Favorite Books of 2021

I read 74 books in 2021, and a LOT of them were great. Unfortunately, I am not quite as good at reviewing books as I am at reading them, so most of these books didn’t make it to my blog.

No matter! I am still doing a round up of the books that have stuck with me, long after I’ve read them. Not necessarily the BEST books of the year, because that would be an impossible feat. (I’ve only read 74 of the millions of books available, after all!) But my favorites, the books that I still think about, the books I’ve been recommending all over the place ever since I closed the back cover.

Mysteries and thrillers will get their own post. Links to longer reviews where they exist.

Mini Synopsis: Leni and her parents – who have a troubled, tumultuous relationship – move to an isolated corner of Alaska to try and start again. As with so many “fresh starts” behind them, this one is full of drama as Leni’s dad (along with her whole family) battle the demons he brought home with him from Vietnam. Leni is forced to grow up in the remote Alaskan wilderness, and the choices she makes have devastating consequences.

My End-of-Year Thoughts: I listened to The Great Alone while out walking through my neighborhood, and it transported me so completely that I spent many of those walks with tears streaming down my face. This book moved me. In fact, it shines so bright among the books I’ve read this year, I’m comfortable saying it deserves the top spot on my extensive favorites list for 2021. It’s so beautifully crafted. The wild Alaskan setting is so present. The characters are so vivid and their plight so complex and heartbreaking. This is the kind of novel I want to write. An absolutely excellent piece of writing.

Mini Synopsis: Maurice Swift is a charming, handsome, wannabe writer who will do anything it takes to become the famous, award-winning author of his dreams. And once he has a taste of fame and prestige, his ambition knows no bounds.

My End-of-Year Thoughts: I read A Ladder to the Sky in November, and I was SURE it would wind up being my favorite book of the year. As I look back on it, my feelings haven’t cooled… but The Great Alone edged it out for my top spot. The thing is, this is a fantastic novel. It has the drama and the strange, unsettling appalling-but-recognizable feel of many of the other “writers are monsters” novels I read this year (The Plot, Who Is Maud Dixon?, Dream Girls). But it’s on such a different level. It’s unexpected but also inevitable. The main character is clearly immoral, and yet you can’t look away. The writing, as I expect of John Boyne, is fantastic. And, best of all, its cinematic structure works perfectly to funnel the reader through the novel — starting with a wide-lens view, and zooming ever closer to the main character until you feel like you understand his every motivation. It’s just fabulous storytelling. A+, would read again.

Mini Synopsis: Jivan, a Muslim girl from Kolkata trying to pull herself and her parents out of poverty, becomes the scapegoat for a government eager to punish terrorists for a recent and deadly attack. Her fate falls to two people who know her: Lovely, a hijra actress whom Jivan has been teaching English, can attest that Jivan was carrying a package of textbooks on the day of the attack – not a bomb, as so many assume. And PT Sir, Jivan’s former physical education teacher, who brought her food when she was hungry and encouraged her athleticism at school. Lovely and PT Sir are both called to testify in Jivan’s trial. But their involvement in her case puts their own social aspirations at risk. 

My End-of-Year Thoughts: I read this book way back in February. Even still, this novel burns as brightly in my head as though I just read it. A Burning was captivating and horrifying and gave a keen view of the inner-workings of life in Bombay and the lengths people go to achieve their ambitions. I have been recommending this book all over the place this year, and I am not going to stop. Full review here.

Mini Synopsis: Homegoing follows two branches of the same family tree, beginning with two half-sisters, born in Ghana to the same mother but raised under wildly different circumstances in two opposing states: the Fante Confederacy and the Asante (Ashanti) Kingdom. Effia, the Fante sister, is sold to a white man, to be his wife; he is governor of the Cape Coast Castle, which held enslaved Africans before they were shipped to the Americas. Esi, the Asante sister, is captured by the Fante during a raid on her village and sold into enslavement. Each subsequent chapter follows a descendant of these two women, tracing seven generations from the mid-1700s to modern times.  

My End-of-Year Thoughts: I read Homegoing back in February, but the vivid scenes (at turns lush and sickening) as well as the intricate braid Gyasi formed out of two branches of the same ancestry, are still forefront in my mind. This was a beautiful, extraordinary story and I’m so glad I read it. Full review here.

