2021: Best Books of the Year!
Can you believe we’re ending another year still in this pandemic? Neither can I! But despite my sadness about the things I have missed, this post will be about the best books I enjoyed in 2021. So if you only want to read one book blog post per year, I suppose this is the best choice!
What does it take to make it into the end-of-year post? I try to include the books that were challenging or comforting or surprising. And since this was a big reading year (171 books, by far an all-time record!), this is going to be a longer post.
To make it a bit more fun, I came up with some headings that are more creative than “fiction” and “nonfiction,” but different themes that might get you a bit more intrigued.
If you prefer Jane Austen all the time:
The Other Bennet Sister (Janice Hadlow): Ahhhh, I loved this book so much — one of my favorite fiction books this year. There are a lot of books in the Pride and Prejudice universe that expand on or reimagine the original tale, but Hadlow’s book is my favorite. I’ve always felt some affinity for Mary Bennet, the middle of five sisters who is more or less forgotten in the novel and is overshadowed by Jane, Elizabeth, and Lydia (though let me put this into the universe — can we get a book about Kitty Bennet too?). The first part of this book overlaps with the original P&P, giving us Mary’s perspective into some of the main events. I also really loved to connection that Hadlow imagined between Charlotte Lucas and Mary, as they might have a lot in common. The rest of the novel imagines what might happen as Mary decides what her future might be. Should she get married, and to whom? Or become a governess? Or will she be doomed to singledom, relying on her four married sisters to care for her as she ages? The magic of this book is that it feels fresh and interesting while keeping with the writing style and conventions of the original. Please write more book, Ms. Hadlow. It was delightful!
The Jane Austen Society (Natalie Jenner): I’m a sucker for anything in the Jane Austen universe, and this charming book is set in the town of Chawton, the final home of Jane Austen. Primarily set in 1945–6, this novel follows some of the townspeople who come together to form a society to protect Jane’s cottage and to collect Austen artifacts from the town. I found the collection of characters, from the young widow to the town’s doctor and a Hollywood starlet, to be well-written and interesting. Even though you can sense how they might relate to one another, there aren’t many simple characters in this plot, and every so often Jenner injects a new detail that moves the story in a different direction. For not being set in Jane’s literary universe I thought this was a lovely book!
If you love character-driven, artsy books:
Interior Chinatown (Charles Yu): WOW. I love genre-busting books and Yu has certainly written one in Interior Chinatown. This book is irreverent, funny, and sad, and includes important information about the Asian-American experience. Written as a script, it follows the story of Willis Wu, a young Chinese-American man who plays bit-parts in television — and in life. But he dreams of becoming Kung Fu Guy, the best possible role for an Asian Guy. Wu skillfully explores stereotypes of Asian-American men, poking fun at how the media portrays them and how others see them. Should he assimilate? Is it even possible for him? What identity can he chose — and what identities are available? Every so often I find a book that is hard to describe but a fantastic reading experience, and this is one of those books.
Miss Iceland (Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir): Ólafsdóttir is such a fantastic author! I enjoy the sparseness of Icelandic fiction to begin with, but her characters really come alive despite the short chapters and simple settings. This book follows Helka, her best friends from growing up (DJ and Isey), her boyfriend “The Poet,” and, occasionally, her family at home in rural Iceland. More than anything Hekla wants to be an author, but there are no famous Icelandic female authors, and not much support from those around her. This book is the best sort of character-driven novel! There is minimal plot and setting, so if you love this type of fiction, pick up this book — or anything else by Ólafsdóttir!
Convenience Store Woman (Sayaka Murata): Convenience Store Woman, centered around long-term Convenience Store Employee Keiko, was a gem! This novel, translated to English from the Japanese, is compact but impactful. From Keiko’s perspective we learn what her life is like — and that even though she has always considered herself different, the structure of the convenience store appeals to her, and she seems happy. However, her 18 years at the same store makes those around her very unhappy as she is not advancing, not saving money, and, most important, unmarried and childless. I felt great love for Keiko throughout this book — if you like character-driven stories with quirky narrators, this book might be for you!
If you are leaving 2021 with a desire to expand your mind and your heart:
That Good Night (Sunita Puri): Do you ever have a book that sits in your to-read stack until just the right moment? I’m convinced I picked up this book when my mind and heart were ready to confront the challenging subject matter. Dr. Puri takes us into the world of palliative medicine, a newer discipline that focuses on providing relief from people living with serious illnesses or conditions (an important distinction — it is not hospice, which is care in the last six months of a person’s life).
