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Times Critics’ Top Books of 2021

The Times’s staff critics give their choices of the best fiction and nonfiction works of the year.

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latest book review 2021

This was a remarkably rich and capacious year for nonfiction. While we all continued to grapple with urgent developing news about the coronavirus, climate change and global politics, authors widened the aperture, publishing books on a dizzying number of subjects: the history of Black artists in the film industry; an American woman who joined the Nazi resistance in Germany; midcentury creative ferment in New York City; the groundbreaking mathematician Kurt Gödel; the playwright Tom Stoppard. Other books told the stories of an 18th-century Irish poem, the “first civil rights movement,” one modest cotton sack that reflects the immense trauma of slavery. We read about gay nightlife and Juneteenth and Watergate, and all of this doesn’t nearly cover the entire list.

In fiction and poetry, it was a year of well-established names delivering strong work, with new novels from Rachel Cusk, Jonathan Franzen, Colm Toibin, Dana Spiotta, Gary Shteyngart and Katie Kitamura, brilliant second novels by Atticus Lish and Asali Solomon, and a vital collection of poems about history and mortality by Rita Dove.

Below, selections by The New York Times’s daily book critics of their favorite titles from the past 12 months. The choices come from our four staff critics, Dwight Garner, Jennifer Szalai, Molly Young and Alexandra Jacobs , as well as Parul Sehgal , who was a critic for The Times until July of this year.

An annual note on methodology: The critics limit themselves in this process, each choosing only from those books he or she reviewed for The Times since last year at this time. For more of their thoughts about what they read in 2021, you can read their related roundtable discussion . —  John Williams

REIGN OF TERROR: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, by Spencer Ackerman. (Viking.) Spencer Ackerman contends that the American response to 9/11 made President Trump possible. He presents the evidence for this thesis with an impressive combination of diligence and verve, guiding us through two decades and showing how any prospect of national unity in response to 9/11 buckled under the incoherence of the wars that followed. The resulting narrative, our critic Jennifer Szalai wrote, is “upsetting, discerning and brilliantly argued.”

Read the review

TRAVELING BLACK: A Story of Race and Resistance, by Mia Bay. (The Belknap Press of Harvard University.) In this superb history, the question of literal movement becomes a way to understand the civil rights movement writ large. “Once one of the most resented forms of segregation, travel segregation is now one of the most forgotten,” Bay writes. Szalai wrote that Bay is “an elegant storyteller, laying out the stark stakes at every turn while also showing how discrimination wasn’t just a matter of crushing predictability but often, and more insidiously, a haphazard jumble of risks.”

JOURNEY TO THE EDGE OF REASON: The Life of Kurt Gödel, by Stephen Budiansky. (Norton.) The mathematician Kurt Gödel upended his profession’s assumptions with his “incompleteness theorem,” presented in 1930, when he was 24. But expertise in formal logic isn’t essential for anyone’s enjoyment of this moving biography. Budiansky brings a polymath’s interest to bear on a man whose life intersected with the political and philosophical upheavals of the 20th century. An “emphasis on the human and humane implications of Gödel’s life and work,” Szalai wrote, “gives this book its mesmerizing pull.”

THE COPENHAGEN TRILOGY: Childhood; Youth; Dependency, by Tove Ditlevsen. Translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) Ditlevsen, who died in 1976, is beloved in her native Denmark. This one-volume collection of three memoirs is the portrait of an artist and an addict. Ditlevsen writes about her early years and her beautiful, capricious and cruel mother; the joy and necessity she found in writing poetry; and the dark ecstasy of discovering the opioid Demerol. “There is a quality of trance, of autohypnosis, in her style,” Parul Sehgal wrote. “They exert a particular fascination, these books. It’s like watching something burn.”

KING RICHARD: Nixon and Watergate: An American Tragedy, by Michael Dobbs. (Knopf.) This kaleidoscopic book manages to find fresh drama in the story of Watergate. Dobbs’s entry in a crowded field distinguishes itself in part by limiting its narrative mostly to the first hundred days after Nixon’s second inauguration. “This circumscribed frame allows Dobbs to deploy his observational gifts to full effect,” Szalai wrote. From a vast amount of raw material, he has “carved out something intimate and extraordinary, skillfully chiseling out the details to bring the story to lurid life.”

ALL THE FREQUENT TROUBLES OF OUR DAYS: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler, by Rebecca Donner. (Little, Brown.) This book about Mildred Harnack, an American woman sentenced to death by the Nazi regime in 1943, is a family history too: Donner is Harnack’s great-great-niece. It is also a story of code names and dead drops, a real-life thriller with a cruel ending. Donner pieces together Mildred’s life from fragments, sifting through government archives, interviews, photographs, diaries and letters. Szalai called it an “astonishing” book that conveys “what it felt like in real time to experience the tightening vise of the Nazi regime.”

ON JUNETEENTH, by Annette Gordon-Reed. (Liveright.) Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer-winning historian best known for her work on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, takes a more personal approach in her latest book. In a series of short, moving essays, she explores “the long road” to June 19, 1865, when the end of legalized slavery was announced in Texas, the state where Gordon-Reed was born and raised. Szalai wrote that the book displays Gordon-Reed’s “ability to combine clarity with subtlety,” and to show that “historical understanding is a process, not an end point.”

COLORIZATION: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World, by Wil Haygood. (Knopf.) “Colorization” tells the story of Black artists in the film industry, those in front of and behind the camera. It moves from the pioneer Oscar Micheaux through the careers of Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne, and up to the work of Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and Jordan Peele. “This is sweeping history, but in Haygood’s hands it feels crisp, urgent and pared down,” our critic Dwight Garner wrote. “He carries you along on dispassionate analysis and often novelistic detail.”

PATRICIA HIGHSMITH: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995, edited by Anna von Planta. (Liveright.) In Patricia Highsmith’s diaries and notebooks, we see the young writer — the future author of “Strangers on a Train,” the Ripley series and many other novels — learning to mediate between her intense appetite for work and her need to lose herself in art, gin, music and warm bodies. “Highsmith is pointed and dry about herself and everything else,” Garner wrote. “But the early chapters are special. They comprise one of the most observant and ecstatic accounts I’ve read — and it’s a crowded field! — about being young and alive in New York City.”

SOLID IVORY: Memoirs, by James Ivory. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) The movie director James Ivory is closely associated with paeans to inhibition like “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day.” So his sexual frankness in this memoir might come as a surprise. He writes about his work with his romantic and producing partner, Ismail Merchant, and their close collaborator, the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Our critic Alexandra Jacobs wrote: “After decades conjuring the Anglo-American aristocracy clinking cups in gardens and drawing rooms, Ivory, the survivor, is ready to spill the tea.”

PLUNDER: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure, by Menachem Kaiser. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) Menachem Kaiser, the descendant of Polish Jews, grew up in Toronto. “Plunder” is about what happens after he takes up his Holocaust-survivor grandfather’s battle to reclaim an apartment building in Sosnowiec, Poland, that the family owned before the war. “Kaiser is a reflective man on the page, with a lively mind,” Garner wrote. He “tells a twisting and reverberant and consistently enthralling story. It’s a weird story that gets weirder.”

TOM STOPPARD: A Life, by Hermione Lee. (Knopf.) Now 84, Tom Stoppard has led an enormous life. Hermione Lee, the acclaimed biographer of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and others, has wrestled it all onto the page. Stoppard’s best-known plays include “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “Arcadia” and “The Coast of Utopia.” He co-wrote the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love.” Garner called Lee’s effort “astute and authoritative,” and said: “One reason this book entertains is that Stoppard has had an opinion about almost everything, and usually these opinions are witty.”

GAY BAR: Why We Went Out, by Jeremy Atherton Lin. (Little, Brown.) Jeremy Atherton Lin began writing this restless and intelligent cultural history of queer nightlife in 2017; more than half of London’s gay bars had shuttered in the previous 10 years. But the book is not an elegy. Broken into sections, each devoted to a particular bar and city, it tells of how clubs have disappointed the author as well as welcomed, astonished, exasperated and intimidated him. “The treatment of time in the book — the way the present is peeled back to reveal the past — is beautiful, and original,” Sehgal wrote.

IN THE EYE OF THE WILD, by Nastassja Martin. Translated from the French by Sophie R. Lewis. (New York Review Books.) In 2015, the anthropologist Nastassja Martin barely survived an attack by a bear in the mountains of Kamchatka, in eastern Siberia. This slender yet expansive book is her haunting, genre-defying memoir of the year that followed. She writes about the attack; about her work among the Indigenous Even people; and about philosophy, questioning the human propensity to try to assimilate everything into familiar terms. “What Martin describes in this book,” Szalai wrote, “isn’t so much a search for meaning as an acceptance of its undoing.”

UNTIL JUSTICE BE DONE: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction, by Kate Masur. (Norton.) This revelatory book is about the “first civil rights movement” — the fight for Black people’s freedom and equality from the Revolutionary War to Reconstruction. One of its themes is how African Americans led the struggle, even as racially discriminatory laws made them vulnerable. “If this is a cleareyed book, it’s still a heartening one,” Szalai wrote. “Masur takes care to show not only the limitations of what was achieved at each step but also how even the smallest step could lead to another.”

ALL THAT SHE CARRIED: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, by Tiya Miles. (Random House.) This recent winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction is about women and chattel slavery as framed by a single object: a cotton sack that dates back to the mid-19th century, given by an enslaved woman named Rose to her daughter Ashley. Little about the sack is definitively known. Miles tries to learn and reconstruct what she can. Szalai wrote: “The trauma of separation emerges as a central theme of the book, as Miles tries to imagine herself into the lives of the women she writes about.”

A GHOST IN THE THROAT, by Doireann Ni Ghriofa. (Biblioasis.) The 18th-century Irish noblewoman Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill composed the great poem “Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire” after her husband was murdered by a powerful British official. The poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s book, which includes her translation of the poem, is a hybrid of essay, biography, autofiction and scholarship — and a daily accounting of life with four children under the age of 6. “The book is all undergrowth, exuberant, tangled passage,” Sehgal wrote. “The story that uncoils is stranger, more difficult to tell, than those valiant accounts of rescuing a ‘forgotten’ woman writer from history’s erasures or of the challenges faced by the woman artist.”

THE LOFT GENERATION: From the de Koonings to Twombly: Portraits and Sketches 1942-2011, by Edith Schloss. Edited by Mary Venturini. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) The German American writer and artist Edith Schloss’s memoir was discovered in rough-draft form after her death in 2011, and it’s been polished into a glowing jewel of a book. It recalls a Who’s Who of art-world characters, including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Leo Castelli and Merce Cunningham. “All five senses are shaken awake” by the book, Jacobs wrote. “If nostalgia is a sixth and often fogging sense, it is absent in a book that feels manifestly present, clear and alive even while describing the past.”

THE RIGHT TO SEX: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, by Amia Srinivasan. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) In these rigorous essays, Amia Srinivasan wants nothing less, she writes, than “to remake the political critique of sex for the 21st century.” This is fraught terrain, and she treads it with determination and skill, writing about pornography and the internet, misogyny and violence, capitalism and incarceration. She also makes space for ambivalence, idiosyncrasy, autonomy and choice. “Srinivasan has written a compassionate book. She has also written a challenging one,” Szalai said. “She coaxes our imaginations out of the well-worn grooves of the existing order.”

THE EMPATHY DIARIES: A Memoir, by Sherry Turkle. (Penguin Press.) In this warm, intimate memoir, the clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle writes about her childhood in postwar Brooklyn; Radcliffe and Harvard in the late 1960s, when she was an undergraduate; and Paris in the early 1970s, where she studied the work of (and got to know) the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This is “a beautiful book,” Garner wrote. “It has gravity and grace; it’s as inexorable as a fable; it drills down into the things that make a life.”

PESSOA: A Biography, by Richard Zenith. (Liveright.) Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet, critic, translator, mystic and giant of modernism, published a few books that went mostly unnoticed during his lifetime. After his death in 1935, a trunk was discovered, brimming with his true life’s work, written not only by Pessoa but by a flock of his personas (he created dozens of them, including a doctor, a classicist, a bisexual poet, a monk, a lovesick teenage girl). Zenith’s book is “mammoth, definitive and sublime,” Sehgal wrote. He has “written the only kind of biography of Pessoa truly permissible, an account of a life that plucks at the very borders and burdens of the notion of a self.”

Fiction & Poetry

SECOND PLACE, by Rachel Cusk. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) Rachel Cusk’s first novel since she concluded her acclaimed Outline trilogy is about M, a sharply observant middle-age writer who lives with her second husband on a remote piece of property. She invites L, a famous younger painter whose work she admires, to come and stay in their “second place,” a cabin that’s an artist’s retreat of sorts. L arrives with a beautiful young girlfriend in tow, and the novel becomes a swirling hothouse. “It’s as if Cusk has been reading Joyce Carol Oates’s best novels,” Garner wrote. “She digs into the gothic core of family and romantic entanglements.”

PLAYLIST FOR THE APOCALYPSE: Poems, by Rita Dove. (Norton.) Rita Dove’s new collection is about the weight of American history, and it’s also about mortality. It’s the first time she has publicly acknowledged that she has had a form of multiple sclerosis for more than 20 years. Some of these poems address health troubles. Some are about Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama. Garner called the poems “among her best,” and wrote: “Dove’s books derive their force from how she so deftly stirs the everyday — insomnia, TV movies, Stilton cheese, rattling containers of pills — into her world of ideas and intellection, in poems that are by turns delicate, witty and audacious.”

CROSSROADS, by Jonathan Franzen. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, which starts a trilogy, is set in suburban Chicago. At its center are the Hildebrandts, another of the author’s seemingly solid Midwestern families. The patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the local church’s idealistic associate pastor. Throughout the novel each of the major characters suffer crises of faith and of morality. “It’s a mellow, marzipan-hued ’70s-era heartbreaker,” Garner wrote. It’s “warmer than anything he’s yet written, wider in its human sympathies, weightier of image and intellect. If I missed some of the acid of his earlier novels, well, this one has powerful compensations.”

INTIMACIES, by Katie Kitamura. (Riverhead Books.) Katie Kitamura’s fourth novel is about an unnamed woman who goes to work as an interpreter at an international court at The Hague. She’s in flight from New York City, where her father recently died. Like nearly everyone in this novel, she leads a globalized, deracinated life. At work, she interprets for — and thus climbs inside the heads of — notorious criminals. The novel’s heat lies in Kitamura’s abiding interest in the subtleties of human power dynamics. “Intimacies” is “coolly written and casts a spell,” Garner wrote. “The light it emits is ghostly, like that from under the lid of a Xerox machine.”

THE WAR FOR GLORIA, by Atticus Lish. (Knopf.) “The War for Gloria” is a solemn, punishing, kinetic portrait of a mother and son facing her mortal illness. The book’s protagonist, Corey, grows up all but fatherless in and around Boston and seeks ways to prove himself. He tends to his mother, Gloria, this book’s great, glowing presence, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease and only a few years to live. Garner said the novel “more than pays off on the promise” of Lish’s debut, “Preparation for the Next Life,” which won the 2015 PEN/Faulkner award. It is “powerful, intelligent, brooding and most of all convincing; it earns its emotions.”

THE MAGICIAN, by Colm Toibin. (Scribner.) This subtle and substantial novel imagines the life of Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning author of “Death in Venice” and “The Magic Mountain,” among other classics. Garner called it a “symphonic and moving” work. “Toibin seeks to grasp the entirety of Mann’s life and times, the way a biographer might, and he does so quite neatly. Maximalist in scope but intimate in feeling, ‘The Magician’ never feels dutiful. Like its subject, it’s somber, yet it’s also prickly and strange, sometimes all at once.”

OUR COUNTRY FRIENDS, by Gary Shteyngart (Random House.) Gary Shteyngart’s new novel begins at the onset of the pandemic, with seven friends and one nemesis gathered at an estate in the Hudson Valley to wait out what they’re sure will be a quick blip in their convenient and prosperous lives. Predicaments abound, mysteries multiply and betrayals proliferate. Our critic Molly Young wrote that the book is “brilliant about so much: the humiliations of parenting and of being parented; the sadism of chronic illness; the glory of friendship.” It is “a perfect novel for these times and all times.”

THE DAYS OF AFREKETE, by Asali Solomon. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) Asali Solomon’s novel is a reverie, a riff on “Mrs. Dalloway” and a love story. Liselle, its protagonist, is a Black woman living in Philadelphia. Her husband, who is white, cut corners while running for the state legislature, and the F.B.I. is closing in on him. We meet Liselle on the evening of a dinner party she is hosting after her husband’s decisive political defeat. In the back of her mind is a college girlfriend whose life veered in a sorrowful direction. Young wrote: “Solomon has a way of taking class lines that are often invisible and turning them into one of those laser museum security systems that you see in heist movies: neon, treacherous, uncrossable.”

WAYWARD, by Dana Spiotta. (Knopf.) For Sam Raymond, the restless heroine of Dana Spiotta’s latest novel, menopause is reason enough to re-evaluate everything. Her body revolts just as her mother is starting to ail and her teenage daughter is growing remote and secretive. Sam is rash, funny, searching, entirely unpredictable. “Wayward” is a “furious and addictive” novel, Sehgal wrote. “So much contemporary fiction swims about in its own theories; what a pleasure to encounter not just ideas about the thing, but the thing itself — descriptions that irradiate the pleasure centers of the brain, a protagonist so densely, exuberantly imagined, she feels like a visitation.”

And a Few More. . .

In addition to our staff critics, Sarah Lyall, Janet Maslin and John Williams also review on occasion throughout the year, and here are some of the books they admired most in 2021.

