BP Gregory's Best Reads of 2021!
Haunted Houses, Haunted People, Haunted Space: These Are a Few of My Favourite Things...
It's finally happening: my Best Reads of 2021. The list is choc full of stories that will bend your mind and expand your horizons, something I think I really needed spending so much time in lockdown staring at the walls.
Quick note: these are books that I read and loved during 2021, not specifically things that were published in this year.
Best Reads of 2021
Scariest Read: Nothing But Blackened Teeth, by Cassandra Khaw
"Tradition insists the offerings be buried alive, able to breathe and bargain through the process, their funerary garments debased by shit, piss, and whatever other fluids we extrude on the cusp of death. I couldn't shake the idea of an eminently practical family, one that understood that bone won't rot where wood might, ordering their workers to stack girls like bricks. Arms here, legs there, a vein of skulls wefted into the manor's framing, insurance against a time when traditional architecture might fail."
Cat steps into a decaying ancient Japanese mansion, on a jaunt to celebrate her ghost-hunting friends' wedding. Except that since her bout of severe depression and hospitalization her companions both are and aren't her friends, their lives having closed smoothly over her absence like soil over a grave.
Khaw's beautiful writing ensures that the haunted mansion never takes a back seat to the dynamics of the group, instead it intertwines and holds them close and will never let them leave.
Weepiest Read: The God is Not Willing, by Steven Erikson
"'She's a madwoman!' Benger hissed, wiping at the sweat on his brow. 'She was going to cut my ear off! I'm the last serious healer left - did she think I wouldn't make her pay for that?'
'You should've just healed that finger along with all the rest,' Oams said.
Benger leaned close and whispered, 'But I did!'
Oams frowned. 'But you - she - oh, fuck.'
'I do it every time!' And Benger started laughing, shoulders jumping, face deepening its hue, mouth wide, eyes starting to stream tears.
I seriously needed some kind of rehydration drink, I cried so hard after reading this. Laughed, too, but laughing doesn't ruin your electrolytes.
There's epic fantasy, you see, and then there's EPIC FANTASY. Erikson returns to the Malazan universe and fans will eat The God Is Not Willing up with a spoon just like I did.
If you've been wanting to get into Malazans but the sheer girth of The Malazan Book of the Fallen daunted instead of thrilled, in The God Is Not Willing Erikson delivers a leaner more refined tale still brimming with the humour, brutal reality, and tender humanism that defines the series.
Most Fun Read: Man, Fuck This House, by Brian Asman
"Michaela hefted the rock like a chest-passed basketball. The stone caught the Hal-thing in the face, snapping his head around.
He fell, face-first.
Into the mower's rapidly spinning blades.
The Hal-thing's body jumped and spasmed as the blades tore through his face. He flailed, pushed at the mower. One hand got caught in the blades, then-
CLUNK, CLUNK, CLUNK.
The mower stopped.
The air smelled like burning metal. If the Hal-thing were human, the lawn should by all rights be covered in a spray of blood and gore, lacerated flesh, splintery bone chips.
But no - the detritus spewed across the lawn looked more like wood shavings and powdered drywall than anything that might have come from a human body."
This was my first time reading Asman and I'm excited for more. So much about this story was unexpected as the ordinary family begin their ordinary lives in their new suburban home. The approach starts wry and judgmental before expanding into forgiveness of these messy difficult people, and ultimately being quite kind.
Don't get me wrong: there's more than enough horror and trauma along the way but it's your attachment to the dysfunctional Haskins family that really draws you in.
Shock and Awe: The Wingspan of Severed Hands, by Jo Koch
"Adira looked across dim Carcosa, revealed and reflected in her mother's dark eyes. In the landscape of Adira's future, there was no visible king. The yellow tatters that blew in the wind were the shredded labia of the murdered queen, putrescent with the stench of disease. They were the burned clumps of blonde hair billowing from her scalp, the ropey flags of vocal cords torn from her howling throat."
