January 12, 2022

Jenn Recommends, Personal, What I’m Reading

2021 Reading Year in Review

It’s cliche but it’s true: if you want to be a writer, you need to first be a reader. More than just keeping up with current genre trends and studying craft, though, everything we consume as a creative gets woven into our minds and our souls—and you never know when part of that tapestry will work its way into your own work. So it’s nice, at these yearly transitions, to look back at all the things that influenced my own artistic sensibilities in the year 2021. Let’s get into it!

A quick overview

We’re going to start with some quick stats, because those are always fun for giant nerds like me. In 2021 I read 49 books. Of those:

January 2021 takes the lowest total for books read, because I didn’t finish any books that month. On the flip side, July and September are tied with 9 books.

Overall, I’d say I had a very satisfying reading year. I fully embraced my return to mood reading, which also meant that I finally took the time to revisit several books I haven’t read in years. I’ve always loved rereading, but too often I would fall into the trap of checking out too many books from the library all at once, making me feel like I didn’t have time to read much off my own shelves, and that’s a habit I really tried to curb. I’ve also returned to openly reading multiple books at once (switching based on my mood!), as well as skimming portions of books, frequently DNF-ing, and generally just thoroughly choosing to enjoy the books I finish. As usual, I set no reading goals in 2021, and I am not setting any in 2022. Other people seem to really enjoy yearly/monthly TBR lists, but honestly for me that’s the single biggest way to kill my reading progress, so… sticking with what works!

Nova on books

Favorite reads of 2021

Even though I really liked most of the books I read, there are obviously some that stood out more than others. In roughly the order I read them, my favorites for the year were:

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

Oh my god, what can I even say about this book? I read it early in 2021, and it’s stuck with me basically all year. You ever have one of those books were it’s just like, you know it was written to match all the weird little quirks of your soul? That’s what The Liar’s Dictionary was for me. This book is just so uniquely strange and charming. I can’t even really explain what it’s about or why I like it, except to say that if you like both literary fiction and weird books, if you like words, if you like strange little corners of forgotten history, if you like f/f protagonists, if you like awkward protagonists, if you want to be charmed and surprised and delighted… you’re going to love this one.

American Royals by Katherine McGee

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, we have American Royals. Listen, I don’t believe in “guilty pleasures” but I do believe in honesty, and I’ll freely admit I did not read this book for its literary quality. Which isn’t to say it has none, because I was certainly swept along effectively in this fluffy tale of fictionalized royals. But I was reading it purely because it was royals and melodrama and all the best tropes, you know? And oh man, did it deliver on the promise of the premise. Even though I saw literally everything coming at least several pages in advance, they still hit with exactly the right level of intensity and eye-rolling, bon-bon eating indulgence I could ever ask for. This is exactly the kind of comfort read I will devour in a single day, okay?

(Just don’t ask me about the sequel, because, um. In this house, we pretend that book never happened.)

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst, The Queen of the Tearling by Ekira Johansen, and The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

I’m grouping these three together because I read them back-to-back, and together they were responsible for breaking me out of my fantasy slump and finally making me fall completely back in love with the genre. I realize it’s a little weird for a fantasy author to admit to having been a bit off of fantasy for a while, but hey, sometimes we need a break even from things we really enjoy. 2020 was too emotionally exhausting me for to deal with complex worldbuilding, and so I just… kind of stepped away for a while, for the most part.

So it was really, really nice, in late summer/early fall, to pick up a few fantasy books and be instantly swept away in them. Queen of the Tearling was a reread for me, but the others were welcome surprises, and I cannot wait to read more by these authors.

Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Part romcom, part popcorn hijinks, this novel was hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable. I don’t really have a lot to say about it, except that if you’re looking for something to read when you’re having a bad mental health week and just need something to make you laugh and feel human again? You could do a lot worse than picking up Dial A for Aunties.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Listen, I’ve written before about how I don’t really understand poetry. It’s something I’ve struggled with for years now, because part of me really likes poetry, and the rest of me is endlessly fascinated by this way of tangling words together. So I’ve read a fair amount of poetry before, both collections and novels-in-verse, and sometimes I felt like I had a bit better handle on it. But nothing made the concept of what made a poem a poem really click in my head until this book.

