Short reviews and thoughts on the thirteen best books of 2021 I read through the year. You'll find great historical fiction, nonfiction, literary fiction, mystery and sci-fi - something for everyone!
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I've already been reading some year end best books lists and the theme for 2021 seems to be, "it was a weird reading year."
For me, though, it was a typical reading year with some good books, some not so good (I abandoned 3 books this year that were not for me, and I'm at the point in my reading life where that's totally okay), and some really good.
I read the same mix of genres I'm drawn to - mainly historical fiction and Christian nonfiction with a few literary and popular fiction thrown in.
The most notable thing about my reading in 2021 was the addition of a new genre that just really hasn't been something I've sought out much: "cozy" type mysteries.
(Side note: There's a lot of mix on the definition of this, but I'm using it to mean there are no gory details about the murders/mysteries and no thriller aspects.)
After many years of readers telling me to try certain books, combined with some of my favorite book bloggers regularly recommending them, I gave two popular series a try, the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny and the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear.
Honestly, I thought I would just listen to the first book of each series to just be able to say I tried them.
I'm sure you can guess what happened...
Two books from one series have ended up on my best book list and the other has pulled me in with its historical setting, compelling characters, and various mysteries.
There are a number of reasons, I think, why these books have resonated with me unlike other typical mysteries:
- First (and foremost) is that they do not go into details about the murder and there is no gore or thriller aspect. It's usually already happened and we're seeing everything from the point of view of the people trying to solve the case.
- Both of these authors do a great job with character development, even in the first books so that I want to know more and follow up with them.
- Each book is about more than just the initial mystery to solve. Sometimes there are other cases and sometimes it's something that's happening with the characters.
- The setting draws you in and the authors make either time or place another "character" in the story. It may be the bitter cold of a Montreal winter or England after WWI, but you feel it as part of the plot.
How I Chose The Best Books List
I read/listened to a total of 90 books in 2021. I keep a list on my phone (just using the Notes app) and if it's a book I've loved after finishing, I put an asterisk next to it.
Want some tips on how to read more books even when you don't have a lot of "book reading time?" (That illusive thing, lol.) Then check out last year's best book list where I share the five things that helped me go from zero books read in 2015 to 90-100 a year the last few years - it can be done!
At the end of the year, I look back at all the asterisk books to see if I still feel the same way and add them to the best books list if I do.
When scrolling through, if I see a book I didn't asterisk but am still thinking about, I'll add that to the list.
Surprisingly, for the last four years it's always been 13 books and this year as I looked at the final list, it was 13 again. You'd think I planned it, ha!
My criteria for a book to make the best of list includes any or all of the following:
- How much I still think about the book.
- How it impacted me.
- What I learned about the world, others, or me.
- How much I just plain enjoyed it.
Okay, onto the books I loved in 2021. They aren't in any order, other than the order I read them in the year.
Best Books of 2021
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. I'd heard about this book for years and finally got it from the library to listen to as I worked on the farmhouse last winter. I actually didn't realize it was a compilation of stories the author wrote over a number of years and published in various places (there's a list at the end of the book telling where and the date for each story).
The thing that connects all the stories isn't Olive, as I thought it would be (but she's there the most), it's the town of Crosby, on the coast of Maine. This book was published in 2008 and won the pulitzer prize. The stories are mostly chronological, but sometimes many years are skipped in between.
I really enjoyed this book (as well as the 2019 follow-up, though not as much as this first one). Mainly because you don't know what to think of Olive at the beginning - she's not a very nice person, actually.
But you get to see a glimpse into what it means to grow old (and gain a lot of sympathy for her) and you see over the course of the stories how Olive grows, becoming more aware of herself and how she impacts others. I think it's real life and aging that we don't usually hear about and it definitely made me have more compassion for older people.
The Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline. Train. You probably won't be surprised that I loved this historical fiction novel based on real orphan trains. I just really enjoy when history is brought to life this way.
The trains ran in the late 1800s through early 1900s, carrying 200,000 children without families from the bigger cities on the east coast to the midwest. If they were babies or toddlers, they often were adopted and treated as children. If they were older (as many were), they were often little more than slave labor to farmers and anyone who needed workers.
The author says that every detail of this book is rooted in history, but that the story of the main character from the train is fiction. It flips back and forth from 2011 to the "train rider's" life from the late 1920s on.
Personally, I enjoyed the story from the train most and found the story set in current time a bit distracting. Though I could see the connection and having the reflection of a life lived at the end was moving. All in all, though, a really great book.
