Ready or not, this year is almost over — which means it’s time for us to round up the best books of 2021! We’ve looked back over the entire year to bring you our picks across thrillers, fantasy, romance, children’s and YA, memoir, and more. Whether you want to laugh, cry, learn, be cozy, or be challenged, there’s something in here for you.
A Lot Like Adiós
This second chance romance is the second in the Primas of Power series, focusing on independent graphic designer Michelle. She’s been on her own since she and her best friend, Gabe, had a huge fight right before he moved away. Thirteen years ago. When Gabe’s suddenly back in town for his gym business, they find themselves working in very tight quarters. It isn’t long before old feelings resurface, and well, they act on those feelings. Gabe and Michelle aren’t together together, even though that’s what everyone assumes. Can they sort out their feelings and resentments before it’s too late?
A Master of Djinn
A Master of Djinn is a brilliant tale full of decadent imagery, descriptions (the food!), and explorations of power and oppression. Set it an alternate Cairo in 1912, where djinn and magical creatures walk among us and Cairo is the center of progress and innovation, it follows the fashionably besuited Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fatma investigates a gruesome murder and the plot quickly thickens. I think about Fatma’s suits and bowler hat at least once a day. This is an adventure of ideals, love, and courage, in a world you’ll want to sink into and stay.
The stories in Afterparties shimmer and surprise. They are full of affection and despair, generational trauma and millennial malaise, cynicism and tenderness. Each story is singular, but contains a universe of human emotion. Mostly set in one California town, the stories feature Cambodian immigrants and first-and-second generation Cambodian Americans, many of them queer, and many of whom survived the Khmer Rouge genocide. I have rarely encountered prose so electric, characters so vividly real, and stories so specific yet so attuned to the weird, harrowing, joyful experience of being human. This book will stay with me forever.
With incredible scholarship and heartfelt attention, Tiya Miles deeply considers an artifact about which little was previously known. In the 1850s, a cloth sack was passed from an enslaved woman named Rose to her daughter Ashley. Later, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered the sack with the story of what Rose packed for Ashley. This masterful investigation pinpoints biographical information about the women and thoughtfully interprets the significance of the sack and its contents. I was so moved by the story, including how Ruth bore witness to and documented her grandmother’s harrowing separation from her mother. A true gem.
Amari and the Night Brothers
This incredible middle-grade novel mixes a Men in Black-style secret supernatural society with a training program for special kids and teens a la Percy Jackson and the X-Men. I haven’t felt magic like this in reading a children’s book since my own elementary school days of discovering the books and series that would change my life forever. This is the kind of book that can turn kids into lifelong readers. It’s that good.
Rani Kelkar has always tried to be the perfect Indian American girl, but she knows that her parents will never approve of Oliver, the boy she’s seeing. As Rani gets more tangled up in Oliver and his life, she realises that he isn’t exactly as he seems. His prejudices about Rani’s culture, religion, and family begin to seep into their relationship, while Rani loses herself to maintain their love. American Betiya is a powerful exploration of young love, toxic relationships, and how interracial relationships can be infected by deeply held prejudices. Rajurkar doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but navigates them deftly, and with nuance.
Arsenic and Adobo
I love this book so much that I wrote about it for Book Riot’s Best of 2021 So Far. It deserves to be included in the best books for 2021. It’s got everything you need – murder, food, and more. Lila Macapagal returns home to Shady Pines to help out at her family’s Filipino restaurant after a failed relationship. But when her high school ex-boyfriend/food critic falls face first into their food and dies at the restaurant, the police suspect her and her family. I can’t wait to read the sequel, Homicide and Halo-Halo, coming out next year.
Best Laid Plans
Six months after reading Best Laid Plans, the element of the small town romance that stays with me most is the way Roan Parrish builds this love story on patience and kindness. The 1 Corinthians passage “Love is patient, love is kind,” is a cliché at this point, but there’s no better way to describe the way Charlie, deeply responsible and lacking experience with intimacy, and Rye, lost and let down by everyone but his cat, slowly and gently build their relationship. Parrish manages to tell the story in a way that illustrates the risk each of these characters is taking, but also leaves no doubt that the love these two men share is worth it.
