Are you ready to have your TBRs exploded, readers? Clear the deck, because 2021 offers a bonanza of fantastic books to choose from, and we’ve selected the best books of 2021 so far. Published between January 1 and June 30, whether you love nonfiction, mysteries, SF/F, romance, young adult, horror, comics, you name it, there is something for you here. Come meet our favorites, and happy reading!
Hanif Abdurraqib is an essential and singular voice in pop culture writing. Here, he writes about Black performance with liveliness and careful attention. These essays are both funny and sad, personal and political, deeply considered but never overwrought. The chapter on Whitney Houston had me laughing aloud and going down a YouTube rabbit hole at first. By the end, however, I was reconsidering everything I thought I’d known about the megastar. Anyone interested in how American history and specifically Black history can be told through a pop culture lens will appreciate this rich, poetic text.
Act Your Age, Eve Brown
The final book in the Brown Sisters trilogy, Act Your Age, Eve Brown introduces us to the sister who has it least together. After a sort-of ultimatum from her parents, Eve drives away, only to find herself in the small town of Skybriar, where the B&B proprietor is interviewing chefs. On a whim, she goes for it—but she and Jacob form an immediate, shared dislike. She doesn’t get the job…until she runs him over with her car. Then, well. It’s a romance novel, you know the deal. Talia Hibbert is one of those authors who can take something intense and make it hilarious, all while ripping your heart out. Don’t worry; she’ll put it back together.
Arsenic and Adobo
I cannot sing the praises of this book enough. In this incredible cozy murder mystery, Lila Macapagal finds herself back at the family’s Filipino restaurant, regrouping after she discovered her ex-boyfriend was cheating on her. But her ex-boyfriend problems don’t end even though she returns to Shady Palms. Her high school boyfriend has become a food critic who seems to enjoy trashing restaurants, including her family’s. When he falls face down dead in their food, the police suspect Lila and her family of murder. Lila with her best friend start investigating, while negotiating some handsome hunks. It’s a delightful romp with lots of Filipino food mixed into the bunch (recipes are at the back of the book). I can’t wait to read the sequel, Homicide and Halo-Halo (2022) and anything else that Mia Manansala publishes.
Suleika Jaouad was only 22 when her life was derailed by a leukemia diagnosis. After three and a half years in and out of a cancer ward, she learned that the end of a fight against cancer was only the beginning of the healing process. This memoir follows her journey through cancer, as well as the cross-country road trip she took afterwards to meet with other survivors and strangers who helped her navigate post-cancer life. Jaouad’s powerful writing balances pain and tragedy with hope, and her perspective on life and healing has stuck with me months after reading it.
Boys Run the Riot
High student Ryo grapples with his identity in this realistic look at the hardships faced by transgender folks living in Japan. With a mother who doesn’t understand him and no confidants he can trust, Ryo’s struggles are both authentic and relatable, no matter your gender identity. When new student Jin transfers into his class, Ryo assumes he’ll just be another bully. Instead, Jin ends up an unlikely friend and ally. With similar tastes in clothes, the two embark on creating a fashion line. Created by a trans mangaka and localized into English by an entirely trans and nonbinary team, this heartwarming manga is an immediate must-buy.
Crying in H Mart
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Michelle Zauner has always had a complicated relationship with her mother, a Korean immigrant with a lively personality and high expectations for her daughter. When 25-year-old Michelle gets word that her mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, she immediately travels back to Oregon to be by her mother’s side—and to reckon with her part-Asian identity. As she grieves, Michelle grapples with childhood memories of feeling racially “other” both in America and Korea, and also begins to love and reclaim Korean flavors, language, and cultural history—all precious gifts from her mother.
Drag Me Up
Let’s welcome our king and queen of the Underworld who kick off this fascinating new series that will surely live in our minds rent free. RM Virtues enchants you with the luscious and glamorous world of myths and legends. Hades, a mysterious figure who lives in the shadows of Casino Asphodel, and Persephone, the new star in Calliope’s Cirque production, are ready to make you fall completely in love with their seductive love story. Drag Me Up is a Black romance with passion and steam all wrapped up together in a tight little bow. You really don’t want to miss it.
