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2021 in Books

I read 41 books last year. Here’s a breakdown:

10 by male authors

11 by Latino authors, 2 by Asians, 3 by Blacks, and 1 by a Native American.

8 mysteries

1 science fiction

3 romances

3 historical fiction

All the books I read were fiction but one, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. I see that I still don’t read much science fiction despite making an effort to explore the genre a couple of years ago. In genre fiction, I will always prefer mysteries. I’m glad that I read a selection of fiction by diverse authors. We need diverse books.

Best Books 2021

Okay, here it is, my list of favorite reads of 2021, in alphabetical order by title:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck—I’d always wanted to read this and finally got around to it. Gorgeous descriptions of the Salinas Valley, strong, memorable characters (including a positive depiction of a Chinese man), and a compelling plot make this a major accomplishment in storytelling.

The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade—I liked the New Mexico setting and the depiction of a Latino family, dysfunctional yet supportive of one another during tough times.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes—I enjoyed the intriguing plot, the focus on women’s rights, and, of course, that it’s about librarians and library services.

The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson—Yes, another novel about librarians and libraries, and why not? it’s a subject close to my heart. Even though it’s set in a library in an English village, I related to so much of the story pertaining to budget cutbacks, patrons, literary references, and even politics.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld—I found the book fascinating and engrossing as it explored what Hillary Clinton’s life would have been like had she not married Bill.

Rewrite?

I’ve neglected my blog for too long, but not intentionally.
Actually, I’ve neglected my writing, too. It’s been a combination of issues: obligations at home, computer/technology problems, and pandemic blues. Early in the pandemic lockdown, it was a challenge to make myself sit long enough to read a book. I don’t know why. Maybe it was fear or knowing that I couldn’t do a whole lot outside the home during the lockdown but didn’t want to just sit and read. Of course, blogging took a back seat to everything.

Today I take up my pen to blog about a novel I just finished reading, The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson. I got lucky with this one. I found it on the new book shelf at my local library. I’d never heard of the book nor the author. It was a nice surprise. It’s a story of a small library in an English village and the villagers who band together to fight the possible permanent closure of the facility. As a librarian, I related to so much of this book: the library patrons, the budget pressures, the library work itself. Beyond that, I enjoyed the humor, the wonderfully quirky characters, the literary references, the friendships, and the all around sense of the community’s love for its library. It’s a very heartwarming story.

I also wrote a novel about a library in crisis, but Silence, Please takes a more serious look at the issue. Part of me wonders if I should have taken the approach to my book that Sampson took and added more humor and warmth to my story. However, one of the first writing lessons I learned was to remain true to my own voice. A writer can’t adopt a style that doesn’t come naturally. I’m proud of Silence, Please. Though it isn’t heartwarming, I would never want to rewrite it because it’s an honest depiction of a library in crisis, and it speaks to the importance of libraries in our communities. I wish there were more novels about libraries that were as realistic and enjoyable as Sampson’s The Last Chance Library and my own Silence, Please.

What I Read in 2020

Here is a breakdown of the 40 books I read in 2020:

32 Fiction

15 by male authors

6 Mysteries/Thrillers, 1 Horror

4 by Asian Americans, 5 by Latino Americans, 2 by African Americans

I had planned to read more science-fiction this year but somehow never got around to it. Instead, I seemed to have, for the most part, avoided genre fiction. I don’t usually set specific goals for a year. I choose reading material that draws my interest, such as Mary Trump’s Too Much Never Enough, or that is recommended by others, such as Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. By that standard, it was a very good year.

Best Books 2020

I read forty books in 2020, not as many as I expected to read during the pandemic stay-at-home order. Instead, I often found it difficult to sit and concentrate on a story, no matter how interesting it might be. Though I did read many good books as well as “just okay” books, few of them stand out in my memory. The following do:

Educated by Tara Westover. An inspiring true story of a young woman who overcame incredibly difficult family circumstances to live a normal life.

The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez. I went into this expecting light chick lit. It’s considerably more than that. It deals with the topic of infertility with sensitivity and in more depth than I would have expected.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. A fun read for those who like horror stories and spunky heroines. Very creative, with underlying issues of racism and eugenics.

These Women by Ivy Pochoda. About serial murders in South LA, this novel is not for everyone. It’s unusual in tone and style, but I found it mostly fascinating in its portrayals of women who are used, ignored, and forgotten.

CHARACTER MATTERS

Every year, I reflect on the characters I’ve met through fiction. I do this because character-driven fiction is my favorite. While plot is important, too, I’m more likely to recall a fascinating character over any plot. I connect with characters. Following are my favorites from my 2020 reads:

Manny Rivera in February Files, Trail of Deception, and Moon Shadow Murder. Though I first met Manny last year in Artifacts of Death, the first in this murder mystery series, I came to know him even better in these three volumes this year. Manny, a law enforcement officer, investigates murders in the beautiful Moab, Utah area. He is patient, self-reflective, kind, and loves his family. He is a good man who above all seeks justice.

Jordi Perez in The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spaulding. Jordi is a talented teenage photographer. She is also a lesbian, comfortable in her own skin. Her parents are supportive of Jordi’s sexuality and artistic goals. Jodi is free-spirited, passionate, and quite mature for her age. The other major characters in this YA novel, Abby, Jordi’s love, and Jax, Abby’s friend, are fully developed and interesting people.

