2021 was not my best reading year in recent times; there are lots of books I own or was sent by publishers that I’m excited about that I have not read yet! That’s because I spent most of last year pregnant (and very sick for half of it!) and then taking care of a newborn since September. I am very happy to have my beautiful baby but I did not realize my reading would suffer so much. But! I also read some amazing books in 2021. Here they are, in no particular order. Of course, these are mostly queer and quite a few Canadian.
Squad by Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Lisa Sterle
This YA graphic novel was a bit darker than I was expecting, but not in a bad way. Becca is the new girl at a posh school and is surprised when the popular clique recruits her–literally, they’re a werewolf pack who need a fourth member!
They prey on the predators, satisfying their monthly hunger by eating shitty guys they pick up at parties. Things get a lot more morally grey when one of their boyfriends is accidentally killed and they’re forced to look for food outside of their usual places.
There are great vintage horror vibes in both the art and storytelling; the drawings are kind of Archie comic style but polished. There’s also a cute coming out, sapphic romance, and an intriguingly complex portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship where they never say what they mean.
I appreciated how all the women characters aren’t crafted with likeability or niceness in mind. They felt very authentic!
This book gave me strong Buffy vibes, capturing my imagination in the way it gave teen girls the physical power to fight the patriarchy as embodied in entitled rapey teen boys. It felt cathartic and empowering to read like Buffy has often made me feel. There are also shades of The Craft in the girls’ relationship and power dynamics with one girl being the leader.
Personal Attention Roleplay by Helen Chau Bradley
This book is a wonderfully inventive authentic collection of queer Asian Canadian short stories, including:
— a queer metal band’s tour with a new manager (AMAZING ending in this one!)
— a woman replacing her codependent relationship with her roommate with an ASMR channel
— two people who meet waiting in line in Covid times (the first story I’ve read featuring Covid!)
— an unemployed Montrealer juggling a relationship with a fickle lover and a friendship with a meals on wheels client
— two cousins who do a pilgrimage in Spain (one enthusiastically, the other reluctantly)
— a tween gymnast who has a crush on her older more talented teammate
— a kid who plays Greek heroes with her best friend but sabotages their relationship when she feels she doesn’t measure up
These stories have great precise details that bring the characters alive. They all felt so emotionally true. There’s also some lovely writing and skilled storytelling (the Covid story is told solely in unattributed dialogue!).
Some favourite passages:
“The top of her head smells like a good dream.”
“I thought about how enormous life was and how enormous also the space between people could be.”
Pride Colours by Robin Stevenson
My baby’s first LGBTQ book! And by a local Vancouver Island author no less. This board book is just beautiful. Lovely rhyming text about love, acceptance, opportunity, affection, and more centred on the meaning of the colours of the Pride flag. There are photos of racially diverse babies and toddlers and a couple pictures of queer couples with kids. The last page introduces the idea of the Pride parade. This book reminded me that I can’t wait to take my kid to Pride!!
Little You by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett
This board book is a beautiful, soothing story about an Indigenous couple welcoming a baby. (The writer is from the Dene Nation and the illustrator is Cree Métis). “You are life and breath adored.” “Little you / little wonder / Little wish / gentle thunder.” I am melting. Flett’s illustrations are gorgeous and earthy.
Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body by Megan Milks
One of the most unique books I’ve ever read! It’s at once a reimagining of tween girl series like the Babysitter’s Club (a paranormal girl detective club a la first season Buffy), a brutally honest YA novel about a queer / trans coming of age and disordered eating, a choose your own adventure / video game level style surreal metaphorical journey through the body, and an intellectual adult reflection on all this. It is truly many books in one.
Wonderfully imaginative, thoughtfully intertextual, emotionally resonant, critically 90s nostalgic. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time. It’s a one of a kind masterpiece in the same vein as Sybil Lamb’s I’ve Got a Time Bomb and Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom. Wildly weird and thought-provoking.
A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett
I’ve been a big fan of Casey Plett’s work since I first encountered it, so it’s no surprise I loved her most recent short story collection. She writes about (and I suspect for) trans women, often looking at relationships between them. To get a glimpse of their intimacies, interiorities, and experiences is a privilege I don’t take for granted as a cis woman!
Her characters are so intricate and authentic. From one woman with Mennonite roots returning to her home in the Canadian prairies to another leaving cozy Portland queertopia to transition in New York’s anonymity, the stories crackle with quiet complexity. They made me ache, laugh, cringe, cry.
The characters felt like friends who came for a visit and had to go home. I miss them.
NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt
I’m not sure how to talk about this book except to say it’s a phenomenal collection of poetry. Reading Billy-Ray Belcourt feels like an enormous privilege. It’s a collection where I had to stop myself from collecting every other line in my phone notes because it’s all just so good.
