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!

Searching for Sylvie Lee

Rating: ⭐
Author: Jean Kwok
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Aug. 2019)

I really like Jean Kwok’s writing style. I read Girl in Translation last year and loved it and have been dying to read Searching for Sylvie Lee since I first read the synopsis. Both books are quite different, but left me with similar feelings. I feel like both were probably 4 star books, but something about the writing and the characters just makes me feel very strongly about them and in the end, I rated both books 5 stars. Searching for Sylvie Lee does get a little dramatic and unbelievable towards the end, but because the book was really about character development for me, I can let it slide.

Searching for Sylvie Lee is told from multiple perspectives, with the most dominant (for me anyways), being told from the point of view of Amy. Amy is younger sister to Sylvie and both are daughters of Chinese-American immigrants. Their parents moved to America and struggled to survive, deciding to send their first daughter, Sylvie, to the Netherlands to live with her grandmother until they could afford to give her a better life. She returns at the age of 9 (I think, can’t quite remember), after the birth of the second daughter, Amy. The story is narrated by Amy, Sylvie, and their mother, so we get many perspectives from this small family.

To Amy, Sylvie is the epitome of accomplishment and she greatly looks up to her, considering herself the lesser sister. To Sylvie, Amy is the image of innocence. She works very hard to be successful because she feels her parents will never love her as much as Amy since she was raised away from them for the first part of her life.

When their grandmother becomes ill, Sylvie returns to the Netherlands to say goodbye, but disappears before returning home. No one knows what happened to her and Amy’s dutch relatives don’t seem too concerned about Sylvie. But Amy knows Sylvie would never just disappear like that, so she jumps on a plane for the first time in her life and travels to the Netherlands to search for the truth.

This is the prefect family drama about all the feelings of love and resentment that exist within the family dynamic. Everyone has their own secrets and the unspoken past has had longstanding and far-reaching consequences on the entire family. Sylvie has a life in Holland that none of her family in America could really understand and the impact of growing up under the thumb of her Aunt impacted her in ways the sisters don’t understand until much later. Sylvie struggles to be the daughter she thinks she should be, while Amy is afraid to live her life the way she would like to.

Everyone has secrets and they have been tearing the family apart for decades without them even realizing it. This is very much a book about the immigrant experience, but also a book about living courageously. I thought that each character was well realized and developed. Everyone had flaws, but it only made them more relatable and served to make me empathize more with each character.

Like I said, it’s a character driven book, but it does have a strong plot to support it. We’re propelled by the mystery element of what happened to Sylvie, but discover so many secrets and deceptions along the way. That said, don’t come to this book looking for a mystery/thriller. It’s not the driving force of the story, but rather a tool to connect with the deeper pain and anguish of each of the characters. The ways they’ve been wronged, the mistakes they’ve made, and the ways in which they’ve been misunderstood.

Bookish Academy Awards Tag

I love watching and reading people’s lists for this tag every year, so this year I decided to jump on the bandwagon and do the tag myself! It’s basically a list of all the awards at the Academy Awards, but for the books I read in 2018. I’ll be picking my winners from all the books I read in 2018, not just the ones that were published in 2018. So I have a total of 120 books to pick from and you can see my full list here if you’re interested. I’ve done my best to avoid selecting the same book for multiple categories, but in some cases I felt the same book really was the best pick for both awards. Here we go:

Best Male Protagonist (Best Actor)

Winner: Bitty from Check Please!: #Hockey

Reason: He’s a gay hockey player who loves to bake and make people feel good! What’s not to love?!

Runner ups: Prince Cas from Ruined, Radu from Bright We Burn, Cormoran Strike from Lethal White

Best Female Protagonist (Best Actress):

Winner: Morrigan Crow from Wundersmith

Reason: She is brave and perseveres though she is alienated at her school. She just wants to be accepted and be a good friend.

Runner ups: Kimberly from Girl in Translation, Felicity from The Ladies Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, Maddy from Code Name Verity

Best Male Sidekick (Best Supporting Actor):

Winner: Axel from The Astonishing Color of After

Reason: He is so sweet and such a good friend! He is always there for Leigh and understands when she needs some personal time.

Runner ups: Mitch from Vicious/Vengeful, all the boys in Fence, Benji from Us Against You

Best Female Sidekick (Best Supporting Actress):

Winner: Kitty from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Reason: She has such a great personality and she loves her sisters. She made me laugh so much and I loved her energy!

