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Top Books 2021: The Most Highly Ranked and Widely Read Books on Goodreads This Year

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Casey Stepaniuk

Staff Writer

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature and an MLIS. Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ+ Canadian books. She also writes a monthly column on Autostraddle recommending queer books called Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian, Litsy: CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian, Goodreads: CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian, and Facebook: Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

Have you been googling “top books 2021” lately? So have lots of people! Obviously there are lots of ways you could go about looking into this, but I’ve gone to Goodreads to investigate. Focusing on books published in 2021, I’ve looked at the top ranked books. Goodreads, as you might know, allows you to rate books by whole stars out of five (no half stars!) and then provides an average rating out of five. For the purposes of narrowing down the choices for this top books 2021 list, I decided the cut-off for high rankings would be an average of 4.25 out of five. If we’re really talking about the top ranked books, I thought, the average rating should be at least that high.

The other issue I took into consideration was how many Goodreads users had ranked the books. I found some very highly ranked 2021 books, but under 10,000 people had read and ranked them. This to me felt like it was easier statistically for these books to be highly rated. Also, if a relatively small number of people are reading a certain book, is it really a top book of 2021? I decided no. You might disagree, which is fine!

So here’s my list of the top books of 2021. They all have an average rating of 4.25 out of five stars or higher and have been ranked by 10,000 people or more. A few books that could have otherwise made the list were cut (the lowest ranked ones) since there was already ample representation of their genre. Speaking of genres/forms, the ones that made it onto the list are: literary fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, romance, nonfiction, and young adult. Onto the list!

Ace of Spades cover

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

(4.41 stars average; 12,021 ratings)

This YA thriller by a debut author is a compelling look at institutionalized racism through the setting of Niveus Private Academy. There, students are never less than perfect…except when an anonymous texter named “Aces” reveals two star students’ dark secrets. Who is out to get these students? Someone who holds all the aces.

cover image of Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo

Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo

(4.42 stars average; 48,709 ratings)

The second book in Bardugo’s King of Scars duology and one of many books set in her Grishaverse is not a surprise to find on this top books 2021 list, particularly given the new Netflix show set in the YA fantasy universe. Rule of Wolves continues the stories of the “demon king” Nikolai Lantsov; Zoya Nazyalensky, the “stormwitch”; and Nina Zenik, “queen of mourning.”    

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Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

(4.42 stars average; 23,484 ratings)

In this contemporary YA thriller, Daunis Fontaine is a biracial, unenrolled member of the Ojibwe Nation who feels like an outsider. When she meets hockey star Jamie, he quickly becomes the only bright thing in her life. But at the same time, she senses there is something Jamie might be hiding from her. And then a murder brings everything into perspective and Daunis must use her knowledge of traditional medicine and chemistry to solve the crime.

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The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen

(4.35 stars average; 22,099 ratings)

This WWII-set historical romance takes place, as you can tell, in Venice. In the contemporary frame narrative, Caroline Grant’s aunt gives her three clues for a long ago mystery and a mission to scatter Juliet “Lettie” Browning’s ashes in Venice. Then Bowen takes us back to 1938, where Lettie works as an art teacher and is having a star-crossed romance.

chain of iron cover

Chain of Iron by Cassandra Clare

(4.47 stars average; 34,149 ratings)

Set in Clare’s Shadowhunters universe, this YA fantasy is the second novel in Clare’s The Last Hours series. Cordelia Carstairs’s life appears superficially perfect, but underneath it all is the grimmest of truths: a serial killer is targeting the Shadowhunters of London. Cordelia and her band of friends — all dealing with dark secrets of their own — must follow the trail of the murderer through the most dangerous parts of the city.

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The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

(4.52 stars average; 15,780 ratings)

Green’s collection of essays, adapted and expanded from material originally found on his podcast, focuses on our current geologic age, the Anthropocene. He looks at the irony of a humanity too powerful for its own good, having shaped Earth and its inhabitants irreversibly with climate change. At the same time he celebrates the beauty of the world and falling in love with it.

