The 20 Best Things I Read Last Year*

Here are 20 works I read in 2020 and 2021 that I am still thinking about. I’ve divided the list into fiction and nonfiction, but that’s the only organizing principle at work here. Please note that while I read these works in the last two years, not all were published during that time. I’m including 2020 in this year’s round up because time is made up and I’m not entirely sure 2020 ever ended.


  1. Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (novel, purchase) — I included Gideon the Ninth, the first book in the Locked Tomb Series, in my 2019 recommended reading. Harrow the Ninth is Muir’s follow up and I loved it just as much as Gideon. The series is about lesbian space necromancers with feelings, which feels like it should be an easy sell. I have heard, however, that some folks didn’t enjoy Harrow quite as much as Gideon, possibly due to some really interesting structural decisions. Personally, I nerded out about Muir’s unusual approach to structure, but your mileage may vary. I’d also like to add a special shoutout for “The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex,” a short story that takes place between Gideon and Harrow. If nothing else, it’s hilarious to read because one character is named Doctor Sex due to numerically-based naming systems rather than due to any reference to sexy times. Content notes: death, body horror, mental illness, and gaslighting.
  2. Earthquake relief. Mexico. 2051.” by Malka Older (short story, free) — I’ve loved Older’s novels, especially Infomocracy, for years. She combines a lot of really interesting political ideas with characters who I’d like to hang out with. Older wrote this short story for The New Humanitarian, which covers emergency response, and it was the first piece of fiction the site ever published. It’s a really thoughtful take on what emergency response could like in the future and an argument for completely reassessing how we deal with problems on municipal and global levels. Content notes: natural disasters.
  3. Hibiscus Tacos” by Ire’ne Lara Silva (short story, free) — I think about this short story regularly. Silva pulls together threads of food, love, death, and immortality in a way that feels more like poetry than most short stories. That’s no accident, given Silva is a poet with four collections under her belt. Content notes: Food and eating, death, suicide, medical procedures, and hospice care.
  4. Bitter Root by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene (comic, purchase) – I picked up this collection of the first five issues of Bitter Root based on the recommendation of the staff at my local comic shop (who consistently hand me comics that I absolutely have to read). The comic follows the Sangerye family through Harlem in the 1920s, as they fight monsters using traditional rootcraft and conjurings. Volume 2 and Volume 3 are now available, though I haven’t picked up a copy of the third volume yet. Content notes: Racism, family separation, and body horror.
  5. (emet)” by Lauren Ring (novelette, temporarily free) — Ring’s story of a programmer struggling with how her work endangers people rings so true for me. There’s an air of magical realism, drawing on Jewish folktales of golems, which adds a layer of meaning that I’ve had to sit with. Ring never mentions the ways that technology companies enabled efforts to wipe out Jews but her storytelling drips with that deeper meaning. Content notes: Surveillance and parental death.
  6. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (novel, purchase) — Little Badger is a Lipan Apache, as is the protagonist of Elatsoe. Drawing on her own culture, Little Badger created a version of the U.S. full of Indigenous monsters and magic (as well as some supernatural colonizers). The titular main character, nicknamed Ellie, is a teenager with the power to raise ghosts who seeks justice for a family member. Elatsoe is Little Badger’s first novel and I can’t wait to read more long-form work from her. Content notes: Racism, death (including murder), colonization, and horror elements.
  7. Lena” by qntm (short story, free) — This short story is a little difficult to describe, but “Lena” is a fast read. I’ll try to do it justice, but take a chance on reading it even if it doesn’t sound like quite your thing. The story is structured like a Wikipedia article and discusses the technical process of creating digital versions of an individual’s personality. Hints of the ethical and psychological concerns appear throughout discussions of workloads and intellectual property. Content notes: Death, dementia, and exploitation.
  8. Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe (comic, free) — This webcomic is a reimagining of Greek mythology with both modern and historical elements, told through exquisitely illustrated panels. I could write thousands of words just on Smythe’s color palettes. Lore Olympus follows Persephone and Hades from the very beginnings of their romance, while exploring themes of consent and sexual assault. Interestingly, Smythe chose to eliminate concerns around consent present in myths about Persephone and Hades, instead looking at other gods and how their social positions could impact relationships and be used harmfully. Smythe is very good about providing warnings about potentially triggering comics. The story is on-going and is closing in on 200 ‘episodes’ (which I would compare to individual comic issues in length). If you prefer to read your comics in dead tree format, the first 25 episodes are available in print and future volumes are planned. Content notes: Sexual assault, consent, child abuse, murder, and legal repression.
  9. Salvage by Muffinlance (novel, free) — Yes, this a 127,175 word fanfic based on Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, I am recommending that you should read the whole thing (assuming you’re already familiar with ATLA). Yes, I possess no shame about my reading habits. I watched ATLA for the first time in 2020 and really enjoyed the storytelling. I read a lot of ATLA fan fiction after finishing the television series, and Muffinlance quickly became one of my favorite authors. I’m not the only one — Salvage is the top-ranked work for ATLA on Archive Of Our Own. Content notes: discussions of child abuse and death on the same level as the original television series.
  10. Lies I Never Told You” by Jaxton Kimble (short story, free) — Stories of everyday magical powers have a special place in my heart. Kimble’s short story hit that spot, with a character who writes out true statements, including predictions and personal insights. The result is a quick exploration of a teen’s coming of age and exploration of her own identity that somehow has the weight of a much longer piece. Content notes: Parental death, homophobia, and transphobia.
  11. Submergence by Arula Ratnakar (novella, free) — Ratnakar’s novella follows a scientist searching for a cure to an incurable plague, fighting to maintain their personal ethics — but only after that scientist has already died. Their memories are implanted into the mind of an investigator. While Submergence is a fascinating story of questioning just how far science should go, Ratnakar’s world building is even more enthralling. She sets the stage of a near-future still facing climate change and explores tactics youth-led movements might use to combat that change in a way that reminds me of the efforts of the Sunrise Movement. Content notes: Climate change, pandemics, death, exploitation, privacy, and medical procedures.


