The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2021

It is December 30, and Adrian Tchaikovsky is just going to have to wait until next year if I happen to really love the book of his that I’m starting today. This is an interesting list to me for several reasons; several of these books are very much of the “I loved this but you really might not” type, as holy shit that was weird and awesome seems to have been a common thread for a lot of the books I really liked this year. Also, a handful of them weren’t on my shortlist, meaning that after I did my first pass on that I thought “Hey, where was book X?” and realized that at the time I read it I didn’t think it was going to be good enough to make the list at the end of the year and then it did a really good job of sticking around in my head. I read so many books that books I read early in the year are at a serious disadvantage, so it’s always neat when one creeps up on me.

Also, as I’m writing this right now I still don’t know what the #1 book is going to be, which is a sign of just how much I loved both of them. Don’t pay a ton of attention to the specific rankings until the top five or so, as usual, because if I put the list together tomorrow they might shift around a little bit.

As always, “new” means “new to me,” so although there are a number of 2021 releases on here and none of them are really old books, being read in 2021 was the requirement for inclusion, not being released.

Here are the lists from previous years:

And here we goooooooooooooo…

15. Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho. I have read several of Zen Cho’s books but I am pretty sure this is the first time she has appeared on this list; it’s the story of a Malaysian-American girl whose family returns to Malaysia after a series of financial setbacks and who immediately starts being visited by the ghost of her grandmother. While calling it autobiographical doesn’t really make any sense, as I’m pretty certain Zen Cho hasn’t experienced any ancestral hauntings, it’s clear that she’s drawing on her own experiences as a child of immigrants in this book, and as a result it feels more personal and intimate than a lot of her other work has. The supernatural influences don’t stop with the grandmother; Malaysian religion and Malaysian gods and an interesting (at least to me) take on Christianity are also a big part of the book, and there are enough twists and turns over the course of the narrative to keep the pages turning. Jess herself is a bit of an asshole, but having had some time to marinate on it I think it makes her feel more real. This is Cho’s best book by a decent margin, and she was already someone whose books were on my “buy automatically” list, so just start adding everything I talk about to your TBR right now.

14. The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi. So, uh, spoiler alert: Vivek Oji dies in this book. The title? Not a joke.

Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi is a superb talent, and Death is a title that is a little difficult to talk about without spoiling plot details, as, well, you kinda already know Vivek is gone at the beginning of the book and so learning about what happened is the whole point. I don’t know that this is quite a mystery story except in the broadest possible outlines; it’s more of a story about a tragedy that happens to a family than anything else, and of Emezi’s three books that I’ve read (the other two being Freshwater and Pet) this is the most assured and emotional their writing has ever been. The book jumps around in time, telling the story of Vivek’s life as well as his death, and it’s yet another piece of evidence for my oft-repeated statements that if you like to read and you’re not regularly picking up books by Nigerian authors you are seriously missing out.

13. Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn. This is the first book on the list that I would likely not have read were it not for #readaroundtheworld, and in fact I found it by sending a message to a friend of mine from high school who lives in Hawai’i now and asking her to recommend some books by native Hawaiian authors. This is another family story (another theme this year, as I look through the rest of the books) that starts when a seven year old boy falls off a boat and nearly drowns and is rescued by … sharks. Which, y’know, isn’t exactly typical. Then a friend blows part of his hand off with fireworks and the boy is able to heal him. Which, yeah, also not typical, and the narrative blasts off from there.

Most of the family members– three children and a mom, with Dad popping in for a chapter or two here and there– are point-of-view characters for some part of the narrative or another, as they go through their lives and move back and forth between the island and the mainland. This is a book about the weight of family expectations, and what happens to you when The Future is always something you thought you understood until it arrived differently than you expected.

12. You Sexy Thing, by Cat Rambo. Getting sent books for review consideration has developed into a thing that happens four or five times a year now, and while I got sent early copies of two of the books on this list, I don’t know that this book would have gotten onto my radar had I not had it sent to me for free. So it’s great that it was, because the book is awesome.

This is a book where describing the setting, and assuring you that the book lives up to the setting, should be sufficient to get you to read it. The copy on the back cover describes the book as “Great British Baking Show meets Farscape,” and that is perfectly sufficient in and of itself to get me to hand over my money. The characters are all (well, mostly) members of a military unit who have retired and opened a restaurant, and as the book opens they are eagerly anticipating a visit from a food critic who has the power to award them something called a Nikkelin Orb, and … yeah, at that point I was already in, and that’s before it’s revealed that the title of the book is the name of an intelligent bioship that the characters (sort of) steal, or things like the team’s explosives expert being a chimpanzee who only communicates via sign language, or the four-armed, eight-foot-tall head chef, or the hypersexual floating squid who also makes up part of the crew. With a setting and characters like this you barely need a story, but Rambo succeeds there as well, and while I’m not a hundred percent certain there are more books coming in this series, I really really want more.

11. The Meaning of Names, by Karen Gettert Shoemaker. I said in my original review of this book that I had really liked it but I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to read it again, and while that is still true the book has really stuck around in my head– this is one of those that wasn’t originally on my shortlist for this post but forced itself onto the list anyway.

Names is set in Nebraska during World War I, in a small German immigrant community. You may already be raising an eyebrow; if you suspect that a book about German-Americans during World War I might in some way be about nativist prejudice against those immigrants, well, you’d be right, and do you happen to remember what else happened in 1918? Oh, right, a fucking global pandemic involving a respiratory disease.

