We are now halfway through the month of December, which means it is finally time for me to start with my favorites posts. I have a lot of different categories to share, so this is most of what you’ll be seeing for the next couple of weeks. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the fun ones soon, but today I want to talk about some of the authors I read for the first time in 2021 and loved.
I read a lot of new-to-me authors this year. As of my writing this, the count is at eighty-eight. Which accounts for just about seventy percent of the total books I’ve read so far in 2021. So returning to old favorites is not something I did all that much of this year. Which I’m honestly pretty happy about. Because not only did I discover some incredible new authors, but the vast majority of the authors I read for the first time this year were authors of color. And I definitely have some new favorites whose work I plan on returning to.
Here are the top ten authors I read for the first time this year:
You all know I like weird books. And I have read some pretty bizarre books (and enjoyed almost all of them). But I think Mona Awad takes the cake with Bunny. That book is beyond weird. I think it actually messed up my brain for a little bit. And I LOVED it. It was so weird and so interesting. We’re almost at the end of the year and I can’t think of a single book that was as exciting to read as this one. I just had to find out what was going to happen next (and it was never what I expected).
I just had so much fun reading Bunny and am absolutely interested in reading more by Mona Awad. Her other books seem a little different than this one, so I’m not sure where to go next – any recommendations welcome. But I am definitely going to try and get to one next year.
C Pam Zhang
When I picked up How Much of These Hills is Gold earlier this year (for a reading experiment that will be posted very soon), I was honesty expecting to not like it. I don’t particularly enjoy westerns – just not my thing – so I assumed I wouldn’t enjoy this one, which is about two children of Chinese immigrants orphaned during the Gold Rush and become outlaws. The cover did catch my eye, but the story didn’t sound all that interesting to me.
But I was so very glad to be proven wrong. Because I loved this book so much. Despite having trouble with my attention span for reading this year, I finished this book in a single day. It was so hard to put down, so beautifully written, and such an incredible story. I am definitely keeping an eye out for when she publishes a second book, because I’ll be picking that up immediately.
I honestly did not expect to include a romance author on this list, but here we are. I picked up Rebekah Weatherspoon’s book, Rafe, early this year for my insane reading experiment where I read seven romance books in seven days, all by Black authors. There were a lot of misses in that experiment – which made me realize I am a little picky about romance books, and cannot deal when they include very immature characters, avoidable miscommunication, or romanticize stalker-y behaviors – but Weatherspoon’s book was an absolute highlight for me.
I’ve been delving into romance novels a bit more the past few years, and Rafe stood out to me so much because the characters acted like actual adults. There was no lying, no hiding things, no petty little revenge on the love interest because they’re acting like an asshole. The couple in this book are on the same side of the conflict. Unheard of in romance (at least from what I’ve experienced). Just writing this is making me want to pick up another one of her books. I wouldn’t say I’m a big romance reader, but Weatherspoon has a lot of potential to become my favorite romance author.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a DREAMER, or someone who came to the US as a child and was granted temporary conditional residency as an undocumented immigrant. She ended up attending Harvard and then decided to travel around the country gathering stories from other undocumented immigrants, which she then compiled into The Undocumented Americans.
Her book felt like such an important read. Especially in this political climate, these stories are so necessary. Not only did she capture a unique and invaluable perspective, she wrote it in such a beautiful way. Honestly, this book felt like the perfect way for these stories to be told, and Villavicencio absolutely did them justice. I’m not sure if she plans on writing any more books – The Undocumented Americans felt very specific and I could see it being a one-time thing – but if she does, I will absolutely be reading them.
As a second-generation Palestinian American, it was so fun to read a book by a Palestinian American author. And I just thoroughly enjoyed A Woman is No Man. I recognized a lot of the culture in this book, which was a new experience for me. I also really appreciated the story, which centers on three generations female characters as they deal with balancing their beliefs in a new country after emigrating to America.