Boys Run the Riot
One of the best things about today’s booming North American manga market is that we can enjoy titles that never would have been released in English a decade ago. A prime example? Keito Gaku’s story about a transgender teen’s lived experience in contemporary Japan. An unlikely friendship forms between protagonist Ryo, who has no one to confide in about his struggles, and new kid Jin, who’s not the bully everyone assumes him to be. Their common interest? Street fashion! Sympathetic and real, this is a title that belongs in every collection and that every manga fan should check out.
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
Linguist and general badass Amanda Montell dives deep into the language of cults — from Scientology to SoulCycle — in the incredible Cultish. It covers how people get sucked into extreme groups, and how leaders manage such “brainwashing.” It all comes down to the language used, be it to entice new members or isolate them from the outside world. This type of language goes far beyond your typical image of a cult, though; social media and multi-level marketing and boutique gyms are cults all their own. If you like learning about cults and/or language and/or LuLaRoe, you need to get your hands on this book.
Dial A for Aunties
Sutanto’s comic thriller-romance is the most fun I’d had with a book in ages. In it, Sutanto’s protagonist accidentally kills her blind date and, at a loss, turns to her Chinese-Indonesian aunties for guidance. They’re more than up for the challenge, even while they’re also prepping for the biggest wedding they’ve ever worked before. Thus kicks off a non-stop slapstick comedy in which readers can’t help but wonder: Will the leading lady reunite with the one who got away while also getting away with murder?
This beautiful STEM-themed picture book is about a young Black girl who spots a burning star in the night sky. Her mother explains the star is dying, and the girl becomes fascinated with space — particularly with the burning star, who she speaks to at night, determined to let the star know that it won’t die alone. Her fascination turns into her life’s work. She studies astronomy in college and becomes an astronaut. One day she’s able to travel to the moon and witnesses the moment when her star dies. Vashti Harrison’s art is stunning. My daughter adores this book just as much as I do, and now she looks for stars every night.
What do you get when you take Makeda, a codependent people-pleaser who just got fired, add Beznaria, a chaotic-good investigator on the hunt for a missing princess, and put them together on a slow-boat to Ibarania with only one bed? You get a sapphic love story that felt like it was written for me. How To Find A Princess takes a hard look at family secrets (both of the royal and mundane kind), what it means to show up for others and for yourself, and just how hard it can be to find the right words sometimes, even when you’re trying. If gentle, hilarious, and healing are your romance vibes, you absolutely cannot go wrong.
It Happened One Summer
If you want steamy romance books, Tessa Bailey is the queen of them. On It Happened One Summer, Piper Bellinger, a fashionable and influential wild child, goes a little out of control one night, resulting in her stepfather sending her to live in a small fishing town. There she meets a variety of new personalities, but also a grumpy, bearded sea captain who isn’t pleased she’s there to begin with. This Schitt’s Creek-inspired rom-com will become your new obsession!
Jenny Mei Is Sad
Jenny Mei is sad. But it’s her best friend who narrates this story, explaining her friend’s feelings and how she can be supportive. What’s beautiful is that her friend doesn’t try to fix or change Jenny Mei’s emotions. There are small ways she can help, but overall the best thing the narrator can do is just to keep being Jenny Mei’s friend. This acceptance of sadness as a part of life and a part of friendship touched me deeply. It’s certainly a book made for children, but, after almost two years in the pandemic, I think we’re all in need of some gentle social emotional learning.
Klara and the Sun
Fresh off his Nobel Literature Prize win, Kazuo Ishiguro’s next novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize for 2021, and with good reason. It tells the story of Klara, an artificial friend. Beginning in a store, Klara observes the world around her with a keen eye and the innocence of childhood. When she is finally purchased to be the friend for a young woman, she soon discovers that her new friend is sick. What’s more, Klara’s role is more than it appears to be. This book is so full of heart and hope in a time that seems utterly hopeless, making it the perfect read for 2021.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Lily is a Chinese American teen living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1953. She’s always felt that something about her is different, but she’s only able to explore her feelings and put this sense into words when she and a classmate named Kath discover community and possibility at the nearby Telegraph Club, an underground lesbian bar. Lo brings her setting and characters to life with vivid detail, capturing the danger and exhilaration of being queer and finding your people in the 1950’s. This is a heartfelt coming-of-age and coming out story about a crossroads of identities that illuminates a corner of history that most narratives gloss over.
