I was mulling over whether to write this type of post or not, since I have a feeling that literally everyone is making some sort of “best of 2021” type of text. I was planning to do that too, some of my personal top 10 books I read… only to lose interest in it. Instead, I’m going to do a sort of my “personal best everything” 2021 retrospection, though, fair warning, most of it will be about books. I’ll start from the reading, then move to the writing and other projects.
1. 2021 was a great year for my reading thanks to the audiobooks.
This year was especially great for me reading-wise, even when I thought I’ll have no time for reading or, what’s closer to the truth, that I’ll be too tired to do that. What I didn’t expect, though, was my switch to audiobooks. They were the reason I could read even when I didn’t have any strength in me to, well, read, or to read while I had to do other stuff like house chores and dog walking. This format helped me immensely when I was tired and fatigued, and fits quite nicely with my lifestyle.
So I want to take this opportunity to praise some of the narrators, because what these people do when narrating is an art of its own, making the experience of listening just chilling. When you have a fantastic narrator, it can take an already great book to a whole new level.
Some of the best narrators whose work I enjoyed this year would be:
- Cara Gee: for giving the manic energy to My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones. This slasher book is humorous but also deeply melancholic, sad and emotional in the way Stephen Graham Jones knows how to do, and Cara Gee’s performance helps to relay all of the complicated emotions to the reader. She gives life to Jade, the main character, a lonely, abused and slasher obsessed teenage girl; her energy is addicting. It was hard for me to put the book down and I know that some of it is definitely thanks to Cara Gee, not just to the genius writing that is Stephen Graham Jones (though that’s also a big reason, of course; he quickly and easily became one of my favorite authors this year).
- Adjoa Andoh: for the fantastic narration of Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor, bringing the already great novella to life in my head. This book is about myths and stories, the way they shape the world, and we follow the journey of a young girl with a terrible power through futuristic Africa. The story is mostly about Sankofa, but, in the background, we have hints of a bigger story. I absolutely loved Adjoa Andoh’s performance, the way it complimented and added on the masterful writing of Nnedi Okorafor. I’ll just say I made the mistake of having lunch while listening to the book when one particular scene with flies came up. I don’t have a feeling I read (or listened) to the book. It was like watching a movie, inserted directly into my mind.
- Josh Hurley: for some of the best voice modulations I’ve ever heard in The Tarot Sequence by K. D. Edwards (The Last Sun and The Hanged Man). Like I said, I read a lot of audiobooks this year and I had an opportunity to listen to a lot of amazing narrators. But what Josh Hurley does when he reads dialogues is on a completely another level. He manages to read every single character with their own inflictions, tone, style, voice, in a way that is just masterful. Every narrator tries to differentiate between characters, of course, with variable success. What he does is almost like there’s more people in the studio. I can always know what character is speaking, even without dialogue tags. It’s just… something else. Not to mention, The Tarot Sequence is a very quippy book and the way he reads helps to deliver the joke. The books are funny on their own, of course, and among the best urban fantasy I’ve got to read recently, but I’m just glad I also decided to get it on audio, because the experience was just on another level.
- Robin Miles: for the epic reading of The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin. Another great voice modulation, another fantastic performance, Robin Miles helped bring out the adrenaline and the drama in this urban fantasy where people are avatars to cities, fighting against an eldritch abomination that wants to destroy them. Audiobook production in general for this book is something else, but Robin Miles has a way of reading the words that makes it unnecessary to use any sort of additional sound effects (though there are those, too, in the book). She doesn’t just read the word, she gives us the sounds that the words want to convey. And since this book is filled with action and battles, you bet you will feel it in your blood too, ready to fight alongside New York and the people representing it.
2. 2021 was also a great reading year for me when I discovered the indie horror scene.
I had trouble searching for queer horror books. I knew what I wanted and what I wasn’t interested in, but most of the books that kept popping up (from big publishers, big names, or just popular amongst book bloggers, bookstagramers and such) just weren’t what I wanted to read. Yet I knew that the stuff I was searching for must exist… and thanks to Twitter (who would have thought) I managed to learn about some truly great indie horror authors who deliver just the kind of queer horror to my taste.
