My Favorite Reads of 2021

Since I had a reading goal for the entirety of 2021, I thought it would be fun to do a round up post of the top ten books out of the 76 books I finished.  For the most part, I am excluding old favorites which I re-read from the list. The inclusion of a book on this list might mean I really enjoyed it, or it has stuck with me, or I think it is a really important book. That is to say, this is not scientific, y’all.

An Honorable Mention must go to all the Brother Cadfael books I read this year. These medieval mysteries by Ellis Peters are a joy for me to read, but I could never pick a favorite. Let’s just say I will drop anything else I am reading when one of these appears in my house (via the library, courtesy of my daughter).

Now, in no particular order, here are the top ten.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane–a Georgetown book club selection–was my favorite read in January.  This story of the intertwined lives of two families and the tragedy that tears them apart was surprisingly uplifting in the end.  And I found it deeply Catholic in its views on marriage and redemption.  Some favorite quotations: “Marriage is long. All the seams get tested,” and (of marriage) “Love isn’t enough. Not even close.

I read Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate for my in-person book club at my next door neighbor’s house.  I couldn’t put it down, even though parts of it were painful to read–it’s based on a true story of poor children in Tennessee being stolen from their parents to be adopted out to well-to-do families.

This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home by Lauren Sandler was a gut-wrenching, soul-sucking read, and if you are one of those people who believe a smart, hard-working woman ought to be able to pull herself out of poverty, you need to read this. It was one of my Georgetown book club reads for April.

I read The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (duh!) via the Tea with Tolkien book club. Although I did not have time to participate in the discussions, I found the weekly podcast episodes summarizing each chapter to be super helpful. This was my second read of this book, which sat largely untouched on my shelf most of my life because it was so challenging, and I think I really have a handle on it now. It is so beautiful.

Another Georgetown selection, The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue is set during the 1918 pandemic but the author did not plan its publication to coincide with our current pandemic. It was a case of truth being stranger than fiction that she had this book about to come out before she ever heard of Covid-19. Needless to say, the coincidence adds weight to what is already a well-written and riveting story about three days is a ward for pregnant flu patients in a hospital in Ireland. It was graphic and painful but I could not stop reading.

Mary Pezzulo, the author of Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy, is one of my favorite bloggers–I share her writing on my page all the time. This is an amazing and personal explanation of the Works of Mercy, with practical and empathetic takes on how you can practice them: “I  have learned so much about what it’s like to be poor, sick, and lonely that I have something to tell other people, so that we as Christians can help one another. God didn’t want me abused, but he has used my journey to help me tell other people about what it’s like so it’s not so hard and isolating for them. I couldn’t have done that before.”

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune was our in-person book club choice for August and I enjoyed it very much. I found myself wanting to know about the backstory and hoping for more in this universe. I will say the tone is a little strange. It reads like YA fantasy but the protagonist is middle-aged. Also some bits are over the top–like the hilarious pronouncements of the six-year-old Antichrist, but that adds to the fun. At bottom, it’s a sweet, affirming book–though it has its own controversy. I am already thinking about reading it again.

I stumbled into an Instagram book study on The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness by Father Greg Boyle that was hosted by Alissa Molina and I am so glad I did! I had been fortunate to have heard Father Greg speak at my son’s graduation from Notre Dame so I was excited to read this book, and it did not disappoint.  Father Greg is the founder of a ministry that serves gang members, and the stories of mercy and grace and wisdom in this book will surprise and move you.

I read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter off and on for several months as my reading plan is to always be reading something either by or about Tolkien. This was just delightful–both for the insights into the writer and his creation. Catholics will especially enjoy learning more about Tolkien’s faith and its relationship to his mythology.

And finally, the book that was undoubtedly my favorite! If you don’t read a anything else on this list, read this one. I promise you will not be disappointed.

I read Piranesi by Susanna Clarke for the Fountain of Carrots book club. It’s absolutely delightful. I read it a second time for my in-person book club (they were fans), and I already am wanting to re-read it so I can unpack new layers of meaning. I loved it so much that I was unable to stick to the book club schedule and finished way ahead. Also, it’s short! A sampling: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

That was fun! I would love to know what your favorite reads from 2021 were, if you would care to comment below!

What I Read in April

Did I meet my reading goal? Yes, I did!

Tiny Hot Dogs by Mary Giulani

This is a memoir by a Georgetown alumna who wanted to be a star and ended up as caterer to the stars instead. It’s a fun read that unexpectedly turns serious near the end, and it’s interspersed with some recipes that sound tasty!

