The Best Books of 2021

Photo: Yulia Grigoryeva via Shutterstock

It is already the end of 2021! The year has flown past. We haven’t been locked down quite as much as we were last year—we did manage to see friends and family—but Covid isn’t history yet, and no one is sure what the coming months will bring.

As always, we have turned to books to see us through. I was happy to receive a large response to my request for your best reads of 2021. The result is, as always, a long and varied list. And for the first time, we have a couple of audiobooks!

Fiction includes stories about millennials hooked on social media, a Bedouin girl running from her tribe, a man waking up to find that humanity has disappeared, a rape victim fighting for justice, a man trapped in a strange house, and women battling Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Not to mention the inevitable crop of murder mysteries!

Non-fiction books include the origins of the index, a dialogue on joy, experiments in rewilding, and the discovery of the city of Alexandria. There are a fair number of memoirs and biographies, including one by a woman who escaped from North Korea (in fact, there are two books on North Korea this year). The travel section is rich too, taking us to Kabul, China, Africa and the UK’s magical places.

The geographical settings of the books practically cover the globe: Barbados, Brazil, Germany, Ghana, Grenada, India, Ireland, Mauritania, Mexico, Pakistan and Sudan—to name a few. There are books in translation, as well as a few in French, German and Spanish. Where there is a translation into English, I’ve indicated it in parentheses after the title.

There were not many overlaps in the lists: Richard Osman’s delightful The Thursday Murder Club made it onto two lists, as did Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Where I received two blurbs for a single book, I have put them one after the other, in the order they came in. Some of the books on my list were included because they were unusual or provided a different perspective.

The books are arranged by category, year of publication (for translations, the year of publication in English has been used), and author. In the case of a series of books, I’ve picked the publication date of the most recent book.

Links lead to reviews on this blog or to my reviews of travel books for the website Women on the Road.

A big thanks to all of you who sent in your lists! The 2021 contributors are: Abbas Hassan, Aurea Fagel, Chanis Fernando-Boisard, David Dunkley, Dunja Krause, Ed Cooper, Fabien Dumesnil, Isabel Obadiaru, Ismat Mehdi, Joannah Caborn-Wengler, Kat de Moor, Kristine Goulding, Leslie Jones, Naheed Bilgrami, Sophie M., Nandini Mehta, Nora El Qadim, Paddy Torsney, Patricia Schulz, Rishad Patell, Sadhana Ramchander, Sally-Anne Sader, Suroor Alikhan, Tom Peake, Usha Raman and Will Fihn Ramsay.

To help you navigate this long list, I have added links that take you directly to the various sections: Fiction/General, Crime/Thriller, Fantasy, Short Stories
Non-Fiction/General, Autobiography/Biography/Memoir, History, Nature/Science, Travel.

I hope you find new treasures here. Happy reading!

What were your best reads of the year? Share them in the comment section below this article.

FICTION

GENERAL

The Promise: Damon Galgut (2021)
Booker Prize-winning novel that revolves around a white South African family and an unkept promise. The book is structured around four funerals, which gives the author space to portray a changing South Africa. A very good read.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House: Cherie Jones (2021)
Set in Barbados, the story follows Lala, a young woman married to a brutal man, Adan. Jones looks behind the façade of the idyllic Caribbean island with its beaches and blue seas, uncovering domestic abuse, prostitution, crime and incest. It is a book about women—their vulnerability and incredible strength. Compelling.

Whereabouts: Jhumpa Lahiri (2021)
A slim novella that follows a 40-year-old woman (possibly Lahiri?) as she meanders through life in an Italian town. The short chapters read like a diary and deal with solitude as a central theme.

no one is talking about this: Patricia Lockwood (2021)
Lockwood attempts to do something very different with the form and function of the novel. Told in staccato bursts resembling a Twitter thread, the story follows a portal-immersed millennial who is shaken out of her posting life by the birth of her niece, a baby with Proteus syndrome. It’s intense, opaque at times, but ultimately quite brave.

La Boîte Noire (The Black Box): Ito Shiori (2017, translated from Japanese by Jean-Christophe Hellary and Aline Koza into French 2019, and by Allison Markin Powell into English 2021)
The book is about a woman trying to bring a man to justice after being raped. The man, being a high-flying journalist, is protected by the judicial system. Ito Shiori is a symbol in the #MeToo movement in Japan.

The Magician: Colm Tóibín (2021)
A fictionalized biography of Thomas Mann. This is an intimate portrait of a writer.

Little Girls Are Wiser than Men: Adapted from Leo Tolstoy (2021)
A delightful letterpress-printed book from Tara Books, Chennai. I love the feel of handmade paper, the lino-cut drawings by Hassan Zehreddine, the production, and the simple story by Leo Tolstoy. It is like I am holding a Russian book from my childhood. It also has a fabulous muslin cloth cover with magnetic strips that snap in place.

Homeland Elegies: Ayad Akhter (2020)
What does it mean to be an American Muslim in a post 9/11 world? Akhter explores this question through a series of extended snapshots from his own life—coming to America, his troubled relationship with “Homeland”, and the idea of the “good Muslim”—to craft a moving memoir.

Leave the World Behind: Rumaan Alam (2020)
This felt very germane to the plague year we had in 2020. It is a mix of dystopian disaster novel and middle-class comedy of manners that touches lightly on matters of race. A New York couple and their teenage children leave the city on a family vacation to a luxury rental on Long Island. Soon, the world as they know it is given a good shake. Strange things begin to happen, both around them and in the city, news of which is conveyed through notifications on their phones. Don’t read this short novel for a neatly resolved ending, but as a deftly written, unsettling parable of our times.

