Best of 2021: Authors’ Picks

Last year we asked a bunch of authors what they thought was their favorite book that they’d read over the past year and we were delighted by the response we received! So much so that we decided to do it again! They were allowed to take as little or as much space with their replies as they chose, and were free to choose any books that they had read over the past year, regardless of publication date. Once again we were overwhelmed by just how many authors took the time to send us a reply! So without further adieu, let’s get to the answers!

Rumaan Alam

Author of Leave the World Behind and That Kind of Mother.

Naming a favorite book is an impossible task, even if you limit yourself to the calendar year. Joy Williams’s Harrow is a book I may well think about for the rest of my days, trying to untangle its meaning. It’s an extraordinary novel. I chose that book because it was published this year, but books have no expiry date; one of the best I read this year was Anita Brookner’s 1998 novel Visitors, in which an elderly widow has an unexpected guest. Synopsis would never get at just how great it is.

Linwood Barclay

Author of Elevator PitchA Noise DownstairsFind You First, and more.

Tough call. Maybe State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Her work is mesmerizing.

Chris Bohjalian

Author of Hour of the WitchThe Flight AttendantThe Sandcastle GirlsThe Red Lotus, and many more.

Alas, I won’t pick a favorite because too many of my friends are writers and I never want to hurt their feelings. But visit my Goodreads page and you can see a lot of the books I read and my one paragraph reviews.

Max Brooks

Author of Devolution and World War Z

I recently re-read Aesop’s Fables (probably the first full time since my mom read them to me 40 something years ago). Wow, that mind, that insight. Times change, we don’t.

Alafair Burke

Author of The WifeThe Better SisterThe Ex, and more, including several novels with Mary Higgins Clark.

One of my 2021 favorites was Last Girl Ghosted by Lisa Unger, which pulls you in immediately as Wren cautiously meets Adam for an online first date that quickly blossoms into what appears to be true, honest, red hot love. But of course… no. Right when it appears Wren might get her happily ever after, Adam suddenly “ghosts” her. This is Unger at the top of her game.

Grace M. Cho

Author of Tastes Like War.

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’s most recent collection of poetry, Interrogation Room is a devastatingly beautiful work that asks us to make space for the missing bodies of Korean diasporic history – the birth mothers and their children sent westward through transnational adoption, the bodies of the war dead who were never claimed by their families, the families permanently divided by U.S. occupation and its aftermath. In an homage to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée, Interrogation Room is as visually striking as it is lyrical, juxtaposing photographs, documents, and handwritten letters in Korean. The black bars that appear throughout the text simultaneously evoke personal loss and official redactions in classified military documents, as well as the division of the Korean peninsula itself. This book makes me marvel at the magic of poetry, how so few words can say so much.

Reuben Jonathan Miller’s non-fiction book Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration illuminates the day-to-day struggles faced by people with criminal records. Some 45,000 laws in the United States govern the lives of the formerly incarcerated, ensuring that their punishment will long outlast their sentences. This book is an autoethnography in which Miller mixes sociological and historical analysis of the legacy of slavery and mass incarceration, the life stories of people who survived prison but can never be free, and his own experiences supporting his brother during and after his incarceration. This book goes beyond a discussion of the collateral consequences of prison for the incarcerated individual to show how the families also pay – literally and figuratively – for their loved one’s incarceration. They pay in lost time, broken bonds and in the excessive fees charged to families when they want to pay for their loved one’s phone calls or supplement the inadequate prison meals with packaged food from the commissary. Miller shows how the prison industrial complex extracts wealth from Black families and how “trouble follows your loved ones because the prison is like a ghost.”

Megan Collins

Author of The Family PlotThe Winter Sister, and Behind the Red Door.

My favorite book of 2021 has to be Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann. The book, which follows the drama of the dysfunctional Briscoe family and takes its cues from Greek mythology, is simply extraordinary. The main characters, and their central storylines, are each inspired by different Greek myths and characters; we have the patriarch, Peter (from Jupiter), whose adultery has wreaked havoc on his family while also enriching it; the matriarch, June (from Juno), whose bitterness at her husband’s infidelity has been the warped lens through which she’s viewed the world; March (from Mars), who’s prone to fits of blackout rage and broke the Briscoe family apart when he slept with Vera (Venus), the wife of his brother Hap (Hephaestus). I could go on about the mythology parallels—and they’re brilliant, the ways Stacey Swann makes these classic characters contemporary and complex—but you don’t need to know a thing about Greek mythology to enjoy and be engrossed in this story. Each character, each thread, each relationship stands on its own, and is dazzling. This book is such a page-turner, with its elegant prose and its fascinating family dynamics. I also love how Stacey Swann takes her inspiration and guidance from Greek mythology, but she elevates the characters from the stories and roles they’re often stuck in, allowing them growth and, at times, retribution, all while beautifully expressing some hard but healing truths. This book captivated me and blew me away. It’s an absolute stunner.

Sophie Cousens

Author of Just Haven’t Met You Yet and This Time Next Year.

My favourite book so far is Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – hugely original, wonderful writing, a loveable but flawed protagonist – I was gripped from the first page!

Laurie Frankel

Author of One Two ThreeThis Is How It Always Is, and more.

Thanks for asking! I read lots of great books this year (and every year). I loved Sarah Sentilles’s Stranger Care, a memoir about family and the natural world and the author’s foster daughter that nearly broke my heart but is beautiful and important and an incredible story. I loved Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise, a beautiful, remarkable novel about refugees and children and all of us. And I loved Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves, a novel which taught me tons about wolves and rewilding via great characters and a compelling mystery.

Tristan Gooley

Author of The Secret World of WeatherThe Natural Navigator, and more. Vice chairman of Trailfinders.

