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My Top Ten Books of 2021

This wasn’t the blog I had intended to write. I had planned on writing a booklover’s tour of the best bookstores of the area in which I live, but between the crazy holiday schedule, the continued work on “the novel,” and a mild case of depression, I never got around to writing it. I hope to, soon, but for now, this one will have to do (assuming anyone is even reading these blogs of mine).


To say I read a lot would be an understatement, at least compared to anyone else I know. I may not read a book a week, but I usually aim for about three books a month, along with the latest issue of Poets & Writers Magazine and numerous articles online. Those books range from fiction, poetry, memoir, and essays typically (you won’t find me reading a self-help book or anything overtly political, not that there’s anything wrong with that, reading is reading).



So here I’ve compiled a list of my top ten favorite books (in no particular order) that I read during this past year. Not all were brand new, but all managed to capture a piece of my soul in ways I hadn’t expected, and kept me turning the page. I highly recommend each and every one of these literary gems should you find yourself in search of your next great reading experience. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did.


1. Before You Go by Tommy Butler


In the Before, humankind is created with a hole in its heart, the designers not realizing their mistake--if it was a mistake--until too late.


Elliot Chance is just a boy, and knows nothing of this. All he knows is that he doesn't feel at home in this world, and his desire for escape becomes more urgent as he grows into adulthood, where the turbulence of life seems to offer no cure for the emptiness. Desperate and lost, he stumbles upon a support group on the edge of Manhattan. There he meets two other drifting souls--Sasha, a young woman who leaves coded messages in the copy she writes for advertising campaigns, and Bannor, whose detailed depictions of the future make Elliot think he may have actually been there. With these two unlikely allies, Elliot launches into the business of life, determined to be happy in spite of himself.


Yet the hole in the heart is not so easily filled.



2. All Together Now by Matthew Norman


At just thirty-five, reclusive billionaire Robbie Malcolm is a renowned financial prognosticator, a celebrated philanthropist, and a mathematical genius. Also, he’s dying, which is a fact he’s carefully concealing from the world.


As he takes stock, Robbie realizes that his wealth means nothing if he can’t help the people who matter most. So he invites his oldest friends—Blair, Cat, and Wade—to their beloved Fenwick Island on the coast of Delaware to share his secret and to reveal plans for each of them that he believes will change their lives forever.


However, Robbie isn’t the only one with secrets. The bonds the friends formed as teenagers still exist, but adulthood has brought a whole new set of complications, like unrequited loves, marriages on the brink, and so much unfulfilled potential. Robbie’s plans may look good on paper, but are they any match for the utter disaster that is real life?


As everything comes to light over a wild weekend full of surprises, Robbie learns there are still some things money can’t buy, and a group of friends who thought their best years were behind them realize just how much they have to look forward to.



3. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz


Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written―let alone published―anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then . . . he hears the plot.


Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that―a story that absolutely needs to be told.


In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.


As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his “sure thing” of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?



4. Kill All Your Darlings by David Bell


After years of struggling to write following the deaths of his wife and son, English professor Connor Nye publishes his first novel, a thriller about the murder of a young woman.


There’s just one problem: Connor didn’t write the book. His missing student did. And then she appears on his doorstep, alive and well, threatening to expose him.


Connor’s problems escalate when the police insist details in the novel implicate him in an unsolved murder from two years ago. Soon Connor discovers the crime is part of a disturbing scandal on campus and faces an impossible dilemma—admit he didn’t write the book and lose his job or keep up the lie and risk everything. When another murder occurs, Connor must clear his name by unraveling the horrifying secrets buried in his student’s manuscript.


This is a suspenseful, provocative novel about the sexual harassment that still runs rampant in academia—and the lengths those in power will go to cover it up.



5. A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke (yes, the actor)


Hawke’s first novel in nearly twenty years is a bracing meditation on fame and celebrity, and the redemptive, healing power of art; a portrait of the ravages of disappointment and divorce; a poignant consideration of the rites of fatherhood and manhood; a novel soaked in rage and sex, longing and despair; and a passionate love letter to the world of theater. A Bright Ray of Darkness showcases Ethan Hawke's gifts as a novelist as never before.


Hawke's narrator is a young man in torment, disgusted with himself after the collapse of his marriage, still half-hoping for a reconciliation that would allow him to forgive himself and move on as he clumsily, and sometimes hilariously, tries to manage the wreckage of his personal life with whiskey and sex. What saves him is theater: in particular, the challenge of performing the role of Hotspur in a production of Henry IV under the leadership of a brilliant director, helmed by one of the most electrifying--and narcissistic--Falstaff's of all time. Searing and raw, A Bright Ray of Darkness is a novel about shame and beauty and faith, and the moral power of art.



