Best Reads of 2022

I love writing these annual book posts – I’ve been doing it since 2016 now. That’s a lot of books, words, stories, and experiences – not to mention the hundred of books that came before these posts. These last three or four years I’ve been more grateful for books than ever before. Reading at the end of a long day is a solace and escape. I crave it and it makes my life richer, better, and more creative.

I tend toward fantasy, often with a healthy dose of romance baked in, mysteries, scifi, and just fiction in general. Books for me, at least in this stage of my life, are about escapism and comfort. I read enough non-fiction law articles at work.

My favorite go-to authors are Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Rainbow Rowell, Nnedi Okorafor, and Seanan McGuire. I read some of each this year, save Pratchett. His catalog is complete, as he is deceased, but I still haven’t completely finished all his work. Despite that, somehow, one didn’t slip in this year. Only Rowell is in my top picks for this year, though I encourage checking them all out. I have added a note on some of Okorafor’s work I read this year too at the end. These didn’t top the Binti series for me, but this author is worth paying attention too.

A word on romance. I typically kind of laugh it off and make light of how much I enjoy romance novels or a good “relationship storyline” in novels. But here’s the deal, I love love. I love reading about it and reliving those awkward first moments, the will-they won’t-they, the first time people give in to physical attraction. Falling in love is one of the great shared human experiences. There is zero reason I should feel embarrassed to enjoy that part of the storyline. It’s fun, its uniting, its relatable. Stories that include a growing romance are not lesser, if anything, they’re willing to explore one of life’s messiest elements – love.

My goal for 2022 was 90 books and I’ve landed at 92, which I feel great about. I count chapter books I read aloud to the kids, as well as graphic novel volumes (I don’t count individual issues). Here are my favorites from 2022!

The Immortal Soul Savage Yard by Beth May

Good Reads: Diary entries, medical records, book reports, phone calls, dates (the romantic kind), dreams, index cards, passive aggressive post-it notes, stories, emails to professors, dates (the month/day kind), worries, and resumes that never led to job interviews… Beth May’s debut poetry collection is comprised of physical artifacts from her past. The topics may vary widely, from love to mental illness to the most recent “Florida Man” headline, but it’s all in the same handwriting. Welcome to The Immortal Soul Salvage Yard. 

Elsbeth: I admit that I am rarely drawn towards poetry offhand, but I always find it satisfying and moving, so I make sure to read at least a few collections each year. I listen to Beth May on the Dungeons and Daddies podcast and so I decided to give her collection a go. I went in knowing it wasn’t a comedic book and that this was a very different type of work from her. And it is – but it is also so good and absolutely colors her performance on the podcast as well. Her words flow lyrically but also feel so disjointed and surprising. This is an intensely personal collection of poems that moved me. After each one it seemed like I stopped, put the book down, and thought “Jesus fucking Christ she’s so good.”

Dance of a Burning Sea by EJ Mellow

Good Reads: Within the world of Aadilor, there is a hidden place called the Thief Kingdom, where both magic and pleasure abound. There, the Mousai, a trio of deadly sorceresses bound by oath and blood, use their powers to protect the kingdom’s treasures. Niya Bassette brings the potent gift of dance to the Mousai, but behind her tempting twirls, she carries a heavy secret—that the infamous pirate lord, Alōs Ezra, has been threatening to exploit for years. Now banished from the Thief Kingdom for smuggling, Alōs resurfaces in Niya’s life with a plot to hold her hostage, leveraging what he knows to extort a pardon from the Thief King. But Niya makes her own deal with Alōs to guard her secret and guarantee her freedom—yet in doing so binds herself aboard his pirate ship, where she must navigate deadly waters, a bloodthirsty crew, and her own traitorous heart. Soon, a simmering attraction between her and Alōs threatens their delicate truce and makes for a tumultuous ride on the open seas. Far from her kingdom, Niya is entangled in a dangerous dance indeed.

Welcome to the world of Aadilor, where dark deeds can mask noble hearts and the most alluring of sways often ends with a burn. Care for a spin?