Lyall said that Simon Rich's latest collection of comic stories, “New Teeth,” shows off the author’s “antic imagination” and “delicious wit.” She was taken with Hervé Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly,” a novel about the strange and mysterious fate of an international flight and its passengers, in which “high entertainment meets serious literature.”

Maslin wrote that Colson Whitehead’s heist novel, “Harlem Shuffle,” has “dialogue that crackles” and “a final third that nearly explodes.” She raved about Joshua Ferris’s “A Calling for Charlie Barnes,” describing it as his “most dazzling” book so far. And she praised Jake Tapper’s “The Devil May Dance,” a thriller set in glamorous locations: “The seriousness of this book never gets in the way of the breathless fun.”

Williams admired Christine Smallwood’s debut novel, “The Life of the Mind,” about an adjunct professor. It’s driven by a constant flow of incisive psychological and social observations. Sally Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” addresses issues of fame and global crises, but her work “remains philosophically anchored in the realms of friendship and romance.” And Williams praised Philip Hoare’s “Albert and the Whale,” a summary-defying blend of art history, biography, nature writing and memoir.

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What do you do when your doppelgänger becomes a conspiracy theorist on the internet? If you’re Naomi Klein, you write a book about it .

Ursula K. Le Guin’s powerful imagination turned hypothetical elsewheres into vivid worlds governed by forces of nature, technology, gender, race and class a far cry from our own. Here are her essential works .

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latest book review 2021

The Best Reviewed Books of 2021: Fiction

Featuring sally rooney, kazuo ishiguro, colson whitehead, viet thanh nguyen, jonathan franzen, and more.

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Well, friends, another grim and grueling plague year is drawing to a close, and that can mean only one thing: it’s time to put on our Book Marks stats hats and tabulate the best reviewed books of the past twelve months.

Yes, using reviews drawn from more than 150 publications, over the next two weeks we’ll be revealing the most critically-acclaimed books of 2021, in the categories of (deep breath): Memoir and Biography ; Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror ; Short Story Collections ; Essay Collections ; Poetry ; Mystery and Crime ; Graphic Literature; Literature in Translation; General Fiction; and General Nonfiction.

Today’s installment: Fiction .

Sally Rooney

1. Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (FSG)

27 Rave • 26 Positive • 25 Mixed • 2 Pan

Listen to an excerpt from Beautiful World, Where Are You here

“… wise, romantic, and ultimately consoling … Once again, Rooney has drawn a circumscribed world—four people, tightly wound in the small universe of one another’s lives—and once again, this is a love story, although the book’s most compelling romance is the platonic one between its two main female protagonists … it is the epic minutiae of human relations , not the grand structures of economic inequality, that send the blood pumping through the writing. Nonetheless, we know the two can’t be extricated; the latter impinges on the former … In [some] moments, Rooney deprives herself of access to her character’s interiority—the very medium of most fiction concerned with personal relations. Here’s an alternate way of seeing, one derived from a camera lens rather than the traditionally omniscient novelist’s gaze. The effect—implying the novelist herself might not fully know her characters, or at least withhold some of her knowledge—is one of delightful modesty … Maybe Rooney knows that it’s the small dimensions of her fiction—the close, funneled, loving attention she pays her characters—that allow her books to trap within their confines anxieties of huge historical breadth.”

–Hermione Hoby ( 4Columns )

2. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf)

28 Rave • 24 Positive • 6 Mixed

“ Klara and the Sun confirms one’s suspicion that the contemporary novel’s truest inheritor of Nabokovian estrangement—not to mention its best and deepest Martian—is Ishiguro … Never Let Me Go wrung a profound parable out of such questions: the embodied suggestion of that novel is that a free, long, human life is, in the end, just an unfree, short, cloned life. Klara and the Sun continues this meditation, powerfully and affectingly. Ishiguro uses his inhuman, all too human narrators to gaze upon the theological heft of our lives, and to call its bluff … Ishiguro keeps his eye on the human connection. Only Ishiguro, I think, would insist on grounding this speculative narrative so deeply in the ordinary … Whether our postcards are read by anyone has become the searching doubt of Ishiguro’s recent novels, in which this master, so utterly unlike his peers, goes about creating his ordinary, strange, godless allegories.”

–James Wood ( The New Yorker )

3. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead)

31 Rave • 13 Positive • 7 Mixed

Read an interview with Patricia Lockwood here

“Now Lockwood has put that strength into her first novel, No One is Talking About This , which leaves no doubt that she still takes her literary vocation seriously. It’s another attention-grabbing mind-blower which toggles between irony and sincerity, sweetness and blight … Lockwood deftly captures a life lived predominantly online … This portrait of a disturbing world where the center will not hold is a tour de force that recalls Joan Didion’s portrait of the dissolute 1960s drug culture of Haight-Ashbury in her seminal essay, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ … Lockwood is a master of sweeping, eminently quotable proclamations that fearlessly aim to encapsulate whole movements and eras … It’s a testament to her skills as a rare writer who can navigate both sleaze and cheese, jokey tweets and surprising earnestness, that we not only buy her character’s emotional epiphany but are moved by it … Of course, people will be talking about this meaty book, and about the questions Lockwood raises about what a human being is, what a brain is, and most important, what really matters.”

–Heller McAlpin ( NPR )

4. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (FSG)

32 Rave • 12 Positive • 7 Mixed • 1 Pan

“… a novel that takes the religious beliefs of its characters seriously, without ever forgetting how easily faith can twist itself into absurdity … is light on curmudgeonly social commentary. (Readers who prefer his breakout 2001 novel, The Corrections , will surely welcome this … As with the best of Franzen’s fiction, the characters in Crossroads are held up to the light like complexly cut gems and turned to reveal facet after facet … feels purged of showy writing and stylistic set pieces, but the long flashback recounting this interlude feels bleached with the merciless glare and punishing downpours of winter afternoons on treeless Southern California boulevards. The way Franzen conveys this atmosphere without calling attention to how well he’s conveying it is in tune with the deferential spirit of the novel … The power of this enveloping novel, facilitated by neatly turned plot elements finally resides in how uncannily real, how fully imagined these people feel … Real people are tricky puzzles, volatile blends of self-knowledge and blindness, full of inexhaustible surprises and contradictions. Literary characters seldom achieve a comparably unpredictable intricacy because they are, after all, artifacts made by equally blinkered human beings, and furthermore they are the means to an artistic end. Franzen hasn’t always given his readers characters as persuasively flawed as the Hildebrandts. He hasn’t always tried to. But in Crossroads , his satirical and didactic impulses largely in check, his touch gentled, Franzen has created characters of almost uncanny authenticity. Is there anything more a great novelist ought to do? I didn’t think so.”

–Laura Miller ( Slate )

Matrix Lauren Groff

5. Matrix by Lauren Groff (Riverhead)

30 Rave • 9 Positive • 4 Mixed

Read an interview with Lauren Groff here

“Now that we’ve endured almost two years of quarantine and social distancing, [Groff’s] new novel about a 12th-century nunnery feels downright timely … We need a trusted guide, someone who can dramatize this remote period while making it somehow relevant to our own lives. Groff is that guide largely because she knows what to leave out. Indeed, it’s breathtaking how little ink she spills on filling in historical context … Though Matrix is radically different from Groff’s masterpiece, Fates and Furies, it is, once again, the story of a woman redefining both the possibilities of her life and the bounds of her realm … Although there are no clunky contemporary allusions in Matrix, it seems clear that Groff is using this ancient story as a way of reflecting on how women might survive and thrive in a culture increasingly violent and irrational.”

–Ron Charles ( The Washington Post )

6. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)

30 Rave • 10 Positive • 1 Mixed • 1 Pan

Read an interview with Colson Whitehead here

“Whitehead’s own mind has famously gone thataway through nine other books that don’t much resemble one another, but this time he’s hit upon a setup that will stick. He has said he may keep Ray going into another book, and it won’t take you long to figure out why … brings Whitehead’s unwavering eloquence to a mix of city history, niche hangouts, racial stratification, high hopes and low individuals. All of these are somehow worked into a rich, wild book that could pass for genre fiction. It’s much more, but the entertainment value alone should ensure it the same kind of popular success that greeted his last two novels. It reads like a book whose author thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing … The author creates a steady, suspenseful churn of events that almost forces his characters to do what they do. The final choice is theirs, of course … Quaint details aside, this is no period piece … Though it’s a slightly slow starter, Harlem Shuffle has dialogue that crackles, a final third that nearly explodes, hangouts that invite even if they’re Chock Full o’ Nuts and characters you won’t forget even if they don’t stick around for more than a few pages.”

–Janet Maslin ( The New York Times )

Oh William Elizabeth Strout

7. Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)

25 Rave • 7 Positive

Read an interview with Elizabeth Strout here

“… yet another stunning achievement … In spare, no-nonsense, conversational language, Lucy addresses the reader as an intimate confidante … all her characters are complicated, neither good nor bad but beautifully explored and so real in their humanness … Strout’s simple declarative sentences contain continents. Who is better at conveying loneliness, the inability to communicate, to say the deep important things? Who better to illustrate the legacies of imperfect upbringings, of inadequate parents? When William explains that what attracted him to Lucy was her sense of joy, the reader can only agree. This brilliant, compelling, tender novel is—quite simply—a joy.”

–Mameve Medwed ( The Boston Globe )

8. The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.  (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

24 Rave • 3 Positive

Read an excerpt from The Prophets here

“Meeting yourself in media is no guarantee that the mirror will be kind or wanted. Instead, it’s often a jagged glass you catch yourself in before it catches you. And even when you know it’s coming, the blood’s still warm and sharp. What of me, of us, was I to witness in The Prophets , the debut novel of Robert Jones Jr., set on an antebellum plantation in Mississippi? … What I found was an often lyrical and rebellious love story embedded within a tender call-out to Black readers, reaching across time and form to shake something old, mighty in the blood … One of the blessings of The Prophets is its long memory. Jones uses the voices from the prologue to speak across time, to character and reader alike. These short, lyric-driven chapters struck me as instructive and redemptive attempts at healing historical wounds, tracing a map back to the possibility of our native, queer, warrior Black selves. These voices are Black collective knowledge given shape, the oral tradition speaking in your face and setting you right … What a fiery kindness […] this book. A book I entered hesitantly, cautiously, I exited anew—something in me unloosed, running. May this book cast its spell on all of us, restore to us some memory of our most warrior and softest selves.”

–Danez Smith ( The New York Times Book Review )

The Committed_Viet Thanh Nguyen

9. The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove)

19 Rave • 12 Positive • 4 Mixed • 1 Pan

Listen to an interview with Viet Thang Nguyen here

“The novel is […] a homecoming of a particularly volatile sort, a tale of chickens returning to roost, and of a narrator not yet done with the world … Nguyen […] is driven to raptures of expression by the obliviousness of the self-satisfied; he relentlessly punctures the self-image of French and American colonizers, of white people generally, of true believers and fanatics of every stripe. This mission drives the rhetorical intensity that makes his novels so electric. It has nothing to do with plot or theme or character … That voice has made Nguyen a standard-bearer in what seems to be a transformational moment in the history of American literature, a perspectival shift … It’s a voice that shakes the walls of the old literary comfort zone wherein the narratives of nonwhite ‘immigrants’ were tasked with proving their shared humanity to a white audience … May that voice keep running like a purifying venom through the mainstream of our self-regard—through the American dream of distancing ourselves from what we continue to show ourselves to be.”

–Jonathan Dee ( The New Yorker )

Afterparties Anthony Veasna So

10. Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So (Ecco)

22 Rave • 5 Positive • 1 Mixed

“The presence of the author is so vivid in Afterparties , Anthony Veasna So’s collection of stories, he seems to be at your elbow as you read … The personality that animates Afterparties is unmistakably youthful, and the stories themselves are mainly built around conditions of youth—vexed and tender relationships with parents, awkward romances, nebulous worries about the future. But from his vantage on the evanescent bridge to maturity, So is puzzling out some big questions, ones that might be exigent from different vantages at any age. The stories are great fun to read—brimming over with life and energy and comic insight and deep feeling.”

–Deborah Eisenberg ( New York Review of Books )

Our System:

RAVE = 5 points • POSITIVE = 3 points • MIXED = 1 point • PAN = -5 points

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latest book review 2021

The 10 Best Book Reviews of 2021

Merve emre on simone de beauvoir, justin taylor on joy williams, and more.

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The older I get, the more I’m interested in critics who play around with form and style. Mixing genres, experimenting with voice and structure, and tapping into personal experience are some of my favorite devices, though I still have a soft spot for the formal limitations of an 800-word newspaper writeup. From longform online essays to crisp perspectives in print, here are my 10 favorite book reviews of 2021.

Brought to you by Book Marks , Lit Hub’s “Rotten Tomatoes for books.”

Parul Sehgal on Soyica Diggs Colbert’s Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry ( New York Times )

Sehgal deftly takes on the style of the theatre in her review of a book about Chicago’s greatest playwright, by opening her first paragraph like the first scene in a play.

“The curtain rises on a dim, drab room. An alarm sounds, and a woman wakes. She tries to rouse her sleeping child and husband, calling out: ‘Get up!’ It is the opening scene—and the injunction—of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun , the story of a Black family living on the South Side of Chicago.”


Merve Emre on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Inseparables (tr. Lauren Elkin) ( The New Yorker )

Emre always helps readers see things in a new way, in this case not just Simone de Beauvoir’s lost novel, but also Simone de Beauvoir herself.

“To read The Inseparables is to learn what could have been, and to judge what was a little more harshly. It is to see in the memoirs a lingering refusal to give Zaza the autonomy that everyone in life seems to have denied her at the greatest possible cost. And it is to see in The Second Sex an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to make as affirmative a case as possible for lesbian identity.”

Sho Douglas Kearney

Victoria Chang and Dean Rader on Douglas Kearney’s Sho ( Los Angeles Review of Books )

Reviews-in-dialogue are my new favorite thing. I love how naturalistic and conversational they are, as the form really allows critics to be themselves. Chang and Rader are a joy to read.

“Kearney’s body of work is very much about play with language, yet, that somehow feels like it diminishes the political aspects of his poems and his body of work. Perhaps play itself in Kearney’s work is a political act. I find this tension fascinating because on the one hand, I often get carried away in Kearney’s language (and the conceptual aspects of his work), but I’m also acutely aware of the humanity in his work (or the exploration of anti-humanity). In this way, maybe play and the political are not mutually exclusive. Maybe for Kearney, play = confrontation.”

Frederick Seidel

J. Howard Rosier on Frederick Seidel’s Selected Poems ( Poetry Foundation )

Rosier does a great job bringing paratext to bear on the text itself, in this case interviews and Seidel’s other work.

“For a poet as revered as Seidel, there are scant mentions of turns of phrase being Seidelian, few poetic narratives or structures construed as Seidelesque. Chalk it up to the oddity of a formalist disassociating form from content; Seidel uses form like a hypnotist to mesmerize readers so that they are sedated, or at the very least put at ease, in spite of his content.”


Sheila Liming on Edith Wharton’s Ghosts ( Cleveland Review of Books )

Every editor’s dream assignment is a critic with deep subject matter expertise, and you can’t beat Liming—author of What A Library Means to A Woman: Edith Wharton and the Will to Collect Books —writing about Wharton’s ghost stories.

“Here are ‘fetches’ (ominous doppelgangers) of Celtic superstition, zombie mistresses rising from the grave, and ghost dogs, even. But for each of these paranormal threats there is an equally normal, equally mundane, and equally human villain attached to the story. In this way, Wharton’s Ghosts can be read and interpreted in concert with many of her better-known works, including novels like The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence , which tell stories of everyday human malice.”

Meg Ringer on Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand ( Chicago Review of Books )

Some of the best reviews are the product of a critic who brings personal experience into their analysis of the book at hand. Ringer’s perspective on Lean Fall Stand is full of unique insights and emotional power. (Disclosure: I founded the Chicago Review of Books in 2016, but stepped back from an editorial role in 2019.)

“Though there was a time—before we met, before his diagnosis—when my husband traveled to Antarctica, Robert and Anna’s story is not ours. It is barely even close. But Lean Fall Stand reads like a meditation on the questions we all must someday face: Who am I? What can I stand? Who will be there when I fall?”

The Aesthetic of Resistance

Ryan Ruby on Peter Weiss ( The Point )

Speaking of hybrids between personal essays and reviews, Ruby’s experience discovering the work of Weiss during the 2016 election is riveting stuff.

“By creating physical objects that survive their creators and the world in which they were made, the artist helps to manufacture the continuity of our collective experience of historical time, and to the extent that it distinguishes itself, the work of art can become a symbol of that continuity. ‘Imagination lived so long as human beings who resisted lived,’ the narrator writes, but in the end what Weiss demonstrates in The Aesthetic of Resistance is that the converse is also true, and just as important, then as now, for what the imagination always has and always will resist is death.”

Justin Taylor on Joy Williams’ Harrow ( Bookforum )

I love a good delayed lede. In this marvelous example, the title of the book Taylor’s reviewing doesn’t even appear until more than 800 words have passed.

“I drove across the Everglades in May. I had originally planned to take Alligator Alley, but someone tipped me off that, in the twenty years since I left South Florida, the historically wild and lonesome stretch of road had been fully incorporated into I-75, turned into a standard highway corridor with tall concrete walls on both sides, designed to keep the traffic noise in and the alligators out.”

Lauren LeBlanc on Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You ( Los Angeles Times )

Ruffin’s fiction does a lot of interesting things with place, and LeBlanc smartly centers her review on New Orleans, as well as the way Ruffin subverts geographical expectations.

