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Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2021

It's the Winter Solstice. 


And that means . . . it's time for me to share my Top Five reads of fall with you. Each quarter, right around the solstice or equinox, I think back on the books I read during the previous 3 months, and I choose my top five. 

Here goes: My Top Five from this fall (the link listed for each book will take you to a published review of the book):


I'm starting out here with a bang . . . I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins. It's . . . kinda weird. But really, really good. It's autofiction (y'know . . . fiction, but with a heavy dose of autobiography/memoir), and reading autofiction can be a real mindf*ck, for me at least. I think, down deep, I prefer my fiction to be fictional, and my memoir to be autobiographical. I like either genre, but when the lines blur between the two, my head kind of explodes a little bit. So this book caused me a bit of consternation at first. I was much better off when I stopped trying to analyze what was real/not real in this book . . . and just allowed myself to enjoy the rideBecause how much of this book is Claire Vaye Watkins' actual life (a lot of it) and how much is “fiction” she conjures (who knows) really doesn’t matter. And it IS quite a ride. The book is brilliant. It’s uncomfortable, for sure. It’s witty and funny and tender and painful. It’s Art with a Capital A . . . and it won’t be for everyone. Bottom line, this is a sharply written story about grief and family and figuring out how to BE. (But also a mindf*ck, so be warned.)


Next up, I've got Louise Erdrich's newest novel, The Sentence. Now . . . I've read pretty much every book Louise Erdrich has ever written, and I've loved every single one. It's really hard to go wrong with a Louise Erdrich novel. This one, though? Might be my favorite. When I first heard about it - that it was a "pandemic story" set in 2020 -- I was a little worried. Was it too soon, maybe? Would it date itself right out of the gates? I needn't have worried! Louise Erdrich is a master, and The Sentence is brilliant -- clever and well-written and . . . tight. It’s fresh and current and absolutely engaging. Who but Louise Erdrich could pull together ghosts, love, Indigenous identity, incarceration, relationships, and a celebration of books and reading . . . all playing out against the backdrop of 2020 . . . and have it work?! Because, seriously. It works. (There is a lot of talk about books in this book, with book recommendations to last for years. At first, I was keeping a list - but then I figured out there is a reference list at the end of the book. Bonus.) (And if you read the audio version, there is a downloadable PDF file with the reference list included, so be sure to look for that in your audio download.)


I've already blogged about this one - Still Life by Sarah Winman - so I'm sure it's no surprise that it made my Top Five list for fall. As I explained in my earlier post, Still Life is a wonder. It’s engaging and fresh and a little bit magical. The characters are delightful - and almost without exception, they feel like . . . friends, like the best kind of family. It's a talk-y book, and the dialog is clever, snappy, sometimes funny and sometimes deep. And it's mainly set in picture-perfect Florence, which provides a stunning backdrop. There is art and poetry, love and loyalty, kindness and hope -- with just enough introspection to make you sigh now and then. It's a book that makes you feel like you've got a spot at the table . . . with people you love most. It's a book that made me feel good about everything, and it gave me hope. (And who doesn't need some of that right now?) (I refer to this one as the Ted Lasso of books. . . )


Next, I've got Elif Shafak's gorgeous new novel The Island of Missing Trees. Elif Shafak is a brilliant storyteller, and she effortlessly folds her readers into a multi-layered tale of love, loss, identity, and healing. It's both a gentle love story set against the tumultuous backdrop of Cyprus in the mid-1970s AND a modern tale of identity and a longing for roots. Bridging both storylines (the "secret sauce" that binds it all together) is the voice of a wise, all-knowing fig tree. And when that fig tree speaks? Magic happens! Creative, imaginative, lyrical, beautifully written . . . this is one of the best books I’ve read all year.


Then . . . coming in just under the wire . . . I've got Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. I have so recently finished this book (just yesterday!) that I really haven't processed it enough to write a review yet. Let me just say . . . it is good in the same way Franzen's The Corrections was good (I'm a big fan of The Corrections). Set in 1971, Crossroads is an epic deep dive into a middle class family struggling with spirituality and faith, relationships, morality and "goodness," white saviorism, and community-building. Talk about a book where the author really sticks the landing . . . this one is IT. (Oh -- and did I mention it's Part 1 of a 3-part trilogy? I can't wait to read the next installment.)


How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of fall reading?


