I already wrote about this specifically – namely that I’ve read over 100 books in 2021 – so I’m not going to focus on it. Additionally at some point next week, the fine book editors here will publish a list of the best books of 2021, which you should definitely check out. What I’m going to do here, is instead talk about the best books I read in 2021.
Over the years of me beginning to read again post undergraduate burnout, I have found that I have a few preferences. I tend to like genre fiction, I tend to read a lot of works by diverse authors. And I am a particularly voracious reader. I will not be restricting this list to books that came out in 2021 because that feels a bit silly and because a book does not cease to exist after the year has passed. If you’re looking for the best books I read this year I have included the release dates for all of these books.
I made this in a video form through Instagram Reels, but it’s very fast and has no blurbs because Internet videos are short. Anyway, here’s the list (in no particular order):
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019)
A gay epistolary novel between two lady spies as they travel through history. If you somehow missed this one (it honestly feels like it’s a modern classic among genre readers) it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s a lovely book, relatively short, and has the kind of mind-bending aspects that makes for a good time travel story.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell (2021)
I am weak for a himbo in a gay romance – seriously this will not be the first time that comes up in this books conversation – and Winter’s Orbit has a himbo and his genius partner, a man he has to politically marry for the safety of the galaxy. It’s full of awkward emotional situations, political intrigue and space.
I have written about Winter’s Orbit before, here.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo (2014)
Set in colonial Malaysia, The Ghost Bride is an unconventional sort of story full of death and the afterlife. The book I have found that it most closely resembles is actually Gods of Jade and Shadow but even that doesn’t do it justice. It’s interesting to read if you love world building. While this has been adapted into a series on Netflix, I have not seen that series so I can’t really comment on it’s accuracy to the source material.
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
I did not realize before this year that Dracula is an epistolary novel, something that makes me feel like a bad goth. I did a buddy read of this this year, along with the rest of the Unwinnable books folks, through the newsletter Dracula Daily which split the book up across a series of newsletters. It’s a good read – and for something as old as Dracula is, it definitely holds up.
Sorted by Jackson Bird (2019)
A memoir about coming out as a trans man, Sorted is a deeply empathetic book about gender identity and coming to terms (in a very public way) with your own gender. It’s a bit Trans 101 at times, but I think Bird does a good job talking about topics like top surgery, dating while coming out and more. Some of it hasn’t aged super well (the title is a Harry Potter reference) but I think it’s still worth checking out.
A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske (2021)
Remember what I said earlier about himbo’s in gay romances? A Marvellous Light has probably one of the best himbo’s in romance, and Marske has placed him in a romance with a wizard librarian in this fish-out-of-water fantasy. It’s like the best parts of the Fantastic Beasts movie (the friendship between a mundane human and an outcast wizard) but without supporting abusive people and it’s actually gay.
The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling (2021)
I wasn’t expecting to have a very traditional, straight, seasonal romantic comedy on my best of the year list and yet here we are. The Ex Hex feels a bit like Practical Magic strained through a lighter sieve, about a woman cursing the love of her life when he leaves her to go marry another woman, but inadvertently cursing the whole town as a byproduct. It’s sweet and a little silly, but it’s got a lot going for it and is a very quick read.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw (2021)
This is a short one, but definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for something a bit different and deeply creepy. A bunch of “friends” try to stage a wedding in a haunted house, and end up in an actual real haunted house, haunted by a spirit bride.
Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo (2021)
I honestly wasn’t expecting to love this one quite as much as I did, even halfway through the book, but it absolutely delivers. Summer Sons is a Southern gothic novel about family curses, street racing and falling in love with your best friend to the point where everyone around you knows it but you don’t. I love this book and the end ties it together for me.
Happiness Volume 6 by Shuzo Oshimi (2017)
The Happiness manga series is a story about sexual awakenings and vampires, but Volume 6 stands out to me as something different (in a good way) from the rest of it’s companions). Volume 6 is all about being a survivor, about growing up from something horrific and literally, physically scarring and having to confront that reality in the mirror every day. It’s a really good read.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (2008)
The Three Body Problem is kind of considered the standard for translated Chinese fiction, and having now read the first book in this series, I can see why. It’s a dense book – highly referential to history and politics – and I can’t imagine attempting to read it without the context of a solid translation. The Three Body Problem is the kind of dense science fiction that i used to read as a tenager, and I am so confused about how they’re going to turn it into a television series.
Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (2016)
This book won’t hit everyone but as someone who grew up online during the Tumblr age, this book felt incredibly authentic to that experience. The point in time where you’re a teenager and most of your friends are friends of geography and the only thing that brings you together is that you’re weird and different and you like each other’s shoes. It speaks to the hope that the Internet brought that maybe, just maybe, you weren’t alone.
The Reaper and the Waiting by Jayessart (2021)
Gorgeously drawn webtoon about the relationship between a Grim Reaper and a ghost; it’s a reincarnation story about magic and the enduring power of love. It happens to be relatively short, so it’s an excellent introductory WebToon for folks who are less familiar with the form.
A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow (2021)
I have a weakness for fairy-tale retellings and the decision here to not only rewrite Sleeping Beauty but to use it as a meta-commentary on retellings is particularly genius. The main story is one of terminal illness and even tying that to Sleeping Beauty is something that really resonated with me.
Incredible Doom by Jesse Holden and Matthew Bogart (2021)
A graphic novel about the rise of the Internet age and friendship – it’s a series of stories, and they’re all incredibly tied to reality in different ways. It speaks really well to the time it is set in, and is definitely worth checking out.
