December 31, 2021

My Best Books Picks for 2021

by Jennifer Kane

My Best Books Picks for 2021

I read 125 books in 2021. The best of the lot are summarized below and my Goodreads reviews for each can be found here. To be clear, not all of these books came out in 2021. Some are older and some, (like my Netgalley reads) won’t be published until 2022. This is just the year when I read them. Hopefully you’ll find a book below that connects with you and inspires your 2022 reading list–even if that’s just to read a single book. If none of these ideas do it for you, check out my 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 or 2015 lists. 

Best Memoir

For a good celeb memoir, check out The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl. While Grohl makes the artistic choice not to delve too deeply into the painful parts of his past, this book is still an enjoyable read about an all-around talented, big-hearted, likable guy who’s had an amazing life. I also was moved by Smile: The Story of a Face by Sarah Ruhl about a playwright that develops Bell’s palsy after childbirth. I knew very little about that condition before reading this touching and beautifully-written memoir. Runner up: Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey, about a daughter’s reckoning with the murder of her mother.  

Best YA (Young Adult)

 I read some amazing YA this year in all sorts of genres, (nearly all featured a strong female lead.) First off, I enjoyed the thriller The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould, which has a Stephen King, The Outsider vibe. I also really liked The Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, a (soon to be on Netflix) YA mystery/thriller about a young Native girl who goes undercover to investigate a drug ring that is destroying the lives of the people of her tribe. Runner up: If you’re looking for YA Romance, check out Instructions for Dancing the latest book by Nicola Yoon, who has written a number of strong YA titles. 

Best Horror

I didn’t have much luck finding a true horror title this year, so I’m giving this spot to two thrillers who had very creepy scenes in them. The first is The Resting Place by Camilla Sten (translation by Alexandra Fleming) who also wrote last year’s horror pick on my list, The Lost Village. Place has a bunch of creepy elements–people trapped in an abandoned old house, a possible killer on the loose, and our hero who has prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize people’s faces. In the thriller, Such a Pretty Smile by Kristi DeMeester the serial killer isn’t a real person, but something that lives inside people’s heads, which makes for some spooky moments. This is a weird book, and for me, it didn’t quite stick the landing, but it did give me some chills. 

Best Series

This year I read the A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas. Is this series great literature? Nope. Is it a fun, fantasy adventure with cool, hot fairies? You Bet. Here’s the skinny… First, these are not YA, (there’s quite a bit of fairy sex in the later books). The first book, A Court of Thorns and Roses is pretty good. The second, A Court of Mist and and Fury is even better. The third, A Court of Wings and Ruin is not quite as good, but does a nice job of wrapping up the adventure. The fourth A Court of Frost and Starlight is the equivalent of a lame Christmas special (skip it). The fifth, A Court of Silver Flames is a continuation of the story focusing on different characters. (Unfortunately, you kind of need to have read the earlier books to fully understand what’s happening.) Anyway I read them all like candy. If you need some candy in your life, check ’em out. 

Best Non-Fiction

I’ll be honest, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is a loooong read. Thankfully though, the author is a great storyteller and the book is chock full of enlightening information you’ve likely never heard before. I’m glad I tackled it. It’s probably the best “Intro to Racism for Well-Meaning White Folks” book that I’ve read thus far.  Runners up: I also enjoyed The Day The World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander Newfoundland (the basis for the musical Come From Away) about a small town where hundreds of planes landed on 9/11, as well as The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by the incomparable John Green. Green has such a big, beautiful brain, it was fun to see him run wild with it in this book. 

Best Historical Fiction

I like historical fiction because it gives me deeper insights on the parts of history with which I may be totally unfamiliar. This year, I learned more about the Dust Bowl through The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. To be honest, this bestseller is relentlessly depressing. However, it does give you an up close and personal view of an important moment in history. Reading it, you can almost taste the dust in your mouth. I also enjoyed The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes about women who served as librarians on horseback in the mountains of Kentucky during the depression. Lastly, I was entranced by the beautiful Beasts of the Little Land by Juhea Kim, an epic story that takes place in Korea leading up to, and following, WW2.

Best Dystopian

I have two favorites in this category. First up, Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill, which takes place during a robot uprising where the only robots on humanity’s side are “nanny bots” — sentient robots inside stuffed animals. (Imagine a Teddy Ruxpin, carrying weapons and protecting your toddler’s life.) It’s a cool idea. I dug it. If you prefer your sentient robots to be more introspective, check out Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I also loved The Violence by Delilah S. Dawson, (which will be released Feb, 2022). It’s not quite dystopian, but that feels like the best category for this list. In spite of the title, this is a beautiful story about a family living with domestic abuse in a post-Covid world, who have a chance to heal when a new pandemic hits that causes people to erupt in violence. Yep, it’s got quite a bit of killing in it, (duh) but it’s also surprisingly full of love. 