The Vanishing Half: Britt Bennet (2020)
The story of Black twin sisters, one of whom passes for white. The book is an exploration of race and family ties.

This Mournable Body: Tsitsi Dangarembga (2020)
This is a novel about Tambu, a middle-aged Zimbabwean woman, who is trying to come to terms with the fact that her dreams of success are not going to materialize. Tambu is so fragile that even when things are going well, I kept expecting something to go wrong. This is the last of a trilogy with Tambu at its centre. Together, the books chart the history of the country, from pre- to post-independence.

Mi negro pasado / El diario de Tita: Laura Esquivel (2017 / 2016, translated from Spanish as The Colours of My Past and Tita’s Diary, both 2020)
I always loved Como agua para chocolate and I enjoyed these books closely related to it. El diario de Tita is a very nice edition: it looks like a diary, handwritten and with scribbles, pictures, dried flowers and more. A lot of recipes as well.

The Lying Life of Adults: Elena Ferrante (2019, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein 2020)
The book is one long outpouring of teenage angst, the agony and occasional guilty pleasure of being 15 going on 16. Gianna, or Giovanna, begins by overhearing a conversation between her soon-to-be-divorced parents, in which her father casually remarks that she is quite ugly, starting her off on a journey of intellectual and physical exploration, leading to the discovery of adult hypocrisy. Naples, as in Ferrante’s earlier books, is an important character, an almost determining presence in the young Gianna’s life.

Tyll: Daniel Kehlmann (2017, translated from German by Ross Benjamin 2020)
As a quixotic and poignant re-imagining of the old folk tale, Tyll is both thoughtful and daring. A German storyteller in the tradition of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen and Günter Grass, Kehlmann captures his zeitgeist with an inseparable layering of sorrow and joy. Destined to be a classic of its time.

Grown Ups: Marian Keyes (2020)
This is a family portrait which starts at the end: a fairly fraught scene around a dinner table, and then backs up six months and slowly drops hints as to why what was said by whom as each character’s back story is gradually filled in. The book builds beautifully, and like in a panopticon you get the different family members’ perspectives on themselves and each other. It’s a fun read with equal amounts of humour and good observation of family relationships. Some of the scenes have a touch of kitsch about them, but the neat plot twists were enough to make me forgive those.

The Margot Affair: Sanae Limoine (2020)
This is a sharply observed coming-of-age novel about a “second family”. Seventeen-year-old Margot chooses to reveal to the world her father’s double life, as she engages in a complex relationship with a journalist and his wife, while arriving at an understanding of her mother’s impulses as an artiste and a woman.

The Shadow King: Maaza Mengistu (2020)
Maaza Mengistu brings to life the Ethiopian women who joined in the resistance against the Italian invasion in 1935. The book is brilliant, well-structured and beautifully written, and the women shine through. This is another untold story whose time has come.

Dissipatio H.G.—The Vanishing: Guido Morselli (1977, translated from Italian by Frederika Randall 2020)
A strange, post-apocalyptic book about a man who comes down from a cave where he had gone to commit suicide to find that all of humanity had vanished into thin air. He starts out by enjoying the quiet, but then starts to lose his grip. Did humanity really disappear or is he imagining it? Intriguing and thought-provoking.

Death in her Hands: Ottessa Moshfegh (2020)
Ostensibly a murder mystery, this is actually a story about a woman losing her mind. Vesta, a widow in her 70s, has moved across the country after the death of her husband, and is now living in a cabin in the woods. One day, she finds a note in the woods: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But there is no body. She becomes obsessed by the note and starts creating her own scenario. Then things start happening in the real world that reflect her imaginary scenario. Or do they?

Hamnet: Maggie O’Farrell (2020)
Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at 11, and this is the reimagined story of the boy’s life and death, of the boy’s mother, the daily life of the family and how Hamnet’s death affected the marriage, and the family. The characters, their emotions, the town, the household, the times they lived in, and above all what grief does to a relationship and a family come vividly alive through this beautiful, tenderly told novel.

Shuggie Bain: Douglas Stuart (2020)
A searing, gritty, bittersweet portrait of growing up in a poverty-ridden part of Glasgow with a mother battling addiction. Shuggie grows into awareness, then acceptance, of his sexuality and his powerlessness to help his mother fight her demons.

The Door: Magda Szabo (1987, translated from Hungarian by Len Rix 2020)
This book by a Hungarian writer is not an easy read. I especially loved the dog, I shall say no more.

Lie with me: Philippe Besson (2017, translated from French by Molly Ringwald 2019)
I loved this book. A short French novel that deals with an affair between two teenage boys in the mid-1980s—it was bittersweet, moving and sad. And translated by the 1980s’ brat pack actress Molly Ringwald no less!

A Girl Returned: Donatella Di Pierantonio (2017, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein 2019)
A beautiful book about the dramatic story of a thirteen-year-girl who is “returned” from her adopted family to the birth one, without any apparent explanation. It is the story of how she tries to understand the reasons for this gesture that caused her enormous suffering and how she tries to integrate into a new family whose socio-economic context is completely different from the one in which she was raised. Narrated by the young girl, the book is filled with intensity, delicacy but also poignancy right from the start.

Girl, Woman, Other: Bernadine Evaristo (2019)
A fragmented, rangy, poetic, plotless tapestry of overlapping lives that could almost be the screenplay of a Black British Robert Altman movie!
The book sketches out the lives of nine Black, multiracial, non-binary characters in sharply stratified contemporary British society. Evaristo’s approach to storytelling offers insights that hit you hard, leaving you wondering about your own preconceived notions about gender, sexuality, and power.

