2021 Books in Review.

This is a little overdue in coming, but, with the new year, I’m still sort of getting a good hold on my new schedule that should hopefully have me posting and interacting more, and, of course, I have to take a second to talk about the books I read last year before moving on to talking about any that I’ll be reading this year.

My goal last year was to read at least twelve books (one per month, give or take), mostly ones I haven’t read before, and, for the most part, with the exception of one revisited book, I hit that goal almost exactly. This year, I’ll be enacting the same method, with hopefully an additional book by the end, to slowly increase my numbers as I try to make time to read more, which hasn’t been easy, but has been coming along nicely all the same.

So let’s break it down to have a closer look at what I read last year, with some mild thoughts and commentary on what I thought about, in order of how they appear in the picture above, based entirely on how they look on a shelf and not by any sort of reading order or preference:

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

I picked up The Lacuna based solely on Kingsolver’s name alone; The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books ever, so I’ll happily lean into anything she’s written. That said, I went into this book pretty much completely blind, which was a great choice, because the details of the very specific historical events that the main character’s story takes us through were a surprising delight, almost to the point where I don’t want to mention them here because if anyone else picks it up blindly based only on this recommendation, I want them to experience that, too. But once we drifted away from that, the book became a little stale and dragging, sort of a slog through the second half and the aftermath of everything that preceded it, and I would have liked for Harrison himself to have been more of an outstanding character in his own right. We get most of the story through his eyes, but he never really felt fully fleshed out or formed to me, in part due to his position as an unreliable sort of narrator. He felt like a bit of a “Forrest Gump” character, in that he merely existed while things happened around him, not necessarily to him, making me feel a bit like an passive observer in his tale. Still, as one might expect from Kingsolver, the writing is beautiful and her description still stick with me even now. The story disappointed me, but I still enjoyed devouring nearly every line, like some sort of dish that it generally kind of bland and unremarkable, and yet you still can’t get enough of it.

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa

With a great subject matter and an intriguing story, The German Girl was easily the biggest disappointment of the bunch. Weaving together the intergenerational stories of a young Jewish girl who flees Germany with her family for Cuba and her young granddaughter who discovers a box of her photographs, there is a lot of potential in this book, which is based on true stories of an immigrant ship. I found the main characters difficult to connect with, and in many spots, the writing frustrated and annoyed me, which could very easily be in part to it being a translated work. There were a lot of very intriguing elements, especially once we arrived in Cuba. Not knowing much about German immigrants to that part of the world, it was interesting to see how the cultures clashed and integrated, though a lot of it felt very surface-level. I really wanted to like this one, but I just didn’t connect with me the way a story like that should, and I honest regret that a little.

Quiver by Julia Watts

One thing I’ve always had an odd fascination with is religious fundamentalism and cults, and so it in’t really a surprise that Quiver wound up on my radar, although I can’t remember exactly how. I do know that I’m very glad it did, though, because this book was an absolutely surprising delight that would have probably slipped past my notice otherwise. Quiver is mainly the story of Liberty “Libby” Hazlett (who I now have the honor of playing over at Fandom High!), the eldest daughter in a “Quiverfull” fundamentalist Christian family, which is a sect of evangelicalism that believes in having as many children as possible to serve as “arrows in the quiver” for “God’s righteous soldiers”. She’s lived a very quiet, sheltered life in the little bubble of her very restrictive upbringing, up until a more alternative, liberal family moves into the house next door, and she becomes fast friends with her very different, non-binary new neighbor named Zo. The thing I liked most about this book, besides Libby as an absolutely charming and realistic main character, was how the topics of faith and religion and beliefs were handled with a deft compassion and sensitivity that I found refreshing. Everything is so nuanced and complicated and handled with the complexity that these issues deserve, and it’s just a great coming of age story about a bright young woman discovering her faith by her own means and about love and acceptace for all people, no matter how different they may be. The book is definitely YA, and the writing reflects that, making it a pretty swift read. I would have liked a little bit more of a fleshed-out ending; it seemed a little shoe-horned in and unsatisfying overall, but I really enjoyed this book and it’s clearly left an impression.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Given to me as a gift, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a charming surprise that I definitely wasn’t expecting. Light in tone, with an intriguing plot of mystery, I like to compare it to a summer beach read but for the nerdy set. Our main character is a twenty-something that I’m sure a lot of my fellow Millenials will relate to, sort of “failing upwards” when he takes a job at an odd little bookshop that he discovers contains far more than just books on its shelves. I never really felt that things got very deep with this one, but that never really bothered me once I recognized that this was just a fun little jaunt into an interesting idea, told through a likeable main character straight-man with an almost rereshingly normal view and realistic reactions. The story itself was mildly ridiculous, but Clay faces it with a mild passiveness that I really appreciate and I’m sure many others can relate to as well.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Funny story about this book. I heard about “The Husband Stitch,” one of the many fantastic stories in this collection, and it intrigued me, so I decided to pick the book up and added it to the giant To-Be-Read Pile. Then a package shows up a little while later, and it turns out my boyfriend ordered it, too, because he’d heard about it and it sounded like something I would enjoy. Fast foward a little bit more, and my brother- and sister-in-law gift me a book that they’d enjoyed and thought would be right up my alley, and that book was, of course, Her Body and Other Parties.

