If ever there was a year to need escapes, this was one. I read some really fun novels, some that were swoon-worthy romantic, and some that simply took me far from reality into magical places. On the nonfiction side, I was fascinated by learning new things.
And the big news in my personal book world: the launch of a newly redesigned Rated Reads. I’ve been running that site for nearly 14 years, and it really needed an update. It now looks beautiful and has lots more functionality. If you’re looking for ratings for content for a specific book or author, or if you just want to browse for something new to read, go visit Rated Reads.
Read on now to find out the books I enjoyed most in 2021. First, the fiction and young adult books:
- The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox. When I learned that Knox had written a new fantasy novel, I barely even looked at its summary on Goodreads before I plunked down my digital dollars for a Kindle copy and scampered away with my e-purchase. She’s just that talented. The world of The Absolute Book encompasses demons and fallen angels, Norse mythology, Irish fairy folk, a touch of Arthurian legend, and heavy-handed, secretive government agencies. Anything can and does happen in the story, and it’s far from being predictable. I just let myself fall into this brilliant, wondrous and nearly indescribable brew Knox cooked up and savored each morsel. It’s a bit quirky and may not be for everyone, but it is magical and thoroughly memorable.
- All the Murmuring Bones, by A.G. Slatter. OK, my best-of lists are always going to include gothic tales. I love them. This one is a richly layered story filled with fabulous tales the main character has been told all her life. It’s populated by strong women who can work just a little magic and one or two who can work a great deal; powerful men who always seek to have their way but who, to their detriment, underestimate the women; mythical creatures like mer, ghosts, rusalki, kelpies, werewolves, and an enchanting clockwork singer. Danger and peril are the norm, the backdrop mostly darkness, but there are moments of sweetness and beauty, bright rays of light breaking through. Such a satisfyingly atmospheric novel with a finely crafted plot.
- Amelia Unabridged, by Ashley Schumacher. This is one of those books I doubt many people heard of and I want to promote the heck out of. The main character, Amelia, is a young woman who loves a magical set of books that transported her and made a difference in her life. Through a series of events, she gets to meet the reclusive author. The story is set in a bookstore that any reader would love to visit, and it draws readers right along on the adventure that Amelia has lived over and over while reading the books. Any of us who have been transported through the wardrobe into Narnia or via Platform 9¾ to the world of Harry Potter will know right away how Amelia feels. It’s a beautiful book about friendship and loss, about grief, about finding one’s way, and it is an homage to the magic of books and the power of reading.
- The Death of Jane Lawrence, by Caitlin Starling. A woman who lives in an era where women generally can’t be truly independent proposes a marriage of convenience to a doctor in a small town. He accepts, and they get along well and even work together. But strange things happen at his family home when they go there. The book is a story of specters and horrors, about misguided people going down paths they should have avoided. It involves magic and a haunted house; a man with a past, riddled with guilt. It’s gripping, and the last stretch delivers a decidedly clever and fascinating conclusion. And yes, it’s another gothic story.
- The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern. I enjoyed Morgenstern’s The Night Circus but didn’t read this book when it first came out. I’m just glad I got to it this year! It involves books, a door that transports the main character to a magical world below ground, and a story that plays out over many, many years. The Starless Sea, much like the place in the book, is for those who cannot resist fairy tales, timeless and impossible love stories, and beautiful words. It’s made to be fallen into, swept up in, and relished. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
- The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman. At a retirement village in England, the four-member Thursday Murder Club meets once a week to discuss and investigate cold cases. When a man connected to the retirement community is murdered, the two men and two women of the club dive in to help solve the crime. Not that the local police want their help, but the unexpectedly sneaky club members manage to insert themselves into the investigation using their useful pooled skills, taking advantage of their ages and the typical expectations younger folks have of them. This is the kind of murder novel that isn’t necessarily about the mystery or the solving of it but about the characters. It’s clever, light and entertaining.
Now for the nonfiction:
- Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker. A couple in the mid-1900s had 12 children, and six of them, all boys, were diagnosed with schizophrenia. This book is a story of real people who suffered tremendously, and it is heartbreaking to read; it’s also a reminder that there are so many more stories like this, just in smaller families, and each is just as tragic. At the same time, it holds hope because of how some of the surviving members have been able to heal or begin to heal; it offers hope also because these same people were able to contribute to science so that others may suffer less. It’s educational, it’s a succinct history of the study of schizophrenia and an overview of the current understanding and trends. It’s an excellent book overall, and one that helped me learn and touched me deeply.
- Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Pérez. For millennia, men have been the “default” or “standard” humans, and women the “atypical” humans, writes Perez, citing the opinions of Aristotle and numerous other men over the years. The “male-unless-otherwise-indicated” approach is baked into our language; it’s evident in many data sets and algorithms that we all assume are neutral. We simply are not gathering data from women and tagging it as such, and that impacts women’s lives in ways small and large, from merely annoying up to deadly. And the impact on women’s lives impacts all of society, so this data gap is one that should concern everyone, male and female, from scientists to governments, from academia to corporations. Perez walks readers through a number of situations where bias affects women’s lives. This is one of those books that absolutely makes sense and from which I want to share details and anecdotes with people around me. But easiest is for you to read it and then we can talk about it together. Even better, share with a friend.
- Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann. In the early 20th century, the Osage Indians in Oklahoma were incredibly wealthy; when the U.S. government had moved them yet again to less-desirable land, they wisely made sure the contract accompanying the relocation included their rights to any minerals beneath the land. When oil was struck, each Osage was granted a large regular income thanks to the sales. That incredible wealth, however, attracted danger. One Osage woman in particular saw several immediate family members murdered in quick succession, and more and more wealthy Osage were murdered in different ways. Corruption kept the case from being solved for years. Finally, the fledgling FBI enlisted Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, to head the investigation, and White then quietly put together a trusted undercover team to come in and root out the evildoers. Together with several Osage, they fought against the graft and exposed a broad conspiracy that would stop at nothing to take away the oil rights and money of the Osage. Grann’s book is thoroughly and painstakingly researched and brings to light an important part of history that I dare say many Americans today are ignorant of (I certainly was). He does excellent reporting and puts together a compelling true-crime narrative.
- The Plague Year, by Lawrence Wright. Yes, this is about the Covid pandemic. More reading about Covid? Why? Well, this book presents a timeline of events, with pertinent context, and with the benefit of hindsight, time, and proper weighing and sifting to present a full but not bogged-down account of the pandemic up to the date the book was published. It’s readable and interesting and may help clear up some popular misconceptions and confusion. Information is power, after all.