Favorite books of 2021
The Arsonists’ City

The Arsonists’ City

File this one under "What Should I Read Next made me do it." When I recommended Alyan's debut to an upcoming WSIRN guest, I was reminded that she had a new book out, published in March. This new novel is significantly longer than Salt Houses, clocking in at nearly 500 pages and 20 hours of listening time, but I'm so glad I downloaded the audiobook anyway. I was quickly swept up in the story of the complicated Nasr family, with its Syrian mother, Lebanese father, and three adult children flung across the globe. If you enjoyed Marjan Kamali's The Stationery Shop, Alyan's story, while a bit edgier (I'm thinking specifically of drug use), has a similar feel. Leila Buck's narration was outstanding. More info →
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The Sentence

The Sentence

What to say about this book? By turns delightful and dreadful, it's set inside the very real independent bookstore Birchbark Books, owned by novelist Louise Erdrich, and takes place from November 2019 to November 2020. Wonderful and beautiful and at times laugh-out-loud funny, but also heart-stopping in its descriptions of the Covid-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd (which took place just a few miles away). You'll hear more about this in tomorrow's new episode of What Should I Read Next, but for now I'll just say: I loved it. Avid readers take note: this book about books includes more than 150 book recommendations, which are thoughtfully compiled in an appendix. Make sure to take a look at the back matter, or download the audiobook supplement if you read in that format, as I did. More info →
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Reasons to Stay Alive

Reasons to Stay Alive

I've long enjoyed Haig's fiction; this year I enjoyed getting acquainted with his nonfiction. He writes in the opening pages that he's attempting to do two things in this memoir: to lessen the stigma of mental illness by talking about it openly, and to "try and actually convince people that the bottom of the valley never provides the clearest view." I highlighted extensively, copying nearly a page worth of quotes into my journal. I found this to be fascinating in its content, surprising in its scope and design, packed with good words about books and reading, and life-affirming in its conclusions. More info →
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Olympus, Texas: A Novel

Olympus, Texas: A Novel

I ate up this book and then built a whole Summer Reading Guide category around it (in the Expanded Edition). This spellbinding dysfunctional family saga set in small-town Texas puts a modern spin on Greek tragedy, full of fistfights and firearms. Everyone knows everyone else’s business in the fictional town of Olympus, especially when it comes to the notorious Briscoe family. The clan is “a walking collection of deadly sins,” and due to patriarch Peter’s philandering, his children populate several households in town. When prodigal son March returns home after a years-long exile imposed after sleeping with his sister-in- law, he sets a devastating chain of events in motion. Though the story spans a mere six days, several lifetimes’ worth of secrets are revealed in that time, and the ensuing consequences to the family and their town are irrevocable. More info →
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What Kind of Woman: Poems

What Kind of Woman: Poems

I usually like to go through a poetry collection slowly over time, but I had a difficult time not inhaling this collection all at once—I had to force myself to put it down! By turns witty, tender, snarky, and gutting, always relatable, and never boring. I've come back to this repeatedly, and given several copies to friends as gifts. (For some it was their first poetry collection; for others it was their hundredth.) More info →
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The Eighth Life

The Eighth Life

I first gushed about this to the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club in our Best Books of Summer 2021 event, and (correctly) predicted it would land on my Best of the Year list. This was the Georgian novel that I didn't know my life was missing. I shy away from long books these days, and this one clocks in at 1000 pages—but I'm so glad I let myself get talked into it by two trusted readers with great taste. This generational story tracks 100 years in a Georgian family from the Russian Revolution to the present day. The family also possesses a magical chocolate recipe that they mix up at opportune moments—whether it's a blessing or a curse remains to be seen for the 95 or so years. The ending is amazing. More info →
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

This is another collection I read in January, and have been recommending nonstop ever since. Some stories are quick five page reads, and others are closer to 40 pages—all of them make you feel like you're right there in the main character's life. This collection is about love, sex, relationships, work, mistakes and successes. Each story explores the unique predicament of one character, but they flow seamlessly from one woman's life to another, thanks to Philyaw's evocative prose and rich detail. I read my favorite story “How to Make Love to a Physicist” twice through (on paper) because I loved it so much. This was fantastic on audio, as narrated by Janina Edwards. More info →
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A Town Called Solace

A Town Called Solace

Mary Lawson is a new favorite author of mine; I found her work through my husband Will, who just happened to pick up her award-winning debut Crow Lake at our favorite local used book sale. He loved it, and passed it to me. Now I'm making my way through everything she's written—and was thus delighted to discover that not only does she have a new book out, but it was longlisted for the Booker Prize! This short novel examines disappointed hopes and disappointing families, and ponders how through love, forgiveness, and friendship we might patch together a meaningful life and grasp a glimmer of redemption. Highly recommended for fans of Ordinary Grace. More info →
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The Souvenir Museum: Stories

