Welcome to part 3 of my best books from 2021!
This part is a bit more specific than part 1, where we had the usual categories of mystery, thrillers, contemporary etc. On this part 2 I want to highlight some of the more specific stuff (especially translated lit) that I read and that reflects how my reading habits changed in 2021. I’ve read a LOT more translated books than ever before, which is very exciting and resulted in finding many favorites, and I found out I actually love short stories – but mostly translated ones (who knows why). I also wanted to highlight some of my favorite 2021 releases which didn’t quite make it to any other top 3s but that I wanted to talk about anyway!
When I say translated in this post – I don’t mean Brazilian books. I am not including Brazilian books in the “translations” categories because I have a couple categories exclusively for them, since I read significantly more Brazilian books (translated or not) than from any other non-English-language country. I feel a bit weird about adding Brazilian books to the translated category anyway, and I feel weird if I don’t, so I decided to create categories just for them. Also helps me highlight the books I might want to recommend from my country!
2021 Debut Novels
A great year for debuts! Detransition, Baby blew my mind with how vibrant the characters were portrayed, allowing them to be messy, contradictory, fascinating. I loved this novel SO much. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is one of the best stories to listen in audio to – it reminded me a lot of Daisy Jones & The Six, with its story set in the 70s and present day, and a big event that broke up the band. This wonderful novel brings to the front a Black woman in the 70s having to deal with the harsh consequences of speaking out against racism. Finally, She Who Became the Sun was SO close to being on my top 3 fantasies! This is a literary fantasy that completely has my heart – it’s beautifully written, epic, high stakes, everything I love in a fantasy.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Reese almost had it all: a loving relationship with Amy, an apartment in New York City, a job she didn’t hate. She had scraped together what previous generations of trans women could only dream of: a life of mundane, bourgeois comforts. The only thing missing was a child. But then her girlfriend, Amy, detransitioned and became Ames, and everything fell apart. Now Reese is caught in a self-destructive pattern: avoiding her loneliness by sleeping with married men.
Ames isn’t happy either. He thought detransitioning to live as a man would make life easier, but that decision cost him his relationship with Reese—and losing her meant losing his only family. Even though their romance is over, he longs to find a way back to her. When Ames’s boss and lover, Katrina, reveals that she’s pregnant with his baby—and that she’s not sure whether she wants to keep it—Ames wonders if this is the chance he’s been waiting for. Could the three of them form some kind of unconventional family—and raise the baby together?
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.
In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.
Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
2021 Non-Debut Releases
It’s funny to me that the three books I chose for this category are romances of some sort. I don’t read enough romances to really justify having a category of their own, but I’m glad to include a few in my favorites! Beautiful World, Where Are You was a wonderful read, so enthralling and with Rooney’s typical detached writing that captures the reader and will break their heart. I loved it. I feel like this book also arrived at the right time for me to enjoy it properly, and I’m glad for it. Dial A for Aunties I thought for a while was a debut, but it wasn’t! This hilarious romcom/murder novel had me laughing out loud and literally looking forward to my chores and commute so I could listen to this audiobook a bit more. Great stuff. Tryst Six Venom is a new adult steamy romance that made me BLUSH. It was my introduction to Penelope Douglas’ work – it was intense, though, and I think bully romances aren’t really my thing, but I really enjoyed it despite that!
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood. Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?
Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto
What happens when you mix 1 (accidental) murder with 2 thousand wedding guests, and then toss in a possible curse on 3 generations of an immigrant Chinese-Indonesian family?
You get 4 meddling Asian aunties coming to the rescue!
When Meddelin Chan ends up accidentally killing her blind date, her meddlesome mother calls for her even more meddlesome aunties to help get rid of the body. Unfortunately, a dead body proves to be a lot more challenging to dispose of than one might anticipate, especially when it is inadvertently shipped in a cake cooler to the over-the-top billionaire wedding Meddy, her Ma, and aunties are working at an island resort on the California coastline. It’s the biggest job yet for the family wedding business—”Don’t leave your big day to chance, leave it to the Chans!”—and nothing, not even an unsavory corpse, will get in the way of her auntie’s perfect buttercream flowers.
