2020 was rough, but I read so many incredible books that at least I can say something good came of that horrible, exhausting year. 2021, on the other hand, has been weird. I say weird because I’m not entirely sure how else to describe it. I got vaccinated (and you should, too) and for a few months, things shifted into an alternate reality of normal where I could travel again and see my family and friends. Now, we’re back in lockdown hell.
I’m not sure I need to explain the weirdness to you, you experienced 2021, too. As far as reading goes, I still made my 100 books a year goal, just barely. Though I read 100 books as I do every year, the quality of books I read in 2021 just wasn’t as high as I expect.
Since my 2020 favorites list was so successful, I knew I wanted to write a 2021 version. However, unlike last year, sitting down to pick my favorite books of the year was difficult. I still had clear favorites but the quality of reads overall was just meh. I had to really think about the books that made an impact on me instead of being able to bring up a list from the top of my head.
For context, in 2020, I had 37 five-star reads. This year, I had only 20. I know for some who don’t read as much as I do, 20 seems like a lot, and it is! But the 20 books were spread out through the entire year, the rest of my reading falling between 3-4 stars. So I only had a few books I absolutely despised and a few I really loved. The rest were just fine.
For me, a favorite doesn’t necessarily have to be 5 stars, though. A favorite means a book that will stick with me for years to come, that I’ll want to scream about from the rooftops and tell everyone I know to read it immediately. I only had a few of those this year, and I’m listing them here.
Anyway, it’s still an accomplishment that I managed to find any joy at all this year. So let’s celebrate that joy.
As always, there’s a mix of genres and a plethora of diverse characters written by diverse authors. And a few honorable mentions, because even if it was a meh reading year, there were still some other reads that I think everyone should pick up.
My top 10 favorite books of 2021:
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
This is by far my favorite book of the year. A memoir about grief and mother daughter relationships that is both hilarious and so incredibly sad. I related to so much and it had me sobbing throughout.
Michelle Zauner, the lead singer of the band Japanese Breakfast, writes a love story to Korean food, music, and her mother. After her mom passes away, she finds herself often crying at H-Mart, a Korean-American supermarket chain, when she’s picking up ingredients to make her mother’s favorite foods.
The book flows between the past and present of Zauner’s life, and paints a picture of Zauner’s mom, a woman who is far from perfect but who did her best to raise Zauner the only way she knew how.
This is a joyful and sad book about daughterhood and will have you craving Korean Food after every chapter. It’s perfect.
Paralian – Not Just Transgender by Liam Klenk
I have the honor of knowing Liam in real life but even if I didn’t, I would still feel like he was a friend after I finished his memoir.
With each chapter themed after a body of water that shaped his life, Klenk tells the story of growing up in the wrong body and his journey towards transition, love, and acceptance.
This book is such a raw, authentic look into the waves of life, from growing up by the Swabian sea to joining the circus, and I found myself laughing out loud and crying tears of joy.
Though this is the story of a trans man navigating the world, anyone of any gender identity or sexuality can relate to this book. There are so many moments in Liam’s memoir that describe what it’s like to be human and I often find myself thinking about these moments even now.
Please read Paralian! You won’t regret it.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
This book could be best described as a warm cup of coffee on a rainy day, a fuzzy blanket, and a hug. It’s quite literally a hug in book form. I’m kind of surprised that I read this book this year, because I had convinced myself that I read it years ago, which is a testament to how good it was.
We’re introduced to Linus Baker, an up-tight man who lives a quiet and solitary life. However, his work takes him to an orphange filled with children that are far from ordinary – including a green blob named Chauncey whose only dream is to be a bell hop and Lucy, the literal son of Lucifer. These children and their handsome yet mysterious caretaker will prove to be more than Linus bargained for and he learns that maybe a solitary life spent following the rules isn’t a life he wants to live after all.
I would absolutely die for all of these characters, especially Chauncey, who I wish was my son.
If you need escapism ASAP, this is the book for you.
Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
I recommend this book ONLY if you read the trigger warnings first. Because oh lord is this full of triggers, including on page grooming, pedophillia, and sexual abuse.
Grown is inspired by the horrors of the R. Kelly case, which should give you an inclination about how triggering it might be. Instead of R. Kelly, though, we have Korey Fields. Korey is an R&B singer who takes a liking to our protag, Enchanted, a sixteen year old with dreams of becoming a star.
The book begins with Enchanted waking up with blood on her hands and a dead Korey in front of her. She has no memory of what happened. We’re then taken back in time to when Enchanted meets Korey and learn of the horrors before his murder.
Despite the many, MANY trigger warnings, I think this book is extremely important, especially for teenagers to read. As an adult, it’s easy to get frustrated with Enchanted as she falls for Korey’s obvious grooming, but this book could literally save lives. It shows all the signs of grooming and emotional abuse that a teenager may not be aware of or able to pick up on. Jackson does an amazing job of showing how grooming can often disguise itself as romance.
Despite how difficult the themes are, Grown was unputdownable and thus deserves a spot on this list.
The One by John Marrs
All I have to say is: Get. The. Audiobook. It’s incredible.
This book was wild. WILD! I can’t say much without spoiling, but this book follows a group of people who use the genetic-matching service, Match Your DNA, which promises that with one quick mouth swab, you can find your soulmate. Our characters all find out they’ve been matched, and it will change the coarse of their lives forever and sometimes, it will end in blood.
This was an unconventional thriller that had me on the edge of my seat, and it’s nothing like the Netflix show. It’s better. I loved every bloody second of it.
84, Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff
84, Charing Cross Road is delightful epistolary memoir about a life-long love of books. When I first started reading this, I had no idea it was nonfiction because Helen’s voice was so funny and quirky that I didn’t think it could be real. But when I found out it was, I literally squealed (seriously, you can ask Michael) because that made this book all the more charming.
This story begins when Helen writes a letter to a British bookstore called Marks & Co in London. This starts a twenty year correspondance between Helen and her bookseller Frank Doel. They begin to create a friendship that spans across oceans and borders.
This is a very short book but it’s filled with so much heart. Anyone who has a love for books and bookstores should definitely pick this up.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Convenience Store Woman is the story of Keiko Furukura. Keiko has never fit in her entire life until she turns eighteen and gets a job at “Smile Mart”, a japanese convience store. It’s then that her life really starts. Her family and friends can’t understand why she would want waste her life away working in food service, and they don’t get why she won’t get a “real job” and get married already.
Keiko doesn’t understand why her family and friends don’t want to just let her be happy. She can’t be human the way they expect her to. So, they’d never understand that it’s at Smile Mart where she learns to belong.
This is a short but witty book about the people who don’t fit in to the boxes of ordinary society, and it’s both triumphant and sad. I loved every second of this little novel.
Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
A creepy, unsettling sci-fi fairytale about two twins who were seperated at birth and they’re not fully human. Once they find each other, they realize that they have the power to become gods.
It literally took me a year to finish this book. I kept picking it up, setting it down, reading it, and then forgetting everything and having to start over.
The beginning of this story is filled with so much information and it can get a bit confusing. I felt like I really had to be in the mood to read a very science-filled, alchemical story in order to finish. However, once I got into the story and found myself getting comfortable, I could not put it down. For this reason, I would recommend physically reading it instead of opting for the audiobook. I tried to listen to it and if you zone out for even a second, you may be like “Wait, what just happened???”
So, if you’re willing to feel a bit lost and confused for around 20% of this book, I would say it’s completely worth it for the journey this story takes you. Absolutely brilliant. The ending made me breathless. I cannot wait for the sequel.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
A sapphic love story set in McCarthy era San Fransisco? Sign me UP!
This was wonderful and such a bittersweet look into the lives of two girls who love each other, in a time when loving another woman was a radical, dangerous thing.
America in 1954 was not a great time to be queer, especially in Chinatown, where Red Scare paranoia was running rampant. 17-year-old Lily Hu meets Kathleen Miller at school. It’s the first time she’s ever met someone who is like her.
Kathleen takes Lily to the Telegraph Club one night, a lesbian bar. It’s here where Lily discovers an underground world filled with women who are unapologetically themselves. Despite the world working against them and her father’s deportation for being a communist looming, Lily and Kathleen risk everything to allow their love to thrive.
It’s always important to remember that queer people have always been here and this novel encapsulates that so well. I fell in love with all the patrons of the telegraph club. I think you will, too.
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Every year, Michael and I read a Stephen King novel in October for spooky-season. This year we chose Salem’s Lot and oh my god I loved it.
This is modern vampirism at it’s best. If you love vampires and punk horror as much as I do, you should pick this up ASAP.
Also, Netflix’s Midnight Mass is loosely based off this novel. So, if you watched that this October and loved it, you’ll love Salem’s Lot, too.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (a reread…again)
This is the fourth time I’ve read this book in three years. Whoops! It also made it on to last year’s list. I think it’s safe to say this is one of my favorite books.
The HBO Max adaptation just came out (and it’s great), so it’s a good time as any to read it again.
Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune
I described The House in the Cerulean Sea as “like a warm cup of coffee on a rainy day, a fuzzy blanket, and a hug.” I would say the exact same thing about Under The Whispering Door, except I’d swap out coffee for tea and a rainy day to a crisp Fall day, one of the perfect ones where the sun is shining and the leaves are a shock of vibrant oranges and reds.
I’ll also leave you with this:
A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green
I don’t usually like to put sequel’s on favorite lists, which is why this is under honorable mentions. I personally liked this better than the first book. It was so poignant and funny. It discussed many of the themes we deal with on a daily basis, like the affects of social media fame and how computers run the world.
I loved every second.
The Guncle by Steven Rowley
Want to laugh and cry at the same time? Then you’ll love reading Guncle.
As someone with my own Guncle, this really pulled at my heartstrings.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Taylor Jenkins Reid is one of my all time favorite authors. I read Malibu Rising in one day. Though this didn’t have the same impact on my soul as some of her other books, it’s still a favorite.
If you love gossip, old hollywood, and the Beach Boys, you’ll love this book.
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
Concrete Rose is a prequel to The Hate U Give, following Starr’s father when he was a teenager.
I liked THUG more, but I was so happy to be back in this world.
Disfigured by Amanda Leduc
I gave this a bit of a low rating because I felt like it could’ve gone further, but I find myself thinking of it when I watch movies these days. Disfigured is a novel that explores how we percieve disability in fantasy. Often times, the disabled person in fantasy is a villian or evil or “scary”. Leduc, who is disabled herself, talks about the impact this perception had on her own life and makes you think about how even in stories able-bodied people don’t make space for the disabled.
As I mentioned, I wanted Leduc to go further into this analysis, but I would definitely recommend this book as a start for anyone looking to dive deeper into how ableism affects the world and the stories we tell.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the plot of this book because it was literally EVERYWHERE in 2020 and early 2021. I don’t know anyone who wasn’t talking about it. And I have to say, it definitely lived up to the hype.
This was a gorgeously written novel about priviledge and I would highly recommend it.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
A time travel book where you can travel back in time but you have to get back before your coffee gets cold? I was hooked from the start. Points deducted because the cover shows a cat and there was not a single cat in this book 🙁