We have finally waved goodbye to 2021. After filling in 365 pages, a fresh set of 365 days has been provided to us. With the conclusion of a year is the commencement of a new one. 2021 was filled with uncertainties as the pandemic continued to wreak havoc across all parts of the world. The vaccination drive kicked off as well but the threat of the Omicron variant is about to reverse all the gains made. Nevertheless, hope still springs eternal despite the uncertainties that shroud the future.
Staying true to what has become my annual tradition, I am kicking off the new year by looking back to the previous year, its hits, and of course, its mishits. It is also an opportunity to take a glimpse of how the coming year is going to shape up. This book wrap-up is a part of a mini-series that will feature the following:
- 2021 Top Ten Not-So Favorite Reads
- 2021 Top Ten Favorite Books
- 2021 Book Wrap Up
- 2021 20 Most Memorable Book Quotes (Part I)
- 2021 20 Most Memorable Book Quotes (Part II)
- 2021 New Favorite Authors
- 2022 Books I Look Forward To List
- 2022 Top 22 Reading List
In 2021, I was able to complete reading 92 books, from 91 different authors. There are several works that stood out but there were also some that failed to meet my expectations. There were some that failed to capture my interest and there were some that just disappointed me. This disappointment can be due to different reasons. I guess this is to be expected due to the fact that I can be a mood reader and my reading mood swings like a pendulum. There are, however, a lot of factors that need to be considered when a book fails to capture my attention. In this 2021 bookish wrap-up, I am listing the ten books I read in the previous year that are not my favorites.
My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee
It was in early 2021 that I learned that Chang-Rae Lee was publishing new work. I was really looking forward to it since it has been almost half a decade since I last read one of his works; I enjoyed both A Gesture Life and Native Speaker. What also made me look forward to Lee’s newest novel, My Year Abroad, was because I thought it was brimming with adventure, a novel about traveling. I was partially correct for indeed, the main character, Tiller, finds himself in uncharted territories. I was really excited when I was able to acquire a copy of the book without much fuss. However, this excitement immediately turned into disappointment when I started reading the story. It felt very ordinary. Yes, the writing was accessible but it came across more like an attempt to appeal to younger readers rather than an attempt to tell a story. It lacked the nuances that made me appreciate his earlier works.
Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
The movie adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List is loved by many. It is a moving story about a real-life hero who helped save hundreds of Jews during one of the darkest moments of humanity. It was for this reason that I acquired a copy of the book. The book also has a lofty resume as it won the prestigious Booker Prize. There was so much to look forward to in the book. Yes, yes. I know. To include it in this list is an abomination. It after all contains an important story and an important message. I agree, but only until that point. I found the execution of the story a little too uneven. I kept wondering whether it was a work of fiction or nonfiction. The fictionalized version of Oskar Schindler’s story did not work. What came across was a strange mix of fiction and historical textbook.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
Another book that seemed to contain an important historical message is Julia Alvarez’s How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. It was my first novel by Julia Alvarez whose novel, Afterlife, was included in my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To List. The nucleus of the story is the four Garcia sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia – and how they navigated the sea of change after their family migrated to the United States following the ascent of Trujillo in their native Dominican Republic. The characters also had to grapple with history and memory. However, as much as I was intrigued by the premise and its promise, I was undone by the lack of cohesion in the narrative. The novel felt like disjointed pieces hastily woven together to come up with a novel. It also didn’t allow for deeper study of the primary characters, thus, they came off as mundane, shallow even.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Perhaps the biggest reading disappointment I had in 2021 was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. When I learned, late in 2020, that he was releasing his first work since winning the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, I was really excited. With the variety of his works, Ishiguro has earned a fan in me. Klara and the Sun, however, was not what I was expecting from him. At the onset, the premise seemed interesting, promising even, as it was about artificial intelligence (AI). It cannot be denied that AI will play a crucial role in the future. The way Ishiguro explored the subject, however, was cringy at parts. I can vividly recall the waterfall scene between Klara and Josie’s mother. Not only was it predictable, but it was also cringe-inducing. My biggest misgiving, however, was the writing. It wasn’t the Ishiguro prose that I knew and admired. I found the writing puerile at best. It was a disappointing experience.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
If there was an award for the most WTF moments in 2021, it would certainly be awarded to Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings. Murata recently gained global attention with her novel, The Convenience Store Woman and while I also have a copy of the book, I decided to read Earthlings first. It certainly was an experience! I understand the importance of the message that was obscured by the story Natsuki. Her story, especially her struggles to be accepted by her family and by society in general, is one that many can relate to. It is about gaining autonomy of one’s body, a subject that can be difficult to deal with. I understand the weight of the book’s message. However, what really shocked me were the graphic details and images that Murata conjured. It made me question their necessity in the overall frame of the story. It was excessive.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
