Best of 2021 - Arizona O'Neill

November 13, 2021

Best of 2021 - Arizona O'Neill

I love books that have a disturbing elements in them. Unexpected twists that push the norms of reality. A lot of the books on this list deal with very real situations but take them further. This year, I found myself particularly drawn to the graphic novel genre to take me out of the world's current climate. I want to be transported when I read, and I feel as though this list really reflects that. 

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez

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I absolutely loved this book. I usually find it hard to get invested in short story collections because the stories drop you off a cliff and you have to start all over again. But these stories flowed so effortlessly one into the other, it almost seemed as though I was reading a novel. What unites them are the similar themes, such as superstitions, ghosts, and missing children. The stories are creepy and disturbing but also touching and revelatory about life in contemporary Argentina. Readers of literary fiction will adore the juxtaposition of the macabre with gorgeous, taut, witty writing. They will also like the awareness it brings to modern life and sociopolitical issues in Argentina. The Argentinian experimental, magical realist sensibility is proving to be a hit with writers like Samanta Schweblin. I strongly recommend!

The City of Belgium by Brecht Evens

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This has to be one of the most beautiful graphic novels out there. Evens's visual style is breathtaking. The book paints a beautiful portrait of Belgium's night life. Three strangers enter a bar and we follow each of their unique journeys throughout the night. Each page is filled to the brim with characters packed into the bar as we eavesdrop on their conversations. The books has wonderful voyeuristic elements that makes the reader unable to look away. Like Evens's previous work the further you dive in, the crazier it gets. It is like an amazing lucid dream. f

A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan

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This book is for all the people who love weird books and can never explain why. Dare I say this book is part ‘I love Dick’, ‘Earthlings’ and ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’? Or maybe it’s like none of them, and it is its own unique concoction. The story follows a couple that is obsessed with a girl named Jen, who once knew the boyfriend. They have their notifications turned to be alerted whenever she posts, their sex life revolves around role playing Jen-like scenarios, and they speak of almost nothing else. They’ve built Jen up to be the perfect girl, until they run into her one day and she invites them on a surf trip. From there, it all unravels into chaos, and I am here for it.

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

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Nightbitch is about a stay-at-home mom who starts to exhibit signs of turning into a dog. She has given up her dreams of being an artist to stay at home with her two year old son. Although she loves the baby, she feels extremely trapped and depressed in the house. When she starts to slowly embrace her new canine attributes, she begins to feel alive again. Her son is excited about this new change in his mom and starts to act like a dog too, in the cutest ways. She discovers a mysterious nature book at the library, which presents different types of mothers with extraordinary attributes, such as living like a muskrat or in a wolflike pack. (I loved these entries so much!) Each entry in the nature book represents a different type of mothering. Maybe her animalistic transformation happening to her is a natural part of womanhood? The book makes interesting links between modern day motherhood and the instinctual animal behaviour we exhibit to our young. Overall it was an exciting feminist text to add to your library.

Night Bus by Zuo Ma

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This graphic novel is perfect. I had been looking forward to the English translation ever since the French publication caught my eye in 2020. This is the tyoe of book Hayao Miyazaki would read and be inspired by. A young girl finds herself on this mysterious night bus that crosses through magical landscapes. A class of students slowly morphs into a school of fish lead by a giant catfish, now doesn't that sound intriguing? Throughout the night, more and more wonderful anthropomorphic characters enter the bus. Night Bus blends autobiography, horror, and fantasy into a surreal wonder on the page.

Harrow by Joy Williams

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Harrow takes place in a post apocalyptic future where climate change has destroyed the world. We follow Khristen as she tries to navigate this world alone from a young age. She died for a few seconds as an infant, and her mother was convinced this makes her special. Khristen must have buried secrets in her psyche from the afterlife, or maybe she’s still dead and this is her purgatory? I did not understand what was happening at all times in this book, but the characters and world building is hauntingly good. It feels as though you are in a fever dream filled with deranged mothers, dead horses, and women who don’t look their age.

Secret Life by Theo Ellsworth and Jeff Vandermeer

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This book is exactly the type of twisted horror comic that I love. This graphic novel takes place in a disturbing building. It is perfect for our times as no one wants to go back to the office after having experienced working at home the past year. Each floor is packed with mysterious workers who cannot leave their floors or go home. It is unclear what their jobs are or why they are stuck in this hell. One of my favourite details from the book is a woman who has a plant in her office that grows into an incredible vine that eventually overwhelms the room and grows out into the air ducts of the building. This causes amazing air quality throughout the building. This book is wild, and full of hidden gems. It is a fascinating allegory for the modern work force. 