Like many Millennials, Gabrielle Korn came of age at a time when the American job market was making promises it couldn’t keep. By the time she was 26, however, she had achieved everything she thought she wanted and more: after receiving an accomplished college degree, she became one the youngest editor-in-chiefs in history at Nylon magazine where she had friends, family, connections with trendy designers, and an Instagram-worthy office and life. But the surface beneath her skin told a very different story: struggling for years with an untreated eating disorder and mental illness, Korn finally reached her breaking point in an industry and digital world that prioritizes perfection above else. Tackling our commercialized obsession with body positivity, chronicling her years coming of age as a lesbian in the era of low-rise jeans and much more, Everybody (Else) is Perfect is a memoir-in-essays that seeks to educate and inform of all the ways our modern culture has turned toxic and holds everyone, but especially women, to standards way beyond their control.
Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry
With all the heart and humour of YA romance bigwigs like Jenny Han, Sandhya Menon, and Maurene Goo, Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry is one of the best books you’ll read this year. This charming and hilarious romcom stars Quinn, who keeps a careful catalog of to-do lists in her journal. Except her to-do lists contain all her vulnerabilities – her worst fears, and even all the days she’s ugly cried. When her journal goes missing and she’s blackmailed into spilling her deepest secrets, Quinn pairs up with Carter – the last known person to have her journal and her biggest suspect – to retrieve it before it’s too late.
Happily Ever Afters
This was my first feel good book for the year and I can’t gush about it enough. I loved everything about Tessa and resonated with almost every single one of her experiences. Being biracial, having imposter syndrome, constantly writing romances and having a beta reader…almost everything matched younger me. I really enjoyed seeing a good family dynamic with people who supported each other but were still human. And I loved the sweet yet realistic ending. Such a great read and I can’t wait to read more from this author.
Infinitum: An Afrofuturist Tale
This is an afrofuturist graphic novel about a king who is willing to do anything to stay in power. King Aja Oba needs an heir quickly, so he decides to take a baby from one of his several concubines. His concubine turns around and puts a deadly curse on him—the curse of eternity. At first the king thinks it’s a gift: he knows he will outlive all his enemies and equates that to power. Unfortunately, he also has to watch his queen and son die. He also goes to war endlessly and watches his kingdom destroyed over and over. It’s a futuristic, philosophical graphic novel that’s multilayered and striking.
Klara and the Sun
Compelling and intriguing, this latest novel by Kazuo Ishiguro is a quiet science fiction tale of solar-operated robots, humanity, and how we deal with grief. Told from the perspective of titular Klara, who is an AF (Artificial Friend) bought to serve a family and their ill child, the novel uses this unique point of view to consider themes of climate change and industry; how it gentrifies and pollutes, as well as pushes people further away from their true selves. As the tension builds and secrets are revealed, Klara’s life with her new adopted family is turned upside down and a race to find warmth and light again, in dire times, is on.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu has tried so hard to be a “good Chinese girl” in 1954 San Francisco’s Chinatown, but her feelings for classmate Kathleen Miller have her questioning and risking everything. They begin to frequent the Telegraph Club — a lesbian bar featuring a male impersonator — and exploring a world Lily never imagined. During the Red Scare, Lily’s self-discovery threatens her longest friendship, her father’s citizenship, and her place in the world. Malinda Lo has been auto-buy for me for a while, but the atmospheric setting and Lily’s heartfelt narration takes this book to the next level.
Mary Jane is a young girl from a very conservative family in 1970s Baltimore who spends a summer nannying for a doctor’s family. But what her parents don’t know is that the doctor is actually a psychiatrist, and his sole task is helping a rock star to get sober. That summer, Mary Jane’s world expands dramatically to include demonstrative love, spontaneous singing, and a whole lot more. This is the most tender, joyful coming-of-age novel I’ve read in a long time.
When he was very young, Ali’s family lived and worked on a dam construction project in Manitoba. Years later, he discovered the area has had a rash of youth suicides and is fighting for funds to address that health crisis and environmental issues caused by the dam. Northern Light documents the fights of the Pimicikamak community, on whose unceded lands the dam is built, for resources, and Ali’s own search for a place to call “home” in a powerful, thoughtful, and beautifully written exploration of the narratives that we create and that are created for us.
Tessa has always tried to live a quiet life amidst the sectarian conflict of Belfast, Northern Ireland. She’s determined to maintain her job at a local BBC outlet and care for her son until the day she sees a news report of an IRA robbery and her sister Marian as one of the robbers. Tessa is convinced that Marian has joined the paramilitary group against her will, but as she seeks out the truth, she’ll get drawn into the conflict she’s worked for so long to avoid. Though this book has a strong mystery element, it’s the characters and how Berry writes about Northern Ireland and its divisions that made this book a standout for me.
