My Favorite Books of 2021

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Like I imagine it was for most people, 2021 was filled with highs and lows. I ended the year grateful yet eager for the fresh start of a new year. There were some months where I read a lot and others where I finished very little or nothing at all. Despite the stops and starts of my reading life, I finished 55 books in 2021. Keep reading to see my favorites!

2021 Releases

Crossroads book cover

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

I don’t rank my favorite books, but Crossroads is easily number one. I love everything about this book, which tells the story of the Hildebrandt family navigating life during the 1970s. We follow Russ, a pastor who feels adrift and out of touch, as he longs for a woman who isn’t his wife, Marion. She feels invisible to Russ and struggles to understand her children. The oldest is Clem, an idealistic college student who’s trying to sort out his feelings about Vietnam. Becky is the only daughter, a popular teen who has her eye on a boy with a girlfriend. The last character we follow is Perry, a young drug dealer who seeks to be reformed and finally do the right thing.

If you like character-driven novels, don’t miss this book. Jonathan Franzen writes characters so well. By the time I finished Crossroads, I felt I knew these people intimately. This title is the first book in a trilogy; I cannot wait to be reunited with the Hildebrandts. 

Beautiful world where are you book cover

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Beautiful World, Where Are You was one of my most anticipated 2021 titles. I loved Sally Rooney’s previous book, Normal People, so I had high hopes for Beautiful World. Thankfully, I ended up loving this one too.

The book follows four friends: Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon. Alice is a novelist who barely knows Felix yet invites him with her on a work trip to Rome. Eileen and Simon are longtime friends but maybe more. Sections of the novel are epistolary in form thanks to the letters Alice and Eileen exchange about their romances, work, and hopes for the future.

If you’re looking for an exciting plot, you won’t find it here. What you will find is excellent character-driven fiction that’s perfect for people who can see themselves in the wanderers and wonderers of the world.

Hell of a book book cover

Hell of a Book by Jason Mott

If this book looks familiar, it’s because it won the 2021 National Book Award for fiction. After I read it, I understood why. This novel is exciting, engaging, and provides excellent commentary on today’s racial and political tensions.

The plot is hard to explain, and I think this book is best read knowing little about it anyway. All you need to know is that the story follows a Black writer who shares his name and book title with Jason Mott. Jason can’t escape the news of the most recent police shooting and keeps encountering a boy who may or may not be real as he tours the US promoting his new book. 

Hell of a Book is just that: an unputdownable, timely novel. 

In book cover

In by Will McPhail

2021 was the year in which I realized I really do like graphic novels. I grabbed In on my library’s new books shelf, knowing nothing about it except that it was pretty. This time, judging by the cover worked out quite well. 

In follows a man named Nick, an adrift illustrator who feels like he’s missing out on something. As Nick interacts with family and begins to fall in love, the real human connections he forms make his world more colorful. This book is a beautiful look at the power of relationships to save and restore us. 

The plot book cover

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

When I think about The Plot, the first word I think of is “fun.” This novel is a book within a book, perfect for suspense and literature lovers. 

The story revolves around Jacob Bonner, a once-popular author who teaches creative writing at a failing college. It’s there where Jacob meets Evan Parker, a student who arrogantly assumes he has the perfect plot to ensure a bestselling book. After hearing it, Jacob agrees. 

Years later, Jacob learns that Evan is dead and had never published his book. What does an author do with a great plot except tell the story? Jacob does, and then things begin to escalate out of his control. 

If you ever find yourself in a reading slump and need a book to get you out of it, choose The Plot

Assembly book cover

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Assembly took me by surprise. I first heard about the book when a Goodreads friend posted his review. He said the book didn’t work for him, but the story sounded interesting, so I grabbed the book from the library, not expecting much. Thankfully, this little book exceeded my expectations. 

Assembly follows an unnamed Black woman living and working in London. The story is nonlinear, which is why I thought I might not like this book, yet it flows beautifully. This book is only 112 pages, yet its explorations of race, womanhood, capitalism, mortality, and belonging have stayed with me since I read it. I plan to revisit this one soon.

Small things like these book cover

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Small Things Like These is another short but powerful book. It takes place in Ireland during the 1980s and follows a man named Bill Furlong. He sells coal and delivers it to a local convent, where he discovers something disturbing around Christmas time. 

This book tells a lovely story about compassion and love, and it does so without being preachy or too sentimental. This little book is a gem.

