Oh wow, this was a very big month of reading for me, especially on the non-fiction front. This was in part because this month I wanted to read two books from my anti-racist reading list (I didn’t read any in December), having Big Magic as our book club pick, and of course… finally finishing Joyful! So all in, I read twelve books. Much more than usual. And SO MANY REALLLLLLY GOOD BOOKS, at that!
EVERYTHING I READ IN JANUARY 2021
There were a few that I was only medium on. But to have 8 out of the 12 books be an A or an A+?!?! That’s a great month of reading, in my book. I really enjoyed everything I read this month, enjoy the list! Also, a caveat! The grades I assign to these books are my opinions, based on how much I enjoy a book… they don’t have to be yours!
IF YOU’RE NEW HERE AND ARE LOOKING FOR A BOOK, DON’T FORGET THAT YOU CAN ALWAYS CHECK OUT MY BEAUTIFUL BOOK CLUB PAGE.
Every month I update it with everything I read – it includes every book I’ve read in the past six years. The best part is that now you can filter + search by genre (memoir, light read, historical fiction, thriller, books by Black authors, etc!) Now you can also filter by GRADE to find exactly what you’re looking for or just peruse my top picks. If you’re feeling like you need even more book recs, check out last month’s list! And, just in case you missed it… everything I read in 2020, ranked by genre.
This month’s non-fiction
Heavy, by Kiese Laymon
I listened to this in audiobook form and it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s going to blow you away and I can’t recommend listening to it enough. You know that I love a good memoir, and this is just wonderful as an audiobook. It’s poetic, powerful, beautifully written, honest, vulnerable, I could go on and on.
Written as a letter to his mother, Laymon takes us through his childhood (and the trauma he endured growing up Black), walking us through his complicated relationships with weight (dealing with both obesity and anorexia), growing up “big and Black,” women and sex, and ultimately gambling. He combines personal stories with history lessons. Anecdotes and stories that can be humorous at times but dark and heartbreaking at other times. This was one of the books on my personal anti-racist reading list. I really believe that one of the best things we can do is to read more books by diverse authors to (a trite expression) put yourself in their shoes. I absolutely love this book – I could not stop listening to it and felt sad when it’s over (I recommend listening to The Stacks’ episode with Kiese to quench your book hangover!
- Overall Score: A
Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert
This was not my first time reading this book, but I’d never reviewed it here! We did an entire podcast episode about this book (and then had Elizabeth Gilbert on to talk more). This book. I don’t even know where to begin but I will say that everyone should read it, even if you don’t necessarily identify as a “creative person.” The content is just so valuable, it’s a fairly quick read, and every time I read it I take something different away from it.
The things for me that really resonated were the parts about fear, and letting fear hold you back. And approaching your creativity (or your whole life for that matter) from a perspective of curiosity as opposed to fear, or even passion. This book is truly life changing. I love that Becca re-reads it every January and may start doing the same exact thing. If you are feeling in a rut, uninspired, a little bit stuck, not sure what you want to do next, OR you’re about to start a new project, read this book!!!!
- Overall Score: A+
Joyful, by Ingrid Fetell Lee
I finally finished it! I have been reading this for months. This book came highly recommended to me by my sister and I can’t recommend it enough. The reason it took me so long to read is that I was taking copious notes like a good little student. But she mentions so many different artists, architects, creators… that I wanted to stop, pause, look them up, and then keep reading. So I’d read maybe a quarter of a chapter at a time and I do not regret that. I learned so much from it.
This book is all about the power of aesthetics and objects to impact our happiness. From the way we delight over rounded objects, to why we are drawn to symmetry, and beyond. It is such an interesting read… if you are someone who nerds out over good design OR are just somebody who wants to create a personal space that leaves you feeling joyful, absolutely read this book. I loved it and learned so so much from it.
- Overall Score: A+
The Lynching, by Laurence Leamer
This book chronicles the trial(s) surrounding a horrible race-based killing of 19 year old Michael Donald that took place in Alabama in 1981 that ultimately took down the KKK. I listened to it and at times felt sick to my stomach, and just plain angry. And at times also just really grossed out as the attitude of some of the good ole Southern boys (men) involved reminded me a lot of our last president. Donald was abducted off of the street, beaten, had his throat slit, and ultimately hung from a tree. All because these klansmen were upset that a jury had been unable to reach a verdict in the trial of a Black man accused of murdering a white man. So you know, they retaliated by brutally killing a Black Man.
