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?
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…
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.
I can’t think of any good ways to summarise poetry collections so I’m just putting the titles of my favourites.
I thought this category would literally just be Crying in H Mart, but then I found an obvious second.
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)…