I love his play with language, his seamless shifts between tones, his irreverent humour, his powerful interrogation of colonialism, and, of course, the queerness.
“A white boyfriend of mine wanted me to be less beholden to the clouds. / I told him we are all at the mercy of the sky, for better or worse. / Part of me thinks he doesn’t deserve to know / about this mode of attention, this art of description. / But I can’t keep secrets. I am addicted / to the high of letting my own words forsake me.”
“I make out with my imaginary NDN lover / on the ashes of every Canadian pastoral poem ever written.”
“My hobbies include / not dying / obsessively apologizing to the moon for all that she has to witness”
Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu
This graphic novel is an utter delight from start to finish. Kumiko is a bisexual Japanese Canadian woman in her 70s who is stubborn, quirky, funny, and independent. After escaping the longterm care home her daughters set her up in, she sets up a life in her own apartment in East Van only to find death has come too early for her. She intends to fight it, sometimes literally like with the vacuum cleaner she’s pictured with on the front cover.
I just LOVED Kumiko as a character, such a wonderfully rich depiction of a BIPOC queer elder. More books like this please!! This book was like getting to sit down with queer elders and learn about their lives (Kumiko’s ex is a supporting character as well).
Gorgeous, expressive art and complex questions about death, mortality, and a life well lived. Just an all round excellent book.
Stoop City by Kristyn Dunnion
I’d forgotten how much I liked Kristyn Dunnion’s writing until I read this, her most recent book. This is a great collection of short stories, mostly realist but a few with a speculative edge. All the characters are outcasts or misfits of some sort.
A young homeless guy whose boyfriend disappears after their latest con. A rockabilly butch nurse whose longterm partner has left her. A street sex worker sharing the tricks of her trade. An elderly woman living with schizophrenia.
Amazing grasp of character and punchy, visceral writing. It’s incredible to see the range of different characters Dunnion disappears into, especially in the span of a short story.
A Natural History of Transition by Callum Angus
What an extraordinary collection of short stories. Callum Angus takes the overdone and/or exoticized theme of transition for trans characters and in each of these speculative stories creates something unique, surprising, and thought-provoking.
All of the stories went in a direction I didn’t expect. They blend keen observations on contemporary and future life with fabulist, magical elements. They also felt very grounded in the natural world.
In one story where everyone chooses their gender at age 11, a character changes their mind after the initial decision, and then decides that a simple gender transition is not enough–they would like to be a rock. And then, perhaps something else…
In another, a trans guy living in a future dystopia returns to his hometown to find its inhabitants mutating into something horrifying and strange.
A story about a pregnant trans guy whose ‘baby’ comes out a cocoon also really resonated with me, as I read the story while I was pregnant.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel
On the surface this is a graphic memoir about fitness and exercise, told in decades of Bechdel’s life and moving through different activities like skiing, running, biking, yoga, and martial arts.
But once you get into it, it’s a deep meditation on the interwovenness of the body and mind, the search to escape the prison of your own ego, romanticism (the literary/aesthetic movement), and the profound power of nature. It’s an interesting blend that I think readers expecting or wanting a more narrow focus on fitness and exercise might be disappointed in. I, however, loved it. The art is exquisite with detail, movement, and expression.
Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
Now that is how you write a compelling, sympathetic character who is messed up and self-destructive! This is an older book that I had on my to-read list for a long time and I’m so glad I finally got to it in 2021.
It’s about a has-been bisexual photographer, Cass Neary, who had one hit book decades ago and has been working in a bookstore and drinking too much ever since. An acquaintance sends her on a kind of pity assignment to interview an aging reclusive photographer who lives on an island. Shit gets bad and dark fast, and Cass finds herself oddly working as a kind of detective.
I loved the gorgeous, effective writing, the subtle creeping mystery, Hand’s evocative images, and the coastal Mains setting. I also loved how this book is deeply uninterested in respectability politics for queer characters.
I will definitely be continuing with this series. I have the next book sitting on my shelf, taunting me.
Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante
One of the best books I’ve ever read! A wonderfully unique combination of character study, a letter to grief, a celebration of trans women, and an innovative format: an encyclopedia centered on a fictional TV show called “Little Blue.”
Our narrator, with the kind of authentic mesmerizing voice that immediately captures you, is a queer trans woman who has just lost her best friend Vivian, a straight trans woman who was the love of her life.
Stumbling through her grief, she ends up channeling it through writing. The best format, it turns out, is an encyclopedia dedicated to Vivian’s favourite TV show, a cult classic with a small devoted following, the kind of show fans watch over and over, catching new details and coming up with new fan theories every time. Of course, the encyclopedia is just as much about Vivian–and our narrator–as it is the show.
