11/23 Best Backlist & Horror

It always feels like Best of the Year time creeps up on me. Even the years when I am bursting to share my lists. This year it extra crept up on me because my sense of linear time is shot.

My lists are always too long and this year is no different. I can't help it. I read a lot of books. (I just crossed 170 for this year.) My lists for this year have more than 50 books on them, if you include my backlist titles, which of course I do. And these lists are often the last time I get to devote them some real attention so I tend to cling to them.

I'm starting off with my Backlist and Horror lists, the two shortest. Next week I'll have Mystery/Crime, the following week will be the Honorable Mentions, and then we'll finish up the Best of the Year. The Best of the Year is all genres, and the other lists tend to group into genres a little bit, with Honorable Mentions as the catch-all. So let's get going. (Lists are in alphabetical order.)

My Favorite Backlist Reads of 2021

Made for Love
A HBO Max series starring Ray Romano and Cristin Milioti ‘Exudes valiant charm’ New Yorker’Blisteringly smart and feverishly inven...

As is my wont I put off this book until they made a tv show out of it. And I'm glad the tv show made me read it because I didn't really like the tv show very much but the book was bonkers in the way that I absolutely love. (My tolerance tends to be several notches above the usual, fair warning.) A totally bananas book that also has a strong emotional center is the best kind of totally bananas book and this delivers. Unsurprisingly the tv show cut a lot of the best stuff, a tragedy.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue ...

I have struggled with story collections lately, except for this one. This one I absolutely devoured and would read a dozen more. There was not a single story that disappointed. Most of them left me dazed afterwards, just bowled over by the emotional weight and honesty. A master class in showing how similar themes and characters can tie a collection together, while each character and story still felt utterly unique. Can't wait for a Deesha Philyaw novel or ten.

The Seven Doors
When the tenant of a house that university professor Ni…

I love subtlety until, apparently, I don't. This was a big unsubtle crime novel that felt utterly Greek in its weight, its structure, its inevitable end. While you wait, mired in dread, for that inevitable ending this is a book where the main character (a professor of Classics, obviously) gives a speech about tragic irony right before the big climax. It is absolutely chef's kiss. Rereading my notes about it make me want to read it again right now.

Writers & Lovers
Following the breakout success of her critically acclaimed and award-winning novel Euphoria, Lily King returns with an unforgettable port...

This book is, on paper, absolutely uninteresting to me. It is about a young writer and her love affairs with mostly other writers. But it's also an example of how any subject matter can be mesmerizing in the right hands. This connected on a very intimate level for me, and I loved the way King writes about writing, which so often feels vague, but here it is recognizable.

Best Horror of 2021

All’s Well
From the critically acclaimed author of Bunny, a darkly funny novel about a theater professor suffering chronic pain, who in the process ...

Awad's previous novel Bunny got a lot of attention but this one has not had nearly enough. It is a book about Shakespeare, and not just the usual but all the stuff in the corners--the weird and the wild. After an accident destroyed her theater career, Miranda has ended up a theater professor, a job she is barely hanging on to, and suffers from chronic pain that is taking over her life. There is, as you might suspect, a reversal of fortune, and while this is absolutely a love letter to Shakespeare it feels free to go all the way off the rails, which you know I love.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw
In her quickly gentrifying rural lake town Jade sees recent events only her encyclopedic knowledge of horror films could have prepared he...

After last year's The Only Good Indians opened up Jones to a wider audience, My Heart Is a Chainsaw is openly for horror lovers. Its protagonist, Jade, knows every slasher movie that has ever existed, so of course she sees the signs of a slasher on the horizon before anyone else in her small Idaho town. But this is so smart because it's not just about that, it's about why slashers are important to Jade in the first place, why she clings to her encyclopedic knowledge above all else. I'm delighted that it's the first in a trilogy.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth
Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastat...

An excellent, atmospheric novella about a haunted ancient house in Japan visited by a group of thrill-loving friends who, of course, are not prepared for what they will find there. Intensely creepy while also lyrical and lovely. A lot of the best horror is taking a trope you know and just executing it to perfection, and this is one of those.

The Other Black Girl
Get Out meets The Stepford Wives in this electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against th...

