Episode 80

I’m kicking off the New Year with a solo episode – a list of my favorite reads of 2020. 

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Host: Julie Strauss

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Discussed in this episode:

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
I love this one on audio, thanks to the incredible voice work of Adjoa Andoh (voice actor for series)
A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean
(I mistakenly called this “A Scandal by Any Other Name” in the podcast; forgive my error. It’s part of Sarah MacLean’s The First Rule of Scoundrels series, and I should know better than to try to record a podcast while sick!)

The Witch Elm by Tana French
Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Series

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner
Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

Graphic Novels
In Waves by AJ Dungo

Historical Fiction
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Iliad of Homer
The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Severance by Ling Ma

Joanna Balfour on The Body Papers: A Memoir” by Grace Talusan, Best Book Ever Episode 051
Bel Canto Books, Long Beach, California – ships all over the world, support indie bookstores!
Zenobia Neil on “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller, Best Book Ever Episode 035
Lisa Marie Cabrelli on “Severance” by Ling Ma, Best Book Ever Episode 050

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Hello, Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where I get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today it’s just me doing a solo episode to tell you about some of my very favorite books of 2021. 

I don’t know about you, but I love an end of year wrap-up list. I posted a meme on Instagram a few weeks ago that said something along the lines of: ignore those people who say they don’t care about your Spotify Wrap-ups. I care, and I will ponder them and cherish them. And it was meant to be a cute meme. But it is my real feeling. I genuinely want to know what you love. For me, the appeal of an end-of-year “Best Of” list is the same as the appeal of asking someone to tell me about their favorite book every week: I love the little peek into your life. And I think understanding the art that other people loves helps us to understand who they are. It’s a really small thing, but it is so important. And my guess is that you understand that impulse, which is why you listened to this podcast? 

So, I had a really great reading year as of this recording in the very last days of 2021. I read 87 books, which is a little low for me. The genres have skewed mostly toward literary fiction, romance, mystery, and historical fiction, which are always my favorite genres to read. I read a lot more memoirs than normal this year, as well as a few graphic novels, some YA, and a little bit of fantasy. The only genres really lacking in my reading life in 2021 were non-fiction, except for a couple of business specific books. And, of course, horror. Which, let’s be honest about horror: I may one day be open to learning more about the horror genre, but 2021 was definitely not the year and it ain’t looking so good for 2022 either. I’m sorry, horror fans and horror authors. I love you, but I can’t read your books. 

Let’s talk about my personal best of 2021. My patrons and anyone who reads my blog already knows what I’m going to say next, but in case you’re new around here, let me just say this to you: never, ever read something that you don’t like. Ever! Life is too short and there are too damn many books out there. Don’t ever read a book just because you think you should, or because everyone else says it’s great, or if it’s not interesting to you. When I say these were my favorite books of the year, I don’t mean I read a bunch of terrible books and these were the seven best ones. I mean that every other book I read this year was also interesting, funny, compelling, or otherwise worth my extremely valuable time. And if not, I set it aside and moved on. But these books I’m telling you about today are the books that I could not stop thinking about. 

I’m going to approach this by genre. Let’s start with my favorite romance of the year.

This one was so easy. Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert. I’m a little late to the Brown Sisters fan club, but I am all in now. The Brown Sisters trilogy is so funny and smart and super sexy. I listen to them on audio, and let me tell you about the voice actress. Adjoa Andoh is hilarious. I’m going to give an honorable mention to A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean. Sarah MacLean is one of my all-time favorite romance authors. Again, smart, funny feminist main characters. Terrific plot twists, fantastic historical settings, always an absolute delight to read a Sarah MacLean books.

In the thriller/mystery genre, my favorite this year was The Witch Elm by Tana French. I was also very late to the Tana French fan club, despite many people I trust telling me how good she is. But for some reason, I had it in my head over the years that her books were gory and that the murders were going to be gruesome. I don’t know why I had that in my head, and I can’t speak for the rest of her books, but The Witch Elm was only a regular murder, not a gory murder. And it was compelling and fascinating. I cannot wait to dive into the Dublin Murder Squad series in 2022. My understanding is that they don’t have to be read in order, but I’m not entirely sure of that. If you’ve read the Dublin murder squad, I would love to hear your thoughts on that. And if there’s anywhere in particular I should start from, let me know.

I’m going to give an honorable mention, of course, to Louise penny, the Inspector Gamache series. All of them. You have heard me talk about the Chief Inspector Gamache series many times on the show. Every single book in the series brings you deeper into the lives of the residents of Three Pines. I know it’s really intimidating to start a series that’s already, I think, 17 books long. I promise you this one is worth it. Somehow every book is better than the last, and I don’t know how she does it. 

Next let’s move on to memoir. My favorite memoir of the year was Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. This is the saddest premise for a book: a young Korean American woman writing about the death of her mother. And I know that sounds like a bummer, and it is incredibly, profoundly, deeply sad. But this book is a beautiful picture of a complicated mother/daughter relationship, an immigrant and a first-generation divide, and an artist who’s trying to create herself and honor her history at the same time. What I can tell you is I have thought about this book almost every day since I read it. Initially, I got this book from the library and I loved it so much and told everyone how wonderful it was. And right after that, it was my birthday, and my mom gave me my own hardbound copy of the book. And a grocery bag of treats from the local H Mart. So I got to make a little Korean feast and reread this book and cry all over again. It’s one of my favorite gifts I have ever gotten, to be honest.

