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?

Most Disappointing Books of 2021

It’s been an interesting reading year—not as many high highs and low lows as in years past, but surprisingly steady, given how terrible this year has been otherwise. So let’s go through and talk about some of my most disappointing* books of the year.

*word choice is deliberate. These are not necessarily worthy of making a ‘worst of year’ list, but these are all books that I had high expectations for, but which fell flat.

8. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

I tend to not love books that focus on mother/daughter relationships, so at the end of the day I accept that I just wasn’t the right reader for this book. But for some reason, perhaps because I’d heard so many times that this book was both dark and thematically rich, I still thought I might enjoy it. And I kind of did, at first—I just found this protagonist so deliberately antagonistic toward the reader that I just found myself shutting down, the more and more I read.

7. Kink, edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell

I gave this 3 stars at the time, which in hindsight feels overly generous, because looking back, my feelings are overwhelmingly negative. With the exception of Brandon Taylor, Carmen Maria Machado, and Larissa Pham’s stories, this collection just never delivered on its promise to break new ground and explore a variety of kinks through a literary lens. Cue story after forgettable story about BDSM—it got stale fast. I was just hoping that it would explore a more diverse range of kinks and make me think differently about erotica, but most of these stories ended up feeling like dollar store versions of much better sexy literary novels I’ve read.

6. Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

This book almost didn’t make this list because it was forgettable to such a degree that I can’t even bring myself to be angry or upset about it. Mirrorland who? But the fact of the matter was that I had been looking forward to this book for over a year and it sucked, so, here we are. Purported to be both a thriller about identical twins and a commentary on childhood trauma, Mirrorland succeeds at neither objective—it fails to thrill and it fails to go deeper than surface level in its examination of abuse.

5. The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

I’m actually annoyed at the marketing on this book, because usually I can tell with one glance at the cover whether a thriller is going to be more psychological, or more of a silly domestic drama. I had pegged this book as the former (look at the UK cover!!! come on!!), but that assumption proved incorrect. The Hunting Party is about a group of friends on vacation at a remote hunting lodge in a snowstorm: one of them naturally turns up dead. Brilliant premise, abysmal execution. If you care deeply about which of these characters have had sexual fantasies about each other, and are concerned with whose marriage will survive this holiday from hell, by all means, go ahead and read this; otherwise skip. This was just a silly melodrama dressed up as a mystery.

4. Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

The worst thing about this book is how much I liked it at first. I think Yoder is an accomplished, interesting writer on a stylistic level, and despite my antipathy toward ‘motherhood books,’ I actually found her commentary on the subject incisive enough that I was really on board to see where this was going to go. Unfortunately, the answer was pretty much ‘nowhere.’ This ended up recycling the same ideas over and over for several hundred pages, which annoyed me to no end as I thought this could have made for a brilliant short story.

3. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

It wouldn’t be a ‘most disappointing’ list without at least one Women’s Prize shortlister. I was actually really looking forward to this one, but nothing about it worked for me. I hated the writing style, I admired the potent social commentary but thought that the attempts to weave it into the narrative were clumsy at best; and it was so relentlessly bleak—without even the briefest moment of respite—that I never fully believed these characters or their stories, as they just felt like a vehicle for exploring trauma.

2. Emma by Jane Austen

I’m not going to sit here and try to convince anyone that Emma is a bad or unsuccessful novel; but my god, did I hate reading it. With nothing of more consequence than ‘will the poor little rich girl learn her lesson’ at stake, I just found this so tedious and unpleasant to spend time with. For me, this is solidly Austen’s least interesting work, and the one that I most struggle to find anything redemptive about.

1. Madam by Phoebe Wynne

It’s not always the case that a single book earns both the ‘worst’ and ‘most disappointing’ titles, but this year, Madam sure does. In fact, this is probably the worst book I’ve read in several years. Set in a fictional Scottish boarding school in the 1990s (written as though it were the 1890s), Madam is… an attempt at a subversive feminist campus novel thriller, and while I can only laud its aims, it satirizes the institution’s conservative ideology to such an extreme degree that the novel’s villains may as well be twirling their mustaches the entire time. Abuse is reduced to a cartoonish pantomime in this book. And beyond that—everything about this novel is clumsy, racist, amateurish, poorly written, and just laughably absurd. I was actually shocked by how objectively terrible this was on… every conceivable level.


Happy end of 2021! I’ll try to get my best books of the year post up tomorrow. In the meantime, what was the worst or most disappointing book you read this year?

2021 Reading Goals

I mostly bombed my 2020 goals so no use in revisiting them. Onward and upward.

