Today I’m excited to share my favorite books of 2021! I wasn’t planning on doing this but I finished an amazing book the other night, and it got me thinking about a few of the other books I’ve absolutely loved this year…and I felt like I really wanted to revisit and highlight those books that had made a huge impression on me in 2021. There were a few others I read this year that I really, really liked, and almost included here, but ultimately decided to keep it to just these that were true standouts. So here they are (in no particular order):
Ghosts, by Dolly Alderton
This is the one I finished two days ago that prompted this post! I’d been in what you could call a real reading slump lately – not because I couldn’t get into anything, but because things got so crazy with photography in the fall and continuing through the winter that I hadn’t read a physical book since I think September? Which is terrible. So I was having trouble even easing back into the habit of reading. With a bit of time off for the holidays I wanted to pick up something light but substantial, that I knew would hold my attention – and this was simply perfect. Ghosts takes place in London and follows a year in the life of 32 year old Nina Dean. She dates online for the first time after getting out of a long relationship, navigates changing friendship dynamics as some friends remain single and others go the marriage/kids route, and deals with the sudden illness of her aging father and the effects that has on her mother. This book was the perfect mix of can’t-put-it-down plotting along with witty, insightful writing. It’s such an accurate, at times laugh-out-loud funny portrayal of modern online dating, which is rare to find. While there is a strong plot about her relationship with a man she meets online, the book also deeply explored the other relationships in Nina’s life, with her friends and her parents. I completely loved this and am now psyched to read Dolly’s memoir, Everything I Know About Love. purchase through bookshop.org to help support independent bookstores!
The Paper Palace, by Miranda Cowley Heller
This book! My god, this was so good – another one that hits that perfect sweet spot of page-turning plot + wonderful writing. Cowley Heller’s descriptions are just stunning and really lent this novel a sense of place. Her writing kind of hits all of your senses and puts you into the story and the setting in such a strong way. The book opens just as Elle, a happily married mother of three, sleeps with her childhood best friend, Jonah, and it just takes off from there. We move back and forth in time, from the summer that this affair happens backwards into Elle’s childhood with Jonah at her family’s summer camp, The Paper Palace. I loved both parts equally, which is rare! There was also a section that took place in New York City and for some reason it really reminded me of The Goldfinch – not plot-wise, but somehow in this feeling it gave me of NYC in winter – hard to describe. This book was just so satisfying, as you’re super invested in the story, the characters, and Elle’s decisions, while also being immersed in this beautiful, rich writing. This is a debut and I’m so excited to see what this author writes next. purchase through bookshop.org to help support independent bookstores!
Empire of Pain, by Patrick Radden Keefe
This is the best non-fiction I’ve read this year, or perhaps ever. Empire of Pain is about three generations of the Sackler family, who as I’m sure you all know are the family behind the company that created the opioid Oxycontin, leading to the devastating and ongoing opioid crisis in our country. The book is simply fascinating. It starts at the time of the Great Depression with Arthur Sackler and his two brothers, and takes us up to present day with the family and the company, and no part was boring or dragged to me. The parts about Arthur and the family back then reminded me somewhat of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue (another all-time favorite), since it follows this family starting to build their wealth in New York. It covers the way they got into pharmaceuticals, pharmaceutical marketing, the development of Oxycontin and the sketchy/illegal things the company did to market the drug so aggressively. None of these are things I would have thought I’d be interested in, so if you feel the same way, I still urge you to give this book a try. I felt so angry and disgusted at certain points, but that wasn’t the overall reading experience for me (which would be a rather unpleasant one). I only knew the bare bones of the Sackler story going in, but I think anyone, no matter how familiar with the case and the trial, would enjoy this one or find aspects of it novel and fascinating. Overall, I think I enjoyed it is because at its heart, the book is a family drama – and that’s what made it so interesting and compelling. purchase through bookshop.org to help support independent bookstores!
The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell
I loved this book so much and I can’t believe how little hype it seems to have gotten! I haven’t seen it on bookstagram at all, and haven’t heard of many people reading it, which is such a shame – so I’m hoping this brings it to at least a few more TBRs. The book takes place in snowy Victorian England and is something of a gothic mystery, following three wonderful characters – Inspector Cutter, who is on the case of a rash of missing girls, Gideon Bliss, a Cambridge dropout who unwittingly stumbles into being his sidekick (and happens to be in love with one of the missing girls), and intrepid reporter Octavia Hillingdon, who is determined to get to the truth of the case. First of all, Cutter is hilarious in this wry, curmudgeonly way, and his dynamic with Gideon brings so much humor and heart to the story. Like it was actually funny, in this dry way. The setting is just perfect and so atmospheric…London in the late 1800s and the hushed, snowy streets…so good for cozy winter reading. The mystery keeps you turning the pages and brings a sense of suspense and danger that keeps things moving, and the writing is evocative, sharp, and clever. I just thought it was SO good and also so different from anything I’d read before. Can’t recommend this one enough! purchase through bookshop.org to help support independent bookstores!
Sorrow and Bliss, by Meg Mason
Ugh, this book. SO GOOD. This follows Martha, a forty year old woman who is struggling. From the outside her life is great – a good job, wonderful husband, loving family. But since she was a teenager, Martha has dealt with a mental illness or personality disorder that effects everyone in her life. (Side note, I feel like my descriptions suck and always make books sound bad when actually they’re amazing, but I have to say it’s really hard to write these quick summaries!) Anyway, this book was fantastic. Another one where the writing is wonderful and full of depth, and the story keeps you turning the pages. It’s such a unique and piercing portrait of a particular kind of vague, indefinable mental illness and how it effects not only the person themselves, but the people in their life. It was darkly funny, poignant, and just felt so honest. I still think about it almost a year later. purchase through bookshop.org to help support independent bookstores!
The Push, by Ashley Audrain
This book was an interesting one for me, because at first I really thought been there, done that with We Need to Talk About Kevin (both center on a child who seems evil – but you wonder, in both, if that’s actually the case, or the mother is kind of losing it – and if the child is evil, were they born that way, or is it the mother’s aversion to them – chicken or the egg situation). So I’m not really sure why I picked it up, but it must’ve been on the recommendations of so many bookstagrammers and book podcasters. And I’m really glad I did because I could not put it down and it has stuck with me all this time. The book is super dark, but also feels super honest about the difficulty of new motherhood, I would imagine. I’m a broken record, but this one also is just really well-written as well as absolutely un-put-downable. It’s a very psychological novel, with the writing bringing you deep inside the main character’s thoughts and fears. At times it’s uncomfortable to the point that I was actually wincing and cringing – and I love when a novel can have that strong of an effect on you. The opposite of boring or staid. I also thought in the beginning that this book would be rather predictable, but I was wrong and it surprised me – another huge plus. It’s one that may haunt you, and you have to decide if that’s a good thing to you or a bad thing! I’ve heard from some people who have loved it and some (parents) who have absolutely hated it, and I think it would be interesting to examine the differing opinions on this book from parents vs. non-parents. Overall, a TON of trigger warnings so reader beware, but I thought this was an amazing book and most of the world seems to agree! purchase through bookshop.org to help support independent bookstores!
Oooo now I have to read all of these. Finish Hamnet and add that!