The Four Winds book cover

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

(4.34 stars average; 234,844 ratings)

Prolific historical fiction writer Hannah has another hit with this story set in Texas in 1934. Despite the dire circumstances of the dreariest era of the Great Depression, protagonist Elsa Martinella’s narrative is both an epic love story and an empowering tale of heroism as she makes her way in a dangerous, dark time with courage and heart.

act your age eve brown cover

Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert

(4.25 stars average; 29,170 ratings)

The third book in Hibbert’s contemporary romance series about the Brown sisters, this novel stars the youngest sister, Eve, a “certified hot mess” who has never managed to stick to any of the careers she has tried. Enter Jacob, a by-the-books autistic B&B owner who needs a cook. When Eve impulsively interviews for the job — and then accidentally hits Jacob with her car — neither one is expecting that they will fall in love as they are thrown into working (and living) together.

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The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

(4.36 stars average; 10,350 ratings)

This biography traces the life of scientist Jennifer Doudna, who grew up in an era when women weren’t supposed to become scientists. She eventually invented an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA, called CRISPR. This discovery opens up a host of scientific, medical, and ethical questions: from uses for creating coronavirus vaccines to the possibility of parents being able to enhance their children’s IQs before birth.

Between Two Kingdoms book cover

Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad

(4.44 stars average; 18,420 ratings)

Jaouad’s unique memoir is about long-term illness, recovery, and self-discovery. In her early 20s, on the precipice of starting her adult life, she was diagnosed with leukemia with a 35% chance of survival. She spends the next four years in the hospital with her only goal of survival. But after having been declared “cured,” she finds out that she has no idea what to do next.

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Life’s Too Short by Abby Jimenez

(4.27 stars average; 20,761 ratings)

The third book in Jimenez’s Friend Zone contemporary romance series features an opposites attract couple. Vanessa is a determined global traveler who doesn’t want to be tied down; after all, neither her mother or sister made it past the age of 30 so she has to make the most of her life while she can. Then her half sister suddenly leaves Vanessa in charge of an infant and Vanessa receives unexpected help from her lawyer neighbor, who she might just be falling in love with.

yellow wife cover

Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson

 (4.35 stars average; 12,864 ratings)

This powerful historical novel follows the story of Pheby Brown, an enslaved woman who was promised freedom on her 18th birthday. Instead, however, she finds herself in the harrowing situation of trying to survive in Virginia’s most infamous slave jail. She must find a way to free herself while being forced to become the mistress of the jail’s brutal owner.

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Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

(4.6 stars average; 11,335 ratings)

This biography focuses on three generations of the Sackler family, famous for being one of the richest families in the world. They are also well known for extravagant donations to the arts and humanities, with their names adorning the walls of some of the world’s most well-known museums, galleries, and universities. The mysterious source of their wealth? Making and marketing OxyContin, the catalyst for the opioid crisis.

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A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas

(4.39 stars average; 160,933 ratings)

The fourth book in Maas’s supremely popular A Court of Roses and Thorns fantasy series is not an unexpected find on this top books 2021 list. In the latest installment, Nesta Archeron is struggling in her new position as High Fae. She and her love interest, Cassian, will have to battle literal and figurative monsters, within and without, if they are to keep the fragile peace their world has achieved post-war.

heartstopper volume 4

Heartstopper Volume 4 by Alice Oseman

(4.7 stars average; 30,459 ratings)

The fourth volume in Oseman’s exceedingly popular young adult queer romance comic series has the highest average rating on this list. Go queers! Everyone’s beloved couple, Charlie and Nick, are dealing with some very heavy stuff in this volume, like disordered eating and self-harm. But the story doesn’t end here; look forward to the last and fifth volume, as promised by Oseman.

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The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

(4.49 stars average; 50,236 ratings)

Quinn, well-known for her historical fiction, has another winner with this story set in 1940 amidst WWII and afterwards in 1947. The novel follows three women as they arrive at Bletchley Park to work as code breakers. After the war, the three friends-turned-enemies are reunited to crack one last code, which holds the secret of their true enemy at its heart.