Quick Thoughts About Backlist Titles I Loved

So you want to talk about race book cover

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

This is the best antiracist book I’ve read so far. If you’re passionate about social justice and reading diversely, don’t miss this.

Jesus and John Wayne book cover

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

If you were like me and wondered how the evangelical church ended up where it is today, read this book ASAP.

Know my name book cover

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

I thought this memoir couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, but it did. Though hard to read, Know My Name is an essential, beautiful book.

The Stats

I always track my reading in Book Riot’s customizable reading log. (Click here for the 2022 version.) That makes it easy to see my yearly reading statistics, which delights the nerd in me.

  • Fiction vs. nonfiction: 52% of my reading was fiction; 48% was nonfiction.
  • Book format: 60% print, 30% digital, and 10% audio.
  • Diversity: 32% of the books I read were by a BIPOC author. I’d like to increase that percentage to 50% in 2022.
  • Book source: 55% of the books I read in 2021 came from the library. Support your local libraries, kids!

2022 Reading Goals

  • Read 75 books with 50% of those by a BIPOC author.
  • Slow down with book-buying. Read what I have and rely on the library for new releases.
  • Pick up some of the big books that have intimated me.

This post is always a lot of fun for me to write, so I hope you enjoyed it too. What were the best books you read in 2021? What should I add to my list in 2022?

What I Read and Loved in October 2021

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October flew by this year. It was a busy month professionally and personally, which means that I didn’t finish quite as many books as I usually do. I started a lot, though. I had literary commitment issues this month, so I know November’s wrap-up will be a lot longer since I’m in the middle of several books right now. They’ll get their day in the spotlight soon enough, though. For now, here’s what I finished in October. 

What I Read

I was their American dream book cover

I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib
Format: eBook

This graphic memoir is a beautifully told and illustrated story about a girl’s coming of age in America. Born to immigrants who would later divorce, Malaka has to navigate life where her parents have different hopes and expectations. Her Filipino and Egyptian heritage makes her stand out in a predominantly white community, challenging for anyone but especially hard for a teen girl. I’d recommend this book to fans of Good Talk by Mira Jacob or Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. 

Minor feelings book cover

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Format: eBook

Minor Feelings is a collection of essays about what it’s like to live in modern America as an Asian woman. Cathy Park Hong explores themes of creativity, friendship, racism, and belonging. Some essays had a primarily academic tone and referenced artists and thinkers I was unfamiliar with, but I still enjoyed this book. The pieces “An Education” and “Portrait of an Artist” are especially engaging. 

Leave the world behind book cover

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Format: Print

White New Yorkers Amanda and Clay book a house in a remote part of Long Island, ready for a family vacation with their two teenaged kids. Soon into their trip comes a knock at the door. It’s the owners of the house, who are Black, saying there’s been a blackout in the city. They didn’t know where else to go, so they came to the vacation house. The cable is out, and there’s no wi-fi, so both parties are unsure what’s happening and if they’re safe. 

Leave the World Behind is relatively short, yet Rumaan Alam takes the time to explore class, race, and connection. The story slowly gets eerier and eerier, which I appreciated. The ending was a letdown, however, and tainted how I feel about the overall book. 

What I Loved

Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, Noel Fielding, and Matt Lucas on the set of The Great British Baking Show

TELEVISION: The Great British Baking Show

I never expected that watching British people bake in a big white tent would bring me so much joy, but here we are. I started watching this show last year when the world went into lockdown, and it became my “blankie” show–something that provides comfort and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. While the current season won’t end up as a favorite, I’m still thrilled the show is back and I look forward to a new episode each week.

Unhide fuzzy blanket

HOME ITEM: Unhide Blanket

Speaking of “blankies,” this is my favorite one. When autumn arrives, and the temperatures dip, I reach for this, the best, softest, most perfect blanket that has ever existed. I got one in a FabFitFun box a while back and have since bought two others as gifts. This blanket is a perfect weight, and nothing could be cozier.

Soup and bread
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FOOD: Soup

Yes, soup. I’ve always felt pretty neutral about soup. It’s always been fine, but recently, something changed, and I’ve been craving it. I feel like 85% of my thoughts in October were about soup. I made homemade broccoli cheddar soup, cheesy enchilada soup, chili, and chicken noodle (okay, so Safeway made that last one, but I microwaved it at home). Soup is so good, you all! You should have some today.

What I Wrote


What did you read and enjoy in October?