If you, like me, are absolutely starving for queer horror, may I direct you to these books that marked my 2021 reading experience:
- Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca: for the most disturbing short read that’s living in my mind rent free. A story about two lonely lesbian women who start a very twisted online relationship, written in the form of emails and messages. This book is gross in all the best ways and is not afraid to go to some truly dark places. It surprised me, it horrified me, it was everything I wanted but didn’t know I needed.
- Saltblood by T. C. Parker: for the most imaginative mix of near-future dystopia and folk horror that’s also very appropriate given some of the current happenings on social media. I love dystopian settings, isolated places and folklore, and this book has all three. I also love sapphic main characters and relationships, and the book has that, too. It’s also very well-written, has interesting characters, and is a great criticism of social media outrage, megacorporations, surveillance culture and the prison industrial complex. Also, have I mentioned, angry lesbians and monsters straight from folklore?
- Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy by Hailey Piper: for the best collection of short stories by one author. It’s just, aaaaaah. The stories in this collection are both feminist and queer, with some of the most unique tales and mindblowing ideas I got to read this year. Some of the stories are masterpieces of the form and genre. I know short stories collections (and anthologies) aren’t as popular as novels or novellas, but please, give them a chance.
- Waif by Samantha Kolesnik: for the most horrifying ideas regarding bodies, plastic surgeries, fantasies and dreams of the perfect American suburban marriages. I loved this novella so much, the plot was completely unhinged, going to so many unexpected places. It was also very chilling. I read it in one breath, interested to see what will happen next but also afraid of it. The horror is subtle, but it cuts you deep with a surgical precision.
- Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt: for the most unique, blunt, honest haunted house story I’ve gotten to read. This book. This book. This is one of the best horror novels I’ve read this year. In the top of the best books in general that I’ve read this year. It’s hard, unflinching, and doesn’t pull any punches. It’s about, like the author herself says in the content warning, trauma and fascism. It’s about two women—a trans woman and a terf—who were once in a deeply intimate relationship, only for that to shatter after a visit to one very haunted house with a third woman who never got to get out. It’s about an inability to heal and move on, about misplaced hatred, bigotry and all the ways a person can hurt themselves. I also love when horror writes about evil places, maybe because it’s not human, or alive in a sense we recognize in living organisms, just a malevolent force in the form of architecture that’s important to us, because, well, we need walls to live in and roofs above our heads; the safety of home twisted into horror.
For more queer horror recs, I also wrote a much bigger recommendation list this year that you can read here (this was before I got to read Waif and Tell Me I’m Worthless).
3. I started a bit of a habit of reading a short story in the morning while I’m drinking my first cup of coffee that helped me go read some anthologies and collections that would usually sit on my TBR.
Because I always end up prioritising novels and novellas, which is a shame, because there are so many great short stories. I wasn’t the most consistent with this habit. It’s hard for me to follow it when I’m working the morning shift and the last two months were sort of hard for me to do anything involving a lot of brain power in the mornings. But I definitely plan on getting back to it, because it helped me go through some books that would probably still sit on my virtual or material shelves. Some of the great anthologies I got to read thanks to this were: Silk & Steel: A Queer Speculative Adventure Anthology (edited by Janine A. Southard) and Worst Laid Plans: An Anthology of Vacation Horror (edited by Samantha Kolesnik). And some of the best short stories collections by one author I’ve read like this are the aforementioned Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy by Hailey Piper, The Strange Thing We Become and Other Dark Tales by Eric LaRocca (a collection of horror stories obsessed with death and disease) and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (another fantastic queer feminist collection of short stories with unique tales and ideas).
4. I’ve managed to finish and submit two stories to anthologies outside of Croatia and got an acceptance for both. Also managed to finish and publish a story in Croatian.
