2021 books read

I diverted a lot of my reading time to writing in 2021, writing 3 50-word stories around a theme for every day of the year.

Here are the 20 books I did manage to read in 2021:

Row 1: The Good Sister | The Long Call | Everything I Never Told You | The Souvenir Museum | A Forbidden Rumspringa | Guests on Earth
Row 2: An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good | Liar's Dictionary | Far from the Tree | The House in the Ceruelean Sea | Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die | Giovanni's Room
Row 3: Running with Sherman | Man's Search for Meaning | I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf | Honor Kills | The Nature of Fragile Things | Tell the Wolves I'm Home
Row 4: the things we cannot say | Vespertine

Ratings legend:

★★★★★ Completely enthralling, couldn’t put it down. and/or More than just entertaining (e.g., educational, enlightening). Would highly recommend.
★★★★☆ Really great book in all respects with perhaps some minor flaws. Would definitely recommend.
★★★☆☆ Average. An entertaining read but probably forgettable. Might or might not recommend.
★★☆☆☆ Finished, but did not like. Would not recommend.
★☆☆☆☆ Abandoned before finishing, usually because it was poorly written or just uninteresting to me.

Title: The Good Sister          Author: Sally Hepworth
Pages: 313          Duration: 12/19/21 – 12/20/21 (2 days)          Rating: ★★★★★
Genres: fiction, thriller, mystery, suspense
10-word summary: Two sisters have a very different recollection of their up-bringing.
6-word review: Who really is the good sister?
Description*: There was only one time that Rose couldn’t stop Fern from doing the wrong thing and that was a mistake that will haunt Rose for the rest of Fern’s life. Later in life, Fern takes on a mission that will shake the foundations of the life she has carefully built for herself and stir up dark secrets from the past, in this quirky, rich and shocking story of what families keep hidden.
Thoughts: This was a compelling story, and one that I wanted to know what happened bad enough that I read it in two days in spite of it not being a short book. I read this book as part of our Mostly Social Book Club.

Title: The Long Call          Author: Ann Cleeves
Pages: 542          Duration: 11/16/21 – 11/30/21 (15 days)          Rating: ★★★★☆
Genres: fiction, mystery, thriller, suspense, LGBT, British literature
10-word summary: Investigating a stabbed dead body on the beach gets complicated.
6-word review: Diverse characters add interest to story.
Description*: In North Devon, Detective Matthew Venn stands outside the church as his estranged father’s funeral takes place. On the day Matthew left the strict evangelical community he grew up in, he lost his family too. Now, as he turns and walks away again, he receives a call from one of his team. A body has been found on the beach nearby: a man with a tattoo of an albatross on his neck, stabbed to death. The case calls Matthew back to the people and places of his past, as deadly secrets hidden at their hearts are revealed, and his new life is forced into a collision course with the world he thought he’d left behind.
Thoughts: I borrowed this book from the library after seeing an ad on my Facebook timeline for the British series by the same name. I liked that the protagonist was a gay man and that his husband was also part of the story. It does a decent job of depicting unaccepting family members of gay people.

Title: Everything I Never Told You          Author: Celeste Ng
Pages: 297          Duration: 11/14/21 – 11/22/21 (9 days)          Rating: ★★★★★
Genres: fiction, mystery, family
10-word summary: A Chinese-American family unravels after the death of a daughter.
6-word review: A tightly woven story steadily unwinds.
Description*: A Chinese American family lives in 1970s small-town Ohio, and Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee. Her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
Thoughts: Each of the parents in this book is carrying a lot of baggage borne of childhood and societal bullying and it comes together in tragic ways for their children. I rarely re-read books, mostly because it feels like I’m wasting time when I do. This one was no different. I first read this book in 2018, and re-read it for our Mostly Social Book Club

