Year-end favorites roundup
Bye bye for now! See you in 2022!
warning: flashing gif at the end.
Happy December 10th, everybody! Buckle in, folks: this week’s will be a doozy, so if you need to click through to read this in the browser go ahead. As a reminder, please consider filling out the survey, linked here! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the newsletter and any suggestions you have for going forward. Thank you so much to everyone who has already responded!
It’s been a weird year. A good year! But a weird one - I don’t know that anyone could say differently, really. I’m happy to say that I have some exciting news to wrap 2021 up: I have a new job, working as a talent recruiter for AWA Studios! AWA is a new independent comic book publisher headed up by two former heads of Marvel, and as a former literary agent, I’ll be using my old connections to bring new voices into the world of comic books.
This is a fairly recent development. And if you’re a longtime reader of A Faster No you may be wondering what that means for this weekly missive. I think it means nothing: I’m going to keep doing it, because I love it! So send me your graphic novel recommendations because I’m ready to read them all.
I’m still going to be taking freelance editing clients, as well, though my calendar will be less open than before. I will always love engaging with story and working with authors to take their work to the next level! (I will note, however, that I will not be working with graphic novel scripts because of conflicts of interest.)
Thank you all for sticking with A Faster No for this long. I hope you hang out for many letters to come.
Favorite Books of 2021
I love the end of the year for many reasons: permission to watch Christmas movies and listen to thematic holiday songs, the various mint-and-nog flavored seasonal beverages, but most of all: the Best Of lists. Seemingly every outlet does one in virtually every category: best books, best movies, best TV shows, best dog-specific merchandise. I always think these lists are both a little weird and also impossible (how do you pick the best? Did you read all the books, New York Times? Joking, I know you didn’t.) Instead of going for the best, I’m going to talk about my favorites. When I say favorite, I don’t really mean best-written (though sometimes I do) or most engaging (though sometimes I do, too.) My favorite books are the books I can’t stop thinking about, that have occupied a big space in my brain ever since I read them.
Here are my favorite books read in 2021 (so far.)
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. GT9 is a bravura debut, with intricate, innovative world building, one of the most instantly mesmerizing and entertaining voices I’ve ever encountered, and an ending that is—uh—a Choice. The sequel, Harrow The Ninth, is less successful, but still engaging and sometimes compelling in its own way, and with the news that the series has been extended by a book I am a little nervous about how Muir will stick the landing. But still, I couldn’t stop thinking about Gideon—her bravery, her biceps, her drive to live, and the weird, bone-and-sinew-filled world she inhabits.
READ IF YOU LIKE: skeletons, necromancy, lesbians, intrigue
GIFT TO SOMEONE WHO LOVED: The Unspoken Name, Gormenghast
A Swim In A Pond In The Rain: In Which Four Russians give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders. I’ve already written extensively about this book (and, hilariously, two purchases of this book are the only commission I’ve received from my Bookshop.org store so far- thank you!) It’s a masterwork on reading and writing fiction from one of today’s masters of the craft, and is also a moving and energizing read about the enduring power of art.
READ IF YOU LIKE: craft discussion, the Russians, being sad about snow
GIFT TO SOMEONE WHO LOVED: Lincoln in the Bardo, Bird by Bird, War and Peace
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Again, a book I’ve already gushed about. This book made me weep openly by the side of a pool, and also made me laugh and take more pictures of funny quotes than any other book this year. Go. Read it. You won’t regret it.
READ IF YOU LIKE: complicated families, the internet, famous cats
GIFT TO SOMEONE WHO LOVED: Then We Came To The End, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Beach Read by Emily Henry could have been a terrible novel, because many novels that are about writers and books are un-fun, navel-gazing exercises in inanity. But Beach Read was something different: a novel as much about grief, transformation, and rewriting the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves as it was about the very well-drawn and wistful enemies-to-lovers romance.
READ IF YOU LIKE: lake Michigan, Zillow, insider publishing baseball
GIVE IT TO SOMEONE WHO LOVED: Red White and Royal Blue, The Hating Game
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I have reread Doomsday Book twice since the coronavirus pandemic started, and while I know most people would rather eat sand than read about a pandemic during a pandemic, I found that rereading this most harrowing of the Oxford Time Travel Universe novels to be a strange kind of comfort. Kivrin is sent back in time to the wrong part of the Middle Ages and watches,, helpless and immune, as the plague spreads among the family that takes her in; meanwhile, her frantic tutor and the rest of the faculty in contemporary Oxford are living through a plague of their own, and until the last page you worry whether or not they’ll all make it to bring Kivrin back. I am crying a little just thinking about it. One of my all-time favorites, and, I suspect, will get re-read again (since it’s a kind of Christmas book itself.)
READ IF YOU LIKE: Oxford, Christmas, time travel, pathology
GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO LOVED: The Pillars Of the Earth, A Distant Mirror, Severance, Station Eleven
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is a dizzying feat of world building. Martine, who seems to be the World’s Most Interesting Person, is a linguist and city planner, and the things she does with language in this book are astonishing. Rather than being dry or didactic, the imperialist power of poetry as explored in Empire is thought provoking and tied into a lightning-fast plot. Seriously, so much happens. (The book covers one week!) The sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, is also amazing; I don’t want it to end, so I’m still about 100 pages away from finishing it.
