My top reads of 2021

I read 49 books this year, which is a horrendously frustrating number. Partially, it’s because I spent most of the year gallivanting around with my new girlfriend. Still, I read some good books! Here are my top eight.

1. Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? (Anthology edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore)

This year I absolutely fell in love with the work of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, a genderqueer lost soul who writes poignantly about gentrification, growing up during the AIDS crisis, and loneliness. They’ve edited some fantastic anthologies on queer theory, that never cease to challenge homonormativity and ahistoricism.

This collection in particular revels in its stridency, while remaining rooted in personal narratives. There’s an exploration of a treatise on ‘cockrub warriors’, dirty noir-ish tales of self-loathing cruising, charmingly dated pieces on the world of cybersex, and candid confessions of irresponsible barebacking. The kind of stuff that people would get the crap cancelled out of them for if they posted it online, but is necessary to discuss, because in reality, queer lives are messy.

2. The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The Freezer Door is MBS’s experimental chapterless meditation on love, life, cruising and gentrification in Seattle. Usually, I’m not a big fan of Literary Fiction with a capital L, but this book trapped my heart in a way that very few have. Despite being about loneliness, it reaches through to you and creates a deep, intimate sense of connection. MBS’s prose is lyrical, sinuous and thought-provoking.

I remember when faggots kissed hello. We had so much to fear and so we feared nothing, I mean we feared one another but we feared fear more. Kissing one another on the lips, this was joyous and commonplace, a legacy we were inheriting, an art—how to stretch out our lips in front of our faces, how to queen it up in front of a loving or hostile public, how to emphasize connection or disdain.

In particular, The Freezer Door touches upon an issue that I had never quite been able to articulate: the ‘gender segregation’ that keeps queer/feminist spaces and gay male spaces rigidly separate, that allows queer men political liberation in the former and sexual satisfaction in the latter, but never the two combined.

Gay male culture has always sheletered the worst kinds of violence—racism, classism, misogyny, body fascism, self-hatred—so that’s why I chose queer worlds instead. And maybe at first it made sense that the bodies like mine were rarely in queer spaces—we had to prove we weren’t the enemy. But if I, as someone who has formed oppositional queer spaces and been formed by them over the last two-and-a-half decades, now feel a sense of bodily unease when I’m present, how could other faggots without a history of political instigation and queer analysis ever feel welcome? And, if this is never the case, how will they ever learn the tools to become something other than the wreckage of consumerist craving?

No-one even thinks about it, because the rhetoric is about self-determination, but whose selves are being determined?

3. Flowers by Night by Lucy May Lennox

An exquisitely researched Japanese MM historical romance between a samurai and a blind monk? Who’s in a MLM-WLW solidarity marriage with a lesbian? And they have an orgy in the red light district of Tokyo with a drag king and then have to go on the run? And it’s interspersed with Japanese poetry?

If I haven’t convinced you with my series of questions, this book isn’t for you. But if this book is for you, by God, this book is for you.

4. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

I started this book ages ago, possibly even in 2020, as an audiobook in German. Basically, I was looking for German listening material that would get me bang for my buck in Audible credits, and epic fantasy books have a great price-to-length ratio. I’d heard good things about Sanderson, so I thought I’d check him out.

However, it took me so long to get into the book because it was so weird. It had familiar fantasy elements—a prologue, multiple PoV, political tensions—but everything else about the worldbuilding felt off in the best of ways. The story starts off very slow and disconnected (e.g. there are regular ‘intervals’—one-off chapters with unimportant characters around the world that deliver worldbuilding information and light exposition), but once it gets going, it gets GOING.

I think my favourite feature of the book is how it subverts reader expectations of the genre. Many fantasy books start chapters with snippets of poetry, quotes etc. Usually they’re just there for flavour. That’s what seems to be happening in The Way of Kings, where half of the chapters start with the dying words of random people around the world. But the quotes are extremely weird, with religious overtones, and the reveal that takes place at the end of the book brings it all together in an immensely satisfying way. In general, the series does a great job of weaving in exposition and dramatic irony without feeling heavyhanded at all.