Feel Good: Thomas Gunzig (2019)
Reading this book is basically reading it in the exact moment the writer is developing it. It is a simple, tragicomic book on the social violence of our time and also a satire of the literary milieu through one of the main characters who is a writer. Note: The book is in French; there doesn’t seem to be a translation into English yet.

The Dutch House: Ann Patchett (2019, audiobook read by Tom Hanks)
Danny Conway narrates the story of his family, in which the house—built by a Dutch family and bought by his father—is the main character. Danny and his sister Maeve lose their home when their father suddenly dies, having willed it to his new young wife. This sets in motion a series of irredeemable losses and some unexpected gains, all reflected in the golden windows of the Dutch House.

Olive Again: Elizabeth Strout (2019)
Another great read by Strout—following Olive’s life in her later years. I thought she might be pushing it with another novel about the always judgmental, cantankerous, domineering Olive, but I found myself happy to read about what was happening in her life now. I felt like I was reading about an old friend.

Little: Edward Carey (2018)
Who was Marie Grosholtz before she became the much-celebrated Madame Tussaud? In 1761, Marie, a 6-year-old orphan, is nothing more than the silent servant of Dr Curtious, an anatomist. She soon becomes his assistant and learns the art of wax modelling. Marie, nicknamed Little, does her best to protect herself from being hurt. Although she is seen by those closest to her as uninteresting, stupid and ugly, she never ceases to hope that she will find love. She patiently and lovingly works on wax, on the one hand to express herself and make sense of her own existence, and on the other to understand and shape the world expanding and erupting around her. In my humble opinion, a masterpiece.

Almas de Plata: Rubén Juy (2018)
A love story between a young guy in a wheelchair and a blind girl who is an excellent violinist. I am friends with the author and used one of his micro-relatos (flash fictions) in my book.

The Desert and the Drum: Mbarek Ould Beyrouk (2015, translated from French by Rachel McGill 2018)
The first novel from Mauritania to be translated into English, it is about a young Bedouin woman whose illegitimate child is taken away from her. Unable to find her child again and furious at her tribe, she steals the tribe’s sacred drum and runs away with it to the city. A fascinating glimpse into a culture I didn’t know much about.

Homegoing: Ya Gyasi (2017)The book sweeps across five hundred years and multiple generations of experience, from rural life in Ghana to the slave trade to the segregated South and Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement, and finally back to rest on the shores where the first ships sailed with their human cargo.

Pachinko: Min Jin Lee (2017)
This takes you straight to early 20th century Korea and Japan and tells the story of a family enduring hardship and discrimination following a woman’s struggle with poverty, patriarchy, unplanned pregnancy and anti-Korean prejudice as she moves to Japan. Beautifully told.

The Alice Network: Kate Quinn (2017)
A novel about two women, a spy in France during World War I and an American socialite looking for her cousin in 1947.

Ghachar Ghochar: Vivek Shanbag (2015, translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur 2017)
A short book that reads like a play—a simple look at a modern-day India that we don’t get to read about often. My first Kannada novel and I was enthralled.

The Muse: Jessie Burton (2016)
I read the Dutch translation. A captivating and brilliantly realized story of two young women—a Caribbean immigrant in 1960s London, and a bohemian woman in 1930s Spain—and the powerful mystery that ties them together. Loved it. A lot of history, intrigue and suspense without being a thriller.

The Fishermen: Chigozie Obioma (2015)
A powerful tale from a Nigerian author about four brothers who are destroyed by a prophecy that says that one of them will be killed by his brother. An exploration of what fear and grief can do to a person.

The Goldfinch: Donna Tartt (2013)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this 800-page novel where the protagonist—13-year-old Theodore Decker—survives a terrorist bombing at an art museum in New York City in which his mother is killed. Upon a nudge from a dying man, he takes with him a small Dutch Golden Age painting called The Goldfinch—a rare work of art and one of the few surviving works by Rembrandt’s most promising pupil, Carel Fabritius. Almost all of Fabritius’s works were destroyed in the Delft explosion of 1654, in which the artist himself was killed. What Theo does with this painting and where it takes him makes for an intriguing and gripping read.

The Remains of the Day: Kazuo Ishiguru (2012)
Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. The unreliable narrator, the exquisite turns of phrase, and the sombre melancholy. No wonder Harold Pinter (another Nobel Prize winner) adapted the screenplay!

1Q84: Haruki Murakami (2012)
Enjoyed this immersive book that pulled me into its world and made me reluctant to leave. At over 1300 pages, it’s quite a tome! Aomane and Tengo slip through a portal into a world very like their own but not quite: there are two moons in the sky, and there are the strange Little People with a lot of power. What can I say, Murakami does it again!

Witch Light: Susan Fletcher (2011; also published under the title Corrag).
The book is set in 17th century Scotland and England with a totally captivating heroine: a young girl who is persecuted as a witch in northern England and flees to Scotland where she gets caught up in English brutality against a Scottish clan. One of the best parts of the book is the way she interacts with the gloriously described Highland countryside, and the purity of both the girl and the landscape.

Mornings in Jenin: Susan Abul Hawa (2010)
Trauma faced by forced division of a Palestinian family in the aftermath of 1948, when Israel was founded.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes: Mohamed Hanif (2008)
A satire about the assassination of President Zia of Pakistan and what might have really happened.

Comme un Reve de Pierre: Michele Malivel (2007)
Mauritian writer delves into the remains of an abandoned house in Provence and stumbles on its secrets.

