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THE BEST BOOKS I READ IN 2021

I’m set to finish 62 books this year, certainly my biggest reading year in the past decade. When I thought of picking my favorites I tried to think of the books that I still find myself reminiscing over. Whether it was the way they made me feel, a certain character in them that remained especially vivid or a storyline that really captured my mind or my heart. Below, my top 10 books of 2021.

In terms of stats – it was fun to notice that all 10 were written by women, 6 were debut works, 4 were by diverse authors, 4 were backlist titles (meaning they didn’t come out in the past couple of years) and 2 were non-fiction. 

And in case you’re looking for more: my 2020 top 10 list here and my 2019 list here.

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain – Originally published in 2012 (almost a full decade ago!) this book had been on my list to read for awhile now and I’m SO glad I finally did. This is one of those rare books that I would absolutely re-read. A love letter to Hemingway’s Paris and the woman lost to his early history.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – Unlike anything else on this list, or that I’d read before. This debut work was hilarious and heart-breaking in equal turns. A modern story of trans identity, motherhood, and love.

Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff – Another backlist title, this one from 2016, proved that if you can press pause on the shiny new releases, there is a world of amazing books that I still want to read from years past. This one blew me away in a way that a book hasn’t in a long time. A couple so complicated, so dynamic, so unbelievable yet so vividly real – I still think about them often. Another book I can’t wait to re-read in a few years.

Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi – I was really excited to find this author this year and she quickly became a new favorite. Yolk is a really gripping story of two sisters and their complicated relationship set in modern New York. So few books get today’s generation’s voice right and Choi really does it well in my opinion.

She Come by It Natural by Sarah Smarsh – If you can believe it, I just read this over the course of the past couple of days (it’s short) and it made the list! It’s essentially a think piece on Dolly Parton’s life and a look at how she’s been a brash, unorthodox embodiment of feminism all these years. There’s a lot on the way she was raised – which is very similar to my own late Nan (who I adored and who not surprisingly, was a Dolly fan herself) and how she never ‘got too big for her britches’ as my Nan would say. I loved it. Long live Dolly.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – Switching between present day Cape Cod and the main character’s often wrought childhood in Manhattan, this book was at turns dark and gripping. A complicated family dealing with the rippling effects of past traumas with settings so vivid you felt like you were there.

Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz – I sometimes struggle with short story collections – I like a few, feel mediocre about the rest. Get bored and set it aside. Not the case with this debut collection of short stories, that I devoured in a day and still think about a few of the stories. Sometimes dark and always full of emotion, this author will be one I watch.

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb – One of the most interesting ‘memoirs’ I’ve ever read in that it re-told the stories of her great grandmother, grandmother and mother as they were passed down to her. Largely, it was a love letter to the strong women in her family and the bond between her and her beloved late grandmother which I adored.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett – Her second book, The Vanishing Half, made my list last year but I’m so glad I went back and read her debut novel because I actually like it even more. There are particular lines in this book I still think about months after reading it.

Olympus Texas by Stacey Swann – A dynamic family with drama as big as the gods, this story set in the ranch lands of Texas played with themes of Greek mythology while remaining completely modern and original to me. My entire book club loved it and I’m hoping it gets translated into a movie or miniseries. The female characters were some of the most interesting I read all year.

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Looking at thAT list, I definitely lean towards more complicated, sometimes darker reads – so I wanted to add in a few honorable mentions for 3 books that were completely *fun* to read.

The Guncle by Steven Rowley – An out of work actor and resident ‘Guncle’ (gay Uncle) has to take in his young niece and nephew for the summer in his Palm Springs home. Hijinks and heartwarming moments ensue. Such a feel good read.

The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling – Read this next October. It’s like Practical Magic meets Gilmore Girls, fun, light, and romantic with just the right amount of witchiness.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix – This was described as Dracula meets Steel Magnolias and as strange as that sounds – and as unlikely as I was to me that I would like this book – I loved it and couldn’t put it down this summer. A reminder to branch out every now and then when it comes to your reading life!

