Surprise Late Addition
It is my last kid-free evening before the holiday stuff all kicks in and I am beyond delighted to tell you that I have a late addition to my Favorites of 2023 book list. This doesn't happen often! Last year my best list was set by the end of August. AUGUST!
This used to happen relatively often but not since I switched to a release-date-based reading system a few years ago. See, most of the books I read are galleys. And when these galleys are on my kindle they don't have the release date right there easy to see so I would just kind of read in random order and often I ended up getting behind and accidentally reading a bunch of next year's books before I was finished with this year's. The new system, which requires a spreadsheet (SIGH), is annoying but also it is worth it because I don't accidentally read a book multiple months after release even though I had the galley sitting on my kindle since summer.
This new surprise book was not a galley at all but the other largest category of books I read each year: audiobooks. And while I do get a fair number of audio galleys, because of my organized system, I don't read nearly as many audio galleys as I'd like. (Audiobooks are not finished until a short while before publication. Whereas I often get print galleys 6-9 months before release. I have usually already read a book in print before I get the audio galley.)
If you know me a little you probably know that I feel anxious when I do not have an audiobook. And a backup audiobook. And possibly even another one after that. It just helps me feel safe, okay? Sometimes you blow through an audiobook so fast and it is an absolute nightmare to finish one and then have nothing on deck to get into next. I try to keep tabs on books I missed so that when I need an audiobook I can go through what's available at the library or use an Audible credit.
This year I read several books this way: We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman, Death and the Conjurer by Tom Mead, Vagabonds! by Eloghosa Osunde, Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou, A Black and Endless Sky by Matthew Lyons, Bad Kids by Zijin Chen, Confidence by Denise Mina, Unmask Alice by Rick Emerson, The Pallbearers Club by Paul Tremblay, The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-Mo, Manhunt by Gretchen Falker-Martin, and I was still working through my 2021 list, too. Library selections can be spotty and sometimes they're more likely to have a recent release than an older one.
And that is how I ended up reading The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran.
Please forgive this absolutely boring cover. It does the book a disservice.
I have read two previous Sara Gran books. One, Come Closer, is the only horror novel about possession I have actually liked/found scary. And I also liked the first of her Claire DeWitt mysteries. I thought about reading one of those instead, but it has been a while since I read the first one so I decided to try this standalone where I wouldn't have to worry about remembering anything. Somewhere along the way someone said something good about it this year and so it was on my Want To Read list and here we are.
One thing I did not tell you because I did not make an official Best List was that there were a lot of Sex Books on my list this year. I have enjoyed more than a few books in recent years that had excellent sex writing (Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, Luster by Raven Leilani, Milk Fed by Melissa Broder) and they all left me wanting more. And this year I now have four (four!!) Sex Books on my Best of 2022 list. It is an excellent development. Can we do this again next year?
The first two I have written about extensively and you are tired of them probably. Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej and Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman. Those two are both about the specific problem of being a queer woman who sleeps with cis men and who takes pleasure from specific kinds of sex that feel like they are in conflict with your identity. Sex and Conflict Books, really.
There was also Shmutz by Felicia Berliner, which I have not written about as much because it had the misfortune of coming out in July and that was when I started writing here less. It is about an Orthodox Jewish young woman who is also addicted to porn. In a way, Raizl's struggles are not all that different from the women in Little Rabbit and Acts of Service. What Raizl desires and what Raizl wants for her life are two very different things. It also has an ending that is going to make people mad (YES) but that feels like the right ending.
And now, added to the list, The Book of the Most Precious Substance, a story about Lily, a book dealer who used to be a writer but whose whole life fell apart after her wonderful, successful, charming, sexy husband who she loved very much got early onset dementia and is now unable to speak, walk, or do anything for himself. Lily's life revolves entirely around making sure she can get and pay for her husband's care. And then she finds out about a buyer willing to pay top dollar (giving Lily a hefty fee) for a mysterious book. The titular book. A book that is about (drumrollllllll) Sex Magic. And Lily must go on an around the world adventure to track it down while also dabbling in some Sex Magic herself.
Ok yes it sounds rather silly. Like an erotic thriller version of National Treasure. And, honestly, that is not all that far off. Which is why I enjoyed it so much. Lily sets off on a real adventure-y adventure, encountering strange characters, most of whom will sit down with her and share a long story of their history with the mysterious book. Lily sees a way out, a way for her life to be more manageable. But she also starts to rediscover life. It is a very sensual book. There is a lot of sex in it (there is a goodreads review that insists this is neither erotic nor a thriller and I don't know what book that person read but I am so curious as to what they think qualifies as either of those things!!) and there is also a lot of food. The meals and the sex are described with similar detail.
I am only going to spoil it for you a little (this is like a page 50 or so revelation? skip this paragraph if you so choose) when I say that this is also a book where a major plot point is about squirting which, honestly, I am just tickled by. I think there is also an interpretation that it isn't about squirting at all but about a whole other kind of fictional sex act and I would absolutely buy that interpretation 100% except that I am really giggling to myself about how much of this book is about squirting if you do choose that interpretation. It is too hilarious to avoid so I cannot set it aside. When was the last time you saw squirting as an important plot point in any story??????????
I have had a couple glasses of wine. It is more fun to write this newsletter when I've had a couple glasses of wine. But also it's more fun to write when you get to write about Sex Magic. So many thanks to this book, which manages to be exciting and sensual and which (thank fuck) I listened to while the kids were gone because there was no way this was an okay-to-listen-to-in-public audiobook. This is a book that goes well beyond making you blush.
It also, to tie it back in to the three other Sex Books, has a lot of conflict between real life and a more sexual fulfilling life, and it had a kind of perfectly wonderful/awful ending. I was really really hoping this book would stick the landing even though I had no idea what the end would be. But oh boy did it deliver. An absolutely perfect Jess Ending. I love ambiguous endings. But I may love Wonderful/Awful Endings even more? Something to ponder.
I already shared a bunch of November/December books so to close this one out I will share a few of the movies that came out this year that I really enjoyed.
In the running for my favorite of the year. Speaking of Wonderful/Awful, this is absolutely that. And I love movies about the absurd lengths men will go to rather than simply expressing their feelings.
Definitely need to watch this one again, was so caught up in the mystery the first time that I didn't get all of it until it was over. But lucky me, that just means another go round. Think I'll pair it with Vertigo next time.
I love horror movies that are scary AND fun and this delivered.
Better than Glass Onion. Yes, I said it.
This movie is FUCKING BRILLIANT I am so sad for everyone who did not appreciate it.
I am here for weird Jordan Peele.
For all my talk about endings, this is definitely the winner for most messed up WTF just happened endings. As well as everything else. Walks a very fine line, because it is so so so dark but balances the tautness and horror so well.
Didn't just enjoy Sex Books, also enjoyed Sex Movies.
Yes, everyone loved this but so did I. Even though I got very mad when I realized it was about generational trauma and I was Not In The Mood. Still won me over!
Don't usually love rom coms, loved this.
Also potentially in the running for my #1 spot. Even though Sciamma didn't give us any lesbians this time.
Didn't get enough attention. A movie that feels like a strange kind of folktale or fable but not in a way you have encountered before.
I do log movies on Letterboxd at https://boxd.it/r1hd but they are often very very short. Letterboxd reviews are either an essay or a sentence, it's weird. I do recommend it if you have trouble remembering what you want to watch, the Watchlist feature is great. The Pro is very very useful if you want to figure out what is streaming on which service, I use it almost daily.