So the universe, clearly, wanted me to read this book, and at one point, I possessed three copies of it. And I finally got around to reading it, and boy, the universe was not wrong at all. Machado has such an amazing style that just drags you right in and refuses to let you go, and her perspectives are so unique and fascinatingly told that I think I could read this book a million times over and still come out with something new and refreshing. They’re definitely stories that earn extra readings, too, because you know there’s stuff you missed the first time from being so enchanted by the premise and the writing. Highly recommended. Easily the top stand-out of the bunch and the number one spot for my favorite read last year. Just gorgeous and haunting and everything I love in a collection of short stories.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room has definitely been on my list since I saw the 2015 film, which I thought was fantastic, and, naturally, I figured the book would be even better. And in some ways, it definitely was. Specifically, in the first half of the book, where we’re introduced to the world of Room through Jack’s unique perspective. The set-up of this world was extremely well done in the movie, as well, but the book gives it to us directly through Jack, and Donoghue handles it so deftly. It was in the second half of the book where I thought the movie was done better, once we’re out into the world, especially in capturing the effect it has on Ma to be back in the world again. Since we’re in Jack’s perspective, we don’t get as much of that aspect of it in the book as we did in the movie, and because of that, I felt the second half was not as engaging as the first. The whole thing was phenomenal and just as heartbreaking as I expected, though, so it’s definitely worth a read, especially if you haven’t seen the movie. It’s definitely one of those things where I wonder how my thoughts on the movie would be different if I’d have read the book first, but it’s one of those things we will never know for sure. Beautifully, tenderly written, absolutely heartbreaking, it definitely deserves all the praise it has received.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

A novel in three parts that read like three separate but connected novellas, The Vegetarian starts as the story of Yeong-hye, who decides, inspired by some disturbing dreams, to become a vegetarian, a decision that sends ripples through the lives of those around her in unexpected and fascinating ways. Deeply psychological and beautiful, these interwoven tales fascinated me, especially as a vegan myself, and enraged me at times with how Yeong-hye’s family misunderstood her…but it was more about just the vegetarianism, as the themes seemed to contemplate the ideas of autonomy and empathy. It’s definitely one of those books that warrants a second read, or even a third, or fourth, to really reveal all the different layers, and a very strong recommendation. It wasn’t quite as impactful as I was thinking it would be, after all I’d been hearing about it, but it was still an engaging experience that I’d like to have again.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho is one of those books that definitely has a reputation that makes it feel a little awkward to admit how much I actually did love this book. Yes, it’s excessively tedius at some points and excessively violent at others, but that’s kind of the whole point. And while there are definitely some situations where a claim to love this book is a big red flag moment, I think it’s genuinely possible to enjoy this book and what Ellis does with it without coming off as a total douchebro. It’s all in how it’s interpreted, really, because this is some fucking brilliant satire in this book. I’m not in any rush to read it again because it is at times brutal, but I would like to at some point because I feel there’s so much to pick apart here. And the idea of Patrick Bateman and his entire existence, the fact that he truly is just a mundane face in this self-inflated world of egos and brand names, is so incredibly fascinating to me. I’ve always been a big fan of the movie as well, and honestly, I felt the movie actually did keep a lot of the spirit of the book, even though I feel like that’s not the usual perspective on it. Maybe having seen the movie so much before even getting near the book has something to do with that, but I feel it was probably as good as a film adaptation as you could get. It was great. I loved it. It was so subversively brilliant that I can only admire and appreciate it and there really isn’t a whole lot more to say about it except that I do really recommend giving it a chance if you’re not the type to be extremely put off by graphic gore. It’s definitely not going to be for everyone, but if you can stomach it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

