Dec 23: Best of 2021

So much for always sending on Tuesdays! It's ok.

You do not need me to tell you what a long and strange year it's been, but it's been so long and strange that I honestly thought some of these books came out a few years ago rather than being on this year's list. It's a good thing I keep track.

This list is absolutely a subjective one, it is MY favorite books of 2021 not really a best list. It is a feeling I get usually somewhere around the middle of the book where I realize how much I am enjoying it and don't want it to end. Books I admire deeply do not get on this list if I don't find myself with that feeling.

So here we are, my favorites, in alphabetical order.

Detransition, Baby
A whipsmart debut about three women—transgender and cisgender—whose lives collide after an unexpected pregnancy forces them to confront t...

Unafraid to display all the messy chaos of queer lives, practically a cultural explainer for life in a specific set of trans circles: the toxic relationships, the mindfuck of gender performance, the creeps and chasers, and the funerals. It is painful and it is hilarious. It is not a small thing to include a detransitioned character at a time when it is a major talking point for TERFs, and then to put it in the title is a deliberate intent to poke at our tender spots and laugh together.

Early Morning Riser
A wise, bighearted, boundlessly joyful novel of love, disaster, and unconventional family Jane falls in love with Duncan easily. He is c...

I do not like schmaltz. And yet, this book, which is kind of like a big hug, is one I have recommended over and over this year for its big beating heart. It is also not a big plot book but it was so compulsively readable I wanted to skip work to be with it. If you like books with small towns full of quirky characters (I don't!) this has that, but our central character Jane is not that at all. Jane just wants a good man, and at first it seems like she's found him in sunny, gorgeous Duncan. Until she realizes Duncan has slept with every woman in this county and the surrounding ones as well. Life does not go where Jane expects it to go, which is why this book felt so relatable and real. It's also very funny and one of the best portraits of an adult with cognitive disabilities that I've seen.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
An electrifying novel about the meteoric rise of an iconic interracial rock duo in the 1970s, their sensational breakup, and the dark sec...

This takes the oral history of a 70's band Daisy and the Six style and bumps it up a few notches. It is hard to believe this is a debut. This portrait of a music duo, their rise to fame, their fall, and renewed interest in them decades later hits many of those familiar beats of these stories. But where most of these stories would center the white man of the pair who went on to solo fame, this one makes him a secondary character, focusing on Opal, the Black woman who came out of nowhere to be exactly what Nev needed to finally make it. There is so much here about race in the music industry, then and now, as well as in music journalism. It's really a joy to read. I've heard the audio is great.

Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body
Meet Margaret. At age twelve, she was head detective of the mystery club Girls Can Solve Anything. Margaret and her three best friends le...

This book, appropriately to its subject matter, is constantly changing form. You do not expect a novel with adorable tween sleuths to also be a book that tackles a stay in an inpatient eating disorder clinic or one that gives you a kind of queer manifesto to tie everything together. And yet, with all these seeming-disparate parts, I found the impact of them all together to just about knock me off my feet. One of my favorite queer books this year, it is also a book where that queerness unfolds slowly, where if you are not looking for it you may not see it, just as a lot of us didn't see those things in ourselves when we were tweens or teens. You have to be willing to trust this book, to take its hand and let it take you to some truly weird places, but it certainly rewards you for the effort.

Milk Fed
A scathingly funny, wildly erotic, and fiercely imaginative story about food, sex, and god from the acclaimed author of The Pisces and So...

This absolute gem of a book. Like many others on this list it is not afraid of going there. Rachel, our protagonist, has a serious eating disorder she won't admit to herself that's rooted in a deep fatphobia. So it gets very complicated when she falls for Miriam, a fat woman who is absolutely happy with herself and her body. Miriam is in many ways exactly what Rachel is not, and their growing relationship forces Rachel to look at things she's been unwilling to look at through therapy. Rachel is a mess and she is not a good partner and nothing about any of this is simple, which is why it works so well. The erotic writing here is A++, which won't surprise you if you read Broder's previous novel, The Pisces. This book is deeply horny and not in ways that are socially acceptable and I loved it.

One day, the mother was a mother but then, one night, she was quite suddenly something else... At home full-time with her two-year-old s...

We are in a real golden age of books about the realities of motherhood and this book is right up there with them. Parenting a toddler can feel like you descend into a less human state, where you lose your capacity for higher thought, Yoder pushes this farther as we consider a mother who is maybe possibly turning into a dog. But that is just the starting point, it has so many more questions to explore. Is being a dog making her a better mother or a worse one? Is it making her more herself or less? (This is a book that has a strong surrealist bent, this is not about mental illness, promise.) I put a few quotes from this on my Instagram stories and honestly I could have done that nearly every page, it is whip smart and too real.

