Books in 2021: Some Favourites + Random Thoughts on Reading

*Life update: I knew the ease of Day#1 in Grade 1 online learning had to be an aberration. Let’s just say Day#2 involved (a few) tears, a LOT of frozen screens, and 9 minutes of a music class that involved no music until I finally agreed we could give up (the teacher kept freezing). We hosted a classmate for lunch (recess), tromped through the snow to collect materials for ice wreaths (gym/art), read books (literacy) and counted the shapes on a sweater pattern in increments of 5 (math) and called it a day. The Grade 5 child did fine on her own, bless her. While I was home supervising online learning, our car got rear-ended (while stopped at a crosswalk; not our fault so a lot less of a headache with insurance but we still have the hassle of sorting through body work, rental cars). It could have been so much worse, and we’re mostly just counting our blessings.


When I was growing up I read…constantly; hours and hours each day. I would walk over to our neighbours – who owned the complete Nancy Drew series – and get an entire grocery bag full of books. I would finish the stack in a few days and would trudge back across the driveway for another helping of my favourite titian-haired sleuth.

I did Sweet Valley High when I was in middle school (and The Baby-sitter’s Club, of course); when I was in high school I set my sights on Clive Cussler and devoured every Dirk Pitt adventure I could get my hands on, with a few John Grishams thrown in for good measure.

In university, outside of textbooks, it was mostly classic literature like Shakespeare or Faulkner (I tolerated the first and loathed the latter). I basically didn’t read for pleasure for about a decade, aside from devouring the Harry Potter series when each new book was released and one read-through of the Anne of Green Gables series in my first year of university.

I just couldn’t get “in” to books anymore. And then I read, of all things, a book called: The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King. How random. And just like that, I was hooked on non-fiction.

I would say about 60% of the books I read are non-fiction (my favourite being memoirs); of the remaining 40%, about 25% is classic fiction and 15% is modern fiction.

2021 reading highlights

I finished 88 books in 2021. I didn’t set out to reach a specific target (I plugged in 50 books as a goal in Goodreads, but didn’t pay much attention to the tally). It was a good year; there were only a handful of books I didn’t finish, which don’t end up in the completed tally.

I definitely tended toward non-fiction; lots of sports memoirs/biographies, which I always find interesting. I don’t think this was my favourite year of reading – there weren’t any “couldn’t-put-it-down moments” like I’ve had before with Where the Crawdads Sing (mixed feelings about the book but couldn’t put it down), A Gentleman in Moscow, The Glass Castle, Educated or The Sound of Gravel (which left me crying in the middle of the night) – the last three having some very clear parallels.

But there were lots of books that I enjoyed reading over the last 12 months. Some were good but didn’t stick with me (like Hooked by Michael Moss); then there were some books that have stuck with me, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy the writing style or structure (like Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman and Ladyparts by Deborah Copaken, for example).

Cosy was readable and like a warm hug; Station Eleven was gripping, though maybe reading about a pandemic in the MIDDLE of a pandemic isn’t the best idea? Off the Clock is a long-time favourite. Charles Dickens was great, and Outer Order, Inner Calm is…calming. Harry Potter is just a whole other category of classic and comforting because I associate it with my formative years of reading, and I enjoyed the first book in The Mysterious Benedict Society series. The Great Alone and Dear Edward were both okay but slightly disturbing/depressing; not sure how the Michael J. Fox book snuck in there because I don’t think I actually finished it…
This set was okay. Just Mercy was well written, The Road Back to You – all about Enneagram’s -was interesting (I’m a 6 with a 5-wing) but not life-changing in any way. I loved Grit and A Promised Land; a bit disappointed by My Side of the Mountain and Wintering. The Grapes of Wrath is a classic (I had forgotten all the language and content issues – won’t be reading this to the kiddos anytime soon!). I liked The View from Saturday (but not nearly as much as From the MixedUp Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, read several years ago). Oops, a picture book ended up on this shelf – I read lots of those too…a lot more than 88. The Trolley Car Family will forever be my favourite children’s book, and I hope to read this every year for the rest of my life.
The Writing Life, Thanks a Thousand, How To Break Up With Your Phone, and re-reading Atomic Habits were all highlights. Four Thousand Weeks has stuck in my head, but I didn’t love it. Roald Dahl had some great classics I read for the first time to the kiddos. Remember was interesting, as was The Biggest Bluff. The Golden Compass started off strong and then completely lost me by the end. The Boxcar Children is just pure nostalgia to me and this was a re-read with the kids for the umpteenth time.

