Favorite Books of 2021

Well, here we are! I read 101 books in 2021 (just barely hitting my goal of 100 in the eleventh hour), and I’m… satisfied, if not overwhelmingly happy with, my reading year. Which isn’t meant to devalue any of the books on this list, which I am very excited to share with you all—I just wish I had more serious contenders to choose from. If I were to sum up my reading this year in a word, it would be “mild”. As I said in my Most Disappointing Books of the Year post, I’m used to having high highs and low lows, but this year was more steady than anything: a lot of 3- and 4-star reads, a lot of books that I enjoyed but which didn’t inspire a lot of passion in me. Which, to be fair, probably had more to do with my mental state this year than anything. But all of that said, I am really happy with this group of books I’ve selected. The top four in particular, could go in pretty much any order: they’re four of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

I do just want to acknowledge that statistically, this isn’t the most diverse of lists: I’m not proud of how white and how US/UK/Canada/Ireland-centric it is, and I don’t think it’s really indicative of the breadth of books I read this year, but when combing through my Goodreads just now, these are really what stuck out to me as the highlights, so here we are. I’m wondering if I should do a ‘best translated fiction of 2021’ list as well, because there are a lot that I think deserve to be spotlighted.

But anyway, without further ado…

10. Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

“They say the perfect is the enemy of the good, that if you strive for perfection you will overlook the good. But I did not agree. I didn’t like the good. The good was just mediocre. I wanted to go beyond mediocre. I wanted to be exceptional. I did not want to be medium-size. I wanted to be perfect. And by perfect, I meant less.”

I think this is the first time ever that I’m putting a book I rated 4 stars in my favorite books of the year list. But the fact of the matter is, while this book didn’t completely stick the landing for me, its highs were virtually unparalleled by anything else I read this year. If you think you have ‘disaster women’ fatigue, I’d really implore you to give Melissa Broder a try—her protagonists are inarguably disasters, but rather than taking the ‘generic millennial everywoman’ approach, Broder writes with such a sharp specificity that I still think about the narrator, Rachel, as though she were a real person. Downright uncomfortable to read at times, this book navigates the relationship between sex and our own bodies with searing insight.

9. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

“The fact is that the same sequence of days can arrange themselves into a number of different stories.”

A retelling of King Lear set on a twentieth century midwestern farm, A Thousand Acres is the best adaptation of my favorite play that I’ve read. I’m just going to quote my own review here: This is a bleak, stark, humorless work, which accesses the tragic inevitability of the original play and refocuses it. This isn’t the tragedy of Lear as much as it is the tragedy of Goneril, the long-suffering eldest daughter, and in turning this into Ginny’s story, part of the cosmic scale is lost, but the calamity and the creeping dread is recaptured on a smaller, more intimate scale. This is an engrossing, quietly devastating book that deftly examines power, corruption, and betrayal through a melancholic, reflective lens, and I found the result both beautiful and heart-rending.

8. Consent by Annabel Lyon

“I was her punishment, certainly, she thinks, taking the empty suitcase out from under the bed. As she was mine. But remind me again of our crime?”

This Canadian dark horse ended up being one of the unexpected highlights of this year’s Women’s Prize longlist for me. A literary thriller of sorts, Consent follows two sets of sisters, whose stories end up intersecting in a surprising way. It’s less of a mystery and more of a stark examination of guilt and obligation, and between its somewhat meandering pace, its unapologetically acerbic tone, and its refusal to fit neatly into a single genre, it’s undoubtedly a tough sell. But for the right reader—so, in this case: me—it’s an engrossing, intelligent, confident work that I couldn’t put down.

7. No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder

“Read any news story today about domestic violence homicide and you’re likely to see some version of the question why didn’t she leave? What you almost surely won’t see is why was he violent?”

In contrast, I feel like I did nothing but put this book down. It took me the better part of six months to listen to this audiobook, because it is so unrelenting to a point where it started to seriously affect me after a while. But that said, I could not recommend this book highly enough to anyone who can stomach it. In No Visible Bruises, journalist Rachel Louise Snyder investigates intimate partner violence through a panoply of lenses; debunking misconceptions, researching government-funded programs that address both prevention and rehabilitation, and proposing how exactly we move forward. It’s a harrowing and necessary read, brilliantly researched and structured.

6. Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

“We can’t conserve anything, and especially not social relations, without altering their nature, arresting some part of their interaction with time in an unnatural way.”

(The desire to forgo a blurb and just write out that TikTok audio “the girls who get it, get it; the girls who don’t, don’t” is strong.) Anyway, reading a new Rooney novel is always a treat: her sentence-by-sentence writing sings for me, and I think her character work is always exceptional. This ended up being my second favorite Rooney after the unbeatable Conversations With Friends—I found the way she addresses social and existential anxieties in this book particularly resonant. Her books and characters never feel like perfect distillations of my own life (which I think is a frankly absurd expectation for any author and I’m not sure why Rooney in particular bears so much weight in that regard), but they do always make me feel slightly less alone in the world, so, that’s something.

5. The Likeness by Tana French

“I had always felt that I was an observer, never a participant; that I was watching from behind a thick glass wall as people went about the business of living–and did it with such ease, with a skill that they took for granted and that I had never known.”

2021 is the year I finally started reading Tana French, and I could not be happier with that decision. Of the the three of her novels that I’ve read, The Likeness is far and away my favorite—this book elevates a downright absurd premise into something really special and entertaining as hell. I love Cassie as a protagonist and I thought French’s depiction of the insularity of academia was pitch-perfect, coming closer to The Secret History in that one specific regard than most other campus novels I’ve read.

4. Endless Night by Agatha Christie

“One doesn’t want to die young. Sometimes one has to.”

This was also the year that I rediscovered Agatha Christie and let me tell you, it’s one of the things that saved 2021 for me. Of the four of her books that I read this year, Endless Night blows the other three out of the water. From the very first page I was just obsessed with this dark, twisted Gothic tale, and the ending elevated it even higher than I thought possible in my estimation. I don’t want to give you unreasonable expectations about this book by reiterating that it dethroned And Then There Were None as my favorite Christie, as they’re such fundamentally distinct projects, but I do really want to implore you to give a try if you’re a Christie fan.

3. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“In my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself; then I name a hall.”

Piranesi‘s setting may be the most beautifully-rendered thing I’ve ever seen in a novel, but it’s far from this book’s only strength. I wasn’t expecting to love this anywhere near as much as I did; its speculative elements didn’t seem suited to my tastes as a reader, and I thought it might be the sort of thing I force myself to read and then never think about again. But I fell hard for it, and what has really stuck with me is the potent depiction of loneliness that Clarke is able to achieve through this strange, offbeat tale. This book is just such an immersive pleasure and I’m already looking forward to revisiting it.

2. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“But the memory lingered, the lesson I have never quite been able to shake: that I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”

Though I’m thrilled with Piranesi‘s Women’s Prize win, this is the book I was rooting for. Transcendent Kingdom both floored me and wrecked me, and I think this is one of the most accomplished books I’ve read in a long time. Gyasi integrates a number of challenging themes and subjects into a single striking narrative so brilliantly that it’s a wonder she was able to accomplish it without sacrificing plot or character development. This book is a marvel.

1. Edie Richter is Not Alone by Rebecca Handler

“I love you. I forgive you. Please forgive me.”

What’s funny is that on the surface, this doesn’t seem like the most ‘me’ book in the world; it’s about a woman struggling through a failing marriage while coping with the recent death of her father. It feels trite to rise to its defense with the classic “but it’s so much more than that!”, and yet… it really, really is. This book plumbs the depths of whether it’s possible to ever know ourselves, let alone other people; it forces the reader to confront uncomfortable realities that live in the darkest corners of our minds; it asks us whether it’s possible to outrun guilt—but it does so with the lightest, deftest touch, and a character voice which is both acerbic and droll. I need more people to give this book a try both because it’s criminally underrated and because it’s challenging to explain what’s so special about it, but at only 192 pages, Edie Richter is Not Alone left the biggest impression on me of anything I’ve read this year.


