Pt. 1 - If You Only Read 5 Books in 2021…

Part 1 — Books to distract, delight & for escape

Collected images and titles of all 80 books I read in 2020 taken from Goodreads

Part 1 — Books to distract, delight & for escape

For the first time since I started writing these, it has been surprisingly difficult to categorize a list of recommended books. In the past, I’ve grouped my suggestions according to genre and managed to offer up the same number of books in each category. In the past, the year was not coloured with the ongoing impact of a global pandemic.

I became quite deliberate about what I was choosing to read throughout 2020. I’ve finally entirely gotten over the need to finish a book I’m not enjoying. There was no space for me to be reading something I found to be a slog. There was also no space for me to force myself to read non-fiction when my brain was clouded with fog and unable to process a lot from day-to-day.

When it came time to review the 80 books I read in 2020 for this blog, I was able to create a list quite quickly but there at first seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it. It wasn’t until I began to reflect on my selections that a pattern emerged — reading since March of this year has been about meeting emotional needs.

Instead of offering up suggestions based on genre, I’m offering up suggestions based on three themes: (1) Excellent authors, (2) books for escape or distraction, and (3) books to inform, support, and/or help build resilience. I’ve also chosen to break this into two parts, starting with the authors and the more soothing themes in this first part and moving to the more galvanizing/stretch-zone themes for the second. There are twelve books total in addition to the three authors you really can’t go wrong with reading.

The end of the year is not like the tidy ending of a book. This is one arbitrary marker of time among many. 2020 may be over but the pandemic is not. Global political tension and the emboldening of white nationalism continue to impact our lives. The stark reality of climate change and the detrimental impact of late-stage Capitalism did not dissolve with clocks clicking over to midnight.

The one thing this marker can offer us is a personal refresher and time to look at what our intentions and aspirations are for the next twelve months. Part of taking care of each other is in how we take care of ourselves. Reading is a huge part of my self-care and how I find and grow community. My hope with this year’s recommendations is that you are able to find the books that will support you, no matter what 2021 holds.

Authors

When I was a kid I would often find an author I loved and read everything by them as quickly as I could get my hands on their books. The nice thing about finding an amazing author is that you don’t have to think about what to read next — you just choose a title and go.

Portrait shot of author Ruth Ozeki wearing a grey scarf and black and grey striped shirt, smiling at the camera

Ruth Ozeki

Of my three chosen authors, Ruth Ozeki is the only one entirely new to me in 2020 and OMG what a deliciously delightful and wonderful author to have discovered. The first of her books I read is A Tale For the Time Being, which showed up in our LittleFreeLibrary. I could not make that book last long enough — it was so clever and charming and the characters so rich and believable that I missed them when I finished reading. I immediately ordered All Over Creation and My Year of Meats but found myself holding out on reading them, knowing that they were going to be amazing and wanting to savour her writing for as long as possible. I will say about both books, they are alarming in that Ozeki does her research and the facts about the food industry are…factual. For this reason, I offer a heavy content warning on My Year of Meats in particular, but my goodness all three of these books are amazing and I hope she has more in the works.

Black & white portrait of Louise Erdrich from the waist up, taken at a slight angle. She is smiling like she has a secret.

Louise Erdrich

I discovered Louise Erdrich back in 2019 and was overjoyed to see just how prolific she is as a writer. My mind was particularly blown by Future Home of the Living God, so she was an author I turned to a lot this past year, knowing her work would be reliable.

In 2020 I read The Last Report on the Miracle of Little No Horse, Shadow Tag, The Antelope Woman, and The Night Watchman. I highly recommend her to anyone who likes a variety of genres and styles, as her books are wildly different from one another. The Last Report on the Miracle of Little No Horse, for example, has the kind of classic literature-style of Joyce Carol Oates (although far superior as far as I’m concerned) while Antelope Woman is like a modern-day oral legend.

In addition to being an author, she is the owner of Birchbark Books, which is where I ordered every one of the books I’ve read by her.

Angled portrait of N.K. Jemisin with a neutral expression on her face, looking to the camera, wearing a read shirt.