The Souvenir Museum: Stories

I adored this short story collection which featured a host of eccentric characters navigating tricky family relationships. I found myself longing to spend more time with nearly every character, and in one sense, I got my wish: the spine that holds these dozen stories together is those featuring Jack and Sadie, whom we visit at different points in their relationship throughout the book. Reading this felt like an emotional roller coaster; McCracken left me breathless as her characters' thoughts and actions elicited giggles and then gasps, often not just in the same story but on the same page. Her style feels deceptively light, as this book goes to hard places, examining depression, suicide, aging, and a host of terrible things happening to children. Yet I didn't want to put it down. More info →
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Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

The premise is this: life is short; each of us, on average, is alive for only four thousand weeks. It's impossible to accomplish and experience everything we want to. So how do we decide what is actually worth our time? I especially appreciated his thoughts on how everyone is just winging it, all the time, and that serializing our tasks will save us. I read this book very slowly: I rarely spend more than a week reading a book, but I read this one over the course of three, which was perfect for the material. More info →
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Crying in H Mart: A Memoir

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir

I suspect this heartfelt, poetic memoir was the right book at the right time for me, after my own father died last year. “Ever since my mother died, I cry in H Mart.” So begins Zauner’s poignant story. After her mother received a grim cancer diagnosis, Zauner realized her mother’s death would also mean losing her only tie to her Korean heritage, so she sought to shore up stories while she still has time. Whether she writes about the intricacies of preparing traditional Korean dishes or a hurtful misunderstanding, she explores moments from her tumultuous mother-daughter relationship with tenderness and love, often returning to the idea that our experiences of home, family and culture are viscerally rooted in what we taste, see and hear. An honest, lyrical, and life-affirming memoir about grief, growing up, and making amends. More info →
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How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

It's always dangerous to go into a book with sky-high expectations, as I did thanks to numerous rave reviews from trusted readers, but I needn't have feared: this is a stunner. In his first full-length nonfiction work, poet and journalist Smith explores the legacy of slavery in the United States, and to do so he takes his readers on a tour of sorts, visiting nine physical monuments crucial to that history, like Jefferson's Monticello, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, Angola Prison, New York City, and finally Senegal's Gorée Island. Each visit is packed with stories from both past and present, as Smith examines the site's history and explores what that means for us today. Smith's narration of his own work for the audiobook is exceptional. More info →
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Hour of the Witch

Hour of the Witch

Once I got absorbed in the story this Puritan-era historical thriller was unputdownable. Desperate to escape her abusive husband, Mary Deerfield seeks a rare divorce from the town council—but it’s a precarious time to pursue independence as a woman. Mary is soon accused of far worse than being a rebellious wife, and realizes a separation from her husband won’t be enough to save her from his escalating cruelty. Relying on a large cast of well-developed characters and an intricate plot, Bohjalian skillfully ratchets up the tension all the way through the exceptional ending. Also fabulous on audio. More info →
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Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Shuffle

For those who've only read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, Whitehead's new novel is going to feel like a huge departure; this is more like Sag Harbor, his 2009 novel set in 1980s New York City. (As you can see, Whitehead has range.) At the center of the story sits Ray Carney, a man caught between two worlds: he wants to be a respectable family man, but can't seem evade the pull of the crime scene of 1960s Harlem, and its profits. This has been often described as a heist novel—and it is—but please know going in that it is carefully-constructed and slow-building, with rich character development and a sly sense of humor. Excellent on audio, as narrated by Dion Graham. More info →
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The Last Thing He Told Me

The Last Thing He Told Me

I inhaled this breakneck domestic thriller in a single evening. Hannah and Owen have been happily married for a year. She finds meaning in her job crafting bespoke furniture for high-end clients; he works at a tech start-up that builds privacy software. The only real sore spot between them is her fragile relationship with his sixteen-year-old daughter Bailey. Then one afternoon, Hannah receives a hastily scrawled note from her husband with just two words on it: “protect her.” Why must she protect Bailey—and from whom? She can’t ask Owen; he’s gone—and Hannah is determined to find out why. This is a new direction for repeat SRG author Laura Dave; I think it’s her best work yet. More info →
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The Transit of Venus

The Transit of Venus

What to say about this book? For the first 75 pages, I was bored to tears. I could not keep the characters straight. I did not understand what Hazzard was up to. But by the end, I thought it to be one of the best books I'd ever read, with a spectacular—if devastating—ending. And then I flipped to the beginning to start again. I knew going in that Hazzard's husband once remarked that no one should have to read this book for the first time; read it and you'll see why. First-time readers should know that Hazzard knows what she's about, that it takes her ten years to write novels because each sentence is constructed with care, that this story, ostensibly about love and family, is every bit as much about power. More info →
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Painting Time

Painting Time

This breathless French coming of age novel was a delightful surprise; I went on to read everything else I could snap up by de Kerangal. This is the story of Paula, a once-floundering French student who stumbles into her calling almost by accident, and enrolls to study trompe l’oeil, or “the art of illusion,” in Brussels. In her distinctive impressionistic style, de Kerangal invites us to accompany Paula as she throws herself into her craft and learns to flawlessly imitate rare and expensive materials with her brushstrokes—marble, tortoiseshell, the heart grain of oak. As Paula finds work abroad as a decorative painter—in studios and on film sets in Paris, Moscow, and Italy—she wrestles with the meaning of her work, and what to do about the relationships she left behind. To sound like a total nerd: I couldn’t get enough of de Kerangal's voice. More info →
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After You’d Gone

