Saturday, January 01, 2022

Favorite Books of the Year: 2021

I used to have a whole series of New Year posts, that I'd write during Christmas week (when I was generally on vacation) to sum up the year. That fell apart the last two years, for reasons that aren't the ones you might think. But things got better in 2021, and I think I can pull together a post of the books I want to celebrate and remember.

It might not be like the past, but here's what I did in the past: 2020, 2019, 20182017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

It looks like I'll end this year at 175 books, mostly graphic novels - that's right in line with my recent years that aren't Book-A-Day. For comparison, the past few years in reverse chronological order, running back through the last three Books-A-Day, had 75, 44, 433, 139, 161, 175, 282, 156, 158, 146, and 362 books read, respectively.

So I'm going to do this like 2017-2015 and 2013-2011, with the caveat that I know I didn't read a lot of books. But here's what's worth remembering of what I did read.

First, the short form of my

Rules & Explanations:

  • This list is finalized on December 31 on purpose; it includes everything I read this year.
  • These are favorites, not "best." I can't define "best."
  • This is not separated or compartmentalized by genre; it's everything I read all in one stew.
  • Each month gets some also-rans; the bolded book is the pick.
  • I try to gravitate to newish books for the picks; it doesn't always work.


I read new collections from both of the Hernandez Brothers: Jaime's Tonta and Gilbert's Maria M., both of which were strong and good in their own ways. Tonta was a weird mixture of goofy and serious; Maria M. was all serious, bordering on the melodramatic - both of which are pretty typical for their creators.

Maggy Garrison, by Lewis Trondheim and Stephane Oiry, was surprising - a modern-day crime thriller set in the UK, not at all what I expected from Trondheim - and very good.

But the book of the month was Michael Swanwick's novel The 
Iron Dragon's Mother
, which closed out a very loose "trilogy" of fantasy novels with a deep, resonant book that ranged across a dark, specific world to tell one of the very best fantasy stories I've ever read.


When I do these lists each year, I find my reading in particular months often falls into unexpected categories - or, at least, the books that loom in memory do that. For February 2021, I had three very memorable reprints of comics projects, very different from each other.

Trese: Murder on Balete Drive began a US reprinting of the excellent urban-fantasy series from the Philippines (and steeped in local folklore and color, the way the best urban fantasy is) by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldismo.

Flaming Carrot Comics: Omnibus Vol. 1 collects roughly half of the title series, the central work of Bob Burden, who will always be to me the madman of comics. And I mean that in the very best, most positive way: Burden writes and draws and thinks like no one else, telling stories like the fever dreams the most interesting people in the world have.

And Mister X: The Archives collected the classic run of that series, by Dean Motter and a whole bunch of other people. It wasn't always consistent, and it isn't necessarily coherent all as one package, but it's a huge package of attitude and style and energy that is uniquely '80s.

But the book that stands out the most for the month was newer: Snapdragon, a young adult graphic novel by Kat Leyh, about all of the kinds of family and connections that young people make and need and find.


March, on the other hand, was all about new comics projects - new or almost new things that were all exciting and energizing in their own ways.

Ryan North and Albert Monteys brilliantly adapted a book that shouldn't have been adaptable into Slaughterhouse-Five: The Graphic Novel.

Joe Sacco returned with another deeply researched, carefully reported look at the real world in Paying the Land.

Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell told a great story of modern love and relationships (with a big sideline in getting out of those relationships) in Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me.

Eleanor Davis gave us a thoughtful, if only mildly hopeful, near future in The Hard Tomorrow.

John Allison and his collaborators (this time, Max Sarin and Whitney Cogar) finished out the Giant Days saga in the last four volumes collecting that comic (Vols. 11-14).

Noelle Stevenson gave us a deeply personal collection of comics covering a tumultuous period of their young life in The Fire Never Goes Out.

Andi Watson returned to graphic novels for adults with the quiet (and disquieting) The Book Tour, a great, deep, resonant book which very nearly took the top slot for this month.

But I also read Solutions and Other Problems, the second collection of Allie Brosh's hard-to-define work (comics? illustrated essays? blog posts?), which is both full of insights and unique thoughts in itself and the catalyst for a lot of thinking about how people are different in their experiences and perceptions. 


