The 7 best books set in Philadelphia or written by local authors of 2021
This year was a truly remarkable one for local writers tackling subjects as diverse as race, gender, policing, and architecture.
Philadelphia has always been one of America’s most literary cities, dating all the way back to Benjamin Franklin’s first public library in 1731. This year was a remarkable one for many local writers, with some gaining national acclaim for tackling subjects as diverse as race, gender, policing, and architecture. Here are the best Philadelphia-based books of 2021, in fiction and nonfiction.
‘The Conductors’ | Nicole Glover (Mariner Books)
Nicole Glover’s debut novel — a mix of alternate history, fantasy, and mystery — is set in Philadelphia just after the Civil War. A married couple, Hetty and Benjy Rhodes, saved hundreds of enslaved people as conductors on the Underground Railroad using a form of sigil magic based on celestial constellations. When a Black Philadelphian is found murdered in the Seventh Ward, Hetty and Benjy repurpose their skills to track down the killer. The Conductors is a clever and suspenseful romp through the 19th century that has already spawned a sequel, The Undertakers, published just eight months after The Conductors, in November of this year.
‘Philadelphia Builds: Essays on Architecture’ | Michael J. Lewis (Paul Dry Books)
Philadelphia Builds is a fascinating exploration of the city’s architectural history by the Wall Street Journal’s architecture critic, Michael J. Lewis. From 1682′s first street grid to 2012′s post-modern Barnes Foundation building, Lewis’ 22 essays are accompanied by 120 gorgeous images that make this an attractive gift book for design nerds. Lewis has strong opinions on contemporary architecture, and he takes every opportunity to sound off.
‘The Natural Mother of the Child’ | Krys Malcolm Belc (Counterpoint Press)
“[B]efore testosterone, sometimes people in Philadelphia would look at me and Samson and know he was mine, think I made him, and they would call him beautiful,” Krys Malcom Belc writes in The Natural Mother of the Child. But now, as a trans-masculine father, “they think I am a man and no one thinks men can do anything related to children, least of all make one.” Belc’s memoir is one of the year’s most powerful, full of wisdom, strength, and heartache as he searches for answers as a gestational parent.
‘Skye Falling’ | Mia McKenzie (Random House)
If we’re lucky, McKenzie’s second novel will make a great Netflix series one day. It’s about a queer, Black 38-year-old West Philadelphia woman named Skye who’s living a successful and unattached life until she meets a 12-year-old girl who says, “I used to be your egg” — the result of Skye giving one of her eggs to a friend who has since died. The drama escalates into a hysterical series of mishaps and mixups that range from romantic and chaotic to poignant and emotional.
‘We Are Not Like Them’ | Christine Pride and Jo Piazza (Atria Books)
This coauthored novel opens at a Philadelphia restaurant where two best friends — a white woman named Jen and a Black woman named Riley — are celebrating their upcoming successes. After years of trying, Jen is finally pregnant thanks to a loan from Riley for one last IVF treatment, and Riley is about to be promoted to lead anchor at a local news station. But then news arrives that Jen’s husband, a Philadelphia police officer, has shot a 14-year-old Black boy while pursuing a suspect that doesn’t match his description, and Riley is tapped to cover the story for the news station. We Are Not Like Them is a timely, harrowing work of fiction that earned a spot as a Good Morning America Book Club pick.
‘The Stone Face’ | William Gardner Smith (NYRB Classics)
In 1951, Black journalist and novelist William Gardner Smith left his native Philadelphia for Paris to join a community of African American writers, including James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and Richard Wright. In Smith’s final novel, The Stone Face — published in 1963 and reprinted by NYRB Classics this year — his protagonist does the same thing, leaving Philadelphia only to find new forms of racism and oppression in Paris. It’s a bold, underappreciated classic that deserves shelf space next to Baldwin and Wright.
‘A World Without Police’ | Geo Maher (Verso Books)
During the George Floyd protests over the summer of 2020, a future version of America without police became a talking point, leading to structural changes in a few cities. Maher’s latest book offers actionable ways to build community alternatives to police with on-the-ground reporting in Philadelphia. Maher was a professor at Drexel University until he resigned in 2017 after a year-long harassment campaign by white supremacists because of his political views.