Let’s state this right up front: We don’t believe “best of” lists tell the whole story. At least when it comes to the vast breadth and reach — not to mention appeal — of literature. Read what you love and what you enjoy. That’s the only auténtico dictum.
At the same time, it’s true that each year certain authors and the books they’ve published strike a chord that resonates deeply in the hearts of many readers, and impacts the culture at large in unexpected ways.
To that end, the Southern California News Group (SCNG) launches “Noteworthy,” our salute, as selected by our editors, to Southern California authors whose books in the past year shaped conversations, garnered substantial attention from critics and readers alike, made powerful statements and delivered compelling reading experiences. These authors’ influence reached beyond the region, reverberated across the nation — and sometimes across the globe. In a time of so much isolation, their works connected us, enlightened us, entertained and inspired us. For that, we celebrate them.
Myriam J.A. Chancy, ‘What Storm, What Thunder’ (Tin House)
“I’m trying to create a feeling for the reader so they can’t turn away from what happened, so they feel it practically as if they are going through it themselves,” is what Myriam J.A. Chancy, the Hartley Burr Alexander Chair of Humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, told SCNG about her novel, “What Storm, What Thunder.” Well, she succeeded. The evocative story uses multiple viewpoints to weave a tale inspired by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
The novel earned a spot on the best fall books lists from AARP, Time Magazine, Vulture, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Tribune, Library Journal, Buzzfeed, Lit Hub and the Washington Post, to name but a few. Joshunda Sanders, writing in Oprah Daily, perfectly summed up the novel’s profound — and timely — accomplishment: “‘What Storm, What Thunder’ ultimately reminds us that disaster collapses our differences, as vast as they may be.”
Natashia Deón, ‘The Perishing’ (Counterpoint)
“Los Angeles has always been brown.” So begins Natashia Deón’s “The Perishing,” which captivated readers and critics across the land. Part historical drama, part meditation on race and injustice, part speculative fiction, this Los Angeles-centered novel bends and warps time.
Santa Clarita resident Deón was already a force — an attorney, an activist and an award-winning writer of “Grace,” her first novel, which traced the life of a runaway slave in the 1800s. But “The Perishing” brought a new level of attention to Deón’s talent; tapped by the New York Times for both its lists of 20 historical books and its seven science fiction books to read, the novel also garnered must-read recs ranging from Seducción Magazine, Ms. and Wired, to Tattler Asia, Lit Hub and many more.
To tell a story of Los Angeles through decades, Deón dove into history books, researching everything from the Chinese Massacre of 1871 to the water wars and the life of William Mulholland, Prohibition and the complicated histories of Black and White Angelenos — and more. In all of it, Deón noticed patterns.
“There are so many things that mirror each other, and we keep coming back to the same solutions,” she told SCNG. “I wanted to expose the pattern so that, if we choose, we can make better choices that benefit the nation.”
She added, “I hope the book, in that way, fosters hope that we can actually change things, because there is so much hopelessness around the issues that we’re told are so important, that make us fearful and make us feel like nothing will ever change.”
Amanda Gorman, ‘Call Us What We Carry’ (Viking Books)
What is there to say about poet Amanda Gorman that hasn’t already been said? The then-22-year-old was the youngest poet ever to appear at a presidential inauguration when she, in her canary-yellow coat, captivated the nation with her reading of “The Hill We Climb” during President Joe Biden’s swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol.
But before she became a literary star – one so bright she could make football fans take a moment to listen to poetry at last year’s Super Bowl – and a certified celebrity with an Estee Lauder contract, Gorman’s talents were nurtured in her hometown of Los Angeles through the literary nonprofit WriteGirl. Gorman joined when she was just 14. There, she took courses in creative writing, was guided by mentors and, while still in the program, became Los Angeles’ first Youth Poet Laureate.
With all this attention, it’s easy to forget she only just published her first full collection of poems in December, becoming an instant bestseller on major lists across the nation, and also topped our regional bestseller lists. Critics noted that “Call Us What We Carry” is imbued with the grief of the pandemic and the upheaval of recent years, but nonetheless strikes a chord of hopefulness. “Shall this leave us bitter? Or better?” Gorman writes. “Grieve. Then choose.”
