After an almost iterative year of unpredictability, the Books Beat continues to read to ground ourselves. Our favorites are divided into four categories: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction and Fantasy, Romance and Nonfiction (although our picks tend to fall into more than one category). Mostly released in 2021 (with a few from the tail-end of 2020), these titles defined our year — we laughed, cried and reflected more than we thought humanly possible while reading these books. The list includes titles from veritable literary giants like Sally Rooney, Kazuo Ishiguro and Hervé Le Tellier, TikTok-famous romance novels and critical nonfiction that brings light to American contributions to the War on Terror — we’ve read through it all this year. Without further ado, here is a list of books that got us through 2021.
– Meera Kumar, Books Beat Editor and Emilia Ferrante, Senior Arts Editor
“Beautiful World, Where Are You” by Sally Rooney
In our Best of 2020 article, I wondered when the “year-long wave” of the pandemic would finally crest and break. It turns out that the wave simply keeps going, that we learn to live on the wave. But life on the wave is still life, complex and stunning as ever.
“In the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?” says Alice in “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” the third novel by Irish author Sally Rooney.
The characters of “Beautiful World” expect to meet their high-water mark, but instead find that the water keeps rising. Nearing 30, their lives should be happening by now, settled in some way, meaningful in some way. They’re not. Is the meaning still to come, or has the moment passed?
The story is not as thrilling as “Normal People,” the tone a little more relaxed and patient. This is the pandemic novel, less eventful but more personal for it, less exciting but just as emotional. Rooney reminds us that all the while, through every end of the world, we never fail to seek out connection.
— Julian Wray, Daily Arts Writer
“The Anomaly” by Hervé Le Tellier
How much can a person change in a few months? Also, how would the world react to learning that life itself is a simulation? Hervé Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly” asks both of these questions and more, weaving complex personal narratives and vast philosophical musings with ease. Its large cast of characters can get confusing, especially when the concept of a “time-travel doppelganger” is introduced. However, these different perspectives serve to create a nuanced view of the central event of the novel: Referred to as “the anomaly,” a plane lands — with the same exact crew and passengers — in both March and June.
Dystopian and science fiction narratives can often leave readers yearning for more — we can’t help but crave the reactions of the government, the people involved, families, children, people from all walks of life to the portrayed life-changing events. This novel gives the reader the level of immersion that we desire. It follows the people in the plane(s), including the doppelgangers; it tracks the movements of various governments, even giving us access to calls between the Chinese and American presidents; it offers a seat at the table with the great scientific and religious minds as they debate what exactly happened. It is an immensely satisfying book, as Le Tellier is able to interrogate every aspect, large and small, of this “anomaly.”
A book about something so psychologically and philosophically slippery could not, of course, be fully satisfying — paradoxically, that would feel cheap. Luckily, Le Tellier ensures that the reader will leave with more questions than answers; this is a novel I will be thinking about for a long time.
Although “The Anomaly” technically came out in 2020, the English translation was only available in 2021, which feels apt — I could only recommend an extraordinarily colorful and memorable book for a year like this. Plus, it offers some comfort: At least Le Tellier’s created a world that is stranger than our own (for now).
— Emilia Ferrante, Senior Arts Editor
“Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro
My pick for the best book of 2021 is Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun.” Following in the footsteps of the celebrated “Never Let Me Go” and “The Remains of the Day,” Ishiguro’s most recent novel embodies everything that is beautiful and unique about the Nobel Prize-winning author’s writing.
Set in an urban dystopian world, humanoid Klara just wants to find a home and a family. She is for sale as an “Artificial Friend,” placed in the display window of a shop overlooking a busy street. From her position, the hyper-observant Klara watches pedestrians passing by and seeks to understand human behavior. One day, Klara is chosen to be the companion and caretaker of young Josie, and soon, human and robot form an unusual friendship. Later, when Josie falls unexplainably ill, Klara tries desperately to help her.
“Klara and the Sun” is a beautifully written story that explores a world where artificial intelligence plays an integral role in everyday human life. Like in his previous novels, Ishiguro creates a story that is haunting and masterfully steeped in emotion. The novel makes you think about what it means to love and be human, following Klara as she navigates the extent of her ability to feel and form relationships as a human creation. Unique, strange, unforgettable and moving, “Klara and the Sun” is one of the best literary works that 2021 has to offer.
— Emma Doettling, Daily Arts Writer
Historical Fiction and Fantasy
“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell
What I adore most about William Shakespeare is his ability to infuse each of his plays with such deeply relatable emotions. Anyone who penned such works as “King Lear,” “Othello,” “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Hamlet” must have been a profoundly empathetic individual, an individual who was undeniably alive, an individual who experienced the full spectrum of human emotions.
In Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 historical fiction novel, “Hamnet,” she masterfully paints a portrait of such a man. More prominently, though, O’Farrell explores the life of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, and how an individual might scrape by as her husband is away writing plays in London. O’Farrell gives a voice to a woman who is often overshadowed by her husband and whose marriage is often dubiously mischaracterized by one misread line in Shakespeare’s will.
She examines these characters through the lens of tragedy and trauma: Using “Hamlet” as a framing device, O’Farrell tells the story of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, who died from the Plague, and how his death might have affected the Shakespeare family.
While a historical fiction narrative about William Shakespeare’s life is compelling enough, the relevance of “Hamnet” in 2021 was especially pronounced in its themes of trauma, loss and plague. “Hamnet” is a novel in which the soul is soaked in grief and tragedy, exhausted from shouldering the weight of mere existence in the face of loss. The characters are tired. Given how long the pandemic has stretched, that exhaustion felt uncomfortably palpable to me while reading this over the summer, in a way that wouldn’t have been as pronounced if I had read it in 2020. The days, weeks, months after Hamnet’s death drag on into “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”
I don’t think I would’ve noticed this slow passage of time if COVID-19 had subsided by 2021. But here we are, long past the time when vaccines were developed, and the petty pace that follows loss (in this case, the loss of almost two years of our lives) has never been more noticeable.
Her novel’s contemporary relevance aside, Maggie O’Farrell seems to have a talent for tapping into the agonies of parenthood, love and loss. It’s easy to see those emotions spill out across the page in both this novel and her memoir “I Am, I Am, I Am.”
And, much like the works of The Bard himself, it is beautiful.
— Tate Lafrenier, Daily Arts Writer
“Matrix” by Lauren Groff
“Matrix” by Lauren Groff defies easy classification. On its face, it’s a historical fiction novel: In 12th century Europe, an ostracized bastard child is forced into an impoverished convent and grows, over the decades, into the refractory leader of a place she once considered a prison. But this woman is not just a nun-turned-abbess — Marie de France was born a princess, became a conduit for messages from the Virgin Mary and is remembered in posterity as France’s first female poet.
Marie de France was, in actuality, a highly influential literary voice credited with originating chivalric literature, creating the Breton lai poem and contributing to the legend of Arthur. Little is known about her life beyond the work she left behind, creating fertile soil for an author of Groff’s talent to color a rich, attractive character in the shadows of the historical record.
The resulting novel is magical in ways beyond Marie’s holy visions — it is itself visionary, despite dealing with deeply historical subject matter. The atmospheric lyricism, unconventional pacing and archetypal characters together create an absorbing, almost dreamlike reading experience.
Exploring themes of queer female desire, the different manifestations of and reactions to women’s power and simple hope in the face of life-shattering despair, “Matrix” is both an engrossing and important read.
— Brenna Goss, Daily Arts Writer
“Malibu Rising” by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s “Malibu Rising” is another excellent addition to the author’s already outstanding lineup of novels. After the popularity of “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” and “Daisy Jones and the Six,” TJR fans (myself included) were excited to see what the writer would do next.
Both of the aforementioned books focus on a different decade of American culture — the glamor of Hollywood in the ’60s and the rock-and-roll of the ’70s, respectively. “Malibu Rising” takes readers to the beaches of California in the ’80s, following a group of four siblings, the Rivas, and their many loves and secrets. The Riva siblings are known for their annual end-of-summer party which is considered the place to be by the multitudes of celebrities and friends that come each year. The events of the novel take place across a 24-hour span in which the preparations, party and aftermath all take place. Intermixed throughout the novel are flashbacks of the siblings and their supporting characters which provide much needed context, further entrenching the reader into the spectacle of the Riva siblings.
“Malibu Rising” is everything that Jenkins Reid does well: love, family and drama that is engaging enough to be pulled straight from the pages of a gossip magazine. Jenkins Reid once again creates characters that you just can’t help but root for and a story that leaves you emotional even after turning the final page. It’s emotional but not too heavy, wholesome but not contrived and a great way to feel the carelessness and freedom of summertime, no matter the time of year.
— Isabella Kassa, Daily Arts Writer
“She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan
“She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan is the gold standard for Asian historical fantasy. In the first installment in her historical fantasy series, Parker-Chan introduces Zhu, a young monk with a golden fate. In 1345, the Yuan Dynasty in China was in decline. The land, beset by floods and famine, created discontent with the ruling class. In subsequent decades, the Mongol Yuan Dynasty would collapse, giving way to the Han Chinese Ming Dynasty. In this political and social turmoil, a young girl takes her dead brother’s identity (assuming his name Zhu), joins a monastery and sets herself on an expansive, winding journey towards the founding of the Ming Dynasty. In Parker-Chan’s novel, the first Ming Emperor and historical figure Zhu Yuanzhang is genderfluid and queer, forced ever forward by fate.