  1. Read 100. Easy, hopefully.
  2. Read Black playwrights. This past summer I made a resolution to read a play by a Black playwright for every Shakespeare play I read–I was doing ok at first and then quickly realized that keeping it up at exactly a 1:1 ratio was going to be virtually impossible given a handful of other reading obligations I was juggling, so I let myself fall behind and resolved to eventually catch up when I finished with Shakespeare. Excited to dive back into this.
  3. Read at least one ARC every month. I’ve decided that in addition to whatever ARCs I pick up on a whim, I’m also going to use a random number generator to decide on at least one ARC I’m going to read each month and just choose the corresponding title from my Netgalley shelf. My feedback ratio is appalling and it’s time for drastic measures.
  4. Read more backlist. I know this is everyone’s resolution every year, but this year my heart is really in this one. I have so many titles on my shelves that I’m dying to read and even though I wrote a long list of new releases I’m anticipating this year, very few of those fall into a must-read category for me.
  5. Read the Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe. This is something I decided I wanted to do just the other day but I’m honestly SO excited about it and I’m very impatient for my copy to arrive. Don’t panic, this guy did not write nearly as much as Shakespeare, this isn’t going to take over my entire life.
  6. Don’t read the Women’s Prize longlist unless I am truly excited about every single title. Which does not seem likely. I’m looking forward to reading a handful off the longlist with my Women’s Prize pals, but 3 of my 8 worst books of 2020 being off the WP longlist was really a wakeup call for me. And I didn’t even manage to finish the damn longlist!
  7. Be a better blogger. I think it’s no secret that my head and my heart weren’t in blogging this year, and I think that was entirely down to the pandemic. But I’ve spent my morning catching up and reading your blog posts from the past several months (I still have a long way to go before I’m caught up) and it’s reminded me of how much I adore this community and how I really want to be a better participant.

What are your reading goals for the new year?

Anticipated 2021 Releases

As of today, I have read 18/34 of my Anticipated 2020 Releases and I honestly feel pretty good about that! So, onward and upwards – here are some 2021 titles that have caught my eye. Summaries in italics are from Goodreads and all dates are U.S. publication dates unless otherwise indicated.

The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin
January 5, 2021
Random House

Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair. She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibition for a beloved artist, the renowned late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two enigmatic outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds: A chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her; and at work, an odd woman comes forward with a mysterious connection to Robert Locke’s life and his most famous work, the Chalk Sculpture.

As Nessa finds the past intruding on the present, she realizes she must decide what is the truth, whether she can continue to live with a lie, and what the consequences might be were she to fully unravel the mysteries in both the life of Robert Locke and her own. In this gripping and wonderfully written debut, Danielle McLaughlin reveals profound truths about love, power, and the secrets that define us.

I’ve never read Danielle McLaughlin but I heard good things about her collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets — plus, you know me, if it’s Irish I’ll read it. I think this sounds great.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss
January 12, 2021
FSG

They rarely speak to each other, but they take notice—watching from the safety of their cabins, peering into the half-lit drizzle of a Scottish summer day, making judgments from what little they know of their temporary neighbors. On the longest day of the year, the hours pass nearly imperceptibly as twelve people go from being strangers to bystanders to allies, their attention forced into action as tragedy sneaks into their lives.

At daylight, a mother races up the mountain, fleeing into her precious dose of solitude. A retired man studies her return as he reminisces about the park’s better days. A young woman wonders about his politics as she sees him head for a drive with his wife, and tries to find a moment away from her attentive boyfriend. A teenage boy escapes the scrutiny of his family, braving the dark waters of the loch in a kayak. This cascade of perspective shows each wrapped up in personal concerns, unknown to each other, as they begin to notice one particular family that doesn’t seem to belong. Tensions rise, until nightfall brings an irrevocable turn.

I was a huge fan of Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, though that still remains the only thing I’ve read by her. Really looking forward to this, which seems like another short and punchy offering from Moss.

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry
January 12, 2021
Doubleday

With three novels and two short story collections published, Kevin Barry has steadily established his stature as one of the finest writers not just in Ireland but in the English language. All of his prodigious gifts of language, character, and setting in these eleven exquisite stories transport the reader to an Ireland both timeless and recognizably modern. Shot through with dark humor and the uncanny power of the primal and unchanging Irish landscape, the stories in That Old Country Music represent some of the finest fiction being written today.

Night Boat to Tangier is actually the first and only Kevin Barry that I’ve read and I wasn’t a massive fan; still, there was something about his writing that intrigued me and I think a short story collection from him might be the perfect next move for me.