Mini Synopsis: Ryland Grace wakes up in an ovular bed in a small room. He is tended to by robotic arms attached to the ceiling. He cannot remember who he is, where he is, or why he is there. Or, more urgently, why it appears that he is in space.

My End-of-Year Thoughts: Project Hail Mary is the second audiobook that is making my most-memorable-of-the-year list, and I am really glad I listened to it rather than read it. I still have SUCH fond feelings for the narration. It was so well done. And the story was so interesting and the plot kept moving forward at such a steady pace, I ended up listening to it a second time with my kid. I marvel at the way Andy Weir can make sophisticated scientific concepts not only digestible for the average Joe (that’s me), but make them fascinating, too! Full review here.

Mini Synopsis: The book begins with a bank-robbery-turned-hostage situation. When the police give in to the bank robber/hostage taker’s demands and the hostages are finally released from the for-sale apartment where they have been held together, the bank robber/hostage taker has disappeared. Then, with alternating third-person perspectives (some in an interview format) of the various characters (the two police officers in charge of handling the hostage situation and its aftermath, the bank robber, and the hostages, plus maybe one or two additional characters), we learn the events leading up to the bank robbery, the backgrounds of the various characters, and what happened to the bank robber. This is a very vague summary, and yet I cannot go into more detail without spoiling things. 

My End-of-Year Thoughts: When I look back on Anxious People, I remember most how it brought so many feelings right to the surface. This wasn’t a typical mystery story. It was all about grief and guilt and love and helping our fellow humans. It was absolutely lovely. Full review here.

Mini Synopsis: Evvie’s husband has just died, at the very moment she was about to leave him, plopping her into a stew of guilt and grief. And no one, not even her best friend Andy, knows that she’d planned to end the marriage. Andy’s childhood buddy Dean, a baseball player who can’t throw anymore, needs a place to hide out from the media and figure out what to do next. Unsurprisingly, their relationship evolves into romance, complicated by the fact that they’ve vowed not to ask about one another’s biggest challenges.

My End-of-Year Thoughts: While I am NOT a person who enjoys romances, I loved Evvie Drake Starts Over so much. It was a quick, propulsive read (this even though I would rather stick a pen in my eye than have anything to do with baseball). Evvie and Dean were fantastic, well-drawn characters who were much more than their respective “secrets.” I loved the ebb and flow of their relationship, and I found the Evvie/Andy side-plot to be very satisfying. A charming, page-turning book with real depth.
Mini Synopsis: This book follows Klara, an AF (or Artificial Friend), from her early days in a store, to her service as a companion to a young girl. Klara’s purpose is to take care of the child who chooses her. Because she is extremely observant and has a very sophisticated understanding of human nature – especially for a robot! – Klara takes her role seriously, going to great lengths to protect and serve her human companion. 

My End-of-Year Thoughts: I loved this book for Ishiguro’s spare, unembellished prose and Klara’s searing observations and haunting naïveté have stuck with me. Full review here.
Mini Synopsis: Eleanor’s life is carefully regimented. But when she and her coworker Raymond save Sammy, an elderly man who’s fallen, everything changes. As her friendships with Raymond and Sammy grow, Eleanor is forced to confront the fact that her life is anything but fine.

My End-of-Year Thoughts: This book was emotionally wracking, but also very hopeful and so well-written/well-characterized that I continue to think of it long after the fact.
Mini Synopsis: Nick and Bex are married and must navigate life as the Duke and Duchess of Clarence while also reeling from the scandal that has rocked their relationship and their reputations. In the meantime, Bex discovers a family secret that has uncanny similarities to the uncomfortable situation she and Nick and Freddie find themselves in. 

My End-of-Year Thoughts: TWO romance novels on my best-of-the-year list?!?! I am shocked! But The Heir Affair, a follow-up to The Royal We, was really a fantastic, satisfying story full of genuine surprises and heartfelt, complex relationships. Full review here.

One thought on “Favorite Books of 2021

  1. I loved so many books on this list: A Burning (thanks to you), Homegoing (I also loved Transcendent Kingdom), Anxious People, Evvie Drake, Eleanor Oliphant. I liked the Heir Affair too! I have the Boyne book on my to-read list.

    Liked by 1 person

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