2021 saw my reading fall off a steep cliff. To be fair, it never really recovered from last year’s lockdowns. Even as Melbourne (my city) returned to a resemblance of normality late in 2020, I felt little urge to read, feelings only exacerbated when we entered our fifth and sixth lockdown (thank you, Delta) in 2021. (Fun fact: Melbourne broke the record, held by Buenos Aires, as the city that spent the most days in lockdown). If not for my Locus column, I would have gone weeks without picking up a book – a state of mind that would have been an anathema to me before the pandemic. But even if my reading output was much reduced compared to previous years, the books I did pick up were, more often than not, exceptionally good, even sublime.
If there was one prevailing theme about this year, it’s that many of the novels I read and reviewed were not so much comfort reads as comfort authors: returning to the work of writers whose fiction I’ve long adored. Take one of my favourites of the last five years, the prolific Lavie Tidhar, who authored two novels in 2021: The Escapement and The Hood. I only had the chance to read the former, his Wild West novel with clowns; a surreal blend of Barnum and Bailey, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and Greek mythology that’s also a touching meditation on fatherhood. Another favourite, Jeff VanderMeer, continued his extraordinary run of terrific novels – starting with Annihilation in 2014 – with his ecological and noir-inflected thriller Hummingbird Salamander. It’s a twisty, turny novel that deftly subverts the hard-boiled genre – involving a female protagonist who could go head-to-head with Marlowe and Spade – while sending the clear message that we, as a species, are frittering away what limited time we have to save the planet.
I was also pleased to see a brand spanking new novel from Monica Byrne. Seven years in the making, The Actual Star was worth the wait, an ambitious story told across two millennia straddling three different time periods. Brilliantly researched – bringing to life the Ancient Maya – The Actual Star is also a speculative tour de force, excavating a future history where humanity survives not only the coming climate catastrophe but also flourishes. Similarly, I was excited by the publication of a new book from J. Robert Lennon (in his case, it was four years between novels). Set in an unnamed suburb, Subdivision’s playful and absurdist story involving jigsaw puzzles, ominous crows, a prophetic digital assistant, and quantum entanglement (amongst other oddities) provides an unconventional, but deeply moving, insight into the nature of trauma.
On the subject of unconventional novels, there’s Nick Mamatas’s The Second Shooter. Not only is it a razor-sharp, satirical takedown of the theatrics that surrounds gun violence in the US, one that never downplays the impact of mass shootings on the American psyche, it’s also the only novel I’m aware of where the speculative element pivots on the work of French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord. Unconventional in a completely different way to Lennon and Mamatas is Nina Allan’s The Good Neighbours, a book that is both a cracking mystery with the propulsive energy of a true-crime podcast and a fascinating exploration of mental illness and Celtic myth with a hint of the otherworldly. In its unconventionality, it’s a novel that continues Allan’s ongoing interrogation not just of genre tropes, but also the very scaffolding of storytelling.
I will never live down the fact that I discussed Angela Slatter’s All the Murmuring Bones on The Writer and the Critic podcast without finishing the book (of course, I blame the pandemic). My rookie error aside, the novel, set in Slatter’s Sourdough Universe, is a magnificent, gothic story of mermaids, betrayals, secrets, and love told in lush, exacting prose. Podcast co-host Kirstyn McDermott and I also chatted ecstatically about Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland, a visceral gut-punch of a novel about genetic experimentation that deals bluntly with the open wound of race in America, particularly how the country continues to mistreat the bodies of Black and Brown people. My tastes are rarely in tune with the Hugo and Nebula Awards, but I would be stunned if Sorrowland wasn’t nominated for either one (preferably both).
Race, particularly the treatment of Black people and marginalised groups, was also the subject of several other works whose authors I encountered for the first time. Keenan Norris’s angry and passionate second novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane, takes place in East Oakland, where gentrification is pushing Black people out of the community and where an all-seeing propaganda machine masquerading as a media conglomerate hunts down young Black men who dare to protest police brutality. It’s a distressing portrait of a near-future that for many will feel all too contemporary. In a brilliant and bold move, the poet Salena Godden, in her first novel, Mrs Death Misses Death, recasts the character of Death (or Mrs Death) as a series of Black women. As Mrs Death recounts her story – a mix of poetry and prose – to a young writer named Wolf, Godden’s love for people but also her appreciation of the injustices faced by the poor and marginalised (the section on the Grenfell disaster is harrowing) shines through.
