Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake

Delilah Green Doesn’t Care is a queer romcom about a woman who has to return to her hometown for her estranged stepsister’s wedding. Delilah lives in New York City, trying to make it in the world of photography, and staying at arms’ length from everyone. When her stepsister Astrid, who she’s never gotten along with and tries to avoid speaking to, asks her to be the photographer for her wedding, Delilah needs the money, so she finds herself back in Bright Falls, facing memories of her father’s death. At the same time, Astrid’s best friend Claire is trying to manage co-parenting with her ex and keeping Astrid happy during her wedding. When Claire and Delilah run into each other after years, sparks start to fly.

This is a romcom that deals with quite a lot of character stuff whilst also building up the romance, especially around Delilah and Astrid coming to terms with their childhood and how they see each other, and Claire working out how to put herself first and give her almost-teenage daughter (and previously unreliable ex) room to grow. The premise is a classic romantic comedy one, with someone forced back into a place they left for a wedding, and some pre-wedding activities giving structure and chances for the protagonists to see each other. The chapters move between the two main characters, giving both perspectives, and Delilah in particular is a flawed character, too quick to just try and get a rise out of someone rather than really engage, and who has to learn to give people another chance.

I particularly liked the way that Delilah built up a connection with Claire’s daughter, teaching her about photography, as it made the book feel like it wasn’t an ‘oh, also I’ve got a child’, but the love interest actively taking an interest in them. Astrid’s fiancé being terrible, and therefore the wedding that sets up the plot being a bad idea, is a classic trope, and the book, perhaps unexpectedly from the premise which might sound like it’s more of a ‘character escapes from conservative little town and has to go back’, shows queer characters realistically uniting to help stop the awful cishet guy. There’s a few questionable actions by characters which aren’t really dealt with, but that tends to be true of most romcoms, which typically need to be read with a dose of ‘that was discussed properly by the characters later’.

With a sequel about Astrid on the way for people who want more of these characters, Delilah Green Doesn’t Care is a fun romcom about two women reaching their thirties and working out where they are and what they want next. It’s easy to get gripped by it and stay up too late reading it, which tends to feel like the mark of a good romcom novel, and the chemistry is good. A book that does what it says on the tin, whilst letting the characters be vulnerable and grow.

28 Questions by Indyana Schneider

28 Questions is a novel about what makes relationships, as two women meet as students, fall deep into friendship and then in love. Amalia moves from Australia to Oxford to start as a first year music student and is still dealing with the culture shock and the work when she meets Alex, another Australian in her third year. They quickly become best friends, asking each other questions and learning more and more about each other, but Amalia starts to realise they’re both maybe feeling the pull of attraction. A romantic relationship might be perfect, or it might change things forever.

Spanning across four years, three at Oxford and then one once Amalia has graduated, 28 Questions uses the idea of it taking 28 questions to fall in love to structure the book, with each chapter named after a question that will occur. The premise sounds a bit like a romcom, and I did see it being marketed as a ‘queer When Harry Met Sally‘ (a film the book references a few times, around ideas of friendship and sex), but it is less of a romcom than a coming of age type book set at university, exploring love, sex, and relationships as well as music and art and what is highbrow or not. One book it actually reminded me of in some ways is The Lessons by Naomi Alderman (which is funny because characters talk about Alderman’s Disobedience in the novel), as it has a similar sense of complicated love story entwined in Oxford, though 28 Questions is much more focused on the love aspect than the ‘can Oxford students function as humans’ part.

All of the dialogue in the book is written as if a script, with name tags for who is speaking, and though it’s an unusual conceit, I didn’t find it hard to get into, but I imagine it’ll put some people off. There’s also a lot of classical music and opera throughout, which I don’t know much about, but I enjoyed the vibe and some of the discussions about music, and thoughts about creating things and enjoying art more generally. There’s a lot of Oxford detail in this, which I appreciated, and it depicts the insular, pressure cooker feeling well, though I expected more follow through around this later in the book, as it felt like there were things Alex was hiding.

The relationship between Amalia and Alex shows the complexity of feelings, and also how something that sounds good on paper might not work out when people’s actual tendencies and emotions come into play. I liked some of the conversations and the way intensity was shown, and how Amalia expected certain conversations to go, or expected certain types of combative discussion due to being at university. The book captures very well some of the experiences of university and trying to find out who you are whilst also feeling pressure to do well and seem clever, but also how this bleeds into relationships and where lines might be between finding and losing yourself in them.

