Top 14 Reads of 2021

Much like 2020, I entered January 2021 hoping to read less than the year before. But, once again, circumstances both external (the ongoing pandemic) and internal (adding reading spiritual books to my sacred practices for the year, and audiobooks replacing podcasts as my primary listening material) conspired to have me read more. (In the immortal words of Britney, “Oops, I did it again…”) Overall it was a very positive reading year for me, with a balance of new releases and backlist titles (including many classics), and a wide range of genres that made the experience seem fresh and exciting.

2021 was a year of reading authors as much as books: I read deeply in the catalogue of several wonderful authors, including Miriam Toews (4), Kazuo Ishiguro (4), Elizabeth Strout (4), Martha Wells (4), David Nicholls (3), and Steven Rowley (3). In the list that follows, I limited myself to one work per writer; I’ve listed other titles I loved by them at the end of each entry.

Here are, in no particular order, my favorite fourteen reads of the year, followed by a list of other books I adored in 2021. They aren’t always the critically ‘best’ books, but the ones I personally loved the most.

[For more bookish content, please see my best of lists from 2017-2018, 2019, and 2020]

The Guncle

(Steven Rowley, 2021)

I read all three of Steven Rowley’s published novels within a month this past Spring, and it was hard to pick a favorite. Despite covering very different material, all three are in their own ways reflections on grief and loss, while also being witty, delightful, and fun. The Guncle, the most recent release, tells the story of a faded television star who unexpectedly finds himself with temporary custody of his niece and nephew after the death of his best friend/sister-in-law. Come for the genuinely funny fish-out-of-water humour, but stay for the big, giant heart. (And please also read his equally wonderful backlist: Lily and the Octopus (2016) and The Editor (2019).)

Girl, Woman, Other

(Bernadine Evaristo, 2019)

I didn’t know much about this book before picking it up — I mostly knew it as the title that shared the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments a couple years ago — but was blown away by it when I did. A novel told in lightly linked short stories, Girl, Woman, Other explores the diverse experiences of British Black women. What makes this book so powerful, and such an important contribution to our contemporary discourse, is the way it not only shows how pervasive the impacts of misogyny, racism, and homophobia are in the lives of its characters, but also how the same power dynamics that govern those problems repeat and replicate themselves within marginalized communities.

Mink River

(Brian Doyle, 2010)

This is not a well-known title, and perhaps it only stood out to me as it did because of its Cascadian setting that gives me strong feelings of home, but this book transported me fully into its world. I read a lot of books this year that were told in interlinked short stories, but Mink River goes one step beyond that: a novel told in snapshots that come together to form a mosaic of life in this small Pacific-Northwestern community (including some of its non-human residents!). There’s a healthy balance of gritty and realistic small town life and magical realist forest mysticism here that really worked for me as the author explores what the limits of ‘public works’ might be in a world where we are all interconnected.

Sweet Sorrow

(David Nicholls, 2019)

I absolutely loved this story about a young man, adrift after high school and caught up in all kinds of family drama, who finds himself roped into playing Benvolio in a youth production of Romeo and Juliet in an attempt to impress a girl. It’s a coming-of-age tale as old as time, but a tale wonderfully-told. I particularly recommend reading this on audiobook; Rory Kinnear does a masterful job with the narration, giving so much brightness to the main character, Charlie, and butchering the Bard’s language like only a true Shakespearean actor can! (David Nicholls is best known for One Day, but if you want another recommendation by him, I much preferred Us, a melancholy but ultimately hopeful novel in which a middle aged man struggles to keep his family together.)

An Artist of the Floating World

(Kazuo Ishiguro, 1986)

All four of the works of Kazuo Ishiguro that I read this year are absolute masterpieces. This one is a good companion to his better-known The Remains of the Day, since both explore themes of memory and coming to question one’s past attitudes and actions. I selected An Artist of the Floating World to highlight here mostly because its protagonist, an aging Japanese artist whose patriotic work has fallen under suspicion in the aftermath of the Second World War, isn’t just coming to terms with the less savoury aspects of his beliefs and past choices, but also with the passing away of a world that he had helped to build and dearly loved. (I have come across few literary details as poignant as this former Japanese-nationalist propagandist watching his young grandson become obsessed with The Lone Ranger.) If you prefer speculative fiction to historical fiction, Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun are both excellent in their own rights; they would also work well as a pair, as they both focus on the more philosophical edges of bioethics and what it means to be human.

Good Talk

(Mira Jacob, 2018)

This is the only work of non-fiction that made it to my best reads list this year. It is a beautiful graphic memoir about the author’s complicated experiences as a Brown woman, the mother of a Brown son, wife of a White man, and beloved daughter-in-law of White, Republican in-laws who can’t understand her fears in the lead up to and aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. It’s politics brought down to the most basic of human relationships.

Cleanness

(Garth Greenwell, 2020)

This book is most definitely not for everyone (trigger warnings for explicit depictions of sex and sexualized violence), but I was shocked by how much I ended up loving it. A novel in short stories set up in an effective chiastic structure, it follows a young American man teaching English in Bulgaria, and his often conflicting experiences with teaching, politics, sex, and love in Eastern Europe. This isn’t a ‘fun’ read, but definitely a rich one. (His 2016 release, What Belongs to You explores the same psychological spaces and fills in some of the pieces only hinted at in Cleanness.)

