I’m very pleased to have a guest on my blog today, the inimitable Jamie Rivera himself! Jamie is a student of Russian Literature and pre-law and enjoys bats, reading, writing, and the song Presumably Dead Arm by Sidney Gish. They’ll have some promo links down at the bottom after their excellent post. Without further ado, let’s get into it!
My Best Books of 2021
This year, I read at least 150 books. Some of the books I read were for class, and I didn’t add them to my Goodreads, so unfortunately I don’t have an accurate count! However, of all the books I read that were recorded properly, I definitely had a selection that I knew I’d never forget about—regardless of whether I wrote down the titles. Not all these books were released in 2021, but I read them this year so… Without further ado, these are all my official Best Books of 2021!
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Tom Ripley is exactly the kind of fruit Pete Buttegeig doesn’t want associated with the gay community, but I can fix him. Actually, I probably can’t, but who cares? This short historical novel is about a guy with no real moral compass who cons his way to Italy, pretends to be multiple people, kills a dude on a boat, and wins. It absolutely rules. It’s like if Ferris Bueller was an evil twink. Bookshop link. Storygraph link.
The Bayou by Arden Powell
This one is extremely creepy and atmospheric and super dark. Every page feels lush with descriptions of the eerie Louisiana swamp, and while the novella’s protagonist struggles to figure out the shape of an old crime that took place in his hometown, the fever-dream quality of the whole piece really got me by the neck. It’s painful and vaguely tragic, but that’s exactly what I needed out of it! Storygraph link.
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
Lately, I haven’t been enjoying young adult fiction as much as I used to, which makes sense: I’m not in high school anymore, and my brain craves more complex, detailed narratives. However this was definitely one of the most engaging YA books I’ve read in a long while! The main character, Elliot, is frustratingly relatable. It’s just as much a book about growing up and dealing with trauma as it is a book about getting sucked into a magical world with elves and griffons and shit. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
A brilliant and beautiful debut into adult SFF, this book will forever stand to me as a reminder of what excellent worldbuilding can look like. I was so unsurprised to learn that Martine had been a history major in college, because this is a book only a history major could write. It’s about space colonialism and epic poetry and the intricacies of cultural osmosis, also there are gay people in it! Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
My word this book is as depressing and fraught and intense as it is beautifully written. This novel follows the children of a dead prospector as they attempt to cope with his death (and his life, and each other). The twisting and dream-like imagery of the American West crafted here has almost no equal for me. I think this is an important book that you should read, but you’d be hard pressed to find anybody having any fun reading it. Also because I haven’t seen it listed anywhere, CW for transphobia against a transmasculine character. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
A Dowry of Blood by S. T. Gibson
Vampire harem, MFFM, lots of history and in second-person? Need I explain more why I loved this? Dracula is a big gaslighter but at least he’s hot. The writing is so lovely and weird and fluid, especially the sexier scenes. I don’t even think I need to describe the plot, you should just look at the cover and go from there. My rating is that vampires slap. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Nobody does it like my boy Big D. I’m referring, of course, to Fedya Dostoevsky, my good friend who I have never met, but who I have had many conversations with across time and space. I will always love The Brothers Karamazov, but unexpectedly, this much shorter book just jumped into my heart. It’s semi-autobiographical, about a man who is sent to prison in Siberia during the 19th century, and it is so dark but also so hopeful, and I’ll remember some of the insights about human perseverance and hope for the rest of my life. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I know you’re sick of hearing about this one, but I promise the reason why I like it isn’t the same one you’ve had presented to you. Yes, this is a long-ass book about pretentious students at a small liberal arts college who don’t know when to stop and kill their friend and it’s edgy and also bacchic, but it’s also fucking funny. I laughed so much reading this book, it’s absurd. I really do think it’s more satirical than many people make it out to be. Every character is a caricature, I love it. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
The Gray House — Mariam Petrosyan
Nobody on earth has read this except for me. Okay, technically that isn’t true, but it feels like that, and it’s so bizarre that I’m losing my mind attempting to figure it out by myself. “The Gray House” is about a Russian school for disabled children where the building is alive and some of the kids have pseudo-magical abilities. The English translation isn’t perfect, but that makes it feel even more dream-like and you know, I don’t think you’re supposed to understand everything that’s happening. It reminds me distinctly of the video game Pathologic somehow, in that you’re not intended to experience it in a fun way, but it’s still important. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
Steering the Craft by Ursula K LeGuin
This brilliant little book did more for me than 90% of books about writing and craft. Ms LeGuin takes up a lot of space on this list, but I don’t even care. If you write anything creative, I fully endorse reading this, and do the exercises! After reading this, I noticeably improved in my prose within a week, and I still think about the examples in it on a regular basis. Storygraph link here.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