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LET’S CATCH UP 12.20.21

Between the fact that I’ve been going non-stop since November and New York has seen a pretty drastic rise in Covid cases (planning to get my booster shot asap!), I had a very quiet weekend at home and it was a welcome change. Looking forward to a slightly shorter work week ahead and seeing family this weekend for Christmas. However you’re spending the week, I hope it’s a good one! Here – a few things on my mind before the holidays:

ON MY MIND:

  • Have you watched ‘And Just Like That’ the Sex & The City reboot? I’ll be honest, the first 3 episodes were a bit of a downer. But admittedly, I love returning to Carrie’s world (and closet) regardless of the storyline. Plus, it’s refreshing to see a show starring 3 women in their 50s. I’m looking forward to see where the season goes.
  • I also started watching ‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’ on HBO and am loving it. Honestly, Mindy Kaling – who created the show – can do no wrong in my mind. The writing feels so fresh and fun.
  • When I haven’t been playing ‘Kacey Musgraves Christmas’, I’ve been listening to the new War on Drugs album. We saw them play in Brooklyn maybe 6-7 years ago and I’d love to see them live again. Will 2022 allow for plans like that? I sure hope so.
  • I found these ‘The Shell House’ spiked cranberry seltzers at Trader Joe’s the other week and am loving them. They’re only 100 calories and are super light and bubbly tasting. I add a wedge of lime and it feels like a fancy cocktail but way lighter and with less alcohol. Nice when I don’t feel like a heavy beer.

ON MY BOOKSHELF:

  • I’ve been flying through a handful of holiday rom-coms this month and my favorite has been Eight Perfect Hours by Lia Louis – but honestly, I think my mind will turn to mush if I read one more. Ha.
  • I picked up The Turnout by Megan Abbott from the library after Claire raved about it. It’s a *slight* thriller set in the ballet world around The Nutcracker – which feels fitting after just having caught a performance at Lincoln Center earlier this month.
  • Infamous LA girl and author Eve Babitz passed away earlier this week and it makes me want to read more of her work. Imagine if Carrie Bradshaw lived in LA in the 70s mixed with a dose of Joan Didion. Her observations were so sharp and self aware. I loved Black Swan and want to read Sex and Rage or the biography about her – Hollywood’s Eve.
  • My virtual book club is reading The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot this month – a sweet sounding story about an unlikely friendship between a 17 year old girl and an 83 year old woman. It feels like it will be a cozy read for over holiday break.

IN MY CART:

  • I have zero plans for NYE but that hasn’t stopped me from imagining my dream outfit. This sequin dress, these dotted heels and this sparkly headband. Go big even if you’re staying home.. right?
  • Mango has a great end of season sale happening right now – I’m eyeing this striped sweater in a chic tan and black combo.
  • If, like me, you realistically plan on spending a good deal of time in loungewear over these next couple of weeks – then you likely need these leggings. They’re nice and thick and super high-waisted, which is exactly what I want in a lounge-type legging.
  • Post-holidays I’m in the market for new bedding and a new bedroom rug (our current one sheds so badly I swear it’s like we have a phantom dog). After years of white bedding, I kind of like the idea of a color like this one.

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MY 2021 HOLIDAY BUCKET LIST

We’ve got 12 Days until Christmas and frankly, I’m barely hanging on. Work/life has felt particularly demanding these past few weeks and while I’m trying not to let that dampen my holiday spirit, it’s making it slightly challenging to fit in all that I want to soak up during this season. Regardless, since I’ve already checked off a few of these, I’m confident that I can get through the rest of my list before the year ends. ‘Tis the season for ‘city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style’ after all!

  • Wander through the West Village: Streets like Grove, Bedford, Perry and Bank are always full of festive cheer and beautifully decorated doorsteps. I’ll try to grab a bite at Sant Ambroeus or Buvette while I’m there.
  • Have a Movie Marathon: Love Actually, Elf, Serendipity, The Holiday, While You Were Sleeping, and Home Alone are all favorites in our home. Best served with warm cookies and a mug of tea.
  • See the Lights: We first went to Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights neighborhood a few years ago and the lights and decorations can’t be beat. Hoping to take a drive through after work one night this week since it’s fairly close to my office.
  • Give Back: Despite the hustle and bustle, this time of year always reminds me to be thankful for what I have and try to give back to those less fortunate. I like dropping off new books to my local Little Free Library (kids books especially in case a parent needs something to give to a child), and donating to causes like the New York Cares Coat Drive (where $25 gets someone in need 10 meals and a warm coat for the winter).
  • See The Nutcracker: I hadn’t been to see this in over a decade and so I had been dreaming of going again this year. We made it happen last week and I’m happy to report that it hadn’t lost a single ounce of its sparkle and magic.
  • Go out for a Festive Drink: I met my book club girls at Lillie’s in Union Square last week.. which is essentially a bar that explodes with Christmas decorations this time of year. The service left a little to be desired but it’s so festive and fun, plus the drinks were good, that it all evened out. I’ll try to grab a drink at Pete’s Tavern in our neighborhood too (it’s one of the oldest bars in the city and was closed for nearly all of last year).
  • Read Holiday Rom-Coms: I’m about 4 books into my December reading marathon. So far I’ve really liked The Matzah Ball, Always in December and loved Eight Perfect Hours. My full reading list here.
  • See Live Music: Not only did I get to go to a show at Carnegie Hall for the first time last week, but later this month I’m seeing a live classical string band performance of all Taylor Swift songs.. in a candlelit Trinity Church. It sounds nearly too good to be true.
  • Visit the Tree: It’s not Christmas in New York without a visit to the Rockefeller Tree.
  • Fifth Avenue Windows: Likewise, a stroll along Fifth Avenue to see the window decorations. It’s become a yearly tradition to pack a thermos of hot toddies to ward off the cold and the crowds.
  • Ice Skating in Bryant Park: The pandemic has meant that you have to pre-book times and they book up really quickly – but if you can grab a spot, do it! I love Central Park skating too, but Bryant Park is a nice central location and you can say hi to the NYPL while you’re there.

