The 12 Best Books I Read in 2021

I didn’t reach my reading goals for 2021.

I started the year with a Reading Challenge on Goodreads of completing 77 books.

Didn’t think it would be too challenging. After all, in 2020, I read 126 books (although my initial goal was only 99). In fact, I’ve met or exceeded my reading challenges for the last five years running …

But not this past year.

In 2021, I only got 77% of the way by reading 59 out of a goal of 77 books.

But I did read some good books … and some great ones!

So, I wanted to share with you the 12 best books I read this year.

1: Tales of Hibaria: The Awakening by Jamin Still

Jamin Still was both author and illustrator of his book Tales of Hibaria: The Awakening.

My sons are both artists in their own right, and I hoped this book would be a neat addition to our library. I think I finished the book first, however.

The art throughout the book is remarkable, and I am impressed how each story stands alone, but is part of a greater story that threads throughout the book.

I’m excited that this looks like only the first in what I hope will be plenty more by Jamin Still.

About Tales of Hibaria: The Awakening

The twelve stories contained in this volume introduce the reader to the world of Hibaria and the Islands. It is a world of magic and mystery, of dragons and sea serpents, a world where the Sky Lords – the Constellations – can take physical form and walk the land. It is a world in which an ancient evil, long imprisoned, threatens to break free.

The central characters in these stories are children and young adults who grapple with fear and sorrow, loss and longing, and who are given the opportunity to choose courage and hope. Their individual stories weave together to begin to tell a larger narrative.

Description from Amazon


2: Beate Not the Poore Desk by Walter Wangerin Jr.

Walter Wangerin Jr strikes me as an author who writes not just from the theory of writing but from the dredges of life itself …

Yet he is so well versed in the theory and craft of writing that both aspects come together seamlessly in both his fiction and nonfiction works.

He writes both fiction and nonfiction and in various genres, including a children’s book called Potter, which I guarantee you will not be able to read through without weeping.

I love how in Walter Wangerin’s works, particularly his fiction works but also nonfiction he is unafraid to deal with the harsh reality of sorrow and yet not give in completely to it.

About Beate Not the Poore Desk

For the first time, National Book Award-winner Walter Wangerin, Jr., turns his keen eye upon the craft of writing. Adding a lifetime of experience to the wisdom and examples of other writers (Shakespeare, Goethe, Berry, Chaucer, and many more), he builds for us an intricate picture of the craft and its many subtitles.

But in revealing his own missteps, his own processes, and his own story, Wangerin provides a lantern for young writers as they embark on the long road toward mastery.

Through practical advice, ethical considerations, and a master’s definition of art itself, Wangerin draws us all closer to what it means to write—and to write well.

Description found on The Rabbit Room website


3: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

I wasn’t looking for this book when I found it. I just needed something to listen to while cleaning out the house this summer while my kids were at camp.

The audio of Lab Girl was available on Libby (the world’s best app), and read by the author, so I borrowed it.

Turned out to be one of the best books I read this year.

I found the facts about soil and seeds, plants and trees, fascinating … but even more, her relationship with a coworker and the way that developed and deepened over the years.

No, it’s not a romance, which is what makes this story even more interesting.

Also, there’s one chapter or portion that stands in the middle of the book (or thereabouts) where she speaks of her struggle with depression and it was written so starkly and yet beautifully, I was in awe.

About Lab Girl

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl
 is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together.

It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

Description found on Goodreads website


4: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces is a remarkable book.

Although C. S. Lewis’ writings are (nearly) all terrific, and his classic Chronicles of Narnia have stood the test of time, I feel like this one is not as well-known as it should be.

It is my favorite of Lewis’ fiction works.

I read it a few years back, during a brief summer vacation. This year, I read it with my boys as part of their homeschool curriculum

Before “deep POV” was really a thing, C. S. Lewis takes on the voice of a bitter, angry woman who believes she has been mistreated by the gods. Written in first-person, Orual relates the reasons why she has basically put the gods on trial …

And her story is a retelling of the classic myth of Pysche and Cupid from the perspective of Psyche’s unattractive and possessive older sister.

