The 2021 Reading List: January

Since one of my writing goals for 2020 was also to read more, I thought it would help to keep track of what I knocked off Mount Tsundoku. Here’s as good a place as any to post what I’ve read in 2020 to keep me honest, and what I thought of each book immediately after finishing.

I’ve decided to be a little more systematic about my reading plans. Now I’m pulling out an actual to-read pile to stack on the nightstand. I’m limiting the stack to five books, which seems doable for the month, even though odds are I won’t get through them all each month. Occasionally comics and graphic novels or roleplaying games might jump the queue, but I’m trying to get through the pile in order I stack them. The first time I did this, I basically grabbed the first five shinys to catch my eye, but for my next stack, I plan on adding some criteria to diversify my reading a bit. My intention is for each to-read pile to contain at least one book by a BIPOC or LGBTQ2S+ author, one book by a woman, one non-fiction book, and one book by an author I know personally (I’ve accumulated a lot of these over the years, and I’ve been a bit slower to get to many of them than I’d like. Sorry, friends!).

Thornhold by Elaine Cunningham: A nostagia reread to reward myself after a long year, and clearing my December to-read stack. Started on the 31st of 2020, but not quite finished until after 2021 rang in. Largely still enjoyable, although I preferred Cunningham’s Arilyn Moonblade character a tad more than Thornhold’s Bronwyn, even though the they’re ostensibly part of the same series.

Hungover by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall: “The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure” is the subtitle. A hell of a fine choice for my first new read of the new year, although I chose not to imbibe this time around, nor to stay awake to watch 2021 roll in. This was a very fun read in the beginning, but became a bit of a slog nearing the end. Maybe because I don’t mind reminiscing about the drinks and binges of my youth, but certainly don’t have the energy or inclination to partake that way anymore. Still, some interesting history presented, and in an engaging writing style.

Troika! by Daniel Sell: A science-fantasy roleplaying game. Fair admission, I didn’t read the last 15 pages or so, as that was an introductory adventure for the game, and a friend may be running Troika! for me at some point. This shit is bananas, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. I love the way the rules are presented, and the implied setting of Troika! I really hope I get a chance to play it.

Mahu Surfer by Neil S. Plakcy: A Hawaiian-themed mystery with a gay detective going undercover to solve the murder of some local surfers. I enjoyed it. Kimo was a fun protagonist, one who spent the book coming to terms with his outing by the media and having to lie to his family about his current assignment while finally embracing who he is. Looks like this was the second book in the series, which explains why so much of what I thought was important to Kimo’s development happened off page and was told in backfill. Still, Plakcy was pretty successful in getting all of that across, and the book read well even for someone who hadn’t read the first book. I’m not sure I’ll track down the rest of the series, but Mahu Surfer does make me want to read some Hawaiian mysteries by a local of the islands, especially a writer who is a Native Hawaiian.

Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 1: The Tarantula by Matt Wagner and Guy Davis:

Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 3: The Vamp by Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, and Guy Davis:

Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 2: The Face and The Brute by Matt Wagner, John Watkiss, and R.G. Taylor:

Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 4: The Scorpion by Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, and Guy Davis:

Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 5: Dr. Death and The Night of the Butcher by Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, Guy Davis, and Vince Locke:

Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 6: The Hourman and The Python by Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, Guy Davis, and Warren Pleece:

Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 7: The Mist and The Phantom of the Fair by Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, and Guy Davis:

Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 8: The Blackhawk and The Return of the Scarlet Ghost by Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, Guy Davis, Matthew Smith, Richard Case, and Daniel Torres:

I thought I’d talk about all of these together, as I read them in one big rush. It got a little busy here round Thunder Road way, and I didn’t have the energy to start something new, and a non-fiction book about the death industry at that. Also, accidentally read volumes 2 and 3 out of order (what? I said I was tired.). Rereading Sandman Mystery Theatre makes me want to reread Matt Wagner’s Mage series, especially now that the final volume is done and the series is complete.

I love pulp heroes, and I still love this series, but it’s a difficult recommend for me now, and would be couched in content warnings depending on who I was speaking with. After the last five years, reading about the racism, homophobia, and sexism of the 30s doesn’t feel nearly so far off, and while these books were written over twenty years ago, and I feel were giving a progressive treatment to the setting, still at times fall into some tropes that are now pretty problematic. It’d been so long since my last reread, that I forgot that artists other than Guy Davis worked on the book with Wagner and Seagle, I so associate Davis’s art with the book. Guy Davis’s models for the characters remain my favourites, everyone else’s just looked slightly wrong. I especially enjoyed the growth of Wesley and Dian’s relationship this time around. and all the various connections to the rest of the DC universe and history, like early days of Hourman, Ted Knight pre-Starman, among them, and the hints at Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series.

Top 10 Book 1 by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon:

Top 10 Book 2 by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon:

Smax by Alan Moore and Zander Cannon:

Top 10: The Forty-Niners by Alan Moore and Gene Ha:

Following my Sandman Mystery Theatre reread, I took another look at my Top 10 graphic novel collection, which is probably my favourite work by Alan Moore. The first two volumes of the main series are police procedural in a city where everyone has superpowers but only the police are allowed to solve crimes and deal with the power-related issues that come up. It’s alternately an homage and deconstruction of superheroic tropes. It’s been a while, but I still love it, despite souring somewhat on cops as protagonists in fiction. Smax is a marked departure in tone from the regular Top 10 series, basically a zany fantasy quest on Jeff Smax’s home world, but still fun, and Smax and Robyn were two of my favourite characters in the main series, so it was nice to see them get more time. The Forty-Niners is probably the volume I read the least, even if it feels like one of the best individual pieces in the series. It’s set after World War 2 when the city of Neopolis is brand new and still under construction. Having been introduced to the present day cops first may influence my opinion there, as I wanted many of them to get their own feature story the way Smax and Robyn did. I’d definitely read more about Leni Mueller the Sky Witch though. As with most of things Moore writes, there’s tons of layers, and the amount of in panel gags, homages, and references that Gene Ha and Zander Cannon slip into the series is immense. I’m not sure if there’s an annotated version of the series out there, but if so, I’d love to see it. Cannon’s art, which is more cartoony, suits Smax volume perfectly, but I prefer Ha’s takes on the classic Top 10 characters, and his art in The Forty-Niners, with its bled out colours, is nothing short of breathtaking. As with Sandman Mystery Theatre, because of some content and the time passed since the books were written, I’d hesitate to recommend to everyone.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty: A memoir of a young woman’s entry into the funeral industry and her evolving feelings about what a “good death” means. I follow her on Twitter and check out some of the videos she posts on Order of the Good Death. A really fun (seriously) read, while remaining earnest about the subject matter. It does occasionally go into some dark places, some I expected, others I didn’t (Content warning for discussion of suicide), despite the lighter tone of the writing. It’s kind of trippy to be reading about what happens to your body after you die while in the middle of a pandemic, but I find it a bit comforting that there are folks like Doughty out there, willing to help grieving families. I can’t wait to read her follow up, From Here to Eternity.

The Prairie Bridesmaid by Daria Salamon: Definitely not by usual fare, but a really enjoyable read. Salamon’s characters jump off the page and it was a nice palette cleanser after my heavier non-fiction reads this month. I’ve mostly read some of her non-fiction articles and blogs about her family’s travel adventures during a gap year, so I knew I’d enjoy her writing. I hope to see some more fiction from her soon.

Check out my roundup of my 2020 reading here.