Last week, I posted a list of all the novels and novellas I read in 2021. This week, I’ll be discussing some of those books in a bit more detail, with categories like Fastest Read, Favorite Horror Novel, Favorite Sci Fantasy, etc.
As always, any book I read in 2021 is eligible for these superlatives because if I only discussed books published in 2021, well. Let’s just say this would be a much shorter list.
Truly Devious, The Vanishing Stair, and The Hand on the Wall – Maureen Johnson
This YA mystery trilogy (well, okay, it’s not technically a trilogy anymore) is delightful, and I quickly powered through each of these three novels. I want Ellingham Academy to be a real place, even though definitely nobody should ever go there because, yeah, all the murders. Still! Stevie is a great heroine and teen detective, and I really enjoy most of the supporting cast, particularly introverted writer Nate, who speaks the language of my fucking soul. The concept is fun, the humor is great, and I just really had a good time reading these. I’m definitely looking forward to checking out The Box in The Woods sometime later this year.
Honorable Mentions: Think of England – KJ Charles; The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley; Finna – Nino Cipri; The Final Girls Support Group – Grady Henrix; The Inugami Curse – Seishi Yokomizo; Network Effect – Martha Wells; The Decagon House Murders – Yukito Ayatsuji; Bryony and Roses – T. Kingfisher; Rock and Riot – Chelsey Furedi
FAVORITE BOOK THAT MADE ME CRY
The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa
Oof. This one sits heavy in the chest. I can’t really discuss why without spoilers, but I can say that this is a story about loss, and each loss here is more strange and terrible than the last. The imagery is really quite lovely, and the ending ties the whole novel together so well. The Memory Police is fantastic, and I’m genuinely glad I read it, but damn, I was one big bundle of Existential Feels after finishing this book. Read with a comfort snack, or six.
FAVORITE GRAPHIC NOVEL
Rock and Riot, Vol. 1 – Chelsey Furedi
When I found this graphic novel, I didn’t initially realize that it had begun life as a web comic, but I figured that out when I devoured Volume 1, immediately tried to buy Volume 2 and 3, couldn’t find them anywhere, cried, and then found the whole series here to read for free—and read it, I did, all in one night. (I mean, I know that’s not a huge accomplishment—this is not a dialogue-heavy comic—but I appreciate anything that makes me feel that sweet must keep reading, must keep reading rush.)
Rock and Riot is about The Aesthetic. It’s a queer, 50’s, greaser romcom set in high school, and it is adorable; oh my God, is it cute. I love the main ship, I love all their friends, and the ending with the Prom is such pure perfection. 2021 was often pretty bleak, but this comic was a great pick-me-up.
Honorable Mentions: Die, Vol. 2: Split the Party – Kieron Gillen & Stephanie Hans; Goldie Vance: Volume One – Hope Larson & Brittney Williams; Princeless – Raven: the Pirate Princess – Book One: Captain Raven and the All-Girl Pirate Crew – Jeremy Whitley, Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt; The Wicked + The Divine, Book 3 – Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie
Ace: What Sexuality Reveals About Desire, Society and the Meaning of Sex – Angela Chen
One of my favorite things about this book is that it doesn’t approach asexuality from a narrow perspective. Angela Chen interviews a wide variety of people from all over the spectrum and specifically delves into the various experiences, stereotypes, and challenges that aces with intersectional identities come up against. The book also explores some really interesting ideas about compulsory sexuality and how experiencing sexual attraction in today’s society isn’t just considered the default; it’s automatically assumed to be superior to experiencing little to no sexual attraction, a perspective that’s omnipresent and needs to change in both queer and heterosexual communities. It’s a well-researched book, and I’m really glad I read it.
