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.
- 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.
- “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.
- “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.
- 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.
- “(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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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).
- “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.
- 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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.