As doctors tend to focus so much on saving and living, it is interesting to read the perspective of a doctor who focuses on quality of life in some of the most difficult times. Death is a challenging topic for me yet this book was not as hard to read as I had anticipated. The stories in its pages were beautiful, much more about the value of a life well-lived than death.
If you want to change your perspective:
What Strange Paradise (Omar El Akkad): This heartbreaking book tells the story of Amir, a young boy who accidentally ends up on a migrant ship headed from Egypt to Greece. El Akkad tells the story alternative from a Before and an After perspective, helping us to understand how Amir makes a series of journeys to his destination. The author makes the characters come alive even though the book is short and he has much to cover.
I must admit that I thought I had a handle on the book until the very last chapter when I became completely confused. If this is you, there are some answers on the page for this book on Goodreads, but don’t read ahead of time because they truly will spoil the book. As always, it made me look back at the book with completely different eyes. I appreciated such a personal take on a humanitarian crisis that is, at times, hard to understand.
If you’d like to travel but you’re waiting out this pandemic at home:
Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park (Conor Knighton): As someone who is (slowly) working her way through the National Parks, I was really excited to read this book, and it didn’t disappoint. Knighton’s book actually felt *too short* to me because his style was engaging and there was so much more I wanted to learn about specific parks. Instead of listing each park individually he groups them in themes (“Water,” “Caves,” “Diversity,” “Disconnecting”) and helps to draw through-lines between different places. The writing was accessible and easy to read, perfect for a travelogue. If you like the outdoors (or, if you, like me, aspire to like it a bit more), I recommend this book!
If historical fiction is your jam — and it was really my jam this year:
The Exiles (Christina Baker Kline): This book was fantastic and once it really got going I couldn’t put it down. Baker Kline’s book weaves together the story of three marginalized females — two convicts, Evangeline and Hazel, on a transport ship to Tasmania from England, and Mathinna, a young Aboriginal girl taken away from her family and treated as a plaything by a colonist family. What really drove this story forward was the strong female characters and how they used creativity to get through a variety of trying situations, even at times when they were shown no kindness by the sailors or the captors. I thought I had a good handle on the book, but there were some very surprising twists and turns, making it hard to put down (but don’t worry — I won’t reveal them!). I’d highly recommend this book for any historical fiction fan.
A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts (Therese Anne Fowler): Fowler’s historical fiction is really the best sort of historical fiction — written about real women with enough research and facts, but with character development, sharp dialogue, and settings that make the story come alive! This book follows Alva (nee Smith) Vanderbilt, a young woman who, at the outset of the novel, must marry well before her family goes broke (her mother has died, her father is an invalid, and she has three sisters). With the help of a friend she manages to catch the eye of WK Vanderbilt and is thrust into a world of the richest of the rich in late 1800s New York. I appreciated the details about the fashions and customs of the times, but also the how we get to know Alva as she balances who she was with who she has become. The book was easy to read while being well-written. Highly recommend!
A Long Petal of the Sea (Isabel Allende): Allende is at her best when she is writing about her home in Chile, and this novel is no exception. This family epic details the lives of Victor and Roser, Spanish refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War in 1939. They are lucky enough to gain passage to Chile where they begin to build a life as a family with their son. Allende’s strengths as a writer shine here — her multifaceted characters, strong settings, and just the right amount of history and cultural context (in this case, we also get a glimpse into Pinochet’s Chile). Even though some love Allende for her magical realism, I find her more realistic novels to be the real treat!
The Four Winds (Kristen Hannah): I was super-excited to start Hannah’s newest book, especially since she has ventured into historical fiction as of late. While the book was in her usual readable style, the setting and historical elements made it much more enjoyable than many of her other books. The story centers around several strong women, but at the heart of it is Elsanore, a young single woman in 1920s Texas. Due to some undisclosed medical diagnosis, Elsa has been written off by her family and, at twenty-five, is considered an old maid. Through a chance encounter she manages to find a husband and settle down with his family on their farm but then the Dust Bowl happens. The remainder of the book follows Elsa on her quest to find something better for her family. I appreciated the grittiness of the Depression-era experience but also the warmth of the characters.
The Island of Sea Women (Lisa See): Wow, Lisa See continues to write fantastic narratives about strong and complicated women, and she always weaves in enough history to help you learn about unknown places and times in history. This book covers the lives of two friends from the 1930s through the early 2000s. Young-sook is the daughter of the leader of the village’s diving collective on the island of Jeju, Korea; unlike mainland Korea, this is a matrilineal society. At the age of seven she meets her best friend, the orphaned Mi-ja, who lives with her aunt and uncle in the same village. The story explores their journey to become divers, their marriages and families, and the massacres and violence than impact them. The way that these women’s lives intertwine is what makes this story true soar.