But things go from inconvenient to downright torturous when Meddy’s great college love—and biggest heartbreak—makes a surprise appearance amid the wedding chaos. Is it possible to escape murder charges, charm her ex back into her life, and pull off a stunning wedding all in one weekend?
Tryst Six Venom by Penelope Douglas
𝑨𝒘𝒂𝒚 𝒈𝒂𝒎𝒆𝒔, 𝒃𝒂𝒄𝒌 𝒔𝒆𝒂𝒕𝒔, 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒍𝒐𝒄𝒌𝒆𝒓 𝒓𝒐𝒐𝒎 𝒂𝒇𝒕𝒆𝒓 𝒉𝒐𝒖𝒓𝒔… 𝑮𝒆𝒕 𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒅𝒚!
Marymount girls are good girls. We’re chaste, we’re untouched, and even if we weren’t, no one would know, because we keep our mouths shut.
Not that I have anything to share anyway. I never let guys go too far. I’m behaved.
Beautiful, smart, talented, popular, my skirt’s always pressed, and I never have a hair out of place. I own the hallways, walking tall on Monday and dropping to my knees like the good Catholic girl I am on Sunday.
That’s me. Always in control.
Or so they think. The truth is that it’s easy for me to resist them, because what I truly want, they can never be. Something soft and smooth. Someone dangerous and wild.
Unfortunately, what I want I have to hide. In the locker room after hours. In the bathroom stall between classes. In the showers after practice. 𝑀𝑦 ℎ𝑒𝑎𝑑 𝑠𝑤𝑖𝑚𝑚𝑖𝑛𝑔. 𝑀𝑦 ℎ𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑢𝑝 ℎ𝑒𝑟 𝑠𝑘𝑖𝑟𝑡.
For me, life is a web of secrets. No one can find out mine.
I cross the tracks every day for one reason—to graduate from this school and get into the Ivy League. I’m not ashamed of where I come from, my family, or how everyone at Marymount thinks my skirts are too short and my lipstick is too red.
Clay Collins and her friends have always turned up their noses at me. The witch with her beautiful skin, clean shoes, and rich parents who torments me daily and thinks I won’t fight back.
At least not until I get her alone and find out she’s hiding so much more than just what’s underneath those pretty clothes.
The princess thinks I’ll scratch her itch. She thinks she’s still pure as long as it’s not a guy touching her.
I told her to stay on her side of town. I told her not to cross the tracks.
But one night, she did. And when I’m done with her, she’ll never be pure again.
Translated Mysteries, Thrillers and Horror
Tender is the Flesh is a very disturbing dystopia book that really, really worked for me. I thought I was saturated with dystopia until I read this one, honestly. It’s about eating people. Ew. Loved it. Little Eyes – oh gosh I did NOT expect to love this as much as I did! I picked it up mostly out of curiosity, but it’s also a dystopia story about little stuffed animals with cameras for eyes which are pets, sort of. It’s creepy and I loved it SO much I immediately picked up Fever Dream as well (another great book). The Door was a recommendation by my group chat and it was a story about a young writer sort of befriending her housekeeper, a mysterious, blunt woman. This is about friendship, secrets, loneliness, heartbreak. Really a great book that is kind of a mystery, kind of not, but I’m counting it ihere.
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, translated by Sarah Moses
Working at the local processing plant, Marcos is in the business of slaughtering humans —though no one calls them that anymore.
His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.” Now, eating human meat—“special meat”—is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing.
Then one day he’s given a gift: a live specimen of the finest quality. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost—and what might still be saved.
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell
They’ve infiltrated homes in Hong Kong, shops in Vancouver, the streets of Senegal, town squares of Oaxaca, schools in Tel Aviv, bedrooms in Ohio. They’re following you. They’re everywhere now. They’re us.
In Samanta Schweblin’s wildly imaginative new novel, Little Eyes, “kentukis” have gone viral across the globe. They’re little mechanical stuffed animals that have cameras for eyes, wheels for feet, and are connected to an anonymous global server. Owners of kentukis have the eyes of a stranger in their home and a cute squeaking pet following them; or you can be the kentuki and voyeuristically spend time in someone else’s life, controlling the creature with a few keystrokes. Through kentukis, a jaded Croatian hustler stumbles into a massive criminal enterprise and saves a life in Brazil, a lonely old woman in Peru becomes fascinated with a young woman and her louche lover in Germany, and a motherless child in Antigua finds a new virtual family and experiences snow for the first time in Norway.
