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Patricia Lockwood Getty

The Best Books of 2021

By Kayleigh Donaldson and Dustin Rowles | Books | December 28, 2021 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson and Dustin Rowles | Books | December 28, 2021 |


Patricia Lockwood Getty

I know how best books lists work, because (shhhh), they’re the only best of lists I obsessively check each year. I scan them once to see if there are any books on it that I have read and liked, and if there are, I can reasonably assume that the list speaks to me, and then I go back and pick through to see if any of the titles interest me. Hopefully, you can find a book or two in our list that piques your interest.

KAYLEIGH’S CHOICES

Come Closer by Sara Gran and Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

I’ve paired these two titles together because a) they’re my favorite novellas of 2021 and b) they’re both re-releases courtesy of Faber & Faber. They’re also probably the pair of stories that I’ve spent the most time lingering over, drifting off to consider their fascinating and often sinister depths. Mrs Caliban is a romantic satire featuring a board housewife who begins a romantic and sexual relationship with a six-foot tall fishman hybrid, while Come Closer is centered on a woman who becomes possessed by a demon. The former is a charming and matter-of-fact tale with a bitter edge while the latter is like a scab you can’t help but pick at, even as it makes the wound worse. Both are striking tales of female self-discovery that take wildly different directions. F**k the monster or become consumed by it? Tough choice, especially this year.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

If I were to pick one new book of 2021 to crown as my absolute favorite, it would be this one, and I’m sad that it doesn’t seem to have made its way onto other best-of lists. There’s no new release of the past twelve months that can match the ambition and ferocity of Rivers Solomon’s latest. Vern is a young Black girl with albinism fleeing the only life she has ever known as part of a cult called Cainland. She escapes to the woods to birth her children and raise them free from the sinister grip of her past. Yet she cannot fully free herself from its imprisonment, and as she tries to make life safe for her babies, her body begins to change…

Solomon’s novel is certainly not a light read but it’s no slog either. The prose is astoundingly controlled, celebrating the beauty of the wild world yet remaining unflinching about the realities of trauma. At the core of this genre-blending story, with its myriad intersections on gender, race, sexuality, power, faith, parenthood, and much more, is a piercing insight into the exploitation of Black women’s bodies by America. This is a nation, Solomons notes, built on the pain, degradation, and experimentation upon an endlessly derided demographic. The singular and generational trauma that has created aches from every part of our heroine, a sharp yet naïve young woman who has been forced into adulthood by a world that never saw her as a child. Solomon has a reader for life with me now. If you only read one book from my choices this year, make it Sorrowland.

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

Motherhood can be a b*tch. For the nameless protagonist of Rachel Yoder’s much-hyped debut, it’s been an especially tough time, giving up her career to be a stay-at-home mother to a boy in his terrible twos while her husband is never home. As the pressure builds up, weird things start happening to her. Her canines grow sharper. There are strange new patches of hair on her body. She craves raw meat.

I’ve seen some critics argue over whether or not the protagonist of Nightbitch really does turn into a dog or if it’s just an extended metaphor. For me, the book is extremely literal and all the better for it. The Kafka parallels are evident, but Yoder is more interested in exploring the power structures of gender and parenthood through this transformation. The sheer raw primal madness of life as a dog turns out to be pretty freeing and, in many ways, it helps to revive her verve for being a mother. After all, there’s no real or right way to be a mum and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise deserves to be peed on!