I really enjoyed 28 Questions, particularly through some of the ideas it explores and the fact it depicted a university experience similar to my own, though I did keep expecting there to be slightly more drama or things later revealed in the plot. I also liked the fact it takes the Oxford student obsession/love story plot and tells it with two women, both quite similar rather than a typical class or other divide, and there’s some good lingering tension between them. If you like university-set stories about messy love and friendship, then this one is worth a read.

Sticker by Henry Hoke

Sticker is a a memoir told in 20 stickers, as Henry Hoke explores growing up in and being from Charlottesville, having a disabled parent, and sexuality all through the lens of particular stickers. From stickers never had to those more ubiquitous, each chapter using the sticker as a starting point, as Hoke explores childhood, violence, and legacy.

This is the first book from the Object Lessons series that I’ve read, and it was not what I might’ve expected, not a history or philosophical look at an object, but using the object in question to explore personal history and emotion. In particular, the book explores being from a place known for white supremacist violence, whose name became a byword for a fascist terrorist attack. Seeing as stickers are often used by neo-fascists to spread hate, this adds a layer of complexity to the idea of the object covered in the book: stickers are not just a site of childhood joy and sometimes pain, but also part of something larger. This is also true of other elements of the book, like not being able to have a sticker for giving blood if you’re a man who has sex with men, and it’s clever how Hoke manages to explore so many emotions and experiences organised around stickers.

The book’s cover, with the unicorn and rainbow stickers, might not make it clear how much this book engages with what I don’t want to call ‘the darker side of stickers’, but the elements of stickers that go beyond something cute to adorn notebooks with or give to a child. The concept of the book makes me wonder what objects you could view your life through and where objects have a lot more complexity than you might first think (so maybe I need to read more of the series). If you like reading short memoirs with overarching themes or structural conceits, Sticker is a book to give a go, particularly if you’re interested in reading about experiences of being a white queer person in Charlottesville and consider how people are privileged or see things in certain ways.

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

To Paradise is an epic novel that explores ideas of health and illness, race, nationhood, and family across three different times and many different characters. Starting in an alternative universe version of America in 1983, the first section explores the structures that exist in the Free States, a part of America that seems to have more liberal views and allows same-sex marriage, but that doesn’t stop a wealthy young man from having to fight for who he wants to marry. The next section moves to 1993, in which a Hawaiian man hides the troubles of his upbringing from his lover against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. And then the third section takes us to 2093 and a world full of pandemics, in which a scientist’s granddaughter tries to understand where her husband is disappearing to in a strictly controlled world.

A lot of people (myself included) will be anticipating this after A Little Life, and To Paradise is very different in some ways, but also similar in others, particularly in some of Yanagihara’s themes and locations and the general ambiguity and complexity around some of the moral issues. The book is in three distinct sections, and I like the fact that these are separate, making it clear where you’re at and also making them resonate with each other but not completely link. The third section is a lot longer than the other two (it takes up half of the book) and probably the one that stood out most to me when reading, combining the narratives of a woman and her grandfather, with the latter told entirely in one-way letters.

The first section has a distinct vibe, a kind of high society romance and love across class barriers, but it raises a lot of issues and questions around power, class, and race, and the failings of a seemingly utopian place that is still prejudiced, racist, and rigidly structured. Stepping back from the immediate narrative to notice this makes it richer, and I enjoyed the hints of hindsight in the narrative voice combined with the somewhat ambiguous ending (which is teased about in the third part). I wasn’t really sure what to make of this section whilst reading, and I think it benefits from considering as part of the whole book and in relation to the other sections.

The second section is quite different again, split into two parts exploring a Hawaiian man’s life in New York City with his older lover, as he hides his complicated past and watches people get ill and die, and then his father’s story, looking at identity and the colonisation of Hawaii through the eyes of a man with a mysterious illness. The first part was more of a snapshot, feeling quite brief, but the second part brings a rich narrative whilst also eventually unfolding the childhood of the protagonist from the first part.

