With reading over 100 books this year there were many contenders for my “Best Reads Over 2021” list. Overall, I had a rather enjoyable reading year averaging a 4.2 rating on Goodreads. With that said, compiling this list presented a few challenges. Such as narrowing down my top tier of books. My first pass at the list included 30 books, then 26, 20, 15, and finally 10. Another challenge presented was should I only include new releases on this list or should I not take the publication date into consideration. With this being a best of, top tier list I decided that the publication date was irrelevant to this list. I also question if I should organize the list in a ranking system. Again, I decided to forgo the ranking system and just focus on the books that have made imprints on my being.
1. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the debut novel of Anthony Marra published February 4, 2014.
Focusing on the lives of six characters living in war-torn Chechnya, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is a mesmerizing story spanning a decade between the years of 1994 and 2004. At the center of the story is Havaa, an eight-year-old girl whose father has been abducted. Akhmed, her neighbor, who quickly comes to her rescue hiding her in a nearly decimated hospital. And Sonja the doctor who works at said hospital who hopes to be reunited with her missing sister.
This story is ambitious and delivers like no other. Months after reading this book I still think about these characters and where they may be in their lives. Highly recommend this stunning debut novel and can’t wait to read more from Anthony Marra.
2. The Goldfinch
Written by Donna Tartt and published on October 22, 2013, The Goldfinch is a coming-of-age story, revolving around a young man by the name of Theo Decker and the iconic painting, which the book gets its namesake, by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius.
The Goldfinch introduces the reader to Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, who has miraculously survived a terrorist attack that also claimed the life of his mother. Alone for the first time in his life, Theo is shuffled around first being taken in by a wealthy family friend and then by his largely absent father who moves him to Las Vegas. Eventually Theo makes his way back to New York where he learns *inserts Goodreads summary, “to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works.”
This novel is a modern-day classic and Tartt’s writing is a beautiful exercise in grief. This Pulitzer Prize novel is a slow burn that encapsulates heavy themes and is worth the 700+ page count.
3. The Prophets
The debut novel of Robert Jones Jr. and published January 5, 2021, The Prophets, is the story of a forbidden companionship between Isaiah and Samuel, two enslaved men on a plantation in the Deep South.
The Prophets is told through the perspectives of multiple individuals living on the plantation from those also enslaved to the slave owners themselves, which offers a unique and interesting perspective. This novel is nothing short of phenomenal, gutting me immediately. When I initially began reading this book, I knew that this would be a queer story about Isaiah was Samuel; however, the book is so much more than that as it showcases the beauty these two men bring to the world all the while living in one of the cruelest eras in American History.
And the ending! Wow. I still constantly think about it.
4. The Song of Achilles
Written by Madeline Miller and published August 28, 2012, The Song of Achilles, is another debut novel on this list. This modern-day retelling of Homer’s The Iliad.
The Song of Achilles spans the course of Achilles’ life. Being born the son of Thetis a cruel sea goddess and Peleus a legendary king. The reader is also introduced to Patroclus who is a young prince who has been exiled from his homeland. The two form an inseparable bond and develop a love that spans the heavens. Words can’t describe how I felt regarding the love and dynamic between Achilles and Patroclus. It immediately grabbed me, and I was along for the ride.
I was extremely intimidated by this novel due to it being based in Greek Mythology. However, Madeline Miller made this story and all the characters accessible to the reader.
5. Normal People
Written by Sally Rooney and published April 16, 2019, Normal People, is the story of Marianne, Connell and their unhealthy but highly addicting relationship as they navigate their late teens and twenties.
Before going into this novel, I heard so many discouraging things, which story of my life, made me hesitant to read it. Then I did and absolutely loved it. Granted I am not a fan of Rooney’s writing structure; however, she worked magic on me, and I was absolutely gripped by Marianne and Connell’s relationship. But in full transparency I understood the dynamics of their relationship because I’ve very much walked in their shoes regarding a toxic relationship like theirs.