My Favorite Book Settings

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I’m not a fan of traveling. I’m a homebody who’d rather be in my favorite cozy chair than on an airplane or exotic vacation. Despite my lack of interest in globetrotting, I like visiting different places when I read.

Book settings are something I’ve only started thinking about somewhat recently. I never paid much attention to them a few years ago, but my reading life improved when I realized what books I’m drawn to and why. Knowing what settings you like in your books is a quick and easy way to help you find your next read, so I’m sharing my favorites today.

NYC skyline
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New York City

I’ve always been interested in New York City, even though I’ve never been to the East Coast. I have a feeling I’d be overwhelmed in NYC after only 10 minutes of being there, but my fascination persists. I’m intrigued by how people live there: apartments instead of houses, public transportation instead of having your own car, affording rent, and having so many options for what to eat and drink and do. I follow several Instagram and TikTok accounts of New Yorkers who share what it’s like in the city, and they’re a delight. Armchair travel is my favorite.

Here are some of my favorite books set in New York City:

  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
London skyline
Photo by Eva Dang on Unsplash

London

One of the reasons I’m intrigued by London is its history. When I drive around my city, I see coffee stands and Old Navy. There are no old, gothic buildings, palaces, or famous museums, which is quite disappointing.

Here are some of my favorite books set in London:

  • The Downstairs Neighbor by Helen Cooper
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
  • One Day in December by Josie Silver
  • About a Boy by Nick Hornby
College campus with a bike rack and ivy
Photo by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash

Campuses

I love when books are set in the world of academia. (I just wrote about this.) I don’t care whether it’s a university, boarding school, high school, elementary classroom; I want all of it. I’ve noticed a trend on social media of highlighting dark academia as a genre, and while I do enjoy that, I also appreciate less-dark takes, like satire.

Here are some of my favorite books set on campuses:

  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • Stoner by John Williams
  • My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
  • Adequate Yearly Progress by Roxanna Elden
A beach view through a window
Photo by Johannes W on Unsplash

Vacation Homes

One of my friends and I have a running joke that someday we’ll have a house in the Hamptons. While I definitely will not ever have a home in the Hamptons, I can read about people who do. The home could also be a cabin in the woods, a beach house, a deserted property once in the family; all I want is for a family to go there together and entertain me in the pages of my book.

Some of my favorite vacation home books are:

  • Musical Chairs by Amy Poeppel
  • The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • Maine by Courtney J. Sullivan
  • Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Inside of a bookstore looking out onto the street
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Bookstores & Libraries

There are few places I’d rather be than a bookstore or library. I went to both places just the other day, and I was in bookish nirvana. Since I love these spots so much in my real life, it’s fitting that I want to experience them in my reading life, too.

Here are some of my favorite books set in bookstores and libraries:

  • 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  • The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry
  • Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan

What about you? What are you favorite book settings?

What I Read and Loved in September 2021

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I love September. Fall slowly begins its arrival, school resumes, I light my apple-scented candles, and my cardigans find their way back into my closet. This September had all of that plus some great reading. Here’s what I read and loved this past month.

What I Read

People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry
Format: Print

Poppy and Alex have been best friends since college. Once a year, they take a vacation together until something happens during one trip that drives the two apart. They reconnect after two years, and Poppy is desperate to rekindle her friendship with Alex. She plans one last trip and asks Alex to come along. He says yes, and the two are forced to confront what went wrong and how to move forward. 

People We Meet on Vacation is such a sweet, feel-good love story without being too sweet. The characters are well developed, something that’s essential to my literary happiness, no matter how good a plot might be. I liked spending time with Poppy and Alex and feel eager to pick up another book by Emily Henry. 

Hacking School Libraries: 10 Ways to Incorporate Library Media Centers into Your Learning Community  by Kristina A. Holzweiss and Stony Evans
Format: Print

This book is a quick read that offers many ideas for school library staff to market their collection, further literacy in their building, and increase their number of library patrons. I appreciated how many of the authors’ ideas were attainable. I’ve read many articles and essays over the years that offer great suggestions that just so happen to cost a whole lot of money. Hacking School Libraries provides more straightforward and cost-effective ideas that still increase student and staff engagement.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Format: Print

Sally Rooney’s latest novel concerns itself with four friends: Alice, Eileen, Felix, and Simon. They’re a group of Dubliners around 30 who are still trying to figure out their lives. Some chapters are letters between best friends Alice and Eileen, while others explore the relationships between the women and men. There’s not much plot in this novel, but Rooney’s prose and characterizations are so lovely that I’m just fine with that. This novel beautifully explores themes of friendship, sex, religion, and adulthood.