  1. Handcuffed and Unhoused” by Meli Lewis (radio episode with transcript, free) — While technically a podcast episode, “Handcuffed and Unhoused” is incredibly important reporting on the criminalization of homelessness in Portland, Oregon. Lewis spent over two years collecting data, conducting interviews, and examining the failures of local efforts to address homelessness. Her reporting even uncovered concerning comments by Portland officials regarding their desires to further criminalize people without access to stable housing. Content notes: Homelessness, legal repression, police violence (including a recording of a police killing), and classism.
  2. The Next Supper by Corey Mintz (book, purchase) — Mintz’s exploration of the future of the restaurant industry is fascinating, especially in light of COVID-19’s impact on restaurants’ ability to safely function. The book covers topics like sustainability, employee rights, and immigration. I wrote a longer review, contextualized for Portland, Oregon. Content notes: Food, racism, pandemics, abusive behavior (including sexual abuse).
  3. Ministry of Violence” by Tal Lavin (article series, free) — This three-part series is a hard read, but worth it. Lavin created this three-part series to examine corporal punishment in evangelical Christian households. I’m not Christian, but as I live in a Christianized society, I’ve seen some impacts of the sort of corporal punishment Lavin describes. But it’s very hard to understand how culturally ingrained these sorts of punishments are and to stop ignoring the reality that these punishments are essentially child abuse. Lavin created a definitive piece that provides insight for those outside evangelical Christian culture (and maybe those inside it, as well). Content notes: Child abuse, abusive relationships (including romantic relationships), and PTSD.
  4. Weird Jewish Digest by Meli (weekly newsletter, free) — Meli’s weekly newsletter is ‘just’ a round up of links and events connected to Judaism. But it’s one of the most inclusive round-ups I’ve found and I look forward to every email (including the cute photos of Jewish pets at the end of each week’s newsletter). Meli includes tough topics and avoids unthinking approval of certain nations that typifies many Jewish publications. I strongly recommend a sign-up if Judaism is part of your identity in any way. Content notes: Sometimes includes links discussing anti-Jewishness and other difficult topics. Meli includes specific content warnings on each email.
  5. The Myth of a Wilderness Without Humans” by Mark Dowie (article, free) — Part of a longer book which I have not yet read (Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples), Dowie’s article looks at what many people think they know about the history of national parks and other nature preserves. U.S. history is often taught in a way that erases Indigenous presences and the history of natural spaces is no different. Places like Yosemite National Park are marketed as untouched nature, despite millennia of presence by residents like the Miwok tribe. Dowie further discusses how the Miwok and other tribes actually created and tended the spaces that later became national parks, during which process the U.S. military forcibly removed Indigenous people from these lands. Content notes: Racism and colonization.
  6. Image Conscious” by Jasmine Sanders (article, free) — Sanders provided a bittersweet look at Black Romantic art, based on her familial experiences with selling art through home parties and other direct sales methods. Combining art by Black artists with discussion of the businesses that connected those artists with buyers, this article introduced me to several artists I quickly came to love. Sanders also examines the ways structural oppression has played out in art markets. Content notes: Racism and structural oppression.
  7. Why Frida Kahlo Still Isn’t a Great Woman Artist According to the Market” by Hall Rockefeller — I am a Frida Kahlo fan and, as such, I’m easily persuaded to read just about anything about Kahlo or her work. Rockefeller’s article is a standout piece, however, because of its examination of how Kahlo is perceived by curators, collectors, and other ‘experts.’ I recommend paring this article with Sanders’ “Image Conscious” (above) and then angrily making art of your own. Content notes: Misogyny.
  8. Jean and Jorts: the extended metaphor for workplace accommodations nobody asked for” by Fiona Robertson — Jean and Jorts took the internet by storm while I was in the process of writing this post. The story of these two cats originally appeared as an “Am I the Asshole?” post on reddit, which I recommend reading, along with this update posted later. The original poster asked for advice about whether they were perpetuating stereotypes about orange cats’ relative intelligence. The internet has gone wiled for Jorts, the orange cat in question, as well as Jean, Jorts’ kind companion. One response in particular caught my attention: Robertson’s discussion of Jorts and Jean as a metaphor for workplace accommodations. This write-up rings so true to my own experiences and provides a more accessible explanation of accommodations than the others I’ve read. My only complaint is that we have to talk about animals to get humans to take each other’s needs seriously. Content notes: Ableism.
  9. The State of Portland News” by Thursday Bram (article series, free) — I wrote this article, but this is my list and I make the rules, so I’m including it. I’ve referred back to this piece several times since posting it and I’m still pleased by how it turned out. Published in two parts, this piece covers who pays for and consumes news in the Portland area (Part One) and who owns publications and decides what to cover (Part Two). Content notes: Structural oppression, legal repression, and online harassment.

