More of the Best Books From 2021
Today’s guest post comes from my friend Amber King, who I’ve collaborated with in the past. Amber owns her own Life Coaching business and is the Assistant Dean of Students at Montana State University. She’s also currently a PhD student in adult and higher education.
For as long as I’ve known Amber, she writes an annual book review of all the titles she read the previous year and shares it on FaceBook each January. Last year, I invited her to submit it to me as a guest post so my readers can get some perspective other than my own, and we decided to collaborate on it again this year.
This past year was a doozy. In March 2021 I came down with vertigo and was stuck in bed for 10 days, and not allowed to/unable to drive for 5 weeks. I had a hard time looking at screens or books, so I spent my time in bed listening to audio books. I know some people think this type of “reading” doesn’t count, but I disagree. I think listening to a book as your reading method gives you a different experience with the story. And I am so grateful for having this tool in my literary arsonal. Since April 2021, I’ve had no vertigo symptoms and I’ve been able to read the traditional way!
Also this past year, I discovered Sarah Addison Allen and it was EXACTLY what I needed to read during a pandemic. I binged her titles and immersed myself in magical realism.
So, better late than never, I present to you what I read in 2021…enjoy!
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
This was Nora’s pick for book club during the cycle of a book that has been made into a movie/tv show. I was also able to use this book for Ramona’s While I was Reading Challenge (WIWR) as A book published before 2000. My mom and I made my dad watch the Netflix rendition, which none of us really enjoyed. The book ebbed and flowed, but kept me interested enough to finish.
Untamed by Glennon Doyle
Everyone was raving about this book and telling me I HAD TO READ IT! So I did. Parts of this book really spoke to me, but I’m not sure I learned anything new. I didn’t really enjoy her previous book, Love Warrior, as much as I had hoped I would, so my bar was set a little low for this book. This title fulfilled Ramona’s WIWR challenge for A memoir.
Shit, Actually by Lindy West
After reading the author’s previous book, Shrill, and then watching the show on Hulu, I was a little obsessed with Lindy West. I had previously read her review of the movie Love, Actually and found myself agreeing with the absurdity of the movie’s storyline (even though I still love to watch it every holiday season). She made me think beyond the cheesy fairytale to the ridiculous reality of the plotlines. Shit, Actually was a fun adventure of looking at a variety of movies with a new lens and critiquing in a new way. As this book conveniently had a picture of popcorn on the cover, I was able to use it for the WIWR challenge category of A book with food or drink on the cover.
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
And then I discovered Garden Spells… Sara picked it for our bookclub’s theme of a book with one of your names in the title, author, or main character. I didn’t think I’d like it. I was surprised Sara had chosen this book, knew nothing about it, and expected I’d never make it through to the end. But I was wrong. I fell in love with the easy grace of this novel. It was exactly the kind of book I wanted to read while I was surviving a pandemic. It was kind and sweet. The characters had pieces of themselves that were relatable. And who doesn’t love a hint of magic within a story. This book was the author’s debut novel which conveniently fulfilled this WIWR category. I highly recommend this book. Was it the best thing I’ve ever read? No. But it was the kind of feel good book everyone needs during these trying times. Since none of the books I read last year resulted in a score of 5, I’m declaring this book my favorite of 2021.
The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen
And so began my obsession with this author. I could not get enough of her books and I searched through the library for every available title. I loved that there were tendrils of connection between this book and Garden Spells. I thought, oh hey, I know her, when characters crossed over. Ramona’s WIWR challenge introduced me to the concept of books of magical realism, which all of Sarah Addison Allen’s books have. I do think Sarah has some issues from high school she is working out within the pages of her novels, but I can also relate.
The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen
Again, these books didn’t blow my mind, but they were perfect for where my mind was at the time. I liked the quirky characters and the twisting story line and it felt like falling into a soft cushion to be reading them.
Switchback by Danika Stone
I feel like I should’ve hated this book. It was so ridiculous the amount of bad things that happened to these characters after getting lost in the woods. Having grown up with a super outdoorsy family in the Adirondacks and the Rockies, it was laughable to see how ill prepared these characters were. Every nightmare you could imagine in the backcountry was presented to this duo. I literally was texting Danika (who chose this book for her book club option for a book with your same name in the title/author) while reading it “OMFG” each time a new catastrophe presented itself. Many of my fellow bookclub members noted their concerns that the characters did all the wrong things while lost in the woods and if a “city” person read this book, they would 1. Be terrified of the Canadian wilderness, and 2. Have learned zero skills about how to handle themselves in the woods. I am grateful I grew up camping and feel confident with my backpacking knowledge.
Circe by Madeline Miller
I was really looking forward to reading this book, which conveniently fit Ramona’s WIWR Challenge for A book you’ve been looking forward to. I’d heard so many good things about it. I think it was originally Brene Brown who recommended it on her podcast. This was one of the books I listened to while battling vertigo, so I can’t say I was in the best headspace while listening. I enjoyed the journey and weaving with greek mythology.
The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
All of the Sarah Addison Allen books start to merge together, but I think the thing I liked about this one was that the main character was described as a plus size woman who was on the path to finding her confidence.
