I have always loved books, and now that I am writing one myself, I love them even more. I read for entertainment and education, and I pick them apart to see what makes them work (or not). There is nothing like the feeling of falling through the page into the world of the story. And make no mistake, all books are about Story in some way. Even an instructional manual creates a story in your mind. For me, the best books immerse me in Story and make me feel something, especially strength (either my own or the author/character’s). Here are my favorite books that I read in 2021.
A Still Life by Josie George: I loved this book so much I reviewed it here on the blog. Josie’s memoir of her life with chronic illness is gorgeously written, but it is Josie’s strength that takes my breath away. She has created tremendous beauty and meaning in her life, working within her body’s limitations, and tells her story with intention and grace. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: This memoir was a Pulitzer finalist in 2016 and makes most “Best Memoir” lists. Dr. Kalanithi wrote this book while he was in treatment for stage IV lung cancer, and he died before he could finish it. It is a memoir of a life interrupted by catastrophic illness, and of enduring love. I sobbed through the last few chapters.
No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler: This is Bowler’s second memoir of facing the prospect of death from stage IV colon cancer before age 40. Like her first book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, Bowler combines stark honesty and witty humor to carry the reader through her experiences. Her tremendous love, commitment to her work, and Christian faith form the bedrock of her life, and her strength is inspirational in all the best ways. Bonus: Bowler also has a podcast, Everything Happens, in which she interviews fascinating people like Stanley Tucci, Gretchen Rubin, and Jenny Lawson.
The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik: This is book two from the Scholomance Trilogy, and every bit as good as the first book. It’s got teenagers with magical talents, and an infinite variety of monsters trying to eat them, at a school on the boundaries of reality. Think Harry Potter meets the Hunger Games. Suspenseful, clever, and funny.
A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow: I will read anything by Harrow, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January remains one of my favorite books of all time. A Spindle Splintered is a feminist reimagining of the legend of Sleeping Beauty, with Harrow’s characteristic wit. My only complaint is that it is too short.
Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch: There are eight books in this series so far, and the ninth is due next spring. A constable in London learns that not only is magic real and that he has magical talent, but that there is a Metropolitan Police unit dedicated to handling “weird bollocks.” These novels are fun, light mysteries with a sense of humor.
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig: I read this book despite its classification as Horror because I’m a fan of Chuck Wendig’s other work. I haven’t read much horror since my teens, and that was mostly Stephen King. But this book checked a lot of boxes for me: rural Pennsylvania; owls; alternate realities; strong kids; powerful family bonds; mystery. It is gripping, creepy, and it really sticks the landing.
Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby: What I love most about this book is the seamless way Cosby combines the thriller plot with an examination of social issues. Many authors don’t do this well, but Cosby is a master. Two fathers, one white and one black, seek vigilante justice for their murdered sons, even though neither of them had accepted their sons’ marriage. The plot is fast and tense, and be warned–it is violent and bloody. Throughout, the two fathers have to confront racism and homophobia in themselves and others. It is an unexpectedly moving thriller.
My Heart Is A Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones: Let me state up-front that this book is gory and violent, and it is also one of the best books I read this year. I’ve been a fan of Graham Jones since reading The Only Good Indians, one of my favorites from last year. In Chainsaw, a teenage girl copes with her problems through her obsession with slasher films. She becomes convinced that a serial killer is active in her small town, but no one will listen to her. Is she a reliable narrator or a troubled teen? Horror films and novels frequently glorify violence for shock value, but Chainsaw interrogates and transcends the tropes of slasher films to tell the story of this strong female protagonist in a gripping narrative that I could not put down.
I also want to mention a few things that made my reading life more enjoyable this year:
- When I am physically unable to hold a book or e-reader because I’m crashed or in too much pain, the Book Seat holds it for me.
- The Reading Glasses podcast is an entertaining discussion about reading and the reading life, and I found some great books this way.
- I stan for libraries, and during the pandemic I have borrowed more e-books to avoid physically going to the library. Check if your library offers e-books through the Libby app or some other way.
- And speaking of libraries, did you know that you can get library cards for some major libraries even if you don’t live in the library’s location? Any resident of Pennsylvania can get a library card from the Philadelphia Free Library, giving you access to their e-book collection and online resources. I know, right? Check the major libraries in your state for their policies.