Twelve Months of Reading

Seattle Book Mama’s Favorite Books for 2021

So many books to choose from! This is the cream of my collection of five star books for this year. So many of these crosses into multiple genres that it makes no sense to break them into categories. Whether you crave mystery, historical fiction, military fiction, suspense, humor, Southern fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction, history, or just a fantastic read, I’ve got you covered. What better way to wrap up 2021?

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, by Deepa Anaparra

In India, children keep disappearing; but as is so often true, a missing child from a poor family doesn’t excite a great deal of interest on the part of authorities. But never fear; Jai has been watching Police Patrol, so although he’s just nine years old, he can take care of this business. He’s already got a key advantage over the government and its police force: Jai actually cares.

I read this novel free and early, though my review is disgracefully late. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House. This book is for sale now.

Anaparra immerses us in the culture of urban India and incorporates two aspects of social justice that cry out to be recognized. By using the voices of children, she tells the story naturally and without preaching. Hundreds of children disappear daily in India. Daily. That’s a lot of milk cartons. Most of these children are never found. So when Jai’s classmate goes missing, there’s consternation, because everyone knows how unlikely it is that he’ll be brought home. There’s discussion among the adults. The boy’s mother wants to hound the authorities, not let up until they find her son; but the neighbors don’t want her to do it, because everyone knows that when you irritate the police, bulldozers will appear and demolish everyone’s house. So if their neighborhood is razed without warning, they figure it will be her fault.


So kids, we’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s a sobering wakeup call, looking at life from the viewpoint of the lower castes of India.

Jai is just nine, though, and when you’re nine, all things are possible. He is sure he can find his friend, if he can just afford the train fare to get further into the city, where his pal was last seen. His family never has much money, but his mother keeps what spare change she has in a kitchen pot, and as it adds up, it is reserved for emergencies—such as bulldozers. She knows that they could lose everything in a heartbeat, and she does what little she can to mitigate such a disaster. And bless his heart, little Jai sneaks into the kitchen and steals his mother’s bug-out fund so that he can take the Purple Line into town to play detective. He figures he can pay her back when he collects the reward money.

This story is a meal. There are a lot of unfamiliar terms, and they aren’t explained to us. We have to figure them out through context. This keeps the plot from bogging down, and that’s good, because it’s not moving terribly fast to begin with. But for those that like a nice whodunit to read as they drowse off to sleep in the evening, this isn’t that book. This is literature. Don’t try to absorb it after you’ve had a few beers or taken your sleeping pill. You need your full brain.

The other social justice topic, secondary to the missing children yet also important, is that of how India treats its girls and women, and once again, those in the lower castes are slammed by poverty and class bias as well as sexism. Jai’s sister Didi is gifted academically and athletically. She holds far more promise than her squirrely little brother, who is just your average kid, but her needs are always subordinate to his. Didi wants to run track and go to university, but her parents want her home, watching over Jai while they’re at work. They’re afraid (and not needlessly) that he’ll get into trouble. They are so concerned about what might happen to their darling boy that they don’t think twice about Didi. She’s sick of being leered at by the horny old men that sell vegetables, and she’s sick of the contemptuous gazes of shop women. And now, she, the star of the track team, must miss a critical meet so she can babysit:

“It was as if she existed solely to care for her brother, and the house. Afterward, she would similarly look after her husband, her hands smelling of cow-dung cakes. Her own dreams were inconsequential. It seemed to her that no one could see the ambition that thrummed in her; no one imagined her becoming someone.”

I used a combination of the digital galley on my Kindle and the audio book I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons to get through this book. Sometimes I used them simultaneously. The voice actors have Indian accents that add authenticity; at the same time, I sometimes missed that we had shifted from a male character’s inner narrative to that of a female, and I became confused and had to go back. Again, this story is not for wusses. And yet, it’s worth it. It’s a helluva debut, and if you’ve read this whole review, you’re the type of person that can get through this book, and I recommend it to you. You won’t find anything else like it.

