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Have you ever seen a simulation of what might happen if a rogue planet wandered into our solar system? The animation shows how the planet would be as disruptive as a cue ball, knocking heavenly bodies hither and thither. It might even push them out of their comfortable orbits. That’s essentially what happens to a group of women in Nikki May’s first novel, Wahala.

The rogue planet is a woman named Isobel, and the orderly, cozy solar system she fumbles into is comprised of three British Nigerian besties. Boo is a frustrated wife and mother with a part-time job that doesn’t satisfy her. Her French husband adores her and their bratty, bossy daughter but is one of those “fun dads” who leaves all the heavy lifting to his wife. Ronke is a dentist who has lousy taste in men and lacks her friends’ impeccable sense of style. And Simi’s husband is eager to have a baby, but she isn’t.

These well-heeled ladies, concerned as they are with clothes and shoes, weaves and gel manicures, brunches and lunches at chichi restaurants and, of course, men, are meant to be a London version of the “Sex and the City” quartet. Maybe, the reader might think, these women need to have their lives shaken up a bit. Maybe a bit of wahala, that word often used by Nigerians to describe chaos or trouble, isn’t such a bad thing.

As it turns out, the wild stuff on “Sex and the City” doesn’t come close to what happens to Boo, Ronke and Simi. That’s because Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha didn’t have to deal with an Isobel. You’ve certainly heard of people like Isobel, and if you’ve run into one and lived to tell the tale, consider yourself lucky. She’s the person who wants to be everyone’s best friend, who showers you with expensive gifts if she’s rich enough to afford them, who beguiles you into confiding your disappointments, your uncertainties, your fears, your secrets.

For all its wittiness, fast-paced writing and recipes for Nigerian chicken stew and Aunty K’s moin moin, Wahala is a much darker read than you might expect. Many people get hurt—badly. It’s a story that reminds us of the ties that bind, and sometimes gag.

This tale of three besties whose orderly lives are disrupted by a planetary force of a woman named Isobel reminds us of the ties that bind—and sometimes gag.

We begin each new reading year with high hopes, and sometimes, when we’re very lucky, we find our expectations rewarded. So it was with 2021.

It must be said that a lot of these books are really, really long. Apparently this was the year for total commitment, for taking a plunge and allowing ourselves to be swallowed up. 

Also, it should come as no surprise that books-within-books frequently appear on this list. For all our attempts at objectivity within our roles as critics, we just can’t help but love a book that loves books. Amor Towles, Ruth Ozeki, Jason Mott, Maggie Shipstead and Anthony Doerr all tapped into the most comforting yet complex parts of our book-loving selves. 

But most of the books on this list hit home in ways we never could’ve prepared for, even when we had the highest expectations, such as in Will McPhail’s graphic novel, which made us laugh till we cried, and Colson Whitehead’s heist novel, which no one could’ve expected would be such a gorgeous ode to sofas.

And at the top of our list, a book that accomplishes what feels like the impossible: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ epic debut novel, which challenges our relationship to the land beneath us in a way we’ve never experienced but long hoped for.

Read on for our 20 best works of literary fiction from 2021.

20. What Comes After by JoAnn Tompkins

In JoAnne Tompkins’ debut novel, faith is simply part of life, a reality for many that is rarely so sensitively portrayed in fiction.

19. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

To those disinclined to question the role that economic exploitation plays in supporting our modern lifestyle, reading this novel may prove an unsettling experience.

18. Gordo by Jaime Cortez

In his collection of short stories set in the ag-industrial maw of central California, Jaime Cortez artfully captures the daily lives of his characters in the freeze-frame flash of a master at work.

17. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro continues his genre-twisting ways with a tale that explores whether science could—or should—manipulate the future.

16. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford’s graceful novel reminds us that tragedy deprives the world of not only noble people but also scoundrels, both of whom are part of the fabric of history.

15. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is one of our best chroniclers of suburban family life, and his incisive new novel, the first in a planned trilogy, is by turns funny and terrifying.

14. In by Will McPhail

Small talk becomes real talk in this graphic novel from the celebrated cartoonist, and the world suddenly seems much brighter.

13. Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

With hints of Jami Attenberg’s sense of mishpucha and spiced with Jennifer Weiner’s chutzpah, Melissa Broder’s novel is graphic, tender and poetic, a delicious rom-com that turns serious.

12. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.

Robert Jones Jr.’s first novel accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation.

11. Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

In her exceptional debut novel, Ash Davidson expresses the heart and soul of Northern California’s redwood forest community.

10. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

“There are few things more beautiful to an author’s eye . . . than a well-read copy of one of his books,” says a character in Amor Towles’ novel. Undoubtedly, the pages of this cross-country saga are destined to be turned—and occasionally tattered—by numerous gratified readers.

9. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Devastating, hilarious and touching, Torrey Peters’ acutely intelligent first novel explores womanhood, parenthood and all the possibilities that lie therein.

8. A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Peter Ho Davies’ third novel is a poetic look at the nature of regret and a couple’s enduring love. It’s a difficult but marvelous book.

7. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

What does it mean to listen? What can you hear if you pay close attention, especially in a moment of grief? Ruth Ozeki explores these questions in her novel, a meditation on objects, compassion and everyday beauty. 

6. Matrix by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff aims to create a sense of wonder and awe in her novels, and in her boldly original fourth novel, set in a small convent in 12th-century England, the awe-filled moments are too many to count.

5. Hell of a Book by Jason Mott

A surrealist feast of imagination that’s brimming with very real horrors, frustrations and sorrows, Jason Mott’s fourth novel is an achievement of American fiction that rises to meet this particular moment with charm, wisdom and truth.

4. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Sorrow and violence play large roles in the ambitious, genre-busting novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr, but so does tenderness.

3. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Like Dante leading us through the levels of hell, Colson Whitehead exposes the layers of rottenness in New York City with characters who follow an ethical code that may be strange to those of us who aren’t crooks or cynics.

2. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

In her exhilarating third novel, Maggie Shipstead offers a marvelous pastiche of adventure and emotion as she explores what it means (and what it takes) to live an unusual life.

1. The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story that encompasses not only a young Black woman’s family heritage but also that of the American land where their history unfolded.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

Most of the books on this list hit home in ways we never could’ve prepared for, even when we had the highest expectations. Read on for the 20 best literary fiction titles of 2021.

Being a titan in romantic fiction comes with some expectations. People love—or maybe even need—a good cry, and when you’re a master of romance, they expect you to deliver one. It has never been hard for Nicholas Sparks to keep this promise, but when you’ve been writing love stories for 25 years, it can be difficult to meet, let alone surpass, expectations. 

However, as Sparks’ many fans know, his formula for bringing such romances to life is effective because we find ourselves truly caring for his characters, in spite of any reservations or presumptions. The Wish is a typical Sparks drama, familiar in the way that an old friend is: You know what that friend will say and how they’ll say it, but there’s still the possibility that you’ll be surprised by the infinite person they are inside.

Heuristic and dazzling, Nicholas Sparks’ novel convinces its reader to believe, in spite of everything, in love.

The novel follows Maggie Dawes throughout 2013, the last year of her life. She is a famous photographer diagnosed with terminal cancer, and when a young man named Mark comes to her gallery in search of a job, Maggie finds a confidante in him. She begins to reflect upon and tell her story before it’s too late. 

In 1996, at the age of 16, Maggie’s family sends her away to avoid the scandal of her pregnancy, and she’s taken in by an aunt who’s a former nun living on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Maggie spends her days feeling helpless and isolated until she meets Bryce, the only other person her age on the island of Ocracoke. When Bryce begins to tutor her, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that despite Maggie’s pregnancy and Bryce’s military dreams, the two are destined to be together.

This far into his career, each of Sparks’ novels feels like a high school science experiment: Change the variables, add this, subtract this and see what happens. And though The Wish may seem obvious at times, when put into the larger picture of Sparks’ tragically tuned arch, the reader can see how such exaggerated emotion provides life, breath and blood to these near-perfect characters. The reader may wonder how much of Sparks’ writing process is spent trying out plot options and disregarding the failures—surely a lot, as the result is faultlessly executed. 

Sparks knows how to pull your heartstrings, and as The Wish progresses, you know when to expect the punches. This doesn’t mean, however, that you want to dodge them. And just because you’re expecting a twist doesn’t mean that one won’t still form in your stomach. It’s comforting to know that there’s still a place you can go—besides your own intricate, messy life—for a reliable cry.

With The Wish, Sparks reminds us that love, as predictable as it can be, will always move you in ways you can’t comprehend. Yes, it is idyllic, it is comforting, it is sentimental, but at the end of the day, you have to suspend logic and smile. It’s how we love.

Heuristic and dazzling, Nicholas Sparks’ novel convinces its reader to believe, in spite of everything, in love.

While searching through her dead mother’s possessions, Anna Bain finds an old journal of her father’s, a discovery that she hopes will offer clarity about a person she never really knew. So begins Chibundu Onuzo’s third novel, Sankofa, an enjoyably readable novel that raises questions of belonging and the search for personal roots. 