Isaiah Quintabe in IQ by Joe Ide. This is the first in a detective series. Quintabe is a private detective. He lives alone in Long Beach, California. He’s a loner and a very intelligent man, despite being a high school dropout. He will take a case that challenges his skills, even if the client can’t afford to pay in cash. He is loyal and determined.

Tangy Mae Quinn in The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips. Tangy is incredible. Only thirteen years old, she endures and survives parental abuse and sexual abuse. Throughout, she maintains her strength of character.

Book Club Choices

At least once a year, I like to briefly comment on the books I’ve recently read that I believe would make for great book club discussions. Below is my short list, which includes a couple of books that led to lively discussions in my book club.

  1. The Darkest Child, by Delores Phillips. Racism, colorism in the African American culture, child abuse, and sexual abuse, are just a few of the heavy themes in this novel about Tangy Mae, a young Black girl in the South. It’s a harsh look at racial class issues and the subjugation of an entire race. A lot of hot issues here to prompt discussion.
  2. Factfulness, by Hans Rosling , teaches how to evaluate dire situations with a more practical and optimistic view by disregarding preconceived notions and paying attention to the facts. Our book club discussion segued into a lively exchange inspired by this book and by the BLM protests happening at the time.
  3. The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez. Infertility is the issue here, and the author handles it with a sympathetic tone. It could be a difficult read for anyone who has dealt with infertility, but it’s an eye-opening look at the issue through a fictional tale.
  4. The Shanghai Free Taxi by Frank Langfitt is an interesting look at the Chinese government and how the Chinese view American politics. This could lead to a political discussion, so choose this only if you know your book club members well and trust that the discussion won’t get heated.

One-Novel Novelists

I’m a self-published writer. I’ve written and published three novels and am currently writing a fourth. Over time, my writing skills have improved. Though I think my first book is better than my second, that’s more a personal preference rather than anything to do with the writing itself. I prefer the first because its story and theme are closer to my heart.

I’m proud that I’ve written three novels, especially when at one time I thought I wouldn’t  be able to write even one. I recently got to thinking about writers who only wrote and published one novel. I’m talking about successful writers who garnered much acclaim for their first novels and presumably could have written and published more based on their reputations. I did a little research, and here are a few of those writers: Margaret Mitchell—Gone with the Wind; J.D. Salinger— Catcher in the Rye; Sylvia Plath—The Bell Jar; Arthur Golden—Memoirs of a Geisha; Emily Bronte—Wuthering Heights.

Bronte and Plath died not long after their works were published. That’s the best excuse for not writing a second. Salinger and Mitchell earned such enormous success for their first novels that it seemed they backed away from writing any more. And Arthur Golden? I couldn’t find any reason why he hasn’t published a second novel. He was sued by the geisha he used as his source for his novel. Maybe he’s shied away from producing another? That’s purely speculation on my part.

I’m sure there are countless writers who have published one novel and never succeeded in getting another published, though not for lack of trying. Still, I think they have much to be proud of in having successfully published one.

 

Beta Readers

I’ve just completed another draft of my fourth novel, The Will of Sonia Sanz, . This draft was extra special because it incorporated revisions suggested in the feedback provided by five beta readers. I always look forward to this feedback, but at the same time, it can be disappointing to hear negative comments. This time was no different. While three readers enjoyed the book, two readers told me the story needed more excitement. I was puzzled. After all, this is a story that includes two unexpected and sudden deaths, a gold digging scoundrel, a wild spendthrift, a gas lighter, and a mysterious intruder. What more could I do to build suspense? After further discussion with these readers, I realized the problem wasn’t what was not in the novel; it was what was in it. I had overloaded the story with too many repetitive passages and unnecessary dialogue that negatively affected the flow of the plot. I began to rewrite and revise, eventually deleting twenty pages. The book now reads faster with a stronger emphasis on plot and action.

As a writer, I’m fortunate to have family and friends who are not afraid to tell me the truth when it comes to my writing. They are truthful but at the same time kind. It’s not only what is said but how it’s said. “The book needs more punch to it,” is easier to hear than “It’s just too boring. Make it more exciting,” for example.

Good beta readers are essential to a successful writing process.

What to Read During a Pandemic?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I’ve been sheltering in place for nine weeks. I’ve had plenty of time on my hands to read, but I’ve found it a challenge to concentrate. When we started to stay home, I was in the midst of reading The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea. It’s an outstanding nonfiction book about the tragic deaths of many in a group of immigrants who crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. in the early 2000s. I read the first half quickly but struggled with the second half despite my interest in the topic. I couldn’t concentrate. My mind wandered, and I’d have to get up and do something, anything—cook a meal, clean the oven, do laundry, whatever kept me from sitting and dwelling on the pandemic.

Now, nine weeks later, I’ve relaxed a bit, and I’m finding it easier to sit and read for at least a half hour at a time, if not longer. It could be that I’m less anxious about the pandemic, or perhaps I’ve accommodated to the new normal. Or, could it be because I’m reading novels that don’t require a lot of deep thinking? It’s easier to bury my mind in that type of book. The past three weeks I’ve read a thriller, a YA novel, and a chick lit romance. The YA novel, The Summer of Jordi Perez , was especially easy to read because it’s a feel-good story. Hmmm…I think I just answered my question.