Friday, 31 December 2021

Favourite Books I've Read This Year


Talia Lavin: Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson: Talkin' up to the white woman: Indigenous women and feminism in Australia.
David Graeber and David Wengrow: The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity.
Amia Srinivasan: The Right to Sex.
Beth Macy: Dopesick.


Charlotte McConaghy: Once There Were Wolves.
Ellie Eaton: The Divines.
Emily Layden: All Girls.
Chris Harding Thornton: Pickard County Atlas.
Jung Yun: O Beautiful.
Lauren Groff: Matrix.
Sarah Langan: Good Neighbors.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Mexican Gothic.
Zen Cho: Black Water Sister.
Mira Grant: Into the Drowning Deep.
Alison Rumfitt: Tell Me I'm Worthless.
Patricia Lockwood: No One Is Talking About This.
Melissa Broder: Milk Fed.
Martha Wells: Murderbot Diaries. 
Stina Leicht: Persephone Station.
Becky Chambers: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within.
Becky Chambers: A Psalm for the Wild Built.
Arkady Martine: A Memory Called Empire / A Desolation Called Peace.
P. Djèlí Clark: A Master of Djinn. 
Tasha Suri: The Jasmine Throne. 
C.L. Clark: The Unbroken.
Shelley Parker-Chan: She Who Became the Sun.
Ryka Aoki: Light From Uncommon Stars.
Zoe Hana Mikuta: Gearbreakers.
Micaiah Johnson: The Space Between Worlds.
Rivers Solomon: An Unkindness of Ghosts. 
Rivers Solomon: Sorrowland.
Sara Flannery Murphy: Girl One.
Katie Heaney: Girl Crushed.
Morgan Rogers: Honey Girl.
Casey McQuiston: One Last Stop.
Britta Lundin: Like Other Girls.

Becky Chambers' The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is a triumph. It's maybe my favourite novel of 2021, after her previous To Be Taught, If Fortunate, could make the same claim in 2020. It's a novel that feels prescient, a gentle and careful story about a cast of non-human characters that find themselves stranded, temporarily, guests and hosts on a planet, finding meaning in each other, and consolation. It's the kind of novel that feels essential after this insane year, one that lights a way towards an idea of a better, more connected life, that embraces differences without pretending that they don't exist and still puts all the focus on empathy and caring. It's everything science fiction can be when it strives. 

Martha Wells' self-named Murderbot is an outstandingly compelling protagonist in her several novellas and Network Effect, the first full-length novel. It hates emotions and yet has so many of them. It has broken out of a slavery and torture and is loath to trust humans, and yet finds a human family that it has many of those emotions about. The novels are about found family, and what it takes to gain trust in relationships, but Wells also builds a complex universe in which capitalism in space is still the greatest evil (it also fits in perfectly with Elon Musk's brand-new idea of indentures servitude to make it to new galactic shores). In Stina Leicht's Persephone Station, the scarred veterans of an old conflict are reunited in a mission to support the original inhabitants of a planet that is about to be colonised by a greedy corporation, while an artificial intelligence in a human body discovers what it means to interact with humans and to navigate the politics of colonialism and resistance. Also, almost everyone is queer.

In Arkady Martine's Teixcalaan series, now comprising of the novels A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace, the titular empire considers itself humanity - the word for world is the city, an imperial language that makes it impossible to event think about Teixcalaan in any other terms. One of Martine's protagonists is Mahit Dzmare, from a station outside of empire, a station eager to maintain its own independence, who comes to the city she has always dreamed of and loved as an ambassador. Not unlike Baru, if with less direct violence and force, Mahit has spent her entire education on learning about the empire, but once arrived, she realises that regardless of how well she speaks the language of empire, she will never truly be able to achieve the fluency of those born into it - especially in a world that expresses everything in verse, and maintains its imperial memory through poems (Ortus Nigenand would be so happy, or maybe, considering the amount of competition, stressed). The two novels also navigate what it may mean to conserve memory through shared consciousness, as Mahit arrives in the imperial cities with the incomplete memories of her predecessor making themselves heard in her brain (again, not unlike Baru and Harrow, but maybe functionally more like a Trill, including the struggles of an incomplete integration). With a Teixcalaani attache, Mahit investigates the death of her predecessor, and stumbles across something that will change the future of both the empire and her station. The second novel contemplates what it would mean to make meaning not just out of small differences, but out of massive ones, and to find common ground without a shared language, purely through the power of the newly invented field of exolinguistics.  