Honorable Mentions: Women Make Horror: Filmmaking, Feminism, Genre – Alison Peirse (edited by); Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels – Gwen Hayes
FAVORITE MIDDLE GRADE
Root Magic – Eden Royce
I didn’t read many middle grade books this year, but I’m so glad I picked this one up because the Gullah-Geechee rootwork here is just so interesting, and it’s exciting to read a fantasy novel set in this culture by an author who actually is Freshwater Geechee. Root Magic felt innovative to me, different than many of the MG fantasy books I’ve read before, and it’s something I wish I’d had the opportunity to come across when I was a child. I particularly like that this story gives multiple characters space for some moral ambiguity. People aren’t perfect here, but they do care, and I like that. There are also just some fantastically creepy moments in this book that I adored. I definitely hope to read more by Eden Royce in the future.
The Valley and the Flood – Rebecca Mahoney
I initially discovered this novel because I love the author’s fanfic, and I’m so happy I did because it’s such an odd, fascinating, and moving story about surviving and living with trauma. It’s also funny as hell, and I love pretty much the entire cast of characters. I am, admittedly, a sucker for magical stories about weird little towns (this one has multiple prophets who are rated by their accuracy, it’s great), but I also really love just how much time and space is given to Rose’s emotional journey here. I wish someone would pick this up for a limited series because I would watch the hell out of it. So, like. Get to work, Netflix!
Honorable Mentions: Truly Devious – Maureen Johnson; The Vanishing Stair – Maureen Johnson; The Hand on the Wall – Maureen Johnson; Elatsoe – Darcie Little Badger; Summer of Salt – Katrina Leno; Raybearer – Jordan Ifueko; Iron Widow – Xiran Jay Zhao; Loveless – Alice Oseman
One Last Stop – Casey McQuiston
So, I really enjoyed this. It’s a very queer, very living-in-your-20’s kind of story, and I ship our main romance, which is obviously huge. (One of my biggest problems with love stories—within ALL genres—is that I either don’t care if the couple gets together or, worse, I actively don’t want them to get together. It happens more often than I’d like.) August, though, is pretty great (and another true crime solver—someone needs to write me the One Last Stop/Truly Devious crossover fanfic immediately), and I like Jane, too. I don’t know if time travel romances will ever be my bag, but trapped-and-displaced-in-time punk heroines from the 1970’s? Yeah, I’m here for that. Plus, I really love how this book dedicates so much time to August’s platonic relationships, too, primarily with her roommates Niko, Myla, and Wes. I was 1000% invested in all their friendships.
Honorable Mentions: Paladin’s Grace – T. Kingfisher; Frederica – Georgette Heyer; Think of England – KJ Charles; The Midnight Bargain – C.L. Polk; Bryony and Roses – T. Kingfisher
Night of the Mannequins – Stephen Graham Jones
Oh, wow. Night of the Mannequins is a morbidly funny delight from beginning to end. It is also, hilariously, not quite the book I’d expected when I started reading the story because I must have misread or misremembered the back-cover blurb somehow? Honestly, though, I think that surprise actually made the novella even better, the slow unfolding as I realized, Oh, wait, are we—oh, SHIT, we’re doing THIS. It’s my FAVORITE NOVELLA I read this year, and such a perfect combination of weird slasher and disturbing psychological horror all in one. In the unlikely event I ever teach a class, and I want to do a lesson on voice? Night of the Mannequins will be one of the assigned texts.
Honorable Mentions for Favorite Horror: The Bayou – Arden Powell; The Final Girls Support Group – Grady Hendrix; The Secret Skin – Wendy N. Wagner
Honorable Mentions for Favorite Novella: The Bayou – Arden Powell; Finna – Nino Cipri; Here, The World Entire – Anwen Kya Hayward; Burning Roses – S.L. Huang; And What Can We Offer You Tonight – Premee Mohamed; The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – P. Djèlí Clark; And This is How to Stay Alive – Shingai Njeri Kagunda
The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley
The Decagon House Murders – Yukito Ayatsuji
Both these mysteries surprised me for different reasons, although it’s hard to explain exactly why without spoilers, which I’m reluctant to include even in the case of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which is literally almost 100 years old. I first discovered this book while reading The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, and I’m so glad I picked it up. The format is so interesting. There’s very little actual investigation on the page; instead, it’s a group of self-styled detectives discussing their proposed solutions to a recent unsolved murder, and it’s an awful lot of fun, witty and engaging and rather meta in its “let’s poke some fun at these tropes” humor, which is extremely in line with Golden Age mysteries. I had a ball reading this.
