5 of the best books of 2021 so far – plus 1 still to look forward to

2021 has seen a stellar line-up of new book releases, with debut novelists competing against literary giants for your hard-earned cash.

Here’s your look at some of the best books released so far this year, and one still to come.

1. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun is Ishiguro’s follow-up to 2015’s The Buried Giant. His eighth novel also marks his first release since being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.

Having explored themes of memory and identity in previous novels like The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled, Klara and the Sun continues to “uncover the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”, through the eyes of “Artificial Friend” and narrator, Klara.

As she waits for a family to choose her, Klara tries to make sense of the human lives she witnesses through the department store window. Once selected, she finds she must adjust to a new reality.

Exploring what it means to love, the Guardian described it as “another masterpiece, a work that makes us feel afresh the beauty and fragility of our humanity.” 

2. Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion

The American writer Joan Didion began her career when she won a contest in Vogue. Throughout the 60s and 70s, she chronicled her experiences of the American counterculture in books including The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem. She has also published five novels.

In 2016 she released the Pulitzer prize-winning The Year of Magical Thinking, dealing with the sudden death of her husband of 40 years.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean is a collection of twelve pieces written between 1968 and 2000 including essays on Ernest Hemingway, gambling addiction, and Nancy Reagan, plus her 1975 Berkeley lecture “Why I write”.

3. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

In 1970s New York City, Opal Jewel teams up with British singer-songwriter Nev Charles and uses her talent, independence, and punk spirit to take the pair to the brink of stardom.

Until, that is, the events of one night change Opal’s life forever.

Fast-forward to 2016 and as Opal and Nev plan a reunion tour, a journalist begins curating an oral history of the pair’s collaboration, a project from which a shocking secret will emerge.

Told through the words of family members, neighbours, and friends, this fictionalised origin story is an engaging look at rock and roll, art, and race.

4. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Shipstead won the 2012 Dylan Thomas Prize for her debut novel Seating Arrangements and follows it up with Great Circle.

In 1914, Marian Graves, a thrill-seeking aviator adventures through Prohibition-era Montana, Alaska, and the South Pacific, before disappearing over Antarctica during a record-breaking attempt to fly from pole to pole.

A century later, actor Hadley Baxter finds herself sacked from the lucrative film franchise for which she was the poster girl. Desperately seeking a comeback role before her career dwindles and dies, she accepts the role of Graves in a biopic of the long-dead adventurer.

From the first read-through of the script, Baxter feels a deep connection to Graves. One that only grows stronger when filming finishes.

A sweeping epic of grandiose storytelling, Great Circle charts the stories of these two women across 100 years, in and out of the sky, as they fight to chart their own course.

5. Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

The American writer George Saunders is arguably best known as a short story writer.

In 2017, his debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo won the Booker Prize. It gave first-person accounts of the lost souls – caught in the bardo, or “limbo” – inhabiting the Georgetown Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s son is buried.

His follow-up full-length release is Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

Saunders has spent the last 20 years of his career teaching creative writing at Syracuse University. His favourite course explores 19th-century Russian short stories, but only in the last few years did Saunders realise just how important this module was to him.

He recently told the Guardian that “some of the best moments of my life, the moments during which I’ve really felt myself offering something of value to the world, have been spent teaching that Russian class.”

Swim in a Pond in the Rain is that class in book form. Through a line-by-line analysis of seven stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol, Saunders explains the art of storytelling, why stories are important and offers his life philosophy.

Like Lincoln and the Bardo, and short story collections such as Pastoralia, Saunders’ humour, perception, and optimism make Swim in a Pond in the Rain a fascinating, if unexpected, pleasure. 

6. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr’s previous novel, All the Light We Cannot See followed the lives of a blind French girl and a German boy in occupied France during world war two. It won the 2015 Pulitzer prize for fiction.

Doerr’s follow-up, Cloud Cuckoo Land, moves from the 1453 siege of Constantinople to present-day Idaho and on to deep space in the near future.

The link between these seemingly disparate backdrops – and the characters that populate them – is a copy of an ancient text that tells the story of Aethon, who longs to become a bird and fly to the paradise land of the title.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is released on 28 September 2021.

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