The Best Books I Read in 2021
At this time of year, “Best of 2021” lists are everywhere. For books, movies, albums, food, trends – you name it, there’s a list for it. I love making lists, but these are hard for me because “best” is so subjective.
I’ve previously ranted about my displeasure with “best of” awards and lists- it seems more fair to call it them “most popular” lists. And no, those two things do not always mean the same thing.
I finished 212 books this year, a personal best (Thanks COVID)!
I read a lot of great books this year, so it’s hard for me to pick only a few that I think are the best.
I’ve broken down the books I completed into genres, and give you one to three titles from each genre that I found exceptional.
When you’re done reading this post, I’d love your feedback. Do you disagree with my assessment on some of these titles? Do you have a favorite from this year that doesn’t show up here?!
The Best Books I Read in 2021
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth
I read this in January, so the fact that it’s stayed my favorite all year is saying a lot about it! This novel has a lot going on, but if I had to pick one category for this book, I’d have to say gothic horror. It’s a slow burn, the suspense builds beautifully with vivid imagery and lots of scares. But it’s so much more than a creepy novel. Our omniscient narrator takes the reader back and forth between two timelines, both focused around the supposedly cursed Brookhants School for Girls. One setting is the school in 1902, the other is the campus in modern day as it serves as a movie set.
While it’s obviously about creepy goings-on, it’s also a story about sexuality and genre norms, about relationships, love, and family. There’s a lot going on here and the threads are maintained throughout. It’s an entertaining, gorgeous read that covers a ton of ground-there’s something for everyone. I highly recommend it for readers of literary fiction, LGBTQ history, and gothic horror.
Just Like You by Nick Hornby
I absolutely adore unconventional love stories, and this is one of the sweetest I’ve read. But it isn’t a straight forward romance novel, which I appreciate. Here we have an older white woman with a younger black man, in London around the time of the Brexit vote. Yes the novel focuses on a love story, but it shows how a relationship isn’t only about those two people. Lucy and Joseph have family, co-workers, exes, and other potential lovers in their lives that they have to deal with both in relation to each other and separately. This story is ultimately about how we don’t have power over who we are drawn to and love. Overall this is well written, funny, and timely. I like how Hornby incorporated political issues into the background (and sometimes the foreground), it made the story realistic and gave the characters depth. I highly recommend this novel for Hornby fans, as well as readers of romance and literary fiction. I especially recommend the audiobook.
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny
This charming novel hasn’t gotten the buzz it deserves. Jane is a teacher in a small town who falls for Duncan, a local woodworker and handyman. The trouble with a small town is that everyone knows everyone else’s business, and Duncan has had “business” with many of the women in the town. Jane feels like their relationship includes more than just the two of them! This is a book about how love can take many forms. The writing is very witty, and the story will keep you thoroughly engaged. I highly recommend it for just about any reader.
Marriage and Murder by Penny Reid
Well hot damn! If all cozy mysteries were this sexy, I’d read a lot more of them! I absolutely loved this book in every way. It was a comfort to return to Green Valley and the Winston family. This book is much more solid mystery than the first in the series. I was shocked by several twists in the story and laughed out loud plenty of times. This is also a very steamy book for a murder mystery! I appreciate how Penny shows that her characters struggle with real life situations like feeling guilty for being horny while in a state of grieving. Her characters and her stories perfectly capture the messiness of real life. I recommend this one for readers of romance as well as cozy mysteries, but it’s important to start with the Winston Brothers series first.
The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth
This was my second Sally Hepworth novel and I liked it for many of the same reasons I enjoyed The Mother-in-Law. They’re both mystery/thrillers with a complex emotional story. This story focuses on the relationship between twin sisters Rose and Fern. There are all sorts of complicated dynamics between them and their mother, lots of secrets and twists throughout the years. The writing is strong and the characters are deep and complex. The unique storyline kept me interested from start to finish. It’s a wonderful emotional roller coaster of a read and I highly recommend it.