I’d been looking forward to this book for months, and it didn’t disappoint. Beautiful World, Where Are You isn’t for everyone, but give this one a chance if you like beautiful writing and don’t mind stories with a slow burn. (Plus, that cover is so pretty!)

Goldenrod by Maggie Smith
Format: Print

I don’t usually rush to the bookstore for poetry releases, but I made my way to my local indie to pick up Goldenrod the week it was released. I’ve liked Maggie Smith’s work since her poem “Good Bones” went viral a few years ago. Goldenrod is filled with more poems that pack as much punch as that one does, exploring themes of marriage and motherhood. 

One of my favorite poetry-reading experiences is when I read a line or two that are like a gut punch. I love it when a poet can string words and images together in a way that makes me pause and shake my head. I had several of those moments reading Smith’s newest book. 

Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier
Format: eBook

Marin and Derek are attractive, successful, and wealthy. Their lives seem perfect until the day their little boy is kidnapped. Unbeknownst to her husband, Marin hires a private investigator to help find the boy after the FBI turns up zero leads. The investigator calls Marin with news one day, but it’s about Derek, not her son. Derek is having an affair, and Marin must stop it. 

I’ve mentioned before on this site that @things.i.bought.and.liked is one of my favorite Instagram follows because of her exceptional beauty, home, and lifestyle recommendations. It turns out she also has good taste in reading. She recommended this book, and I’m so glad she did. Little Secrets is packed full of twists and turns, making this a thriller I couldn’t put down. 

What I Loved

TELEVISION: Only Murders in the Building

Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building is an absolute delight. This smart, funny, and suspenseful show is about a trio of misfits who live in the Arconia, a beautiful NYC apartment building. They come together over their shared love of a popular podcast and decide to start their own when one of their neighbors is murdered.

I’ve loved Steve Martin and Martin Short for a long time, so I knew I’d like this show, but it surpassed my expectations. Selena Gomez rounds out the cast perfectly with her wit and dry humor.

TELEVISION: The Chair

The Chair is about an English department at a struggling liberal arts college. Sandra Oh has just become the new department chair and wants to change the school’s culture. As with any TV show, things don’t go according to plan. Jay Duplass is fantastic as Oh’s fellow professor, friend, and love interest. Holland Taylor should be handed her Emmy right now for her excellent portrayal of a Chaucer scholar whose office has just been moved underneath the gym. The Chair is immensely entertaining, but it also has important things to say about gender, cancel culture, and academia. 

What I Wrote


That’s all for me! What did you read and love in September?

Ten Books for Back-to-School Season

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Since I work in education, September feels more like a new year than January does. When I go back to work, sometimes I want to pick up a book that mirrors my current season. If a book is set inside a school or is about a professor, I’m interested right away. I’m not sure if my intrigue stems from working in schools or fond memories of college, but no matter the reason why, I love academic settings and characters. Today I’m sharing ten books that are just right for back-to-school season. Sharpen your pencils, and let’s begin.

Adequate yearly progress book cover

Adequate Yearly Progress by Roxanna Elden

This novel presents a satirical look at a public high school in Texas. We meet an earnest English teacher who yearns for a deeper connection with her students. The principal ends up in the news for saying something controversial on camera. Other main characters include a math teacher, biology teacher, football coach, and a second-year history teacher who blogs about the school and starts to go viral.

I found this novel to be equal parts funny and insightful. Many of the characters are people I feel like I’ve met over the years. If you’re looking for a lighthearted book to welcome you into a new school year, this is the one.

The all-night sun book cover

The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna

I wrote about this book in last week’s recap, so I’ll repeat what I said then:

Lauren is a lonely, 30-year-old woman teaching college writing near Washington, D.C. She lost her parents years ago in a car accident and is still trying to find her way after their deaths. When Siri shows up in Lauren’s classroom, the two women strike up a friendship. Siri has also lost her parents, so the two feel a special kinship. Siri invites Lauren back to her home in Sweden, and Lauren, blurring professional boundaries, accepts.

The All-Night Sun follows the two women through their time in Sweden. This novel explores friendship, loneliness, and professionalism through beautiful prose and memorable characters. The cover of this book caught my eye at my local indie bookstore, and I’m so glad it did. I think most literary fiction fans will enjoy this story.