Les Arpenteurs du monde: Daniel Kehlmann (2005, translated from German into French by Juliette Aubert 2009 and into English as Measuring the World by Carol Brown Janeway 2006)
This fascinating and clever novel is about two extraordinary men. The first one, Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859), is the famous explorer who sailed the Orinoco River, met cannibals, and spent his life travelling the world. The other is Carl Friedrich Gauss, not only the “Prince of Mathematics” but also an astronomer, who refuses to leave his house even for a short trip. Their meeting in 1828 at a Scientific Congress in Berlin is the starting point of the novel. What makes Kehlmann’s novel interesting is that those two men, recognized in their own time as Übermensch, are described less as icons than as real men, made of flesh and blood, facing doubts, fears, and the wreck that is old age.

The Circle of Karma: Kunzag Choden (2005)
A novel about the life of a rural Bhutanese woman. Tsomo grows up in a village but leaves home after giving birth to a still-born child. The story follows her as she works on road construction sites and travels through the country and to Nepal and India. It was refreshing to read a book from Bhutan that didn’t talk about the happiness index!

Pather Dabi—The Right of Way: Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (1993, translated from Bengali by Prasenjit Mukherjee 2002)
Rising resentment against British rule and revolutionary responses of men and women in Greater Bengal in the 1930s.

Mon Nom est rouge: Orhan Pamuk (1998, translated from Turkish into French by Gilles Authier 2003 and into English as My Name is Red by Erdag Goknar 2001)
In 1591, in Istanbul, the voice of a dead man rises from the well he has been thrown into by his murderer. He knows who killed him and why. He was a talented miniaturist who worked for the Sultan and was ordered to illustrate a book in the Italian Renaissance style. This new type of art—with a sense of perspective—was seen by some as irrelevant if not sacrilegious. In this gorgeous and polyphonic novel, Orhan Pamuk illustrates how the Ottoman Empire, with its secular traditions, culture and art, had to fight both popular and scholar resistance in its attempts at embracing the artistic revolution of 17th century Western Europe.

Two Moons: Jennifer Johnston (1999)
I actually read this twice in a row because it stayed with me after the first time but I wasn’t sure why and had to read it again straight away to find out. Set in Ireland, it’s a glance at the lives of a grandmother, her daughter and the granddaughter. The daughter, the main character, is an actress just moving beyond middle-age and dealing with the end of youth while trying her best to look after her ageing mother. The grandmother is at the end of her days and working through some of the more challenging aspects of her life with her deceased husband through some charming hallucinations. And the daughter is engaged to an attractive actor who comes to her mother’s house with her and the mother discovers an unexpected attraction towards the actor. There’s a lot packed into a relatively small book, but it’s beautifully paced and economically told, carried mostly by the engaging characters of the mother and the grandmother.

We Were the Mulvaneys: Joyce Carol Oates (1996)
The Mulvaneys are the epitome of the perfect American family: the father is a successful and well-liked self-made man, his wife is the slightly eccentric yet lovely housewife, while their three children are bright and popular. But Joyce Carol Oates sets their world on fire through a tragedy, which will shatter the family’s ideal world. Oates, always an acute observer of family ties, writes a tough, yet deeply moving page-turner which also makes her readers wonder how they would have reacted to such a terrible event.

Samarkand: Amin Malouf (1988, translated from French by Russell Harris 1992)
Historical fiction written about 11th century Samarkand with poet/astronomer Omar Khayyam as the main character in the first part of the book. The story then moves in the second part to the early 20th century search for Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. The writing is beautiful and Malouf spins a wonderful story of intrigue and mystery that involves the founder of the famous sect of assassins, Hassan-I-Sabbah, the grand Vazir Nizam Ul Mulk and Omar’s lover, Jahan.

The Shadow Lines: Amitav Ghosh (1988)
An early novel by Ghosh, describing tensions of young adolescents growing up in Calcutta and studying in the UK.

Heartburn: Nora Ephron (1983, audiobook read by Meryl Streep)
The book presents Ephron at her wittiest best, though it may not appeal to those who cannot appreciate the New Yorker’s penchant for navel gazing, endless therapy sessions, and mouth-watering descriptions of food in the making.

Season of Migration to the North: Tayeb Salih (1966, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies 1989)
Considered the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century, this slim book manages to convey very effectively a sense of the psycho-social and economic aftermath of the destructive colonial encounter. The protagonist is an idealistic young man who returns to Sudan with a European education and a desire to contribute to the development of his country. In his village along the Nile, he finds an enigmatic character whose own journey to the West and back ends with tragic consequences.

Rosy is my Relative: Gerald Durrell (1968)
How can I resist adding this to my list? I reread this book this year and it remains one of my favourites. It’s the only work of fiction by Durrell and is delightful. Rosy is a wonderful creation, but then how can you resist a good-natured elephant with a tendency to drink? According to Durrell, Rosy really existed and this is an almost-true story.

Private Lives: Noël Coward (1930)
It’s a play. I enjoy it. I’ve starred in it. It is somewhat dated. However, what sets it apart is its delightful symmetry of language, rhythm, and situation. It is also quite short at around 90 pages.

The Enchanted April: Elizabeth Von Armin (1922)
Here is some chick lit and a feel-good fairy tale from the 1920s. Four women, of various ages and social backgrounds, are brought together in an Italian manor, thanks to an advert in The Times. Leaving their husbands and admirers behind, they spend the whole month of April together: they are able to really be themselves, and learn from each other. Von Armin tells an enchanted tale indeed, where all’s well that ends well. The book verges on women’s liberation but never really takes the plunge. The novel had me smiling a lot. It made it to my best books’ list because Von Armin’s literary style is masterful, witty, ironical and elegant.

