Jayne’s Best of 2021 List
From space aliens in the form of a cat or a unicorn, to Aussie prisoners, to a Chinese princess, to a 1920s down on her financial luck heroine, to hero determined to save his childhood love or another ready to deck some halls with Christmas cheer, my reading was all over the place this year. Here are my A grade books from this year and a few from previous years that would have made my list if I’d read them then.
The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison by Meredith Jaffe
Can a wedding dress save a bunch of hardened crims? The Full Monty meets Orange is the New Black in a poignantly comic story about a men’s prison sewing circle.
Then something wonderful happens. Things come together in quiet but believable ways. Some old hurts are avenged, others are soothed, a lovely wedding takes place, and a few truths come out. No, not everything is perfect. Derek is still in prison to serve out the rest of his sentence but he’s a bit more self aware. The idea of prison for redemption rather than just punishment is shown as a reality for some even if they know they’re never going to be released. The stitchers all give something of themselves – even if just encouragement and opinions – to getting the dress finished and they help create a thing of beauty out of the darkness of what brought them to be where they are. The book isn’t dark or depressing – well, most of it isn’t, it treats the frailties of the characters with compassion and understanding, and the final scene had me laughing and shedding a tear or two myself. A
NOTE– Unfortunately we in the US are still waiting on a digital release for this book.
Invasion of the Unicorns by David Biedrzycki
He’s just a cute little unicorn who wants to take over the world.
If your child loves unicorns they will adore the illustrations here and parents will laugh and enjoy watching Agent Bubble07 fall just as much in love with his little girl as she does with him. I smiled the whole way through reading it. A
Anthony and the Gargoyle by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrated by Maja Kastelic
A boy befriends a baby gargoyle in this magical wordless story in graphic-novel style from award-winning creators Jo Ellen Bogart and Maja Kastelic.
The illustrations are fantastic and “tell” the story without any words at all. Yet, I totally understood actions, emotions, and intentions. Start looking early for glimpses of the friendly, little gargoyle peeking out. Read the story once to discover what happens then go back and soak up all the details and “feels.” I will quibble a bit and say that very young readers may need a little help with the transitions in the story – perhaps pointing out key details in the pictures. But this is a book I feel can be enjoyed by children and adults. I know that I did. A-
Auspicious Animals by Jun’ichi Uchiyama
The world of mythical creatures born from human imagination.
Scrolls, paintings, wood items, textiles, chests, and even the rock walls of a burial tomb – the images range from late 7th- early 8th century through to the late nineteenth century. Parts of some images are enlarged and or isolated to show more detail. I found this to be an Asian art lover’s dream book. As of right now, it’s only listed as a paperback book but given the spread of some images across two pages, I have my doubts that digital copies would do the photography and images justice. It is well worth spending time soaking up and marveling at the creative abilities of the artists. A-
Happy Cats by Catherine Amari and Anouk Han, illustrated by Emi Lenox
Cat lovers will purr for this paws-itively charming picture book—a celebration of felines and their many moods
Honestly I can’t think of a cat lover who wouldn’t like this book. The illustrations are fabulous and really do personify – felinify? – the fantastic rhymes. I read it through several times when I got access to the arc as well as each time since then that I’ve looked at it. And cat lovers and cat servants (come on, we all know we are) have seen at least one if not many of these various types of felines. I know I’ve lived with several book cats! This is another delightful read aloud book as well as a great introduction to adjectives for new readers. A
A Bright Young Thing by Brianne Moore
In early 1930s England, a young firebrand finds herself on a fraught and dangerous road to independence.
In 1931 England, Astra Davies defies all the conventions. Clever, witty, and determined, Astra smokes, drinks, plays a mean piano, and gallivants around London with her beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. But Astra finds herself in a tight spot when her parents die suddenly, leaving her with a raft of debts. With few marketable skills and a closet full of family secrets, Astra has two choices: find a rich husband or make her own way.
I was impressed that Astra devises her own plan for how to save herself – and others who depend on her and the business. There’s no Big Moment when she pulls a financial rabbit out of a hat and then all worries are over. Post war Britain had changed forever and the world wide depression only added to the upheaval. Astra has to be smart and daring and finally willing to face her past and accept that she must let some things go in order to have a chance to secure her future. I delighted in one character who gives Astra a boost in confidence although sad as she related her own thwarted academic hopes of days gone by.
