WSIRN Ep 316: Books we loved in 2021

close up of a shelf of books facing backwards with a full bookshelf behind them

Readers, I’ve already shared my best books of 2021 with you all, but today we’ve brought the whole team together to share our collected favorites from the past year!

While we talk books behind the scenes all year long, it’s always a treat to share our entire team’s voices with all of you. With the wide range of reading tastes among our team, the resulting list of titles is a smorgasbord of bookish delight.

Our conversation today debuted as a live event in our Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club community, but the podcast episode includes some bonus contributions from two of our team members who couldn’t join us live. Our selected favorite titles include compelling non-fiction, inspiring sci-fi, unputdownable mysteries, fiction that feels like meeting with an old friend, and more. We’d love to hear which books you’ve added to your TBR—leave us a comment in the show notes to tell us what caught your interest from today’s episode!

Listen to What Should I Read Next? on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast app—or scroll down to press play and listen right in your web browser.


[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 316.

Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?

We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Most weeks I ask one guest to share three books they love as part of our conversation, but this week we’ve turned the mic around and asked the What Should I Read Next team to share the books they’ve loved the most over the past year.

It’s a new year, which means it’s almost time for our first Patreon livestream chat of 2022. Our podcast is unscripted, but it is edited—and that is NOT true for these chats, in which we are live, freewheeling, unedited, confessional, and I'm just gonna say we're gonna call it delightfully honest. You get to ask us anything bookish or not, request personalized book recs that we answer on the fly [LAUGHS] which is an interesting challenge, and have fun hanging with people who love books as much as you do.

If you haven’t yet, join us at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext, where you’ll unlock bonus content, gain access to exclusive events like these, and catch fun and surprising glimpses into our creative process. Sometimes our patrons play a role here, chiming in on episode titles or contributing their own reading stories and suggestions for the show. This community is fantastic, and our live events are more fun than we can say.

Come experience one for yourself: join us for our upcoming livestream chat on Thursday, February 10th at 1 pm Eastern Time. (If you can’t make it live, no worries, we always record these.) We hope to see you there! Patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext for all the details.

Readers, I love sharing my favorite reads each year on the blog, and my joy is multiplied when our entire team comes together to share their own. We recently gathered with the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club community to share our Best Books of 2021—and today, we’re excited to share that conversation with you.

While we talk books behind the scenes, among our team members, all year long, it’s always such a pleasure—and sometimes a shock—to hear which books make the final cut. As a bonus, today’s episode includes the most-loved books from team members who weren’t at our live event, but still wanted to share their favorite books with all of you. So whether you’re listening again or for the first time, you’ll hear something new.

The titles we discuss are truly all over the literary map, featuring odes to onions, inspiring sci-fi, unputdownable mysteries, and fiction that feels like meeting with an old friend. No matter your reading tastes, I think you’ll hear something that catches your interest in today’s show.

Let’s get to it.

ANNE: Hello, everyone! Today we are going to do something that is going to sound just inconceivable to some of you, and I can understand that. We are actually going to celebrate what happened in 2021, at least at it pertains to our reading lives, and we're going to do that with a healthy portion of our team here live and I have to tell you while you all are listening to our team members talk and share their best books, we're going to be doing the same. I've got my notebook ready. I've got my pen uncapped and I can't wait to hear what everyone says. I know what some of the books are, but I don't know all of them and I'm really looking forward to finding out. Ginger, you have the honor of kicking us off. Take it away.

[00:03:37]

GINGER: I am so excited to kick off our best books event this year with a really unconventional sorta niche pick. If 1960s priest foodie sounds good to you, you might like this. It is Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon. Father Capon sent me off ten pages in spending 45 minutes with an onion. Yes, that is right. Just me, a knife, and an onion. As an aside, he recommends a full hour, but I only made it 45 minutes mostly because I had other commitments, but even what I thought would be a good discipline for me but not terribly interesting wasn't even enough time in the end, so don't worry if you're interested in reading this, you won't be totally on your own. He gives instructions for where to cut and where to hold and how to say the various colors, but this practice was transformational.

So for one thing I had never realized that once you get that papery skin off, which is itself beautiful – I kept a piece of onion skin magneted to my fridge for a week after this – once you have that peeled off, you basically have a giant pearl in your hand. Have you guys looked at a peeled onion recently? They are so astoundingly beautiful, and I keep these common vegetables in a dark corner of my pantry for heaven's sake. The world is marvelous and food is marvelous and Capon is there to make us see that, and that's what he really shines at, helping the reader to see, to slow down in the kitchen in pursuit of the good life of food.

So the subtitle on this is A Culinary Reflection and I think that's what he has done for me. He has helped me to slow down. He says in the book there are more important things to do than hurry. Now I have a confession. I'm not ... I don't particularly love cooking. I'm not particularly good at it and mealtime just comes around so relentlessly, multiple times a day, the indignity of it all. I love convenience foods and I love store bought desserts to be honest, but he taught me if I dislike a task or if a task bores me to slow down, not to speed up, to make it simpler or if I can't make it simpler, to make it fancier.