The Divines by Ellie Eaton
January 19, 2021
William Morrow

The girls of St John the Divine, an elite English boarding school, were notorious for flipping their hair, harassing teachers, chasing boys, and chain-smoking cigarettes. They were fiercely loyal, sharp-tongued, and cuttingly humorous in the way that only teenage girls can be. For Josephine, now in her thirties, the years at St John were a lifetime ago. She hasn’t spoken to another Divine in fifteen years, not since the day the school shuttered its doors in disgrace.

Yet now Josephine inexplicably finds herself returning to her old stomping grounds. The visit provokes blurry recollections of those doomed final weeks that rocked the community. Ruminating on the past, Josephine becomes obsessed with her teenage identity and the forgotten girls of her one-time orbit. With each memory that resurfaces, she circles closer to the violent secret at the heart of the school’s scandal. But the more Josephine recalls, the further her life unravels, derailing not just her marriage and career, but her entire sense of self.

Moving between present-day Los Angeles and 1990s Britain, The Divines is a scorching examination of the power of adolescent sexuality, female identity, and the destructive class divide. Exposing the tension between the lives we lead as adults and the experiences that form us, Eaton probes us to consider how our memories as adults compel us to reexamine our pasts.

This is a debut that I think has a lot of potential — I love the sound of the summary.

Cathedral by Ben Hopkins
January 21, 2021
Europa Editions

A thoroughly immersive read and a remarkable feat of imagination, Cathedral tells a sweeping story about obsession, mysticism, art, and earthly desire in gripping prose. It deftly combines historical fiction and a tale of adventure and intrigue.

At the center of this story is the Cathedral. Its design and construction in the 12th and 13th centuries in the town of Hagenburg unites a vast array of unforgettable characters whose fortunes are inseparable from the shifting political factions and economic interests vying for supremacy. Around this narrative center, Ben Hopkins has constructed his own monumental edifice, a novel that is rich with the vicissitudes of mercantilism, politics, religion, and human enterprise.

This is a long one and it has a downright abominable cover but The Pillars of the Earth is one of my favorite books of all time, so how can I resist?

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
February 2, 2021
Scribner

Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of existential control, by way of obsessive food rituals, while working as an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Rachel is content to carry on subsisting—until her therapist encourages her to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised her in the tradition of calorie counting.

Early in the detox, Rachel meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop and is intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam—by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family—and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.

I adore Melissa Broder — The Pisces is one of my favorite books of all time. I have slightly more tempered expectations for her newest novel after reading a few reviews but I’m sure I’ll still devour this.

The Project by Courtney Summers
February 2, 2021
Wednesday Books

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died, Lo’s sister, Bea, joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt. Thanks to its extensive charitable work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of most in the Upstate New York region, but Lo knows there’s more to the group than meets the eye. She’s spent the last six years of her life trying—and failing—to prove it.

When a man shows up at the magazine Lo works for claiming The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with Bea once and for all. When her investigation puts her in the direct path of its leader, Lev Warren and as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members it upends everything she thought she knew about her sister, herself, cults, and the world around her—to the point she can no longer tell what’s real or true. Lo never thought she could afford to believe in Lev Warren . . . but now she doesn’t know if she can afford not to. 

I would not in a hundred years pick this book up for its summary, but Courtney Summers’ Sadie is one of the best YA novels I’ve ever read so my curiosity is really just getting the better of me here.

100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell
February 2, 2021
FSG

Transgressive, foulmouthed, and devastatingly funny, Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends is a revelatory spiral into the imperfect lives of queer men desperately fighting–and often losing–the urge to self-sabotage. His characters solicit sex on their lunch breaks, expose themselves to racist neighbors, sleep with their coworker’s husbands, rub Preparation H on their hungover eyes, and, in an uproarious epilogue, take a punk band on a disastrous tour of Europe. They also travel to claim inheritances, push past personal trauma, and cultivate community while living on the margins of a white supremacist, heteronormative society.

Armed with a deadpan wit that finds humor in even the lowest of nadirs, Brontez Purnell–a widely acclaimed underground writer, filmmaker, musician, and performance artist–writes with the peerless zeal, insight, and horniness of a gay punk messiah. From dirty warehouses and gentrified bars in Oakland to desolate farm towns in Alabama, Purnell indexes desire, desperation, race, and loneliness with a startling blend of levity and vulnerability. Together, the slice-of-life tales that writhe within 100 Boyfriends are a singular and uncompromising vision of an unexposed queer underbelly. Holding them together is the vision of an iconoclastic storyteller, as fearless as he is human.

This summary, on the other hand, has my name written all over it. Very excited for this.