I had fewer books to mention for April - that happens; sometimes we read less and sometimes we read just as much but enjoy less - but I did finally get to James Gleick's fun non-fiction book Time Travel, a tour through the fact and fiction of that common SF trope. 

The favorite for the month was a fantasy novella, propelled by a great voice: Prosper's Demon by K.J. Parker. Like all the best novellas, it's just as long as it needs to be, aimed straight at a perfect ending. Parker is a writer I keep saying I need to read more of: if he keeps writing novellas, I just might be able to do that.


There's no rhyme or reason to the books I read in May, so I won't try to force them into a narrative. Worth remembering:

Adrian Tomine turned to memoir with the deep and affecting The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist.

I got to the several-years old SF novel Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, which I enjoyed and found infuriating in almost equal amounts.

Another book a few years old: I got to Yoshiharu Tsuge's The Man Without Talent, one of the great books in the entire world about a slacker, featuring a man who could slack for his country if that didn't require effort.

Derf Backderf revisited his childhood - readers, brace for a huge tonal shift in the second half of this sentence - in his excellent, well-researched book on a local massacre you may have heard about, Kent State.

But there was no question about my favorite book of the month: there was a new Murderbot book, and it was just as good as the previous ones. (I may have mentioned that I am a sucker for a good, vibrant first-person narrator, and Murderbot is that in spades.) It was Fugitive Telemetry, it was by Martha Wells as always, and it was wonderful.


Another month of randomness; I'll start with Borja Gonzalez's A Gift for a Ghost, a lovely graphic novel that tells two intertwined stories in two different time periods.

I also read Lawrence Block's then-brand-new (my review posted on its publication day, something vanishingly rare for me in these latter days) professional autobiography, A Writer Prepares. It was inevitably lumpy - it was half-written in 1994 and finished in 2020 - but full of great Block writing and thought.

The favorite of the month was, surprise of surprises! another book that I read before publication, as if I were still an editor or something. Barbarians of the Beyond is an authorized sequel to Jack Vance's "Demon Princes" novels, by the most Vancean of modern writers, Matthew Hughes. That sounds like faint praise, but just writing coherently in a Vance style is a massive achievement, and Hughes has been doing that - and other things - well and entertainingly for a couple of decades now.


I finally read Joan Didion's famous first collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and found it as strong and true as it had been hyped as: a collection of moments from the late '60s in California, crystalizing a deeply important American time.

I'm still not sure how to refer to the cartoonist who made the graphic novel Room for Love: he's credited as "Ilya" on the book, but has been "Ed Hillyer" on other projects. Whoever he is, he made a strong story of two people connecting through sex, while also not connecting at all.

I found Kij Johnson's The River Bank lovely, if (deliberately) small: a century-later sequel to The Wind in the Willows that finds a way to include female persons in something like a re-run of the storyline of the original.

Another book I finally got to, even though it had been available my entire life and even longer: Chester Himes's gripping A Rage in Harlem, billed as the first of a series of detective novels but really a one-off crime story about one much-too-gullible man and all the chaos he falls into.

My favorite of the month is a book I had been wishing would exist for years: a large, nearly complete collection of Shary Flenniken's strip from the National LampoonTrots and Bonnie. It is one of the great feminist books of our times, and a great book to hand to any young man interested in young women but saddled with weird assumptions about them.


Richard Thompson - the British singer, songwriter, and bandleader, not the US cartoonist or anyone else by that name - told the story of the first decade or so of his musical career well and with great insight in Beeswing.

Guillaume Singelin told a dark but ultimately hopeful story, set in a mildly dystopian future, about former soldiers and their troubles, in PTSD.

Isabel Greenberg provided an idiosyncratic fictionalized version of the Bronte siblings and their invented worlds with Glass Town.

And my favorite for the month was a collection of immediate, politically-motivated comics stories by Nate Powell, all about pushing back against creeping fascism and authoritarianism, Save It For Later.


The best, most perfect book I read this month was Sean Stewart's twenty-year-old fantasy novel Perfect Circle, which I recommend whole-heartedly to anyone and everyone. But it is twenty years old, and I was reading it again, so under my quirky rules it doesn't really count.