Runner ups: Amari from Children of Blood and Bone, Sheilagh Fielding from The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Rosa from Rose Under Fire

Best Writer you discovered for the first time (Best Director):

Winner: K.A. Tucker

Reason: I read her newest book, The Simple Wild and fell in love with her writing, characters, and setting!

Runner ups: Alice Oseman (Radio Silence), Emma Hooper (Our Homesick Songs), Courtney Summers (Sadie)

Best Plot Twist (Best Cinematography):

Winner: Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

Reason: There are a ton of crazy plot twists and I didn’t see any of them coming! Blew my book club’s mind!

Runner ups: The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager, The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

Best Action in a Book (Best Visual Effects):

Winner: Ruined by Amy Tintera

Reason: It is so fast-paced, it just throws you into the action right away and it never stops!

Runner ups: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Best Book Cover (Best Costume Design):

Winner: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

Reason: LOOK AT IT! This is my first repeat, but I am just so in love with how beautiful this is and all the colours – I had to pick it!

Runner ups: Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper, The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Best Audiobook (Best Musical Score):

Winner: Joanne Froggatt in Wuthering Heights

Reason: Froggatt is an accomplished actress and she did a wonderful job with all the accents and drawing me into the story!

Runner ups: Kyla Garcia in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Phoebe Robinson in Everything’s Trash, but it’s Okay, Rebekkah Ross in The Nowhere Girls

Most Unique Plot/World (Best Original Screenplay):

Winner: Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend

Reason: I am obsessed with everything about this series. I love the world-building, the plot, and all the characters.

Runner ups: Women Talking by Miriam Toews, The Poppy War by R.F. Huang, Sadie by Courtney Summers

Best Book to Movie Adaptation (Best Adapted Screenplay):

Winner: Love Simon

Reason: I actually liked this more than the book. The acting, storyline, and soundtrack were all amazing! Technically I didn’t read the book, Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda, this year, but I did see the movie!

Runner ups: To All the Boys I Loved Before by Jenny Han on Netflix

Best Graphic Novel (Best Animated Feature):

Winner: Fence by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad

Reason: So much wonderful character development in this series! Somehow these authors succeeded in making fencing super interesting!

Runner ups: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, Check Please!: #Hockey by Ngozi Ukazu

Best Novella or Short Book (Best Short Film):

Winner: Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Reason: Unique storytelling that demonstrates women’s ability to find solace, humour, and healing in one another.

Runner ups: The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, Songs of a Sourdough by Robert W. Service

Best Historical Fiction (Best Documentary):

Winner: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Reason: The writing, the setting, the characters, and the story are all so captivating and richly developed.

Runner ups: Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Best Standalone (Best Picture):

Winner: Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

Reason: The writing is magical and transporting. I loved this mix of historical fiction and magical realism.

Runner ups: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker, Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Top 5 Reads of 2018

This is the companion post to my Top 10 Books of 2018, which features my favourite reads of the year that were actually published in 2018. This post will feature my top 5 books of the year that weren’t published in 2018. This works out well for me because its hard to narrow it down to just 10 books and the majority of the books I read are new releases. So here’s my top 5 reads of 2018 in no particular order:

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

You know how sometimes you read a book and you really like it, but then the more time passes, the more unsure you are of whether you actually liked it as much as you thought? This book was the opposite of that for me. I really liked it when I read it, but the further removed I’ve gotten from reading it, the better I think I actually like it. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter tells the story of Julia, the teenage daughter of Mexican immigrants, and how she deals with the death of her older sister Olga. I know some people aren’t a fan of this book because honestly, Julia is super unlikable and confrontational in the story, but I thought it was such an accurate portrayal of a raging, rebellious, grieving teenager. Julia is struggling with accepting the death of her sister, who was the perfect daughter in her parents eyes, and she acts out against her parents traditional Mexican values. She struggles to understand her parents and her parents struggle to understand her. It’s ultimately a coming of age story about grief and the struggles of immigrant families. I listened to it as an audiobook and I would highly recommend this format – the narrator was fantastic and the whole reading experience was super enjoyable, despite the heavy topics.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