So like unloading the dishwasher as a meditation, stacking the plates up just so, to take the time to put the sour cream in a dish sometimes just on a random week night instead of doling it out from a plastic container on the table. Just really to slow down and notice, so I don't know about you but I need more of that in my life. I will never look at a simple onion the same way again. And after reading this, I went looking for similar meditations. What else was I speeding through in life not noticing? I ended up with a whole list of similar exercises, just a meditation in noticing if you will.

Lest I make this sound esoteric and not practical, he gives loads of intensely practical advice throughout, recipes and the tools for the home cook. An ode to all the uses of baking soda in the kitchen. A timeline for a dinner party that makes so much sense. And now if you need any further inducement, the modern library edition I have has an introduction by series editor and friend of the book club, Ruth Reichl.

Okay so it's unusual for me that my top two favorite books would be nonfiction, but it is not entirely without design. So last year I noticed in my top ten favorites a higher percentage of them were nonfiction to the ratio for the raw nonfiction numbers that I had read, so I deliberately added in more nonfiction in 2021, realizing that I often enjoy nonfiction but I don't reach for a lot of it. So I can't talk best books without mentioning Think Again by Adam Grant. You may already be following him on social media.

This book has influenced my own life, my thoughts, my relationships, my conversations, and you all know I love a book that literally changes my life, as in how I live and speak and move in the world. His posture of humility is just what we could use more of, and I especially appreciated that it in nonfiction where so much of self-help kinda genre kinda is I figured it all out. Do this. So this is one I need to reread every year, which makes it a best book.

And I did already mentioned Washington Black on my patreon runner's up bonus episode, but I can't not mention it again here briefly because I loved it so much. I've been talking about it and pushing it into friends' hands and I just can't not mention it to you friends. It is a rip-roaring story with heart. Several of those readers that I have foisted this book upon have been immediately put off or at least concerned by the early pages, so you should know that this one starts off following a young enslaved boy, so it is not without hard things, but we follow Wash as he enters a world, a new world, a new identity that is swashbuckley and full of hope.

So speaking of things that are really fun and have heart, I have the privilege to introduce to you our spreadsheet guru and data queen, Donna. I got the chance to talk to her a few weeks ago about her favorites, and Brenna has worked her magic to bring this video to you. So take it away, Donna.

[00:08:18]

DONNA: This is Donna Hetchler and I am the spreadsheet guru at Modern Mrs Darcy and I'm very excited to be here and talking about my favorite book of the year, except I'm gonna talk about four! [LAUGHS] But I'm going to do it very quickly and very sneakily.

Okay the first book I want to mention is Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. This truly was my favorite book of the year. I could not possibly talk about it in a couple of minutes, so I'm just gonna throw it out there. I think Elizabeth Strout is a genius and I hope everybody reads her. The second book I want to talk about is Keeper of the Lost Cities, which is by Shannon Messenger. It's a middle grade fantasy series and I mentioned it when we did our best books of the summer, so I won't talk about it again but I loved it so much I just had to give it a little shout out here.

Two books that I also really loved this year, this also a fantasy series. I've only read the first one. It's The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. This is book one in the Wheel of Time series. You've probably been hearing a little bit about the Wheel of Time because it's a new series on Amazon Prime, that is why I picked it up. This is really a classic epic fantasy. There's actually 14 books in the series, so I'll be honest with you, I almost didn't pick this up. I was very intimidated by it. I think it's about 700 or 800 pages and all of them are really long, but I'm so glad that I did. It really made me nostalgic for fantasy that I read in high school and it has those classic elements.

There's a quest. A journey. It's a coming-of-age story, and these young men and women think that they are just going to live their life in this little village, a simple life, and then pretty soon they're on this epic quest dealing with good and evil monsters, magic, their own skills that they did not know they had, backgrounds that they didn't know that they had. I'm just really having fun with it. I will say it's a little bit slow paced. I'm doing it on audio, which has really helped me out, but it was just ... It was such a good reminder to me to not turn down a book [LAUGHS] just because of a preconceived idea, you know, like it's too long or it's too many books in this series, etc. I just went for it and I love it and I'm looking forward to the next 13 books! [LAUGHS]

And then the last book that I will talk about which also very much surprised me. This is The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. I would have never picked up this book. I did this through a buddy read. It's a set of essays, which is honestly not really my thing. The author is really mostly known for his YA books, which is also really not my thing. [LAUGHS] That title, I didn't understand it. I don't know that word, so I wouldn't have picked this up off the shelf, but I'm so glad that I did.

