In the past two weeks, we looked back at our 2021 reading resolutions and shared our hopes for this coming year. Today, we’re sharing some of our favorite reads from 2021—not all of these were published in 2021, but we read them in the past year and really enjoyed them!
There is an ongoing conversation here at GeekDad as to how much we get to read. For us, books are a way to exist in the world. A way that may be divergent, or convergent, with some titles popping up and us agreeing that they were the best; and others that are just ours, in our particular lane.
I do not keep count of how much I’ve read, because I read a ton of children’s books and graphic novels and comics, plus a lot of nonfiction. Some of it is digital and most of it lies beneath a shelf next to my bed. Thanks to the pandemic, I might just have that shelf left to read, but I will give it another two years (without adding more books to that particular pile) to slowly crawl my way out of it.
One book published in 2021 stood out for me, and it was Gigantic.
Published in England by Unsung Stories, this small indie publishing company delivers on everything that might be paranormal, weird and downright funny, and this is a huge example: Kevin Stubbs, the protagonist, is trying to prove that the North Surrey Gigantopithecus really exists, despite it being caught only just once on blurry video.
And you root for him. You need to assign a new significance to the word pareidolia, and, when the end happens (even though you are expecting it), it catches up with you from a sneaky soft spot inside of your own mind—the soft spot that wants to believe in the Sasquatch, the chupacabra, and all of the legends out there.
Next, I am glad I caught the Locke & Key Keyhouse Compendium, written by Joe Hill and drawn by Gabriel Rodríguez. This monster of a book really is a keeper. Not only does it compile the entire narrative universe of Keyhouse, it does so in a collectible omnibus edition, so you get to read the entire story from cover to cover.
Keyhouse, in Lovecraft County, is an entity unto itself: a house full of magical keys that can change and distort reality. Three kids (Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode Locke) get to unlock every secret inside this horror graphic novel, paying a high price in the process, but discovering—especially in the final battle—that love and family can prove themselves to be stronger than dark magic and power. It was enthralling, and I kept leaving everything I had to do in order to read a bit more of it every day. I have a problem with the last miracle happening in the book, but the rest was entirely satisfactory, the reason why I love comics in every shape and form.
And finally, I re-read a ton of books. There is something comforting in revisiting beloved pages, and my number one comfort food is Terry Pratchett. (Neil Gaiman is my number two).
Death is my favorite character, and Susan Sto-Helit as her granddaughter is great. Reaper Man, when Death is given a holiday and life seeps out everywhere it can, involving a bunch of delightful undead characters and one stubborn old wizard… it makes me laugh every time. With Robin Brooks we have an ongoing project revisiting the Discworld novels, that you can check out here.
I’m going to cheat a little bit and mention two books that I read in 2021 that were my favorite reads for the year. The first will be shared by many, I’m sure: Project Hail Mary. I enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian very much, and this one had some of the same science-y and “what’s going to happen next” suspense elements. If you love good sci-fi or even just good storytelling, I recommend it. Andy Weir causes the story to unfold in layers. You go through some of the same experiences as the main character. And that’s all I’ll say.
Though I read some other pretty great books this year, my other favorite was, of course, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It’s a long-time favorite, and I re-read it every few years. This time I read the annotated version with Rory and we discussed it chapter-by-chapter. Though I love the 1995 movie, the book is always better. And the annotated version allows you to dig deeper into the text and the time period to get a lot more out of the book than by just reading the originally published book itself.
Jonathan H. Liu
I have such a hard time picking favorites of anything, which is why it’s a little silly that every year I force myself to choose—but it’s an exercise that gets me to reflect on what I’ve read in the past year and see what stuck with me. It also surprises me sometimes, because 2021 seemed like it lasted forever, and some of the books on my list I would’ve guessed that I’d read earlier. Since I can’t choose just one book, I’ve narrowed it down to my favorite in each of several categories.