Elsbeth: I really like this series. The world the author has crafted is bonkers and cool. The sisters are charming and relatable, while flawed and interesting. The celebration of the power in music, song, and dance. Just all of it. I was particularly excited by this addition, because well, bad boy pirate. This is a fantasy romance novel that reads like an adventure book. Fun and sexy.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Good Reads: Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

Elsbeth: What a strange little trip this book was. Surreal and mysterious, for the first quarter you just must submit to being along for the ride. Once you begin to get an inkling of what’s happening it’s still satisfying. I appreciate that in the end the author didn’t desert her characters for the sake of an easier ending – there is resolution, but it’s like real(ish) resolution in that it’s not wrapped up in a perfect bow.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Good Reads: Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child. Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

Elsbeth: I loved Agnes and I loved this book right up until the very end. This isn’t a spoiler because it’s discussed on the dust cover, but the section where they lose Hamnet is just so well written and breathtakingly painful. I cried deeply. As well as the twins birth scene. I did not however find the end satisfying. It felt like when the author mapped out the book she decided that needed to be the final line and how the story should end – but the story itself didn’t really take us to that conclusion. I’d hoped that we would end with Agnes’s vision of her on her deathbed, as discussed throughout the book.

Star Mother by Charlie Holmberg

Good Reads: When a star dies, a new one must be born. The Sun God chooses the village of Endwever to provide a mortal womb. The birthing of a star is always fatal for the mother, and Ceris Wenden, who considers herself an outsider, sacrifices herself to secure her family’s honor and take control of her legacy. But after her star child is born, Ceris does what no other star mother has: she survives. When Ceris returns to Endwever, however, it’s not nine months later—it’s seven hundred years later. Inexplicably displaced in time, Ceris is determined to seek out her descendants.

Being a woman traveling alone brings its own challenges, until Ceris encounters a mysterious—and desperate—godling. Ristriel is incorporeal, a fugitive, a trickster, and the only being who can guide Ceris safely to her destination. Now, as Ceris traverses realms both mortal and beyond, her journey truly begins. Together, pursued across the Earth and trespassing the heavens, Ceris and Ristriel are on a path to illuminate the mysteries that bind them and discover the secrets of the celestial world.

Elsbeth: “Read” this as an audiobook during a nine hour drive to Colorado. This author is just so good and I’ve enjoyed so many of her books. Always the right mix of mysticism and reality and romance but with substantive and meaningful character development. This one particularly had a mythology vibe that I really enjoyed.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Good Reads: Set over one school year in 1986, Eleanor & Park is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Elsbeth: Rowell is a master of emotional nuance and relatability that isn’t heavy handed. Despite Rowell being one of my favorite authors, I had ignored this novel by her, mainly because all the buzz around it I’d heard centered on the main female character not being thin. I just don’t thrive on “fat girl finally accepts herself” stories (being a relatively fat girl myself who loves myself just fine). BUT! But this wasn’t that!

That narrative was so reductive. This story is so much more. Rowell explored what is meant to be a chubby girl in high school in Nebraska in the 80s/90s (a reality I deeply related to) but this isn’t a story about weight. We got race, poverty, and the general shittiness of being 16.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

Good Reads: The ornate reading room at the Boston Public Library is quiet, until the tranquility is shattered by a woman’s terrified scream. Security guards take charge immediately, instructing everyone inside to stay put until the threat is identified and contained. While they wait for the all-clear, four strangers, who’d happened to sit at the same table, pass the time in conversation and friendships are struck. Each has his or her own reasons for being in the reading room that morning—it just happens that one is a murderer. Award-winning author Sulari Gentill delivers a sharply thrilling read with The Woman in the Library, an unexpectedly twisty literary adventure that examines the complicated nature of friendship and shows us that words can be the most treacherous weapons of all.

Elsbeth: This book was a clever and unique approach to one of my favorite mystery tropes. The addition of the 4th wall breaking author letters was fantastic. I’m not sure I 100% get the very last page, but I think I do? Really enjoyed this one.

If you’ve never read Nnedi Okorafor, you need to. A different (and often, better) voice in science fiction, these books challenged me and, frankly, blew my mind. They didn’t quite hit in the same way her series, Binti, did for me so I don’t include them in my favorites but they are worth calling out. It’s also worth throwing a content warning in here – her work is violent and graphic.

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Good Reads: The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From hereon in she would be known as Sankofa­­–a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past. Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks–alone, except for her fox companion–searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers. But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Good Reads: In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue. Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny – to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture – and eventually death itself.

Elsbeth: I needed a few days to process this book. This novel is extremely violent, with a lot of graphically described sexual violence, inspired by the weaponized rape by Arab militiamen against Black African women in the Darfur conflict. The story is inherently fantasy with some scifi woven in, and the arch is beautiful and challenging and surprising. I am a huge fan of this author and her extreme creativity in looking at culture, race, and humanity


I’m generally not one to call out bad books, but I will add the following two notes:

As I read Discovery of Witches I thought to myself, “this would be better as a tv show.” She spends half the book napping, and the misogynistic themes are far from subtle, but the settings and people sounded gorgeous. That said, I haven’t watched the show and I have zero desire to read another 800 pages.