My favourite read of 2021 was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It is beautifully written and although a work of fiction about magic, it has inspired me in my work of writing about nature. We’re all looking for something magical in the things that we find fascinating. This book reminded me that my job is to help in that process for those who enjoy the outdoors. And it was just a great, fun read!

Morgan Jerkins

Author of Caul Baby and Senior Culture Editor for ESPN’s The Undefeated.

100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell – It’s witty, juicy, and of course, very raunchy. Not for the faint of heart by a looooooong shot.

Vera Kurian

Author of Never Saw Me Coming.

My answer would be Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr- even though I haven’t quite finished it yet! I have been tearing through this rather lengthy book, fully impressed with the author’s ability to do world building across so many different locations and times. It’s the first book I’ve read that scratched the itch of my wanting a book like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Sarah Langan

Author of Good NeighborsThe Keeper, and more.

I’ve got two: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite — It’s got a riveting plot, but what I love most about it, is its unflinching exploration of feminine rage.

My second is Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which I only just read this year, like a jerk. It’s a brilliant exploration of media’s pernicious effect on a modern American family. I wanted to finish it so badly that I pulled over in traffic, parked, and read in the car.

Allison Larkin

Author of The People We Keep

Catch Us When We Fall by Juliette Fay is already one of my all-time favorite reading memories. Juliette’s characters burn so brightly that they feel like people I could know and maybe do. In Catch Us When We Fall, she tackles difficult subjects like grief and substance use disorder while deftly balancing reality and hope. There’s so much beauty and love and depth in her work. When I first sat down with this book, I only meant to read a few chapters, and as cliche as it sounds, I really couldn’t put it down.

Jonathan Lee

Author of The Great Mistake.

One of the favourite books I read in 2021 was an early copy of a book that will be released in 2022: Dwyer Murphy’s An Honest Living, which reads as if Bolaño wrote a new script for Chinatown.

Lee Mandelo

Author of Summer Sons.

Choosing a “best book of the year” for me is a roulette game; 2021 had such a strong slate of competitors for the throne! Amongst the bunch, though, I’d love to shine my spotlight on a phenomenal first novel: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan.

Parker-Chan’s gripping, subversive debut produced a nigh-on feral response in me, as if I’d been struck with a blunt but electrified instrument. I can’t overstate how much I appreciated reading an entire book propelled by the intense, grasping, often amoral desires of two queer protagonists whose deeply complicated relationships to gender and their bodies are center-stage. To plunge through a text with such an unapologetically genderqueer perspective felt like leaping into a cold river: percussive, stinging, a real rush. Better still, She Who Became the Sun pulls no punches with its gnawing ethical quandaries about the foundations of empire.

None of the large cast of characters has clean hands, and our protagonists are among the bloodiest of the bunch. As an alternate-historical edged in the fantastic, the novel’s refraction of the “real” founding of the Ming Dynasty allows Parker-Chan to explore thematic issues of politics, ethics, and gender. Awareness of ethnic conflicts historical and contemporary thread throughout the novel, for example, while differing languages and dialects are rendered with textual cues. Dynamic and flexible prose skillfully balances the grand scope of the plot with the intimate details of each character’s life—their ambitions, their desires, and their fears. It’s absolutely breath-taking.

Sam J. Miller

Author of The Blade Between.

My favorite book of 2021 was Summer Sons, by Lee Mandelo. Grabbed me by the throat from the very first page, and later grabbed me by the heart (and later still by some other parts). A sexy scary wild wonderful ride going very fast down some very dark and twisty country roads.

Zak Salih

Author of Let’s Get Back to the Party.

When it comes to end-of-year reflections on books, I try to avoid metrics and hierarchies. So much more genuine to think simply of memorable reading experiences and forgettable ones. Jackie Polzin’s debut novel, Brood, belongs in the former category. The story is simple enough: a woman must defend from predators and natural disasters her modest brood of four chickens: Darkness, Gam Gam, Gloria, and Miss Hennepin County (perhaps one of the most delightful names in contemporary fiction). But in that struggle is an aching tale that’s just as much about grief and resiliency—both human and fowl—as it is about the particularities of animal husbandry. I will never forget this book, and I look forward to reading it again.

Paul Tremblay

Author of Survivor Song, The Cabin at the End of the WorldA Head Full of Ghosts, and more.

I have two favorites. Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith is a thrilling, genre-bending, multigenerational epic about haunted people and cultures in Vietnam. This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno is a truly creepy and unnerving meditation on loss and grief. I’ve found myself thinking about both books throughout the year.

Jeff VanderMeer

Author of Hummingbird SalamanderAnnihilationA Peculiar Peril, and more.

Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman for how it effortlessly combines satire, climate crisis commentary, psychological depth, nonhuman perspectives, and urgent, current crises into a narrative that feels complex and layered but not forced.

Nicole Willson

Author of Tidepool.

I read The Gold Persimmon by Lindsay Merbaum earlier this year and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It’s one of the more unusual horror novels I’ve read in quite some time.

The Gold Persimmon has two parallel storylines featuring Clytemnestra, an employee of the titular hotel, and Jaime, a nonbinary writer who’s trapped in a hotel by a mysterious fog that envelops their city. Are there any connections between these two storylines? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m going to read this book again and again trying to figure out how they intersect—if they even do.

Merbaum’s prose is spare and yet elegant, and the novel put me in mind of what would happen if Erin Morgenstern wrote a horror novel with a lot of input from David Lynch. I don’t want to say which Lynch movie the novel reminded me of because that could spoil the story, which would be a shame.

This is not a novel that offers you simple answers about what’s going on, and I appreciate that. I’m going to enjoy trying to figure everything out for myself.

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