2021 in Review: The
by Cynthia Ward
It's not 2020 anymore. So there's that.
New Spirit Has Arrived (Music)
Arrival by ABBA - Unpausing their forty-year hiatus to record a new album, the dominant pop band of the Seventies delivers, with seeming effortlessness, classic ABBA with a more recent lyrical sophistication. My favorite track, with lead vocals by Frida/Anni-Frid Lyngstad (my favorite singer of the four), is "I Still Have Faith in You" (a Grammy nominee, I've learned at press time).
Monkey Business by the Black-Eyed Peas - Now I know what all the fuss is about with this group; excellent and wide-ranging, complex and imaginative.
The Best of the Moody Blues - Gave this CD a whirl based on recognizing three titles; it turns out I've heard most of these songs by the proggish classic-rock group and I enjoy every one of the seventeen tracks.
Not That I'm a Seventies Survivor (Books)
1973: Rock at the Crossroads by Andrew Grant Jackson
- This absorbing and fairly hefty tome makes a heroic effort to cover Western
popular music (not just rock) in this pivotal year, but the book is ultimately
too light on discussion of African-American music, and it comes up significantly
short on the subject of women singers and musicians, who, while not as numerous
as the male artists, had a much bigger influence on popular music than
acknowledged here (on the plus side, gay/bi/lesbian/genderbent aspects of Pop
'73 get rather more coverage, including mention of the debut of the musical
stage production The Rocky Horror Show, which became a far more famous
movie under a longer title in 1975.)
Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison - A fascinating, feminist, though not up-to-the-minute book on the history and development of fanfiction - a subject so vast and complex, the text occasionally sags under the burden; wisely, the author invited others to contribute sections or chapters (although this shouldn't be viewed as an anthology).
Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter by Randy Schmidt - You figure someone who died at 31 of anorexia had a few issues, but it turns out the brilliant drummer/singer had a tremendously toxic family, with bonus helpings of rotten luck.
Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock - This memoir by the Black/Native Hawaiian trans activist and Pose scripter/director/executive producer is very candid and moving (and it provides much food for thought for those of us in cis/white/straight and other positions of privilege).
The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock by David Weigel - This history/culture book proved a useful and entertaining overview for this neophyte, although a prog-head friend assures me it's a problematic resource, so proceed with caution.
Underworld: How to Survive and Thrive in the American Mafia: A Self-Help Book by Roman Martín - A nonlinear overview of American gangsters in the guise of a self-improvement guide, this book is funny and vulgar as hell (and if you are struggling to define "toxic masculinity," look no further!).
Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson - Not an easy book to categorize: part biography, part memoir, part history, and part musical criticism of the gifted, ultimately enigmatic tomboy/vocalist/musician. The author's mother was a Filipina singer often compared to Carpenter, after whom she named her daughter, a choice which affected the author's search for her identity as a young, brown, butch, lesbian immigrant/singer/musician.
American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera - In this contemporary MM romance (first in a series), a Dominican-American New York cook takes his Afro-Caribbean food truck upstate to Ithaca where, with enough hustle, he can make his dreams come true...if he can just stop getting distracted by the lovely local librarian.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz - The characters in Adriana Herrera's novel Finding Joy were such big fans of this years-spanning, romantic, #OwnVoices MM YA novel, I had to read it; and I discovered an exceptionally wise, graceful, and riveting work.
Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin - An enjoyable, sweet #OwnVoices romance about an opposite-attracts/mistaken-identity MF couple who belong to the Indo-Canadian Muslim community of Toronto.
Better Than People by Roan Parrish - Like The Remaking of Corbin Wale (to which it is connected), this contemporary MM romance is lyrical, nuanced, and deeply empathic as a relationship develops between wounded artists who prefer the company of animals to that of their fellow humans (and who doesn't, these days?).
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho - Unwillingly relocated to her parents' homeland, a closeted young American woman finds her inner (and outer) strength as she becomes increasingly entangled with Malaysian gods and gangsters and Malaysian-Chinese relatives, particularly her dead, delightful grandmother. Beautifully written, quietly impressive - a far better novel than I've made it sound.
