As one year settles and another begins (altogether much too fast – is it already February?), I reminisce on what at first felt like little change. But slowly peeling back the months like orange slices to study and digest, I began to realize just how much has happened this past year. I did not read as many books as I normally do. However, I still had the pleasure of reading some fantastic books for the first time. Here are my favorites in no particular order!
(Quick note, if you are expecting reviews with content warnings, you will be disappointed. I don’t necessarily recommend these books for anyone, so make sure to check content warnings elsewhere before reading any of them. :))
- Virgil Wanderer by Leif Enger
Quite the literary novel with the feel of a classic, Virgil Wander is about a man who drives his car off a cliff in a blizzard but survives with amnesia and begins to see his flagging hometown as the tired entity that it is. The book follows him as he starts to remember the inhabitants and their stories and see his own life with fresh eyes.
I think, the descriptions of the Midwest setting and stunning insight on the characters that make them all too realistic, but portrayed with such grace, is what endured this one to my heart. The writing is truly lush and vivid, and very character driven (though the plot certainly spikes in the last couple chapters).
It also features a stranger who moves in town and has the tendency to fly kites. Wholesome friendships all around. And, the main character, Virgil, owns an old-fashioned movie theater which is quite delightful.
For further reading, Leif Enger wrote a fascinating essay entitled Why I Carry A Kite With Me Everywhere in which he talks about why kites are so important to him and his character in Virgil Wander.
I also read Enger’s So Brave, So Young, So Handsome later in the year and enjoyed it immensely (especially savoring the passages on the narrator’s lament of writer’s block and trying to meet daily word goals haha.)
- Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
This novel is everything a good middle grade read should be: vibrant, colorful, and imaginative. It is an absolutely delightful novel filled with the best quirky characters, some hilarious exchanges, and exciting action. Not to mention how perfectly quirky it is.
Placed in a society where magic and science co-exist, it features a fire demon, a moody wizard, an actual moving castle (go-figure), a young woman cursed to be old, and the wizard’s bright-eyed apprentice. I read and fell in love with the book this summer after watching the Studio Ghibli film with a friend (and fell hopelessly in love with Studio Ghibli films too.) I shall be in eternal conflict on whether the book or movie is better (and this might be one of the few cases in which I prefer the movie??) Either way, the book is fantastic.
(also Calcifer is the best) (and just look at that animation)
- Just Like That by Gary Schmidt
This book broke my heart on a whole new level. I desperately did not want to read it once I learned the premise (trying not to spoil it – but also why?!)
Despite wanting to hate the book because of a certain character’s death which spirals the book into its plot centered around handling grief, it is an amazing piece of art and story.
And yes, it will break your heart if you’ve read Okay For Now. And probably even if you have not.
(that’s about all I’ve got to say lol)
- Circe by Madeline Miller
I loved this book, though I was dreading what I thought might be a terrible ending (I was a bit skeptical at some points) but the ending? Incredible.
Little is said about Circe in The Odyssey beyond seduction and turning men into pigs, so this book is a retelling of her life from her perspective. The prose was gorgeous, and it had a lot of insight I think in characterizing familiar and unfamiliar characters in Greek Mythology. So many famous figures we have all heard the names of show up, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his son, and the murderous Medea. We see how she affects their lives and plays into the classic tales, while she struggles with her isolation, loneliness, and identity.
- A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
Kell is one of the last “Antari”―magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black. He was raised in Red London and officially serves as an ambassador between the three different cities. Unofficially, he is a smuggler, servicing people who are willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. When an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cutpurse with lofty aspirations who forces him to take her to a parallel London.
The main two things that drew me to this book was first the altogether fascinating concept rooted in its worldbuilding, and the main character, who I was drawn to. Plus the coat with multiple sides to wear and how the mechanics behind that is never explained. I’m all here for that.
There were a few things that I felt did not live up to expectation and could have been more innovative to lend it greater merit (looking at you Lila), but overall, I enjoyed this one.
- Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary
Originally written in French, this novel takes place in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the stereotype fat, cranky concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Yet, behind the scenes, she is a lover of great art, classical music, philosophy, and Japanese culture, and with her sharp wit and great intelligence, she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who are barely aware of her existence.
Similarly, the story also follows Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius, and daughter of a tedious parliamentarian. She trusts no one and lives mostly in her head, behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen, a good but not an outstanding student.
It seems like nothing will change, but then when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building, he starts to notice both Paloma and Renée for more than what they seem to be on the surface.
This book was utterly fantastic and now one of my all-time favorites. Packed full of insights on human behavior and motivations through humorous vignettes into the lives of the tenants of the apartment building. It also references so many wonderous pieces of art and explores a lot of philosophical questions. The friendships formed are so lovely. And then the ending, while sudden and tragic, is perfect.
I already want to reread this one.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Recommended by a good friend, this book is about a traveling theater troupe dedicated to keeping the small remanent of art and music alive twenty years after a devastating flu pandemic ended civilization as the world knew it. Everything spirals when they come into the path of a violent prophet in a remote town who does not seem willing to let them go.
I usually do not like books that jump between two timelines, mostly because it takes a while to figure out how they are connected, or because it feels like a cheap way to create cliffhangers. (I do not like my invest with characters toyed with in such a manner haha.) In this book though, I think it was done well. It’s a somber book that raises a lot of questions and makes one think about the importance of art and culture on our lives, as well as the loss of those we know, and nostalgia for a past that no longer exists.
I appreciated how it explored society trying to rebuild itself after such a devastating experience, rather than most dystopian /apocalyptical novels which are merely about day-by-day survival or the initial collapse of society.
- Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
The basic premise: Ryland Grace wakes up in a spaceship with his crewmates dead due to malfunctions with equipment. The catch? He doesn’t remember his name, their name, or anything that lead to him being millions of miles away from home, drifting in space.
This book was suggested to me by two of my brothers and it did not disappoint. At first it feels like a stereotypical sci-fi-scientist-stranded-alone-in-space, sort of novel while Earth experiences political unrest and tension under the threat of extinction, but (without wanting to spoil it) I loved how it developed. Another book where I think the jumping between present day scenes and flashbacks was done very well and was quite clever in regard to the emotional side of the plot and the main character’s personal growth.
The ending was not what I was expecting, but it was the ending that we all needed.
And that ends a wonderful year with some quality literature. I have already read some rather fantastic books in 2022 and am currently reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I am thoroughly enjoying (special shoutout to casting suspicious gazes at one’s husband from behind pineapples).
It might be a while before I finish that one, however. I bought my own edition with a differing translation from the library’s only copy and am consequently planning to start over.
Fun fact: even if I read one chapter a day, I won’t complete it in a year. But! I am excited to really dive into that one.
Have you read any of these books? What are you currently reading? What are the best books that you read this past year?