Here are a few notes from my tracking spreadsheet (I’ll discuss this more tomorrow) that detail some reading highlights from the year. The books I’ve pulled out are listed in reading order – not by ranking of favourites. Interestingly, even though I read quite a few new books in 2021, I’m amazed how many of my final tally were re-reads. This is a habit I learned from my father and am passing on my children (who will re-read and re-watch anything approximately 1 million times); but I think this year, in particular, I found it comforting to return to familiar stories and well-loved characters.

NON-FICTION |

  1. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perserverance – Angela Duckworth | Excellent book.
  2. A Promised Land – Barack Obama | This was really well written; wish I knew more about US politics to appreciate it even further. Loved the behind-the-scenes details AND just generally really liked his writing style.
  3. Tribe of Mentors – Tim Ferris | A re-read. A slew of advice from various entrepreneurs and other gurus. Just interesting to see all the different takes on issues.
  4. Off The Clock – Laura Vanderkam | Re-read. Love this.
  5. The Gospel of Ruth – Carolyn Curtis James | Excellent writing and very interesting + motivating lessons from the OT story. Ruth was a radical woman!
  6. It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way – Lysa Terkeurst | This was really good. I’ll want to re-read it at some point for sure. [Interesting, because recently I told someone I had just felt meh about this book…but apparently I really enjoyed it!]
  7. Bread and Wine – Shauna Niequist | Re-read; good – just an easy, comforting read.
  8. Walden – Henry David Thoreau | Classic. A bit dry at times…but very quotable and reflective!
  9. Recipe for Life – Mary Berry | I cannot get enough Great British Bake Off. Fun; interesting to read behind-the-scenes information.
  10. Daily Rituals – Mason Currey | A re-read. I really enjoyed this more the second time. Common themes: walks, coffee, drugs. Lots of insomnia. Lots of depression. Most people don’t work that long. Some people take years and years to write things. Lots of being solitary.
  11. The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin | Re-read. Just like reading a conversation with an old friend. Love the book so much, mostly because of the impact it had on my life. It has made me happier.
  12. The Happiness Trap – Russ Harris | This was really good. There is a lot to digest and this was kinda my third read-through, but there are many sound principles. It was the right book at the right time…
  13. How To Break Up With Your Phone – Catherine Price | SO good. Practical and full of great tips and quoteable quotes.

FICTION |

  1. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel | Really enjoyed this. Gripping, thought provoking and very well written. Would make a good movie [I see this is now an HBO miniseries].
  2. Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Hyasi | A few parts I didn’t love, but a probing look at faith, addiction, death, family ties…; definitely very well written.
  3. Fantastic Mr. Fox – Roald Dahl | Really enjoyed this!
  4. The Mysterious Benedict Society – Trenton Lee Stewart | This was really good; a fun read and very enjoyable to be able to read something that Abby recommended!!!
  5. George’s Marvelous Medicine – Roald Dahl | This was good; short (reminded me of The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and funny.
  6. Heidi – Johanna Spyri | This was great! Enjoyed reading this with the kids very much.
  7. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens | Good. Very long and wish it wasn’t so weighty to get through, but an amazing story with rich characters. Didn’t enjoy as much as a Tale of Two Cities [read in 2020], though.
  8. Harry Potters (Books 1, 3 and 6) – JK Rowling | Re-reads (for the umpteenth time; these three are my favourites).
  9. Anne of Green Gables – L.M Montgomery | Re-read with the kids. Classic.

What was your favourite book of 2021. I’ve seen Caste and The Midnight Library show up so many times they’ve both been added to my 2022 list.

Header photo by Madalyn Cox on Unsplash

31 thoughts on “Books in 2021: Some Favourites + Random Thoughts on Reading”

  1. I loved Transcendent Kingdom; that author is incredible.

    My fave books of 2021 were Friends and Strangers and The Son of the House. Lots of good reads last year though. I am currently reading Carnival of Snackery, which, if you like David Sedaris, is really great. But you have to like David Sedaris (I do, but he’s not for everyone).

    I recently found an old Sweet Valley High and it was hilarious to reread. It was the one with the motorcycle accident and Elizabeth and Jessica switched personalities.

    1. I have to admit I can’t remember too many specifics from those books (there were SO many). Oddly enough I remember in one book they wet their hair in the morning and then blowdried it to make it “fresh” again without a shower and I’ve totally done that many times since reading about that in a Sweet Valley High book.

      1. Oh gosh, I totally read tons of Sweet Valley High books too. We actually had a board game based on the book series that I played a million times with my best girl friend when we would have sleepovers!! I’d almost forgotten about those, though! I read pretty much the entire Babysitters Club series, and I also got really into I think her name was Lurlene McDaniel books when I was a young teen….they were horribly depressing though, I realize now! Are you familiar with her books? They were literally all about teens/ kids with like cancer or leukemia, etc….but also teenage “life” and feelings, along with the medical drama side. They were oddly addicting!! haha.