This set of essays, it has a bunch of kinda every day topics, some of them are Canada geese and scratch-n-sniff stickers, sunsets, and yet there's a throughline there that I really connected with, which is … Anthropocene basically means how humans are impacting the earth and that's the throughline in these different essays. He's very clever, how he brings that theme in. He doesn't hit you over the head with it. It's very subtle, but it's actually quite moving, but I found myself laughing. I was crying at points. It was just the book that I needed at this time, if that makes any sense.

I have recommended this book to some other people and every single person I have recommended it to has said it has been a five star book for them. By the way, that ... I bring up the five stars on purpose. At the end of each essay, he actually will give a certain number of stars to each thing, so it's kinda fun seeing like what will he rank diet dr pepper? It's very well done. I think you'll love it and that's my last book that I loved in 2021. Bye!

[00:13:01]

SHANNEN: Donna! That was wonderful as usual. Donna and I talk books all the time and it's awesome. So my reading year and my best books, I read over a hundred books this year and I have notes here if I keep looking down. I'm not talking about all a hundred, so don't be scurred. My reading year read the gamut and I visited some old favorites. I talked about genres that I didn't normally read until this year. I read a very short book. I read a very long book, and those are apart of my contenders. I kept a running list of best books and I'm only going to discuss three of them. I discussed three in the bonus episode and I am going to mention one that I talked about in that bonus episode because I really, really, really want everyone to read it! And it is Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor. I cannot recommend this highly enough. Everyone just go get it. Go read it. That's all I'm going to say.

Now, Donna, talked about not turning down a book because it's too long, and I don't read long books. I think everyone kinda knows that about me and my second best book was the longest book that I've read in a very long time. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. This book is intended as a paean to books, and I didn't know what that word meant, so I had to look it up, and according to Merriam Webster, a paean is a joyous song or hymn of praise, a tribute or thanksgiving, a work that praise and honor its subject, and it did that for books for me. 622 pages. It's long, but I was involved. I was here for it. It spans time. It starts in Constantinople in the 1400s, ends in sci-fi territory. I was here for everything.

I was in a reading funk before I started it and this held my interests so much and brought me out of the reading funk. I will say I am not an Anthony Doerr fan. All The LIght We Cannot See I did not read because I don't read war books and I did start Four Seasons in Rome and he was a bit verbose for me, but this ... It was great. Vivid descriptions. I was wherever he was describing.

I plan on rereading this book and I purchased the Barnes & Noble special edition, which didn't have the dust jacket and it also has a very nice essay from Anthony Doerr about the book. It has gold foil on the top and a ribbon bookmark. It was a special treat for me. If you would like to escape, this is the book for you and I did bring a favorite quote because I always like to have favorite quotes. He said, "In a life you accumulate so many memories. Your brain is constantly winnowing through them, weighing consequences and bearing pain." And I just liked the way he phrased that so much.

Okay, my best book of the year. I think if I were to ask in chat what my best book of the year was, people would be able to tell everyone because I've talked about it so much, but I love it so much and I'm gonna talk about it again. I read this book February 7th and it has stayed my best book throughout the entire year. Yes, yes, Carrie is right, it is Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers.

For those that don't know, it has an intriguing premise, a nonbinary teen monk who has the life they’ve imagined. They've done the thing that they set out to do but they aren't happy and they embark on a personal quest and meet a robot. I adored the writing, love the style, but this book left an emotional and spiritual impression on me that I really was not expecting. Of course, it's a soft hug of a book. It says it's okay if you're not okay. Lash your guts. I was not okay and I'm not sure I'm okay now, but it encapsulated all the feelings that I have had, the longing to be somewhere else, do something else, or not. It's just a general dissatisfaction.

It was sci-fi. I don't normally read sci-fi until this year when Brenna brought Becky Chambers to us at last year's book club event. I've jumped on this version of sci-fi and I just love this book. One thing that she talks about is the nonbinary monk is the monk of a god of small comforts, Allalae. That got me to thinking, is my god the god of small comforts? And I hope desperately that they are and, um, yeah, I needed this. I needed this so much. I've read it three times. It was the first book that I read in 2022, so you know I started my reading off right. It is the first in a series. I cannot wait for the next iteration and have already pre-ordered it. I've turned a quote of this book into my theme for 2022. “It is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don't need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to live.”

[00:18:23]

BRENNA: Hello, everybody. My name is Brenna. I'm the producer at What Should I Read Next. I had a pretty good reading year. I think it was around 120 books that I read. That's too many to choose from, especially when so many of them were really excellent and I feel like there's plenty I could talk about.

My main pick is The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. It came out, I believe, February 2021 but I read it like at the very beginning of January. It was my first book that I read in 2021 as an advanced reader's copy. It was also the last book that I read in 2021. I didn't intend to do that, to have that sorta closed loop reading experience. I just had this desire to read it again. I was thinking about some of the themes in it, and this is such a fitting book to have that reading experience with of a closed loop 'cause that's very much the feeling that the book itself gave me.

