It’s the final day of 2021 and that means the time has come to rave about the best books I read this year. In 2021 I read 60 books and, like last year, I had a lot of middle-of-the-road, 3-3.5-ish star reads. This meant that the books I loved (and the ones I didn’t) stood out a lot more than they would have otherwise. Yet, it also means I didn’t have as many 5 star reads as I would have liked. In fact, in 2021 I only rated 2 books 5 stars. Sad, but true. However, I did have a handful of 4.5 star ones, which is nothing to turn my nose up at either. And so, here are my 10 favourite reads of 2021…
Special Mention: Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir | Review
I went back and forth for ages over what to rate this book. It came so close to getting an entry on this list so I feel I’d be remiss not to mention it because I had such a good time while reading. PHM follows a man named Dr. Ryland Grace who wakes up from a coma onboard a spaceship with no memory of who he is or how he came to be there. As he starts to piece things together, he realises he’s on a mission to save humanity. While there’s a lot of science-speak and Ryland does bear similarities to The Martian‘s Mark Watney, the story is super engaging from start to finish and full of questions you can’t help but keep flipping pages until you reach the answers for. There’s also a surprising and wholesome friendship that became one of my favourites of the year. Good to know that Andy Weir is back on form.
10. The Good Daughter – Karin Slaughter
I used to read a lot of crime books back in high school but since then I’ve tended to pick them up a lot less. Karin Slaughter is one of the bigger names in the genre and has been successfully publishing for around 20 years. Now, having finished The Good Daughter, I understand why because her writing is exceptional. The overarching crime plot of the book (a school shooting) is engaging enough and maintains a good sense of momentum, however, the depth and strength of her main characters, sisters Charlie & Sam, are where it shines. I really appreciated the way the book slowly dug into their childhood trauma and how the events surrounding their mother’s death affected them into adulthood. I also liked the way it dealt with the complex nature of their familial bonds. It’s a dark and violent read at times but worth the time investment if you can handle the themes. I’ll be making sure to check out more of Slaughter’s backlog in the future.
9. A Ladder to the Sky – John Boyne
The true winner of my 2021, it seems, was John Boyne with not only one but two books on this list! A Ladder to the Sky was one of my 5 star predictions and while it just fell short, I thought it was fantastic. It’s about an attractive & charming aspiring novelist named Maurice who possesses great writing talent but little creativity for coming up with original ideas. And so, he climbs the literary fame ladder by getting close to, manipulating, and stealing the stories of others. As time goes on, he has to go to greater lengths to stay in the spotlight. The dialogue in this book is great and I really enjoyed its criticism of the literary world. I loved the moral greyness of the characters, the dark humour, and that the shifts in time and narration kept me on my toes as to what would happen next. If you enjoy love to hate characters, this will be right in your wheelhouse. Even the ending was unexpected perfection. Aside from a couple of slower points, pretty darn good.
8. Crying in H Mart – Michelle Zauner
I finished this beautifully written and heartbreaking memoir in under two days. I’ve never really been a fan of Japanese Breakfast’s music but after hearing so many wonderful things about singer/songwriter Michelle’s book, I knew I had to read it. I completely understand why this was picked as Goodreads’ best memoir & autobiography for the year. It details Michelle’s complicated relationship with her mother and the deep pain of losing her to cancer when Michelle was only 25. The sections outlining Michelle caring for her mother and worrying about having lost her link to her Korean heritage following her mum’s death absolutely broke my heart. I also loved reading about Michelle’s bond with food and how important it was in connecting with her mum and her Korean identity. I’m not sure if this book made me want to curl up into a ball or eat until I explode. Probably both.
7. The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne
I wasn’t really sure what to expect with THIF. All I knew was that it was immensely well-reviewed and deservedly so. The book follows a gay man named Cyril and tells the story of his life in Ireland in the decades prior to the legalisation of homosexuality. As you can imagine, the story deals with some tough topics such as the religious and public persecution of LGBTI people as well as the AIDS crisis. Boyne’s writing is fantastic and perfectly straddles the line between comedy and tragedy. The style is a little absurd at times, especially the characters’ interactions, but if it’s something you can gel with you’ll have a lot of fun (well, with plenty of pain, too). I loved following the characters over a large part of their lives, although I do feel like I missed out on some things due to the time jumps. Still, this was an amazing read and I’ll be looking to pick up more of Boyne’s books in 2022.
