My Year in Books: the 2021 Edition

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.

2021 favorite books
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.

Anyway.

Enough sap. Here’s my list of the books I read in 2021, organized by genre. The hyperlinks go to the reviews I wrote.

SPECULATIVE FICTION

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   

 

HISTORICAL FICTION

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  

 

GENERAL FICTION

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)  

 

ROMANCE

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)  

 

NONFICTION

The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooely   

 

How was your reading year?


My Year in Books: The 2020 Edition

One of my yearly goals is to write something about every book I finish. (Sometimes I also write about the books I didn’t finish, but not often.) I’ve mostly accomplished this for the past five years, but 2020 was an exception. I’m not really sure why I dropped the ball, as I read some books that I loved, but there you go. It was 2020 after all! (Also the fewest books I’ve read in a year.)

So this is obviously out of chronological order (I usually post this in the first week of January), and fairly incomplete with links to what I actually thought about each book, but still it is useful to me. I like being able to come to an organized list rather than having to search my blog (which, let’s be honest: almost never finds what I need it to find, after 15+ years of blogging and an apparently not-very-developed search algorithm, thanks Typepad) when I want to know something about a book I’ve read.

No more waiting, here’s my list of books I read in 2020:

Audio Books:

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melmud.  A society of fundamentalist Christians living on an island after a supposed devastation has destroyed most of the world. I enjoyed it until the end, which thoroughly annoyed me.

The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick. An assistant librarian in a small town in England turns her life upside down when someone leaves a book of fairy tales for her to find—one clearly written by her grandmother, who is supposed to be dead. This book falls squarely into the “up lit” genre, which I am just beginning to explore.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. A generational novel about two Black families who are connected by an unexpected teenage pregnancy. I loved this book so much. I think I need to read the print version and then I will write about it. 

Scars like Wings by Erin Stewart. This young adult novel tells the story of Ava Lee, whose family was killed in a fire she barely escaped from. When she must go back to school, she starts coming to terms with her scars, both the physical and emotional ones.

Young Adult Books:

Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams. I’m sad I didn’t write anything about this book because I LOVED it. Agnes and her sister try to escape from the fundamentalist cult they’ve grown up in, only to discover that the world outside is suffering from a virus that might kill all of humanity. Which sounds like a lot but wow, the author did a great job with this story.

Break the Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli. Gymnasts vying for the Olympics. How could I not read this?

The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid by Kate Hattemer. This one is right on the border…a little bit too sexy to be firmly in the YA category, it’s more on the “new adult” side, but still shelvable in YA. (I discussed this with two of my coworkers just to be sure.) It’s the story of Jemima Kincaid figuring out her last days of high school while she navigates what it really means to be a feminist. 

Love and Gelato by Jana Evans Welch. After her mother dies, Lina spends a summer in Tuscany with the father she never knew. I’m a sucker for most things set in Italy so this was fun.

Historical Fiction:

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman. I read this prequel in the continuing story of the Owens family of witches in October and it was perfect. It tells the origin story of the Owens’ family’s magic. I loved it! The last book in this series, The Book of Magic, comes out next October and I will definitely be spending my time with the Owens women again.

This Tender Land by William Kent Kruger. Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy run away from the orphanage where they are being abused and travel across the American Midwest by foot, through the landscape impacted by the Great Depression. I still think quite often about Odie’s evolving relationship with God.

General Fiction:

Girl by Edna O’Brien. Tells the story of a teenage girl who is kidnapped by Boko Harem and then later escapes. “Good” in the sense of moving, powerful, unforgettable, and so well-written. But a devastating story.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I think I read Little Women at least ten times as a kid, so this was clearly a reread. Undertaken with a little bit of trepidation as what if I couldn’t love it anymore? And there were definitely some annoyances that my 10-year-old self never saw, but I’m glad I reread it. (I also realized, upon revisiting that post, that I meant to write another one.)

Speculative Fiction:

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag. A woman and her daughter travel across the world that is transformed after global warming has caused the seas to rise.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal. Explores the impact of syphilis on a royal family. I enjoyed this book but am not sure I could recommend it to just any reader. You have to be willing to enjoy a book that almost never lets up on darkness and despair. I loved the ending. But it was a hard book to get through, even for me.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow. I love love loved this book about finding doorways to other worlds.

