Last week, I discussed my nonfiction reads over 2021. Here’s all the fiction. I leaned towards lighter reads this year, between the pandemic and assorted mayhem happening in the country. But as always, there’s a little of everything.
Science Fiction & Fantasy:
Peter Anghelides, Pack Animals
Sarah Awa, Hunter’s Moon
CJ Cherryh, Faded Sun Trilogy (Kesrith, Shon’jir, Kutath)
Kate Elliott, Spirit Walker Trilogy (Cold Magic, Cold Fire, Cold Steel)
Cait Gordon, Life in the ‘Cosm
Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson series (The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s Curse)
Rainbow Rowell, Any Way the Wind Blows
Rainbow Rowell, Wayward Son
Katherine Vick, The Merry Band
Gary Whitta, Christie Yant & Hugh Howey, Eds., Resist: Tales From a Future Worth Fighting Against
As usual, this is my most crowded category. Probably my favorite was Resist, a collection of stories set in dystopian futures, like one run by g*mer g*te types. But in these stories, the good guys fight back — and sometimes even win.
A few interesting series. Kate Elliott’s Spirit Walker trilogy is set in the 1800’s on a magical alternate earth, where the Roman empire is still around and Carthage never fell. It has an enemies-to-lovers romance, and hot & cold running magic. CJ Cherry’s Faded Sun trilogy revisits one of her favorite themes: a human trying to fit in among aliens. In this case, a dying race of warriors. Percy Jackson is a YA series about a son of Poseidon getting drawn into the conflicts among deities & demigods, with engaging characters and a lot of humor. Pack Animals is a Torchwood tie-in, and the “pack” isn’t what you think.
I’ve described Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On as “Harry Potter, if Harry & Draco fell in love.” The later books, Wayward Son and Any Way the Wind Blows, go where “Chosen One” stories often fear to tread: into the aftermath of trauma and its effect on the survivors. I love Simon & Baz, and the books have a weirdly logical magic system. Hunter’s Moon also takes a common trope (modern werewolf) and delves into the emotional effects.
A couple of SF classics: The Dispossessed is about a world set up by anarchists, not exactly utopic or dystopic, just a whole other way of living. And a man who doesn’t quite fit in, either there or back on earth. Brown Girl in the Ring combines urban fantasy and Caribbean mythology.
Humor books: The Merry Band is the sequel to The Disposable, sort of a fantasy version of John Scalzi’s Redshirts, where the minor characters get sick of being killed off and rebel. Also very funny is Life in the ‘Cosm, a space opera featuring a lovestruck, nerdy protagonist, kickass gay hairdressers, a sentient daisy, and a roller-skating heroine who doesn’t know when to shut up. Also love the fact that a major character is disabled, it’s an essential part of her character but the author never treats her as an “issue” rather than a full character. If you liked The Cosmic Turkey, Life in the ‘Cosm has a similar vibe — even the love of chocolate.
Louisa May Alcott, The Lost Stories of Louisa May Alcott
Katharine Burdakin, Proud Man
Kate Chopin, A Vocation and a Voice
Wilkie Collins, No Name
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
Upton Sinclair, The Millennium: A Comedy of the Year 2000
Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings of Mark Twain
Yevgeny Zamiatin, We
Louisa May Alcott wrote “sensation stories” that would make Jo March blush: seduction, revenge, and all manner of schemes. Chopin’s stories feel fresh and immediate, despite being written over a century ago.
Wilkie Collins often wrote about the peculiarities of British law. No Name is about two young women who discover that their late parents’ marriage wasn’t legal, and find themselves penniless as their parents’ estate is handed over to a distant relative who hates them. The younger daughter, an amateur actress, has a plan to set things right.
The Pickwick Papers is classic Dickens: very long, several funny bits, not much of a plot.
Katharine Burdakin (AKA Murray Constantine) wrote one brilliant book, Swastika Night, so I’ve read two more of hers and come away disappointed. Proud Man is about a visitor from the future, and the book is mostly endless reminders that they’re too “advanced” to care about anything 20th-century humans do, including a serial killer.
We and The Millennium are both comedic dystopias. We is sort of a satirical 1984 with a bit of Brave New World. The Millennium is about an accident that kills everyone on earth except a few socialites, a pilot, and a butler who sees his chance at revenge. After The Jungle, I had no idea Upton Sinclair did comedy, but it’s very funny.