I hope that the trend books like this help create will last and grow—that is, sci-fi books with political intrigue and worldbuilding and plot that also just happen to center around gay characters, whose identities are also implicated in the themes and structure of the novel. If you’re into the arranged diplomatic marriage trope at all, that’s basically the premise of the book, plus a murder mystery and space stuff! Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Looking back at this list, I think I discovered one of my all-time favorite narrative structures this year—a journal written in-universe, with annotations on it by another in-universe character. This book does just that, and it was so touching and weird. The diary of a young Japanese girl washes up on the beach, and the secondary narrator gets pulled into her world, coming to care for the girl and even trying to find her in the present day. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Maybe a difficult sell, but if you’ve ever wanted to read a re-telling of Faust written in Russia in the early 20th century, then this one’s right up your alley. It features dozens of absurd characters in a frenetic Moscow, while actual Satan comes to town to fuck with people for fun. It’s also one of the only books I’ve ever read that has a biblical christianity narrative that didn’t annoy the hell out of me. If you can read it in Russian, you should, but otherwise I think the Volokhonsky translation is pretty solid! Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson
Technically cheating because this is a trilogy, but if I had to sell you on one series I read this year, it would be these books. I don’t even know how to explain them. They’re sort of an alternate history of the late 17th century, but with alchemy. It has one of the most compelling, multi-book romance arcs I’ve ever read, I didn’t even care that they were “straight” because they acted gay. There’s pirates, historical humor, this wild juxtaposition of modern slang with baroque eloquence, some of the best and most exciting plot twists I’ve ever read in a book… and also Isaac Newton is there. Handel has a cameo and kills a Jesuit priest with a cello. By the final book, I felt like I really knew the main characters, and they still surprised and delighted me. Please read this insane series… or I guess just buy them and then use them as a doorstop. Quicksilver Storygraph link here. Quicksilver Bookshop link here. The Confusion (#2) Storygraph link here. The Confusion Bookshop link here. The System of the World Storygraph link here. The System of the World Bookshop link here.
Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses
I read a lot of books this year about craft and writing, and along with the LeGuin book, this one is definitely my favorite. I felt extremely validated reading it. It outlined all of the things that rankle me about how critique workshops usually go these days (the cone of silence, inability to write about unfamiliar topics/with unfamiliar words without having to explain them, the superiority complex of writing in a white, cishet world) but WHY these things are harmful and how to circumvent them. I can only hope that more writing programs and groups will pick up the techniques from this book and put them to meaningful use. Storygraph link. Bookshop link.
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K LeGuin
I could have cheated and put A Wizard of Earthsea, but I read that in 2020 so I went to the next book in the series, the no-less stellar sequel. This book is short and for the most part the language is simple, but it was so dense. It follows a young woman named Tenar who was chosen as a child to be the next high priestess of mysterious, demanding gods—and her journey to be free of her captors. Also Ged from the first book shows up, and he’s like… kind of sexy in this one, I’m not gonna lie. Hot wizard supremacy. Storygraph link. Bookshop link.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Fair warning about this, it is one of the most dense, world-building heavy, obscure and self-referential books I’ve ever read, which is exactly why I loved it. Have you ever wanted to read about a monk who belongs to a secret geometry club where Pythagoras is basically a saint? In an alternate version of earth? Where aliens show up? And it’s an epistolary novel? This one’s for you. It’s just so fun and bizarre and I feel like I learned a lot creatively from ingesting it. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever
Have you ever read a book that you dreamed about and it haunted you and followed you around like a gargoyle perched on your back? I loved this book and it tormented me. It follows two gay Jewish teens in the 1960’s as they dig themselves into codependency and do some pretty fucked up stuff. If you enjoy literary fiction or crime fiction at all, you’ve got to read this. I have no doubt it will be a staple and foundational book in these genres for years to come. Storygraph link. Bookshop link.
Petersburg Fin de Siècle by Mark Steinberg
I highly doubt anybody will enjoy this as much as I did. Judging by the double-digit number of reviews on Goodreads, I’m one of very few people who has read it at all. I read it for my thesis, which is about Russian culture at the turn of the century, and for a nonfiction book it is so lyrical and poetic, and I had to stop reading it every so often to quote lines out loud to whoever had the misfortune of being near me. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about St. Petersburg or Russian culture, check it out! Storygraph link. Bookshop link.
A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie does the epic fantasy, multiple characters, expansive world balancing act here with tact and style. The way that he weaves the different struggles, themes and lives of his characters in with the overall narrative is wonderfully coherent, and I’ll admit I read this in like two sittings because I was so absorbed. I don’t really know how to explain it, but it’s a really great effort to show how epic fantasy worlds would clash with modernity, war and economic crisis in a super thoughtful, uniquely humanizing way. Storygraph link. Bookshop link.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente
One of my only truly excellent middle grade reads this year. It’s a classic story about a girl who gets whisked away to a magic world, but I think it’s absolutely more than that. It’s modern, sarcastic, thoughtful and ironic—a much-needed update to the tradition of The Phantom Tollbooth and similar stories. It’s a short read and went by almost too quickly! Storygraph link. Bookshop link.