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

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It took me a while to pick up the new Sally Rooney because of the insane amount of hype around her latest publication. I loved Normal People and because of this I judged the book too harshly at first. I only read the first two chapters, and then put it down for a few months feeling disappointed. But I am here to tell you I WAS WRONG. This book was wonderful. Rooney has a way of capturing the millennial experience that is so relatable. It follows two young women, switching between their experiences each chapter. In between each chapter, is a letter that they write to one another summarizing the previous chapter. This allows for two perspectives of the events to occur, one being the third person narrative and the other the first person letter. It is interesting to see how the characters summarize what happened to them in the previous chapter, and how they relate its meaning to one another. I loved it. 

Remina by Junji Ito

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Everyone knows my love for Junji Ito. Horror manga is one of my favourite genres, and Ito is a pioneer in it. For the past few years, there have been many publications of Ito's short stories, but this is one of his few stand alone mangas. An unknown planet emerges from inside a wormhole, and the man who discovers it, Dr. Oguro, names the body Remina after his own daughter. The planet in the sky starts to pick up speed, destroying everything in its course. It eventually starts to head straight towards earth, threatening our existence. The book follows the girl, Remina, as she rises to fame. But is she the cause of this catastrophe?

Cyclopedia Exotica by Aminder Dhaliwal

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Dahliwal excited us all with her debut Woman World in 2018, and she did not disappoint with her second graphic novel! In a distant future, cyclopes have come out of hiding and been integrated into mainstream society. We follow three storylines of different cyclopes experiencing unique struggles and prejudices. It is a heartwarming book that will put a smile on your face. It is clear that Dahliwal uses her cyclops characters as an allegory for the microaggression peoples of colour experience everyday. This is a perfect gift for everyone this season. It has universal themes that everyone will love and connect with. 

Weeding by Genevieve Lebleu

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I have been following Montreal illustrator, Genevieve Lebleu, on Instagram for a while now. In her graphic novel, a group of middle age women gather in the suburbs. It is clear there is a lot of past tension between all of them that the reader is trying to decipher. Meanwhile, it is almost as if their aggression is causing the weeds in the backyard to become more and more dangerous. The weeds have little eyes and teeth that start to attack the women one at time. This is perfect for fans of Jesse Jacob's Safari Honeymoon. I always love when authors mix body horror with nature. 

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

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I picked this book up based on a quote on the back of the book that says “This is Hill House for this century”. Naturally I was intrigued! This is a horror novella of 125 pages. A group of friends rent a creepy mansion to celebrate a wedding because the bride wants to get married in a haunted house. It is said the house has generations of dead girls in the walls, each sacrificed to keep each other company. It is fun, modern, and twisted! I would suggest listening to the audio book with some friends on a road trip or at a cottage.

Made-Up: A True Story of Beauty Culture under Late Capitalism by Daphné B.

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I read this when it was originally published in French. I was curious about the translation because Daphne B’s mind is an intricate beautiful place where she spins daily feminine rituals into acts of philosophical resistance and power. It is a raw intellectual testament to the female gaze and it’s preoccupations. It is a wonderful intellectual space that twirls academic ideas into a cotton candy that leaves sweetness in your mouth and sticky traces all over your fingers. Anyhow, it’s hard to define! A huge hit in Quebec, I am happy to say poet Alex Manley did a phenomenal job with the translation.

Fictional Father by Joe Ollmann

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Fictional Father made Canadian history this year when it was shortlisted for the Governor General Award for Best Fiction. This was the first time a graphic novel had ever been nominated in this category. It is so exciting to see graphic novels being taken seriously along side novels. It is the story of a man named Caleb who lives in the shadow of his renown father, famous for his comic strip Sunny Side Up. Caleb struggles with the perfect father and son relationship displayed in the comic versus their own very flawed real life one. Ollmann uses the memoir style of the graphic novel form to tell a fictional story, and I find it very interesting. He is hilarious and it is always a joy to read. 

No 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus by Elkin, Lauren

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While riding the bus in Paris, Lauren Elkin composed a tiny book of notes on her iPhone. She references the work of Georges Perec in her attempt to transcribe what she observes in the world through note taking, thus capturing all that is around her. She is using her phone to actually engage with the world instead of using it to interpret it for her. The notes at the beginning are more mundane and observational and really allow you to feel the constant influx of tiny plays that exist on a bus. But as the notes progress, they begin to capture Elkin's feelings about an ectopic pregnancy and then the meaning of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Through this last tragedy, Elkin manages to transcribe the communal experience of Parisians on public transportation, with just her little thumbs on her little phone. Such is the power of the diary.