The Mercies (Kiran Millwood Hargrave): This book was a vey pleasant surprise, especially after a slow few first chapters — but if you stick with it, you will be rewarded! Set in the most northern part of Norway in the early 1600s, the book opens with a freak wave that kills all of the working-age men in a small village. What follows is the story of how the women of the village attempt to recover, and how that recovery is thwarted by an anti-witch commissioner that moves to the village with his new wife. The real star of this writing are the two main characters, Maren and Ursa, and how their relationship changes over time. The other star of the book are Hargrave’s rich descriptions of village life and the barren landscape (just Google “Finnmark” to get a sense of how beautiful and remote this area is). This is a unique historical fiction offering and I found myself sad that it ended.
If you enjoy interesting life stories of interesting people:
Know My Name (Chanel Miller): Wow, I could not put down this book. Miller is a powerhouse — not just as a writer, but as a person. Known for a long time as Emily Doe, Miller was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner at a Stanford fraternity party. This story details Miller’s entire journey throughout the process — the highs and the lows, the triumphs and the disappointments. Having just read a book detailing rape and sexual assault four or five years prior I had hoped to see progress, especially in a progressive place like Palo Alto. But the myths and biases against women in sexual assault and rape are so pervasive that they impact Miller too. This book should be required reading for all, especially for young people learning what consent really means.
All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot): I have read some of Herriot’s books for children, but this was my first foray into his stories about his veterinary practice. The book is a series of episodes in Herriot’s first two years of practice along with a more senior vet, Sigfried, his younger brother, and a whole cast of interesting Yorkshire characters, from farmers to lords and ladies and a special love interest. I feel like I know more about calving and pig castration than I would ever need to know, but the book feels a bit like a travelogue and it was quite charming. This was a great book to read at the end of the day to wind down, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Herriot’s memoirs (this is the first of four).
If you want to change your perspective and address your biases:
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat (Aubrey Gordon): It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, but this book opened my eyes to not only the experience of fat people (to be clear, fat is the author’s preferred terminology) but highlighted all of my anti-fat biases and the ways that they are everywhere in our society. I had done some previous reading about this topic, but the clear, well-cited approach that Gordon takes is the best that I’ve seen. You should read this book if you are straight-size, if you think you aren’t biased towards fat people, or if you know that you are.
This book is helping me form goals to further my learning as well as be a better advocate and ally for others. If you’re interested in learning more, might I also recommend her fantastic podcast, Maintenance Phase?
Demystifying Disability (Emily Ladau): I cannot recommend this book enough. At a moment in time when we are very focused on inclusion, this book is a reminder that inclusion and advocacy for people with disabilities remains critical. Ladau shows us the history of discrimination against people with disabilities, how to be more inclusive in our language, why “inspiration porn” is demeaning, and tangible steps for advocacy. This book is also filled with the perspectives of other people with disabilities and lots of references to boot, including her own podcast. I have a lot to think about after reading this book.
If you are a history dork:
Last Hope Island (Lynne Olson): Wow — what a book! I love history, especially WW2, but I don’t find many books that I enjoy about the topic because they are dense and dry. This book, while almost 500 pages, was neither. This book follows WW2 from a British and Allied Europe perspective, which was refreshing as most of what I have learned is from an American perspective. Some of the interesting dynamics that this book covers were relatively unknown to me, such as how Britain and the other large Allied countries (US and Russia) disregarded the perspectives of the smaller European countries (such as The Netherlands or Poland), even refusing to liberate certain countries in order to push into Germany faster. It was particularly interesting to see the dynamics between Occupied France and Free France, as well as the Big 3’s refusal to advocate for Czechoslovakia or Poland, who were immediately absorbed by the USSR post-war. I also appreciated learning about the different resistance groups across the occupied countries — the small acts that saved downed pilots, Jews, or political dissidents carried out by millions of ordinary people.
Rarely are people purely good or evil — and this book reminds us that motivations are complex. If you are a WW2 buff and want a history book that reads like a novel, I recommend this book!
Last Boat Out of Shanghai (Helen Zia): Zia’s book is phenomenal. She details the stories of four Shanghai residents from the Japanese invasion in 1937 through the early 1950s, after Mao’s revolution. We meet first-born son Benny; Ho, a young man eager to contribute to China’s success; twice-orphaned Bing; and forgotten girl Annuo. My ignorance of this period of China’s history (well, most of China’s history) is a little bit less thanks to Zia’s detailed reporting and her careful and thoughtful retelling of four stories. This book strikes a beautiful balance between stories and history!