One of the Good Ones
Maritza and Maika Moulite hit a home run with this title. Featuring themes of family, love and loss, it’s a tale filled with mystery, drama, and characters meant to stay with you. In the book, teen social activist and history buff Kezi Smith is killed under mysterious circumstances after attending a social justice rally. Her sister Happi and the family are left devastated by the aftermath and try to honor her memory as best as they can. Yet, when Kezi starts being immortalized as another victim in the fight against police brutality, Happi begins to question how people remember her and why some people leave such a mark. The book leaves you reeling with a surprise twist towards the end, making this a novel you will never forget.
Return of the Trickster
Return of the Trickster is a fittingly amazing finale to this trilogy about Jared, an Indigenous young adult who learns he’s the son of a trickster. I love how Eden Robinson manages to fill the book with wonder and magic while addressing dark topics, body horror, and harsh realities. Jared is a wonderfully crafted character, his superpower being both annoying and incredibly tenderhearted. The wonderful cast of magical and non magical Indigenous characters surrounding Jared bring even more color to an already brightly burning book.
Rule of Wolves
As King, Nikolai must stop the darkness attacking his land, and keep the demon inside from turning him. If he can not stop the demon from taking control of him, there is little he can do to save his people. Zoya, the King’s general, must make peace with her past, even as she wrestles with what true power is, and risks it all to protect the throne, but especially to protect her King. As a spy deep undercover in a country that despises her, Nina must fight for and protect the ones she loves both here in enemy territory and back home. The conclusion of the King of Scars Duology will keep you guessing and leave you thinking for days.
Nedra Tawwab is a therapist, content creator, and expert at boundaries. 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. There is actual concrete advice for drawing boundaries from what words to say and how to say them to advice on when boundaries should be drawn. She covers all aspects of boundaries from fear to guilt to enforcement. This is an absolute must-read for all adults. It’s absolutely brilliant and I will be rereading it on an annual basis because it is that good.
She’s Too Pretty to Burn
This intensely modern, sapphic thriller is loosely inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. When two teen girls get caught up in Instagram fame thanks to a post-kiss candid shot by Veronica, Mick falls into an increasingly dangerous scheme involving performance/installation art designed to make a political point. As the bodies start piling up, Mick must figure out how to extract herself from the art before it’s too late while Veronica confronts the realities of Internet celebrity and they both experience love on fire.
Shifters in the Night
Lia Doe is going to Mystic Bayou to build a beautiful housing complex for the influx of supernatural residents. She has no plans to stay, until she meets Jon Carmody at night in their other forms. Jon’s been a shut in since an encounter with a kraken in his youth, but is working on reentering society. He’s willing to brave his social anxiety for a chance to see Lia. She’s leaving town soon and he has trouble leaving the house, it’s best they ignore the sparks between them. Spoiler: they don’t ignore the sparks. The latest in Harper’s Mystic Bayou series has everything Harper fans have come to love: humor, magic, and a happily ever after.
Sorrow and Bliss
This is a coming-of-age story of a woman named Martha, who is in her forties. She has had a less than ideal childhood, and her inner child is still trying to figure out the missing piece that would help her get to know herself better. Her marriage is falling apart, and she has unwittingly failed to do justice to her career and interpersonal relationships. A beautiful, poignant tale on one woman’s road to self-actualization and how it is never too late to start over, this novel is a class apart. Martha’s sense of humor and the sketching of her character arc exhibit Mason’s prowess as a seasoned writer.
The 2000s Made Me Gay: Essays on Pop Culture
I am someone who had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of being a preteen in the late 2000s. This essay collection hits all of the media milestones and complicated feelings of being queer and connecting with pop culture during that decade. Queer representation during the aughts existed, but was much less nuanced than it is now. Grace Perry writes about touchstones like Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and the debut of Glee with thoughtfulness and humor that makes the book a delight to read.
The Anthropocene Reviewed
John Green’s first work of nonfiction, The Anthropocene Reviewed, is a collection of breathtaking essays about monumental and mundane things of the era of the human, from hot dog eating contests to the Indianapolis 500 to the Notes app. Each piece is thoroughly researched and offers a deep insight into Green’s experiences and dreams alongside truth and history. His work always reminds me that the world is worth learning about. Even when—especially when—everything feels dark and terrible and hopeless. This book will have you excited about new fun facts and also crying over seemingly innocuous inventions.
