AJC names top 10 Southern books of 2021

Fiction, literary debuts and books by writers of color dominate list.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Credit: File

Credit: File

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Looking back at the books published this year, two things stand out. One, it was a really good year for fiction. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s selection of the top 10 Southern books includes only two nonfiction titles this year, which is unusual. Two, tides seem to have turned in the effort to diversify the voices represented by the publishing industry. It wasn’t that long ago when major publishing houses released so few books by Blacks and other writers of color, that it was challenging to find titles to include on our annual end-of-the-year list. My, how times have changed. It’s heartening to witness the sheer number of phenomenal books written by Black authors this year, even though it underscores how much has been lost from the silencing of so many voices for so long.

Compiled with input from the book critics at the AJC, here are the top 10 Southern books of 2021, listed in order of publication.

Courtesy of Grove Atlantic

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

“Milk Blood Heat”

Dantiel W. Moniz’s literary debut features 11 tightly wound stories about smart, self-possessed women and girls who stand on the precipice of major life moments: love, death, motherhood, loss, infidelity. Set in and around Jacksonville, Florida, the stories reveal the intimate complexities of the female experience, from a young girl resisting the teachings of her fundamentalist church, to a mother stewing in her guilt over almost having an extramarital affair, to a senior citizen navigating a cancer diagnosis and the men who think they know what’s best. This incisive, compassionate investigation of the feminine psyche is nominated for two PEN literary awards. (Grove Press, $25)

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Credit: Simon and Schuster

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Credit: Simon and Schuster

“The Final Revival of Opal & Nev”

An introspective examination of race, privilege and the high price Black women pay when they speak their truth, this highly entertaining novel by Dawnie Walton is crafted like an oral history that tells the story of a popular interracial musical duo from the ‘70s that plans a reunion show in 2016. Renewed interest in the group prompts a music journalist to dig into their past and learn more about the explosive event that broke up the group. Along the way, deep secrets are revealed that cast the duo’s history in a different light. (Simon and Schuster, $27)

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

“Things We Lost to the Water”

Eric Nguyen’s debut novel is the riveting story of a family of Vietnamese refugees struggling to survive in New Orleans. Mother Huong makes tremendous sacrifices for her two sons, who chafe against her rigid nature and exacting demands, which is her way of expressing love. Oldest son Tuan grapples with reconciling his memories of the family’s comfortable, stable life in Saigon with their chaotic existence mired in poverty in the U.S. Youngest son Binh eagerly embraces the American way of life but is haunted by the specter of a father he never knew. This dazzling debut is a powerful examination of the ebb and flow of the dynamics in a family under pressure. (Penguin Random House, $25.95)

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

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“All That She Carried”

Winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Tiya Miles’ deeply researched account of an enslaved family in Charleston, South Carolina, traces the history of an embroidered cloth sack given to a child by her mother as a parting gift before they are sold at auction and separated forever. “Miles’ book gets as close as any document can to explaining why the sack remains so powerful. It contains great misery, but it is also a testament to the power of story, witness and unyielding love,” wrote Rosalind Bentley in a review for the AJC. (Penguin Random House, $28)

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Credit: Penguin Random House

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Credit: Penguin Random House

“Hell of a Book”

Jason Mott combines elements of satire, magical realism and pathos in this wildly creative telling of a hard-drinking, unnamed author on tour promoting his latest book called “Hell of a Book.” Suffering from a condition that prevents him from discerning between reality and fantasy, he’s accompanied by a companion only he can see named Kid. Interspersed between those chapters is another story about Soot, a young boy who is bullied for his dark skin and whose parents teach him to be invisible to keep him safe. This rollickingly funny but ultimately sobering look at what it’s like to be Black in the U.S. is this year’s winner of the National Book Award for fiction. (Penguin Random House, $27)

Courtesy of HarperCollins

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Credit: TNS

“The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois”

This multi-generational story by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers spans hundreds of years in the life of an Afro-Indigenous family living in a northern city but whose roots are planted in a small town in Georgia. Ailey Pearl Garfield breaks from family tradition and trades a career in medicine to become a historian. Using her professional research skills, she uncovers her family’s history, beginning with her earliest known ancestors. The book was longlisted for the National Book Award in fiction. Wrote Latria Graham in a review for the AJC: “Jeffers has created an opus, an indelible entry to the canon of contemporary American literature and one of the foundational fictional texts of Black literature worthy of sitting alongside Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man,’ Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ and Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing.’” (HarperCollins, $28.99)

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Credit: Amazon

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Credit: Amazon

“Matrix”

“Fates and Furies” author Lauren Groff immerses readers in 12th century England in this captivating, fictionalized story about Marie de France, deemed too ugly to marry by Queen Eleanor and banished to an impoverished abbey where the nuns teeter on the brink of starvation. When Marie’s efforts to change the queen’s mind fail, she surrenders to her fate and, over her lifetime, transforms the abbey into a feminine stronghold of wealth and influence that threatens the powers that be. A finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, “Matrix” is an examination with modern-day implications of the challenges and benefits of female empowerment and the efforts to undermine it. (Penguin Random House, $28)

Courtesy of Henry Holt & Company

Credit: Suzanne Van Atten

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Credit: Suzanne Van Atten

“My Monticello”

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson makes her literary debut with this short story collection about a host of contemporary issues including systemic racism, environmental crises and supply chain failures. The titular story finds a group of Black and brown protestors at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, forced to seek refuge inside Thomas Jefferson’s plantation. Writes Graham in her AJC review: “The stories are a close study of the characters’ relationships to one another, the concept of home, the idea (real or imagined) of Virginia and all the hopes and promises America holds.” (Henry Holt & Co., $26.99)

Courtesy of Riverhead Books

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“Monster in the Middle”

“Gone people have power,” states a sage character in “Monster in the Middle.” That’s the basic premise of Tiphanie Yanique’s unorthodox love story about the coupling of Stela and Fly. Spanning generations and nations, Yanique’s enthralling novel examines the couple’s heritage and traces it back three generations to reveal how they were shaped by those who came before them, who were, in turn, shaped by the people they loved. In the process of navigating these romantic legacies, Yanique’s characters wrangle with big-topic issues like race, religion and mental illness set against a backdrop of national tragedies. According to the AJC review: “Yanique cuts to the quick of human emotion in this captivating, multidimensional love story.” (Riverhead Books, $27)

Courtesy of Trinity University Press

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“Wild Spectacle”

This delightful collection of essays by Janisse Ray, one of the finest nature writers around, provides an enthralling immersion in the splendor of our natural world. Topics include a thrilling, up-close encounter with a herd of elk in the backcountry of Montana; a sobering visit to a monarch sanctuary in Mexico littered with dead butterflies; and an austere, monthlong retreat on a remote island in Alaska that ends with a locally sourced feast. In language that is both down-to-earth and rapturous, Ray inspires new appreciation for nature and a desire to protect it at all cost. (Trinity University Press, $24.95)

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