O Beautiful
From the critically acclaimed author of Shelter, an unflinching portrayal of a woman trying to come to terms with the ghosts of her past ...

Somehow Yun has managed to capture almost everything in our present moment while also giving us a story that's extremely specific to a character and a place. And I know that I tend to have a "no thank you" approach to books about "our present moment" but 1) it's not a pandemic book and 2) it's not about any one issue specifically, instead it understands how the personal and political weave all together and play out in our towns, our communities, and ourselves. Yun sweeps you through this all expertly, I was so anxious for our protagonist, 40something Elinor who is trying to get a new start as a journalist. I could tell the whole way through that Yun was crafting this to perfection.

The Rib King
Upstairs, Downstairs meets Parasite: The acclaimed author of The Talented Ribkins deconstructs painful African American stereotypes and o...

I know for a little bit there everything was getting a Parasite comp but this time I think it fits pretty well, even if they are set in two very different places and times. It takes you to very unexpected places, it is absolutely unafraid of issues of class and race, and it specifically looks at the dynamic between wealthy white people and their Black servants. Set in early 20th century New Orleans, the first half of this is a slow burn so give it a little time. The payoff is well worth it.

To Be Honest
A memoir about one man’s strange upbringing in a family fanatically devoted to honesty Raised in what he affectionately calls “our litt...

If you had a conversation with me while I was reading this book or in the months afterwards I probably mentioned it because I was (and still am!) absolutely obsessed with it. Reading this memoir for me was like meeting another person who shares something about themselves that they know is weird and unique but you respond with a shock that you have the exact same thing and suddenly neither of you is quite so alone in the universe. So much of the way Leviton looks at the world rang really true to me, but he is a much more rigorous investigator than I am, documenting the details of our social norms in impressive detail. Ok so my upbringing was nothing at all like his, and his is a doozy. Brought up without any real understanding of social norms, and taught to always always tell the truth about everything, his childhood is not even a little typical.

A Touch of Jen
Remy and Alicia, a couple of insecure service workers, are not particularly happy together--but they are bound by a shared obsession with...

Oh boy do I love a book that is disorienting and unusual and ends up in an extremely different place from where it started. There are weird vibes from page 1, and yet you can't put your finger on exactly what is so weird about them. We start with Remy and Alicia, a couple who are weirdly obsessed with Jen, who is not a celebrity but just a person they used to know casually and that know they can follow in minute detail on Instagram. It will get much weirder, in that way it is similar to (but much less serious than) White Tears. This one was a real surprise, came out of absolutely nowhere in the best way.

The Wrong End of the Telescope
By National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award finalist for An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine, comes a transport...

A thoughtful and moving piece of almost-auto-fiction (Alameddine is a character but not the protagonist, though the protagonist shares his background as a middle-aged, queer Lebanese immigrant who has lived in the US for most of her entire adult life) about the Syrian refugee crisis and the question of what one person is supposed to do when the world is falling apart. For our protagonist, Mina, she is a surgeon and has come to the island of Lesbos to assist and offer medical care. While there she observes the many people who have come to the island like her, to offer help, sometimes more for selfish than selfless reasons, but she also sees how little one person can actually do. She observes the immigrants themselves, who are depicted as full and human and as people Mina knows could be just like anyone in her own family. I will not say this book is not depressing, but it is also beautiful in its empathy and its care for humanity. I have not had much of an appetite for depressing books this year but I adored this.

From New York Times bestselling author Mary H.K. Choi comes a funny and emotional story about two estranged sisters switching places and ...

This story of two sisters who have never really gotten along but now are brought together by a health crisis is so rich and poignant. I absolutely loved these characters, I loved how deep and complex they were. Our protagonist, younger sister Jayne, is a mess in the way young people are often a mess. In particular, Jayne is refusing to deal with her eating disorder and as long as she does, her life will remain a mess. But the news that her sister June has cancer gives her something to focus on, it's another distraction but it's one that feels meaningful. I will say I do not like cancer books but this is just a book that happens to have cancer in it, not a cancer book. Promise.

What I've Been Reading

Five Decembers
In this extraordinary novel of World War II, an American police detective trapped while trailing a killer overseas struggles to survive w...

Release Date: Available now
Shelves: Historical Fiction, Crime
Stars: 3.5

Set just before until just after WWII, this is a book that wants to read like a book of the time and mostly succeeds. It has that kind of noir style, though it's much more gruesome than any midcentury book would dare to be and much more willing to talk straight at things than around them, especially when it comes to things like prostitution or drugs, the kinds of things that are usually only obliquely referenced or hinted at.