Second, I am baffled by the love for The Midnight Library. It is charming, a little sad, A LOT sentimental. To be clear though, a life altering perspective change doesn’t “solve” clinical depression – depression isn’t just having a crappy attitude. I found the end of this novel more than a little bit problematic. Whether or not she was taking meds shouldn’t be a sign of whether or not she had found true happiness in a certain life. It kinda seemed like it really wanted to go into the cheesy “it’s a wonderful life” style fix, while in reality clinical depression doesn’t work that way and making people think it can is harmful.

Anyway, and as always, follow me on Good Reads!

There you have it! Below is the full (pictorial) list of my 2022 reading list.

Reduction


December 7, 2023

I’m home and recovering following my breast reduction on December 5. So many people gave me advice and tips. Happy to pay it forward for anyone considering elective surgery to better your future! There is a lot I wish I’d known going in.

In sum of my general feeling though: Goodbye H cup (I won’t miss you)! I’ve been well over a DD (and growing) since I was about 15, so I can’t wait to run and move without it resulting headaches for hours, throbbing muscles, itchy skin, and red indents cut down my shoulders.

In addition to my reduction they also addressed some scar tissue on a permanently damaged part of my glute resulting in shifted fat cells. I fell down a flight of stairs a few years back and messed myself up pretty good. In sum, I had two lumps of damaged fat that hurt when I ran or jumped, and they liposuctioned it all away.

It all hurts very, very (very) much right now, but I’m optimistic it was the right call to have it all done.

My doctor is Perry Johnson at UNMC and Village Pointe Surgery. The office has been so helpful through working with my insurance and supporting me.

December 29, 2022

Is this a bathroom mirror selfie? Yes (and not sorry), but it’s more than that. I’ve loved this sweater for years, but maybe wore it once, as my chest size made it hard to wear.

Of course I didn’t get a breast reduction so I could wear one sweater, but as I experience the last few weeks of recovery, and really start moving into my life post surgery, it’s a representation of new experiences, new joy, new movement and more.

I’m learning that reconstructive surgery is a lengthy process and it’ll really be months before I fully know exactly how my body will feel but already being able to just throw something on and feel comfortable is a cool new reality.

Keep voyaging.

Hit my late 30s and celebrating my vibe. In August @codyschneider58 at @scarletravencollective gave me my favorite example of wonder-in-action.

I’m just out here voyaging.

I’m about to get nerdy. Buckle up: Launched in 1977, the identical Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft is exploring further than anything created on Earth ever has. They flew by the planets Jupiter (in 1979) and Saturn (in 1980–81), and Voyager 2 went on to an encounter with the planet Uranus in 1986 and a flyby of Neptune in 1989. Early in 1990, Voyager 1 turned its camera around to capture a series of images assembled into a “family portrait” of the solar system.

In August 2012, Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause to become the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space. Voyager 2 followed it, on Nov 5, 2018.The joint spacecraft is still communicating their findings and the Voyagers are expected to have enough power to continue communicating information until 2025.

Aboard Voyager 1 and 2 is a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials. The Voyager message is carried by a phonograph record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.

Here’s the thing, I get chills thinking about this.

This opportunity to put the best of us forward. To focus on what binds us together as a species rather than what tears us apart. The necessary technical skill to create such a device, coupled with the understanding that music, art, and spoken language is a critical part of the process. It’s also a reminder of just how small we are in comparison to the expanse around us. Feeling small is one of my greatest loves about space, to put in perspective my overwhelming feelings, and remember just how much we simply don’t know about it all. The unknown is a beautiful, beautiful place.

Keep voyaging. ✌️

Désolé, je ne parle pas français.

It’s never lost on me how fortunate I am to be in a field where I get the opportunity to travel and explore. I’ve been all over the US, including many NASA Centers and military bases, England, Australia, and beyond. In September 2022 I spent a week in Paris – and a whirlwind 24 hours in Luxembourg. I was so proud to be a part of the IAA History of Astronautics Symposium, a part of the larger International Astronautical Congress. I presented my paper “Science and Strength: The History of the Relationship Between Civil and Military Space Organizations in the United States.” This was my first history paper and was absolutely made better and benefited from the work of my amazing research assistant, Grant Jones, and his hard work. Nebraska LLM alum and friend Nate Johnson presented in the same symposium! It was great to see friendly faces far from home.