“Several recent story collections (Bryan Washington’s Lot and Dantiel W. Moniz’s Blood Milk Heat spring to mind) present geographies as characters. While Ruffin’s stories can’t help but transport the reader to humid, sunken, decaying New Orleans, it’s too easy to say this book is merely a set of love songs to the city. What makes such collections ring true is the way they subvert conventional knowledge.”

Victor LaValle on James Han Mattson’s Reprieve ( New York Times )

Opening a review with a question can be a powerful way to focus a reader’s attention, as LaValle does here with a compelling lede drawn from his own insights as a horror fiction writer.

“Why do people enjoy being scared? This is a pretty common question for those of us who write horror, or stories tinged with horror, and maybe for those who design roller coasters too. Why do some people take pleasure in terror?”

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latest book review 2021

The Best Books We Read This Year (2021)

"The Best Books We Read This Year (2021)" is a collaborative book list by the reviewers at IBR in which they review the best books they read irrespective of their publication year. Consisting only of indie press and indie published books, this list is a way to break the mold of end of the year book lists.

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“The Best Books We Read This Year (2021)”

from the IBR team

A collection of hardcovers and paperbacks for the best books we read in 2021 blog post.

“ What are the best books you read this year? “

How do you answer this question?

Do you say, “Well, are you talking about 2021 releases?”

At least I don’t think you do.

Because you heard the question correctly: What are the best books you read this year?

It’s the books that matter, not the year on the copyright page.

I love end of the year book lists ( obviously ), but I don’t limit myself to reading only the books that were published in a given year. And really, I doubt many people do. Why would they? Most books don’t spoil; paperbacks are cheaper than hardcovers; book recommendations don’t come only in the year of publication. Should we always put this harness on the concept of the year’s best reading?

On top of that, these lists give authors and presses only one chance to appear on them. If a book isn’t featured on an end-of-the-year list in its publication year, it likely will never be included in one. Matter of fact, many review platforms only review books that are about to come out or have come out in the same year. We don’t believe in that for our reviews , so why would we do it with our book lists?

With this, a new tradition begins.

Every year, from now on, the team at IBR will share the best books they’ve read that year regardless of the book’s publication date. With each book on their list comes a mini-review explaining why it’s making their list, and of course, just like our website, this list will consist only of indie press and self-published books.

Let’s get started.

Introducing the first annual IBR book list: “ The Best Books We Read This Year (2021) .”

Joe Walters – Editor-in-Chief

#1. Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone

by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Where WE Go When All We Were Is Gone by Sequoia Nagamatsu is included in the best books we read in 2021 blog post by Independent Book Review

Publisher: Black Lawrence Press

Release Month/Year: May 2016

Genre: Short Fiction / Asian & Asian American Fiction / Myth

Review by Joe Walters :

I loved so much of what I read this year, but nothing compares to Nagamatsu’s Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. Japanese folklore in modern day Japan leaves way for some absolutely incredible imagery and storylines. The magic in this–whether it be a super stretchy neck or a palace under the water–offers so much for fantasy lovers while literary fans can be plenty satisfied with its concepts, characters, and execution. I’m going to be telling a lot of people about this one, especially to those who love magic realism and drop-you-in-on-the-fun first sentences.

#2. Craft in the Real World

by Matthew Salesses

Craft in the REal World by Matthew Salesses is a great nonfiction book about writing and publishing

Publisher: Catapult

Release Month/Year: January 2021

Genre: Nonfiction / Writing & Publishing

This book changed the way I do business. I edit reviews, edit books, review books, market them, write them (or try to). If it’s got to do with books or writing, I’m probably dipping my toe in it.

My foundation in the craft of writing and my ongoing research has taught me that craft is pure, that characters must have agency, that editing and workshopping includes telling the writer when they’re not abiding by the rules.

Craft in the Real World breaks down what you think you know about writing craft and communicates honestly about how to approach writing, editing, publishing, and workshopping books. If you’re a writer and you haven’t read this book yet, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Simply from the book’s quality, practicality, and how easy it is to utilize in workshops and editing, this book is destined to be a craft book classic.

#3. Late Migrations

by Margaret Renkl

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Milkweed Editions

Release Month/Year: July 2019

Genre: Nonfiction / Nature / Love & Loss

Oh, wow, this one really hit the spot. I had been living in a city since before the pandemic started, and I was reaching a claustrophobic point where I was growing tired of sidewalk. I started to really miss grass.

And then, a few months ago, I moved–made my way over to a place with grass & trees, and that’s when I started reading Late Migrations .

Jaylynn reviewed this one for us two years ago, and it sounded incredible when I edited it, but I just never picked it up to read.

Until this year. And WOW.

What a world I’ve been missing.

This thing is such a lovely ode to nature–human and otherwise. Renkl captures the connection of us and our natural world with a flourish. It took me a little while to read–about two months–but that’s because I kept it as a special occasion read–a short essay or a few whenever I sat outside. It was such an awesome companion to sitting with the wind and the grass and the trees and the bugs and the birds. 

#4. What Storm, What Thunder

by Myriam J.A. Chancy

What Storm What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy is included in our best books of the year list for 2021.

Publisher: Tin House Books

Release Month/Year: October 2021

Genre: Literary / Disaster Fiction

These sentences. These images. The world is shaking in What Storm, What Thunder , a novel detailing the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The narrative is strong and powerful, and it rivals the stellar prose as the best aspect of this book.

It’s not everyday I read images of sliding landscapes, of the earth shaking and breaking beneath my feet, but Chancy’s novel thrusts us into the setting along with some heartbreaking, formidable characters in life-changing situations. This is a badass display of what fiction can do.

#5. Monster Portraits

by Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Rose Metal Press

Release Month/Year: February 2018

Genre: Short Fiction / Fantasy / Hybrid

I’ve never read anything like Monster Portraits . This slim volume comes in at under 100 pages but packs a punch with damn near all of them. These short stylish vignettes and stories describe various monsters in the world, how we perceive them as other, and why. It’s empathetic and vibrant and filled with sharp and unique illustrations.

Honorable Mentions:

  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon ( Bookshop | Amazon )
  • Eternal Night at the Nature Museum by Tyler Barton ( Bookshop | Amazon )
  • Doodling for Writers by Rebecca Fish Ewan ( Amazon )
  • Amazon Decoded by David Gaughran ( Amazon )
  • Chronicling Stankonia by Dr. Regina N. Bradley ( Bookshop | Amazon )

Jaylynn Korrell – Creative Director & Reviewer

#1. What Would Elvis Think?

Edited by Johnny Lowe

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: May 2019

Genre: Short Fiction Anthology / American South

Review by Jaylynn Korrell :

A stunning tribute to Mississippi through the eyes of some of its most talented writers

When I first think of Mississippi, I think of sweet tea and a smooth, slow pace. But not everyone does; some think first of mystery, of ghosts, of strong women. This authentic anthology features a wide variety of storytelling styles that speak to Mississippi life and the overall human experience.

Though a Mississippian will find comfort in these familiar places and people, you won’t have to be anywhere near it in order to feel a connection to its stories. The vivid descriptions of the landscape and the heartfelt people who inhabit this place make for a really excellent anthology of short southern fiction.

#2. Running from COVID in Our RV Cocoon

by Gerri Almand

Running from Covid in our rv cocoon by Gerri Almand is a book included in our best books of 2021 list.

Publisher: Brown Posey Press (an imprint of Sunbury Press, Inc)

Release Month/Year: June 2021

Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir / Travel

Openness. This is the word I use to best describe Almand in her RV books. This story is filled with stressful situations that, if it weren’t for Almand’s practiced mindset, would turn quickly into a “this is the end” type of situation. But even when she gets close to calling it, she always finds a way to remain open or to work hard enough to return to openness. 

Have I ever met Gerri Almand? Unfortunately not. But her writing, and her honest narration of her travels and anxieties, makes it feel like I have—and that I am better for it. She isn’t always in the right, she and her husband often bicker, and bad things come up on their trip running from COVID-19. 

Still, I finished this book an even bigger fan of hers than I already was. And that’s saying something. 

Tucker Lieberman – Reviewer

#1. The Madness of Knowledge

by Steven Connor

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Reaktion Books

Genre: Nonfiction / Philosophy

Review by Tucker Lieberman :

Steven Connor’s  The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing  (2019) proposes a new word for the feeling of knowing.

Though the question of knowledge itself goes back at least to ancient Greek philosophy, the word to describe that intellectual concern is a relatively recent arrival to English. Ralph Cudworth’s treatise (written c. 1688, published 1731) suggested the related word “ epistemonical , meaning something like ‘capable of being known’.” In Connor’s interpretation, a word like “epistemonical” begins to gesture toward our fantasy that something’s existence depends on our ability to know it “and not vice versa.” There doesn’t appear ever to have been a noun form, “epistemony,” for “the condition of knowability.”

But what about “the feeling we have of knowing” and of “learning, thinking, arguing, doubting, wondering and forgetting”? What are these unpleasant feelings of “irritation, rage, envy, lust, misery, boredom and melancholy” plus the more positive ones of “satisfaction, assurance, excitement and triumph”? What do we feel “in the itinerant or suspensive conditions we call surmising, supposing, doubting or wondering”?

Connor proposes  epistemopathy …

by Bunkong Tuon

latest book review 2021

Publisher : NYQ Books

Release Month/Year: June 2015

Genre: Poetry / Asian & Asian American Literature

A rich tapestry of family history.

Tuon escaped the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as a small boy with his family, acutely aware of how others in the United States often perceive him, and people like him, as “other.” Living memories, suspended memories, making poems, believing in oneself enough to make the poems. Stories, kindness, hope.

#3. This I Can Tell You

by Brandi Spering

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Perennial Press

Release Month/Year: March 2021

Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir / Family

A quietly harrowing memoir that explores a father’s sudden violent death

One of the graces of Brandi Spering’s memoir  This I Can Tell You  is how gently it leads into the fray of traumatic memory. Her father was the victim of a murder-suicide committed by his roommate…

Any sudden death leaves behind loose ends and unanswerable questions.  This I Can Tell You  leads the reader to begin to understand Spering’s unique loss—to the extent that she, herself, will ever understand it. An absence can’t be grasped. The book also helps us to more profoundly understand how we navigate our human vulnerability.

This I Can Tell You  is an admirable achievement, showing how all of our lifelong memories, good and bad, are sense impressions and misrememberings, subject to the slippage of time.

#4. Certain and Impossible Events

by Candace Jane Opper

certain and impossible events included in our best books of the year list.

Publisher: Kore Press

Genre: Literary Nonfiction / Memoir

Review by Tucker Lieberman at Author’s Guild :

“You may find yourself seized by a recurring thought. All of us return to the same waters now and then. Depending on your personality type, though, what has hooked you may be not only a preferred topic but something more narrow: an event that replays in your mind, a person who has infiltrated your heart. You may call it a ‘special interest’ or even a ‘fixation’ or ‘obsession.’

“For author Candace Jane Opper, it was the suicide of a fourteen-year-old classmate. She was thirteen at the time, and she had a crush on him from afar, though she was uncertain if he ever knew her name. Her fascination with the boy’s absence—he was there, and then one day he wasn’t—changed the trajectory of her life. Suicide became a research interest for her, mostly in the service of trying to unpack the mystery of this particular teenager’s death. The person she addresses as ‘you’ throughout the book is the persona of the dead boy, a force that grew more powerful as he evolved into a personal mythology for her even as her memories faded. Opper’s narrative of her own research into the boy’s life,  Certain and Impossible Events , won the Kore Press Memoir Award. Childhood innocence and grief are slippery to explain, and she has done so expertly and evocatively.”

  • Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun by Jeff Chon ( Bookshop | Amazon )
  • Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry by Agarau Adedayo ( Amazon )
  • You Do Not Have to Be Good by Madeleine Barnes ( Bookshop | Amazon )
  • Behind the Scoop: Why You Should Think and Act like a Journalist by Johannes Koch ( Bookshop | Amazon )

Steph Huddleston – Reviewer

#1. Guns and Smoke

by Lauren Sevier and A. Smith

latest book review 2021

Release Month/Year: July 2021

Genre: Dystopian Fiction / Romance / Thriller

Review by Steph Huddleston :

An epic romance on an adrenaline-pumping adventure 

Guns & Smoke  is a triumph of a book with characters who face real and dark internal struggles and who must learn to accept and face their demons. The supporting characters and worldbuilding are both vibrant and full without depending on too many overused post-apocalyptic tropes. For fans of Joss Whedon’s  Westworld  (only with a lot more romance), this is well worth adding to your TBR.

#2. Beyond the God Sea: Betrothed

by Elora Morgan

Beyond the God Sea by Elora Morgan for our end of the year book list

Release Month/Year: September 2020

Genre: Young Adult Fiction / Romance / Fantasy

A lush enemies-to-lovers romance with stellar seaside worldbuilding

This story is beautifully written.

Zaria’s world feels realistic and well thought out. Everything from the language, cuisine, religious beliefs, and history has been considered and combine to form an island-based culture that feels engaging and vivid to readers. The island setting is so lovely and well described. When this world is challenged by the arrival of an outsider, readers experience Zaria’s struggle with her as she wars between what she’s always believed and the truth. 

Then there’s the romance. Fans of Holly Black’s Cruel Prince will likely find the outsider (Kirwyn) an engaging romantic lead. He presents a challenge for Zaria on multiple different levels, firstly in her cultural worldview and secondly, in her identity. It doesn’t feel like his touch condemns her, as she’d expected; rather it sparks something in her. The romance on the page is appropriate for teenage readers, though more explicit sexual acts are alluded to.

Overall, the romance is entertaining and gripping and readers will likely find themselves aching for these characters to overcome their many differences.

#3. A Rake Like You

by Becky Michaels

latest book review 2021

Release Month/Year: August 2021

Genre: Historical Fiction / Romance

A Rake Like You  is a shining example of Regency romance. The character development of both Charles and Louisa is executed beautifully, with both having their own flaws and misgivings that initially make them ill-suited to a relationship. It is a joy to witness them overcome their difficulties and rebuild the trust that was shattered when they first knew one another.

[The novel]   does not shy away from real-life problems such as alcoholism, gambling, and infidelity. These struggles feel realistic as they crop up consistently throughout the book, rather than being used as merely an initial point of plot tension. Given that issues such as alcohol abuse are serious in nature, it demonstrates the author’s ability to write with sensitivity and nuance.

For fans of the Regency period, the familiar beats of the drama of unrequited love, scandals in secluded corners, and the thrill of marriage proposals are present. But there is enough depth and variation from those patterns to sustain this book and others in its world. Fans of the Bridgerton novels by Julia Quinn are going to feel right at home with  A Rake Like You .

Honorable Mention:

  • The Kitchen Tales by Sally Nansen ( Publisher )

Andrea Marks-Joseph – Reviewer

#1. Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark

by Charlie J. Eskew

Tales of the astonishing black spark by charlie j eskew from lanternfish press is featured on our best books we read this year list.

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Release Month/Year: September 2018

Genre: African American Fiction / Fantasy / Superhero

Review by Andrea Marks-Joseph :

Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark reads like the feverish first draft of a Black superhero’s memoir. It’s self-aware, smart, and so much fun! The story celebrates geekdom, is explicitly and poignantly filled with Blackness, and it truly is a rollercoaster of adventure. The worldbuilding is fantastic, the narration unforgettable, and it’s possibly the most perfectly in-joke-with-the-reader title ever. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook. 

#2. Dio in the Dark

by Rizwan Asad

latest book review 2021

Release Month/Year: September 2021

Genre: Fantasy / Mythology

A cinematic Toronto adventure depicting the ancient Greek gods as flawed eternal beings and fractured families living in a modern world

Dio in the Dark is a delightful reimagined future for Olympian gods. An ode to Greek mythology, this adventure offers something fresh and unique to their stories.

The story is rich with a sense of familial duty, distant grief, and a rediscovering of self. It’s also filled with humorous beats: Hades is in the very lucrative insurance business; Hestia is actually Martha Stewart—and in this world also has a show with Snoop Dogg; Dio goes to a nightclub to dance with Death (literally), and he is presented with life lessons on wallowing from Sisyphus himself; the goddess Aphrodite is a social media icon, and the god of sleep incarnate “looks like the little old man from Up .” 

It’s a story as delicious and full-bodied as the ancient Greek wine Dio adores.  Dio in the Dark is a truly captivating, intriguing adventure with so much new life brought to the mythology that one can’t help but wish for more. 

#3. Academy Gothic

by James Tate Hill

Academy Gothic by James Tate Hill is featured in this best books of 2021 list.

Publisher: Southeast Missouri State University Press

Release Month/Year: October 2015

Genre: Literary / Humor

If you enjoyed Sandra Oh’s Netflix series The Chair , and thought, “This could really use a murder mystery,” Academy Gothic is the novel for you. It’s got a brilliantly accurate depiction of academia and a snarky protagonist who is legally blind (written by an author who is also legally blind). I have not stopped thinking about these two sentences since I read them: “A man who responds to email is a man who receives more email” and, describing an early morning scene: “Outside, the birds were still clearing their throats.”

#4. Kings of Ruin

by Sam Cameron

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Bold Strokes Books

Release Month/Year: March 2013

Genre: Young Adult Fiction / Fantasy / LGBTQ+

Kings of Ruin is so much fun and would make for a fantastic on-screen adaptation. This Young Adult novel is Men in Black meets Transformers meets Bumblebee —with two gay teens as the main characters! There’s cars and rock music, small town vibes, and futuristic tech combined with a potential alien species. The truth that the protagonist uncovers opens up potential for a whole series that I would buy in a heartbeat. 

