Best Books of 2021: Fiction

Yesterday I shared the full list of books I read in 2021. Today I’m going to start sharing some favorites, beginning with the best from the fiction category.

Front Cover of the novel Piranesi

Piranesi, by Susanna Clark

Reading this book is an otherworldly experience—not only for the prosaic reason that it takes place in another world, but also because the writing creates a dreamlike atmosphere that is at once tantalizing and elusive. It takes the form of a detailed field journal kept by a man called Piranesi. He is mostly alone, navigating and charting a massive complex he calls the House. The House contains many halls, filled with thousands upon thousands of stone statues—some human, some animal, some creatures of story and myth. Through cracked roofs he sees an unending sky, and the floor below is flooded by an ocean of violent and interacting tides. Piranesi keeps meticulous notes, mapping the complex but always returning to the beginning lest he lose himself in the unending series of halls. Occasionally he is joined by a man he calls the Other, who is eager to hear the results of Piranesi’s exploration though he himself never ventures far into the House. This is a book I recommend highly, but mainly for the experience of reading it. The plot itself I found mildly disappointing, and the ending perhaps more so. I say perhaps because I haven’t been able to decide whether it ruined the book for me, and so perhaps this is also a testament to the novel’s magnificent indeterminacy.

Front Cover of the Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams

A book that hits the sweet spot for all you lovers of both historical fiction and lexicography. Williams tells the story of Esme, the daughter of a lexicographer working under Dr. Charles Murray to create the Oxford English Dictionary at the turn of the twentieth century. Esme’s father is a young widower, and She spends her early days playing at his feet under the large table in the Scriptorium while he works. Occasionally, she finds slips of paper with words and definitions written on them, sent in by the dictionary’s many volunteer contributors. As she grows and learns more, she begins working on the dictionary herself and notices that some words—particularly to do with the lives and experiences of women—are conspicuously left out or defined in ways that do not satisfy her. She begins a secret project of her own, collecting and defining women’s words that do not rise to the standards of masculine “importance” demanded by the intellectual giants of the dictionary. The novel is beautifully and gently written, yet uncompromising in its lament for the lost stories and language of women.

Front Cover to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the first book of the Wayfarers Series

 The Wayfarers Series by Becky Chambers

 This is a delightful science fiction series set in a vibrantly imagined and beautifully constructed universe. Each book is tenuously related to the last, usually picking up on and developing the story of a minor character from a previous book. Though events of extraordinary interplanetary significance are going on around her characters (and indeed they sometimes find themselves in the middle of such events), Chambers keeps the focus tightly on the characters themselves, navigating adventures they often did not choose and do not want within a complicated web of alien cultures and political agendas. It is exactly this quotidian bent and narrow focus that make the Wayfarers books so enjoyable to read—indeed, the final book covers a lot of ground even though it takes place during what amounts to a prolonged travel delay. If you want high-quality, character-centered sci-fi that explores issues of gender, intersectionality, colonialism and its aftermath, and a whole host of other big topics in little ways, give these a read!

Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

Honestly, I’d never had any desire to read this book. Never, that is, until I learned it was banned by the Nazis because they (rightly( identified it as n allegory for the persecution of European Jews in an era of accelerating anti-Semitism and fascism. Bambi was first published in 1923 to immediate success, but it was banned in 1935 lest it create sympathy for Germany’s Jews. The novel is a different animal entirely from the 1942 Walt Disney adaptation (pun intended)—an unflinching account of lives of forest animals born into a hostile, dangerous world and the price they pay to survive within it. Even its moments of joy and exuberance are muted by the tense undercurrents of threat that run through every page. The creatures of the forest fear death in every shadow and across every sunlit meadow, and even the leaves on the trees debate the mystery of death. Above all other predators is “He,” the human who brings death with his gun, who seeks only to kill and makes fools or traitors of all animals who serve him. In the end, Bambi learns not of love and the bliss of family life (as Disney would have us believe), but of life conditioned by constant wariness and the solitary sorrow of survival. It’s a masterful book, but I’ll probably wait a few years before I read it to my kids.

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