My 5 Best Books of 2021


The year 2021 ended about how she began – grim and tragic with the loss of the iconic Betty White. It’s important to note, though, that there was good too, which so often gets swept up underneath the endless current of loss. Racial justice was delivered in key court cases, vaccines were deployed across the world, and people reconnected with their families, friends, and the tiny and big worlds around them.

As we settle in to a new variant and the increasing effects of climate change, we must also remember the good: the people we love and who, miraculously, love us; the days we fill; the nights we pass with closed eyes and open dreams. Wherever 2022 takes you, know you are loved. Without further pleasantries, here are the five best books I read this year (and if you need even more, check out my 10 best books of the decade):

#5: The Girl Without Skin by Mads Peder Nordbo

Nordbo delivers Nordic murder at its finest. In front of an empty, arctic landscape, a Viking is unearthed next to the flayed body of a Greenland police officer. Full of removed organs, deep character development, and a conspiracy theory that bends and almost breaks, The Girl Without Skin will spark your next murder-mystery obsession. Journalist Matthew Cave and his not quite sidekick convicted murderer Tupaarnaq prove compelling characters to follow into the icy abyss.

P.S. the sequel, Cold Fear, is equally incredible.

#4: Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind by Kermit Pattison

The most basal question of who we are is where did we come from? Pattison’s hefty exploration seeks to not only answer that question but also to understand who the men are behind the iconic skeletons like Lucy and Ardi. At a time when science sentiment has never been so hostile, and science literacy has never been so sparse, Pattison reminds us that all true things start with complicated people, nestled within their contexts of fierce global politics, NSF funding, and the ego of self and country. A gripping book of non-fiction, Pattison delivers an intriguing and accurate description of humankind’s genesis and an unflinching portrayal of the messy men who unearth it.

#3: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Sometimes people make mistakes, sometimes people fall in love. Mostly, people are just really anxious. Set on a bridge, in a hostage room, and inside a therapist’s office, nothing is quite as it seems in this conceptually simple, pragmatically complex book about anxious people in a terrible situation (by which I mean life). Backman retains his place as one of the world’s most compelling authors in his latest attempt. Plus, when you finish the book you can catch the Netflix adaption out just a few days ago.

#2: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

You’ve most likely read this already but if you, like me, get a little nervous about universally loved books, exit out of this post and add this to your cart immediately. If you’ve already read this, but haven’t read by #2 pick from last year, The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd, it’s time to pick that one up. In Miller’s most iconic work to date, the demi-God Achilles finds a breathtaking and heartbreaking path with his other half, the awkward prince Patroclus. Told in achingly poignant detail, the two warriors battle for control of the ancient world, and the fates that control them. This novel will leave you soaring and sobbing.

#1: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

It’s a bit shocking to me I only read this book this year considering how many times I’ve recommended it to others. In fact, when a dear colleague unexpectedly resigned earlier this year, this book was the only gift I could think of suitable to thank her. McConaghy’s international debut blends suspense, literary fiction, cli-fi, and feminist manifesto into a novel that erratically approaches the end of the world. Franny Stone is dangerous. Franny Stone is collected. Franny Stone is trying to document the last migration of the Arctic terns amidst a dying world and a hostile academy. This book broke me open to the marrow – and carefully reminded me that it is sometimes the most broken parts of ourselves that shine the most beautifully. A triumph plain and true.

Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page).

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