The Lincoln Highway

(Amor Towles, 2021)

It’s a testament to just how wonderful a writer Amor Towles is (his Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow are both all-time favorites for me) that I even picked this book up, let alone that it made it to my best-of-the-year list. The jacket copy for this book reads like a list of things that would turn me off from a book: a road trip book, set in the 1950s, with mythological allusions explored through the stock characters of American literature (the charismatic ne’er-do-well, the gentle giant Black man, the crazy itinerant preacher, etc.), and a thoroughly unlikable teenage con artist driving much of the plot — and yet I could not put this book down and found it deeply satisfying. Amor Towles is a genius, pure and simple.

Any Way the Wind Blows

(Rainbow Rowell, 2021)

This is the final book in Rowell’s wonderful Simon Snow series. The first book, Carry On (which made my 2019 best reads list), was the ‘end’ of a Harry-Potter-esque fantasy series and did a great job of blowing up the whole ‘Chosen One’ genre of story-telling; the other two books, 2020’s Wayward Son and 2021’s Any Way the Wind Blows, deal with the aftermath: What does life look like after the big bad has been defeated? What does it mean when you realize everything you were taught about the struggle was a lie? What does life look like when, as a teenager still, you are no longer ‘the Chosen One’ and your greatest achievements are behind you? Any Way the Wind Blows was a delightful and satisfying end to this wonderful series. Read them all!

Project Hail Mary

(Andy Weir, 2021)

This was one of the buzziest books of 2021 and I come to buzzy books with more than a little suspicion. But all the buzz was well-deserved in this case. When the Sun begins to be ‘eaten’ by a strange life-form, a man is sent on a mission to an uninfected star to both investigate what is happening and find a solution before Earth becomes uninhabitable. But when he arrives, he discovers he’s not alone. While I am not in a position to judge the veracity of the science of the book, Weir does a great job at the very least of making the science an internally consistent and important part of the story. And, the alien who comes into the hero’s life is without a doubt the most fascinating and lovable alien character I’ve ever encountered in literature: entirely alien and yet entirely charismatic.

Check, Please!

(Ngozi Ukazu, 2013 (2020))

This is a delightful webcomic-turned graphic novel dyad about a gay figure skater who joins the hockey team at his college — The only problem is that he’s afraid of being hit. These could not be more fun and really capture the best sides of college life and hockey culture, while taking the piss out of them too.

All My Puny Sorrows

(Miriam Toews, 2014)

This stunning novel from Canadian author Miriam Toews is about the bonds between two very different sisters. The younger got pregnant young and now makes a living writing uninspired children’s books about horses; the elder was a piano prodigy who now plays to packed houses at the best venues in the world, but lives in despair and struggles with thoughts of suicide. Huge trigger warning for suicide, so if that’s not for you, I’d also highly recommend her Fight Night (2021) and Women Talking (2019).

The Poet X

(Elizabeth Acevedo, 2018)

This is a tremendous coming of age novel in verse. It has all the expected beats: generational battles around self-expression, art, sex, and religion, secrets shared between siblings, and, of course, first loves. But it still manages to tell a unique and specific story of life in New York’s Dominican community.

The People We Keep

(Allison Larkin, 2021)

I finished this book on December 30, so it’s a very late addition to my ‘Best Reads’ list. This is a book about a young woman who has to grow up far too soon, and learn to trust others and herself — to trust love — after sixteen years of being let down by others. It repeatedly broke my heart and put it back together again. It’s a book about “the people we keep” and the people we call “home.”

Honorable Mentions

  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan, 2012): This genre-bending adventure involving secret societies, a fantastic quest, and the power of the Cloud was probably my most enjoyable reading experience of 2021.
  • Olive, Again (Elizabeth Strout, 2019): This sequel to Olive Kitteridge is an honest and empathetic exploration of the joys and embarrassments of aging.
  • Briarley (Aster Glenn Grey, 2018): A short novella that is a gay and thoroughly Christian take on Beauty and the Beast.
  • Crow Lake (Mary Lawson, 2002): The ‘coming-of-age-in-a-small-Northern-town’ trope of Canadian literature at its best.
  • Beloved (Toni Morrison, 1987): A deserved modern classic about the ways the past and its traumas can haunt us.
  • Cassandra at the Wedding (Dorothy Baker, 1962): A funny and sad tale about twin sisters’ struggles to form their own identities without breaking their relationship.
  • The Mountains Sing (Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, 2020): A multi-generational family saga following a Vietnamese family through the devastation of the twentieth century.
  • Amari and the Night Brothers (B.B. Alston, 2021): In this wonderful middle grade novel, a gifted girl is recruited to follow in the footsteps of her missing older brother and discovers there is far more to the world than she had ever imagined.
  • The Music of What Happens (Bill Konigsberg, 2019): This queer YA novel manages to tackle serious issues like rape, the complexities of consent, internalized toxic masculinity, and having to set difficult boundaries with the people we love the most — all without descending into being an ‘’after school special.”
  • Seven Days in June (Tia Williams, 2021): Two authors who had a brief but intense relationship as teens reconnect in their thirties. (Bonus points for its unapologetic portrayal of Black thriving!)
  • Interior Chinatown (Charles Yu, 2020): This novel imagines its protagonist’s life as a screenplay, a device which perfectly underscores the limited roles men of East Asian heritage are ‘allowed’ to play in both media and society as a whole.
  • Network Effect (Martha Wells, 2020): This is the fifth book (and first full-length novel) in the wonderful Murderbot Diaries series (Book one is All Systems Red), which follows a human-robot hybrid built as a killing machine who gains sentience and individuality and really just wants to be left alone to watch his tv shows.
  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (Deesha Philyaw, 2020): This series of linked short stories is an excellent African American counterpart to Girl, Woman, Other.

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