N.K. Jemisin

I’ve said it before and I will never stop saying it, N.K. Jemisin is one of the greatest living authors and one of the greatest authors I have ever had the joy and pleasure of reading. Jemisin’s books have graced my blogs and Secret Librarian reviews before and as long as she keeps writing, I am a devoted reader.

In 2020 I read The Inheritance Trilogy, The Dreamblood Duology, and newly released The City We Became. N.K. Jemisin offers up a blend of fantasy and sci-fi that always subverts expectations and challenges the tropes and archetypes of both genres. As a writer, I appreciate seeing how her writing has grown over the years. I also got the impression that she had a LOT of fun writing The City We Became. If you are missing travel and exploring new places or revisiting old, this is the closest thing to getting a week-long trip to NY I can think of right now.

A big note here: Before reading Jemisin I did not think I particularly like fantasy or sci-fi and I’ve never been a fan of short stories. But with Jemisin writing them, I can definitely say I love all three.

Escape/Distract

This category is about having fun, checking out, reminiscing, or outright fantasizing. These books were all immensely helpful for me when reality was just a bit too much to handle.

Cover of “Juliet Takes a Breath” including a quote from Roxane Gay that reads: “F**king Outstanding”

Juliet Takes a Breath—Gabby Rivera

I chose to read this book because it had a quote from Roxane Gay on the front and that was all the recommendation I needed. Gay is quite right, this book is f**king outstanding! It’s funny, sharp, and a balm for my heart to read a queer coming of age story that is about a lot more than just coming out. It’s also got some nostalgia points, but not in a rose-coloured glasses way but more a generational if-you-are-an-elder-millennial this is SO relatable way. I laughed out loud multiple times reading this book and hope to see more from Gabby Rivera in the future.

Cover of Fiebre Tropical — Black background with a vibrant magenta palm tree

Fiebre Tropical—Juliana Delgado Lopera

Another queer coming of age story, Juliana Delgado Lopera does a fantastic job of capturing the feeling of that first confusing (and intense) crush before you have a word for your sexuality. This is a story of individuating and learning to name your own identity outside of what is defined for us according to culture, family, and society.

Bonus! As someone not so great at languages but deeply committed to improving in that area, this book totally helped me practice my Spanish skills.

Cover of The Starless Sea — Swirling blue & black background with a yellow bee “stamp”

The Starless Sea—Erin Morgenstern

Pure escapism particularly if you are a giant book nerd. Once again, Erin Morgenstern has created a rich fantasy landscape I ache to be able to visit. Her descriptions are so clear I could almost smell the books, taste the food, and hear the atmospheric sounds of an underground world of storytelling and story-reading.

Cover of The Golem and the Djinni — Largely dominated by the title on a painted starry sky background

The Golem and the Djinni—Helene Wecker

Having sat on my To Read shelf unread for almost three years (because I have the hardcover and it’s a big book and big books are Hell on my hypermobile wrists), I finally decided to pick this up in 2020. On the one hand, I wish I’d read it sooner but on the other, this was a perfect escape from the intensity of reality this year and the timing couldn’t have been better. The narrative is of two beings completely different and yet more alike one another than anyone else is set against the background of New York at the turn of the twentieth century. This is a soothing and magical book that definitely helped my sanity in 2020.

Cover of Gideon the Ninth—The character Gideon is in the centre of the image, holding a sword & surrounded by floating bones.

Gideon the Ninth— Tamsyn Muir

Distant future necromancing culture with a sword fighting lesbian protagonist pulled into a mystery on a space station. It’s brilliant. And weird. And impossible to classify.

Cover of The Heart’s Invisible Furies — Two young boys stand w/ backs to the camera, the text of the title overlaid on them.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies — John Boyne

There is a kind of fictional book that takes something of cultural or historical import and “tells” it through the impact on the life of a fictional character. I’m not sure what this genre is called but I’ve read books like this before but never enjoyed one quite so much as I enjoyed The Heart’s Invisible Furies. This is the story of a gay man born in Ireland in the 1940’s and the journey of his life alongside the journey of social change. What I appreciate about this book is that it is a reminder, for as much as things seem to stay the same, they DO change and in just one lifetime too.

Continue to Part 2 — Educate, galvanize & build resilience…