Meanwhile, it’s no surprise I checked out The Decagon House Murders because any book with such a fun And Then There Were None premise is always an automatic read for me, but I have to give special kudos to this novel because the twist is so GOOD. I know some writers always get mysteries correct, but the truth is, I don’t: I have a tendency to overcomplicate things while puzzling out the many ways a story could go. Hell, I didn’t get The Poisoned Chocolates Case correct. (Parts, damn it. My theory seemed so sound, too!) But I’m not usually, like, stunned, either. The Decagon House Murders stunned me. It’s been a long, long while since I felt so blown away by a twist I didn’t see coming at all, and that was very exciting for me. One of the best surprises of the year. Also, yeah, I kind of want my own decagon house now.
Honorable Mentions: The Inugami Curse – Seishi Yokomizo; The Honjin Murders – Seishi Yokomizo; Truly Devious – Maureen Johnson; The Vanishing Staircase – Maureen Johnnson; The Hand on the Wall – Maureen Johnson; Fortune Favors the Dead – Stephen Spotswood
FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION
Chaos Vector – Megan O’Keefe
The sequel to Velocity Weapon, this is an absolute doorstop of a book and also a wild ride, full of twists and turns that are like, Oh, shit. OH. SHIT! You’d think I’d be prepared for that after the first book, but damn. Specifics are difficult to discuss without giving anything away, but this is a fantastic space opera with a great lead heroine and several supporting characters that I’m invested in. There are still so many mysteries left to uncover in the third and final book, which is already in my To-Read pile—and like, not even my metaphorical someday pile. It’s in the stack of physical books towering over my desk. Enticing me. Intimidating me. Reminding me silently we’re heeeere.
Honorable Mentions: Network Effect – Martha Wells; The Galaxy, and The Ground Within – Becky Chambers; Finna – Nino Cipri; Riot Baby – Tochi Onyebuchi; The Memory Police – Yōko Ogawa; And What Can We Offer You Tonight – Premee Mohamed; The All-Consuming World – Cassandra Khaw
FAVORITE SCI FANTASY
Harrow the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir
Yes, it’s true, I did read Harrow the Ninth roughly a year after the rest of the world, but I got there eventually, damn it! And it’s an awesome read, one which definitely activated the Mystery Lover part of my brain, only in this case, the primary mystery is less all right, who killed this dude and more like, okay, but for real, though, what the FUCK is going on? I had an awful lot of fun trying to figure out, indeed, what the fuck WAS going on. (I got, IDK. Half of it?) Reading Harrow’s super traumatized, wildly unreliable, and goth as hell POV was pretty great, too. All of the characters are fantastic, TBH, and while this is—as one is legally obligated to point out—a very different book from Gideon the Ninth, it is still just as witty, wild, and fantastically weird as its glorious predecessor.
Honorable Mention: Iron Widow – Xiran Jay Zhao
FAVORITE CONTEMPORARY FANTASY
Piranesi – Susanna Clarke
I enjoyed Piranesi well enough while I was reading it, but it wasn’t until I reached the end that I truly fell in love with it. This is definitely one of those novels that throws you into the deep end right away, but it’s interesting to slowly piece things together, and that bittersweet conclusion just makes everything which came before that much more powerful. The prose is absolutely lovely, and I really like our MC, too, his kindness, how he takes care of the dead, his deductions—even when they’re wildly wrong. The whole story is gently melancholic, but I don’t find it unbearably tragic, either; in fact, I’ve actually been considering buying the book to reread it, which is very rare for me. (It may not happen because of the aforementioned towering TBR pile, but still. I’m seriously considering it.)