High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out by Amanda Ripley

I found this Georgetown book club selection very interesting. I also thought it was structured exceptionally well, with compelling stories to illustrate the points the author was making, that she kept circling back to and relating to one another. You would not think there was much to compare between Chicago gangs and Marin County politics and war in Columbia, but there is! And the very last part where liberal Jews and conservative Christians spend time hanging out together is gold. I could not stop reading it out loud to my husband.

Draw Near by Cameron Bellm

This is what I used for reflection/journaling during Lent and I absolutely loved it, especially the saints who were new to me.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

This was another Georgetown selection, and I enjoyed it immensely even while parts of it broke my heart. It’s the story of an undocumented Chinese immigrant and her American-born son and their tragic separation, told from both of their points of view.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo

Emily brought me this one from the library just because. The author loved detective stories and wanted to try his hand at creating a Japanese style of mystery story. Can you guess how he chose his pen name? Anyway, the stories are quite different from Western mysteries. But they are creepy! I enjoyed reading them.

Knoxville, Tennessee by Elena Irish Zimmerman

My big boys gave me this for Christmas–they saw it while shopping at the drug store and picked it up along with some similar ones that I will be reporting on later. They know I love Knoxville history! The whole book consists of old post cards with commentary on the pictures. A great number of the places depicted have since been destroyed, so this book is a real treasure.

And there you have it!  See more great reads right here!

 

What I Read in March

Well, this will be a short post!  I completed only four books in March, and if Emily hadn’t made a trip to the library the last week of the month, it would have been two.  We visited Boulder this month, which meant four days in the car, but that does not really seem like enough of an explanation, does it?

First up is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, which I read for the Fountains of Carrots book club.

Have you ever read a book in high school or college, did not think much of it, and then read it later and were blown away? That was my experience with this book. I barely remembered it from my 20th Century Catholic Fiction class, which I took in my very last semester at Georgetown in 1989. Now I found parts of it to be some of the best pages I have ever read. Some books you really have to have some experience under your belt to understand, in my opinion. I copied some quotations into a notebook I keep and when I re-read them I get chills.  Seriously, this book’s exploration of the effect of having been raised Catholic is not to be missed if you are interested in such things.

Next we have A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler, this month’s read for my in-person book club at my next door neighbor’s house.

We all HATED this book. Not that it was not interesting. Not that some parts of it are well-written. Not that we did not care about at least some of the characters. But the ending. It was just wrong. Unless you want to be wrecked and in tears, don’t read it. It is not worth it.

Emily brought me The Confession of Brother Haluin by Ellis Peters, and I read it in two days.

Y’all already know how much I love the Brother Cadfael series. This one kept me guessing almost to the end.

Then I moved on to Scandal in Spring by Lisa Kleypas, which I devoured in one afternoon.

This was the last of the Wallflowers series, the story of four girls who make a pact to help each other find husbands. If you’ve never liked romance novels, you won’t like these. If you used to like them, but kind of grew out of them (as I have), you probably will enjoy them for an afternoon or two of diversion.

This month is going to be better. I should finish three Georgetown book club choices for one thing, and a couple of other books I was reading last month as well. Will I make the six book goal? That remains to be seen!

Don’t forget to click below for other great reads at An Open Book!

 

What I Read in February

So, I just barely made my six book goal this month, and that’s only because the first book I read was a picture book!

But John Ronald’s Dragons by Carolyn McAlister is truly a superior picture book. It’s a great introduction to Tolkien for pre-readers but there’s also a lot to enjoy for Tolkien lovers of all ages, especially the visual depiction of the eras of Tolkien’s life.

There were only two Georgetown selections for the first quarter of this year, and I quickly finished this one:

While I enjoyed Mine! by Michael Heller and James Salzman, I find I have already forgotten most of it!

Next I made the mistake of letting my sister talk me into reading this one:

I say it was a mistake not because Mother, May I? by Joshilyn Jackson  was not good–it was! Rather, it was a mistake because I could not put it down and ignored all my priorities that day. It’s a thriller involving a kidnapping, identity, love and its complications, and even topical issues. I have not forgotten this one and I doubt I will.

I’ve had this one on my list of spiritual books for awhile:

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Laurence is a very simple little book that was written a long time ago, but it has a modern feeling to it. The premise is that of learning to walk with God in every moment rather than just calling on Him occasionally. I want to read this again and again so I can internalize its message.

This was another one from my sister:

It took me a minute to get into Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, since it starts in medias res and lets the reader catch up gradually, but once I did I was hooked. This is an all-too-plausible story about where our many virtual connections and lack of concern for privacy might lead us–and it’s not good!