This book was written well before Covid became a thing, but it has a number of really uncomfortable parallels to everything going on today, and I’d actually love to sit down with Karen Gettert Shoemaker and have a conversation with her about having written this book that was about one thing when she wrote it and now reads like a satire on American society. Because everything going on right now involving Covid happens in the book– well, no horse paste, but the rest of it is spot-on– and … yeah. It’s hard to read. But it’s damn well done for all of that, and I had to include it on the list.

10. Barkskins, by Annie Proulx. Barkskins is another one that I originally didn’t intend to put on the list, and the third book so far that I wouldn’t have read were it not for the #readaroundtheworld project, this time for South Dakota. This is historical fiction, and insanely detailed and well-researched historical fiction, following the descendants of a seventeenth-century French indentured servant through over three hundred years of history. Part of it ends up being a history of colonialism, and part of it ends up being a (fictional) history of the logging company that the original character starts and one branch of the family keeps alive through the years. This is also very much a book about environmentalism; you can imagine that people who own a logging company might have a few ideas about what to do with trees, and the book addresses both the ideas of early white colonists that America’s forests were literally endless and inexhaustible and later attempts at conservation, and we end up with characters on both sides of that conversation. The conversation about conservation. The conservation conversation.

Oh, and because it’s a generational saga, Proulx doesn’t feel any need to be especially nice to her characters, because one way or another they’re gonna die, since the book has two hundred years and 500 pages left to go. So sometimes people have a nice interesting storyline going and then step on a nail and die of typhus a page later. God, I’m glad I live in an era with modern medicine.

9. African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan, by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard. I read very little nonfiction this year compared to a typical year, and in fact as I’m sitting here I can’t come up with more than maybe one or two other nonfiction books from 2021. Even this one is lightly fictionalized, as Yasuke was definitely a real person and was, yes, an African samurai in sixteenth-century Japan, but the only way we know he existed is through some artwork and a series of letters from a Jesuit priest who lived in Japan at the time. Geoffrey Girard is a novelist and Thomas Lockley a historian, and I think the novelist might actually have written more of the book than the historian did, as we spend a lot of time inside Yasuke’s head and recounting day-to-day events in his life than the historical record might strictly be able to support. That said, this book also doubles as a biographical treatment of Oda Nobunaga, who was also real and also fascinating, and while it’s necessary to take specific claims with a grain of salt from time to time– we don’t know how Yasuke felt about discovering he was going to have servants in the house Nobunaga gave him, an anecdote that a couple of pages is devoted to– the book is truthy enough in the broad strokes, and it’s a fascinating read.

Just don’t expect Yasuke to have magical powers or to have his giant spirit bear attack you. That’s from video games, and it definitely didn’t really happen.

8. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab. Another book that flirts with historical fiction without being historical fiction, Invisible Life starts several centuries ago in France and tells the story of Addie LaRue, an immortal woman who is cursed to not be remembered by anyone once they look away from her. While this type of lifestyle does have its advantages (it’s easy to steal from people if they literally don’t remember you exist once they lose sight of you) you can imagine that it also has massive drawbacks, and the occasional meal with the Actual Devil doesn’t do much to assuage the loneliness of being, effectively, unperceivable.

And then she meets someone who can remember seeing her, and everything changes, and the narrative takes off from there. This is, like Barkskins, a book that gets a lot of points for being something that I absolutely could never ever write, as the research alone for the book’s timeline must have been an immense amount of work, and Schwab handles it like someone who lived there. I want to take a particular moment to recommend this book to fans of Sandman, as LaRue’s story has certain commonalities with Hob Gadling’s, and he was one of my favorite Sandman characters, so chances are the similarities will hit others as well. I know book reviewers who have named this one their favorite book of all time, so expect it to make an impact.

7. The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, by Tom Lin. Did I say historical fiction? How about a Chinese cowboy in the American West? How about lots of shooting and killing and crime, and a prophecy and a seer thrown in just for the hell of it?

Like, I’m done talking there, because much like the premise of You Sexy Thing, you’ve already decided if you’re going to read this book, and if you’re a good person you’ve decided to read it, unless you already read it back when I originally reviewed it. And if you’ve decided to read it you are correct, and if you have not decided to read it you are wrong, so make sure you’re on the right side of history here. Westerns starring Chinese cowboys should have people reaching for their credit cards and slamming them on the table, dammit. You’ve all seen TikTok. Like that.

This is Tom Lin’s debut, and I’m pretty certain that it’s a one-off, so who knows where he’s going to head with his next book, but you can rest assured I’m going to be reading it.

6. Bastard out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. This is the oldest book on the list, written in 1992, and was another book I read because of #readaroundtheworld, representing (see if you can guess) South Carolina. There’s a movie, too, which I haven’t seen, although my understanding is that it’s pretty good as well.

This is the only book on the list that I really feel needs a content warning if you’re going to read it; the main character, a young girl called Bone, is growing up fatherless and poor in a small town in South Carolina, and it is not an easy life, for her or any of her family members, particularly the women. Domestic violence and sexual assault are themes throughout the book, and there is at least one explicit rape scene.

It is a rough goddamn book to read, but it has well-earned its place in American literature and I’m really glad I read it. I can’t say I necessarily enjoyed the experience, but this is one of those books you should make sure to pick up anyway.

