I only have one more new release to tell you about before the end of the year so I realized it's time to start my Best of the Year lists. This is always an enjoyable task, but also a bittersweet one, since inevitably there were books I enjoyed that don't quite squeeze on to the list. But if you don't limit the list, that defeats the point of the list.
My lists are simple. They are the books I liked the most. I am accountable to no one except myself. But I tend to poke around the Best Lists that get circulated each year by publications because those are a very different animal. When you put together a list somewhere, let's use Publisher's Weekly since that is where my point is headed, your job isn't just to put out a list of the best. You also want to try and reflect what happened this year, what was interesting even if potentially not fully successful, get a sample that basically puts the year in publishing in a nutshell while also amplifying titles that deserve extra love. If I was making one of these lists there are lots of my own picks that wouldn't make the cut and I would be happy to see some books I didn't particularly care for on there. I can respect a lot of books I don't truly enjoy.
The lists that get me all annoyed every single year are the Mystery lists. Book people tend to be pretty good at their fancy lists, my major complaint in these is often just that they're boring and there's not enough interesting books on there. Some years the picks are all the obvious ones instead of some hidden gems. But the genre lists can be all over the damn place for reasons I don't fully understand, though I'm assuming it's the usual publishing snobbery.
I did not like this year's Publisher's Weekly Mystery list. It does not help that it defaults to slideshow format and you have to set it to list to read it like a reasonable person. It starts with a book I didn't like, The Anatomy of Desire, a retelling of An American Tragedy (which conveniently became public domain this year) that, to me, is a perfect example of how not to do a retelling. It changes the protagonist from a man to a bisexual woman but doesn't seem to have a reason for doing so. It tries too hard to be of the moment by being about influencers (this is very common and I have yet to see it actually done well). It is told in an oral history style as like the book version of a documentary which makes no sense until you realize the writers are coming from tv. And the tv pedigree is obvious when you get to the courtroom scenes which have very little resemblance to reality. (My Goodreads review, discussing the courtroom scenes, literally says "Sure, Jan" so clearly I was in my feelings about this.) I could have complained about this book for days and if I had been part of the group making this list I would have resigned in protest if it had been added.
The list had exactly one book that is on my Best List. Just one. And that's impressive because my list has 15 books. I decided maybe I would give this list a shot. I found a few of the titles I hadn't read (mostly because I'd missed them entirely) and read them. It did not improve things. I read three of these books (I have one more on hold) and two of them I found pretty meh and certainly not Best List material. The third I liked enough but--twist!--it is not a mystery or a thriller. If you had to put it in a category it would go in Speculative or SFF. (This is the French novel in translation, The Anomaly, which I review below.)
I just can't figure out what this list wants to say. I will give it credit, it is half books outside of the Big 5, the 5 largest publishing houses that put out 80% of books. This is my lists' biggest flaw, and I'm very aware of it. It's particularly hard in mystery, since the Big 5 put out so many of them and there are not a lot of other publishers putting out genre novels. (Two of the independent presses on the list put out hardly any mystery novels at all, while the other three are mystery specialty.)
I will also acknowledge that they have two novels in translation on the list, though they're both from Europe, where most of our novels in translation still come from. (I have 4 novels in translation on mine but they're all from Japan so I have my own issues, clearly.)
But everything else about this list, it does nothing for me. It isn't interesting or exciting and it didn't make me confident I'd enjoy the books on it and sure enough I was right. A list like this should get you excited! It should get you pumped for some great new finds, remind you of the ones you haven't gotten to yet.
There are just so many books not on this list that I couldn't believe it. I love the books on my list so much, they're so fun and interesting, I just don't understand how they didn't make this list if it was made by people reading a lot of mysteries. And, well, it's hard to ignore how white of a list it is. This year is actually better than most for them with two authors of color out of 14 total, for about 14%. My list is at 47%, and that's better than most years for me, but it's also my major priority when reading, since I know first hand how many of these books won't get major marketing support and won't get picked up by white readers. What you screen for tends to show up in your Best Lists because (gasp) books by marginalized authors are good enough to be on Best Lists if you actually read them.
Anyway. That list has made me cranky since it came out weeks ago and I feel much better now. I'll start rolling out my Best Lists next week.
What I've Been Reading
Release Date: Nov 23, 2021
Shelves: In Translation, Speculative
An anti-thriller, really. Thrillers are fast, with action and suspense. This book is clearly actively subverting all of that. It is so clearly in the vein of a Crichton-style thriller (it reminded me of Sphere and his other work more times than I could count) but turns the whole thing on its head.
Instead of starting off with the big thing, we actively ignore the big thing for the entire first third of the book. I almost didn't keep reading because nothing at all was happening. Instead we had around a dozen chapters giving us a kind of slice of life of all these different characters, none of whom seemed to have anything in common with each other except that we stayed mainly in the same time period of Spring 2021 and that each seemed to have taken a very turbulent transatlantic flight.
Le Tellier wants to give us this big splashy central event, but in the end it's not about why or even really about what happens next. Instead it is there to bring up all kinds of questions about existence, to give you a kind of hypothetical where you can play with characters and see what happens if. It is a deeply speculative novel, might even be called science-fiction depending on your definition, but this is the kind of book where you have so many different threads that none of them ever gets very long. We don't get overly invested in any one character. (There are definitely too many. I couldn't keep them straight until nearly the end of the novel.) And all the different scenarios are interesting hypotheticals but when the book cares more about possibilities than people, it couldn't fully connect with me.