Written by Min Jin Lee and published on February 7, 2017, Pachinko, is an epic multigenerational story spanning from 1910 to 1989. This historical fiction novel follows a Korean family that immigrated to Japan. Among the topics explored in this novel are love, sacrifice, ambition while also dealing with racism and stereotyping.
Pachinko is a three-part novel, which makes for an incredibly intimidating read. Personally, I was hesitant to begin reading this novel because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to navigate the character landscape; however, Min Jin Lee is a phenomenal writer and once I began reading, I was immediately captivated. I can’t count how many times I was genuinely gasping at the twist and turns this novel takes.
7. Such a Fun Age
Kiley Reid’s debut novel, Such a Fun Age, published December 31, 2019 is a story about race, privilege, and societal expectations. Kicking off this page turning story, Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old African American college graduate is wrongfully accused of kidnapping a white child while babysitting.
Such a Fun Age also explores themes such as interracial relationships, Millennial anxiety, and white savior complex. Reid explores these themes by navigating everyday life exploring the dynamics and relationship Emira has with her boyfriend Kelley, boss Alix, and their pursuit to prove their racial virtue.
As the kids say, “THIS BOOK SLAPS!”
There are clearly a lot of themes one can identify with. For myself I could wholeheartedly relate to Emira and the place she’s at in her life. Being a recent graduate, Emira is dealing with Millennial anxiety trying to figure out what the next chapter has in store for her. This is something most humans can relate to, not just exclusive to Millennials; however, we may have been the generation most vocal about it.
The theme I loved the most, however, deals with white savior complex typically perpetrated by white “open minded” liberals. It’s something that I’ve noticed being a member of the LGBTQA+ community. There are a lot of individuals, typically white liberals, who will scream Black Lives Matter and post black boxes on Instagram or say they are for minorities and want to amplify our voices. Yet when you look deeper you realize that the organizations they are a part of or the projects they produce have no BIPOC or LGBTQA+ folks in leadership positions. When I started noticing it, I started asking friends in other minority groups if they too had noticed it and it has spawned multiple conversations about how we must show up for one another and how we need to navigate not only the communities we’re apart of but also the communities around us.
8. Dawn: Stories
Presented among Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint, SJP for Hogarth and published April 23, 2019, Dawn: Stories is a collection of short stories written by Selahattin Demirtas.
In total this collection contains twelve short stories all of which navigate through the lives of ordinary people living in a war-torn landscape.
What also adds to the allure of this collection is the author himself. A Kurdish politician of the Peoples’ Democratic Party who after running for the Turkish Presidency and losing was arrested and has been detained since 2016. This book was written while he’s been incarcerated.
I will warn however, this book does deal with strong themes.
9. A Little Hope
Published November 16, 2021, A Little Hope, is the debut novel of Ethan Joella. Centering around a group of individuals living in Connecticut, A Little Hope, is about love, grief, and how to navigate through difficult and traumatic times.
Where I personally connected with this novel was the character of Greg Tyler, a husband and a father who has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and needs a transplant to beat his cancer diagnoses. As a survivor of acute lymphoblastic leukemia as well as a bone marrow transplant recipient I could immensely relate to this precise storyline. Joella nailed the experience!
Written by Fredrik Backman and published April 25, 2017, Beartown, is the story of a tiny Swedish community whose lives revolve around a declining hockey team. However, there is hope for the town in form of Kevin Erdahl a junior and star hockey player until one night at a party he rapes a 15-year-old girl who happens to be the ice hockey club’s manager.
Like most of Backman’s work, Beartown, is beautifully written and is a character study into the human psyche. Backman has a true gift for captivating his audience with how he develops his characters. That said this book does lack his whimsical prose and clearly has difficult moments to endure while reading.
While most of these ten novels are classified as literary fiction, what has drawn me to each are the rich characters and their developments through their respective stories. What has also fascinated me with being immersed within these worlds is having the ability to see through the lens of others to learn other valid perspectives while also comparing my lived experience to theirs. It’s been an enlightening experience. That said, have you read any of the books on this list? If so, which ones? And what have been your favorite reads from 2021? Please feel free to let me know down below.