Surprising no one who knows me well, I had a difficult time selecting a list of favorite reads for 2019. Some titles immediately sprang to mind, but there was fierce competition among others to be included while not letting this list grow unreasonably long. I read so many outstanding collections of short stories last year, but only a few of them made it onto this list. Not all of these books were published last year or even in this century and not all of them were read for the first time last year, but they remain outstanding for last year nonetheless.
MEM by Bethany C. Morrow – Speculative science fiction about identity and memory set in Jazz Age Montreal. What’s not to love? I’m fascinated by memory, by how we remember, how memory is intimately connected to all our senses, how the act of remembering itself alters our memories, and I devoured this beautiful novel.
Veronica by Nicholas Christopher – I was first introduced to the work of Nicholas Christopher a couple years ago via the dazzling experiences that was his ’00 novel A Trip to the Stars. Veronica was published 4 years earlier, but it didn’t find its way to me until last month. I was entirely swept off my feet by this magical, mystical, synchronistic story. Not that comparison is necessary, but because I think if you like one book, you should definitely read the other: while both books are visionary in their own right, I found A Trip to the Stars to be a more complex and epic tale than Veronica, which feels more intimate to me, though it’s also sweeping and breathtakingly creative. I fear I’m turning into a terrible book reviewer when I repeatedly find myself saying, “the less I tell you about this, the more you’ll enjoy it,” but it’s true. Approach Veronica like you’ve just stepped out onto the streets of Manhattan on a snowy winter night. Your eyes are drawn to a mysterious woman searching for her keys in the snow. She knows you’re watching her and, from this point, nothing is ever going to be the same.
What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi – I loved this collection of fantastical, magical, achingly beautiful, and delicately interconnected short stories so much, I don’t know how to start describing it. Please, read this book. Your being will thank you for it.
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi – I read this enthralling and disquieting story while I was in NYC in March, which turned out to be ideal timing because I read it right before and immediately after my first momentous visit to Sleep No More (much more on that at a later date). This book so beautifully complemented and fed the simultaneous dropping and parting of veils I’d just experienced. White is for Witching, by the time I got to it, came with quite a bit of hype, including naming Oyeyemi as Shirley Jackson‘s heir. In a way, I find this unfair. I’m a tremendous fan of Shirley Jackson, but I think Helen Oyeyemi has her own voice and style. Simply taken as a high compliment, however, I think it’s a beautiful statement. White is for Witching manages to be haunting from the very first while also being a wickedly slow burn of weirdness. It’s a ghost story. It’s a haunted house story. It’s a story of intergenerational trauma, institutional racism, familial bonds, friendship, love, hunger, and identity. I haven’t read anything else quite like it, which is one of the best things I can say about a book.
Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado – Even if you’ve read Carmilla before, which I had, a couple times, you’ve never experienced it like this. Carmen Maria Machado edited and wrote the introduction for this edition of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s OG gothic vampire novella. But saying that belies the significance of what she’s done with this story, which is so much more than editing. Her touch was light, but so very thoughtful. Her footnotes are spare, but damn, they matter. When all is said and done, between the intro and the editing, Machado actually, well, mended this tale, which isn’t something I realized I needed until I started reading this edition. She magicked it into the version of my dreams that I didn’t know I’d been dreaming of since I first read it years ago. Such a gift.
Machado also agreed to a Perfectly Normal Interview about her edition of Carmilla for Electric Literature, which immediately became one of my all-time favorite interviews. Really, I wish this interview could’ve been published in the back of the novella, because the two belong together, just like Veronika and Marcia.
Lanny by Max Porter – This book came to me by way of Warren Ellis’s Orbital Operations newsletter. He shared a quote and I was hooked. Lanny is a modern day Green Man folktale set in a tiny village outside London and it had me under its spell from the first page.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones – How am I only now learning about Stephen Graham Jones? This coming-of-age story is an in-depth, modern day reimagining of the werewolf mythos. There’s no aspect of their intense lives that Jones didn’t carefully consider. It’s a brutal story, quite violent at times – these are wolves we’re talking about, after all. But it’s also oddly tender, even funny at times. For all their inherent monstrousness, this is a very human tale. I’m surprised it hasn’t already been adapted as a TV series.
A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker – I enjoyed this novel every bit as much as Pinsker’s previous short story collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea. This book is set in the same world as one of the stories in that collection, which was very satisfying. I’d be over the moon if Pinsker decided to give more of her short pieces the novel treatment.
Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker – For me, 2019 seems to be the year of outstanding short story collections, and this is my new favorite. Fantastic, strange, creative, poignant, diverse, and queer. I loved every single story and wish several of them could be books of their own.
Alien Virus Love Disaster by Abbey Mei Otis – Intensely creative, utterly strange and surreal, and very very dark, I’m reluctant to try to categorize these beautifully written short stories. Science/speculative fiction-y, but boxing them in like that feels like a disservice. There’s a twisted magic realism at work here and all sorts of very shrewd commentary on the human condition. I know I’m generalizing about sci fi here, but these aren’t tales of people who’ve advanced to live forever above the clouds, traveled to colonies on mars or the moon, or commune with alien life forms. These are gritty stories about people who still live on the ground to live beneath the people who live above the clouds – where sex robots fall from the sky and people rejected by their advanced moon or martian societies and banished to live back on earth. This is a world where mortgages are paid off by blood sacrifice, loss drives people to become feral (and then some), people escape into virtual reality that occupying alien populations are paying voyeurs, and, as is the case so often for so many of us, in fiction or very real life, where people are yearning, striving, clawing, and even bleeding in effort to find ways to connect. I want more.
All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva – Reading multiple short story collections at once is one of my favorite things to do, because it’s such fun to switch between the books, one story at a time. What’s even better is when each book is so startlingly creative, I feel spoiled for the abundance of worlds, stories, and characters before me. This is another collection that defies description and demands your time. Haunting, disquieting, passionate, and poignant. The characters in these vivid tales “walk the knife-edge between wonder and terror, salvation and destruction,” and we are so fortunate to be able to walk with them.
Without Protection by Gala Mukomolova – Our very own Sonya already featured this remarkable book in a previous edition of Stacked in which they described it as, “beyond powerful.” I couldn’t agree more, so I’ll simply add that, much like Sonya’s first book of poetry, Salt is for Curing, these are poems I didn’t know I needed until I found them in my hands, but oh, how profoundly I needed them.
Circe by Madeline Miller – This is rather reductionist of me, but also perhaps the most succinct way to describe this book: Remember how Wicked told the tale of The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West? Circe tells story of The Odyssey from the perspective of Circe, one of classical mythology’s original witches. This was a ferociously readable and wonderfully vivid story. Like so many people, I’ve long found mythology and folklore to be fascinating subjects for myriad reasons. But I’ll freely confess that I sometimes find the classics on the dry side and certainly on the sexist/misogynistic side. Miller’s Circe is none of those things. It’s so satisfying to get to know powerful Circe herself – not as an enchantress featuring briefly in the life of Greek hero Odysseus, but as a fully-formed individual, who we first meet during her divine, but still no-less-awkward childhood and follow as she grows to become perhaps the most powerful – and entirely self-taught – hedge witch of her time.
Honorable mentions include: Shannon Taggart: Séance, which I wrote about here, Mister Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler because I left a piece of my heart inside the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi for being utterly singular in every way, Rag: Stories by Maryse Meijer and Orange World by Karen Russell because I had to sneak in a couple more short story collections, When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll, which was monstrously delicious, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, which haunts me still, Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1) by Seanan McGuire (as well as book #2, Down Among the Sticks and Bones), and last but not least, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman for being my literary BFF since 1994.