This was my third International Astronautical Congress, but only the second in person (virtual 2020). It’s always a wild ride. I went to so many other incredibly fascinating discussions and have been really interested to see the continued focus on low earth orbit, commercial space stations, and fears about congestion and sustainability.

My program, the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law program, was a proud sponsor of the International Institute of Space Law Manfred Lachs Moot Court Finals and our (I am also an institute member) annual awards banquet. This international and space law competition is unique in the world, and our finals are argued to justices from the International Court of Justice. A truly great, if not intense, educational experience for these students.

I spent a fast day in Luxembourg! I am part of a US State Department Leaders program that works to send US subject matter experts out into the world to meet with groups through our embassies and brings amazing international guests likewise to American institutions. I visited the Science and Technology Center at the University of Luxembourg and then on the The Luxembourg Science Center. Two of their science communicators showed us many of their very interactive and multi generational exhibits and public showcases on things ranging from statistics to astronomy to the science of cooking. To be quite frank I found myself remarkably jealous of their jobs and asking if I could apply! Finally we met with the Luxembourg Digital Learning Hub and Women in Digital Empowerment group, who are doing amazing work to broaden tech education on the tech jobs actor – and reminded me so much I’ll be awesome work happening at Nebraska Tech Collborative. I can’t wait to continue these connections and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to have met with these groups.

The hub is located in a very cool gigantic bright red building owned by the royal Canadian bank. Outside are still these huge furnaces and this beautiful marble exterior library. It celebrates the industrial history of the area and is also a beautiful architectural feature. I didn’t grab a picture but from the top of the building you get to see Germany, Luxembourg, and France all at the same time!

In the evening I strolled from new town to old town which was essentially a large hill/cliff side. The second slide is a shot from the glass elevator that is free, public, and runs till 1 AM to help move people back-and-forth!

I did find some time for tourism, including a visit to the unreal Paris Catacombs💀 I went in with the first timed group of the day – they definitely space folks out so that it never actually felt busy in the tomb, which I’m sure is also for the safety of the remains. It was fascinating how everyone was chatty and talkative going down the tiny winding circular staircase to go underground (around 130 steps), but once everyone reached the tomb, it was immediate hushed reverence. I paid for the audio guide which is extremely helpful, but otherwise there was no official tour guide or anyone telling us to be quiet, but every person on the tour just automatically was moved, being surrounded by the remains of millions of individuals. Children aren’t allowed on the tours nor could anyone bring strollers, wheelchairs, or walkers and backpacks had to be worn on your front. It was not as claustrophobic as I feared, but then we were in the publicly open tunnels that I believe are probably the largest and the safest.

The experience was a lot more unnerving and moving than I expected it to be. It only took about 40 minutes and was one of the coolest things I did on the trip.

I also made time for a run/walk by Notre Dame and the The Louvre. The Louvre, I’m sure, is a remarkable experience and I’m glad I got to run outside it and see the pyramid, but my trip (mostly working) did not give me enough time to wait in those lines and explore that gigantic museum. Instead I hit up the smaller Rodin Museum and gardens. Magic. The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell from Dante’s Divine Comedy. I would highly recommend it as a faster, but still beautiful, art experience in Paris.

Finally, I also went on a conference sponsored tour of the River Seine. Just, well, chef’s kiss.

Something new.

The Dean announced it so I guess it’s true – after almost three years growing and launching the Nebraska Governance and Technology Center, I’ll be transitioning out of the Center to lead the creation and development of the University of Nebraska College of Law’s first externship program! I will take the helm as ‘Director of Externships’ at the end of August, 2022. An externship is a practical learning tool where a student earns academic credit while working.

This position will leverage student and faculty experiences with our former ad hoc approach to externships to build a new program, a new curriculum, and new relationships with companies, firms, agencies, and organizations across the U.S. and the world. I can not wait to get working!

Connecting students with opportunities has always been my favorite work. This is a chance to devote 100% of my time to that; a chance to utilize my skills as a connector and networker directly in service to our students.

I will retain some strategic oversight of the Nebraska Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Program, working along side its other leaders and our new Associate Director. My current grants and research responsibilities will also be a part of my ongoing work for and with the space program (satellites, you are my first love).

Launching a research center in the middle of a pandemic was an unreal experience that tested me. I look forward to the creative projects I know will flow from the Center and hope I’m leaving behind a structure and culture where the staff can flourish and thrive.

Just Keep Failing

I present a series of selfies I took a few weeks back on the eve of a big professional goal…. that didn’t happen.