I have had this one on my non-fiction list for some time, and was happy to get it for Christmas:

As someone who first got the message that my body was not good enough when a doctor put me on a diet at the age of four, the message of radical self-love described in The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor resonated deeply with me.  I wish everyone who hates their body and all people who continue to shame them could read this.

OK, so this is the book that was responsible for my almost not reading six:

I wanted to like Franchise by Marcia Chatelain. It’s obviously a meticulously researched book and its story and implications are important. But it is so dense that I could not get through it. I rarely fail to finish something I start reading but I made an exception for this one. It was a Georgetown choice and someone in the club commented that it read more like a sociology dissertation than a book for popular consumption. It’s a good book but not for me.

Finally, I am going to share another one I have not finished:

The reason I have not finished Imagine You Walked with Jesus by Jerry Windley-Daoust is not because I don’t want to read it, but because I want to savor it. And the reason I am telling you about it now instead of when I do finish is because I was supposed to review it and it just is not fair of me to wait to tell people about it for that long! Plus I think it would be an awesome read for Lent if any of you are still looking for something special to do. It’s an introduction to Ignatian Contemplative Prayer, or Imaginative Prayer, where you put yourself into the story and use all your senses to experience the scenes right along with Jesus and his disciples. This is a super-accessible book for anyone who has no experience with this form of prayer, even kids. It can be used for solitary prayer or in a group. Not only does the book provide instruction in this way of praying, it also offers background information to enrich your imagination and many suggested readings to pray with. I recommend it very highly and I am not just saying that because I received a free advance copy.

That’s it for February! Find more great reads below via An Open Book linkup.

What I Read in December

I think the week between Christmas and New Year’s is my favorite. I got so many books for Christmas and I’ve had so much time to read. But I met my goal for the month long before Christmas, believe it or not–mostly because I read almost exclusively fiction!

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

Emily brought me this one from the library when I mentioned how much I had enjoyed reading another Ruth Ware book earlier this year.  This was an absorbing mystery although I did manage to figure it out before the end.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Alice Feeney

This comes also courtesy of Emily, who had checked it out of the library and offered it to me when she was finished. The twist at the end of this one was absolutely not one I saw coming at all.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter

I have been reading this off and on for several months as my reading plan is to always be reading something either by or about Tolkien. This was just delightful–both for the insights into the writer and his creation. Catholics will especially enjoy learning more about Tolkien’s faith and its relationship to his mythology.

The Rose Rent by Ellis Peters

I foresee that by next Christmas I will have completed the Brother Cadfael books and will be requesting a boxed set of my own. For now, I try to hold back to reading one per month from the library. I invariably finish in a day or two, captivated by the adroit mixture of mystery, history, and faith. This one was no exception and I never saw the ending coming.

Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas

This was a surprising installment in the Wallflowers series in which the author pretty successfully convinced me of the rehabilitation of someone I thought was irredeemable.  I am looking forward to the final installment but since they are seasonal Emily says we cannot read it till Spring.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

I cannot tell you how many times I have read this, which is one of my favorites of all time. I think I got it for Christmas when I was around 12, and it takes place during the Christmas season, so I always get an urge to read it at this time of year.

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

This is actually the first book in The Dark is Rising sequence but I originally read the second one first so I always like to start with that one. This one is told from the point of view of mortal children who do not have a full understanding of the struggle between the Light and the Dark which is made much more explicit in the other books.

The Girl with the Phony Name by Charles Mathes

I continue to collect books I once owned that were lost in our fire ten years ago. I think I got this one from some book of the month club way back in the day. It stuck with me for some reason and I wanted to read it again. It was just as fun as I remembered with eccentric characters and an absorbing mystery.

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

My grandmother bought me my first copy of this book, which I read literally to pieces. I enjoyed reading it again although I am taking the copy I got for Christmas to McKay’s and ordering a better one. Watch out for those cheap Amazon reprints of classics, y’all.

Joanna’s Husband and David’s Wife by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey

I found this in my mother’s bedroom a million years ago and read it before I could possibly understand it. Now as someone who has been married more than thirty years it resonates more and more. It’s a diary of a marriage as written by a wife and annotated by her husband, showing both sides of a complicated story and showcasing both the joys and the difficulties of attempting to join two lives into one. Y’all may be more familiar with the writer’s epistolary novel A Woman of Independent Means, which I also need to add back to my library.

Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

Even after Christmas, with all those good books to read, I was determined to continue with this series. The third one, like the first, is set in Cornwall, and the protagonists of the first and second join to face the forces of the Dark together.

