Season’s Readings everyone! Well, like 2020, 2021 has also been a year we will not soon forget. As the pandemic continues, and we navigate as best we can through what has become our “new normal,” the need for both respite and recreation has never been greater. 2021 also challenges us to look to authorities to gain understanding and answers to the questions that plague everyone in these uncertain times. Author Neil Gaiman tells us that “Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.” So it would seem that while non-fiction titles have always been the go to sources for truth, the truth can, and will, be found in the fiction books we enjoy as well. And that truth, from either source, is equally important at this time in history, where facts and reason are often devalued in the face of feelings and misinformation.
Below I’m sharing the titles from 2021 that I feel most compellingly offer bits of truth about ourselves, others, and the world in which we live in ways that are both entertaining and enlightening.
As I’ve done the last few years, I’ve listed these books in alphabetical order by title until the last entry, which is, in my opinion, the best book I’ve read in 2021. Also, as in previous years, you will find interviews with the authors of many of these titles on the LAPL Blog and more in-depth reviews on LAPL Reads. I hope you will enjoy reading these titles as much as I have enjoyed reading and sharing them with you now. Happy Holidays, and Happy Reading!
In The Album of Dr. Moreau, author Daryl Gregory explores the world of boy bands, crazed fans, locked-room mysteries, police procedurals, and personhood. The beginning of the novella lists T.S. Eliot’s “Five Rules of Detective Fiction” and then follows as Gregory gleefully breaks every single one while still providing a fascinating and enjoyable mystery. The text is littered with sharp observations, witty allusions, and puns, lots and lots of groan worthy puns. But Gregory also raises some of the original questions that H.G. Wells explored in 1896 in The Island of Dr. Moreau.
The Album of Dr. Moreau is an intriguing story and a fun read that touches on serious questions. It is science fiction at its absolute best!
It is clear that Pip Williams loves language. In her debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, she examines cultural attitudes about words, why some are considered “acceptable” while others are not for use in “polite company” and how even the most “questionable” words have their times and uses. All of this is done by following Esme Nicoll, the fictitious daughter of a member of the team of men that labored for decades to complete the first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s life begins near the end of the Victorian era and continues through suffrage and the first World War, allowing Williams to explore the societal and classist mores women had to navigate while living their daily lives.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is engrossing, captivating, and thoroughly enjoyable.
In The Final Girl Support Group, Grady Hendrix does for films like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween what Stephen Sondheim did for fairy tales with Into the Woods. He shifts the focus and takes the action off the screen, telling readers what may happen when the nightmare is over and the “final girl” has to struggle to pick up the pieces of her shattered existence. He moves beyond the last page, or frame, and shows the struggle of moving past and surviving Hendrix’s equivalents of Jason, Freddy and Michael Meyers, while continuously poking fun at the source material.
Hendrix creates memorable characters out of their one dimensional film progenitors thrusting them into, and keeping them in, the spotlight. Make no mistake, this book is about the survivors, not the perpetrators.
With breakneck action, an ever present sense of foreboding, and a wicked sense of humor, Hendrix utilizes, skewers, subverts, and lampoons every trope in the slasher film library. The Final Girls Support Group is a humorous, horrifying, page-turner!
Mallory O’Meara, the author of 2019’s excellent The Lady from the Black Lagoon, is back with Girly Drinks, an ambitious, timely and imminently readable chronicle of women’s history with alcohol. In a mere 15 chapters, 335 pages, O’Meara tells a tale that spans from pre-history to the modern day, documenting not only the development of the alcoholic beverage, but how women have, at every point in history been critical to the development, making, marketing, sales, and distribution of alcohol in every culture on the planet. All while simultaneously being restricted, forbidden, taxed and imprisoned for doing so. All of this told in O’Meara’s strong but conversational voice. Girly Drinks is a must read!
In The Mary Shelley Club, Goldy Moldavsky writes a frightful love letter to horror literature and films. She does so with a cast of characters that reflect many of the regular horror topes and plot filled with twists, turns and surprises when the reader least expects them.
With an intriguing premise, memorable characters and numerous references to horror books and films, both classic and contemporary, The Mary Shelley Club is a thrilling, chilling read.
In Anne Youngson’s sophomore novel, The Narrowboat Summer she follows three women, who are incredibly different in almost every significant way, and a dog, as they navigate the British canals and the demands of their individual existences. This is a gentle novel, paced to match the mode of transportation that is central to the story (narrowboats move at approximately 4 MPH). Youngson’s use of the UK canal system is wonderful. It not only slows both women down from the rapid pace of their regular lives, it also provides a marvelous metaphor for life in general.
The Narrowboat Summer is a kind, sensitive, and thoughtful novel about finding yourself, finding others, and discovering what can happen when you slow down long enough to really plan where you want to go.
In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers, the award-winning author of The Wayfarers series, returns with a quiet novella that is quirky, thoughtful, and hopeful. Chambers uses the moon of Panga, an Earth like moon, and its inhabitants, biological and artificial, to explore not only Earth’s past, but also a future we would be lucky to achieve.