Friends, I fail. I fail a lot.

I want to remember that failing and resilience is part of the journey. It’s been my experience that many of my woman identifying peers are perfectionists. We’re doers, we’re achievers, we’re hustlers. But here’s the thing: that’s impossible to maintain. Failing hard and failing often means you’re doing something.

Dreaming and doing, baybee

My career and volunteer service has increasingly demanded that I continue to develop management skills. I am not alone in this, particularly as people guide their work through the pandemic and the (maybe, kinda, sorta?) post-pandemic world. There are two ways to approach this. As usual, the first is to do nothing and rely solely on instincts. In my estimation, this has a low probability of success. Even if it finds success, it has a low probability for fostering loyalty from a team or organizational growth. Few people, or at least myself, have baked in instincts for our managing the work of others and scaling organizations.

These are not the sorts of things our ancestors prepared us for. Knowing I should run from an attack? Baked in. Finding cover during cold and wet weather? Baked in. Investigating things that make us curious? Even that, baked in. Knowing how to position our donor portfolio to attract more foundations? Needs to be taught.

So then, we’re left with ‘doing the work.’ During the pandemic I took on managing a bigger team, continued to supervise a large group of graduate students, and attempted to develop a new center almost entirely on Zoom. I turned to leaders I admire for guidance – including Molly Brummond’s New.Now.Next. women’s leadership cohorts. In these sessions we did a few things, but one of the most notable exercises helped me develop tools to fall back on when things are tough.

It’s easy to lead when everyone is performing excellently, things are on a roll, and growth is thriving. Sadly, those sweet spots rarely pop up on their own and rarely live long – not because people aren’t loyal and talented – but because life is life. As in, life happens.

Molly challenged our group to develop our own leadership statements and walked us through that process. This statement is my guiding light during decision-making and going into awkward or difficult conversations:

  • Am I being true to these ideals?
  • These are my values, am I following them?
  • This is how I think about leadership, and is the kind of leader I can be at my best.

I started with the values I developed working through Brene Brown’s work on leadership. These are the core parts of who we are and what we rely on. For me, these are:

  • Creativity
  • Initiative

Dreaming and doing, baybee.

From there, Molly walked us through a series of questions pushing us to think about our core beliefs about success. In the end, I got to this, which I (such a nerd) made into this desktop image:

I believe everyone has something to contribute.

My attitude will be nimble and I will be adaptable. My words will be reliable and clear, but gentle.

I will lead by celebrating our differences, initiating opportunity, and seeking creative ideas.

I believe my enthusiasm for new and different opportunities is my best resource.

I expect myself to stay calm, kind, and collaborative in situations where it is easy to let frustration, judgement, apathy, or fear lead my actions.

Prairie Ink

My fourth tattoo is one I have wanted for a long time and finally made happen. Micheala at Iron Brush tattoo is so talented and made me feel so comfortable! Her Instagram is @gettininky.

The prairie doesn’t have the intensity of the mountains or the grandeur of the ocean, its beauty is a quiet one. Calm, consistent, balanced, wide open. These constellations represent my children’s, my partner, and mine. Plus the spacey water color which, obviously, is important to me. I wanted something that was not a zodiac or purely space tattoo nor a blatant parent-child tattoo, but instead reflected on lots of things that are meaningful to me:
the stars,
the prairie,
my family,
and balance.

Our elements form the Avatar, so I just couldn’t resist it (Cancer/water, Aquarius/air, Leo/fire, Taurus/earth). Balance.

The tree is a cottonwood tree, several of which stood in the front yard of the house I grew up in. The trees have since had to go, but were still the notable part of my childhood in Nebraska.

My skin was angry but forgave me. This is my fourth tattoo but it’s been 18 years. It hurt like a motherfucker. Finally, did I buy the shirt in multiple colors in anticipation of this tattoo? Yes, yes I did. 🙌🏽

Best Books I Read in 2021

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.

Landline

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.

Attachments

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.

Fangirl

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.

Get paid.

A message (and reminder to self) to all my mid-career friends in similar situations:

When I was early on in my career I did many free speaking gigs and projects that were additional to the requirements of my job. This was good! I was new, I was building up my credentials and expertise, and my reputation. For certain causes and groups I still work for free and of course certain events are within of my regular salary and work.

More broadly though, the most important thing that I’ve taken out of the last 2 to 3 years, and a phrase I want us all to practice saying is “I can’t do this unless there is compensation for the additional hours.”

Get. Paid.

Or, if you don’t actually want to do it, don’t.

Amen.