The Holy Bible

Maybe it’s not fair to say I read the whole Bible this year, but I did listen to it (courtesy of The Bible in a Year podcast). And this year I am going to follow new plan and read a different translation myself.

Dear Enemy by Jean Webster

Last book of the year! This is a sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs above, and another book originally given to me by my grandmother, who had read both herself as a girl. This was my favorite of the two growing up, and I still enjoyed it, but I found it harder to endure the racism and eugenic sentiments (yes, really!) on this read-through. This is another one that will be traded in for a better version shortly.

Did y’all count? That’s THIRTEEN BOOKS!!

Want to find more great reads? As ever, I’m linking up with An Open Book.

And stay tuned for a “Best Reads of the Year” post I hope to have up within the next week!

What I Read in November

Posting late this month because 1) Thanksgiving and 2) End of semester for my kids and 3) Christmas preparations, but even though I am too late for my regular linkup, I wanted to keep up my monthly update–especially as I hit my goal for the month!

The Raven in the Foregate by Ellis Peters

Brother Cadfael continues to delight me! This adventure contained some still timely discussions on pastoral care of sinners.

Monsters of the Week by Zack Handlen and Todd Vanderwerff

I had been reading this most of the year, one entry at a time, to coincide with our family re-watch of all 11 seasons plus the movies of my favorite show.  It includes reviews of every episode plus short interviews of cast members and plenty of inside info.

How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

What I appreciated most about this book is how the author led us along on his own antiracist journey, while inviting us to confront our own internalized biases and learn how to do better.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

This was the only Georgetown book club choice that I read this quarter. I was a little iffy about it because of the subject matter–it is a “memoir” of the wife of Jesus! But it was written in such a way as not to offend, and it was more about the heroine and her journey anyway.  I enjoyed the story and the details of everyday life at the time.

The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness by Father Greg Boyle

I stumbled into an Instagram book study hosted by Alissa Molina and I am so glad I did! I had been fortunate to have heard Father Greg speak at my son’s graduation from Notre Dame so I was excited to read this book, and it did not disappoint.  Father Greg is the founder of a ministry that serves gang members, and the stories of mercy and grace and wisdom in this book will surprise and move you.

And that’s it for November!  I hope to be back to linking up next month.

What I Read in October

I made up for last month’s failure to meet my five-book-a-month goal by reading eight books this month, thanks to multiple book clubs.

Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol

This is a perfectly fine book, which I read for one of my Georgetown book clubs. It just didn’t really grab me and I kind of had to slog through it. I’ve decided to opt out of the Georgetown choices that I am not really excited about going forward.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

It was my third time participating in Booktober this month, and this was the first book I read. It had some problems, but this tale of two women living almost a century apart, both of whose lives were affected by a mystery of books gone missing from the New York Public Library, was a fun don’t-want-to-put-it-down kind of read.

The Sirens of Mars by Sarah Steward Johnson

This was the other Georgetown book club selection that I had trouble finishing. Again, it’s not the author’s fault that the subject matter just did not grab me. One neat thing is that there was a certain amount of overlap between this and the Rocket Scientist book.

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

This was the second Booktober selection, about people working at the BBC during World War II. It was a weird read because I could see that it was well-written but I just did not care about it at all.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

I do not even know what to say about this book. Bizarre is the best adjective to describe it. I have read O’Connor’s short stories so I know how strange she can be but I wish that I had read this in college so I could have had a really good discussion about it.

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanual Acho

This would make a great starting point if you have not read any books on being anti-racist yet. It’s based on the author’s video series of the same name in which he answers questions posed by white viewers, on all kinds of topics from hip hop to Affirmative Action. It’s very non-threatening and accessible if there is someone whose consciousness you’d like to raise. 🙂

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

I slogged through this 600-page tome for my RL book club, having been assured that it was the scariest book ever, and I regret to inform you that I was more irritated than scared. I get that it’s supposed to be clever and experimental and modern but I wish someone would explain its appeal and how it has achieved cult status.  To sum up as briefly as possible, it’s a (fictional) scholarly book about a fictional movie written by a reclusive old man discovered and edited for publication after his death by a troubled, drug-addled young man and it has about a million footnotes and what I will call a creative layout.

A Most Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters

What can I say? Delightful, as always, and I was pleased to figure out the mystery more quickly than usual.

As usual, I am sharing this month’s reads at An Open Book. Check it out!

What I Read in July

Well, this was the first month I failed to meet my five book reading goal. I read parts of several other books that will show up in my August post, but  only completed four. It is getting harder and harder to preserve my dedicated reading time, and with school starting back up in August I am going to have to re-think my schedule.

