Best Books I Read in 2021

29 December 2021

At the end of each year, I do a write-up reflecting on my personal favorite books I read in the past year. (See my full “My Year in Books: 2021” list on Goodreads.)

As I did last year, I’m picking my top 12 personal favorite reads from 2021. I read 45 books total this year, and though it is always hard for me to truly rank favorite books, these are 12 that stuck out the most in my memory from this past year.

12. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. This is a fun, escapist sci-fi novel with a wild plot. As with other Andy Weir books, like The Martian—which was turned into a popular movie with Matt Damon—it reads somewhat like a screenplay, so it tends to be a tad campy and melodramatic, but it also knows it’s not trying to be more—and it need not be. It’s quite a fun ride and well-paced. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

11. Just Like That by Gary Schmidt. When you open a Schmidt book, you know you’re going to get quality character development and several touching moments, maybe even a few tears at the edges of your eyes. This book is no exception. It fits right in with the worlds of The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now, dealing with the common Schmidt themes of pain, loss, friendship, and community.

10. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. This is a quirky story about a man named Quoyle who tries to rebuild his upended life in his ancestral Newfoundland family home with his two daughters. This novel is a delightful dark comedy, and the prose beautifully matches the stark landscape of Atlantic Canada.

9. Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies by Derek DelGaudio. If you’ve seen DelGaudio’s ‘magic’ show In & Of Itself (if not, I highly recommend checking it out on Hulu), you’ll love this clever memoir about his life, the lies we tell ourselves, and the stories we construct about others. It asks the question, what makes a moral man?

8. Andy Catlett: Early Travels by Wendell Berry. It’s hard to go wrong with Wendell Berry’s Port William series—or any Berry for that matter. This book is told as a frame story from the perspective of an older, wiser Andy Catlett, looking back on his youth, and his memories of a former way of life that is disappearing—or that has already disappeared—from the American landscape.

7. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Told from the perspective of an Artificial Friend—a kind of solar-powered android—named Klara, this book explores what it means to be human and to belong. I like it just as well as other Ishiguro classics like Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day. I appreciate that the sci-fi aspect is subtle and not heavy-handed, so it seems just that much more believable—like a future not that far off—where everyone owns an AF. (The scenes in the AF store at the beginning of the novel are particularly stellar.)

6. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. This novel is a beautiful portrait of the Shakespeare family (as in William Shakespeare) during the bubonic plague of the late 1500s. The story centers around the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. This didn’t feel like run-of-the-mill historical fiction; there was more emphasis on the dynamics of the family and the fallout from Hamnet’s death than accurate historical chronology. And I liked that William Shakespeare himself, a figure that looms pretty large in history, was decidedly not the central protagonist—it made him feel a bit more human than the picture we get from history.

5. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. We’re all used to reviewing lots of things these days. Amazon deliveries. Restaurant experiences. Books on Goodreads. (I’m reviewing books right now, ha!) In this collection of essays, novelist/YouTuber John Green expands on the idea of giving a review to everything—as in “out of 5 stars”—to many topics of our current age (the Anthropocene). The essays range from silly to profound and insightful, and give you a lot to ponder. I think I may enjoy Green more as a nonfiction writer than a novelist, so I hope he writes more nonfiction in the future!

4. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. I know many may see this as a politically sensitive or charged book (especially if you are of the conservative/Republican persuasion), but as someone who grew up in a white evangelical church, I thought this book was great at “putting all the puzzle pieces together” on how the church became enthralled with masculine “strong man” figures over the last half century, and particularly how this came to fruition most recently in history in the figure of President Donald Trump. If you come from a similar background as me, it’s definitely a challenging read that might make you sad, confused, and angry about the ways the white evangelical church has deviated from the image of biblical Jesus, but Kobes Du Mez lays out the case very persuasively. Even if you disagree with the author, at the very least, her book should make you think who the church is really serving when it values a “strong man” patriarchy above all.

3. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. I loved Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, so when he released another book, I knew I had to read it. He’s such a talented wordsmith. Overall, I didn’t like this one quite as much as All the Light, but it was still pretty up there for me, especially for my 2021 books. I could hardly put it down. It reminded me a lot of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in structure (I wouldn’t be surprised if Doerr was modeling this after Cloud Atlas), while still being its own thing—and anything that reminds me of David Mitchell’s writing is a win in my book! Though it takes some time to get there, it has quite a rewarding and somewhat surprising ending, as well, which was expertly crafted and built-up to, making it extra meaningful.

2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I was thoroughly engrossed by this novel. I can’t remember the last time I was so obsessed with a set of characters, even though they were some of the most morally questionable characters I’ve ever read about. This one really stuck with me long after I read it. The story revolves around a small group of students taking a Classics course at a boarding school in New England who get into some . . . let’s just say, some seriously messed-up stuff. It is told from the perspective of one of the students, Richard Papen. The psychology of the story and its characters and their interactions will mess with your mind. . . . A brief forewarning that it can get quite gruesome at times, but I won’t say too much other than: read it!

1. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. A blend of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literary traditions, this epic and mystical tale and its sequel, The Hidden Palace, really stuck with me this year because of its strong character development, exquisite writing, and a wonderfully imaginative plot line. It’s quite an original and refreshing tale—I’ve never read anything like it. The story involves Chava, a golem made of clay, and Ahmad, a jinni made of fire, meeting and trying to make their way in the human world of turn-of-the-century (early 20th century) New York City. There’s a depth and richness to the writing that was evident in every chapter and character, and Wecker knows how to craft a story carefully. This is a rare series where the sequel is just as good or even better than the original, so I definitely recommend reading straight through both! Definitely a 5-star book.

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Whole series I read or series I continued to read) this year include:

  • The Giver series by Lois Lowry. I read The Giver with the intent of rectifying the fact that I had never read it in middle school, like everybody and their brother. I had no idea it was a 4-book series till I started now as an adult. It may seem a little more blasé or simple compared to more contemporary YA dystopian fiction, but it’s almost like a prototype for all that came after it, including Hunger Games and the Divergent series.
  • I continued the loose Port William series by Wendell Berry by reading Andy Catlett: Early Travels and Nathan Coulter. I’ve also started reading a poetry collection by him. (I try to intersperse a little Berry throughout each year.)
  • The Golem and the Jinni series by Helene Wecker is outstanding. (See my #1 book above.)
  • The Earthseed series by Octavia E. Butler. (It is said Butler planned to continue this series beyond just 2 books, but these are the only ones published before her death.)

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  • The most challenging: I feel like I didn’t read anything super challenging this year in terms of actual content, but if I had to pick, I’d say Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler, more so for the gruesome, depressing content than for the actual readability. John Le Carré’s A Small Town in Germany was a bit dense for my taste, but his books tend to be. And most challenging to the ideas/beliefs/culture I grew up in was Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. There were so many “aha” moments when I was reading this book, but it also made me grieve the ways the white evangelical church has contorted the image of Jesus.
  • The worst (would not pick up again): I really didn’t have many books that were absolute “never agains” for me this year, but if there are two, I’d pick Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve liked other books written by Martel and Ishiguro, but these two just fell flat for me. Maybe they were just too experimental or just plain boring?
  • The funniest: Based on the popular webcomic, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh is hilarious by default. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir also had quite a few funny moments. Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper is short but worth the chuckle.
  • The weirdest: Hoot by Carl Hiaasen. As with The Giver series, I was trying to revisit some YA books I somehow missed reading as a kid, and I really thought I would like this better, but I was disappointed in this story. It was a little too slap-sticky for my taste. The environmental message is laudable, but the writing and characters were poorer than I expected. Maybe I would’ve liked it better when I was 13.
  • Best sequel: The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker. (Again, see my #1 book for 2021 above.)
  • These are other contenders for top spots that I very much enjoyed but get an honorable mention here: 

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What were some of your favorite books that you read this year? What should I read in 2022? I’d love to hear your recommendations.