Best Books of 2021
All right, squad, here we are.
2021 was a spectacular year in reading for me - of the 242 books I've read this year, I had a 'could be in the best of 2021' list that was 40 books long and that I was finally, after much agonising, able to narrow down to the 25 best books I read this year (and five honourable mentions). I'm sorry, I know that that will be some people's entire reading year of 2022, but I did the best I could and I just could not narrow it down further than that. You're welcome, everyone. Think of all the pre-reading I've already done for you.
Just a quick refresher of the rules: none of these books are in my other wrap-up lists (which, ultimately, is what made it easier to boot some books out of the ranking; I felt I was able to give them good homes in another best-of list. Maybe that's cheating, but you know what, it's my blog so I will do whatever I damn well please, thank you very much). All these books are books I read for the first time in 2021 (no rereads; otherwise Pride and Prejudice and The Count of Monte Cristo would get in every time) and the original year of publication is irrelevant.
Also, because this list is so long (sorry again!) I won't go into much detail on all the books; rather I'll link directly to the reviews - for the ones that I reviewed in full - and will do very short descriptors on the ones that didn't get a full-length review in the first instance.
Obviously you can take it as read that all the books in this list are beautifully well-written, excellent stories, and that I highly, highly recommend each and every one of them.
So, without further ado, the best 25 books (in no particular order) I read in 2021 are:
Such A Fun Age, by Kiley Reid
Frère d'âme, by David Diop
A Curious History of Sex, by Kate Lister: A fascinating look at the way sex has been approached in European culture from Ancient Rome to the modern day. I also learned lots of very fun slang.
Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi
L'Anomalie, by Hervé le Tellier
L'art de perdre, by Alice Zeniter: A long, epic tale that is both a coming-of-age and a family saga. Zeniter's central character is loosely autobiographical of herself, and retraces her family's history in and emigration from Algeria. It's about how to find your own version of belonging, the complicated relationships people can have with their family pasts, and navigating multiple different identities. Lovely, crisp, specific writing that is both broad and intimate.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Washburn Strong: A simply exquisite reworking of the Christ myth, but centering native Hawai'ian mythology rather than the Catholic creed. It's also a family saga about the failures of the American Dream and resilience after unspeakable tragedy. I literally haven't stopped thinking about it since I've finished it.
In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvárez
The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson: A very short, almost eerie series of interconnected novellas set around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. There's a fair bit of fantastic magicalism here, a lot of surrealism, and feels more like a fable than a straight novel - but it's unbelievably gorgeous and lush.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, by Deepa Anappara: A novel that explores all the way a state can fail its most marginalised citizens; this is a story narrated by 9-year-old Jai, whose family live in the slums of an Indian city. His imagination is one of the other characters, pretty much, and it's the story of how his sister goes missing after a spate of other children disappear from their community and he tries to solve the mystery because of his obsession with cop shows. It's a wonderful, seriously underrated gem of a book.
Changer l'eau des fleurs, by Valérie Perrin: A simply stunning book about recovering from devastating loss, and learning to become your own person again after trauma. Featuring all the modern hallmarks of great modern French literature: quirky, slightly surreal characters; long descriptive scenes of breathtaking beauty; and a quiet reflectiveness that I haven't stopped thinking about since I finished it. I've told everyone I know to read this book and now I'm telling you.
Bonjour tristesse, by Françoise Sagan: I somehow made it to my twenty-eighth year on earth before reading any Sagan, and now I don't know how anybody allowed that to happen. This was a short, perfect book that was the most wonderful blend of philosophy and literature, with a simply odious narrator that you somehow still felt for because she's 17 and how else are you supposed to react to your father suddenly bringing home a woman who is barely older than you are? Simply wonderful. One of my reading resolutions for 2022 now is to read as much of Sagan's novels as I possibly can.
The Other Black Girl, by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk: A sweeping, atmospheric tale of murder in a remote Polish village. The atmosphere and the setting of this book was so inch-perfect and realised that I legitimately struggled to return to the real world when I finished it. The murder mystery part of the plot was perhaps a bit predictable, but the introspection and poetry of the writing was so gorgeous I forgive it entirely.
Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead
The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed: A dark, gripping story of a Somali immigrant wrongfully accused of murder in 1950s Cardiff. That's all you get because this is a book that should be read completely unspoiled - but obviously, it's a great book.
Les Mémoires d'un chat, by Hiro Arikawa
Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
Bewilderment, by Richard Powers: An exquisitely-rendered book about a father-son duo grappling with the son's mental illness and climate anxiety. I couldn't put this book down and was bowled over by the stunning descriptions and the raw, gritty, difficult relationship the father has with his child. This was actually my pick to win the Booker, it was so beautiful.
Once There Were Wolves, by Charlotte McConaghy
The Colour Purple, by Alice Walker: A book that somehow I made it to 27 without ever having to read, either in school or... ever? A heart-wrenching story about two Black sisters in the Deep South separated by life, and how they each lived very different stories but find their way back to each other in the end. There's a lot going on here and I can't adequately summarise it, but really, just go read this book.
The Passenger, by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
Libertie, by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Le Club des Incorrigibles Optimistes, by Jean-Michel Guenassia: A rollicking coming-of-age romp set in early 1960s Paris. The central narrator is a thirteen-year-old boy who accidentally finds himself involved with a chess club made up of Soviet and Eastern European political refugees, and you watch his early adolescence evolve in the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and interspersed with the life stories of the immigrants he's meeting. It's utterly absorbing, and so good. A close to perfect novel.
Miss Benson's Beetle, by Rachel Joyce
Intimacies, by Katie Kitamura: An entirely introspective novel about a translator for the International Criminal Court in the Hague. This is a book about the liminal spaces between identities and cultures and languages, and how translation can sometimes mean erasure, and the impossibility of translating certain things. A surprise favourite of this year, but one that absolutely whetted my appetite for more of this author's work.
La Porte du voyage sans retour, by David Diop
This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
La plus secrète mémoire des hommes, by Mohammed Mbougar Sarr: A sweeping, epic tale of a Senegalese author who is trying to retrace the steps of another Senegalese writer, one who took Paris by storm in 1938 with the publication of a very controversial, very infamous novel. The book is about lots of things - politics, colonialism, revolution, identity - but is mostly about books and the power of literature to conquer time. It's also brilliantly written and poignantly observed. Of course it won the Goncourt this year.
The poor books that never did anything wrong to anybody and that got left out in the final instance - I felt so guilty leaving them out, but I just read so many great books! - are:
Fake Accounts, by Lauren Oyler
The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
People We Meet On Vacation, by Emily Henry
An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears
The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld
Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy
Monsieur, by Emma Becker
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell
And, in case you need any gifts in the next few months, you can shop all 39 of my favourite books of 2021 in full here (minus some of the French titles that are not yet available in English translations).