One of the killers, Henry Hays, is sentenced to death (at the time a monumental decision – it was rare to sentence a white man to death for killing a Black man). But Morris Dees (the famous civil rights lawyer) wasn’t content to leave it there. He then filed a civil suit against the klan, charging them with conspiracy… and ultimately flattening the organization. The book was fascinating and dramatic. A little dry at times (as with, for me, most history books) but excellent and incredibly documented. I think it’s a very important book to read or listen to.
- Overall Score: A
Two of the Best Fiction Books I’ve Read in Ages
The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig
(trigger warning: suicide) Oh wow, this book was just… excellent. The writing is exquisite, it’s evocative and thought provoking… it’s one of my favorite works of fiction I have read in a long time. This is a book about regret. Nora Seed showed so much promise. At one point, she could have been an Olympic swimmer. At another, a rockstar. But bad decision after bad decision leads her to a sad and lonely life. When her cat dies, she decides it’s time to end her life. But in between life and death, she arrives at a place called The Midnight Library. There, she meets her childhood librarian who shows her around.
Each book on the shelf represents a different regret or decision, and the life she would have had if she’d chose differently. But as soon as she finds a life to be disappointing she is taken back to the library to take out another book. And so Nora goes on to live tons of different lives. In one, she’s a former Olympian, in others, she’s a mother, in one, she’s a famous rockstar. And in another, she didn’t break up with her ex-fiance. I could go on. Needless to say I could not put it down. It’s thoughtful and creative and such a great conversation starter (and I loved the lessons – on love, being present, and not dwelling on what could have been because maybe it isn’t as good as you imagined it to be). I cannot recommend this book enough!
- Overall Score: A+
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (out 3/2)
If you take one thing away from this post, pre-order this book. It is absolutely wonderful, thought provoking, and utterly captivating. It came HIGHLY recommended to me by my friend Morgan Hoit, who knows her stuff and told me it could be THE book of 2021. I am inclined to agree with her. It is beautifully written (I found myself feeling jealous at times, wishing I could write even a fraction as well as the author) and centers around a family divided between Bogota, Colombia and the US.
It opens with Talia who has just escaped an all-girls prison (the book opens with her tying up a nun) in the mountains of Colombia. When not imprisoned, she lives with her father Mauro who was deported from the US back to Bogota when she was just a baby. Meanwhile, her mother Elena and her two siblings Karina and Nando, are still living (undocumented) in the US. Her siblings are trying to fit in at the local high school as her mother works to earn enough to support them and send money back home. Told from the perspective of all five family members, this is a novel about family, pain, suffering, and sacrificing for the people you love.
One of my priorities this year is to read books about people and families with backgrounds different than my own and this one is particularly poignant especially when thinking about immigration and undocumented workers. Add to that the writing, and this is a book you just can’t miss. It flies by in under 200 pages – please read it!
- Overall Score: A+
If I Had Your Face, by Frances Cha
First of all, this is going to be our February 2021 Bad on Paper Book club book… I can’t wait to talk about it with you! Set in modern day Korea, this book is a wild look at Korean beauty standards and plastic surgery (I found myself googling different procedures and gasping!). I had thought that maybe it was an exaggeration but many of you chimed in to say that no, it is not! Aside from that, this is the story of five women and their struggles and friendship. I absolutely LOVED each women for different reasons, and thought the character development was incredible, especially the protective friendship between Sujin and Ara.
There is Ara, mute after a horrible accident, who is a hairdresser and obsesses over a Korean boy band star. Her roommate (and best friend from childhood) Sujin is obsessed with beauty and saving for the operation(s) that she believes will change her life. Across the hall is Kyuri (who is drop dead gorgeous and has had many operations) and works at a “room salon” where she entertains businessmen while they drink (becoming a room salon girl is Sujin’s biggest goal). Kyuri’s roommate is Miho (an artist who lived in New York for school), who is dating a very wealthy guy. And downstairs from the four girls is Wonna, newly married and trying to have a baby. Ultimately, this is a book about friendship. I loved these women. I loved their friendships. And I tore through the book. Highly recommend!
- Overall Score: A
The Mothers, by Brit Bennett
This had been sitting on my shelf since summer. I loved The Vanishing Half so much so I ordered this one immediately after but for whatever reason, took my time actually picking it up. (I think my mom had said that she didn’t like this one, I feel like that’s what happened!). Anyway, this book is beautifully written and I’ll read anything Brit Bennett writes but I was kinda bored by this one – I just didn’t really care about the subject matter.
