The Holiday Swap by Maggie Knox

It’s well past Christmas but this only just came in for me at the library and I had nothing else to read, so… And you know what? It was still delightful to read about Christmassy things and it’s still winter and snowy, so that’s nice. This book was completely ridiculous and predictable and I loved it.

Identical twin sisters, both incredible bakers, one on a tv show when in their hometown at their family’s much loved bakery. The town, Starlight Peak, might as well be Stars Hollow. I mean, town square with gazebo and twinkly lights and everyone knows each other and it’s so small that their bakery just gives every family a free loaf of their special holiday bread on Christmas Eve? Unrealistically charming. After a head injury the twins swap places and of course both find a wake up call to the life she wants, as well as love.

Perfect light holiday fare. And added bonus if you enjoy food or baking or food tv shows, because there are many details of the delicious foods they all bake. Very enjoyable.

French Braid by Anne Tyler

A new Anne Tyler! I was pretty giddy about this. The most recent book of hers felt like a tease-it was good Tyler writing, but somewhat short and unsatisfying. I’m pleased to say, this book was the real Anne Tyler deal. A multigenerational story, slightly dysfunctional family, of course set in Baltimore. Her writing was as good as ever and I wish I could share some specific sentences, but I can’t. In part because I read this on my Kindle (and don’t know how to use any note taking features of it.) In fact, because I read it on the kindle and couldn’t flip through pages I had a bit of a mishap. I read the first chapter and liked it very much, but then it was several days before I could pick it up again. I didn’t remember names or dates from the first chapter, so wasn’t quite sure how it connected to the story I started reading in chapter 2. I ended up reading chapter 1 again after I finished the book, which was kind of neat. Also, knowing nothing going in the entire story and timeline were just a total surprise to me.
One part reminded me so much of Ladder of Years-a woman creating a spare space outside her family home, distancing herself from them (which makes it seem like I yearn for that and I do not.)
Tempting to say “what a bunch of weirdos” about the characters, but they are not terrible people. I loved seeing their quirks (and yes, some frankly weird behavior) and just being swept up in this family story. I think what’s interesting about her books is that there really aren’t any huge exciting plot moments or suspense, I just love her way with words and characterization.

Blame It On the Mistletoe by Beth Garrod

Things I loved about this book:

it opens with Holly reading a letter she wrote to herself at the end of Christmas the previous year. As an avid 5 year diary keeper and writer of letters to my future self (end of school year, to beginning of next year) I think this is a SPLENDID idea and can’t believe I don’t already do this. I love this idea of starting the holiday season by reading a letter from the previous year. (I have occasionally left myself notes in the decorations.)

the descriptions of adorable British Christmas

Things I didn’t love about this book:

Sometimes it was actually hard to keep track of the characters. The point of view switches back and forth between the Brit in America and the American in England. It really shouldn’t have been that complicated to keep them straight, but somehow it was. Does that mean the characters weren’t different enough?

The American brother’s “secret” was not very believable. Basically all the family stuff seemed dumb.

OK, I suppose there were a lot in this book that was fairly silly, or just too shallow in terms of its place in the story. So, not the best. BUT I did really enjoy the holiday spirit and it’s not like it was a taxing read. I also found the idea of a teenager trying to have thousands of followers on IG and have her account be a thing just kind of nauseating. But the jolly holiday spirit triumphs and the playlist at the back is fun.

Top Ten Reads of 2021

Time for my favorite year end activity! The delightful and agonizing task of looking back at a year’s worth of reading and picking out my top ten favorite books I read. This year’s reading goal was 100 books, which I am very unlikely to meet. I have read 95 books and am likely to read one more graphic novel. Unlike last year where I just lost an interest in reading as the pandemic intensified, this year I did plenty of reading. However, what did happen was a number of times I spent days reading something and then gave up on it. I was so excited to get the newest Liane Moriarty as a pre-pub and I never even read it. So I guess I’m not quite back to my normal reading habits. 
When I go to create my top 10 list the first thing I do is sort my year’s books by their ratings (in Goodreads, my ratings.) This year I had 31 5 star reads! That’s 1/3 of the books I read this year! and I thought that this year I was lot more open to giving out 3 stars (and even handing out a mere 2 stars to one book) and more cautious with the 5 stars. All of my rereads were 5 stars, which just makes sense. I also had a handful of children’s books that were 5 stars, including a reread (shoutout to Fake Mustache! which I suppose is really more of a 4 star book but it’s got sentimental value inflating its rating) and one book which will likely make it to the final 10 list.  Shall we get right to the top list before looking back at some other categories? Yes? OK, then. 