Several period events and situations are cleverly worked into the narrative with a light hand reminding me that the Great Depression wasn’t the only thing happening in the 30s. Astra grows as a person and, thinking about this, she decides that in spite of all the emotional blows she suffers and struggles she has to overcome, she’s glad of this and of the person she’s become. She likes being competent and respected. She can also deliver a verbal comeuppance that makes her enemy’s eyes water. When she and her Earl are sure there’s such a lovely proposal scene that I won’t spoil for those who decide to read the book. It’s truly scrumptious. A-
Kuan Yin by Maya van der Meer, illustrated by Wen Hsu
Two sisters discover the power of love and the true meaning of compassion in this princess-adventure story based on an ancient Chinese tale.
I’ll be honest and admit that it was the gorgeous cover that made me want to read this book. But while reading it, I learned the Chinese origin story of Kuan Yin who chose another path than traditional marriage, endured trials on her way to enlightenment, and who gave up leaving for the divine realms vowing to stay and help free all sentient beings from suffering. The illustrations are just magnificent, based on artwork of the Tang Dynasty. I think the story can help children learn the value of treating everyone with kindness, compassion, and love. A
Leonard (My Life as a Cat) by Carlie Sorosiak
He’s not a stray house cat, he’s an immortal being. And now he must choose whether to return to his planet or remain with his new human friend in a humorous, heart-tugging story
As the month winds down and time grows short, I inhaled the last 100 pages of the story. How was it going to end? Would Leonard make it? Half of me wanted him to and half of me kept saying, “but … but … Olive … and Leonard loves her and she loves him but if he misses his pick-up he’ll be stuck and eventually die … but how can he leave …” Well, I was satisfied with the result. And despite all the gimmes, I still love the story enough to give it an A- for the feels and the tears and the smiles. It’s charming, it’s humorous, it’s winsome, and heartwarming.
I have been thinking lately about the idea of soul mates—identifying
your soul in another. How we may not be made of the same
materials, of fur and air, but we can recognize each other across a
crowded room. When we catch each other’s glance, our souls will
say, *Yes, I know you, and Yes, this feels like home.* I understand
what it feels like now, to know a place. To give yourself up to gravity.
To rescue someone—just as much as they rescue you.
Saving Meg: A Regency Romance Novella by Jayne Davis
A soldier returns to keep a promise—but it will prove more difficult than he imagined.
Jon wasn’t going to give up and along the way he met some wonderful, salt of the earth, types willing to lend him a hand. Meanwhile, I (along with the Rymer’s man Farlow) grinned at all the strange and odd things that occured to delay Rupert and Meg reaching the church. It’s sweet, it’s charming, it’s filled with great characters (and NO Dukes!) and (huzzah!) Jon, an ostler, and Meg make sure to rub down Boadicea and give her lots of oats – poor sweet girl. I love characters who take care of the animals. A-
The Geek Who Saved Christmas by Annabeth Albert
His grumpy neighbor needs some holiday sunshine…
The final conflict is naturally derived from things that have shaped each man to be who he is. If this has always led to that then it makes sense that you’d default to what you expect based on what has usually happened. There were no “out of the blue, where did this reaction come from” moments. That was such a relief. And yay for hidden depths for both MCs. Gideon isn’t always Mr. Cheerful while Paul’s pricklyness hides deep feelings for those he loves. Paul sees that Gideon hides some insecurities while Gideon will fight for Paul’s right to be sentimental. When they begin to change – just a bit – it’s not only for the other man but for themselves as well. Oh and there’s a darling Bernese Mountain dog named Jim and a cat named Butterscotch who isn’t all that people think he is. And… and …Paul can make the most romantic gestures using only thermal coveralls and work boots. This one just made me feel all happy inside. A-
And now some A grade books from previous years that I read in 2021 and just couldn’t bear not to mention.
Season of Us by Pamela Sanderson
Shelly Paige has never been one to take risks. Even less so since the loss of her husband. She’s content to stay in the town she grew up in, surrounded by the safety of family. A lost dog leads her to a handsome young athlete and the possibility of new adventures. Can she put the past behind her and take a chance on love again?
The introduction of Zach into Shelly’s family life also felt real. Emotions get tangled, feelings must be worked out, and yes, there is pain. Then something happens for Zach professionally which could upend everything. How will they work this out if it even can be worked out? I liked that we see the good as well as the messy sides of all this. Life isn’t smooth sailing and there will be missteps. Just wanting something very badly doesn’t mean that it will work out. Both partners must be on board and willing to give and take. Sometimes a leap of faith along with love might do the trick. Hurrah that I felt both Shelly and Zach think this out and put their hearts into it. The resolution didn’t come from nowhere – all the information, clues, and means to move forward are provided along the way. And even though I think Zach is going to go all out with his proposal – much to Shelly’s dismay, I’m mentally cheering him on and am so happy for them. A-
Crooked Heart: A Novel by Lissa Evans
Paper Moon meets the Blitz in this original black comedy, set in World War II England, chronicling an unlikely alliance between a small time con artist and a young orphan evacuee.