6. The Wind Under the Door by Thomas Calder


At forty, Ford Carson has forged a new life as a visual artist in the mountains of North Carolina. A chance meeting with Grace Burnett leads to a burgeoning love affair. But the romance is complicated by Grace’s estranged husband and the unexpected arrival of Ford’s own estranged son.



7. Tampa Bay Noir edited by Colette Bancroft


Akashic Books continues its award-winning series of original noir anthologies, launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Each book comprises all new stories, each one set in a distinct location within the geographic area of the book.


Brand-new stories by: Michael Connelly, Lori Roy, Ace Atkins, Karen Brown, Tim Dorsey, Lisa Unger, Sterling Watson, Luis Castillo, Sarah Gerard, Danny López, Ladee Hubbard, Gale Massey, Yuly Restrepo Garcés, Eliot Schrefer, and Colette Bancroft.


From the introduction by Colette Bancroft:


Ask most people what the Tampa Bay area is famous for, and they might mention sparkling beaches and sleek urban centers and contented retirees strolling the golf courses year-round. But it's always had a dark side. Just look at its signature event: a giant pirate parade.


Not only does Gasparilla honor the buccaneer traditions of theft, debauchery, and violence; its namesake pirate captain, José Gaspar, is a fake who probably never existed. And if there's any variety of crime baked into Florida's history, it's fraud. From the indigenous residents who supposedly conned Spanish explorers seeking the Fountain of Youth through the rolling cycles of real estate scams that have shaped the Sunshine State for the last century or so, the place is a grifter's native habitat.



8. Beautiful Gravity by Martin Hyatt


Loner Boz Matthews spends his days working at his grandfather’s Louisiana highway diner. His only friends are the Pentecostal preacher’s anorexic daughter, Meg, and the ghosts of dead movie stars. But when country music outlaws Catty Mills and Kyle Thomas come to town, Boz’s world is turned upside-down, leading to an emotionally turbulent and sexually liberating four-way relationship that challenges small-town beliefs and changes lives forever. Beautiful Gravity is a story of broken dreams and haunted Southern nights--a reminder of what it means to be loved and what it means to be set free.



9. Out East by John Glynn


They call Montauk the end of the world, a spit of land jutting into the Atlantic. The house was a ramshackle split-level set on a hill, and each summer thirty-one people would sleep between its thin walls and shag carpets. Against the moonlight the house's octagonal roof resembled a bee's nest. It was dubbed The Hive.


In 2013, John Glynn joined the share house. Packing his duffel for that first Memorial Day Weekend, he prayed for clarity. At twenty-seven, he was crippled by an all-encompassing loneliness, a feeling he had carried in his heart for as long as he could remember. John didn't understand the loneliness. He just knew it was there. Like the moon gone dark.


Out East is the portrait of a summer, of The Hive and the people who lived in it, and John's own reckoning with a half-formed sense of self. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, The Hive was a center of gravity, a port of call, a home. Friendships, conflicts, secrets and epiphanies blossomed within this tightly woven friend group and came to define how they would live out the rest of their twenties and beyond.


Blending the sand-strewn milieu of George Howe Colt's The Big House with the radiant aching of Olivia Liang's The Lonely City, Out East is a keenly wrought story of love and transformation, longing and escape in our own contemporary moment.



10.The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov


The Master and Margarita has been captivating readers around the world ever since its first publication in 1967. Written during Stalin's time in power but suppressed in the Soviet Union for decades, Bulgakov's masterpiece is an ironic parable on power and its corruption, on good and evil, and on human frailty and the strength of love.


In The Master and Margarita, the Devil himself pays a visit to Soviet Moscow. Accompanied by a retinue that includes the fast-talking, vodka-drinking, giant tomcat Behemoth, he sets about creating a whirlwind of chaos that soon involves the beautiful Margarita and her beloved, a distraught writer known only as the Master, and even Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. The Master and Margarita combines fable, fantasy, political satire, and slapstick comedy to create a wildly entertaining and unforgettable tale that is commonly considered the greatest novel to come out of the Soviet Union.


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And there you go, my top ten favorite books of this past, crazy year. If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you haven’t, stop what you’re doing and go read them. I doubt you’ll regret it.


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