5. Nightbitch, by Rachel Yoder. This is a book where the main character abruptly turns into a dog halfway through and it’s not the weirdest book on the list. It’s definitely one of those “I loved this and you might not” books, though, and its deep and abiding strangeness is the best thing about it. The main character, referred to only as the Mother for half of the book and then as Nightbitch for the rest, is a suburban housewife, married to a man who spends most of his time out of town and is probably cheating, and she spends her day entertaining their toddler, a job that she does not respond to with joyous anticipation every day.

At all.

Frankly, she hates being a parent; hates the dead-eyed, joyless repetition of it all, hates the walks and the puréed food and the endless messes and the sleepless nights for both her and the child and the mindless fucking drudgery that any honest person will admit is part and parcel of raising, in particular, a toddler.

And then she, uh, turns into a dog for a while, and she convinces her kid to sleep without her at night by also being a doggy and sleeping in a kennel, and after that it gets kinda weird, and you should absolutely trust me and read it.

4. Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. Okay, this is the weirdest book on the list, and I bought it because I was looking for books from Eastern Europe and from Ukraine specifically, and oh holy shit I don’t even really know how to describe it even now. I saw someone who described it as “Harry Potter, but written by Kafka,” and that’s maybe correct but I think it might be slightly more accurate if the author was the lovechild of Kafka and Lovecraft. The main character is a college-age girl who gets railroaded into college at a small school in an out-of-the-way town and begins studying, basically, eldritch horror, where absolutely nothing makes any sense at all and knowledge can’t be expressed in words and one of her assignments is to just memorize a list of nonsense words because it’s going to unlock her brain for something else and it is so fucked up and so incredibly Russian and at one point she has scales and wings just because that happens and oh my God you have to read it just so that I have someone to talk to about it. Defense Against the Dark Arts has nothing on the Special Technologies class. Nothing.

3. The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henríquez. Man, this one was really something special. The Book of Unknown Americans is set in an immigrant community– specifically, a single apartment complex inhabited by immigrants, some legal, some not, from all over Mexico and Central/South America– in Delaware. There are years where this book would have been #1 with a bullet, and it was one of the major highlights of #readaroundtheworld. It employs a rotating POV among ten or so different people of various ages, some born here, others who came as adults, and some who came as children, all Spanish-speaking but at a variety of levels of comfort with English and with American culture. The book is set in the early years of the Obama administration, and you might recall that the economy was not great during those years, so everyone is operating on a razor’s edge where losing a job or making a mistake could lead to homelessness, and the unique frustration of having been an educated, respected professional in one country who has to clean houses in America because your credentials don’t transfer and you don’t speak the language pervades the entire book. It also contains one of the sweetest love stories I’ve ever read, and even if the other characters’ stories weren’t great, the relationship between Maribel and Mayor would have gotten the book onto the list. This is a superb piece of work and absolutely everyone should read it.

Oh, and the ending is going to kill you. Maybe be ready for that.

I need y’all to understand that right now as I am typing this I am not a hundred percent convinced of the order of these last two books. One of them, if you’ve been around for a while, you can probably predict, one of them maybe you can’t. I will freely admit that I’m deciding on #1 because it makes a better story, and it would probably be most accurate to just have them tie, but they’re both absolutely outstanding and tomorrow I might rank them differently. Just FYI.

2. The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T.J. Klune. I will get into this more tomorrow, probably, or maybe even later today, but my initial post about this is my #1 post of 2021, and I have absolutely no idea why. It has literally gotten twenty times as many hits as my #2 post from this year. I have perhaps overused the word delightful in talking about this book, which is about love and found family and acceptance and optimism and taking risks for love and it was absolutely something I needed to read this year, but the simple fact is that delight is the #1 emotion I felt while I was reading it. House is about an orphanage for special children, and by “special” what I mean is that one of them is basically a gelatinous cube and another is the literal son of Satan, and the man who cares for them, and another man who is sent from the government organization that oversees the orphanages to make sure that the children are being treated well and are safe.

There is a reason that this is the only book on this list where I linked to my original piece about it, and I wrote about all of these books as I read them, and that is because of the inspiration for the book. Klune has been open about the idea that the germ of the novel came from his learning about Canada’s Residential Schools, which were absolutely horrible places, and has taken a lot of heat for that comment. The problem is that the book he has written is not about a residential school. He has taken something terrible and used it as inspiration for something that is lovely and life-affirming and beautiful, and it is an astonishingly good book. I’m not interested in arguing with someone who felt differently; your reactions to the book are your own. But I think they are objectively wrong on this one.

And, likely surprising no one, the #1 book on my list:

1. Jade Legacy, by Fonda Lee. To a certain extent, this was inevitable; Legacy is the third book of the Green Bone Saga trilogy, and the first book, Jade City, was my favorite book of 2018 and the second book, Jade War, was my favorite book of 2019.

Jade Legacy had a hell of a lot to live up to and a hell of a high bar to clear– sticking the landing on any story can be tough, sticking the landing on a trilogy where the second book was so good I compared it to The Godfather, Part II is even harder, and sticking the landing when you’ve decided to extend the third book over several decades as opposed to the tighter timeline of the first two books, meaning that your characters are going to age significantly and your world is going to change radically over the course of the book, is so rough I can’t even comprehend it. The fact that Fonda Lee not only managed to finish this thing but that she finished it while the world was falling apart is a towering achievement. Legacy is absolutely a worthy ending to what has become one of my favorite fantasy series of all time, vying with The Lord of the Rings and basically nothing else for that honor. It covers multiple generations and multiple continents and multiple families, and it’s about honor and death and colonialism and crime and violence and friendship and honor and yes I said honor already but it’s kind of a big thing and if you haven’t picked up this series yet after I’ve spent the last four years hollering about how good it is I don’t know why you’re even here.