Sometimes hype is bad for a book and this is one that I think suffered because the hype sold a very different book than what this actually is. What it is is social horror, around being a Black woman at the bottom of the ladder in the very white world of publishing. It is comped to Get Out (a lazy comp) but while Get Out went big, this is a slower burn and a more subtle, more realistic look at progressives who are all talk and not much else. There are scenes here that were physically painful to read because of the awkwardness, and the slowly heightened suspense is great. Can't wait to see what Harris does next.

This Thing Between Us
“As original as it is affecting . . . left me genuinely creeped out, unsettled, and shaken. An existentially frightening book.”--Paul Tre...

A cosmic horror that really delivers. A lot of horror deals with grief and the lengths it will drive people to, but I liked how this examines it in that cosmic context, where the absence of a person in the world feels like the entire universe has somehow turned into a malevolent force. Hard to believe this is a debut. (Content warning for harm to pets, since I know some of y'all are sticklers for that one.)

The Woods Are Always Watching
A companion to There’s Someone Inside Your House. Bears aren’t the only predators in these woods. Best friends Neena and Josie spent hi...

Every now and then I run across a YA horror that is better than 90% of adult horror and this is the one this year. Perkins' previous perfectly fine slasher There's Someone Inside Your House in no way prepared me for how good this is. It is meticulously constructed, it knows exactly how to use tension between the main characters as a way to build and mold the other tensions in the story, and wow it is not afraid to go hard. This deals with themes of women being threatened by men, of feeling unsafe anywhere in the world, which are becoming more common in the genre. The balance between exploring those fears while then exploiting them in the actual story is very delicate and I've seen and read plenty of stories where the balance doesn't feel right. But here I thought she really earned it, brought the appropriate stakes to the story, and didn't make it gross.

What I've Been Reading

An intimate look at the making of a man, an actor, an advocate--and most importantly--a happy human being. A wonderful book that is funny...

Release Date: Available now
Shelves: Audiobooks, Memoir, LGBTQ+
Stars: 3

I tend to gravitate toward a particular type of celebrity memoir. Not the tell-all, not the exploration of trauma, and not the serious tome. I like the light ones, and I like them on audio where you get the celeb's personality as part of the package. This fit the bill.

I purposely avoided Cumming's previous memoir about his abusive father for the reasons given above. (I generally avoid most memoirs about abuse, tbh.) But I've always liked Cumming, particularly his role in Cabaret and eventually being one of my favorites on The Good Wife. This book starts when he's already become relatively successful as an actor, from the early 90's forward, as he began to take on more film roles. It is a natural starting point for him, because it was the time where he really tapped into the issues with his father that he wrote about in his previous book, and decided to take his life in a different direction.

The book itself follows love affairs and movie productions. It doesn't always go in order and he can be both very open and quite coy. Really, it's a book for people who like him. (I noted a Goodreads review complaining that he thought quite highly of himself. Well yes! Celebrities writing about themselves generally do!) There were plenty of movies and plays here I wasn't all that familiar with, and many I'd forgotten he was in, but I just liked having him around as I listened. The Scottish accent and the occasional extra-long-rolled-r alone were enough to satisfy me.

The one thing that surprised me is how rarely Cumming mentioned his status as an openly queer actor, which was quite unusual in the late 90's and the 00's. I really wondered how it impacted his career. He never mentions coming out in this book, though he is always frank about his queer identity and its importance to him.

Fiona and Jane
A witty, warm, and irreverent book that traces the lives of two young Taiwanese American women as they navigate friendship, sexuality,...

Release Date: January 4, 2022
Shelves: Author of Color, LGBTQ+
Stars: 4

Great novel in stories on two friends following several arcs across decades.

This doesn't quite follow a traditional structure. Sometimes we stop moving forward in time. Sometimes we shift away from the titular characters' point of view. But this really works with the narrative, which feels alive and spontaneous.

While their friendship is the center, they get to have very separate arcs that sometimes cause friction. Jane deals with lingering guilt over the death of her father and is tied to her family in a way Fiona is not. Fiona is hyper-aware of class, feeling a need to achieve and succeed even when she doesn't really want to because of her modest upbringing. As they get older, romantic partnerships become more of a wedge between them. And yet this isn't a book where they fight in big dramatic scenes. Mostly these things just pass without either acknowledging their issues directly to the other, just as so many friendships leave their biggest conflicts unsaid. It lets each of them really come through individually even as their friendship remains a uniting thread.

I would have been happy if this had been twice as long. I felt like I was really just getting to dive into these characters deeply and I wanted to know what would happen to them next.

I also appreciated Jane as a character who, if I recall correctly, never really pins down her sexual identity. She definitely identifies as queer and friends refer to her as a lesbian though she sleeps with men and women, and sometimes seems to lean more towards one or the other.

The Appeal
This murder mystery follows a community rallying around a sick child—but when escalating lies lead to a dead body, everyone is a suspect....

Release Date: January 25, 2022
Shelves: Mystery
Stars: 3

Sometimes I tell you to go into a book cold but today I am going to do the opposite. The cover and copy make this look like a typical murder mystery but really it's best compared to a Murder Mystery Party. It is very frivolous, you have to spend a very long time with a group of eccentric characters before anything happens, and after the murder it sure seems like you didn't get any actually useful evidence that you'd have in a real situation. Think of it as a game, really, and you will have by far the best experience.

I am telling you this after I got most of the way through the novel and was baffled as to why it was so weird. None of this made sense. Why was I going through page after page of emails? Why did I only have some emails and not others? Why do these people seem to do LITERALLY EVERYTHING over email? Who are these people reading and commenting on the emails? Once I had all the pieces I could see that it was not meant to be taken as anything approaching a regular mystery. The concept is supposed to be Law Partner Gives File to Students As Test And Teaching Tool but honestly that concept is pretty ludicrous. I kept trying to make it all make sense and it went much better when I gave up and accepted that this was not reality, but a game.

And that actually worked much better! I didn't have to worry about the stakes and instead could pick out all the unusual little details along the way. This can be read as pretty comedic if you come in with the right attitude.

So we're clear, this book is only about 20% murder. (Yes, you are around 70% of the way in before any murder actually happens, though you can infer who's going to die well before that.) Otherwise it's much more like an episode of an old British murder mystery set in a small town, or a Murder She Wrote, except the murder happens after three commercial breaks. Lots of emails between eccentric characters laying the groundwork for what will eventually happen.

All that said, I still found the structure to not fully work. It isn't much fun to watch these characters rehash the entire book you just read and summarize it for you. And once you have all the pieces, it makes even less sense to approach it this way. I also suspect that some readers will get too annoyed with Isabel, the most prominent character, and the most obnoxious. The book isn't quite sure if she should be played for laughs or not and tries to go both ways. This also had one of my least favorite plot twists (BOO) which we really should be past by now.

And yet I read this in less than 24 hours. So.

Mouth to Mouth
In a first-class lounge at JFK airport, our narrator li…

Release Date: January 11, 2022
Stars: 4

Let me start by saying this is a good book. It is well-written, it's focused, and it comes in under 200 pages when many others would have had it well over 300 for no good reason. It is one of those novels where one person shares their story in great detail, and it does a better job at providing the setup for that situation.

Our narrator is in the airport waiting for a delayed flight when he runs into Jeff, a guy he hasn't seen in college. He didn't know Jeff well, and yet Jeff invites our narrator to join him in the fancy lounge while they catch up. Though this catching up is really just an excuse for Jeff to unload a story from his youth to our narrator, a writer. The story is about when Jeff saved a man's life and then became obsessed with that man.

It is a book that plays with the reader a little, which I always appreciate, the narration from Jeff being undercut regularly by our actual narrator, who comes to the forefront and then retreats again many times. It knows what it wants to say, it's efficient, and if it maybe hits the nail on the head a bit more than is my personal preference, it was never really going for subtlety anyway.

Now that we've finished all that, I just found myself wondering what the point was when it was all over. Not what was the point of the book, that was quite clear and as I mentioned it was effectively made. But why tell this story when it has, frankly, been told so many times already?

I know this could lead to plenty of comments I will delete later but it just felt very much like a white guy book. It is about wealthy white people and how they are terrible. And yes I suppose it's also about the way every generation becomes what it starts out hating, about the way we construct narratives of our lives that we may or may not actually believe ourselves, about the dangers of being young and aimless and easily dazzled. It did all this very well. It just never excited me. It never showed me something I didn't already know. It didn't reveal a truth I'm already well familiar with. It didn't present anything from a new direction. It is extremely competent and yet it left me somewhat cold despite my 4 stars.

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