Verity by Colleen Hoover
Colleen Hoover writes such utterly bingeable books. Once I picked this one up, I couldn’t put it down. I knew going in to expect mind blowing twists and it definitely delivered. I was able to predict parts of it but not everything!Lowen is a broke, struggling writer who is offered the opportunity of a lifetime, to finish a series of best-selling books because the author is now too ill to do so. She agrees and finds herself staying in a creepy house, swept up in the family’s drama. I loved the fast pace of the novel. I could feel Lowen’s desperation and anxiety about her situation. I was alternating between wanting her to get the f- out of there and then wanting her to stay so I’d learn what was going on!While this isn’t Hoover’s typical sweet emotional journey, it still has some romantic elements and sexy times. Though I appreciate that she can write such a wide range of content. I highly recommend this one for readers of psychological thrillers.
Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne
I’m a semi-professional book reviewer and I have a hard time finding the words for how perfect this book is! Ruthie is 25 and she’s been working and living on site at a retirement community for six years. She prefers the company of the residents to people her own age. Teddy is a rebellious tattoo artist who just so happens to be the son of the owner of the company who just bought the retirement village. He’s Ruthie’s temporary new neighbor, oh and by the way he’s totally gorgeous and immediately smitten with Ruthie. This is a story about finding your own identity separate from your family’s expectations, and creating a chosen family. It’s also about recovering from childhood trauma and learning you are worthy of love. All the side characters are fantastic and the scenery is gorgeous, plus there’s some great humor. I highly recommend this one for readers of romance.
Xeni by Rebekah Weatherspoon
This book embodies every single thing I love about the romance genre! 1. It’s cute and sweet. I savor those happy endings. 2. It’s VERY steamy. I especially appreciate all the varying ways Xeni and Mason have sex! They’re honest, open, and respectful of each other’s desires and that was so sexy! 3. It’s got some heaviness. I like when a romance novel can have lightness yet tackles heavy subjects. Here we have loss, grief, family secrets and infighting.
4. It’s funny. The characters engage in wonderfully witty banter, which I always enjoy. Plus there are some straight up funny moments. Besides hitting all my must-haves, this book is gloriously positive and diverse all around. Even though the characters deal with some serious stuff, it never gets bleak. I also appreciate the variety of characters in regard to race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Xeni is a bisexual Black woman and Mason is a bisexual plus-size white man. It was such a fantastic change of pace from the majority of the romances I’ve read. I highly recommend this one.
The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren
This is a charming romance with a compelling premise. I read it in a single day, I couldn’t put it down! Jess is a single mom who hasn’t ever dated seriously. Her best friend talks her into submitting a sample for a new matchmaking company that uses DNA samples to make matches. River is a founder of the company, so when he gets a match in the system, it’s a huge deal. I absolutely loved this concept of matching based on DNA. It made the story interesting because it was something neither character had control over. The writing is sharp and hilarious. I highly recommend this one for readers of romance.
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
This one’s labeled as a thriller though it reads like literary fiction. This is the compelling story of a young Native woman who is determined to make a difference in her community. There definitely is a mystery component and a lot of suspense, I listened to the audiobook and it made for a truly engaging listening experience. This is ultimately a coming of age story about family and traditions. Daunis is a bio-racial young woman who struggles to fit in with her two different “selves.”The writing is beautiful and powerful. It’s easy to forget this is a young adult novel because it’s so intense and the subject matter is heavy. I highly recommend it for readers of literary fiction, mysteries, and Native American stories.
Oh this is a heart wrencher! The book starts with Evie getting rid of her beloved romance novel collection. This is the perfect representation of how she feels about love now that her parents are divorcing. She has become a new Evie, less hopeful, more cynical and sad. She feels like everything she knew about life and love is a lie.
So when she meets X, even though he seems perfect she’s determined not to fall in love. Evie and X are wonderful characters. They both have dealt with loss and have taken different approaches to life after. This is a story about moving forward through grief, and how this process looks different for everyone. It’s also about family, friendships, and self love. I highly recommend it for YA readers but also those who enjoy general romance and magical realism.
