Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Best Fiction of 2021


Like most of you, I expected 2021 to be the year we emerged from our homes and spent time doing what we previously considered normal activities. Last January, my husband and I got our first Moderna vaccines and we were excited about the possibilities ahead of us. Little did we know that a combination of new variants, vaccine hesitancy, and a hodgepodge of rules regarding masking would mean that we wouldn’t be quite ready for what we call normal. I’ve long loved the quote: “Normal is just a setting on your washing machine” and believe it even more true today. I no longer l wish for what I used to consider normal. Instead, I’ve chosen to protect my remaining sanity by doing what gets me through the day. For me, that means reading more fiction. Stories explain the world to me. Stories immerse me in someone else’s journey and help me make sense of mine. 

My husband and most of my friends and family watched many of the excellent films and series that streamed into our living rooms. I couldn’t concentrate on anything on the screen except college basketball. Despite my love of story, my forays into even the best on TV simply didn’t work. Ted Lasso was the only show that captured me so my need for story led me to read more fiction and the fact that we were staying home more allowed me to read many, many fine books. Because I read so many, it’s hard for me to select just a few as the best, but the following were stellar. I hope you find something that fills a want or need within you.

The Best Novel of 2021—It’s a tie between one published in 2020 and two in 2021.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
by Deesha Philyaw (2020)
was a National Book Award Finalist. Nine stories explore the hidden, raw, and tender places where Black women find relief from having to be good all the time. The women range from a 14-year-old girl with a crush on her preacher’s wife to women of all ages seeking love, comfort, and God. This debut collection highlights the influence of the church for good or evil. I’m still thinking about Instructions for Married Christian Husbands. Even if you think you don’t love short stories, try this collection. G/GS/S/T, BC (2020)

Zorrie by Laird Hunt is the stunning portrayal of one woman’s life lived in small towns in central Indiana. After the death of the aunt who took her in when her parents died, Zorrie found work in a radium watch factory in Illinois. Homesick, she returned to Indiana and married a farmer who then died in WWII. Hunt captures the essence of American life in 161 quiet, grace-filled pages. Reminiscent of the novels of Marilynne Robinson and Reynolds Price, Zorrie was a National Book Award finalist. I grew up within thirty miles of the book’s setting and Holy Toledo does it ring true. The Midwest is universal in this sure-to-be classic. G/PP/SN, BC

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro features Klara, an artificial friend, purchased as the companion for an ailing girl. Klara is observant, empathetic, and loving—not what literature usually depicts as characteristics of nonhumans. Klara, like her fellow AFs, needs the sun for nourishment so she is literally filled with light. It’s the metaphor of light as love that makes this novel exceptional. That the successful students in this future world study virtually in their homes feels prescient of our current malaise, but what the novel illuminates is that our devices make isolation inevitable. Ishiguro explores our disconnected world by showing that an outsider can exemplify perfect love. His Nobel laureate chops are on display in this masterpiece. G/S/SBP, BC

The following books are all magnificent so they’re listed in alphabetical order. 

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny has all the quirkiness, heart, and insight of an Anne Tyler novel. Toss in humor, music, kindness, and small-town sensibility and it’s a winner. Jane is 26 and has moved to Boyne City, Michigan to teach second grade. She and Duncan, a furniture restorer and locksmith, fall in love within seconds of meeting. She soon learns that he’s been with almost every woman within fifty miles, but it doesn’t matter. His helper Jimmy, his ex-wife and her bizarre husband, and their friends become family and readers get to enjoy the resulting hilarity, tenderness, and contentment. D/GPR/S, BC

Fight Night by Miriam Toews is a rollicking, imaginative tale with two impossible-to-forget characters whose wry dialogue belies the difficulties they face. A Scotiabank-Giller Prize finalist, it’s narrated by 9-year-old Swiv who documents life with her outrageous 86-year-old Grandma Elvira as they live in the aftermath of suicide, religious patriarchy, and abuse. I read the book, but the audio version is getting great reviews and this type of tale fits the spoken word. RF/S, BC

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a devastatingly beautiful novel of grief, love, marriage, and resilience. Based on the life of Shakespeare, his wife Agnes, and their children including their son Hamnet, the novel makes the reader slow down to fully grasp Agnes’s singular life and her love for her children. We know that losing a child is unbearable; Hamnet makes us feel the loss completely. When you read Hamnet, you are in England in the 1580s as the plague envelopes the land. You also feel the effects of misogyny. That a book about a plague could be so arresting during a pandemic seems improbable, but it will transport you to that world and away from your concerns. G/PP/SBP/SN, BC (2020)

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar is an amazing work of autobiographical fiction. Ayad, the character, like the author, was born in New York to Pakistani parents and raised in Wisconsin where his father was a successful physician. He wrote a Pulitzer-winning play and now struggles with feeling “other” as his parents also wrestle with identity. This book brilliantly explores what it means to be American, especially today. Yes, you may need to keep a dictionary handy as Akhtar always uses the best possible word and some aren’t familiar. Great for book clubs. G/SN, BC (2020)

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson opens with several searing and fabulous stories that set you up for the brilliant title novella set in the near future. A diverse group of neighbors escapes a mob of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia and hides out in Jefferson’s Monticello estate. One of them and her grandmother are descendants of Sally Hemings. Seeing the effects of climate change and the growth of predatory groups feels so real it will make you quake. “They believed their security depended on making sure we never felt safe, not even in our own bodies.” So much to discuss! G/GPR/SN, BC

Oh, William! is quietly magnificent. In this stand-alone sequel to My Name is Lucy Barton, Lucy’s ex-husband William is reeling after his third wife leaves him and he learns of a family secret. He turns to Lucy and she accompanies him on a journey to his past. Their trip underlies a restrained, yet compelling novel. If you haven’t read Lucy Barton, you may want to read it first to better appreciate Lucy and her family. G/GPR, BC

Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby is one of the finest suspense/crime novels I’ve ever read and Cosby is a master of the genre. It will appear as the best mystery/thriller when I list those titles, but it also belongs with the best of all fiction this year.  Ike is Black. Buddy Lee is white. They have little but violent past lives in common until their sons are murdered. Neither Ike nor Buddy Lee had accepted their sons’ marriage and both were estranged from them. Still, they loved their boys so they decide to seek revenge together and mayhem coupled with phenomenal writing, violence, tenderness, and humor are the result. Read it in a day, then return to savor it. You’ll also want to read his fabulous Blacktop Wasteland. CC/GPR/GS, BC 

The Removed by Brandon Hobson is a spectacular look at the way the removal of the Cherokee from their homeland in 1838 is reflected in life today. The Echota family is planning their annual gathering commemorating the death of their son Ray-Ray by a cop who heard gunshots and fired at the “Indian kid.” The use of Cherokee myths and history and the integration of birds to illuminate and foreshadow the action is magnificent. The characters are memorable and the “Darkening Land” is eerie, wryly portrayed, and omniscient. Read this slowly and carefully to unveil all its layers then find a friend or book club so you can discuss it. G/PP/SF/SN, BC

Others that could have and perhaps should have been on this list include Deacon King Kong by James McBride, Godspeed by Nickolas Butler, In the Aftermath by Jane Ward, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, Laurentian Divide and Vacationland by Sarah Stonich, Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy, The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, The Paris Library by Janet Skeslian Charles, Sea Wife by Amity Gaige, and The Second Home by Christina Clancy.

1 comment:

  1. These all sound fabulous. Thanks for the great recommendations, and happy new year to you and all your readers.