I’m not sure if it was the brilliant narration the author did on her audiobook, or there was something in the story that flowed so well it just felt right, or if somehow Elizabeth Acevedo is just magic? (It’s probably that she’s magic.) But as soon as I finished reading this book, I opened up the notes app on my phone and started jotting down poems—some of which I even like. And while I’ll probably never get deep enough into the craft to call myself a full-on poet, I will forever return to this book when I need a boost of what poetry looks like.

Spoiler Alert and All the Feels by Olivia Dade

I read a fair amount of romcoms in 2021, especially in February and March (hello, Valentine’s Day!). Many of them I really enjoyed, but far and away my favorites were the ones in Olivia Dade’s new series about the stars of a fictional totally-not-Game of Thrones fantasy show and the fat women they fall in love with. If royal romances are my top trope (and they might be), Hollywood romances are a very close second. Couple that with fandom, healthy and swoony relationships, and just really, really solid writing, and you know I will pick up all of her future books without even asking for a premise.

Other reads of note

A few other books I really enjoyed but didn’t quite make the favorites cutoff included:

Self Care book

I also finally finished reading A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine in October, an audiobook I literally had been working my way through since at least November 2020. The fact that it took me basically an entire year to listen to is not a knock against either the book or the audiobook—on the contrary, I quite loved it—but just… mood reader, remember? I also tend to work my way through audiobooks slower than if I’m reading them physically, which I know is opposite for a lot of audiobook fans, but I’d never be where I am today if I was bothered by being a little weird.

2021 is also the year I returned to reading a few writing craft books. I tend to have a lot of complaints with these, so I don’t read many of them anymore, but a few caught my attention. Those were:

Far and away, Craft in the Real World was my knock-it-out-of-the-park favorite. So much so that I actually asked for my own copy for Christmas (thanks, Mom!), and I pretty much never buy craft books. The other two were solid and interesting, but Never Say You Can’t Survive didn’t offer the kind of advice and perspective I thought I would get from it, and Meander, Spiral, Explode is an excellent concept that fell a little flat in how it was presented, by my tastes. But if any of these sound interesting to you, I definitely recommending trying them for yourself—they’re all pretty unique takes on craft, and not just the same old advice repeated ad nauseam.

“Craft in the Real World” book

Similarly, I also reread Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I remember absolutely loving this book when it first came out, though upon a re-read it’s really only the first section of the book I love. Still, that first section really packs a punch, and it’s a great reminder for those of us in creative fields, as well as people who just want to add more creativity and joy to their routines. Definitely a good pandemic read, let’s put it that way.

Least favorite reads of 2021

I really only read one book I hated this year, and that’s The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I considered not even including it in this post, not just because I like to keep things positive when I can, but also because hating on this book is kind of a hot take in many (most?) literary circles. But in the end it felt weird to wrap up 2021 without mentioning it, if only because it filled me with such rage that I just… I don’t know that I’ll ever look back on my 2021 reading year without thinking about it.

I’m not going to get into my problems with the book here, because honestly that would take over the entire post. Suffice to say, I am not a fan of pretentious characters, and… yeah. I don’t care if you’re not “supposed” to like the characters in this book, I don’t want to read a book where I hate literally everyone on the page with a burning, raging passion and want to see them all suffer and die miserably, you know? That’s just… that’s not my idea of a good time, is what I’m saying.

(Also, I’m sorry, but the prose is this book—while fine and occasionally pretty—is nowhere near as drop-dead gorgeous as all those reviews led me to believe. Celeste Ng and Ann Patchett do it way better, just to name the two most obvious examples off the top of my head, but there are so many others. Just saying.)

Jenn with book

And that’s it! I’m really looking forward to continuing my reading trends and habits into 2022. I’m in the middle of some really excellent books right now, but alas, did not manage to finish them before the end of the year. Guess you’ll need to wait until 2023 to hear about them. 😉 (Actually, if you want to keep up more frequently with that I’m reading, I do tend to post current-reads stacks on my Instagram throughout the year, so feel free to give me a follow @jenngottbooks!)