Newer, and much more frivolous, was Sarah Andersen's Fangs, the story of the everyday life of a female vampire and male werewolf, told in a gag-a-day style. It was a lot of fun, and a book I oddly look back at with even more affection than when I was reading it.

My actual favorite of the month was the deep and thoughtful Portugal, a graphic novel by the cartoonist Pedrosa, about a cartoonist much like himself and that man's almost accidental exploration into his roots.


As I start typing here, I haven't decided what my favorite is: I have two candidates, and need to pick between them. Let's see how I feel as I go.

I'll start with Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns, & Moonage Daydreams by Michael Allred, Steve Horton, and Laura Allred. It's a nice biographical graphic novel, focused on roughly one year in Bowie's life, though its depths are mostly for serious fans.

When Stars Are Scattered is a great memoir in comics form, by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohammed, and also a great book about the refugee experience that I wish a lot more people would read and understand.

Speaking of refugees, soon afterward I read Tian Veasna's Year of the Rabbit, another memoir of a refugee family of an earlier generation (Cambodia, post-Khmer Rouge in the late '70s), which is less immediate but darker and more of a warning to the relatively rich and settled among us.

Another step on the same path: Banned Book Club - by Kim Hyung Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada - showed a different kind of oppressive regime: South Korea just a few years later, through the eyes of a fictionalized version of one of the authors.

Now I come to the hard choice. I think the one that just missed is Lavie Tidhar's great new fantasy novel The Escapement: it's smart and thoughtful and tricky and sneaky and fun, and I'm not going to say one word against it.

But my favorite of any month always has to be the book I keep thinking about afterward, the one that forces me to keep reconsidering it and makes me want to read it again. So it has to be Henry McCausland's Eight-Lane Runaways, a graphic novel that I'm still not sure if it's an allegory or not.


So there's a thing in graphic novels - I don't think it has a specific name, but it's nearly its own genre. The creator looks back at an important moment in their earlier life, either directly or semi-fictionalized. As it happens, I read a memorable example of each this month.

Hazel Newlevant's No Ivy League was the one that, as far as I can tell, was entirely factual, telling the story of one summer about a decade ago.

Charles Forsman's Celebrated Summer, on the other hand, is at least slightly fictionalized, since the "Charles Forsman" character is named something else. This one told the story of one day.

But my favorite was an entirely fictional graphic novel, from Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard (which I got to a few years late, but I'll still count it): Wild's End 1: First Light. It's a riff on War of the Worlds in a rural England, among characters who are lightly influenced by The Wind in the Willows, and it's both gripping and smart about its characters.


I spent the last week of the year reading a bunch of mostly-new graphic novels that I got myself for the holidays, from various sales in the previous months. (And that's one major reason I've always done these lists to include everything I read that year, and only finalize on New Year's Eve: the book I'm reading that day could easily be one of the best of the year.) So this month may be jam-packed.

It took me longer to read Charles Stross's Dead Lies Dreaming than I would have liked, for mostly "me" reasons, but I loved getting a new perspective on his steadily-worsening "Laundry" world, on the verge of multiple magical apocalypses.

Should I mention that I re-read Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's awesome Mr. Punch, more-or-less for it's twenty-fifth anniversary? I think I just did.

Dash Shaw's Discipline was a great book from this year, the story of one young Quaker going off to fight in the Civil War and the sister he left behind - told in a very different way than you would expect from that description.

The book that nearly was my favorite was Will McPhail's first graphic novel, In. It is smart and assured and does about a dozen things brilliantly, and I thought when I read it that it would be the obvious choice for the month.

But a couple of days later I read Ray Fawkes's tour-de-force One Line, which does roughly two dozen things brilliantly, and that had to take the crown. But hitting two such great books so closely together is a wonderful, invigorating experience: I recommend both of them very strongly.

And that all means my list, reorganized to be alphabetical by title and with links to the posts that have already gone live, is

2021's Top Twelve:

That's what was worth remembering in my reading from this year. I hope some of it sparks your interest and you find some books that you will love.

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