READ IF YOU LIKE: duolingo, fish-out-of-water stories, yearning, poetry
GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO LOVED: I, Claudius, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, City of Stairs
Isn’t It Bromantic? by Lyssa Kay Adams is the second in her Bromance Book Club series, about a group of men who read romance novels in an effort to be better romantic partners. My friend Aarthi handed me this one and said “Look, Jen, it’s a book just for you!” And boy howdy was she right. The male love interest is a Russian hockey player living in Nashville, estranged from his wife, Elena. Vlad married Elena out of convenience, but has been in love with her his whole life. When he gets injured in a game and she moves in to help him during his recovery, he has to follow the lessons from the romance novels to patch up his relationship and turn it into something real. By turns funny, heartwarming, and incredibly cute, Isn’t It Bromantic? is a hugely enjoyable romance. Fair warning: the author (inexplicably, enragingly) gives the Nashville team in her book a different name than the Nashville team that actually exists, despite the Rangers also existing in her universe.
READ IF YOU LIKE: hockey, journalism, real estate porn, second chances
GIVE IT TO SOMEONE WHO LOVED: The Ex Hex, Been There Done That
A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske is another one I’ve talked about before, but given that I received my hardcover copy and promptly reread it in one sitting, I would be remiss in not including it here. A Marvelllous Light is a near-perfect first entry in a trilogy; it sets up an intriguing overarching plot that will presumably take the protagonists into the throes of World War I while wrapping up book’s plot in a satisfying, exciting way. The romance between Robin and Edwin is such a beautiful slow burn and the world building here is absolutely exquisite. Bonus points for a magical character (Edwin) who doesn’t have strong magical ability, and for a family dynamic so toxic it will make your holiday table look like a sea of tranquility.
READ IF YOU LIKE: William Morris, the Gilded Age, competence porn
GIVE IT TO SOMEONE WHO LOVED: Sorcery and Cecilia, Swordspoint, To Say Nothing of The Dog
I have read 70 books so far this year, and here are some others that were amazing and that I highly recommend:
The Cold Vanish by John Billman
The Box In The Woods by Maureen Johnson
The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova
The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Dark Archives by Megan Rosenbloom
The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Looking over this list and the list of books I’ve read this year, I’ve got to confess: there are a whoooooole lotta white people on it, which I am sure not proud of. I don’t usually make reading resolutions but mine will be to diversify my reading moving forward, so expect to see a lot broader selection from me in 2022 and beyond.
What were your favorite reads of the year? What favorite did you revisit? What new voice did you find? Drop it in the comments or reply to the email!
Don’t forget to fill out the survey if you have a chance! As a reminder, I’m taking the rest of the year off, so the next newsletter will appear in your inboxes Friday, January 7th.
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
It is known that the Washington Capitals, noted fans of getting all up in each other’s faces (romantic), love to show their bros love, but perhaps this zeal for team-building horniness has affected them negatively, because the entire team had to cancel practice to “work through COVID-19 issues.” Yikes, pals! Their AHL affiliate the Hershey Bears are also dealing with an outbreak of their own. Something something organizational culture something something. Maybe hold off on the celebratory embraces until the pandy is over, eh? Elsewhere, the hilarious sale of the Penguins to the Fenway Group has been given a blessing by the NHL Board of Governors, so the funniest pairing in hockey history can move ahead. Sports!
The Measureless Influence of Stephen Sondheim by Sarah Jones (Vulture)
What if Stephen Sondheim had never written a word, or a note of music, after his thirtieth birthday? What if, grief-stricken at the death of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II in 1960, the young composer had simply decided that he had done his part for musical theater and was ready to try something new? Had that happened we would still, today, more than six decades later, be memorializing a man who had, via his lyrics for Gypsy and West Side Story, made an indelible contribution to the history of American musical theater — specifically to modernizing it, to darkening it, to helping it burst what were then thought to be the boundaries of its form.
Stephen Sondheim Loved a Brassy Dame by Rachel Syme (The New Yorker)
When the Boston run began, De Carlo’s signature number in the second act was a joke, literally. Carlotta sang “Can That Boy Foxtrot!,” a long, mostly inane song about a fellow-dancer’s sexual stamina (cut the “trot” off the end of the title, say it again, and you get the gag). The punch line was funny once, maybe twice, but there was certainly not enough zazz to sustain audience interest for the song’s nearly seven-minute duration. “The number was just sort of a filler,” Sondheim said, in a later interview. “It didn’t really relate to the emotions or the story of the evening. . . . We knew we could improve it.” The show’s book writer, James Goldman, suggested that “it should be a song of surviving, you know, ‘I’m still here.’ ” All Sondheim needed to hear were those three words. He thanked Goldman and disappeared for “several days,” according to his then assistant Ted Chapin. When he reëmerged, he had written one of the all-time great musical-theatre numbers for a broad.
Days Before Dying, Sondheim Reflected: “I’ve Been Lucky.” by Michael Paulson (New York Times)
Stephen Sondheim stood by the gleaming piano in his study, surrounded by posters of international productions of his many famous musicals, and smiled as he inquired whether a visitor might be interested in hearing songs from a show he had been working on for years, but hadn’t finished yet. “And now would you like to hear the score?” he asked. Of course, the answer was yes. “You got some time?” he asked, before laughing, loudly, with a sense of mischief: “It’s from a show called ‘Fat Chance’!” That was Sunday afternoon, five days ago, when Mr. Sondheim, 91, had welcomed me to his longtime country house for a 90-minute interview with him and the theater director Marianne Elliott about a revival of “Company” that is now in previews on Broadway. It would turn out to be his final major interview.
READING: Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks 1941-1995
WATCHING: Tale of the Nine-Tailed
LISTENING: my 2021 Spotify Wrapped
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. All opinions are my own. You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.