The very best books of the worst year yet

Well…hey, everybody. It’s been a while, huh.

Longer than usual, even.

Normally I’d come in here with some kinda attempt at a witty reintroduction and then act like no time had passed at all. But a lot of time did pass, in fact. 12 times, if you call a month a time.

So I’m not going to do that.

I’m going to make SEVERAL attempts at witty reintroductions, you can pick your favorite, and then we’ll act like none of this ever happened.

(In two ways – one, I will write the rest of this blog post with no further reference to my prolonged period of laziness and self-pity absence, and two, I will probably leave once more, never to be seen again, or at least not for a few months.)

Sound good?

You’re not capable of real time responding so it’s a deal. Here we go:

  • Hello, everybody. I’m back and I’m worse than ever
  • Sorry it’s been so long. The CDC emailed me and said they could only handle one terrifying scourge of a pandemic at a time, so could I please stop making posts that would prove to be gathering places for the most angry 14 year olds on earth
  • I know it’s been a while, but it turns out that when I stop pretending I’m a blogger I have soo much time for my other hobbies. Unfortunately, and also as it turns out, I do not have other hobbies
  • The tagline of this blog has always been “books and nefarious plots,” and I’ve really been slacking on the latter. So I took a year long sabbatical to focus on my plans for global Goodreads domination, and now I’ve ruined the lives of every single user
  • You know how in the little mermaid (Disney version, so no capitals to indicate a lack of respect), Ariel makes a deal with a drag queen-coded witch to lose her voice in exchange for gaining legs? Much in the same vein, I told the devil I wanted to read more and he was like “cool” but then took my ability to write. Half-literacy for the win

Okay. That’s enough of that.

Last year, which was also the last time I did a little thing called “blogging,” I indulged in a little hubris, as did we all. “2020 was such a horrible year,” I mused. “A pandemic. A lockdown. Another lockdown. That time I tried to make soft pretzels but my yeast was dead and I got so mad I put the batter down the garbage disposal. That time I tried to make cinnamon rolls but my yeast was dead and I got so mad I baked the whole recipe out of spite and then threw them away because they tasted like soft pretzels. An American spinoff of Love Island. Monstrosities all.

“Surely…” I continued, still in the depths of the same self-indulgent monologue. “Surely this was the worst year ever, and 2021 will be fine. Vaccines! Another chance to stop stockpiling and murdering yeast! The probability that my five-year high school reunion won’t happen for safety reasons!”

But I was wrong.

Spoiler: 2021 was just as bad, maybe worse.

Relatedly, I read even more.

Last year, I read 344 books, which was unhinged and sickening and I don’t want to talk about it. (I will be attempting 365 this year, and the same policy applies.) While my average rating was a respectable (for me) 3.2, I gave only 14 of them five stars, which, for all you math heads out there, is just barely 4%.

Ah, well. We live and we learn. Or as I like to say: We live and we stay the same.

Let’s rank them!

In 2021’s wrap-up, I only wrote them in chronological order. So don’t say I never grow, or change, and in fact have represented a process of regression that becomes increasingly difficult to watch as time passes.

That would be very rude.

(As usual, I’m going to do the synopsis and then my review, but this time, bonus content! I’ll also write a lil note about why it is where it is in the ranking, and who I recommend it for.)

(Don’t say I never give you anything.)

Synopsis

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.


Review

This is an excellent, maybe perfect book, and I will never recommend it to anyone.

The edition I read is 951 pages long, and I read it in 24 hours. My sister calculated that I read a page every waking minute, even as it was a workday. I have never in my life lived inside a story like I did this one.

I slept little. I couldn’t focus on anything. When I tried to pick up books after this one they were pale imitations to what I had learned storytelling could be.

I have never loved characters like this, like I knew them. I have never gasped and cried and said “nonono” like I did with this.

This HURT.

So while it was an extraordinary experience, a one-of-a-kind story, maybe something I would otherwise have perceived as the type of book that keeps us reading…

Don’t pick it up.

Because not only is this book so goddamn painful (and yes, everything you’ve heard about how sad this is is true tenfold), but it makes other stories feel less.

Consume at your own risk.

Bottom line: Damn you, Hanya Yanagihara, you evil sorcerer.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: Putting this firmly in the worst of the best position because, while I felt physically incapable of giving this less than five stars, it’s a 50/50 shot on whether I am filled with rage just thinking about how f*cking f*cked up it is.

Who I’d recommend it to: NO ONE. NOBODY AT ALL. Not my various nemeses. Not society’s most heinous criminals. Not Lin-Manuel Miranda himself.

Synopsis

This novel follows a couple in the midst of a twisted unraveling of the darkest unease. You will be scared. But you won’t know why…

I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It’s always there. Always.

Jake once said, “Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.”

And here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t want to be here.


Review

I am not, in theory, a cheesy person.

