2021 Roundup: Books That I Loved
Time has been strange for some time now. There’s a joke I’ve seen online, the gist of which is:
“How can it be 2022? I still haven’t finished processing 2020!”
Which, well, yes. Very much yes.
Nevertheless, we’re already almost in the middle of the first month of the new year. 2021 was strange and hard, but there were spots of light, too, and among those spots of light were books and stories. Here are some books that I loved.
Novels and Collections
The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
This was the first book I finished in 2021. If you don’t know Ken Liu’s work yet, you should fix that immediately; I think he is one of the most important writers working today, both in and out of speculative fiction. The Hidden Girls is his second collection of short stories, and a worthy follow-up to his first. Here are mind-bending far-future science fiction stories, equally mind-bending fantasy (with elements of sci-fi), and tender stories of family. The opening story, “Ghost Days,” is a poignant story of migration, adaptation, change, loss, and memory that spans a time period from 1905 Hong Kong to a far, far future on a distant planet where biologically-modified children struggle to understand the Earth history their unmodified elders try to teach. “Maxwell’s Demon” is a stunning, brutal piece that ranks with Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” in its complicated, ambitious and, yes, brave look at the horrors of war and the humans behind it. Some of my other favorites are “Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard” and “The Hidden Girl”—both wildly original fantasy adventures that combine science fiction elements with classic Chinese fantasy tropes and inspirations in surprising ways. A characteristically brilliant, thought-provoking collection by one of the field’s masters.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
A National Book Award Winner, this book merits the buzz. It’s delightfully inventive and meta, a Hollywood satire told in the form of a Hollywood screenplay, starring Willis Wu, a Taiwanese-American actor who is struggling to ascend the only acting ladder that has been allowed for him—from Generic Asian Man to Kung Fu Guy. This book is frequently laugh-out loud funny, a hilariously sharp sendup of Hollywood and the stereotypes and barriers Willis Wu must navigate. . . but it’s also deeply moving in its portrayal of family and community, of the silences and complexities therein, and of both the dreams and losses that occur during the immigrant experience.
A Sinister Quartet, stories by Mike Allen, C.S.E Cooney, Amanda J. McGee, Jessica P. Wick
A wonderful quartet of fantasy/horror novellas.
“The Twice-Drowned Saint” by C.S.E Cooney
This is actually technically a short novel, and it’s one bursting with wild, fantastical world-building and emotion, lit with the pyrotechnics of Cooney’s prose. In the city of Gelethel, terrible angels rule and demand human sacrifice. But one marginalized angel, who has the ability “to spontaneously produce eyeballs whenever and wherever he fancied” (though never more than eleven at a time) is different. And this angel and his secret saint, the woman who runs the Quicksilver Cinema movie palace, will (along with a second saint) change the city of Gelethel forever. A rollicking adventure that is by turns joyous, funny, horrifying, moving, and tender.
“An Unkindness” by Jessica Wick
A sister determined to rescue her brother from the Faeries. A graceful and witty reworking of old fairy tales, woven into something new and both lovely and sinister.
“Viridian” by Amanda J. McGee
A modern-day Bluebeard retelling. This starts off deceptively quiet, in a moving realist-mode, as we meet a lonely woman grieving the loss of her sister. But from the beginning there are notes of foreboding, and the tension ratchets up steadily. A gracefully told tale that explodes into full-blown horror and then a satisfying, cathartic ending.
“The Comforter” by Mike Allen
The third in a series of horror tales that began with the Nebula award-nominated “The Button Bin” and continued with “The Quiltmaker.” Although “The Comforter” picks up the narrative where “The Quiltmaker” left off, and features characters from that previous work, this story also works as a stand-alone novella. It is epically weird, a wild cosmic horror fantasia about dark forces possessing the bodies and minds of a town’s people. Rich in body horror, this tale is perhaps not for the squeamish but oh, Allen is good at evoking dread and absolutely bizarre, grotesque, and vivid images.
Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise
A fabulously dark and gorgeous reimagining of the Peter Pan story, one that goes to surprising places. My full review here
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
An absolutely brilliant and thrilling fantasy retelling of the founding of the Ming Dynasty. . . where the future emperor is a nameless peasant girl who steals her dead brother’s identity, makes her way into a monastery, and rises from repeated tragedy to scheme and plot her way to the heights of power. This book is epic, sweeping, and intimate all at once; once I started it, I couldn’t stop. If you love anti-heroes, this book has them in spades; if you love schemes and betrayals, this is for you. This book is filled with ruthless, scheming, very morally dubious characters driven by intense emotions and backstory and I am in love with them all. The book jacket cites epic East Asian historical television dramas as an inspiration for this novel, and that is EXACTLY the vibe.
Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated into English by Jeremy Tiang
Sorrowful beasts are gentle by nature, and prefer the cold and dark. They love cauliflower and mung beans, vanilla ice cream and tangerine pudding. They fear trains, bitter gourd, and satellite TV.
A book that bent my mind in all the best ways. In the city of Yong’an, a multitude of strange beasts live side by side with humans. The narrator of this tale once studied these beasts as a zoology student; now she writes romance novels. But she’s still known for her expertise in beasts in some circles, and people come to her with their beastly tales and for help. The narrator is drawn into one beastly mystery and then another, seemingly disparate tales connecting. Each chapter is structured as a separate story showcasing a different species of beast, yet slowly the pieces come together as a whole. The entire book is deliciously strange, filled with surprise and mystery, humor and melancholy, and sudden shocks of horror. One of the best things I read in 2021.
Six Dreams About the Train and Other Stories by Maria Haskins
I’ve been following Haskins’ work for years now, and was delighted to see her come out with her first collection of short stories this year. Collected here are stories of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and stories that cross and blend genres. There are deep-diving punks working on Enceladus and Ceres, in the far reaches of our solar system, mining resources for the Company. . . who return to Earth and discover that Earth’s deep seas may hold the greatest danger yet. There’s an alternate history alien invasion story; flat-out horror; whimsical humor; Very Good Dogs, and delicate, exquisitely wrought fairy tales. There are stories that blend horror and wonder, beauty and tenderness, and Haskins’ gorgeous prose lights all of it. Some of my favorite stories were the haunting opening flash piece, “When Mama Calls”; the absolutely exquisite “Hare’s Breath”; the wonderfully dark and surprising “The Brightest Lights of Heaven” with its twists and turns and depiction of childhood friendship and fantasy; and “Cleaver, Meat, and Block” an intense and horrifying zombie-plague story as you’ve never seen before. Two stories, “And You Shall Sing Me a Deeper Song” and “Blackdog” are original to this collection, and both are wonderful. Something special about Haskins’ work is the tenderness at the heart of each of her stories, a generosity and complexity that’s there even in the midst of the greatest darkness and horror.
The Shadow Book by Ji Yun, translated by Yi Izzy Yu and John Yu Branscum
There are books that bend my brain. And there are books that bend and twist and seem to reshape my brain into entirely new patterns. The Shadow Book by Ji Yun is one of those.
The eighteenth-century Chinese writer Ji Yun was a writer, poet, leading intellectual, Imperial Librarian, Special Advisor to the Emperor, Head of the Department of War, and holder of other grand titles. He was also a collector of strange tales. At the age of sixty-five he began publishing them—eventually publishing over 1200 stories over five volumes. Yi Izzy Yu and John Yu Branscum have edited and translated a selection of these for The Shadow Book. Here are vampires, fox spirits, a white fungus spirit defeated by poetry, and a child’s toy that comes to life. There are cannibal villages, prophetic poems, a broom that steals flowers, and an encounter with wild mountain men. Ghosts in need of passports, transmigrating souls, love stories and debts owed across lifetimes, and more. These are zhiguai—a Chinese genre of strange tales—similar to what’s found in Pu Songling’s classic Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, but darker and more unsettling, with philosophical commentary and musing essays. Ji Yun’s tales have an altogether different voice from the prettiness of Pu Songling’s literary tales. The stories of The Shadow Book are plain weirder, more disturbing; they read not as polished, constructed literary fictions, but as missives straight from an alternate shadow realm, brought to us from witnesses there. And indeed, the premise of these stories is that they are all true: they are strange accounts that Ji Yun witnessed himself, or “true stories” related to him by friends and family or friends of his friends. They’re an eruption of strangeness into our ordinary world; they are profoundly unsettling. And they are a marvelous gift to us, brought to us English-speakers across the centuries and from another language by a pair of generous translators and scholars.
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
The classic memoir of one family’s experiences in China through Japanese occupation, the start of the Communist revolution, the utter madness of the Cultural Revolution, and beyond. More of my thoughts here
Tortured Willows: Bent, Bowed, Unbroken, poetry by Lee Murray, Geneve Flynn, Christina Sng and Angela Yuriko Smith
Books in progress
Some collections I bought in 2021, which I am still slowly working my way through, savoring the stories one by one.
Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap
The Ghost Sequences by A.C. Wise
The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: Volume 2, edited by Paula Guran