Any_Way_The_Wind_Blows_By_ Rainbow_Rowell_Cover

Any Way the Wind Blows by Rainbow Rowell

(4.29 stars average; 14,255 ratings)

The third YA fantasy book in Rowell’s Simon Snow series (which is inspired by/is Harry Potter fan fiction) shows its main characters deciding how to move forward with life. Does Simon still want to be part of the World of Mages? Can Baz extricate himself from between two family crises? Penelope has smuggled an American Normal into London and doesn’t know what to do with him. Agatha…is over it all.

The Guncle book cover

The Guncle by Steven Rowley

(4.33 stars average; 11,861 ratings)

Rowley’s latest book is a heartwarming and funny novel about a gay former sitcom star, Patrick, who finds himself looking after his niece and nephew for the summer after a family tragedy. Although he has always loved being an uncle, he finds himself quite out of his depth as he is unexpectedly put into the role of primary caregiver.

West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge

West With Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge

(4.48 stars average; 23,625 ratings)

This story of Depression-era America is told from the retrospective of Woodrow Nickel, age 105. He recounts the few true friends he has had over his lifetime; two of them are giraffes. These giraffes miraculously survived a hurricane and Woodrow, along with a cast of memorable characters, become a part of their lives as they transport the giraffes to the San Diego Zoo.

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A Sky Beyond the Storm by Sabaa Tahir

(4.38 stars average; 26,128 ratings)

Number four in the Ember in the Ashes YA fantasy series, this novel concludes the story and answers the question: who will survive the storm? The Nightbringer and Commandant Keris Veturia work together on the side of the attacking jinn. Laia of Serra and the Soul Catcher oppose them, each with their own powers and reasons for taking on that mission.

concrete rose cover

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

(4.45 stars average; 32,207 ratings)

It’s not surprising this prequel to Thomas’s acclaimed first novel The Hate U Give is one of the top books of 2021. She revisits the setting of Garden Heights 17 years before the events readers are familiar with. When Maverick Carter finds out he is a father at 17, he struggles to balance finishing school, raising a kid, and slinging dope to support his family. Then, he’s given the chance to go straight. But how easy will it be to walk away?

the light through leaves

The Light Through Leaves by Glendy Vanderah

(4.38 stars average; 19,199 ratings)

Vanderah’s most recent mystery/thriller brings together one older and one younger woman on their unique journeys. Ellis has spiraled out of control after the abduction of her infant daughter, leaving her marriage and other children and heading into the wilderness. Raven, a girl living in isolation in remote Washington, is keeping her parents’ dark secrets. When they meet, they both begin on an unexpected path to a brighter future.

cover image of Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

(4.55 stars average; 91,297 ratings)

Building on the huge success of The Martian, Weir’s most recent science fiction tale also follows a protagonist surviving alone in space. The story begins with Ryland Grace awakening alone on a spaceship. He doesn’t remember who he is; he doesn’t know what his mission is; he doesn’t know where in the universe he is. But he is, in fact, humanity and planet Earth’s last chance at survival.

all rhodes lead here

All Rhodes Lead Here by Mariana Zapata

(4.42 stars average; 18,657 ratings)

In this slow-burn contemporary romance, Aurora De La Torre has taken her grief and broken heart to a small town in the mountains, hoping to heal. It is a place that was once home, where she hopes to start a brand new life. Part of starting over just might include her landlord, who lives across the street from her.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner cover

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

(4.4 stars average; 29,957 ratings)  

This memoir of growing up Korean American focuses on food, family, grief, and perseverance. Zauner, a musician known for her work in the group Japanese Breakfast, recounts her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis when Zauner was just 25. It is this tragedy that brings her back towards her Korean identity and leads her to reclaim the gifts of language, food, and family history that came from her mother.

Does this list satisfy your “top books 2021” questions? I sure hope so! If you’re interested in other lists of top ranked books on Goodreads, check out this list of top fantasy books and this list of top science fiction books.