I'm not going to tell you anything about the plot. I'm so sorry. If you need a plot to sell you on a book, I just can't give it to you because I think that it's so excellent when you go in not knowing anything. Allowing this book to hit all of the twists and turns of which there are many on the page and all very effective, it sings. It's so good. It is sorta a speculative, just very slightly futuristic science fiction. The psychological thriller, you're going to recognize the world. Like it's the world that we live in just with a few significant technological advances, but we're still on earth. We still ... Like everything is the same except that we move forward in a couple of very specific sciences. And the person who advanced those sciences is our main character, Evelyn.

The character building of Evelyn I feel was incredible and so detailed and nuanced and stretched out across the book. It's in first person and she is not a reliable narrator and the longer you get into the book, the more you start to realize that you are not getting an unbiased view of what's happening and the other people in the story and it's delicious. I love an unpredictable narrator, but it's also a both compassionate and foreboding study of this main study of Evelyn. Some of the questions that she has to face in the book, questions of ethics, morality, relationships, you learn about her as a character through the way that she tells the story.

As she also starts telling you a little bit about her background about growing up, about her family of origin, her mother, her father, which by the way, trigger warning is necessary – there is a background of abuse here – Gailey connects, you can see how Evelyn's background is informing how she makes decisions, how she sees the world, how she feels about other people. All of that is tied together, and getting back to the loop, one of the big themes that Gailey explores in The Echo Wife is cycles of abuse. Repeating cycles. Breaking cycles. And the ending gave me chills. I wanted to start reading the book again. By the end, you know so much more than you knew at the beginning so you just want to turn it right back to the first page again and reread it knowing everything that you know now.

So that is my first pick, my top pick, my favorite reading experience from the year. But it is not the only excellent reading experience I had. I talked about a couple of my other top picks from the year in a patreon bonus episode. I shared three titles in that episode, including one that I'll just throw out there here. Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao, incredible. Just fast-paced. Exciting. Action filled. Explosive, young adult sci-fi novel that is unlike any other young adult novel I've ever read. I'm not big on young adult. I loved Iron Widow. I'm really excited for the next book in the series.

But another book that I wanted to highlight is Cultish: the Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. I saw this book a lot online. It has this really pop-y cover that I think looks really cool, looks all these bright colors and a big UFO on the front. Amanda Montell is a linguist. She's just really clearly obsessed with her area of study, which can sometimes lend itself to really overly academic language I think, but her books are so chatty. She writes in a very relatable, easy-to-read way but she doesn't abandon nuance. So you get lots of information but it's fine, you feel like you're talking to a friend about this particular interest they have and they're just really good at telling a story, so you learn a lot, but you're having a great time. That's what it felt like to read.

Cultish is about the science of cult influence from the mild to the severe and hat's how the book is constructed, like the early chapters are about less destructive cults like influences in our world and then it goes up to really big names that you have likely heard Jonestown, Scientology, and because Amanda Montell is a linguist, she is focusing here on how cults and cultish groups or environments use language to change how we think about them, how we think about ourselves, and as methods of control, very interesting.

I came away with so many little facts that I wanted to share with somebody. I read Cultish in print, but I read her other book last week on audio and she narrates her own audiobooks and that combined with her writing style make the audiobook kinda feel like a podcast. I really incorporated a lot more nonfiction than usual into my 2021 reading and Cultish was the most fun I had. I hope some of you pick up these titles and give them a shot because I loved them.

[00:24:28]

HOLLY: So my name is Holly. I am the newest member to the Modern Mrs Darcy/What Should I Read Next team and I work as the media production assistant. I definitely had a hard time as always narrowing down my best books of the year. I feel like this year I had a lot more of three and four star books than I normally do, but there were still a couple real standouts. So I'll just go through those today. I've got two picks and an honorable mention.

My first book that I would have to say and if you are a patron on our patreon page, you have already heard me talk about this book, but it's Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. I already read her young adult novels, but I was actually given this as a recommendation from my sister-in-law who just said it was phenomenal and picked it up and it is right up my alley. I love fantasy. I love worldbuilding. I love anything that's set in sorta a reimagined historical world or reimagined world that could be our own but is maybe just a little bit different, and Rebecca Roanhorse takes this amazing fantasy story and sets it in a sorta Columbia, pre-Columbian middle America setting, so it's dealing all sorts of mythologies that I'm not familiar with as a reader and it's just a really nice antidote to all of the western European forest fantasies that I've read and enjoyed and just gives it a totally different experience, so she's got a sequel coming out next year called Fevered Star. Can't wait to read it.

Okay, so book two will be no surprise to anyone that's been following the show for awhile because I actually got my recommendation from What Should I Read Next long before I came to work here on this book and this is The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I picked this up simply because I was looking for books that were good on audio and it was recommended as one and I had some audible credits to burn and I said well, I'll trust the recommendation and give this one a try.