        I liked horses a lot and rode equestrian for a few years in middle school and was obsessed with a series called The Saddle Club when I was probably 11-13 years old or so, maybe. Also a series called Thoroughbred Series (also about horses!). I miss all the free time to just read and read!!

        1. Oh wow – never heard of the Lurlene McDaniel books. I actually skipped a lot of things; like any book by Beverley Cleary I’ve only read since becoming a mother.
          I read some Saddle Club; Nancy Drew was definitely my favourite as a kid and then action adventures (like Clive Cussler) once I was a teenager.

          I miss the free time to read and the guilt-free reading. Now I feel like I “should” be doing something else. I think that’s one reason I enjoy non-fiction so much. I feel a LOT less guilty because I do get something out of reading instead of just entertainment. There’s likely a downside to this (i.e. I’m trying to be productive in leisure pursuits as well), but I really DO enjoy non-fiction. As, as I said, I find reading memoirs and biographies very relaxing and almost like fiction (some of the stories like The Sound of Gravel, Educated, The Glass Castle, The Witness Wore Red etc definitely READ like something you could never imagine happening in real life).

  2. You’ve already seen my favorites posts! Caste stands out as the best non-fiction book. The Guncle was one of my fave fiction books. It was very witty but also handled very serious topics (death/grief and addiction). I want to read more by that author.

    I’ve always been a big reader, too. I did not have a public library in the tiny town where I grew up, so I did not have access to books like my children will. We check out hundreds of books from the library each year. I definitely prefer fiction to non-fiction and I very very rarely re-read a book!

    1. So interesting. I LOVE to re-read, but basically never modern fiction (though I will probably re-read A Gentleman in Moscow again). I find re-reading both comforting and a great way to get more information out of a book. Each read-through provides some new insight.

      I can’t imagine not having a library; it is a huge source of joy in our lives. We also check out hundreds and hundreds of books and I ALWAYS have a massive holds stack on the shelf (I can always see mine from a distance; I don’t even stay alphabetized because our stack is so big it goes on the bottom shelf) which gives me a real sense of odd satisfaction 🙂

  3. I feel like we have really similar tastes in books! I also prefer non-fiction, and I love the “personal growth” sector, as it appears you do as well. I’ve read a bunch of the books on your list. I loved Grit (read several years ago now, would like to re-read). I would like to read Tribe of Mentors. I would probably like almost all the books on your non-fiction list!

    I have NOT read many classics lately, and I’m not sure if I love them as much as I like the idea of them, if that makes sense (hehe), but I would like to work my way through some more. I also loved loved Gentleman in Moscow and would like to read his other new one- The Lincoln Highway I think it’s called?

    I don’t generally re-read too many books (I don’t read nearly the volume that you and many others do, despite my best efforts, so I feel like I need to “move on” to new books). But one I read in 2020 that I’d really like to re-read was called Solve for Happy. And I could also see myself re-reading books like Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, Atomic Habits, etc. I also read GR’s The Happiness Project a long time ago (before I was as “into” this whole happiness/personal growth world as I am now), so I would like to re-read that one, too.

    1. Tribe of Mentors was great! I like the “personal growth” and also memoirs. To me most of the memoirs seem to “read” like fiction, and I tend to take a lot fewer notes so I tend to get through them more quickly than the personal growth variety. I also like Digital Minimalism (better than Deep Work and A World Without Email).

      A lot of my classic reading is YA (Anne, Harry Potter, Roald Dahl) – I’m not reaching for things like War and Peace anytime soon!

      I have The Lincoln Highway on hold at the library now (well, I’m on the waitlist). I was not nearly as big a fan of Rules of Civility.

      I had a hard time getting in to Solve for Happy, but I think that’s because it felt like A LOT of repeat from The Happiness Trap, which I really enjoyed. Atomic Habits is a favourite as is The Power of Habit (I’m thinking of asking for that one next year for Christmas because I’d like to add it to my little library of favourites).

  4. Such a great reading year! I see you and I are misaligned on The Great Alone, which was one of my favorites from 2021. But our differences help make life so rich and fascinating!

    So sorry to hear that Day 2 went more… as expected. 🙁 Hoping that today and the rest of virtual learning are better.

