Here are just some of my favourites from my 2021 reading:
‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, by Intan Paramaditha, from the collection Apple and Knife
Paramaditha’s short story collection reimagines fairy and folk tales, with a dark twist. This particular story is a fun retelling of Cinderella, while the others are tales from the author’s home country, Indonesia.
You can read the story here.
A Stranger in My Grave, by Margaret Millar
This is a good old-fashioned mystery novel, written in 1960, that trips into the Gothic and the uncanny. A housewife hires a private detective after experiencing recurring dreams about standing over her own grave in a cemetery. Does the death date carved into the headstone mean anything? Of course it does, and in unravelling that puzzle, she unravels her oppressive life.
Read the opening here.
No one Belongs Here More Than You, by Miranda July
I loved this entire short story collection – strange characters, in strange situations, with sparse, detached narration used to tell their stories.
I wrote about the story ‘The Man on the Stairs’ here.
‘Ghosts, Cowboys’, by Claire Vaye Watkins, from the collection Battleborne
This story is amazing (read it here). Firstly, it rips up the rules by combining history, biography, autobiography, and fiction; secondly, the structure is unlike anything I’ve seen before, simultaneously telling a real story and an unreal one (or a potential real one?). I found the ending emotive, when Razor Blade Baby speaks her only line of dialogue in the entire story.
Watkins’ parents were members of the Manson family, and the collision of real historical events and people, along with the unreal and imaginary, allows her to explore the idea of personal history, self, family, and possibilities.
The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
This entire short story collection was incredible. I’m one of those people who initially said ‘I don’t want to read war stories’, but I was wrong; the way the stories are linked; the spiral structures used throughout, so events are repeated and examined over and over; the mixture of horror, boredom, and excitement in the waiting, fighting, and remembering… I was enthralled.
I wrote about the story ‘The Man I Killed’ here.
All the Names They Used For God, by Anjali Sachdeva
This collection explores the obsessions of its characters, from the woman who only finds peace in dark underground tunnels, to the doomed genetically modified septuplets, to the two Nigerian school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Elements of fairy tale, magical realism, and science-fiction are employed to create the worlds the characters inhabit.
Read the opening of ‘Robert Greenman and the Mermaid’ here, a story about a fisherman who becomes obsessed with a mermaid.
Build Your House Around My Body, by Violet Kupersmith
This is a difficult novel to describe. An American woman goes missing in Vietnam, but this isn’t a crime thriller, it’s a supernatural mystery that weaves together the lives and ghosts of several characters, to reveal what happened. The structure has been compared to that of Cloud Atlas, in that as you read you see links between the characters and events, but the scope is narrower, with events stretching back sixty-nine years into the past, and three years into the future. I loved it because it was unusual, in content and structure.
You can read the opening here (click on ‘Read an Excerpt’, beneath the book cover).
The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
I’ve read a few of the Sherlock short stories, but to my shame I only got around to reading this novel in 2021. It’s such a fun mystery – an ancient family legend, a perplexing death, a missing boot, a new occupant in a creepy isolated house, rumours of an enormous beast roaming the moors… There’s only one person who can solve this one, and it certainly isn’t Dr Watson, try as he might!
‘Tiger Mending’, by Aimee Bender, from the collection The Colour Master
An American seamstress sews broken tigers back together in Malaysia. I’ve read two of Bender’s short story collections this year, and I love them both, but this story is my absolute favourite because: it has tigers, it’s nice and short, it’s set in Malaysia, the tigers are metaphors. The final line made me want to cry.
You can read ‘The Rememberer’ here; a story about a man who experiences ‘reverse evolution’.
In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado
This book is marketed as a memoir, but it’s more of a meditation on lesbian domestic abuse than a record of the author’s lived experience. Machado circles around her former relationship, not looking at it directly, but instead pondering queer domestic violence from an academic and historical perspective, in order to make sense of it. The writing is beautiful, and Machado plays with form and genre to create something unique.
You can read the opening chapters here (click on ‘look inside’ under the front cover).