I think that I appreciated it even more having had the experience like so many of us did of listening to Amanda Gorman give the speech at the inaugural celebration in January because it definitely evokes the same kind of listening experience. It takes this incredible coming-of-age story of this young woman and it's told in this incredible cadence of her voice where it feels like she's talking to you as a person individually. I could be sitting across, you know, hearing her story over a cup of coffee but also that she could be on a stage performing or reading from this incredible and present text, so I have never had that type of experience before, only previous audio audiobook listening was history or nonfiction or you know, adventure stories or even general fiction, so this was a whole new frontier in audiobook experiences for me and definitely stands out as something I will remember along past the end of the year.

I'm going to give an honorable mention to one other book, which is A Spindle Splintered by Alix Harrow. It's a really tiny novella, so it's super easy to knock out and there is also a sequel coming in the next year for that book, but again, similarly to Black Sun, it has that element of fantasy and mythology. In this case, it's taking the tale of Sleeping Beauty and re-imagining that through a modern lens and kinda a multiplied lens I would say. I love Alix Harrow's writing. She was great in the Ten Thousand Doors of January and I really enjoyed the Once & Future Witches, so it was kinda a no brainer to pick up her new book, but I particularly enjoyed it I think because it was such a short, easy read. She has a great voice that comes across in her narrator. It was unexpected in ways that I had appreciated and I think it would be a fun read for anyone.

[00:28:12]

LEIGH: Hi everyone. My name is Leigh Kramer and I am the editor and social media manager here. I had a pretty good reading year last year. I did notice however that I had significantly fewer five star reads than usual. I'm not really sure what that's about, but I did still have plenty of amazing reads. In fact, I came up with 45 titles for my favorite book lists in 2021 so, you know, I was not hurting. I'm going to share about a couple with you today, however.

So the first is Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers. This is a gorgeous contemporary fiction debut. I just absolutely loved it. It's one of those debuts where you just kinda marvel that this is what the author has kicked things off with. So this is about Grace, a 28 year old biracial lesbian who just finished her Ph.D in astronomy according to her strict driven plans. Grace is one of those characters that, you know, she just kinda charges ahead and things work out the way that she wants them to. Except things are not working out the way that she planned at all, and she doesn't know where to work. She doesn't know what to do next with her job search. She just really has no idea what is going to happen, which is a very foreign concept for her.

So she goes to Las Vegas with a couple of her friends, kinda in an attempt to cheer her up and she wakes up married to a stranger. [LAUGHS] So you know, she kinda freaks out. Not only has she woken up married to a stranger but that stranger has already left. Yuki, her new wife, leaves a note that is just about all that Grace can remember about all that she knows and so in addition to Grace figuring out the job search, now she has to figure out what does she do with this woman that she apparently married?

Grace is a messy character, which makes for a really great emotional arc. She is kinda the character that you can't help but root for as she is just trying to work through her past, trying to figure out what her next steps should be. Making sense of why did she marry Yuki? Should she stay married to her? They live on opposite coasts. Yuki is a really great character in her own right. She spends these magical yearning stories on a radio show so that people will feel less alone, and Yuki's stories were some of my favorite parts of this book that's just so, so beautiful, and what really stands out is just getting to watch Grace find herself along the way and seeing what comes of her plans and the things that she did not plan.

Second book I wanted to share today is A Certain Appeal by Vanessa King. This is Pride & Prejudice but make it burlesque. I am pretty over Austen retellings. I hardly ever read them, but every once in awhile I will give an especially interesting premise a chance and I am so glad that I tried this one out. It is just so fun and engaging and I loved seeing the choices that the author made around the original material and you know, she left out the stuff that I don't care for in Pride & Prejudice and made some really interesting choices with how she adapted things.

Bennett is an executive assistant by day and a stage kitten at a burlesque club by night. Darcy is a private wealth manager who is advising his friend Bingley about investing in the club. They have palpable chemistry and they have one of the hottest first kisses that I've read in awhile. This is open door, very steamy. Kinda a slower burn, you know, so there's that side of things, but really what I loved about this is it is a fascinating examination of intimacy within burlesque, you know, who Bennet is on stage versus who she is with Darcy, I don't know, I just loved it. The story just completely captivated me. There is fantastic found family element. You know, instead of sisters we have the different performers at the club. I loved that whole world. There's fantastic secondary characters. I would read a whole book about Ming who is the Mary character from the original. It was just a really fun read and I'm looking forward to seeing what this author does next.

And then really quickly I just wanted to mention How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith. This has been covered on the blog and the podcast, so I don't need to go into a lot of details but I did want to mention it because not only is it a favorite from 2021, it is one of my all-time favorite reads. It's just a truly stunning nonfiction book and I highly recommend it.

