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  • Louis Arata

The Top Ten Books (I've Read) of 2021

Updated: Jan 4

Several books this year were recommended by family and friends, which sent me on unexpected explorations of mythology, religion, and philosophy. There was also a fair amount of rereading favorites from the past – The Lord of the Rings and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, plus a few classics like Dickens, Austen, and Eliot.


Overall, my reading journey meandered between fiction and nonfiction, and in some cases, somewhere in-between. Some books were breathtaking, while others were a bit of a slog.


In alphabetical order (by author), here are my top ten books.


The Top Ten:


Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker


Cassandra comes home for her twin sister Judy’s wedding. The twins have distinct personalities, which somehow unsettles Cassandra, who desperately needs Judy to be her alter ego. The author alternates between Cassandra’s and Judy’s voices, which give fascinating insight into their perspectives. A beautiful examination of quirky characteristics and family dynamics.



Imago, Octavia E. Butler


Imago is the third book in Butler’s Xenogensis trilogy (aka Lilith’s Brood). Any of the three books is highly recommended, but Imago is my favorite. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, the remaining humans are rescued by the Oankali, an intergalactic race that interbreed with other species as a form of augmentation. Imago focuses on Jodahs, the first Ooloi construct of humans and Oankali. As it matures, Jodahs discovers how relationships shape and form us. For the first time in the series, Butler uses first-person narration for Jodahs’ story, which brings a warm degree of empathy to the character.



How To Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi


Kendi examines how to address racist policies – i.e., any policy that creates inequity based on skin color – rather than racism as a broader concept. He uses events from his own life as a model of how he became aware of how deeply engrained the status quo of racism is. At the core of his recommendations is that actions must counteract the structures of racism. No person is without prejudice, he argues, but it is our responsibility to work in opposition to anything that promotes racial hierarchy. A seminal work.



This Tender Land, William Kent Krueger


Odie and his older brother, Albert, flee from a cruel orphanage along the Gilead River. Along for the journey are Mose, a mute of Sioux heritage, and Emmy, who may have visions of the future. Their adventures include encounters with a drunken farmer, and a faith healer and her entourage. As they make their way to their aunt’s home in St Louis, Odie learns about the complexities of life. Krueger’s prose is lyrical, and his storytelling is compelling. The ending felt rushed, with too much information thrown at the reader, but it did not undermine my thorough enjoyment of this novel.



Hell of a Book, Jason Mott


A writer on a book promotion tour can no longer tell what is real and what isn’t. A young boy, cruelly nicknamed “Soot” because of the darkness of his skin, develops a talent for being invisible, in the aftermath of his father’s death. At times satiric, Mott’s novel is also a heartbreaking critique of racism, in particular the exhaustive grief that accumulates in the face of it. Profound.



Circe, Madeline Miller


Miller takes us on a different type of odyssey: the nymph Circe, the daughter of the god Helios and Perse. Considered a lesser being, she is overlooked by her family, until a practical joke goes awry. She is banished to the Isle of Aeaea, where she studies herbs and magic, and discovers her own independence. Various Greek gods show up from time to time, but it is her encounter with Odysseus that changes the course of her life. Along the way, she learns the heartache of immortality and the necessity of finding her place in the world. Miller’s style is rich in metaphor.



Paradise Lost, John Milton


After rereading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, I got interested in revisiting Milton. Having read it twice for college and graduate school, I never figured I’d read it again. This time around, I wasn’t reading it for a term paper or an exam, which allowed me to pay more attention to the story and themes. While the verses get wordy, overall I was entertained, which is not something I expected to say about Milton.



The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name, Brian C. Muraresku


I love a book that turns history on its ear. Muraresku delves into religious rituals from prehistoric times, in particular the use of drugs to bring about religious ecstasy. Who knew that fermented beer would be such a mind-altering experience? The author traces the practices from the ancient cults of Demeter and Persephone, and draws plausible links to Christianity’s own eucharist. While at times there is a smattering of conspiracy theory in his argument, overall it raises some interesting questions about some early practices which brought people closer to God.



The Friend, Sigrid Nunez


The unnamed narrator has lost a close friend and mentor to suicide, only to wind up adopting his elderly Great Dane. What could be a sentimental tale of a woman and a dog is actually a profound examination of friendship, literature, grief, and loss. While a novel, it reads more like a stream-of-conscious memoir, which allows the author to interconnect themes from literature. One of the tricks of the novel is in what it doesn’t say about the narrator or the mentor, and yet still addresses the complexities of their friendship. My only wish for the novel is that it have a more enticing title, but the truth is I couldn’t come up with a better one.



What the Hell Did I Just Read? Jason Pargin (writing as David Wong)


A sequel to John Dies at the End, it’s another near-apocalyptic adventure for John and Dave. As always, they encounter some horrifying interdimensional beings, have some wacky escapades, and make some soul-searching discoveries. Pargin’s decision to alternate between Dave’s first-person narration and third-person for John and Amy makes the writing a little uneven, but at the heart of the story is Dave’s discovery that his life needs to change. A fun read.



Two honorable mentions:


David Copperfield, Charles Dickens


I’m a Dickens fan, and this is still my favorite of his novels. It’s the best balance of humor, drama, and tragedy. And I cannot think of a better opening line of a bildungsroman than “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Not only does it make you think about the importance of your own actions – and whether they are heroic – but it also reminds us that we are surrounded by many heroes and villains in life.



Godzilla FAQ, Brian Solomon


A fairly comprehensive history of Godzilla and all of its many sequels. The author breaks it down to the important players – director Ishiro Honda, special effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya, and composer Akira Ifukube – plus the many actors who have played Godzilla over the course of 50 years. At times, the writing is redundant, and other times it doesn’t go into as much depth as I would have liked, and definitely not enough photos. It’s better than a movie tie-in book but not quite a critical study. Overall, I was entertained.



The complete list:


Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson

Winesboro, OH, Sherwood Anderson

Sounder, William H. Armstrong

Persuasion, Jane Austen

Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker

The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett

Devolution, Max Brooks

Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs

Adulthood Rites, Octavia E. Butler

Imago, Octavia E. Butler

Ready Player Two, Ernest Cline

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, John Gray

The Library of the Unwritten, A.J. Hackwith

Pompeii, Robert Harris

Beowulf, Maria Dahvana Headley (trans.)

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson

Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern State, Adam Jentleson

How To Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi

Different Seasons, Stephen King

The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston

This Tender Land, William Kent Krueger

The Bishop’s Heir, Katherine Kurtz

The King’s Justice, Katherine Kurtz

The Quest for Saint Camber, Katherine Kurtz

Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan

Bird Box, Josh Malerman

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller

Hell of a Book, Jason Mott

Circe, Madeline Miller

Paradise Lost, John Milton

The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name, Brian C. Muraresku

The Friend, Sigrid Nunez

We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates

What the Hell Did I Just Read? Jason Pargin (David Wong)

Picture Perfect, Jodi Picoult

The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman

Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Dummies, Meri Raffetto & Wendy Jo Peterson

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021, Veronica Roth (ed.)

Lifelong Yoga, Sage Rountree and Alexandra DeSiato

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling

Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

Godzilla FAQ, Brian Solomon

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket

Fer-de-Lance, Rex Stout

The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

This One Wild and Precious Life, Sarah Wilson



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