These creatures can reveal the beauty of connection between farflung souls – but they also expose the ugly humanity of our increasingly linked world. Trusting strangers can lead to unexpected love and marvelous adventure, but what happens when the kentukis pave the way for unimaginable terror?
The Door by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix
A busy young writer struggling to cope with domestic chores, hires a housekeeper recommended by a friend. The housekeeper’s reputation is one built on dependable efficiency, though she is something of an oddity. Stubborn, foul-mouthed and with a flagrant disregard for her employer’s opinions she may even be crazy. She allows no-one to set foot inside her house; she masks herself with a veil and is equally guarded about her personal life. And yet Emerence is revered as much as she is feared. As the story progresses her energy and passion to help becomes clear, extinguishing any doubts arising out of her bizarre behaviour. A stylishly told tale which recounts a strange relationship built up over 20 years between a writer and her housekeeper. After an unpromising and caustic start benign feelings develop and ultimately the writer benefits from what becomes an inseparable relationship. Simultaneously we learn Emerence’s tragic past which is revealed in snapshots throughout the book.
Translated Short Fiction
This is interesting to me personally because I usually don’t gravitate towards short fiction a lot, but when I do, it’s mostly translated. These are all books around 200 pages. Inseparable is an early Simone de Beauvoir slim novel heavily based on her friendship and unrequited love with a young woman. It was such a good story about women being limited by society’s expectations and it broke my heart. Magma tells the story of a young woman in an abusive relationship – it’s dark, heavy, and claustrophobic. Amazing book. Heaven is the story about two young people who get bullied at school and find solace in their friendship, which they keep secret. I loved Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, so I’m happy to have enjoyed this one too!
Inseparable by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Sandra Smith
A never-before-published novel by the iconic Simone de Beauvoir of an intense and vivid girlhood friendship
From the moment Sylvie and Andrée meet in their Parisian day school, they see in each other an accomplice with whom to confront the mysteries of girlhood. For the next ten years, the two are the closest of friends and confidantes as they explore life in a post-World War One France, and as Andrée becomes increasingly reckless and rebellious, edging closer to peril.
Sylvie, insightful and observant, sees a France of clashing ideals and religious hypocrisy—and at an early age is determined to form her own opinions. Andrée, a tempestuous dreamer, is inclined to melodrama and romance. Despite their different natures they rely on each other to safeguard their secrets while entering adulthood in a world that did not pay much attention to the wills and desires of young women.
Magma by Thora Hjortleifsdottir
A compulsive, propulsive debut about a young woman’s haunting experience of love, abuse, and sex in an era of pornification by one of Iceland’s most provocative writers.
20-year old Lilja is in love. As a young university student, she is quickly smitten with the intelligent, beautiful young man from school who quotes Derrida and reads Latin and cooks balanced vegetarian meals. Before she even realizes, she’s moved in with him, living in his cramped apartment, surrounded by sour towels and flat Diet Cokes. As the newfound intimacy of sharing a shower and a bed fuels her desire to please her partner, his acts of nearly imperceptible abuse continue to mount undetected. Lilja desperately tries to be the perfect lover, attempting to meet his every need. But in order to do so, she gradually lets go of her boundaries and starts to lose her sense of self.
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Hailed as a bold foray into new literary territory, Kawakami’s novel is told in the voice of a 14-year-old student who subjected to relentless torment for having a lazy eye. Instead of resisting, the boy chooses to suffer in complete resignation. The only person who understands what he is going through is a female classmate who suffers similar treatment at the hands of her tormentors.
These raw and realistic portrayals of bullying are counterbalanced by textured exposition of the philosophical and religious debates concerning violence to which the weak are subjected.
Translated Short Stories
I am starting to fall in love with short stories, and it’s showing. I have entered a short story category for the first time ever in my Best Of posts! As for Short Fiction, I also seem to gravitate more towards translated short stories, so here we are. An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good had me laughing – it is so bonkers. This old lady is so unnecessarily murder-y, oh my god, I loved it. Cockfight is a brutal look at the stories of people who are forgotten about. Amazing book, it is a tough read though! And finally, I was happy to love The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, another collection of creepy, dark stories by Mariana Enríquez, whose work I love.