(Oh, and I got it as an early ARC, which is probably the single best thing that happened to me this year; I cannot describe how excited I was when I got an email from Lee’s publicist asking me if I wanted an early copy of the book. Yes, I bought it anyway; I’d actually already preordered it when the ARC showed up, and I’ve even got another set of the trilogy that came out in a limited edition, meaning I have three copies of this book in my house.)

I cannot recommend this book any more highly. Yes, it and Cerulean Sea were very, very close this year, but Sea is a stand-alone and this is a capstone to an astonishingly good series of books. It is the best book I read this year.

Honorable Mention, in No Particular Order: The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick; Island beneath the Sea, by Isabel Allende; Heartbreak Bay, by Rachel Caine; A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini; Persephone Station, by Stan Leicht; Requiem Moon, by C.T. Rwizi; The Book of Lost Saints, by Daniel José Older; Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi; The Searcher, by Tana French; The Witness for the Dead, by Katherine Addison; The Unquiet Earth, by Denise Giardina; Bump, by Matt Wallace; The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker; and The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw.

2021 Reading, Pt. 1: The books

I read 132 books this year, just barely off last year’s pace, and it’s imaginable but unlikely that I’ll be at 134 by the time the calendar year technically ends, since I’m halfway through the book I’m reading right now and I think the one after that will be a novella. But this is close enough. This post really isn’t strictly necessary since you’ve had access to the #readaroundtheworld spreadsheet all year long, but what the hell: here’s everything I read this year, missing only a beta read for a book that isn’t going to be out for a while:

Of the 132 books on the list, 67 were by authors I’d not read books from in the past. This is a higher percentage than usual because of the #readaroundtheworld project, but not by as much as I’d have guessed; it’s usually in the 40% range and this year it’s just over half. There also weren’t as many authors that I read multiple books by; the big winner this year was Rachel Caine, with 4 books. Other authors I read multiple books by include Seth Dickinson (3), Cassandra Khaw (2), Seanan McGuire (2), Matt Wallace (2) and Yoon Ha Lee, also 2.

As usual, I didn’t do enough rereading this year, which is a direct result of #readaroundtheworld, and I suspect my “read whatever the hell I want” project for next year will involve more rereads– in particular, I haven’t reread the Lord of the Rings books in forever, so that’s on deck for sometime in January, and I might (I’m lying) take one final stab at Wheel of Time.

(I’m not going to do that; I will never finish those books.)

Also, go be my friend on Goodreads if you’re not already.

But yeah. 132 books. More to come, as I’ve still got the 10 best post (probably tomorrow) and a year-end wrap-up of #readaroundtheworld, quite possibly later today if I’m still in the mood later. What did you read this year?

In which I quit and I don’t care

It is always a good sign when a Teacher Record Day begins with an email from the boss that says that he won’t be in the building that day. For those of you unschooled in the fine art of I ain’t sayin, but I’m sayin, what that means is “Get your shit done and go home,” and every single person on the staff knew it. So, because one thing I have done well this year is stay on top of my grading, I was out the door before 11:00, heading over to the comic shop and realizing just before entering the parking lot that the place wouldn’t even be open for another fifteen minutes.

So it was a good day at work today, is what I’m saying.

And then I got home and discovered a roaring argument going on on Twitter, where some dumb bastard who I won’t pile on any further had decided to posit that putting down a book that you weren’t enjoying instead of finishing it was some sort of character flaw, and I got to watch that person evolve their position as the entire fucking Internet fell on her head, from “this is offensive behavior” to “look at all these mean people” to “OMG get a life!!one!! why are you on Twitter if you don’t read litratcher,” and as far as I know she’s deleted her account by now, or at least she’s deleted from my account, as I’ve blocked her for preemptive stupidity and have already forgotten her stupid, stupid name.

And, look, I’m about the thousandth (literally) person to point this out, but no reader owes any author even a second of their time, much less their actual leisure time, and I will quit reading a book over the Goddamned font or the kerning if I feel like it. I already gave the author my money, which entirely ends their part in the transaction; they are not entitled to any more of my time than I choose to give them. There have been books I was not enjoying that I chose to force my way through; there have been books I gave up on in the last 10%, and there have been books that made it clear that I wanted nothing to do with them in the first few chapters. Unless I go out of my way to make sure the author knows I didn’t finish their book, there’s no universe where the author gets to be offended or even have a damn opinion on whether I finished their book.

(I feel the same way about my books. Once they’re in your hands they’re yours. I would love it if everyone who bought one of my books read and enjoyed them, and I’m sorry if you don’t, but there’s no way your opinion about– or treatment of– the book offends me.)

The fact that all this is happening while I’m trying to read Heinlein again is a fun lil’ coincidence, for sure. I have a bad relationship with this dude to begin with, but when I found out he was from Missouri I asked my wife to recommend another book (I’ve read Time Enough for Love and Starship Troopers and I think I’ve started and bailed on one more) and she handed me her copy of The Puppet Masters, and I made it to page 100 last night and we will see if I finish it or not. The dude was a creep and he wrote books about creeps. I’ll try and finish it tomorrow, since I’ve got the day off, but I’m not going to stress about it if I don’t, and since Heinlein’s ass is dead he doesn’t get to be offended either way.