After You’d Gone

This was another book where I read the final paragraph and turned back to the beginning to read it again. I'm working my way through Maggie O'Farrell's backlist, and this, her 2000 debut, may be my favorite of her older works. Told from multiple points of view, in multiple timelines, it took me a few chapters to find my footing, but once I did I blew through this compelling mix of love story, mystery, and compelling family saga. You should know that terrible, seemingly random tragedies beset characters in O'Farrell's novels, yet in her plots these surprising turns don't feel cheap, but all too true to our own real life experiences. (As one character muses, "Why isn't life better designed so it warns you when terrible things are about to happen?") More info →
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My Lady Jane

My Lady Jane

This quirky spin on the true story of Lady Jane Grey was pure laugh-out-loud fun. The THREE authors who co-wrote this book (I'm sure their process is a story in itself) transformed the tragic historical interlude of Jane's 9-day reign into a zany comedy, akin to a mash-up of The Princess Bride and The Other Boleyn Girl. In their version, sixteen-year-old King Edward arranged a marriage for Jane in order to secure his line to the throne. The young king doesn’t have much interest in ruling, and she doesn’t have much interest in marriage. But duty is the least of their problems because, well...Jane’s betrothed turns into a horse every night. Note: this sassy book is especially great on audio. More info →
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Landslide

Landslide

My whole heart was wrapped up in this short family story. When her husband is confined to a Nova Scotia hospital after a terrible fishing accident, a mother not much older than me is left to parent her teenage boys—"the wolves"—alone. But things have been hard for a while now: in this insular Maine fishing community, the fish aren't biting like they once did. Money is perpetually tight. Not long before, the family was dealt a terrible blow, and one son is still wracked by grief. And even absent an immediate crisis, parenting teenage boys is grueling. I did not want to put this down, although I paused many times along the way to text my fellow parents of teenage boys. I loved the bracing portrayal of a family on the brink, the gripping tone that says with every line I'm not sure how I'll get through this. More info →
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Taste: My Life Through Food

Taste: My Life Through Food

I hadn't intended to read this, and I'm so glad I let myself get talked into it by a trusted friend! This was a delight from start to finish; I was hooked from the three-sentence introduction and its promise of plenty of puns to come. From his stories of growing up in a large Italian-American family in New York, to mixing up the perfect martini on set, to falling in love with his wife over a cheese cart, I just ate this up. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself.) I'm sure this is wonderful in hardcover as well, but Tucci narrates his own audiobook and it is superb—I highly recommend this format. More info →
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The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

This book was such a delightful surprise. I never expected to love—or even read—a book about poker, but several readers with great taste told me to prioritize this one, and I'm glad I listened. In this story-driven narrative, author and New Yorker journalist Konnikova tells how and why she dedicated several years of her life to becoming a professional poker player, and seamlessly connects what she learns at the table to making better decisions and living a more satisfying life. Endlessly fascinating and laugh-out-loud funny, and one I've been thinking about all year, after reading it way back in January. More info →
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We Should All Be Millionaires: A Woman’s Guide to Earning More, Building Wealth, and Gaining Economic Power

We Should All Be Millionaires: A Woman’s Guide to Earning More, Building Wealth, and Gaining Economic Power

This book is so smart and fun. Rodgers's chief assertion is that money talks, and therefore until women—and particularly Black women—have economic power, equality will remain out of reach. She argues why it's good—both individually and collectively—for women to increase their incomes, and shares how she did it in her own life, and how you can do it, too. I found this to be illuminating as well as a lot of FUN to read; I loved Rodgers's smart and snappy style. When I finished my egalley, I promptly ordered the hardcover for my 14yo daughter, who's expressed a desire to learn more about money lately. More info →
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption

I've been meaning to read this novella for YEARS, primarily because it's a title some of my favorite authors call a must-read. I'm not well-versed in King novels (because I'm a scaredy-cat); this is a departure from his typical genre (although some of the content is admittedly pretty grim). This is the story of a man unjustly imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, and his quest to secure his freedom any way he can. I'm so glad I finally read this, and almost did so in a single sitting. More info →
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Malibu Rising

Malibu Rising

This page-turning family saga was one of my top picks from the 2021 MMD Summer Reading Guide, because it has everything you could want in a beach read: surfers, rockstars, 80s pop culture, and a mansion going up in flames. It’s 1983, and the four adult children of rockstar Mick Riva are preparing to host Malibu’s party of the year, unaware of how this one night will irrevocably change their lives. Reid employs an interesting structure to unpack what happens, hour by hour, the day of the party, intercutting the present-day narrative with scenes from the family’s past that go back generations. I'm a huge fan of messy family stories and compulsively readable literary fiction; this book delivers on both counts. I couldn’t put it down. More info →
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