This year also brings together three books that feel like they communicate with each other: Shelley Parker-Chan's She Who Became the Sun, Tasha Suri's The Jasmine Throne, and C.L. Clark's The Unbroken. All three are stories of empire, told from different perspectives - The Jasmine Throne and The Unbroken split between the ruler and an the rebellious resistance, She Who Became the Sun a breathtaking re-imagining of a historical figure who makes an unlikely rise to the centre of power. All three are unforgiving in showing the violence of rule, but their protagonists are what makes them outstanding.

The generation ship in An Unkindness of Ghosts has been travelling for 300 years, and the society onboard has dissolved into extreme class-stratification, driven by racism, excused by religious dogma. Rivers Solomon compelling hero Aster discovers her mothers research that could change the journey of the ship and topple the cruel regime that hurts the people she cares about. 

Solomon's new novel, Sorrowland, follows Vern, who escapes a cult to raise her twins by herself in the woods while her body transforms. Vern discovers that the cult she escaped - a black separatists commune that has created a community to escape racism, but have been undermined early on by the FBI, and used for medical research - has many dark secrets, as her body transforms and she finds a new family that helps her return and defeat the evil that lurks there. It's a novel about control, misogyny and transformation, with an absolutely riveting main character. 

In Ryka Aoki's Light From Uncommon Stars, a famous violinist had made a deal with the devil to deliver 7 talented students in exchange for fame and eternal life - but when she meets a young trans woman with incredible untapped talent, her willingness to sacrifice her wanes over time. She also befriends the owner of a local donut shop whose family is way more than they appear to be. This is a fantastic story that, when it cares deeply about music, reminded me weirdly of how Richard Powers writes about it in the great The Time of Our Singing and The Gold Bug Variations (Aoki writes just as poetically about food), mixed with the old literary concept of a deal with the devil and a background story about intergalactic refugees making a new home among non-galactic immigrants. A stunning novel written by a poet. 

It fits in with Sara Flannery Murphy's Girl One, which is about a group of women that teamed up with a non-sanctioned scientist to realise the possibility of parthenogenesis, but as Josie, one of the girls born without a father, begins investigating the disappearance of her mother, she realises that the contribution of the scientist was mainly patriarchy and greed, that the women themselves did the work but were never regonised for it, and have suffered terribly to prop up the ego of the great man. It's a thriller - a road movie, a romance, and a superhero story all in one. 

Ellie Eaton's The Divines is a portrait of an elitist, if not academically so, all-female boarding school and a catastrophe that happened then, that is slowly revealed as the narrator recounts her schooldays. Struggling with returning memories, Jo in adulthood discovers that her memories aren't as reliable as she thought, and that, like many teenagers, she failed to see herself from the perspective of others at the time. This does not veer into a wild, fantasy place of body horror like last year's Catherine House or the magnificent Wilder Girls by Rory Power, but it still maps the inherent horrors of teenage girls, but what they do to each other and what the world does to them. 
In Sarah Langan's Good Neighbors, teenage girls are the centre as well. In a suburban crescent in Long Island (which has been shown to be an easy target for evil preying on the intolerant and insecure in N.K. Jemisin's The City We Became), a hysterical panic breaks out among neighbours during an unprecedent heatwave, in which a literal abyss (a sinkhole) appears in their midst. The quaint neighbourhood begins showing its teeth, turning all of its terrible attention to what they perceive to be interlopers: The Wildes, a family that just does not fit in in term of class (and, unsaid here, race). Langan shows how the subtle horrors of suburbia (quashed ambitions, endless wine bottles in secret basement cupboards, marriages that should have ended decades ago) can turn into the very real horror of a bloodthirsty mob, and how the kids of the families become either complicit or very deliberately contrarian. The best surprise here is the Wildes - each of their individual voices, attempting to reason with the unreasonable and comprehend what is incomprehensible. 

