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All the Books I Ended Up Reading in 2021

About halfway through the year I decided that “I really should read more books” and also because I had started working again, I needed interesting audio to occupy me as well as something to read on my phone while on my commute. This is not a sponsored post but I would like to give all my thanks to Libby, the library app on which I read all these books, some as ebooks and some as audiobooks. It’s really helped me out! 

I decided to write fairly short-ish reviews of all the books I completed, roughly in the order that I read them. No stars, because I always feel a bit weird choosing the amount of stars, but I did want to give my impressions and thoughts. It was a very interesting year with a lot of fantasy and scifi, but also a lot of contemporary and literary stuff as well, which was neat.

  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
    • This was recommended to me by the lovely jprambles, after we were hanging out and accidentally stumbled upon a bookstore that very conveniently had it on one of the front displays. I started and I was pretty much extremely hooked! I loved the way it kind of progressed like a conversation, in that it wasn’t necessarily linear but meandered between the past and present lives of its main characters and their very different personalities, backgrounds, and approaches to solving their problems. After witnessing many frustrating discussions about what is considered “acceptable” or not in queer fiction, it was really refreshing to read this book that basically was about very complex and messy characters with conflicting needs and desires just trying to live their lives.
    • What stood out to me particularly was that the entire premise is very much in tune with like. A kind of queer idealized desire of found family, of making things work and triumphing in the face of hardship, etc. Which is an awesome goal to want on its own, but definitely full of its own conflicts and frustrations, from big issues like systemic prejudice etc to small ones like quarreling over what kind of sleeping arrangement your surrogate baby one should buy. It was also nice in this story to dig into how much people’s personal baggage, relationship to identity (racial/gender/sexuality), and desires will have to really be deeply challenged in order to be in relationship. The story really highlighted that difficulty, as well as how much work everyone had to put in despite various misunderstandings and emotional frustration, and in the end (spoiler i guess) it leaves us hanging as to how it ultimately resolves. Which is a bit bittersweet, but I thought it was done in a way that didn’t diminish anyone’s desires and efforts. 
    • (additionally, I really enjoyed this interview with Torrey Peters as well after reading it!) 
  • Tampa by Alissa Nutting
    • The fact that I had heard it brought up while listening to the Lolita Podcast earlier last year, and the fact that the protagonist is an English teacher who preys upon a teenage boy, I kind of expected the style of the book to be similar to Lolita–very pretentious and literary, with the main character being the type to hide her manipulative actions under a veneer of pretty language and appeals to a kind of social legitimacy. But I found none of that in Tampa–the writing style is horny, straightforward, and sharp, with a violence and intensity to it that was very compelling. I liked seeing the complexity of Celeste being both a predator who uses and discards her young victims without remorse, but also someone who is both subject to and invested in perpetuating a misogynistic society that only values women for beauty and youth. 
  • The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso
    • I really, really wanted to like this book when I started, since it had a lot of elements I was interested in set in a Filipino and Asian inspired world. But it was incredibly hard to get into. A lot of the pacing and structure of the plot was weird, and there were lots of long sections especially in the beginning that served to set up characters by just telling us about their reputations rather than demonstrating it, which sometimes caused a kind of dissonance when characters, described one way, did not act in ways that lined up with their descriptions. For example the main character spends a lot of time talking up and narrating about how tough and menacing she is, and how she is feared and hated by lots of people, but the majority of the time we see her in the story she is being put in vulnerable or humiliating situations, surrounded by people who disrespect and condescend to her. It’s a very “I’m very tough actually (source: dude trust me)” kind of story which was very frustrating to read through. It would have been interesting if the book was self-aware of this, and framed it as an unreliable narrator (like maybe the character’s coping mechanism of dealing with her insecurity.). I disagree with some of the negative reviews I’ve read that complain about the “soap opera” esque plot between the character and her husband and say it isn’t fitting for a fantasy story–I think petty drama and relationships and divorce-dynamics between royals, with fantasy elements in the background, can be very compelling. However I just don’t feel like it was executed very well at all, and maybe it would’ve been better if it was presented more honestly as a story about interpersonal relationships. There were lots of individual passages and aspects that were interesting and well done, and I appreciate the ambitious scope of the author. In a funny way, it’s ended up being more inspiring to me as a Filipino person interested in fantasy despite all its flaws and frustration that its given me.
  • Good by S. Walden
