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The 5 best fiction books of 2021, according to Mark Athitakis

The 5 best fiction books of 2021 according to Mark Athitakis
The 5 best fiction books of 2021 according to Mark Athitakis: “Damnation Spring” by Ash Davidson, “Zorrie” by Laird Hunt, “Afterparties” by Anthony Veasna So and “Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen.
(Illustration by Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; photos from Scribner/Bloomsbury Publishing/Ecco/Farrar, Straus and Giroux /Knopf)

As 2021 comes hobbling to an end, we ask four book critics to pick their favorites from a very fruitful year (at least where books are concerned). Here are five books Mark Athitakis loved.

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"Crossroads," by Jonathan Franzen
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Crossroads

By Jonathan Franzen
FSG: 592 pages, $30

Franzen’s sixth novel centers on a 1970s Midwestern family straining to keep their tempers and suppress their appetites as the country’s social fabric starts to fray. Their crises range from infidelity to drug addiction to sexual trauma — familiar trouble-in-the-burbs tropes, but Franzen addresses them with gravitas (religious metaphors abound) and a page-turning, frictionless style.

"Afterparties," by Anthony Veasna So
(Ecco Press)

Afterparties

By Anthony Veasna So
Ecco: 272 pages, $28

So’s debut collection is a testament to an author whose career was tragically cut short: He died of a drug overdose last year at 28. These stories, mostly featuring the descendants of Cambodian immigrants in California’s Central Valley, are irreverent accounts of 20-somethings trying to build a new future — even as they can’t quite shake their family inheritance of hard labor and genocide.

Friends and family mourn Anthony Veasna So, whose highly anticipated debut story collection, “Afterparties,” brings refugee Stockton to life.

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"Damnation Spring," by Ash Davidson
(Scribner)

Damnation Spring

By Ash Davidson
Scribner: 464 pages, $28

Eco-fiction too often succumbs to the kind of preachy archetypes that can be death on novels, but Davidson’s confident debut sidesteps those problems with remarkable ease. Tracking the impact of chemical spraying in a 1970s Northern California logging town, she creates a host of full-blooded, idiosyncratic characters who keep the environmental damage in a human context.

"Wayward," by Dana Spiotta
(Knopf)

Wayward

By Dana Spiotta
Knopf: 288 pages, $27

Spiotta’s fifth novel is a woman-on-the-brink tale for the Trump era of perpetual backlash: Its hero is a 50-something woman dealing with Facebook feminist infighting, her daughter’s mistreatment by men, her ornery ailing mother and her own effort to leave her husband and strike out on her own. With a studied coolness, Spiotta shows how easy it is to become entangled in the very social forces you’re trying to fight.

Dana Spiotta discusses her affection for old treasures. Her latest book,"Wayward,” contends with female rage and the transformations of middle age.

"Zorrie," by Laird Hunt
(Bloomsbury)

Zorrie

By Laird Hunt
Bloomsbury: 176 pages, $26

The title character of Hunt’s gemlike ninth novel is a 1930s “Radium Girl,” one of thousands of women who unwittingly used radioactive paint to make clock dials. The book feels irradiated itself: The prose is deliberately queasy and lit from within as its hero navigates a life defined by poison, war and heartbreak.


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