What was your favorite book that you read in 2021?

Advertisement

20 thoughts on “Favorite Books of 2021

  1. I’ve seen Piranesi on so many favorites lists since it came out! I really need to pick myself up a copy and read it, it just sounds so different.
    Would also love to see a best translated fiction list from you. Love seeing those books that don’t get the same hype as English written works.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Piranesi is brilliant and definitely unique, I hope you enjoy!

      I’m (obviously) very behind on blogging but I think I will put together a favorite translated fiction list after all! Totally agree that translated works need more love.

      Like

  2. I haven’t heard much about Edie Richter, I think I must have heard about it from you earlier but that’s it. Sounds very good but I might wait a bit, given the subject matter… I sure have noticed how many books revolve around the death of a parent since going through it myself…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooof goodness I can’t even imagine. I hope Edie Richter finds its way into your life one day but it sounds like swerving it for the moment is a good move. Hugs!!

      Like

  3. We have quite a lot of crossover here! I didn’t include Milk Fed on my commendations list but it could easily have been there, and I totally agree about Beautiful World…, Consent and Transcendent Kingdom! And of course The Likeness ♥️ I read A Thousand Acres a long time ago and was hugely impressed with Smiley’s writing but didn’t really get on with the novel as a whole – given my track record with Lear retellings, I’m starting to wonder if it’s just the plot of Lear that doesn’t appeal to me (sorry!!) I’m intrigued by Edie Richter. I’d usually steer well clear of that blurb but am willing to take your word for it that it’s one of those books that are hard to ‘sell’…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure we’ve talked about this (sorry, lots of Shakespeare interactions on my blog over the past couple of years, lol) but have you read Lear? Much as I enjoyed A Thousand Acres, I’ve been reading a lot of Lear retellings and none of them holds a candle to the play. I think it’s in large part due to the language of the original that I love it so much. But if you’ve read it and dislike it I suppose I will have to forgive you with time and therapy.

      Ugh yes Edie Richter is indeed very difficult to sell. I don’t even remember why I wanted to pick it up in the first place—I think I just wanted to try something else from Unnamed Press after getting on with a couple of their other books. But yeah, it really is one of those books that’s greater than the sum of its parts, I really hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to pick it up!

      Liked by 1 person

      • So, I have to admit I have tried to read Lear but gave up about halfway through. I should certainly give it another go. My sister, who is also a big Lear fan, says I should go and see a performance rather than trying to read the script, but I’ve definitely preferred approaching Shakespeare that way in the past and have still enjoyed reading the plays, so I don’t know if it’s something particular about Lear or whether I was just in a bad mood when I was last trying to read it…

        Like

  4. I reached my goal of 56 books about two weeks before the end of the year – and then I just enjoyed leisurely reading long books.
    Piranesi made quite an impression on me as well. I read it after it won the Women’s Prize, and was so struck by it that I almost immediately moved on to Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – a very different book whose nonetheless existing similarities delight me (as does the rest of the book!).
    Happy reading in 2022!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think it is absolutely hilarious yet so on brand for our relationship that one of the books on your favorites list (Piranesi) is one of the books I disliked the most this year, and one of the books on your worst list (Emma) is going on my favorite books list.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this list! I am selfishly glad you picked Edie Richter as your favourite because I really am going to buy your favourite of the year (historically, reading your favourites rarely stears me wrong) and I don’t know if I could read Transcendant Kingdom given my current feelings about academia (I gather it’s about faith and science but that feels like academia and I don’t want to read any academia books soon).
    I also had a weirdly middling reading year – and also the lowest number of books read since I started tracking. 2021, man.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welllll it looks like you will be reading Transcendent Kingdom anyway (it is definitely academia-heavy, sorry), but I really hope you enjoy Edie Richter! It’s just disaster woman-y enough that I think you might.

      Miraculously 2021 was not my lowest in quantity since I started blogging, but quality-wise, it was so inoffensive to the point of being offensive. I need 2022 to be the year that books make me feel strong things again.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s