In 2021, I read a total of 40 books (thus far) — which is the lowest amount of books completed in a single year in about a decade. Over the past two years in particular, I’ve found it harder to focus on reading and have turned to other forms of media to fill in my entertainment needs.
However, in reading less books per year, I’ve found that the quality of books has gone up. I’ve enjoyed or outright loved the majority of books that I’ve read, which has been a blessing — and has also made it difficult to narrow this list.
Note that the books listed here are not necessarily objectively the best, but they are the books I personally enjoyed or connected with throughout 2021.
Network Effect and Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells
Basically, I could list the entire Murderbot Diaries among my favorite books for the year, since I read all six books (most of which are novellas) and then reread many of my favorite scenes throughout various points of the year. The series follows the adventures of a socially awkward android Sec Unit named Murderbot, who only wants to sit back and watch serial dramas, but often finds itself saving humans from doing stupid things that could get them killed.
Network Effect, the fifth book and the first full length novel in the series, Murderbot is hired on to protect a research mission. After a dangerous encounter on another planet, they are suddenly attacked by a strange ship and dragged through a wormhole, forcing Murderbot to fight to keep it’s humans safe against insurmountable odds. This is an a beautiful, action packed novel that brings back beloved characters and introduces new ones.
Fugitive Telemetry is the sixth book, but chronologically falls in between the fourth and fifth books in the series. When a dead body is found on Preservation Station, Murderbot is tasked with collaborating with station security (who are not at all comfortable with its presence) to discover the truth of what happened. The detective murder mystery elements of this book make it a fun, intriguing addition to the series.
One of the things that strikes me about all of the books in The Murderbot Diaries is their sense of humanity. For all the threats presented from evil corporations and other deadly dangers, the heart of these stories are its characters, both human and bot, who are flawed and imperfect, but nevertheless care and love each other, offering compassion and understanding for each other’s differences and weaknesses. They’re smart and clever and they work together to solve the problems they all face. It’s the kind of story that gives me hope for humanity.
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
The Book of Accidents begins with a typical horror movie trope. A family moving to a small town to get away from the violence of the big city — only to quickly experience strange, disturbing events in their new home town. I love the dynamics between the family members, how they are actively working on being compassionate toward one another, and yet still occasionally failing to fully communicate and connect with each other. It feels very real and very human.
I also love the ways in which Wendig plays with various horror tropes throughout the book, from local legends and creepy mines to strange rock formations, ghosts, and other classic horror faire. And yet, somehow, he manages to bring all these elements together and tie them up into a single cohesive whole. It’s fantastic.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
A heavily pregnant Vern escapes from a religious compound and disappears into the woods, where she gives birth to twins. For a while she lives wild, raising her children as she pleases, despite the knowledge that they are being hunted. As time passes, Vern begins to grow in strength, experiencing a physical transformation she doesn’t understand.
Sorrowland was described to me as gothic horror, though considering the extent of Vern’s physical changes, it could almost be described as body horror. However, this is a transformation that is both unsettling and beautiful. Vern grows as a person and learns to claim her own identity and space in the world, finding pleasure in her transformation. The love she has for her children and they for her is also wonderful, complex, and beautiful. As she finds other people who challenge and care for her, Vern’s family grows in profound ways. For all the dark, terrible, and terrifying things that happen to Vern, this story carries with it such a powerful light of hope.
The Route of Ice & Salt by José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles
Presenting a loose retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Route of Ice & Salt is told through the journals of the ship captain who has been tasked with shipping the crates of soil (and unknowingly Dracula himself) from Transylvania to England. Along the way, the captain wrestles with his own desires as deadly misfortune begins to befall the crew. The captain is a fascinating character, who must keep his true self secret in order to maintain his safe position in the world. This novella is beautiful written, vibrantly erotic, and deeply unsettling.
Goddess of Filth by V. Castro
A group of young women perform a play seance, laughing and drinking through the proceedings — until their friend Fernanda suddenly begins chanting in Nahuatl and behaving in a disturbing manner that seems to be possessed. The next day, the friend try to pretend it didn’t happen, or that it was all just a joke. Except, Fernanda continues to act strangely, “smearing herself in black makeup, shredding her hands on rose thorns, sucking sin out of the mouths of the guilty.”
I I love the way these five friends are wonderful to each other, providing support and care in the best ways that they know how. Another aspect I love is that Fernanda’s possession is not an assault, but more symbiotic. The goddess within her offers wisdom and strength, and Fernanda begins to change by finding the strength and confidence to act according to her own desires — and when her friends realize that what’s happening, they work to help her in any way they can.
Circe by Madeline Miller
From page one, I was immediately immersed in this feminist take on the ancient Greek myth of Circe, the powerful witch who holds Odysseys captive for a number of years. Millers portrayal of the mythological worlds of Ancient Greek gods and goddesses with all their politics and family drama is wonderfully evocative, illuminating the sense of magic and power that Circe and the other gods hold. Some of the gods feel alien and dangerous in how disconnected they are from mortals, while Circe has an inherent sense of humanity in her longing to feel connected with them. I loved the ways in which Miller weaved various classical stories and tales into the novel, and I especially enjoyed her feminist take, which presents a more complex view of a powerful woman.
Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez
This gorgeous children’s book features stunning illustrations combined with a charming tale of a young girl who discovers her drawings have the power to come alive — a power that draws a creature hungry for her power.
No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay
I wrote an entire review on No Matter the Wreckage and how it was the perfect book at the time I read it. The poetry in this collection is clean and stunningly beautiful, providing an portrayal of humanity that went straight to my heart. These poems celebrate love, family, travel, and so much more. This is a book that made me want to sit and ponder the beauty of the world. That made me want to become a better writer. That provided me with a sense of hope for the world and its future.
“I tell them, Listen. Listen to one another like you know
you are scholars. Artists. Scientists. Athletes. Musicians.
Like you know you will be the ones to shape the world.
Show me how many colors you know how to draw with.
Show me how proud you are of what you’ve learned.
And I promise I will do the same.”
— from “Mrs. Ribeiro”, No Matter the Wreckage
The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy
The Octopus Museum envisions a future in which cephalopods have taken over the world. The museum of note is not a museum of cephalopod history, but of human history, a record of our present moment interpreted by strange new rulers. Each poem in this collection is beautifully, richly contextualized, presenting a vibrant capsule of the human experience, like a carefully curated museum exhibit. This is a powerful and stunning collection.
“And there will be no other way to be, once this way’s gone. The last song on earth, the last jellybean. Last because nobody wanted it, or everybody sang it, till the end.
Once this day in November’s over never another. Each day nothing like the last except that it’s the last and that’s new too.
Each moment broken glasses, a covered mirror, foxed. The waste stays in place. The rest disappears. The unrest, too.”
— From “No Traveler Returns,” The Octopus Museum
Field Guide to Invasive Species of Minnesota by Amelia Gorman
This gorgeous chapbook explores the ecological dangers of Climate Change and the emotional impacts of human nature. These poems flirt with the speculative, presenting a near future that feels nurtured by the here and now, offering visions of what could be while feeling anchored in what has been. The pairing of botanical illustrations with these lush poems is the kind of book I love to have and hold in its physical form, so that I can flip through its beautiful pages.
“After the acidification of 2044 C.E.
there was still no fathoming the waters.
Cloudy life, algae, fading secchi discs,
bottomless from us
deeper than the Foshay,
the Witch’s Hat, or the Stepped Tower.
Out of that endless hole they came,
escaping the clarity that was death
for want of oxygen.”
— from “Trapdoor Snail”, Field Guide to Invasive Species of Minnesota
A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum
A Camera Obscura is a lyrical exploration of external and internal worlds. The heavens described in these poems could be the stars glittering above our heads, the pathways of faith, or the connection between human beings. Playing with scientific understandings of the world combined with the linguistic conventions of the poetic form, A Camera Obscura is a compelling journey that simultaneously drifts through the cosmos while being rooted to the ground beneath our feet. I was fortunately to have interviewed Marcum for the New Books in Poetry podcast, the episode for which will be coming out soon. You can learn more about Marcum and his work in this New Books in Poetry podcast interview.
“When the sun rose it was smaller
than in my dream. I had been asleep
for what felt a long time, and woke
confused and claustrophobic.
The texture of the sky still magnetized me,
a desert bright day. But the light is streaked
like too much everything pulled to the edges
of a window in storm.”
— from “A Science Fiction”, A Camera Obscura
And the Whale by Sonya Vatomsky
And the Whale by Sonya Vatomsky (Paper Nautilus) is a gorgeous chapbook, filled with powerful poems that weave mythology and Russian folklore into an exploration of love, sex, grief, and trauma.
I was personally in love with the persona of the Widow, a figure who features in several of these poems and whose words examine the shadows of the past. You can learn more about Vatomsky and her work in this spotlight interview.
“They didn’t tell me where the funeral was but I know it’s everywhere, so I brew tea the Russian way my mother taught me — strength necessitates dilution. There is always tea and there are always lemons. Consistency is a little gift. That’s the German word for poison, you know, and I’m anticipating my own blue lips because it’s me who was the goth all these years wasn’t it?”
— from “The Widow Tells an Anecdote”, And the Whale
The Sign of the Dragon by Mary Soon Lee
First place winner of the 2021 Elgin Award, The Sign of the Dragon relates an epic fantasy about a young king who must to defend his kingdom against a number of outside forces, both human and terrifyingly otherworldly. King Xau is a wonderfully mythic figure, one of honor, nobility, and subtle magic — evoking the same magical quality of Arthurian legends, but from a fictional Chinese perspective. The language is lyrical and light, drawing the reader into the intimacy of the tale.
“Who saw them raft over the river,
three hours before daybreak?
Who saw their half-dark lanterns
glimmer on helmut and sheild?
The heron in the reeds;
the crane startled to air.”
— from “Crossing”, The Sign of the Dragon
Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power by Pam Grossman
Part memoir, part historical and cultural analysis, Waking the Witch examines the concept of witches and witchcraft throughout the ages, from inquisitors hunting down supposed witching across Europe to how witches are portrayed in media, to the witchy ways in which some artists engage with their work. It’s a fascinating exploration — one that makes me want to dive deeper into some of the art, history, and cultural subjects that Grossman discusses.