The Best Books from the First Half of 2021

Hard to believe we’ve already crossed the midpoint of the year. My top 20 releases of 2021 thus far, in alphabetical order within genre (fiction is dominating this year!), are below. I link to those I’ve already reviewed in full here or on Goodreads:

 

Fiction

Under the Blue by Oana Aristide: Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry and sisters Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide. Their plan is to flee England for Uganda, out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues. A propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde.

 

The Push by Ashley Audrain: Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. How much of what happened was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed? The fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood. A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator.

 

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moment – crystallizes fatherhood, illuminating its daily heartaches and joys. The tone is just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to, starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. I loved the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life.

 

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Extinction, personal and global, is at the heart of this timely and enchanting story. It starts off as a family drama. Francie, the 86-year-old matriarch, is in a Tasmanian hospital after a brain bleed. Her three middle-aged children can’t bear to let her go. In an Australia blighted by bushfires, species loss mirrors Francie’s physical and mental crumbling. Smartphone addiction threatens meaningful connection. And then characters start to literally disappear, part by part…

 

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined. The novel balances the cosmic and the personal through Wolf’s family story. Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read.

 

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny: This tickled my funny bone. A cross between Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Olive Kitteridge, it’s built of five extended episodes, crossing nearly two decades in the lives of Jane and Duncan and lovingly portraying the hangers-on who compose their unusual family constellation in Boyne City, Michigan. All the characters are incorrigible but wonderful. Bad things happen, but there’s a core of love as Heiny explores marriage and parenting. A good-natured book that feels wise and bittersweet.

 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.

 

In by Will McPhail: Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and gentle. This debut graphic novel is a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced; all he can manage is small talk. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who sees past his pretence. If only he can find the magic words that elicit honesty, he might make real connections with other human beings. A good old-fashioned story, with a wide emotional range.

 

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: A sparkling, sexy comedy with a tender heart beneath the zingers. Peters has set herself up as the Jane Austen of the trans community, tracing the ins and outs of relationships with verve and nuance. For me this was a valuable book simply for normalizing trans sexuality. The themes are universal, after all: figuring out who you are and what the shape of your life will be. I admire when authors don’t pander to readers by making things easy for those who are unfamiliar with a culture. Great lines abound.

 

Brood by Jackie Polzin: Polzin’s debut is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.

 

 

Nonfiction

The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.

 

The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.

 

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.

 

Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.

 

A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (Reviewed for TLS.)

 

Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott: Lamott’s best new essays in nearly a decade. The central theme is how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst. One key thing that has changed for her is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. In thinking of marriage, she writes about friendship, constancy, and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time.

 

A Braided Heart by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creative writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Coming out on July 13th from the University of Michigan Press. My first review for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.

 

 

Poetry

Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar: An Iranian American poet imparts the experience of being torn between cultures and languages, as well as between religion and doubt, in this gorgeous collection of confessional verse. Food, plants, animals, and the body supply the book’s imagery. Wordplay and startling juxtapositions lend lightness to a wistful, intimate collection that seeks belonging and belief. (Coming out on August 3rd from Graywolf Press. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick: In this audacious debut collection, the body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to the book, but it also has its lighter moments. Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry.

 

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2021 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

25 responses

  1. Well, the only one I have read here is the Richard Flanagan (surprise, surprise) which I read back to back with Ogawa’s The Memory Police, which is also about things that disappear, so it was a nice bit of serendipity that strengthened the resonance of both novels for me. Funny how that happens.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love such moments of serendipity 🙂 Do you rate the Flanagan as highly as I do? It’s my book of the year thus far.

      Like

  2. I am reading Keffenick’s collection just now and am really enjoying it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you loved it as much as I did. I was so impressed — and it’s her first book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have the Davies and the Flanagan in my reading stack and the Lockwood and Heiny on my wishlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel like all of those will be right up your street (although the Lockwood has been very divisive, so it’s hard to say).