Hidden Valley Road, Robert Kolker. This is a super fascinating non-fiction book about a family with 12 kids and their 6 boys who were diagnosed with schizophrenia starting in the late 1950s and 60s.
The author looks deep into the family - starting back when the parents met - which puts this on a personal, human scale. You really feel for all the family as the affected boys start displaying symptoms in their teens and early twenties.
It's also a look into the mental health field and the definition of schizophrenia - and how it's changed through the years, often failing patients as well as families. However, this family cooperated with researchers to help them find treatments and methods that have impacted not only the research field, but individuals and families impacted by schizophrenia. They left a legacy that has made a huge impact.
The Flatshare, Beth O'Leary. Oh, gosh, I loved this fun book so much, from the concept, to the characters, and to the narrators of the audiobook.
The setting is London where rents are high and two people who need money for various reasons decide to share a flat - and the one bed - though not really together. The guy works nights and will spend weekends at his girlfriend's house and the girl works days, so they shouldn't meet on a day-to-day basis. The girlfriend rents the place, actually, so they literally never meet in the beginning.
But you do have to communicate when you share everything, so they started writing lots of notes to each other about everything from sharing food they made to who's stuff goes where. It was so fun watching them become friends through this old-fashioned communication method! And I couldn't wait for them to meet "in real life" - I was hooked and listened whenever I could!
There are good secondary characters and storylines - one is about a verbally abusive ex-boyfriend which brought in a bit of real-world pathos. The audiobook narration was so good, as the story is told from the differing viewpoints of the two main characters and the narration was done by a man and woman to reflect this - complete with their wonderful English and Irish accents.
Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth, Thaddeus J. Williams. This is such a good and important book! I hadn't heard anything about it before reading, but found it while searching in my Hoopla library app, and I'm so glad I did.
This is from a Christian perspective, but it sheds so much light on the origins of the current no-holds-barred culture and what we can do in light of that (basically, treat everyone as the image-bearers of God that they are). It was so eye-opening to realize it's been only about 20 years since we were the "no-judgement-zone" 1990s to the current "judge everyone for everything - and then ruin them."
Mercy is the key for all of us and I read through this book again just to remind myself - and I bought it for my daughter to read, too!
The Neil Gaiman Reader, Neil Gaiman. Oh, gosh - how about 27 hours of Neil Gaiman reading all his short stories - and a few excerpts from longer books - from 1984 up to 2018, 52 stories in all?
Whew - Brian and I listened to this over the course of three months whenever we drove in the car. Gaiman is a author we LOVE on a purely artistic and intellectual level. He's just an amazing writer with characters that are spot-on and come to life with his words. His descriptions are fantastical and his imagination beyond the norm. Plus - we always listen to his works if he's the one narrating, because he is simply a fantastic reader (we thought he was an actor, too, when we heard his first book, but he wasn't).
That said, we don't love everything he's written - some are too horror for me or just distasteful. But very few are like that and many of his short stories really make you think about the point he's making (usually about human nature).
We really enjoyed most of this reader, but if you are interested, I'd suggest starting where we did with Neverwhere, an accessible fantasy that illustrates why he is such a amazing and popular author. It's so good, it made my best books list for 2019.
Malibu Rising, Taylor Jenkins Reid. I guess I'm an official TJR fan because I've really enjoyed the last few books of hers I've read. Malibu Rising didn't sound like it would be something that would hold my attention - four rich siblings in Malibu have a party one night where things happen - but goodness, she's a good story teller.
It's really the story of a family and she flips back and forth through the years of their backstories which all lead them to the night of the party. I was hooked from about chapter 2 and then it was about squeezing time here and there to read it!
There's drugs, sex, and infidelity (it's set in the 1980s), but none of it is graphic (it's what is referred to as "closed door" - it's mentioned, but not in detail) but the main part of the story is the family and how they all come to terms with themselves and the famous father they have who was never really there for them.
Even though the ending kind of felt like dropping off a cliff, it was so rushed, I'm not surprised it ended up on my top books list, just like this author's last book, Daisy Jones & The Sixth did last year.
Passing, Nella Larson. Written in 1929 (!), Passing is a small, well written novella about a light-skinned Black woman who lives in Harlem in the 1920s with her Black doctor husband. One day while visiting Chicago near where she grew up she meets a playmate of hers who had disappeared and she realizes she's been passing for white, married to a wealthy white man. The book sort of takes a mini noir turn, as our heroine doesn't really want anything to do with her, but her old friend will not leave her alone.