A brief statement on Warren Ellis

TW: Sexual misconduct, not directly described.

No one has asked, and I’m certain I would be just fine were I not to say anything at all, particularly anything I’m treating seriously enough that I’m calling it a Statement, but:

I have, on many occasions in the past, recommended Warren Ellis’ comic book and novel work in this space and others. He was, for many years, my favorite comic book writer, and I have a ton of his work in my house. I consider several of his comics to be among my favorite series of all time. His newsletter was the direct inspiration for my book Skylights, and he is mentioned in the introduction to that book. I have at least two books he has autographed and may well have more, although I have never met him in person.

In June of 2020 Ellis was accused of sexual misconduct by what eventually ended up being dozens of women; far, far too many to make it remotely reasonable to question or investigate any of their stories. Eventually nearly a hundred women came forward with some sort of story involving Ellis and emotional or sexual indecency, misconduct, or assault.

Ellis responded by publishing a brief statement in which he … well, didn’t quite deny all of the allegations, but certainly denied the context in which many if not all of them took place, and issued an apology that was rapidly deemed insufficient by, as far as I can tell, everyone involved. He then closed his mailing list and his Twitter account and went away for a while. While his statement mentioned making restitution for his behavior, he has not done so in any way that anyone involved has noticed.

Image Comics has recently announced that Ellis and artist Ben Templesmith will be collaborating on a revival of Fell, a series the two worked on in the early 2000s. While I am aware that there is no one out there calling out for my opinion in this matter, and other than a vague feeling of possibly unjustifiable betrayal I am absolutely not one of the people Ellis has harmed, I will not be purchasing or reading any of his work in the future until his half-assed apology is replaced with actual definable action steps to rectify and heal some of the trauma he has caused. If you’d like to see what that might look like, I’d recommend looking at the statement from So Many Of Us that is on their front page.

Until that has happened, I am done with him and any of his future work in any medium, and I will continue to not recommend his past work either, regardless of my feelings about it at the time it was released.

The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2020

And here. We. Go.

I am currently on book 137 for 2020, and depending on how much time I spend reading over the next several days I’ll likely be on 138 or maybe 139 by the time the year ends, but one of those is going to be a reread and the other is not super likely to set the world on fire, so it is officially Safe to Put the List Together, and write what has consistently been my favorite post of the year during the time I’ve been writing here. This is the second year I’ve gone to 15 books; it didn’t feel quite as necessary as last year but I figure honoring 11% of my favorite books at the end of the year instead of 7% isn’t going to end the world or anything.

As always, these are books that are New To Me, not necessarily new releases, although a lot of them did come out this year. Also, don’t take the rankings too seriously– if I did this again tomorrow they’d probably be in a slightly different order– and in particular the top five or so were tough. Basically, I know you got some gift cards for Christmas, hie thee to a local bookstore and pick something up; they’re all good.

Here are the last seven years’ worth of lists:

15. THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A BIOGRAPHY OF CANCER, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This is both the oldest of the books on the list, dating all the way back to the hoary days of 2010, and the first book on the list that I actually read. In fact, I started it in 2019, after last year’s list was written, but didn’t finish it until the first week of January. Siddhartha Mukherjee has shown up on this list before, with The Gene: An Intimate History coming in at #14 last year, and despite their relative positions I think Emperor is a stronger book. It is, as the title states, a history of cancer, or rather a history of cancers, as the book makes repeatedly clear that part of what makes this disease so difficult is that there are so many different types of cancer and it affects the body so differently depending on where and when it appears. It’s a fascinating piece of work; a little less technical (and thus a touch more accessible) than The Gene, which was already impressively accessible, and frankly everyone knows someone who has passed of cancer, so you’re going to feel a personal connection to this book while you’re reading it whether you want to or not.

14. DOCILE, by K.M. Szpara. There are a couple of books on this list that need to come with content warnings, and part of me kind of feels like Docile needs to come wrapped in brown paper with a big sticker on the back that says Are You Sure? on it. It’s a book about free will and brainwashing and capitalism and sex slavery, set in a future where debt has been made inheritable and people are literally signing decades of their lives (and sometimes their entire lives) over to the few remaining ultrarich to act as their servants in order to erase their family’s debts. They are given a drug that makes them into a Docile, which is basically a pliant, personality- and free-will-less drone who exists only to do the will of their masters. When they are released from their contracts, they remember nothing from their time as a Docile. And they don’t always come back right. The main character is Elisha, a young man who becomes a Docile but refuses to take Dociline, meaning that he is expected to perform exactly as the other Dociles but actually feels and remembers everything he is experiencing.

It’s a hard book to read, on a lot of levels, but this was another real early read in the year and it’s really stuck with me. I don’t know that I want a sequel or anything but I’m definitely in for whatever Szpara comes up with next.

