LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2021 - Part III
Another year has come and gone. You know what that means, don't you? Time for a bunch of strangers to tell you what was good! And why should you care what the LitReactor staff thinks are the best books of the year? Trick question! You shouldn't. But what they have to say might interest you nonetheless, because they are good-looking and knowledgeable and they read like the wind. So for those who care, we submit for your approval/derision some of LitReactor's favorite reads of 2021 (part 3).
*Not all of these books were published this year. We figured if someone read a book for the first time in 2021, they deserved the opportunity to crow about it.
John Skipp — Instructor
"Good Neighbors" by Sarah Langan
The monsters already live on Maple Street, no Martians required. But there’s no shortage of paranoia in Langan’s meticulously structured, state of the art suburban thriller. Much like America in 2021, this book’s painfully knowing prose and vivid, believable peeps spiked both my empathy and rage glands to savage, tragic heights. Thank God and Langan that my empathy won, by the breathtaking end.
‘The Flying None’ by Cody Goodfellow
My new favorite Goodfellow book is his breeziest, most reader-friendly mindfuck to date. It’s a scathing, soaring, sardonic tour of every face God has ever worn, as seen by a young woman who doesn’t believe in any of them. At least until she is forced to become one. Or is she? The
stunning multi-dimensional hijinks don’t stop till the cosmos-cracking conclusion. And don’t mind the wet spot. Those are just my joyful tears.
‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ (paperback) by Quentin Tarantino
Is it a great novel? No, it probably isn’t. But did I ever stop grinning with pure galvanic grindhouse glee? No, I did not. This Hollywood history lesson both real and imagined is such a delirious deep dive into film-as-force-of-nature that I feel like I snorted it in one 400-page-long line. By far the coolest, most exciting AND educational spin on novelization ever concocted. And by the end, I felt like this first-timer turned into a pretty damn good novelist, too.
‘Darryl’ by Jackie Ess
In this sad, sweet, stunningly compulsive read, you are sneakily tricked into wearing the cuckold’s pants in the family, and forced to keep wearing them, while other people have sex with everyone you ever loved. If that doesn’t sound like fun, guess again! It’s authentically revelatory and unsparing, down to the tiniest details of a little life that might just grow, if it ever feels like it. Ess has crafted something charming, intimate, and far more powerful than I would ever have expected. Underestimated, once again.
‘On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint’ by Maggie Nelson
Yeah, I wish Nelson spent less time quoting dreary academic droners. But Dear God in Heaven, is it ever refreshing to read someone with such a demonstrably open mind and soul. I could listen to her delicious Laurie Anderson-level brilliance talk all day about the perils of sanctimony, in the face of desires we’re not supposed to have, much less admit to.
In the end, there is no greater freedom than not lying to ourselves. Maybe then we could even stop lying to each other. And that is the secret power behind all five of these great books.
Andrew Fowlow — Contributor
"Almost Ruth" by Tyler Jones
Tyler Jones has this incredibly unique ability to craft a story that emotionally devastates the reader while cradling you softly with the words on the page, making you feel like everything's gonna be okay regardless of the surrounding horrors. I highly recommend this tale for fans of supernatural horror that are looking for a story that will leave you numb and breathless.
Get Almost Ruth at Amazon
"When the Cicadas Stop Singing" by Zachary Ashford
Zachary Ashford crafted an overwhelming tale of survival in a dystopian world overrun by creatures that will most certainly keep you awake at night. This powerful story is supported by a strong female lead that is reminiscent of Malorie from the bestselling novel, Birdbox, by Josh Malerman. Reader's are guaranteed to find themselves completely engrossed in this brutal new landscape Ashford created.
"Before He Wakes" by Mark Allen Gunnells
A survival horror story with an unforgettable ending that left me absolutely stunned. While some readers seek out steamy romance stories or murder mystery novels, some of us are constantly on the hunt for a tale steeped in heart-palpitating suspense, one that is positively gorged in dread. If you are one of those readers, look no further. Mark Allen Gunnells is a modern master of such horror, and his newest novel, Before He Wakes, had me gripping the edge of my seat.
"Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke" by Eric LaRocca
Eric LaRocca dealt a devastating blow in what felt like ten rounds in a heavy weight fight, destroying what was left of my (newly) fragile conscious state. In this horrifically bleak and grizzly tale, LaRocca crafts what is likely to be the most celebrated novella of 2021. I have enjoyed observing this weirdly disturbing book flourish like that of the life that grows in this story, while cherishing every moment reading, unable to let it pass.
"Twisted: Tainted Tales" by Janine Pipe
This collection is not for the faint of heart. When readers buy this book, they are getting an admission ticket to a visceral horror show, one reserved for those who delve deep into terrifying fictional worlds. There is truly something here for all horror fans, whether you enjoy creature features, the supernatural, or even eroticism, and the author delivers in gruesome fashion.
Ben Tanzer — Contributor
"Blow Your House Down" by Gina Frangello
Seriously, reading this memoir may cause your brain to disintegrate under the sheer what-the-fuck nature of Frangello's recent domestic life, her health, and the choices contained therein. And yet, merely focusing on the destruction (and triumph) Frangello so stunningly, and graphically, depicts here, ignores the larger narrative also afoot on these pages, what it means to not only be this woman, but any woman at any time and how society seeks to both define and break you.
"JERKS" by Sara Lippmann
With JERKS Lippmann does what she does as well as any writer anywhere: she crafts precise stories about men, women and their relationships, how they fail to communicate, and why it's so easy for everything to be so tiring and fraught. These tales are also reflections in the funhouse mirror of what we think we want from our lives—happiness, contentment, connection, purpose—and just how fucking hard it is to get any of it, much less keep it, or not be disappointed by the results.
"This Close to Okay" Leesa Cross-Smith
Cross-Smith may be our most lyrical writer. She is also a writer who knows sexy writing better than most, or all of us. Which is to say she writes attractive, intelligent, damaged characters who want to consume one another as much as we want to consume them. With This Close to Okay, Cross-Smith expands on the themes she knows so well in a story rife with death, loss and lies. It's no less sexy than usual, but amps up the psychic pain in ways not previously broached.
"Meiselman: The Lean Years" by Avner Landes
To be clear, I'm a Jew, and I say this because this book is the most Jewish thing I've read since the heyday of Philip Roth. Too much? No, not that the awesome Jewishness of it all is what makes the book so engrossing. That exists due to Landes' masterly ability to illuminate how the granular and quotidian struggles of what are mostly small lives can still be viewed as both grandly comic and ultimately tragic in the same sentence, if not the same breath.
"Always Crashing in the Same Car" by Matthew Specktor
When is failure not failure? When you're not sure that success is what you're after. Or celebrity anyway. What does Specktor want? In these essays he wants to understand the impact of his upbringing as a child of Hollywood, but also a time in his life when the possibility of success felt unreachable. He does so through the movies, of course, and far-ranging explorations of everyone from Thomas McGuane to Tuesday Weld, to the main character of the book, the author himself.
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