Producing a definitive list of the best books of 2021 is, by its very definition, an impossible task. It’s impossible every year, if we’re honest, but any author who has managed to create and release a book over the past couple of years should be given a medal straight away. It’s a hard enough task when the world isn’t on fire, and yet the publishing industry has not ground to a halt, and authors have found the strength to just keep going.
A list like this is only ever the opinions of one person (or three, in our case) and therefore that is all readers should take from it – recommendations and opinions from people who have read a lot of books and want to share the ones that they have loved. But please know that even if this list of the best books of 2021 was written once a week for the whole year, it still wouldn’t include every book that might deserve a place on it.
1. Black Girls Must Die Exhausted – Jayne Allen
Contemporary novels succeed when they speak candidly to aspects of humanity. Black Girls Must Die Exhausted is an African American contemporary fiction book conveying the challenges women, women of colour, and specifically, Black women, struggle to overcome in their everyday lives.
Protagonist Tabitha Walker, a 33-year-old Black woman, succumbs to feelings of inert self-doubt when she receives a life-altering diagnosis. Tabitha’s reflective nature draws from the first page. The first-person POV integrates a type of poetic stream-of-consciousness, inviting readers into the crisscrossing thoughts pulling Tabitha in multiple directions. This is only the first book in the series, which comes as a delight since this book covers layers of important subject matter aching to be further explored.
Readers will find themselves gripped by Tabitha’s provocative story in one of the best books of 2021.
One hundred years ago, America entered into the industrial and financially affluent decade dubbed the “Roaring 20s.” Shimmering flapper dresses, extravagant parties, and feelings of freedom composed the makeup of the Westernised 1920s Jazz Era. The Chosen and the Beautiful revisits this time adorned with pearl necklaces and champagne with a historical fantasy retelling of The Great Gatsby.
Author Nghi Vo replicates The Great Gatsby’s bare-bones plot but shifts the focus from the eponymous Jay Gatsby’s cousin Nick Carraway to the underdeveloped character Jordan Baker. Formerly pushed to the background, Jordan is reinvented as a Vietnamese immigrant touched with a dash of magical abilities. The book spins a tale of forbidden love, sexuality, and identity, adroitly framing Jordan as its centrepiece. Vo’s prose about a whirlwind summer in New York dazzles.
The Chosen and the Beautiful binds you in its mesmerising spell, words like magic spilling over and sticking to your mind.
An Angie Thomas book debuted earlier this year, so of course, her novel graces a best books of 2021 list. Set in the same universe as Thomas’s The Hate U Give and On the Come Up, her YA historical fiction book Concrete Rose details Maverick Carter’s story as a teenager in the 1990s.
In The Hate U Give, Starr’s father Maverick teaches vital life lessons she later implements. Concrete Rose turns back the clock to the year 1998. At only seventeen, Maverick balances his income by working two jobs and dealing drugs for the neighbourhood gang. Suddenly, Mav adds fatherhood to his already complicated circumstances. Angie Thomas writes books with authentic voices. Expanding Mav’s story, as well as the other adults in Starr’s family from THUG, deftly deepen their characters.
Concrete Rose lifts up Black boys and Black voices, unabashedly discussing the harm racial, sexist, and gendered stereotypes induce.
Considering how I’ve wholeheartedly loved fiction my whole life, it feels strange to pick two non-fiction books for this list. Maybe it’s because memoir writing requires an unflinching dance with honesty and vulnerability, exactly the two things I’ve been seeking out in books since the pandemic.
Zauner’s voice is personal, candid, as she brings her through her life as a Korean American, with the book’s main focus being Zauner’s relationship with her mother. As with any Asian movie or book, food is Crying in H Mart’s centrepiece, as Zauner reflects on how food was always her mum’s way of showing love and affection. She didn’t always connect with her mum, or her Korean culture, and as life brought her further away from these aspects of her identity, her mum’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer brings her back into the fold, where she starts to embrace all these parts of herself that she’s been estranged from for so long.
It feels like a book that Zauner wrote to process her grief – the dark, ugly sides of it as well as the embodiment of all the unexpressed love she will now have to carry within her for the rest of her life. It’s a devastating and beautiful book that offers refreshing insight and wisdom on relationships and how we look at the people we love.
Daughter of the Deep, the latest middle-grade novel from Rick Riordan, captures the atmosphere and excitement that made readers fall in love with his Percy Jackson books. This time, Riordan descends into the sea with a sci-fi/fantasy adventure that integrates facets of the Jules Verne novel, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
High school freshman Ana Dakkar must sail her classmates to safety after an attack. Ana and her friends are students of the prestigious Harding-Pencroft Academy off the Southern California coast. While on a sea expedition test, they watch helplessly when tragedy strikes their classmates back on land. Riordan describes the ocean and ocean-adjacent activities – sailing, diving, exploring – cinematically. Sensitivity readers helped Riordan ensure his inclusion of multi-racial, autistic, diverse characters come across with consideration.