I started The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings years ago and did not finish it, so I started over. This is a very accessible look at Tolkien’s philosophy, and there is a lot on C.S. Lewis too!

I should have read Divine Mercy for Moms last year, when Faustina was my Saint of the Year (which is why I bought the book in the first place!) but better late than never!  This book is a nice intro to Saint Faustina’s story and spirituality, and comes with practical advice, a study guide for individuals and small groups,and daily reflections and prayers.

Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems before They Happen is the last of the second quarter of Georgetown book club reads. It was a fascinating look at problem-solving. I liked its emphasis on analysis and concrete steps rather than just worrying about the future and succumbing to paralyzing anxiety. I feel myself thinking new thoughts after reading it.

Finally, The Pilgrim of Hate is the next installment of the Brother Cadfael books, which continue to delight me.  I drop everything else to read these when my daughter brings me the latest from the library. I am halfway through the series now!

As ever, I am linking up with An Open Book. You can find more great reads by clicking here. And please comment below with your own latest reads!

What I Read in June

I did not read as much in June, but I did meet my goal.  Here’s the breakdown:

Call Down the Hawk is the first of a trilogy that follows the Raven Boys series, which I loved. My adult daughter loves young adult fantasy and I am grateful for the ones she recommends to me.  This was a re-read in preparation for the second book coming out.

I’ve been reading Only Love Today for awhile, bit by bit during my evening prayer time. It’s perfect as a once-a-day read, and it contains valuable and affirming lessons written in an engaging and accessible way.

Mister Impossible is the aforementioned sequel, which I got my hands on at the beginning of vacation, once my daughter had finished with it. There’s not much I can say about this series without giving things away so I’ll just say I had  hard time putting it down.

I read The Vanishing Half for one of my Georgetown book clubs. It’s the story of Black twin sisters who are separated when one disappears to pass for white, and all the repercussions that follow into the next generation. I found the ending mildly disappointing but I was absorbed by the story.

Another Georgetown selection, The Pull of the Stars is set during the 1918 pandemic but the author did not plan its publication to coincide with our current pandemic. It was a case of truth being stranger than fiction that she had this book about to come out before she ever heard of Covid-19. Needless to say, the coincidence adds weight to what is already a well-written and riveting story about three days is a ward for pregnant flu patients in a hospital in Ireland. It was graphic and painful but I could not stop reading.

Secrets of a Summer Night is my guilty summer read. It’s obviously a romance novel, and first in a series about a group of wallflowers who set out to help each other find husbands before they are hopeless old maids. I discovered this author when I ran across one of her books at Goodwill. I was mildly intrigued by the blurb on the back of the book and my daughter and I enjoyed the book so much that we ended up reading the whole series.  If you ever enjoyed romance novels but grew tired of them, give these a try. There’s a freshness to them that makes the genre fun again.

And that’s it!

As ever, I’m linking up at An Open Book. Click below for more great reads.

What I Read in April

April was a month in which I read parts of a lot of books which I will finish and post about NEXT month. I did meet my five book goal for April though!

Continuing with my re-read of the Anne of Green Gables series, I read Anne of the Island, in which Anne goes to college. On this reading it strikes me how little we actually hear about Anne’s actual studies! Also, the pacing is strange as whole years seem to pass in the blink of an eye. But I will always love this book for the chapter in which Anne finally realizes that she loves Gilbert.

Ellis Peters’s mysteries continue to delight me. This month’s read was The Devil’s Novice. Whenever my daughter brings me one of these books from the library, I immediately put down whatever I’ve been reading and proceed to devour it in a day or two.

This Is All I Got was a gut-wrenching, soul-sucking read, and if you are one of those people who believe a smart, hard-working woman ought to be able to pull herself out of poverty, you need to read this. It was one of my Georgetown book club reads for the month.

The Biggest Bluff was the other Georgetown book and it was a jarring juxtaposition to the prior one. It chronicles the author’s quest to become a top poker player, while also dabbling in psychology.  If you don’t understand poker and don’t really want to, parts of it are tedious, even though the story and some of the insights are interesting.

Finally, even though I am trying to read only one of these a month, I just could not resist cracking open Anne of Windy Poplars. This is probably my least favorite of the series, perhaps because it is almost entirely epistolary, and features too many new characters at the expense of all our old friends.

I am writing this on May 5, and I have already finished two books this month–so I am already looking forward to next month’s post!

As always, I am linking up with An Open Book. Click the picture below to discover more great reads!