Update: Ooops. I published before I was done. I’ve updated it, making small revisions here and there, and adding the two remaining books I meant to mention. I was going to write about some honorable mentions, but eh, nah. I’m not giving awards, just mentioning books I liked.
ORIGINAL POST: Here they are:
I guess I’ll say a few words about which books were the standouts for me last year. You can see that below.
- Hidden Folk and Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason. Both are short story collections: the former doing wild things with Icelandic saga and folklore material, the latter titled after the main story, an alternate history where one dedicated First Nations woman manages to bring back woolly mammoths back from extinction (in a world where they’d survived into the 20th century). I loved both these books. I wrote this about the first one, and this about the second.
- Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel by Milorad Pavic, translated by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric. It’s a very weird, experimental fiction book that also manages to be a historical fantasy, and manages to do hardcore worldbuilding right. (That is, by foregrounding the worldbuilding instead of trying to shoehorn it into a narrative.) See what I wrote about it here.
- Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur. A collection of dark, bizarre neo-fairytales, mostly about the horrors of our world’s (and specifically South Korea’s) distressing treatment of women. I discussed it here.
- The last few of Jack Vance’s Demon Princes novels, which were just good old space opera fun, about revenge and the pathetic nature of bullying sociopaths. I discussed the last book here; I think I liked the best—or at least, I remember it best.
- Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie, a collection of fantastical (mostly fantasy) short stories mostly exploring issues related to language, cultural identity, racialized experience, and and memory. I discussed it here.
- Embassytown by China Miéville is a challenging book—especially as an audiobook—but a wild science-fantasy exploration of language, communication, and otherness. I found it very memorable, mostly because what a setting! See my post about it here.
- Vermilion by Molly Tanzer was a creepy and fun weird western set in San Francisco and Colorado. I dug the protagonist, the exploration of marginal status and racial liminality, and weird mix of supernatural and alternate historical elements. I discussed it here.
- Muse Sick: a music manifesto in fifty-nine notes by Ian Brennan. A great piece of writing about the ill health of the music industry and our relationship to art, which I think is also very much applicable to other creative fields. I discussed it here.
- Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson is one of those books that, when you read it, suddenly a lot makes sense about the world around you. (So might a lot about your parents and your childhood.) The premise is simple: parents who grew up in conditions that left them emotionally stunted usually pass this on, often because they’re not emotionally mature enough to realize their own stunted state. When their kids grow up into adults, they often struggle with the baggage, experience some degree of emotional stunting themselves, and usually struggle to clearly see or understand the emotional stuntedness of their parents or themselves. This book is about breaking that cycle. I discussed it here.
- The Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer: Rediscovered Recipes for Classic Brews Dating from 1800 to 1965 by Ronald Pattinson. A recipe-filled history of British brewing from the last few centuries. Well worth a read, and I hope to try out at least a few of the recipes this winter. I posted about it here.
- Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses. This is one of two books I read about decolonizing creative writing education. The other is Feliicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. Both are great, both have different overall approaches to solving the same problem, and I recommend both, but I think Salesses’ book helped me more because its engagement with “craft” was something I was more dubious about, while the kind of racial, experimental approach to pedagogy Chavez favors is something with which I have already been experimenting. I discussed both books here.
- Modern Jazz Voicings by Ted Pease is a great book for understanding how to use voicings in small and medium-sized jazz ensembles, though it’s best to have a solid footing on Berklee’s official terminology for jazz theory, and a solid footing in chord/scale theory, before starting in on it. I got a lot out of it, and am now slowly working through other the theory book, with plans to dig into the Large Ensemble arranging book later this year. I discussed the book here.
- Mouse Guard: The Owlhen Caregiver. I read a number of Mouse Guard books with my son (including the entire Legends of the Guard trilogy of collections, the Mouse Guard Alphabet, and the Baldwin the Brave collection), and they were all good, but this one stuck with me the most, and is definitely the standout. I’m excited to see where David Petersen goes with this. See my discussion of this volume here.
- Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time by James Gurney. When I tried to find a copy during a trip to the US back in 2019, I couldn’t. One used bookstore owner said they used to have it in all the time, but they never do anymore. Having read it, I can see why: it’s a brilliantly imaginative setting with gorgeous illustrations. See my comments here.
- The Katurran Odyssey: An Epic Adventure of Courage, Discovery, and Hope, illustrated by Terryl Whitlatch and written by David Michael Wieger. This was exactly what is says on the tin—an epic adventure of courage, discovery, and hope—but on top of that, it’s a lavishly illustrated animal adventure story. I read this to my son, but I enjoyed it as much as he did. I discussed it here.
- My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf was a sympathetic, circumspect look at the youth of the monster Jeffrey Dahmer, written and drawn by a classmate of his. Backderf isn’t an apologist, by any means, but he does make clear that at least part of the problem with Dahmer was how literally every adult let him down throughout long stretches of his life, especially in high school. The point being not to excuse Dahmer, but to indict everyone else who let him down—I think including the author himself, to some degree. I discussed it here.
- Uzumaki by Junji Ito. I read a bunch of Junji Ito collections from the library toward the end of the year, and this one stood out most. It’s got a haunting premise and manages to be episodic, but also to bring things together in the end to a really over-the-top climax. I posted about it here.
- Saga, written by Brian Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples. I’m reading this series slowly, but enjoying each installment as I do. I briefly discussed the series most recently here.
- Wanderhome by Jay Dragon is a fascinating, challenging game. It’s sweet, potent, weird, beautiful, honest, and fascinating, not just as a game system but, I content, a meditation on how the vast array of questions that proceed from looking at narratives, games, and the world through a queer lens. It’s a challenging game, to say the least, but I very much want to revisit it with people interested in giving it a try. Er, I’m putting that badly, so see my (long) discussion of the game here.
- Scourge of the Scornlords by Ahimsa Kerp and Wind Lothamer is the third of the campaign setting books in the series that began with The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia. The guys at Knight Owl are friends of mine, but I honestly think they’re doing consistently interesting, quirky, and eminently playable OSR design, and Scornlords is no exception. This one is a gritty badlands-type setting built for exploration, and it recalls Dark Sun, Mad Max, and—for me—M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books, though I’m told it wasn’t an influence. Even after helping playtest this, I still really enjoyed reading the book. See what I wrote here.
- The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje is a book I’ve had around for ages, and never gotten around to. I’m glad I finally did, as it’s an amazing collection of poems that relate a kind of exploded epic about the eponymous character. I should read more poetry. No, I will read more poetry this year. There, a resolution of sorts. Anyway, see what I wrote about it here.