Descend into the watery depths, 20,000 leagues under the sea, with Riordan’s refreshing and action-packed ocean adventure.
Christina Sweeney-Baird’s debut, released back in April, is an intriguingly prescient work of fiction. Written well before the pandemic, it tells the story of a virus which behaves in quite a similar way to Covid, except it is much more deadly and it only kills men. The author is probably quite tired of the comparisons, but so many factors are similar, not least the failure of the government to take the threat seriously enough at the beginning, that it really does read like a very reasonable alternate universe to the one we are living in now.
Sweeney-Baird writes with the sort of confidence that you’d expect from an author with a few novels already under her belt, and the book is unputdownable. The alternating viewpoints, from women all over the political and social spectrum, are an excellent way of telling the story, and handled deftly. One of them, a single chapter focusing on a woman in Russia, is the thing that has stayed with me since reading this book.
Part YA thriller and part Native history, Firekeeper’s Daughter centres on plights Native Americans endure within their communities and with outsiders. Unquestionably, Firekeeper’s Daughter should rank as one of the most moving, best books of 2021.
Set in the early 2000s, unenrolled, half-Ojibwe tribal member Daunis Fontaine feels the weight of her outsider status. While Daunis fights for belonging as the enrolment deadline nears, a meth epidemic within her community begins stealing the lives of the other teenagers around her. A suspicious death from her family’s past and recent developments in drug-related overdoses force Daunis to sacrifice her priorities to herself to save the people she loves.
Firekeeper’s Daughter touches on hard-hitting themes like science, drug trafficking, and government intervention with Native peoples. A murder mystery catapults the plot forward while readers learn about modern, untreated Native American crises plaguing tribes living in the U.S. and on the Canadian border.
Cultured Vultures has been beating the drum for Girl Haven since it was first released all the way back at the start of the year, and now we are almost at the end, it still sits high on our list of the best books of 2021. A YA graphic novel with a strong focus on gender identity, Girl Haven is also a funny, charming and magical tale from an author who wants her young audience to know that, above all else, ‘love is stronger than fear’.
Every scene in Girl Haven is committed to that same message, and it is a remarkable example of how thematic cohesion can create such a strong narrative. Ash is our main character, struggling with a nebulous gender identity; they’ve been raised as a boy, but something has never felt quite right about that. When Ash is swept to the magical world of Koretis – a place where only girls are allowed – then what does that mean for them? And why are the residents of Koretis so sure that Ash is the one who is meant to save them?
At this point, any person cognisant of YA books has experienced awe looking at Iron Widow’s gorgeous cover. Author Xiran Jay Zhao’s YA science-fiction novel crosses genre and topical boundaries in their high-octane debut.
East Asian historical fantasy melds with sci-fi in a book loosely based on China’s only female empress. Set in a future where aliens infiltrate China, the Chinese people send a male and a sacrificial female into shape-shifting mecha suits to battle the alien lifeforms. Young woman Zetian disrupts the mecha system order when she murders her male counterpart. Iron Widow, reminiscent of Pacific Rim, fully fleshes out its themes about gender dynamics, corruption, and colonisation through the lens of a brutal female protagonist. Zetian’s love interest and character traits massively transcend expected YA sci-fi tropes.
Thrills never cease as readers enter the mind and mech suit with Zetian in Iron Widow.
10. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina – Zoraida Córdova
When you go into reading a novel blind, you set expectations based on the cover and opening chapters. Never before has a book veered in such an exquisitely unexpected direction than The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina. I am hard-pressed to say that any other book that conjured a fervent array of emotions in the same capacity as Zoraida Córdova’s novel.
A Hispanic-American family unearths their grandmother’s magical roots when the matriarch invites her lineage to receive their inheritance before her looming death. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina piques curiosity from page one. We are introduced to Orquídea Divina and her supernatural origin story, written in prose beating with fantastic surrealism. Magic imbibes itself from Page One, trickling through the novel like sand falling from an hourglass. A sudden twist inserts Gothic horror into the story.
Magical realism bisects beautiful horror in a haunting tale about family and legacy.
Love Is An Ex-Country is another unforgettable book from early this year, a travelogue/memoir written by Randa Jarrar. It is a completely unapologetic, refreshingly honest take on life in the USA as a Fat, queer, Muslim person of colour, and it is magnificent. There is a simmering rage that fuels Jarrar’s work here, and it’s present on almost every page; life has been far from easy, and it’s important that the reader knows that.
