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Best 2021 books I didn’t review

Book critics read more books than they review. Here are some of the standouts for me this year.
"Orwell's Roses" by Rebecca Solnit.
"Orwell's Roses" by Rebecca Solnit. [ Viking ]
Published Dec. 16, 2021

Every year I review at least 50 books in the Tampa Bay Times, but I read many more than I review. Here are some of the books that I didn’t review this year but that stuck with me — and that might find a place on your holiday shopping list.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

If all you know about George Orwell is that he wrote 1984, allow Solnit to bring her astonishing capacity for connecting things you did not think were connected to his biography, and beyond. Moved by her discovery that Orwell was a passionate gardener with a special love for flowers, Solnit uses that lens to examine his life, writing and antifascist politics, swings wide to look at the relationship between flower gardens and colonialism, and finally offers a new perspective on 1984.

Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford

Three Texas writers take on their state’s creation myth and find that, even before the gunsmoke cleared, the battle’s history was being twisted. (For starters, the Americans who died there weren’t fighting for freedom, they were fighting to preserve slavery.) Deeply researched and brightly written, this book examines not only what happened at the Alamo in 1836 but the fascinating revisions and re-revisions of that story right up to the present, when the issue of who writes history is hotter than ever.

The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny

Penny co-wrote a bestselling thriller, State of Terror, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this year, but the bestselling Canadian author also published the 17th in her series of novels about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Penny imagines a world after the pandemic, but one where dangers it has provoked linger — and have murderous results in Gamache’s beloved hometown, Three Pines. The mystery wraps around a thoughtful and disturbing look at how societies respond to mass trauma.

Daughter of the Morning Star by Craig Johnson

This is the 17th novel in Johnson’s reliably excellent crime fiction series about Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire (inspiration for the namesake Netflix series). This time Johnson takes on an all too real issue: the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women. Longmire is called on to protect Jaya “Longshot” Long, a basketball phenom at her high school on the Cheyenne reservation. Her sister disappeared a year ago, and now she’s getting threats — but she’s so tough she doesn’t want to admit she needs help.

"The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People" by Rick Bragg.
"The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People" by Rick Bragg. [ Knopf ]

The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People by Rick Bragg

Journalist and memoirist Bragg has written with humor, pain and love about his human family in books like Ava’s Man and All Over But the Shoutin’. Here his main character is Speck, a one-eyed stray dog who shows up at the family farm nearly dead of starvation, infection and who knows what else. Bragg (and his mother’s legendary cooking) bring the dog back to health, but he does not emerge as a good boy: His idea of fun is picking a fight with the mule, rolling in a decayed deer carcass or trying to herd the farm cats (he’s mostly Australian shepherd), who are having none of it. And yet Speck is clearly the dog of Bragg’s life, the dog who shows up just when he should and does what needs to be done.

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A Carnival of Snackery (Diaries: 2003-2020) by David Sedaris

If you’ve ever wondered where Sedaris’ uniquely hilarious stories come from, the answer is the diaries he’s kept all his life. He published Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) in 2017, and it was a fascinating look at his creative process. This selection of entries from more recent diaries is even more interesting, ranging from fleshed-out stories that read like drafts of published pieces to quick observations that cut to the bone. As always with Sedaris, his audiobook performance is even better than the printed book.

"Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres" by Kelefa Sanneh.
"Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres" by Kelefa Sanneh. [ Penguin Press ]

Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres by Kelefa Sanneh

Sanneh, who was a pop music critic for The New York Times before he became a New Yorker staff writer, offers a knowledgeable and joyful perspective on the soundtrack of the last half century. Writing eloquently about the dominant genres of rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music and pop, he brings fresh insight not only about the music and artists but about the cultural context they inhabit, the communities that love each genre of music (and the communities that hate them) and much more.

April in Spain by John Banville

In 2007, the brilliant Irish literary novelist John Banville adopted the pen name Benjamin Black to write a series of mysteries, set in 1950s Dublin, about a dour pathologist named Quirke. For this eighth novel in the series, Banville chucks the pen name, and that’s not the only change. Quirke is newly married and, for a wonder, happy, or as happy as he can be. He and his wife even take a vacation to San Sebastian, Spain — where Quirke’s past intrudes in the person of a young woman he has long thought was the victim of a terrible murder, walking around alive.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

This is the first sequel to Osman’s bestselling The Thursday Murder Club, and may there be many more. Friends Elizabeth, Ron, Joyce and Ibrahim live in a posh retirement village in England, and they all have interesting backgrounds — Elizabeth, for example, was a legendary (and lethal) spy for MI5. They dabble in cold case murders, but when someone from Elizabeth’s past shows up in desperate need of help, they suddenly have some new murders on their hands. Osman deftly blends the mystery and violence with humor, and his lively characters (even the bad guys) are a pleasure to know.

A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey by Jonathan Meiburg

This is the kind of science book I love: It begins with what seems like a limited subject and reveals whole worlds of wonder. Here the subject is the striated caracara, an unusual raptor encountered on the Falkland Islands by Charles Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle in 1833. They are extraordinary birds, intelligent, social, adaptable — although whether they’re adaptable enough to cope with habitat loss and climate change remains to be seen — with a deep history matched only by their wide range. Meiburg is a captivating writer, taking us along to an oddball British falconry park and on a perilous journey up a remote South American river in search of his subject.

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