It’s that time of year again, when “best books of the year” lists are making their rounds. Unfortunately, in the literary world, there is often a disproportionate focus on books released by the “Big Five” publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster). While those books deserve to be highlighted, so do stories from small publishers, which may not have the resources to market their titles on a large scale. Below, check out four 2021 releases that you may have missed — all books that should definitely be on your radar. 

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“Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy” by Larissa Pham (Catapult)

An enchanting memoir in essays, “Pop Song” swags and moves with you, like the bass line of a tune. It’s a deeply intimate look at both the life of author Pham, such as her experiences as an Asian American woman, and art, and how she uses art to deal with trauma, love and relationships. Pham brilliantly expresses her feelings through paintings, music and literature in a way where almost every reader will see themselves reflected. A starred Kirkus Review reads: “In a manner reminiscent of contemporaries Leslie Jamison and Jia Tolentino, Pham seamlessly blends the personal and the cultural, the confessional and the critical, the cerebral and the sentimental, to create an exciting and imaginative memoir.”

“Gumbo Ya Ya” by Aurielle Marie (University of Pittsburgh Press)

In Marie’s collection of poetry “Gumbo Ya Ya,” the Black and queer essayist, poet and cultural strategist takes a moment to scream, shout and unapologetically take up as much room as she wants. The poems leap from the page and pull at heartstrings, telling a story of familial archival and a map of Black resistance. Patricia Smith, author of “Incendiary,” called the collection “a rollick, a gut-screech, the unbridled bellow of a Black gxrl, an inscrutable soup that tastes remarkably sharp and feral, like the covetous tip of the poet’s drawn blade. To enter here is to provoke both revolution and revelation, to risk your known life at the feet of a fervid and improbable prophet.”

“Tunnels” by Rutu Modan, translated by Ishai Mishory (Drawn and Quarterly)

In this graphic novel by preeminent Israeli cartoonist Modan, when the irrepressible Nili Broshi discovers a map to the Ark of the Covenant, she sees the chance to restore her ailing father’s name as one of the great archaeologists of all time. After gathering a motley crew of Israelis and Palestinians, Nili restarts her father’s now-illegal final dig. “Tunnels” touches on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as no Westerner could, complete with an afterword that examines the role of storytelling via religion and archaeology in the region. “Drawing in a throwback ‘Tintin’ style that emphasizes elaborate backgrounds with exaggerated foreground characters, Modan embraces political absurdity, subverting ridiculous aspects of faith and fanaticism while never devolving to mockery,” a starred Publishers Weekly review said of the graphic novel. “The conclusion’s surprise Spielbergian reveal contains equal parts comedy and horror. It’s the very best kind of satire.”

“Slipping” by Mohamed Kheir, translated by Robin Moger (Two Lines Press)

Fans of Kathryn Davis and Carmen Maria Machado will find Kheir’s “Slipping,” translated by Robin Moger, a treat. This magical narrative feels somewhere between a novel and a collection of related short stories, and that gray space it exists in is an embodiment of the literary work. “Slipping” blurs the lines between what’s real, and what’s not, pushing both its characters and its readers to extend their minds beyond the limits of what’s possible. 

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