#5. Free Hand

by E.M. Lindsey

latest book review 2021

Release Month/Year: April 2019

Genre: LGBTQ+ Romance

This small town found family Romance novel is the literal dream for those of us who are deaf/hard of hearing, or physically disabled. It is the start of a series where one love interest is Deaf, the other has PTSD, and an important side character uses a wheelchair. The worldbuilding is profoundly supportive; designed so that every single character can flourish in the environment. The community that Lindsay has written around the couple is so kind, endlessly welcoming, and creative in their inclusivity. 

  • Future Feeling by Joss Lake ( Bookshop | Amazon )

Alexandra Barbush – Reviewer

#1. Eternal Night at the Nature Museum

by Tyler Barton

Eternal Night at the Nature Museum by Tyler Barton is included in this year's best books of 2021 list.

Publisher: Sarabande Books

Release Month/Year: November 2021

Genre: Short Fiction / Literary

Review by Alexandra Barbush:

A writhing portraiture of the losers, outcasts, and hourly workers across the ever-still landscape of small dusty towns in America   

Barton’s  Eternal Night at the Nature Museum  sheds light on a cast of unlovable characters: an hourly museum-worker, a demolition derby evangelist, a spinster with an affinity for homemade mailboxes. Each story stands on its own but a few overarching themes repeat: a landscape of largely forgotten small towns across Pennsylvania, unreliable narrators who slowly (or rapidly) reveal themselves, intimate peeks into the quotidian pain of feeling forgotten, left behind, and inconsequential.  

Barton’s prose manages to be funny while painstakingly honest, overtly earnest, and, at times, prickly–leaving his characters, their dialogue, and the overall tone of the entire work quite raw. 

I’d recommend this short story collection for anyone interested in localized feeling, nostalgia, and the quotidian experience of emotional pain. It reads with unflinching clarity and real purpose, with some stories being powerful enough to invoke real feeling (mostly dread at the character experience) and introspection. 

#2. You’ll Be Fine

by Jen Michalski

You'll Be Fine by Jen Michalski is included in 2021's best books we read this year list from IBR

Publisher: NineStar Press

Genre: LGBTQ+ / Family

A gay drama that doesn’t sensationalize its characters or play too much to a specific audience. This story represents trans and queer people in their full spectrum and doesn’t seek to make a moral or value-based point. It shows trans and queer people for exactly who they are–people, with the same desires as everyone else: acceptance, understanding, compassion. 

It’s amusing and heartwarming, and while the characters might be failures, their redeeming qualities shine bright and loud.  The reader leaves the novel loving them all, and genuinely wishing the best for them. 

#3. I Will Die in a Foreign Land

by Kalani Pickhart

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Two Dollar Radio

Genre: Literary / Historical Fiction

Review by Alexandra Barbush :

I’d recommend I Will Die in a Foreign Land  to anyone who enjoys a beautiful, intertwining narrative that, while not neat and pretty, comes together at the end for a sense of true satisfaction. 

This is a human story, and you don’t have to be interested in history or recent Eastern European conflicts to be engaged. Pickhart does what the media couldn’t: she puts names and faces to the stories of violent conflict. She reminds the reader that every journalist who disappeared is your friend who loudly states their opinion, that every mother is a woman with a backstory of love and life and pain before she moves into her new role. 

Poignant and wrenching, but emotional and true. I love the sincerity of this novel and pure depictions of people caught on either sides of a conflict they didn’t start, nor want, but are forced to feel with every fiber. 

Joseph Haeger – Reviewer

#1. We Need to Do Something

by Max Booth III

We Need to Do Something by Max Booth III is Joseph Haeger's pick for best book he read in 2021.

Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing

Release Month/Year: May 2020

Genre: Horror / Occult

Review by Joseph Haeger :

This horror novella revolves around a family of four trapped in their bathroom after a tornado rips through their town. It’s fast paced and gives us all the information we need without overburdening us with the small details. 

#2. The Secret Diary of a SoundCloud Rapper

by Young Stepdad

latest book review 2021

Publisher: 11:11 Press

Genre: Fiction / Satire

This book is an intimate look at a young man’s mental well-being. Acting like a diary, we get great insights from Young Stepdad; some are ridiculous and hilarious while others are outright heartbreaking.

The marketing behind this book was intriguing too (no one took credit for writing it until the day it came out and multiple authors claimed credit), and the hype could’ve stopped there, but above all, this book delivers. 

#3. Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun

by Jeff Chon

Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun book cover

Publisher: Sagging Meniscus Press

Release Month/Year: May 2021

Genre: Asian & Asian American Fiction / Social Issue

Jeff Chon writes about an accidental good guy with a gun (as in, he was going to shoot up a pizza parlor he believed housed a child sex ring, but ended up stopping a different shooting). This is a sharp and quick book with tons of layers to pull away. It looks at the gray area in our society and we witness the consequences blooming from an array of actions. 

#4. Hurricane Season

by Kelby Losack

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Ugly Child

Release Month|Year: May 2021

Genre: Paranormal Fiction / Surreal

This is a brisk book about two guys trying to wait out a hurricane in Texas. It’s full of ramblings that turn into working class philosophy lessons, but in the best way possible. It’s a tightly compacted story and the language Kelby Losack uses is inspired because he’s tackling big ideas while staying true to the characters, making their conversations feel eerily authentic. 

#5. The Neon Hollywood Cowboy

by Matt Mitchell

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Big Lucks

Release Month/Year: April 2021

Genre: Poetry / Gender Studies

This collection of poems hits you hard. Matt Mitchell folds you into his psyche and worldview and doesn’t let you go. It’s personal, honest, and engaging—weaving a life lived into a poetic form that’s incredibly effective in opening a window for us to look through.

Samantha Hui – Reviewer

#1. I Never Understood Religion Until I Learned Your Name

by Hunter Hazelton

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Tolsun Books

Genre: Poetry / LGBTQ+

Review by Samantha Hui :

I Never Understood Religion Until I Learned Your Name is Hunter Hazelton’s debut poetry collection that recounts the speaker’s first queer relationship. The story follows the intense crescendo of a budding relationship and sexuality to its ultimate implosion that leaves the speaker shattered yet thankful. The poetry reveres the lustful body. The language conveys love as a deep angst for a person who can never be fully had or understood. I recommend this book to all young lovers who too feel that love can be both annihilation and emergence.

#2. We Have Something to Say

by Sonia Myers

We Have Something to Say included in this year's best books of the year list.

Publisher: Atmosphere Press

Genre: Middle Grade Fiction / Environment & Nature

Jenny Barajas has always kept quiet because she worries that she isn’t as smart as the other kids in her class. When her new middle school science teacher Ms. Morgan teaches about the climate crisis through an approach that promotes trial regardless of error, Jenny learns that her voice might be the exact thing her school and her community needed.

We Have Something to Say! is a poignant story about climate justice and how a single, seemingly insignificant voice can be just what a community needs to activate.

Alexandria Ducksworth – Reviewer

#1. Consumers vs. Producers

by T.D. Brown

latest book review 2021

Genre: Nonfiction / Business

Review by Alexandria Ducksworth :

Thomas Dev Brown has written so much truth here about how the world is divided between producers and consumers. He reveals that creators prosper more than those who only consume everything within their grasps. This book has helped me focus more on production and to reap the rewards for it. 

#2. The Infant Spirits

by Janice Tremayne

latest book review 2021

Genre: Paranormal / Horror

Ghosts & demons lurk in this oddly delightful paranormal horror

Anything associated with children in a horror novel is bound to be creepy. But it takes a strong author to make it somehow delightful. The Infant Spirits is great for those in the mood for a quick creepy read capable of being devoured in a single night. This thing is exciting, fast-paced, and can be downright disturbing.

#3. The Last Halloween

by Abby Howard

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Iron Circus Comics

Release Month/Year: October 2020

Genre: Young Adult / Horror

The Last Halloween is alluring and rather dark. Monsters have been mysteriously released on Halloween, attacking people left and right. The problem: these monsters have close ties to their victims. How and why? The story has a deeper, more mysterious plot than you’d expect. I loved every single page of it.

#4. Playing in Time and Space

by Richard Dotts

latest book review 2021

Release Month/Year: September 2014

Genre: Nonfiction / Spirituality

Richard Dotts’ book is based on bringing your desires to life through your imagination. According to Dotts, everything is possible. There are no limits to what you want to bring into your life. People who have read The Secret and the works of Neville Goddard must read this book. The book has changed the way I see the world and the illusion of time. 

#5. Wolf Omega

by Joseph Stone

latest book review 2021

Release Month/Year: February 2021

Genre: Dark Fantasy / Horror

Joseph Stone’s  Wolf Omega  is an unapologetic, addictive dark fantasy that I could not let go of. There are plenty of aspects of the novel that keep me enraptured, but the finest has got to be the work the author has done with his protagonist Gabriella. Stone is unafraid to put his heroine through some truly rough obstacles. And when I say rough, I really mean downright grim. But with Gabriella’s strength bubbling beneath the surface, we can see a future where her power can break through. We’ll just have to get there first.

Rosa Kumar – Reviewer

#1. The Living Is Easy

by Dorothy West

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Feminist Press

Release Month/Year: November 2020

Genre: African American Literature / Historical Fiction

Review by Rosa Kumar :

An unforgettable portrait of an unlovable antihero as she manipulates her way through 1940s Black Boston society

The Living is Easy  is an intimate, witty account of a shockingly unlikeable protagonist, Cleo, and her very lovable but victimized family. Cleo is a stunning, egotistical young woman who grew up in the countryside, but is sent to Boston when she is old enough because her mother worries her voraciousness is too much for the countryside. 

Dorothy West’s writing talent is wildly impressive. It’s a tragedy we only have a handful of novels from her to give us a deep insider perspective on the domestic lives of 1940s Black women, perhaps one of the most underrepresented people of literary America at the time.

Chika Anene – Reviewer

#1. The Girl in My Treehouse

by S.A. Fanning

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Immortal Works LLC

Genre: Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction

Review by Chika Anene :

S.A Fanning has a way with words. Part of what makes  The Girl in My Treehouse  so enjoyable is just how smoothly the author can tap into the fountain of youth. The language is authentic and thought-provoking, constantly keeping us cued into what our main characters are going through.

Reading this one makes us feel like we’re right in the thick of it with our characters. We’re not merely reading; we’re stepping through the vivid descriptions, overhearing Matt’s and Lia’s interactions from nearby, and taking part in the wildness that is to come. I’m thrilled to feel like such a part of the scenery here.

The characters are also vivid and enjoyable. The novel sends me back into my own memories to dissect what it was like to be Matt’s age again, how the world seems against us when we don’t yet have a backbone.

This book captures the essence of small-town adolescence, and it takes older readers on a joyous ride back to their teenage years.

#2. Ajha’s Web

by Essence Bonitaz

latest book review 2021

Release Month/Year: June 2020

Genre: African American Literature & Fiction / Contemporary Fiction

An authentic page-turner that will leave you tangled in its web of family secrets and drama

While readers will definitely come here for the drama, they won’t leave with only that. I enjoyed many different aspects of this story, but perhaps the thing I clung to the most was each individual character’s unique speech. Their dialogue and distinguishing voices make them feel so real and bring a whole lot of spice to the story.

We get loads of playful banter, especially in the scenes that include Hector and Ajha’s husband Marcus. Since the characters in this drama feel whole and unique, I’m able to dive even deeper into this captivating family drama and in-law strife. Ajha’s family dynamics keep things fresh for us, offering an honest glimpse into their intermingling lives and also their Dominican culture.

The theme of keeping up appearances is also a shining aspect to this well-executed novel. Sure, Ajha’s life may be considered perfect from the outside, but she still lives in a world where she must hide her true feelings, where she needs to keep it together to raise her niece and deal with Hector’s recent changes.

#3. Terms of Service

by Craig W. Stanfill

Terms of Service by Craig Stanfill is one of the best books we've read in 2021.

Genre: Science Fiction / Dystopian

The premise on which this book is founded is a brilliant one. The terms of service hinted at in the title are really going to get your attention. There are a number of smart sci-fi details that make this world unique.

The worldbuilding is really excellent here with its focus on artificial intelligence. It’s not every day we get to read an artificial intelligence novel from an author who has a PhD in artificial intelligence. The systems within the world really make it clear that Stanfill knows his stuff.

There is an all-seeing, all-knowing entity controlling the masses. Dystopian novels, for me, are often only as strong as those entities. And in this novel’s case, the entity stands up to those in  1984  and  Brave New World .

Terms of Service  is simply unputdownable. This novel comes highly recommended for those readers looking for a strong and unique AI world.

#4. Redeemed

by Lindsay Schuster

latest book review 2021

Release Month/Year: July 2020

Genre: Young Adult Fiction / Contemporary

A coming of age contemporary novel that highlights the joys and agonies of transitioning from your teenage years into adulthood

Schuster’s writing isn’t loaded with flowery prose or complicated words, which makes the book easy for any reader to get through. Schuster draws a great picture of the types of issues that teenagers can run into while they prepare to become full-grown adults—including friendships, faith, and family. Her portrayal of each character is done with great effort and allows the reader to look into the minds of multiple characters, all with individual voices and different issues. 

Genevieve Hartman – Reviewer

#1. Yellow Rain

by Mai Der Vang

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Graywolf Press

Genre: Nonfiction / Poetry / Asian & Asian American Literature

Review by Genevieve Hartman (originally in Gasher Journal ):

“Weaving together the strands of personal testimony, declassified U.S. government documents, and personal research, Vang reframes the narrative of yellow rain, giving crucial weight to the witness of Hmong survivors. She unabashedly tells the world that this was no naturally occurring anomaly—these were poisonous attacks meant to harm and tranquilize the Hmong people, an experiment of biochemical weapons. The symptoms caused by yellow rain attacks line the pages of at least a quarter of the book.”

#2. The Naomi Letter

by Rachel Mennies

latest book review 2021

Publisher: BOA Editions, Ltd.

Genre: Poetry / Love

Review by Genevieve Hartman:

This collection is dream-like and poignant. The speaker pines for her beloved who is out of reach, and the letter form serves both to humanize and to elevate this love story. 

#3. Don’t Call Us Dead

by Danez Smith

Danez Smith's  Don't Call Us Dead is chosen by Genevieve Hartman for this year's best books we've read in 2021 book list.

Release Month/Year: September 2017

Genre: Poetry / African American Literature

This is a reread for me, but it’s one of the most essential books I’ve ever read. It remains timely and heartbreaking, and it is unafraid to be vulnerable in sorrow and in joyful imagination. 

Kathy L. Brown – Reviewer

#1. Mrs. Alworth

by Tim Castano

Mrs. Alworth by Tim Castano has been included in this year's book list "Best Books we Read in 2021"

Publisher: New Meridian Arts

Review by Kathy L. Brown :

A nuanced, humane, and all-too-human exploration of life’s great mysteries: hope, death, and the love that lives on after we’re gone.

The finely drawn characters and everyday life’s minutia of  Mrs. Alworth  are made poignant by extraordinary circumstances.

Readers interested in sympathetic, fallible humans will enjoy the subtle and realistic portrayal of Amanda and Orest’s relationship. The themes and issues of Mrs. Alworth  bear serious thought and discussion, making this an excellent book club selection.

#2. Manifest

by Adam Phillips

latest book review 2021

Publisher: Montag Press

Genre: Historical Fiction / Sports

Manifest captures a robust turn-of-the-last century America through a game, baseball, and an assortment of death row prison inmates and staff drawn from all levels of society. Each character is a rich, vivid player in an epic game—not just the game of baseball but of life, death, redemption, and transcendence. The feel of the book is Walt Whitman, Shawshank Redemption , and Field of Dreams , all rolled up into killer storytelling. You do not need to know or care about baseball or sports to love this book. 

Tavleen Kaur – Reviewer

#1. These Violent Nights

by Rebecca Crunden

latest book review 2021

Genre: Dark Fantasy

Review by Tavleen Kaur :

The worldbuilding in this book is amazing, refreshing and not too complex. There is a good mix of danger and action with emotional, funny, and everyday human moments. It shows what it’s like to live your life in the shadow of immense trauma that you have faced, trauma that you feel you can never get rid of.

Lindsay Crandall – Reviewer

by Steven Grier Williams

Skadi by Steven Grier Williams is on this year's best books we read in 2021 list

Publisher: Milford House Press (an imprint of Sunbury Press, Inc.)

Genre: Fantasy / Norse Mythology

Review by Lindsay Crandall:

Skadi is a strong debut novel from Steven Grier Williams that stars a fierce heroine who must overcome extreme challenges while struggling with grief. Norse mythology with a healthy dose of magic and fantasy, this turns out to be a quick read with a rich cast of characters and an epic adventure.

Robyn-Lee Samuels – Reviewer

#1. The Bridge to Rembrandt

by Nelson Foley

latest book review 2021

Genre: Historical Fiction / Time Travel

Review by Robyn-Lee Samuels :

The Bridge to Rembrandt is a humorous, engaging, and charming take on the classical historical romance narrative. Art lovers will be in for a treat with this one as the characters stroll through museums, meet Rembrandt’s pupils, and discover more about the Dutch master. You don’t have to be an expert on art history to enjoy it, though. The characters, romance, and whimsy of reliving the past are enough to keep readers engrossed to the end.

#2. Time for Redemption

by Susan C. Muller

latest book review 2021

Genre: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

Susan C. Muller’s ability to weave together such an intricate plot is impressive. From start to finish, the world is vivid, imaginative, and the stakes are always believable. The description of food, culture, and landscapes in both the Louisiana and Houston scenes make for an immersive reading experience and add textural layers to an already thoughtful setting. Instead of limiting characters to city regions, Susan allows them to explore the small town feel with strip malls, diners, and dollar stores as well as the swamps of the Bayou.