Far from the Madding Crowd: Thomas Hardy (1874)
In this deliciously funny novel that takes place in a small rural community, Thomas Hardy describes how gorgeous, mysterious yet strong-willed Bathsheba Everdene adapts to her new surroundings: a farm in Wessex. Being single and self-reliant, she is scrutinized by her neighbours and becomes the subject of gossip. What’s more, farmer Boldwood, Sergeant Troy and farmer Gabriel Oak all decide they want to marry her, and fight to win her. Bathsheba is not even aware of all this and finds herself in delicate situations, to say the least. Hardy once again explores the female condition in the 19th century, as he did with Tess’s tragic life in Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Although much lighter in tone, Far from the Madding Crowd explores how hard and sometimes dangerous it is to be a woman in a man’s world.

CRIME / THRILLER

We Trade Our Night for Someone Else’s Day: Ivana Bodrozić (2016, translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać 2021)
This political thriller is set in a Croatian city that is never named but is probably Vukovar. Bodrozić uncovers the lies and corruption behind the city’s administration, and the fallout from the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s. The book created quite a controversy when it was published because of its unflinching look at the politics of the city. I enjoyed the book, which was well-written and fairly dark.

The Man Who Died Twice / The Thursday Murder Club: Richard Osman (2021 / 2020)
These two were particularly fun and enjoyable, while also dealing with deeper issues about getting older, love and friendship. The characters really come to life and become your own friends. It’s lovely to see them again in the second one, and I have missed them since I finished the book. (Also see below.)

The Other Mrs.: Mary Kubica (2020)
A great thriller—could not put it down. Deception, manipulation, secrets, suspense, all the ingredients are there. Apart from that, it also shines a light on mental illness.

Olympia: Volker Kutscher (2020)
This is the eighth book in a crime fiction series by Volker Kutscher that follows a police officer from Cologne who gets transferred to Berlin through his father’s connections after he messed up. The first book starts in 1929 and the series slowly evolves alongside political tensions and the rise of the Nazis. Olympia is set in 1936 and centres around a death in the Olympic village. The whole series manages to transport you back in time and is compelling crime fiction while giving the reader an unsettling taste of the political situation as the Weimar Republic topples. The first one is Babylon Berlin (German original Der nasse Fisch) which has been turned into a pretty cool TV series (although not super true to the original).
Note: This book is available in German only, but the earlier books in the series have been translated: https://sandstonepress.com/blog/2020/9/25/the-gereon-rath-series-in-translation

El desorden que dejas: Carlos Montero (2020)
I have discovered a lot of new and wonderful Spanish writers and Montero is one of them. A story told from the point of view of Raquel, a literature teacher replacing Elvira who committed suicide. But was it really suicide? A book that starts as a story about harassment and turns into a psychological thriller about guilt and the fragility of human relations. There is a movie or series on Netflix based on this novel.

The Thursday Murder Club: Richard Osman (2020)
To a casual observer, the members of the Thursday Murder Club look harmless: senior citizens who pass the time at their retirement village researching police cold cases. However, after a local builder is murdered, the Club contrives to be part of the investigation, straining the patience of the lead detective. After all, what could an elderly psychiatrist, a retired nurse, an erstwhile labour organizer, and a woman who hints she is a former spy uncover that the police cannot? Plenty! An absorbing whodunit that is by turns wryly amusing and unexpectedly tender, this contemporary mystery kept me up late into the night. The eagerly-awaited sequel The Man Who Died Twice is an equally delightful find if you can’t get enough of the octogenarian detectives.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: Olga Tokarczuk (2009, translated from Polish by Anna Lloyd-Jones 2019)
This is a quirky, literary whodunit whose central character is a cranky, middle-aged woman who lives in a small hamlet on a plateau near the Polish-Czech border. Obsessed by the works of William Blake, she is also a crusader against animal cruelty, something that brings her into conflict with her neighbours who hunt.

The Bone Readers: Jacob Ross (2018)
Thoroughly enjoyable police procedural from a Grenadian writer, with the dialogue written in the local dialect. A boy goes missing and a cult leader is killed. Are they connected? A glimpse into the life of one of the islands of Grenada.

El silencio de la Ciudad Blanca: Eva García Sáenz de Urturi (2016)
I discovered this brilliant Spanish author and read the first part of the Kraken series. Excellent plot. A thriller with a lot of geographical, historical and mythological information about the city Vitoria. A great read!

The Girl on the Train: Pawla Hawkins (2015)
I was carried away by the suspense, the action and the style of writing.

Wife of the Gods: Kwei Quartey (2009)
I enjoyed this whodunit set in Ghana, the first of a series. It has a strong sense of place, and engaging characters. A young woman is found murdered in a forest. Inspector Darko Dawson is sent to investigate but he also has unfinished business there: his mother disappeared when she went to visit her sister in the same town many years ago.

FANTASY

Piranesi: Susanna Clarke (2020)
This could be described as a mystery. The main character lives in this labyrinthic massive house, which the reader (at least me) wonders from the beginning, is this real or is it his imagination? Piranesi seems quite happy with his situation and his solitude, keeping track of tides and statues, naming halls and honouring the dead. His only human contact is the Other, as he calls him, and Piranesi considers him as a trusted colleague and friend, a fact that becomes clear soon enough not to be true.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars: Christopher Paolini (2020)
It took the author of Eragon nearly 20 years to follow up with an equally riveting epic tale, and this is it. The story follows protagonist Kira Navárez, who has always been fascinated by the outer worlds and has spent her life travelling to the edges of the known universe. On a routine trip to an uncolonized planet Kira discovers an alien relic that changes everything. From that moment Kira is launched on an odyssey of transformation and discovery; first contact is not what she imagined, and the alien’s complicated relationship with technology is at odds with humanity. War breaks out across the stars, and Kira must face her own horrors as Earth and its colonies move closer to collapse. Epic space battles, different races that cannot reconcile, a chosen one who is challenged to their very soul, and an intricate cast of characters make this a rich, full storytelling experience.

Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women: Sharon Blackie (2019)
A magnificent collection of stories based on fairy tales from across Europe. “These stories are about coming to terms with our animal natures, exploring the ways in which we might renegotiate our fractured relationship with the natural world, and uncovering the wildness—and wilderness—within” says the blurb.

SHORT STORIES

Vultures in the Living Room and Other Stories: Lula Falcão (2017, translated from Portuguese by Helen Cavendish de Moura 2021)
A strange collection of short stories by a Brazilian journalist: minimalist, slightly surreal. He writes about the state of Brazil’s middle class and exploitative leaders. I found it unusual, quite unlike anything else I have read.

A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth: Daniel Mason (2020)
Strange and intriguing short stories, often based on real-life people. A prize-fighter beats a formidable opponent, a young woman looks for a cure to help her child’s respiratory problems in London in the 1800s, a balloonist makes a startling discovery, and Alfred Russell Wallace gives Darwin an idea that he does not acknowledge.

Fly Already: Etgar Keret (2019)
A collection of short stories by an Israeli writer. Strange (in a good way). Snapshots of lives, sometimes with a dose of surrealism. A child encourages a man to jump off the top of a building, thinking he’ll fly. A goldfish comes down from his bowl to watch TV after the family has gone to bed.

The Ayah and Other Stories: Chanis Fernando-Boisard (2017)
A collection of short stories by a Sri Lankan writer. The stories capture the small but seismic shifts in peoples’ lives.

An Evening in Paris and Other Stories: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (2011)
Extraordinary stories of ordinary characters in Bombay aspiring to higher living.

A Chronicle of the Peacocks: Intezar Husain (2006)
Tragic stories of Partition and lost memories.

Selected Stories: Smaresh Basu (translated from Bengali by Sumanta Banerjee 2003)
Real lives of Naxalites—a group of far-left radical communists, supportive of Maoist political ideology—in the movement’s early years.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Alice Munro (2001)
A set of long short stories, almost novellas, about the inner lives of ordinary people living ordinary lives, made extraordinary in the retelling. Munro gently teases out the agonies and (less so) the joys of the relational everyday. It’s gentle, non-judgmental, as it takes on the microscopic details of imperfect domestic lives.

NON-FICTION

GENERAL

Index, A History of the: Dennis Duncan (2021)
Who would have thought that a history of the index could be so enjoyable? Duncan has done his research, and this is a fascinating book that uncovers the origins of not only the index but the page number and alphabetical ordering. It is also entertaining, full of larger-than-life personalities. The index of this book is also well worth a read, with wit and red herrings lurking about.

Vivre avec nos morts: Delphine Horvilleur (2021)
The author is the first French woman rabbi. Her book is a deep reflection on death and how to continue living after losing loved ones.

Better to Have Gone: Love, Death and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville: Akash Kapur (2021)
The gripping, story of Auroville, the commune set up outside Pondicherry by Mirra Alfassa, widow of the Indian philosopher Shri Aurobindo, and known as the Mother by her followers. The quest for Utopia in Auroville often extracted a tragic price, and that is the story this book tells. The author and his wife Auralice grew up in Auroville; Auralice’s parents both died there when she was barely in her teens. Through the ill-fated lives of Auralice’s parents, Akash Kapur tells the haunting story of how their idealism, and faith in their spiritual gurus ultimately make them incapable of facing reality and taking rational decisions. Powerful, honest and beautifully written.

Who is a Muslim—Orientalism and Literary Populisms: Maryam Wasif Khan (2021)Pieces by Urdu writers of the subcontinent, pre- and post-1947 (when India and Pakistan became independent countries) and contemporary Urdu prose writers who define their identity as Muslims.

Ci-Gît l’Amer—Guérir du ressentiment: Cynthia Fleury (2020)
A fascinating philosophical and psychoanalytic approach to widely shared discontent of people in France, and more generally, Europe. An important book for the future of democracies.

White as Milk and Rice—Stories of India’s Isolated Tribes: Nidhi Ugar Kundalia (2020)About the dwindling tribes scattered in remote regions of India and their bravery in facing day-to-day struggles.

Caste—The Origins of Our Discontents: Isabel Wilkerson (2020)
A very interesting analysis of three caste systems: United States, India and Nazi Germany.

Bad Blood: John Carreyrou (2018)
The book is an exemplar of journalese at its finest. Clear; unbiased; unsympathetic; and indescribably compelling. The book charts the meteoric rise of Elizabeth Holmes, the youngest Silicon Valley female billionaire ever, from undergrad to trial as her company Theranos’ pinprick-blood-diagnosis-machines’ efficacy is investigated for fraud. Quite literally unbelievable!

The Book of Joy: His Holiness Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams (2016)
The Book of Joy is a one-of-a-kind read and a fantastic gift to give! It’s a unique piece that captures the dialogues, insights and viewpoints of two of the world’s most revered spiritual leaders, His Holiness Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on the not-so-simple subject of joy. Douglas Abrams skilfully co-wrote what transpired between the two during the Archbishop’s rare visit to His Holiness Dalai Lama’s residence for his 80th birthday, and the book is packed with stunning images and amusing tales. After reading their thoughts and arguments, one is left to consider what it means to be joyful and how it relates to other human experiences and emotions. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop, despite their different backgrounds and experiences, culminated their work by sharing with us their agreed eight pillars of joy and how to cultivate them. It is inspiring, motivating, and left me with a new perspective to experiencing joy! Like a chef who has his cookbook by his side, this book is a must-have life guide. And I thanked my good friend for giving me this gift.