Charm of Magpies/Magpie World series by K.J. Charles - An excellent dark, intense, erotic Victorian historical fantasy series (actually, more than one series; click here for the overall reading order).
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo - This novel
may be described (with a fair amount of oversimplification) as a queer, POC,
female-PoV, dark-fantasy retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby,
which many name the Great American Novel; Vo's novel mostly holds its own
against the inevitable comparisons. Impressive.
Conventionally Yours: True Colors Book 1 by Annabeth Albert - A classic enemies-to-lovers romance (in which two YouTube gaming stars must hit the road together in pursuit of a gaming championship which both young men desperately need to win - but only one can), from an author clearly conversant with and respectful of convention, fan, and nerd cultures.
Date Me, Bryson Keller by Kevin van Whye - In this sweet, #OwnVoices, interracial MM YA romance, the soccer star sees no appeal in high school dating, but agrees to date the first person who asks him out at school on Monday, every Monday--and he wins the dare every week, until another boy asks him out....
Detransition, Baby: A Novel by Torrey Peters - I've joked that the worse a book is, the easier it is to describe, and the better it is, the harder...I have almost no idea how to describe this book, other than brilliant and complex and biting without meanness or satire (although, okay, I don't like the ending, which ducks the resolution of a central issue).
Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto - This MF crime/rom-com novel, centered on a Chinese-Indonesian family supportive enough to help the daughter/niece hide a body(!), is one of the funniest books I've ever read (although it's not a dream book-date for someone with a low tolerance of frustration, because that is what powers much of the humor).
The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune - A very fun romantic (MM) YA novel about a neurodiverse gay teen and his closest friends in high school (another gay boy and a lesbian couple), who share their city, and perhaps more, with a superhero and supervillian.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell - To cope with her anxiety, the titular college freshman writes fan fiction set in the YA "Simon Snow" universe (think Harry Potter with vampires), while her own creator provides her with a nonstandard, believable love interest and several unexpected turns of plot.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender - In this beautifully written, nuanced, and thoughtful YA novel, the titular character, a young black gay trans artist cruelly pranked with his pre-transition identity at an elite NYC school, catfishes his suspected tormentor, with complicated results for many.
Finding Joy by Adriana Herrera - This 2021 Lambda Award finalist is not only a lovely MM romance between aid workers (an Ethiopian-born Dominican-American and an Ethiopian-born Ethiopian), but a lyrical love letter to its setting.
For the Good of the Realm by Nancy Jane Moore - This fun adventure novel blends fantasy, para-historical fiction, romance, and female musketeers in a diverse and fairly egalitarian nation; the climax and conclusion delightfully jettison certain kinds of expectations.
The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by KJ Charles - The villains are a bit too much of a pushover, but otherwise this standalone Regency MM caper romance is a fun, hot page-turner.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir - A far-future, queer, Gormenghastly space-palace adventure (probably influenced by anime, and definitely centered around a locked-room mystery that might have impressed Agatha Christie), this first novel cranks the typically twisted relationships of gothic fiction up to eleven (however, this not a romance, despite some claims to the contrary, and I wouldn't call the ending happy).
The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper - This romantic YA MM novel has many things going for it (NASA Mars mission, astronauts' kids, interracial romance, #OwnVoices), but it also has some significant problems, which might have been resolved by alternating the believable but grating white lead's viewpoint with the PoV of his love interest, a young black man with a complimentary (and far less vexing) set of personality traits.
Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar - This recent (2021) YA #OwnVoices romance novel with complex identities offers a delightful, wise spin on the popular romance trope of the pretend relationship, while also dealing with serious issues like biphobia and parental abandonment (full TW/CNs listed in the book).
Infernal Affairs by Jordan L. Hawk - If Hellish bureaucracy and a fluffy Hellhound aren't bad enough for a beleaguered crossroads devil, the soul on offer requires him to imbue superheroic goodness in a sinfully irresistible nonbinary mortal.