I have spent a lot of time this year catching up with television I'd previously missed out on, like The Sinner and Hightown, and in addition to some newer shows - the adaptation of Dopesick (which adds fictional characters to the re-telling of Purdue's obsession with making Oxycontin into what it became), American Rust, even Midnight Mass to an extent, they all add up to a quilt of American small-town life. They are also, with the exception of the last, about crime and/or drugs and how they affect a limited cast of characters that represent a community. Right into this frame of mind, I read two novels - one, Pickard County Atlas, set in the 1970s, the other, O Beautiful, contemporary. They shouldn't match up in my mind and yet they do, because both would make television shows that fit right in with these other ones I'm watching - the first one follows different characters in a dying town as they are set on a collision course with each other, all of them burdened by past trauma. O Beautiful follows a journalist back to her home state of North Dakota to investigate how shale fracking has impacted a place that used to be small, and is now bursting at the seams with people looking for secure employment and a future in a town that no longer welcomes outsiders with open arms. 

Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic is a visually, imaginative tour de force through a haunted mansion and through the horrors of white colonialism. Morena-Garica finds a pitch-perfect metaphor: a fungus that lives underneath and in the walls of a Gothic mansion that an English mining dynasty has built in the forest far from urban centres, that grants a skewed and incestual eternal life to the patriarch, at the cost of the local workers and non-white women. The protagonist attempts to rescue her cousin from her marriage into this family, but she soon experiences the effects of this monstrous literal colonialism. 
In Mira Grant's Into the Drowning Deep, a vast cast of characters sets out to figure out if sirens exist, being fully aware that if they do, they pose a severe danger to every single crew member - and what they find is even more horrible, but also fascinating, than they expected. For some reason, this novel drew me in the same way that Caitlin Starling's The Luminous Dead did, in spite of the fact that they couldn't be more different in terms of setting - Starling's novel has two characters, Grant's has countless of varying levels of sympatheticness. Both are great, page-turning horror.

Patricia Lockwood's No One is Talking About This is very difficult to describe. It starts off as a stream-of-consciousness novel about stream-of-consciousness novels but during times of (unnamed) twitter, written by Miette's mother (so famous that one of her tweets appears in Tamsyn Muir's Harrow the Ninth, having survived millennia in the popcultural mind of its God). It then becomes something completely different in the second part, when the narrator's life is cut into two parts by a family tragedy. What does it mean to grief but also to still have trivial social network life happen in the background? What does it mean to have a before/after event in your life but still exist in the very same world that was there before? I cried throughout the second half of No One Is Talking About This
In Milk Fed, Melissa Broder writes about a young woman who has subsumed her entire life into an eating disorder, inherited from her mother, who begins to discover pleasure once she takes her psychologist's advice and breaks off contact with that overbearing mother. This is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but also very aptly portrays what it means to lead a joylessly regimented life only to find a whole world beyond it. 

Lauren Groff's Matrix! Beautiful novel about a headstrong young women sent to an impoverished abbey by Eleanor of Aquitaine, where she goes on to reform and build and write poetry that is mirrored in the poetry of the book itself. This is an alternative biography of a historical figure that is known for her major work and otherwise lost to history, which takes up a central part of the novel, but beyond that, it is one of the liveliest novel I've ever read. 

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers begins like a comedy of errors - 28-year-old Grace Porter wakes up in Las Vegas, slowly coming to the realisation that she has, uncharacteristically, gotten married to a stranger, a departure for the otherwise highly controlled and driven young woman who has a clear path in life she fears to deviate from. What follows is a surprise though - this is a love story, but no so much that of Grace falling in love with her newly minted wife, but about Grace, through therapy, discovering how to approach the wounds of her childhood and youth and how to learn to live in a way that doesn't lead to pain and suffering, as she has for the past 28 years of her life. Honey Girl is about therapy and self-realisation, and it's a beautiful, moving book with a great cast of characters. 
I didn't even start to read Young Adult Fiction until I was well out of that age group, but now that I do, I wish I had had access to these books earlier, they would have made me feel less alone and more connected during my school days. Katie Heaney's Girl Crushed is one of the best I've read: it's about the end of a relationship, and a main character who is desperate to prove that she is over that first big love, but finds that sometimes the lines aren't as clear, that sometimes going backwards is just as good as going forwards if it is for the right reasons. The novel also features two lesbian bookstore owners who add cultural references more close to my heart (do the kids still listen to Le Tigre and the best break-up song of all time, Sleater-Kinney's One More Hour? I hope so.).

Vox: The death of the job, August 24, 2021.

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