Monday, January 03, 2022

2021 Reading Year in Review

It has been a few years since I did a reading year in review here at the Blog o’ Stuff, the most recent being 2018, and before that, 2015 so apparently, I update this blog every 3 years. That's a far cry from the multiple posts per week I'd publish in this blog's heyday.  

For completeness sake, here are the other previous years I’ve put up a reading year in review, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006).

As I've done every year for the past decade and a half, I've contributed to SFFWorld's Favorite of the Year lists: Fantasy/Horror, Science Fiction, and Film/TV. Where those book lists are focused only on 2021 releases, here at the dusty old Blog o' Stuff, I don't limit the list to just 2021 releases. I'm still very actively reviewing for both SFFWorld and The Tap Takeover

2021 was a tougher year than 2020 in some ways. We thought normalcy would return, but that did not happen. We are still in a pandemic. The year began for me with surgery on my shoulder (which I scheduled in 2020, but still) and for the better part of the first half of the year, our sweet dog Sully was fighting major health issues, passing away at just over 11 years old on May 4, 2021. My wife and I were heart-broken, but we realized how much joy Sully brought to us over those years. In the summer; however, our spirits were brightened by the arrival of our new puppy, Dusty! She brings a smile to our face constantly and she was and is the perfect dog at the right time, she is exactly what we needed.

Of the nearly 100 books I read in 2021, here are some stats: 
  • 30 2021/current year releases 
  • 33 reviews posted to SFFWorld
  • 40 can be considered Fantasy 
  • 32 can be considered Horror 
  • 18 can be considered Science Fiction 
  • 32 books by authors new to me 
  • 47 Books by women 
  • 15 total debut 
  • 17 audiobooks
I also have to give a huge shout out to a couple of book folks on social media who have re-invigorated my love for the Horror genre. It isn't like I didn't read horror in the past, but it usually made up only about 20% to 25% of the books I read in any given year. In 2021 Horror was 34% of what I read. Fantasy is usually about 50%. Those shout outs: My college pal Dave Aldrich who started up his own booktube channel, Book Blather. Sadie Hartmann, AKA Mother Horror, who runs the Night Worms Book Box subscription service with Ashley Sawyers aka Spookish Mommy, maybe the best cheerleader/advocates for horror fiction I've come across in years as well as Neil McRobert's Talking Scared podcast. All positivity from them and quite a few books and writers I discovered this year are a result of following Sadie on Twitter and Instagram. Also, shout out also to my former SF Signal colleague Derek Austin Johnson (twitter), who has been posting one horror book per day for the whole year on his Instagram

So, without further adieu, below are the books I enjoyed reading the most in 2021. There's no order outside of the first two on this post.  If I've reviewed the book, the title will link to the review.

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
(My favorite overall novel of 2021, Favorite Horror)

What can I say about this novel without giving away too much of what makes it tick, from the dark and supernatural point of view? Nothing really, because this book turned into something quite unexpected. What I will say is that Oliver is a wonderful creation, despite the pain he feels from others, he does not crumble or wither. He finds strength in how this ability makes him want to help others. Like Oliver, what Chuck has done in The Book of Accidents is powerfully build up empathy in the characters he’s created in this novel. On the whole, their motivations seem genuine, their actions understandable if not approved, and the characters simply come to life. 

 In my review of Wanderers, I mentioned Chuck Wendig’s affinity for the fiction of Stephen King and parts of this novel (in addition to the elderly, friendly neighbor) definitely evoke the best of King’s work. The genius here; however, is that Chuck Wendig completely owns everything in The Book of Accidents. The result, a modern masterpiece of Dark/Horror Fiction.

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst
(My Favorite Fantasy Novel of 2021)

Getting the gang back together is a popular motif in many stories, fantasy stories included. One of the most popular (and one of the foundational fantasy sagas in this vein for me) is the DragonLance Chronicles, so I suppose I’m pre-disposed to liking stories that begin in this fashion. In The Bone Maker, the evil sorcerer was defeated 25 years ago, but at no small cost to the heroes who took him down.

Durst examines some deep things here, grief, forgiveness moving on (or not) from a powerful traumatic experience, faith/belief in ideals, and life being more than just one event. She does so this all while weaving a wonderful story and a fascinating, potent magic system in the back drop. The characters a mature, fully rounded, breathing, emotive people whose experiences so completely inform every action they take. Small things in the background of Durst’s writing, storytelling, and world-building make the story and characters on the page come across very elegantly.

In a shelf-filled with multi-volume fantasies it is not only refreshing to see and enjoy a single-volume Epic Fantasy novel, but truly something special for the book to be this amazing.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

I’m a big horror fan, but the slasher sub-genre was never my go-to subset of the genre. It isn’t that I dislike it, I just prefer some of the other flavors of horror. Of course, I’m familiar with a couple of the big ones like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and one of my overall favorite horror movies, A Nightmare on Elm Street, so some of the character stand-ins/homages didn’t land with me 100% since I’m not super well-versed in Slasher films. Again, that isn’t necessarily the point nor are those connections required to be made to completely enjoy the novel, more like a dash of whip cream on a delicious scoop of ice cream. In fact, Dr. Carol Elliott is likely an homage to Professor Carol J. Clover, who coined the term “Final Girl” and theory in her 1992 book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. All of that said, The Final Girl Support Group was an enormously fun, extremely smart, thrill ride of a novel. It is a novel that both entertains and Makes a Statement, which in my mind, is what great literature should do. I continue to say this when I write about Grady Hendrix’s work, but with each novel or thing (non-fiction like Paperbacks from Hell or films he’s written) he produces in the genre, he’s cementing himself as a foundational voice in early 21st Century Horror. His novels have become appointment reading for me at this point.