It’s set in a modern day Black community in San Diego and is about a group of three teenagers: Nadia Turner who has just lost her mother, the pastor’s son Luke, and Nadia’s very religious best friend, Aubrey. Nadia and Luke, both going through a rebellious period, spend a summer fooling around and she gets pregnant. They decide to have an abortion, but do not tell anyone: not Nadia’s father, her best friend, anyone. The book is really about the aftermath of the coverup as they grow into adults. There is a love triangle, heartbreak and betrayal… it’s well written but for whatever reason I just didn’t really like it!
- Overall Score: B
All Girls, by Emily Layden (out 2/16/21)
I had been really excited about this one (it’s gotten a lot of hype and has been compared to The Girls meets Gossip Girl with a dash of My Dark Vannessa and Taylor Jenkins Reid even blurbed it) but it just fell flat for me. It’s set in modern day (or at least 2015/2016) Connecticut at a prestigious prep school. It’s about teens, but I wouldn’t classify it as YA. A horrible scandal has just taken place (a woman who graduated ten years earlier accuses a professor of rape, and the professor still works there).
The book follows nine young women attending the school, from eager young freshmen to seniors on the brink of the next steps of their lives, as they find their voices and figure out how to help make the school they love so much a better place. Honestly, maybe the book was hyped up to me so much but I just didn’t love it. I felt like the writing was slow (it’s been compared to Sally Rooney’s books which I get but even when Sally’s books are slow they just have that something extra that makes you want to keep reading), and I just didn’t care enough to keep slogging through. Not a bad book, but not a great book and just… slow! Not my personal cup of tea, but not poorly written or a “bad” book… just not my thing.
- Overall Score: B-
This Month’s Read-in-a-Day Thrillers
The End of Her, by Shari Lapena
After DNFing several books I was kinda just like, “I just want a murdery thriller that I won’t be able to put down.” A reader had recommended this and I loved The Couple Next Door (this was by the same author), so I picked it up. It did not disappoint. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was engaging and fun to read. Stephanie and Patrick have just had twin girls and are adjusting to the new realities of parenthood when Erica Voss arrives in their life. She and Patrick have a history and she has some pretty shocking allegations about Patrick and his first marriage (his wife had died in a tragic accident, years ago). Patrick maintains he’s innocent, but Stephanie isn’t sure what to believe.
Meanwhile, Erica is pretty hell-bent on dismantling pretty much everything in Patrick’s life. Who is lying? Who is the sociopath? The answer may be EVERYONE. I read this in a day, it cleansed my palette after a vicious news cycle, but the ending felt a little bit lazy. Still, I enjoyed it?
- Overall Score: B
Layla, by Colleen Hoover
If you are a regular in these parts then you already know what a big fan of Colleen Hoover I am. With her books, you truly never know what you’re going to get. They are always very emotional and will rip your heart out in one way or another. Maybe it’s a wild and disturbing thriller like Verity (my favorite of hers). Maybe it’s YA like Heart Bones… the one uniting thing is that they are dramatic and will have your stomach in knots. This one was a thriller and wow did it go WAY off the rails. I don’t want to say anything to ruin the surprises but it deals with paranormal activity.
Leeds and Layla are madly in love – one of those fated romances where everything is just perfect and a dream… until Layla is brutally attacked. Layla spends weeks recovering in the hospital and Leeds has the idea to sweep her away and take her to the B&B where they first met. But from there, things just get weirder. Layla is even less like herself and strange things keep happening in the house. Leeds finds himself developing a connection (and attachment) to another guest, Willow. But Willow also needs his help and Leeds must make a choice. I know I am being vague but I’m trying not to give it away! I will say I was really annoyed with Leeds for most of the book but it all ultimately makes sense in the end!
- Overall Score: B+
The Soulmate Equation, by Christina Lauren (out 5/18)
This was SO. GOOD. Go pre-order it immediately. You might remember that I was not the biggest fan of In a Holidaze which broke my heart to say as they (Christina Lauren is two people!) are one of my all-time favorite authors. This redeemed that; it’s up there with Love and Other Words – it is definitely one of my favorite books they’ve written. Jess is a single mom, about to turn 30.