In some places, the story unveils what feels like the journey of every soul.

Not only do I highly recommend Till We Have Faces, but I consider it a must-read.

About Till We Have Faces

In this timeless tale of two mortal princesses – one beautiful and one unattractive – C.S. Lewis reworks the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche into an enduring piece of contemporary fiction.

This is the story of Orual, Psyche’s embittered and ugly older sister, who posessively and harmfully loves Psyche. Much to Orual’s frustration, Psyche is loved by Cupid, the god of love himself, setting the troubled Orual on a path of moral development.

Set against the backdrop of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian world, the struggles between sacred and profane love are illuminated as Orual learns that we cannot understand the intent of the gods “till we have faces” and sincerity in our souls and selves.

Description from Goodreads


5: Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

I listened to this book over the summer on Libby (the aforementioned library app of awesomeness).

It’s funny, because this is a book on aging in some ways, so it seems a little odd that it would have struck so close to home for me …

I’m not even “over the hill” yet.

But I found this book to be so reorienting and restorative.

I especially found encouraging the idea that the mistakes we make, the failures we navigate, are really the best things that can happen to us.

I read this in the season leading up to my teenage daughter’s moving away from home and starting college a couple thousand miles away …

And it helped me to look on this big change with new eyes … not only for me but more so for her. That she will make mistakes and face failures …

And that it will actually be a good thing that I don’t need to try to rescue her from, but encourage her through.

About Falling Upward

A fresh way of thinking about spirituality that grows throughout life

In Falling Upward, Fr. Richard Rohr seeks to help readers understand the tasks of the two halves of life and to show them that those who have fallen, failed, or “gone down” are the only ones who understand “up.” Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of life, but the whole thesis of this book is exactly the opposite. 

What looks like falling down can largely be experienced as “falling upward.”  In fact, it is not a loss but somehow actually a gain, as we have all seen with elders who have come to their fullness.  

Explains why the second half of life can and should be full of spiritual richness. Offers a new view of how spiritual growth happens. Loss is gain. This important book explores the counterintuitive message that we grow spiritually much more by doing wrong than by doing right.

Description from Christianbook.com


6: God in the Dock by C. S. Lewis

Yes, C. S. Lewis again.

This was another book I listened to over the summer.

It’s a collection of essays on a vast range of topics, but Lewis’ formidable and yet charitable voice pervades throughout.

One of my friends on Goodreads made this observation:

Lewis developed many of the ideas from these early periodical publications into books or book chapters, and they weren’t always improved by the expansion.

On the other hand, as he got older he became more circumspect in his self-editing. These earlier works at times reveal prejudices which he later outgrew or, at least, grew wise enough or ashamed enough not to publish. Which is also useful to read, if you are the sort of fan inclined to lionize your favorite authors.

Even so, I feel this book is another must-read by a classic author.

About God in the Dock

“Lewis struck me as the most thoroughly converted man I ever met,” observes Walter Hooper in the preface to this collection of essays by C. S. Lewis. “His whole vision of life was such that the natural and the supernatural seemed inseparably combined.”

It is precisely this pervasive Christianity which is demonstrated in the forty-eight essays comprising God in the Dock. Here Lewis addresses himself both to theological questions and to those which Hooper terms “semi-theological,” or ethical. But whether he is discussing “Evil and God,” “Miracles,” “The Decline of Religion,” or “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” his insight and observations are thoroughly and profoundly Christian.

Drawn from a variety of sources, the essays were designed to meet a variety of needs, and among other accomplishments they serve to illustrate the many different angles from which we are able to view the Christian religion. They range from relatively popular pieces written for newspapers to more learned defenses of the faith which first appeared in The Socratic Digest.

Characterized by Lewis’s honesty and realism, his insight and conviction, and above all his thoroughgoing commitments to Christianity, these essays make God in the Dock very much a book for our time.

Description found on Goodreads


7: Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

Kids’ book?

Maybe … maybe not.

I loved Sweep the first time I read it a couple of years ago … so much, in fact, that I read every other book I could find by the author, Jonathan Auxier.

