Top 7 Reads in 2021

Every year I try to identify my top 15 reads of the year. Usually I dedicate the top 10 to my best books from 2021 and the other 5 are books published in other years, but I read a few more this year that I loved that weren’t new releases. So this year I have my Top 7 reads in 2021, ordered in terms of how much I loved them:

7. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I love Lisa See’s writing and I’ve slowly been trying to make my way through her backlist books. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan seems to be the most popular of all her novels, so I decided to add it to my TBR for this year. Like her other books, I ended up loving it. It’s a hard read about the Chinese culture of foot binding, but it’s about so much more than that. More accurately, it’s about women’s culture and the friendship and comradery that develops between two girls that come from different socio-economic backgrounds, but grow up together and develop a strong bond.

6. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

We Are Okay is from another repeat author, Nina LaCour. This is only my second book by her (although arguably her most popular) and I really liked it. It’s a young adult/new adult book about a young girl named Marin starting University after the loss of her grandfather. It’s a simple book about guilt, grief, and friendship. It has a small setting, which the author uses to explore the impacts of grief while we learn more of Marin’s backstory. LaCour is a wonderful writer and I really appreciated the hard honesty in her storytelling.

5. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Brooklyn is a rare book that I read after seeing the movie. I loved the movie and didn’t expect that I would like the book quite as much, but fortunately, I did! It differs a little bit from the movie, but mostly I just think this is a timeless tale of what it means to leave home. The tenderness you feel for it, the pain of saying goodbye to your loved ones, and the conflict you feel when you develop those same feelings of love for a new place and new people. I loved both the book and the movie and you can’t go wrong with either one!

4. A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

A Curious Beginning is the first book in the Veronica Speedwell series, a historical mystery set in London in the late 1800’s that captured my heart this year. It’s been on my TBR for a long time and I flew through the first 5 books in 2021. Veronica Speedwell is such a fun character and I love how the author blends so many different genres in this laugh-out-loud series. I debated stopping after book 5, but I think I’m going to continue on and read the next 2 books in 2022.

3. In My Own Moccasins by Helen Knott

This is another book that was on my TBR for a while that I read in 2021 with my book club. It’s a memoir about healing from addiction and trauma that is incredibly impactful. Helen Knott has experienced years of multi-generational trauma, racism, and sexual violence that leaves her addicted to alcohol and drugs, before finally finding the help she needs to heal her spirit. This is a book that matters because Knott is incredibly honest in her storytelling and highlights that she shares her story predominantly for other indigenous women.

2. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

I haven’t seen a lot of press about this book, but it is so deserving. Elatsoe is a debut novel from Lipan Apache writer Darcie Little Badger. It’s an excellent blend of genres: mystery, fantasy, and young adult, that feels like the most wonderfully wholesome read. It reads a bit more like middle grade to me, but it features teen Elatsoe, who is investigating the suspicious death of her cousin. It blends traditional Lipan Apache myth with fantastical elements and makes for such a fun book!

1. The Wild Heavens by Sarah Louise Butler

The Wild Heavens was one of my first reads of 2021 and it has stuck with me ever since. It’s a character driven story set in remote British Columbia and has the most atmospheric mood throughout the book. It evokes similar feelings to my top pick from my other 2021 list, Once There Were Wolves, as well as other favourites like The Great Alone, so I’m not surprised I loved it. I love remote settings, character driven stories, and local authors, so this was a slam dunk. Intriguingly, Bigfoot is featured in this book, but it’s primarily a book about growing up and growing old – those that we’ve loved and lost and how they influence our lives.

Top 8 Books from 2021

This is usually one of my favourite posts of the year, but I haven’t done it since 2018, so I’m thrilled to return again this year! Almost the entire year of 2020 was a book slump for me and while I didn’t do much reading through summer of 2021, overall this was a much better year and I’m a lot more excited about the books I read.