But the most striking thing about Love Is An Ex-Country is the capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation that Jarrar demonstrates throughout. It would be easy for this book to be a howl of pain, and it would be completely understandable if that were the route that the author took. But Jarrar is a remarkable person; at no time does she flinch away from anything that has happened to her, but there is a winding thread throughout of finding the good in things and learning to let go. This book is a plea for goodness, above all else, and that makes it all the more special.
Monkey Around makes the list of the best books of 2021 for a very simple reason; it’s one of the most fun, most inventive urban fantasy novels to come out in years, and Jang is an author who handles her world very deftly. Monkey Around is funny, politically engaged and whip-smart from start to finish.
Maya is a shapeshifter living in a bright and vibrant San Francisco, where practically every other person is a shapeshifter too. They come from a huge variety of backgrounds and mythical heritage; if the legends of one specific culture has a shapeshifter, they live in this San Francisco. Maya is on the hunt for someone who is targeting and killing shapeshifters, spinning through a city of fluid, diverse people making their way in the world. Monkey Around is, from start to finish, a joy.
Jade Daniels is really into slasher movies, her fondness for them in some way an escape from her abusive home life with her father. She lays out horror stories where she’s the perpetrator who’s been wronged, and returns a few years later to seek revenge and wreak mayhem. It’s fun to play pretend and make things up, but things take a turn when people do actually start dying.
I have to say that the opening moments of this novel are utterly chilling. The imagery painted of the fates of the young couple from the Netherlands is unsettling and heart-stopping. It’s rare that an author has so much skill to get inside your head and weave moving pictures, and do this so well that it’s almost like you’re watching a horror movie unfold on a screen.
After this horrifying start, things do slow down a bit, taking the time to develop Jade as a character and show us a bit of her life in this small Idaho town. But once it ramps up again, things will get wholeheartedly intense, so prepare yourself for that.
If you’re into horror and have a strong stomach for these kinds of stories, then this book is for you.
14. One Day All This Will Be Yours – Adrian Tchaikovsky
Back in February, we called One Day All This Will Be Yours the ‘most fun you can have at the end of the world’, and I stand by that now the year is almost over. One Day All This Will Be Yours makes the best books of 2021 list because it is a riot from start to finish, easily one of the most fun books of the year – although the fact that the author and the narrator are having a wonderful time doesn’t mean that readers should underestimate this little novella. Tchaikovsky is science-fiction giant, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Our unnamed narrator, the sole survivor of the Causality War, is quite happy living his little life at the end of time. It’s peaceful, and when he feels like it, he takes jaunts into the past which will delight any reader. But as the story progresses, we realise that our jolly narrator is a man deeply traumatised, who will do literally anything to protect his hard-earned peace.
Tim Marshall has been a revelation of an author when it comes to making geo-politics fun and interesting for the uninformed reader. His book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics was a fascinating look into why the geography of a country is the absolute key to understanding why nations act as they do, and why are some more successful than others.
The Power Of Geography, the sequel to that first book, is an insight into how geography is going to affect countries moving forwards. It explores volatile parts of the world, such as Iran and Ethiopia, but also places that are going to making big changes economically, such as Australia and the UK. Marshall has a real way of distilling these huge, formidable questions into incredibly readable, informative chapters, and makes this vital read one of the best books of 2021.
Weir’s name might sound familiar, and that’s because you may have watched the adaptation of one of his books. He wrote The Martian ten years ago, and that book was the bones that birthed the successful film starring Matt Damon in the titular role. It’s clear that Weir enjoys writing ‘one man out in space’ stories, and I can see why – he’s excellent at this.
Project Hail Mary’s protagonist is Ryland Grace, the sole survivor of a desperate, last-chance mission to save humanity. The problem is, he can’t remember who he is, and therefore, doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do out here in space. As his memory slowly returns, he starts to realise the daunting task that awaits, but maybe, just maybe, with help from an unexpected ally, he might just be able to pull it off.
As always, Weir does such a great job with the science in this. It feels credible, and this isn’t one of those space travel stories where you have to suspend your disbelief. Project Hail Mary, much like The Martian, is a story about hope and rising through adversity, and is one of the best science fiction books we’ve seen this year.
Eva Mercy is a best-selling author of an erotica series – think Twilight but with more sexy stuff going on. She sort of stumbled into this life, after her roommate submitted her work to a magazine, and so vampires and orgasms have been a part of her life ever since.