If you love a good murder mystery:
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie): Oh my goodness, this book was a bit of a surprise! Oftentimes I struggle to figure who is the killer in Christie mysteries, but this one was *very* surprising (but in a good way). This centers around a rich man named Roger Ackroyd who is discovered dead in his study after hosting a dinner and reading a mysterious letter, which is never found. With Inspector Hercule Poirot we continue to examine the suspects until we finally learn what has happened to Mr. Ackroyd!
Magpie Murders (Anthony Horowitz): If you like quirky, fun mysteries, you will enjoy this book! I loved Horowitz’s previous novel, Moriarty, and this one is just as clever. What I loved about the book was that it was a book within a book. The first half of the book is a manuscript of a murder mystery, but we are left without the ending. The novel then switches to the perspective of the book’s editor, Susan, who has realized that the death of the author is strikingly similar to the murder in the book.
As in all murder mysteries I can never quite figure out the ending, but Horowitz is clever without rubbing it in your face. If you enjoy mysteries, I can’t think of a better summer read for you!
Troubled Blood (Robert Galbraith): As is hopefully obvious from the previous choice I love a good mystery, and ever since I read the first book in the Comoran Strike series by Galbraith I was hoooooooked. Strike is deeply flawed and wonderful — and it doesn’t hurt that Tom Burke plays him in the Cinemax adaptation (C.B. Strike and available on HBO, in case you needed to know).
As this is the fifth book in the series I shall not spoil it all, but to say that this, the longest book yet at more than 800 pages, was extremely satisfying and yet not at all because a very key plot has not yet resolved.
There best be a sixth book.
Interested? Start with The Cuckoo’s Calling and just keep going.
Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village (Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper): If you love English murder mysteries, this charming book is for you. Johnson and Cooper share a tongue-in-cheek guide of how not to get murdered if you decide to visit the English countryside (which, they must recommend, that you never do). The book humorously details the people (the vicar! the heir! the out-of-work actress!) that you must avoid, as well as places one should never go (the folly! the antique store! the pond!) if you wish to survive your trip. As a big murder mystery fan this book just made me laugh!
If you want an easy, breezy read to kick off 2022,
People We Meet on Vacation (Emily Henry): This book was a pleasant surprise and a great book for an actual vacation. It started a little too social-media influencer for me, so I worried that it would be all about selfies and fancy hotels. But, to my pleasant surprise, the story really did focus on the complex relationship between friends Poppy and Alex, who met as college freshmen and build a friendship over more than a decade. Henry uses that sneaky device of jumping between past and present, which really makes the book fly along. It is an easy read that doesn’t take too much thought, and those sort of “snack” books are fun now and again, and this is a good one.
Eye of the Needle (Ken Follett): Follett is one of my go-to authors for plot-driven fiction with *just* enough character development! He writes one hell of a thriller, and even though it was written more than 40 years ago it is just as engaging as if it was written today!
This story is set in England in WW2 and centers around a German spy called Die Nadel (The Needle). It was known that Germany had many spies in Allied countries, but as the Allies prepare for the D-Day Invasion it is critical for them to capture this highly-skilled spy. There are several parallel tracks in the novel, which really keeps the plot moving — a young couple living on a small Scottish Island, British intelligence officers on the hunt, and Die Nadel himself.
Rodham (Curtis Sittenfeld): Sittenfeld writes engaging stories but as I read the book jacket of Rodham I was afraid it was too good to be true, too gimmicky, or both. Let me just say, happily, that this book was funny, sad, serious, raunchy, and made me look at Hillary in a different light.
The premise is simply this: What if Hillary Rodham never married Bill Clinton? What would her life have been like if she took a different path? Sittenfeld captured the voices of some of the key characters so well (yes, Bill is still a part of her story), and though some of the characters are familiar, their paths are different, but yet still in-line with their characters.
That being said I could see that this book has a love-it or hate-it, so it might be a risk for you — but it might be a risk that pays off!
If you love a good historical thriller that will keep you engaged and get your blood pumping, I recommend this book!
So, what were your favorite books this year? Let me know so I can add it to my 2022 to-read list. I can’t wait to see what aa new stack of covers have in story for me!
P.S. Can’t wait to come back next year with more book reviews, probably including some of these from Jolabokaflod (Yule Book Flood) this Christmas Eve. I’m also going to post covers of each book I read on my Instagram this year and keep up with my blog posts because I’ve really enjoyed it — and I hope you do too!