This is certainly an unpredictable book, even when it comes full circle at the end it feels drastically different than the beginning where you feel like you know where you are. I found some of the twists a bit hard to swallow (particularly the one that covers the long stretch in the middle) but I have to admit Kestrel makes it all worth your while at the end.

You probably guessed this from the cover and description but this is one of those books where there are not very many female characters and when women do appear they inevitably fall in love with our protagonist. I had to roll my eyes a few times. But I guess it's in keeping with that older style, after all our protagonist has both the worst and best luck in the world, and somehow manages to always just outsmart even the wiliest opponent.

I did feel like at the end of the day there was not much there there with Joe, he is wholly in service to the plot, it doesn't feel like he existed before the novel or that he'll continue existing afterwards.

A provocative, razor-sharp, and timely debut novel abou…

Release Date Feb 1, 2022
Stars: 3.5

An exploration of sexual agency through the eyes of a female professor who isn't all that interested in re-evaluating her ideas. Our protagonist (who is either a young Boomer or an old Gen Xer, in her mid-to-late-50's) is not exactly one of those older people who call millennials snowflakes. Rather, in her role as a professor, she's learned exactly how to engage with her students, understands and even supports some of their ideas. But she also sees them more as something to be managed, and when it gets into the details and none of them are listening she isn't exactly complimentary. This would not be such a problem except that her husband, the former chair of the department, is currently under investigation for having multiple sexual affairs with students.

In the midst of all this comes the titular Vladimir, a new professor, an up-and-coming novelist, and a man she can't help but find desperately attractive. He is a good distraction from everything, but on the other hand his presence and her obsession with him can't help but remind her of her own decreasing desirability, her worries that she no longer has value in the way she once did.

I liked the first 2/3 of this a lot more than the last, even though it was more meandering and character study than anything else. There is that very good thing where you can see more than your narrator sees, even as you understand why she doesn't see it. A lot happens in that last third and I just wasn't fully sold on any of it. For those in academia it may be too real, but as I'm nice and far away from it I could relax and enjoy the change of scene.

Olga Dies Dreaming
A blazing talent debuts with the tale of a status-drive…

Release Date: Jan 4, 2022 (soon!!)
Shelves: Audiobooks, Authors of Color, LGBTQ, Best of 2022
Stars: 4.5

An absorbing snapshot of the personal and the political, the micro and the macro, the complexities of our current world.

Set mostly in 2017 just as Puerto Rico is in the midst of a disastrous hurricane season, it centers on siblings Olga and Prieto Acevedo. The children of Puerto Rican radicals, born and raised in pre-gentrified Brooklyn, they have worked their way up to positions of prestige, he as a congressman and she as a wedding planner for the ultra-rich. Now in their 40s, neither has fully come to grips with their personal lives or their roles in the world. Their tumultuous childhood still weighs heavy on them both and yet they both move through the world pretending it never happened.

The primary factor in this weight is their absent mother, who left when they were children because she wanted the life of a true radical, not weighed down by family. But both before she left and in letters for years afterwards, she has sought to teach her children her values of revolution. As children do, both Olga and Prieto have rebelled from their mother's teachings in a variety of ways, but their touchiness around their mother's politics and affection has left them both living half-lives.

The story here is how they both move to be more honest versions of themselves, both as individuals and as people living in a capitalist nation that doesn't care about the needs of people of color. It is common nowadays to note that the personal is political, but it doesn't always come across well in fiction. It can feel void of emotion or it can feel so focused on the personal or a metaphor that it doesn't ever feel like the real world. But the world González builds for us feels exactly like the real ones, the concerns of Prieto and Olga are concerns regular people have. In particular, their sense of helplessness when Hurricane Maria strikes, that feeling of trying to figure out how you can help in the face of a massive crisis, rings true.

This all makes the book sound very serious but what's so great about it is how it manages to be light and funny even in the midst of all the serious topics it takes on. It is compulsively readable. I never wanted to stop. Even when you want to shake Olga and Prieto for their shortsightedness (which is often) you care about them deeply and you can see exactly how they got to where they are.

This is a New York novel, and a very good one. So many New York novels are about rich white people, Olga's clients. Or they're about aimless white young people who never seem to be in any real financial danger, who meander through life without taking much note of the world they walk through. This is not that. This feels like the actual New York, even if Olga and Prieto are technically well off and have enjoyed their share of privileges, they grapple with how this can separate them from their family and their community.

This would pair well with MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS, which also features a Latinx woman suddenly thrown into a world of well-off white people, and also balances the personal and political to excellent effect.

I did this on audio, and thoroughly enjoyed that medium.

Content warnings for sexual assault, suicide, heroin addiction, and truly terrible rich people.

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