Fiction Favorites in 2021

I read forty-six adult fiction books this year. Twelve were historical novels, ten were thrillers, and 24 I’ve categorized as “general” fiction (including contemporary novels as well as short story collections). Ten of these 46 were “five star” reads for me. Though I know others are more picky about giving five stars, I tend to err on the side of generosity. All these books, though by no means perfect, were excellent read that I’d recommend to others.

So, without further ado, here they are!

Every January I vow to read more short stories, and though I didn’t entirely succeed in 2021 I read several collections that were excellent. My favorite was The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. It’s a novella and short stories—all fascinating (and very different) takes on race and power and how dynamics shift in relationships, lifetimes, and society. These stories are thought-provoking pieces, written with deft and compassion. I’d recommend the collection to anyone who loves (or wants to start loving) short fiction.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow is such a delightful book. It’s the story of three sisters (witches and suffragists, all) in an alternative America of the late 19th century. There are secret alliances, political complications, sapphic romance, and (of course) magic. The characters (major and minor) are imbued with complicated motivations, foibles, and longings—I adored having them in my life as I was reading. It’s about community and power and the ways women can come together in ways no one imagined. As I said—utterly delightful.

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter is centered around the 1909-1910 free speech riots in Spokane, Washington. The historical details of the novel are fascinating—the early years of labor unions, a burgeoning mining town, bums riding the rails—and it also has clear lessons for today regarding income inequality and the powerful role of the press providing contrasting views of reality. This book is beautifully written, with an interesting narrative structure interspersed with first-person sections from side characters. In all, it’s a big story—big people, big landscapes, big issues—and totally worth the read.

In the category of “I can’t believe I’ve never read this” is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I picked it up while waiting for his newest book, Klara and the Sun, from the library, and I totally understand why Remains won the Booker Prize. It is a quiet, profound, and utterly sublime book. On the surface, it is the story of Stevens, a British butler of one of the fine houses in the early decades of the 20th century, but it is so much more. It is a meditation on the choices we all make and the dignity they represent. I didn’t end up liking Klara, but, oh, how I loved this one.

I read a number of thrillers in 2021 (not my usual genre). Many were a bit meh, but I loved The Push by Ashley Audrain, perhaps because it’s less traditional thriller and more psychological family drama (which is a favorite genre!). The book features an unreliable narrator and some classic tropes—the bad seed, intergenerational trauma, a family turned inside out when having a child is not quite what was expected. It’s a taut read that drew me in and kept me wondering about who and what could be trusted. And the ending is definitely a kicker.

 Probably my favorite historical fiction read of the year was The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It is a novel about how “women’s words”—and the words of most poor and working-class people—were largely ignored in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Words? Feminism? History? Anyone who knows me knows this is exactly the kind of book I like, and like it I did. The book unfolds at a leisurely pace, with the narrative interspersed with letters and dictionary entries, and it reminds us of how systems shape our actions and how we remember—and are remembered—through language. It is really quite the triumph.

Girl A by Abigail Dean is intense. It’s the story about how abuse (in this case, a family in which parents went from isolating their children to chaining them to their beds) reverberates through the family for years after. It’s told from the point of view of “Girl A,” who, at 15, escaped and alerted authorities to what was happening. As the narrative shifts between past and present and among the siblings, the reader begins to see the full story of what happened to each child and how they have (or have not) remade their lives. This is a book that should come with many trigger warnings, and Goodreads tells me that there are a lot of readers who either hated it or decided not to finish. But I thought it was a compelling, though disturbing, read. It pulled me in and didn’t let go.

People who know me will not be at all surprised that I loved Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. It’s narrated by Lucy Barton (from two of Strout’s other books). Lucy is now 63 years old and this story is about her relationship with her first husband, with whom she is still friends. William is experiencing some jolts in his life, and he reaches out to Lucy for help. The novel shifts between the current plot and memories of earlier times in Lucy’s life. It is written in beautiful, every-day, sometimes meandering prose—a character-driven novel populated by complicated, endearing, frustrating, foible-filled people. I loved every single one of them.

Matrix by Lauren Groff is quite an astounding book. Loosely based on (what is known of) the life of Marie de France, it tells the story of a 12th-century community of nuns, and especially their Abbess, Marie. It covers many decades, and the prose is phenomenal, though not always easy to digest. Marie comes to the abbey as an essentially discarded 17-year-old girl and then—following her “visions” and her indomitable desire for independence—builds a powerful community of women. It is gritty and sapphic and propulsive. I think this may be a “not for everyone” book, but I found it compelling.

The last five-star novel I read this year was Bewilderment by Richard Powers. It was a fitting way to close out 2021, as it is a compelling and heartbreaking book. The setting is a dystopian near-future, but it encompasses many worlds. Nature, cosmology, politics, brain science—in this novel, all these worlds swirl around a father and son trying to process and survive beyond the death of their wife/mother. The heart of this story is the question of how we can feel empathy—toward each other, toward other creatures, toward imagined planets—when the experienced world is hostile, scary, and seemingly out of control. The writing is exquisite, and I’m sure this book will stay with me for a very long time.

I’ll be back in the next few days with my favorite nonfiction and young adult/middle grade books from 2021. In the meantime, happy reading!

One reply to “Fiction Favorites in 2021

  1. What a treat, Kathy! Can’t wait to see the next list.
    Loved The Cold Millions and will put Bewilderness at the top of my Next Read list.

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