Blood of the Chosen by Django Wexler

In everything I’ve read from Django Wexler, especially Blood of the Chosen, the action and combat scenes are essential, and extremely fun to experience. I didn’t feel like I was just reading the words on the page, I felt like I was a proverbial fly on the wall in the action. This is especially true of the final conflict of the novel, so much of the narrative was slow burn build that the explosive ending was extremely compelling. The slow burn of the novel’s beginning made the build-up and the action of the finale that more enjoyable. That ending also sows seeds in some verdant land for a potent continuation in the third novel.

As thick as this novel was, just over 400 pages, I read through it rather briskly. Wexler is a damned fine storyteller and his love of the fantastic comes through the page as a catchy thing.

Near the Bone and The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry


The Ghost Tree: Henry does a great job with the pacing of the novel as she goes between the multiple threads of the novel. Alongside that strong element of the novel are the emotions of the characters and how strongly the come across the page. From the loneliness Lauren feels, to the awful feelings conveyed by Mrs. Schneider, to the anger the Lopez family feels, Henry makes each character unique.

The Ghost Tree plays on some popular tropes in the horror genre, a 1980s setting, a small town with secret, haunted woods/tree, a hidden lineage and plays with them extremely well. One of my favorite horror novels over the past decade and a half is Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge and I found some really nice resonance between the two novels – small, isolated town with a dark secret being the most prominent.

Near the Bone: This is the second book I read by Henry, but it will be far from my last. Set in a remote, secluded mountain cabin, Mattie is in what can be considered an unhealthy relationship with her husband William. She is confined to the cabin, except when William needs her help and William wants nobody to know of their presence on the mountain. When she discovers a mutilated fox, William decides to hunt down the thing that left the corpse near their house. Strange, inhuman voices begin to cry out in the night and visitors stumble upon Mattie and William. Part psychological thriller, part monster story, Henry tells a taut, gripping horror story here.

Wizard of the Pigeons by Meghan Lindholm

Wizard of the Pigeon is a novel that can work on multiple layers, and the power of Lindholm’s prose is in the ambiguity that allows the reader for that kind of experience. It can easily be readable as a novel with real magic in Seattle while it can also be read as an account of a man suffering from severe PTSD whose coping mechanism is thinking of himself as a wizard. The third alternative is a combination of the two. For me, I see magic.

I must also comment on the physical book itself. As I intimated above, this book has largely been out of print for well over a decade. Sean Speakman, owner of Grim Oak Press decided to publish this 35th Anniversary edition and it is a book whose beauty does justice to the powerful story told between its covers. With evocative full-page color art pieces by Tommy Arnold, the book gets a truly Artistic treatment in terms of a physical book being a piece of art or an artifact.

This book is a must read, must own for readers of the genre especially if you’ve enjoyed anything by Robin Hobb. Wizard of the Pigeons is a progenitor of the Urban Fantasy genre in the truest sense of magic in the cityscape and not leather-clad vampires and vampire hunters. Not that there’s anything wrong with leather clad vamps and vamp hunters, but this book is not that. This book is a beautiful testament to the power of prose, how beauty can be found and carved out of pain and through suffering.

Mount Fitz Roy by Scott Sigler

Mount Fitz Roy is the sequel to Sigler’s hugely popular novel Earthcore. I listened to both books via audible. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read from Sigler and when he re-released Earthcore with the great Ray Porter on audio, I finally read it…and immediately wanted to read Mount Fitz Roy. The premise is that an something on is hiding in the caves of large mountains where knives form an ancient civilization are found. It really isn’t a spoiler to point out this civilization aren’t human. Sigler builds up tension incredibly well and is a master at science fiction horror. Porter is maybe the best narrator I’ve had the pleasure to hear.


The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James

A run down motel, murders in the past connected to our protagonist Carly who decides to work in the hotel to try to solve the unsolved murder of her aunt Viv 35 years earlier. St. James tells the story in parallel timelines, Carly in the present and Viv in the past, which makes the pages fly by because of St. James’s ability to end each chapter in a way that forces you to continue reading. The Sun Down Motel was a near pitch-perfect supernatural murder mystery, one of those books I wish I could read again for the first time.

Ava Reid has boldly announced herself as a literary force with The Wolf and the Woodsman. The novel is impressive in its beauty, characters, and uncompromising nature and is all the more impressive for being Reid’s debut novel. I would not be in the least bit surprised if The Wolf and the Woodsman lands on multiple “Best of the Year” lists for 2021.