I shy away from earnestness. Genuine expressions of emotion upset me. The last time I had to have a serious and feelings-based conversation I did everything to prepare for a hermit-esque lifestyle of solitude in the mountains somewhere short of buying a plane ticket (ultimately I recalled that I don’t much care for nature).

But all of that changes when I really, truly love a book.

In my head, and to the most trusted people in my life, there is an upper echelon of books I refer to as “the books of my heart.” Of the 1,246 books I have marked as read on Goodreads, only 89 are true five stars, and the books of my heart (I really can’t believe how corny of a name that is, like how did that come from me, a rock person with Christmas-reject coal for a heart) are a careful selection of even that.

This is a coveted title typically given to the works of Sally Rooney, or dark volumes of adult fantasy, or quirky young adult magical realism.

In short: beautifully written and unique books that mostly take place inside brains, with traces of magic and humor and love.

So this book, a horror-ish novel intensely driven by its narrator’s mind that would, if written by a lesser author, be little more than a vessel for its twist, may seem an unlikely choice for that lot.

But it makes sense to me.

Bottom line: I can’t think about this book too hard without wanting to read it againagainagain.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: Feels like this book is one of those that may have just gotten to me at the right time, and I don’t want to go through the HUMILIATION of lowering the rating upon reread.

Who I’d recommend it to: The mentally ill girlies who are on an upswing currently; people who aren’t scared of horror movies but can be frightened by vibes.

Synopsis

Moon Basin has been haunted for as long as anyone can remember. It started when an explosion in the mine killed sixteen people. The disaster made it impossible to live in town, with underground fires spewing ash into the sky. But life in New Basin is just as fraught. The ex-mining town relies on its haunted reputation to bring in tourists, but there’s more truth to the rumors than most are willing to admit, and the mine still has a hold on everyone who lives there.

Clem and Nina form a perfect loop—best friends forever, and perhaps something more. Their circle opens up for a strange girl named Lisey with a knack for training crows, and Piper, whose father is fascinated with the mine in a way that’s anything but ordinary. The people of New Basin start experiencing strange phenomena—sleepwalking, night terrors, voices that only they can hear. And no matter how many vans of ghost hunters roll through, nobody can get to the bottom of what’s really going on. Which is why the girls decide to enter the mine themselves.


Review

THIS IS WHAT READING IS ALL ABOUT.

Picking up a random book you haven’t heard much about and just. FALLING IN LOVE WITH IT.

Have decided to use the one moment of earnestness I’m allotted per year on this to say: I read for moments like this! Yes, I’m critical, yes, my most common rating is a 3 by a country mile, yes, I bring suffering to the timelines of us all:

But I’m willing to bet that when I want to give a five star – when a book is PERFECT and makes me FEEL and I love the CHARACTERS and it SURPRISES me…

Well, I bet my five stars feel better than your five stars.

This is like if Emily Henry wrote young adult paranormal horror, which is the greatest compliment I can give…any young adult paranormal horror.

It’s funny, the banter is A+, the friendships are fantastic, there’s some sweet little sapphic friends to lovers action, and it is so goddamn spooky I could perish.

What a dream.

Bottom line: I’m going to live forever!!!!!!!!


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: I am so excited to like any young adult books in this day and age that I go feral. There is no saying how long these positive feelings will last.

Who I’d recommend it to: People who like Emily Henry’s peak young adult magical realism era and kinda gorey horror ❤

Synopsis

Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. So she barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies halt operations. The subways squeak to a halt. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.

Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?


Review

Ling Ma served us a whole meal. A feast. A buffet. A week’s worth of Thanksgiving dinners made up of gorgeously subtle metaphor and allegory and motif, if you will.

And I will personally be stuffing myself my dear boy.

This is the kind of book that makes me wish I was still a student and I was assigned this book in an English class, and could spend a week’s worth of hour-long lectures deep in discussion with 20 other people (but reasonably only four who had actually read it).

It’s the kind of book I could have reread immediately after reading for the first time, and then a million times after that.

It’s the kind of book that makes you think about that terrible movie with Bradley Cooper where he takes the pill that opens his brain up to full functioning, because that’s the only way I can reasonably imagine being able to fully appreciate this.

The themes in this, man, the f*cking themes: The immigrant parent’s journey versus Candace’s pregnant journey in a new world. The fevered mindlessly going through tasks versus the pre-pandemic office workers doing the same. The idea of a “colony” and what that means. So, so many more.

I need to reread this immediately, is what I’m saying.

Bottom line: I want to eat this with a spoon.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: Initially I gave this 4.5 stars, but then I plumb couldn’t stop thinking about it!

Who I’d recommend it to: Fans of Station Eleven and people who peaked in senior year AP Lit

Synopsis

Journey into the Hinterland, a brutal and beautiful world where a young woman spends a night with Death, brides are wed to a mysterious house in the trees, and an enchantress is killed twice―and still lives.


Review

My first favorite book of the year…happening in the first month of the year?

It’s more likely than you think.

