Ruth's Top 10 Reads of 2021
As of today, I’ve read 109 books in 2021.
If you’ve been around for a while, you know that traditionally, my reading landscape looks a bit different. Given all that has gone on in my life personally and professionally this year (even apart from writing and releasing an entire book of my own), I’m counting even this amount a major victory.
I read some books this year! Many of them were very good. That’s a win.
Without further ado, below you’ll find my top 10 reads of 2021.
Ninth House (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo
I dove into Ninth House with few preconceived notions and found the story entirely gripping!
When I picked it up, I didn’t realize how dark things would get (yes, I saw the cover—leave me alone) and I'm kind of glad I didn’t know, because I never would have chosen it otherwise. Though classified as fantasy, Ninth House toes the line with horror, which I don’t handle well. Yet somehow, everything worked for me. This is largely due to the characters, who felt genuine and relatable despite having lives and mindsets vastly different from my own.
Naturally, since this is the first in a series, the resolution didn’t give me everything I wanted; but I'm satisfied with the arc and intrigued by the hook to Book 2.
Write faster, Leigh Bardugo!
Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee
I devoured the audiobook in a single day while on a road trip. The miles slipped by painlessly as I disappeared into the world Lee created. I was entirely unsurprised by how deeply and quickly she drew me in. Since I first encountered the author through her superb book Under a Painted Sky, all her stories have been home runs for me, and Luck of the Titanic is no exception.
The characters grounded the story and had me so emotionally invested that once I arrived at my destination, I quickly unloaded the car and stretched out flat on the guest bed, losing sleep in my panicked rush to get to the end and see how it all turned out.
As one would expect from the clues in the title, the end is emotionally fraught and poignant—and perfect. One of those moments that feels impossible, and yet, in retrospect, inevitable.
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
I’ll be honest. It took me a minute to get hooked, but once I was in, I was all in. The 1700s were wild, y’all, and Alexander Dumas’s dad was all mixed up in everything.
"Why have I never heard of this man before?" This was the mantra my brain repeated as I progressed through each section of the book. What a life!
It was especially interesting to read this book after having read The Count of Monte Cristo and recognize all the ways General Alex Dumas’s life inspired and informed the writing of his son.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
I don’t say this often, but I’m genuinely glad it took me so long to find Octavia E. Butler. She came to me at just the right time for me to understand her work, appreciate her genius, and connect with her characters.
I read Kindred late in 2020 and rang in the new year of 2021—sick with COVID and languishing in quarantine—reading Parable of the Sower. In a rare aligning of fact and fiction, the unfolding of the apocalyptic narrative perfectly matched my mood.
The Broken Earth trilogy by NK Jemisin
Am I cheating by listing a trilogy as one of my top 10 reads of the year? Maybe. Do I care? Absolutely not.
Some may tell you that the middle of a pandemic is no time to be reading apocalyptic fiction, but I see you an Octavia Butler and raise you NK Jemisin. Reading these two powerhouses back-to-back was the best literary choice I made this year.
The Fifth Season took me by surprise, the detailed worldbuilding and complex characterizations making me forget myself and experience the story fully and immersively.
While I found the unusual shifts in point of view jarring at first, it became clear pretty quickly that Jemisin was doing something very specific, and I felt I could trust her. By the end, even before the mystery was completely unraveled, I'd already been completely won over, in awe of the skill and mastery this level of storytelling takes.
(ALSO: Hoa forever.)
Skinship by Yoon Choi
I’m actually not one to read short stories, but these are some of the best I’ve come across.
Centering Korean and Korean-American characters, the author writes from deeply within her own context, speaking to both the immediate and the universal.
Mid-way through each story, I'd wish it had been developed into a full-length novel—there was just so much depth to each of these characters. Skinship was a strong offering overall, but "The Art of Losing" is the story I still can’t shake.
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
It’s no secret that I struggled this year as a writer. I mean, every writer struggles every year, but 2021 threw me some legitimate curveballs. I was working with what felt like a sub-par brain, trying to complete a book I didn’t think I’d be able to finish.
In the midst of all my creative angst, The Writing Life arrived on my doorstep.
As the title indicates, Annie Dillard has somehow recorded exactly what the writing life feels like. Half of what she says is along the lines of “I couldn’t get anything done today so I went and chopped wood and stared at the ocean and felt like a failure,” and I’m like YES, EXACTLY.
Reading about her struggles was comforting, like having a conversation with an old friend who just gets it.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Behold: the book that launched a bazillion thinkpieces. According to my notes, I read it while on a hard book deadline. Because of course I did, LOL.
Du Mez traces broad evangelical cultural movements and trends, connecting them to persisting problems today. It’s hard to classify my personal takeaways, but one of the reasons this was a top read of the year was that it helped put into perspective so much of what I saw and heard as a young Christian in the 80s and 90s that made no sense at the time (and that I didn’t have the maturity to analyze).
Seeing broad sweeps of recent history detailed like this, knowing where some of the ideas came from that were handed down to my generation, has left me with lots to consider.
Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren
Using the nighttime prayer of Compline as a framework, Warren speaks out of her own dark night of the soul straight to so much of what so many others have felt and experienced.
Prayer in the Night is another book that came to me at the perfect time. I received this book just a few weeks ago as a birthday gift, and God must have been at work in the timing. I gulped it as one gulps a cool glass of water, but I have plans to come back and sip my way through, savoring each chapter as it deserves.
Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri
From the moment I started Everything Sad Is Untrue, I fell completely into the narrative and didn't want to come back up for air. I lost sleep reading this book. I woke up early to read before work. I read the hardback and then immediately listened to the audiobook, read by the author. Even knowing what was coming the second time around, I still found myself laughing and tearing up.
This is my top read of 2021, and it’s not even close. I will definitely read it again, probably soon. I can't tell you the last time I encountered a voice this warm, this compelling, and this real.
My reading wasn’t the only thing to take a hit this year. My writing did as well. I managed to get Socially Awkward out (with a lot of help from my longsuffering team!), but as you may have noticed if you’re a subscriber to And Another Thing, my essay writing shriveled to a pathetic husk.
I’m looking to turn that around in 2022. Thanks for sticking with me! Keep your beady eyes peeled for a few choice installments headed to your inbox soon.
In the meantime, if you’re a subscriber, feel free to hit Reply and tell me about your top read from 2021!