Chambers also explores some of the “big questions” that we all ponder. For that purpose, she has created a fascinating pair of characters: Sibling Dex, a self-declared and self-taught tea monk who is looking for more from their existence, and Splendid Speckled Mosscap, the first robot to venture into human habitations in centuries. Together, they are perfectly suited to debate and explore these “big questions” of life (both theirs and ours).
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is beautiful, thought provoking, and unrelentingly optimistic.
Taking his inspiration from a nearly forgotten chapter of history, the accusation that Dr. David Acer, a Florida dentist, infected his patients with AIDS in 1990, poet Steven Reigns examines and recreates the events surrounding Dr. Acer and those who accused him. More importantly, he looks beyond the overly simplified labels applied by the media to create portraits of frightened people who were clinging desperately to a story that seemed at the time to hide the secrets they could not admit to themselves or others.
Reigns also provides a terrifying reminder of how facts and data were, and continue to be, overlooked when they are in conflict with people’s fears, anxieties, and beliefs. It is difficult to read about the wild accusations and political maneuvering of three decades ago and not be struck by the similarities that are playing out now as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thoughtful, thought-provoking, timely, and long overdue, A Quilt for David provides the “other sides” of the story sensationalized in the press. And Reigns stresses that, while there were some monstrous actions taken by some, none of the people involved were monsters.
Two young men, who are deeply in love, married, and fathers to a young girl. Two fathers, who cannot accept their sons as they are nor the life they are creating. Two senseless murders that remove any possibility of reconciliation or the chance to say what should have been said. Two unlikely partners, intent on discovering who killed their sons and why, who will stop at nothing to secure vengeance.
In Razorblade Tears, S.A. Crosby follows Ike and Buddy Lee, two ex-convicts and proudly “conventional” men who are also the fathers of their gay sons who have been mysteriously murdered. Based on the details given to him by law enforcement, Ike believes this was an execution, but he has no idea why anyone would want these young men dead. Buddy Lee is insistent that Ike join him in finding out who killed their sons. While Ike initially resists, he finally agrees. As they learn more about the lives their sons were creating and living, they are exposed to perspectives completely outside of their own range of experience. Part “buddy” book, part mystery, and part thriller, Razorblade Tears combines all of these elements into a compelling read of regret, self-examination, and revenge.
Boris Karloff, the actor best known for playing the Monster in Universal Studios’ Frankenstein, and Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe and a pioneer of detective mystery fiction, both attended Dulwich College in the South of London. Kim Newman uses this bit of trivia as the basis for an unlikely fictional friendship and then places the two men in 1930s Hollywood with the shared acquaintance of Joh Devlin, an investigator for the DA’s office. When Devlin approaches his friends to help with a case involving some odd occurrences at a B-movie studio, none of the men are prepared for what awaits them.
Something More Than Night is part hard-boiled mystery, part mad science-driven horror, and part buddy adventure. The resulting creation is a page-turning mystery/horror novel that is fascinating, exciting, and more fun than it has any right to be. This is a must-read for mystery and horror fans alike!
In Under the Whispering Door, TJ Klune explores not only what lies “beyond the veil” but the paths that we choose along our journey. Just as Charles Dickens warned the world to mend their ways in A Christmas Carol, TJ Klune makes his case in Under the Whispering Door for readers to examine their priorities, consider their choices, and take advantage of the time they have before it is lost.
Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune is a quiet and thoughtful exploration of life, death, and everything in-between and beyond.
In her fourth book, Vampirology, science communicator/educator Dr. Kathryn Harkup, takes on vampires! She traces the earliest stories and folklore of vampiric creatures and follows our fascination with these legendary bloodsuckers through to their contemporary portrayals in popular culture. All the while examining the science involved and the possible real-life occurrences that may be the grains of truth behind the legends.
Fascinating, compelling and informative, Vampirology is a must-read for fans of vampire media, regardless of the form!
In 2016, P. Djeli Clark introduced readers to his alternate Egypt and the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities on Tor.com in his short story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”. In 2019, he returned to Egypt and the Ministry to investigate The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Now Clark has given readers his first novel length adventure of mystery, magic, romance, and danger in A Master of Djinn. And it was well worth the wait!
A Master of Djinn is everything readers have come to hope for and expect from Clark: fascinating characters, snappy dialogue, and thrilling adventures all set in a gorgeously reimagined, magically infused Cairo of a century ago.
At the center of the story are his most engaging creations: Agent Fatma and Siti. Like a 21st century Hepburn and Tracy, Fatma and Siti banter, jockey for control, and, ultimately, succumb to the passion that both attracts them to each other and propels them through the mystery that they are facing, realizing, ultimately, that they are stronger together (and given who each young woman is, that is really saying something!).
While the novel is set over a century ago, Clark is able to make thoughtful and pointed observations about race, class, gender, orientation, and imperialism that are every bit as relevant and timely as they would have been in 1912.
A Master of Djinn is Clark’s first novel and is my favorite book of the year. Clark is a writer to watch and will soon be, I’m certain, a well-known name in fantasy households soon. Read him now, so you can say you were reading him before everyone else discovered how wonderful his work is!