    • The only Amazon ebook I ended up reading out of all of this, although apparently I went back to check and the book is both out of print, and also the ebook I bought is no longer available! Just goes to show that “ownership” of digital media is never 100% secure. >:/ Anyways, this was a very sweet teacher/student romance that has a bunch of interesting context in the background of how Christian carceral attitudes rots ppls minds, both in the sense of the literal criminal system as well as in “good” Christian communities. That wasn’t the main focus of the story, but it did stand out out. I do enjoy a well written taboo romance, and especially enjoyed how this one did lean a lot into the conflicted feelings of the main character and her desires for love, acceptance, and affection, which I really enjoyed. Eventually I would love to read more romance because romance writers know how to make a plot really move forward quickly. One interesting thing that stood out to me about this book was the main character’s relationship to faith and Christianity–she is a character who has been extremely hurt and shunned by “good” Christian people, and who is understandably cynical and doubtful about a lot of aspects of Christianity because of it. However, Christian ideals and morality very much do affect the way she thinks, which was one of the more interesting and realistic portrayals of a character I’d seen in a long time, since even people who decide to leave faith and the church are still usually profoundly affected by that culture, it’s not something that someone can usually abandon all at once. This book had a lot of layers I didn’t initially expect, and I appreciated them a lot.
  • She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan 
    • This absolutely ROCKED!!! Probably my favorite book I read this past year. Wonderful lyrical and solemn style, great epic war tragedy, extremely queer. the “Mulan x Song of Achilles” comparison blurb might sound a bit too cliche, but I felt it was very fitting, as it had a stylized dramatic feel to it while also feeling very tragic and mythic. In the beginning there was a sense of “things happening kind of overly conveniently” at first, but it ended up working for me since the theme of the book about the heaviness of fate made it feel very appropriate. I enjoyed that the author specifically wasn’t trying to be “historically accurate” but rather capture a specific feeling and emotion through their use of the time and characters. This story was exactly what I had personally been craving for, and I can’t wait for its sequel. Also I made some memes for it here (warning for spoilers).
  • The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
    • Wanted to check out because it was at the top of the “Adult Asian Fantasy” lists. I had a good enough time reading it, it was suspenseful and competent I enjoyed seeing how the plot played out. However afterwards I can’t say it stuck with me quite as much on an emotional level. I really did not enjoy the portrayal of the Spearlies as the fantasy brown people very much, although I don’t think it was bad-intentioned. The whole trope of “power corrupting” and the conflict between spiritual and earthly consequences was interesting, and I was intrigued by the explosive ending and its character implications. Overall my impression is that while I’m glad for all the people who did enjoy it, and while there were very good plot moments in it, it did feel very overrated and the style of the writing felt a little basic. I suppose I will eventually check out the sequels because I’m curious what the direction will be, but I’ll probably wait a bit first.
  • Made for Love by Alissa Nutting
    • I enjoyed the style of Tampa so much, so I was curious to see what this novel would be like! It was very unique and a mix of extremely weird and extremely mundane, in a slightly grotesque and disturbing way. The plot itself felt a little simple, but the focus felt less about the plot and the way things moved forward and happened as much as it was about observations and memories and the character’s relationships to them. 
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
    • After watching the movie and being blown away by it’s shoujo-ness, I had to follow up with reading the book of course! I listened to the audiobook version, which included various radio theatrical flourishes such as occasionally having different actors voice parts and having some musical motifs, which was interesting. It’s a very interesting book and story and I can see why it’s a series that has captivated people for so long–the story to me felt very much like a kind of Shakespearian or Greek tragedy play, with a lot of intrigue but also spiritual emphasis. For Dune, it was a mix of really cool moments with moments that I found bizarre or poorly paced, especially near the ending where all the concluding plot happened at once. An aspect I liked in the book that was not emphasized as much in the movies was the fact that despite conflicts between the noble houses, they are all basically the same and have similar goals, with a lot of members being related to each other and sharing the same blood. Different than in the recent movie, where the villainous Harkonnens look more eerie and alien than the Atreides. 
  • Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
    • I was pleased to find I enjoyed Dune Messiah a lot more than Dune, mostly because 1) it was a lot shorter and condensed and 2) It explored a lot more of the themes I am interested in, which is basically the whole trope of “After the triumphant victory, and living with the implications of that victory.” I am a big fan of the way the book opens with an in-universe interview with a disgraced historian–it’s a brilliant way to deliver sequel exposition in a natural way while also emphasizing the themes of the story, which was all about criticism of the role of an imperial “Messiah” figure in the first place. I do think its criticism is pretty flawed–there’s a kind of paternalistic feel to it, about “the poor native people who were foolish enough to be deceived and manipulated into treating this person like a god and savior” but even that narrative itself is complicated. I did enjoy that there were a few mundane moments of characters talking about their mundane lives, that were a break from the more imperial family drama.
  • Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
    • In contrast to some of the more fanciful and literary books on this list, it was very fun to read a very fast-paced, action-and-drama packed YA novel! I love how the author has talked openly of their anime influence and inspiration for this story and it definitely shows. the mix of sci-fi elements with traditional Chinese mythology and folklore was really unique, and I love how the description of the mechs and fights felt very excitingly visual and cinematic–this is a book that certainly demands fan art. While there’s definitely a lot of very cathartic railing against patriarchal injustice going on in the book, it was very satisfying to see the story specifically call out gender-essentialist bullshit when it comes to myths of men inherently being violent and uncontrollable, and women being inherently passive and victimized. The worldbuilding twist in the end was also very intriguing, and I’m looking forward to the sequel when it comes out!