[00:33:11]

WILL: Hello, hello. I'm Will and I really had a hard time doing this. I didn't feel like I had a very good reading year and so I was like I have no idea what books to bring. It's just a tragedy. I didn't read as many books, but then I also, I read my first zero ... I think it's my first zero stars. I just ... I hated it. But the good point of keeping a reading journal is I was able to look back and I did find a couple books I really did love this year.

The first one, chronologically that is, is Chasing the Thrill by Dan Barbarisi. This is a great book about just a crazy story. So Forrest Fenn, an eccentric, let's say, art collector and business owner in the southwest wrote a book with a puzzle poem in it that he buried a treasure out in the Rocky Mountains somewhere and for ten years people have been searching for this. They've also been calling him a fraud and all this stuff. So I was aware of this story and I knew that this past year, I guess, it was 2020, someone finally claimed they found it. So I was aware of that and then Anne saw this come across some list, like hey, there's a book coming out, and asked if I wanted it, and I was like of course I want it. But also how in the world did they get this book out so fast cause someone just found it, so clearly Dan Barbarisi has been working on this for awhile.

But it turns out he's not just a journalist who's been working on it, he was actually searching for the treasure for a number of years, so it has a great memoir feel to it 'cause a lot of is his search and how he got involved in it, and then also this sorta the tricky part of how do you interview people, how do you ask questions, how do you talk to Forrest Fenn as a journalist when you're also looking? And it just has some really quirky characters, and it made the whole adventure a lot of fun, and it does have a pretty satisfying conclusion as far as he meets the guy who found the treasure, Dan actually gets to go and see in what was in the box, and so even though it was kinda rushed out on the heels of the discovery, it does have a pretty great conclusion.

The next one, and this is definitely the book that I knew was probably the best book I've read. I just ... It's been such a year last year was. I didn't remember I read it this year. So this is Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. I don't remember when this was written, but it was not new. I found this at a used book sale and I picked it up on very little information, like a cover a little blurb on the back and I loved it. Prepping for this, I couldn't even really tell you if I remember what it was about. It just had this amazing sense of place that this family story of folks that are both, they love the place, right? It's a beloved home community in Crow Lake but also feeling trapped by it as well and so there's this family dynamic of who gets out and who stays and what are the responsibilities to the family and all that. Mary Lawson has several books that I'm ready to just complete them all. I've only read one other since then but I would definitely recommend Crow Lake from 2002.

And then the last one, and this is funny, Ginger and I were talking this right before we started. I talked with Ginger this summer, I think, it was the team best book of the summer so far, something like that, that we got paired up and she and I were talking about Crow Lake. That was a book that I brought 'cause I read it earlier in the summer, and then she mentioned The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, which is like a pretty thick solid hardback here but it's 100+ pages of notes. This lady has done amazing research. When she says the invention of nature, it literally explains how we understand what nature is. Alexander Humboldt whose name Humboldt is all over all kinds of things from the redwood forests, you know, some grove to a college out there in California, to squid. There's a giant squid called the Humboldt squid. It's named after him.

He is a polymath. I don't know if that's the right word for scientist, but somebody who's good at everything, so back before scientists were specialized like he did astronomy. He did geology. He did botany, like just all this stuff, traveled all over the world at a time when that was not easy, but the book, Andrea Wulf does such a good job. It reminded me a lot of Susan Wise Bauer if you know anything about her idea of history and how we should integrate things that are happening across the world and across disciplines. I had no idea all of the things that were happening at the same time in different parts of the world, except this guy knew everybody. He was a part of all of them. She does such a good job of just combining all those elements and sorta pulling in different things that you didn't even know you wanted to know.

[00:37:21]

ANNE: Alright, it's my turn. I really wanted to share books with you that weren't in the list of books that I shared on the blog for my favorite books of the year, and I'm careful to say favorite and not best because best is … Well, they're both relative, aren't they? But best makes it sound like best for you, favorite just means from me. And I thought this wouldn't be so hard because I often, maybe always, accidentally, exclude one or two favorites from my list just because I forget about it. Not to tease you but I thought one direction I could go with is to share one of my 2022 favorites that doesn't come out until 2022 but that I read in 2021 that I loved so much, but I'm pretty sure we're going to read two of those as main book club selections and I'm not ready to talk about those. And then I thought oh! I know what I left off my favorites list. I have to talk about that one, but I kept looking and no, sure enough those books were on my favorites list. So here's what I decided to do. I shared two books that I mostly forgot about that may ... You know, favorite, favorite is a tier. It's not just a book. We're going to go into this deeper in a moment, but y'all are asking how do we choose our favorites and I follow the same rule that I tell our guests on What Should I Read Next. These don't have to be your best of the month or the year or the decade or a lifetime, just tell us about three books you love.