Dating is not a priority – she’s cynical and just trying to piece together a living. River is a handsome scientist turned matchmaker… his company has actually figured out a way to make a match based upon genetics. When Jess’s friend peer pressures her into taking the DNA test, a surprise match (Diamond, the highest level) occurs between Jess and River. They’re both shocked by this… especially as they don’t really like each other too much. Still, the results are too compelling to ignore. They begin dating (at first for publicity). But is their “diamond match” for real? I don’t want to give anything away but I loved this book so much and think you will really enjoy it!
- Overall Score: A
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Photo by Allie Provost.
Thanks for the in-depth reviews! I know I can always trust you when it comes to books! ❤️✨
Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
I agree, The Mothers fell so flat for me too! A good friend who always nails books recommendations told me she didn’t love it, so I think, like you, I went into it knowing it wasn’t going to live up to The Vanishing Half.
I ordered Infinite Country last week and am SO excited to dig in, especially after reading your review. Am waiting on If I Had Your Face to become available at the library. NPR’s end of the year book review recommended this too – excited it’s a pod book club pick!
Added Heavy to my to-read list – sounds incredible.
Thanks as always for your thoughtful book reviews!
Ah I hope you love them all, especially Infinite Country!
Also meant to share some recent reads I loved:
I just finished Thin Girls. It was excellent! Definitely check it out, although I should mention it might be triggering for anyone who’s struggled with an eating disorder.
I’m about halfway through The Most Fun We Ever Had and am really enjoying it. It’s a family saga, which is generally my favorite type of story.
Thank you so much for the recs!
Always love reading these posts! I appreciate the honest and respectful reviews.
I’ve been deep driving Fredrick Backman’s back list since reading Anxious People in November. His writing is witty but raw and opens your heart up to so many different kinds of people. Very authentic and quick reads. Which is perfect during the current state of everything.
Thank you!!! I’ve heard great things about Anxious People.
Love reading your book reviews! Will definitely be ordering some of these.
Today I’m diving into Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler. Super intrigued by the premise.
I’m intrigued by that one too!!!!
I’m so excited for the new CL book! I also just finished Midnight Library last night after you + Becca talked about it on the podcast. WOW, I’m so so glad I read it. One of the best books I’ve read in awhile.
Right? SO good, I loved it so much!
Anna K by Jenny Lee! YA retelling of Anna Karenina set in New York. Privileged unsupervised teens to the max 🙂
LOVED IT – read it last year when it first came out, so so good!!!!!!!!
Ooo I actually loved the Mothers. I read it last year before the Vanishing Half came out and Brit Bennett (deservedly so!) blew up, so many I just went into it with less expectations. I felt like it was almost a melodic read – it was one of those reads where I looked up and realized I had been reading for four hours. Just wanted to offer a different take.
Heavy’s been on my list for a while – your review inspired me to put it to the top of my TBR pile.
Off to pre-order Infinite Country!!! (PS – I loooove your reading roundups; thank you so much for doing them every month!)
Interesting! I think I might have felt the same, if I’d read The Mothers first!!! Thanks for sharing your take!
Currently reading Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. Perfect for the season and perhaps even more relevant during a pandemic winter.
Oh that sounds amazing, thank you for the rec!
You read so quickly that I’m always impressed with myself if I can keep up with one or two of your books a month. This time it was Big Magic and The Midnight Library–both life-changing, so thank you. I just started Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and so far it is excellent. It’s heavy and not for the squeamish, but feels like an important Black History Month read. I hope to follow it with something more joyful from a black writer, so I would love your suggestion.
My social life was really lacking quite a bit this month! I’m planning on reading The Underground Railroad as well!
I’ve been reading Underground Railroad as well—noticed it wasn’t on your list. Heavy and incredibly written. I’m glad you will be reading it soon, you’ll probably finish it before me. 🙂
Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren is my favorite of their books so now I can’t wait for the Soulmate Equation with that stamp of approval. Also, Infinite Country is my BOTM book and should be here any day. When I’ve knocked a few more books off my shelf I’ll probably order If I Had Your Face. Too many books and not enough time!
You are going to love them both!!!!
I haven’t read the Midnight Library (it’s on my to-read list for sure!) but from you’d description of it, I think you’d love The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue too.
Oh thank you for the rec!
Yes I LOVED The Invisible Life of Addie Larue — one of my favorites from the past year for sure
I’ve only read Layla, and totally agree – wanted to throttle Leeds. I don’t know how CH does it, all of her books are SO different!
Looking forward to reading the others.