After much agonizing I managed to get it down to 12 books that I would say were my favorite books of the year. The runners up were all 5 star books that I really enjoyed (esp the J.Courtney Sullivan, which I hated to demote to runner up). I am also finagling my list by removing children’s books from it, though the fact is that if you asked me truly which books I most remembered from 2021, it would include those top children’s books, perhaps even before some of the adult books (for example, I loved and highly rated the Nick Hornby book, but had forgotten all about it. I have not forgotten reading Starfish. So maybe in that case one book is not better than the other, but more memorable to me.)
**In no particular order, my favorite books read in 2021 (title links are to my original review)**

The Martian by Andy Weir–That’s right, I never read this book before this spring when I read it immediately after watching (and loving) the film version. I was so caught up in this book I remember not leaving my chair. I loved the fast pace, the adventure, the science. I was excited to read it this year when he had a new book coming out.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir- is this the first time 2 precious spots have been given to the same author? Not sure. I read this very soon after The Martian and the writing style was exactly the same, which I loved. This was some serious science fiction and I was there for every single bit of it. Made me look at the night sky differently for the rest of the year.

The No Show Beth O’Leary-I believe this isn’t even coming out until spring 2022 and I was fortunate to get a prepub to read. Even stranger–I didn’t even finish The Road Trip, which I’d looked forward to for months, but then I picked this up and read it straight through. This was an especially good reading experience because I had no idea what the book was going to be about and was, therefore, totally surprised by everything. I loved the characters and the crafting of the story. Really excellent.

Mercy Street Jennifer Haigh–Ditto getting this as a prepub and not reading anything about it ahead of time. I was so immersed in this gratifyingly long novel. As our country is already cruelly revoking abortion rights, I wish everyone would read this book. It’s also not just a story about abortion and health clinics. I loved the characters and their own stories (multiple p.o.v s) and Haigh’s writing style was same as in Baker Towers, which I love.

The Incredible Winston Browne by Sean Dietrich–my mom handed this to me telling me I’d love it and she was right. It was so touching and heartwarming. Just a real feel good story. Made me think about Billie Letts and Lorna Landvik-small town stories with good people in them. (Read the final chapter in a semi-public area with tears running down my face.)

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny– [just looked up Heiny and isn’t it funny that she also appeared on my 2017 top ten, along with J. Courtney Sullivan and Jennifer Ryan books and both of those authors were also on this top ten list (but got demoted to runner up.)]  Another small town with quirky characters (yeah, some might be a bit over the top) and a touching story. As with Heiny’s Standard Deviation I enjoyed her way of writing and describing characters. I found myself really responding to stories this year that showed the joys and sadness in life, and this was one of them.

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons–“This had a strong Man Called Ove theme and feel about it-somewhat cranky old person perfectly willing to end her life. ” This book really stayed with me, particularly thinking about death and how we approach it and respond to it. Heartwarming and thoughtful. Another book I loved this year was They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. You’d think both of these death heavy books would have brought me down, but they didn’t. On the contrary I found them life affirming and beautiful.

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau–Damn, this was a fun book. 1970s Baltimore, sex drugs rock n’ roll, coming of age. Kind of Almost Famous, kind of Dazed and Confused. I loved the contrasts of Mary Jane’s incredibly conservative life with the wild other end of the spectrum. (And realistically, it was fun to read about but if my young teen was exposed to the things Mary Jane was I’d have a conniption fit.) I was satisfied with the neat ending of the story-that fit into a summer, that it really was like looking at this bubble of time. 

