2021 Reading Pleasures
by Lesley Wheeler
2021 has NOT met my hopes in most ways, but the books continue to be great. I had the pleasure of meeting author Elizabeth Knox years ago in Aotearoa New Zealand and have been a stalwart fan ever since, so I was thrilled early this year to get my hands on The Absolute Book. I’ve read reviews that faulted it on pacing and sure, such capacious books often get the a threads a little tangled, but it’s nevertheless a brilliantly original reimagining of power relationships among worlds, including Fairyland. The Absolute Book is crime fiction as well as fantasy, and that was my other reading kick during the first half of 2021: I devoured all of Tana French’s mysteries, in love with their language, complicated characters, and powerful charge of the Weird. When I ran out, I mourned.
I’m a fan of books about schools of magic, and Naomi Novik’s recent take on that mode is unputdownable and funny. I was a notch less enthralled by the second book in the series, The Last Graduate, than Deadly Education, but they’re both terrific. I just caught up with Emily Tesh’s Greenhallow duology—great storytelling that also reads the Green Man legend as queer. And you shouldn’t miss the feminist sword and sorcery of Nancy Jane Moore’s For the Good of the Realm. For short stories, I recommend Anjali Sachdeva’s All the Names They Used for God, and for a wonderfully strange intergenre creation, Brittany Hailer’s speculative memoir The Animals We’ll Surely Become.
Some wonderful poetry books I encountered this year are Eric Tran’s The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer; Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets; Monica Youn’s Blackacre; Sally Rosen Kindred’s Where the Wolf; Julie Marie Wade’s Skirted; Paula Meehan’s Geomantic; Bill Manhire’s Wow; Ashley M. Jones’s Reparations Now!; and Dana Levin’s Banana Palace. The volumes by Kindred, Meehan, and Levin are speculative as well as beautiful.
In any year, my reading includes undergraduate writing for my day job; journalism as a citizen; too much social media; and thousands of poems submitted to Shenandoah, of which I am poetry editor. The new issue contains verses I’d call spells or prayers, but there’s an even denser concentration of weirdness in Spring 2021. It contains a themed portfolio plus a short essay by me about how poetry can constitute “uncanny activism.”
Unbecoming, which Aqueduct published in 2020, is Lesley Wheeler’s debut novel. Her novella in verse, in the 2012 collection The Receptionist and Other Tales, was short-listed for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. Wheeler is also the author of four other poetry books, most recently The State She’s In from Tinderbox Editions. Her poems, essays, and reviews appear in Poetry, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, Ecotone, Cascadia Subduction Zone, and elsewhere. Winner of grants from Fulbright and The National Endowment for the Humanities, Wheeler is Poetry Editor of Shenandoah. She teaches poetry, sf, and creative writing at a liberal arts college in Virginia.