If you’re in the mood to read a 450,000 word book, the first of a series of books of that length, I highly recommend it. I’m currently on the third book in the series and it’s still making me gasp out loud and shed many a tear.

5. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Everyone’s talked about this book, and for good reason. Poignant, hilarious and shockingly revealing about the mores and tribulations of queer life.

Does it accurately represent the detransition experience? Not really. As in, it represents the experience of someone who temporarily detransitions but will later go on to retransition, which is quite a different experience from those who regret ever transitioning in the first place.

This isn’t a criticism of the work itself, rather how it’s been represented in the media. Detransition is a very thorny issue, and just as I wouldn’t want Keira Bell to be the only representative of one side, I wouldn’t want this to be the only representative of the other.

If you haven’t read this book, give it a go. I honestly can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it. It manages to tackle very heavy and traumatic life experiences with a light, comedic touch, which is always lovely. The ending is a bit meh, but that’s literary fiction for you.

6. Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes by Diane Reay

I read this because it’s on the reading list for the PGCE I’ve applied for but likely won’t be doing because I’m Disabled.

However, I’m glad I read this book, even though I might not ever get on the course. It details how absolutely fucked the education system is in the UK on a class level. If you’ve ever caught yourself making or overhearing comments about ‘unambitious students’ or ‘rough schools’, then it’s worth a read.

It’s heartbreaking and shocking just how embedded hatred of working-class people is in the British education system, but it was also an empowering read, in the sense that it validated my radical views on teaching, which often feel at odds with most teachers I meet. It mixes case studies and interviews with detailed statistics throughout the past few hundred years, making a very strong argument that class mobility and tiered schooling systems are plasters on a seeping wound at best, and exacerbate the problem at worst.

7. Pansies by Alexis Hall

For Real by Alexis Hall may be my favourite book ever. It’s an MM BDSM romance between a young dom and an older sub. Pansies takes on a similarly ‘controversial’ pairing, between a femme queer man and the now-grown-up bruiser who was his bully while in school.

Bully-to-lover is a controversial trope, and I’m not sure I’d trust anyone other than Alexis Hall to pull it off. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure he did—there is a convenient vagueness about the details of Fen’s bullying. However, what I really loved in the book was the exploration of class mobility and the north-south divide in the UK.

Essentially, the clash is between Fen, the artistic metropolitan gay who’s trapped in his homophobic northern town out of an obligation to run his deceased mother’s flower shop, and Alfie, the ‘straight-acting’ northern lad who ended up becoming a banker in London, but secretly still misses his seaside home.

As with all of Alexis’s books, it’s poetic, touching and powerfully sensual. Like all his books, it also seemed to touch upon a key crisis from my own life. For Real helped me reconcile a lot of feelings about my gender and sexuality, while Pansies let me explore my own feelings about city vs. the countryside, and what kind of life I want to lead.

Oh, and Alexis Hall, if you’re reading this, when is Spires book #5 coming out??!?!?!

8. Fast. Feast. Repeat. by Gin Stephens

I endorse this at the risk of being accused of promoting eating disorders, because a lot of people are still extremely sceptical of the concept of intermittent fasting. I don’t blame them, because diet culture is truly awful and has little basis in solid science.

Fortunately, fasting does, and this book provides an excellent balance of evidence coupled with personal stories, motivation and inspiration to follow a fasting regimen oneself. I’m not going to lie and act like I did it only for my health—largely it was to lose weight. But I have to say, alongside losing a lot of weight, 20:4 daily fasting has improved my relationship towards food, freed up a lot of time, eased my digestive issues and generally made me a lot more content with my body.

So if you’ve struggled to lose weight in the past, or you’re just interested in the health benefits of autophagy, I strongly recommend this book. It’s a tad boomer-y in style, but you’ll get over it.

So that’s it! Apparently I didn’t read that many great books this year, given I couldn’t get up to ten recommendations. So fingers crossed for next year, eh?

And if you read any great books this year, leave a comment and let me know what they are. I know it sounds like I’m inserting a call to action in order to get more engagement and thus bolster my blog, but I do genuinely actually want to know. Unless you’re a romance hater, in which case your opinion doesn’t count.

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