But Eva’s real life is hardly like her books. Between raising a teenager, book touring and managing a chronic illness, Eva hardly has time for romance. As this is a romance novel, of course that’s all about to change. Enter Shane Hall, an award-winning literary author, who comes back into her life. The thing is, while the chemistry and burning passion is still there, Eva is unsure if she wants to let him in, seeing as how he broke her heart all those years ago. However, sometimes second chances can be worth it, and can be exactly what you need.
Eva’s narrative voice is immediately engaging, and you just want to tag along for as long as possible as she shows you her world of Indonesian throw pillows and an uncompromising illness that inundates her life. The fact that Eva takes great pains to mask her chronic migraines shows us just how intolerant society is to disease and illness. We want our authors to be as sexy and exciting as their books are, our partners to be the manifestation of uncompromising perfection, but real life isn’t like that.
The hook of Jessica S. Olson’s Sing Me Forgotten is that it’s a YA, gender-swapped version of The Phantom of the Opera. There may have been some scepticism on whether she could pull it off, considering how much of a classic Gaston Leroux’s novel is, but any doubt I had flew out the window the moment I was introduced to the world and characters she created.
In the place of the phantom is Isda, who was born a gravoir, a magical being that has been hunted out of existence. All gravoirs have a mark on their face that distinguishes them, so Isda grew up loathing the way she looked, envying all the beautiful singers who could stand in the limelight and soak in the applause, while Isda had to lurk in the shadows despite her musical ability and talent.
So Isda stays out of sight, until the day she hears the beautiful voice of Emeric, a janitor working in the opera house, with a dream to perform on stage one day. While his voice is untrained, Isda is moved by it in a way she hasn’t been before, so she offers to tutor him, and the more time she spends with him and his memories (which she greedily enters without his knowledge), the more she likes him and eventually falls for him.
What I liked about Olson’s book is that Isda and Emeric aren’t copies of the Phantom and Christine, and the world she’s fashioned is completely new and transfixing. And in YA books, the authors tend to sometimes rush the romance before it’s properly set up, but not Olson. She will have you rooting for Isda and Emeric all the way till the end.
In Andrea Bartz’ We Were Never Here, a girl’s trip to Chile takes a nightmarish turn when two best friends find themselves trekking to the middle of nowhere to bury a body. Emily, who is the protagonist of this story, finds her best friend drenched in the blood of a man she murdered in self-defense. Or so she says. Kristen doesn’t seem to have any defensive marks, and at times is remarkably calm for someone responsible for a man’s death.
This is the third novel of Bartz’s that I’ve read (the previous two being The Lost Night and The Herd), and as always I appreciate the focus on female characters, spaces and friendships. Bartz isn’t afraid of writing about the flawed, sometimes ugly behaviour of women, which allows them to be human as opposed to some incandescent angel of the house.
As opposed to usual mysteries, which reveal the antagonist at the end, Bartz is brilliantly bold to dangle the antagonist in plain sight, and still have the reader questioning who the real perpetrator is. A wild ride from start to finish, Bartz’s novel will hook itself into you and never let go.
Ava Reid’s debut novel makes the list of the best books of 2021 on account of it being a genre-defying, dark, intricate and angsty tale, with a good dose of sexy on the side too. It’s an alternate history-magical realism-fantasy grounded in reality story, with as many important things to say about the clash of real-world faiths as it has about any of the events in the novel; the Yehuli people are a clear analogue for those of the Jewish faith, and the ruling class are clearly Christian by design. This is a fantasy book for readers who love to be forced to think by the books that they read; it will leave any discerning reader with a lot to ponder.
Évike is the woman taken from her pagan village by the Holy Order Of The Woodsmen as a sacrifice to the king, leader of the patrician faith. Amongst the soldiers is Gáspár, the king’s heir. The two of them team up to fight against Gáspár’s fanatical half-brother, a man who would see the pagan and Yehuli people persecuted for their beliefs. Évike and Gáspár’s relationship is the highlight in a novel that never once stops riding high.
I think I’ve watched like a gazillion Seth Rogen movies by now, and I can safely say I quite enjoy his films – The Interview being the main exception. So my interest was piqued when I discovered that he had written a memoir, which is structured around his relationships with his family and friends, his Jewish identity and titbits about his younger days.
Rogen has a really striking writing voice – I could hear him in my head as I breezed through the novel, and boy was it funny. It’s always interesting to get a peek beneath the glossy lives of these celebrities, to get some insight into how it all began. Rogen isn’t afraid to strip back the layers of his life and show us the bones, or to laughingly reveal the matters that occupied his mind – like his lack of foreskin.
It’s an engaging piece of work, and considering the dumpster fire that these past two years have been, it was nice to read something that contains so much joie de vivre.
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