The Witches are Coming by Lindy West
Lindy West is amazing, and this book really gave me a way to process through some of the issues I worked on while at the VOICE Center and during #metoo. It gave me concrete examples of feelings I have had difficulty voicing in the past. It shed light on a path that has been socially constructed so well that we often don’t even question where it came from.
First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
Continuing on with my author crush, this book is the sequel to Garden Spells. My friend Sara said she’d actually read this one first, which is what inspired her to choose Garden Spells for book club. I was able to use this book for the WIWR challenge of A book with alliteration in the title.
Notorious RGB by Irin Carmon & Shane Knizhnik
I was gutted by the Cavanaugh hearing and found some semblance of solace in going to see the RGB documentary that weekend with my friend and co-worker Nora. I’d been curious about the book that inspired the movie, so I thought I’d check this out. I am grateful to have lived during the time of RGB, RIP.
The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness by Sarah Ramey
Ramona had initially recommended this book to me when the author met with her book club. At the time I hadn’t been able to get to it in time to attend her event. I started listening to this while in bed with Vertigo and it really spoke to me and made me think of the many women I know battling some sort of mysterious illness and how they have to fight for their voices to be heard in the medical world. I especially loved the honesty of hearing the author’s voice through the first few chapters and that she acknowledged that she would not be able to voice her entire book and handed over the reading to someone else and rejoined us towards the end. Knowing your boundaries is such a strength!
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
I had the opportunity to return to Panem by choosing this book for my bookclub choice of a book where you and the author have the same name. Suzanne is my middle name and what my mother would’ve named me if she hadn’t been so opposed to the risk that people might call me “Suzy”. I enjoyed the telling of the story from a different perspective and the peek into new areas of Collin’s world. I hope there are more to follow.
Every Last Secret by A. R. Torre
My friend’s sister, Saralyn, recommended this book. It’s only available on Amazon, which I learned when I inquired about finding it at Barnes and Noble. Apparently some authors are published through a group which only sells on Amazon! I used this book to fulfill the WIWR category of A book by an author who has written more than 10 books. This book was a trainwreck. I’m assuming the reason Saralyn recommended it was because I, like the main character, am a life coach. But that’s where the similarities between me and the main character end. I struggled with the main character being so focused on using infidelity and sexuality to sleep her way to the top.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Ramona had recommended this book to me several times, but it took awhile for me to pick it up. I watched the Amazon Prime series along with reading it. I appreciated the characters and the concept and noted the differences between the show and the book. Definitely worth the read.
The Day the World Came to Town by Jim Defede
Karie likes to break the rules, so instead of picking a book with her name in the title/author for bookclub, she chose a book about her native land of Canada. I had never heard about this angle of 9/11. I had never considered where all the planes had gone when the TSA grounded air travel. I knew very little if anything of Gander or Newfoundland. This book made me yearn for the safety of a community without crime. Where people just honestly trust and care and are willing to open up their homes, hand out their towels, and support other humans in distress.
The Upswing by Robert Putnam
Robert Putnam was scheduled to lecture at MSU about this book for Parent Family Weekend, but due to COVID, he ended up doing his lecture virtually. I listened to this book and after looking at a printed copy, I see how helpful it would’ve been to see the charts he was referring to along the way.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Ramona gave me a copy of this book to fulfill the WIWR challenge category of A book with a dog on the cover. I enjoyed the narration by a dog, but didn’t like all the aspects of the story. I also just learned it’s also a movie, which I intend to check out. I finished the book while on vacation in Florida and left in on the bookshelf of our vacation rental in the hopes that some other traveler might pick it up.
The Curious Dispatch of Daniel Costello by Chris McDonald
I hate cozy mysteries. They always seem so kitschy. So I really struggled finding a book to fulfill the WIWR challenge for A cozy mystery. Ramona has a page dedicated to the reading challenge and I asked other readers for a suggestion and received this as the cozy mystery for people who don’t like cozy mysteries. It was a quick read, but I just kept thinking, this storyline doesn’t make any sense and why are these two random guys playing Sherlock?
Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay
Roxanne Gay is an amazing writer. I love how raw and unapologetic she is. I enjoyed that her criticisms and thoughts on many issues align with my own. I could relate to a lot of what she said. I enjoyed reading about her Scrabble competitions and I was pleasantly surprised that she included essays of obscure books that I had read. I counted this book as An essay or short story collection in the WIWR challenge.
This Is Not the Story You Think It Is by Laura Munson
When I began the process of my divorce in 2012 I read every book I could find on the subject in an effort to normalize my situation and not feel so alone. I picked up this book at that time, but when I started it I couldn’t bring myself to go beyond the first few pages, so I have it another try to complete the WIWR challenge category of A book you’ve been avoiding. I fell into the story and found myself googling the author to see where she is now (she leads writing workshops in Montana!). I appreciated her raw and honest presentation of this difficult time in her life, her hope, and her dedication to not falling victim to blame, but being compassionate with herself and her partner. This definitely would’ve been the wrong book to read 10 years ago, but I’m in a different place now, I’m a different woman, and I can appreciate how she focused on her continued growth during that time. Divorce can seem scary and ugly, but sometimes it leads you to become the best woman you possibly could be. The author was writing about a relationship with a door open and mine was already permanently closed.