Anne Gunderson
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Anne Gunderson

Anne’s Favorite 2021 Reads

Somehow, some way, we made it through another year, so congratulations to everyone for that. I managed to maintain my habit of quiet morning reading and I was lucky to encounter unique stories and beautiful writing from some unexpected places. I’ve compiled my favorites here, but you can skim my full list at the very bottom and jump in the comments with questions or recommendations of your own. And if you’re looking for more recommendations (since it looks like we’ll be spending 2022 at home), check out my favorite books from 2020. Happy Reading!

1. Most Highly Recommended: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I’ve recommended this book so many times to so many different people that I didn’t realize I had only just read it earlier this year. Where the Crawdads Sing centers the life of Kya Clark, a young girl who is raising herself in a North Carolina marsh after being abandoned by her family and ostracized by her community. What makes this novel unique is not so much the story of Kya but the woman who imagined her. Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who develops characters in the density of the trees, the stillness of the water, and the sanctuary of caves with the same level of depth as her human subjects. Owens pulls you into Kya’s world and allows you to see the marsh the way she does, as a source of her pain and her survival, the way our homes often are. I’ve read many books, but I’ve never been so entranced by a setting and a life than the one Owens creates in Where the Crawdads Sing. If you read nothing else in 2022, let it be this one.

2. Best New Author: Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola

Bolu Babalola is a clever culture journalist who burst into the book-writing scene with her relentlessly romantic debut novel Love in Colour. Love in Colour is a collection of love stories, both original and reimagined, that will pull you in, twist and turn you, and end in just the right place. Writing a great short story is harder than it looks, so the way Babalola takes you on a journey that feels authentic and relatable but also imaginative and gripping displays her innate talent. Just when you thought you’ve explored every dimension of romantic love through these stories, Babalola ends the book with her parents’ love story. This is the story the cements her place as one of the greats because in this story you can actually feel the depth of her love for each of her parents in the care she takes in describing their lives. This book was written not just for the lovers of love (though it’s definitely for us), but for anyone was has ever loved.

3. Best Writing: The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.

Someone has probably already recommended that you read The Prophets, and you should. The Prophets takes place on a plantation and tells the stories of the enslaved people held there who are doing what they can to live meaningful lives. The characters that Jones creates are brilliantly developed and thoughtfully placed to allow you to explore the breadth of life and perspective that you rarely see in stories set in this period and in this place. But this is not just a story about slavery. It’s a story about love as a revolutionary act; love as a kind of freedom, the kind that tells you that you are deserving of more. It is devastating but beautiful, the way devastating things ought to be. It is a Black Power novel that will leave you feeling grateful that you had a chance to experience this story.

4. Best Non-Fiction: How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith

In Clint Smith’s new book, How the Word is Passed, Smith takes us on a journey to key historical sites to contend with the ways in which we tell the story of slavery. From Monticello to New York City to Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, Smith visits these places to unpack not just the history they hold but the ways in which the history is told to understand how storytelling reflects our ability to grapple with the truth. Beautifully written in a way only a poet could, Smith takes his time describing the places and people he encounters on his tours. His vivid portrayals of the settings in each chapter underscore the importance of physical place in understanding what happened there.

5. Best Mystery: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

This one got mixed reviews, but I really enjoyed it. The Other Black Girl is a novel that asks the question: if you could take something that would cause you not to see the microaggressions thrown at you every day, would you? Harris takes us on a peculiar journey to answer this through her lead character, Nella. Nella works as an underpaid, underappreciated editorial assistant at a New York City publishing company when, just as she’s on the precipice of landing a big promotion, is usurped by a new, young, Black woman who seems to effortlessly climb the ladder in ways Nella couldn’t. Nella reminded me of my friends working as one of too few Black women in all-white workplaces who just want to reap the rewards for being the hardworking, talented professionals they are. Harris does a good job of capturing the frustration of being placed in competition for the few spot open to Black women in many professional spaces, but does it in a way that’s fun to read and keeps you turning the page.

6. Most Spooktacular: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

The only thing I love more than scary stories are scary women seeking revenge, and that’s what The Only Good Indians delivers. Four Indigenous men are haunted by an elk-headed female ghost entity who is making them pay for their past mistakes with their lives. Like all the great horror stories, our characters are also grappling with grief, regret, and questions of their identities as they attempt to push past the trauma of their youth. There are many truly terrifying moments and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have one or two nightmares about elk as I read it, but I’d also like to see it be made into a movie.

7. Biggest Page-Turner: While Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams

This was so good that I made my book club read it (I’m a bit of a book club tyrant if you can believe it). When I stopped being mad at Stacey Abrams for being so multitalented, I dove into this book with both feet and didn’t look up until it was finished. Our protagonist, Avery, is a clerk for a Supreme Court Justice who falls into a coma, assigns her to be his legal guardian and power of attorney, and sets her up to unravel a conspiracy that implicates the sitting president. It’s a lot, but it’s great. There’s a lot of legal talk and chess lingo, but you can use context clues to get where she’s going (Abrams can’t help that’s she’s more brilliant than the rest of us). It’s like National Treasure but with a better cast. You won’t want to stop until you get to the end.

Full list of 2021 books

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