When I finally got around to reading Starship Troopers, I took to Instagram to pretty much say, “Imagine reading this book and thinking it was a celebration, not a critique,” and that first response has lingered ever since. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this book that I find difficult to properly express. I will say that I did enjoy the book, although I’m not sure if that was sincerely because of the writing or merely because I find it fascinating in a cultural context and because I was enjoying comparing it to the movie (which I absolutely love). I’m just not really sure if it was more schlocky sincerity or brilliantly subversive satire. I want it to be the second one, because that was how I couldn’t help reading it, and any other possibility is just disappointing. Again, it’s hard to really articulate what it was about this book, but one day I hope to maybe uncover and understand those words a little bit better.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Last year definitely involved a concentrated effort to read the books that inspired movie that I greatly enjoy (see above with Starship Troopers and American Psycho), and the book that spearheaded that whole attempt was this one. The Jurassic Park movie came out at the height of my formative years and I, like so many others in my generation, became obsessed. For me, personally, Jurassic Park also checked off a few boxes in representation for me, with a tech-savvy teenage girl characters that I could look up to in Lex and a smart and clever female scientiest in Dr. Satler (who was also played by an actress with the same first name as me!). I went going into the book already knowing that the character of Lex had been modified heavily for the movie, but I was not prepared for the absolute waste of a character that was the book version of Dr. Satler! Then again, I was thoroughly underwhelmed by Jurassic Park as a book. Maybe I just hold the movie up on such a pedestal that it didn’t stand a chance, but I felt even the character of Dr. Alan Grant, our protagonist, was criminally underdone in the book. I’m generally not a fan of Crichton’s style, though, which probably adds to it, and it’s not like I completely hated it, either. I thought the way Hammond is portrayed in the book was fascinating, and Ian Malcomn shines just as easily on the pages as he did on the screen. But there were just so many disappointments in the book as a fan of the movie that I just couldn’t quite get past.. It has its merits and obviously the premise is great, but I just felt most of the characters weren’t nearly as interesting and I just wasn’t as invested in them as I felt I was with the movie, which is a bizarre thing to say about a book, which usually has more depth. But Jurassic Park just doesn’t do it for me, and I feel almost blasphemous having to say that.

The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer by Jennifer Lynch

At the end of 2020 and the start of 2021, the boyfriend and I were definitely engaged in a mild obsession with Twin Peaks, as we decided to rewatch the original series together for the first time, as well as delve into Fire Walk With Me and the newest season/series, and I know I got sucked in big time, especially after watching Fire Walk With Me, which I felt was just brilliant. So I was a little intrigued by the suplimental materials, which included The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, which if I recall correctly was written between Seasons 1 and 2 of the original run, by David Lynch’s own daughter, and that would have been an ideal time to read it, as it would fill in a lot of the gaps in Laura’s story. However, reading it after Fire Walk With Me doesn’t really do much, as a lot of its covered in the movie. There are a few new things brought to the table; it’s especially interesting at the beginning, as we see a much younger and more innocent Laura Palmer, and I feel that Lynch really does capture a small town teenage girl’s voice very well, having been one myself. But I really felt that, as she decends into her torment and her tragic relationhip with BOB and the forces that pull her toward destruction, the book sort of loses its hold on you and what could really be a dramatic torment just kind of fizzles a little and fades. There is no such thing as too MUCH Twin Peaks for me, though, so I’m glad to have experienced it, but the original source material is so much strong and more affecting, especially Fire Walk With Me and the latest season.

Misery by Stephen King

Misery was the one book on the list that subverted two of the themes I was going for with my reading list last year: unlike all the other books, it was one I’ve actually read before, and of all the ones with media tie-ins, it was the one whose movie I hadn’t seen, and I did finally get around to watching it. As expected, Kathy Bates’ performance was exceptional, and I felt it was a pretty good adaptation of the book, although they understandably had to cut out an awful lot. Maybe it was just because I knew more of what to expect this time around, but I felt the second reading of Misery wasn’t nearly as strong as the first. The first time I read it, it had me floored and convinced I needed to change my opinion of King’s writing, because, up to that point, I’ve found a lot of his work that I’ve ready pretty mediocre. But this book genuinely terrified me in ways no book has really managed to do before when I first read it; it is absolutely gripping the first time through. Knowing the beats and what to expect the second time around took some of the thrill out of it, which is fine. A book like that you can really only experience that profoundly once. It’s still a solid book that I recommend to anyone, and it’s a relevant now as it ever was with the way parasocial relationships and internet culture brings fans that much closer to the celebrities they look up to, idolize, and obsess over. And the scene where Paul has to burn his manuscript still gets me, though, as someone who still prefers to write long-hand and has documents still from over twenty years ago.

And so there’s the quick and dirty recap of my thoughts and impressions on last year’s books; onto the next batch! Have any of you reading this read any of the books above as well? What are your own opinions? What have you read this year that you might recommend, and is there anything you’re looking forward to reading sometime soon? I’d love to hear what you think!

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