Title: The Souvenir Museum          Author: Elizabeth McCracken
Pages: 256          Duration: 09/20/21 – 10/09/21 (20 days)          Rating: ★★★★☆
Genres: fiction, short stories
10-word summary: A dozen short stories testing the mysterious bonds of family.
6-word review: Loved/hated it—good book club discussion.
Description*: In these stories, the mysterious bonds of family are tested, transformed, fractured, and fortified. A recent widower and his adult son ferry to a craggy Scottish island in search of puffins. An actress who plays a children’s game-show villainess ushers in the New Year with her deadbeat half brother. A mother, pining for her children, feasts on loaves of challah to fill the void. A new couple navigates a tightrope walk toward love. And on a trip to a Texas water park with their son, two fathers each confront a personal fear.
Thoughts: I borrowed this book from the library after reading a review of it NPR’s website. The review said it “begins with one of the funniest short stories I’ve read in a long time.” And goes on to say, “I had to stop reading several times to explain to my husband why I was laughing so hard.” And as is typical, I did not find that to be the case. What I did absolutely love about this book was the examples she used to “show” you rather than “tell” you who these characters were. The characters weren’t all that quirky, though, just the way she told you about them. I read this book on my own and then suggested it for our our Mostly Social Book Club, and two of us loved it and two of us hated it, which made for great discussion.

Title: A Forbidden Rumspringa          Author: Keira Andrews
Pages: 256          Duration: 09/10/21 – 09/18/21 (9 days)          Rating: ★★★☆☆
Genres: fiction, LGBT, religion, Amish
10-word summary: Two men work through their sexuality, complicated by being Amish.
6-word review: Not uncommon gay coming-of-age, coming-out story.
Description*: In a world where every detail of life—down to the width of a hat brim—is dictated by God and the all-powerful rules of the community, two men dare to imagine a different way. At 18, Isaac Byler and David Lantz know little outside the strict Amish settlement of Zebulon, Minnesota, where there is no rumspringa for exploration beyond the boundaries of their insular world. But when David takes on Isaac as his carpenter apprentice, their attraction grows amid the sweat and sawdust. David shares his sinful secrets, and he and Isaac struggle to reconcile their shocking desires with their commitment to faith, family and community.
Thoughts: This book was another free download from BookBub, one that I absolutely couldn’t resist even though I know I don’t like romance novels, because its genre was so oddly specific—”a gay Amish romance novel.” I’m not a fan of reading about the gory details of sexual encounters, and it held true here, too, even though it was between two men. This could be the reason I’m not a fan of romance novels of any kind.

Title: Guests on Earth          Author: Lee Smith
Pages: 349          Duration: 08/29/21 – 09/09/21 (11 days)          Rating: ★★★★☆
Genres: historical fiction, southern, mental health
10-word summary: Story of orphaned 13-year-old questionably admitted into a mental institution.
6-word review: Fine line between art and madness.
Description*: It’s 1936 when orphaned thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint is admitted to Highland Hospital, a mental institution in Asheville, North Carolina, known for its innovative treatments for nervous disorders and addictions. Taken under the wing of the hospital’s most notable patient, Zelda Fitzgerald, Evalina witnesses cascading events that lead up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them. Author Lee Smith has created, through a seamless blending of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart—in which art and madness are luminously intertwined.
Thoughts: Our Mostly Social Book Club choose this book because it was on a list of books set in North Carolina. It was a time when mental illness was treated barbarically, as were women really, and I did enjoy the mentions of places in and around Asheville and trying to decide if the things said about Zelda Fitzgerald were fiction or nonfiction.

Title: An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good          Author: Helene Tursten
Pages: 178          Duration: 08/20/21 – 08/21/21 (2 days)          Rating: ★★★★★
Genres: fiction, short stories, crime, humor
10-word summary: An 88-year-old Swedish woman has no qualms about killing people.
6-word review: Just a quick, fun little read.
Description*: Maud is an irascible 88-year-old Swedish woman with no family, no friends, and… no qualms about a little murder. This funny, irreverent story collection by Helene Tursten, author of the Irene Huss investigations, includes 5 short stories named: An elderly lady has accommodation problems, An elderly lady on her travels, An elderly lady seeks peace at Christmas time, The antique dealer’s death, and An elderly lady is faced with a difficult dilemma
Thoughts: A friend of mine recommended this book to me via Facebook and upon picking it up at the library, I found it—quite literally—a cute little book. It wasn’t much bigger than my wallet. It was a quick, fun read about a little old lady doing what little old ladies aren’t known for doing.

Title: Liar’s Dictionary          Author: Eley Williams
Pages: 288          Duration: 07/08/21 – 07/10/21 (3 days)          Rating: ★★★★★
Genres: historical fiction, LGBT, books about books
10-word summary: Celebration of the rigidity, fragility, absurdity, and joy of language.
6-word review: Will appeal more to word nerds.
Description*: An exhilarating and laugh-out-loud debut novel from a prize-winning new talent, which chronicles the misadventures of a lovelorn Victorian lexicographer and the young woman put on his trail a century later to root out his misdeeds while confronting questions of her own sexuality and place in the world.
Thoughts: I received this book in the U.S. mail from our friend Barb Hammon who said she thought I’d like it and “when you are done, send it back—or better yet—send it on to someone else who would enjoy it.” (And I passed it on to Christina Romano when I was done with it.) It took me a little while to get into it; in fact, I started it once and abandoned it, but then picked it up several months later and ended up loving it. It’s definitely for people with a love of language and words.

Title: Far from the Tree          Author: Robin Benway
Pages: 374          Duration: 07/03/21 – 07/07/21 (5 days)          Rating: ★★★★☆
Genres: fiction, adoption, family, LGBT
10-word summary: Girl puts baby up for adoption; seeks own birth family.
6-word review: A satisfying—but not great—read.
Description*: Being the middle child has its ups and downs. But for Grace, an only child who was adopted at birth, discovering that she is a middle child is a different ride altogether. After putting her own baby up for adoption, she goes looking for her biological family, including
Maya, her loudmouthed younger bio sister, who has a lot to say about their newfound family ties and Joaquin, their stoic older bio brother, who has no interest in bonding over their shared biological mother.
Thoughts: This book was interesting enough. The ending, although I wouldn’t characterize it as “happy,” I would say it tied things up in a way that would be satisfying to people who like happy endings. I read this book as part of our Mostly Social Book Club.

Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea          Author: T.J. Klune
Pages: 394          Duration: 06/22/21 – 06/29/21 (8 days)          Rating: ★★★★☆
Genres: fiction, fantasy, LGBT, diversity, young adult
10-word summary: Linus Baker discovers an unlikely family in an unexpected place.
6-word review: I wanted to like this more.
Description*: A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret. Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages. When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.
Thoughts: A friend of mine recommended this book to me, I’m guessing because of the diverse set of characters and its theme of diversity, otherwise it’s not the kind of book I’d read being of the fantasy and magic genre. I found it interesting enough, but not enthralling. What was really weird about it was that at about two-thirds of the way through it, I switched to the audio book version of it because it was available on the NC Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped site, and I absolutely hated the reading of it. Most of the characters had some kind of affectation when they spoke, and it really got on my nerves listening to them. With all that said, it had a good message, and I am glad to see a young adult book with LGBT (and other diverse characters) in it.

Title: Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die          Author: Karol Jackowski
Pages: 112          Duration: 06/20/21 – 06/22/21 (3 days)          Rating: ★★★★☆
Genres: nonfiction, humor, spirituality, self-help
10-word summary: Author, a nun for more than 35 years, shares wisdom.
6-word review: Wondered throughout if it was satire.
Description*: This book blends humor, insight, and wisdom in a way that’s accessible and irresistible. Nothing exhilarates and sends the soul soaring more than having the best time ever—so much so that face muscles ache from such hearty laughter, writes author Karol Jackowski, a nun for more than 35 years. May you have millions of such laughs. Time rarely gets more divine that that. Featuring whimsical illustrations and pointers on how to rediscover a fulfilling life—including how to treat yourself, get some depth, and make yourself interesting
Thoughts: I spent a lot of time while reading this book wondering if she (the author) was being serious or sarcastic. In retrospect, since it’s classified as nonfiction, she was serious. Three chapters, in particular, amused me: All nuns are treated equally, Nuns aren’t interested in being married, and Nuns listen to God more than anyone else.