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    • I’d read Lolita to about halfway through a long time ago, but never actually finished it. After listening to the Lolita Podcast last year though, I definitely wanted to try my hand at reading through the whole thing again. What can I say but…what a book! It really is SO dense. I think I appreciated the writing the most near the end since that’s when all its motifs really start to repeat, weave, recontextualize, and build upon itself really cleverly. I believe it’s in one of Lola Sebastian’s videos where she says that you read Lolita for its style, not for its plot, and… I get that. The big plot twist in the end with Quilty is very confusing and underwhelming, but it worked out because the emphasis of the book is a lot more about observations, mood, and stringing pleasing words together.
    • (Interestingly, after finishing the book I went and re-listened to Lana del Rey’s Born to Die (2012) because I knew from the discourse and discussion that she utilizes Lolita references and imagery in her work. My hot take on that whole matter is that I feel she actually does capture a lot of the meandering, moody, poetic feel of the book, but specifically recontextualized to her own personal narrative, rather than that of Nabokov’s. If there’s anything I feel she “misinterprets,” I feel it’s less “romanticizing the abusive/pedophilic relationship” and more the fact that she heavily romanticizes the vintage American landscape as alluring and mysterious. Which is funny to be because in Lolita Humbert’s impression of the American landscape is a kind of observant and clever, but also dreary and condescending in a lot of ways, pointing out how shitty the food, movie theaters, run down motels, and tourist traps are while Dolores is entranced by them and focuses on them as a form of escapism. In a way I feel like “Born to Die” and Lana’s whole early schtick in general feels very close to Dolores’ attitude to me–finding solace in heavily stylized movies and storylines, imitating and fashionable aesthetics, having a level of adolescent dramatism that to more “mature” people on the outside may look extremely silly and delusional, but has a sense of interesting comfort to it. This isn’t to dismiss existing criticism of her work and discography, but I wanted to put down my thoughts here as well.)
  • The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
    • I was curious to read this after reading Vo’s novella “The Empress of Salt and Fortune” earlier this year, and thought the style was very dense and different than what I had been used to, but definitely very unique and evocative. I was surprised to encounter the more lowkey magical elements in the story, and I enjoyed how they were weaved into the familiar story in unique but not too distracting ways. Similar to what I said about Lolita earlier, I feel like this book was really a lot more interesting to me for its style rather than for the plot itself. There were some interesting aspects such as the course of Jordan and Daisy’s relationship, and the interesting diaspora discomfort of Jordan slowly learning things about herself and her background, but overall trying to adhere close enough to the original story of the Great Gatsby made it feel a little anticlimactic. Not sure how popular this opinion would be, but as far as YA novels go, I liked that while Jordan was very much a strong and independent character, it was less about her having a distinct goal or ambition and more about her hanging around, trying to have a good time, and avoid having to confront uncomfortable truths. So I can see some people being a bit disappointed or bored with that aspect, but I liked that part a lot.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
    • This is another very famous book I had been curious about reading for a long time, and was very happy to get around to reading. What’s interesting is that whenever I had heard of this book before, it was usually some sort of focus on its use of alien gender and sexuality. However, in reading the book itself, I was pleasantly surprised that while the gender and sexuality themes were very embedded and present in the book, it was about so much more than just that. The approach to myth, thoughts on different types of government, of the dangers and stress of nationalism and monarchy/oligarchy, all while filtered through how such practices would be shaped and affected by a society with a very different bio-sexual dynamic… it really had it all. Interestingly, especially after reading  and watching Dune, It was neat to read something on the other side of the spectrum that also explored large-scale awe in the face of nature, even in life-threatening conditions. This book was both everything I expected (a thoughtful, epic story from the famous Le Guin), and everything I did not expect as well (what I said above.) I certainly can’t wait to read more of her work in the new year. 

As you can see,  the majority of the books leaned a bit more fantasy and scifi, since I sort of had a mini goal of wanting to check out more speculative fiction by Asian-Diaspora authors, but I enjoyed a lot of the more contemporary titles and more classic lit as well. Also, I noticed that I seem to have gravitated towards a lot of debuts–I wonder if it’s because there’s a tendency in debut novels to try and have a very bold premise that stands out, and that’s what just casually get drawn to. Which is interesting but I guess could also pass over more subtler and experienced works. Also, if my impressions of She Who Became the Sun and Dune Messiah are anything to go by, I think I am once again attracted to dramatic and fantastical tragedies. My taste may be all over the place, but I guess I do always return to what feeds me.

I definitely want to continue reading more in the new year, and will keep a look out for titles and recommendations along the way! Especially for queer contemporary and/or asian adult fantasy, but anything with an interesting style and approach (or a good audiobook narrator) I’d love to check out.

Next time, if I don’t forget–I want to do posts of the comics I read in 2021 as well!

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

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