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Malinda Lo took home the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature with her latest novel, a layered and evocative historical romance set in 1950s San Francisco. Lily Hu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, finds a new sense of self as she explores her sexuality to the backdrop of the lesbian bars that operate in semi-secret in the city. Last Night at the Telegraph Club feels like a YA companion to the works of Sarah Waters, another lesbian writer who works in the historical genre to re-insert the oft-overlooked or denied narratives of LGBTQ+ lives. They’ve always been there, even if the history books try to claim otherwise. Lo conjures up a sumptuous portrait of San Francisco, a city with many freedoms that also cannot offer full safety to a girl like Lily, a young gay woman whose family is under the watchful eye of the Red Scare. As Lo noted in her acceptance speech for the National Book Award, ‘many books are under siege from people advancing and attempting to enforce conservative views,’ so stories like hers feel more necessary than ever, and we should do all that we can to protect them and their readers from the bad-faith hysteria of the right-wing.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel is used to documenting her life. Fun Home, one of my favorite books ever, detailed her childhood growing up with a closeted gay father while she came to terms with her own sexuality. Are you My Mother? offered a metatextual examination of the process of writing that book while Bechdel looked into the fractured relationship between herself and her mother. After a long delay, The Secret to Superhuman Strength sees Bechdel put herself under the microscope through the gaze of her relationship to exercise. It sounds like it should be preachy or repetitive, but Bechdel has never been satisfied to do one thing at a time as an artist. Bechdel has tried every kind of exercise fad, alternating between working out for emotional catharsis to the desire to get jacked to the perpetual desire to fight off death. There’s only so much the endorphins can fix, and for Bechdel, as she documents her life into her 60s, the weight of her existence can sometimes be too much even for the strongest of bodies. Bechdel has always been an extremely generous writer and that’s no different here.

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

My other contender for my book of the year fortunately received the universal praise and awards nominations it so thoroughly deserved. The Poet Laureate of Twitter has long been celebrated for her canny ability to write hysterically funny prose on one page then have her readers sobbing on the next. With her debut novel, she tackles the terror of the internet and the all-consuming madness of living in the always-online age. How do you physically and mentally cope with the terror and absurdity of this space? Honestly, how did any of us? Lockwood is the only writer I’ve read who has been able to capture the frenetic oddities of this life, one with its own language and ceaselessly evolving ideas. Our protagonist, a thinly fictionalized version of Lockwood, is a writer known for her viral tweets, and after a few years of being suspended between reality and the social media site she calls ‘the portal’, she’s suffering from an acute case of irony poisoning. It’s only when a serious event happens to her family that she is able to gain some perspective.

To describe No One is Talking About This is to make it sound utterly insufferable. How do you sell a state-of-the-nation novel about the internet in the Trump age without making it seem like an eternal cringe-fest or meme gone wrong? It’s through Lockwood’s hyper-specific observations and balletic control of tone that we get a clear-eyed vision of something that was never designed to be seen as such. She captures the way that being online can make the most ridiculous things be of the utmost seriousness, and the ways that your brain becomes so attuned to this surreal state that you simply accept it all with a shrug. Lockwood is, thankfully, also a hilarious writer who knows exactly how and when to get the joke right. Trust me, this one is a masterpiece.

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

With only two novels, Uzma Jalaluddin has become a must-read romance novelist. Her warm and inviting books are loaded with charm and a candid reflection on themes of racism, religion, and gender. Hana Khan’s family-run halal restaurant is on its last legs, and she feels obliged to help keep things going, even though her true passion is radio. Whenever she’s feeling lost, she turns to her anonymously hosted podcast to share her thoughts and seek advice from her most loyal listener. But trouble is brewing as a rival business is set to open, and she has a new enemy in the form of Aydin, a stranger who may not be so strange after all. I love Jalaluddin’s stories of the Muslim community in Toronto and her reinventions of classic romance tropes (her first novel, Ayesha at Last, is one of the few truly great retellings of Pride and Prejudice.) There’s heft to her narratives too, as this novel deals with a spate of Islamophobic violence that strikes Hana’s district and how she is constantly forced by white people to offer explanations for every other Muslim’s wrongdoing. Jalaluddin’s prose makes it all feel so effortlessly told. I can’t wait for more from her.

