2021 Books

I don’t like lists.

And yet, here’s a list!

Every month, people are making lists: the best albums in the universe, the best movies that make you forget you’re at home at not the actual theater, the best rocks found on an inspirational year-long walking journey through neighborhoods on the moon, the best books that prove no one has to write ever again.

Lists feel...fraught. Especially when you are a writer. When you are this writer. You never really know if readers connect with your work. One reader certainly did—the editor who bought the piece—and some folks think that’s all that really matters. Your work sold! You are a champion! But writers want—well, this writer wants to find readers who connect with the work (and put it on a list! If you liked it then you shoulda put it on a list...)

According to Goodreads, I’ve read 53 books in 2021, as of December 14. My main read this month is Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon (Outlander #9), and it’s 900 pages in length, so the chances of me finishing that this year are very slim indeed. I’m a little over 100 pages in—it’s so large, it’s hard to hold, which makes me want to make another list:

Paper Books That Are Too Hecking Big to Hold as You Read Them:

  1. Outlander #9
  2. Expanse #9

Huh, what is it with books numbered nine in a series... And the Expanse book is 400 pages shorter than the Outlander, and still so huge! Ebooks, Elise! Yeah yeah, I like them fine, but I am still devoted to paper books. Here are a few paper books I connected with over the past year, that you may also want to check out, if you haven’t already.

A Desolation of Peace by Arkady Martine is swell. It is a follow up to her debut, A Memory Called Empire. I did not expect to like Empire, so when it grabbed me right away, I was astonished. I typically find political novels boring. Diplomats and blah blah blah, but Martine’s worlds and characters are easy to slip right into. The sequel is everything I wanted and more; I actually had trouble putting it down to do other stuff. Other stuff did not exist. “Bodies die, or suffer, or are imprisoned. Memory lasts.” In my world, memory doesn't last, so maybe this is why these books hit me so hard in the heart-meat.

One book that also falls into “diplomats and blah blah blah” is undoubtedly The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I re-read the book this year, because I didn’t remember much. It has a very slow start for me, but once Our Hero gets kidnapped and imprisoned, I was utterly captivated. I’ve got plans to try Earthsea again—I had trouble connecting with the first book, and want to give it another go. I feel like I’ve got important gaps in my genre reading knowledge. (I tried The Dispossessed after Left Hand, and bounced straight off of it. I’m really hit or miss with Le Guin.)

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna is an interesting blended work, half biography, half memoir. Lynch is one of my favorite creatives, so getting this behind the scenes look at his work was a real treat. “Keep your eye on the donut not the hole.” Yeah. “Your mind is going on what you’re doing today. There’s this ravine and you’ve got to build a bridge to the other side,” Yeah. “Man has control of action alone, never the fruit of that action.” YEAH.

A.C. Wise’s debut novel, Wendy, Darling, arrived this year, and if you have been longing for the darker, more adult side of the Peter Pan story, this is a good place to begin. Unlike Peter, Wendy doesn’t remain a child, so what becomes of her after adventures in Neverland? Wise also had a short story collection out this year, The Ghost Sequences, and it too is a wonderful escape from...everything. Other collections I spent time with this year are Six Dreams About the Train and Other Stories by Maria Haskins, and Fantastic Americana, by Josh Rountree. Such distinct voices in all of these books. We are spoiled.

One of the neatest things I read this year was published in 1838: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe. I love Poe, this you know, but when I read Moby Dick for the first time a few years back, this book was noted to be an inspiration to Melville, so I knew I had to get here eventually. You can absolutely see the skeleton of Moby Dick in this book—but wrought in Poe’s own terrific prose. If you also liked Moby (or like the idea but find the idea of that book too intimidating), you should check out this one asap. I bet your library has it.

This fall, I got to read an advance copy of The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield. It is extraordinary. I didn't know how deeply I needed a story about sisters Charlotte and Antoine (later Marie Antoinette) and their complicated, courtly, beautiful, magical world. History and magic and beauty and terror and just...it feels like this is the way magic should work.

I’m going to mention two final books, because they kind of go hand in hand: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, and The Actual Star by Monica Byrne. Both books span centuries, three (or more) time frames folded together to tell one complete story. I loved both of them deeply, despite being disappointed in the end of Cloud Cuckoo Land (the end of The Actual Star was, quite simply, perfect). I haven’t read Doerr’s previous offering—you know, he won a Pulitzer, so maybe he knows a thing or four about words. I’m lucky to be a patron on Byrne’s Patreon, so watched The Actual Star come together across nine years—which is very in keeping with the story told there, too.

What did you love this year?