The Best Books of 2021

Lee Polevoi


Once again, another rich year of reading. For this list of best books of 2021 (plus a novel from the recent past), the focus is on vibrancy of storytelling, brilliant quirks of language, and the quality of the reader's overall immersive experience. Some of these titles appear on other year-end lists, but a couple have been overlooked, and deserve more attention. All are well worth reading and many will be revisited in years to come.


That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

It’s no surprise that Irish writer Kevin Barry makes the list, with his latest story collection, That Old Country Music. Barry’s voice is raunchy, lyrical, entirely submerged in the Irish storytelling tradition, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Few writers combine so many different tonal registers, while also entrancing us with beautiful prose.


Not all stories in That Old Country Music resonate with the same impact as small gems like “Ox Mountain Death Song,” or “The Roma Kid,” a stunning account of an immigrant girl’s life. But throughout the collection, you won’t find a badly written page, even a substandard paragraph. That’s how good this writer is.



The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken

Sometimes a writer is so abundantly gifted in all the right elements of fiction that finding fault with their work seems ill-tempered at best. Her thumbnail sketches tell us what a character is like in just a sentence or two. The narrative tone of each story strikes just the right precarious balance between comedy and tragedy. And the author’s expert sense of pacing keeps a reader engaged until the story’s end.


Elizabeth McCracken is one of these writers, and it’s a rare pleasure to immerse yourself in her newest story collection, The Souvenir Museum. As with Thunderstruck, her previous (and equally brilliant) book of short stories, it’s immediately clear she knows what she’s doing—providing readers with deeply felt and insightful short fiction.


Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

What might have happened to five children if they hadn’t lost their lives when a V-2 rocket crashed into a London building at the height of the Second World War? That’s the unconventional (and completely persuasive) premise of Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford.


As with Golden Hill, his previous novel, Spufford plunges readers inside specific historical periods (actually, in Light Perpetual, the timeframe jumps at 15-year intervals through each character’s life), and he excels at drilling down into individual psychologies and personalities. The consummate way in which he portrays each of these five imaginary lives (“imaginary” in the sense that their lives go on undamaged by that V-2 rocket, and because “imaginary” is what fiction does) proves once again that Spufford is a writer of extraordinary range and talent.



Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Ray Carney owns a furniture store in Harlem, but he also walks a fine line between civic responsibility and criminal enterprises. In Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead makes the creation of uptown Manhattan in the late 1950s and early 1960s—as well as a series of heists in which Carney becomes enmeshed—look easy to do, when of course it’s not.


Whitehead’s prose is smart, jumpy, and pleasingly digressive. The storytelling seems effortless, and yet I can’t recall another work of fiction in 2021 that offered such high entertainment value.  


Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

Stephen Florida, a college senior in North Dakota, is obsessed with winning the NCAA Division IV Championship wrestling title. This not-entirely-fascinating premise aside, Stephen Florida (2017) is a remarkable achievement.


As the school year proceeds, we witness the young wrestler’s steady descent into madness—heart wrenching to read and yet, thanks to the author’s prowess, often very funny. This first-person novel puts many other “unreliable narrators” to shame, and the world Stephen Florida inhabits, so very strange at first, feels by the end of the novel all too real.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter. A new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, will be published in 2022.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Source:

Jean-Honore Fragonard painting (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)


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