An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy
Maud is an irascible 88-year-old Swedish woman with no family, no friends, and…no qualms about a little murder. This funny, irreverent story collection by Helene Tursten, author of the Irene Huss investigations, features two-never-before translated stories that will keep you laughing all the way to the retirement home.
Ever since her darling father’s untimely death when she was only eighteen, Maud has lived in the family’s spacious apartment in downtown Gothenburg rent-free, thanks to a minor clause in a hastily negotiated contract. That was how Maud learned that good things can come from tragedy. Now in her late eighties, Maud contents herself with traveling the world and surfing the net from the comfort of her father’s ancient armchair. It’s a solitary existence, but she likes it that way.
Over the course of her adventures—or misadventures—this little bold lady will handle a crisis with a local celebrity who has her eyes on Maud’s apartment, foil the engagement of her long-ago lover, and dispose of some pesky neighbors. But when the local authorities are called to investigate a murder in her apartment complex, will Maud be able to avoid suspicion, or will Detective Inspector Irene Huss see through her charade?
Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero, translated by Frances Riddle
Named one of the ten best fiction books of 2018 by the New York Times en Español, Cockfight is the debut work by Ecuadorian writer and journalist María Fernanda Ampuero.
In lucid and compelling prose, Ampuero sheds light on the hidden aspects of the home: the grotesque realities of family, coming of age, religion, and class struggle. A family’s maids witness a horrible cycle of abuse, a girl is auctioned off by a gang of criminals, and two sisters find themselves at the mercy of their spiteful brother. With violence masquerading as love, characters spend their lives trapped reenacting their past traumas.
Heralding a brutal and singular new voice, Cockfight explores the power of the home to both create and destroy those within it.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed: Stories by Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell
Mariana Enriquez has been critically lauded for her unconventional and sociopolitical stories of the macabre: populated by unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, they walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror. The stories in her next collection are as terrifying as they are socially conscious, and press into being the unspoken — fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history — with unsettling urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighborhood is cursed to death by a question of morality they fail to answer correctly.
Written against the backdrop of contemporary Argentina, and with resounding tenderness towards those in pain, in fear, and in limbo, this new collection from one of Argentina’s most exciting writers finds Enriquez at her most sophisticated, and most chilling.
Translated Classic Fiction
Funnily enough, Tolstoy makes my favorites list for the second year in a row! Anna Karenina blew me away. I loved, loved this. Sure the farming was boring but everything else – the characters brimming with life, the fantastic writing (and translation), the engaging story… I loved this so much! The Metamorphosis was not too much of a surprise because I really liked The Trial, but it was so whimsical, sad, thoughtful. I really had a great time reading this. I had mixed thoughts about Love in the Time of Cholera, but it was so beautifully written and incredibly engrossing at times, so I’ve added it here!
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Louise Maude and Alymer Maude
Acclaimed by many as the world’s greatest novel, Anna Karenina provides a vast panorama of contemporary life in Russia and of humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature. Anna is a sophisticated woman who abandons her empty existence as the wife of Karenin and turns to Count Vronsky to fulfil her passionate nature – with tragic consequences. Levin is a reflection of Tolstoy himself, often expressing the author’s own views and convictions.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, translated by Stanley Corngold
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.”
With it’s startling, bizarre, yet surprisingly funny first opening, Kafka begins his masterpiece, The Metamorphosis. It is the story of a young man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetle-like insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing—though absurdly comic—meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation, The Metamorphosis has taken its place as one of the most widely read and influential works of twentieth-century fiction. As W.H. Auden wrote, “Kafka is important to us because his predicament is the predicament of modern man.”
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Edith Grossman
There are novels, like journeys, which you never want to end: this is one of them. One seventh of July at six in the afternoon, a woman of 71 and a man of 78 ascend a gangplank and begin one of the greatest adventures in modern literature. The man is Florentino Ariza, President of the Carribean River Boat Company; the woman is his childhood sweetheart, the recently widowed Fermina Daza. She has earache. He is bald and lame. Their journey up-river, at an age when they can expect ‘nothing more in life’, holds out a shimmering promise: the consummation of an amor interruptus spanning half a century.