This was one of my Top 5 Halloween Reads this year, as Koch takes us on a wild ride through flesh and physics gone mad.
Magical realism meets tides of blood and bulging ripe flesh, beautifully written to layer the awe with the gore. While I admit that baroque language isn't for everyone, this novel brought a sublime beauty to its horror that's definitely not to be missed.
Best Vision of the Present: Negative Space, by BR Yeager
"He was the first guy who ever got me high. He asked me: 'Want to feel something amazing?' I nodded. He put his hands around my neck. I started to scream, and the world swam when he let go, like seeing it for the first time. Like a baby. And when the world turned normal, I asked him to do it again."
Also placing as one of my Top 5 Halloween Reads this year, Yeager challenges their audience: you'll need nimble reading to keep up with this skillfully interwoven narrative.
Youth, drugs, identity and reality melt together as a suicide epidemic turns a small town into a nightmare, with the potential to hatch something entirely new if you can just reach for it.
Best Vision of the Future: Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir
"'Consciousness detected,' the computer says. 'What's your name.'
'I still don't know that.'
'Incorrect. Attempt number two: What's your name?'
I'm Caucasian, I'm male, and I speak English. Let's play the odds. 'J - John?'
'Incorrect. Attempt number three: What's your name?'
I pull the IV out of my arm. 'Bite me.'
'Incorrect.' The robot arms reach for me. I roll off the bed, which is a mistake. The other tubes are still connected.
The butt tube comes right out. Doesn't even hurt. The still-inflated catheter yanks right out of my penis. And that does hurt. It's like peeing a golf ball."
Weir is back! I really enjoyed The Martian, but I have to confess Artemis didn't ring my bell so much (which is totally fine - not every book will suit every person).
But romping space adventure Project Hail Mary returns with the science, the fun, the science, the drama, did I mention the science which Weir excels at making dynamic and enjoyable for any reader, even if you don't think you're a "science-y" person.
And finally, drumroll please, my Best Read of 2021 was:
Best of 2021: There is no Antimemetics Division, by qntm
"Kim paces the elevator. I don't remember what my face looks like. It said it had eaten all my secondary languages, but I don't remember learning anything other than English. so - It's eating my memories. It's consuming information. And I can't contact anybody directly, which means I'm on my own.
I'm not trained for this.
He hammers his head once against the elevator wall, and stares at his shoes. But I don't know that. What if I've been trained, but I don't remember my training anymore? What if I've been working here for years and I only think this is my first day? What if I've met this thing before? What if everybody on the site has met it multiple times ... and ... and nobody remembers? Is this what an antimeme is?
Kim remembers the near-empty cafeteria. And miles of totally unoccupied corridors and vacant office and lab space. Maybe it's not just eating my memories. Maybe it eats people whole, removes them completely from history. Maybe it's been haunting the site for years and that's why the site's so empty, because it's nearly finished exterminating us all?"
How to fight and fight and fight a losing war against an enemy that literally destroys any trace of its existence?
Many of you will be familiar with the SCP Foundation collaborative universe: a quiltwork of stories based on a Foundation that controls anomalous (i.e. dangerous/supernatural/hilarious) objects, most often told in the format of a written report about the object and how to manage it.
But if this is your first time and you like having your brain bent, There Is No Antimemetics Division is the perfect place to start. Because humanity is facing a deadly threat it can't even perceive. And the Antimemetics Division isn't about to give up.
Bonus Extra: Best Listens of 2021
My three favourite podcasts this year have been:
Two scientists exploring a dangerous alien planet, their interwoven story told one forward in time from budding friendship, one backward from disaster and horror.
Claire inherits her family's creepy old cult building and brings her best friend Judith along for the ride to renovate it.
Dr Winifred Eurus was supposed to just explore the ocean planet Fons, not become stranded on it.
Wishing you a tremendously fun and safe time over the holidays, and I look forward to seeing you all back for incredible new stories in 2022