Mystery novels with multiple points of view can go really well or really wrong. In this case,  Time for Redemption  does not disappoint. Not only does it offer us a brisk and steady pace, but the interlinking plot arcs create tension and make it easy to keep on flipping pages. Muller masterfully juggles each POV chapter by focusing on the action and adding other POVs when necessary.

#3. A Cabin in the Woods

by Marek Zahorec

latest book review 2021

An evocative psychological thriller that explores the influence of trauma on the human mind and soul

Author Marek Záhorec takes the reader on an unexpected journey in this one.

A Cabin in the Woods  is intentionally slow-paced and unsettling at first, then it gradually becomes a page-turner as the tapestry comes together. The novel has two points of view: Damian’s and the story he is writing. Although the dual storylines seem disconnected at first, Damian’s fictional world drastically influences his reality. Záhorec mirrors certain events as Damian uses his writing to process the world around him, starting to make less sense as he goes on.

It is an exciting look at the process of storytelling and the toll it takes on storytellers. Throughout the novel, Damian must find inspiration and a muse, create writing rituals, and balance his social life with writing. Through Damian, Záhorec delves into the dangers of obsessing over a creative project. The reader watches as Damian’s issue transforms from extreme writers’ block to one of sacrificing health and relationships to complete his work.

This novel isn’t as hard-hitting as some psychological thrillers, but it’s a thought-provoking and twisty excavation into a writer’s mind. 

Thanks for checking out our choices for the best books we read in 2021! What are the best ones you read this year?

About independent book review.

latest book review 2021

Founded in April 2018, Independent Book Review is dedicated to showing you the best of small press and self-published books. IBR has over 25 reviewers on staff with an enthusiasm for genres all across the literary landscape. They are based out of Harrisburg, PA.

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Thanks so much for all the wonderful reading you have put us onto, and illuminated so masterfully, this year. I’m sure I’m not alone in greatly appreciating your insights and the huge amount of time and effort you put into this. Looking forward to more of the same in 2023. THE BEST NOVELS<

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The Best Books We Read in 2021

By The New Yorker

Illustration of hand writing

“ De Gaulle ,” by Julian Jackson

Black and white cover image of an archival photograph of Charles de Gaulle in military uniform with men in suits and the...

New Yorker writers reflect on the year’s highs and lows.

latest book review 2021

This superb biography of the former French leader brilliantly explores how he managed to dominate his country’s political life for decades. Jackson’s account of De Gaulle’s youth and conservative milieu only enhances one’s respect for De Gaulle’s stand, in 1940, against the Vichy government, and his account of De Gaulle’s war years in London makes clear why Churchill and Roosevelt found him almost impossible to deal with. The second half of the book—which deals with De Gaulle’s return to power during the conflict in Algeria, and his somewhat autocratic presidency—is even more compelling; together the two halves form as good an argument as one can make for believing that a single individual can alter the course of history. But Jackson, with sublime prose and a sure grasp of the politics and personalities of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics, never allows that argument to overshadow De Gaulle’s extremely difficult and domineering personality, and why it never entirely fit the democracy he helped rescue and then presided over. —Isaac Chotiner

“ Segu: A Novel ,” by Maryse Condé

Red black and yellow book cover with an old drawing of 5 people and a horse.

In a year that began with an attempted coup, it was good to remember that zealotry and factionalism have menaced every society—and often make for excellent storytelling, too. Maryse Condé’s 1984 novel “Segu” opens in the ruthlessly competitive capital of the eighteenth-century Bambara Empire, in present-day Mali, where the ruling mansa uneasily monitors the rise of Islam and the mysterious arrival of white explorers. Griots sing the exploits of a noble family, the Traores, whose sons are destined to suffer every consequence of modernity’s upheavals. Condé, who was born in Guadeloupe but spent years in West Africa, is the great novelist of the Afro-Atlantic world, and “Segu,” her masterpiece, is the mother of diaspora epics. The novel follows the Traores as they are scattered across the globe, from Moroccan universities to Brazilian sugarcane fields, pulled every which way by their ambitions, lusts, and religious yearnings. Condé excels at evoking the tensions of a world in flux, whether it’s the ambivalence of a man torn between his family gods and Islam’s cosmopolitanism or the cynicism of a wealthy mixed woman who sells slaves on the coast of Senegal. Despite its magisterial scope, “Segu” is also warm and gossipy, and completely devoid of the sentimental attachment to heritage that turns too many family sagas into ancestral stations of the cross. Condé has a wicked sense of humor that doesn’t play favorites, especially with her mostly male protagonists, whose naïve adventurism and absent-minded cruelty (especially toward women) profoundly shape the history that eludes their grasp. —Julian Lucas

“ Upper Bohemia: A Memoir ,” by Hayden Herrera

Black and white image of two children leaning out of a vintage car window. The title of the book covers part of the image.

I came upon this recent memoir while browsing the shelves at the Brooklyn Public Library, and was immediately drawn in by its cover: a black-and-white photograph of two young girls, perched out the back window of a sports car, whose ruffled blouses and blond hair suggested a kind of patrician free-spiritedness. Herrera is known for her biographies of artists such as Frida Kahlo and Arshile Gorky, but in “Upper Bohemia” she turns to the story of her own family, a high-Wasp clan as privileged as it was screwed up. During the nineteen-forties and fifties, Herrera and her older sister Blair were shunted, willy-nilly, between their divorced parents, both of whom were possessed of great looks, flighty temperaments, and intense narcissism. Her mother and father—each married five times—often disregarded the girls, treating them as considerably less significant than their own artistic or sexual fulfillment, whose pursuit took them through urbane, artsy circles in Cape Cod and New York, Mexico City and Cambridge. Herrera tells a fascinating cultural history of a particular milieu, but what is most affecting is her ability to channel, in sensate detail, the life of a lonely child trying to make sense of the world around her. Her tone carries a measure of detachment, but I often found it immensely moving. “Blair and I had not spent much time with our mother since the fall of 1948 when, after putting us on a train to go to boarding school in Vermont, she drove to Mexico to get a divorce,” she writes. “Whenever our mother did turn up, she brought presents from Mexico, animals made of clay or embroidered blouses for Blair and me. She always made everything sound wonderful. She was like sunshine. Blair and I moved toward her like two Icaruses, but we never touched her golden rays.” This is a beautiful book. —Naomi Fry

“ Long Live the Post Horn! ,” by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund

Photograph of a hand reaching up to a phone on a desk where two framed pictures one of a building and one of a redheaded...

Vigdis Hjorth’s “Long Live the Post Horn!”—a swift, darkly funny novel about existential despair, collective commitment, and the Norwegian postal service—buoyed me during this strange, roiling year. Ellinor, the novel’s narrator, is a thirty-five-year-old public-relations consultant whose projects and relationships are characterized by a bleak, steady detachment. When her colleague Dag leaves town, Ellinor grudgingly inherits one of his clients: Postkom, the Norwegian Post and Communications Union, which wants to fight an E.U. directive that would usher in competition from the private sector. For Ellinor, the project begins creakily; gradually, she gets swept up. What results is a personal awakening of sorts—a newfound desire to live, connect, and communicate—and a genuinely gripping treatment of bureaucratic tedium. “Long Live the Post Horn!” is rich with political and philosophical inquiries, and gentle with their delivery. They arrive in the form of dissociative diary entries, awkward Christmas gift exchanges, and the world’s loneliest description of a sex toy (“he had bought the most popular model online, the one with the highest ratings”). There’s also a long yarn told by a postal worker, which makes for a wonderful, near-mythic embedded narrative. “What exactly did ‘real’ mean?” Ellinor wonders, experiencing a crisis of authenticity while desperately trying to produce P.R. copy for the Real Thing, an American restaurant chain. “Was the man behind the Real Thing himself the real thing, I wondered? I googled him; he looked like every other capitalist.” Expansive and mundane—this novel was, for me, sheer joy. —Anna Wiener

“ Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History ,” by Lea Ypi

A statue against a red background.

Some people feel free to imagine their lives unbounded by history. Lea Ypi did not have that luxury. Born in 1979 in Albania, then one of the most sealed-off countries in the Communist bloc, she had little reason to question her love for Stalin until the day, in 1990, that she went to hug his statue and found that protesters had decapitated it. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the edifice of Albanian socialism collapsed, too. Even more disorienting was the fact that Ypi’s parents turned out never to have believed in it—they’d just talked a good line to prevent their dissident, bourgeois backgrounds from tainting her prospects. Ypi’s new book, “Free,” out in the U.K. and to be published stateside in January, is a tart and tender childhood memoir. But it’s also a work of social criticism, and a meditation on how to live with purpose in a world where history, far from having ended, seems energized by disinformation. Ypi, a political theorist at the London School of Economics, is interested in how categories of thought—“proletariat,” for instance—were replaced by reductive rallying cries like “freedom.” “When freedom finally arrived, it was like a dish served frozen,” she writes. “We chewed little, swallowed fast and remained hungry.” Her parents became leaders in the new democratic opposition but lost their savings to a shady investment scheme, and when the country devolved into civil war, in 1997, her formidable mother had to leave for Italy, where she worked cleaning houses. When Ypi studied abroad, her leftist friends didn’t want to hear about her experience: their socialism would be done right, and Albania’s was best forgotten. But Ypi is not in the business of forgetting—neither the repression of the system she grew up in nor the harshness of capitalism. Her book is a quick read, but, like Marx’s spectre haunting Europe, it stays with you. —Margaret Talbot

“ Harrow: A Novel ,” by Joy Williams

Bright green cover with an illustration of a horse stuck in black oil at the center.

I have already written at length about the wonder of Joy Williams’s most recent novel , “Harrow.” But I feel compelled to re-state my case. The book is set in a world that climate change has transformed into a grave, and it’s dense with wild oddity, mystical intelligence, and with a keenness and beauty that start at the sentence level but sink down to the book’s core. “Harrow” tracks a teen-ager named Khristen across the desert, where she eventually meets up with a sort of “terrorist hospice” of retirees determined to avenge the earth. Her companion, Jeffrey, is either a ten-year-old with an alcoholic mother or the Judge of the Underworld. Williams, the real Judge of the Underworld, moonlights here as a theologist, animal-rights activist, mad oracle, social historian, and philosopher of language. Her comic set pieces—e.g., a birthday party in which the hastily provisioned cake depicts a replica, in icing, of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”—unlock tears, and her elegies wrest out laughter, if only because it’s absurd to find such pleasure in a study of devastation. When the book was over, I missed the awful, cleansing darkness of its eyes upon me. —Katy Waldman

“ A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera ,” by Vivien Schweitzer

Blue image of an opera stage where one character points a sword at another character who lies on the floor in the...

My late grandfather spent most of his weekends holed up in his study—a sunken room, adorned with a ratty Chesterfield sofa and posters from various international chess championships—listening to opera. As a child, I found this practice impenetrable. I didn’t understand the languages blaring out of his record player, and I wasn’t old enough to grasp the rhapsodic emotion inherent in the form. Opera is about Big Feelings; it radiates youth, yet it remains a passion that most people age into. (Perhaps that has something to do with the cost of a Met ticket.) Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly all I wanted to do was listen to Maria Callas, whose unhinged arias clicked into place as the soundtrack for my anxious, pacing mind. My grandfather was no longer around to discuss my fixation, but, fortunately, I found Vivien Schweitzer’s 2018 book, “A Mad Love,” which is a sparkling cultural history of opera’s greatest composers and their obsessive brains. Beginning with Monteverdi and barrelling through to Philip Glass, the book is about the blood and sweat that goes into writing an opera (an often lunatic effort, it seems), and about the feverish attachment fans have to the resulting work. I found myself tearing through it in the bathtub, delighted not just to inhale the gossipy backstories of the “Ring” cycle and “La Traviata” but to join the society of opera nuts of which my grandfather was a card-carrying member. I finally understood what he was listening for on those Sunday afternoons: anguish, joy, love, betrayal. —Rachel Syme

“ Not One Day ,” by Anne Garréta, translated by Emma Ramadan

Pink and orange abstract art cover with the title 'Not one day printed in large text.

It is a peculiar feeling, reading a book that seems to have been written for you but wasn’t. The friend who recommended the Oulipian writer Anne Garréta’s “Not One Day” must have known that I would find this merger of intimacy and anonymity irresistible. While recovering from an accident that has left her body immobile, the book’s narrator, a nomadic literature professor, decides that she will write about the women she has desired. Each woman will be identified by a letter of the alphabet; to each letter, she will devote five hours a day for precisely one month. She knows that narrating desire requires discipline—and she finds that desire always, always exceeds it. Letters are skipped and jumbled, so that the table of contents reads, “B, X, E, K, L, D, H, N, Y, C, I, Z.” The narrator takes a long break from the project and, when she comes back to it, one of the stories she writes is fiction. Slowly, the categories that keep desire and its creation of “our little selves” in check—self and other, past and present, man and woman, heterosexual and homosexual, solipsistic alienation and shared passion—get wonderfully and terrifyingly muddled. Instead of a confession written in the familiar “alphabet of desire,” we glimpse the making of a whole new language. I could smother the book with adoration—it is aching and maddening, intelligent and wildly sexy. But it would be simpler to say that reading it is like meeting someone new and feeling the world come undone. Here is a book that insists that the desire for fiction, for its mimicry and its mirage, is indistinguishable from the desire for another person. —Merve Emre

“ Tom Stoppard: A Life ,” by Hermione Lee

Black and white photograph of Tom Stoppard with the title and author's name printed over it in blue and white type.

For a time this year, Lee’s newest biography just seemed to be around , and during a couple weeks when I was ostensibly reading other things, I found myself opening it in odd moments—over breakfast, waiting for the pasta pot to boil—until I realized that I’d worked my way through the whole thing. The biography is nearly nine hundred pages, so my experience of it as a side pleasure, a lark, is a testament to Lee’s craft. Much of Stoppard’s history is widely known: his passage from peripatetic refugee youth to Bristol newspaperman and radio-drama hack, and then, with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” to fame and fortune as a witty playwright. What Lee adds is detail, particularly around interesting career turns, plus a big serving of her own admiration. (Not entirely to its credit, I think, this is the sort of biography that everyone dreams of having written about them; our protagonist is always brilliant, invariably a delight. Stoppard, on reading it, was apparently moved to clarify that he was “not as nice as people think.”) What Stoppard contributes is an air of whimsy on the ride up his great tower of success. There is pleasant cohesion to his body of work, with its blend of bookish intellection and breezy verbal humor. Off the page, it becomes clear, he pairs casual social climbing with the cheery pursuit of material ease, often courtesy of Hollywood. He has maintained a stream of scriptwriting work, on projects such as the Indiana Jones franchise, and his constant efforts to boondoggle more luxury out of what’s offered him—his budget must be increased to accommodate a high-end hotel suite, he tells a studio, “because I prefer not to sleep and work in the same room”—are among the smaller charms of this book. Lee’s biography is ultimately such a pleasure, though, because it is a writer’s book: full of respect for the thrill of the craft, able to keep the progress of the life and the work aloft in the right balance. To read it is to be excited about the act of literature all over again. —Nathan Heller

“ Novel 11, Book 18 ,” by Dag Solstad, translated by Sverre Lyngstad

Beige cover with a simple drawing of a shirt and tie and green die.

I first encountered “Novel 11, Book 18,” by the great Norwegian novelist Dag Solstad, on a bright, warm day, on a walk with some friends who were visiting from out of town. Buzzed on the weather and the handsome paperback cover—deep green on cream—and, above all, on the nearness of my friends, I bought it. It was almost funny, then, to discover how relentlessly bleak the book is. Published in 1992, but released in the United States this year, by New Directions, with an English translation by Sverre Lyngstad, it tells the story of Bjørn Hansen, a mild-mannered civil servant who has left his wife and son in pursuit of his lover, Turid Lammers. The change of life means a change of locale: Hansen leaves Oslo and settles in Kongsberg, a small, airless town where he soon joins an amateur theatre troupe, of which Turid is widely considered the most talented performer and a kind of spiritual leader. In probably the best and darkest bit of situational comedy that I read all year, Hansen tries to persuade the troupe—usually a vehicle for light musicals—to put on a production of Henrik Ibsen’s play “The Wild Duck.” He wins out, but the show is a terrible flop—and, worse in Hansen’s eyes, Turid gives a cynical, crowd-pleasing performance that inoculates her, and only her, from the more general disapproval of the audience. The relationship is soon over. Solstad tells the story in deceptively simple sentences that repeat themselves in a fugal fashion, gathering new and ever sadder aspects of meaning as they recur. Hansen, wading through the disappointing wash of his life—he’s having the worst midlife crisis imaginable—eventually cooks up a scheme of revenge that’s so sad and absurd it’s almost slapstick. The book’s generic title implies that tiny tragedies like Hansen’s are happening everywhere, all the time, as a simple cost of being alive. For Solstad, what feels like a reprieve—sun and intimacy, the company of friends—is just another step on a tightrope that stretches across the void. Maybe save this one for summer. —Vinson Cunningham

“ Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes ,” by Claire Wilcox

White image of an embroidered piece of fabric with buttons and a needle and thread with text over it.