13. ANGER IS A GIFT, by Mark Oshiro. I read two different books by Mark Oshiro this year, this and Each Of Us a Desert, and I went back and forth several times on which one deserved to be on this list more. I feel like Desert is a better book on a technical level, so to speak, but Anger is a Gift affected me emotionally far more than Desert did, so it gets the nod. This is another book that’s going to kind of beat the hell out of you while you read it; it’s the story of Moss Jefferies, a young man from Oakland, California who lost his father to police violence six years before the events of the book begin, and is still struggling with panic attacks and PTSD from the aftereffects of his dad’s murder. Now a high school sophomore, Moss is forced to deal with the increasing militarization of his urban high school and, as he finds himself drawn further into demonstrations and protests, has to reckon with police violence again. There is a sequence in this book that made me so angry I nearly tossed the book across the room, and it was harder to read it as a teacher than I think it might be for most people, because I spent a substantial amount of time very, very angry with the adults who are supposed to be protecting the kids in this school. This book is technically YA, the first of several on this list (I read a lot of YA this year) and it’s probably the most adult-feeling of the books on the list. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

(Disclaimer: Mark read, and enjoyed, The Benevolence Archives: Vol. 1 for his Mark Reads Stuff series on YouTube. I wasn’t familiar with him before this happened– someone else got him to read my book– and while I’m not going to lie and pretend that that series wasn’t the reason I picked up Anger in the first place, it’s not the reason Anger is on the list.)

12. YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN, by Leah Johnson. So, uh, compared to the rest of the books on the list, this one is maybe going to stand out a little bit? Y’all know me. I like speculative fiction, stuff with dragons and wizards and ghosts and unspeakable evils and laser guns and exotic alien worlds. Even when something is set in the “real world,” I like to see a tinge of the supernatural here and there.

You Should See Me in a Crown is basically a Disney movie set to prose. It’s the story of Liz Lighty, who ought to be a superhero, a young nerdy Black girl attending an ultra-rich Indianapolis high school. She has her entire life planned out– the college, the extracurricular activities, the careers afterwards– and then critical financial aid falls through and throws the whole thing into doubt.

So she decides to run for prom queen, which for some reason comes with a massive scholarship award at her high school, and she and her friends basically Voltron up to marshal the forces of all the not-traditionally-popular kids at the school and make Liz the prom queen.

It’s fucking delightful. Like, this book ought to have a giant blinking NOT FOR LUTHER sign on it, and it was bloody delightful. I loved Liz, I loved her fumbling, tender relationship with Mack, her girlfriend, and I even managed to buy into the high school being a real place by the end of the book. (Every so often I wonder if my high school was really weird or if every other portrayal of high school is nonsense. I was on the prom committee in high school. The “popular kids” were largely also the geeks and the nerds. It was a weird place.)

11. THE WEIGHT OF INK, by Rachel Kadish. Now, this book, on the other hand, should have come with a giant blinking FOR LUTHER sign on it. I was a Jewish Studies and Religious Studies major in a previous life, and have a Master’s Degree in Hebrew Bible, so if you hand me a book that’s basically about a couple of historians digging through a recently-discovered treasure trove of documents written by a female Jewish scholar and philosopher in London in the 1660s, I’m going to be halfway done with the damn thing before you actually get finished handing it to me. The book bounces back and forth between the two historians reading the documents in the modern day and the blind rabbi and the woman who is scribing for him (and, later on, writing her own treatises and corresponding with the likes of Spinoza) in the seventeenth century, and it’s probably the densest read on the list but Damn is it rewarding. This was recommended to me after a post where I complained about not really appreciating Literature, and this is the closest to Literature of everything I read this year, but don’t hold that against it. If you’re into history or really any kind of scholasticism at all this book will have something for you in it. Beautifully done.

10. THE VANISHING HALF, by Brit Bennett. We’re on a bit of a roll here, as both this book and the next one could probably be termed Literatures as well, but don’t hold that against any of them. The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational family saga, the story of a pair of inexplicably light-skinned Black twin sisters, born in a Southern town so small that it doesn’t appear on any maps.

On their sixteenth birthday the twins flee their home together, heading to New Orleans, and several years later one of them abandons her sister and runs again– to marry a white man who has no idea of her race or her background, and to disappear into wealthy white society. The other sister marries the darkest-skinned man she can find and eventually ends up back at home again.. Both women have daughters, and their daughters’ lives interact at various points throughout the story, neither of them having any idea who the other is or even that they have any cousins in the first place. The book starts in the Deep South and as it moves from the 1950s to the 1990s it widens its scope across the country. Bennett’s writing is lovely, and her characters feel like real people even when they’re placed into a setting that can at times feel a little metaphorical.

9. CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora. This book is a great example of something I was talking about earlier, a book that is mostly rooted in the real world and classy enough to be a Literature but works in just enough of the supernatural to keep weirdos like me interested. I read Conjure Women and The Vanishing Half pretty close to back-to-back, and they have a lot of similarities– both are family sagas to one extent or another, although this one doesn’t have literal twins in it, setting the relationship between an enslaved woman, her daughter, and their master’s daughter as the relationship it explores. The mother is a midwife and a healer, and her daughter Rue is reluctant about following in her footsteps, and is assigned as a playmate to the master’s daughter, Varina. Then the Civil War hits, and … well, things get interesting.

Take a close look at the cover, there, which isn’t initially as striking as some of the covers to books I enjoyed this year (random note: 2020 was a great year for book covers!) but is probably among the best covers of the year once you read the book and realize what you’re looking at. This and Vanishing Half are definitely an example of a situation where if I put the list together tomorrow they might flip places on the list. If you liked one, you’ll likely enjoy the other so get ’em both with that gift card I know you have.