The book traces the women’s friendship, the narrator’s relationship with her brother and Vivian’s sister, and talks a lot about art: its power to soothe life’s grief, oppression–everything that feels unbearable.
Plante’s artistry is stunning. Little Blue Encyclopedia is about a TV show with a cult following, but the book itself is similarly art that inspires that kind of devotion. “Little Blue” couldn’t feel more real, with every detail so meticulously crafted it’s easy to forget while you’re reading that it isn’t actually a real series! The same could be said of all the characters, even the secondary ones: they are full of authenticity and heart.
The end of this book made me sob: heart broken but hopeful, sad but full of love. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how very very funny this book is too. It’s the best combination.
Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi
What a delicious, beautiful book this is. Three Nigerian women, a mother and her twin daughters, have drifted apart as adults as a result of one of the girls being sexually assaulted in childhood. The story goes back and forth from the past to the present when they have reunited in Lagos. It’s a heartbreaking story in many parts (miscarriage, suicide, and the death of a parent by homicide also feature in the book) but it is somehow not a dark story at all, but one full of life and hope.
The characters are just wonderful, fully fleshed out. I especially loved to see them in their different relationships, as well as in different places: Lagos, London, Montreal, and Halifax. Taiye is a particular kind of messy, hedonistic lesbian character who felt so deeply real. Her queer Black/Nigerian friendship with Timi was one of my favourite parts of the book. Kehinde’s relationship with her first boyfriend also stunned me in its authenticity and heart.
And then there’s their mom, Kambirinachi, who is an Ogbanje, a spirit who is not supposed to linger long in a human body, but who falls in love with being alive at great cost to herself and her loved ones. I find it fascinating to learn about different cultural stories that explain the toughest stuff of life that is inexplicable (like miscarriage, death of a child, suicide).
And the food!! God this book made me so hungry. Taiye loves food and eventually becomes a chef, but Kehinde’s sections also involve a lot of food as she works at a restaurant in Montreal.
To top it all off, Ekwuyasi’s writing is just beautiful. Here is one of my favourite passages from Kambirinachi:
“Life is an ambivalent lover. One moment, you are everything and life wants to consume you entirely. The next moment, you are an insignificant speck of nothing. Meaningless.
But I am not insane. Imagine this:
You are made unbound, birthed from everything glorious and fermented and fertile and free. Unbound. You visit this binding, this flesh cage. It’s sacred and robust but a cage nonetheless. You visit because it’s your nature.”
This is just an incredible book. It made me cry. And it’s only Francesca Ekwuyasi’s first. I am so excited to see what she does next!
A Duke in Disguise by Cat Sebastian
An utterly delightful, practically perfect historical romance. Verity Plum is a radical bookseller and writer whose childhood friend Ash, an engraver, has recently come to board with her and her brother. Their friendship and intellectual connection teeters on the edge of romantic love and lust, only having balanced there so long because of a mutual worry that their current relationship (they’re both to each other one of the few people in their life who has stuck around and can be trusted) might be ruined.
But when Ash–an epileptic brought up in foster care who has always assumed he was illegitimate–discovers he’s actually the legitimate heir to a dukedom and has the opportunity to take it from a terrible abusive man, it drives a wedge between him and Verity.
Superb writing that covers all manner of fascinating historical details like seditious journalism, naughty book publishing, engraving, 19th century inheritance law, women running small presses, and more!
Plus, Verity is bisexual and her ex-lover and friend Mrs Allenby is a prominent secondary character. (Staying good friends with your ex is queer lady culture, is it not??)
One favourite passage:
“For all she was one of Ash’s dearest friends and one of the few constants in his life, for all she and her brother were now the closest thing to family that he had in this country, being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses, like the bottle of French brandy he kept in his clothes press, lest he succumb to the emotional equivalent of gout.”
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
What a masterpiece! I’ve never read anything like this Indigenous epic fantasy. It’s a remarkable achievement in storytelling, world-building, and character. There’s so much richness of cultures, character motivations, politics, religions, genders, sexualities, and more, alongside an intricately woven plot with threads unfurling in different places at the same time.
I’m at a loss as to how to even begin to summarize the complex plot–you’ll just have to read it to find out!
I loved the naturally integrated queer representation too! Perhaps not surprisingly Xiala, the bisexual Teek sea captain and siren was my favourite. But I empathized with every character on all sides of the political, cultural, and religious divides Roanhorse so deftly creates.
The audiobook format is also stunning. Wonderful performances by four different actors, one for each main character. (Three of the actors are Indigenous, one is Black).
What were your favourite reads in 2021?