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Our Staff and Contributor Favorites of 2021

Our Staff and Contributor Favorites of 2021

What is there to say at the end of a year like this? I admit my own creative faculties are about worn out, along with most of my other ones. But the holidays are a season for reflection and, if we can manage it, hope for what’s ahead. 2021 was maybe not everything we wanted it to be after the hardships of 2020, but that’s a lot of pressure to put on three hundred and sixty-five little days. We’re all doing our best, right? With that in mind, we at the CHIRB are eschewing a traditional end-of-year countdown or ranking of this year’s books. Instead, here are eighteen we loved, spanning widely across genre, time, country, and page count. We hope you find a few to love as well in 2022. Happy holidays everyone!

The Natural Mother of the Child
By Krys Malcom Belc

Belc’s intimate memoir about queer parenthood is beautiful, brave, and unforgettable. Highlighting the difficulties of navigating court and medical systems designed from a narrow binary, this powerful lyrical narrative is a much-needed nuanced portrait of love outside the margins, challenging how we think and talk about gender, bodies, and families. – Rachel León, Contributor

The Trees
By Percival Everett
Graywolf Press

Leave your delicate sensibilities at the door, because 2020 Pulitzer finalist Percival Everett is back and taking no prisoners. An incendiary, assaultive satire of White supremacy and racial violence in America, this is the sort of ghost story that can’t be contained, because a country is haunted, not a house.  – Sara Batkie, Editor in Chief

Second Place
By Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Rachel Cusk’s Second Place is a stunning portrait of womanhood and a journey toward self-acceptance through relationships, autonomy, and art. Cusk once again delivers her signature introspective, evocative narrative and amusing plot lines. The questions this book left me sifting through makes it my favorite of 2021. – Meredith Boe, Contributor

Dante’s Purgatorio
Translated by Mary Jo Bang
Graywolf Press

No book felt more urgent in 2021 than the poet Mary Jo Bang’s new translation of Dante’s Purgatorio of 1320. Required reading for anyone purging the vices of today’s hells. Includes a perfectly-placed reference to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” – Ross Collin, Contributor

Light from Uncommon Stars
By Ryka Aoki
Tor Books

I read many tremendous books this year, but I keep thinking about Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars for demons, aliens, violinists, and donut enthusiasts. It’s fantasy, sci-fi, and contemporary. It’s queer, beautiful, and fun. If you want to read something strange and inspiring, this book is for you. – Jen St. Jude, Managing Director

The Archer
By Shruti Swamy
Algonquin Books

Shruti Swamy’s The Archer is a love letter to the pursuit of art, that dogged desire to practice and master what is most meaningful, despite any number of societal barriers. She breathes life into Kathak and creates a memorable protagonist in Vidya. Truly one of my most beloved books of 2021. – Malavika Praseed, Contributor

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
By Dawnie Walton
37 Ink

Not into the music scene? Me either. Bored by power struggles between executives and artists? Me too. But Walton’s riff is an insistent ear-worm, exploring integrity and intention, crossing decades and perspectives: “There’s too much work to do in this revolution and too many people to wake up.” – Marcie McCauley, Contributor

A Ghost in the Throat
By Doireann Ní Ghoríofa

Doireann Ní Ghoríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat captures the magic of loving a poem enough to follow it to the end of the archives. As Ní Ghoríofa discovers more about her subject, 18th-century poet Eibhlín Dubh, she experiences the profound connection that literature makes possible: between women, across time. – Morgan Graham, Contributor

Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid: America’s Original Gangster Couple
By Glenn Stout
Mariner Books

Think Bonnie and Clyde were a killer couple? Years before their crime spree, Margaret and Richard Whittemore – a.k.a. Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid – fronted a gang of jewel thieves that terrorized New York City. This full-throttle ride is loaded with insights into crime, punishment, and celebrity culture. – Dean Jobb, Contributor

By Nadia Owusu
Simon & Schuster

This electrifying memoir begins, “I write toward truth, but my memory is prone to bouts of imagination.” From there, Owusu reveals the ruptures from her past and uses seismic language to reflect on grief. Aftershocks explores the moments that shake up our identities with prose as memorable and ground-shifting as an earthquake. – Aram Mrjoian, Editor-at-Large & Contributor

The Swank Hotel
By Lucy Corin
Graywolf Press

A raucous, fearless, kaleidoscopic examination of post-Great Recession America and the state of the novel in the twenty-first century. Searing in its commentary on society’s treatment of mental health and undaunted in its innovation in form and technique, The Swank Hotel is required reading for our fractured age. – Dan White, Contributor

In the Quick
By Kate Hope Day
Random House

Kate Hope Day’s In the Quick is both invitingly intellectual and strikingly physical, which feels fitting for a book centered on space travel: balancing the infinite capacity of what the human mind can dream with the limits of what the human body can do. – Greer Macallister, Contributor

See Also

By Tracy Clark
Kensington Publishing Corporation

The fourth in this terrific Chicago-set series is taut and readable as South Side private eye Cass Raines chases a missing foster kid through the brutal winter winds into the seediest—and most convincingly chilling—Midwestern settings. The setting is a cruel cold, but the characters are warm and the story inviting. – Lori Rader-Day, Contributor

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself
By Peter Ho Davies
Mariner Books

I devoured this tiny little novel in one sitting. And then I read it again. I couldn’t remember reading something so honest and raw in such a long time, especially about a topic like abortion, and certainly not from a man. I loved everything about this book, from the sentences to the themes. – Sara Cutaia, Editor-at-Large & Arcturus Editor-in-Chief

Hell of a Book
By Jason Mott
Dutton Books

A writer’s unsteady gaze at the world and a past he can’t escape. Mott offers in Hell of a Book an affecting account of the Black experience in a bravely unique way. He defamiliarizes our perceptions, breaks through our defenses with humor, and makes us finally see. – Tryphena L. Yeboah, Contributor

On Fragile Waves
By E. Lily Yu

This left me in utter emotional rubble: a strikingly voiced story of desperate migration, of sharp-edged dreams. At once magical and unbearably real, told with childlike simplicity and devastating compassion. Fear and anger around a bright core of hope and grief, swinging on a wrecking ball of perfect lyric prose. – Casella Brookins, Contributor

The Five Wounds
By Kirstin Valdez Quade
W.W. Norton

The Five Wounds was one of the greatest reading joys I’ve had this year. Quade moves from the hilarious to the tragic with ease and grace, creating characters that are at times tender, and other times absurd, pitiful, or outright spiteful. It’s a full writing seminar in ~500 pages. – Michael Welch, CHIRBYs Director

The High-Rise Diver
By Julia Von Lucadou, Translated by Sharmila Cohen
World Editions

Many books have felt sadly prescient in our plague years, but the resonances of this quick novel can be shocking. When a popular gymnastic athlete that dives from skyscrapers withdraws from public life, social media, celebrity, and surveillance collide in a novel equal parts Simone Biles, Emily Ratajkowski, and Peng Shuai. – Joseph Houlihan, Contributor

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