I’m going to give honorable mention to Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang. This is also a tough one, about what an immigrant experience in a big city is like. And it’s another one that I think about almost every day. It’s one of those rare books that makes you look around your space, the city where you live, and think about it differently. For me, it made me realize that I miss so many stories, sometimes willfully, by not acknowledging the people around me. For the non-white, non-European, non-rich person, the immigrant experience is terrifying and lonely and often a downward spiral. Maybe you’ve heard that famous saying that no one gets into the boat unless the water is safer than the land they left behind? That was what I thought about on every single page of this book. It’s a really, really compelling read and she is a beautiful writer. 

In graphic novels, I want to recommend In Waves by AJ Dungo. I had Joanna Balfour, the owner of Bel Canto Books, on the podcast in episode 51. And then a while later, after we’d all been vaccinated, I was able to visit her beautiful bookstore in Long Beach, California. We were talking about the books I love to read. Because she’s a great book seller, the way she sells books is by asking her customers where they like to go and what they like to learn. So I told her a few of my favorites and she put In Waves into my hands. In Waves as a graphic novel about grief and surfing, which sounds really weird, but I promise you that it makes sense. AJ Dungo’s high school girlfriend died of cancer – that’s not a spoiler, it’s the premise of the book – nd he wrote this novel interweaving the history of surfing and the story of their life together. And it’s all told through his beautiful artwork. And I don’t know enough about art to describe these pages very well, but they almost looked like sort of modernist woodcarvings, in a way. It’s a really beautiful and sad story. And yes, I am starting to see that I read a whole hell of a lot of beautiful, sad stories this year. I don’t know. Make of that what you will. 

Okay. Historical fiction. The Song of the Achilles by Madeline Miller. Zenobia Neil chose this book as her favorite in the Best Book Ever episode 35, and I have passed it on to at least 10 people since then. If, like me, you read The Iliad in high school and then immediately forgot every single word of it, I promise you’re still going to love this retelling. It does exactly what a historical retelling should do: it makes the story fresh and fascinating to modern eyes, but it also sticks to the established tradition. I am super, extremely forgetful, which turned out to be a really good thing while I was reading this book, because I honestly could not remember who lived and who died. I know you Greek scholars are appalled at me right now, but all I can say is that we forgetful people have very thrilling reading experiences and this book is awesome.

I want to give an honorable mention to The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. This one is a dual timeline story. In one timeline near the beginning of World War Two, three very different women start working at Bletchley park, deciphering German military codes. And in the second timeline in 1947, just as Princess Elizabeth is preparing to marry Prince Philip, the three friends-now-enemies reunite to help one of them get out of the madhouse and uncover a trader. This book is a ripping good yarn. It has delightful fizzy scenes from one of the high society ladies who has a fling with Prince Philip. I loved this book. I listened to it on audio and I highly recommend it in that format. But you cannot go wrong with a Kate Quinn book

Now in fiction, I have three books that all tied for first place. You know what, it’s my list; I get to have three way ties if I want. The first is The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. This is a sensitive and tender and furious portrayal of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, particularly the devastation that it had on the arts world. And this one is also a dual timeline book with a modern story set in Paris. Actually, I wonder if this whole book should go in historical fiction. I don’t know. Are we counting the eighties as historical fiction yet? I’m not sure. Anyway, the two timelines and the people involved intertwine, and I know that sounds like there’s a lot going on, but this is a book that manages to be a sprawling epic, but also very intimate.

Next up is Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. Maybe you could contend belongs in the horror category, because I was absolutely terrified, but I don’t think horror readers would agree with me. This book is about a family who rents a home in upstate New York. And one night the owners of the house show up because the rest of New York city is in a blackout. So these two families are in this home together, and there’s no communication from the outside. The families don’t know if they can trust each other. There’s racial tension and there’s a wealth disparity, and most of all, there is this knowing, creeping dread as the terrible thing that happened outside of the country house inches closer to these two families. I would recommend that you read this book if you’re a fan of quiet, tightening, dread and crystal sharp prose. 

Finally: Severance by Ling Ma. I’m going to go ahead and say it because this shocks me more than it shocks anyone else. This was my favorite book of the year. My friend, Lisa Marie Cabrelli talked about it on Best Book Ever Episode 50, and I absolutely dreaded reading this book for the podcast because who the hell wants to read a pandemic book while we’re in the middle of a damn pandemic? But this is one of those books that got better after I talked to someone about it. In fact, I was so stunned when Lisa Marie told me her interpretation of the ending that I started over again, and I was blown away by what I missed. And that, my friend, is the selfish part of this podcast. I love getting to know people by asking them about their favorite books, but the greedy part of me just wants book recommendations. And I can guarantee you that I would never, in a million years, have picked up this book on my own. And then I read it for the podcast, had a great conversation about it, and then I read it again, and now it’s going up on my favorites of the year. Really, it’s up there on one of my all-time favorite lists. I love being surprised by a book.

So, that is the perfect place to end this episode. I would really love to hear what you loved last year. Did any books surprise you? Did you have a good reading year? Did you hit any reading slumps? I did. I had a bunch of slumps. I’d love to hear what your reading life was like in 2021. And I’d also love to hear what you’re looking forward to in 2022. 

Thank you for listening, Bookworms. Follow the podcast on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram. If you’d like to hear more from my weekly guests, you can become a patron of the Best Book Ever Podcast. For about the cost of a latte, you’ll get exclusive interview clips, monthly book, roundups, and curated reading lists.

Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library!


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