“She Who Became the Sun” blends inclusivity without sacrificing world-building or historical accuracy. The novel is reminiscent of R.F. Kaung’s “The Poppy War” in its grand scale, but Parker-Chan’s debut novel anchors itself in realism, rarely indulging in gluttonous gore and obscenity. I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but this novel tapped into a primal love for upbeat monks I never knew I possessed.
— Elizabeth Yoon, Daily Arts Writer
“The Spanish Love Deception” by Elena Armas
2021 has been full of triumphs and defeats. There have been gravity-defying peaks of happiness interspersed with deep valleys of not-so-pleasant experiences. I would be remiss to say I was not entertained by the events of this year. From music to TV, 2021 has offered media that has been attention-grabbing and amusing, and we cannot overlook the impact that Tik Tok creators (working in tandem with the algorithm) have on recommending art for consumption. My choice for this year, “The Spanish Love Deception,” was inspired by the book community on Tik Tok.
Scrolling through my “for you page” one day, I came across a girl narrating the hook of this particular story. It was intriguing and seemed to have the perfect amount of humor, drama and plot typical for the enemies-to-lovers trope. This book is by no means a thought-provoking commentary on society or a transformative emotional journey. Rather, it is pure entertainment. From the cheesy dialogue to the unrealistic dramatic events, the novel fully satisfied my itch for a feel-good, tacky romance.
“The Spanish Love Deception” provided me with a necessary escape from the seriousness of reality. I relished the feeling of exasperation at the characters’ indiscreet actions. This book is so outrageous and ridiculous that it works. For these reasons, I believe that “The Spanish Love Deception” is 2021’s perfect read for a break from the constant push and pull of everyday life.
— Zoha Khan, Daily Arts Writer
“People We Meet on Vacation” by Emily Henry
“People We Meet on Vacation” by Emily Henry is one of the best contemporary romance novels of 2021. Henry’s debut adult romance “Beach Read” was a tough act to follow, yet she succeeded in every way in this warm and endearing romance.
The story focuses on two best friends from college, Poppy and Alex, who are complete opposites. Still, every summer, for ten years, they embarked on a week of vacation together, traveling everywhere from Sanibel Island to Croatia. In the present, however, Poppy and Alex haven’t spoken in two years due to a falling out. Feeling dissatisfied with her life despite having her dream job, Poppy reaches out to Alex, asking him to come along on just one more vacation. To her surprise, he agrees — what ensues is an entertaining story of love, friendship and second chances. Told through a dual timeline, their past vacations reveal what makes their friendship so special, while Poppy tries desperately to fix their relationship in the present.
With memorable characters and a profound exploration of true friendship, there’s much to love about this story. The best contemporary romance novels go beyond having a compelling premise and a promising romance; they have a deeper emotional undertone that makes readers root for the characters, no matter what. “People We Meet on Vacation” reminds us that we are the happiest when we are with the ones we love. This ultimate summer vacation read is perfect for fans of “When Harry Met Sally” or anyone craving a literary escape.
— Ava Seaman, Daily Arts Writer
“The Afghanistan Papers” by Craig Whitlock
“The Afghanistan Papers” by Craig Whitlock is a crucial look into the inner workings of the United States government. Authored by a highly acclaimed and experienced journalist, it is a defining text on a subject that has dominated the policy and media arenas for decades: the War on Terror. At once both hyper-political and nonpartisan, it turns a critical eye to decision-makers of all parties and at all levels of government, using multiple histories as well as the government and military’s own records, interviews and reports to summarize 20 years of war. It gives credit where credit is due, but does not shy away from laying bare just how incompetent, negligent and arrogant members of all parties and branches of government can be.
Akin to how the Pentagon Papers influenced national consciousness and poisoned the public’s perception of the Vietnam War, “The Afghanistan Papers” (and the government reports on which it is based) could — if widely read — profoundly reshape the way American citizens understand the foreign terrorism threat and contextualize current and future administrations’ Middle Eastern policy. It is an important contribution to counterterrorism literature and, most importantly, it elevates the ability of the American public to make sense of foreign policy and the actions our nation is taking on the other side of the world. Equipped with this knowledge, we can have more informed opinions on foreign policy and more effectively hold our institutions and leaders accountable for their actions. Perhaps, if we could do so, we would not make the same mistakes again — otherwise, we may be doomed to repeat them in this cyclical “War on Terror.”