What Doesn’t Kill You by Tessa Miller
This is an important, powerful book, though it isn’t an easy read at times. It’s one of the most complete and honest illness memoirs I’ve read. It’s only part memoir, the other component is a guidebook for those living with a chronic illness. Tessa beautifully weaves her own narrative with anecdotes and facts about the health care system. She covers everything from racial and sexual discrimination in medicine to how to tell your boss you are ill to how to have boundaries with your family and everything in between. Tessa’s writing is raw and honest, bordering on crude but in the most necessary way. She is transparent and vulnerable with her reader when it comes to sharing the intimate details of her life with Chron’s Disease and before. She addresses heavy topics with dark humor. She covers not only her physical health but mental health, romantic relationships, family dynamics, death and grief. I highly recommend it for readers of memoir and those looking for support and guidance in regard to chronic illness.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
This is a powerful memoir written by a sexual assault victim. During the very public trial, she was known as Emily Doe and in this book, Chanel forces the reader to know not only her name but her identity beyond that of a victim. I avoided this book for a long time because I thought it would be too heavy and emotional. Now I’m regretting not reading it sooner because it’s incredibly well written and ultimately has a positive tone. Chanel takes us into what the daily life is like for a victim of sexual assault, from the moment she wakes up after the assault all the way through the trial and sentencing of her abuser. I thought I knew what victims went through but I truly had no idea. This book should serve as a wake up call to the justice system and victims advocates. It also begs us as a society to place blame where it deserves, on the rapists and their behavior, and no where else. I highly recommend this book for all humans!
This Book Will Make You Kinder: An Empathy Handbook by Henry James Garrett
This is a very meta look at kindness and asks questions such as why are we kind and why aren’t we kinder, then digs to find out the answers. As an empath who considers myself to be a kind person, I spent the first third of the book wondering if it was for me. I understand empathy, I feel other people’s emotions, I like to think I’m a very compassionate human. But once I hit about 40% in, I was thinking “oh shit, I make a lot of these mistakes and I CAN be kinder.” The core of the book is that we are kind because of empathy and we aren’t kinder because of limits to our empathy. The author explores what sets those limits and how we can avoid making those mistakes, some of which are societal and rammed down our throats. Every human should read this book. Especially if you already think you’re kind. It made me see the world in a whole new way.
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
I was expecting this book to be dense with science facts. Instead, it reads more like a memoir. The book chronicles the author’s interest in and experience with octopuses and what she learns along the way. Her time visiting the Boston Aquarium not only teaches her about aquatic life, it also connects her with other interesting, passionate humans who all care deeply about the creatures in their care. Montgomery’s writing is engaging and her love for octopuses comes through loud and clear. I learned a ton from this book and I enjoyed following along on her journeys.I highly recommend this one for readers of non-fiction science books as well as memoir.
Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano
By far one of the most entertaining listening experiences I’ve ever had! Finlay Donovan is a stressed out single mom and a novelist who isn’t going to be able to meet her deadline. While having lunch with her agent, she’s overheard discussing the plot of her next murder mystery and mistaken for a contract killer. The story is darkly hilarious. The writing is sharp and funny and unique. Angela Dawe’s narration takes the writing to the next level. She voices all the characters to perfection. I loved everything about this audiobook and can’t recommend it enough.
The Storyteller by Dave Grohl
This was everything I’d hoped it would be and then some! I listened the the audiobook read by Dave Grohl and it was pure joy. The man is one hell of a writer and storyteller, it felt like listening to a friend share tales from his life. Dave intertwines stories from his youth with ones from his life as a rockstar, and jumps right into exciting stuff from the beginning. His passion for music and gratitude for the life he’s led are clear in every chapter. He’s open, honest, and humble throughout. I laughed out loud many times and was moved by his discussion of Kurt Cobain, along with other important people in his life, some of whom he’s lost. I highly recommend this for Grohl fans, readers of music memoirs, and audiobook listeners.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
This book was a wonderful surprise. It reminds me of the works of Aimee Bender and Kevin Wilson, the story is quirky and uncomfortable at times. The humor is dry and high quality, and the premise is truly thought provoking. We hear the story though the voice of our protagonist/narrator, Keiko Furukura. As a child, she never fit in with her peers or felt understood by her family. At age 18, she starts working at a convenience story and this is where she learns how to be a person in the world. She doesn’t necessarily come to understand the world, but she learns how to act and what to expect from other people. Ginny Tapley Takemon’s narration was spot on. She gave Keiko humor and intelligence. I don’t know if reading a print copy would have been as fun of an experience. I was surprised by how much this book resonated with me, being that it’s Japanese. The writing felt simple and repetitive at times, though I suspect that’s related to translation. This is a story about neurodiversity, as well as societal expectations, particularly on women. It seems silly at times but it’s actually quite deep once you think about it. I highly recommend this for readers of literary fiction and audiobook listeners.