My Favorite Stories and Poems of 2021
(Apologies for the slight delay in posting! I have been having a time.)
Happy Solstice! It's that time of year when we're all making wrap-up posts, and I would be remiss if I didn't wrap up talking about my favorite things I read this year - books, short stories, and poetry.
A shout-out is owed to Charles Payseur's Quick Sip Reviews, which were a major reason I was able to read as much short fiction and poetry this year as I did: even though the reviewer seems to enjoy almost everything, his quick analysis of the themes and topics of each story made it easy for me to guess which stories I might enjoy for myself. They are a huge workload for one person and will be retired next year, for extremely understandable reasons, but I'll miss them.
2021 was a year of major change for me, and looking back on the stories I recorded as my favorites, I'm struck by how drawn I was to stories of monstrous women and transformations, deadly or beautiful or both. Not that I don't always love those, but this year they were the major theme. Here are three exceptional ones:
Marika Bailey, "Daughters With Bloody Teeth" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 14): A girl fleeing violence gets eaten by a wolf, and finds herself strangely at one with the wolf instead of dying; what follows is a tale of finding community among monsters and of sweet revenge.
Floris M. Kleijne, "Diamond Sharks" (Mermaids Monthly, February 20): A woman agrees to undergo a transformation into an aquatic form in order to join her ex-lover on a water planet. But the love story that results is much less about her and her ex, much more about her and the beautiful, vast, potentially deadly ocean she finds herself in, which is described in such glorious detail that I wish I could go there myself.
Nadia Mikail, "Langsuir" (Cast of Wonders, Episode 353, May 26): I have a soft spot for a story that shows what's human and sympathetic about a monster without brushing aside the danger she poses or the harm she's done, and gives some hint of absolution in the end. This delivers, and I love the owl narrator.
Also, this one is not a transformation or a monster per se, but is wonderful:
Sam J. Miller, "A Love That Burns Hot Enough To Last" (Apex, March 23): Sam J. Miller always writes about the grit and pain and love of queer communities with exceptional eloquence and groundedness. This one is a found-footage story (which I love) about a singer with a magical gift (yess) which very few people around her fully understand, about what she meant to the often-queer fans who followed her and about the ambivalent role of queer attraction and longing in her own life. This one will stick with you.
Let's not forget this category, which never gets enough love! In fact, I loved twice as many poems as stories this year.
Sandi Leibowitz, "Harvest" (Mithila Review, Mar 21) The tale of a woman in love with a demon, as told by her family and neighbors. While conventionally the setup might portend horror or tragedy, the feeling in this poem is something altogether different - it's full of the sense of something beautiful and eerie and genuine, something that the narrators, in spite of their wary curiosity, can only ever partway understand.
Maya Chhabra, "Naked I Shall Return To It" (Liminality, Issue 27). A take on the Descent of Innana which movingly questions what it really means to be disarmed and to let things go.
Toby MacNutt, "Phase Shift" (Liminality, Issue 27). An evocative metaphor for disability in which the chronically ill, pained body is compared to the stormy surface of a gas giant.
Henry "Hank" Greenspan, "Chang and Eng" (The Deadlands, Issue 5). A pithy, unsentimental statement about trauma.
Kim Whysall-Hammond, "Visitor" (Fantasy, Issue 67). A fairytale devil's bargain uneasily intruding into what seems at first to be a science fictional tale of tragedy in space.
Jennifer Bushroe, "Fluke" (Mermaids Monthly, July 20). Two mythic creatures finding each other, resulting not in the transformation they believe they need, but in a friendship that proves to be subtly more affirming and stronger than that.
Ashley Bao, "portrait of a girl in water" (Mermaids Monthly, October 27). The monstrous woman of the sea in a more classic form, luring the narrator down in with her. Very well-rendered.
I don't tend to nominate novel length books for awards because I am perpetually, terminally behind on reading novels. It's rare that I'll read a novel in the same year it came out. I was raised to avoid early adopting, to instead skip the crowds and wait for someone else to work the bugs out, and I never broke the habit.
I will prove this assertion true when I say that by far my favorite novels I read in 2021 were Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and its sequel Harrow the Ninth, which somehow I didn't get around to picking up until, like, September this year even though I'd heard all the hype. Anyway they live up to the hype; I'm glad Gideon was a finalist for all the awards; the ending of Harrow confused me but the ride getting there was absolutely stellar.
My other absolute favorite book I read this year was Bessel Van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which has nothing to do with speculative fiction whatsoever.
If you want to know more about the books I'm reading, you can always go follow me on Goodreads, although this year's data is a little misleading because 2021, especially in the first half, was absolutely packed with comfort re-reads. Blame the pandemic. I am actually thoroughly sick of comfort re-reads now, so maybe there'll be less of them in the coming year and more newer books and I’ll be more in tune with the trends. We'll see.
You can see a list of my own award-eligible books, stories, and poems in this post here.
Meanwhile! Since I keep forgetting to include news in these posts, here’s some minor news going back a ways.