And since usually I end up five starring less than 10% of the books I read in any given year, I was thinking “not very likely.”

Dear Melissa Albert: Thank you for making this book (which I basically had the idea for – I mean, you mentioned it in a different book, but I am on the record as saying I would like it to be a real book before even you were, so), and thank you for making it everything I wanted it to be, and thank you for giving me a five star read against the odds.

Even if I’ve read 30+ so far this year with only one more five star to my name. So what. We count our blessings.

This is a book of fairytales (my favorite) that is full of darkness and blood and powerful girls and selfish girls and powerful girls and violence and anger and revenge and badassery (all of which are my other favorites).

It is, in short, a dream.

Bottom line: More please!!!


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: When I read The Hazel Wood, I immediately said that I wished the book of fairytales it centers around was real. And now it is, which is proof that I am magic. And you can’t put a price on that.

Who I’d recommend it to: Former weird kids who would tell the Disney fans in their age group about the real bloody scary fairytales the movies were based on

Synopsis

In this exquisite story of family, food, grief, and endurance, Michelle Zauner proves herself far more than a dazzling singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With humor and heart, she tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother’s particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.

As she grew up, moving to the East Coast for college, finding work in the restaurant industry, and performing gigs with her fledgling band–and meeting the man who would become her husband–her Koreanness began to feel ever more distant, even as she found the life she wanted to live. It was her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, when Michelle was twenty-five, that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.


Review

Sometimes the reason everyone calls a book One Of The Best Books Of The Year is because it is.

Everyone gives it a five star rating because it’s five star level. Everyone calls it buzzed-about because it’s buzz-worthy. Everyone calls it the best of the genre in recent memory because that’s obvious. (Celebrity memoir…not as competitive, but still.)

You’d think that’d always be the case, and you’d be wrong, but it doesn’t matter because only this book does.

And on this book…the general populace is correct on all counts.

This is a searing, unique, gorgeously devastating, sometimes funny book that made me very hungry and very sad.

It made me want to listen to more Japanese Breakfast music and also regret the time she did a free show at my college and I had to miss it because I was taking a three-hour night class with no absences permitted.

I hope she keeps writing. But next time I will be prepared with a food-delivery app open and a big ass box of tissues.

Bottom line: I love a pleasant surprise. No comment on the fact that when everyone loves a book and I do too, that counts as a surprise.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: I didn’t necessarily NEED this book when I read it, but god I know I will in the future

Who I’d recommend it to: Sad people; people who enjoy reflecting on times they were sad

Synopsis

Go deeper into the groundbreaking, Emmy-nominated series with this must-have collection of the complete scripts, plus original commentary from award-winning creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge.


Review

I like approximately four things in this world. One thing is cookies, and even those have to pass an extremely comprehensive test which the vast majority of baked goods fail with flying colors.

Another thing is coffee, and this has to be consumed with so much care and precision that if I were dropped back into the Middle Ages, if I didn’t immediately perish from boredom / lack of running water / people smelling bad and being annoying, I could probably enjoy a fruitful career in alchemy. Lead into gold all DAY.

The third thing is books, and, in case you are somehow, mercifully new here, I don’t like those too often either.

Fortunately, the fourth thing is a small number of witty, dark-humor British TV shows, most of which are created / written by / starring / formulated from the angelic and god like brain of Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

When you combine two of those four things into one book, it is a goddamn gift the likes of which come once in a generation.

Bottom line: What is there to say? Watch Fleabag. Read this. Or don’t and be substantially less happy than you could be otherwise. See if I care.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: Fun fact: when I wrote this review, my sister was timing me to see how long it takes me to write them. The above took under 4 minutes. Anyway. This is the script of my favorite show of all time, and it’s better as a show, but it’s still pretty damn good in any format. I would inhale this as one of those weird flavored-oxygen things you see on boardwalks, if it were possible.

Also, everything starting here made it (at least for now) to my all-time favorites!

Who I’d recommend it to: Fleabag fans!!! And everyone else – watch Fleabag and then this will apply to you!

Synopsis

Maybell Parish has always been a dreamer and a hopeless romantic. But living in her own world has long been preferable to dealing with the disappointments of real life. So when Maybell inherits a charming house in the Smokies from her Great-Aunt Violet, she seizes the opportunity to make a fresh start.

Yet when she arrives, it seems her troubles have only just begun. Not only is the house falling apart around her, but she isn’t the only inheritor: she has to share everything with Wesley Koehler, the groundskeeper who’s as grouchy as he is gorgeous—and it turns out he has very different vision for the property’s future.

Convincing the taciturn Wesley to stop avoiding her and compromise is a task more formidable than the other dying wishes Great-Aunt Violet left behind. But when Maybell uncovers something unexpectedly sweet beneath Wesley’s scowls, and as the two slowly begin to let their guard down, they might learn that sometimes the smallest steps outside one’s comfort zone can lead to the greatest rewards.


