Favourite Books of 2021
Merry Christmas all, and welcome to my annual Year In Review series. Over the course of the upcoming 6 days until the new year, I will bring you a daily list of the highlights and lowlights of my reading year. You can expect my most disappointing, most underrated, and most unique-and memorable reads, as well as a quick look ahead at 2022, but to start things off on a positive note: today's list of my 2021 favourites, and a little summary of my year as a whole..
About my reading-year:
It’s strange how my 2020-reflection feels simultaneously like yesterday, yet also like a lifetime ago. 2020 was an overall shitty year for me personally, but turned out to be a surprisingly good reading year. 2021 flipped that narrative completely by being a better year overall (thank God), but the worst reading year I’ve had since high school. Part of that is due to the books I read, and the way I read them, but the majority is probably due to my life-circumstances currently. 2021 was the year I became a junior doctor. Starting my career during an ongoing pandemic… at an ICU ward. That step took up a lot of my energy, leaving little room for anything else this year. I tried to continue all my other activities (sports, reading, having fun with friends), but as a result, many of them, I sort of performed on auto-pilot quite often. Reading especially became my “mindless escape”; listening to audiobooks on the go, and quickly cramming in a few pages before bed when I was already so exhausted I was barely retaining any information. I often couldn’t bring myself to read about heavier topics I usually love to explore, because they hit a little too close to home to my day-to-day-life. Additionally, I often took home the feeling of “rush” that comes with work in healthcare these days. The number of reviews, ARCS, or even books-read on Goodreads became a production-chore. A number to crunch, rather than a hobby I enjoyed. All things combined put a bit of a damper on my enjoyment this year. I’ve made some plans to change that going forward, which I will discuss in a later post this week, about my 2022-reading-plans.
Some Household Rules: Out of all my lists, my favourites are always the most subjective, and most personal to me.I’ve always compiled this list based off the emotional attachment I felt to a book, more so than its literary quality. A book either “feels like a favourite” to me, or it doesn’t, and I sometimes can’t quite explain why. Since this reading year has been so mediocre, I couldn’t pick my usual 10 books that “felt like favourites”. Instead I went with a top 5 (in no particular order), supplemented with a few honourable mentions, to best represent my reading year. As usual: only books I read for the first time in 2021 are eligible to keep things interesting. Rereads don’t count! With that out of the way: let's get into the favourites!
1. Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames
Kicking off this list, we have my favourite fantasy novel, as well as my favourite sequel of the year. Bloody Rose is the second novel in the high-fantasy Band-series by Nicholas Eames, book one of which (Kings of the Wyld) was one of my favourite reads of 2020. I’ve described this series before as a D&D-campaign on steroids, combining classical fantasy-tropes with a modern twist, a healthy dose of humor and a whole lot of heart. Kings of the Wyld followed a band of middle-aged, out-of-shape retired warriors, who band together one last time when one of their daughters is in need of help. Bloody Rose follows their daughters, as they form a band of their own, and prove they aren’t in need of any dads to save them. This is one of the rare times where I loved a sequel even more than its predecessor. Bloody Rose had all the same fun, action, adventure and found-family-vibes, but added an emotional layer beyond what I got from book 1. Part of which is due to my investment in these characters, both the newly introduced ones, as well as the old ones making a few surprise cameo’s. Before getting started, I was a little hesitant to learn that this book would have a new set of protagonists, only featuring our original band as secondary characters, but I think it was a brilliant move by Eames. It allows both novels to feel completely different, yet cohesive and it prevents this story’s arc from taking away from the one in book 1. Overall, this is one of my all-time favourite fantasy series, that I can’t recommend highly enough. It has everything I want and more: well-written epic adventures, a humorous subversion to (sometimes familiar) tropes, and a wonderfully diverse cast of characters that keeps growing on me the more I read from them. In case you’re still on the fence: book 3 is set for release in 2022, so this is the perfect opportunity to get a head start on this series.
2. Strange Creatures by Phoebe North
In the number two spot: Strange Creatures is a desperately underrated contemporary story that left an indelible impression on me. We follow Annie and her older brother Jamie, inseparable siblings, joined at the hip during their childhood, but growing apart during middle-school. Then, everything changes when Jamie disappears in the woods where they played their childhood games… Their community and family are devastated over the loss, and as months turn into years, everyone must slowly accept the reality that Jamie is gone for good. Everyone except for teenage Annie, who believes that Jamie has entered the fantasy-world of their childhood games. Strange Creatures has suffered a little from its confusing marketing. Based on its synopsis alone, it’s at times been marketed as fantasy. If you go in expecting a whimsical Peter Pan-like portal fantasy however, you may end up disappointed. This is a (often darkly realistic) story about the changing dynamic between siblings growing up, about childhood trauma, grief, paracosm, and the cost of an almost symbiotic relationship between a brother and sister when that bond is shattered. It’s also one of the most brilliant depictions of all the above I’ve ever encountered, and in many ways the kind of story I’ve been wanting to write for years myself. My full review can be found here.
3. Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea by Ashley Herring Blake
It wouldn’t truly be a favourites list of mine without a hard-hitting, underrated middle-grade novel. I have a deeply nestled soft spot for this genre, and the absolute skill that some authors have in putting the hardest of subjects into words that are relatable for young readers. As adults, we have so many more resources and complex vocabularies at our disposal to verbalize these lifechanging experiences than we have as kids, whilst as kids these events are often even more impactful than ever. I adore books that offer representations of such experiences for kids (and adults retroactively) to relate to, and often find them to have more emotional impact on me than many an adult novel. This year’s best within this gerne was Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea by Ashley Herring Blake, which follows 12-year-old Hazel after she, her mum and little sister move into their new coastal town of Rose Harbor, Maine over the summer. Their family has been uprooted by a terrible accident that cost their other mum her life, and left Hazel scarred in more ways than one. Rose Harbor is a place seeped in myth and a feeling like magic, that comes to each family-member in its own way. Whether that be new love, friendship, healing, the sea, or the local myth of the mermaid that hides there… This book has so much to offer: there’re a variety of LGBTQ-representation, including a non-binary teen, and same-sex-parents, both of which are just present, without being made into a big deal (you know how I feel about “token-representation”, and I love how organically these characters just exist in the narrative). There’s discussion of grief and loss of a family-member and all the complex emotions that come with carrying on after that. We see the mixed feelings that come with seeing your parent fall in love again with someone that isn’t your mum. The book even touches on topic that even adult-books often struggle with such as the grief-hierarchy (the unwritten “rule” so present in our society that certain types of losses are “objectively worse” than other) and how senseless that is. All of that is done without ever feeling too heavy. This story is still filled with so much love and healing that I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, regardless of age-demographic.
4. The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore
My next favourite was probably my least surprising one, since I’ve read and loved this author before and I feel like their books are getting better and better over time. The Mirror Season is, fittingly, my favourite work by Anna-Marie McLemore to date. Imbued with elements of magical realism and written in their signature lyrical voice, McLemore tells the story of a boy and a girl who are sexually assaulted at the same party. They develop a cautious friendship and navigate together through the healing-journey that follows their ordeal. Filled with pain as well as love, their journey takes them through her family's magical pastelería, his secret forest of otherworldly trees, anatomically correct hand-puppets and a ceiling filled with condom-balloons… This book was deeply personal, heartfelt and incredibly important to both me, and as is evident throughout the pages as well as the epilogue, the author themselves. It left a deep emotional mark on me in the same way all-time-favourites like We Are Okay by Nina Lacour did; honestly and bravely confronting trauma, but reminding us that through compassion, strength and humour; healing is out there for everyone. My full review can be found here.
5. Sitting Pretty by Rebekah Taussig
The fifth and final spot on my favourite-list goes to my favourite non-fiction read of 2021: Sitting Pretty, a memoir on living with disability by Rebekah Taussig. I always struggle to review or even recommend memoirs, as they’re usually so deeply personal to both the author and the reader. With Sitting Pretty, I have no doubts about recommending it to anyone with an interest in the subject of disability, ableism and diversity in its broadest scope. Objectively: Rebekah Taussig has written one of the most eloquent, funny-without-being-bitter, and honest representations of the everyday struggles of living with a disability (in her case being wheelchair bound) as a young woman, I encountered to date. I almost wish this was mandatory reading for anyone with a professional or personal interest in the topic. Subjectively to me however, I related to this book in more ways than I expected or had prepared for. As someone with a chronic illness/disability myself, I’ve encountered my fair share of ableism over the years, not in the least part within the last years, during my training to become a doctor. I’ve never before opened up about this, as I’ve been ashamed. At first ashamed of the “shortcomings” of my own body and the (in my internalized ableism towards myself) “deserved” critiques it got. Later, ashamed of the medical community for treating me that way; a community that by definition should know better. And a community I wished to be part of so desperately myself too. Safe to say: it’s been a difficult time to open up about this, but in 2021 I’m proud to call myself not only a junior doctor, but disability-and-diversity-ambassador for my university as well. Taussig’s words have helped me along this journey; by inspiring me, by putting into words what I couldn’t (yet), and by making me feel seen and understood. I also deeply appreciated Taussig sharing her experiences on becoming a (wheelchair-bound) mother, which again, eerily touches upon my own childhood experiences with my mum as well. Taussig continues to share her thoughts and well-worded contributions on her Instagram under @sitting_pretty, which is one of the few Instagram accounts I now religiously follow. I’m deeply, deeply thankful for coming across this book and this inspiring woman, at the exact right time I needed it most.
6. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
My first honourable mention goes to my biggest surprise of 2021. Despite its wide popularity among the community, I didn’t expect to love The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. My trackrecord with V.E. Schwab hasn’t been the best and the synopsis had me expecting some tropes that I don’t usually enjoy reading either. Regardless, Schwab managed to completely subvert my expectations by delivering a far more mature and lyrical story with well-rounded, memorable characters than I’d ever expected. The premise is simple: a young woman in France, 1714, in a moment of desperation, makes a Faustian bargain to live forever-and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Thus begins the story of Addie LaRue, a woman cursed to a life outside time and human connection, desperate to leave her mark on the work in spite of everything, and the people she meets along the way. Without spoiling anything, this book is populated by a small cast of wonderfully well-rounded and memorable characters, all looking for moments of connection and meaning in their lonely journeys. The pensive, almost melancholic nature of this book, the lyrical writing and its heavy focus on characters over plot made this a big departure from Schwabs previous fantasy works. Perhaps because of that, this was the first of her oeuvre that completely worked for me. Although I personally haven’t written a full review on The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, there are plenty of well-written ones on Goodreads or even Youtube by others. Be sure to give those a read if you need a little more convincing.
7. Me (Moth) by Amber McBride
My second honourable mentions goes to the most unique and memorable book I’ve read. Me (Moth) is a debut novel in verse, and is both a coming-of-age- and a ghost story about grief and a special friendship between two damaged teens. Moth has lost both her parents in a car accident and feels herself being eaten away by the survivors guilt she carries over it. Sani has suffered from depression, and wants to track down his roots in hopes of gaining a better understanding of himself and his life. The two find each other on a roadtrip, chasing down the ghosts that haunt them both. I’ve had very mixed experiences with novels in verse, so I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but fell in love very quickly on. Me (Moth) was absolutely brilliant in set-up as well as execution. I had none of the problems I’ve had before with books in verse: the form didn’t distract from the story, and at no point did it feel forced or clunky. Moth’s narrative voice dances and flies across the pages, like the dancer she used to be before her accident. With just the right words, in just the right places, this author embedded her story with so much depth and layers that many an experienced writer would struggle to pull off, even with double the amount of pages at their disposal. Yet Amber McBride seems to do it effortlessly. As a bonus, I’ve had a bit of a fascination with Navajo creation mythology for a while now, and Me (Moth) completely reignited that flame and let me down a rabbit hole of researching its references. Let me say: doing so even deepened my respect for this story and the author. I’m already highly anticipating their sophomore novel, set for release later in 2022.
8. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
Inspired by my freshly rekindled fascination for Navajo mythology I picked up Elatsoe, which made this list for being the most wholesome feel-good story I read this year. Although this too deals with some heavy topics on the side, no other book made me feel this warm and comforted in the stressful days of 2021. Elatsoe lives in an America very similar to our own. It's got homework, best friends, and pistachio ice cream. It also has ghosts, monsters and magic, and has been shaped dramatically by the knowledge and mythology of its people, those indigenous and those not. These stories have been passed down through generations of Elatsoe’s family, as has her unique ability to raise the ghosts of dead animals. When her beloved cousin is murdered tragically in a nearby town, Elatsoe must put her smarts, wit and abilities to the test to find out the truth and protect her family. Despite dealing with difficult topic such as the death of a family-member, racism and America’s history of mistreating indigenous communities, Elatsoe’s world is a joy to explore thanks to its whimsical charm and especially thanks to the lovable characters that inhabit it. Elatsoe isn’t just a wonderfully smart and kind protagonist herself, but is surrounded by a loving and supportive family, which is unfortunately rare to see in YA. If you know me a little, you will also understand that I had to give bonuspoints for one of the family-members being a ghost-dog. Extra, extra bonus points for it being a ghost-springer spaniel… I haven’t gotten around to writing a full in-depth review, but I plan to reread it soon, and might get around to it then. Please don’t wait for that to read it for yourself however; I’d love to share this reading experience with others.
9. Burntcoat by Sarah Hall
This year in literary fiction felt like the year of the “pandemic-novel”. That may have played a part in the lack of representation this genre got on this list… I’ve been offered quite a few pandemic-themed novels for review, but turned most of them down as I personally didn’t feel like I was the right person to review them. That suspicion was confirmed when I ended up hating all the ones I did read, but one. That novel that I didn’t hate, was Burntcoat. Therefore, my last honourable mention goes to it, for being my favourite COVID-read. You can find my full review here, but in short: we follow 59-year old Edith Harkness, an eccentric artist who lives out her final days confined to the apartment she’s called home for years. She reflects on her life and imminent death, both of which are marked by the viral pandemic she survived in her twenties. What follows is a masterful exploration of art, expression, connection, body, and the way illness can change our perspective on all of those things. I was especially impressed by the way the relationship between us and our bodies change when we encounter illness and decline, which this story covers through multiple lenses. Coming from someone who’s experienced that relationship through similar lenses as Edith does here (caretaker of a disabled parent as well as, chronic-, and life-threatening illness), I related deeply to many parts of this story. I could have fitted Burntcoat in many places in my Year In Review, specifically my underrated list, as it’s currently stuck at a criminally low 553 ratings on Goodreads. If you’re on the lookout for a pandemic-themed novel that offers a lot more than just a description of lockdown; Burntcoat might foot the bill.
That concludes my list of favourites for 2021. Let me know what your favourites where, by leaving me a comment, sending me a message or recommending me a book on Goodreads. I will be back every day until the New Year with another entry in my Year In Review series. I hope to see you back, and until then: happy holidays.