DUSTIN’S CHOICES

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles and Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

I’ve lumped these two together because they are both historical fiction novels set in Depression-era America, which is not something that particularly appeals to me, so it was surprising how much I loved them. I liked Four Winds (the most checked out book of the year) marginally better because it’s such an excellent study of Dust Bowl America, where Okies who lost their livelihoods sought a better life in California, only to be treated with the same disdain as immigrants. It’s a brilliant account of the struggles of the time told through the lives of one particular family trying to escape one famine only to end up in another. The Lincoln Highway is more story-driven about a man freshly out of prison trying to redeem his life and make a better one for his brother after his father’s farm is sold off. His efforts, however, are thwarted by an Of Mice and Men-like pair who escape prison and embroil the man and his brother in an effort to steal a wad of cash. It’s a solid adventure story, remarkably written, and a lot more entertaining than I expected.

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Saenz

I was reluctant to pick up this sequel to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe because the first novel is maybe my favorite YA book of all time. I worried the sequel might taint my memory. There was no need. It is perfection. The novel follows Aristotle and Dante, two gay teenagers who fall in love in the ’80s, as they navigate their romance along with their supportive parents and friends with whom they are afraid to share their secret. It’s sweet and earnest and lovely and heartbreaking, and the audiobook — read by Lin-Manual Miranda — is so good that I played a 5-minute passage for my family out of context and spontaneously (and embarrassingly) erupted into tears in front of my children.

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

I read about 50-60 books a year, and fully half of them are mystery/thrillers because they are my comfort food. Laura Dave’s book is the page-turniest of the year, and I’m not sure why it’s so addictive. It’s about a woman whose husband disappears amid a work scandal leaving only a note, “Protect her,” referring to his daughter and the woman’s teenage step-daughter. The woman’s investigation reveals slowly her husband’s secret life, and while I’ll admit it probably fits into the woman on a train subgenre, I found that the characters in The Last Thing He Told were better written and easier to invest in than the typical domestic suspense thriller (it’s also been optioned for a series on Apple TV+ starring Jennifer Garner).

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Though I used to consider myself a book snob, these days I tend to be disappointed by books that are nominated for lots of awards, but Ishiguro’s remains one of the year’s best exceptions. It’s a brilliantly written (obviously) sci-fi suspense mystery about an Artificial Friend adopted by a mom as a companion for her daughter, although Klara ends up being much more than that. It is, however, one of those books that I loved more after reading it than while in the midst of the story, after I was able to process the commentary on our modern lonely and techo-obsessed society. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror, only hopeful and sad instead of simply depressing.

A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris

Holy shit, what a surprising revelation this one was. I’d read Ferris’ debut novel Then We Came to the End, but it could not prepare me for what a brilliantly written, finely observed mindfuck this one was about a Willy Loman-esque/Rabbit Run-like man with terminal cancer whose son — the book’s narrator — endeavors to redeem him before he passes. It’s a magnificent metafictional character drama, but more than that, it’s about the lies we tell ourselves and about how we tend to romanticize the dead. To say much more would ruin the tricks of the mind that Charlie Barnes plays on its reader, but this was probably the most inventive and daring book I read this year.

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

I don’t often write book reviews anymore because I have to make a living, and no one reads the damn things, but I was so blown away by The Plot that I took some time to write about it earlier this year. As I wrote then, it’s basically Gone Girl for the publishing world, and that ironically, it’s best to reveal as little about the plot of The Plot before recommending it, except to say that the plot itself is so good that even a mediocre author could make hay out of it. Jean Hanff Korelitz is obviously much better than mediocre.

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

Razorblade Tears was hands down the most entertaining book I read this year, and easily the most cinematic. It’s one of those books that you can’t help but cast while you’re reading it (I pictured Chad Coleman and McConaughey). It’s a Southern noir about a Black man and a redneck whose married sons were murdered, and their attempts to make up for what lousy fathers they were by tracking down their killers and getting justice for people the system otherwise dismisses. It’s a blast to read, an engrossing thrill ride that I cannot wait to see on the on the screen (Jerry Bruckheimer’s Paramont Players won the bidding contest for the rights).




Kayleigh is a features writer and editor for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.



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