Penny by Karl Stevens

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Stevens wrote this graphic memoir for his cat Penny. Told through her perspective, Stevens gives his cat an amazing introspective voice. It is a question as old as time, ''What goes through a cat's mind?'' I personally love Stevens's drawing style! His realistic drawings and watercolour washes intrigued me so much that I went to follow him on social media, where he posts wonderful process videos of his comics. I strongly suggest taking a look. Penny is a clever, funny, and heartwarming. It is a perfect gift for cat lovers everywhere this season. 

The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore

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Oh my lord this was sooo wonderful. It's a historical novel about a real witch hunt. But it becomes the tale of one accused witch's emancipation and her triumph. Her meditations in prison are disturbing and magical and filled with dark rabbits. Look, the last sentence was one of the most arresting and surprising I have ever found at the end of a book. And the way it expresses the darkness of beauty will haunt you.

The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age by Trina Robbins

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This book came out in 2020, but did not enter my radar until 2021. This is a beautiful over sized Fantagraphics collection of classic comics from the '20s. This full coloured collection displays that perfect art deco style of the '20s that is so addicting. The stories are outrageous given the climate they were written in, but I cannot help but love the style of them. It is nice to see how women cartoonist started their careers writing these flapper comics. 

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The Dangers of Smoking in Bed

Mariana Enriquez

“The lauded Argentine author of What We Lost in the Fire returns with enthralling stories conjured from literary sorcery” (O: The Oprah Magazine), in the tradition of Shirley...

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City of Belgium

Brecht Evens

AN EXQUISITELY DRAWN EXPLORATION OF THREE LOST SOULS' EMOTIONAL TERRAIN As night falls in the City of Belgium, three strangers in their late twenties - a...

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A Touch of Jen

Beth Morgan

A young couple's toxic Instagram crush spins out of control and unleashes a sinister creature in this twisted, viciously funny, "bananas good" debut. (Carmen...

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Rachel Yoder

One day, the mother was a mother, but then one night, she was quite suddenly something else...In this blazingly smart and voracious debut, an...

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Zuo Ma

Journey through the countryside in this magical realist debut from an underground Chinese cartoonist In Night Bus, a young woman wearing round glasses finds...

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Joy Williams

In her first novel since The Quick and the Dead (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), the legendary writer takes us into an uncertain...

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Secret Life

Theo Ellsworth, Jeff VanderMeer

An uncanny and eye-opening journey into a mysterious building, adapted from a short story by Jeff VanderMeer To the west: trees. To the east:...

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Beautiful World, Where Are You

Sally Rooney

Here is the extraordinary, thrilling new novel from Sally Rooney, author of the internationally bestselling Normal People and Conversations with Friends. Alice, a novelist,...

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Junji Ito

Another of Junji Ito's classics, the sci-fi masterwork Remina tells the chilling tale of a hell star.An unknown planet emerges from inside a wormhole,...

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Cyclopedia Exotica

Aminder Dhaliwal

"The characters in Dhaliwal's stories sparkle. They're tenderly rendered and their problems are real. . . The struggle of the cyclops unfolds in metaphors for...

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Nothing But Blackened Teeth

Cassandra Khaw

An Indie Next Pick!An October LibraryReads Pick!A Most Anticipated Read on Goodreads,,Crime Reads, BookRiot,The Nerd Daily, and more.Cassandra Khaw'sNothing But Blackened Teethis a gorgeously...

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Daphne B.

A nuanced, feminist, and deeply personal take on beauty culture and YouTube consumerism, in the tradition of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets As Daphné B obsessively...

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Genevieve LeBleu

X-Files meets The Young and The Restless On a typical autumn afternoon, Martha hosts a group of middle-aged women at her suburban home. The...

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Fictional Father

Joe Ollmann

A dysfunctional family lives in the shadow of a world famous comic strip and its tyrannical creator Caleb is a middle-aged painter with a...

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No. 91/92

Lauren Elkin

A love letter to Paris and a meditation on how it has changed in two decades, evolving from the twentieth century into the twenty-first,...

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Karl Stevens

This colorful graphic novel features the philosophical and existential musings of a cat named Penny.Told through a collection of stories,Penny: A Graphic Memoir wanders...

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The Manningtree Witches

A. K. Blakemore

Wolf Hall meets The Favourite in this beguiling debut novel that brilliantly brings to life the residents of a small English town in the...

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The Flapper Queens

Trina Robbins

Fantagraphics celebrates The Flapper Queens, a gorgeous oversized hardcover collection of full-color comic strips. In addition to featuring the more well-known cartoonists of the...

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Arizona O'Neill

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