Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Reading in 2021

2021 was another good reading year for me. My total number of books read was down from 2020, but still well over my goal of reading 50 books for the year. And I feel like 74 is a more accurate count than my Total Books Read usually is. There are plenty of graphic novels and children's books in there, but not as many short stories and there were only a few books that I started, but didn't finish.

The shortest story I read was "Snow White and Rose Red" by the Brothers Grimm. Normally I'd include that as part of a collection, but I specifically pulled that one out to read because I was getting ready to read Emily Winfield Martin's novel that expands on the tale. I quite liked the fairy tale and loved the novel, but more on that below. 

The longest book I read (listened to on audiobook, actually) was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I loved this one. It's an excellent mystery with lots of twists and turns. One thing that makes it special though is that Collins lays it out as a series of narratives by different characters, each with their own voices and perspectives, which include flaws that they're blind to, but that Collins and his audience aren't.

There's also a lovely romance that I rooted for, but what I adore most is Collins' insistence on shining a loving spotlight on characters that are considered physically unattractive by general society, but are observant and intelligent and crucial. I'm so used to books from this period casting a distrustful eye towards outsiders. And while it's arguable that for most of the story, The Moonstone does that to its South Asian characters who are trying to reclaim the gem that was stolen from them in the beginning, the novel ultimately reveals that it knows better where they're concerned as well. It's a remarkably sensitive, but also intriguing, exciting, and funny book.

The most popular book (among Goodreads users) I read was The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. I liked it okay.  I enjoyed the narrator and, like him, was completely sucked into the horrible world of the Long Island rich. I 'shipped some characters, wanted good things for others, was repulsed by still others, and most importantly was charmed by Gatsby until I got to know him.

The most obscure book I read was William Allen Knight's "The Signs in the Christmas Fire." It's a little book I picked up in a used bookstore in Atlanta on my road trip last Summer. I enjoy Christmas stories, so I bought it without knowing anything about it and really liked it. It's a simple story of an old man and his daughter entertaining and educating fellow travelers around a fireplace at an inn. The pair has a tradition of looking for elements in the fireplace at Christmas time that remind them of the nativity scene. They gladly share these with the room and bring out a lovely lesson in the process.

I tended to like what I read last year, with my average rating being 3.8 out of 5 stars. I did abandon four books, though. 

The prose in Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is lovely, but I wasn't in the mood for a meditation on loss and change. The first 50 or so pages cover a lot of time quickly, dialogue is sparse, and events just kind of flow by instead of grabbing me and pulling me in. I wanted something more immersive.

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly is well-written and beautifully produced with lovely illustrations, but it's darker than I expected or wanted from an island adventure story. The island's culture is positively dystopian and the book's tone is oppressive and heavy. That works for a lot of readers, but it's not my bag.

Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita is a short story collection in two parts. Her prose is funny and engaging and educational and I enjoyed each individual story I read, but I started to grow tired of them cumulatively. Ironically, the place where I got bored was the back half of the book where Yamashita retells Jane Austen stories with modern, Japanese American characters. That's what I came to this collection for to begin with, but I was way more interested in the first half of the book collecting her own, Austenless work.

I loved the insight to Japanese American culture; it just turns out that I didn't need to have it married to my favorite Regency-period author. I wonder if it has anything to do with Yamashita's admitting that she's not a huge Austen fan herself. Her sister is and that appears to be the inspiration, but I found the Austen adaptations more cute than insightful. They don't have anything particularly new to say about Austen, nor are they as revealing about JA culture as the first half of the collection, so I started skimming them toward the end and then gave up.

The last book I didn't finish was Little Women and Werewolves by Porter Grand. Boy, did that sound fun. One of my favorite kinds of monsters mashed into one of my favorite classic novels. I put it down fairly quickly though. I don't know if it's just that what I like about Little Women (the sweetness and kindness and putting others before yourself) wasn't marrying well with what I like about werewolves (the warning about letting go of social inhibitions). Those themes sound like natural things to put next to each other and maybe Little Women and Werewolves gets there eventually, but the bit I read seemed more interested in building a world where werewolves are an acknowledged, but persecuted element of society. The novel seemed to be about prejudice against them and I got bored with it, but again, maybe I didn't stick with it long enough to get an accurate impression. I wasn't enjoying it though.

I finished The Hidden Staircase, the second Nancy Drew mystery novel, but it was my biggest disappointment of the year.  I loved the first book, so it was especially sad not to like this one so much. Particularly when it's such an iconic story that's been adapted to film multiple times.

I can see why it's a favorite among young readers, though. Nancy investigates a potentially haunted house and it doesn't bother me that Scooby Doo cartoons reused the plot over and over again. And Nancy is as charming as ever. But unlike the first book, her success this time hinges largely on her apparently supernatural ability to talk disloyal henchmen into turning on the main villain. That was hard to swallow and ruined the book for me. I'm curious to see how movie versions handle that.

On the other end of the spectrum, I absolutely loved about a third of the books I read. Some of these were re-reads of favorite holiday stories like A Christmas Carol and various children's books by Wende and Harry Devlin (the Cranberry and Old Witch series, to be specific). Another big influence on that number is my read-through of all seven volumes in Yoshitoki Ōima's A Silent Voice manga series. I loved every single volume as well as the anime based on the story.

The first Nancy Drew novel, The Secret of the Old Clock, was another book I loved. As was Emily Winfield Martin's Snow & Rose. She adds a central mystery that strengthens the ties between the lightly connected events of the Grimm version, but she also gives the girls distinct personalities, forest friends and acquaintances, and dangerous threats to overcome. 

My favorite comic of the year was probably The Kurdles by Robert Goodin. It's about a tossed away teddy bear that enlists the help of some strange forest creatures to help her get home. But before they can assist, they need her aid in dealing with an emergency of their own. Goodin's art is detailed and wondrous and brings the story to incredible life. The little world he's built is amazing and the only negative thing I have to say about it is that there's not a sequel already.

The Moonstone was my favorite novel of the year, but a solid runner up was The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis. It's a mystery featuring the Brontë sisters as detectives and was exactly what I wanted. The sisters all have the personalities I associate with them (thanks largely to the movie To Walk Invisible) and solve a cool mystery on the moor involving a missing - probably dead - wife and potentially a ghost. And it only strengthened my growing crush on Emily Brontë.

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