Good girls lie book cover

Good Girls Lie by J. T. Ellison

Good Girls Lie is set at a prestigious all-girls prep school in Virginia. The Goode School is for the rich and influential, the types of girls who will head off to Yale and Harvard. Beneath the impressive exterior is a secret society whose members push past the strict behavioral lines the administration has drawn for them. When a popular student ends up dead, people say it was suicide, but there are too many questions about the death for the interest to end there.

While I didn’t love this book’s conclusion, I did love the setting and the story’s fast pace. Good Girls Lie is the perfect escapist novel for anyone in the mood for a dark academic tale.

Looking for Alaska book cover

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska is the first novel by young adult legend John Green. (It’s also my favorite of his books.) The story follows a boy named Miles who attends a coed boarding school. It’s there he meets a girl named Alaska. He’s immediately smitten and is soon drawn into her fascinating, self-destructive world. When tragedy strikes, Miles is forced to reevaluate everything he thought he knew. 

I’ve read all of the novels Green has authored alone, and this is the one that has stuck with me the most. He writes teenagers so well, and their desperation and strivings toward adulthood are profound in this story. 

The most dangerous place on earth book cover

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

In some ways, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the opposite of Adequate Yearly Progress. While that novel was satirical and followed teachers at a struggling school, this novel is much darker and primarily follows students at a school full of privileged families. The staff member readers get to know the most is a new teacher named Molly. She’s unaware of a tragic event that happened in middle school, an event still reverberating through the high school years later.

I appreciated how Lindsey Lee Johnson juxtaposed privilege and tragedy, earnestness and facade. This novel felt achingly real and has some critical things to say about how our actions can haunt us.

My dark Vanessa book cover

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

As the #MeToo movement continued to pick up steam in 2017, allegations come out against Jacob Strane, the man who groomed and started a relationship with his student Vanessa when she was just 15. The two are still entwined years later, even though Vanessa is in her late 20s and living her own life. Because of the allegations, she’s forced to remember what she had with Strane and reevaluate it. In her mind, she was in love. She’s not a victim. She chose Strane. Or did she?

This novel focuses on an abusive relationship between a high school teacher and his student, so know that My Dark Vanessa is not for everyone. It’s sad and disturbing, but I ended up loving it. It has important things to say about responsibility and consent.

The secret history book cover

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This novel is set at a small, elite college in New England. A group of eccentric students grows close with an equally eccentric classics professor. Readers find out within the first few pages that one of the students is dead. The tension of this book is how it got to that point. 

The Secret History is probably the most popular, beloved book of the dark academia theme, and for good reason. It’s beautifully written and is full of memorable characters who you’re never quite sure you trust. This book is one of my all-time favorite novels, one I wish I could read again for the first time. It’ll never leave my personal library. 

Stoner by John Williams book cover

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner is a simple book with a simple story. The novel follows a man named William Stoner throughout his life in Missouri. Stoner is expected to take over the family farm, but he is fascinated by literature and becomes a professor. We follow Stoner through his work life and marriage as he struggles with the things we all struggle with: being present, working hard, and showing up for the people who need us.

This book has been called a perfect novel, and I wholeheartedly agree. Stoner is not to be missed for readers who appreciate character development and a deep look into a person’s mind and spirit. It might be a simple story, but John Williams has profound things to say about being human.

Surprised by Oxford book cover

Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

If you like nonfiction, here’s a recommendation for you. Surprised by Oxford is a memoir of Carolyn Weber’s time as a student. She begins attending Oxford as an agnostic but ends up becoming a committed Christian. This book is the story of how and why she converted. It’s a love story between Weber and Jesus, but also between Weber and her future husband.

Weber talks about faith with such nuance, intelligence, and warmth. The prose in this book is gorgeous, and you can’t ask for a much better setting than Oxford. If you’re a fan of Lauren Winner or Sara Miles, make sure to find a copy of this book and read it immediately.

Trust exercise book cover

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

This novel begins in the 1980s at a performing arts high school. The two primary characters are students David and Sarah, who fall in love. Their classmates’ rolling eyes can’t dim their passion or commitment. About halfway through this book, something changes, and readers are faced with a new reality that’s hard to explain.

Trust Exercise is a book that has kept on surprising me. The initial twist surprised me when I read it and ultimately left me disappointed. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I finished it. The characters and their stories kept rolling around in my head. While Trust Exercise won’t be for everyone, I do believe it’s worth your time. (And so did the people who gave it the National Book Award.)


That’s my list! What novels would be on your back-to-school syllabus?