The Survivors by Jane Harper
February 2, 2021
Flatiron Books

Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences.

The guilt that still haunts him resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal community he once called home.

Kieran’s parents are struggling in a town where fortunes are forged by the sea. Between them all is his absent brother, Finn.

When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away… 

I was sort of lukewarm about Harper’s The Dry, but her book summaries always sound like such solid thrillers so I probably won’t be able to resist giving this one a try.

Open Water
February 4, 2021
Viking

Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.

At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential debut of recent years.

This sounds gorgeous and I am VERY excited to hopefully pick up my ARC soon.

Kink, edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
February 9, 2021
Simon & Schuster

Kink is a dynamic anthology of literary fiction that opens an imaginative door into the world of desire. The stories within this collection portray love, desire, BDSM, and sexual kinks in all their glory with a bold new vision. The collection includes works by renowned fiction writers such as Callum Angus, Alexander Chee, Vanessa Clark, Melissa Febos, Kim Fu, Roxane Gay, Cara Hoffman, Zeyn Joukhadar, Chris Kraus, Carmen Maria Machado, Peter Mountford, Larissa Pham, and Brandon Taylor, with Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon as editors.

I don’t need to say a whole lot since this collection has been everywhere, but yeah, this sounds phenomenal and that list of authors is unreal.

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman
February 9, 2021
Random House

Not too long ago, Cass was a promising young playwright in New York, hailed as “a fierce new voice” and “queer, feminist, and ready to spill the tea.” But at the height of all this attention, Cass finds herself at the center of a searing public shaming, and flees to Los Angeles to escape — and reinvent herself. There she meets her next-door neighbor Caroline, a magnetic filmmaker on the rise, as well as the pack of teenage girls who hang around her house. They are the subjects of Caroline’s next semi-documentary movie, which follows the girls’ violent fight club, a real-life feminist re-purposing of the classic.

As Cass is drawn into the film’s orbit, she is awed by Caroline’s ambition and confidence. But over time, she becomes increasingly troubled by how deeply Caroline is manipulating the teens in the name of art. When a girl goes missing, Cass must reckon with her own ambitions and ask herself: in the pursuit of fame, how do you know when you’ve gone too far?

I love books set in LA and books about terrible woman and books that chronicle dysfunctional relationships so this seems like it’ll probably be a winner.

Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic
February 16, 2021
Gallery/Scout

Fifteen-year-old equestrian prodigy Roan Montgomery has only ever known two worlds: inside the riding arena, and outside of it. Both, for as long as she can remember, have been ruled by her father, who demands strict obedience in all areas of her life. The warped power dynamic of coach and rider extends far beyond the stables, and Roan’s relationship with her father has long been inappropriate. She has been able to compartmentalize that dark aspect of her life, ruthlessly focusing on her ambitions as a rider heading for the Olympics, just as her father had done. However, her developing relationship with Will Howard, a boy her own age, broadens the scope of her vision.

I’ve been assigned this to review so I’ll be reading it soon — I feel like it could be a huge hit or a huge miss and not much in between so I’m excited to let you guys know what I think!

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
March 2, 2021
Knopf

Klara and the Sun, the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.

Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?

MY FAVORITE AUTHOR HAS A NEW BOOK COMING OUT. IT IS FINALLY HAPPENING. IF THIS IS ANOTHER THE BURIED GIANT SITUATION I WILL NOT BE HAPPY BUT OTHERWISE. I AM OVERJOYED.

An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura
translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
March 2, 2021
Columbia University Press

Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. Minae is a Japanese expatriate graduate student who has lived in the United States for two decades but turned her back on the English language and American culture. After a phone call from her older sister reminds her that it is the twentieth anniversary of their family’s arrival in New York, she spends the day reflecting in solitude and over the phone with her sister about their life in the United States, trying to break the news that she has decided to go back to Japan and become a writer in her mother tongue.

I’ve never read Mizumura but my friend Claire speaks so highly of her I couldn’t resist requesting a copy on Netgalley — this sounds like it could be quietly moving up and up my alley.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner
March 2, 2021
Park Row

One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.

In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

I was on the fence about this one because I don’t always love historical fiction that has a past/present slant, but this also sounds like it could be quite a lot of fun so I’m looking forward to giving it a shot.

Edie Richter is Not Alone by Rebecca Handler
March 9, 2021
Unnamed Press

In Perth, Edie finds herself in a remarkably isolated but verdant corner of the world, but Edie has a secret: she committed an unthinkable act that she can barely admit to herself. In some ways, the landscape mirrors her own complicated inner life, and rather than escaping her past, Edie is increasingly forced to confront what she’s done. Everybody, from the wildlife to her new neighbors, is keen to engage, and Edie does her best to start fresh. But her relationship with her husband is fraying, and the beautiful memories of her father are heartbreaking, and impossible to stop. Something, in the end, has to give.