Review

Attention to the following things:
– raindrops on roses
– whiskers on kittens
– bright copper kettles
– warm woolen mittens
– etc.

You are officially ON NOTICE.

Because you can no longer qualify as a few of ANYONE’S favorite things when Sarah Hogle is writing romance novels.

I almost never love anything. The idea of wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings can hardly bring even the ghost of a smile to my evil face. My average rating on this godforsaken website has been under three stars for more than three years. I eat pain for breakfast. And those are just three examples.

But one thing I did love is Sarah Hogle’s debut, You Deserve Each Other. In fact, I loved it so much that I read it like a million times (okay, four, but honestly that’s almost as shocking) and felt Emotion and Pangs To The Heart and Butterflies and otherwise feelings that tend to be the stuff of my nightmares every time.

And since lightning doesn’t strike twice (lightning in this case being me acting like a normal person), I assumed this would be a three and a half star read, tops. Because I do not deserve happiness and have presumably been cursed by some sort of witch or creature with haunting capabilities or mean anthropomorphic pond dweller to ensure it.

But this…

This might even be better than You Deserve Each Other.

This might be the best romance novel I have ever read.

These characters are so – ugh – PERFECT for each other. (They deserve each other, if you will.) They are full and real and hard to like but more so EXTREMELY LIKABLE. The conversations are cute and the internal monologues are cute and the setting is so cute and everything is just about so cute you might throw up and die. But like, in a good way.

I’m not a squealer or a blusher or even much of a smiler, but there were multiple scenes in this book that made me see the appeal of all three.

I tend to like a little hatefulness in my romance novels. A little darkness. A little b*tchiness. That’s why You Deserve Each Other, a book with several top reviews that are like “why are this people so mean,” worked for me SO well.

And this is a VERY sweet book. Almost too much so, for me. I like a daydreamer or a sweetiepie as much as the next person, but as it turns out I draw the line at elaborate romance-novel-within-a-romance-novel AUs.

But not quite draw the line. Because this is still 5 stars.

I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore.

I think I need to reread this.

Bottom line: Cure for cynicism discovered by Sarah Hogle! Yours for the low low price of like…under $20, or something. I don’t know. It’s worth it.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: This is a tie, so we’ll discuss it on the next one! Go to your room! Don’t talk back!

Sorry, I don’t plan on having children, so I have to fulfill my lifetime parenting quotas where I can.

Who I’d recommend it to: Reluctant cynics! (Like, if you’re cynic-presenting but you don’t define yourself that way.)

Synopsis

Eve Brown is a certified hot mess. No matter how hard she strives to do right, her life always goes horribly wrong—so she’s given up trying. But when her personal brand of chaos ruins an expensive wedding (someone had to liberate those poor doves), her parents draw the line. It’s time for Eve to grow up and prove herself—even though she’s not entirely sure how…

Jacob Wayne is in control. Always. The bed and breakfast owner’s on a mission to dominate the hospitality industry—and he expects nothing less than perfection. So when a purple-haired tornado of a woman turns up out of the blue to interview for his open chef position, he tells her the brutal truth: not a chance in hell. Then she hits him with her car—supposedly by accident. Yeah, right.

Now his arm is broken, his B&B is understaffed, and the dangerously unpredictable Eve is fluttering around, trying to help. Before long, she’s infiltrated his work, his kitchen—and his spare bedroom. Jacob hates everything about it. Or rather, he should. Sunny, chaotic Eve is his natural-born nemesis, but the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else. Like Eve, the heat between them is impossible to ignore—and it’s melting Jacob’s frosty exterior.


Review

Do you ever have the food you’ve been craving at exactly the moment you’re craving it?

That fasting-for-Thanksgiving feeling of finally sitting at the table, except for if turkey and canned cranberry sauce were ever everything it’s cracked up to be. So more like pizza by the slice in the salt air and setting sun of the boardwalk after a day on the beach, or takeout-dim-sum pork buns and scallion pancakes when you’ve forgotten to eat and are suddenly hollow-stomached, or FINALLY experiencing the toothachey sugar of a warm cinnamon roll, which always take like eight times longer to make than expected.

That’s what reading a good romance feels like after dozens of mediocre ones.

This is a perfect romance, for me.

I loved the brash kind protagonist. I loved the shy rough around the edges sweet love interest. I loved the fun dialogue, I loved (for once in my life!) the steamy scenes, I loved the complicated loving family, and I loved watching these two miscommunicate and yell and fall in love.

I blushed, I smiled, I heart-hurted, I winced. It’s everything I want.

I thought the first book in this series was good. I thought the second was not. This was something else altogether.

I hope this holds up on reread.

Bottom line: Enemies to lovers wins again!


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: A romance book being a five star for me in some ways does not impact me as much as other genres (romance books don’t normally change my brain or my heart or whatever), but it is such an exciting event as to shake the world off its axis / represent a glitch in the matrix / etc.