      Like

  4. No overlap! I have read some good books this year, though, including all the Dean Street Press novels I’ve read and some great non-fiction on birds, empire and volcanoes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll look forward to your end-of-year choices. You always manage to pick out some gems that I’ve missed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Of these, I’ve also read and loved Mrs Death Misses Death and A Still Life (the former in 2020, and the latter this year, in Feb). A Braided Heart sounds like something that might actually be useful for my current project–I wonder if it’s going to be available through libraries in the UK… And Brood by Jackie Polzin is one of the few books I keep hearing about and being genuinely intrigued by!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read an e-galley of A Braided Heart and don’t expect it will make it over here as it’s from a smaller U.S. university press. I think anyone who writes personal essays would find it useful.

      That one gal on Twitter seems to have made it her life mission to get everyone to read Brood 😉 I’m not as excited as all that, but I did find it intriguing and quite touching.

      Like

  6. buriedinprint | Reply

    Wow, no overlap here either! There are just so many books to read, eh? I checked my log to see if there are any other 2021 books that I thought you’d particularly enjoy, that we haven’t already chatted about, but, nope. In my own stack of new reading, I’ve just begun Thomas King’s new novel Sufferance; he’s an Indigenous (Cherokee|Greek|Greek) writer who’s on my MRE Must Read Everything list and, for a change, I’ve actually read his “everything”, so this new one has my full attention. By which I mean, I’m super excited, but, yes, there are still several other books in the current stack too. Y’know.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve had a look at one by King, The Inconvenient Indian, and I have The Back of the Turtle on my TBR. I wonder if I heard about that one from you?

      Like

      1. buriedinprint

        Maybe? I did post about it. But I don’t see a comment from you, so maybe not. Also I see that I mistyped; he’s Cherokee|Greek|German. I might reread The Inconvenient Indian if Bill ends up reading it for his 2022 project; I love how King includes humour in his response to injustice. I’ve added Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth into my stack of 2021 reads since I commented above. Is that in your stack too?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I hadn’t heard of On Juneteenth. It doesn’t look like it’s available in the UK. Still, on the TBR it goes!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Dusk Night Dawn is the only one I’ve read from your list! I loved it as well. I want to read Early Morning Riser – both of the books you compared it to are favorites.

    Best 2021-published book I’ve read so far: probably Elly Griffiths’ The Postscript Murders. I tend to read mostly backlist, though, so I’ve not read a ton of books published this year. My numbers will increase as the year goes on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’ll love Early Morning Riser. It was such a sweet, funny, cozy read.

      I still haven’t tried any by Griffiths, but they’re very popular at the library where I volunteer.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I love the fact that the only one I’ve heard of is the Richard Flanagan. Intensive Care is on hold at the library – hope to get that soon.
    I’m curious about Under the Blue because of your reference to Station 11. I don’t go in for science fiction but was persuaded to read Station 11 and loved it so if Under The Blue is on a part with that I shall have to get it. I did laugh at the idea that Uganda would be considered safer than UK though….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For me Under the Blue was a worthy successor to Station Eleven as post-pandemic dystopian novels go (not that I’ve read a ton of those!). It did really show how topsy-turvy the world was, that they’d be rushing towards Africa for safety.

      Intensive Care is wonderful, by far the best of the Covid-themed books I’ve read so far (7+).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Picked up my copy of Intensive Care from the library today. Am tempted to start reading but then that means abandoning two books from my 20booksofsummer list…Oh dear

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I say substitute at will!

        Like

  9. I’ve been going back and forth on Detransition, Baby, but you may have sealed the deal. Thanks for the reviews!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you sample it, you’ll know pretty early on whether you enjoy the voice or not.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I took that advice and read the first few pages online at the library and liked it. Unfortunately, there are three…four books ahead of it in the ‘library books that are going to be due soon’ queue. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know what that problem is like! As an author once told me, though, “books are patient.”

        Like

  10. […] New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access. (On my Best of 2021 so far […]

    Like

Leave a Comment

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: