So, I’ve had a yearly tradition of looking back on the previous year and listing my favorite books that I devoured. Well, it’s March and I haven’t done that yet. Life has been…busy. (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻
But I’m back on that yearly tradition, three months after I should have been! That’s not so bad. Plus, I really, really wanted to talk about these books. Some are new to me, stories that I read for the first time and absolutely loved. Some are rereads that I wanted to list anyway, just to give them extra love (because they deserve it).
I’ve waited long enough! Here are my favorite reads of 2021, in no particular order (they are all fantastic!)…
- Leaves on the River by Franz Dolp
Let’s start this list off with some poetry! Even though I’ve been dabbled in poetry for some years now and have always enjoyed reading poems, I really got into reading more poetry in 2021. During my stay at Flying Squirrel Studios are part of my solitary writing retreat, I found several poetry books and started reading them the evening I arrived. My favorite of the books I found is Leaves on the River.
There are no words for how much I love this book. The imagery is so vivid, with lyrical language and beautiful settings that I couldn’t get out of my head. It’s a shame that more people aren’t aware of Franz Dolp’s work. I want to shout this from the rooftops: Leaves on the River is a gem of a poetry collection, and it gave me such a pleasant, meaningful experience during my writing retreat.
If you’re a fan of poetry, definitely check this one out! I hope you have just as much fun as I did, if not more.
2. The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai, illustrations by Posuka Demizu
As I mentioned in my manga recommendations, I experienced The Promised Neverland first as an anime. Following the release of season two, however, I decided to switch to the manga and see if I liked it better. And I did! For the most part. I won’t deny that the ending to the series is a little strange and very rushed. But the journey the story takes to get there is where the real adventure lies!
Emma, Ray, and Norman’s story begins as a psychological thriller/suspense and shifts into different subgenres depending on the arc. But the real treasure of the story are the characters: each one is vibrant and unique, with smarts to spare. Emma is one of the very few female shonen protagonists who appears in Shonen Jump (where The Promised Neverland had its run), and her likability is off the charts.
It’s also interesting to experience each character’s internal thought process as the story moves along, something the anime chose not to incorporate. Both versions are wonderful, but it’s great to have that much more insight into who the characters are and why they act the way they do. I absolutely love mind games and stories that center around the resourcefulness of underdogs, so The Promised Neverland was a guaranteed joy for me. I can’t really say much more without giving away major spoilers, but if you’re at all interested, this manga series is a fantastic read, whether or not you’ve seen the show.
3. Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell
Karen Russell is such a gem of the literary world. I read both Orange World and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves as part of my MFA program, and I was familiar with her work ever since reading her short stories for creative writing classes since my first year in undergrad. But reading Orange World was an entirely different experience.
The way Russell plays with colors in this collection is so vibrant and combines so perfectly with the strangeness of the tales that the book stuck in my mind for a long time after I closed the book. The stories often focus on entering new stages of life and can vary from being bitter sweet to just plain bitter or just plain sweet. The reds/browns/oranges provide a continuous thread of color throughout the collection, which reinforces the idea of danger, change, and the need to adapt.
Just because the collection is a fantastic experience as a whole doesn’t mean that each individual story isn’t great on its own merit. My favorites were “The Tornado Auction” and “Orange World,” both of which absolutely sucked me into the story and never really let me go.
4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mendel
It’s such a weird experience to read a book about how the whole world changed due to a virus in the middle of a real-world pandemic. So many of the passages about the virus from Station Eleven, and and the trapped/sadly ethereal feelings that come with it, rang very true to me. The book was written years before the COVID-19 days, and yet it hits the nail right on the head.
As a post-apocalyptic literary fiction novel, Station Eleven exists in a strange but wonderful area of unreal and believable, and a lot of that has to do with character work. The cast of characters is large and spread out in different areas of the world (and the timeline), but many of them are connected through objects or by shared experiences — even one of the main protagonists shares a beloved graphic novel with the antagonist.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and seeing how all these different characters cope with their deteriorating situations is an engrossing experience. And thankfully, there’s a little bit of hope woven throughout as well.
5. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
This book pulled me in, broke me, and then rebuilt me, and I loved every minute of it! Eventually, I’ll get around to writing an analysis of how Jemisin expertly deals with the different facets of character, but for now I’ll just say this: I was floored by the experience of this book, and I absolutely recommend it to anyone who loves dark fantasy.
The magic system is stunning in the world of The Fifth Season and not just in terms of how the literal magic works. The breaking of the story’s world is an amazing storyline to follow, and from the very first page — from the very first line — the tone and writing promises at even greater and more terrible events to come.
In short, I was blindsided, and I couldn’t be happier! I can’t believe I hadn’t read this book until last year, but I’ll definitely be following the Broken Earth series to see what’s next…even if that means the story will break me again and again. It’s absolutely worth the heartbreak.
6. Cinder by Marissa Meyer
I might sound like a broken record now that Marissa Meyer has appeared on so many recommendation lists, but this author and this series will always have a special place in my heart. The Lunar Chronicles is such an imaginative series, mixing sci-fi elements like cyborgs, genetically altered wolves, and evil space queens with the classic fairy tales that we all know and love.
Cinder is such a wonderful comfort book, and I’m glad that I decided to experience the beginning of this series again while feeling that same old magic. Revising these characters is an absolutely blast, especially since I read Scarlet again right after Cinder (and got very hungry for fresh tomatoes).
Similar to Station Eleven, it was pretty surreal to read about the plague in the book during the real-world pandemic, but that element never overshadows the stunning character work, creative worldbuilding, and spot-on plot beats. I’ve been a fan of this series since I was a kid, and my love for it has only grown, especially after seeing the absolutely gorgeous new covers!
7. Red and Black by Nancy O’Toole
This is another reread for me, but that didn’t stop me from having an absolutely blast with this one. I just love superhero stories, and that just so happens to be Nancy O’Toole‘s specialty. I am in love with her work, and with another brand-new book by this wonderful author currently in the works, now is the perfect time to revisit where it all began.
It is indescribably fun to follow Dawn and Alex’s adventures as Miss Red and Black and Faultline in the vivid setting that is Bailey City. And while it’s not secret that romance isn’t my favorite aspect of stories, the chemistry between Dawn and Alex is just so adorable that I became a romance fan while engrossed in this story…which is saying a lot for me!
With plenty of action-packed scenes, intriguing mysteries, and superpowered antics to go around, Red and Black is one of my favorite go-to superhero books to reread whenever I need that kick of heroic goodness.