaple stylist and genre chameleon, and can work her way through a sentence and a scene in a way I find joyous and surprising. Maybe on the reread.

12) Small Things Like These (Claire Keegan)

A morality tale in the Dickensian tradition that takes on a particular kind of systemic abuse of women in Ireland. All of the pieces are there for me to have not enjoyed this. I did, though. Quite a bit. More on No! No Buzz.

11) Folklorn (Angela Mi Young Hur)

I meant to read more Erewhon books this year, but. I'm glad I read this one at least. A woman at an Antarctic Research Station sees a ghost. The bulk of the novel traces her through her feelings of being haunted by folklore. It's an enjoyable read, full of melancholy and serious inquiry.

10) I'm Waiting For You (Bo-Young Kim)

A collection of four short stories, where the middle two are linked and the first and final are linked. The bookends are about a couple who use space travel as an attempt to time travel to meet each other, the first from one perspective, the final from the other. The middle stories are about gods and reminded me a lot of Ryu Mitsuse's 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights. Maybe the only genuinely novel piece of SF I read this year.

9) The Swimmers (Julie Otsuka) (2022)

This book is pretty special, I think? More about it (and the ways it shifts perspective) on No! No Buzz. The rough idea: an underground pool develops a crack in it. An older Japanese woman's senility progresses.

8) The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu (Tom Lin)

Maybe the best surprise of 2021? I picked it up because I'm (theoretically) running a Weird West game for Island Demeter and because I wanted it to sell. The story of a man getting revenge across the West, it isn't quite as much of a standout as How Much of These Hills is Gold but it did, for me, capture and convey some really striking images of blinding landscapes and circuses and moments of action. The kind of book I found real joy in reading on a scene-level, which is pretty rare for me.

7) The Animorphs: The Visitor (K.A. Applegate)

A graphic novel adaptation of the second book in The Animorphs. H approved. I was genuinely happy to see that they got an artist who was not just willing to explore the horror of the transformations, but seemed excited about them. The best body horror I've read in years.

6) Under A White Sky (Elizabeth Kolbert)

Elizabeth Kolbert is new to me - as is most popular science, which I have been cursed to get into since becoming a cooking nerd - but I thought this journalistic travelogue of the anthropocene was well put together and engagingly written. Kolbert tells a handful of stories of travels to significant sites, whether of water rehabilitation, underground lake species preservation, CRISPR lab or atmospheric engineering facility, and walks through what people are doing in the face of, and against, the rapid acceleration of human-propelled climate change. She picks interesting stories to tell and tells them well, which is nice.

5) The Cook of the Halcyon (Andrea Camilleri)

In the second-to-last Montalbano book, Camilleri goes full Bond and Montalbano fucking hates it. A really good, though coincidental, precursor to Riccardino, these two books closing the door on an Inspector I kind of fell in love with this year felt really gratifying.

4) Summer Sons (Lee Mandelo)

Slow burn queer Appalachian street racing horror in the academy. It caught the horror of medium-sized college town perfectly, in my experience, although I'm not from Appalachia or anywhere near. Mandelo's style can be a little dense at times and it took me almost a hundred pages to really dive in, but once I did it held me revenant-tight until the very satisfying ending.

3) My Heart is a Chainsaw (Stephen Jones)

The best Scream since 2 (I mean the second season of the TV show, obviously). Small town metafictional horror with an excellent ending and a genuinely excellent protagonist that also happens to be really smart about horror film and convey that in a way that is believable from a protagonist who is of high school age? A special book, honestly.

2) Riccardino (Andrea Camilleri)

Montalbano's final mystery, written some decades ago and lightly revised not incredibly long before Camilleri passed. It's pure metafiction, with Camilleri pitting himself as Montalbano's ultimate antagonist and collaborator. The writing feels (appropriately) somewhere between the early Montalbano books, with their dense depictions of history and food, and the later books that read breezily and imply much more than they say. Both styles work for me surprisingly well, and seeing both ends represented as Montalbano says goodbye was a real pleasant surprise. With an ending on par with Calvino (I assume, never having read him) or Borges, it made me happy to have fallen in love with this series in this particular year.

1) Sorrowland (Rivers Solomon)

I fucking adore this book. The Deep didn't quite hit for me, but this story of a young albino Black woman who escapes from her utopian cult with her twins and discovers love and superfungal powers absolutely fucking wrecked me. It does my favorite thing in the world - utilizing the flow and signifiers of genre fiction to address complex, systemic realities - so well that I still kind of don't believe it can possibly be as good as I remember. It also does my actual favorite thing (putting words into sentences on a page in ways alternately compelling, evocative, frustrating, and reflective) excellently. Genuinely masterful.

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