My first one is Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz and it's funny, I kept calling this the Magpie Murders and sometimes the book lover I was talking about with this book would be like no, no, it's Magpie Murders, and I thought well, does it really matter that much? As it turns out, yes, it does matter, and that was a lot of fun, but I wanted to read this based on very little. I hadn't read any reviews. I didn't see it at the bookstore. It came out something like 2017, 2018. It's been out a while, but the thing that sold me on this book was really that the universe wanted me to read it.

I know you have had the experience and if not, I know you're longing to when you hear me say this, of having so many readers in a tight period of time with very different tastes in backgrounds all say [GASP] Magpie Murders? You haven't read Magpie Murders? You must read Magpie Murders! And something that really extra sold me on it was so often these people saying this were writers, but writers of all different stripes, and y'all, writers are very weird and sometimes extremely particular about what they read. We all have our quirks and pet peeves and when mystery writers and romance writers and women's fiction writers and nonfiction writers were all saying you haven't read Magpie Murders? I was intrigued.

In one sense, this book is an homage to Agatha Christie. It's a mystery that takes place in a small town in England, written in a way that feels very true to Christie's hallmark style. Did I tell you I went into this book knowing absolutely nothing? Also I'm going to give you serious vibes from a rereading class from last week. So I sat down, I started reading the book, we're in the ‘50s something terrible – somebody's been murdered in small town Britain, and you know, it's fine. It's whatever. I'm interested but I'm not really sure why everyone has raved about this book, but then – Will's here, he can vouch for this – I was sitting on the couch. I turned my page on my Kindle and I went [GASPS] because I realized at about the halfway mark that what I'd been reading when the book began wasn't the book. I mean, it was the book, but it was a manuscript in the book, so when I turned to the next page, all of a sudden the point of view was that of the contemporary editor sitting in her fancy London office going what a second, where's the last chapter? I have to read the last chapter. Like this book is going to sell ... No, has sold I think for a fortune. Where's the last chapter?

And the author of the book within the book is conventionally missing and so suddenly there's a mystery and it's so clever about books and reading and the publishing industry as well 'cause the editor has seen a lot in her day and she's pretty cynical about how things can go down and about crabby authors and cranky editors and her boss who only cares about the one thing and then the agents who are always trying to outgun her, and there's a lot of fun to be had in that regard, but you can almost like feel her roll up her sleeves and say now, this is a mystery, maybe the first mystery ever that an editor is uniquely qualified to solve. I use this word sparingly but it was stylish and a lot of fun. And then just in the past month I decided you know what I need? This is not something I say a lot at this point in my reading life. I need the sequel. So that was Magpie Murders.

My next book, Kate Clayborn. Beginner's Luck. It's the first book in her Best of Luck series and these are romance novels and they're so fun and you just want all the people to get their happy endings. Something else I love about these stories is that these women’s and men’s lives are 3-dimensional. They have friends and families and the story centers around a group of friends and interesting workplaces and I just love all the details that make these feel so real. Now the series itself is about a group of three women, all in their 20s, who do something extremely uncharacteristic and go into together on a lottery ticket and they win. And it's not like a 900 million jackpot, but it's enough money that it does make a difference in their lives, even if they're not ready to retire forever and never work again and they all don't chose that option. But they did win the lottery and the short little summary of how that happened and what each woman wanted after at the very beginning of Beginner's Luck, the first book in this series is just oh, it's so touching.

Kit is a scientist who loves her job, even though many people would not love some of the specific things about it. Ben is a successful recruiter who also is from the small town that Kit has made her home. His dad owns an architectural salvage place, a fascinating, fun backdrop to read about, and is very important in this story, and they end up meeting when he tries to recruit her and lure her to Texas to work for this big fancy tech company, but she doesn't want that. But she does want to fix up her old house she bought with her lottery winnings, and he has the little drawer pull she needs and it's just, they have an adorable meet up that he fumbles horribly, but then he wins her heart ... Well, he wins a second chance with just the right pulls for her lab filing cabinets and we're off from there. The three friends all feature in each story and I just love seeing female friendship on the page together. It's not always perfect, or it wouldn't be real, but it's so good.

So I read these actually I think right after Thanksgiving, maybe Thanksgiving Eve. I had all these books I wanted to read in theory, but nothing that felt right for right then, and then I thought, what am I in the mood for? And I ended up picking up Kate Clayborn's short little novella about winter, and I thought I just want to read Beginner's Luck again, and then I read the series and then I read Love Lettering and then I read Love at First, so one book turned into six that I read again, but were so good. They were absolutely worth picking up again and it was such a delightful reading experience.

Okay my final one is Hell of a Book by Jason Mott just because it was such an incredible reading experience. I picked it up, vetting it for the summer reading guide. This one was in the summer reading guide and I did not know anything about it at this point. I didn’t know anyone who read it. Oh my gosh, but I finished it and I really needed to find somebody to talk to. I know I pinged some of you and said have you read that yet? Would you please so we could talk about it? Please please please?