8. THE GIRL FROM THE WELL, by Rin Chupeco. LOL, this one is about an angry murder ghost in case you thought I’d forgotten what kinds of books I usually read. You might look at the cover to this and think to yourself wait, isn’t that the girl from The Ring? And, well (heh), you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, as the ghost in The Ring and the ghost in The Girl from the Well are both based on the same Japanese myth. This book wins the Can I Eat This Author’s Brain and Claim Their Powers award for this year, as it’s the book I’d most like to have written myself of everything on the list. It’s actually told from the perspective of the angry murder ghost, and Chupeco’s prose is creepy and alien in a really remarkable way; the ghost really doesn’t feel human at any point in the book, and that’s something that I feel could get out of control and ruin the book really easily if the author isn’t careful and skilled enough. I also read the sequel to this this year, The Suffering, which does have the ghost as a main character but is told through the perspective of another (human) character from this book. I enjoyed it quite a bit but it didn’t floor me as effectively as this one; Chupeco’s voice in this book is outstandingly well-done, and this was easily the scariest thing I read all year.

7. THE BURNING GOD, by R.F. Kuang. Right about here is where it started getting really difficult to rank the books, by the way, and if anything this book got downrated a little bit by being the third book in a trilogy, making it a little tricky to recommend on its own. I loved the first book in the trilogy, The Poppy War, and had some trouble with the second, The Dragon Republic, at least in part because I didn’t remember the events of the first book as well as I should have. So I reread the first two books before reading this one, and … damn, y’all.

This series is another one that could stand for a trigger warning or two. One of the central events in the first book is modeled on the Rape of Nanking, and it’s absolutely horrible, and none of the characters are ever the same afterwards. The first book ends with a literal genocide, as an entire nation is set aflame. PTSD, rape and drug abuse and addiction are major themes of the series. But, my God, R.F. Kuang, who is somehow only in her early twenties, is a hell of a writer, and if you’re not someone who feels like they will suffer lasting psychological effects from reading this kind of book, in the final evaluation it’s one of the finest fantasy trilogies I’ve ever read. I didn’t give Dragon Republic enough credit when I first read it– which was exactly why I did the reread– and while placing seventh on this list might seem like a drop-off in quality when The Poppy War was third the year it came out … like I said, don’t read too much into the specific rankings. But read the books. Definitely read the books.

6. SPLIT TOOTH, by Tanya Tagaq. Okay, I promise after this one I won’t use the phrase “trigger warning” again, and I won’t make fun of myself for being bad at Literature again either, but I’ve gotta do both for this book. Tanya Tagaq is a Canadian Indigenous author, and I read an interview with her where she describes this book, set in Nunavut in the 1970s, as a “mythobiography,” and that’s as good of a description of it as I can imagine. It’s not precisely a memoir, and it’s not precisely an autobiography either– I don’t imagine that Tagaq thinks she was impregnated by the Northern Lights, which happens to the protagonist in this book– but the mythical and supernatural elements of the book somehow manipulate the “real” events of the book into being more shocking than they might have been otherwise. This book is beautifully written– the prose is among the best I’ve ever encountered and probably 15-20% of the wordcount is actually poetry and I loved the hell out of it anyway. Growing up poor and indigenous in Nunavut in the 1970s was no picnic, and this is another one to be careful with, as child abuse and neglect and sexual assault are definitely themes, but this is an amazing book and among the best surprises of 2020, as I effectively bought it blind when I realized I hadn’t read anything by indigenous women yet in my #52booksbywomenofcolor project and more or less grabbed it at random. I love it when that works out.

5. SAVAGE LEGION, by Matt Wallace. We are about to enter into a series of “first books of fantasy series,” as four of my top five books this year are Volume 1 of what will turn out to be at least trilogies if not, in some cases, longer. I just took a break for lunch, as I’ve been working on this post for three hours, and I swear to you that I sat back down and again considered rearranging the next set of books, so call all of them the best book of the year if you want. I won’t tell anybody.

At any rate, Matt Wallace’s Savage Legion is a hell of a book, and what was the most fascinating thing about it for me was the way it somehow manages to simultaneously absolutely bathe itself in tropes and cliches of the genre and come off as something fresh and new, and frankly that’s a hell of a trick to have pulled off. Legion employs the rotating-third-person-POV construct that’s become popular since Game of Thrones came out, but the really interesting thing about it is that you don’t figure out that several of the characters you’re reading about are the bad guys until everything starts slowly knitting itself together at the end. His characters are definitely modern, as he manages to knit together an interesting, diverse cast of POVs without succumbing to The Nation To The South Is Like This and The Dwarves Are Like That sorts of tropes. Also worth pointing out: one of the POV characters is in a wheelchair, which I think is the first time I’ve seen that in a fantasy novel. Generally when fantasy interacts with disability it’s to cut off a limb in combat or sometimes to have a character who is Blind But Not Blind, and I swear I wrote that before realizing that GoT does both. This is not that, and this book deserves a lot more attention than it got.