As I already mentioned, the third section stood out most to me, almost immediately drawing me into the story of someone living in a future-America where many pandemics have ravaged the world and things seem to have taken a dystopian turn. The chapters in this section move between the 2093 narrative and an earlier one featuring the grandfather character as he tries to balance his high-flying scientific career with his husband and son, who are unsettled by moving to America from Hawaii and by what the scientist is up to. The story is told very well, and there’s a lot of interesting moral complexity throughout, raising questions about what should be done to control viruses, but never at the expense of focusing on the human elements. The general dystopian setting isn’t overdone, as some can be, and there’s an interesting moment of reflection in one of the letters about what a dystopia even is.

Some people might feel that this is three books in one, but personally, I felt that they gained a lot by being together as one. In particular, the first and the third sections benefitted from each other by twisting around ideas of utopia and dystopia, marriage and freedom, and what it means to be known as a part of a family (the latter is also very important in the second section). I think if the book was just the third part, I would enjoy it less than I did, because it would feel too clearly like a COVID-19 take on dystopian fiction, rather than the larger exploration of a lot of themes that To Paradise is.

Though the third section of the book can hit close to home at times, To Paradise isn’t trying to destroy the reader as A Little Life is, but instead paints a complex vision of people looking towards paradise, towards something better, and realising that they cannot help or protect others. It explores divisions in societies and violence towards groups of people, but also divisions and tensions within different kinds of family units. The length and format will probably put some people off, especially if the start of the first section leaves you wondering where the book is going, but actually the epic nature of the book worked well for me, weaving in a lot of questions and things to consider. It’s not perfect, but it is quite an experience.

Wahala by Nikki May

Wahala is a tense and biting novel about what happens to three friends when a glamorous newcomer joins their group. Ronke, Simi, and Boo have been friends since university, three mixed race women now in their thirties and dealing with life and love. When Simi’s childhood friend Isobel appears, at first the others are unsure, but soon it seems like her whirlwind of money and style might improve all their lives. However, cracks start appearing in their friendships and relationships with their partners, and secrets from the past are coming back.

The book focuses on all three of the protagonists, with each chapter following a different one of them as they are drawn deeper into Isobel’s world. The concept of the outsider who starts tearing apart a friendship group is a classic one, and this is a great example of the trope, with plot points all coming together and the reader knowing early on that Isobel is trouble, but being powerless to do anything but watch it happen. Sometimes stories with that kind of reader powerlessness frustrate me, but this one was carefully done so you trust that the plot is going somewhere.

The main characters are interesting, all at quite different points in their lives and dealing with their different relationships to their British and Nigerian heritage. Ronke was the most suspicious of Isobel, which made her engaging, and her hope throughout the novel was powerful. Boo’s story was frustrating in a cleverly written way, as a part-time stay-at-home mum deals with having someone encourage her to spice up her life, but this makes her feelings of resentment for her husband and child harder to deal with. Simi’s narrative was perhaps less thrilling, but gave a chance for exploration of the conflicts she faced at work and with her family, and also about a woman who does not want to have children.

There’s a lot of issues explored in the novel in different ways, from dark comedy to more serious consideration of race and class (especially in the treatment of Ronke’s boyfriend Kayode), and the book cleverly combines the plot with these elements. Wahala is a chance to plunge into the lives of three friends (like Isobel), and root for them to make it through without ruining their lives (unlike Isobel).

The Spite List 2021

I used to always do a yearly ‘spite list’ of the books I hated, but last year I moved to more of a ‘trends/stuff I hated in books’ list, not so much to avoid harshness as just because too many things were just a bit rubbish rather than worthy of proper vitriol. Also then people can just fill in whichever books they hated in that category too. I only count things I’ve actually read, so there’s no spite for the genres I’m not a fan of, or things too terrible for me to pick up. Anyway, the spite:

