The best books I read in 2021

I HAD PRETTY much finished compiling this list of my favorite books of the year when I started listening to Louise Erdrich’s newest novel, The Sentence. I didn’t think I’d finish it before the end of the year, so I didn’t include it. But finish it I did (it was so good I couldn’t put it down), and I just had to place it at the top of my fiction list.

All the top-10 books are audio books. That is how I do most of my book-reading these days. I’m a very slow reader and, besides, at my age, every time I sit down to read, I am overcome with a great desire to close my eyes and sleep. Audio books, on the other hand, I can listen to almost anywhere – while cooking and doing other household chores, while at the gym or walking, and while driving. 

Altogether, I listened to 39 books in 2021. I read four. Several, like Bless Me Ultima, were books I’d read before but felt an urge to read them again.

The top-10 list’s authors include three Latinos/Latinas; one native American; three African-Americans; one Asian-American; one Anglo-American and one Italian. Four female writers and six males.

For non-fiction, Conroe native Annette Gordon-Reed was at the very top. That list (of five) includes two African-American women, one native American woman, one African-American male and one Anglo male.

The worst book I read in 2021? A Saint from Texas by Edmund White. White was for many years one of my favorite gay writers and I looked forward to his new novels. But his last two left a lot to be desired and Saint was just downright awful.

Here’s my top-ten fiction books, followed by my top-five non-fiction books. (Unless otherwise stated, the descriptions of these books are from Goodreads (online).


  1. The Sentence                                                             Louise Erdrich

“Who among us hasn’t, in some sense, stolen a corpse and accidentally trafficked crack cocaine across state lines? That is a question you will ponder while reading Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence,” a bewitching novel that begins with a crime that would seem to defy “relatability” but becomes a practical metaphor for whatever moral felonies lurk unresolved in your guilty heart. … A strange, enchanting and funny: a work about motherhood, doom, regret and the magic — dark, benevolent and every shade in between — of words on paper.” – New York Times

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

“This sweeping, brilliant and beautiful narrative is at once a love song to Black girlhood, family, history, joy, pain…and so much more. In Jeffers’ deft hands, the story of race and love in America becomes the great American novel.” —Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone and Another Brooklyn

  • Memorial                                                                   Bryan Washington

A funny, sexy, profound dramedy about two young people at a crossroads in their relationship and the limits of love. Benson and Mike are two young guys who live together in Houston. Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant and Benson’s a Black day care teacher, and they’ve been together for a few years – good years – but now they’re not sure why they’re still a couple.

  • Crossroads                                                                 Jonathan Franzen

Franzen’s novels are celebrated for their unforgettably vivid characters and for their keen-eyed take on contemporary America. Now he ventures back into the past and explores the history of two generations. With characteristic humor and complexity, and with even greater warmth, he conjures a world that resonates powerfully with our own.

  • The Five Wounds                                                      Kirstin Valdez Quade

From an award-winning New Mexico-born storyteller comes a stunning debut novel about a New Mexican family’s extraordinary year of love and sacrifice. As satisfying as her earlier short story collection, Night of the Fiestas.

  • Afterparties                                                               Anthony Veasna So

Seamlessly transitioning between the absurd and the tenderhearted, balancing acerbic humor with sharp emotional depth, Afterparties offers an expansive portrait of the lives of Cambodian-Americans.

  • Gordo                                                                         Jaime Cortez

The first collection of short stories by Jaime Cortez, it is set in a migrant workers camp near Watsonville, California in the 1970s. A young, probably gay, boy named Gordo puts on a wrestler’s mask and throws fists with a boy in the neighborhood, fighting his own tears as he tries to grow into the idea of manhood so imposed on him by his father.

  • The Lost Daughter                                                    Elena Ferrente

Ferrante’s most compelling and perceptive meditation on womanhood and motherhood yet (translated from Italian).

  • The Prophets                                                             Robert Jones Jr.

A novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.

  1. Monkey Boy                                                              Francisco Goldman

A sweeping story about the impact of divided identity – whether Jewish/Catholic, white/brown, native/expat – and one misfit’s quest to heal his damaged past and find love.


  1. On Juneteenth                                                                       Annette Gordon-Reed

Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, this book provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African Americans have endured in the century since.

  • Bad Indians: A Memoir                                                       Deborah A. Miranda

This book leads readers through a troubled past using the author’s family circle as a touch point and resource for discovery. Personal and strong, these stories present an evocative new view of the shaping of California and the lives of Indians during the Mission period in California.

  • Memorial Drive, A Daughter’s Memoir                             Natasha Trethaway  

At 19, Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted the twin pulls of life and death in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma and now explores the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became.

  • A Promised Land                                                                  Barrack Obama

The first installment of the former president’s White House memoir.

  • A Carnival of Snackery                                            David Sedaris

Sedaris being Sedaris

Here’s the rest of the fiction books I read:

Martita, I Remember You                                          Sandra Cisneros 

Afterlife                                                                      Julia Alvarez

The Shadow of the Wind                                            Carlos Ruiz Zafón

La Sombra del Viento                                                Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Remember Me                                                            Mario Escobar

House Made of Dawn                                                 N. Scott Momaday

The Prisoner of Heaven                                              Carlos Ruiz Zafón                  

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemmingway                 Ernest Hemmingway

The Sun Also Rises                                                    Ernest Hemingway

The Angel’s Game                                                      Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Bless Me, Ultima*                                                      Rudolfo Anaya           

Songs for the Flames                                                  Juan Gabriel Vasquez

News of the World                                                     Paulette Jiles

Cathedral of the Sea                                                   Ildefonso Falcones      

Give My Love to the Savages                                    Chris Struck

The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You                Maurice Arles Ruffin

La Tregua                                                                   Mario Benedetto

A Star is Bored                                                           Byron Lane

Less                                                                             Andrew Sean Greer 

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter                Erika L. Sanchez

A Saint from Texas     Edmund White

And non-fiction: 

A Moveable Feast                                                       Ernest Hemmingway

Horizontal Vertigo (Essays on Mexico City)             Juan Villoro

The Best of Me David Sedaris

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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3 Responses to The best books I read in 2021

  1. bonnienaradzay says:

    Wow, Juanzqui! I will start my own list. up at the top, George Saunders’ *At Swim in the Pond in the Rain…*

  2. Madison Searle says:

    Dear Juan — I’m glad you have On Juneteenth at the top of your list. That was the best book I read in 2021, and I’ve urged several folks, including my very conservative father, to read it. (To my surprise he is, or was. Not sure if he got past the prologue.) I will add The Sentence and several others here to my to-read list. I’m re-reading Leon Hale’s Bonney’s Place now! Wanted to see if I enjoy it today as much as I did 40 years ago. So far, yes.

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