As I’ve looked at various friends’ 2021 reading summaries, favorites list, best-of photo collages…I’ve found myself thinking about what makes a book outstanding for me. For me, my favorite books have a mix of literary quality that resonates, good writing, strong characters, and a story that explores something more than simply plot. But the absolutely best ones—the outstanding, the ones that will stay with me for as long as I have a brain and memory and conscious thought—do something even more personal.
I read 49 books in 2021, which is a really good reading year for me. (I usually read about 30-35.) I loved most of them; some were just OK and a few were dismal. I also read, but didn’t finish, about ten others. Obviously I read books. I work with books. I have books all over my house. I blog about books and write about them on Instagram. I talk to my friends and family members—even complete strangers sometimes—about books.
Clearly books matter to me, but all books don’t have the same impact. For me, the most outstanding books are the ones that help me understand something better about myself. People who don’t read a lot of fiction tend to think that you can only find such knowledge in nonfiction, especially self-help, but that doesn’t hold true for me. (I don’t really love self-help at all, even, yes, such popular gurus as Brene Brown; they leave me feeling like I watched a one-sided conversation rather than engaged in a dialogue.) In fiction, in a story written by someone who doesn’t know me at all, I often find the little pieces of knowledge, understanding, or insight that I need to keep going.
I was lucky to have three books this year that did that for me.
- The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente gave me hope that even though it will be unrecognizable and difficult, when I get through the current apocalypse in my life there will also be some beauty and hope on the other side.
- The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin helped me understand myself as a mother better; it relieved some of the ache and swell of regret for my mistakes.
- Thirst by Amelie Nothomb illuminated some of the choices I am making as I continue on my faith journey.
I had other favorites: Matrix by Lauren Groff, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Burning Roses by S. L. Huang. And many others that I loved and am glad to have read for different reasons.
But those three—if they were the only books I read this year, I would still count it as a great reading year. They helped me feel seen during a year I felt largely invisible.
And I just want to throw out into the universe how grateful I am for writers. Writing is hard. I am grateful to the people who invest their time in writing books because they make my life so much better. Sometimes they even save me.
Enough sap. Here’s my list of the books I read in 2021, organized by genre. The hyperlinks go to the reviews I wrote.
Burn by Patrick Ness (YA)
Burning Roses by S. L. Huang
The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (YA) (audio)
Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor (YA) (audio)
Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor (YA) (audio)
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (audio)
The Grace Year by Kim Liggett (audio)
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune
In the Quick by Kate Hope Day
The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina by Zoraida Cordova
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab
Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor (YA) (audio)
The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin (audio)
Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap (YA)
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (audio)
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton (YA)
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
The Sisters Grimm by Meena van Praag
The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor (YA) (audio)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (audio)
Thorn by Intisar Khanani
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Matrix by Lauren Groff
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Sisters of the Wolf by Patricia Miller-Schroeder (YA)
The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nielson Spielman
The World that We Knew by Alice Hoffman
Be Not Far from Me by Mindy Mcginnis (YA) audio
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
One Great Lie by Deb Caletti (YA)
The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margo by Marianne Cronin
The Quarry by Damon Galgut
They’ll Never Catch Us by Jessica Goodman
Thirst by Amelie Nothomb
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawaii Strong Washburn
The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff (YA)
The Book Shop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser
Summer Days and Summer Nights edited by Stephanie Perkins
You Have a Match by Emma Lord (YA)
The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooely
How was your reading year?