I read 51 books last year, beating my goal of 50 by … that’s right … one. I read a lot of good books, and there were a few stinkers. This is my annual post where I recount the best and worst of the year. If you’d like to see them all, you can click right here.
It was the year of two literary giants for me. The first is Wallace Stegner. I’d read his The Big Rock Candy Mountain several years ago and liked it pretty well. Later, I read The Spectator Bird and it was okay. But Angle of Repose kept coming up when I’d search for books similar to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, so I finally went for it. Wow!! I became a Stegner convert. (I’m aware of the controversy surrounding his use of real letters in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.) If I had to choose one book as my best read of 2021, this would be it. It ignited a Stegner fire and I went through numerous other titles from him, with my next favorite being Recapitulation, a sequel to The Big Rock Candy Mountain. It’s not as good as Angle of Repose, but it just so happened it’s about a character returning to his hometown upon the death of his mother and I was listening to it as I did the same. Other Stegner titles read this year include All the Little Live Things, Remembering Laughter, and I’m currently reading Crossing to Safety.
The other giant I discovered is Ivan Doig. I didn’t know it until later, but Doig won a Stegner fellowship, connecting my two big author discoveries for the year. I was reading Doig’s The Whistling Season when 2021 began and I loved it’s mix of history, humor, coming of age, and human drama set in very early 20th century Montana. I next read his last novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, and that’s the one that made me a true devotee of Doig. It was everything you could want in a coming of age road trip novel. I absolutely loved it. After that I read the two sequels to The Whistling Season, Work Song and Sweet Thunder. They were very good, but not as good as those first two.
If I had to choose a second best novel of 2021, it would definitely be Robert R. McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour. I’ve had a copy of this for years and years but hadn’t read it … probably out of jealousy that his werewolf novel came from a major publisher while mine has struggled in the small press. But anyway! This book blew me away. It’s not just a great horror novel. It is a fantastic novel. McCammon does not get the credit he deserves. Imagine if James Bond was a werewolf during World War II. That is what you have here, but without the gadgets. After reading this, I turned to his Hunter in the Woods, which is a collection of shorter stories about the same character and they really filled out some back story and added closure to an aspect of the novel. Then I reread his massive Swan Song and enjoyed it more this time than I did the first time I read it back in the late 1980s.
I read a lot of Western novels again, but nothing that really stood out. There were a few fantasy novels, most notably the third volume of Jonathan French’s Bastards series, The Free Bastards, which I liked a lot, though not as much as the first one. There were several rereads, mostly for school, with The Grapes of Wrath, Beowulf, 1984, Dracula, and Murder on the Orient Express being the main ones.
Other than McCammon, I did read some horror novels. Grady Hendrix is kind of the darling of the genre right now and I read a few of his books. Honestly, they’re pretty forgettable. I also read his Paperbacks from Hell and that one was pretty good, but it’s a non-fiction book about the horror genre. I also read Ray Garton’s Lot Lizards and liked it quite a bit. Bentley Little’s The Haunted didn’t hold my interest at all. And John Steakley’s Vampire$ might be the worst novel I read this year. It certainly made me the maddest.
I mixed in some non-fiction titles. The best was Jimmy Stewart, a biography of the great actor by Michael Munn. But I also really enjoyed Call of the American Wild by Guy Grieve. It’s the story of a British desk jockey who leaves his family for a year to build a cabin and live in the Alaskan wilderness. In that vein, I just gave up on The Way Home by Mark Boyle, which came off as whiney and self-aggrandizing as he left behind all modern technology for a year.
I think that’ll about do it. Click the link above for the full list if you really care. There are a couple of titles showing up twice and I don’t know why, but then I had to listen to Dracula and Beowulf six times this semester and a couple of others four times each in the spring, so … yeah.