2021 Reading

It’s been a weird year for me both writing-wise and reading-wise. Wrote a novella, had a prose crisis, took three months off to read and study, still had a prose crisis, read some more, and did a particularly aggressive tearing down of my own writing.

Prose out of crisis, 32 books later.

Which is… unusual. I stopped reading much in high school, when I developed a particularly nasty short attention span. I’ve read more published fiction this past year than I have between 2010-2020. I don’t really know how to feel about that.

So, naturally, I should have some thoughts on the books I’ve read, right? I do, sort of. I’m a very neutral person and as a result, I don’t really have any strong feelings toward the majority of the books I’ve read this year. I do have some favourites I want to highlight, though.

Actually, let’s preface this a bit first and get this out of the way: I hate star rating books. I find them completely useless and actively detrimental to the work. Star ratings are for products with a single purpose, not a work of art that is meant to instill a reaction.

Reviews are similarly weird. There are plenty of works that I enjoyed that I wouldn’t recommend and others that were very, very good works of fiction and I would recommend them, but I didn’t enjoy them (because, sometimes, that’s how fiction works – sometimes the work is not meant to be enjoyed because it handles topics that are inherently unpleasant). The truth is that our relationship to fiction is not a linear scale; we should be able to evaluate our enjoyment of something and the execution of it on a nuanced plane. Whether I personally enjoyed something is not necessarily the same criteria as whether I thought a work was good.

And frankly, even when I did enjoy the thing, there very well might be a ton of caveats because of content or even the work experimenting with something that makes it less accessible.

Mind, I really only actively disliked two books this year. I have a high and complex threshold for what I enjoyed and what I deem my favourites. And honestly I don’t think I read anything bad this year, either. Personal tastes are weird like that.

I think what happens is that we want someone to tell us what to think about pieces of media. Quick, easy answers to “what x good or bad?” And maybe you do think about your media in that way, that you do need some sort of clear, delineating categories to explain your tastes, your likes and dislikes. But I think it’s also useful to acknowledge that you may not even know if you’ll enjoy the work until you’ve completed it. I tend not to make judgement on a work until I’ve finished, not because I’m holding out but because I genuinely need to know how it handles its arcs and lands on its ending before I can decide whether I enjoyed it or whether I thought it was good (which, as I pointed to above, are different things).

I’m not a big fan of reading fluff (there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just not a fan, personally). You could throw all my favourite tropes at me, but that doesn’t inherently mean I’ll love it. There needs to be more and that “more” means I can’t make judgement without considering the whole work. And honestly, in doing that? I’ve discovered more work I’ve enjoyed that I wouldn’t have otherwise. This was a year of turning off my “I need to be enjoying the book from the start” part of my brain, and I’m glad I did.

But, anyway, let’s get to it:

Favourite books

A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE and A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE by Arkady Martine

PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke

These first two fall under “exactly the kind of media that I love everything about” while the next two are more under “I really enjoyed these but I have some complicated feelings toward them and I don’t know if I’d classify them as fun but I absolutely cannot get them out of my head.”

AGENTS OF DREAMLAND, BLACK HELICOPTERS, and THE TINDALOS ASSET by Caitlín R. Kiernan

VITA NOSTRA by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Books I enjoyed

  • EMPRESS OF FOREVER by Max Gladstone
  • HORRORSTÖR by Grady Hendrix
  • THE WITNESS FOR THE DEAD by Katherine Addison
  • THE ATROCITIES by Jeremy C. Shipp
  • CHILLING EFFECT and PRIME DECEPTIONS by Valerie Valdes
  • THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
  • ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Books read in 2021:

  • THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD by John le Carré
  • RIOT BABY by Tochi Onyebuchi
  • THE SURVIVAL OF MOLLY SOUTHBORNE by Tade Thompson
  • THE ATROCITIES by Jeremy C. Shipp
  • CHILLING EFFECT by Valerie Valdes
  • PRIME DECEPTIONS by Valerie Valdes
  • A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE by Arkady Martine
  • A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE by Arkady Martine
  • FIREHEART TIGER by Aliette de Bodard
  • THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
  • YELLOW JESSAMINE by Caitlin Starling
  • BURNING ROSES by S.L. Huang
  • THE EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE by Nghi Vo
  • WHEN THE TIGER CAME DOWN THE MOUNTAIN by Nghi Vo
  • AGENTS OF DREAMLAND by Caitlín R. Kiernan
  • BLACK HELICOPTERS by Caitlín R. Kiernan
  • THE TINDALOS ASSET by Caitlín R. Kiernan
  • HORRORSTÖR by Grady Hendrix
  • TIGANA by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • VITA NOSTRA by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
  • EMPRESS OF FOREVER by Max Gladstone
  • THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • ROADSIDE PICNIC by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
  • A SWIM IN A POND IN THE RAIN by George Saunders (non-fic)
  • THE BLACK TIDES OF HEAVEN by Neon Yang
  • THE RED THREADS OF FORTUNE by Neon Yang
  • THE DESCENT OF MONSTERS by Neon Yang
  • THE ASCENT TO GODHOOD by Neon Yang
  • THE CASE AGAINST SATAN by Ray Russell
  • ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer
  • THE ANNUAL MIGRATION OF CLOUDS by Premee Mohamed
  • PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke
  • THE WITNESS FOR THE DEAD by Katherine Addison

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