As usual, I’ll be doing 2 posts that collectively feature my top 15 reads of the year. This post is dedicated to my favourite books of the year that were actually published in 2021 (because I read a lot of new releases) and the second post will feature my Top 7 Reads of 2021 that were published in other years. So without further ago, let’s get into it – these are intentionally ordered in terms of how much I loved them.

8. What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster

What’s Mine and Yours snuck on to my list this year. It was an impulse purchase on Audible that I ended up really enjoying. It has low ratings on goodreads, but I felt it was such a meaningful story that touched on huge number of social issues: race, class, status, family, grief, and of course, love. It features a large cast of characters and I liked how the author examines nature versus nurture and how blinding privilege can be to another’s experience.  

7. Where Hope Comes From by Nikita Gill

Where Hope Comes From is a short poetry anthology by Nikita Gill that I cannot stop thinking about since I read it. I find her poetry a bit hit or miss, but picked it up when I saw it was about the pandemic. I wasn’t really looking forward to the pandemic starting to show up in books, but I couldn’t deny that it was exactly what I needed. Reflection is an important part of processing things that happen to you and it was cathartic to read about someone else’s experience with the pandemic and to feel solidarity and acknowledgement of some of the crap we’ve all been through in the last year.

6. If I Tell You the Truth by Jasmin Kaur

I’m sensing a bit of a theme, but If I Tell You The Truth was another impulse buy from my local bookstore. Jasmin Kaur is a local author (to me) and this story is written in prose and set in the BC Lower Mainland. I ended up loving it. The writing is fantastic and features a young Indian girl who moves to Vancouver for university to find herself pregnant. The author explore a lot of themes, particularly family and gender dynamics in Indian culture and the struggles of immigration. The writing is incredibly honest and heartfelt and I felt so connected to the characters.

5. The Strangers by Katherena Vermette

The Strangers was my second read by Katherena Vermette and was nominated for the Giller Prize this year. This book gutted me within the first chapter and I couldn’t stop reading about the 4 female members of the Stranger family. It’s a multi-generational story that examines the circular nature of trauma and the racism that still exists in Canada’s family and social services. Vermette is an excellent writer and I connected deeply with each of her characters.

4. Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

This is book that I had no right to enjoy as much as I did! It’s a mystery/thriller about a crime writer who is mistaken for a hired killer when overheard talking about her latest book plot with her publicist. When she’s offered a huge sum of money to off a woman’s husband, things quickly get out of control and spiral into a fast paced train wreck of epic proportions. It’s an easy-to-read style that translated so well to audiobook. It’s not a literary masterpiece in any way, but I had a lot of fun with it and couldn’t put it down!

3. Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

Infinite Country was yet another surprise read that I picked up on Audible and ended up loving. It’s a very short book, but succinct.  It’s a beautifully written immigration story split between America and Colombia that captures the heartache of having your family separated and your kids growing up as part of two different cultures. The struggle to make a living in a hostile environment and the dream of one day reuniting your family. We all just long to be together.

2. Please Don’t Sit on my Bed in Your Outside Clothes by Phoebe Robinson

If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while you probably know I love Phoebe Robinson. She consistently gets better with every novel she publishes and this audiobook was easily my best of the year. It’s a collection of essays written for a large audience and I love how she seamlessly blends humour with her astute observations on social issues. She is so relatable and an important voice for black women. I still think about essays from her last novel and I loved her reflections on the pandemic, on her decision not to have children, and her thoughts on the white saviour complex.

1. Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

Without a doubt this was my favourite book of the year. Once There Were Wolves is a haunting story about Inti Flynn and her determination to re-introduce wolves into the Scottish Highlands. The townspeople are vehemently opposed to the wolves out of fear and when one of the villagers go missing, Inti is worried her wolves will take the fall. It’s a wonderful blend of literary fiction and mystery and has the most lonesome atmosphere of grief and sadness that permeates the entire novel. Inti is trying to come to terms with the traumatic events of her shared past with her twin sister and McConaghy uses the loveliest prose to explore themes of loss, abuse, feeling, and sisterhood. Can’t recommend enough!