    1. Ha. The Great Alone was fine…I’m just not really in to fiction and I found it sad and I guess I just didn’t need more sad things in life in 2021?
      Thankfully, Day #3 went better than Day#2. I have a very jammed schedule for work tomorrow so I am planning to let the little guy off from gym and music (the main source of tears…and he listens to loads of music each day + does lots of outdoor activities so I’m not going to lose any sleep over it).
      Very relieved to be OVER 1/2 DONE THE WEEK. We have a news conference today in our province for schools, but I’m feeling optimistic because schools across Canada are basically all looking to head back next week. If not, at least I know it is a lot more manageable than doing primary via online learning.

  5. We have very similar tastes in books as well! I did discover this year that I enjoy listening to non-fiction as audiobook, because sometimes books with one main idea can get repetitive. (The author lays out the idea and then tries to prove it over and over and over.) I love memoirs, and added The Sound of Gravel to my list!

    1. Just a warning that The Sound of Gravel is…very traumatic. A gripping story, but definitely one that was hard to read at some points.

  6. Hey! Great book post!

    I’ve read quite a few of the same ones, and I also grew up on Sweet Valley!! I always wanted to be a Jessica but I’m totally more of an Elizabeth LOL.

    1. Same! I was definitely Elizabeth (which makes sense given our shared name), but wanted to “be” a Jessica.

  7. Last year I read 172 books and only two of them were non-fiction. Oops. I think I should make it a mini-goal to read more non-fiction this year. I just really like an immersive fiction experience.
    I don’t know what my favorite book of last year was, but Piranesi, An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, and The Hollow Kingdom (by Kira Jane Buxton, NOT Clare Dunkle – learn from my mistake) were all pretty good.

    1. Wow. 172 books. That is epic. We clearly have different foci with our reading.
      When I was growing up I read almost exclusively fiction (though, now that I look back, I did read a few biographical stories and LOVED those, so I’m not sure why it took me so long to get hooked on reading non-fiction as an adult?).

  8. that’s an impressive reading year! I really loved tribute of mentors, promise land, and grits!
    how do you choose books? I’m always curious to know about readers how they pick books to read.

    1. Hmmm. I do use Goodreads suggestions sometimes (when you log a book and it recommends others). I will also look at new releases in our library system and put holds based on titles that I think sounds like something I’ll enjoy.
      Sometimes I get book recommendations inside OTHER books, I’ll look something up specifically about a genre, or in reading other blogs. Lots of different ways, I guess – mostly “organic” and I never seem to have any trouble finding enough to read, that’s for sure (especially since I DO like to re-read).

  9. I also grew up reading constantly. My best friend and I would ride our bikes to the library, pick out huge stacks of books, and then settle down to read for the afternoon (wow, we really were nerds!) I continued to read constantly through adulthood- until I had kids and then my reading dropped off tragically. I had to really make an effort to get back into it, but it’s so worth it. Books make life so much richer.
    Since I just re-read the Harry Potter books I’ll weigh in on that. Definitely the third book- what an incredible ending. Also book #6 but I would add the last book as well to the favorites- it made me cry, and I just re-watched that movie and it made me cry as well! Greatest series of all time.

    1. I grew up watching my Dad read ALL the time. He is a very fast reader, like me, and likes to skim – like me.
      I never understood why I hardly ever saw my mother reading and she would say “I don’t have the time.” It was so true – she was VERY busy AND she is a slow and methodical reader.
      Now that she’s retired an all of her kids have LONG since left the roost, she reads everyday and it makes me so happy.
      I do think if I wasn’t a fast reader, though, having kids would be the nail in the coffin of reading. And, admittedly, I didn’t read many books when the kids were babies because I just didn’t have the energy/time.

      I think biking to the library for a huge stack of books and then reading all day sounds absolutely lovely – not even a smidge nerdy. More like my description of a perfect day!

  10. I read constantly as a child too. During the summer I would get dropped off at the library and left there all day. I don’t think my parents realized this wasn’t really okay, but I got a lot of reading done that way.
    I loved Tribe of Mentors. I had borrowed it from the library in 2020, back when you could check out books indefinitely because of the pandemic. It sat on my side table, and I loved just flipping through it and finding the perfect gem or idea to inspire me at any given moment.
    Some of my favorite book read this year: The House in the Cerulean Sea, The Sun Does Shine, A Bright Ray of Darkness, Pachinko, Parenting Outside the Lines, Bad Blood, and The Good Neighbor (a biography on Mr. Rogers).
    I didn’t care for The Midnight Library, so interested to see how it goes for you! I thought Haig’s How to Stop Time a much more interesting and better executed take on the same idea. The Midnight Library was a little prescriptive for my taste.