A writer I’ve been meaning to read for some years is Francis Spufford, and I finally broke my drought with his second novel Light Perpetual. Spufford presents a counterfactual: what if five working-class children destined to die in a German V2 bombing survived? How would their lives have unfolded? What transpires is a poignant account of the latter half of the 20th century, one that recognises the fragility of existence. I’ve also been tangentially aware of Sam Rivière’s work, namely his poetry. His second book, Dead Souls, set at a literary festival in the near future, is a hilarious evisceration of the controversies that have surrounded poetry and the literary establishment over recent years, told as a shaggy dog tale in the style of Thomas Bernhard. There aren’t many laughs (or snarky comments about literature) in Jonathan Buckley’s incredible novel Live; live; live. Rather, it is a low-key but beautifully poised story about the unorthodox relationship between a boy, Joshua, and his older next-door neighbour, Lucas, who claims he can speak to the dead. In comparison, Jonathan Walker’s take on the supernatural in The Angels of L19 is less opaque. This astonishing novel, set against the backdrop of the 1984 miner’s strike, is about two teenagers, Robert and Tracey, who are connected by a shared grief – they lost their mothers – and a shared faith – they are born-again Christians. When Robert is visited by a malevolent entity, the story, steeped in the quotidian, makes this extraordinary and unexpected shift into phantasmagoric horror.
Gus Moreno’s debut, This Thing Between Us (sporting my favourite cover for the year), is right up there as the most nightmarish book I read in 2021. It’s a novel that skilfully juggles competing tones, in as much as the story’s themes around grief, loss, and racial identity are not undermined by an epic climax involving an ancient, evil force seeking entry into our reality. There are no ancient evils in Adam Soto’s first novel, This Weightless World. Instead, Soto cleverly upends the well-worn and linguistic-centric focus of the first contact narrative by reminding us that no one is coming to save us, that these problems we’ve created are for us, and for us alone, to solve. The best debut I read – although it was a tight run thing – was Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Body, a beautifully wrought, non-linear tale of ghosts, missing girls, and revenge set against the backdrop of colonial and post-colonial Vietnam. This is a novel that deserves a much wider genre audience.
In 2021 I read and reviewed ten works in translation. As I’ve come to expect, these novels and collections – more than the English-language books I read – gave me a new understanding of what speculative fiction can achieve. Take Slipping by Egyptian writer Mohamed Kheir, a dream-like tale full of impossible wonders that speaks both allegorically and literally to the pain and trauma that came during and after Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Or Hiro Kawakami’s People from My Neighbourhood, that despite its slim size, comprising 36 vignettes, has a capacious quality that delivers a heartfelt, surreal rendition of urban life. Or Rabbit Island by Elvira Navarro, a gathering of 11 stories that do an unsettling job of twisting our mundane existence out of shape. Or The Little Devil and Other Stories, the first English-language publication of the short fiction of early 20th-century Russian writer Aleksey Remizov. With boundless imagination and dazzling imagery, the 13 pieces that make up the collection draw heavily on and significantly re-work Russian folklore and fairy tales.
In fact, the two books I loved the most this year – The Employees by Olga Ravn and Other Worlds: Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints by Teffi – were both translated works. In the case of the former, Ravn takes two science fiction tropes – the planetary romance, the question of what it means to be human – and reformats them into something that is not only experimental and bold – the book is split into more than one hundred interviews with crew members of a starship – but also unencumbered by the conventions of the genre. As for the Russian writer Teffi, a contemporary of Remizov, this was my first encounter with her work, and I found it an almost spiritual experience. Her stories, which explore religion, folklore, and myth, feel utterly contemporary in style and theme despite being more than a century old. If I were the sort of person who pressed books into the hands of people at parties, it would be this one.
I only read a few English-language collections and anthologies this year, but what I did read was terrific. The 22 stories that feature in Brian Evenson’s The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell are imbued with Evenson’s patented appreciation for the odd and macabre that has established him as one of the genre’s most talented horror writers. Just as she did with her terrific debut novel Stay Crazy, Erica L. Satifka’s collection How To Get to Apocalypse displays her biting sense of humour, her appreciation of the bizarre and surreal, and her concerns, both political and social, at the pervasive nature of neoliberalism.
In terms of anthologies, this year saw me review my first non-fiction book for Locus. With its stunning interiors (so many gorgeous paperback covers) and thoughtful, detailed essays, Andrew Nette & Iain McIntyre’s Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction 1950 to 1985 opened my eyes to the New Wave’s radical antecedents and the influential foundation texts the movement produced. I also gained a great deal of joy reading Aiki Flinthart’s Relics, Wrecks & Ruins, which compiles 24 eclectic and wildly entertaining stories (and several reprints) from writers like Garth Nix, Alison Goodman, Cat Spark, Dirk Flinthart, Jack Dann, and Sebastien de Castell. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2019, Aiki Flinthart sadly passed away just before the publication of the anthology. She, however, leaves behind a tremendous legacy, not just this book but multiple anthologies and novels.
I am under no illusion that 2022 will be any better than 2021, especially not with Omicron spreading like wildfire across the globe. But I do know, whether I read 50 books or 100, that there are many great delights in store in the coming year, and that this is something worth looking forward to.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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