Valmiki Ramayana: Meenakshi Reddy (2016)
Moral values imparted by Ramayana and composed by Valmiki in 500 chapters are compressed and presented in simple English.

Nothing to Envy—Real Lives in North Korea: Barbara Demick (2009)
“Our father is Marshall Kim Il Sung/ our home is the bosom of the party/ We are all brothers and sisters/ And we have nothing to envy to the world.” —Extract from a North Korean children’s theme song, 1970.
Demick, in this nonfiction narrative of everyday life in North Korea, takes her readers for a trip to Hell, or to one of the most totalitarian and secret political regimes of the world. She spent 15 years finding and interviewing 6 defectors from North Korea to deliver a chilling yet essential testimony to what it is like to be a North Korean under the rule of their leader, aka Big Brother.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY / BIOGRAPHY / MEMOIR

The Powerful and the Damned—Private Diaries in Turbulent Times: Lionel Barber (2020)
The memoirs of the former editor of the Financial Times, covering his time as editor. Fascinating and fun. A lot of name-dropping, but also a ringside seat at his meetings with the great and the not-so-good. I also enjoyed getting an insight into how an international paper is run.

Walking with Ghosts: Gabriel Byrne (2020)
This memoir is funny, heart-breaking and lyrical. This is not a kiss-and-tell story about Hollywood, but a book that goes through key moments of Byrne’s life, building an unsparing self-portrait through vignettes.

The Price of Peace—Money, Democracy and The Life of John M Keynes: Zachary Carter (2020)
This is a chatty and well-written account of the rise of Keynes from being a student at Cambridge to the legacy he left behind; his life in the corridors of power as the top adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer during and after the First World War and his academic achievements as an economist who shaped the study of the subject. Among other things, Carter traces his career, his prolific love life, his association with the intellectual Bloomsbury Group—which included Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey—his advocacy for eliminating the gold standard and the promotion of public works to ward off economic collapse in Europe after the end of the war.

The Club—Johnson, Boswell and the Friends Who Shaped an Age: Leo Damrosch (2020)
This book has some fascinating vignettes about the lives and works of Samuel Johnson (literary critic), James Boswell (biographer), Edmund Burke (political philosopher), Edward Gibbon (historian) and Adam Smith (economist). The men got together to create a club. Damrosch writes about how they came to know each other and how their lives and works intertwined. After hearing a great deal about Boswell, Gibbon and Burke from an uncle, I felt like I was reading about people whom I already knew well. Damrosch traces their lives and times with a great deal of careful research and scholarship. Enjoyed it thoroughly.

A Promised Land: Barack Obama (2020)
The first volume of Barack Obama’s memoirs, up to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. An insightful account of his years in politics and the White House.

Casbah, j’écris ton nom—nouvelles et récits à peine imaginaires tirés du quotidien de la vieille médina algéroise: Sad Mokdad (2018)
Anecdotes of growing up poor in the Algerian Casbah and participating in the revolution.

The Girl with Seven Names: Lee Hyeon-seo (2015)
The memoir of a woman who left North Korea on a whim and crossed into China. Unable to return, she spent the next 10 years there. She eventually moved to Seoul and got her mother and brother out. It’s quite a story, and what is really fascinating is the insider’s account of North Korea.

My Life in Middlemarch: Rebecca Mead (2014)
A bibliomemoir, a genre combining memoir and literary criticism. Mead traces her life through her readings of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and draws parallels between her life and Eliot’s. I loved the idea, and it made me want to reread Middlemarch.

An Interrupted Life—The Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork: Etty Hillesum (1999)
Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman born in 1914 in the Netherlands. She was 29 when she was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her diary (1941-1942) and the letters (1942-1943) she wrote from Westerbork transit camp could have made for gloomy reading but they are not. This is the journey of a young emancipated and cultivated woman, struggling to make sense of the outside world and its frightening reality. While most of us would have succumbed to despair, she responded to the horrors of her time with a growing desire to love and embrace every aspect of life. Stunningly, only few months before her deportation she writes: “Despite everything, life is full of beauty and meaning.” In times of fear and anxiety, anyone can find an invaluable source of inspiration and insight from this gifted and exceptionally courageous woman.

My Days: R.K. Narayan (1973)
My Days is the autobiography of one of the most brilliant and well-known writers in English from India. I reread it simply because a client sent me this book to model his book after. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about times that were simple and charming. I was struck by R.K. Narayan’s offbeat personality and determined pursuit to become a writer; I was surprised that he had a peacock and a monkey for pets while he was growing up! Illustrations by his brother, the renowned cartoonist, R.K. Laxman, bring his stories to life.

John A. Macdonald—The Young Politician, The Old Chieftain: Donald Creighton (1952)
This is a biography of the public and private lives of Canada’s first prime minister.

HISTORY

Alexandria—The Quest for the Lost City: Edmund Richardson (2021)
Truth is stranger than fiction in this extraordinary account of the life of Charles Masson, a 19th century adventurer and deserter from the East India Company’s army, who found his way to Afghanistan where he started digging for the remains of Alexandria, the city Alexander the Great had built. With his amateurish but persistent attempts, he finally—and literally—struck gold. He found the lost Alexandria buried underneath mounds in Bagram and the Shomali plains, not far from Kabul. His finds included hordes of Greco-Bactrian coins, jewellery and other artefacts, and the famous solid gold Bimaru Casket with scenes from the Buddha’s life (now in the British Museum). Historian Edmund Richardson’s retelling of Masson’s adventures reads like a thriller.