Title: Giovanni’s Room          Author: James Baldwin
Pages: 159          Duration: 06/15/21 – 06/20/21 (6 days)          Rating: ★★★★★
Genres: fiction, classic, LGBT, romance, African American
10-word summary: An intense examination of the mystery of love and passion.
6-word review: I should have read Baldwin sooner.
Description*: In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.
Thoughts: Every time I come across a quote or a review of something James Baldwin has written, I think, “I really need to read some of his work.” So I finally did, and chose this classic of gay literature. Baldwin himself said about this work: “[it’s] not so much about homosexuality, it is what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody.” The style of this book is characterized as “confessional,” and a surprising thing about it is that all of the characters are white.

Title: Running with Sherman          Author: Christopher McDougall
Pages: 483          Duration: 05/26/21 – 06/11/21 (17 days)          Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
Genres: nonfiction, animals, memoir, sport
10-word summary: A rescue donkey is trained for a challenging American race.
6-word review: Abhorred it—skimmed most of it.
Description*: When Chris McDougall agreed to take in Sherman, a donkey from an animal hoarder, he thought it would be no harder than the rest of the adjustments he and his family had made after moving from Philadelphia to the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country. But when he arrived, Sherman was in such bad shape he could barely move, and his hair was coming out in clumps. Chris decided to undertake a radical rehabilitation program designed not only to heal Sherman’s body but to heal his mind as well. It turns out the best way to soothe a donkey is to give it a job, and so Chris decided to teach Sherman how to run. He’d heard about burro racing—a unique type of race where humans and donkeys run together in a call-back to mining days—and decided he and Sherman would enter the World Championship in Colorado.
Thoughts: I’ll start off by saying I read this book for our Mostly Social Book Club, and the other three members absolutely loved it. I hated it. I supposed several things contributed to it: 1) A donkey is just not an animal I can apparently warm up to, 2) Although it’s a about a lot more than sports, it’s also a lot about sports, which I have little interest in, 3) And probably most problematic, this author had an annoying habit of going on for pages and pages with backstory about a new character that you (or I, at least) hadn’t even yet decided if I cared about. I skimmed—literally— 85% of this book and only didn’t abandon it because it was a book club book.

Title: Man’s Search for Meaning          Author: Viktor E. Frankl
Pages: 188          Duration: 05/13/21 – 05/21/21 (9 days)          Rating: ★★★★☆
Genres: nonfiction, psychology, philosophy, spirituality, Holocaust
10-word summary: Frankl’s seminal work on spiritual survival and his logotherapy theory.
6-word review: I struggled with parts of this.
Description*: Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory-known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”)-holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
Thoughts: I know this is a heralded book that I should have liked more than I did. I will say that I am glad to have finally read it—thanks to it being a Mostly Social Book Club book—to see what all the fuss was about. I think the idea that you can choose how you react to things is very helpful, but I also think there’s a lot more that we now know about the biological (i.e., brain and chemical) aspects of reactions and interactions that significantly complicates matters and renders that idea as a little too simplistic.

Title: I Will Judge You by Your Bookshelf          Author: Grant Snider
Pages: 128          Duration: 04/22/21 – 04/24/21 (3 days)          Rating: ★★★☆☆
Genres: nonfiction, graphic novel, humor, books about books
10-word summary: A graphical exploration of the love of writing and reading.
6-word review: Not a huge graphic novel fan.
Description*: It’s no secret that we are judged by our bookshelves. We learn to read at an early age, and as we grow older we shed our beloved books for new ones. But some of us surround ourselves with books. We collect them, decorate with them, are inspired by them, and treat our books as sacred objects. In this lighthearted collection of one- and two-page comics, writer-artist Grant Snider explores bookishness in all its forms, and the love of writing and reading, building on the beloved literary comics featured on his website, Incidental Comics.
Thoughts: I borrowed this book from the library after a colleague said she’d read it and loved it. To be honest, I was mostly interested in it as potential fodder for 50-word stories of which I was writing 3 around a theme every day in 2021. However, about a third of the way into it with no luck to that end, I started losing interest in it.