Who I’d recommend it to: Under-romanced girlies who appreciate a good smut scene! (Neither of these things apply to me. But still.)

Synopsis

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.


Review

Sometimes, a book just hits you.

I read 200+ books a year. This month, I’ve read almost a book a day. When I’m reading that much, it can just be because the stars aligned and gave me an insane amount of free time and I chose to spend it all on Bettering Myself Through Literature, but more often, it’s because I’m trying to escape from my snoozefest daily life and my annoying brain.

Currently, it’s the latter.

When I read that much, it can put the stories at a distance. Or really I want to immerse myself so much that I remove myself from the equation altogether and it’s all story, no impact on me.

But sometimes you get a good book at the perfect time and it cuts all that away, whether you want it to or not.

(I did not.)

This book is so, well, gorgeous. The writing and the story, the characters, the setting – none of it gives you a moment’s mercy. It’s unrelenting in its pain and its reality and its loveliness. I kept thinking this was a memoir, because fiction that feels like this is so rare, an incredible feat.

For the last 25% of this book, I kept thinking it had to be over at the next page, or the next – every sentence felt like another paper cut, every paragraph break a scrape, chapter endings f*cking road rash. It was unbearable. I had tears in my eyes through a third of it and I pride myself on being the coolest and least emotional person alive.

Jeez louise.

Bottom line: A book so good it makes me talk like an elderly person.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: I am fairly confident that the next time I read this I will still think it’s five stars. And that’s actually a major compliment, from me.

Who I’d recommend it to: People who like style more than plot. And characters. And like being sad. And maybe like poetry?

Synopsis

For years Carmen Maria Machado has struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship. In this extraordinarily candid and radically inventive memoir, Machado tackles a dark and difficult subject with wit, inventiveness and an inquiring spirit, as she uses a series of narrative tropes—including classic horror themes—to create an entirely unique piece of work which is destined to become an instant classic.


Review

i read most of this stone-faced, face unchanged even as i was recalling repressed traumas with needle-like stabs, even as my heart ached for carmen maria machado, even as the pained gorgeousness of the writing took my breath away.

and then i got to the part where things are allowed to be happy again. and i burst into tears.

this is a beautifully written, brilliant researched, painful and raw and horrific and wonderful nightmarish fairytale of a book. it’s 5 stars and i will never read it again but i will think about it all the time.

bottom line: sometimes, you read a masterpiece. sometimes, a book hits you at exactly the right time. finding both in one tome is once in a lifetime.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: Look at that unbearably earnest bottom line. What more is there to say?

Besides this: two years in a row of CMM faves!

Who I’d recommend it to: Whoever can relate to the above nonsense.

Synopsis

A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, Berlin crafts miracles from the everyday, uncovering moments of grace in the laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians. Readers will revel in this remarkable collection from a master of the form and wonder how they’d ever overlooked her in the first place.


Review

I read this book as part of my genius project, which is another way of saying that the review is so long that pasting it here would actually be a hateful act. Read it at your own risk.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: I loved this book so much that I read every single thing she had ever published over the course of this year.

I have never done that in my life.

Who I’d recommend it to: Lit fic fans, short story aficionados, people looking for a dinner party name drop

Synopsis

Emma Woodhouse believes herself to be an excellent matchmaker, though she herself does not plan on marrying. But as she meddles in the relationships of others, she causes confusion and misunderstandings throughout the village, and she just may be overlooking a true love of her own.


Review

(deep breath)

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!

Okay. Sorry about that. I just remembered the words “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more,” and any time that happens I’m obliged to find the nearest abyss and scream into it for the next 3-5 business days.

Now that we’ve wrapped that up, let’s get to it:

This is a perfect book.

Is this the first Jane Austen book I’ve rated five stars? No. Is this the first time I’ve wished there was a sixth star I could apply to a Jane Austen book? Also no. But is this the most INTENSELY I’ve ever wished that? Hard yes.

This has EVERYTHING a Jane Austen book could possibly have. And also more. (Ignoring the fact that it is possible, since this book has it. Stop undermining my enthusiastic if illogical points, hypothetical person reading this. Meanie.)

It has:
– the beautiful writing, social commentary, and biting wit of all her books
– the actual hilarity of Persuasion
– the – and I hate to use this phrase, a phrase which makes me want to die of cringing, but it’s necessary – swoon-worthy (gag) hero of Northanger Abbey (yes, Mr. Tilney is my favorite Austen hero, what about it)
– the I-am-going-to-scoop-my-heart-out-with-a-spoon level romance of Pride & Prejudice
– the perfectcomplicatedlovely family dynamics of Sense & Sensibility
– and the nothing of Mansfield Park, because that book is not good and we should all live to forget it.

On top of that, we have a heroine that makes all of our pal Janie’s other protagonists look like cardboard cutouts of Girl Scouts. Just flat, nice girls. No depth to them. (This is a great simile, don’t you think? I’m proud, personally.)

