Nothing has brought me more comfort in my life as a good book, and almost nothing has brought me more joy than when someone enjoys a book I recommended to them.
In 2021, I read 101 books, and I’ve consistently read around ~22,000 pages for the last several years. Of course, this does not count the many times I read my own book as I went through rewrites and edits or the pleasure of reading my friend Max’s unpublished first novel.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many books you read in a year, only that you are reading and you are enjoying what you read. Goals help me. My primary goal was to read at least 40 books I’d had on the to-read shelves since 2020.
For my friends who struggle to read books:
Whatever reading assignment made you hate reading in school, don’t do that. You can stop reading a book at any time, say, “Not today, Satan,” and put the book in a free little library because it might be someone else’s cup of tea.
Can’t focus: try audiobooks. That’s reading too!
And perhaps, most importantly, carve out time for reading. I read before I sleep, and it helps me sleep better. But my favorite reading is stolen moments when I cannot put the book down, and I’m supposed to be doing something else (usually working or doing chores).
Now, for my reader readers, maybe we challenge ourselves with “assignment” reading. For me, it’s usually work-related or self-improvement or a worthwhile book, but the text is dense or the prose style different than we’re used to. Sometimes, I might take notes! Other times, it’s one chapter at a time, and then I can go back to reading cotton candy fun.
Especially since we’re still in this terrible pandemic, it’s perfectly acceptable to put a book down. Maybe it goes in the Did Not Finish pile to get rid of — or maybe you march it right out to your little library in front of your house (oh, hi, it’s me) — or maybe it goes on pause as you read something else for a while. A while can be a couple of days or six months.
Okay, let’s get to those books.
My Top 10 Books from 2021
1. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Genre: contemporary fiction
In his essay, “Smaller Than Life,” James Baldwin reviews a biography of Fredrick Douglass, and he argues that the book is terrible, not because it’s poorly written, but because it doesn’t show Douglass in all of his humanity with all his flaws. Thus, turning Douglass into a heroic representation of his race instead of a human with whom people can empathize, especially people who are not Black and especially white people. Baldwin argues that this heroification does an incredible disservice to Douglass and the project of racial equity.
I think about this essay a lot in terms of my writing and the types of books I’m drawn to, such as the book in question: Detransition, Baby. Baldwin’s assertion certainly applies to any minority group. The characters and situation in Detransition, Baby are messy. They don’t apologize to cishet people. They are very human, and none of them are or can be a heroification of a trans woman or the model of what it means to a woman. They just are.
There’s pain, sure. We live in a transphobic and homophobic world. But there’s also joy. Peters can make you sad/horrified one moment, spin it into joy, and then make you laugh so hard that you might pee your pants. She said she wrote this book to entertain her friends, and that intracommunity joy rolls off the page.
Anyone who says this book isn’t funny is cishet or too concerned about queer optics that they’ve missed out on life.
Roxane Gay used the word “indulgent” in her Detransition, Baby review. I keep thinking about how that may be a couple of the plot turns or how it just may be the unapologetic (and sometimes very wrong) and oh-so-human characters who are trans women. Does it feel like a luxury for a queer person to read a story like this?
2. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: middle reader near future fantasy
I cried and cried. I cried, imagining myself and my friends reading a book like this when we were children. I cried, thinking about the children who get to read books like this now. I cried about representation, and also the explanation of monsters and how we treat abuse victims, especially children, and how clearly Emezi breaks it down. I spent like 20 minutes crying after I finished Pet. (And this review aside, I am NOT a crier.)
You all should read this.
3. The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1) by S.A. Chakraborty
Genre: YA historical fantasy
The City of Brass is a great Middle Eastern Islamic fantasy full of adventure and djinn. I love a book that doesn’t give you all the mysteries explicitly laid out because I’m like Columbo over here.
Example: My partner Jacob is currently on the third book. He mentioned something about a gay romance in book two. My response (350 or so pages in), oh, I already figured that out.
My only minor criticism is that because she’s essentially the only woman, Nahri carries many burdens of being the only girl in the story.
These hot-headed dumb-dumbs could’ve solved their problems by talking to each other. But I think I kind of love it.
4. Homie by Danez Smith
Genre: contemporary poetry
I found myself setting Homie down after so many of the poems as the words hit me and the meanings and emotions unraveled. Smith reminded me why I love poetry and why you need to take time to digest it.
As someone who had friends die in our youth, their tributes hit the soft places, as did the celebration of their friends who are still alive.
5. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee
A beautiful collection of essays about life and writing: many left me thinking about my writing and all the things that have propelled and stopped me. But of course, my favorite one was “Rosary,” about the rose garden Chee planted and what it taught him.
6. Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, #2) by Ann Leckie
Genre: epic far future sci-fi
While I gave the first book four stars, you should read both. They are both outstanding, and another set of books where I put on my Sherlock tweed and got after the mystery. Set in a distant future in space, Leckie uncovers imperialism, what it means to be human, and who is human in this series.
Toward the end of Ancillary Sword, the MC Breq talks about how can you determine who deserves food, shelter, and clean air, after another character is racist/classist concerning a group of people. Breq then asks that character if her neighbors know what she says about them.
7. Voices (Annals of the Western Shore, #2) by Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: YA historical fantasy
Voices is so great and comforting a YA fantasy about a magical book room in a land where reading is banned. If I were a teacher, I’d have my students read this instead of Fahrenheit 451 because of its broader message about peace and conflict, in addition to not burning books. Plus, it features a beautiful adoptive father-daughter relationship, along with other adult-teen mentorship moments that will warm your heart.
8. Die, Vol. 4: Bleed by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans
Genre: contemporary fantasy graphic novel
You should read the entire series, not only this final volume. Die features a group of friends who were trapped inside their D&D game as teenagers. Most of them escape, but now in their late 30s/early 40s, they’re sucked back in. Gillen and Hans nail this series ending. As an adult in that age group, the penultimate Issue #19, where Ash finally talks about their gender, made me cry a lot.
9. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Genre: historical horror fantasy (1950s Mexico)
I loved the character of Noemí who’s growth arc is both to believe in herself and be the hero as she sent to help her cousin, who’s seemingly trapped in a sudden and new marriage. Noemí’s softness and curiosity are her superpowers, which are rare in this genre. I found parts of Mexican Gothic horrifying, and also, I love plants, so the fantastical element was right in my interests.
10. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner
Genre: non-fiction LGBTQ+ studies
As someone whose bisexual identity has been erased, ignored, or assumed as straight too many times to count in my life, Eisner put words and arguments to biphobia and monosexism in ways I hadn’t considered or seen before. They also lay out where our intersectional work needs to improve and go from “I exist” to using bisexuality as a political tool.
If I have one criticism, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution is overwritten. But I appreciate Eisner’s careful work with language and why they did so. This need is highlighted in the many one-star reviews by lesbians mad about Eisner calling out lesbian biphobia even though Eisner repeatedly states that most biphobia comes from straight people.
As a messy bisexual, I’m ready for the revolution.
Other 5-Star Reads:
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado
Genre: short stories horror
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
Genre: historical fiction (Antebellum south)
Monstress, Vol. 6: The Vow by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda
Genre: fantasy graphic novel
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Genre: historical fiction (post-WWII England)
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
Genre: contemporary f/f Romance
Bath Haus by P.J. Vernon
Genre: contemporary thriller
The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz
Genre: time travel speculative fiction (set far past, 1890s, 1990s, and contemporary)
Lost On Planet Earth by Magdalene Visaggio and Claudia Aguirre
Genre: far-future sci-fi graphic novel
Lazarus: Risen #6 by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark
Genre: near-future dystopian speculative graphic novel
Oh Joy Sex Toy, Vol. 3 by Erika Moen
Genre: sex education graphic novel
Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen
Genre: LGBTQ+ studies
Query Craft: The Writer-in-the-Know Guide to Getting Your Manuscript Requested by Angie Hodapp
Genre: how-to writing
Special mentions (yes, both are kinky erotica):
A reread: Yes, Roya by C. Spike Trotman and EA Denich
Genre: historical fiction (US 1960s) m/m/f kinky erotic graphic novel
I loved this so much that when Trotman and Denich decided to publish it in color (the original art was black and white), I bought a second copy and reread it. It’s about a young man who wants to be a cartoonist, and he finds more than he bargained for when he goes to meet his cartooning hero.
A 4-star rating I cannot get out of my head: The Leather Daddy and the Femme by Carol Queen
Genre: short stories fictional erotica
Hot kinky queer erotica with plenty of gender fuckery and 1990s San Francisco from a famous sexologist. I don’t know why I hadn’t read The Leather Daddy and the Femme, given it’s been on my to-read shelf for an embarrassingly long time.
Some of the language around trans people is outdated, given when it was written. (Though all trans people are treated with the same love, respect, and desire as the cis characters.) Only one story was a complete no (hence four stars), which is a much better track record than most collections.
All the characters felt fully realized, and identity is an active conversation within sexual desire, which is interesting considering this is really about self-exploration through sex, and the sex is the point. As a writer, I admire Queen a lot for what she’s written here, and as a reader, I want more erotica like this.
Here’s to 2022 for even more great books!