In 2020 I read something like 148 books. This is the most books I’ve ever read. Mostly, this was because I was in quarantine most of the year and there was nothing else to do. By contrast, in 2021, I read 78 books. This is the lowest number in the last ten years. I did a lot of writing, and the library I work at was open all year. Plus, I developed this weird resistance to reading books that I found emotionally intense which slowed me down. Not sure what that was about.
But I did read 78 books and I wanted to highlight the best of them, so here are the five best books I read last year.
5. Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.
Black Sun is an epic fantasy inspired by the pre-columbian cultures of Central and North America. It is brilliant, with incredibly well-drawn characters that draw from sources very far away from the normal epic fantasy tropes. There’s a young woman with a secret, a priestess with a common heritage navigating the halls of power, and a young man on an epic journey, at the end of which he is destined to break the world, among others. The plot is intriguing and the worldbuilding is amazing, taking you to places you’ve never seen before, based on cultures that don’t see themselves represented in this genre very often. Highly recommended.
4. Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to get through hard times by making up stories by Charlie Jane Anders.
Charlie Jane Anders has written some of my favorite books of the last couple of years, including All the Birds in the Sky, a fusion of science fiction and urban fantasy. In Never Say You Can’t Survive, she discusses how storytelling can help us heal from traumas both past and present, and how to use everything that happens to you in the act of writing fiction. Her insights are brilliant, both in her ideas regarding craft, and in her perceptions into psychology. She unlocked for me a way of thinking about stories that has already impacted my work, and led to some plot developments in my latest book. I’ve always thought of Artists as being people who processed things that happened to them with an eye to transforming them, and reflecting them back on the world, and Anders has given us a guide on how to do that. One of the best books on craft I’ve ever read.
3. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
What would you do if you could go back in time and change the decisions you made? What kind of life would you be living now if you had/hadn’t married that person, gotten the degree you were thinking about, pursued the athletic dreams of your father, or developed your artistic skills? This is a book that examines that question. Nora, the main character, is 35 years old and considers herself a complete failure. When she tries to kill herself, she ends up in an in-between place based on the library she went to when she was a child in school. Here, she gets the chance to look at the other lives she might have lived and is given the opportunity to choose one of them to slide permanently into. But each life she imagines in the result of a different choice she has made. Will she be able to find a new life for herself before her time in the library expires and she dies for real.
This book is beautifully written, and it will definitely make you think about your own life and the choices you have made. The resolution is perfect.
2. Becoming a Writer/Staying a Writer by J. Michael Straczynski
J. Michael Straczynski has had a writing career that spans over forty years, in an industry that typically only gives writers a chance for less than ten. He is most known for writing and producing the television series Babylon 5, though he’s written other shows and numerous movies, such as The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie, for which he received an Oscar nomination. He’s written books, comics, scripts, and teleplays, constantly reinventing himself along the way.
In this, his book on the lifestyle and craft of writing, he divides his advice into two sections. The first, Becoming a Writer, is about how to build a writer’s craft to the level that they can make a living from it. There’s some beginning level advice here about how to tell stories and build them so they’re effective, but he also includes advice about how to break into whatever industry a writer chooses to pursue, be that film and television, or traditional book publishing.
The second half, Staying a Writer, focuses on how to continue to build a long-lasting career once you’ve broken in. It’s about how to keep your work fresh, and how to keep seeking new opportunities and keep your name out there, so you can continue to sell. His advice is both general and specific, drawing from his decades of experience.
But this is no dry ‘how-to’ book. His writing style in engaging, and he peppers his advice with stories of the many famous writers and film personalities he’s met along the years. There’s also a chapter for non-writers, all about how to support the writer in your life. This book is perfect for anyone interested in storytelling in any form, whether or not you choose to make a career doing it.
1. The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig.
I was so emotionally affected by this book that it is still difficult to write about, several weeks later. This is, ostensibly, a horror. And it is scary. But one thing I hate about horror novels is how they throw away their characters, and that is absolutely not the case here.
This is a book about love. And family. And how these are the things that can save us. It is also a book about cycles of trauma, and how they can be perpetuated, or interrupted, based on the choices and the efforts of the people who are experiencing them. This book is an emotional roller-coaster, but it ends, unlike many horror novels, by making you feel better about the potential the world has to remake us, and our potential to make and remake ourselves.
There’s not much I can say about the plot that won’t spoil things. You just need to read it. It is a novel about hope and trust and love, and how sometimes these are all we need to stave off the end of the world. Read it. It was my favorite book I read this year.