Emma is complicated, bratty, spoiled, a little dumb sometimes. She should be hard to like…and yet…

I loved her from page 1. Give me every stubborn but well-motivated funny girl with a sharp tongue. I’ll take all of them, thank you.

And it’s not name bias. Years of being in elementary school classes that forced me to be called by last name due to sheer number of Emmas has ensured that I will NEVER be predisposed to someone I have a first name in common with.

Ever.

Bottom line: I want to reread this already. And I’m actually writing reviews lately, so it hasn’t even been that long.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: I think this is my new favorite Jane Austen book! Which means, without the extenuating circumstances I’m about to get into, this would be my favorite book of basically any year!

Who I’d recommend it to: Most people who think they would like this book have already read it, but I’ll say this: My fellow fans of literary fiction about unlikable women – Emma Woodhouse is the original.

Also. Anya Taylor-Joy in the 2020 adaptation? Insert every heart-based emoji here.

Synopsis

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood. Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?


Review

Well, well, well.

Look what the cat dragged in.

My limited and rarely tested abilities to write a five star review, ever decaying and decreasing from lack of use. We meet again.

I will continue to make my own lack of skill the audience for this review, just for a moment, because this is a special occasion. This isn’t just any five star book, although that would be a fairly once in a blue moon event as well.

You and I – you, of course, being my minimal talents – need to get it together.

This is a SALLY ROONEY book. And not just any Sally Rooney book, but possibly my FAVORITE Sally Rooney book. Could very well be my favorite book by who is likely my favorite author, in other words. Rooney has published one excerpt, one essay, three novels, and four short stories, and I have read her work 22 times, in total.

Also notably, there is a book I have called the following:
– my Bible
– the book of my heart
– my literal and figurative self, distilled into pages
– my most recommended book
– my favorite book of the last 150 years
– nearly my favorite book of all time, second only to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
– my comfort book
– the closest thing I have to a religion

It’s a book called Conversations with Friends, it’s also written by Sally Rooney, and it seems to have been dethroned by this one.

There’s a reason I’ve put off writing this review for two and a half months. The stakes are f*cking high.

So where do I go from here?

I can tell you that, so long as I live, I expect never to encounter writing like this again. Writing so clear and lovely, writing that summons new images and thoughts and emotions you’ve never considered and acts as a kind acknowledgment of the scariest and deepest and truest ones you quietly have.

I can say that this book begins with a launch, a tossing into the pool, an unceremonious jumping in that’s more like a continuation, an assumption you’ve been there all along. That though it begins suddenly it feels like coming home.

I can note that these are some of Rooney’s best and worst love stories, the ones you root for the most with the most complicated and “bad” and problematic people populating them, and that it’s so beautiful to have those two things coexist.

I can attempt to work out my feelings about these characters, that while I feel for them and am fascinated by them and may adore them, it’s almost beside the point of everything else. That for me, a person who reads for characters, the characters are wonderfully done and the realest yet, and the least important part, for me.

I can add that this is also an incredible act of bravery by Rooney, that it serves a huge leap in scope and in style and in intention from her previous books, that she has been criticized for much of her still-nascent career in a way that feels mean-spirited by the aging totems of Literature, and that instead of ducking her head and conceding to the characterization of her work as vapid and millennial, she filled her third book with so much heart it’s hard to fathom.

I can try to describe what this book means to me, what it’s like to spend most of your life trying on cynicism like a Halloween costume, scratchy and seamy and not quite right, to indulge in pithy “I hate everyone” negativity when people seem to be the only real reason life is worth living, and then have your very favorite author – who, it may have been mentioned, holds a fairly outsize role in your heart and mind – tell you she thinks so, too.

I want you to know, and I can try to convey, that love and friendship are all that matters, and that this book is the loveliest way of giving yourself the gift of letting yourself believe that.

I will try to tell you so many things if they get you to read this book.

Bottom line: This is a once in a lifetime one, for me.


And now, back to me

Why it has this ranking: I don’t want to jinx it but I think this is my favorite book of all time.

Who I’d recommend it to: Literally everyone. If you don’t like this I don’t want to hear about it.

What’s the story, morning glory – have you read any of these books? What were your 2021 faves?

38 thoughts on “The very best books of the worst year yet

  1. Love, Saimon says:

    first off, your point about A Little Life “When I tried to pick up books after this one they were pale imitations to what I had learned storytelling could be.”
    SO TRUE!!!! I read it december 2020 and ended up in my worst year long reading slump ever in 2021 cause of the same reason you mention!!!!! Everything paled in comparison, ugh. I’m still constantly battling my urge to reread it cause it was a very cathartic book for me and I love reading about intimate male friendships and this book is the only thing that’s perfected it, I believe. Anyways AAAAHH I love this book so much

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE EVEN THINKING ABOUT REREADING IT!!! you are so much stronger than me. i’m like living to forget it because a) it was so devastatingly sad and b) no other book lives up to it???