    1. Ha! Spending a whole day in the library – which I guess I did in university, but definitely not as pleasant as childhood reading – sounds like a dream.
      I really enjoyed how easy Tribe of Mentors was to pick up and put down.
      I read so little modern fiction, so I really do end up only getting books that are hugely popular (which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “hugely” good). Maybe I’ll have to re-think my read of The Midnight Library and pivot to How to Stop Time?!

  11. Love your list and put a few on my TBR. I rarely read memoire but I may pick up a few more with such good recommendations. Also Looking forward reading Tale fo two cities this year.
    I think I enjoyed the most in 2021 “Not forgetting the Whale”, “The Darker Shades of Magic Trilogy” and the “Salt path” in fiction. The “Deepest Well” and “Wild Remedies” was a favorite in non fiction as well as a creativity book which is only available in German as of now.
    Looking forward following along on your reading journey in 2022

  12. 88 books – wow! It pays off that you’re not on social media (haha – I think I spent too much time scrolling). You read some excellent books. I also read A Promised Land and thought it was excellent – but so dense! I definitely enjoyed the “behind the curtains”-look at his presidency!

    Caste was a really good book and I’d highly recommend everybody read it. So much to think about!

    1. I have Caste on its way to me via the library system. Should be in my hands by next week!

      Not being on social media saves time, but I also read quickly and do skim (which I’m sure many readers might take offense to) so I sometimes feel like I’ve “cheated” a bit with how many books I get through. I’m going to talk a bit more about my “skimming” later this week, actually. Stay tuned…

  13. Nice job on 88 books! It’s so interesting how you read mostly nonfiction. I’ve definitely upped my nonfiction game lately and I read just about the same amount of fiction vs nonfiction in 2021, which was crazy to me. Know My Name, Caste, When They Call You a Terrorist, and The Undocumented Americans were some of my favorite nonfiction reads of 2021!

    One of the podcasts I listen to is reading through the Sweet Valley Twins books and man oh man, those books did not age well. Elizabeth and Jessica are RUTHLESS!

    1. Caste is on it’s way via my library as we speak, though I just got The Midnight Library today…which I now sense has more mixed reviews than I thought. I’m so careful about modern fiction because I read so few books that I want to make sure I get it “just right”…but obviously that’s impossible with so many people with so many different preferences. I will report back.
      I also checked my holds list on The Lincoln Highway and I am something crazy like #17, so it will be months before I get that one in my hands.

  14. Glad you brought up A Gentleman in Moscow! I’ve read and really enjoyed one of Towles’ books before and if you list it in your “can’t put it down” category, I think I really should finally give it a go 😉

  15. Elisabeth, I would like to form a long-distance book club with you. I would have liked to have done so when we were in middle school, too, apparently. 😉 I was always the kid with a book in my hand – I wrote a comment on Stephany’s blog, I think, that I literally read at the table, while brushing my teeth, walking around the house, in the bath (when I took baths), in the car, in the headlights of the car behind us when it got dark, etc. etc. etc. Readers are readers.

    Nancy Drew, Babysitter’s Club, Saddle Club, Trixie Belden (did anyone else read those books? also soft “girl mysteries”, plus countless Christopher Voight books (scary), “old” books (Girl of the Limberlost – loved that one, Little House on the Prairie, Chronicles of Narnia, The Dark is Rising, etc. etc. etc.). We went to the bookstore every week after church and my parents were always, always willing to buy us something.

    But now! I would love to know what sports memoirs you have read (someone else who likes sports!), and I plan to cull from your list of nonfiction to round out my own. Now, I bounce around between rereads (Harry Potter, Anne [as we’ve discussed], The Dark is Rising [maybe I should move to that one…], etc.), nonfiction, and fluff (right before bed). Thank you for sharing!

    1. Yes, yes, yes! I read Trixie Belden. I haven’t thought of those books in YEARS!
      I have never read The Dark is Rising! I’ll have to check that out.
      Hmmm. Sports memoirs:
      What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami; so good and have read this twice
      North – Scott Jurek (about ultrarunning)
      Eat and Run – Scott Jurek (more about ultrarunning and veganism)
      Finding Ultra – Rich Roll; A recovering alcoholic who started running ultramarathons; good, and more background than Scott Jurek’s
      The Pursuit of Endurance – Jennifer Pharr Davis; Amazing book about running the Appalachian Trail
      My Year of Running Dangerously – Tom Foreman; Really enjoyed this book; the author ran a marathon with his daughter and then morphed into ultrarunning
      The Boys in the Boat – Daniel James Brown; Washington rowing team going for gold in Berlin 1936
      Open – Andre Agassi; I loved the first part of the book, but it was a bit too long overall. Still, an interesting read if you enjoy tennis

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