Among the books that most surprised and most moved me this year was “Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes,” a memoir by Claire Wilcox. Wilcox is senior curator of fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and she writes about clothing with an intoxicating specificity: century-old gowns are made from “narrow lengths of the finest Japanese silk, hand-stitched together and then pleated into rills like the delicate underside of a field mushroom.” But this fragmentary, dreamlike book is not about fashion as it is often understood. There is no industry gossip, no analysis of trends. Rather, Wilcox uses her encounters with objects—the bags of lace in the museum’s collection, the pair of purple velvet trousers she borrowed from a charismatic friend—to explore themes of love and loss, birth and bereavement, family and tribe. The book, which is as skillful and oblique in its structure as the precious gowns she describes, is stitched together with loving care from narrative scraps and images, ultimately revealing how materiality and memory operate on one another, so that the sensation of holding a button in her fingers brings Wilcox back to her earliest memory of fastening her mother’s cardigan: “buttoning and unbuttoning her all the way up, and then all the way down again.” —Rebecca Mead

“ Sabbath’s Theater ,” by Philip Roth

Red cover of a detail of Sailor and Girl  by German painter Otto Dix.

Over the course of the pandemic, the actor John Turturro and I have been adapting Roth’s novel for the stage, so I’ve read the book probably twenty times now. I have been astonished again and again. It’s never the adulterous urinating or alte kaker underwear-sniffing that shock me. It’s Roth’s singular capacity for conjuring death—its promises, its terrors, its reliability, and the relentless ache that it leaves behind. There are times when Roth approaches the subject with a cosmic lightheartedness: “Exactly how present are you, Ma? Are you only here or are you everywhere?” Mickey Sabbath, the aging, insatiable puppeteer, asks his dead mother’s ghost. “Do you know only what you knew when you were living, or do you now know everything, or is ‘knowing’ no longer an issue?” When it pertains to Drenka, Sabbath’s Croatian mistress—his “sidekicker,” as she puts it—death is tinged with so much yearning that it’s almost too much to bear, for both Sabbath and the reader (this one, anyway). “Got used to the oxygen prong in her nose. Got used to the drainage bag pinned to the bed,” Sabbath thinks, recalling the last of many nights he spent at her hospital bedside. “Cancer too widespread for surgery. I’d got used to that, too.” For all of Sabbath’s lubricious opportunism, Drenka is his one love. “We can live with widespread and we can live with tears; night after night, we can live with all of it, as long as it doesn’t stop.” But it does, of course. It always stops. Though not, in this book, for Sabbath, Roth’s most unrepentantly diabolical hero, despite his relentless flirtation with suicide: “He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.” —Ariel Levy

“ Warmth ,” by Daniel Sherrell

Orange cover with an image of an orange flower field and white and black text.

In “Warmth,” the writer and organizer Daniel Sherrell’s bracing début memoir , he refers to climate change as “the Problem”—the horrifying, galvanizing fact that should cause all sentient people to lose sleep, to shout themselves hoarse, to reorient their lives in fundamental ways. And yet, apart from a small minority, most people seem content to listen to the string ensemble on the deck of the Titanic, shushing anyone who tries to interrupt the music. To be clear, this is my harsh indictment, not Sherrell’s. For an unabashed climate alarmist, he is mostly compassionate to the quietists, in part because, like all Americans, he used to be one. Sherrell was born in 1990. His father, an oceanographer, took long research trips to the polar ice caps. Of all people, the Sherrells understood what an emergency climate change was—and yet their household was a normal one, in the sense that the Problem didn’t come up much. “Even when all the evidence was there before us,” Sherrell writes, “it was difficult to name.” The book is marketed as a climate-grief memoir, and it certainly is that, but what came through for me, even more clearly than the grief, was a kind of existential irony: not only are we apparently unable to solve the Problem, we can’t even seem to find an honest way to talk about it. Most Americans claim to believe the science; the science says that, unless we make drastic changes, the future will be cataclysmic; and yet, Sherrell observes, “it still sounded uncouth, even a little ridiculous, to spell this all out in conversation.” This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, and not even with much of a whimper. “Warmth,” written in the form of a letter to a child that Sherrell may or may not conceive, is not a thesis-y sort of book. But, if it has a central claim, it’s that the activist chestnut “Don’t mourn, organize!” is a facile mantra, a false choice. Why not both? —Andrew Marantz

“ Brothers and Keepers ,” by John Edgar Wideman

Orange and yellow illustration of two hands reaching out for one another.

John Edgar Wideman was teaching at the University of Wyoming in the mid-seventies when, one day, his brother, Robert, showed up in town unannounced. Wideman had a young family and a steady job as a writer and an academic. Robert was on a more tumultuous path; he was on the run after a botched robbery back home, in Pittsburgh, had ended with one of his accomplices shooting a man, who later died from his injuries. Published in 1984, “Brothers and Keepers” is Wideman’s attempt to reckon with their diverging lives, and with the bond that they will never relinquish. He sifts through episodes from their childhood, searching for overlooked turning points. No single genre can tell such a complex story. Sometimes, the book is about the deprivations of the criminal-justice system, as Wideman describes in granular detail his visits to the prison where Robert serves a life term. (Robert would pursue education himself in prison, and, in 2019, his sentence was commuted.) At other times, the book feels surreal and fantastical, as Wideman entertains the possibility that their lives might have taken them elsewhere. And there are moments of austerity and dread, as he contemplates the ethics of turning his brother into a character. I often find that memoirs flatten the degree to which “the personal is political” is an idea rife with contradictions. What makes “Brothers and Keepers” so absorbing is that Wideman feels love but not sympathy—not for his brother, and certainly not for himself. —Hua Hsu

2021 in Review

  • Richard Brody on the best movies .
  • Doreen St. Félix on essential TV shows .
  • Ian Crouch on the funniest jokes .
  • Amanda Petrusich on the best music .
  • Alex Ross on notable performances and recordings .
  • Michael Schulman on the greatest onscreen and onstage performances .
  • Kyle Chayka on the year in vibes .
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Iphigenia in Forest Hills

By Janet Malcolm

The Transition

By Robert A. Caro

Blood Ties

By Nathan Heller

The Chameleon

By David Grann

The 100 Must-Read Books of 2021

The fiction, nonfiction and poetry that shifted our perspectives, uncovered essential truths and encouraged us forward Annabel Gutterman, Cady Lang, Arianna Rebolini and Lucas Wittmann

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1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows

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This project is led by Lucy Feldman and Annabel Gutterman, with writing, reporting and additional editing by Eliza Berman, Kelly Conniff, Mariah Espada, Lori Fradkin, Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath, Cady Lang, Nik Popli, Arianna Rebolini, Lucas Wittmann and Julia Zorthian; art and photography editing by Whitney Matewe and Jennifer Prandato; and production by Paulina Cachero and Nadia Suleman.

latest book review 2021

The best books of 2021, chosen by our guest authors

From piercing studies of colonialism to powerful domestic sagas, our panel of writers, all of whom had books published this year, share their favourite titles of 2021

Kazuo Ishiguro

Author of Klara and the Sun (Faber)

Kazuo Ishiguro

The beautiful, horrible world of Mariana Enriquez, as glimpsed in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed (Granta), with its disturbed adolescents, ghosts, decaying ghouls, the sad and angry homeless of modern Argentina, is the most exciting discovery I’ve made in fiction for some time. Horrifying in another way, Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s Failures of State (Mudlark) is a brilliantly presented indictment of the UK’s fumbling attempt to meet the Covid challenge. Read alongside Jeremy Farrar’s more personal Spike: The Virus v The People (Profile) and Michael Lewis’s compelling The Premonition (Allen Lane), we see a disturbing common trait emerging in our country and others: the unwillingness to prioritise people’s lives over ideas and ingrained structures.

Bernardine Evaristo

Author of Manifesto: On Never Giving Up (Hamish Hamilton)

Bernardine Evaristo

I have been deeply impressed by recent books that invite us to reconsider aspects of British and global history, culture and identity beyond the often distorted, dishonest and pumped-up myth-making that has long prevailed. History is an interpretation of the past and these three books, each one powerfully persuasive and offering new ways of seeing, are in conversation with each other. Empireland : How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (Penguin) by Sathnam Sanghera, The New Age of Empire : How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World (Allen Lane) by Kehinde Andrews and Green Unpleasant Land : Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connection s (Peepal Tree Press) by Corinne Fowler.

Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut

Author of The Promise (Chatto & Windus)

I seldom read books when they first appear, but there were two slim volumes that especially impressed me this year. Burntcoat (Faber) by Sarah Hall is in the vanguard of a new genre of pandemic/lockdown fiction: the connections between isolation and creation are laid bare in a disquieting dystopia of the not-quite-now. Small Things Like These (Faber) by Claire Keegan, on the other hand, casts its gaze backward, to Ireland in 1985; its balance of crystalline language and moral seriousness makes it profoundly moving.

Wole Soyinka

Author of Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (Bloomsbury)


I sometimes suspect that I was actually found abandoned in a tree, adopted and raised as a family secret. Amos Tutuola, Gabriel García Márquez, DO Fagunwa, Shahrnush Parsipur and other exponents of tree anthropomorphism are perhaps the outsiders in the know. Now they are joined by Elif Shafak in The Island of Missing Trees (Viking) with her integrative literary sensibility, and the genre sprang back on its feet, tender and savage by turns in a Greco-Turkish-Cypriot historic setting. The rigorous questioning of nation and identity, given my incessant preoccupations, made it a truly therapeutic literary meal.

Colm Tóibín

Author of The Magician (Viking)


I enjoyed Hugo Hamilton’s The Pages (Fourth Estate), narrated with verve and ingenuity by an actual book, a novel by Joseph Roth, which got saved from the Nazi bonfire and then taken on a picaresque journey across the Atlantic and back to Germany. I also enjoyed the social historian Patrick Joyce’s Going to My Father’s House (Verso), a haunting meditation on Ireland and England, war and migration, Derry and Manchester. I admired the originality of his observations and his tone of melancholy, calm wisdom. I love John McAuliffe’s Selected Poems (Gallery) for the way that ordinary things are rendered and rhythm handled so deftly and artfully.

Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner

Author of The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020 (Jonathan Cape)

My generation is very much marked by Dennis Cooper’s George Miles cycle: in the 1990s, everyone read these books; I was awed by them. For many years, Dennis took a break from novels to focus on theatre and film. He’s back with I Wished (Soho Press), which is classic Dennis Cooper: intricate, funny, destabilising and totally unforeseen. Wolfgang Hilbig is apparently one of the most acclaimed German writers, but was new to me. I’ll confess I fell for the blurb on the back of The Interim (Two Lines Press): the great László Krasznahorkai calls him “an artist of immense stature”. As soon as I started reading, I had to agree. This novel, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, is comic and terrifying and profound.

Elif Shafak

Author of The Island of Missing Trees (Viking)


This year, reading Anita Sethi’s I Belong Here (Bloomsbury) was an unforgettable journey. Sethi wrote this book after being the victim of a horrible racist attack on a train from Liverpool to Newcastle. The genius of the author is how she takes the narrative of hatred and discrimination hurled at her and turns it upside down by “going back to where she is from” – the landscapes of the north. Through long walks in nature as she finds a true sense of belonging, connectivity, renewal and hope, so do we, her readers. I found it not only deeply moving but also quietly transformative. Another read that stayed with me this year has been Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s fabulous Thin Places (Canongate). Born in Derry, at the height of the Troubles, the author’s voice is piercingly honest, movingly heartfelt. There is so much soul and knowledge and compassion, it gave me shivers.

Author of Burntcoat (Faber)


Sea State (Fourth Estate) by Tabitha Lasley completely took me by surprise. Part memoir, part investigation into oil-rig culture, part critique of gender and class dynamics, it’s incredibly compelling, often dark as the drilled-for product. Lasley infiltrates this masculine offshore industry, with its dangers, profit and comradeship. She also explores female loneliness and desire, accommodation of a male-designed world and the spaces where women hold power. Reissued this year with impassioned praise from fellow authors such as Marlon James, Patricia Lockwood and Max Porter, Mrs Caliban (Faber) by Rachel Ingalls is a work of true verve and imagination. Along with her suburban housewife and lab-tested reptilian lover, Ingalls deftly, wittily and rather incredibly liberates readers from the awfulness of convention to a state where weirdness and otherness are beautiful and right.

Author of Sorrow and Bliss (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)


After the joy of discovering that one of your favourite authors has a new book out can follow a peculiar kind of anxiety, because what if you don’t like it as much as the others? I needn’t have worried with Rachel Cusk’s Second Place (Faber). It is stunning, in all senses. Assembly (Hamish Hamilton) by Natasha Brown left me winded for how clever and sad and beautiful and spare it was. Truly the perfect novel. And I adored Ann Patchett’s new essay collection, These Precious Days (Bloomsbury), which I read in November and will end the year by listening to her read, as audio. Because it’s Ann Patchett, one time through isn’t enough.

Caleb Azumah Nelson

Caleb Azumah Nelson

Author of Open Water (Viking)

This year, I loved Transcendent Kingdom (Viking) by Yaa Gyasi, the story of a family of four who travel from Ghana to Alabama to make a new life for themselves. Through the course of the novel, the family’s history begins to unfold, illuminating stories that have gone unspoken for generations. It’s a brilliant novel, with not a word out of place. I also really enjoyed Vanessa Onwuemezi’s Dark Neighbourhood (Fitzcarraldo), a collection of short stories from an unforgettable, searing voice. They occupy a hallucinatory landscape, often veering into the surreal, and each pulses with an electric energy.

Lauren Groff

Author of Matrix (Heinemann)


I have been in headlong love with Patricia Lockwood’s hilarious and subversive mind since her memoir Priestdaddy , but her first novel, No One Is Talking About This (Bloomsbury) , sent me reeling. Everything about this book, from its structure to its prose to the way it hits a reader unawares in the second half, is testament to Lockwood’s wicked genius. Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch (Fourth Estate) by Rivka Galchen flew a bit under the radar, but it is a wise meditation on the kind of hysterical scapegoating we see so often in the age of the internet, though based on a historical fact: that the mother of astronomer Johannes Kepler was once accused of witchcraft. I loved this book intensely when I read it this summer and have thought of it nearly every day through this strange autumn. I’ve been thinking deeply about anagogical literature recently and very few living writers write so achingly toward God as Kaveh Akbar. Real faith, Akbar writes in Pilgrim Bell (Chatto & Windus), “passes first through the body/ like an arrow”; each of the poems in this collection finds its target.

Chibundu Onuzo

Author of Sankofa (Virago)


My favourite nonfiction book published in 2021 was Otegha Uwagba’s We Need to Talk About Money (Fourth Estate). It’s a memoir that shows how money has affected every stage of Uwagba’s life, from growing up on a council estate, to winning a scholarship to a private school, to negotiating her salary when she entered the workforce. Uwagba is particularly nuanced about class and race. My favourite novel published in 2021 was Our Lady of the Nile (Daunt) by Scholastique Mukasonga. It’s set in the 1980s, in a Rwandan girls boarding school. It follows all the girlish intrigues, of who is the most popular, who is the prettiest, but this is no Malory Towers . Looming in the background is the coming genocide. Both playful and sinister, this is an excellent read.

Olivia Laing

Author of Everybody: A Book About Freedom (Picador)


Anyone with a mother ought to read My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley (Granta), a novelist of uncompromising brilliance. It mines the same narrow, dangerous territory as Beryl Bainbridge and Ivy Compton-Burnett: the dysfunctional family unit. Riley homes in on the failing relationship between a mother and daughter, anatomised by way of astonishingly precise dialogue, alongside angular, razor-sharp sentences that delineate an entire emotional landscape. Ouch and wow. There’s a similar marvel of ventriloquism in Adam Mars-Jones’s Batlava Lake (Fitzcarraldo), a story about war and soldiers delivered by the hopeless, weirdly endearing Barry, which builds to a blindsiding final paragraph.

Sunjeev Sahota

Sunjeev Sahota

Author of China Room (Harvill Secker)

Barbara Ehrenreich is an incisive diagnostician of societies and in Had I Known: Collected Essays (Granta) she is clear-eyed on the ways in which the American working class has been politically abandoned and culturally demonised. Much of the analysis applies to our own country. On the novel front, I could not recommend more strongly Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (Granta): flinty, bracing, exquisite.

Anthony Doerr

Author of Cloud Cuckoo Land (Fourth Estate)


In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Allen Lane), David Graeber and David Wengrow offer an engrossing series of insights into how “the conventional narrative of human history is not only wrong, but quite needlessly dull”. They re-inject humanity into our distant forebears, suggesting that our prevailing story about human history – that not much innovation occurred in human societies until the invention of agriculture – is utterly wrong. I could have lived in the first hundred pages of Piranesi (Bloomsbury) by Susanna Clarke for ever. It’s a dream of a novel. Zorrie (Riverrun; published early next year) by Laird Hunt is a tender, glowing novel that is just as beautiful as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams .

Ferdinand Mount

Author of Kiss Myself Goodbye: The Many Lives of Aunt Munca (Bloomsbury)


These days, I seem to read mostly female novelists from the colder parts of North America. You can’t get much farther north than the Ontario of Mary Lawson’s icy, compelling stories of calamity and redemption. A Town Called Solace (Chatto) keeps you breathless with anxiety, then relief and finally even joy. I felt the same total engagement with Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen (Arrow). She reconstructs in beautifully simple detail the story of Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, and her struggle to protect Jane in life and death. It is also an unforgettable account of an unremembered life.

Kehinde Andrews

Author of The New Age of Empire (Allen Lane)


David Harewood’s documentary Psychosis and Me was an eye-opener for his honesty in reflecting on his experiences in the mental health system. His book Maybe I Don’t Belong Here (Bluebird) is one of the most powerful testimonies to the impact of racism I have ever read. In a similar vein, Guilaine Kinouani’s Living While Black (Ebury) highlighted the severe problem of racism in the psychological professions that has hallmarked so much of our experiences in the UK, an unfortunate experience we have in common with our American cousins. I had been looking forward to learning more about one of the most important US civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Keisha Blain’s Until I Am Free (Beacon) did not disappoint.