Honorable Mentions: Elatsoe – Darcie Little Badger; The Memory Collectors – Kim Neville; The Valley and the Flood – Rebecca Mahoney
FAVORITE NOT-SO-CONTEMPORARY FANTASY
The Once and Future Witches – Alix E. Harrow
I read this book relatively early in 2021, and I knew that no matter how many other awesome novels I read in the upcoming months, The Once and Future Witches was definitely making it on my Top Ten. I’m not always drawn to historical fantasy, but a story about witches and sisters and suffragists? Particularly one written by Alix E. Harrow, who writes some of the best, most striking prose in the business? Obviously, I was here for that. And the book is written beautifully, of course. There are so many good lines here. I became very invested in the relationships between the three Eastwood sisters, and I love all the rhymes and spells and stories. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read this one yet, you should definitely check it out.
Honorable Mentions: The Midnight Bargain – C.L. Polk; Paladin’s Grace – T. Kingfisher; Under the Pendulum Sun – Jeannette Ng; The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – P. Djèlí Clark; Bryony and Roses – T. Kingfisher; The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo; Raybearer – Jordan Ifueko; When The Tiger Came Down the Mountain – Nghi Vo
TOP TEN FAVORITE NOVELS + NOVELLAS OF 2021
(not in any particular order)
1. Piranesi – Susanna Clarke
2. Night of the Mannequins – Stephen Graham Jones
3. Chaos Vector – Megan O’Keefe
4. The Valley and the Flood – Rebecca Mahoney
5. The Once and Future Witches – Alix E. Harrow
6. Network Effect – Martha Wells
7. The Decagon House Murders – Yukito Ayatsuji
8. The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley
9. The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa
10. The Bayou – Arden Powell
Because my system is imperfect, I always have at least 2 or 3 books on my Top Ten that I don’t have a specific superlative for, despite how awesome they are. I refuse to only discuss 8 of my 10 favorite stories of the year, though, so I’m also here to recommend the following fantastic novels and novellas:
Network Effect – Martha Wells
Okay, no one actually needs me and my readership of, like, 4 people to recommend Martha Wells. It is a well-acknowledged fact that Murderbot is The Best. But just in case you’re also playing catchup, Network Effect was an absolute delight to read. I am 150% here for the humor, the relationships, and all the Feels—you know, the ones that Murderbot pretends to not experience. IMO, Murderbot continues to possibly be the most relatable MC of all time, and I’m looking forward to reading Fugitive Telemetry sometime later this year.
The Bayou – Arden Powell
Would you like a spooky, queer, Southern gothic novella set in the 1930’s? Of course, you would, and that’s great because I have one for you right here! The Bayou is a super quick read and atmospheric as hell, and that ending, damn. Everything comes together so beautifully at the end of the story when All is Revealed. The horror is just so good here; also, I absolutely loved the writing, like, just so many good lines. This is the first work I’ve read by Arden Powell, and it will definitely not be the last.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo; When The Tiger Came Down the Mountain – Nghi Vo; Harrow the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir; One Last Stop – Casey McQuiston; Here, The World Entire – Anwen Kya Hayward; Paladin’s Grace – T. Kingfisher; Fortune Favors the Dead – Stephen Spotswood; The Galaxy, and the Ground Within – Becky Chambers; Truly Devious – Maureen Johnson; The Vanishing Stair – Maureen Johnson; The Hand on the Wall – Maureen Johnson; Raybearer – Jordan Ifueko; Iron Widow – Xiran Jay Zhao; And What Can We Offer You Tonight – Premee Mohamed; Loveless – Alice Oseman
Yes, well, the plan was to only list 5 Honorable Mentions, but very obviously, I failed. Look, I read a lot of awesome books last year, okay? Be happy I kept it under 20.
Here’s to hoping 2022 is filled with even more fantastic reads!