Of Honey and Wildfires by Sarah Chorn

Sarah Chorn’s second novel, Of Honey and Wildfires, is the start of a new series/new world and new characters. Set in a world that evokes the old West/Frontier, the Shine and mining of it dominates everything. The closest analogue I can think of is that Shine is kind of like Spice from Dune. It heals, it is a source of power, it can be consumed, it is everything. …

Human emotion, tragedy, and pain are wrought beautifully on these pages through Sarah Chorn’s carefully constructed prose. There’s a sliver of hope throughout the undercurrent of despair and pain that helps to drive the narrative. Of Honey and Wildfires is a compulsively readable novel whose relatively short page count for the genre (barely 300 pages) belies the epic story and gamut of emotions and purely powerful storytelling on display.

Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman

Chapman takes very real-life events and uses that as a launching pad to spin a gripping story out of those events. He does a fantastic job of humanizing the participants of what would seem to be a larger-than-life bombastic news story. I’ve long been fan of parallel narratives and here in Whisper Down the Lane, Chapman builds up the tension in both Sean and Richard’s stories. It is probably not much of a secret that these stories converge in some fashion, but how Chapman builds towards this convergence is extremely effective. He has a knack for creating a compulsive narrative, which is why I burned through the novel in a couple of days, Whisper Down the Lane was extremely challenging to set down.

Whisper Down the Lane is a potent, compulsive thriller with horrific elements that is one of the most gripping novels I’ve read this year.

Slewfoot by BROM

Much of the story feels like a historical fantasy / fairy tale, but then Brom shifts the tone into something darker and a story firmly entrenched in horror. That build of tension and build of Abitha’s character is like a powder keg that explodes in what at one time could be considered dark magic. Here also is what Brom does so well…he upturns the historical perspective and turns the “good” on its head into something not quite so pleasant. He does this via the simmering of tension I mentioned earlier as well as the path Abitha’s nemesis Wallace takes. Brom gives readers a character to root for in Abitha and an antagonist that is unlikeable in Wallace. Brom doesn’t just make Wallace a cardboard cut-out of a villain, he balances the character by showing some insight into the Wallace’s motivation. We see why he feels the way he does, even if his reaction to those feelings are villainous.

Brom’s art, a half-dozen color plates in the center of the book and chapter icons that take up half the page, enhance the immersive experience of Slewfoot. His words are just as potent at telling the story as is his art. The obvious comparison in recent years is to the film The VVitch because the timeframe, horrific elements, witchcraft, but except maybe a bit more hopeful.

Brom has created a story that feels familiar and fresh and is the kind of powerful story that could last through the generations as a book/novel/story to revisit every Hallowe’en.

Star Kingdom by Lindsay Buroker

This is the second series I’ve read from Buroker and she has a great knack for character and storytelling in her work. She’s self-published (one of the biggest names in genre self-published authors), but most of her work is also available via audible. This series takes place thousands of years in the future when humanity has left Earth. The Star Kingdom series focuses on robotics professor Casmir Dabrowski, who is forced to flee his comfortable life when he is being hunted for reasons he can’t imagine. Joining Casmir is his best friend and roommate Kim Sato and filled with great character development, thrilling action, and are just pure fun. These audio books are available as omnibus editions and are fantastic listens.

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

I guess I re-read this series about once every ten years. Or when the TV Show starts up. Either way, I am in the midst of re-reading the series via audiobook and I’m loving it. I’ve said quite a bit about this series in the past, and as of this writing, I had just finished The Dragon Reborn

Maradaine by Marshall Ryan Maresca

Maresca’s interlinked series of series has been a delight. I read The Thorn of Dentonhill back in 2015, dove back into some of the Maradaine novels last year, and have continued to make my way through the various series this year, in chronological order not in series order, which is what Mr. Maresca recommends. These books are relatively short (barely 400 pages at most) in mass market paperback and have a sword and sorcery feel to them, taking place in a shared location. In many ways, his Maradaine saga is not unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, four trilogies that eventually tie together. You don’t necessarily need to read one of the trilogies to get what is going on in the other, but it makes for a more rewarding experience. Maresca has a handy "reading order" guide.

I also reviewed, and loved the 2021 entry in this series, An Unintended Voyage, which seems to act as a bridge between "Phase One" of Maradaine and the next phase. 

Miriam Black by Chuck Wendig

For all that I’ve read by Chuck Wendig, I’d never read his breakout series, Miriam Black and the only reason I’m not kicking myself for not getting to this series sooner is because I’m not getting to experience these books for the first time. Miriam can tell you how you die and exactly when you die just by touching you. That doesn’t sound fun at all, and Miriam would agree with that sentiment. Horror/thriller/mystery rolled together, I think Chuck has said he envisions these as horror novels. I’m not going to argue with the man. I’ve read the first three thus far, Blackbirds, Mockingbird, and The Cormorant.

I think it might be obvious at this point that my author of the year is Chuck Wendig. Even if I hadn’t met and chatted with him in the past, I’d love his books and writing.

So...not a bad year for reading for me. This year was the first time in probably 15 to 20 years that I got close to reading 100 books in a year.

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