What a year, right? In 2016-2019 I felt like the tension in the world was building to something. In 2020 we imploded, but found optimism in the darkness. The audacity of that, I mean really. Instead of optimism, in 2021 I (we?) sank deeper into disillusionment, anxiety, and exhaustion. Now, it wasn’t all doom and gloom and plenty of light seeped into the darkness. For me part of that light is always, always, always art and creativity – and thus books.
I set a goal of 85 books in 2021 and read 96, so I’ll consider that a win for my soul. I read plenty of things I would consider frivolous (though, is the need to daydream and escape ever really frivolous?) and several books that took themselves… very seriously… but in all it was a great literary year for me.
I also included chapter books I read aloud to the kids. While many are not particularly stimulating to me, watching words and books mean something to them is transformative for me.
Thank you to those armies of authors who write early reader chapter books. These are not the great novels you imagined in college, I’m sure, but please know that your work counts for something – you are creating a love for reading and nurturing a growing intellectual confidence in new humans. What a beautiful gift to the world.
Alright, let’s get to it shall we? I selected several books that truly stayed with me this year, and put the full pictorial list at the bottom.
The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott
A gripping novel of myth, environment, adventure, and an unlikely friendship, from an award-winning Australian author. Ren lives alone on the remote frontier of a country devastated by a coup d’état. High on the forested slopes, she survives by hunting, farming, trading, and forgetting the contours of what was once a normal life. But her quiet stability is disrupted when an army unit, led by a young female soldier, comes to the mountains on government orders in search of a legendary creature called the rain heron—a mythical, dangerous, form-shifting bird with the ability to change the weather. Ren insists that the bird is simply a story, yet the soldier will not be deterred, forcing them both into a gruelling quest. Spellbinding and immersive, Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron is an astounding, mythical exploration of human resilience, female friendship, and humankind’s precarious relationship to nature. As Ren and the soldier hunt for the heron, a bond between them forms, and the painful details of Ren’s former life emerge—a life punctuated by loss, trauma, and a second, equally magical and dangerous creature. Slowly, Ren’s and the soldier’s lives entwine, unravel, and ultimately erupt in a masterfully crafted ending in which both women are forced to confront their biggest fears—and regrets.
My GoodReads Review from April 2021:
I did not set out to read this book in one sitting, but here we are at 1am. Wow. This novel is an allegory meets tragedy meets mythology meets war time story, all of which is written in near poetic rhythm. The author depicts almost manic moments of violence and grief with such gentle delivery I never felt as though I was a reading a “war” novel. I was left with a calm, quiet, thoughtful sadness but also very content and not depressed. The magical or mythical elements are treated with extreme care and interest. Highly recommended.
The Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it. Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.
My GoodReads Review from November 2021:
The set up and characters in this book immediately grabbed my attention but I found the pacing of the first half a little hard. I sort of had to force myself through but once it turned and got more action packed and exciting I couldn’t put it down! Lots of cultural nuance in here that was fun and interesting to learn about mixed with some good old-fashioned possessions, ghosts, and gods.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world. But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes. To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.
My GoodReads Review From November 2021:
This one was brutal but beautiful and surreal but gut wrenchingly honest. An excellent commentary on colonialism in the United States, and a scary, dark metamorphosis that was also strikingly … hopeful? Hopeful is definitely not the right word, but the ending felt empowered. Check your social norms at the door and go deep into this.
A Four Book Rainbow Rowell Love Fest
Before I share the next three books I just need to be clear – Rainbow is so, so good. An author from my part of the world (she is from Omaha, Nebraska) who is as honest as she is irreverent and hopeful. Two of these are technically YA I think (Any Way The Wind Blows and Fangirl), but some discussions of sex, so definitely meant for older teens not your 10 year old. Also, Any Way The Wind Blows is the third in a fantastic trilogy, don’t start here.
Finally, please don’t write these off as “romances” or just sappy love stories. Yes, they are mostly about relationships, but then aren’t our lives? There is good, meaningful stuff in these pages. Also, If you enjoy love stories and have limited your reads to strictly heterosexual story lines, you’re missing out on some rich, meaningful story telling.
Of the four, Landline resonated with me deeply, being about mid marriage and career, with a hint of fantasy and magic baked in.
Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble; it has been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now. Maybe that was always beside the point.
My GoodReads Review in September of 2021:
Where Attachments (her other adult fiction novel) was an improbable but possible foray into new adult love, Landline is a surreal love song to marriage – if not a love song with lots of angsty and sad verses. While ultimately a love story this book also explores the difficulty of balancing passion with love and career and sacrifice … and some light time travel. I related to a lot of the stuff in this book pretty deeply as I come up on 18 years with my husband whom I met at the age of 18. I can see how for some folks this wouldn’t appeal as much as some of the other stories she writes, but this felt like the love story I needed at age 36 with two kids, going on 18 years with the same person. It resonated in a wonderful way reminding me that the best part of my life is coming home.