Jasmin the Unexpected: A First Love Romance (Five Friends with Chai series) - The mega-rich white American male love interest felt a little too standard-issue, but the titular Punjabi-American artist? Jasmin very much lives up to the title.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang - In this #OwnVoices interracial contemporary MF romance, an autistic math whiz with an unhappy love life decides the issue is herself and, in search of self-improvement, hires a male escort, whereupon nothing goes the way they expect; it's a sensitive and funny novel, which had me by turns hot and crying (a unique experience in my book), and the romance cliché of a perfect match in bed is believable because it is so very hard won.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo - This romantic YA novel, centered on a Chinese-American, lesbian high-school student waking to her desires and the Red-Scare dangers for Asian-Americans, is set in 1950s San Francisco (particularly in the vividly realized Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods); it's a work so gracefully written, historically informed, and insightfully characterized, it lingers powerfully in the memory (and won the 2021 National Book Award for Young People's Literature).
The Longest Night by EE Ottoman - This gentle MM trans historical romance novella is a perfect comfort read for the winter holiday season.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett - It's only one of the best mystery/crime/noir novels ever written (the classic movie adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart is fairly faithful).
Mangos and Mistletoe: A Foodie Holiday Novella by Adriana Herrera - In another of Herrera's fun food-themed contemporary romances (FF in this case), a pair of Dominican-American bakers paired on a reality-TV show generate all kinds of sparks--but too many of the wrong kind may immolate their relationship almost before it can begin.
May the Best Man Win by ZR Ellor - In this contemporary YA romance novel, a pair of ex-lovers - a high school football star and his former "girlfriend" (he thought), a star cheerleader/student government president/big jerk/trans boy - vie furiously for Ivy League college acceptances and the post of Homecoming King; the plot suffers from a few unbelievable gaps in character intelligence, but the sparks and great ending redeem the lapses.
Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee - In this sweet YA rom-com with complex representation, a self-involved Florida trans boy transplanted to Colorado maintains a successful blog of made-up "real" romances, but finds the real thing complicated and unpredictable.
Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole - This contemporary FF romance novella of star- (or app-) crossed lovers is well written and enjoyable and, for all its New York setting, has a bit of a Ruritanian vibe.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov - Centering unreliable narration lets author write Ruritanian thriller that literature professors can allow themselves to like (okay, yes, it's also brilliant).
Performance in a Leading Role by Mad_Lori - In this intriguing AU (alternative universe) BBC Sherlock fanfic novel, Holmes and Watson are a pair of diametrically opposed (and rather washed-up) actors who are cast against type to portray a gay couple, with surprises and repercussions for their private lives.
A Pho Love Story by Loan Le - In this new (2021) YA MF romantic comedy, a pair of near-strangers attending an Orange County high school find themselves drawn to one another despite the bitter enmity between their families, who own rival Vietnamese restaurants.
Point of Honour: Sarah Tolerance Book 1 by Madeleine E. Robins - As always, I enjoyed re-reading this complex hard-boiled mystery, set in an alternate-history England in which Queen Charlotte is Regent and the titular agent of inquiry is a Fallen Woman with quick wits, a fiercely independent spirit, no time for bullshit, and a penchant for swashbuckling and cross-dressing.
Proper English by KJ Charles - I don't particularly like to fly even when I don't need to worry about COVID-19, so I wanted something utterly absorbing to read while flying back from Maine; therefore, I re-read this romantic (FF) Edwardian English mystery novel, a whodunnit which might have earned a nod from Dame Agatha Christie herself.
A Question of Identity by VolceVoice - A sweet MM "Johnlock" fanfic spun from the recent BBS series Sherlock, this novella offers (among other strengths) an amnesiac female murder witness-or-killer whose insights are a match for Holmes's and the exploration of a character (Watson) who is learning there is more to his sexuality than he thought.
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers - The third novel in her Wayfarers series provides a broader perspective on her far future by focusing on several residents of the human Exodus fleet, while offering along the way a secular funeral ritual/practice that will resonate with many nonbelievers.
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston - This contemporary interracial MM romance of secret sparks between a British prince and an American president's son won me over despite my antipathy to books about royals.
Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao - In this delightful contemporary romance, a rather geeky Chinese-American college student pursues the premise of the title to gain distance from her pushy parents and their icky pick of a rich-boy fiancé (it's marketed as YA but closer to NA or adult, given the ages of the romantic leads).
The Seep by Chana Porter - In this recent (2020) literary SF novel, an alien invasion ushers in utopia, and the middle-aged lesbian trans PoV character responds with a complex, skeptical, perhaps even curmudgeonly perspective which I found extremely congenial.
The Spare by Miranda Dubner - What is in the water, that I despise royalty but enjoyed yet another romance about a gay prince and his love interest?
Stay Gold by Tobly McSmith - In this sweet, #OwnVoices MM YA romance, viewpoints trade and sparks fly between the stealth trans boy who's a new student at a small-town Texas high school and the cis girl cheerleading star who also has a complicated relationship with the truth (CN/TW for suicidal ideation and transphobic violence).
Unhallowed: Rath & Rune Book 1 by Jordan L. Hawk - The insular, sinister Massachusetts town of Widdershins takes a turn for the even darker (and more tentacled) in this sexy MM page-turner, a spinoff from Hawk's Whyborne & Griffin series.
Unkissed by 221b_hound - In this BBC Sherlock fanfic series, which springboards from the fallout of the Reichenbach Falls "death year," an allosexual Watson and asexual (and possibly autistic) Holmes face physical and emotional stress and damage to develop one of the most sensitive, nuanced, thoughtful portrayals of a loving, complicated, respectful, egalitarian romantic and sexual relationship that I've ever seen.
The Unspoken Name: The Serpent Gates Book 1 by A.K. Larkwood - This graceful, criminally under-regarded fantasy novel is far less predictable and more nuanced (and feminist) than descriptions like "girl sacrifice rescued by wizard becomes his assistant" would suggest; even the subgenre is hard to pin down (the scale spans worlds, but the cast is small, so not epic; a romance [FF] develops, but well into the plot, so not romantic fantasy; etc).
A Useful Woman (A Rosalind Thorne Mystery Book 1) by Darcie Wilde (who writes SF as Sarah Zettel) - This fine Regency mystery novel is more in the Jane Austin than the Georgette Heyer mode, with rather more attention paid to character that the mystery norm (for example, characters are distinctly and believably upset when they find the requisite body).
What Angels Fear: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery by C.S. Harris - This series-starter Regency novel features a white cishet male lead who was a little too standard-issue to hold my interest, but the mystery itself was a compelling puzzler (TW/CN: homophobia, murder/rape).
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo - An interesting tales-within-tales fantasy novella with an Eastern historical feel, this is Book 2 of The Singing Hills Cycle (oops! must look for Book 1), but it stands alone.
White Houses: A Novel by Amy Bloom - The ending was undeniably lyrical, but did everyone have to suffer hundreds of pages of pre- and post-relationship misery to get there? Given the descriptions promising a romantic novel about Eleanor Roosevelt and pioneering woman journalist Lorena "Hick" Hickok, I went in with the misguided notion that the novel would feature more than a few moments of their purported four years together.
Widdershins/Whyborne & Griffin series by Jordan L. Hawk - The trans author turns Innsmouth upside down, inside out, and highly queer in his essential dark romantic fantasy series (which is long and should be read in order).
You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria - A fun, steamy contemporary MF romance about a pair of Latinx (Puerto Rican and Nuyorican/Filipina) actors who meet when they're cast as romantic leads for a sexy new "ScreenFlix" series; the chapters in which they're "in character" are quite an interesting and revealing touch.
Cynthia Ward has published stories in Analog, Asimov's, Nightmare, Weird Tales, and other magazines and anthologies. For WolfSinger Publications, she edited the diversity-themed anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West Volumes 1-2. With fellow Aqueductista Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored the Locus Award winning fiction-writing guide, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Aqueduct Press recently released the concluding novella in her Bloody-Thirsty Agent series, The Adventure of the Golden Woman.