Bookshelf: 5 recommended books we almost overlooked in 2021

Courtesy of Louisiana State University Press / Alfred A. Knopf / Sourcebooks Landmark
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Courtesy of Louisiana State University Press / Alfred A. Knopf / Sourcebooks Landmark

Credit: File

Credit: File

Selections include a legal thriller, two short story collections, a horror story and historical fiction.

Later this month, with input from my fellow book critics, I will reveal the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s annual list of the best Southern books of the year. I can tell that 2021 was a spectacular year in publishing because the list of contenders I’ve compiled over the last couple of months is way too long. Winnowing it down to just 10 books will not be easy.

Every time I look back over a year’s worth of book coverage in the AJC, I’m regretfully reminded of the outstanding books that didn’t get covered for one reason or another.

According to my estimation, 103 books appropriate for inclusion in the AJC were published in 2021. To qualify, there are two requirements. One, a book must be published by a traditional publishing house or university press. Two, the book must be written by an author who is from the South, currently living in the South or writing about the South.

The reason for that is the number of books published every year is seemingly infinite, but the resources to cover them are finite. Narrowing our focus to Southern books makes a daunting task more manageable. But also, the South has a long and celebrated history of producing great literary works, and we want to continue to foster that by drawing attention to books written from or about our region. Big-name national authors have no trouble getting their books reviewed in major publications. Instead of adding to the chatter surrounding Jonathan Franzen’s latest book, we’d rather tell our readers about a first-time author from our corner of the world with whom they may not be familiar.

Of the 103 qualifying books published this year, the AJC wrote about 64 of them in reviews, columns and feature stories. That leaves a lot of books that passed under the radar, and many of them are quite good. There is a myriad of reasons books don’t get covered, but the main one is that there are simply more books than we have the resources to cover. So, I thought this would be a good time, as we approach the end of the year, to revisit a few books that slipped through the cracks.

“King of the Animals.” Written by Josh Russell, director of the creative writing program at Georgia State University, this slim collection of riveting short stories captures adolescent boys and men at turning points in their lives, from the college professor trying to muster the courage to tell his pregnant wife he’s lost his job to the teenager seeking refuge in Ikea from a world gone mad. Some stories are long and expansive, and others are not even a page, but they all offer piercing insight into lives teetering on the edge in this modern world. (Louisiana State University Press, $24.95)

“The Girls in the Stilt House.” North Carolina-based author Kelly Mustian’s literary debut paints a vivid picture of life in 1920s Mississippi. Her tale alternates between two perspectives: Matilda, the daughter of a Black sharecropper, who is planning her escape to Ohio; and Ada, the white daughter of a harsh father, who escaped to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but is forced to return home. Together, the women are drawn into a dark underworld of bootlegging where racism and corruption are rife and secrets fester. (Sourcebooks Landmark, $16.99)

“Revelator.” Bootlegging is also a theme in this literary horror story set in the Smoky Mountains by fantasy and comic writer Daryl Gregory. Stella and her grandmother share not only a strange skin condition but the ability to communicate with a cave-dwelling god named Ghostdaddy, whose messages they deliver to a small band of believers. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious 10-year-old girl named Sunny living in the woods who has an extraordinary power. The New York Times calls it “a thing of beauty, brutal in the vein of Cormac McCarthy, a novel in the Southern Gothic tradition that is fresh and deeply disturbing.” (Alfred A. Knopf, $27)

“All Her Little Secrets.” The only Black attorney in her Midtown Atlanta law firm, Ellice Littlejohn is hiding a secret past. When her married boss, with whom she is having a casual affair, gets murdered and Ellice is promoted to replace him, rumors begin to swirl. But things really heat up when her discovery of the firm’s illegal activities endanger her and her brother, who she tried to save long ago. Wanda M. Morris is a corporate attorney in Atlanta who makes her literary debut with this fast-paced legal thriller. (HarperCollins, $16.99)

“The Ghost Variations.” This treasure trove of 100 flash fiction ghost stories, each one no more than two pages long, will keep you up late at night, but not because the tales are scary. It’s Arkansas author Kevin Brockmeier’s spare, gorgeous writing and his charming, ethereal stories that will keep sleep at bay. They’re like potato chips — you can’t read just one. It’s too easy to get lost in this world of once oh-so-human souls now trapped in offices or upon a lawn mower, pondering their new circumstances or shuffling off to a new afterlife when the old one gets too crowded. (Pantheon Books, $27)

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributed editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com and follow her at @svanatten on Twitter.