The Dark Tower Series:
This was my main reading this year. It kept me company during the pandemic and was the perfect way to distract myself from worrying about imminent death.

The Gunslinger

The Drawing of the Three

The Wastelands

Wizard and Glass

The Wind through the Keyhole

Wolves of the Calla

Song of Susannah

The Dark Tower


My Year in Books: The 2019 Edition

I realized as I wrote this list that I didn't finish a single book of poetry. I read poems and parts of poetry books but didn't finish any of them. I read almost all of Joy Harjo's American Sunrise but not the whole thing; most of Lay Back the Darkness by Edward Hirsch, and some of the poems from Eat this Plum. And quite a few (but, again, not all) of the Best American Poetry 2019 poems. So yeah, that is high on my list of resolutions (read more poetry) because a life without poetry is blah.

Anyway!

Here's the list of books I read this year, organized by genre:

2019 books collage

General Fiction

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson. Another favorite, because museums and antiquities and Wales and Denmark and trying to figure out who the hell you really are.
Conviction by Denise Mina. Thrillers aren't my favorite, even though everyone loves them right now, but I enjoyed this one. (By "enjoyed" I mean...I liked reading it, I'm glad I read it, but I didn't LOVE it.) Partly because it was set in Europe which I enjoy.
The Quilter's Apprentice by Jennifer Chiavarini. I donated a set of 12 of this book to my library's book club in my mom's name. I liked it but it's a little bit cozier of a story than I usually read. Which has made me wonder if an edgy quilting novel is possible? :) 
Sula by Toni Morrison. This one ripped me open, tore all my guts out, and left me empty. But in a good way. It helped me understand a few things about some of my relationships. And it reminded me of just how good Toni Morrison was. The second book I cried over in an airplane, on my way to Denver this fall.

Young Adult

Tin Heart by Shivaun Plozza. I enjoyed this story of a girl who tries to seek out the family of the person who donated his heart to her, but I don't think it's one that will stick with me.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline. Post-apolaclyptic story with elements of First People mythology. Another one I loved. 
The Furies by Katie Lowrie. A novel set in a small English town about contemporary witchcraft. I wanted it to be better than it was.
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves behind Them All by Lara Ruby. This historical fiction/ghost story blend is one of my favorite YA novels I've *ever* read.
Unpregnant by Jenni Hendricks and Ted Caplan. The "funny book about abortion." It was OK to me. I liked many things but the humor is not my style.
The Burning by Laura Bates. Another one I have mixed feelings about. Loved many things about the story but the structure felt clunky to me.

Fantasy

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. A reworking of the Rumplestiltskin fairy tale, with other threads woven in. I LOVED this one.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden. Fantasy based on Russian mythology and the second book in a series I loved.
The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden. The third novel and an excellent conclusion. This series is a perfect read for January.
Middlegame by Seanan McGuire. Another excellent read. And a wild ride. And sort-of unlike anything I've read before. Pondering the meaning of life via alchemy, plus adventure and books and repeating time and OH MY. I loved it!
Naamah by Sarah Blake. The story of Noah from the bible, but from his wife Naamah's perspective. An amazing, gorgeous, moving, memorable book.

Science Fiction

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith. The book that kicked of my women-in-science-fiction streak (that I didn't really start on purpose). A scientist from earth sets out to figure out the secret of reproduction on a planet with only women.
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey. A crew on a simulation of a flight to Mars.
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders. Science fiction set on a planet that doesn't rotate. Still thinking about this one.
Contact by Carl Sagan. Wrapping up my quartet of science fiction with women protagonists. This book has shaped my thoughts for decades now.

Graphic Novels

Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal. What if men vanished from the world?
Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs. The Patriarchy by Liv Stromquist. Don't be afraid. It's really interesting and made some feminist points I'd never considered. 

Non-Fiction

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson. How to leave behind only what matters. I read this and thought "I wish I could share this with my mom without offending her" but it might've offended her, and then before I had the courage she passed away and she had definitely not done any death cleaning.
The Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery. I read this when I was the host of my library's book club. So fascinating. I finished it on my way home from South Carolina and it was the first book this year I cried over in an airplane.

Middle Grade

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly. A story based on Polynesian mythology. I will never forget the scene with the turtle shell.


My Year in Books: the 2018 Edition

I felt like it was a really great year for reading for me...I read a lot of books that left me thinking about some things in my life and I discovered books that held answers to questions I didn't realize I had until I found the answers.