The Guncle by Stephen Rowley–I wanted to not like this just because everyone else did and also I hate the title. But I got sucked right into this sweet story that wasn’t all sweetness. It really was a story of grief and life and it also had a lot of funny moments in it.

Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne– Fun, sexy, kooky old people, endangered tortoises. I just really enjoyed this.

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub–The only time travel book to make the top list this year! This was an immediate 5 star for me even though Melissa read it at the same time and gave it a mere 3 stars.  I found the time travel elements very satisfying and I found all the thoughtful observations about life also satisfying. 

This Time Next Year Sophie Cousens– I love stories of characters whose lives crossed paths without them knowing it and this one was top notch fun. Romantic and clever.

I’d like to give a special commendation to a trilogy which, if I’m honest, was even more delightful to read and an even more memorable reading experience for me than some of these Top Ten. The Kingdoms & Empires trilogy by Jaclyn Moriarty. This was comprised of The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst, The Whispering Wars, and The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone. Originally I said “I haven’t been this entertained by a book in a long time.” and “there was just something about the story, the setting (boarding school) and the storyteller’s voice that I loved.” Each book was a fun fantasy adventure that I loved and found very clever. I also desperately felt the need to own the whole trilogy. So really, I think this deserves to be on the list.

The Runners Up: 5 star books that didn’t make the list. I loved them but found them either slighly less memorable than those on the list or slightly less enjoyable to read:

Friends and Strangers J Courtney Sullivan
Just Like You Nick Hornby
The Kitchen Front Jennifer Ryan
The Rose Code Kate Quinn 
The last two there were probably my favorite historical fiction of the year. I also liked Band of Sisters, which was WWI, and very historically interesting to me. It was not a quick romp of a read, though.

And here are a group of 4 star books that on reflection I like a little more than some of the 5 star books (not the ones listed above)–Dear Emmie Blue, Very Sincerely Yours, Little Wonders, Last Letter from Your Lover (an old JoJo Moyes I’d overlooked) [Not sure why Dear Emmie Blue got 5 stars and Second First Impressions got 5. I mean, I basically felt the same way about both of them and they had a similar vibe.]

This year I reread the entire Leviathan trilogy (most satisfying to read them all in a row), Elsewhere (I love a good afterlife book), and my most favorite precious old book to revisit periodically–Ladder of Years. It will always be 5 stars to me.

In the children’s books category I loved Charlie Thorne and the Lost City, Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City, and Starfish.  I also read a lot of children’s graphic novels. I especially liked Oh My Gods, Snapdragon, Secrets of Camp Whatever, and Katie the Catsitter.

I only read two time travel books: This Time Tomorrow and And Then She Vanished.

I read three complete trilogies reading books 1-3 all in a row–Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, The Overthrow by Kenneth Oppel (full on creepy sci-fi), and Kingdoms & Empires by Jaclyn Moriarty.

There were some disappointments (besides the aforementioned starting books and not bothering to finishe them). I was excited to read TWO new Mike Chens and gave them each just 3 stars. I liked them but they weren’t standouts at all for me. Looking back I had forgotten all about Ready Player Two. Ready Player One is a favorite of mine and this unnecessary sequel still garnered for 4 stars from me, but was disappointing.

I have no special reading goals for next year (other than to perhaps set a reading goal of less than 100 since it seems like I can’t hit that anymore!) As usual I will reread familiar old stories that I’ve loved and read what catches my eye. Some books I’ll read and love and immediately forget about it, and others will stay with me for years to come. Here’s to another year of discoving those gems!

Sarah

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

I started this yesterday (Dec 29) thinking I might not finish it in time to count for this year and ended up reading the whole thing in a day! I really liked this a lot. Nina is in her 30s, single, happy, but she would like to have a romantic partner and so tries dating using an app. At first it’s great, but things go wrong. Meanwhile, she’s falling out with her childhood bff who is completely caught up in being married with kids (totally a Smug Married) and her beloved dad has Alzheimer’s. I really liked Nina’s thoughts and observations about women, expectations, men, and really just all of it. Her best friend Lola is a kooky hoot. The description of the hen party had me dying. I have to assume it is an accurate description of what goes on in England before a wedding.
I liked the writing, the plot, the whole thing (well, there was one scene I found outrageously unbelievable but I’ll allow it. ) Also, they all seem like alcoholics they drink so much!!