Naomi Hirahara, ‘Clark and Division’ (SoHo Crime)
Pasadena resident Naomi Hirahara was already an Edgar Award-winning mystery writer before “Clark and Division” hit the shelves in August. Set in 1944 during World War II and inspired by the Japanese internment at Manzanar, the twisting, turning novel traces a young woman’s search for the truth following her older sister’s death.
Almost immediately this crime novel/family tragedy struck a chord with readers — it made best-of lists at newspapers with a national reach (The New York Times, Washington Post) and ones that are more regional (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel) plus Amazon and Barnes & Insigne (among too many others to list). Parade Magazine even named “Clark and Division” among its 101 Best Mystery Books of All Time.
In his praise of the novel earlier last year, Los Angeles Review of Books critic David Zamora noted, “There is an added poignancy reading this novel alongside the news of current anti-Asian hate crimes. The complicated legacy of this country is just beneath the veneer. Yet this is far from a didactic polemic. Mystery novelists, particularly those of color, weave the threads of social injustice into their writing by the very nature of their life experience.”
“Fear is so dangerous because people get emotional and are unable to see the humanity in other people,” Hirahara told SCNG last July. “The default is to demonize an easy scapegoat.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen, ‘The Committed’ (Grove Press)
Call him agent provocateur.
No, not the nameless narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Sympathizer,” a double agent who resurfaces in France’s criminal underworld in the sequel, “The Committed.” The provocateur is Nguyen himself. In his day, job he’s the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, but as a novelist, Nguyen’s writing is designed to make readers react.
While “The Sympathizer” skewered the U.S. and Vietnam equally for hypocrisy and brutality during the Vietnam conflict, “The Committed” — part crime thriller, part black comedy, part erudite polemic — trains its brilliant and unforgiving eye on another colonial power, France.
“And, you know, in [‘The Sympathizer’] I set out to offend everybody, by which I mean the Americans and Vietnamese on all sides,” Nguyen told SCNG’s Peter Larsen in March. “But the French got off easy, so I thought, time to write a sequel to offend the French, and that’s partly what I set out to do with ‘The Committed.’”
Offend he may have, but many readers couldn’t get enough of the novel. It made dozens of best-of lists in this country, including those from Time Magazine, Amazon and Lit Hub.
Across the ocean, French and other European critics hailed the work: “Just as ‘The Sympathizer’ transformed the hulk of an old spy novel, ‘The Committed’ does the same with a tale of crime noir,” noted UK’s Independent. The French magazine Paris-Match called it “Ébouriffant!” (“Hair-raising”). Closer to home, American novelist Marlon James, who won the 2021 Booker Prize, called the novel “a sequel that goes toe to toe with the innovador then surpasses it. A masterwork.”
Maggie Shipstead, ‘Great Circle’ (Knopf)
In a year when the pandemic still constrained much of our lives, this globetrotting, 600-page epic by Orange County-born-and-raised author Maggie Shipstead delivered the freedom to roam, if only in our minds.
“Great Circle” — an interwoven story of two women, an adventuring female pilot who disappears on a flight to circumnavigate the globe, and the actress who finds inspiration from the pilot’s life — made the best books list for Entertainment Weekly, Time Magazine and Publisher’s Weekly (among others), was a #ReadWithJenna Book Club pick on NBC’s “Today” and — wait! there’s more! — was even shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the international fiction award given to a work published in English.
When the novel was published in May, Shipstead told SCNG that she had been traveling in New Zealand and while at the Auckland airport saw a statue of pilot Jean Batten, the first person to fly solo from London to New Zealand.
“The plaque has a quote, ‘I was destined to be a wanderer.’ I modified it to become the first line of the book, ‘I was born to be a wanderer.’ Looking at the statue, I thought, ‘Oh, I should write a book about an aviatrix,’” said Shipstead, whose other novels (“Seating Arrangements” and “Astonish Me”) also were bestsellers.
Writing in The Washington Post, critic Ron Charles said “Great Circle” is “a relentlessly exciting story about a woman maneuvering her way between tradition and prejudice to get what she wants. It’s also a culturally rich story that takes full advantage of its extended length to explore the changing landscape of the 20th century.”