Just a head’s up: I’ve included links to Bookshop that will provide me with a small affiliate commission if you click through and make a purchase. However, I’d recommend any of these reads even without affiliate commissions — if you borrow books from the library or acquire them through other non-purchasing methods, I think that’s awesome.

19 Reads I Recommend from 2019

Here are 19 works I read in 2019 that I am still thinking about. I’ve divided the list into fiction and nonfiction, but that’s the only organizing principle at work here. Please note that while I read these works in 2019, not all were published in 2019.


  1. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir — Novel (Content Warnings for violence, body horror, and a whole bunch of necromancy). Are lesbian necromancers in space your thing? If so, read Gideon the Ninth immediately. If not, reassess why you feel that way, then read Gideon the Ninth immediately.
  2. Programmer at Large by DRMacIver — Novella (Content Warnings for social anxiety, privacy, and discussions of gender. Based loosely based on the Qeng Ho from Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky”, DRMacIver explores updating millenia-old computer code alongside discussions of how society might evolve with computer mediation. You don’t need to have read Vinge’s work (and, in fact, I haven’t read “A Deepness in the Sky”).
  3. Operation Spring Dawn by Mo Xiong, translated by Rebecca Kuang — Novella (Content Warnings for human extinction). Xiong also examines a potential future, with the story of a super ice age playing out over tens of thousands of years. The story isn’t a happy one, but it is meaningful.
  4. This microfiction by O. Westin — Flash Fiction (Content Warnings for ghosts). This story is just a couple of lines long, so go read it. I’m not going to write a critique of a story that’s longer than the story itself.
  5. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather — Novella (Content Warnings for virulent illnesses, violence, and religion). Rather’s world-building in this novella is exceptional, with small details that elevate the story from yet another story of the aftermath of an interstellar war. 
  6. Hot and Badgered by Shelly Laurentson — Novel (Content Warnings for violence, smut, snakes, and ableism). Let me preface this item with a confession: I read romance novels of all kinds, including novels about shapeshifters. Especially about shapeshifters. There’s a certain level of absurdity that goes with the standard plots of shapeshifter romance novels which I adore. The pinnacle of that absurdity may very well be “Hot and Badgered,” in which a honey badger shapeshifter finds true love. 
  7. Ironheart by Eve Ewing and Kevin Libranda — Comic Books (Content Warnings for racism, violence, and ageism). Marvel’s “Ironheart” is just finishing a 12-issue run. Superhero Ironheart, AKA Riri Williams, is a genius who reverse-engineered Tony Stark’s Ironman suit when she was 15. She’s awesome, though enjoying her series may be hard if you don’t have at least a vague idea of the Marvel universe. Watching “The Avengers” probably covers the bare minimum of background knowledge.
  8. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal — Novel (Content Warnings for racism, sexism, natural disasters, and anxiety). The Calculating Stars won the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Kowal’s alternate history of the space race won those awards for a reason.