What are genres in music and do they matter at all? Sanneh’s outstanding book explores the history of seven genres over the last 50 years, showcasing why genres exist and where and how they overlap, inform, and transform one another. From hard rock to country, hip-hop to punk, this book goes beyond the Top 40 and taps into what defines each genre and its listeners, as well as how music consumption and understanding has changed. This is a brilliant deep dive into music nerdery that leaves readers tuning into their favorite songs — as well as new discoveries — in a completely fresh way.
This book was an utter delight from beginning to end. It’s the story of a teen girl in 1970s Baltimore who spends her summer nannying for a psychiatrist’s family as they help a rock star to get sober. This world couldn’t more different from that of her very ordered, very conservative family. Over the summer, Mary Jane learns about spontaneity, expressing love freely, and music — and she brings a little much-needed order to their world, too. This is a joyful, touching coming-of-age novel.
This book is a must-read for anyone who is or cares for someone with complex medical issues. I have chronic illness and definitely avoid some healthcare due to the pain of dealing with the financial and insurance issues, so this book made me feel more confident in standing up for and advocating for myself. Learn about all the ways the medical industry has you paying more than you should and how to avoid it. The author has published several articles on the same topic, but it’s nice to have it all in one place, with letter templates, to refer back to.
An original member of the Affrilachian Poets collective and the current Kentucky Poet Laureate, Wilkinson has had poems appear across many publications. But Perfect Black is her first full-length poetry collection. In it, Wilkinson gives readers a kaleidoscope of poems, many of them inspired by her life. Each poem delves into ideas around being a Black, Appalachian woman from a long line of such women. From prose poems about foodways to more lyrical poems about living as a young girl with a mother struggling with mental illness, Wilkinson’s work illustrates her incredible range and impressive skill.
It’s the last few weeks of Seema’s pregnancy after breaking up with the baby’s father. After being estranged from her Muslim Indian family after coming out as a lesbian, her mother and sister are visiting. What happens over the course of one week will change lives forever: secrets come out, relationships are changed, and love turns out to be more complicated and nuanced than it seems. The story is narrated by Seema’s baby from the moment of its birth, which could be a tricky narrative choice, but in Ahmed’s hands, it works wonderfully. This is a beautiful story of love, family, and forgiveness.
What on the surface seems like a haunted house story full of blood and guts turned out to be so much more, and in the best way. Not only is it a traditional slasher horror complete with an actual nightmare setup (creepy clowns and dolls galore), but it’s also a commentary on societal horrors both of the time (the book is set in the late 1990s) and those horrors that persist today. It’s a nuanced and complicated book about racism, classism, and sexism, that just happens to take place at the world’s most violent haunted house.
Nedra Tawwab is a therapist, content creator, and boundary expert. While this book is built on the premise that boundaries are healthy and make strong foundations for healthy relationships, it goes well beyond just cheerleading. It has concrete advice for drawing boundaries from what words to say and how to say them to advice on when boundaries should be drawn. Tawwab addresses all the guilt and fear around creating, communicating, and maintaining boundaries in explicit detail. It’s simultaneously a necessary wake-up call and a hug of support whether you’re drawing boundaries with friends, partners, parents, family, coworkers, and more.
She Who Became the Sun
She Who Became the Sun is a brilliant story about destiny, desire, and the lengths people will go to get what they want. It reimagines the rise of the Ming Dynasty in 14th century China in a very unique and magical way. The story follows Zhu, a girl who is destined for nothing yet is full of raw want. So when her brother — who was destined for greatness — dies, she takes his name and his fate. Over the years, as she becomes a monk and then when she joins the rebellion, she’ll learn who she is and what she’s capable of in order to fulfill her deepest desires.
Some Faraway Place
Everyone in the Atkinson family is Atypical — they have incredible abilities like telekinesis, mind reading, seeing the future — except Rose. Rose always thought she’d be happy and truly belong in her family if only she had an ability too. But when her ability to dreamdive finally does manifest, she realizes being Atypical is far more complicated and dangerous than she ever imagined. As with each and every part of The Bright Sessions series, this final installment is a fantastic showcase of Shippen’s skill as a writer, bringing readers a fresh and distinctive story while never losing the familiar warmth that is the backbone of this universe.
