Last week when I shared the best nonfiction books I read during 2021, I promised that this week I’d share the best works of fiction I read last year.

Before I do so, allow me to impart deep thoughts I’ve developed about annual reading challenges. As I reviewed all the books I read last year, I said to myself, “Self, a reading challenge serves as a good metaphor for a year. When you begin a new year, you have no idea what adventures and challenges await you. When you begin a reading challenge, you have no idea what books await you.”

Unless, of course, you’ve selected every book you’ll read that year in advance. But don’t do that because you’ll upend my metaphor.

Anyway, the best works of fiction I read last year were the first two installments in Swedish writer Fredrik Backman’s Beartown series.

The first book, the aptly-titled Beartown, was published in the United States in 2017. I learned of its existence in 2021 upon my bestie’s recommendation. In Beartown, Backman tells the story of a despairing town, the aptly-titled Beartown, and how the town’s residents have pinned their wishes, hopes, and dreams on the junior hockey league. (There’s also an HBO series based on the book.)

Although I’m a sports fan, I watch hockey only during the Olympics. When the teams ran plays in the book – are they called plays in hockey? – I didn’t understand what was going on. What’s more, I never fully understood the structure of the hockey leagues.

But I understood Backman’s characters. I felt them. I worried about the fate of one character so much that, upon learning the second book had already been published, I told self we would not be reading it. The way I saw it, if said character suffered a tragic fate, he would do so without my knowledge.

But I woke one morning and realized I owed it to that character and the others to see them through to the end. My bestie lent me her copy of book two, Us Against You, and I returned to that despairing town and to its desperate and damaged residents.

At times, I regretted my decision because the story made me sad and/or angry. But as I wrote last week, emotion is good. Besides, at other times, the book made me laugh and smile.

I still worry about that one character, though. With one book to go, I stress over his fate. Backman has released the book in Sweden and, reportedly, it will be published in the U.S. this year.

I hope those reports are true or I’ll be learning Swedish.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.