Francis Aggrey’s diary offers important clues about his identity. He was a young student from a small West African country, here fictionalized as Bamana but bearing some resemblance to Ghana, and attended college in 1970s London. He boarded with a white Welsh family and began a romantic relationship with the younger daughter, Bronwen—Anna’s mother—before becoming involved in radical politics and returning to Bamana. 

Anna is shocked to find out that after years of political activism, Francis became the prime minister of his country under the name Kofi Adjei. Even more amazing, the former leader is still alive. Upon learning this information, Anna finds herself at a crux in her own life, separated from her husband and with no real ties to London, and so she journeys to Bamana to find her father. 

One of the strengths of Sankofa is that Anna must consistently confront notions of difference and acceptance. She was never comfortable growing up biracial in 1980s London, and her experience in Bamana is no less disorienting, especially because she passes for white among the local population. It is even more challenging for her to hear reports about her father that aren’t positive; as much as he has accomplished for his country, there are rumors that he suppressed free speech and quashed student rebellions. Yet there is no question that for Anna, meeting her father provides a sense of stability and of self that she’s never really known. 

Onuzo’s disarmingly frank novel contends with complex issues of identity and prejudice, and it doesn’t sugarcoat its depiction of the fractured history of a developing country. Onuzo sets Anna on a path that can only be completed when she begins to come to terms with her past. 

Chibudno Onuzo’s novel is enjoyably readable and disarmingly frank as it follows a woman in search of her father.

Although Sara Nisha Adams makes her authorial debut with The Reading List, her connection to the world of books is not new. She has worked as a book editor and attributes her passion for reading to her early childhood, when she bonded with her grandfather over their shared love of literature. Not only did this relationship cultivate a lifelong case of bibliophilia, but it also served as the inspiration for The Reading List, a story about two lonely individuals whose initial common ground is, ironically, that neither has any interest in reading. 

We first meet Mukesh, a widower who is grieving the passing of his beloved wife (who was a voracious reader) and finds himself increasingly alienated from the rest of his family. Desperate to form a connection with his bookish granddaughter, Mukesh heads to the local library to try to better understand her. There he meets Aleisha, a teenager who dreams of becoming a lawyer and views her summer position at the library with disdain. Following a disastrous first meeting with Mukesh, Aleisha stumbles upon a mysterious list of book titles, which she decides she will recommend to Mukesh and read alongside him as a means of making amends. 

What begins as a whim soon transforms into a deeply enriching and gratifying experience. The books act as a lifeline for Mukesh and Aleisha as the two new friends navigate their personal tribulations. Reading is so often viewed as a solitary pursuit, but The Reading List turns that idea on its head, illustrating the ways one book can touch many lives and act as a shared point of empathy, uniting disparate individuals into a community.

In Adams’ gentle novel, there is no sorrow or trouble so great that a good book—and a supportive friend—cannot help, and it is never too late to become a reader. As an uplifting and tenderhearted celebration of libraries and the transformative power of books, The Reading List is particularly perfect for book clubs and sure to brighten any reader’s day.

The Reading List illustrates the ways one book can act as a shared point of empathy, uniting individuals into a community.

As Together We Will Go opens, 29-year-old Mark believes he’s never going to succeed at writing. He’s had suicidal thoughts since high school, he’s had enough of life, and he’s come up with a plan: a final bus trip, one last cross-country party with a group of like-minded souls who can’t carry the weight of life anymore.

J. Michael Straczynski’s novel follows this group of mostly young people intent on ending their lives. As the bus stops in several states to pick up passengers, the story cycles through all 12 characters’ perspectives, but six take center stage: the aforementioned Mark; Karen, a young woman with chronic pain; Tyler, a young man with a worsening hole in his heart; Vaughn, a 66-year-old widower with a painful secret; Lisa, whose bipolar disorder has led her to despair; and Shanelle, a lonely woman who has been bullied for her size. As the bus makes its way west, these characters connect, form alliances and deal with each other’s quirks and bad behavior.

Straczynski, a comic book writer, screenwriter and co-creator of Netflix’s “Sense8,” uses text messages, emails, online journal entries and audio transcripts to reveal the characters’ thoughts and actions, creating a 21st-century epistolary novel. Because of this format, the novel moves along quickly, although the characters’ thoughts occasionally blur together, especially when musing philosophically on the state of the world and their places in it.

But a late plot twist is satisfying, intensifying the characters’ bonds as they decide what to do. While a novel about characters planning to end their lives is not for everyone (as the introduction notes, “discretion is advised”), Together We Will Go is, in the end, about friendship and learning to love.

While a novel about characters planning to end their lives is not for everyone, Together We Will Go is, in the end, about friendship and learning to love.

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