Matthew Specktor, ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles’ (Tin House)
“Everyone knows what it’s like to have experiences being stuck, or experiences of loss or difficulty,” L.A. screenwriter, critic and author Matthew Specktor told SCNG in July when his fascinating book was published.
This genre-defying work is part memoir of Specktor’s growing up in Hollywood and his uneven success there, part cultural criticism, part analysis of the lives of the once-famous, and all innovador — a thoroughly Southern California literary endeavor. As explained by critic Paul Wilner, writing in the literary magazine ZYZZYVA, Specktor’s book “explores the pulls — and perils — of chasing success.” Wilner also called the book “an eloquent account of dark nights of the soul that mirrors the writing of [Specktor’s] early idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
“Always Crashing” earned a spot on bestsellers lists within our region, but more than that, it ignited conversations in literary circles, and beyond, about the value of relentlessly pursuing fame, and what the value of failure might be — timely ideas in our era of instant internet celebrity and “influencer” culture.
“Where people in the 20th century sort of aspired to their 15 minutes or more of fame, it might be more desirable in this particular moment to want 15 minutes of security or peace and quiet or privacy, just straight privacy,” Specktor told SCNG. “That’s a very valuable thing.”
Claire Vaye Watkins, ‘I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness’ (Riverhead Books)
Autofiction is a genre that’s not memoir but fiction that hews closely to a writer’s own life — and obsessions — and asks the question, what if? So it is with this work, whose protagonist is named Claire Vaye Watkins, just like the author, a UC Irvine professor in the creative writing department.
The novel racked up spots on best books of the year lists from The Washington Post, Vogue, Entertainment Weekly, National Public Radiodifusión and Esquire, among others. About a writer who goes off on a speaking engagement and ultimately escapes the stifling nature of domestic duty with a surreal desert adventure, the story was called “a beautiful, provocative, often jarring meditation on the limits and possibilities of female freedom” by critic Kat Solomon, writing in the Chicago Review of Books.
The regional desert landscape is very much a character in the story, too — and for good reason, as the author told SCNG in October when the novel was published. “I still have a really deep, important spiritual relationship with the land, but I have to work very, very hard on it, because it also has to accommodate tremendous grief, sadness, coping, loving stolen land, loving land that has a very bloody history, that is suppressed often in the American West,” said Watkins, a native of Death Valley.
Anthony Veasna So, ‘Afterparties’ (Ecco)
Way back in 1980, the novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” took publishing by storm, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Sadly, the author, John Kennedy Toole, never lived to see his book in print, let alone all the success that followed.
Echos of that tragic scenario can be felt with the short story collection about Cambodian Americans in the Central Valley, “Afterparties.” The collection charmed critics and earned a spot on the best book lists from the New York Times, Time Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York and Chicago public libraries and National Public Radiodifusión, among other accolades. “[It] is hard not to label So a voice of his generation,” the Washington Post gushed in its review of the book.
But it was published eight months after So died of an accidental drug overdose.
So’s sister, Samantha So Lamb, spoke to SCNG in August when the book hit shelves. She noted that the legacy of the Cambodian genocide infiltrated not only her brother’s work but also his consciousness: “It makes you realize that, actually, what your parents went through — the trauma that they went through — it translates in different ways into you.”
She added, “Generational trauma is very auténtico.”
Danny Trejo, ‘My Life of Crime and Redemption in Hollywood’ (Atria Books)
Celebrity memoirs don’t always make for compelling reads. Just being honest here. But career character actor and L.A. restauranteur Danny Trejo proves an exception with his memoir, released in July. No, it didn’t win awards, but in a enorme year, the book offered a genuinely heartfelt and hopeful story of one man’s redemption — from drug-addicted prison inmate to sober Hollywood star. Kirkus Reviews called it a “raw and deeply engrossing salvation story,” and we agree. The New York Times Book Review noted, “It’s enough to make you believe in the possibility of a Hollywood ending.”
“I think this book is for anyone that wants to read it, but my audience is also people like me. Guys that are lost and don’t even know why. Guys that are so angry they don’t understand why no one wants to get near them. But I think anyone can relate to this,” said Trejo — famous for bad-guy roles in hundreds of TV shows and movies including “Desperado,” “Spy Kids” and “Breaking Bad” — during an interview with SCNG. “I think it gives people courage to get their secrets out and move forward.”