The Silk Roads—The Extraordinary History that Created Your World: Peter Frankopan (2018)
The book leads us to a different understanding of world history and how since early times, ideas and religions emanating from Eastern trade routes have impacted and still impact the fate of the West.

Jahangir—The Story of an Emperor: Parvati Sharma (2018)
About the fourth Mughal Emperor who reigned in the 17th century. He was the father of Shahjahan, who built the Taj Mahal.

Feminine Ingenuity—How Women Inventors Changed America: Anne L. Macdonald (2001)
A book about women inventors in the United States from the 1800s to the 1990s. Macdonald narrows it down to women who got patents for their inventions. It’s an interesting story and not at all well-known. Women invented safety elevators, irrigation methods, and a machine to glue paper to create paper bags, among other things. And they had to fight prejudice to be accepted. Well-researched.

NATURE / SCIENCE

The Story of our Amazing Universe: Athar Shareef (2021)
The book explains in simple language all the concepts connected to scientific theories of the universe.

Vesper Flights: Helen Macdonald (2020)A collection of deeply felt/thought essays about our relationship with animals and their habitats. Spiritual at times, whimsical at others, each essay is full of intricately observed detail, about our encounters with nature. Her close, quiet observation of herself and of the creatures in her world made the reading a real pleasure.

The Lost Spells: Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (2020)
A work of art! It’s supposed to be a children’s book and was given to me by my 10-year-old godson. The illustrations are some of the most beautiful I have seen and the spells are magical poetry. A jewel.

Rewilding—India’s Experiments In Saving Nature: Bahar Dutt (2019)This is a documentation of stories of hope for India’s natural world. The rewilding experiments include reintroducing tigers to the Panna forest in Madhya Pradesh, the pygmy hog in Guwahati, turtles and gharials into the Chambal River, mahaseer or the big-headed fish, vultures, rhinos and others. Bahar discusses the various issues around rewilding, and the difficulties faced by conservationists.

Adam’s Navel—A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form: Michael Sims (2003)
A cultural history of the human body that looks at its visible parts, going from head to toe.

TRAVEL

Winter Pasture—One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders: Li Juan (2012, translated from Chinese by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan 2021)
Fascinating account of a Chinese woman who spent time with Kazakh herders, near the Altai Mountains. It’s a way of life that I knew nothing about—in fact, I didn’t even know that there were Kazakh herders in China. The herder family with whom Li Juan travels has cattle, camels, sheep and horses—not to mention a dog and a cat. Li Juan becomes part of this family and her writing brings it all vividly to life.

Travelling While Black—Essays from a Life on the Move: Nanjala Nyabola (2020)
This series of essays looks at people on the move: not just the author, but also migrants, and what travel means, especially if you’re Black. Many of the essays focus on Africa. Powerful, incisive writing.

Wanderland—A Search for Magic in the Landscape: Jini Reddy (2020)
Jini Reddy tries to connect with the UK, where she was born, through its magical places, going beyond what most tourists see. In the process, she hopes to find some healing after the deaths of her father and her sister. This is her journey.

Shadow City—A Woman Walks Kabul: Taran N. Khan (2019)
Taran N. Khan made several trips to Kabul between 2006 and 2016. She ignored warnings about walking alone in Kabul, and discovered the real city behind the image projected by the media. Her account of Kabul is interwoven with memories of her childhood in Aligarh, especially of her beloved grandfather, who knew Kabul well in spite of never having been there. Her writing is lyrical.

Imagine Wanting Only This: Kristen Radtke (2018)
A graphic memoir and travel book. Kristen Radtke is devastated by the death of her favourite uncle, who has a heart condition that she has inherited. Somehow his death draws her to abandoned places, looking for what remains after humans leave. I found it unusual, both in the way she uses the graphic novel to write about travel and also the subject matter.

Geography of Bliss—One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World: Eric Weiner (2018)
A friend gifted me this book saying it would allow me to do some armchair travel during the pandemic. Happiness interests me greatly, and so I travelled with Eric Weiner—to the Netherlands, where drugs and prostitution are legal; to Iceland, one of the world’s happiest countries where skies are inky black at 10 am most of the time; to Bhutan where people, however poor, “do not bow down to gods of efficiency and productivity”; to Qatar, a wealthy country without a past where everything from people to culture is imported; to Moldova, the world’s least happy place, and to four other equally interesting countries, on a quest to discover the meaning of happiness. I really liked this book, and have started buying copies to gift to friends!

Country Driving—A Chinese Road Trip: Peter Hessler (2011)
Peter Hessler, an American journalist who speaks fluent Mandarin, spends several years in China. Armed with a Chinese driving licence, he drives around the country and talks to ordinary people. He also lives in a village, which is the section I enjoyed most, and charts, through this microcosm, the developments in the country.

The Snow Leopard: Peter Matthiessen (1978)
About a journey in the Himalayas to look for the snow leopard, this book is also a meditation on life, death and Buddhism. I reread it after decades and it still resonated.

Travels: Jan Morris (1976)
Starts with Ibn Battuta and describes cities in the East and West (somewhat outdated as many places have changed overnight, for example, Singapore).

6 thoughts on “The Best Books of 2021

    1. suroor alikhan

      Glad you found books for your list! I draw on a large number of contributors, which makes the list more interesting.

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