In 2021, I completed 123 books, a personal record that I still can’t wrap my mind around completely. Throughout the year I encountered new favorites and disappointments. I learned that book recommendations from TikTok are… not great. I fell in love with new genres, new writers, and old favorites. I blew the dust off of some books that had been on my shelf for years and fell into the worlds that had been waiting for me all that time. I bought more books than I read, obviously, and helped friends discover their own love of reading. Through it all, I always had a book by my side.
Here are my favorite books that I read in 2021, across six categories.
Best of the year
Station Eleven / Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is both my favorite literary fiction novel of the year, and my overall favorite book that I read in 2021. A story of survival and resilience in the midst of a global pandemic, this story manages to find something unique in its post-apocalyptic world: hope.
Sula / Toni Morrison
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sula, a novel that sits between two of Toni Morrison’s best-known works, but Sula deserves to be held in the same esteem. Morrison expertly holds her cards to her chest throughout the novel, finally revealing the story’s purpose in the concluding chapter. Mesmerizing.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies / Deesha Philyaw
I often struggle with short stories, but Deesha Philyaw’s collection makes it easy to be immersed. Across the six stories in this collection, Philyaw focuses on the inner (and outer) lives of Black women and sets herself up well if she ever wants to expand any of these stories into a full-length novel.
The Mothers / Brit Bennett
Ah, Brit Bennett, it was great to read your writing once again this year. The Vanishing Half was my favorite read of 2020, and her debut The Mothers was very close to the top this year. The lives and loves of Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey made for compelling melodrama, and Bennett examines the lifelong impact of the choices we make in our youth. Stunning, and one of my favorite concluding chapters of the year.
Fantasy + science fiction
Best of the year
The Greenbone Saga / Fonda Lee
Even though Station Eleven was my favorite read of the year, in my mind 2021 will always be the year of the Green Bone Saga for me. The epic of the Kaul family, and their struggle to maintain power on the island of Kekan set the standard for what I want in fantasy/sci-fi: action, politics, twists, and a fully realized world.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January / Alix E. Harrow
I love good portal fantasy, the idea of stepping through a door into another world has always appealed to me. Harrow’s novel was a lovely surprise, and provided a welcome escape from my own world, even if just for a short time. Also
The Golem and the Jinni / Helene Wecker
After starting and stopping this book numerous times over the years, I brought Wecker’s historical fantasy with me on a holiday trip to visit family, and a full day of flying proved to be the right conditions to be immersed by Wecker’s gorgeous fairy tale. A transportive novel, perfect for non-fantasy readers.
The Dead Djinn Universe / P. Djèlí Clark
P. Djèlí Clark’s name isn’t that challenging to say, but it is difficult to type, which I did a lot of this year. I finished five works by Clark this year, many of them ending up on my monthly wrap-ups. His Dead Djinn Universe was one of my favorite escapes this year, with the full-length novel A Master of Djinn delivering on the promise of his shorter works.
Horror + thriller
Best of the year
My Heart is a Chainsaw / Stephen Graham Jones
Brutal, dense, cerebral, terrifying. Stephen Graham Jones has written my favorite horror novel in each of the past two years, with his latest, My Heart is a Chainsaw, taking the spot this year. Hardly an escapist read, Jones demands a lot of the reader with this book, but the deliberate pacing of the first 2/3rds pays off in spades with the bloody finale.
Slewfoot / Brom
I didn’t have the best luck with witchy books this past October, but Brom’s Slewfoot saved the day right at the end of the month. A modern take on the Puritan witch hunts, Brom’s story builds towards a genuinely thrilling conclusion that provides a satisfying payoff.
The Book of Accidents / Chuck Wendig
Long live big messy horror novels! Chuck Wendig channels the spirit of 1980s Stephen King for his novel about a family confronting otherworldly evil in their small town, and mixes family melodrama with chills and thrills like the best of King.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke / Eric LaRocca
Two women begin an innocent correspondence over email that soon turns into something much darker. Wherever you think this short novel is going, you’re completely wrong. Unbelievable, disturbing, and certainly not for the faint of heart, and still one of the most thrilling and inventive things I’ve read all year.
Memoir + biography
Best of the year
The Wreckage of My Presence / Casey Wilson
I was the exact audience this collection of personal essays was aimed at, being a longtime fan of Casey Wilson’s work, but I still found so much grace in her debut. Her background in comedy ensures that there are plenty of laughs to go around, but it was the moments where she explores grief, depression, and her relationship to her body that made me love this collection. Long live Casey Rose Wilson!
Hola Papi / John Paul Brammer
John Paul Brammer is a writer I’ve followed for years, with his hilarious advice column “Hola Papi” providing plenty of laughs and genuine insights at its numerous online homes. His debut essay collection is as good as expected, empathetic, funny, and brimming with warmth.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes / Caitlin Doughty
We will all die, and Caitlin Doughty is a professional when it comes to that. In this memoir/cultural history, Doughty sheds light on one of the true universal experiences, and it will completely change the way you think about the bureaucracy of the death industry. It’s also very funny.
Memorial Drive / Natasha Trethewey
I love when a poet writes in other formats, and Natasha Trethewey’s memoir about her mother’s life and death features the exquisite prose you would expect from a poet. A reconsideration and reconstruction of her relationship with her mother, this short memoir is an absolute stunner.
Middle grade + young adult
Best of the year
At the Edge of the Universe / Shaun David Hutchinson
Shaun David Hutchinson is a master of utilizing high-concept, universe-spanning plots to tell quiet stories of teenage life, and this is my favorite of his works. This novel gives me hope for what Young Adult novels can do, and what they can be.
Scary Stories for Young Foxes/ Christian McKay Heidicker
I had a lot of fun with this middle-grade novel, which is both a straightforward adventure story and an examination of how folklore is developed within cultures (okay, probably more an adventure story, but thinking outside the box is encouraged!)
Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World / Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Sequels are tricky and can be a scary proposition for a reader. Ari and Dante’s first story had a perfect ending, so I was understandably nervous to start the sequel. Thankfully, Alire Sáenz did not disappoint, and his love for his characters overflows throughout this new story.
Six Crimson Cranes / Elizabeth Lim
First of all: that cover. The story inside is quite good too, and this fairy tale retelling has magic, vivid imagery, and a central character that you can’t help but cheer for. Young Adult fantasy has become a bit of a hellscape in recent years, so it’s always nice to find an entertaining and well-written story.
Best of the year
Say Nothing / Patrick Radden Keefe
The intricate nature of The Troubles makes it nearly impossible to write a history of the long conflict. Radden Keefe pulls it off, exploring all sides and illustrating how sometimes history is just the things we make ourselves believe.
Missing from the Village / Justin Ling
True crime is at its best when it uses crime to explain larger societal factors, and Ling’s reporting of a serial killer targeting members of Toronto’s queer community pulls back to reveal the failures of the social and political structures within that city.
The Warmth of Other Suns / Isabel Wilkerson
This is the only reread on this list, but it more than earns its place. If I had to choose one book that every American should read to understand our country, it would be Wilkerson’s book. A mammoth achievement.
How the Word is Passed / Clint Smith
Very often, history and collective memory is not fact, and that’s the case with much of what we teach ourselves about slavery in the United States. Clint Smith tackles these discrepancies and helps create a fuller picture of how slavery still reverberates through our daily lives.
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