Since reading Jessica Gross’s brilliant debut Hysteria this year I’ve paid more attention to Unnamed Press, and this title and summary caught my eye.

The Secret Talker by Geling Yan
March 30, 2021
HarperVia

Beautiful, diligent, and passive, Hongmei is the perfect wife to Glen, an intelligent and caring college professor. But her quiet life in Northern California fractures when a mysterious person begins e-mailing her, pulling her into an enthralling and frightening game of cat-and-mouse. Who is stalking her? And how does this mysterious stranger know her deepest, darkest secrets?

As Hongmei is forced to confront her own dark past in China, the façade of her idyllic life is laid bare. Increasingly desperate and self-destructive, her one hope is to turn the tables on her tormentor. Investigating the stalker’s own secret history may irrevocably tear her marriage and her world apart—a risk she must take to regain control of her life.

This is quite a short novel — under 200 pages — and it sounds riveting, really looking forward to this.

The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon
April 6, 2021
Gallery/Scout

When social worker Jax receives nine missed calls from her older sister, Lexie, she assumes that it’s just another one of her sister’s episodes. Manic and increasingly out of touch with reality, Lexie has pushed Jax away for over a year. But the next day, Lexie is dead: drowned in the pool at their grandmother’s estate. When Jax arrives at the house to go through her sister’s things, she learns that Lexie was researching the history of their family and the property. And as she dives deeper into the research herself, she discovers that the land holds a far darker past than she could have ever imagined.

In 1929, thirty-seven-year-old newlywed Ethel Monroe hopes desperately for a baby. In an effort to distract her, her husband whisks her away on a trip to Vermont, where a natural spring is showcased by the newest and most modern hotel in the Northeast. Once there, Ethel learns that the water is rumored to grant wishes, never suspecting that the spring takes in equal measure to what it gives.

McMahon is a local author that I’ve enjoyed in the past, I always try to get my hands on her books when she has a new one out. This sounds excellent.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
April 13, 2021
Doubleday

The Sackler name adorns the walls of many storied institutions: Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford, the Louvre. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations to the arts and sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing Oxycontin, a blockbuster painkiller that was a catalyst for the opioid crisis.

Patrick Radden Keefe writing about the opioid crisis — SAY NO MORE, I AM THERE.

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley
April 20, 2021
Algonquin Books

London has changed a lot over the years. The Soho that Precious and Tabitha live and work in is barely recognisable anymore. And now, the building they call their home is under threat; its billionaire-owner Agatha wants to kick the women out to build expensive restaurants and luxury flats. Men like Robert, who visit the brothel, will have to go elsewhere. The collection of vagabonds and strays in the basement will have to find somewhere else to live. But the women are not going to go quietly. They have plans to make things difficult for Agatha but she isn’t taking no for an answer.

I really loved Mozley’s debut Elmet — it has faded ever so slightly in my estimation in the years since I’ve read it, but I think it was a solidly strong novel and Mozley seems like an author who could do very interesting things.

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone
April 20, 2021
Scribner

Cat lives in Los Angeles, about as far away as she can get from her estranged twin sister El and No. 36 Westeryk Road, the imposing gothic house in Edinburgh where they grew up. As girls, they invented Mirrorland, a dark, imaginary place under the pantry stairs full of pirates, witches, and clowns. These days Cat rarely thinks about their childhood home, or the fact that El now lives there with her husband Ross.

But when El mysteriously disappears after going out on her sailboat, Cat is forced to return to the grand old house, which has scarcely changed in twenty years. No. 36 Westeryk Road is still full of shadowy, hidden corners, and at every turn Cat finds herself stumbling on long-held secrets and terrifying ghosts from the past. Because someone—El?—has left Cat clues all over the house: a treasure hunt that leads right back to Mirrorland, where she knows the truth lies crouched and waiting…

I think this is one Hannah sent to me on one of her Netgalley browses — this sounds like the sort of psychological thriller that I could really enjoy.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami
translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
April 20, 2021
Europa Editions

Hailed as a bold foray into new literary territory, Kawakami’s novel is told in the voice of a 14-year-old student who subjected to relentless torment for having a lazy eye. Instead of resisting, the boy chooses to suffer in complete resignation. The only person who understands what he is going through is a female classmate who suffers similar treatment at the hands of her tormentors.

These raw and realistic portrayals of bullying are counterbalanced by textured exposition of the philosophical and religious debates concerning violence to which the weak are subjected.

