My Favorite Books of 2021 So Far
On June 30th, I finished my 100th book of the year. Since that was also the halfway mark of this year, I figured it’s a good time to give you a rundown of my favorites so far.
I broke it down by genre to give you a feel for how much I read from each, and to make it easier for you to find what you’re looking for.
My Favorite Books of 2021 So Far
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth
This was my second book of 2021 and I’m still raving about it. 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. It’s a complex novel done in the classic gothic horror style. That’s not to say this is a scary book. 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.
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.
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny
This is a charming novel that 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.
Marriage and Murder by Penny Reid
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 solidly a 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 sexy 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 series for readers of cozy mysteries and romance. You must at least start with Beard Science before you tackle the mysteries.
Housewife Chronicles by Jennifer Snow
The word that comes to mind to describe this novel is JUICY. It’s a gripping story about a group of housewives who band together when one of them is faced with a crisis. I loved the women in this story, each is strong in their own way. The story is part mystery, part family drama, part romance. The writing is full of emotion and dark humor. It made for a quick, easy, enjoyable read.
The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth
This is 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.
This is a tough category. I read 48 romance novels in the first half of the year. To only pick a top three was impossible!
The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan
Naomi is a retired porn star who gets talked into teaching a seminar on modern intimacy at a Jewish synagogue by a handsome rabbi. If that isn’t the most brilliant plot for a romance novel, I don’t know what is! I’m beyond impressed that novels with characters who are sex workers are mainstream! Danan’s writing is clever and concise. She gets straight to the point with compassion, humor, and plenty of steam. The sex positivity in this book is wonderful. The tension between the two main love interests builds in an incredibly sexy yet tender way. I loved everything about this story and highly recommend it for readers of romance, though I suggest you read The Roommate first.
The Ex-Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon
What a smart sexy book! The writing is strong and funny, the characters are diverse and realistic. At first, I didn’t like that Shay and Dominic’s show was built on a lie. However, I’ve learned that sometimes with romance novels (and other genres too) I have to suspend my disbelief fully to get the most out of the story and that was the case here. Plus, it’s important to me to know that neither of them was fully comfortable being dishonest and there were consequences of lying. As a public radio listener, I truly enjoyed the setting of this novel. I appreciate that Shay and Dominic were both chasing their passions, and were committed to making a difference in people’s lives through their show. The chemistry between the two of them was hot and fun to watch as things developed between them!
The Love Square by Laura Jane Williams
This is a romance novel that highlights everything I love about the genre. It tackles heavy subjects like grief, cancer, and infertility while including hope and humor. Our protagonist Penny has had a rough go on the dating scene. Then she meets a series of incredible men who all bring something different to her life. Ultimately this story is about Penny’s journey to dig into what SHE wants wants from life, and how to find happiness internally. The humor is top notch, and I like the unique plot point of multiple romantic interests.
Always Only You by Chloe Liese
*Book two in the Bergman Brothers series.* Everything about this novel surprised me! We have an autistic heroine who also suffers from chronic pain. Her love interest is a male hockey player who secretly loves Shakespeare. I appreciate how both characters defy stereotypes and show that people of all abilities deserve to love and be loved. I prefer romance novels with some heaviness and it’s here for sure. This story shows how messy life can be, and how it’s worth it to work through the tough parts. It’s also shows that often we are standing in our own way of happiness and don’t realize it until someone calls us on our BS. We have to believe we are worthy of love before we can accept it from someone else, whether that’s romantically or platonically.
Playing the Palace by Paul Rudnick
Be warned, this book is FUNNY. Like, snort laughing out loud hilarious! Carter is a fabulous protagonist and all I wanted for him the whole time was for him to get his shit together and let himself believe he was deserving of being loved and happy. Prince Edgar is the first ever openly gay royalty and it’s a big deal. He struggles with all the expectations thrust upon him by society and tradition and the desire to please his family. He also needs to learn that he’s worthy of being loved for who he is as a person and not on the surface. It’s a fun emotional rollercoaster of a read. It’s generally hopeful and positive, with powerful messages about self love and coming into your own despite others’ expectations.
Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne
This book is absolutely perfect! Our heroine 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.
What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness – Lessons from a Body in Revolt 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.
The Guild of the Infant Savior by Megan Galbraith
I bought this book because the format is similar to what I’m working on for my own memoir, it’s narrative interspersed with photos. The author’s story is very different from my own, she was adopted as a baby, but I’m surprised by how much I still relate to my search for my family history. Her own story is told in between anecdotes about the history of adoption in the US as well as specific programs and facilities that existed in the past for unwed mothers and babies up for adoption.
Group: How one therapist and a circle of strangers changed my life by Christie Tate
While I enjoy memoir, rarely do I come across one where I feel like I can’t put it down, like I did with this one! This is the author’s personal account of her years in group therapy. The writing is blunt, bordering on crude at times and it absolutely works for the story. Christie is honest and vulnerable in sharing her experiences with the reader with the goal of eradicating shame. Overall this is a stunning memoir in terms of what it says and accomplishes. The whole point is that we humans are wired for connection. We cannot achieve intimacy with others until we release our shame and are willing to be seen for who we really are. Christie found this in her group members and that is such a gift. It takes a lot of work to be seen and trust the seers aren’t going to bail on you.
I read four non-fiction books that aren’t memoir and the other three weren’t too remarkable.
Signs: The Secret Language of the Universe by Laura Lynne Jackson
This was actually a re-read for me because it resonated with me so strongly the first time and I need some positivity and inspiration! Pandemic life has been hard on me, along with extra personal challenges I’ve faced at the same time. I knew this book would deliver the reminders I needed that we are all connected and I am not alone. The writing is overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. Jackson uses straightforward language to best explain her beliefs and give guidance. She shows those who are ready how to not only remain open to signs from The Other Side, but to live a life that is based in love, not fear.
Young Adult Fiction
American Royals by Katharine McGee
This is a fairly long book, though it never felt like it and I didn’t want it to end! It’s so juicy, dramatic, and emotional. It’s the first alternate history novel I’ve read and I wasn’t sure I’d like it. I ended up thoroughly enjoying this look at what our country might be like if things had gone differently way back at the start. I liked the glimpses into what royals likely face in terms of expectations. I loved Beatrice, she’s such a strong young woman who is in an impossible position of being the next in line for the throne, which will make her the first ever Queen of America. While the writing isn’t particularly strong, the storytelling and world building are stellar. This is a unique story that makes for a fun read that tackles serious subjects.
Runaway Train by Lee Matthew Goldberg
This book made me feel so many things! It took me right back to my adolescence. Nico’s older sister died suddenly from a brain aneurism in 1993. She believes this to be a hereditary trait and fears the same may happen to her in a year’s time. So she runs away from home with her Bucket List in hand, in pursuit of as many life experiences as she can have. In the afterward, the author explains this novel is “a love letter to grunge music” and that came through loud and clear. I was two years younger than Nico at this same time in the 90’s. The music she loves, that’s on every page of this book, shaped my life too and still resonates with me. I loved having that shared experience with her.
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
I generally don’t care for prequels so I had my expectations fairly low for this one and was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved this story. Angie writes a male protagonist so well. Maverick is a complicated character with a hard life and good intentions. I love characters who represent real life like that. When he learns he is about to become a young father, he realizes his life is going to be drastically different and he needs to make changes in his gang lifestyle. Angie’s writing is phenomenal in every way, though when I finished I was left wanting more. Dion Graham’s narration is realistic and emotional, he brings Maverick to life in a way that would be impossible reading the physical book.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
My therapist suggested I read this in regard to my current issues with anxiety and trying to be prepared for every possible scenario that might come up. Keeping that in mind, I suspect I interpreted it in a way I wouldn’t have if I’d just picked it up randomly at a different time in my life. I listened to the audiobook which featured multiple narrators. I doubt I would have understood it as well or enjoyed it as much if I’d read the print version. It’s abstract and repetitive but that’s what makes it good, that’s part of what makes it funny and poignant.
Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosmiano
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.
What are your favorite reads from the first half of this year?