So I went in not having a clue what to expect and it starts like a madcap caper. There is a Black author on book tour. He has written a publishing sensation that sold a gazillion copies called Hell of a Book, which he said makes it real easy to talk about, you know with critics and interviewers because it's a hell of a book! That's what everyone says, and he is streaking naked down the hallway trying to escape the husband of one of his book tour conquests who … I forget how the husband, but he's like running naked through the hotel, ends up at the front desk trying to get a room key wearing his birthday suit, the front desk person's like I need some ID and he grabs ... It’s … I picture it being People magazine from the nightstand, and like look, this is my face. Is this enough? And she's like I guess so! Here you go, dude. Have fun. It felt like a movie that I would want to watch, but started to see there was more going on with this author and with this story and it unfolds in several strands.

The first is this Black author on book tour promoting his book, Hell of a Book. He's way in demand. The thing is selling like hotcakes. His agent is thrilled with him. His publisher loves him. It's going great, but no matter what city he goes to, someone wants to know what he thinks about the most recent tragic police shooting on the news, and no matter what city he goes to, he's in the hotel, same lobby, same breakfast (at least it feels the same) and there's the news on and there's been a tragic police shooting, again, and he doesn't want to talk about it. He's afraid he'll say the wrong thing. He feels like it's just going to keep happening. Why do people want to hear what he says? And of course I mean, he wants to keep the focus on book sales, but it's way more than that. It's because he's not quite sure what his relationship to reality is like right now or has been ever because he experiences these daydreams so vivid he can't always tell the difference between imagination and reality.

One day he comes down to breakfast at the hotel and there's a young Black boy sitting across from him. He comes to call him the kid, and the author's pretty sure that he's the only one who can see him. So those strands converge along with that of another Black boy growing up in rural North Carolina. I'm not going to tell you how, but I mean, this book is so unconventional and creative. So poignant and feels like the book for right now but also really timeless. This won the National Book Award maybe six weeks ago. The winner of a really impressive shortlist was some of the other books we talked about today. I was thrilled to see that for him and for Hell of a Book.

[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]

[00:47:34]

ANNE: Readers, what a wonderful roundup of the books our team loved this past year. No matter where your reading life took you in 2021, I hope you’re feeling inspired and energized to thoughtfully approach the year ahead. We are happy to be right by your side as you do so.

As always, find the full list of the titles we discussed today at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/316. We’d love to hear what books you loved best in 2021, so while you’re there leave us a comment and let us know your bookish superlatives for the year.

Keep up with the latest What Should I Read Next scoop with our weekly newsletter. Sign up for that at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter for our short and sweet updates.

If you love listening to our show each week, share your favorite episode with a friend or give your favorite a star on Overcast–that helps other Overcast listeners find What Should I Read Next!

Follow us on Instagram at whatshouldireadnext and follow me at annebogel. That is Anne with an E, B as in books, O-G-E-L. Please tag us in your stories if you share a post or an episode excerpt, and thanks in advance for those shares.

Make sure you’re subscribed in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, wherever you get your podcasts.Tune in next week for more readerly recommendations and good talk about all things books and reading.

Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.

Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.

And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.

Books mentioned:

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon
Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time series #1)
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green
Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr 
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
The Echo Wife by Sara Gailey
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
Fevered Star by Rebecca Roanhorse
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers
A Certain Appeal by Vanessa King
How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith
Chasing the Thrill by Daniel Barbarisi
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
• Susan Wise Bauer (Try The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome)
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Beginner’s Luck by Kate Clayborn (Chance of a Lifetime Series #1)
Love at First by Kate Clayborn
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott

Also mentioned:

WSIRN Ep 291: The best books of summer (so far)
Patreon Bonus Episode #126: What makes a favorite book? 
You Don’t Need Another Challenge
Bonus Episode #126: Turning the page…
My Favorite Books of 2021 Blog Post
Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club
Bookshop Book List
Amazon Book List


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6 comments

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  1. Jennifer Geisler says:

    I’m so glad to see the list, reflecting favorites from all the staff! I’m having a terrible time finding books to read. The newly published are so, so depressing. I am enjoying a good re-read of many of my favorites, but I’m running out! I’m hoping this list will give me some new ideas.

    • GlendaS says:

      Jennifer, I just finished The Windsor Knot and found it delightful, not depressing at all. Current-day Queen Elizabeth II as a sleuth of sorts. I’m looking forward to the second book in the series being released this spring.

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  3. Chris says:

    I’m so glad to hear someone else who loved “The Invention of Nature”. It is one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time. I’ve always been interested in ecology but Wulf pulls so many strings of ideas together so that you can see how they are all connected. Now I’ll have to try Susan Wise Bauer.

  4. Marisa says:

    Loved the episode, just added many titles to my (already too long) TBR! FYI, the link for “A Certain Appeal” goes to “Honey Girl” instead.

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