  • Disappointing / irredeemable / ‘offensive and not even doing it well’ horror – In the year I fully got back into horror books, I also read some duds. Usually it’s books that made some random bad choice (whether narrative/character wise or just like some really off dialogue) and then don’t make up for it or make it work. For one of these books I actually worked out a whole different plot line keeping the same premise that worked much better, though I’ve forgotten it now. But yeah. I want good ‘what the hell’ in horror, not bad ‘what the hell’.
  • Non-fiction that just drags and takes up way too many words to say anything – This is the year I finally actually read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I’m saying no more.
  • Poetry that just really didn’t click with me – I find it weirdly hard to review poetry beyond ‘I liked this one and this one’ or ‘their writing style really pleases my brain’, but sometimes I read a collection and I just don’t really enjoy any of it. So this award goes out to those books, one of which I gave away in a ‘if you don’t like it keep passing it on, as it did have good reviews’ way.
  • Books that seemed like they might be similar to The Secret History but weren’t – One of my greatest disappointments is when something seems like it might have a good ‘getting weirdly too deep into some kind of academic subject and then it gets weird’ vibe and then it turns out not to be like that. This one is really on me: I should stop assuming books will be like that.
  • Books mentioned in the same breath as Sally Rooney – I really liked Conversations with Friends, I thought Normal People was fine, I didn’t hate reading her new one, but I never have a good time with other hyped books that are mean to fit into a similar space as Sally Rooney. I just tend to find the protagonists frustrating and don’t really get their angst about that somewhat naff office job and complex relationship with an annoying man.

And finally, the real question: what book things I hate will 2022 bring?

My favourite books of 2021

I was all ready to be like ‘I read a lot of books I liked, but not so many I completely loved’ and then I started writing this list and it got pretty long, so I’m saying it was actually a decent year for books. Some of these are very, very good, and others are very good in a specific way that I loved.

Unlike my favourite non-2021 books of the year, this will be in order of when I read them, starting with the book I read as a proof last year but did actually come out at the start of this one…

Fiction

Starting with fiction because I read a lot of it. I also fully embraced getting back into horror, which was good.

  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – Need I say anything? Listen to the hype. 
  • The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe – Is this a trashy YA action story about accidentally becoming part of a heist? Yes, and that’s why it’s on the list – it’s fun and it’s the sort of narrative I like in a film.
  • Assembly by Natasha Brown – A novel about race, class, and millennial success, as an unnamed narrator takes you through preparing for a party in her boyfriend’s parents’ garden. One of the only times I’ve really loved the ‘immediate thoughts of narrator going to London job etc’ style of narrative.
  • Gunk Baby by Jamie Marina Lau – Felt like an instant cult classic to me. A book about a shopping centre and capitalism, all in a haze of muzak.
  • Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon – Not the kind of book I’d usually go to, but this genre-defying tale of a separatist escapee developing powers just really punched you in the gut and questioned who the monsters really are.
  • Reprieve by James Han Mattson – A horror novel about a full contact haunted house escape room that turns into a character study and an exploration of social dynamics. Come for the premise, stay for what it’s exploring.
  • Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So – I’m not always the biggest short story person, but the way these connected and built up a sense of Cambodian American life in California was very impressive.
  • Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke – A novel told over Slack, as someone gets trapped in their workplace Slack workspace. I almost hate how much I enjoyed this as someone who works with technology, uses Slack at work, and loves silly premises.
  • Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt – This was my most ‘I’ve got to read this’ book of 2021 and it did not disappoint. Haunted house gothic but the house is fascism and the racist 80s singer poster is scary. Not for the faint-hearted, but probably my most breathtaking book of 2021. Trans horror forever.
  • Stay Another Day by Juno Dawson – What’s one of my end of year book list without one of Juno Dawson’s books? This Christmas romcom was fun but, as might be expected from her, didn’t shy away from some more serious stuff too.
  • Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner – It’s very hard to describe this one – a bizarre trip round gender, football, time travel, and a whole host of other things – but it’s very good.
  • Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles – This is a novel in verse so I’m sticking it here just because I’m not writing anything about the ones in the poetry section. A sci-fi novel written in Orkney dialect verse and probably the ultimate ‘so you want to read something different’ recommendation.

Poetry

I can’t think of any good ways to summarise poetry collections so I’m just putting the titles of my favourites.

Non-fiction

I thought this category would literally just be Crying in H Mart, but then I found an obvious second.