Some of the characters might indeed have crooked hearts but a few of them also have good hearts. Through them we see the daily grind and struggle that most working class people face but with a war ladled on top of that. Vee comes to realize some things about the people she’s tried to take care of but also about herself. Noel discovers that Vee might not be like his beloved Mattie but that she is also someone who comes to care about him, let him be himself, and about whom he begins to care. I found myself cheering for these two misfits who often act in unloveable ways. It’s a tightly plotted story that sparkles with wicked, comic relief and which burrowed its way into my heart yet was never treacly. I couldnt wait for what Vee and Noel got up to next. A-
A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas by Jackie Lau
Greg Wong hates when things don’t go according to plan, so he definitely doesn’t appreciate it when his mother insists he drive Tasha Edwards back to Mosquito Bay for the Christmas holidays.
I’m ready to accept this couple being apart for fifteen years (both moving on and dating) yet discovering and rekindling their relationship over the course of about three days. They did love each other then, separated for realistic reasons (your first love can’t be your last love, right?) but nothing happened between them that was shitty or assholic. They like what they see in each other now including the extra twenty pounds, the bit of gray hair, and the experience in life the other has had. Maybe they needed this time apart to be ready to accept that maybe first love can be forever love. And they’re so darn cute together and fit together so well. I inhaled this remarkably angst free novella and enjoyed it immensely. Give it a chance and discover what happens with
And if anyone can give me a hint about Ah Yeh’s famous noodles and how to make them, I’d love it. Geeze, I’m going to weigh two hundred pounds before I get through this series. A-
What a great list, Jayne. So many of these titles are in my TBR or wishlist because of your reviews. You were absolutely right about SEASON OF US, now I just need time to read and investigate the rest.
@Darlynne: Thanks. I’m always a little surprised when I start compiling my Best of list and always look forward to reading everyone else’s.
What a fun list, @Jayne; thanks for sharing! I read Leonard (My Life as a Cat) after reading your review, so thank you again for that. I have several other titles on my ever-growing wishlist.
@Jayne, have you read Lissa Evans’ V for Victory yet?
Your review sold me on Season on Us and now that Darlynne has also chimed in I am really looking forward to it.
Crooked Heart sounds terrific. How did I miss your review? I hope it’s not too pricey.
Argh! There doesn’t seem to be a kindle edition.
@LML: Yes. It just missed making the list with a B+ grade. Still it was a good follow up to “Crooked Heart.”
@Janine: Do you mean for “Crooked Heart”? There is a Kindle edition and it’s also available to read on Hoopla.
@Jayne, oops. I remember (today after seeing your link) that I decided to read V for Victory first and then your review. Is that weird? I enjoyed Crooked Heart so much, the author’s other book so little, that I wanted to avoid preconceptions of V for Victory.
@LML: Did you read it yet?
Alas, no. I’m waiting for e-book price reduction.
@Jayne: Thanks. I see it now but yesterday it wouldn’t show a price for me. $8.99 is high—I’ll look for it at my library. Good to know that it’s on Hoopla.
OK, so I ordered “Saving Meg” from Book Depository and put “A Bright Young Thing” on hold at the library. It’s not as if my TBR mountain weren’t high enough already, and if I made New Year’s resolutions one of them would certainly be to reduce that inventory before adding anything else to it, but I found your recommendations hard to resist. Not to mention I just may have to buy “Invasion of the Unicorns” for the little girls on my gift list.
Not the same other than nearly identical titles, but “Crooked Heart” made me think of Patricia Gaffney’s “Crooked Hearts”. At least I’ve already read that and still have my copy, so no additional trees were harmed.
@Susan/DC: I keep saying the same thing – gotta whittle my books and TBR list down before I add any more. Yeah, that hasn’t worked so well for me. But I’m trying to use the library more, too, (love my local library!), and save more trees. I hope you enjoy all of these – and Agent Bubble07 is adorable.
I got halfway through Season of Us before regretfully abandoning it. I always like the older woman, younger man dynamic and in this book also I loved the fact that Zach isn’t a high profile superstar athlete, just good enough to play professionally. It was the writing that did for me; I thought it was clunky and pedestrian, with lots of irrelevant detail and not enough style to make the romantic moments sing. It was a shame as I was looking forward to it from a few good reviews.
@oceanjasper: From the feedback I’ve got, it seems that readers either enjoy it or don’t with little in-between. Sorry it didn’t work for you.