  1. Malfunctioning Sex Robot by Patricia Lockwood — Article (Content Warnings for misogyny, sexism, and John Updike’s particular brand of weird sex writing). Lockwood’s review of a recent reissue of John Updike’s work is a truly beautiful piece of criticism. She sets the tone from the start, exclaiming “You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.” and slogs through Updike’s career with an admirable persistence. The article is probably better if you’ve read any of Updike’s work (watching “The Witches of Eastwick” doesn’t count).
  2. American Radicals by Holly Jackson — Book (Content Warnings for slavery, racism, sexism, and violence). “American Radicals” offers background on the organizations and activists who championed slavery abolition, universal suffrage, and a variety of other causes during the 19th century. Jackson provides the context that reading about these movements on their own just can’t provide. I enjoyed the book thoroughly. My sisters, however, may not have appreciated me reading this book because, when we watched the new “Little Women” movie, I kept wanting to talk about Louisa May Alcott’s references to transcendentalism. 
  3. The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones — Interactive Website (Content Warnings for slavery, racism, and violence). The 1619 Project comprises essays, poetry, photography, and more — all of which are worth your attention. Hannah-Jones developed the project to observe the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first african slaves in America. 
  4. Jurassic Emoji by Courtney Milan — Proposal. Milan is a phenomenal romance novelist, but her application for the expansion of dinosaur emoji options is a great piece of writing and even includes scrupulous research into the need for such emojis. Milan has also created a timeline, if you’re curious about the process of creating new emojis.
  5. The Israeli Black Panthers Haggadah translated by Itamar Haritan — Booklet (Content Warnings for Zionism and racism). Created in 1971 as a protest of the treatment of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, this haggadah uses the story of the exodus as a uniquely Jewish way to protest. 
  6. Being “Polite” Often Gets Women Killed by Scaachi Koul — Article (Content Warnings for murder, sexual violence, and stalking). Koul’s deep dive into the culture and communities of true crime podcasts is fascinating (kind of in the same way that true crime shows are fascinating). She uses the topic as a way to examine women-oriented media’s ability to cover the reality that women face violence at higher rates than men in our culture.
  7. Algorithmic Colonization of Africa by Abeba Birhane — Article (Content Warnings for racism, colonialism, and privacy). A discussion on the ethics necessary for new technologies, Birhane highlights the way startups are recreating destructive systems in digital form. In particular, the article highlights how importing technology means importing the ethics of that technology’s creators.
  8. You Should Have Asked by Emma (Content Warning for emotional labor and gender). Emma managed to sum up some of the feelings I’ve had about emotional labor. If comics aren’t really your thing, Zoe Fenson’s article, It’s so much more than cooking is also a good read.
  9. How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr — Book (Content Warnings for colonialism, racism, violence, genocide, incarceration. If I’m being precise, I still have a few chapters to read in this book, but I’m already convinced that every American needs to read this book. I like to think of myself as fairly conversant in the history of this country, but Immerwahr surfaces new information and offers new context to the point that I feel like I’m relearning centuries of history as I read.
  10. How Desire Built One of the Best Information Archives Online by Thursday Bram — Article (Content Warnings for privacy and links to sites that may host explicit material). Since this is my list and I make all the rules, I’m allowed to include my own work. This article is probably my favorite piece of my own writing from this year. Basically, my editor let me write about information architecture, fan fiction, and how sexy stories set new expectations for privacy.
  11. Reasons and Strategies for Avoiding Obsolete Terms by Erin Grace — Article (Content Warnings for slavery and racism). Editing this article caused me to immediately change how I wrote about certain topics. Sure, I’m biased because I worked on the project, but reading this article improved my writing.

This is hopefully enough reading material to keep everyone out of trouble for the next few months.