— Brenna Goss, Daily Arts Writer
“Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex” by Angela Chen
A book I read in 2021 that’s sure to stand the test of time is “Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex” by Angela Chen. I am cheating a little — the book came out in September of 2020, but it’s too good to not mention. Chen’s writing consistently made me reconsider my perceptions of (a)sexuality: She writes early on, “The ace world is not an obligation. Nobody needs to identify, nobody is trapped, nobody needs to stay forever and pledge allegiance. The words are gifts.” Her words, then, must have been one of the greatest gifts of the past year. Chen shines a light on asexuality with detail that often eludes perceptions of the label, detail that is hard to find even for those who pursue it. You don’t have to be questioning your own sexuality to read “Ace.” You don’t have to be an expert in gender and sexuality studies, either — Chen’s expert writing makes the information accessible to all.
I could tell you how much I love Chen’s writing, but instead I will sacrifice space in this blurb to show you how crystal clear it is. Chen writes, “To explain asexuality and what it means to not experience sexual attraction, aces must define and describe the exact phenomenon we don’t experience. It requires us to use the language of ‘lack,’ claiming we are legitimate in spite of being deficient, while struggling to explain exactly what it is we don’t get.” The author deconstructs multiple parts of our lives, explaining places where sexuality is forced upon us, and then urging us to think of human asexuality as something to honor, in all its variances.
I started reading her book on the subway, and I finished it two days later (a personal record for non-fiction). The first 100 pages start off strong, then, admittedly, momentum carries you forward for the rest of the book. Still, Chen’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding themselves, the world around them and S-E-X.
— Meera Kumar, Books Beat Editor
“Orwell’s Roses” by Rebecca Solnit
As book reviewers, we are drawn to the novel, the avant-garde, the emotional and the profound. Unfortunately, those qualities are more apt to be found in fiction than nonfiction. We often neglect the research-heavy genre in favor of the swooning immersion of imaginary worlds. Yet when nonfiction is written differently, with moral clarity and a literary bent, it can once again become compelling.
Earlier this year, I reviewed “Orwell’s Roses,” one of those few divergent books. “Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening,” wrote George Orwell in 1940. During a pilgrimage to Orwell’s rural cottage, activist-author Rebecca Solnit stumbled upon a pair of rose bushes planted by the writer himself, still in bloom eighty years later. Inspired by “the apparent directness of these two plants’ connection to him,” Solnit explores the connections between Orwell’s love of gardening, his literary inspirations, and his anti-fascist ideology. A truly genre-defying read, Solnit threads together stories of Orwell’s personal life with an unforgettable blend of botany, philosophy and political commentary.
While reviewing “Orwell’s Roses,” I struggled to describe the book concisely. It isn’t a biography and shouldn’t be read like one. When viewed as a literary collection of Solnit’s moral reflections or as an environmental polemic, “Orwell’s Roses” is effective. Yet at its heart, the book is about the pleasure Orwell took from his connection to the natural world amidst the turbulence of the 20th century. As we spend our days online navigating the most turbulent period yet in our own century, it’s a message I cherish. I’m confident in endorsing “Orwell’s Roses” as one of the best nonfiction books of 2021.
— Sam Mathisson, Daily Arts Writer
“Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner
Michelle Zauner’s “Crying in H Mart” was one of the most emotional works published in 2021. Zauner’s debut work is a memoir that tells the story of her and her mother’s relationship, particularly in its final stages. When Zauner’s mother was diagnosed with stage IV squamous-cell carcinoma, Zauner quickly packed up her life and moved back home to Eugene, Oregon to take care of her.
The narration of their relationship, tense from Zauner’s unpredictable and depressive teenage years, is so raw and honest it hurts to read. Watching Zauner scramble to piece their relationship back together is heartbreaking, and her subsequent grief is overwhelming. “Crying in H Mart” is not an easy book to step into, but once you’re there, it’s hard to put it down. Zauner’s writing is addictive in its honesty, and her storytelling is seamless — her background as a musician, currently as the lead vocalist and songwriter for Japanese Breakfast, aids her lyrical retelling of her and her mother’s story. But the beauty of her memoir transcends the writing; Zauner, often left helpless in the throes of her mother’s diagnosis and treatment, resorts to food to reconcile her relationship with her mother, a medium which has long been a way that the two expressed love for one another. Zauner spends countless hours attempting to recreate her mother’s favorite meals, and it’s during these moments where we are offered glimpses into Zauner’s childhood and her memories of her mother. The contrast between these beautiful vignette-like scenes and the devastating reality of her mother’s sickness is shocking, though it is made graceful through Zauner’s delicate interweaving of the past and present.
As we move through time and space, Zauner does everything she can to tell us who her mother was, who she forever will be. “Crying in H Mart” is understandably brutal and simultaneously stunning. Zauner not only demonstrates her brilliance in a second medium, but adds a crucial must-read to the memoir genre.
— Lillian Pearce, Managing Arts Editor