My favorite picture book this year was Einstein: The Fantastic Journey of a Mouse Through Time and Space by Torben Kuhlmann, mentioned in this Grab Bag column. I didn’t write up as many picture books this year, and this one is a bit lengthier than a lot of traditional picture books, but I love Kuhlmann’s detailed artwork, his adventurous mice, and—of course—time travel. I’ve enjoyed a few of Kuhlmann’s mice adventures in the past, and this one may be my favorite.
Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan was my favorite middle-grade book this past year. I actually read this trilogy out of order (I read book 3 in 2020), but finally found the first two books and caught up. I really loved these stories, not least because my daughter was excited to see a family tree that looked like her own. The stories weave together the more universal themes of growing up and dealing with siblings and making friends with Tan’s more personal experiences of being Asian-American and biracial.
For slightly older readers, I’d recommend The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book by Kate Milford, the latest in her Nagspeake collection. It’s a collection of tales told by a group of strangers who have found themselves trapped in an inn during a flood. Each of the tales has its own voice, and the stories range from the whimsical to the creepy, with several references to the other Nagspeake books. I’d read an ARC back near the beginning of the year that’s gotten a lot of love from the rest of the family, too, so I ordered a new hardcover for the family for Christmas.
I read a lot of great comics in 2021, and one that especially stood out was A Fire Story by Brian Fies, which I read along with a few other stories of disasters. Fies wrote from personal experience about a devastating 2017 fire in California—he lost his home, along with thousands of others, and this comic book includes his own stories about the fire as well as stories from several other people he interviewed. It really shows the impact of the fires in a way that can get lost when you just hear the huge numbers on the news—houses burned, people evacuated, acres lost.
Okay, one more! For adult fiction, my favorite this year was A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, a novella that takes place in a new setting, separate from her (very excellent) Wayfarers series. It’s about a world in which robots gained sentience and decided to remove themselves from human society; in the centuries since, human civilization has developed to use only simple machines, nothing that would approach the level of robots. Dex is a tea monk, traveling from town to town and serving tea as a sort of therapy and ritual—and becomes the first human to encounter a robot in hundreds of years. The two journey together and what follows is a thoughtful exploration of what gives life meaning. You can read more about it here.
My stand-out read of the year was N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became. This was a book that showcased everything stories should be. Compelling, filled with fascinating characters with an intriguing premise: The Boroughs of New York become walking avatars, born to save their city from a malevolent cosmic entity.
The world-building in this book is astounding. The verve of the prose is joyous. It feels pitch-perfect from start to finish. The City We Became is perfect for fans of urban fantasy, Neil Gaiman, and those who love New York.
One book that I read early in the year, during the depths of lockdown here in the UK, was Every Parent Should Read This Book. It’s a book about teenagers, written by somebody who isn’t a teenager or somebody who has any qualifications in child development. His qualification for writing the book was (apparently) that he was closer to his teenage years than I was.
I’ll be honest, my motives for reading this book weren’t entirely pure. “Everyone should blah blah…” type titles irritate me in the extreme. Despite reading a compelling extract in the UK Times, I was fairly sure Ben Brooks (no relation) wouldn’t know what he was talking about.
Instead, I found 11 essays on various aspects of teen culture: sex, drugs, and the internet, and found that whilst the world is at least as terrifying as I thought it was, teenagers are actually good at navigating it, especially if they have a solid support network, people that love them and enable them to make their own mistakes (with the safety net of support and understanding).
Every Parent Should Read This Book half terrified me and half filled me with the hope that everything is going to be OK. It certainly altered the way I looked at certain behaviors in my teen(s). I hope it has made me calmer and more measured with them as I face the raging storm of uncertainty, self-discovery, and search for approval that is the living through years 13–18. Even if you don’t agree with everything in the book (I didn’t), it’s an invaluable read, that doesn’t offer solutions but brings a surprising amount of peace of mind.
Honorable Mention. I am a Book, I am a Portal to the Universe.
Hope you found something from our favorites to add to your own list. Happy reading!