Once There Were Wolves

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Charlotte McConaghy
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)

It’s fitting that Once There Were Wolves is my last post of 2021 because (unless I happen to read a really good book in late December) it was my favourite book of the whole year! I read Migrations last year and really liked it, so I was cautiously optimistic about Once There Were Wolves. I wasn’t sure if maybe McConaghy was a one-trick pony, but this book has firmly cemented her as an auto-buy author in my books!

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book since I read it and I have a feeling it’s going to be my favourite read of 2021. I can definitely see how this book might not be for everyone, and I could see Migrations being the more universally accepted book of the two, but I loved everything about this book and actually preferred it.

Once There Were Wolves is set predominantly in Scotland and is about the expedition 30-year old Inti Flynn is leading to re-introduce wolves into the Scottish Highlands. Wolf territory has been shrinking over time and a (real) project to re-introduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 was hugely successful. The prey had been taking over the park and without predators to keep them in check, were over-eating the flora and causing erosion at streams and water sources. The wolves completely changed the landscape of the park, breathing new life into the wilderness and bringing a balance to the ecosystem.

Inti’s childhood was split between Australia and the wilds of British Columbia and she travels to Scotland with her twin sister, with whom she is very close. Unfortunately, she is not welcomed by the farmers in Scotland and receives a cold reception and opposition to her work. Nevertheless, she finds some allies and is determined that her project be a success. But when a villager turns up dead and the townspeople suspect the wolves, Inti makes some questionable choices.

So the plot is pretty straightforward, but like most of my favourite books, this is not a plot driven novel. The key word when talking about this book is atmosphere. Charlotte McConaghy is a talented wordsmith, but part of what makes her novels so compelling is her ability to create a very strong sense of setting and atmosphere. The loneliness and wild of the highlands seeps from every scene and creates this overarching feeling of great loss and sadness. It maybe sounds a bit depressing, but it’s also enthralling. It’s not a fast paced story and yet I was totally invested in Inti’s project and her past.

McConaghy’s characters are broken and damaged people and as she slowly reveals their histories to you, you become more and more invested in their characters. This is not a happy story and it deals with difficult and complex themes like abuse, violence, trauma, and how our childhood and formative years can impact us into adulthood. I feel like McConaghy packs so much punch in so small a novel. There are so many parts I haven’t even touched on yet – Inti’s relationship with the town sheriff, her relationships with her family members, and the fact that Inti has a rare condition called mirror touch, which causes her to literally feel what she sees those around her experiencing.

It’s ambitious for a novel that’s under 300 pages, and yet it all works. McConaghy doesn’t waste time on things that don’t matter and she trusts her reader to draw their own conclusions from the story rather than spelling everything out for us. I feel like there were no ideas out of place. To write such beautiful prose, while also delivering on a character driven mystery novel is an impressive feat!

Definitely a trigger warning for rape and domestic violence. But I do feel that McConaghy handles these topics well. I’ve read several rape/harassment scenes this year that really bothered me because I felt that they were included for shock value, whereas I think in this book they are handled with sensitivity and purpose. It is not included to shock us, but rather to invite the audience to reflect on the devastating impact to the victim and how those events influence and shape a person. It is a dark book, but also a hopeful one. Inti is a broken person, but like the wolves, she is willing to try again, to try and heal herself and keep moving forward. The wolves can heal landscapes, but maybe they can also heal people and communities.

5 stars – I can’t wait to read this again soon.

Side note: I can’t help but mention that I find it fascinating that prior to her two literary novels, McConaghy wrote YA fantasy. I have no idea how they compare in terms of writing, plot, or quality, but I do find it a bit annoying that she seems to be trying to distance herself from them and pretend they don’t even exist. Her author blurb on the back of the book literally calls Migrations her “debut novel”. Like I get trying to re-invent yourself, but that’s a straight up lie. What’s wrong with making your debut in the YA fantasy scene? Be proud of all your books and where you started, it just shows your versatility and growth as an author.