I was blown away by Marian Enriquez’s first collection Things We Lost in the Fire. Her latest collection is even more affecting; I had vivid nightmares after reading these stories, but I have no regrets wading in Enriquez’s breathtaking prose. Her stories are atmospheric, playing with horror tropes, and twisting and bending moral explorations. Her fiction does not turn away from the horrors children experience. Rather, she zeroes in on the very things we try to ignore and asks us to look closer, really close, until we can’t turn away.
It would be a mistake to say this book was merely about physics or science. It is a brilliant book about her work, but also about being a Black, Jewish, agender scientist in a field that has long been rife with racism, sexism, and gatekeeping. It is about dismantling the barriers to physics, looking at science in new and inclusive ways that are informed by politics, history, and even pop culture, and what comes next.
The Ex Talk
A witty, banter-filled romance set against a local public radio station! Shay Goldstein has been a producer for over a decade, while Dominic Yun is the new station wunderkind. They immediately clash over ideas of journalistic ethics and what makes good radio. But when the station needs to boost ratings, both of their jobs are on the line. The way to stay employed? Pretend to be exes and cohost a relationship advice show. Both Shay and Dominic don’t like lying to their audience. And once the show starts, their chemistry makes them wonder if they’d be better real partners than fake exes.
The Firekeeper’s Daughter
This book blew me away at every turn. From its emotional and shocking beginning to its developed, real, and heartbreaking plot, all the way to its bone-chilling ending, I was hooked to every word. It hit me hard, being from a small town where the drug and opioid epidemic has affected many lives, to see that play out on the page with Daunis and her loved ones, and Daunis’s resilience and determination to make her world better is inspiring.
The Galaxy and the Ground Within
Located on the planet Gora, there is a truck stop where long-haul space travelers can rest and pick up supplies. When a technological failure stops all traffic and communication, three travelers of different species are left stranded, along with the mother and son duo who run the stop. As the hours pass, the five strangers get to know each other, learning about species histories and individual pasts. By the time communications on the planet are back up, each individual has been irrevocably changed. The last book in the Wayfarers series is no exception: an intimate character-driven story that transports you to a galaxy you don’t want to leave.
The Girls I’ve Been
Tess Sharpe understands the crime genre and what readers love while also creating a unique, clever, and fresh new thriller. We get the bank heist with hostages trope but our “hero” is 17-year-old Nora who walked into the bank with her ex-boyfriend and current girlfriend. And what almost no one knows is that Nora was raised by a con artist, which means the bank robbers are about to regret ever stepping foot in the bank. Anyone in need of a page-turner should run to this book, especially if you’re already a fan of Sadie and No Exit. I perpetually live in the land of waiting for what Sharpe writes next.
The Hidden Palace
If you were as captivated by The Golem and the Jinni as I was, you’re going to absolutely love this follow-up novel. Wecker brings everything we loved about Chava and Ahmad into this new novel and continues to weave fantasy, folklore, and historical fiction into some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. When we meet Chava and Ahmad again, this time it’s in the years leading up to World War I. The two are hiding their true selves in order to assimilate into early 1900s Manhattan. We also get to hear more perspectives this time, including old friends like Sophia, and a chorus of new voices who melt into the story seamlessly. Now excuse me while I go reread The Golem and the Jinni relive this entire masterpiece again.
The Natural Mother of the Child
Every now and then a memoir comes along that changes the whole game. This is one. In a series of linked essays that incorporate photos and legal documents, Belc examines how pregnancy and childbirth changed his understanding of gender and embodiment. He refuses to neatly categorizate his experiences, instead telling a vulnerable, deeply layered, and messy story about queer family-making, trans parenthood, and the complicated possibilities of emotional and physical transformation. It’s dynamic and full of contradictions, entirely new and startlingly intimate, challenging and wise. I couldn’t put it down and I can’t wait to read it again.
The Ones We’re Meant to Find
Trust me when I say you’ve never read anything quite like The Ones We’re Meant to Find. In this dual-POV environmental dystopian novel, two sisters try to retrace their steps back to each other, one from a deserted island with almost no memories and the other trying to uncover the secrets behind why her popular older sister stole away on a boat one night and never came back. The mystery of what happened and what’s going on now is what drives the novel and truly takes you by surprise as the pieces start to fall into place. I didn’t know this was exactly the book I was searching for until I found it.