Pity Party by Kathleen Lane

What a delightfully weird little book! I’m sad to say that I really can’t imagine any of my students (who are a target audience) enjoying this. It’s a collection of stories, images, and choose your own adventure that is basically telling stories about kids with, I guess, things going wrong for them?? Hard to describe. The right reader will love it.

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub

Thank you NetGalley for the chance to read this!

This is a 5 star time travel for me. I absolutely loved it. On the eve of her 40th birthday MainCharacter wakes up as her 16 year old self. Fortunately, she figures out pretty quickly what has happened and begins to enjoy the day. First up-spending time with her dad. In her present life her dad is dying and her days are filled with work and visiting him, even though he’s unresponsive. Her work is at an exclusive prep school that she herself had attended. So now, back in time, she’s going to head back to school, which is now her work place.
There were a lot of things I liked about this. One thing was, as I had pointed out in Your Life May Be Delayed, what a difference there is in the world now versus twenty five years ago (I’m not the same age as this character-she’s going back to the 90s to be 16. ) When you time travel it’s really apparent. I loved the writing and thoughtful reflections, as well as some of the smaller funny details (when she’s 16 she falls asleep in a funny position and when she wakes up she just sits up. Just sits up! Not funny kinks or cricks in necks or backs. That’s totally something I would notice, too.) I don’t want to give too much away about plot, so I’ll just say that for me it was a satisfying time travel novel, plus it was a satisfying novel about a person. I thought one funny aspect of the book was that her dad was kind of famous for writing a time travel novel!

The Honey Don’t List by Christina Lauren

If you enoy making fun of Fixer Upper and Chip & Joanna Gaines, then this book is for you! (I do, and it was.) Basically Carey works as an assistant to Melissa and Rusty-superstar home reno HGTV people. Truly, it’s just Chip and Joanna Gaines entirely. She’s been with them since the beginning and they are like family to her. However, what the public doesn’t see is the marriage falling apart and the control freak that Melissa is. Carey and Rusty’s assistant (engineer, actually) have to accompany them on a book tour to try to keep things together. Obvs, they are the romance. I thought this was pretty funny and light, though I definitely wanted Carey to stand up for herself.

The Holiday Switch by Tif Marcelo

I read this earlier in the month and am glad I had the Christmas Bookshop to read for my peak Christmas reading. This was decent light holiday fare. I mostly enjoyed the setting and idea of this whole town being consumed by a movie, which was so realistic I kept thinking “Is this a real movie I missed out on?”

[Plot for future reference: senior in high school works very hard in gift shop of Inn that featured in iconic Christmas film. It’s Christmas, the busiest season, and she wants lots of shifts because she’s hyper driven and going to be a doctor and go to med school. She also has a big family. She also secretly writes a book blog and is somehow famous from that. Frankly, I took issue with that and how easy it all was for her. Oh she wrote about some holiday books and now she’s going to become a writer? hm…. Anyway, the inn’s owner’s nephew comes to town and starts working at the shop. They antagonize each other but really sparks are flying. I thought the “we have secrets from our family” was a lame storyline-the secrets were dumb.]

Stand Up, Yumi Chung by Jessica Kim

I chose this for my staff book club meeting.  I really liked this. Yumi’s family rang true to every other Korean American memoir I’ve read. I really loved the whole idea that Yumi was into stand up comedy-it was something fresh and different and a talent I haven’t seen in any other books. Some of it is of course too neat, but it’s good and if I were a kid reading this it’s exactly the way I’d want it to be. One of the other teachers said she felt frustrated with Yumi for lying and not telling the truth to her parents, but I felt more frustrated with her parents being so dismissive of her. (though, honestly, that seemed realistic.) I really liked the secondary characters and would definitely read a sequel with them in it.