If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.  And you can read my past Top Five lists by clicking the links below:

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2021

Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2021

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2021

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2019

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2019



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I have The Sentence and Still Life in my queue, and I know I need to read Island of the Missing Trees. I'm not so sure about Darkness and Crossroads, but the only way to find out is to give them a try. I just finished a pandemic diary, What Just Happened by Charles Finch, and it was a tough read. But I'm also almost done with Small Things like These by Claire Keegan and it will definitely make my Top Five of Fall list.


I always enkjoy your reading posts Kym. I am not a huge fan of The Corrections, but I do have Crossroads on my TBR list along with others you mention here. Everyone is raving about The Sentence, so I will give it a try. I'm not a huge Louise Erdrich fan - have not really been able to get into her books, but I want to try again (it has been years since I attempted to read one of her books).


I just picked up Still Life from the library... and I can hardly wait to start it!

I just finished The Lincoln Highway... and I really liked it (despite the ending... what on earth???)

And I am about to start listening to the HRC/Penny book!


Great reading list, Kym. Thank you.

For the fall, top of my list would be Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (link to my review https://www.librarything.com/work/25928355/reviews/209349487)

I agree with you on The Sentence.

And I liked The Lincoln Highway mostly because it was the direct inverse of a Gentleman in Moscow. Instead of being confined, those boys were all over the place. The adventure began on the day the Gentleman in Moscow ended. And Woolly's uncle was a character in Rules of Civility. I like when authors do things like that.

If I were going to recommend a couple of feel good books for these dark times they would be: The One -in-a-Million Boy by Monika Wood and Mel Brooks' new autobiography All About Me!


I have The Sentence right now and I'm already on hold for Still Life. I added the others based on your recommendations but I'll admit I have reservations when it comes to Jonathan Franzen.


Corrections is sitting right beside me and I hope to it will be my first book in January. I haven't read Franzen before but my LBS said he was worth reading. I didn't read your auto-fiction choice but I might since you rated it so highly. Still Life and The Sentence, The Promise, Aftershocks and Open Water would be my top 5 but I have A LOT of honorable mentions!


I went through a long loser streak, but managed to end the year with a couple of 5s...
- Still Life (thank you for your recommended recommendation)
- The Dolphin Letters, edited by Saskia Hamilton (non-fiction)
...and some 4s:
- The Sentence (my first time reading Erdrich)
- Apeirogon, by Colum McCann
- White Fragility, by Robin J DiAngelo (non-fiction)

The Matrix only earned 3-1/2

My top two stinkers? These barely escaped the dreaded DNF, albeit with heavy skimming:
- The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters
- Ladyparts, by Deborah Copaken (non-fiction; if you were intrigued by her essay in The Washington Post, quit while you're ahead. That was the best of it. And the only reason I finished it was because I paid Real Money for it.)

Love these lists, Kym. Thanks.


Thank you Kym for your brilliant selections, I always enjoy reading your blog!


I don't think I have read five books this autumn so not enough to choose a top five. Mine would all be non-fiction as that is all I read these days, I haven't read any fiction for a long time, I think Overstory was the last one I read, early last year. I am currently reading Breath by James Nestor which I know that i will be reading many times more to totally absorb its fascinating content.


I've read some great books this fall, my five favorites are: Still Life, The Sentence, Oh William!, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, and Strange Flowers.


I absolutely agree with you about The Sentence. I absolutely loved it. I listened to the audio, mainly because I wanted to hear the author read it. I'll read it again (with my eyes) later next year for Mary's Erdrich-along, and I'll likely order my copy from the Birchbark Books. I'd say my other favorites from the fall are Bewilderment, The Guncle, and The Sum of Us (or at least those are my five-star reads from the past quarter).

I'm very much looking forward to reading Still Life; it's next on my hold list.


I finally started Still Life last night and can already see (just 50 pages in) what you've noted. and that fig tree in Missing Trees would for sure be my favorite "non-human character" of the year. I also loved The Book of Form and Emptiness and a few of those Aspen Long List titles (finally I got to the good stuff!) - What Storm What Thunder and A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself were both 5-star, better make it to the short list titles for me!


it's Mary again ... as I read my comment, I realized I might have to put the book (from Book of Form and Emptiness) in as a favorite non-human character, and how fun to read both books in the same season ... I don't recall any other books this year that might've competed?!


Great list Kym. I enjoy your book reviews.

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