My Favorite Reads of 2021 — Ang
For the first time in a looooong time it seems like I read fewer romance novels than in past years. This is going to get slightly in the weeds, but romance publishing has seen a little bit of a change recently, with almost all contemporary romances (and quite a few historicals!) moving into the larger trade paper format, and escaping the mass market size. And it doesn’t seem like that would make a huge difference in reading habits, since I 99% of my reading is ebooks. It’s possible my tastes have changed; I’m reading a good amount of mystery right now, which might be taking the place of romance. But it’s also plausible that romancelandia has changed a little bit too, with the advent of the larger trade paper romance, which might be part of the reason I don’t read as many romances. All that is to say, I surprised myself this year by reading so little romance.
But that’s not even the most out-of-left-field thing that happened to my reading in 2021. 2021 will forever be the year I discovered Virago Modern Classics. Virago Press is a feminist publishing imprint dedicated to women authors (and writers of underrepresented genders), and in 1978, they began publishing books by forgotten women authors—writers like Vera Brittain and Muriel Sparks. I stumbled onto Modern Classics in a weird, roundabout way; I really enjoy reading about Nancy Mitford, and in a fiction book about Mitford, another woman author was mentioned (as a rival!): Angela Thirkell. In doing some (librarian-ish) poking around about Thirkell, I discovered that a good number of her books were Virago Modern Classics. And then I read one. Pals, I fell in love.
If you would have asked me, never in a million years did I think I would be reading books that might reasonably called classics, and even harder to imagine was me loving them. I’ve so far read 5 of the Thirkell Barsetshire books (I’m trying to read them slo-o-o-o-o-wly, to savor every minute), and two other Virago modern classics besides, with many many more on my To-Be-Read list. I somehow find them deeply comforting and Thirkell, anyway, is wildly funny besides. I’m trying to alternate these older books with my regular degular TBR, and also with the vast number of advanced reading copies I’ve got waiting on my tablet. It’s been an interesting balancing act.
ANYWAY, what you’re really here for is the list of books I read in 2021 that I loved, and have no hesitation recommending. Here they are, in alphabetical order by author.
- Kent State by Derf Backderf. “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?” Forgive me for quoting a song lyric in an annotation, but honestly all I really knew about Kent State was the iconic image and the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song ‘Ohio’. This book was exceptional in explaining the logistics and reasons what happened happened.
- The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. Finishing this book nearly ruined me, because Chambers has said it’s the last in the Wayfarer’s series, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s my favorite series of the last 5 years. Said it before, and I’ll say it again: Chambers writes books about what it means to be a human and have relationships and be a person, with aliens and planets and…they’re perfection.
- A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers. You’re having a good year as an author when both your books end up on my list. This book is nothing like the Wayfarers series; it’s delicate and quiet and…zen? I don’t know, but if you were wondering if it’s possible to write a book about how to be a person with a monk and robot as the main characters, the answer is yes.
- All the Feels by Olivia Dade. Perhaps my favorite romance author, these days. I can hardly think what to say about these books save that they’re steamy and lovely and full of all the best things about romance. And the women in them are so recognizably like you and me.
- The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. There is a reason this book won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize. The intertwined stories of the people who live as part of the Turtle Mountain Reservation are masterful, and that includes the historical resistance of the Reservation to Termination in the middle of last century. Seriously, a monumental book.
- Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert. An EXTREMELY charming romance, with main characters who have sizzling chemistry and are also adorable together. This is the third book in a trilogy, and it’s definitely my favorite of the trilogy.
- The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee. A very serious book indeed, but one that will knock your socks off. Lays out the harms of white supremacy to EVERYONE.
- God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney. I thought this was a really gripping book. I read it in one day. A coming-of-age story and a story about forgiveness, it’s both touching and sad.
- Any Way the Wind Blows by Rainbow Rowell. Another third in a series book. What can I say? I like series, and I like a good series ending. This upside down take on the chosen one trope is fantastic.
- You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin. This is a laugh-out-loud book about how racism manifests constantly in the lives of black people. Laugh. Out. Loud.
- Tommy Cabot Was Here by Cat Sebastian. This indie-published ebook-only release was a pure delight of a romance. It’s definitely a second-chance kind of a thing; two men rediscover their school fling wasn’t such a fling after all.
- Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. Oh I just loved this. There is a modern/historical dual storyline in this book that really struck me, and the absolutely beautiful writing kept me enthralled.
- Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell. My favorite so far of the five Barsetshire books I’ve read so far. (See my above explanation of how I discovered Thirkell.) Absolutely a confection, light and funny and sweet.
- Hold Fast Through the Fire by KB Wagers. This is the closest to analogue to the Wayfarers I’ve found. It has slightly more action, but the depth of relationships are what I’m really here for in these books. (Another series!)
- Disability Visibility edited by Alice Wong. What a masterful book about living with a disability. I’m so so glad I read this.
- The Plague Year by Lawrence Wright. If you are not ready to read about COVID yet, I totally understand. But this account of 2020 was a really cathartic read for me, to see another view of that terrible year.
- Room to Dream by Kelly Yang. I can’t believe I’m doing this, but this is ANOTHER third book in a series. These books are middle grade wonders. I don’t read a lot of middle grade books, but I fell in love with the world Yang built in the first book, Front Desk, and now I’m just gonna keep reading and loving them.