I do think it's best to go in cold, but I also think it's best to go in cold with the understanding that you will have to wait a long time for anything to happen, and that eventually a very big and weird thing will happen. Otherwise I can see a lot of readers quitting before they get there.
Release Date: Available now!
Shelves: Authors of Color, Comics/Graphics, Middle Grade, Memoir
This is the third book in a series from the team of writer Shannon Hale and illustrator LeUyen Pham, about Hale's childhood from Elementary to Middle School. I have honestly never read anything else that so deeply sent me back to those days and all the anxieties around friends and family I had. My kids have read the first two books multiple times and it always makes me feel good to know that, because these books are so honest and real about the difficulties of tween- and early teen-dom.
Hale is very willing to get in the weeds of how deep emotions run at this age (this book is set in 8th grade) and she really nails the way you change so quickly. The Shannon of this book is notably different than the one in the first, now even as she feels more confident in her friendships, she struggles with jealousy and feels like all her friends are getting too interested in boys. She wants to be truly excellent at something, and everything that isn't an outright success can send her into a spiral. She struggles with Anxiety but doesn't yet really understand how to cope with it.
I found this one not quite as efficient with its storytelling as the earlier two, but still a strong finish that hits the right notes.
Release Date: Feb 8, 2022
Shelves: Author of Color, LGBTQ, Young Adult, Mystery
One of our protagonists is Todd, who is recently dead. A ghost, he follows the detectives trying to solve his murder. The other protagonist is Georgia, who is thankfully still alive. Georgia doesn't know Todd, he went to her brother's school, but she finds herself wondering about his death and whether her brother could be involved.
This felt somewhat unfinished. And even though it's much longer than the graphic novels & comics I've read by Tamaki it didn't feel like nearly as full of a world.
It feels like we're only just getting to know Georgia by the time we're finished, and going back and forth between a ghost--who is a mostly unfeeling observer--and a real person means we don't get a lot of time to let things develop for the live characters who do feel things.
This has a lot of queer characters, which I love. But I do wonder when people create a mystery novel with a gay cop, for example, if they've figured out why this guy is a cop to begin with because, idk, seems like something he probably would not want to do actually.
Release Date: Available Now!
Shelves: Weirdly none?
I learned years ago that when everyone says "Oh boy a book from an African author" and then the author turns out to be from South Africa, that this means it's a book by a white person. Most of the South African literature that gets published in the US is by white writers, which is absolutely wild when you consider that Black people make up more than 80% of the population of South Africa. (And when you consider that by far the most popular book from a South African author, was Trevor Noah's.) Novels by white South Africans these days tend to acknowledge that Black people exist and that white people in South Africa treat them badly, which I suppose is progress. They are often only tangentially about the legacy of racism and Apartheid in South Africa, with it being more backdrop than subject. And, strangely, that is also the case here even though this book's title insinuates that it's centrally about racial issues.
The titular promise is one young Amor observes between her parents. Her mother is terminally ill, and as Amor understands it her mother makes her father promise to give the family's home to Salome, their Black housekeeper. The novel that follows is a Howard's-End-y look at that family home and whether the family follows through on that promise. It's set over 30 years, beginning during apartheid and ending in the current century, a time of vast change. We see the social and political dynamics change, and yet everything for the Swart family seems pretty stagnant. They move up in the world or they move down, but they remain the same troubled and bitter people year after year.
There are hardly any Black people in this novel. Even Salome makes only rare appearances, popping up to remind us of her existence every so often, almost always doing dishes. The novel is told in a fluid style where the narration can jump from one character to the next within a sentence, and yet it almost always remains with the white characters.
I appreciated that this book wants to look specifically at the descendants of the Voortrekkers, a group of mostly Dutch Europeans who were upset at British rule. (Why were they upset? Well they liked being in charge of course, but the English didn't want the Dutch to keep slaves and they found that their treatment of indigenous people was unduly harsh. The ENGLISH thought that. So. Yeah.) They left the settlement, seeing themselves as pioneers heading East to found their own lands, which they removed the native peoples from, of course. This book is well aware of their legacy and of the ways in which they have not changed. Their view of "progress" is to feel proud that near the end of the book there are two Black people attending a crowded funeral. But there is no real reckoning here, no real message. Only Amor tries to remove herself from the family's legacy and it's unclear whether her choice to do so does any good.
I was very interested in the first section of the book (it marks time by funerals, there are four of them) but the further along I went, the less interested I was. The children grew into adults much the same as the parents that came before them. It is not clear what they want out of life (except for social climbing Astrid). Galgut's prose is notable, though he seems to take particular relish in bodily functions to make sure you notice them regularly, that irked more as I went on.
I guess I'm not surprised this won the Booker. The prose is rather flashy, and it is a kind of reckoning with British colonialism. And yet at the end of the day I'm not sure there is much to it beyond the idea that the descendants of the Voortrekkers do not particularly want to reckon with their legacy of terrible acts, which is not all that novel an idea.