Even more so than 2020, this year has been a weird reading year for me. The books I usually love (short and sparse and thoughtful) had a lot less appeal to me and books I didn’t expect (epic and detailed) ended up as some of my favorites.
I’m sure it’s because travel was still limited this year, but I found myself craving adventure in my reading. Since I wasn’t having very many adventures, I might as well read about people doing things I would never do like surfing in Fiji and flying planes across Antarctica.
But true to my introvert self, I still didn’t want my narrators and protagonists doing these adventures with other people. I wanted loners out for adventure; isolation, but somewhere fun. It perhaps all started with Circe, a Greek goddess who gets exiled to an island. But from there we went to settings a bit more realistic: surfing adventures in Barbarian Days, a heroine determined to circumnavigate the world in Great Circle, Dian Fossey solitarily tracking gorillas in the remote mountains of Rwanda in Gorillas in the Mist.
Still I tried to love the books I usually love: thoughtful women quietly reflecting on their lives with a dose of melancholy. And I read some books that so many people I trust LOVE: Brood about an unnamed narrator keeping chickens, Matrix about a group of medieval feminist nuns, Crying in H Mart about a woman reflecting on the death of her mother. But unfortunately, reflective/literary books just didn’t land with me like they usually do.
A love I have that did continue? Romance and rom-coms. A few years ago I hadn’t picked up a romance book in a LONG time. But now they are solidly in my wheelhouse, and I’m not sure I read a single one I didn’t like this year. Some of my favorites this year included You Had Me at Hola about two telenovela stars, Tokyo Ever After about a girl who discovers she’s a Japanese princess, and One to Watch about a plus-sized Bachelorette contestant. They were all smart and fun and just what I needed in this weird reading year.
All hope is not lost for my reflective/stream-of-consciousness/quiet reading tastes though. I ended the year with Knausgaard’s first My Struggle book and loved it. I mean, for crying out loud the man spends at least 200 pages describing cleaning out a house after a family death, and I was riveted.
Which means I might be able to settle back into my traditional genre at some point. It just means that I also love a lot of other kinds of books now too. And knowing this does at least give me hope going into 2022. Although it also means my TBR will stay entirely too long.
Top Ten 2021 Reads
I haven’t always done a top 10 list (last year’s list had nine favorites). But if I only went with the books I gave 5 un-erring stars to this year, the list wouldn’t be very long. (For the record though, my three absolute favorites of the year were Circe, Barbarian Days, and Great Circle.)
This, admittedly, has less to do with the quality of the books and more to do with my fickle reading moods this year. But I decided to settle on 10 this year, and here they are in the order I read them.
Also, note that not all of these were released in 2021. This is really about my favorite reads from this year, not necessarily my favorite books that came out this year!
Circe by Madeline Miller
Circe is a Greek goddess who gets exiled to a remote island. Here she interacts with the Greek myths we all know and discovers her magical powers. I honestly did not know I could love Greek mythology this much, and I immediately added about 10 other Greek myths retold from the perspective of women to my TBR.
Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan, Illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
We gave this middle grade book to my daughter for Christmas last year and she LOVED it and begged us to read it. I am happy to report that I loved it just as much as she did. Cilla is a spunky little girl confident in her future as a literary star. She’s also half Chinese and half Caucasian, and while she searches for her literary identity she is also searching for where she belongs in her family. This book made me laugh out loud and cry actual tears and I loved it so very much.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
I love books that make you care deeply about something you previously had no interest in. I found Barbarian Days absolutely riveting and the only thing that could tear me away was looking up surfing videos on YouTube. William Finnegan goes on surfing adventures all around the world: from Hawaii to Fiji to Portugal. And while it’s about surfing it’s also about love and obsession and travel. Yes, it’s 450 pages, but I could have kept reading.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
Listen, I don’t normally love long books, but this is another epic that honestly may be my top book of the year (the other one being Barbarian Days and my favorite will just depend on which day you ask me). Shipstead tells the story of two women: Marian Graves, who falls in love with flying in the early 20th century, and Hadley Baxter, who is playing Marian in a movie. Their stories are intertwined in interesting ways, and while a big story like this can be hard to land, Shipstead does so beautifully.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
I read this on audio, and yes it took me months, but I think it’s the only way I would have committed to such a huge book. The narration was fantastic and I loved the behind-the-scenes look at Obama’s presidency — from his family life to his thought processes behind his decisions. Yes, he can get a little long-winded in a few sections, but the financial crisis probably deserves that, right? Now I really want to read Michelle Obama’s book and am definitely looking forward to volume 2 of this one.
The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History by Nathalia Holt
Again, another book that was so much more fascinating than I expected! Going back to some of the first women to work in Disney’s animation studios, Holt details the struggles they had to be recognized and the decisions they made that changed the way movies were made and led to iconic animation we know today. I will honestly never watch another Disney movie (or animated move for that matter) the same way again.
People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry
Another great rom-com from Emily Henry! Poppy and Alex are platonic friends who go on vacation together every year. Until they had a falling out. But this is rom-com, so you know where we are headed. This book was so fun and the banter between Poppy and Alex was adorable. This doesn’t have to be a beach read, but that’s where I read it and it was perfect.
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
Every since Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, he is a must-read for me. Here he tackles the Sackler family, the people behind Oxycontin an the opioid epidemic who continued to sell the drug and deny any wrongdoing. Keefe’s investigative journalism and narrative non-fiction writing are just unparalleled. And while this isn’t the easiest read, it is both important and riveting.
Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
Did I expect to fall in love with Fossey’s memoir about tracking and observing gorillas in the Rwanda’s mountains? No. But did I? Yes. I found Fossey a fascinating figure, and I learned so much about gorillas. This is half memoir of her time in Rwanda (from life at her base camp to her efforts to combat poaching) and half detailed observations about the behaviors of gorilla family groups. I thought it was all so interesting.
My Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard
This is a book I knew I would probably like, but also had been avoiding a bit because it felt like a commitment (especially if I wanted to read all 6 books in the series). But I finally read it and am happy to report I loved it. This is mostly a reflection on Knausgaard’s relationship with his father, both in his childhood and after his father died. It’s hard to describe what happens. He wants to get beer to a New Year’s Eve party as a teenager? He cleans out his grandmother’s house with his brother? But Knausgaard makes the mundane absolutely shine, and books that can do that often end up as my favorites.
Now here’s to a new year of reading and hopefully some fantastic books!
2020 Favorite Books