I wanted to reread Sweep right away, but with a “to-read” stack of over 400 books, I didn’t really have a good reason to do so …

Until I decided to read the book to my husband.

We have started a number of books together … and finished very few (if any) of them. He’s not much of a reader, and books are not exactly his favorite pastime.

But we managed to finish this one … although it took us about a year.

And now I need to find someone else to read it with again.

About Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

For nearly a century, Victorian London relied on “climbing boys”–orphans owned by chimney sweeps–to clean flues and protect homes from fire. The work was hard, thankless and brutally dangerous. Eleven-year-old Nan Sparrow is quite possibly the best climber who ever lived–and a girl. With her wits and will, she’s managed to beat the deadly odds time and time again.
But when Nan gets stuck in a deadly chimney fire, she fears her time has come. Instead, she wakes to find herself in an abandoned attic. And she is not alone. Huddled in the corner is a mysterious creature–a golem–made from ash and coal. This is the creature that saved her from the fire.
Sweep is the story of a girl and her monster. Together, these two outcasts carve out a life together–saving one another in the process.

Description on Goodreads

8: Parable and Paradox by Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is another author I “met” via Hutchmoot: Homebound.

A poet of high talent, this collection includes sonnets on parables and other sayings of Jesus, as well as a sampling of his other poetry.

Guite has a remarkable depth and his poems are the kind that can blindside you with insight and a general sense of awe.

Even for those who are not the “poetry type,” this collection is both accessible and insightful.

About Parable and Paradox

Since the publication of the bestselling Sounding the Seasons, Malcolm Guite has repeatedly been asked for more sonnets. This new collection offers a sequence of 50 sonnets that focus on many passages in the Gospels: the Beatitudes, parables and miracles, teachings on the Kingdom, and the ‘hard sayings’, Jesus’ challenging demands with which we wrestle. In addition, this collection includes:

-A sequence of five sonnets on ‘The Wilderness’, exploring mysterious stories of divine encounter such as Jacob’s wrestling with the angel.
-Poetic reflections on music, hospitality, and ecology.
-Seven short poems celebrating the days of creation.
-A biblical index pairing the poems with scripture readings for use in worship.

Description from The Rabbit Room

9: Love Anyway by Jeremy Courtney

I picked this up from the Preemptive Love website while ordering some gifts for friends. I’ve been impressed by the ministry of Preemptive Love, and was fascinated by Jeremy Courtney’s personal story.

It’s a story of remarkable dedication, but especially meaningful to me is that Jeremy doesn’t skirt the hard questions or lay them aside.

Even the ones he admits he doesn’t have the answers to.

Love Anyway is not just a book, but a journey … and one well worth taking.

About Love Anyway

For all who are displaced. For all who are weary of the way things are. For all who long for a more beautiful world. 

Preemptive Love founder Jeremy Courtney has seen the very worst of war. He’s risked his life saving lives on the front lines. He’s come face to face with ISIS, been targeted by death threats, and narrowly escaped airstrikes. 

Through it all, the most powerful thing he’s learned is this: we’re not just at war with each other. We’re at war with ourselves. But the way things are is not the way they have to be. There is a more beautiful world. To find it, we have to we confront our fear–and end war where it starts: in our own heads and hearts. 

With stories of people who have lived through war and terrorism, Love Anyway will inspire you to confront your deepest fears and respond to our scary world with the kind of love that seems a little crazy. Because when we do, we become agents of hope who unmake violence and unfurl the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. 

Love Anyway is the story of Jeremy’s incredible journey–and an invitation to discover the more beautiful world on the front lines where you live.

Description found at Goodreads

10: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

My mom recommended this book to me, and I listened to it during the fall, while I was sick with a slight fever and cold for a few days.

The movie was good.

But as with all books made into movies, the book was better.

The story is more in-depth than the movie and the book made me want to read more by Paulette Jiles.

About News of the World

In the aftermath of the Civil War, an aging itinerant news reader agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people in this exquisitely rendered, morally complex, multilayered novel of historical fiction from the author of Enemy Women that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.

In the wake of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings from newspapers to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.

In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own.

Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.” Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forming a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.