This was probably my most unexpected read of the year. I set an informal goal for myself to start reading more classics. I tried some Jane Austen and wasn’t the biggest fan, but I found Wuthering Heights on audiobook for a really cheap price and decided to give it a go. I’m not sure whether to credit Emily Bronte or Joanne Froggatt (the narrator) for how much I liked this, but together they made me absolutely LOVE this book. I don’t always love classics because they tend to wane on too much about nothing, but I loved the drama of Wuthering Heights. Evidently I have a thing for unlikable characters because NO ONE in this book is very likable. I think most people are familiar with the plot, so I won’t get too into it, I’ll just say that it’s an inter-generational story about the cycle of abuse and the human ability to both love and hate. I’ll still give Bronte most of the props, but Froggatt’s narration definitely played a role in making me love this as she does a fantastic job with all the characters and accents!

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation was one of the first books I read this year and while it was a slow-read novel, I really loved it. This book tells the semi-autobiographical story of 10 year old Kimberly Chan and spans about a decade in scope. Kim and her Ma are sponsored by her Aunt and move to New York from China. It’s based off the author’s experience immigrating to America and I thought it was such a well crafted story about the struggles immigrants face to build a new life and climb their way out of poverty. Kim and her Ma live in a run down apartment and work in her Aunt’s sweat shop sewing clothing. It’s technically Ma that works in the shop, but the workers regularly enlist the help of their children since they work on commission and it’s the only way they can make decent money. Kim attends school during the day and is driven by her desire to learn and get a job that will enable her to lift her family out of poverty. Like I said, it’s a quiet sort of story, but powerful and I really loved Kim’s character and perspective.

The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

I’m just now realizing that I read 3 of the 5 books on this list as audiobooks (this being the third), which is actually super impressive since I tend to dislike audiobooks a lot more than I love them. But I guess I found some real winners on Audible this year! The Nowhere Girls tells the story of 3 very different high school classmates: Grace, Rosina, and Erin. The biggest thing I can say about this book is: great representation. Grace is a fat, Christian girl; Rosina is a gay, Mexican girl; and Erin has Asperger’s. Grace is new to town and when she learns that the former resident of her bedroom was a high school girl who was essentially driven out of town when she claimed she was raped at a party the year before, she starts a secret club to do something about it. I really liked this book because it was diverse and it addressed relevant social issues that any teen girl can relate to. Plus, it has another great narrator!

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

I’ve been raving about this series since I read it back in August. I included the sequel Wundersmith in my Top 10 Books of 2018 post, and I have to include the first book in this list. I can not say enough good things about this series. It is the smart, fun middle grade book that I’ve been looking for since Harry Potter. It tells the story of cursed child, Morrigan Crow, who is whisked off to the magical land of Nevermoor on the eve of her death day by the enigmatic Jupiter North. There she participates in the trials to become a member of the prestigious Wunder Society, all while trying to hide the fact that she’s an illegal immigrant to Nevermoor. This book is so whimsical (it has a giant, talking cat and flying umbrellas), but what I love most about it is that it has depth. It’s so well written and crafted that this magical world pretty much builds itself. It’s obvious that there’s a lot more to the plot than Townsend reveals upfront and I think we’re in for a multi-layered, multi-book series that has the potential to be just as popular as Harry Potter. I really, really loved this and I can’t wait to see what Jessica Townsend publishes next!  

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow

Rating: 
Author: Jessica Townsend
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pub date: Nov. 13, 2018 (read Nov. 2018)
Series: Nevermoor #2

Happy Pub Day Wundersmith!

Hachette Book Group was so kind as to send me an early copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. And all I can say is that this book is WUNDERFUL!

I heard some really great stuff about Nevermoor, the first book in this series, so I read it a few months ago and absolutely loved it! It’s a middle grade book that I can’t help but compare to Harry Potter. They have a lot of similar elements, but are still quite different. In my opinion, Nevermoor incorporates all the features that made Harry Potter a phenomenon and I feel like it’s the series I’ve been searching for since Harry Potter ended.

Over the last few years, Throne of Glass has been my go to series, but it’s over now and now I just can’t stop thinking about Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. The second book in a series is super important because author’s can often get the second book blues after a really successful first book, and the chance to prove to your readers that you’re not just a one-book phenomenon. After finishing Wundersmith, I am totally on the Jessica Townsend bandwagon and even MORE obsessed with this series.

