This year I read 97 books, a personal best. 50 of them were for the Popsugar Reading Challenge, a sort of literary scavenger hunt where the object is to read a book in each of 50 categories (a book by a Latinx author, a Hugo Award winner, a book with a tiger on the cover or in the title, a social-horror story, etc., etc.) I wrote short reviews of those 50, linked below.
James Baldwin, Another Country
Charles Chestnutt, Conjure Tales and Stories From the Color Line
Wilkie Collins, Basil
Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
Jack London, The Scarlet Plague
Vladimir Nabokov, Ada
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
This year I checked out some of the lesser-known books from famous authors. Nabokov’s Ada is possibly an even weirder book than Lolita, though at least the adolescent sex is consensual in this one. It’s about a lifelong affair between “cousins” who are actually siblings, and it’s set in an alternate-history earth where technology & politics went in a different direction. Wilkie Collins is best known for mysteries, but Basil is more of a melodrama, down to the final life-and-death struggle. The Scarlet Plague is a brief novella by Jack London about a pandemic that drives everyone back to primitive living. Baldwin’s Another Country is hard to summarize: there are multiple love affairs, some crossing then-taboo lines around race and/or gender.
I hadn’t read Charles Chestnutt before, and I really loved this short story collection. Set in the Reconstruction era, the “conjure tales” are told by a Black servant to his Yankee employers, always with a point aimed at getting something he wants from the boss. The “tales from the color line” are about the gray area where mixed-race people existed in that era, some trying to climb the racial hierarchy by leaving their Black families behind.
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
Nalo Hopkinson & Uppinder Mehan, Eds., So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy
Maggie Shen King, An Excess Male
Ursula K. LeGuin, Always Coming Home
Jamie Marchant, The Kronicles of Korthlundia series: The Goddess’s Choice, The Soul Stone, The Shattered Throne, and The Ghost in Exile
Janet Morris and Chris Morris, Eds., Lawyers in Hell
Kit Rocha, Deal with the Devil and The Devil You Know
Catherynne M. Valente, Space Opera
My favorite SF/fantasy books this year were An Excess Male and Space Opera. An Excess Male imagines a near-future China where the gender imbalance is addressed by allowing women to take multiple husbands. The story is told from 4 points of view: the first husband who’s still treated as the “head of household,” the autistic second husband who’s never felt he fit in, the man who’s desperately trying to become the third husband, and the woman who yearns for a love she’s never had.
Space Opera is a hilarious book in which Earth is contacted by aliens who are trying to determine if Earthlings are a sentient species. To prove their worthiness, earth’s representatives — a washed-up glamrock group — must participate in a Eurovision-like music contest. And from there it gets really weird.
Deal With the Devil and The Devil You Know are the first two books in Kit Rocha’s Mercenary Librarians series. In a post-apocalyptic world, the Librarians help build a community where they distribute books, food, and other resources, in the shadow of the all-powerful TechCorps. Each book concentrates on a different badass librarian and her mercenary lover.
The Gods Themselves and The Man in the High Castle are both SF classics. The Gods Themselves is about a cheap source of energy that’s eventually going to destroy the world, but nobody wants to hear that part. The Man in the High Castle is about an alternate world where the Nazis won WWII. Both books hit a little different in the current political climate.
Always Coming Home is the book every SF/fantasy writer wants to write: 500 pages of almost nothing but world building.
Casey McQuiston, I Kissed Shara Wheeler
Casey McQuiston, One Last Stop
Casey McQuiston, Red, White & Royal Blue
Courtney Milan, Hold Me
Can you tell I discovered Casey McQuiston this year? Her books are queer romances with wonderfully improbable premises. A closeted British prince falls for the son of the first female US President (RW&RB, the single most fun book I read this year). A lesbian becomes an accidental time traveler permanently stuck on the NYC subway (OLS). The too-perfect girl at a Jesus-y school kisses her female rival and disappears, leaving a series of puzzling notes as clues to find her (IKSW). Courtney Milan’s Hold Me is also a queer romance: it’s the You’ve Got Mail trope with a trans heroine. (Refreshingly, her being trans is not the issue/conflict between her and the hero; he’s pansexual.)
Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades
A. E. Osworth, We Are Watching Eliza Bright
The Shortest Way to Hades is a fun comedy-mystery from Caudwell’s Hillary Tamar series, with an assortment of clueless attorneys. We Are Watching Eliza Bright is a thriller apparently inspired by g*merg*te: a game designer’s complaint about sexism snowballs into her being harassed, fired, doxxed, and stalked. The book has a really well-done “Greek chorus” unreliable-narrator voice that was brilliantly spot on.
Young Adult/Middle Grade:
Elizabeth Acevedo, Clap When You Land
Jeff Ayers, Skate the Thief
Leigh Bardugo, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom
Eoin Colfer, The Fowl Twins series: The Fowl Twins, The Fowl Twins Deny All Charges, and The Fowl Twins Get What They Deserve
April Daniels, Sovreign
Carl Hiassen, Hoot
Lillie Lainoff, One for All
C. B. Lee, Not Your Villain and Not Your Backup
Rick Riordan, The Battle of the Labyrinth and The Last Olympian
Catching up on the later books in some series here. If by some mischance you haven’t read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, start with The Lightning Thief. The Fowl Twins series is the follow-up to the Artemis Fowl books. Myles is a lot like Artemis; Beckett is...weird. There’s a lot of gross-out humor in each book.
C.B. Lee’s Sidekick Squad books are set in a world where the Heroes’ League of Heroes is not all it seems. Each book features a different man character, all of them queer and most POC. Start with Not Your Sidekick. April Daniels’s Sovreign is the sequel to Dreadnought, a superhero story with a trans heroine. As in Lee’s books, the superheroes’ league has a definite dark side.
Six of Crows is a wonderful heist story set in a world where magic has suddenly become a lot more dangerous. Skate the Thief is another great fantasy story, about a child caught between the criminal syndicate that saved her, and the wizard she’s supposed to be robbing. One for All is about a secret academy for female Musketeers; like the author, the main character has a condition that gives her sudden dizzy spells.
Clap When You Land is a novel in verse, about two half-sisters, one in NYC and one in the Dominican Republic, who discover each other’s existence when their father dies in a plane crash.
Louise Erdrich, The Sentence
Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson, Eds., Nothing Without Us
Joseph Guzzo, Mousetrap Inc.
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
Alice Randall, The Wind Done Gone
Vaddey Ratner, Music of the Ghosts
Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys
Some of Colson Whitehead’s books (The Intuitionist, The Underground Railroad) venture into the surreal. The Nickel Boys is firmly grounded in reality, and it will break your heart. It’s based on a true story about a “reform school” with a secret graveyard. Even knowing this, I was unprepared for the devastating final chapter.
The Wind Done Gone is a parody of Gone With the Wind, from the point of view of Mammy’s daughter — Scarlett’s secret half-sister.
Music of the Ghosts is about a Cambodian refugee who fled as a child during the Khmer Rouge, then returns decades later to find out what really happened when her father disappeared.
Nothing Without Us is a short story collection by and about disabled people. The stories are funny and serious, SF/fantasy and real-world, but all of them have disabled characters as the stars, not the “inspirational” sidekicks. A particular favorite was "Search and Seizure," by Shannon Barnsley, about a ghost haunting the doctor who told her that her symptoms were all in her head.
The Sentence is set in a Native American bookstore, where the most annoying customer has died and is now haunting the store. Set in Minneapolis in 2020, it really conveys the feel of the early pandemic era, and the George Floyd/BLM protests as well.