Ruth Ozeki

Author of The Book of Form and Emptiness (Canongate)

Double Blind (Harvill Secker) by Edward St Aubyn is about nature, science, rapacious capitalism, psychoanalysis and human folly, and it is both moving and so funny I had to stop every few pages to wipe tears from my eyes. Nobody’s Normal (WW Norton) by Roy Richard Grinker is a compassionate, well-researched chronicle of the historical stigmatisation of mental illness. Since “normal” is a social construct, why can’t we change it? I love how Katie Kitamura can channel a mind and in Intimacies (Vintage) it is the mind of an unnamed interpreter living in The Hague, interpreting for a former president on trial for war crimes.​​

Monique Roffey

Author of The Mermaid of Black Conch (Vintage)


Still Life (Fourth Estate) by Sarah Winman gets my vote, not just for its mastery and sweep (Tuscany, the East End of London, war and beyond war, old gay ladies, young men) and the overarching theme of the power of love, but for its talking parrot as character, Claude. Claude gets some of the best lines. Also, Fortune (Peepal Tree Press) , by Amanda Smyth, another historic novel, a clandestine love story set amid Trinidad’s early oil drilling years in the 1920s. I also loved English Pastoral : An Inheritanc e (Penguin) by James Rebanks, out in paperback this year. His family have farmed the same land for 600 years. We’ve lost so much, but Rebanks gives us solutions and myth-busts; a poignant and sad book we need in a time of climate emergency.

Elizabeth Day

Author of Magpie (Fourth Estate)


My two favourite novels of the year were Sorrow and Bliss (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) by Meg Mason, for being hilarious, moving and utterly humane, and Damon Galgut’s The Promise (Chatto). The label “masterpiece” is far too liberally applied these days, but I did think Galgut’s book was deserving of it. In nonfiction, I enjoyed We Need to Talk About Money (Fourth Estate) by Otegha Uwagba, which challenged me to rethink my relationship with my finances and did so in a witty, intelligent and surprisingly touching way.

Author of The Echo Chamber (Doubleday)


Kevin Power’s long-awaited second novel, White City (Scribner), was a triumph. There’s not enough humour in contemporary fiction but Power brought the laughs and the pathos to this account of a young Dubliner, reared with privilege, who gets involved in a dodgy land deal in the Balkans. In nonfiction, I was impressed by Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality (Oneworld), a scholarly, compassionate and courageous examination of a subject that’s sparked an unhelpful civil war within the LGBTQ community. Unlike those of her online counterparts, Joyce’s arguments are well researched, soundly made and avoid the toxicity that mars so much conversation on this topic.

Courttia Newland

Courttia Newland

Author of A River Called Time (Canongate)

Keeping the House (And Other Stories) by Tice Cin is a truly beautiful debut. A mistress of deftly sketched characters that become whole humans in a few lines, Cin tells stories of working-class, inner-city life steeped in truth, emotion and vulnerability. She is one of a new generation of writers who see the splendour of these streets and articulate it with great majesty. Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms (Vintage) is written in a classical style that’s no less incisive for its formality. From the first paragraph, I was hooked. Tension drips through every scene and Hamya depicts London so well. There’s quiet, raw power in this book and its author.

Cathy Rentzenbrink

Author of Everyone Is Still Alive (Phoenix)


I like a novel to grab me and The Book of Form and Emptiness (Canongate) by Ruth Ozeki gave me very peculiar dreams for a long time, as though it did not want to release me to other things. I enjoyed the robust style of Empireland (Penguin) by Sathnam Sanghera, an illuminating examination of the “toxic cocktail of nostalgia and amnesia” that still hugely influences our life today. Erudite and reassuring , Four Thousand Weeks (Vintage) by Oliver Burkeman persuaded me to accept that my time on Earth is finite so I should therefore not fritter it away in overwork and overwhelm.

Author of Razorblade Tears (Headline)


Her Name Is Knight (Thomas & Mercer) by Yasmin Angoe is a dazzling, suspenseful tale of international intrigue and revenge with a protagonist who is as deadly as she is beautiful. A feared assassin, Nena Knight soon finds her latest mission to be her most dangerous as it puts her life and her heart at risk. Arsenic and Adobo by Mia Manansala is a quirky, cosy mystery full of humour and heart with a clever heroine who is as talented in the kitchen as she is at a murder scene. A fantastic debut. The Heathens (Little, Brown) by Ace Atkins is pure, uncut, US southern noir with a modern social media twist. Few writers know the tortured soul of the south better than Atkins and he is at the top of his game here.

Fintan O’Toole

Fintan O’Toole

Author of We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 (Head of Zeus)

Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber) has really stayed with me. For all its wit and style, it has a deep seriousness about the world. Rooney has an old-fashioned belief that the novel can be a place in which the question of how we should live is continually at play. Damon Galgut’s The Promise (Chatto) sustains the same moral purpose while being funny, angry and absurd all at once. Paul Muldoon had a remarkable year. His conversations with Paul McCartney for The Lyrics (Allen Lane) spark endlessly fascinating reflections on the relationship between life and creativity. And his new collection, Howdie-Skelp (Faber), is dazzling, moving, profound and playful.

Author of Bessie Smith (Faber)


I loved Neil Bartlett’s Address Book (Inkandescent). It took me back to all the addresses I’ve lived in - the lesbian squat in Vauxhall, John le Carré’s house in Hampstead! Brilliantly written, interweaving seven different characters across various times, Bartlett’s precise storytelling pulled me in. I’m glad we have him. He is a pioneering chronicler of queer lives. Ian Duhig’s New and Selected Poems (Picador) is a must have, must read gathering of the best of his work. Always fascinating, Duhig is poetry’s best chronicler of both ordinary lives, strange lives. His eclectic and effervescent work draws on folklore and myth to tell the stories we never get to hear. Duhig is interested in everything. He makes his reader sit up and take stock. I was inspired by the beauty and the power of the fabulous collective 4 Brown Girls Who Write – their poetry reminds me of the strength and exhilaration of a collective voice. Beautifully produced by Rough Trade Books, each of the four poets produces a standalone pamphlet that comes to form part of an incredible whole. The perfect stocking pressie. I was touched by Michelle Zauner’s cathartic memoir about losing her mother, Crying in H Mart (Picador). Zauner writes about food, music, grief and love candidly, bravely.

Chris Power

Author of A Lonely Man (Faber)


Two novels that stunned me this year involve characters overwhelmed by the force of another’s personality. The narrator of Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (Granta) reckons with her parents, one dead, one ailing, who emerge as both spiteful and pitiable. Riley is an immensely talented writer whose sentences cut like knives and she doesn’t flinch when blade meets bone. Similarly dauntless, in Second Place (Faber), Rachel Cusk abandons the distinctive style of her Outline trilogy for a new voice. When M invites L, a painter she admires, to her remote coastal home, psychic combat ensues. It’s a profound book and a funny one, which hasn’t been mentioned enough.

Megan Nolan

Megan Nolan

Author of Acts of Desperation (Jonathan Cape)

After the past few years, when even the most ignorant among us took to slinging around virology terms as though we knew what we were talking about, I’ve found myself drawn to accounts and oral histories of the Aids crisis. Let the Record Show (Farrar) by Sarah Schulman is profoundly moving, as most are, but also does the important work of reasserting the place of women and people of colour in the history of Act Up. Paul (Granta) by Daisy Lafarge is a mesmerising novel about a young woman’s trip to France and ensuing entanglement with a man whose grotesque secrets begin to surface. It moves at a pace it feels Lafarge invented herself. It’s enviably, coolly intelligent without ever becoming ironic or snide and just one more exposition of Lafarge’s many gifts following on from her poetry collection Life Without Air .

Joshua Ferris

Author of A Calling for Charlie Barnes (Viking)


Three great pleasures for me this year came from reliable sources. Jo Ann Beard’s essays in Festival Days (Little, Brown) are some of her finest. Dana Spiotta’s novel Wayward (Virago) is razor-sharp on any number of things, above all the insoluble ravages of time. Then there were three writers new to me whose books were both reinvigorating and enlightening: Angélique Lalonde’s Glorious Frazzled Beings (Astoria), Miriam Toews’s Fight Night (Bloomsbury) and Casey Plett’s A Dream of a Woman (Arsenal Pulp Press).

Lisa Taddeo

Author of Animal (Bloomsbury)


Magpie (Fourth Estate) by Elizabeth Day is that rare novel that moves and taunts like a thriller, but also envelops and comforts like Middlemarch . I didn’t want it to end, I wanted to read it in fancy bars for ever. As for The Right to Sex (Bloomsbury) by Amia Srinivasan , I cannot say enough about this book. How crucial. How brilliant. How absolutely gratifying to see a mind at work like Srinivisan’s, handling the profane and the erudite with equal clear, unflinching diamond prose.

Sathnam Sanghera

Author of Empireland (Viking)


My novel of the year would be A Calling for Charlie Barnes (Viking) by Joshua Ferris, a hilarious skewering of the American Dream by the man who must be the funniest writer we have. I also really appreciated The Anarch y (Bloomsbury) by William Dalrymple, out in paperback this year, which does a great job explaining the East India Company, responsible, more than anything else, for Britain’s involvement in the subcontinent. And Imperial Nostalgia (Manchester University Press) by Peter Mitchell, which explains how the delusions of the Raj continue to shape our national psychology today.

Joan Bakewell

Author of The Tick of Two Clocks: A Tale of Moving On (Virago)


The sensitivity of Susie Boyt’s story of family love, Loved and Missed (Little, Brown), wrings the heart: it shows tenderness to each, makes you care for all… a gentle masterpiece. The Promise (Chatto) by Damon Galgut is a remarkable tale of four generations of one South African family and of the country itself. Like his earlier books, which I have also enjoyed, it reveals him as a master of human complexity. No wonder it won the Booker. Mothering Sunday (Scribner) by Graham Swift was not published this year, I know, but was picked up by me at the secondhand stall of Didcot Parkway station. It’s now released as a film. Reading it, I discovered a total gem: not a word out of place, not a false sentiment. Can the film be as good?

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The Best Books of 2021

From radical nuns to gut-wrenching memoir, this year’s books hit us where it hurt..

latest book review 2021

This was a big year in bookworld for the phrase “much-anticipated.” As publishers reinstated some semblance of normalcy after pandemic shipping delays, a bevy of marquee names beckoned readers with long-awaited follow-ups — and, in some cases, unexpected merch . The heavy hitters met with mixed success , but this year was still abundant with books that scribbled outside the lines, upended old conventions or freshened them up, and dug out stories we’d forgotten or never known to ask about. The best of the lot were invigorating — the kinds of books that crawl outside their text and into your life. And, of course, there was a new Franzen novel .

10. Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

latest book review 2021

This story of a resentful artist turned stay-at-home mom morphing into a dog claws its way out of the pile. Yes, the premise sounds a bit like it was found on the reject list at a B-movie studio, but Yoder’s commitment to describing the animal nature of parenting carries it through with maximal success. The protagonist grows a scruff of coarse hair above her sacrum and sniffs out bunnies in her yard; playtime with her son involves licking and biting. Her metamorphosis is a “a pure, throbbing state” that redirects her energy and moves her beyond learned helplessness. Yoder goes deep on the performative nature of mothering — how so much of it feels like a Marina Abramović performance in which strange creatures are invited to scream in our ears and wrestle raisins from our fuzzy pockets, all while we gaze ahead coolly. In a crowded field of novel-manifestos about the indignity of parenting, Nightbitch is primal and corporeal, a labor scream of a book.

9. The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen

Translated by tiina nunnally and michael favala goldman.

latest book review 2021

For months this was my pitch to potential readers of The Copenhagen Trilogy : “You have to read this. It was so good I couldn’t finish it.” Blame my low tolerance for inhabiting someone else’s psychosis. These books percolate with the sickening anxiety of madness, a state that the best writers can render as a kind of hell. From her muffled young adulthood in Nazi-occupied Denmark to her rise as a writing wunderkind and spin into a romantically mangled, drug-fueled early adulthood, Ditlevsen’s autobiographical collection (composed of three formerly separate memoirs — Childhood, Youth, and Dependency — first published between 1967 and ’71) spares neither the writer nor the reader. This is not a tale of heroic endurance. It’s a sally inside the mind of a young writer who tentatively climbs toward professional success and familial stability, only to find that both are moving targets.

8. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles

latest book review 2021

The stories of enslaved Black Americans are still far too scarce, lost to time by a nation indifferent to more personal aspects of the experience. Miles, a Harvard historian and MacArthur fellow, had little definitive information about a simple embroidered sack found at a flea market in 2007, other than what it said: My great grandmother Rose mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina / it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my Love always / she never saw her again / Ashley is my grandmother / Ruth Middleton / 1921

From there, she traces the likely lineage of this unlikely object — a bit of cotton that might have crumpled into dust, but instead carried a whole family’s legacy — and puts both what she learned and what might have been into this riveting book, which just won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. All That She Carried balances two aims: to share what it can of Ruth Middleton’s matrilineal family and to explore what their lives might tell us about the experiences of other Black women connected, thread by thread, to an uncertain past. The result is as delicate and determined as the story that inspired it.

7. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins

latest book review 2021

Forget reading for comfort. Watkins has no interest in the concept, for herself or for you. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness follows a protagonist (also named Claire Vaye Watkins) who leaves her family behind as she smokes and ruminates and screws her way through the Mojave Desert, where she grew up. The story alternates with real (but edited) letters written by Watkins’s mother as a teenager and excerpts from Watkins’s father’s book about his role as Charles Manson’s “number one procurer of young girls.” The desert setting is as prickly and vast and mutable as Watkins’s writing; the book is a stern kick to the groin of heroic tales about the majesty of the American West. Watkins wrote two brilliant books before this — the otherworldly good story collection Battleborn and a terrifying enviro-novel, Gold Fame Citrus — but this is the work that should put her on the map. Watkins is a necessary writer for a changing American pastoral.

6. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

latest book review 2021

For the first time, the U.S. has surpassed 100,000 deaths from drug overdoses in a single year — and opioid deaths accounted for more than 75 percent of those. Opioid overdose has grown so common that some cities have installed Narcan vending machines and pharmacies put up posters showing customers how to administer it. The epidemic has spilled into every corner of American life. In Radden Keefe’s meticulously reported and brilliantly assembled Empire of Pain, he traces that spill back to the family at the very center: the billionaire Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma. Like Gilded Age barons before them, the Sacklers sat atop a massive fortune, behind a fortress of lawyers and corporate privacy screens, while their company pushed OxyContin onto prescription pads and out into America. It’s a blood-boiling story of American apathy — of a family more concerned with putting their name on museums than keeping people from harm, a pharmaceutical industry shrugging its shoulders at staggering death rates, and a medical community entirely unequipped to handle the surge.

5. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

latest book review 2021

In the very near future, an AF (Artificial Friend) named Klara, manufactured as a companion for a child, stands in the sunlit window of a quiet shop and narrates her yearning to be purchased and taken home. She’s childlike herself and exceptionally naïve; we are immediately endeared to her, though we know her insides are wire, her thoughts determined by code. Ishiguro has claimed his prose is nothing special, but over the course of his career, he has again and again managed to push readers into mourning for some of the most isolated members of society. Klara and the Sun glides in on tiptoe, tracing delicate circles around Klara’s time in the shop; her life with Josie, the young girl who takes her home; and the realization that Josie’s mother’s decision to genetically “lift” her daughter’s intelligence is costing the girl a normal life. Even in the book’s quietest moments, there’s a sense that humanity’s control over itself is on the line. And much like Ishiguro’s earlier book Never Let Me Go, this novel delivers a tender, enthralling twist.

4. Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi

latest book review 2021

Sometimes a writer comes along who seems to float above language and direct it like a sorcerer, raising up whole worlds then sliding them out of the way. That’s Emezi. Dear Senthuran is their fourth book in three years (with another three on the way), and they organize this memoir — about their childhood in Nigeria; their role as an ogbanje, which they describe as a spirit reborn to cause suffering; and their painful, necessary gender-confirmation surgeries — as a series of letters to friends and family, a form that amps up the intimacy and penetration of the work. Emezi’s words emerge, bold and annunciatory.

3. One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival by Donald Antrim

latest book review 2021

One Friday in April 2006, Antrim checked himself into the psychiatric facility at Columbia Presbyterian; late that summer he finally exited its doors, after several new medications had failed and innumerable group- and individual-therapy sessions, as well as about a dozen rounds of electroshock treatments that made it possible for him to at least “look forward to feeling well.” His memoir about the experience ought to immediately join the pantheon of classic works about the treacherous pull between life and death that can occur in one person’s mind. Antrim cracks himself wide open. The book is declarative and urgent, tracing the precise contours of suicidal thinking; it’s also quiet and engineered, a fully reasoned tour of a recalcitrant brain. “Maybe you’ve spent some time trying every day not to die, out on your own somewhere,” Antrim writes. “Maybe that effort has become your work in life.” One Friday in April may be remembered as the work of his own.

2. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

latest book review 2021

I started the year thinking that Lockwood’s pseudo-autobiographical bait and switch irritated me too much to ever wiggle its way onto a list of my favorites. Then the damn thing crawled inside my head and refused to leave. If this sounds like the opposite of an endorsement for this book — which begins as a story about the noxious pull of the Twitterverse and turns into a family drama — that’s because when I first encountered it, I felt primed to reject a novel propelled by social-media discourse. (“The word toxic had been anointed, and now could not go back to being a regular word,” Lockwood writes. “It was like a person becoming famous. They would never have a normal lunch again, would never eat a Cobb salad outdoors without tasting the full awareness of what they were. Toxic. Labor. Discourse. Normalize.”) Here’s what’s kept me bouncing back to it: Lockwood doesn’t give a shit about the traditional novel or what anyone might want from it. She knows she can nab you with descriptions of the self-imposed suffocation of being Very Online before wringing your heart out with the tale of a dying infant. No One Is Talking About This flicks the Establishment in the face and giggles.

1. Matrix by Lauren Groff

latest book review 2021

I wanted to live inside this novel, to peel apples and dig in the soil and repair the stone walls of the nunnery Groff manifests as she builds a life around Marie de France, the 12th-century poet and maybe-abbess about whom we know very little. And what a life Groff designs, unfurling Marie’s story in ribbons. Big, awkward, and of mildly noble heritage, the teenager is cast out of the French royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom she adores, and sent to starve in a dripping, tumbledown convent. But through sheer grit and wildly progressive plans, she spends the next decades turning the abbey into a paradise for women — a sheltered place where their work has meaning and their faith can catapult beyond unthinking ritual. Matrix practically draws blood in its bid to evince ecstasy, physical, spiritual, and emotional. This novel has its own racing heartbeat.

Honorable Mentions

Throughout 2021, I maintained a “Best Books of the Year (So Far)” list. Many of those selections appear above in my top 10 picks. Below are the rest of the books that stood out to me this year:

The Fourth Child, by Jessica Winter

The bloody pyrotechnics of anti-abortion organizations in the early ’90s, country-club drunks and their cruel domestic antics, the pre-internet teen scene in Buffalo: Jessica Winter’s sophomore novel is Franzen-esque in its broad sweep of a Rust Belt family coming down off the highs of mid-century American capitalism. (I say that as a huge compliment.) Winter starts with Jane Brennan’s accidental pregnancy in the late 1970s, then works through her tempestuous relationship with her shotgun husband and the push-and-pull dynamic with her eldest daughter Lauren, and finally into the utter displacement the Brennan family undergoes when Jane brings home Mirela, one of hundreds of thousands of “ Ceausescu’s children ” — Romanian children abandoned in orphanages in poor living conditions. Like Graham Greene before her, Winter is fascinated by the Catholic draw to suffering — Jane’s as a beleaguered mother, Lauren’s as a misunderstood young woman, and Mirela’s as a nearly feral outsider — and she manages to elegantly and movingly write a novel about faith that doesn’t proselytize or condemn.

Libertie, by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Greenidge debuted with a bang in 2016 with her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman , about a Black family who agrees to participate in a psychological study more nefarious than it first seems. Libertie is a tamer work, though no less forceful and imaginative. Libertie is the dark-skinned, free-born daughter of a light-skinned doctor mother in Civil War–era Brooklyn. The story begins when an enslaved man named Ben Daisy is delivered to them in a coffin — alive. From there, Greenidge charts Libertie’s development from college student to young wife, and then stranger among family in Haiti, wondering where she belongs and whether she belongs to someone. Every bit of Libertie is rich and vibrant, offering the best of what historical fiction can do.

Infinite Country, by Patricia Engel

America isn’t paradise , one of Engel’s characters thinks to herself in this tale of a cleaved immigrant family. Co-workers murder each other with semi-automatics, kids blow each other’s brains out at school. And violence isn’t held at bay by ICE; in fact, it’s often perpetuated by the people who fill the agency’s ranks. Infinite Country follows whats happens when one member of an undocumented Colombian family is deported. Engel writes beyond mere frustration or sadness or economic hardship — and she brings individuality to a story too often told in statistics and two-minute news reports.

‘Detransition, Baby’ by Torrey Peters

Reading this novel is like holding a live wire in your hand. The first novel by a trans woman to be nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, it follows a triangle of people — Reese, a trans woman desperate to be a mother; her ex Ames (formerly Amy), who detransitioned and is living as a man again; and Ames’s boss Katrina, who is pregnant with his child and unsure about the prospect. But there is so much more than that — Detransition, Baby is populated like a Dickens village of the queer community, with married HIV-positive cowboys and IVF-entangled trans couples. Most refreshingly, it isn’t out to prove that a trans love triangle can move copies just as affectively as cis ones do; there’s no mimicry here. It is what it is, an eyes-wide-open escapade.

The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo

In this mash-up of culinary history, cultural criticism, and memoir, the cookbook author and essayist chooses a different “difficult” fruit for every letter of the alphabet — things like authentic maraschino cherries made with poisonous bitter almond juice, little-known thimbleberry, inedible Osage orange. Some entries are almost entirely personal histories, but most move around more freely — like a chapter on juniper berries’ unwritten history as an abortifacient, or the story of the eugenicist horticulturist who domesticated blackberries for the masses. Through it all, you can connect the dots on humanity’s history of turning fruits into magical entities capable of tightening our skin, supercharging our diets, and making sense of evil in the world.

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu (January 12)

Nadia Owusu’s young life was splintered into dozens of little pieces — her Armenian American mother left the family, her sometimes cruel stepmother joined it, and she moved between continents for her father’s work for the United Nations. Her memoir Aftershocks , structured as a series of reverberations, doesn’t assemble those bits together. “I have written for meaning rather than order,” she explains. She whisks together the fractured history of her father’s homeland of Ghana and her own privileged bubble inside sometimes bomb-strewn locales, then teaches herself to reread her own childhood history, to see beyond the story she has always told herself of who she is.

Under a White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert

Cornflower blue, Simpsons -esque skies may be a thing of the past if the environmental scientists get their way. In Under a White Sky , the Pulitzer-winning Kolbert examines — in terrifying detail — the measures researchers and climatologists have already taken (like electrifying the waters of the Chicago River so invasive Asian carp can’t make their way to other tributaries) or are considering (filling the atmosphere with light-reflecting particles to form a sunshield and, in turn, a powdery firmament) to reverse-engineer the ecological mess humanity has gotten itself into. This is definitely an “It’s Time to Worry” book, but it’s also a wise rumination on hubris — how factories and engines and our desire for Progress set a ticking time bomb on our planet, and how mankind now thinks it can mastermind a way to cut the fuse.

In the Quick, by Kate Hope Day

Forgive me for screaming, but In the Quick is Jane Eyre IN SPACE! The idea sounds unhinged, but its execution is so fresh and so understanding of Brontë and genre fiction that it all comes together in a wild Ad Astra meets Prep mash-up. In a not-so-distant America, orphaned young June Reed is sent to study at the space program her brilliant uncle founded after his early death. At the same time, a crew he sent deep into the solar system suddenly goes quiet. As June endures a punishing regimen of robotic sciences, physical fitness, and team-building exercises, she quietly works on the problem of where the crew might be and how best to save them. An entirely fun adventure.

Hot Stew, by Fiona Mozley

Lately I’ve been missing the sweaty rub of strangers’ arms in tight city streets and the faint smell of yeast rising up from bar floorboards. Cities are made for clamor and bustle, and the past year has emptied them of both. Mozley’s Hot Stew is just the sensorial knockout I needed, alive with the hoots and steam of a small patch of London’s Soho, where an unlikely group of tenants works to keep their building, a French restaurant with a brothel on top, out of a developer’s grip. Among the tenants are a sex worker and her carer, a homeless couple who inhabit the grates beneath the building, a policewoman, and a bright young thing — a mix just as chaotic as any group of strangers sharing walls and air in the city’s bowels. Mozley writes across the spectrum of humanity — a talented juggler who throws a dozen plates in the air and then catches each one as if it were nothing.

Fierce Poise by Alexander Nemerov (March 23)

A biography that intentionally blows up its subject’s own image. On the cover: A demure Helen Frankenthaler neatly seated on one of her pastel-soaked canvases in a salmon-pink button-down that could blend right in with the paint, a dainty cream headband holding back her Veronica Lake curls. Inside: A rollicking beat-by-beat saunter through the downtown 1950s art scene and a long-overdue reckoning with Frankenthaler’s oft-derided, so-called “feminine” work. Too pretty, too rich, too well-connected — these were the bombs lobbed at Frankenthaler even after she produced Mountains and Sea , the seemingly brushstroke-free, nursery-colored work that Nemerov claims launched the genre of color field painting. Nemerov admits to his subject’s privileges, but undoes the (jealousy-induced) fantasy that Helen, as he calls her, was just a painter of pretty little pictures. This Helen is a woman of the mind, a crucial component of America’s mid-century dominance in the art world, and, at times, a provocateur, even if she didn’t see it that way.

Painting Time, by Maylis de Kerangal

Give me the glorious tangle of page-long sentences, the piled-up cacophony of crowded prose. In Painting Time , French novelist de Kerangal (she whose book covers always lure me in) refuses to match form to subject matter, a collision that yields a stylistic wildness we need more of. Protagonist Paula Karst is a young Parisian decorative painter learning trompe l’oeil, “the art of illusion,” at an intense Belgian institute that churns out faux marble re-creators and faux bois conjurers, but not artists. Formerly a glassy-eyed layabout, decorative painting has molded Paula into a rigorous worker, and Painting Time accompanies her through that transformation. As she moves from Paris to Moscow to Rome and back again, it’s de Kerangal’s meticulous understanding of the tiny devotions that craftspeople make again and again — the thin strokes, the blended edges, the changing of brushes — that elevates Painting Time into a pulsing ode to creative labor.

Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993 by Sarah Schulman

The first time I heard about ACT UP — the organization that formed to demand that the political establishment and scientific community take action on AIDS — was nine years after it was founded, when activist David Reid poured the ashes of a friend who’d died of the disease onto the White House lawn in 1996. “If you won’t come to the funeral,” he said, “we’ll bring the funeral to you.” The act was shocking to my 12-year-old self, but it’s not nearly as shocking as the history of neglect, contempt, and disgust for the gay community that thinker, archivist, and ACT UP activist Sarah Schulman writes about in Let the Record Show , a necessarily expansive and bombastic corrective of modern history. Using years of interviews and her own vast inside knowledge (the Times ’ Parul Sehgal called Schulman “ a living archive ”), Schulman charts ACT UP’s highly effective barricade-storming tactics, eventual sway over drug companies, and early ’90s fracture. Let the Record Show is as righteous and revelatory as its subject matter.

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I counted over 130 exclamation points in Second Place , Rachel Cusk’s first novel since the end of her highly celebrated, much-dissected Outline trilogy. For Cusk, well-known for her tight control over her prose, such bluster and exuberance demonstrate a more unwieldy new direction, an experimental phase. Protagonist M is the bombastic exclamation-point user, as she writes a letter to a friend about her miserable experience hosting L, a famed painter of the Lucian Freud variety, at her home in an English marsh. Seeing L’s work once helped to transform M’s life, and she hopes his presence will provoke another revelation. Second Place grapples with the contradictory desire to be muse and artist, and with the extraordinary tolerance that the world shows intolerable men.

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

In the first scene of Good Behaviour , originally published in 1981 and reissued in May by the reliable folks at NYRB Classics, protagonist Aroon St. Charles kills her mother with the mere scent of a rabbit mousse. She puts the lunch tray in front of her, and Mummy trembles, cries, vomits, and promptly dies in “a nest of pretty pillows.” Is it intentional? Why no, not exactly, but it is a glorious introduction to this novel with a hungry, wolfish smile but no visible claws. Aroon is a child of the Irish aristocracy, raised in the early 20th century in a manse built by her ancestors; she’s bent on explaining her good intentions to the reader, though she seemingly understands very little of her own motivations. This is not a damp, woe-is-the-child redux: Good Behaviour includes very little good behavior, featuring instead delicious and deleterious accounts of illicit sex and wild high jinks, and a mother-daughter duo who can scrap with the best of them.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Witch hunt! The phrase has enjoyed a renaissance, courtesy of our former POTUS, along with MeToo-ed men of all varieties. It reverts to its original meaning in this romp, from the cerebral and daring novelist and essayist Rivka Galchen , that’s set in 17th-century Germany, a time and place where women were hunted, jailed, taunted, and tortured for actually (supposedly) being witches. Galchen’s novel focuses on illiterate but brilliant Katharina Kepler — a real historical figure and the mother of the iconic astronomer Johannes Kepler — as her neighbors turn against her, bringing wild charges of hexing and poisoning. This parable about the dangers of many little lies is also a true guffawer, with a protagonist so sharp and self-righteous she may have a direct familial line to Olive Kitteridge. Read it to leave this century behind for a while.

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (June 22)

All of Taylor’s stories of young midwestern ennui are A sides, but one tale from this new collection, “Anne of Cleves,” is particularly bound-for-the-anthologies good. Sigrid is on her first date with Martha when she asks her with which wife of Henry VIII she most identifies. Martha is an engineer, living outside the shimmery dome of the liberal arts, and she barely understands the question. But it reverberates underneath their whole relationship; for the next 30 pages, the two women slide toward one another and then away in a mating dance reminiscent of a Shirley Hazzard story, where sighs and shifting thighs make huge waves. And yes, Martha is an Anne of Cleves: strong, stoic, and capable of survival. Taylor’s energy is so focused, his characters so full and motley, that each of the 11 tales here (some of which are linked) fleshes out a small spinning world of its own.

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

Katie Kitamura’s novels are like recently vacated rooms. The occupant’s scent is still there, the warmth of their hand on the doorknob, but the space itself is desolate. Intimacies is the story of an interpreter for an international court in The Hague who is lingering in an in-between space of her own — she cannot pin down her Dutch boyfriend, who moves between her and his estranged wife, or the charismatic, recently deposed African president whose words she worriedly translates as he stands trial at the court for crimes against humanity. Is she misreading everyone and everything in her adopted country? Is there a reason for her to feel this low-level dread? Like Muriel Spark in her darker moments, Kitamura taps into the most basic human fear: that we will never really know anyone.

Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman

Kleeman doesn’t do maudlin — she forces you to look into the fun-house mirror until you realize that what you’re seeing is reality. Something New Under the Sun starts off as a Hollywood send-up, when a novelist arrives on the set of a film adaptation of his work and discovers he’s actually a babysitter for the tabloid-ravaged teen bopster playing the lead. He also realizes he’s in a hellscape where water is scarce, a commodity for the yacht set, and WAT-R — a molecular near copy of the real stuff — is pumping out of every other faucet and plastic bottle in California. Because this is Kleeman, the plot is far less important than the view along the way. Her writing is cool, detached, and DeLillo-ish, the urgency red hot. Reading it while the West crackles, it’s easy to imagine this book may someday be a vital artifact from our era of climate twilight.

Burning Man: The Trials of D.H. Lawrence by Frances Wilson (May 25)

The British press has been singing the praises of Wilson’s wise, brutally honest, expansive consideration of Lawrence’s “middle years” — the time from 1915 to 1925 when he wrote Women in Love and The Rainbow , exiled himself from England, and tried to found a utopian community in New Mexico. American readers haven’t picked up on it yet, but it’s time to change that! For all the hoo-ha that once surrounded his reputation and antics, Lawrence is now considered a sturdy, capital- I Important writer. Nonetheless, his novels don’t make it to syllabi, and his life hasn’t been called up for a feverish prestige biopic. Wilson writes without undue flattery or inflation about this decade of Lawrence’s life, when he was convicted of spying for Germany and darted across America to meet a mildly mad heiress and produced some of the century’s most enduring novels. This is a biography on fire, brilliant with tiny anecdotes and broad assertions about English literature alike.

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead knows how to slither into a new literary identity with perfect ease. He started his career writing magic-sprinkled novels about zombies, elevator-repair workers, and John Henry before publishing The Underground Railroad in 2016 and The Nickel Boys in 2019, both investigations of cruelty inflicted upon Black Americans. These books became runaway hits of the change-the-author’s-life variety. How to switch things up again? Harlem Shuffle is a zooming, maniacal caper; the fact that it’s wrapped up in a historical novel is a sweet little bonus. There’s too much (read: just enough) plot for one sentence to do it justice, but let’s leave things here: A scheme by a madcap cast of characters to rob a swanky uptown hotel canters alongside a potent reconstruction of mid-century Harlem’s buoyant vibes.

The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon

Liselle is a private-school teacher in a tony Philadelphia neighborhood; her lawyer husband, Winn, just lost an election for state representative, and the FBI is investigating him for his campaign’s behavior. Set around a dinner party Liselle is reluctantly hosting, Solomon’s insightful  The Days of Afrekete  dives back and forth between Liselle’s cracking veneer and her memories of an intoxicating relationship (with the brilliant, unconventional Selena) that once constituted her world. It’s in the nitty-gritty that Solomon nails things — Liselle’s fretting over whether financial success has recast her as an out-of-touch Black woman; the rightfully chaotic depictions of sexually ambiguous entanglements. The publisher describes The Days of Afrekete as  Sula  plus  Mrs. Dalloway ; Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf may be towering names to live up to, but Solomon is on the right track.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

The Lucy Barton universe keeps expanding. Strout published My Name Is Lucy Barton, the gentle blockbuster introducing the character, in 2016, then broadened the web with the interconnected stories in Anything Is Possible , set in Lucy’s quiet Illinois hometown. Now Strout has written a more linear follow-up with Oh William! , which takes place about 20 years after the events of the first book and sees Lucy widowed and reconnecting with her first husband, the titular William. Strout’s placid prose and unswerving style go down as easily as ever. In other hands, this novel might reek of franchise aspirations, but the Pulitzer-winning author remains as devoted as ever to storytelling that prods at life’s big questions about trauma, loneliness, and the search for a hand to hold in the dark.

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