Unlike the rest of the world I have not yet read Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (which I do plan on reading!) but I love the sound of this one too.

Leda and the Swan by Anna Caritj
May 4, 2021
Riverhead Books

It’s Halloween night on a pastoral East Coast college campus. Scantily costumed students ride the fine line between adolescence and adulthood as they prepare for a night of drinking and debauchery. Expectations are high as Leda flirts with her thrilling new crush, Ian, and he flirts back. But by the end of the night, things will have taken a turn.

A mysterious young woman in a swan costume speaks with Leda outside a party–and then vanishes. When Leda later wakes up in Ian’s room the next morning, she is unsure exactly what happened between them. Meanwhile, as the campus rouses itself to respond to the young woman’s disappearance, rumors swirl, suspicious facts pile up, and Leda’s obsession with her missing classmate grows. Is it just a coincidence that Ian used to date Charlotte, the missing woman? Is Leda herself in danger? As Leda becomes more and more dangerously consumed with the mystery of Charlotte and questions about Ian, her motivations begin to blur. Is Leda looking for Charlotte, or trying to find herself?

I don’t know much about this one but I love the sound of the summary.

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He
May 4, 2021
Roaring Book

One of the most twisty, surprising, engaging page-turner YAs you’ll read this year—We Were Liars with sci-fi scope, Lost with a satisfying resolution.

Cee awoke on an abandoned island three years ago. With no idea of how she was marooned, she only has a rickety house, an old android, and a single memory: she has a sister, and Cee needs to find her.

STEM prodigy Kasey wants escape from the science and home she once trusted. The eco-city—Earth’s last unpolluted place—is meant to be sanctuary for those commited to planetary protection, but it’s populated by people willing to do anything for refuge, even lie. Now, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to use science to help humanity, even though it failed the people who mattered most.

I will be honest with you: whoever on Roaring Book’s marketing or editorial team is responsible for the tagline “LOST with a satisfying resolution” is the reason we’re here right now. But I love the summary as well — I’m a lot pickier about YA than most other things but this might be one of the few I take a chance on next year.

The Rules of Revelation by Lisa McInerney
May 13, 2021
John Murray (UK)

Ireland. Great nationalists, bad mothers and a whole lot of secrets. Ryan Cusack is ready to deliver its soundtrack.

Former sex-worker Georgie wants the truth about Ryan’s past out there but the journalist has her own agenda.

Mel returns from Brexit Britain, ill-equipped to deal with the resurgence of a family scandal.

Karine has always been sure of herself, till a terrible secret tugs the rug from under her.

Maureen has got wind that things are changing, and if anyone’s telling the story she wants to make sure it’s her.

A riotous blast of sex, scandal, obsession, love, feminism, gender, music, class and transgression from an author who is ‘totally and unmistakably the real deal’ (Kevin Barry).

I don’t think we’ll see this published in the U.S. any time soon so I’ll definitely be sourcing a copy from overseas — McInerney is one of my all-time favorite writers and I’ve adored both books so far in her Glorious Heresies trilogy so I cannot wait to get my hands on this.

Madam by Phoebe Wynne
May 18, 2021
St. Martin’s Press

For 150 years, high above rocky Scottish cliffs, Caldonbrae Hall has sat untouched, a beacon of excellence in an old ancestral castle. A boarding school for girls, it promises that the young women lucky enough to be admitted will emerge “resilient and ready to serve society.”

Into its illustrious midst steps Rose Christie: a 26-year-old Classics teacher, Caldonbrae’s new head of the department, and the first hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose is overwhelmed to be invited into this institution, whose prestige is unrivaled. But she quickly discovers that behind the school’s elitist veneer lies an impenetrable, starkly traditional culture that she struggles to reconcile with her modernist beliefs—not to mention her commitment to educating “girls for the future.”

It also doesn’t take long for Rose to suspect that there’s more to the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor—a woman whose ghost lingers everywhere—than anyone is willing to let on. In her search for this mysterious former teacher, Rose instead uncovers the darkness that beats at the heart of Caldonbrae, forcing her to confront the true extent of the school’s nefarious purpose, and her own role in perpetuating it.

Well, this sounds creepy and brilliant.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
May 18, 2021
Tin House Books

At fifty-one years old, twins Jeanie and Julius still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation in the English countryside. The cottage they have shared their entire lives is their only protection against the modernizing world around them. Inside its walls, they make music, and in its garden, they grow everything they need to survive. To an outsider, it looks like poverty; to them, it is home.

