It’s been a twat of a year. How much of a twat I don’t need to tell you, but I have been through a dizzying switchback of reader’s block followed by compulsive reading, followed by total inability to read fiction followed by compulsive glomming of bizarrely specific subgenres. I have no mysteries to recommend because apparently literally all of the dozens I read were 1920s and 30s pulp. I need help.
Let’s have some book recs. I have limited myself to one book per author because we have to put a lid on this somehow.
Links go to my Goodreads reviews. Feel free to friend me or check out my entire list here, avoiding the vast swathes of terrible golden age pulp and frankly weird obsession with early 20th-century occultism. Just pretend you didn’t see that, it’s only going to get worse.
The Blessings series by Beverly Jenkins
This literally gets its own category. There are ten novels in this contemporary series set in a tiny US town, and I read them pretty much consecutively to survive lockdown. I mean, ‘shoving them into my face like a baby with its first slice of birthday cake’ compulsively. A no-holds-barred soap opera which I am delighted to hear is being made into your actual TV show as it deserves. If you need comfort and escape and kindness and drama turned up to 11 and a gloriously absurd giant-hog plotline, here you go. Ten books’ worth!
So Forward by Mina V Esguerra
Very low angst romance with a high-flying no-mincing-of-words woman and a people-pleasing guy. No confected Bad Moment, thoroughly soothing to the soul.
Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall
Absolutely glorious fake-dating/opposites-attract romcom. Very British, very romantic, very very funny indeed.
Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
Possibly Talia’s best book yet. Gruff cinnamon roll hero and stroppy workaholic heroine who loves romance novels, rolling around in tropes and having a huge amount of fun. Fabulous dialogue. An unalloyed joy.
The Hidden Moon by Jeannie Lin
I have wanted this forever and it lived up to my hopes. Wonderful romance of a posh family’s fiercely intelligent daughter and a street thug, set in the Tang dynasty. Exactly what historical romance should be.
The Immortal City by May Peterson
Proper fantasy romance on an epic scale, with a wonderfully drawn, extremely assured setting and a marvellous, involving mythology, plus a romance spiked with mystery.
Division Bells by Iona Datt Sharma
A delightful minor-key political romance of a rather amateur spad and a policy wonk. Sweetly melancholy, lovely romance, utterly gorgeous writing.
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite
A mega-slow burn romance with a printer and a beekeeper, set in the Regency—the actual one of terrifying repressive crackdowns on any form of radical thought, not the one with a thousand dukes. The historical grounding lifts the whole story wonderfully and the slow-burn makes the eventual HEA spectacular. Loved it.
Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu
Near-future Delhi dystopia. Brilliantly written, structurally inventive, completely immersive and horrifically plausible.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Deserves all the plaudits. Wonderfully thought-provoking, conveyed via fabulous assured story-telling.
Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
A girl genius breaks reality; she and her completely ordinary best friend struggle to put it back together. Weird, fast-paced, deeply involving and very human.
The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull
This should have had far more noise made about it. Extraordinary allegory of colonialism played out when aliens land on one of the Virgin Islands. Really shitty aliens. Compulsive reading and a premise that lodges itself inextricably in your brain.
Network Effect by Martha Wells
Murderbot, enough said. I’ve read the whole series twice this year.
What a treat. Found family, applied violence, gang of thieves, super queer, effortless worldbuilding, and all in gorgeous clear prose.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T Kingfisher
A young witch with a minor magical talent for baking finds herself obliged to defend a city. Absolutely fantastic. Reminded me of how magical it was to discover fantasy for the first time. I’m saving my reread for emergencies.
Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri
Exceptionally good fantasy—fantastic adventure, great character piece, thought-provoking subjects, and lovely romance. Set in a Mughal Empire analogue and sent me down a Mughal rabbit hole. Cannot praise this highly enough.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Fabulous novella which has a lot to say about feminism and politics, hauntingly written. A beautiful example of what can be done with short form.
The Plague Stones by James Brogden
Ahaha I read a book about the plague just before…the plague. Idyllic English village with a dark secret dating back to the Black Death. Really very scary indeed, but with a lot of hope and humanity in it. Go on, lean in to your pandemic fears. Hekla’s Children and The Hollow Tree by the same author are also excellent.
The Hollow Places by T Kingfisher
Narrowly edging out her excellent The Twisted Ones. A genius premise: a weird museum in Nowhere, USA has a hole in the wall that leads to a kind of Wood Between the Worlds but from hell. Super creepy with a final sequence that had me on the edge of my seat.
(YES FINE I CHEATED SUE ME.)
Compelling and enlightening examination of race, class and colonialism in Britain and in the countries afflicted by us over the reader. Really excellent, required reading.
Koh-i-Noor: the history of the world’s most infamous diamond, by Anita Anand and William Dalrymple
Hugely readable history of the diamond that does a terrific job of contextualising with Indian history, the British colonial (theft) operation, the story of Duleep Singh and much more. Excellent informative and well-written narrative non fiction.
The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk by Ghee Bowman
A tremendous feat of social history, tracing an Indian regiment who were brought over to fight in France in 1940. Fascinating stories, some of them deeply moving, others frankly hilarious. And a really important read in these times where British nationalists explicitly lie to whitewash the past. Read it.
A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling
Brilliant. The utterly insane story of a tiny libertarian town in the US. I was cry-laughing. Very funny, but also very revealing about a lot of frankly weird depths of the US psyche.
Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley
A fascinating attempt to reconstruct the life of an ordinary Japanese woman living at the end of the shogunate. Brilliant history in which grand politics are shown, not as central to the story, but as unseen forces buffeting people trying to exist. A powerful feminist statement too: ordinary women matter.
This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik.
A very British Muslim living in a country village is told by his dying mother to build a mosque—which doesn’t go down so well with the oh-so-nice community he thought he was part of. Reads like a light comedy while tackling some heavy issues, but still focusing on humanity and hope.
Love in Colour: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold, by Bolu Babalola
TBH this could be in the romance section but I need to weight my numbers here. A lovely collection of retold myths, a good half of them African, all about love in its various forms (most m/f, one fantastic f/f). Almost all given happy endings, and really joyous, uplifting ones at that. Don’t miss.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
As good as everyone says. Tremendous novel about two Black sisters, one of whom decides to pass as white, and the way their lives unspool accordingly. Hugely readable and humane.