Letters from Earth includes the title story (Satan writing to the other angels about human absurdity), some other satirical takes on Bible stories, and a creepy unfinished story about a family that shrinks down to go sailing in a drop of water on a microscope slide. Random things I learned about Twain from it: he was interested in dinosaurs, and he counted inequality for women among the many ways humans made a mess of things.
Janet Evanovich, Fortune & Glory: Tantalizing 27
Janet Evanovich, Game On: Tempting 28
Jake Tapper, The Devil May Dance
I’m partial to comedic mysteries, and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series has a bumbling bounty hunter, lots of delightful characters, cars destroyed in colorful ways, and a love triangle that will never be resolved.
The Devil May Dance is set in Hollywood in the days of JFK and J. Edgar Hoover, and involves the Rat Pack and the mob.
Courtney Milan, Trade Me
Selena Montgomery (Stacey Abrams), Reckless
Trade Me is my kind of romance: the guy respects boundaries, the woman has a life, and the conflicts are about real issues. It starts with a struggling college student challenging her wealthy classmate to trade lives with her for a month.
Reckless is a combined mystery/thriller and romance between a high-powered lawyer and small-town sheriff. The meet-cute has him ticketing her car, and it heats up from there. One frustration: it wasn’t clear until the end that this was part of a series, so while the murder plot got resolved, the Big Secret that was teased at the beginning was left for a later book.
C.G. Drews, A Thousand Perfect Notes
Adrienne Kisner, Six Angry Girls
Rachel Lynn Solomon, Our Year of Maybe
Kelly Yang, Parachutes
YA is a whole lot different from when I was a young dinosaur. These books tackle heavy topics like abuse (A Thousand Perfect Notes) and sexual assault (Parachutes). Being YA, they still have hopeful endings.
I’m old enough to remember when being LGBT+ was a taboo topic in YA. Six Angry Girls is about girls who form their own mock-trial team because they’re sick of the sexism from the guys, and they include various combinations of straight, lesbian, bi, trans, and asexual. And Our Year of Maybe is about a teen falling in love with her longtime best friend, while he’s falling in love with another guy. I love the fact that the writer doesn’t cop out and have him tell the girl that he was “only calling himself bi because he was afraid to come out as gay,” which I’ve seen too many times. No, he actually is bi — and he chooses the right person for him.
Wendy Brenner, Phone Calls From the Dead
Italo Calvino, Difficult Loves
Michelle Halket, Ed., [Dis]connected
Mark A. King, Ed., vss365 Anthology
Years ago in a litmag, I read the single best unreliable-narrator short story I’ve ever seen, “The Human Side of Instrumental Transcommunication.” I remembered it so well, years later, that I could still pull up the full title to google it and discover that the author had a short story collection. Not all the stories in it rise to the same level, but still worth a read.
Italo Calvino’s stories often have a touch of surrealism, though the ones in Difficult Loves aren’t as out there as his classic If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. For instance, one story (from the pre-cell-phone era, obviously) has a couple hanging up on an angry breakup, but then the man starts driving to her home to apologize — but wait, he realizes, what if she’s trying to call him? And what if she’s driving to his place right now? And what if...anyway, the stories are sweet and never cynical.
[Dis]connected grew out of a group writing exercise, which each person wrote poems about connection or disconnection, and then each person wrote a story based on someone else’s poem. It has some poets that I like, including Nikita Gill and Amanda Lovelace. The stories range from great to so-so.
#vss365 also grew from a writing exercise: tweet-length stories based on various prompt words. One of them is mine.
Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood
Primo Levi, If Not Now, When?
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
The Joys of Motherhood is about the struggles of a Nigerian woman trying to keep herself and her children safe during WW2 and beyond. If Not Now, When? is based on partisan groups that did guerrilla warfare against the Nazis during WW2. It’s less wrenching than I’d expected; the narrative voice is surprisingly unemotional.
The Underground Railroad does an incredible job of merging allegory, alternate history, and the devastating realities of slavery. The characters escape on a literal underground railroad, which takes them to states that might have been. One has a soft-pedaled version of slavery, where Black people belong to the state but have some freedoms such as travel and paid employment. It seems safer than the plantation they fled, but there’s a sinister underside. In another state, the enslavers committed outright genocide against the Black population. I’d read another of Colson Whitehead’s books, The Intuitionist, where I don’t think I quite “got” the surreal parts. The Underground Railroad is original, and heartbreaking, and even the unreal parts speak a very clear truth.
Cross-posted at Daily Kos.