The fourth installment of the Balance series from podcast The Adventure Zone, The Crystal Kingdom is the most beautiful yet. We follow Merle, Taako, and Magnus as they fight to reclaim a relic known as the Transmuter Stone. As a flying airbase is slowly overrun by crystals created by the relic, they must stop it before it crashes. Because should the airship touch the ground, the entire world will be slowly encased in crystal. Luckily, our three heroes are more or less up to the job, and of course, hijinks ensue. For fans of The Adventure Zone, Dungeons & Dragons, and graphic novels, The Crystal Kingdom is a wild ride from start to finish.
I want my thrillers to have a can’t-put-down-will-read-past-bedtime element, which Gaylin surely delivers with The Collective. It’s a smart exploration of grief and revenge that keeps you guessing throughout, as a secret group has taken it upon themselves to enact the punishment they see fit upon those they deem have gotten away with something. And when they discover the young man responsible for Camille Gardner’s daughter’s death is being honored with a humanitarian award, they decide to bring her into the fold… What could go wrong?! Clear your schedule for this page-turner that will stick with you after the final page.
The Girls I’ve Been
I don’t read a lot of crime, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the blurb for this book…and I inhaled it in a single sitting. Nora’s best friend and ex, Wes, is mad at Nora for keeping her new girlfriend Iris a secret. But it is far from Nora’s only secret. The three of them become hostages in a bank robbery and Nora’s deepest secret is going to keep them alive: she hasn’t always been Nora, and she’s going to use the skills she picked up working with her con artist mother to get them out. This book has everything: found family, nonstop thrills, and it’s extremely queer. Content warning for past child abuse including sexual; discussion of abortion.
The Heart Principle
This book is one that leaves you thinking for days after you finish it. Violinist Anna is in a rut, and she can’t get out of it. With her emotionally abusive boyfriend looking into opening up their relationship, issues with her family, and a brand new autism diagnosis, she isn’t sure how to move on with her life. But deciding to try a one night stand leads her to Quan and a series of close calls that bring the two closer than either ever expected. Helen Hoang is one of those authors that can take a sweet love story and build the lovers’ worlds around them to the point of pain, only to bring us back to the promise of the best possible future.
When I picked up The Last House on Needless Street, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that it was probably going to be dark, psychological horror of some sort and that the story would be narrated by a black cat. Was I right? Yes and no. It’s best to go into this book knowing as little as possible, because this odd novel is all about subverting expectations. It’s set in a boarded-up house on Needless Street where a man lives alone with his cat and his daughter. All of this is true and not true. And as strange as this book sounds, it all really worked for me. I can’t stop thinking about this one.
The Love Hypothesis
Ali Hazelwood’s debut romance novel dominated nearly every corner of the Internet. Whether you were drawn in by the fake dating, the thoughtful contemplation of being a woman in STEM, the coffee shop shenanigans, or the stoic man whose heart softens at the ray-of-sunshine woman, it’s clear this book was a joy for romance readers. Olive Smith is a biology doctoral student who gets into a fake relationship with the department’s most-hated professor, Dr. Adam Carlsen. She’s trying to convince her best friend Anh that she has a social life outside of the lab, while Adam wants to re-gain access to his research funding. This is a pitch-perfect romance novel where you’ll root for the main characters to figure out their feelings until you’re blue in the face.
The People We Keep
It’s 1994 in Little River, New York. After “borrowing” a neighbor’s car to go perform at an open-mic night, 16-year-old April Sawicki realizes that life has the potential to be so much more than she’s ever known. Leaving her small town and planning to never look back, April chronicles her life through the songs she writes and the people she keeps, yearning for the ability to stop running away from love and from herself. Championing the power of self-love and found family, Allison Larkin reminds us throughout The People We Keep that there is always beauty to be found in chaos and that this life is ours to choose.