My favourite non-2021 books I read in 2021

I always do a ‘best books I read this year that weren’t out this year’ list, to fully appreciate any books I was catching up on/not born for/etc, but this year it is crucial, because this year is the year I read Lote and the year I read Tommy Pico. So we have to start with my two new faves:

  • Lote by Shola von Reinhold – Not so much the book I didn’t know I needed as much as the book I knew I needed but did not have. A friend gave me this thinking I would like it, maybe not that it would quickly become one of my favourite books of all time. We follow Matilda through Transfixions, aesthetics, and questions of who gets to define history and taste in a book that does Gender Feelings and made me google people and just generally feel like I got so much from it. I read it twice in 2021 and that may have not been enough.
  • IRL, Nature Poem, and Feed by Tommy Pico – I read three of Tommy Pico’s poetry books this year, and the only reason I’ve not read the fourth is that I’m saving it on my ‘to read’ pile that some kind of hoarder. I love long poems, I love books that are a single poem, and I love how Tommy Pico writes. I was sold and then I read the lines “Stop fucking / posting about “veggies,” truly / America’s most disgustingly / perky word”. Also, this year I watched Reservation Dogs because Pico writes on it, so got even more great content.

Okay, fine, I did read some other great books from not-2021 this year too, so here’s a few others that I’ll go less feral for:

  • Homie by Danez Smith – I read a whole bunch of recent-ish poetry on catch up this year and this was another stand out book, about friendship and loss.
  • Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang – A short novel about where you come from, as a trans woman deals with grief and explores her aunt’s secret relationship, that was just really good.
  • Infect Your Friends And Loved Ones by Torrey Peters – If we’re talking short… this novella was one of those ‘I know I need to read it’ and then I read Peters’ Detransition, Baby (which will come on the proper year list) and then I finally read this and it was fantastically witty and dark.
  • The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen – The only graphic novel I read this year, and it gets onto my top books list… the art style is beautiful (I basically picked this up because I saw a picture of the cover) and the tale of using stories to communicate where you don’t have other words is very emotional.

I read some other great poetry this year, but actually a lot of the non-out-this-year books I read this year were a bit of a let down, maybe because with all the reviewing and actual day job I didn’t get time to read as much of a mix as I’d like, especially not older stuff. Still, I got some new obsessed-with favourites out of the year, which I’ll take as a win.

Anyway, my list of actual 2021 books will be coming soon (and then, if you’re lucky, some kind of ‘spite list’/things I didn’t like in books this year)…

Where Decay Sleeps by Anna Cheung

Where Decay Sleeps is a collection of poetry split into seven stages of decay: pallor mortis, algor mortis, rigor mortis, livor mortis, putrefaction, decomposion and skeletonisation. Using seven themes, the poems explore haunted elements and everyday gothic, merging horror creatures with modern technology and creating spooky atmospheres.

I particularly enjoyed some of the twists on modern life, like ‘Monster Tinder’ and ‘Dinner with Dracula’, which were tongue in cheek, and the combination of those with more serious poems like ‘Decay, The Stalker’. The variety of kinds of gothic poetry was nice, with some poems a walk in an eerie woods and others a sudden reveal of gruesome bodies. The poetry is accessible and it’s a good collection for gothic horror fans who perhaps don’t read many poems as well as poetry fans who like a bit of haunting.

They by Kay Dick

They is a lost dystopian novella, first published in 1977, about the suppression of identity and art, as a mysterious ‘they’ start to curtail freedoms to stop non-conformity. Subtitled ‘a sequence of unease’, They moves through a number of scenes, connected but not entirely, probably with the same unnamed, genderless narrator, to show the eerie dread of this new Britain, the horror of what you might lose and how people’s selves might be taken from them.

This edition has been republished by Faber with an introduction by Carmen Maria Machado, which helpfully positions the book in its time and gives a sense of what to look out for. The atmosphere is very much the “unease” of the subtitle, an eerie pastoral vision, like a dystopia for the Arts and Crafts movement, and as Machado points out in the introduction, you shouldn’t think yourself definitely not part of “them”, whoever they are. The novella explores this complicity, this taking of identity (after all, we barely know the characters, and hardly the narrator, if the narrator is one person) and the physical taking of both artworks and the means, both in terms of body and object, of making them.

I found this a subtly terrifying book that asks more questions than it answers, and shows that dystopia as a genre doesn’t have to always be about very obvious comparisons and worldbuilding, but instead something creeping and ominous. It feels a bit like it should be an old 70s BBC drama, but it is also very interesting how well it works reading it today, maybe because of the ambiguity and sparseness of it.