The Other Black Girl
As one might expect of a book described as Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada, The Other Black Girl is funny, scary, worldly and wise. Zakiya Dalila Harris spent several years in the notoriously white world of corporate book publishing, and she leverages that experience to great effect in this story about an African American editorial assistant named Nella, whose dream job becomes her worst nightmare. The trouble starts when a new employee Nella thought would be a natural ally starts to look more like a predator. With slyly subversive cultural commentary rubbing up against horror and industrial espionage, the result is both a razor sharp, genre-bending insider expose of mainstream publishing and a fun and pulpy good time.
The Rib King
This powerful, original novel knocked my brain’s socks off! Set in the early 20th century, it takes place in two sections. The first is about the African American staff at the home of a once-affluent white family, their in-fighting, the growing threat of white supremacists, and a theft—which leads to violence. The second section follows a former maid as she tries to start her own business, but finds her attempts overshadowed by “The Rib King” and the past. Hubbard highlights the racism and sexism of the time period in a dazzlingly brilliant story. The further I got in the second section, the more I saw the genius of the first as well!
The Secret to Superhuman Strength
It’s no secret that Alison Bechdel has an interest in documenting her life and asking existential questions about what it means to be conscious. In her third memoir, she traces her interest in exercise through the strangeness and nihilism of fitness trends. Her obsession with exercise and bettering herself becomes more of a spiritual quest: Bechdel reads the Eastern philosophers and the Beat writers to inform her quest to be physically fit. She does not shy away from the tension between her feminist values and the oppression of physical fitness: it’s a central issue. This is also a fascinating meditation on the struggle of getting out of your own head when so much of your work relies on self-reflection and regurgitating your experiences for a wider audience.
The Seed Keeper
This book is about a Dakota woman and the way she finds her place in the world amidst change she did not want. There’s a sort of desperation in the narrative, as her life unravels in front of our eyes, from a native girl living with a foster family, and her marriage and life with a white farmer, with glimpses into her childhood and the native family she has lost. The writing is almost like a lullaby, guiding you gently across the tale. There is poetry in the words, a love for nature you can feel seeping through each page.
The Wide Starlight
I read this book in one breathless sitting, not wanting it to end but needing to know if the magic was real. When Eli was 6, her mother whistled at the northern lights and they swooped her away, leaving Eli alone on a fjord where she was rescued by a polar bear. No one believed her, and her father relocated them from Svalbard, Norway, to Cape Cod in the States. When Eli is 16, the northern lights are visible from her new home for one night, and she whistles. What happens next is a magical fairytale woven into a real-world story of grief and longing and full of the stories Eli’s mother told her.
This poignant picture book inspired by the author’s childhood tells the story of a daughter of Chinese immigrants who’s recently moved to a rural, primarily white Ohio town. She’s painfully aware of the differences between her culture and the rest of the town. She feels resentment when her parents stop by the side of the road to pick watercress for dinner, but her feelings change when she learns more about her family’s history over dinner. Award-winning illustrator Jason Chin was inspired by Chinese painting techniques in his detailed watercolor illustrations. This nuanced and stunning picture book is a work of art in every way.
What You Can See From Here
Luise’s grandmother dreams of an okapi. The town knows what that means—someone is going to die. Some hold their secrets and superstitions closer to their chest; others consider confessing love; others pretend, nervously, that they don’t believe in such nonsense. As the novel goes on, we follow Luise through a life of connections, love, tiny faiths and tales, and strange, small coincidences—a life populated with a fun, vibrant cast of characters. I fell absolutely in love with this brilliant story about the quiet truths of life and the richness hidden in even our most normal moments.
Winter’s Orbit is the queer romantic space opera Star Wars wishes it could be. When the Empress tasks royal disappointment, Prince Kiem, to marry his cousin’s widower, he reluctantly agrees. After all, Count Jainan wants to remarry to maintain the intergalactic treaty. In a marriage of convenience, Kiem and Jainan believe they will only disappoint each other, even as they fall in love. Will they be able to overcome their insecurities, heal from their past, and build a future together? More importantly, will they be able to save their people by forming a bond overcoming court politics, political intrigue, and a war on the horizon? Just wait.
Forget 2021. This is one of the most deeply affecting books I have ever read in my life. The story here centers on a pair of estranged Korean American sisters—the always-put-together June and out-of-control Jayne—who moved separately from their small hometown in Texas to the bright lights of the Big Apple. They aren’t exactly on speaking terms, but when June loses her job and is diagnosed with cancer, she has no choice but to steal Jayne’s identity—and her insurance coverage. Pulled back into each other’s orbit, the sisters come to realize that they might just need one another, in new ways and more intensely, than ever before.