The Postscript Murders (Harbinder Kaur #2)
I was recommended this book while looking for queer crime novels and was delighted by its charming characters and cozy mystery-esque vibes. Ninety-year-old Peggy Smith’s death seems like natural causes, plain and simple. After all, is it so odd for elderly women with health issues to die? But when it is discovered that Peggy is mentioned in a number of mystery novel postscripts — and one author is found dead shortly later — her caretaker, her friends, and Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur are determined to catch her killer.
The Prophets is an extraordinary historical novel: a defiantly poetic story of great love growing in a place of hate. Two enslaved boys, Samuel and Isaiah, childhood friends who become lovers, occupy the center, but they’re not alone. The plantation system, individuals, and communities around them are an essential part of the story too. Jones handles the multiple moving parts and perspectives masterfully — joy and beauty juxtaposed against pain to devastating effect. Truly, this book gutted me and I was grateful for it.
The Rib King
I love this book and will continue to talk about it until the sun burns out. It’s a gripping, brilliant early 20th century story of the Black staff who work for a once-wealthy family. There is fighting and jealousy between the staff in the house, and violent racists outside the home. And when the family takes something that doesn’t belong to them, the house is shattered by violence. And that’s just the first half! The second follows a former staff member as she attempts to start her own business and get out from under the shadow of the events a decade earlier. The Rib King has sharp teeth that will grip your brain and not let go.
One of the most frustrating arguments to address while fighting for equality is the false “slices of the pie” narrative, wherein marginalized people succeeding is conflated with less success for those already in power. In this book, political and economic researcher Heather McGhee explores how racism is at the root of most of America’s economic, infrastructural, and other public policy problems. Her writing criticizes the paradigm that progress for some comes at the expense of others, instead arguing that racism has a cost for everyone, not just people of color. This is a genius book in many ways, and it’s absolutely an antiracist must-read.
Combining illustrations and text, Courtney Cook’s The Way She Feels highlights the turbulence of living with borderline personality disorder, one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses. Cook fearlessly details her harrowing struggle with borderline in essays about everything from music to self-harm. You won’t want to miss this honest, often quite witty graphic memoir that fills in the gaps of mental health representation.
The Wrong End of the Telescope
Mina Simpson is traveling so close to her homeland for the first time in years. Her childhood has been less than ideal but she has worked hard to find her footing in the world. She is a doctor now. Dr. Simpson arrives at a refugee camp in Lesbos after being called by a friend who requested her to help out. There she meets Sumaiya, an immigrant woman suffering from terminal liver cancer. The unconventional bond these two women forge puts a lot of things into perspective for them. This powerful novel not only sheds light on identity and the immigrant experience, but also shows how our stories are bound to overlap regardless of our backgrounds.
Kaba’s series of essays and interviews about abolition and the insufficiency of prison reform is not only a useful introduction to the topic, but also a rousing text that encourages collaboration, introspection, and hope. Why does justice look like punishment in the cultural imagination? Why are reforms counterproductive to abolitionist work? This book set my mind ablaze, and it’s already come up in several of my conversations with friends and family around the criminal legal system. Most of all, I’ve been inspired by Kaba’s conviction that our fears or misgivings should not hold us back from envisioning and pushing for a better future.
Kiem, Prince Royal of a planet called Iskat, prefers to run away from his responsibilities but can’t get out of a political alliance his grandmother sets for him. The alliance? Marrying Prince Jainan of Thea – another world resembling post-apocalyptic Earth – who is the widow of Kiem’s late cousin. This is a sci-fi novel, a romance, and political drama wrapped in one, with gorgeous prose and a diverse set of characters. The worldbuilding is beautiful and immersive. The icy setting of Iskat and its inhabitants reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, although Jainan and Kiem’s time on the ice is a different kind of exciting.
If you love Seth Rogen then you should have already read this. If you don’t think you love Seth Rogen, I have news for you — you love Seth Rogen! This book is funny, heartfelt, honest, and down-to-earth. You’ll learn about his ridiculous meetings with Nick Cage, Seth’s father’s “refreshing” attitude toward work (spoiler alert, he hates it — but for the most delightful reason), and you will laugh and laugh and laugh. Don’t believe me? Roxane Gay described this collection as “fucking delightful” so unless you hate delight, you will love this book.