The Best Books I Read in 2021

Due to a combination of things (lockdown, no social life, a really good to-read list), I completely obliterated my yearly goal of 52 books. I hit my goal by the end of May, and by the end of 2021 I had read (or listened to on audiobook, it was around a 70/30 split) 100 books. And folks, most of them were very good.

I’m pretty much a pro at only choosing books I’ll enjoy these days. This is good, because I hate to DNF (did not finish) a book. Luckily, I know whose reviews I trust, both among friends and pros, which tropes I love and hate, which authors I’ll follow to the end of the earth, and so on. That doesn’t mean I never pick up a dud, or that I never take a risk with something that may (or may not) surprise me, but when you look at my Goodreads and see heaps of 4- and 5-star reviews, it’s more because I know how to pick ’em than because I’m not discerning.

Speaking of Goodreads, I’m trying to transition to Storygraph this year, or at least use it in addition to GR, although I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. So if anyone’s on it, add me!

Anyway, my best books of the year. I couldn’t narrow it down further than 15 fiction and 10 nonfiction favourites, so here they are:

Fiction

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa — Best book I read this year by far. Is it the richness of the prose? Is it the way it melds genres? Is it the way the plot draws you in? An exquisite, lyrical, beautiful book.

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood — Funnily enough another book that defies genre classification. Never have I gone quicker from laughing to crying and back again. Smart, funny, devastating.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney — I’m sure no one will be surprised to see this rank so highly on my list. Probably her best work yet. This novel feels so personal to me, like she was digging around in my brain. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it.

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant — KILLER MERMAIDS. Fabulously tense and fun. Also a great example of a diverse cast of characters (various genders and ethnicities and sexualities, one main character is autistic, one is Deaf, etc.) without it feeling tokenistic. 

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir — I actually almost put this down around a quarter of the way through but I pushed on because so many people loved it and it became one of my fave depictions of an ET ever. So clever and so funny!

The City We Became by NK Jemisin — The boroughs of NYC personified to fight an eldritch horror bent on destroying the universe, what more could you want? A tapestry, a love letter, a multiverse of New Yorks and the people that are its heart and spirit.

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott — A magical-realism tinged book about ecological trauma and climate change, beautiful, super vivid imagery and completely absorbing.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones — I picked up work by a few horror novelists I’d never read before for the first time this year and this was definitely the standout. A super gory, creepy novel about a couple of Native men whose past comes back to haunt them.

The Good House by Tananarive Due — Another horror author I read for the first time, will definitely look for more of her work in 2022. This is horror that builds from a disquieting, unsettling hum to a thrilling end.

Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo — Self-destructive sad boys pining for each other and the paranormal (and non paranormal) things that haunt them, with a dark academia bent… basically hitting all the best keywords for me. Dense and complex, but worth the effort.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu — What an innovative and clever novel. I love when a book has an interesting format, and I love even more when the format is perfectly fitting for the story. Written in the format of a TV screenplay. So smart, so darkly funny, so thoughtful.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — Everyone and their mom has probably already recommended this to you all (my mom recced it to me) and they’re all right. Deftly changing between perspectives, narratives, and timelines, it’s so carefully and thoughtfully balanced, richly complex.

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox — A fantasy book that doesn’t give a fuck what you want. Weaving fantasy, reality, religion, language, literature, and time, it’s a twisting, complex, sometimes frustrating book that requires work and is completely worth it.

Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez — A powerhouse of a protagonist, full of drive and talent not only to succeed at football but also to carve her own path despite the expectations of her family, gender, and culture. The story flies, the setting is rich, and it’s a lot of fun.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas — “Boarding school with a spoooooky secret” is one of my favourite tropes, and this is deliciously gothic and atmospheric. An eerie and engaging dark academia novel.

Nonfiction

The Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib — Abdurraqib is one of America’s great culture writers, this is a collection of essays on Black culture and performance through American history and a variety of media, sharp, insightful, beautifully written.

How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith — Another stunningly talented poet/journalist/essayist. In each chapter Smith explores an important location in the history of slavery, not only the history itself but also how it is shared today, whether it’s sanitised, who tells the story, etc. Fascinating and important.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner — Have tissues ready for this one. Zauner’s memoir of grief and love is intimate and personal, frank and lyrical. Written in a style that reads as though the author is telling it straight to you.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe — Obviously Radden Keefe is just an unbelievably good journalist and this is a gripping and infuriating book about the Sackler dynasty and the opioid crisis.

Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen — An expansion of her original viral article on burnout, this is much better than the article because it delves much deeper from an intersectional viewpoint and looks at how various factors can lead to different experiences with burnout.

Yearbook by Seth Rogen — I mean, this is just really fucking funny. A super fun read, but also full of kind and thoughtful moments from a hilarious person who also seems to be a pretty decent one. 

Our Time is Now by Stacey Abrams — An in-depth but accessible look at the historical and current status of voter rights and suppression, laid out in a clear and comprehensive way with actionable steps for fighting for voting rights in the United States.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe — Dispelling the myth that early Aboriginal Australians were a strictly hunter-gatherer culture, this book looks at extensive evidence of agriculture and settlement going back 80 thousand years, and how it can inform a more eco-friendly way of farming today.

She Come By It Natural by Sarah Smarsh — Smarsh is an excellent cultural critic with a working class rural background, and her analysis of Dolly Parton’s’s position in culture and the canon is thoughtful and from a place of love that makes it a fitting tribute to a woman like Dolly.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane — Macfarlane is one of the best nature writers, and this book pairs the power of nature and the power of language in a beautiful duet. Between each chapter is a glossary of related words and their origins, offering links between language and place.

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