Title: Honor Kills          Author: Nanci Rathbun
Pages: 230          Duration: 04/12/21 – 04/12/21 (1 day)          Rating: ★★★★☆
Genres: fiction, mystery, crime, suspense
10-word summary: A missing husband’s uncovered obituary adds to his mysterious disappearance.
6-word review: A standalone part of a series.
Description*: Six years ago, Marcy Wagner hired PI Angelina Bonaparte to find her missing husband Hank, who cleaned out their bank accounts and disappeared. Then Angie finds his obituary in an upstate newspaper. Marcy wants to know what why he abandoned her and the kids. Angie does, too!
Thoughts: I wouldn’t call this a page turner, but it kept me interested enough to want to find out what happened. As most of the books I get free from BookBub, this book is one of a series—book 3 of 4, but it’s said to “stand on its own,” and I found it did.

Title: The Nature of Fragile Things          Author: Susan Meissner
Pages: 377          Duration: 04/07/21 – 04/11/21 (5 days)          Rating: ★★★★★
Genres: historical fiction, mystery, family
10-word summary: There is more to Sophie’s husband than meets the eye.
6-word review: Compelling story with an accommodating ending.
Description*: April 18, 1906: A massive earthquake rocks San Francisco just before daybreak, igniting a devouring inferno. Lives are lost, lives are shattered, but some rise from the ashes forever changed.
Thoughts: This was a gripping story with a huge, what I think of as a record scratch moment, when something happens that makes you go, “HUH?????” That moment in this book is at the end of chapter 8. I really like how the “scorned” women came together in friendship and love after it was all said and done. I read this book as part of our Mostly Social Book Club.

Title: Tell the Wolves I’m Home          Author: Carol Rifka Brunt
Pages: 367          Duration: 03/28/21 – 04/01/21 (5 days)          Rating: ★★★★★
Genres: literary fiction, LGBT, young adult
10-word summary: June’s uncle Finn teacher her more in death than life.
6-word review: Brilliant point-of-view change through third party.
Description*: In this striking literary debut, Carol Rifka Brunt unfolds a moving story of love, grief, and renewal as two lonely people become the unlikeliest of friends and find that sometimes you don’t know you’ve lost someone until you’ve found them.
Thoughts: I loved this book. The author did a brilliant job of portraying the relationship between June and her uncle from June’s point of view, and then just as brilliantly, unraveled that portrayal (and yours!) because you thought it was exactly as June did. I read this book as part of our Mostly Social Book Club.

Title: The Things We Cannot Say          Author: Kelly Rimmer
Pages: 415          Duration: 01/29/21 – 02/02/21 (5 days)          Rating: ★★★★★
Genres: historical fiction, WWII, romance
10-word summary: A tragic love story and a family secret unfolds dramatically.
6-word review: This kept me turning the pages.
Description*: Alice begins to uncover the story her grandmother is so desperate to tell, and discovers a love that bloomed in the winter of 1942. As a painful family history comes to light, will the struggles of the past and present finally reach a heartbreaking resolution?
Thoughts: This was a compelling, well-told story that kept me engaged and wanting to know how it ended. Flashbacks can sometimes be distracting or confusing, but neither of these were the case for me with the ones in this book. I read this book as part of our Mostly Social Book Club.

Title: Vespertine          Author: Leta Blake & Indra Vaughn
Pages: 420          Duration: 01/07/21 – 01/10/21 (4 days)          Rating: ★★★☆☆
Genres: fiction, LGBT, romance, music, religion
10-word summary: Catholic priest and rock star, childhood friends, become adult lovers.
6-word review: Gay romance novel—not for me.
Description*: The careers of Jasper, a Catholic priest, and Nicky, a rock star, have ruled their lives since they parted as teens. When they come face to face again, they must choose between the past’s lingering ghosts or the promise of a new future.
Thoughts: This book taught me that I’m not fond of romance novels regardless of the genders (or lack thereof) involved. Fortunately I got this book as a free download via BookBub.

*Descriptions are from the book as listed on goodreads.com—either quoted or paraphrased.