Five Little Indians

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michelle Good
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2020 (read Jun. 2021)

It’s been months since I read Five Little Indians, but I think it is a very important book and I do want to take some time to review it. It’s been getting a lot of press since over 200 children were found buried at the Kamloops Residential School (and thousands more since), shocking many Canadians, but not many indigenous people.

As the title suggests, Five Little Indians follows the lives of 5 survivors of a residential school on the north part of Vancouver Island. Some of these children aged out of the school, while others ran away or were smuggled away by family members. All suffer trauma as a result of the experience and many of the survivors end up in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) in Vancouver.

This is not an easy book to read and that is the way it should be. It doesn’t focus so much on the atrocities committed within residential schools (though they are still featured), but more on the long term trauma that comes with having survived such an experience during your most formative childhood years. The impact the schools had not only on the children, but on parents and entire communities.

When the children leave the school, some of them are lucky enough to have families to return home to, while others have no one and are forced to try and make it on their own at just 17 or 18 years of age. Some of the teens find each other in the DTES and create a new little family, but struggle emotionally and financially, turning to alcohol, drugs, and sex to cope with the trauma and memories they are saddled with from school. Those that are able to return home find that they are returning to families that have been just as broken by the loss of their children to the schools.

Family members turn to their own coping mechanisms and the teens find it hard to return to a culture and community that they now feel divorced from. The role of residentials schools was to “kill the Indian” in the child. The government and the Church succeed in this mission by cutting out the heart of indigenous communities and creating shameful cultural associations in the children. This separation traumatizes the community and the shame of the abuse perpetrated against the children makes it hard for many to return home at all. They have been abused mentally and physically and no longer have any kind of self worth, making it hard to be with the people who love them, even if those people have suffered in their own way.

The writing is simple and I found it effective in that it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The storyline does a great job of shining a light on the long term impact of residential schools and how many aspects of the schools are still alive in society today. Many would argue that our child welfare system has basically just replaced the schools, with indigenous children still regularly being removed from their families at disproportionate rates – families still suffering from the trauma of residential schools. I recently finished reading The Strangers by Katherena Vermette, which I also think does a really good job at exploring the ways in which indigenous people are still marginalized today.

Everything about this book made me feel uncomfortable and that is kind of the point. Reconciliation is a big and uncertain topic and to think we can attempt it without feeling very uncomfortable is folly. I’ve been trying to work my way through more indigenous literature this year and welcome any other recommendations.

Em

Rating: 
Author: Kim Thuy
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)

This is going to be a short review to match a short book. Em was the last of the Giller Prize nominees that I read. I’ve seen the author’s other book, Ru, floating around the Canadian Lit scene for years and decided to give this one a try when I saw it on the longlist. I was intrigued by the time period, ‘Operation Babylift’, and the impact of the Vietnam War on the beauty salon industry in North America, as detailed in the synopsis.

I’ll say upfront that of all the nominees I read, this was my least favourite. I did still like it and was impressed by how much history Thuy was able to cover in such a short book – I thought it was a solid 3 star read. But it was an ambitious novel and I felt it just didn’t deliver on what I thought I was getting from the book jacket. The book is told mostly in prose, which makes for a quick reading experience, which is exacerbated by how quickly Thuy jumps from topic to topic.

I can see why it would be nominated for it’s unique style and it is perceptive. She says a lot with a limited amount of words, which is definitely a skill, the style just didn’t quite work for me. I think the first part of the novel is the strongest, which focuses on the My Lai massacre. This really drew me into the book and it was interesting the associations Thuy made to move the story along. I just wanted more from the rest of the narrative and didn’t find the part of the story set in America to be as tightly executed. It almost worked, I just wanted a bit more from it.