Beth Fremont and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder know that somebody is monitoring their work e-mail. (Everybody in the newsroom knows. It’s company policy.) But they can’t quite bring themselves to take it seriously. They go on sending each other endless and endlessly hilarious e-mails, discussing every aspect of their personal lives.Meanwhile, Lincoln O’Neill can’t believe this is his job now- reading other people’s e-mail. When he applied to be “internet security officer,” he pictured himself building firewalls and crushing hackers- not writing up a report every time a sports reporter forwards a dirty joke. When Lincoln comes across Beth’s and Jennifer’s messages, he knows he should turn them in. But he can’t help being entertained-and captivated-by their stories. By the time Lincoln realizes he’s falling for Beth, it’s way too late to introduce himself. What would he say . . . ?
My GoodReads Review in August 2021:
Rowell has a knack for making what are generally absurd storylines and outcomes that seem unfathomable, feel so relatable, true to life, and human. I am endlessly a sucker for a good love story and she puts out the best.
Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan… But for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fanfiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere. Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath that she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend; a fiction-writing professor who thinks fanfiction is the end of the civilized world; a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words…and she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone. For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind.
My Review From GoodReads in September of 2021:
Speaking of Fangirls, I’m one of Rainbow’s. I couldn’t put this down. It was sweet, smart, brutal in its honesty. Also, reading stories that take place in the dorms I lived in and in my cities in Nebraska is this special and intimate thing. I did realize about 3/4 of the way through that I wished I had ever stayed as true to myself as Cather does (fears and self-loathing aside). I found myself reaching to personally identify with her college experience. I was/am more like Wren in my attitude and approach to life… again, for better or worse.
Any Way the Wind Blows (Simon Snow #3)
New York Times bestselling author Rainbow Rowell’s epic young adult fantasy Simon Snow series continues in Any Way the Wind Blows. In Carry On, Simon Snow and his friends realized that everything they thought they understood about the world might be wrong. And in Wayward Son, they wondered whether everything they understood about themselves might be wrong. In Any Way the Wind Blows, Simon and Baz and Penelope and Agatha have to decide how to move forward. Any Way the Wind Blows takes the gang back to England, back to Watford, and back to their families for their longest and most emotionally wrenching adventure yet. This book is a finale. It tells secrets and answers questions and lays ghosts to rest. Carry On was conceived as a book about Chosen One stories; Any Way the Wind Blows is an ending about endings. About catharsis and closure, and how we choose to move on from the traumas and triumphs that try to define us.
My GoodReads Review from August 2021:
I read fantasy romance genre novels like it is my job. I love elves, halfings, witches, and wizards; I love rough and tumble adventures with ‘hero’s journey vibes;’ I love love stories. Simon and Baz in Rainbow Rowell’s trilogy is the best love story I’ve read in years. Their story – not to mention their ridiculous stop at the Renaissance Faire we love in Omaha Nebraska in the second book – is one of the truest, most brutal and gut wrenching, and beautiful stories I’ve read. These teenage to young adult men had me laughing, crying, and relating. If you enjoy love stories and have limited your reads to strictly heterosexual story lines, you’re missing out on some rich, meaningful story telling. So your sex looks different? No matter. We can all relate to being in love and all the beautiful issues that come with it. Thank you Rainbow for giving us these character
The Fifth Doll by Charlie N. Holmberg
Matrona lives in an isolated village, where her life is centered on pleasing her parents. She’s diligent in her chores and has agreed to marry a man of their choosing. But a visit to Slava, the local tradesman, threatens to upend her entire life. Entering his empty house, Matrona discovers a strange collection of painted nesting dolls—one for every villager. Fascinated, she can’t resist the urge to open the doll with her father’s face. But when her father begins acting strangely, she realizes Slava’s dolls are much more than they seem. When he learns what she’s done, Slava seizes the opportunity to give Matrona stewardship over the dolls—whether she wants it or not. Forced to open one of her own dolls every three days, she falls deeper into the grim power of Slava’s creations. But nothing can prepare her for the profound secret hiding inside the fifth doll.
The Hobbit or There and Back Again by by J.R.R. Tolkien
Ok, ok, if you’ve met me it should be pretty obvious I have already read this, long before 2021. This year, however, I read this aloud to my son Max and the experience was just so rich and meaningful. As an aside, if you’ve read aloud much of the Narnia series and found it tricky in pacing and vocabulary, I found Tolkien much easy to narrate aloud.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Written for J.R.R. Tolkien’s own children, The Hobbit met with instant critical acclaim when it was first published in 1937. Now recognized as a timeless classic, this introduction to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf, Gollum, and the spectacular world of Middle-earth recounts of the adventures of a reluctant hero, a powerful and dangerous ring, and the cruel dragon Smaug the Magnificent.
There we have it – my best books from 2021. Below I’ve copied the images for every book I read in 2021. Many of these very nearly made the full post, several were very bad. I read far fewer graphic novels this year. I don’t know that the change means anything exactly, but an interesting observation.
Be well. Read on.