But when Dot dies unexpectedly, the world they’ve so carefully created begins to fall apart. The cottage they love, and the security it offered, is taken back by their landlord, exposing the twins to harsh truths and even harsher realities. Seeing a new future, Julius becomes torn between the loyalty he feels towards his sister and his desire for independence, while Jeanie struggles to find work and a home for them both. And just when it seems there might be a way forward, a series of startling secrets from their mother’s past come to the surface, forcing the twins to question who they are, and everything they know of their family’s history.

I really enjoyed another book by Claire Fuller and have been meaning to read more of her backlist, but this sounds promising too.

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
June 1, 2021
Atria Books

Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.

Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.

It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.

Probably one I don’t need to say a whole lot about since it was a 7-figure deal and has been getting a lot of press, but, that summary sounds VERY up my alley and I will be preordering this for sure.

Daughter of Sparta by Claire Andrews
June 8, 2021
Little, Brown and Co

Seventeen-year-old Daphne has spent her entire life honing her body and mind into that of a warrior, hoping to be accepted by the unyielding people of ancient Sparta. But an unexpected encounter with the goddess Artemis—who holds Daphne’s brother’s fate in her hands—upends the life she’s worked so hard to build. Nine mysterious items have been stolen from Mount Olympus and if Daphne cannot find them, the gods’ waning powers will fade away, the mortal world will descend into chaos, and her brother’s life will be forfeit.

Guided by Artemis’s twin-the handsome and entirely-too-self-assured god Apollo-Daphne’s journey will take her from the labyrinth of the Minotaur to the riddle-spinning Sphinx of Thebes, team her up with mythological legends such as Theseus and Hippolyta of the Amazons, and pit her against the gods themselves.

Claire is a friend of mine but even if she weren’t I’d have this on my TBR. Greek mythology! Daphne! I’m going to pick this up in a couple of weeks and I’m hoping it’ll be riveting escapism.

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor
June 22, 2021
Riverhead

In the series of linked stories at the heart of Filthy Animals, set among young creatives in the American Midwest, a young man treads delicate emotional waters as he navigates a series of sexually fraught encounters with two dancers in an open relationship, forcing him to weigh his vulnerabilities against his loneliness. In other stories, a young woman battles with the cancers draining her body and her family; menacing undercurrents among a group of teenagers explode in violence on a winter night; a little girl tears through a house like a tornado, driving her babysitter to the brink; and couples feel out the jagged edges of connection, comfort, and cruelty.

I still haven’t read Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (I know, I know) but if I’m being honest I’m even more excited for Filthy Animals. I’m basing this assessment off having read ONE short story by him, but I just have a gut feeling that short stories might be the medium where Taylor most excels.

Survive the Night by Riley Sager
July 6, 2021
Dutton Books

It’s November 1991. George H. W. Bush is in the White House, Nirvana’s in the tape deck, and movie-obsessed college student Charlie Jordan is in a car with a man who might be a serial killer.

Josh Baxter, the man behind the wheel, is a virtual stranger to Charlie. They met at the campus ride board, each looking to share the long drive home to Ohio. Both have good reasons for wanting to get away. For Charlie, it’s guilt and grief over the murder of her best friend, who became the third victim of the man known as the Campus Killer. For Josh, it’s to help care for his sick father. Or so he says. Like the Hitchcock heroine she’s named after, Charlie has her doubts. There’s something suspicious about Josh, from the holes in his story about his father to how he doesn’t seem to want Charlie to see inside the car’s trunk. As they travel an empty highway in the dead of night, an increasingly worried Charlie begins to think she’s sharing a car with the Campus Killer. Is Josh truly dangerous? Or is Charlie’s suspicion merely a figment of her movie-fueled imagination?

What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse played out on night-shrouded roads and in neon-lit parking lots, during an age when the only call for help can be made on a pay phone and in a place where there’s nowhere to run. In order to win, Charlie must do one thing—survive the night.

You say Riley Sager, I read it, it’s that simple. One of the most consistently entertaining thriller writers working today.

Nobody, Somebody, Anybody
July 6, 2021
Ecco

Amy Harney has a job as a chambermaid for the summer, but on August 25, she will take the exam to become an EMT (third time’s the charm!) and finally move on with her life. In the meantime, she doesn’t mind scrubbing toilets immaculately clean or tucking the sheet corners just so. In fact, she tells herself that her work is a noble act of service to the rich guests at the yacht club.

Amy’s profound isolation colors everything: her job, her aspirations, even her interactions with the woman at the deli counter. And as the date for the EMT exam comes closer, Amy’s anxiety ratchets up in a way that is both familiar and troubling. In desperation, she concocts a “placebo” program—a self-prescribed regimen for her confidence, devised to trick herself into succeeding.