First of all, the covers are gorgeous and I think they perfectly capture the whimsical nature of these books. Just to give you a quick synopsis, Nevermoor is about 11 year old Morrigan Crow. Because of when she was born, she’s spent her entire life as a cursed child, being blamed for all the misfortune that happens in her town in the Wintersea Republic. Until one day, red-head Jupiter North shows up on her doorstep and invites Morrigan to move to the mythical city of Nevermoor to compete in the trials for the Wundrous Society.

Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead for Nevermoor if you haven’t read it, but I will keep the rest of the review spoiler free for Wundersmith.

At the end of Nevermoor, Morrigan is successful in passing her trials and is invited to join Wunsoc. However, she is shocked to discover that she is a Wundersmith. The last Wundersmith in Nevermoor was Ezra Squall, who committed such evil acts that he was forever banned from Nevermoor. For this reason, Wundersmiths are not well liked or accepted and Morrigan is forbidden from learning the arts of the Wundersmith or from telling anyone her talents. But when strange events start taking place in Nevermoor and she is bullied by her classmates, she questions whether all Wundersmiths really are bad,

This book was everything I wanted from the sequel. It had all of the whimsical elements that the first book had, while continuing to test Morrigan, introduce new characters, and deepen the plot. I said in my review for Nevermoor, and I’ll reinterate here, that what I like so much about this series is the gradual world building and the fact that you can tell this world is going to have so much more depth than what has been revealed to us. The entire book is a plot within a greater story. What made Harry Potter so good was Rowling’s ability to tell one story, while simultaneously building on that larger story arc. Our questions are not always answered in a single book and the story continues across the greater series. I loved Rowling’s foresight in Harry Potter and her ability to craft her arcs and mysteries in advance of writing each book and then weave them together over the course of the novel and series. I can’t be sure because we’re only two books in, but I suspect Townsend is following a similar format.

I think it takes a very accomplished author not to rush through their world building – to tell a fun and fascinating story, while still withholding enough of the secrets to keep us coming back for more. There can be a tendency to overload your reader with information about the world you’re creating, but slowly introducing parts of that world is a much more effective way to draw your reader in and not overwhelm them. I keep learning more about Nevermoor, yet it already feels like a fully formed place. I don’t feel as if Townsend is trying to explain her world to me, but rather is gradually building that fully formed world around me. It’s hard to explain, but it makes for a really enjoyable reading experience.

The Harry Potter feels continue in this book and I feel like Townsend is setting us up for a substantial series. Morrigan enters the Wunsoc society in this book and we get to know the 8 other students that make up her unit (unit 919). Wunsoc parrots the belief that your unit is your family and that you must learn and grow together. A success or failure on behalf of one person is a success or failure for the entire unit. Morrigan’s initial draw to the society was the opportunity to have 8 ready made friends, something she never had as a cursed child. But she soon learns that Wunsoc is not as perfect as she believed and that trust, respect, and friendship are still things that will need to be earned.

Morrigan is tested in this book. Wunsoc is essentially a little Hogwarts type world where she will attend school for the next 6 or 7 years (can’t remember exactly how many), before pursuing greater endeavors. Her classmates are all signed up for fun and interesting classes, but as a secret Wundersmith, the society is a bit at a loss for what to do with Morrigan. She is forbidden from learning how to use her talents as a Wundersmith, but as wunder keeps gathering to her, her talents can no longer be ignored.

I don’t want to give away any of the plot, so I’ll just say that I loved the mystery element to this book and I loved the characterization. Hawthorne is just as fun in this book as the first book and I really liked getting to know Cadence a bit more in this book. It was a little hard at times to keep track of all 9 of the Wunsoc students as 6 of them are brand new characters to us, but I’m really excited to get to know them better as the series progresses. We’re also introduced to the Scholar Mistresses at the school in this book and I can’t wait to see where the next book takes us with the two different streams of study at Wunsoc. Townsend builds on the relationships of the folks living at the Hotel Deucealion. Jupiter continues to be an elusive, eccentric, Dumbledore type character and I have a lot of questions about what he’s really up to. Fen continues to be one of my favourite characters and I hope to see more of her and Jack in later books.

In conclusion, I still highly recommend this series and I loved every part of this book. My only regret is reading it too fast and having to wait too long for the next book!