Things progress between these two women and I had no idea where it was going until the twist at the end. It was such a shocking thing that I had to go back to listen again - did I really hear what I think I heard? It obviously left me thinking, which is a sign of a good book!
And it's now a Netflix movie, which I haven't watched yet, but is on my list for sure.
A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Gamache Novel 2), Louise Penny. The first book in this series of 'gentle' murder mysteries was okay - enough that I decided to continue with the series even though mystery isn't really my favorite genre, but not enough to make my best of list.
However, the murder-solving of the books, the characters (and especially the characters that continue from book to book) did hook me in, especially since the author is always dropping hints about their thoughts, backgrounds, and lives that make you wonder and often are picked up in the next book.
This second book follows a new dysfunctional family that arrived in Three Pines that no one really likes. The mom is killed and Gamache and company work to solve the crime. There's an overarching storyline, too, of enemies of Gamache that are working towards his downfall.
Some of the characters aren't very nuanced and solving the murders are sometimes pretty easy to figure out, but it's the sum of it's part that make these books compulsively readable. This is the book that solidified for me that I wanted to keep reading - you just want more information on what's happening with CI Gamache and Three Pines.
Bury Your Dead, Louise Penny. As of publishing this list I've read seven books in this large series and this book is my favorite BY FAR. There is so much going on and so much emotion - and the way things are revealed just heighten the grip the book has on you.
The brilliance starts with an incident that happened before the book begins with Inspector Gamache and his team. We don't know what it is, but we see the fallout unfold slowly which includes injuries both physical and mental. There is also a continuation of the case from the previous book that we thought had been solved, and a new mystery in the brutally cold city of Quebec where Gamache has gone to recover. The history of old and new Quebec was fascinating (discrimination happens everywhere) and the snow and cold was almost another character itself.
Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir. Oh. My. Goodness. This book is so GOOD. Written by the author of The Martian, it contains a lot of the same things Brian and I loved about that book - lots of science to make the sci-fi seem plausible, outer space, a man alone trying to survive. But it's amped up with a potential earth meltdown, seemingly insurmountable odds, and an alien unlike any we've seen in literature.
I feel like I can't say too much more, but I will say that all the people who've read it I know of LOVE it, even if they don't like sci-fi. There is a sweet humanity and camaraderie of the story that transcends genres and the ending (that I didn't see coming) is perfection.
Often an author's follow up novels aren't as good as a first successful book (I didn't read Weir's second book, as the premise didn't really appeal to me and I read so-so reviews), but I think I like this book MORE than The Martian, it's that good.
"Life doesn't have to be as hard and complicated as we make it."
I mean, Amen or what?
I appreciated the format of the book where the author lays out a problem, what others have done in that situation, and steps you can take to change. Then at the end of each section, he goes back and lists the steps making it easy to follow even as an audiobook (that the author reads). I made a list in my book journal of the things I want to implement, including:
- Producing "good enough" things and stop fiddling with them (I'm kind of a perfectionist...).
- Use a trigger: Any time I complain, I need to say something I'm grateful for (brilliant).
- Beat procrastination (from that perfection thing) by taking the obvious first tiny step.
- Make a "done for the day" list and then STOP working when those are done.
So good, you can see why it made the list!
Gaining Ground, Forrest Pritchard. This book is the story of a man who decided to try and save his family's generational farm in the 1990s after many years of decline. He knew very little and sort of stumbled his way to success raising organic, grass fed meat and poultry. This took quite a few years - and quite a few failures - to happen and his stories are why this book made it as one of my best books.
I just can't forget many of the stories - the opening story of the amount the farm received for a truckload of corn will leave your jaw on the ground - and his story changed (again) the way I think about organic farming. Learning new things (buying hay may be cheaper in the long run than raising it??), and expanding my view of the world is one of the reasons I love to read - and why a book will make it to my top 13.
You don't have to be a farmer or gardener to enjoy this book - just anyone who eats food!
There you have it - the top 13 books I read in 2021.
As a reminder, you can always get the reviews of every book I read in the monthly Good Things Lists, along with a few other things I'm doing and loving.
Did any of these books make your best of lists? Do you have any books you loved I should add to my reading list?
Want more best book suggestions?
- Best Books of 2020
- 13 Best Books of 2019 (+ 2020 Reading Challenge Books)
- 13 Best Books Read in 2018
- The 13 Best Books I Read in 2017
- Best Books Read in 2016