Follow Me, by Kathleen Barber****

Audrey Miller moves from New York City to Washington, D.C. to take a position at the Smithsonian. She weaves her many Instagram followers into her professional life, with mixed results that sometimes get a little creepy. She runs into an old friend that’s now an attorney; an old lover; and a skeezy upstairs neighbor that has a key to her apartment. Oh—and she also has a stalker.

Thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy, and Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version. This book is for sale now.

I signed on to read and review this book because I was looking for some escapist fun, and that’s just what this is.

The story is told from three first person viewpoints, performed by three different readers on the audio version, which makes it easy to keep up with. In addition to Audrey, we hear from Kat, her old friend from college, and we hear from the stalker, whose chapters are playfully titled “Him.” Throughout the story, our prime focus is to figure out which of the several men that weave in and out of the narrative is the stalker. There are plenty of red herrings, and I was fooled more than once.

In looking back, two aspects make this story stand out: one is the terrific yet terrible museum exhibit that oddly mirrors Audrey’s life; and the voice of the stalker, which—if you hear the audio version, which is what I recommend, having tried it both ways—warbles wonderfully, making the listener feel he’s about to completely lose his shit at any given moment.

While not great literature, this kitschy tale is wonderfully distracting and easy to follow. I recommend it for those that need to take a break from their responsibilities and just wallow.

The Paragon Hotel, by Lyndsay Faye***-****

I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Putnam Penguin, and what’s more, I got it a long time ago. I have struggled with this book and still haven’t read all of it, but I’ve spent enough time on it that I feel equipped to write about it, or at least the part I’ve read.

The story is of a Caucasian woman traveling incognito, on the run from the law during Prohibition. She’s got a bullet wound and is in a bad way when the Negro Pullman porter takes pity on her and drags her home to the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon. But the hotel is for Negroes (the correct term during this time period,) and she isn’t entirely welcome; she looks as if she might draw trouble fast.

There are a hundred reasons I should have loved this book, and I’m still struggling to decide why I don’t. The former: I grew up in Portland and earned half of my history degree there. Portland history is a particular love of mine, and I’ve long been bemused at the way present day Boomers remain so smugly oblivious to the ugly racist history of the city. The Ku Klux Klan once had a chapter in the basement of a Methodist church in Sellwood, a neighborhood in Southeast Portland; I lived less than a mile from that church at one point. Furthermore, I have not found one inaccuracy in Faye’s setting. She’s brought it in like a champ.

Civil rights is another of my passions; I found nothing to object to in the way Faye handles this aspect of the story.

Yet for some reason, I cannot engage with this thing, and furthermore I cannot even stand to listen to all of it. There’s something about the author’s writerly voice that just grates on me. I have tried reading, and I have tried listening to the audio version, which often works for me when reading has failed. Nope. I can’t stand this book. In particular, the dialogue irritates the heck out of me.

If I were to give star ratings on my visceral reaction to this book, I’d probably give two stars. I can’t do that though, because it would be enormously unfair. I cannot pan a book without a specific reason, and so help me, I can’t find one. I think this is just an unusual individual reaction to a stylized, artistically rendered storyteller; and so this is what has held me back from reviewing. At first, I was convinced that with enough discipline, I could finish it; then when I realized that was never going to happen, I couldn’t figure out what rating to use, or what to say. I always have a good reason and a careful analysis, and this time both have eluded me. I am so confused!

If the things I have mentioned—civil rights, Portland, history during the Prohibition era—are in your wheelhouse, you may love this book. It seems just about everyone else does. If in doubt, read an excerpt, or get a copy free or cheap.

Go figure.

Best General Fiction: Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman

Best Romance 2019: The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood

Best Feminist Fiction 2019: Call Your Daughter Home, by Deb Spera

Best History 2019: Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe
Honorable Mention: Sea People

Best Literary Fiction 2019: Inland, by Tea Obreht


Best Southern Fiction 2019: Heaven, My Home, by Attica Locke