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Most of us have been happy to forget last year, another annus horribilis. But not all of it was horrible; at least there was a welter of excellent books to savor. So here is a small collection of ones that I found to be among my personal best of 2021:
Angeline Boulley. Firekeeper’s Daughter. Eighteen-year-old Daunis and her best friend, Lily, are descendants rather than enrolled members of the Sugar Island Ojibwe Tribe. When Daunis witnesses Lily’s drug-related murder, she becomes a confidential informant for an FBI investigation of a local drug ring and meets Jamie, an undercover agent posing as a high-school senior, and finds herself falling in love. Boulley’s extraordinary first novel is a compelling mashup of romance and mystery that is also filled with dramatic looks at Native language, life, and culture, an essential enhancement. As Boulley, herself Ojibwe, writes in an appended author’s note, “Books are good medicine.”
Grant Farley. Bones of a Saint. This compelling first novel examines the uneasy summer of a boy named R. J. and his up-close-and-personal encounters with the evil Blackjacks gang and Monsieur Leguin, an elderly, enigmatic man who has purchased the old Miller house, which has served as a den for the gang, who are determined to drive him away. Their agent of choice is the reluctant R. J. who, it turns out, is as gifted a storyteller as his creator, Farley. Indeed, his thought-provoking novel is a captivating celebration of story itself, one that is enriched by such thematic considerations as religion, angels, integrity, and more. The result is a serious and rewarding work of literary fiction that will command readers’ attention.
John Green. The Anthropocene Reviewed. Yes, yes, I know this was published for adults but indulge me, for if ever there were a quintessential crossover book, it is this one. A lucid, insightful collection of personal essays, it’s sure to command legions of both adult and young adult readers. In it, Green examines a broad collection of subjects ranging from Halley’s Comet to teddy bears. But many readers will find the most personal of the essays in which he writes about the various challenges that have visited his life the most compelling. Also intriguing is his ranking of each of his subjects according to a five-star scale, five being the best. And so, yes, I give Green’s own superb effort five of my own stars. Here they are: ★★★★★
A.S. King. Switch. Let’s face it, friends; when it comes to surrealism, A. S. King is the Salvador Dali of young adult literature—even right down to those melting clocks—for her latest is all about time and its stopping when Earth arrives at a fold in time and space. What can restart it? Sixteen-year-old Truda Becker believes, not to put too fine a point on it, that it’ll happen when people start to give a shit about other people. In the meantime, the world seems rife with anomalies that extend to Truda herself, whose oft-repeated mantra is “to understand anything is to understand energy.” Happily, this lively, splendid novel is filled with it.
Darcie Little Badger. A Snake Falls to Earth. Like her first novel, the celebrated Elatsoe, this one is rooted in Lipan Apache lore and traditional story. It posits the notion that there are two worlds: our familiar one and the Reflecting World, inhabited by monsters, spirits, and animal persons, like Oli, a cottonmouth snake. When Oli’s best friend, a tiny toad named Ami, falls sick, Oli and a clutch of friends come to our world in search of a cure. Here they encounter 16-year-old Nina, who joins them in their quest. This richly imagined fantasy is in the proud tradition of Native storytelling and is a happy, meaningful addition to that timeless literature.
Malinda Lo. Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Lo has gifted her readers with a paradigmatic coming-out novel set in a brilliantly realized San Francisco in the 1950s, a time informed by both the Red and Lavender scares, which drove up panic around anyone linked to Communism or suspected of being gay. It’s in this context that 17-year-old Chinese American Lily Hu struggles with her gradual realization that she is a lesbian in love with classmate Kath, who is white. Lo is so meticulous in creating her characters that they come fully alive on the page, inviting readers to join Lily and Kath in their life-changing visits to the eponymous Telegraph Club.
Banjamin Alire Sáenz. Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World. It’s taken Sáenz nine years to deliver this sequel to his award-winning novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe but the wait is well worth it, for the sophomore effort is the equal of the first, which means it’s quite wonderful. The loving relationship between Sáenz’s two signature characters, Ari and Dante, is stronger than ever, but they worry that the world will never love them. But there is really no cause for concern, for they and their story will command readers’ hearts.
Jeff Zentner. In the Wild Light. This beautifully written novel (freckles are “an atlas of stars”) is the deeply satisfying story of a girl named Delaney and her best friend, Cash, two kids from a small east Tennessee town who receive scholarships to a tony East coast prep school. Though they at first feel as out of place there as brown shoes with a tuxedo, the two rise to the occasion, making devoted friends, with one of whom—the beautiful Brazilian Vi—Cash falls in love. But will she reciprocate his tender feelings? And will Cash’s devoted friend, brilliant Delaney, be a factor in this equation? Finding the answer keeps the pages turning but it is the characters who provide the substance of this memorable work of literary fiction.
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