Description from Goodreads

11: Terraform by Propaganda

Then, during Hutchmoot: Homebound 2020, Propaganda did some spoken-word poetry.

So, when I saw his new book was available, I had to pick it up.

I love that it’s kind of genre-defying, with a mix of narrative and poetry and essayistic–all of which I could “hear” in Propaganda’s indomitable spoken-word style as I read.

Interestingly, the foreword is written by Jeremy Courtney (author of the book mentioned earlier, Love Anyway), and both books serve as challenging and thought-provoking assessments of the dominant culture in which we live …

With the important questions and invitations to ask ourselves whether it really has to be this way.

About Terraform

In this debut collection of essays and poetry, musician, speaker, and activist Propaganda inspires us to create a better, more equitable world.
“If we get to make the very cultures that shape who we are, then let us remake them in the best way possible.”

In this deep, challenging, and thoughtful book, Propaganda looks at the ways in which our world is broken. Using the metaphor of terraforming—creating a livable world out of an inhospitable one—he shows how we can begin to reshape our homes, friendships, communities, and politics.

In this transformative time—when we are redefining what a truly just and equitable world looks like, and reflecting on the work that needs to be done both in our spiritual and secular lives—Propaganda rallies readers to create that just world. He sheds light on how nefarious origin stories have skewed our views of ourselves and others and allowed gross injustices, and demonstrates how great storytelling and excellent art can create and shape new perspectives of the world and make all of us better. 

Description from The Rabbit Room

12: The God of the Garden by Andrew Peterson

I just finished this book in the last couple of weeks.

If you aren’t familiar with Andrew Peterson’s work, just stop reading now and first listen to a few of his songs on YouTube.

I’d recommend Is He Worthy and After the Last Tear Falls.

Then, grab yourself a kid to join you and read through the Wingfeather Saga books.

I know I’m not the only one who absolutely LOVED those books …

Because Angel Studios took up the project of turning The Wingfeather Saga into an animated series this past year, and there was an amazing, positive response from thousands of people … to the tune of $5 million + for Season One.

But don’t wait for that … read the books!

I love gardening and have written about trees and gardening, and thought it would be the perfect read.

I didn’t reckon on seeing so much of myself in the struggles Andrew Peterson writes of: brokenness, loneliness even while surrounded by a family and friends, longing, struggling to see the light.

He also illustrated much of the book with sketches of trees.

Another must-read!

About The God of the Garden

There’s a strong biblical connection between people and trees. They both come from dirt. They’re both told to bear fruit. In fact, arboreal language is so often applied to humans that it’s easy to miss, whether we’re talking about family trees, passing along our seed, cutting someone off like a branch, being rooted to a place, or bearing the fruit of the Spirit. It’s hard to deny that trees mean something, theologically speaking.

This book is in many ways a memoir, but it’s also an attempt to wake up the reader to the glory of God shining through his creation. One of his first commands to Adam and Eve was to “work and keep” the garden (Genesis 2:15). Award-winning author and songwriter Andrew Peterson, being as honest as possible, seeks to give glory to God by spreading out his roots and raising his branches, trusting that by reading his story, you’ll encounter yours.

Hopefully, you’ll see that the God of the Garden is and has always been present, working and keeping what he loves. Sometimes he plants, sometimes he prunes, but in his goodness he intends to reap a harvest of righteousness.

Description from The Rabbit Room

So, there it is.

The best books I read in 2021.

I read a few more terrific books that deserve to be on this list and want to at least mention them:

And so many more great books!

I haven’t yet decided how many books I will try to read in 2022.

What are your reading plans?

Have you read any of the above books? If so, which one is your favorite?

Happy reading in 2022!

Published by Bonita Jewel

A writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience, Bonita Jewel loves helping others weave words into beautiful things. Her blog offers insights on creativity, editing, the writing process, and reading to become a better writer. A few recurring themes you might notice in her work include belonging, identity, purpose, humans as creative beings, and the power of story. Contact Bonita for your next writing or editing project: https://bonitajewel.com/ Or connect with her on social media... Facebook: /BonitaJewelAuthor Instagram: @bonitajewel Twitter: @bonita_jewel

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