I shared at the end of last year how 2020 was not a good reading year for me. At the start of 2021, I was determined to get back into the habit of reading, and came up with a plan to do so.
What’s important to know about me is that although I didn’t read much in 2020, that doesn’t mean I didn’t buy any books. I have an Amazon wishlist that I check pretty frequently, and when the books go on sale—usually for $4.99 or less—I buy them. This practice helps me save money on books, but it also means that I have a pretty long backlog of books I’ve purchased but haven’t read yet.
So for 2021, I decided to try reading through my backlog systematically. I wouldn’t get to choose what I read next. No wondering what I was “in the mood for.” Whichever book was oldest on my list would be the next book I would read. At the start of the year I had 72 unread titles on my Kindle. Yes, 72!!!
Another rule I set for myself was that although I would start every book in order, I wouldn’t force myself to finish them. This is something I’ve gotten much better about as I get older. It used to be extremely rare for me to give up on a book. Now, if I’m 10-15% into the book and not enjoying it, I just stop. With so many titles on my to-read list, it’s not worth my time. Plus, since I’m purchasing digital copies for under $5 each, and sometimes as low as $2, I don’t feel so guilty about not trying to finish something that’s not bringing me any joy. Think of it as my Marie Kondo theory of reading.
With my new system, here are the books I was able to read this year.
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
3 stars. A murder mystery set at a school for magic. It was nothing special, but it kicked off the year well.
Queen of Hearts by Colleen Oakes
2 stars. Premise sounded promising, but execution was terrible. Supposed to be a YA fantasy about the Queen of Hearts, but really just 250 pages of thin exposition followed by 30 pages of plot that set you up for inevitable book two. I was actually shocked by how little happened in this book.
The Dry by Jane Harper
Unfinished. I must have been listening to a good true crime podcast or something when I purchased this book, because it’s totally out of my usual wheelhouse. Set in the Australian outback, a detective returns to his rural childhood home, a remote farming community plagued by years of drought, to investigate his best friend’s gruesome murder-suicide. The topic just wasn’t for me.
Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray
3 stars. Light and fluffy, would be a good summer beach read. Alternates between the story of Ondine, who cooks for Picasso as he summers in the seaside village of Juan-les-Pins, and Ondine’s grand-daughter Celine, who travels to France to explore her grandmother’s history and search for a painting Picasso may or may not have given her.
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
4 stars. This one took me almost a month to get through as it’s over 700 pages, but it was so well written that I did find it worth the effort. The story follows two families involved in the timber trade in North America generation to generation—one an Indigenous family and one a European immigrant family. The two families are intertwined and each subsequent generation deepens the story of connection between both themselves and the land. I learned a lot while still being immersed in the story, a mark of good historical fiction for me.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
5 stars. This is such a worthwhile read and made me think a lot about adoption, specifically transracial adoption. Eleven-year-old Deming’s mother, Polly, disappears one day without warning. He fears she has gone back to China without him, abandoning him with her boyfriend. After a stint in foster care, Deming is adopted by a white family who live upstate. The couple is clearly well-meaning, which makes the fact that they change Deming’s name to Daniel and try to completely assimilate him into American culture all the more cringeworthy. It’s a heart-wrenching story, but you can’t stop reading as you work toward Deming/Daniel finally discovering what happened to his mother and reconciling his two identities.
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
3 stars. This one is the YA demon hunter in NYC novel we all sometimes crave, but I have to say I did see every “shocking plot twist” telegraphed about a mile away. Still, I have to give some bonus points for name-checking Key Foods and the Domino Sugar Factory.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Unfinished. This is a prime example of learning to give up on a book that just was not serving me. I had read both of the previous title’s in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy and enjoyed the tale of Thomas Cromwell and Tudor England. There’s nothing that I can point to that’s wrong with The Mirror and the Light. Mantel is a talented writer. But I found myself reading less and less while this was the book on my docket. I made it through 260 pages and found myself hoping it would be over soon…with over 500 pages still to go. I allowed myself to stop reading what is certainly a good book. It just wasn’t bringing me joy.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
5 stars. One of my favorite books of the year. Klara is an Artificial Friend, an advanced, humanlike robot purchased as a companion for a young teenage girl. AFs are both status symbols and emotional support beings in an increasingly fabricated world. The book explores themes of consciousness but also felt very relevant to the conversation around exceptionalism and parenting. What lengths will we go to for our children’s success, and how do we define it?
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
5 stars. David Mitchell is one of my all-time favorite authors so I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading his latest, but it did not disappoint. Set in late 1960s England, the book tells of the formation of a British rock-blues-folk band. Many historical figures make their way into the narrative, from Bowie to Lennon. If you’re a fan of Mitchell’s, you’ll know that each of his books exist in the same world and lightly brush at one another’s elbows, so you’ll see references to characters or stories introduced in other books. But if you’re never read one of his other books, you’ll be completely fine as well, and may in fact come away with a completely different perspective on some of the actions of the book. Perspective and history matter, don’t they?
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
5 stars. Compulsively readable, Deacon King Kong tells the story of Sportcoat, an elderly deacon living in Cause Houses projects who performs odd jobs around the neighborhood, drinks hard liquor known as “king kong” that’s distilled in the boiler room, and argues with his dead wife Hattie. One day, without warning or apparent reason, Sportcoat shoots a project drug dealer, 19-year-old Deems, wounding him. The book captures the fallout from the incident and how it affects everyone in the neighborhood, from Deems’s drug cartel boss to the Five Ends Baptist Church choir to the undercover cop on the scene. For heavy subject matter, the book is surprisingly light, filled with moments of levity and brightness.
The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec
4 stars. After watching Marvel’s Loki on Disney+ (highly recommend, 5 stars), I picked up this Norse mythology tale, which tells the story of Angrboda, a witch who falls in love with Loki. I liked seeing the popular events of the mythos from an outsider’s perspective. We meet Odin, Thor, and Freya, but they are secondary characters in this tale that focuses on Angrboda as a witch, a lover, and a mother.
The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman
3 stars. This prequel to Pullman’s beloved Subtle Knife trilogy shares Lyra’s backstory, starting at her birth. The main character is Malcolm, an innkeeper’s son who meets baby Lyra when she is left with the nuns at the priory across the river. I found the plot to be rather thin and question whether someone who had not read his previous work would be interested at all in this story. Though the book was long (over 450 pages), the action felt like it could have been contained in a short story.
How did you do with your reading goals in 2021? What ways have you found to help you read more?