While I was mostly doing some work on my urban fantasy novel in Croatian, that’s still a WIP, I’ve started a few stories, some of which I got to finish, submit and even publish this year. Submission call for Folk Tales From the Hinterland by Gurt Dog Press was something that looked perfect for me, so I sat down, wrote a story and it got accepted! This anthology of dark queer folk tales was published in December, this year, and if you’re interested in more information about it check here. My story What Lies Tangled in the River Grass is inspired by Croatian folklore and is pretty much about two lonely monstrous women hunting on the same territory in contemporary Croatia.
The other story that was accepted in an anthology was the sapphic gothic horror story All Sweet Souls in Unthinkable: A Queer Gothic Anthology that’s planned for a 2022 release. This story was inspired by both Croatian folklore and my favorite Croatian 19th Century gothic story Stella Raïva by Rikard Jorgovanić.
I’m mentioning these two stories as a special success for me for various reasons. First, it’s rare for me to write a short story (and not a novelette), and before this I wasn’t really searching for submission calls outside of Croatia. Yes, I once tried to submit a novella in English but got a rejection two years after the fact, and I managed to get into the still unpublished anthology of Croatian women authors in English, but this year I saw these two calls for anthologies and I managed to get the idea for the stories, write them, and had luck to get into both. And the last reason is also this—it needs to be said that there’s a certain… stigma in Croatia regarding writing in English. Mostly it’s frowned upon, sometimes even ridiculed. And sure, my writing will always have some mistakes, even with the great help from my partner-in-crime Vesna, who’s great with grammar and copyediting, but let me tell you that I also felt vindication with these two acceptances because it was like getting a seal of approval from non-Croatians that my English was good enough. Just, needed to be said.
In the end, I’m one of the editors for a Croatian online magazine for speculative fiction, working on promoting speculative fiction writing and the authors in Croatia, so I’m still writing some stuff in Croatian, too. So I wrote a short love letter to the Skon convention (one small, but passionate scifi convention in the Croatian town of Sisak) that’s also a gothic horror tale of hunger for creativity. If you can read Croatian, you can check it out here, along with other great stories in this second issue of Morina kutija.
Morina kutija is our passion project. The idea was to create an online platform for Croatians and our neighbours—whose languages are similar enough for Croatians to understand without translation (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina)—to publish our work without constrictions of print and what comes with it (financial issues usually resulting in very small print runs and very bad distribution which means not a lot of people get to them). We wanted to make the shift to online publications, and if you’re wondering why this is something special or new in the year 2021, well… Croatia is always late to the party. While we have a rich speculative fiction publishing scene where local authors can publish their work, most of it is unavailable digitally, only available in hardcopies that you may or may not get at your local library. Nothing against those publications, I know the amount of money these organizations have for publishing, I know how distribution works in Croatia, I know a lot of Croatian authors and readers still believe physical copy is the only relevant book form. But the three of us wanted to do something else, and Morina kutija is the result. We use it to promote speculative fiction literature we read, but also our local and regional writers and their stories. Not just in Croatian and other similar languages, but we publish stories (and reviews) in English, too. And have I mentioned we already have two issues out? I’m excited to see what the new year will bring us.
6. The books I edited for Shtriga are out in the world, getting read and liked or disliked.
This is the time to shout out great books by awesome people. Krasna zemlja by Ana Cerovac is a historical fantasy inspired by Slavic folklore about the tumultuous time period of war fought over a small Croatian region called Istria. A Town Called River by Igor Rendić is, on the other hand, an urban fantasy, also using Slavic folklore and mythology, set in contemporary Rijeka where we follow a young man Paul who, after his grandma’s death, learns that he’s a krsnik—a magic user with superpowers whose job is to protect the powerless from monsters lurking in the dark. And, of course, there’s the Ranger Paraversum series by Vesna Kurilić. The second and the third book (Girls in Black and Girls Back Home) of this queer retrofuturistic mystery series were out this year and it’s absolutely fabulous. I’m so proud of these books and authors and always happy when I see people commenting about reading and liking them.
Cautiously curious to see what new amazing things will 2022 bring!