When her landlord, Gary, starts to invite her over for dinner—to practice his cooking skills as he awaits approval of his Ukrainian fiancé’s visa—Amy makes her first friend since her mother’s passing. Alongside this unexpected connection comes a surge of hopeful obsession that Amy knows she must reckon with before the summer’s end.

I’m a sucker for this type of cover, so that’s what drew me in, but this sounds like a good old fashioned disaster woman book that I’ll adore.

Magma by Thora Hjorleifsdottir
translated by Meg Matich
July 13, 2021
Grove Atlantic

Twenty-year-old Lilja is in love. As a young university student, she is quickly smitten with the intelligent, beautiful young man from school who quotes Derrida and reads Latin and cooks balanced vegetarian meals. Before she even realizes, she’s moved in with him, living in his cramped apartment, surrounded by sour towels and flat Diet Cokes. As the newfound intimacy of sharing a shower and a bed fuels her desire to please her partner, his quiet and pervasive manipulations start to unravel her.

In an era of pornification, his acts of nearly imperceptible abuse continue to mount as their relationship develops. Lilja wants to hold onto him, take care of him and be the perfect lover. But in order to do so, she gradually lets go of her boundaries and concurrently starts to lose her sense of self.

This summary sounds SO up my alley and I hope to pick this up soon!

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro
translated by Frances Riddle
July 13, 2021
Charco Press (UK)

After Rita is found dead in a church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit. Chronicling a difficult journey across the suburbs of the city, an old debt and a revealing conversation, Elena Knows unravels the secrets of its characters and the hidden facets of authoritarianism and hypocrisy in our society.

I still haven’t read anything published by Charco Press! But I love the sound of this.

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder
July 20, 2021
Doubleday Books

An ambitious mother puts her art career on hold to stay at home with her newborn son, but the experience does not match her imagination. Two years later, she steps into the bathroom for a break from her toddler’s demands, only to discover a dense patch of hair on the back of her neck. In the mirror, her canines suddenly look sharper than she remembers. Her husband, who travels for work five days a week, casually dismisses her fears from faraway hotel rooms.

As the mother’s symptoms intensify, and her temptation to give in to her new dog impulses peak, she struggles to keep her alter-canine-identity secret. Seeking a cure at the library, she discovers the mysterious academic tome which becomes her bible, A Field Guide to Magical Women: A Mythical Ethnography, and meets a group of mothers involved in a multilevel-marketing scheme who may also be more than what they seem.

I mean… that summary. Yes.

Horse Girls, edited by Halimah Marcus
August 3, 2021
Harper Perennial

Executive director of Electric Literature and editor-in-chief of Recommended Reading Halimah Marcus’s HORSE GIRLS, an anthology that reclaims the horse girl stereotype through personal stories that explore privilege, ambition, traditionally feminine and unfeminine desires, and wildness, featuring essays by Carmen Maria Machado, Adrienne Celt, Rosebud Ben-Oni, T Kira Madden, Courtney Maum, and Maggie Shipstead, among others, to Sarah Stein at Harper Perennial.

I regret to inform you all that I was a horse girl. Also, Carmen Maria Machado and T Kira Madden???! Say no more.

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So
August 3, 2021
Ecco

Seamlessly transitioning between the absurd and the tenderhearted, balancing acerbic humor with sharp emotional depth, Afterparties offers an expansive portrait of the lives of Cambodian-Americans. As the children of refugees carve out radical new paths for themselves in California, they shoulder the inherited weight of the Khmer Rouge genocide and grapple with the complexities of race, sexuality, friendship, and family.

A high school badminton coach and failing grocery store owner tries to relive his glory days by beating a rising star teenage player. Two drunken brothers attend a wedding afterparty and hatch a plan to expose their shady uncle’s snubbing of the bride and groom. A queer love affair sparks between an older tech entrepreneur trying to launch a “safe space” app and a disillusioned young teacher obsessed with Moby-Dick. And in the sweeping final story, a nine-year-old child learns that his mother survived a racist school shooter.

Sorry to end on a sad note — Anthony Veasna So passed away this month unexpectedly at the age of 28. Assuming his debut short story collection ends up being published as scheduled, I think it sounds brilliant and I’m looking forward to reading it, though it will be with regret that we won’t get to experience more of his writing.


So, here we are. I doubt I’ll be able to read all of these books next year (I know everyone says this all the time but I actually would like 2021 to be a backlist-heavy year for me), but as of now I’m really looking forward to reading as many off this list as I can.

What are your most anticipated books of 2021? Comment and let me know!