It looks like Etaf Rum has a second book coming out in 2022, and I don’t even know what it’s about, but I will definitely be picking it up. I just enjoyed her writing and the message of her book, and I am glad to have found a Palestinian American author that I enjoy, because I don’t think I’ve seen very many of them around and Etaf Rum is definitely the first one that I’ve read.
Carmen Maria Machado
I picked up Machado’s memoir, In the Dream House, for a reading experiment earlier this year. I actually do own Her Bodies and Other Parties, which is a collection of stories exploring female body autonomy. But I have not yet read that one. However, I did read In the Dream House and I kind of think that one was more up my alley. It’s an “experimental memoir”. Which was really cool to read.
Beyond that, though, I appreciated that she tackles really tough topics. In the Dream House is about her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship, which is definitely not something we talk about very much. I thought it was important to bring attention to the fact that those relationships do happen, and we need to not dismiss. Definitely planning on reading more from Machado. Hopefully the book that is already sitting on my shelves.
Maria Dahvana Headley
Full disclosure: I did not read an original book by Maria Dahvana Headley this year. I read a book she translated. But her translation was so phenomenal that she definitely earned her spot on this list. This summer, I read Harvard’s entire summer reading list (because I have clearly lost my mind). On that list, was Beowulf. And I happened to have picked up this brand new translation to try out, so I obviously had to do it.
Dahvana Headley put out a Beowulf translation that was so fun to read (yes, I said that about a thousand-year-old manuscript). It’s definitely more modern than the other translations I’ve read (by J. R. R. Tolkien and Seamus Heaney). I just really appreciated how she mad reading a fairly intimidating classic such an enjoyable experience. Plus, the way she phrased things was incredible. One of my favorite quotes: “Privilege is the way men prime power.” That stuck in may brain, and I am so excited to read more of her work. I actually had one of her books that I picked up years ago and was just about to unhaul until I read her Beowulf translation, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading some of her original work.
I have been hearing about Kate Quinn for years, and for whatever reason never really paid much attention. But then I was forced to read one of her books (The Huntress) for a reading experiment and it made me question my entire process of choosing books. Because It was such a lovely read. A WWII novel revolving around three strong, female characters? Absolutely yes.
I really don’t understand why I had overlooked her books before, but I definitely want to read the others now. I just really enjoyed how she told such a unique story. I thought her characters were interesting. We all know there is no shortage of WWII fiction out there, but I hadn’t really read anything quite like hers. It just stood out to me, and I’m still thinking about it months later.
I have had Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell sitting on my shelves for years. Like a ridiculously, embarrassingly long time. But that book is the size of my head – not even kidding – and it terrifies me. It’s just intimidatingly large. And Piranesi is so pretty and relatively tiny. It seemed like a better way to delve into Susanna Clarke. So that is what I read, and I loved it so, so much. It’s a little weird (are we surprised at this point?), but also really beautiful.
I’m still a little hesitant to pick up the monster on my bookshelf, but I think I’m feeling more optimistic about it. I have heard such things about it that it needs to happen. Especially since I now know what Susanna Clarke is capable of doing with words. Absolutely reading more. And maybe tackling Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in 2022. Maybe.
Why are there so many authors on this list that have only released one book? I want more! But seriously, I was honestly sad to discover I couldn’t pick up another Tanya Tagaq book the second I finished Split Tooth. No one is surprised that I loved this book because it was weird. Maybe not as weird as Bunny, but still in that ballpark.
But I also really enjoyed Tagaq’s blending of poetry and prose written as a memoir. It was really beautifully done, and honestly did not feel like fiction. She created such an immersive reading experience, and I still can’t think of anything quite like it. I can absolutely see how her writing might not be for everyone, but it absolutely worked for me. I think this might be a book I return to often (at least, as often as I reread books, which is not very). At least until she gives us another one to enjoy.
And those are my favorite new-to-me authors this year! I definitely read a lot of great books, and discovered a lot of amazing authors. It was a little hard to narrow this down, but I’m pretty pleased with where we’ve ended up. Not all of these authors will be on any of my other favorites lists this year, so I’m really happy to be able to spotlight them in this post.
What authors did you discover this year?
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