The Telling by Ursula K LeGuin
Okay, okay, I promise this is my last LeGuin book for this year. In my defense, I read a ton of her work, and it just happens to be awesome! The Telling is the eighth book in the Hainish cycle, LeGuin’s planetary-exploration sci-fi saga. It really digs into the intersections and oppositions of conservatism and progressivism, tradition and science. It’s a lovely, sad, poetic and impactful book. The main character, Sutty, is a gay woman of color, and her voice is wonderful to read—the lessons she learns about the value of storytelling and community are ones that I think most readers would benefit from immensely. Goodreads link.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Another novella! This short book is fantasy-horror and it’s about a group that uses magic to fight the Klu Klux Klan, which is actually a bunch of demons trying to invade the mortal world because a racist sorcerer told them to. It has so much weird body-horror and eldritch magic, but I also really appreciated how clear the book makes it that people are the worst evil, and not everything can be blamed on horrorterrors, not even in a fantasy world. Storygraph link. Bookshop link.
The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar
I went on a serious litfic detour in 2021, and I don’t regret it. This is also another book that falls into my “in-universe diary” wheelhouse! The Thirty Names of Night is about a closeted transmasc Syrian living in New York, and his re-discovery of his community’s history through a diary he finds hidden in an abandoned building. The trans experiences and the language in this book were just so poignant and they hit. I also learned a lot about birds! Storygraph link. Bookshop link.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
This is basically a book about this twink who gets stuck in a creepy house and turns into deranged Mister Tumnus from Narnia. Okay, maybe that is too blase, it’s also about academia and how legitimately dangerous it can be. Piranesi is stuck in this big bizarre otherworld house and guess what—the book is also a journal, because I’m nothing if not predictable. It’s kind of like if House of Leaves was much shorter and snappier, and you cared about what happened to the characters. Storygraph link. Bookshop link.
The Queer Principles of Kit Webb — Cat Sebastian
I’ll just say it, I’ll read literally any Cat Sebastian historical mm romance at this point. I’d read this and recommend it even if it wasn’t totally baller, but you’re in luck, because it kicks ass. We’ve got an ex-highwayman and this pretentious little disgraced noble and so much 18th century clothing. We’ve got cravats out the wazoo which is wonderful if you’re me. If you’ve been looking to try out a Cat Sebastian book and you just haven’t yet, this is a great one to start with. Storygraph link. Bookshop link.
Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
I feel like it’s futile to even attempt to sell you on The Locked Tomb, or even give you like… the gist. There’s no way to do that. Also I don’t want to. Look, if you didn’t read Gideon the Ninth two years ago, this is the sequel and it’s even better and more confusing. Do you like to read about gay people? Do you like books that give you a headache but it feels… good? Bones? Just please read this series, I don’t want to embarrass myself but I will. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
Dance Dance Revolution by Cathy Hong
A final novella, for the road! This is sort of a book of poetry and vignettes, but in certain ways it defies genre, which I loved. It’s about a woman known as “the guide” who is involved in a dissident movement in this strange desert tourist city. It features this intricate pidgin language composed of at least five other languages, such as Latin and French, and it’s a cool puzzle to figure out! The novella explores globalization and colonialism and it does so in a wicked interesting and nuanced way through the language itself. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
Middlemarch by George Elliot
For such an old-ass book, one which I was actually somewhat prepared to find boring, Middlemarch slapped. It wasn’t just “good for a 19th century English novel” it was straight-up a great read. Despite its length, there wasn’t a second of reading it that I didn’t feel compelled and interested by the gossip and details of the eponymous little town, the trials of its inhabitants and the wise, clever voice of the omniscient narrator. More books should have omniscient narration, I sincerely feel like we’ve forgotten how to do it right! Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
Love Speaks its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems edited by J.D. McLatchy
I don’t know if I was just in a weird mood that day, but when I read this I was sincerely having problems not crying at every poem. This is a lovely and varied collection, spanning countries and languages and time, and not only were the selected poems wonderful, I genuinely learned that more poets were gay than I had previously assumed. I knew Elizabeth Bishop before this, had no idea she was gay until now. I wish I owned this, because I only took it out from the library, and I’d love to re-read it! Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
The God Eaters by Jesse Hajicek
Several years ago, I saw a review of this book on Goodreads that was fairly whiny, complaining about the romance and that it was “too fanfiction-y” which of course meant I had to add it right away to my TBR. I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it this year! That annoying review was right, but in the best way possible. This mlm fantasy romance is set in a wild-west frontier, and the main characters have to deal directly with the consequences of colonialism, but also the machinations of unknowable divinities. These characters, Kieran and Ashleigh, felt so real to me—they suffer and hurt and they love each other, and the progression of their relationship made me really believe in that love. It’s a dark and painful book at times, but I genuinely do feel like those moments are handled well—and the warm, gentle moments come through all the more clearly. Storygraph link here. Bookshop link here.
And that’s all! Maybe you picked up one or two books for your TBR. Maybe you didn’t—but I hope you enjoyed reading my silly little thoughts on the silly little internet. Bye for now! You can find me on Twitter here, or buy me a coffee here 🙂