      Like

  2. Anonymous says:

    Surprising no one, I, a stranger, relate to 2021 being the hardest year ever. It truly was the hardest year of my life. I’m in a better place so far for 2022 and I have plans and goals that will help me get where I want to be. In the meantime, the most important thing is I feel like I can read again…I plan to read as many books on this list as possible, starting with all of Sally Rooney’s works, Emma, and Severance.

    I did read some last year, 111 books to be exact, and my top favorites are: In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead, It Happened One Summer by Tessa Bailey, Writers & Lovers by Lily King, You Must Not Miss by Katrina Leno (a book of my heart), Joyland by Stephen King, most of Tessa Dare’s backlog, and a few other randoms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      i am so so happy to hear that 2022 is better for you so far, stranger!!! i hope it continues that way and i believe it will. primarily bc damn your taste is good!!! writers & lovers almost made this list for me, and i adore katrina leno!

      happy reading and living and so on in this newish year!

      Like

  3. Love, Saimon says:

    second,

    Again, I had a kinda mediocre reading year last year. BUT, I found five awesome 5 star reads (out of which I know you already love one!!!) (or is it two? Idk if you read Ace Of Spades last year. but I know you love Hill House!)
    Anyways, here are my faves:

    – Ace Of Spades by Faridah Abike Iyimide
    – Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo
    – The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
    – The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun
    – This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal al-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

    You really really need to read Summer Sons, it’s so delicious to read. the vibes were just immaculate (this also applies to This Is How You Lose The Time War)

    ALSO, if youre ever in the mood for a pick me up kinda romance, CHECK OUT THE CHARM OFFENSIVE!!!! it was a random read and I loved it so much. It’s all about men being vulnerable to each other about their anxieties and mental health stuff? and people just listening and trying to understand and respecting each others boundaries???? IDEALISTIC, I know. Which is why it was so good to read about. Omg I really needed that book last year. (it’s also a critique of how reality shows like the bachelor work, like how even if people behind it are diverse and complicated, they force a very one dimensional tacky narrative on screen that removes all the heart out of things.)
    Anyways those are my favessss

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      ummmmm excuse me i love ace of spades and hill house and time war??? and you’ve already convinced me to request summer sons from my library so i guess i have to tbr charm offensive too??? taste twins!!! i believe your opinions one hundred percent. or more.

      Like

  4. Love, Saimon says:

    THIRDLY,

    so, it’s so crazy but all the books on this list fall one one of the three following catagories:
    1. Books I’ve read and loved!
    2. Books that are on my TBR I’m very excited for
    3. Books that don’t sound like something I’ll ever pick up unless someone has a gun to my head (short story collections and straight romance books, sorry not sorry)

    BUT, since 1 and 2 feel so on point, I’ve decided to read all of the books on this list this year and document it. I think it’ll be fun and it’ll keep me motivated to read. PLUS, considering your very high standards for 5 stars I’m curious to see how I’d find your faves (I don’t have much standards so I reckon there won’t be any controversy xD)

    anyways, I don’t wanna jinx this, I hope I do get to do this as a project. I’ll keep you updated. sending you hugs!!! good luck with 365 books this year. happy new year!!!!
    love,
    Saimon

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      omg if you do this as a project i will cry. both from being honored and from nervousness because what if you don’t like them???

      lol @ short stories and straight romance…these are the short storiest short stories, and they are very straight romances. but uh…i hope you like them?? and i will be on the edge of my seat. THANK YOU for all of these comments and they made me so happy and i am truly sitting here like 🙂 and ruining how scary i usually look while typing away!!!

      Like

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      it was one of the worst decisions of my life. i started reading it, immediately realized i would need to talk about it in therapy, and then did everything i could to ensure i would finish it before therapy.

      10/10 would not recommend

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Emma says:

    I feel bad as an Emma that I really cannot stand Austen’s Emma, and it is the only Austen book I’ve given up reading within the first 20 or so pages (I hate Mansfield Park too but I got half way through that one before DNFing!). That being said, I don’t have a “never read again” policy with classics so I don’t know. It could be one I grow to like, possibly when I’ve seen an adaptation or two.

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      AHHH i honestly think it’s so rewarding!!! if you don’t like reading about unlikable characters (i love unlikable characters) it may be tough, but there is character development in spades!!

      Like

  6. lilyslibraryy says:

    I was so so happy to see your email in my inbox!! I’ve been a reader of yours for years now, and can’t express just how much you’ve influenced my developing literary tastes. I was very excited to see the Ocean Vuong book on your list this year, as that was my #1 pick in 2021! Reading this list caused me to frantically swap between my Safari, Libby, and Goodreads tabs, adding and placing on hold and borrowing with the ferocity of a Black Friday shopper. Thank you, thank you, and I’m majorly looking forward to reading through the list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      you have NO IDEA how much this comment means to me! seriously. thank you. ah. i’m like smiling but tearing up kinda – very ugly expression i will confess.

      please keep me posted on your thoughts on these!!! unless you hate them? then maybe pretend you didn’t read them. i hope you have a great reading year and a great LIFE year too!