Best Literary Fiction

I read a number of amazing literary fiction books this year. As with last year, I think my favorites are a three-way tie. The best were Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, (speculative fiction about a pivotal moment in Shakespeare’s life) The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, (a book that goes in such unexpected directions I’m scared to even give a summary. Let’s just say, it’s not simply about racism in the office) and the luminous, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, (which I was expecting to be a Daisy Jones and Six version of an Elizabeth Taylor-esque life, but ended up being so much more.) Note: I also read Reid’s Malibu Rising this year and liked that too. Hugo though, touched my heart.

Best Romance

My favorite romance this year was One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, which has a great time-travel premise and a lovable cast of characters that jump off the page. I also was intrigued by Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, which appeared on a lot of 2021 best book lists. (Fed has a romance at its center, but is not generally classified as “romance.”) Interestingly, most of the romances I enjoyed this year featured same sex couples, so I’ll throw in a recommendation for the hetero crowd too. I enjoyed The Hating Game by Sally Thorne but, (as is my issue with most hetero romances) I didn’t dig the, “does he love me or does he want to hurt me?” power dynamic at the beginning. 

Best Sci-Fi

I tend to read both the kind of Sci-Fi that takes place in outer space as well as what some call “future fiction”–where we’re clearly in a future society with new technology, but still on Earth. Regarding the former, I really liked two books, starting with Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. Mary starts out with The Martian vibes, but ultimately becomes something altogether different and even more charming. I also loved the book, Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves by Meg Long that takes place on a Hoth-like ice planet that hosts an annual equivalent of a sled race with hybrid wolves (a story about a girl and her dog? YES, PLEASE). On the future fiction side, I enjoyed The Insecure Mind of Sergei Kraev by Eric Silberstein, a book that begins when something goes very wrong with everyone’s neural implants, and then backs up to tell the story of why it happened.

Best Fantasy

I enjoyed the fabulous debut, Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao, which some have described as “Handmaid’s Tale meets Pacific Rim. Yes, I am aware that sounds like a ridiculous mash-up, but I found the book thrilling and fun. It broke a number of common tropes in this genre like featuring a hero who is disabled and an actual love triangle–where the girl loves two boys…who also happen to love each other. I also liked The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna about a nearly immortal group of girls whose blood runs with gold. Both books appear to be the beginning of a fantasy series. I look forward to reading book #2 in both.  

Best Thriller

I read a lot of thrillers, and after awhile they all tend to blend together. So if I can remember a book’s plot at the year’s end, it makes this list. This year, two books hit that mark. The first is Come With Me by Ronald Malfi, in which a widower chases down the serial killer that his wife had been trying to track before she died.  I also dug When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole which is aptly described as “Rear Window meets Get Out.” I’ve never read a thriller quite like this one. Runners up: A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins and Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney–authors I historically enjoy. Both of these books were good, but perhaps not quite as strong as their respective authors’ earlier works. 

Best Stephen King

I read two Stephen King books this year. According to reviews, I was suppose to like Billy Summers more. And don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy it a lot. Billy had great characters and a plot that rumbled along like a well-oiled machine. I just found the final quarter to be a little repetitive. So ultimately I’m giving this spot to Later, which was overall a more enjoyable read. Later started off feeling a little like a Sixth Sense ripoff, (a fact which King wisely calls all out in the story a few times) but quickly becomes it’s own thing. It’s a fast, fun, spooky book that’s a nice throwback to King stories of old.

Best Self Help

I wasn’t in love with most of the self-help I read this year, but the one that seemed most helpful was Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) by Eve Rodsky. I like how Rodsky’s brain works. She lays out a very thorough game plan for dealing with inequities in domestic partnerships. This book is rooted pretty firmly in gender norms, (traditional roles men and women tend to play) and is probably best suited to families with children, but the ideas proposed were solid and her methodology, well thought-out. It sparked a few good conversations in our household. 

Best Humor

I don’t think Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh is quite as amazing as her first book Hyperbole and a Half. However, I ended up reading it the day we put our senior dog to sleep and it gave me a cathartic laugh/cry for which I’ll be forever grateful. For me, it was the right book at the right time. I also enjoyed Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson. Like Solutions, this isn’t perhaps Lawson’s best book, but it’s still charming, sad, hopeful, and fierce.  Both of these books are funny because the women who wrote them are funny. Those women also sometimes draw that humor from a deep well of pain. So I’m always wary of classifying their books as strictly “humor.” If you have an excess of empathy like I do, they may end up hurting your heart a little too. 

Best Makeover

The thing I like most about my annual book post is that I get to make the categories! I’m doing that for this last book, about a woman who is a hoarder and the people she meets who offer her a chance to change.   This is a quirky, sad, and ultimately hopeful book–less about hoarding than it is about love. When I first read this book by Eleanor Ray, it was called The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton and had a pretty ugly cover. It looks like it might have gotten a makeover because the hardcover is now called Everything is Beautiful. No matter what the title or cover it’s a hidden gem, a touching story that might appeal to those who enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine


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