2018 books

My goal for 2019 is just, as always, to read more. But I have also set myself the goal of reading at least one poem a day, not online or in my email, but a poem in a printed book. I'm starting with the current Best American Poetry (as soon as it arrives from Amazon; the last few years Costco has had it but, alas, not this year). I want to share more of my book reviews on my Instagram page and maybe get some more reading selfies.

But before I jump into 2019, here's the list of all the books I finished in 2018, with links to my blog posts. (There were many more I started but didn't finish, for different reasons.) This year I'm dividing what I read into genres, just for fun.

Young Adult

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway: adoption from two sides of the triangle. One of my favorite young adult novels I've ever read. Definitely my favorite YA in 2018.

Half-Witch by John Schaffstall: the last book I read in 2018, and it was just my type of YA fantasy.

A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti: Dumb title, excellent, excellent YA novel about a girl who runs across the country (Seattle to Washington DC) to process a trauma.

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor (sequel to Strange the Dreamer): very romantic fantasy, conclusion to the duology.

Night of Cake and Puppets by Laini Taylor (a companion novel to the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series): A quick read about Zuzana and Mik's first, magical date. Love!

The Other Side of Lost by Jessi Kirby: girl abandons Instagram and hikes the John Muir Trail.

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman: I almost always enjoy books about a character taking a road trip. Fantasy that is a companion novel (but not a sequel) to Hartman's other YA books.

Wild Bird by Wendelyn Van Draanen: Wilderness recovery

Fantasy

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: An exploration of Russian fairy tales. I wasn't sure I'd love it but it was fantastic.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: I re-read this for our library book group, so I could lead the discussion, and I loved it just as much the second time around.

Circe by Madeline Miller: revisiting the witch of The Odyssey, except this is fully Circe's story. My favorite book of 2018.

Elevation by Stephen King. A man discovers that gravity's grip on him is beginning to dissolve. A fast, sweet read, not scary at all, it will make you consider mortality and what you are doing with yours.

What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine: more a magic realism/history blend than a traditional fantasy. I loved many things about this, but the end was anti-climatic. (Audio)

Science Fiction

Fledgling by Octavia Butler: Vampires in a science fiction vein; "read more by Octavia Butler" is high on my to-do list! 

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: Dystopia/Post apocalyptic blend. Beautifully written but the end felt weak.

The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper: I continue to think about this, long after I read it. A post-apocalyptic novel in which the world after a nuclear cataclysm is rearranged: women control the cities, and men live in garrisons outside of them, training for war. This is thought-provoking and disturbing science fiction I wish more people had read so I could talk to them about it.

The Power by Naomi Alderman: I cannot stop thinking about this feminist apocalypse novel; I am not seeing everywhere the real effects of women's lack of power in our society. SO GOOD.

Contemporary Fiction

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: an African American man is arrested for a rape he didn't commit. One of my 2018 favorites.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy: parents lose their kids while on an off-ship cruise outing. Hit me right in the parent-terrors spot.

Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner: New York/Parenting/Adolescence. Hard to qualify, but I liked it.

Poetry

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrence Hayes: so good. One of my favorite poetry reading experiences of my whole life, let alone 2018. 

The Carrying by Ada Limon: the only book I finished this year but didn't write about. WHY??? I loved it, as I loved her previous book Bright Dead Things

Good Bones by Maggie Smith: restored my faith in poetry about motherhood.

Historical Fiction

Eternal Life by Dara Horn: I wasn't sure where to put this...it is sort-of historical fiction, but it's also contemporary, and it's magical realism, all rolled in to one amazing book. Rachel makes a pact with God that means she lives forever...Seriously. This was so good, on so many different levels, motherhood and faith and the power of story and what our lives even mean. 

The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman: I learned a part of history I didn't previously know, about Canada's process of putting orphans into insane asylums, whether or not the orphans actually had mental health issues. So sad. A little more fluffy than I usually read.

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: I loved this generational novel about the painter Pissaro and his family.

So: I only read 26 books this year, which is the fewest I've finished in some time. But there were very few I didn't really, thoroughly enjoy, so I'll still take this as a great reading year! What did you read and love in 2018?

If you're curious what I've read in previous years, here are some older lists too:

2017

2016   

2015  

2014