      Like

  7. Abby says:

    This was such a fun read! One of my reading goals this year is to read more classics, and I will definitely be adding “Emma” to my tbr list!

    2021 was a weird year. And as far as reading goes, I read all of my best books very early and then just kinda moseyed around for the rest of the year and read a bunch of saccarine, feel-good, mushy stuff. But my 5 star reads for the year:

    -The End of Everything by Katie Mack. Because nothing calms my existential dread like reading about the end of the universe
    -A Promised Land by Barack Obama. Did not expect for this to have this much actual tea and hot goss. In. To. It.
    -Killers of the Flower Moon. What in the actual world?! How am I only now hearing this story?
    -Beloved, by Toni Morrison. It’s all over. This was the best book I read in 2021, and I read it in April. The rest of the year I waited for people to ask me “what’s your favorite book you read this year” so I could bring up this book. Damn, y’all. I think I actually hugged the book while I sobbed after I finished it.
    -Milk Fed, by Melissa Broder. Compared to Ms. Morrison’s writing, this was a solid 3/5. But assuming there was a world where I hadn’t stumbled on that level of literature, this would’ve been a 6 star read for me. And so, in honor of that alternate universe self who never read Beloved, I can give this 5 stars. Very hot. Very gay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      thank you and i hope you like emma!!!

      i totally feel you on having good reads early in the year and then “moseying around” (perfect description). my last five star was in mid-october so the last three months have been…a bummer!!

      you have convinced me to attempt toni morrison for the first time, and you have made me laugh out loud with your milk fed description. i hope your 2022 has more consistently distributed favorites!!

      Like

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      it’s like everyone’s least favorite sally rooney, but it’s my favorite book ever?? i just don’t know. thank you and i hope you like it and happy new year!!!

      Like

  8. Simant says:

    I am so happy to see Beautiful World on your list at no. 1? It was an unexpected favourite for me too. It was my first Rooney and it was so so beautiful. This is an amazing post, Emma, and loved reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      thank you so much!!! i love finding fellow BWWAY stans. for me, conversations with friends comes close, but normal people is not quite the same. i hope you enjoy the remaining rooneys!!

      Like

  9. Sumedha says:

    I loved your humour in this post haha. Good to see you back! The several different intros totally set the mood for your reviews. And you reading A Little Life in 24 hours?? unhinged behaviour. my heart and head would not have been able to take that much pain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      thank you!!! yeah it’s a top to bottom unhinged post. but it’s good to be back and at least i can never make that a little life mistake again if i never reread!!

      Like

  10. May @ Forever and Everly says:

    oh wow, the excitement i felt seeing you in my wordpress feed! i’m always happy whenever you post, and especially happy when it’s about all the books you love. 4% 5 star rate… we are the same person and this will be my reading list for the year, basically. i will be prioritizing sally rooney (“favorite book of all time” is no joke!!!). i hope 2022 brings you joy and even better books ❤️❤️❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      the very thought of you, my favorite person, reading bwway, possibly my favorite book…could i explode from happiness???

      so happy to be back, especially to be reading your posts again ❤

      Like

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      conversations with friends was my favorite sally rooney, and then bwway knocked it out of the water. i hope bwway is a great read for you, and that 2022 is way better!

      Like

  11. Rachel says:

    the only book of these that I’ve read is Twice Shy (and I loved that one) but I’m definitely going to read the others now
    some of my favorite books this year:
    Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
    Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
    My Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa
    She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen
    We are Watching Eliza Bright by A.E. Osworth

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmareadstoomuch says:

      sarah hogle represent!! i haven’t read any of your favs rom this year either – so fun to find totally different tastes!

      Like

  12. Kara says:

    Okay so I found you after relishing in BWWAY and was excited for your 5 stars. I’ve also read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (talk about a book that is an experience).

    My 5 ⭐️ list
    -The Love Hypothesis
    -The Paper Palace
    -Beautiful World, Where are you
    -Blood & Ash (series)
    -Hidden Valley Road
    -People We Meet on Vacation
    -It Ends with Us
    -Greenlights
    -A Court of Thorns and Roses (series)
    -The Soulmate Equation
    -Ruin and Rising
    -Confess

    So I was lazy and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t ultimately copy and paste (work smarter not harder?). Some of these admittedly are at the time perfect (for me) resulting in 5 stars. Or maybe Matthew McConaughey sweet talking me (Greenlights -I’d totally let it happen again *swoon*)

    But if I were to say one needs to be added to your TBR it’s The Paper Palace. Do it.

    I am really trying to review all my books this year so thanks for the inspiration. I started embracing my book loving and let life get in the way. Here’s to coming back. Enjoy your quips, thanks for the post. (herbiglittlebooks)

    Liked by 1 person

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