‘Tis the season!

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HOLIDAY BOOKS TO READ THIS SEASON

It’s officially holiday romcom reading season! By this point in the year, my mind typically of mush from my full-time job and an otherwise busy schedule, so a couple of years ago I started gravitating towards really light, fun holiday books in December – and it’s since become one of my favorite seasonal traditions. Sure, they’re sometimes a little bit cheesy, but they’re also full of heart and go down easier than a cup of eggnog. Besides this year’s new releases I’ve also included a few that I loved from years past as well as a couple that aren’t romance focused at all – but still perfectly seasonal. Happy holiday reading!

And a friendly reminder – I’ve linked these to Amazon so that you can easily see what they are – but independent bookstores need your support, especially at the holidays. And since it’s Small Business Saturday, why not pick one of these up from your favorite local shop?!

On My Reading List This Year:

The Holiday Swap by Maggie Knox: I’m reading this now and it’ a mix between movies The Holiday and The Parent Trap (a city to country + twin swap) plus both twin sisters are bakers, one as a host of a British Bake Off-esque show and one in a family run bakery. Lots of hijinx so far.

The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer: I finished this last week and honestly, it was so fun to learn all about the traditions of a holiday that I’m only surface-level familiar with. There’s not a ton of diversity in these holiday books, but this one did a really nice job of weaving that into the storyline – apparently the author, similarly to the main character, suffers from chronic illness as well. I loved the bubbe (grandmother) character too.

A Wild Winter Swan by Gregory Maguire: From the author of Wicked (that inspired the award-winning musical), this book is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swan’ fairytale – and takes place in New York City at Christmastime in the 1960s. It’s one of the books I’m most looking forward to this season.

The Christmas Dress by Courtney Cole: This one centers on an unlikely friendship between a young aspiring fashion designer and an older resident in her same apartment building and a certain dress brings them together. As previously mentioned, I love when older women get to be main characters in books (it so rarely happens) – so this one was an easy sell to me.

Eight Perfect Hours by Lia Louis: A blizzard traps two people together one night and then fate keeps bringing them back together. Feels a little like Serendipity which is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Always in December by Emily Stone: A woman who hates the holidays runs into a man who gives her a reason not to. Set in New York, London and Edinburgh (three places I love) so this was an easy sell to me.

The Little Bookshop on the Seine by Rebecca Raisin: Paris at Christmas.. in a bookstore. Need I say more? I actually picked this one up last year and didn’t have time to get to it so I’m hoping to this year. Sounds very sweet.

Past Favorites:

One Day in December by Josie Silver: The one that started it all. I read this 2-3 years and was instantly hooked on this genre. It’s a classic girl meets boy, girl loses boy to girl’s best friend story. And takes place over the span of almost a decade and I couldn’t put it down.

In A Holidaze by Christina Lauren: It’s Groundhogs Day meets Christmas in this book giving one girl many chances to get it right.. or wrong. A fun, festive read I liked last year.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva: A reimagined tale of what Charles Dickens life looked like as he wrote his beloved Christmas Carol. I loved going back in time to 1800s London and reading this fictionalized account of how his family and friends (and mainly himself) might have showed themselves in his famous work of literature.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris: I’ve mentioned it many times but Sedaris on of my favorite authors. This compilation of his holiday-themed essays is a short, funny read that includes reflections on his time spent working as an elf in Macy’s Santa-land.

Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory: Loved that the main couple in this book was in their 50s roughly, it had a Royal storyline (the daughter is a stylist for a Kate Middleton type Duchess) and was diverse (all of the main characters are Black) – and a fun trip to London too! A nice book if you’ve had your fill of the usual 20 somethings falling in love.

The Twelve Dates of Christmas by Jenny Bayliss: This was one of my favorites that I read last year. The main character is reluctantly seeking love after focusing on a career that she loves and balancing relationships with her family and friends. She felt really well-rounded and realistic. Spoiler – love ensues.

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STEELE MAIDEN BOOK CLUB: CHAPTER TWENTY

I swear I blink and another 3 months has passed since my last book round-up. This will be my last general reading recap for the year before I share some fun holiday book recommendations (hopefully late next week!) + my top 10 books of the year at the end of December.

Anna K by Jenny Lee: This is a YA retelling of Anna Karenina – set in modern day NYC. So basically it’s classic literature that reads like an episode of Gossip Girl. I have never read the original or watched any of the movies.. which I don’t think you necessarily need to, but I do think it would help to give you more context. I found it a little bit plainly written but I did think the dramatic UES friend groups/love interests and the concept were fun overall. (3 out of 5 stars)

Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz: I don’t read a lot of short story collections but I’d heard really rave reviews of this debut author’s work and this didn’t disappoint for me. There are some trigger warnings here for sexual assault, suicide and other sensitive content – so proceed with some caution. But the writing was beautiful and Moniz managed to really envelope you in a world in just a few short pages before moving on to the next story. (5 out of 5 stars)

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller: This book gripped me from the very first page and didn’t let go until the end. There’s been a lot of hype around it, but for me – it totally lived up to the praise. A complicated love and family story that takes place between Manhattan and a family lake house on Cape Cod. It will definitely make my personal top 10 books of the year list. (5 out of 5 stars)

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton: I took this on a girl’s weekend trip and read it in a day by the pool. I really liked Alderton’s portrayal of a woman in her early 30’s that’s at a different place in life than some of her closest friends and is also moving into a new phase in her relationship with her parents. Not to mention a messy love life. This felt in some ways like a modern day Bridget Jones and would make a great holiday gift for a friend. (4.5 out of 5 stars)

Come Fly The World by Julia Cooke: I haven’t read much non-fiction this year, so it was fun to pick this one up for my virtual book club. The book follows the true story of a handful of Pan Am stewardesses in the late 60s-early 70s as well as the history of the airline itself. There were some parts that felt a little boring, but I loved learning about the Vietnam War operations that these young women were a part of as well as some of the frivolous stuff like how their uniforms evolved over the years. (3.5 out of 5 stars)

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge: Well.. they can’t all be winners. I probably wouldn’t have finished this one if it hadn’t been for it being a pick from my New York book club. The story is based on the true life of the first female black doctor in America, during Brooklyn’s reconstruction era. However, the slow pace and the fact that all 3 main characters were seemingly very unlikeable, made it a miss for me. (2.5 out of 5 stars)

The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling: It’s not too late to squeeze in one more ‘fall’ book and since this one will likely only take you a day or so – it’s perfect! Think Practical Magic meets Gilmore Girls. A very fun little witchy romcom of a book that somehow managed to not be cheesy. (4 out of 5 stars)

The Mothers by Brit Bennett: Last year, I read The Vanishing Half – along with seemingly the rest of America. And I liked it. But I loved The Mothers, Bennett’s debut novel. There was something more honest about it to me and yet still beautifully developed. It’s a story of motherhood and love in many forms, set against the backdrop of a small church community in a sleepy California town. (5 out of 5 stars)

Mrs. March by Virginia Feito: It’s a skilled author that can make you want to follow a deeply flawed, unreliable narrator down the rabbit hole. But that’s what Feito manages to do in Mrs. March. A psychological thriller set between Thanksgiving and New Years in NYC, you find yourself losing touch with reality alongside the main character in this one. I really like it but it’s dark.. so have something light to read after. (4 out of 5 stars)

Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann: If you read Paper Palace and think… what’s next? It’s this. I loved the writing, the dynamic, complicated family, the strong sense of place, and the subtle hint at Greek mythology. My book club is reading it this month and I can’t wait to discuss it with the group. (5 out of 5 stars)

Honorable mentions to the two audiobooks I listened to these past couple of months, Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling and Yearbook by Seth Rogan. I love memoirs on audiobooks because the author is the one to narrate – and especially in the case of these two very funny people – you get the benefit of their comedic timing in the pacing of the story. Both were fun and easy listens.

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