She has such a range, it’s crazy!
I read Layla this month as well, after LOVING Verity (at your suggestion). Verity is the only other Colleen Hoover book I’ve read so I was expecting a similar thriller! I was definitely not expecting the paranormal twist, but it kept me entertained! Definitely agree with the B+ rating.
It took SUCH a turn… I was like WHAT JUST HAPPENED! But still (with all her books!) gobbled it right up.
Thanks so much for doing these! I have read so many booked I’ve LOVED due to your recommendations. I appreciate it!!
I am so happy to hear that, thank you!
I just finished “the push” and loved it a lot! I recommend!
I actually JUST bought that and am starting that soon!
I can’t wait to read, The Midnight Library, I think I am the next in line at our library to be able to check it out. I too had a good January reading month, 5 for me (which for working full time and having three kids under 5 is a huge achievement for me, totally worth actually losing sleep over.)
Have you read, The Grace Year? That was one of my favorites! Also loved, The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany, which I ordered after seeing it on your blog so thank you!
OH you’re in for such a treat… I hope you love it! I have not read The Grace Year, I’m going to check that out!
Oh, I just adore your reading lists!! My suggestion for you would be Black Buck. It’s written by a Black author and the writing is superb. I also feel as if it is a timely read, too.
I’m currently reading The Boys ‘ Club per your recommendation, and I am LOVING it so far!
I have heard such good things about Black Buck. I need gto order!
Just downloaded Heavy on Audible and reading If I Had Your Face for bookclub. Thanks for the recs!!
Yay, enjoy both!
So many good ones to add to the list. I look forward to this post all month. Can’t wait to read these!
That makes me so happy to hear!
This is always my favorite post each month! I have some mindless work to do, so I ordered Layla through Audible to entertain me while I download and convert documents. Adding The Midnight Library to my list too!
Aw so glad to to hear that! Happy reading!
A four A+ month?! Cant wait to dig in to these. Finished “Say Nothing – A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” and recommend when you’re in the mood for some great non-fiction that feels part murder mystery.
Right!? This never happens!!!! Thank you for the recommendation!
Great round-up, I’m listening to Big Magic and on hold for Midnight Library. Thank you for curating for me Grace!
YAY – two amazing reads!
Absolutely dying to read the new Christina Lauren! Love and Other Words is one of my favorite books, and while I like everything they’ve written, nothing else has ever matched the magic of that story for me. I can’t wait for this one!
It is SO GOOD. Def recommend preordering it!
I am proud of myself for not hitting order on half of these and adding them to Goodreads instead…for now. My TBR piles are getting kind of out of control, like, to the point I need new bookshelves 🙂
I relistened to Big Magic because of your book club and LOVED your ep with her! Can you guys have her as third host and/or become BFF with her so I can live vicariously through this?
Hahaha happy reading. And man, I wish. That hour of recording with her was really really special!
Id been in such a creative sewing funk after having covid and Big Magic seriously pulled me out of it. I remembered yall taking about it on the pod and had ordered it but never go around until now, definitely enjoyed it and it made me feel so much better.
Ive been on such a nonfiction kick recently so Ive been rereading an old fav “The Brotherhood of Eternal Love: From Flower Power to Hippie Mafia” which is about the creation and spread of LSD in the 20th century. Its a great read if youre interested in counterculture history 🙂
Ooh thanks for the rec!
If reading If I Had Your Face has piqued your interest in Korean writing, you should trying picking up Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It’s beautifully written, with incredible female characters, following four generations of a family who move from Korea to Japan in the 20th century. Such a fantastic read – I really think you’d love it!
I LOVE the chair you are pictured in for your most recent post. Can you tell me where you got it or more details? Thanks in advance!!!
Hi! It’s Design Within Reach! xx
My cousin and I did our own version of jólabókaflóð (google it, it’s amazing) on Christmas Eve where we bought ourselves new books and I got The Midnight Library and loooooved it so much. Such an intriguing concept!
I always love your reading lists, but could you please put a trigger warning on The Midnight Library? I know the description says suicide, but there are still other mental health aspects to the book and how it portrays suicide that are not adequately addressed by the description. You’ve always been very thoughtful about trigger warnings for other books that feature topics like sexual assault or loss of a child, mental health deserves the attention and sensitivity. There’s also a discussion on the BOP facebook page about this book regarding it’s portrayal of mental health that I think is important for you and Becca to read if you decide to make this a book club book at some point.