It has been three years since I read one of Ernest Hemingway’s novels. It was mainly for this reason that I included The Sun Also Rises in my 2021 Beat the Backlist challenge. But I also have one more reason for this. I was hoping to erase the disappointment I had with For Whom The Bell Tolls. The Sun Also Rises, I learned, was Hemingway’s debut novel, making it all the more interesting. The novel’s main protagonist was Jake Barnes. He was an expatriate working as a journalist in Paris. He found himself entangled with Lady Brett Ashley, a provocative divorcée. Thankfully, The Sun Also Rises was an easier read compared to For Whom the Bell Tolls. The story was meant to erode the idea that the “Lost Generation” was decadent and self-indulgent. What came across was an aimless story.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Another Booker Prize-winning book on the list! Can one be faulted for wanting to delve into award-winning works? I guess not. HAHA. The fact the book won the prestigious literary award was the book’s biggest appeal when I bought it. I didn’t have any iota on what it was about or who the author was but hey, it won the Booker Prize! The story was actually interesting. It involved Bonbon, the son of an unorthodox social scientist. It was about his journey of restoring his hometown of Dickens after it was removed from the map. It was a work of satire and it did have its moments under the sun. However, I had a challenge trying to decipher who Bonbon was. He barely made sense to me, as did most of the characters. I also found the satire a little heavy-handed.
The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
Unlike most works in this list, I really enjoyed Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, at the start. The story did start very well, with Shafak introducing an eclectic mix of characters. She also regaled me with the details of the tumultuous history between Turkey and Armenia, with the focus on the Armenian Genocide that took place from the late 19th to the early 20th century. Interestingly, the time I was reading the novel, US President Joe Biden finally recognized the genocide. The book was built on serious historical context and I easily found myself drawn into the story! So what went wrong? Well, I found the conclusion a little safe. It undid the strong message that Shafak built from the start of the novel. Somehow I understand but I still felt that it was lacking.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
One of the books longlisted in the 2020 Booker Prize that I was really looking forward to was Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. I barely had any iota on what the book was about or who Taylor was (the novel was his literary debut) but the book really captured my interest. I was more intrigued after it was shortlisted for the award. I also learned that he became friends with C Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, while they were studying at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Real Life drew elements from Taylor’s own experiences. However, the story took time to unfold, and even when it did, it already lost my interest. The characters were mostly unlikeable but what weighed down on me was how the major concerns were addressed. It was still an interesting campus novel that flourished with Taylor’s descriptive prose.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
When I included Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful in my 2021 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To List, I didn’t know that it was a retelling. Opening the first pages, I felt it was familiar, especially when the novel’s primary narrator and protagonist, Jordan Baker, met Dais Buchanan. That was when I reached a Eureka moment. The book is a retelling of the popular and timeless classic, The Great Gatsby! I was really excited to find out how Vo will add her own flavor to the original story. In the end, I found myself disappointed. It felt like I was watching the movie all over again. Vo was too loyal to the original transcript and the change in perspective did not, at all, alter the story. There were some interesting elements, such as Jordan’s provenance but it was, sadly, underexplored in exchange for the focus on the Gatsby-Buchanan love story.
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
Like Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan has earned my admiration over the years. I like his brand of realism, how he makes the quotidian sound interesting. I was banking on this when I included Enduring Love in my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. Enduring Love explored an unusual topic, one that any reader rarely encounters in literature. One of the characters suffers from de Clerambault’s syndrome. He believed that the book’s main narrator was in love with him just after a brief glance. Again, the premise was interesting. However, the execution was predictable. Actually, the structure reminded me of another McEwan novel, Saturday. Saturday I liked, Enduring Love not that much. I was hoping that McEwan would explore de Clerambault’s syndrome more. Not only did the story end up predictable, it ended like any normal story out there.
Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
I know, there are supposed to be ten books on this list. However, I am making an exception because Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman certainly needs to make this list. Initially, I was really excited when I learned about the publication of a second Lee novel. I adored her first novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, a classic that nearly everyone loves. What I failed to check when I bought Go Set A Watchman was the controversy that hounded its publication. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a chance. Sure, the story was easy to read. We meet an adult Finch as she journeys back to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, for her annual visit to her father Atticus. What left me reeling was the fact that Go Set A Watchman undid many of the notions that its predecessor established. I can now understand why many readers said that Go Set A Watchman is a separate book and not a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird.
And that concludes my 2021 list. How about you fellow readers, what books fell below your expectations? Or just disappointed you? Do share in the comment box.