4. LEGENDBORN, by Tracy Deonn. Let us first take a moment to appreciate that cover, please.

Legendborn is not only the first of a series, it’s author Tracy Deonn’s debut as well, and … man, I loved it. I loved it. Much like Wallace’s Savage Legion and Kuang’s Poppy War, this book starts off feeling very familiar and very tropey. YA can get away with that to a slightly larger degree than books that are supposedly aimed at adults, but it’s still there nonetheless. The main character is not quite off at college, as she’s in high school, but she’s participating in a program that is located at a college and she lives in a dorm. And she’s off at a party and she Witnesses Something She Shouldn’t Have Seen, and then there are Secret Powers that Must Be Hidden, and there’s a Secret Society, and then like thirty pages into the book Tracy Deonn starts pinpointing exactly what you think is going to happen and gleefully curb-stomping the hell out of all of it, and yes eventually there’s a Powerful Boyfriend and a Smolderingly Sexy Antagonist who is the Boyfriend’s protector and best friend but hates the main character because of Secret Reasons, and this is one of those books that is difficult to describe properly because it sounds so clichéd but you just have to trust me that Tracy Deonn knows exactly what she’s doing and everything is going to be delightfully subverted by the end, and there’s even a Big Twist at the very end that I absolutely did not see coming and led to a fun bit of self-examination where I had to decide if I’d missed it because I’m white.

This is the third YA book to appear on this list, and as I’ve already said I read a lot of YA this year, but you absolutely should not let that get in the way of your reading this. Go get it and put it in your head now, please.

3. LEONARDO DA VINCI, by Walter Isaacson. There’s always at least a couple of nonfiction books on this list, but Leonardo da Vinci was the first one that was in serious contention for the top spot. This book is a combination of a biography of Leonardo himself and a book about art history, and it is filled with pictures of his artwork and detailed analyses of his paintings. This is the second book of Isaacson’s I’ve read, his first being a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and I will likely read his biography of Einstein sometime this year. Isaacson’s thing is that he really likes writing about geniuses, and the most notable thing about this book, above and beyond the fact that Leonardo himself is endlessly fascinating, is the sheer enthusiasm that Isaacson brings to discussing his subject. Art history is one of those things that I don’t personally know a whole lot about, but I love listening to and reading people who do know a lot about art talk about it, and both parts of the book were done exceptionally well. Descriptions of art can slide into the sort of half-gibberish that music reviews can turn into if the author isn’t careful, and I have to admit that a lot of the time I’m taking his word for it when he does things like describe facial expressions of the various subjects of a painting and such, but this is an amazing book about an amazing person and I very strongly recommend it even if you don’t necessarily think Leonardo is someone you want to spend 600 pages with. Because, seriously, you don’t want to read about Leonardo da Vinci? Quit being weird and go pick this up.

(Also, one more thing: this book wins for the best book as a physical artifact for the year. The paper is creamy and thick and the book feels great, and since it’s full of artwork that is begging for analysis the print itself is of a really high quality. I only spent like $12 on it brand new, and that’s ludicrous.)

2. BLACK SUN, by Rebecca Roanhorse. We’re back to Volume One of A Fantasy Series territory here, and Rebecca Roanhorse has become one of my favorite authors over the last several years, someone whose books get bought on release day and leapfrogged over whatever else happens to be in the queue at the time.

Anyway, let’s stare at the cover for a moment.

Black Sun is second-world fantasy, heavily influenced by Mesoamerican history and culture in much the same way that The Burning God is influenced by Japanese and Chinese culture. And you’re about to see another theme between this and the book that ended up being my favorite of the year, because the thing I loved the most about both books was the worldbuilding. I don’t know how many books are planned for this series but I hope it’s a million, because I could read about this world forever. It’s also one of those books where the ending kind of upends the status quo that’s been set up throughout the book, so we’ll see where Roanhorse goes with the second volume, which hopefully will be out really soon.

1. SCARLET ODYSSEY, by C.T. Rwizi. This has been the frontrunner for most of the year, and I did go back and forth a couple of times on whether I was going to have it or Black Sun as the top book of the year, but in the end it won out. And, well, there are some definite similarities between the two: second-world fantasy inspired by a culture that you typically don’t see a lot of in fantasy literature, this time being Central Africa rather than Mesoamerica, and absolutely outstanding worldbuilding. What ended up giving Odyssey the edge was slightly stronger characters and a more detailed (and math-based!) magic system, existing alongside multiple detailed religious systems and a complicated politics to boot. This book also features rotating 3rd person POVs, although it’s clear that 18-year-old Musalodi, a mystic who achieves a place of power and influence among his people and is immediately sent forth on an Important Quest, the actual purpose of which is to get rid of him, because men aren’t supposed to be Mystics and no one in his home really wants to deal with him. Genderflipping traditional roles is kind of a thing throughout this book, and Salo’s journey and the people he encounters along the way are all fascinating. There are also hints at another culture, possibly much more technologically adept, sort of on the outside of the events of the story but watching closely, and I can’t wait for the sequel, Requiem Moon, which comes out in March and which I’ve already pre-ordered. It is the best book I read in a year full of good books, and you need to read it.

HONORABLE MENTION, in no particular order: TERRA NULLIUS, by Claire G. Coleman, A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN, by Roseanne A. Brown, THE VANISHED QUEEN, by Lisbeth Campbell, MOON OF THE CRUSTED SNOW, by Waubgeshig Rice, THE FIVE: THE UNTOLD LIVES OF THE WOMEN KILLED BY JACK THE RIPPER, by Hallie Rubenhold, SPIDERLIGHT, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING, by Alexis Henderson, and DEATHLESS DIVIDE, by Justina Ireland.