Despite the general state of the world, 2021 was actually a good year in reading for me. By the end of the year, I’d read 105 books, which is close to my previous all-time record from 2017 when I read 111. My secret? I read a lot of manga because my brain was mush.
Honestly, though, I think it would take a lot for me to have a genuine reading slump. I had a much harder time focusing for the first half of 2020 and still read a hugely respectable 75 books that year. That’s an unqualified success by just about any standard.
Back to 2021, though – how did my stats stack up for the year?
76 books by men
26 books by women
2 books by both men and women
1 book by a non-binary author (Sarah Gailey)
56 ebooks on Kindle or iPad
13 physical books
22 graphic novels and 31 volumes of manga (half of what I read last year!)
So I Read Lots of Manga
One big reason I read so much manga last year was my discovery of Bookwalker‘s digital storefront and app and especially its coin rewards program. When you buy from Bookwalker, you get coins back on every purchase (basically Yen, since the exchange rate is 1-to-1). Those add up and eventually amount to discounts, sometimes significant, on your next purchase. I’m always tempted by sales and deals on books, so this was dangerous.
I also subscribed to the Seven Seas Entertainment newsletter to find out about their new releases. I soon discovered that they send a pretty nice coupon every month or so if you fill out a survey. I’ve splurged on a lot of manga just because of the combination of discounts.
I think my most favorite manga series that I started last year are Zom 100 and Chainsaw Man. I also enjoyed the bizarre but occasionally problematic Gigant.
Zom 100 is about a burned-out office worker whose life only improves when the zombie apocalypse happens. He can finally check things off his bucket list now that he’s not being worked to death at a toxic office. He’s so thrilled to be free from his job that he’s giddy with excitement at the end of the world. It’s a fantastic satire of corporate culture and a fun inversion of zombie movie tropes.
Chainsaw Man is about a dirtbag slacker who merges with his pet demon to become a chainsaw-headed monster. He’s recruited to a squad of demon-fighters with the promise that he might one day get to hook up with a girl. The art is pretty great and the gore is absolutely over-the-top. The book goes to some weird places and has fun with its sociopath main characters. I actually haven’t picked up this series in a few months, but I subscribe to Shonen Jump and should use my membership more.
Gigant is about a teen who meets his favorite porn star, Papico, and hits it off with her. Things get complicated when a strange man gives her a device that embeds itself in her arm and lets her change size to be as tall as a building. This comes in handy when the commenters on a mysterious website wish for monsters to destroy Japan and they appear like clockwork. The only solution is for Papico to fight them, of course. However, she never keeps her clothes on when she grows to giant size, so the series is full of scenes where a giant naked woman punches inter-dimensional horrors in the middle of a destroyed cityscape.
Gigant is an absolutely bizarre mix of surreal horror, tense action scenes and shameless nudity. It’s also, strangely enough, a metaphor for global problems with very local solutions – there are multiple points where things are “getting back to normal” in Japan even though monsters are still destroying America, for example. The downside is that the main character is a complete drip. His relationship with Papico is absolutely unbelievable wish fulfillment bullshit. I actually prefer the books when the main character is sidelined and it focuses entirely on Papico.
My Favorite Reads (That Weren’t Manga)
When I had enough brainpower to read books without pictures, there were a few that I really enjoyed. Some of my most favorite reads were actually horror novels last year.
Calculated Risks by Seanan McGuire – This series is ten books deep at this point, and I can’t wait for the next installment. McGuire is finally telling the much-awaited story about a character who has been running around the edges of the series since the very beginning. One thing I love about the InCryptid books is that they change viewpoint characters on a regular basis, so they’re actually a series of duologies and the occasional trilogy all set in the same universe. It keeps the series fresh and engaging. Calculated Risks is the second book in a two-parter about Sarah, the adopted cuckoo who might bring about the end of the world. She was easily one of the most interesting protagonists in the series just because she has such a different non-human perspective. I also got all misty-eyed at the end of this book.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones – Jones never really clicked for me before this book, but now I’m fully down to read anything he writes next. The main character is a misfit burn-out Native American girl in a gentrifying town. She’s obsessed with horror movies, specifically slashers, and thinks she sees a slasher story playing out. She goes out of her way to warn the new girl in town who she thinks may be the fated “final girl” to save the day. I loved the main character’s voice and the sly interrogation of horror movie tropes.
Bunny by Mona Awad – Holy shit, this book! I bought it on impulse and it completely grabbed me by the throat. It’s an unholy combination of Mean Girls, MFA program toxicity, and horror movie mayhem. It’s weird as hell and presents a completely screwed up perspective on the incestuous, self-lacerating, sometimes self-destructive creative process. I think anyone with the slightest interest in creativity or bizarre, surrealist horror should read it. Maybe someday if I have any say in it, I’d love to see it produced as a limited series.
The Hot Rock and Bank Shot by Donald E. Westlake – I finally got around to reading these comic crime novels by the late, great Westlake, and I’m very glad I did. The Hot Rock is easily one of the best heist stories I’ve ever read, and the absurdity of a crew having to perform five different heists to steal the same gem only gets better as the story continues. The second book in the series was just as good, only this time the career thieves decide to steal an entire bank, which certainly seemed like a good idea at the time.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride – It took me a while to get in the groove with this book, but as soon as it finally clicked for me, I loved it. It’s a comic, tragic story of a broken-down drunk in the middle of drama and violence in a Brooklyn project in 1969. Everything kicks off when a drunk named Sportcoat shoots a young drug dealer in broad daylight and then gets away; McBride tells the stories of everyone in and around the community, so the end result is a broad tapestry of experience and characterization. It’s also a very funny book despite dealing with some horrible, tragic events.
The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox – This is another book that I picked up on impulse that ended up paying off in a huge way. On one hand, it’s about a woman who gets revenge on the man who murdered her sister and the consequences that come calling years later. It’s also an epic tale about fairies and demons, all of whom want to get their hands on a dangerous artifact that the main character may have in her possession. That combination of mundane tragedy and supernatural struggles for the fate of the world makes for an interesting and exciting tale.
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