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao (2021)
A YA novel that is a combination of things like Pacific Rim and the only female emperor of China Wu Zeitian, Zhao has somehow managed to write a story grounded in the perils of being born a woman in a patriarchal society with giant alien insects and mechs. If you’re interested in young adult fiction – and this one verges more on adult for me – with a polyamorous, fully realized love triangle you sould probaby check out Iron Widow.
Garlic & The Vampire by Bree Paulsen (2021)
A middle grades graphic novel about a personified head of garlic facing it’s fears and bringing community to a vampire. This has like, Over the Garden Wall vibes but far sweeter and if you’ve got someone in your life who is a child and would like a cute read, I definitely recommend this.
The Chosen And the Beautiful by Nghi Vo (2021)
At this point, Nghi Vo is probably my favorite writer – whenever there’s a new release, I’m quick to grab it. The Chosen & the Beautiful is a Great Gatsby retelling from the perspective of a queer, Asian adoptee Jordan Baker – with a touch of magic. Vo writes a sumptuous story in novella form, and with this novel she’s given room to breathe life into these characters in a new way. I love it.
Silent Reading by Priest (2016)
I read a few danmei works this year, as of writing this I’m literally finishing the official English translation of MXTX’s Heaven Official’s Blessing. But I’ve talked before about MXTX, so I’d like to point out another danmei powerhouse (Priest) and in my opinion, her best work Silent Reading. This book is a crime novel about generational trauma, violence, and being willing to accept yourself in time to find love. It’s gay and it’s wonderful, and I cannot wait til it gets an official English translation (this is not even in the works as far as I know).
A Man Who Defies the World of BL by Konkichi (2018)
I have started reading more BL (Boy’s Love) works in the last two years, and this web series was a great addition to those works. A meta commentary on the form, A Man Who Defies the World of BL is about a young man (named Mob) who lives in a world where everything is a BL – most of the humor of the series is him avoiding becoming a main character and remaining a side character, all the while everyone around him is constantly falling in love on street corners and in classes. It’s a lot of fun and worth checking out.
Heartstopper by Alice Oseman (2019)
I’ve only read the first in this series of graphic novels, but it’s definitely worth checking out. A slice of life gay story about an athlete (who hasn’t fully figured out his own sexuality) and the out gay boy at school who has a crush on him feels like something that would be full of angst and bury your gay tropes, but it’s honestly very cute and worth reading.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton (2021)
This book is a faux-documentary about music and race, and it is quite good. The book focuses on the eponymous duo Opal and Nev that was at an Altamont-type event where a riot happened and how that event defined not only their lives, but the music culture of a nation, and the lives of the writer – whose father died at that concert. It’s a really good dive into the music scene and the impact of race on who gets rich, and who lives with the consequences.
Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas (2021)
I saw a lot of people reacting poorly to this book – the author’s second after the critically acclaimed Cemetery Boys – which I found to be relatively odd. The book is not Cemetery Boys, which is steeped in both culture and in the main character’s identity as a trans man, but it is still good. Lost in the Never Woods is a retelling of Peter Pan that focuses on grief, loss and growing up and it does all of those things very well. If you like re-imaginings, this should be on your ‘to read’ list.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon (2021)
I found this book to be deeply intimate, and at its strongest when it leaned into those moments of intimacy; the touches between partners, the disappointment within a family, a child’s confusion with their parent. That Solomon then weds those elements into a story of generational memory and someone slowly losing control of their own body is all the more remarkable.
Love or Hate by Yeongha (2021)
This is an all-time great for me. I can say that even though it doesn’t end the way that I wanted to. Our lead character is a sex writer who can’t seem to settle down and the relationships he has with the men in his life. It is incredibly well drawn, the characters are given true arcs, and while I am not wild about the final pairing, this deserves to be on a list of the best of the year since it’s probably the best manhwa or webtoon I’ve ever read.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (1997)
This year I got mad about Everest, and so I read a few books as background before writing about that rage.. One of those was a reread of one of my all time favorite non-fiction books, Into Thin Air. There’s a great difficulty in breaking down niche topics so that they’re consumable by the general topic, but it’s a skill set that I think Krakauer has developed over the years. This book is thoughtful, passionate and one I highly recommend if you’re interested in reading about mountaineering.
Buried in the Sky by Amanda Padoan and Peter Zuckerman (2012)
There are fewer books on Sherpa climbers than you’d expect for the sheer amount of books on Himalayan climbing. Buried in the Sky is easily a top tier non-fiction book, but in addition for the context it gives on the subject of Sherpa climbers. The book is about one of the deadliest days on the peak K2 and follows several Sherpa’s as they save lives, live and die. It’s definitely worth checking out.
XOXO by Axie Oh (2021)
I read a lot of K-pop novels this year, and by far the best of those was Axie Oh’s XOXO. It manages to balance out a lot of complicated subject matter – long distance relationships, end of life care, tense family relationships, idol culture – in a story where things felt like they mattered. It’s a solid piece of young adult fiction, and definitely the best K-pop novel that I’ve read.
Dowry of Blood by ST Gibson (2021)
Did you read Dracula and think “huh this could’ve been way more queer?” Good news! May I introduce you to Dowry of Blood, a book about abusive relationships, polyamory and escape. This book is sumptuous and interesting and made me want to read way more from this author.
The Valley and the Flood by Rebecca Mahoney (2021)
It seems fitting to end this list on this book – one of the ones that I think was the most overlooked by mainstream book reviewers. The Valley and the Flood is a thoughtful magical realism dissection of the torrential power of grief. It’s a beautiful book and it’s one that I still think about despite reading it at the start of the year.
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