6. Twice Shy – Sarah Hogle | Review
The fact that this book was not read by more people is a crime because it’s SO LOVELY. At this point, I’m starting to think Sarah Hogle is one of those authors who could write a shopping list and I’d read it. TS is about optimistic and romantic, Maybell. She inherits a large house after the death of her great aunt with plans to turn it into a hotel only to find she’s actually co-inherited it with the grouchy groundskeeper, Wesley. The two then work together to fix it up but with different end goals in mind. Gotta love that forced proximity trope. It’s a little corny at times but so darn adorable and uplifting. I loved the characters, their romance (especially the grumpy-sunshine dynamic), and that they handled their issues in such a non-annoying way. It wasn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as Sarah’s debut but I was okay with that. The perfect medicine for a rubbish day.
5. The Love Hypothesis – Ali Hazelwood
I went into this fully prepared for it to be an overinflated product of the hype train. Guess the joke’s on me. This book was the perfect bundle of sweet, trope-y, sunshine-y fluff and I had so much fun. It’s about a grad biology student called Olive who starts a fake dating ruse with one of the university’s grumpy professors, Adam, to convince her best friend she’s over a guy. The banter and chemistry between Olive & Adam was so enjoyable and comforting, and I was super eager for them to finally get together. The STEM setting for the book was also great and felt developed & believable (probably because of Hazelwood’s science background). The miscommunication trope was utilised a touch too much for my liking but I lapped up the book’s self-aware approach to the ample other romance tropes included. Easily one of my favourite romances of 2021 and I would 100% reread it.
4. Empire of the Vampire – Jay Kristoff | Review
When you’ve been waiting over 2.5 years for a book, expectations get high. To my immense relief, EotV mostly managed to meet them. JK has brought scary, rip-your-throat-out vampires back in a big way. The book is set in a world in which the sun has disappeared and vampires now rule. Gabriel de Leon, last of a holy order, awaits execution and is compelled to tell his life’s story to a vampire historian, including his journey to find the holy grail. It’s full of gore, violence, smut, foul language, moody-vibes, religious themes, revenge, and emotional moments, and I had a blast (well, except for when my heart was being crushed at the end). The world-building is fantastic, pacing spot on, and although I started out on rocky ground with some of them, the characters grew on me a lot. There are a couple of questionable things that let the book down a little, but overall, an amazing blend of action, adventure, romance, horror and drama. Give me the sequel, stat!
3. The Burning God – R F Kuang
I really wish I wasn’t this predictable but here we are, with another entry from The Poppy War series. After books one & two took out spots on my 2020 and 2021 lists, I don’t think any of you are surprised to see The Burning God here. I was massively looking forward to this last installment in the series and while it wasn’t a perfect read, I wasn’t disappointed with the final experience. There were a couple of plotlines that I wish had played out a little differently but this was still such a fantastically action-packed, twisty, exciting and heartwrenching book. The ending wasn’t what I was expecting but still fit the trajectory of the series, despite its shocking nature (my brain literally had trouble processing it). I can safely say that TBG secured The Poppy War trilogy as one of my favourite series of all time and I’m excited to go back and reread it all one day.
2. The Push – Ashley Audrain
Back in August, I was starting to get worried about the state of this list. Then The Push came along and holy hell. This book just breezed right on in and not only captivated me from start to finish but sent me on an absolute emotional rollercoaster. It’s about a woman named Blythe who becomes convinced that there’s something…off about her daughter, Violet. When tragedy strikes, Blythe believes Violet to be the one responsible. But is it all in her head? There have been quite a few books revolving around an ‘evil’ child dividing parents but it’s done so well here. The writing is just *chef’s kiss* – raw, stunning perfection. The Push seems to have been marketed as this big twisty thriller but it’s more of a psychological drama that explores things like grief, mental health, societal expectations, and family life. It also delves into this complex and often brutal idea of motherhood in contravention of stereotypes. It’s short, memorable, crushing and so worth a read.
And now for the big one.
My favourite read of 2021 is….
1. If We Were Villains – M. L. Rio
Dark academia reigns supreme this year! I have no idea how to explain why I’m so obsessed with this book, but I am. Literally, the minute I finished, I wanted to reread it. IWWV follows a group of acting students studying the works of Shakespeare at a prestigious college. Their friendships and lives implode after one of them dies under tragic and mysterious circumstances. It’s a bit pretentious but, apparently, I’m into that. The book explores the ideas of life imitating art & art imitating life. I loved the way the story was structured like a modern tragedy, the characters were designed like theatre role stereotypes, and that the plays performed tied into the group’s reality. Even though it’s a mystery/thriller, what I was most enthralled by was seeing the secrets, guilt, jealousy, and love eat away at the characters and their relationships. I loved exploring their strengths, insecurities, and desire to change the way they’re perceived. However, I really wish I were better versed in Shakespeare’s works to fully appreciate all the nuances and subtext because I’m sure there’s so much that I’m missing. Ugh, this book was just so GOOD. I loved it so much, and that’s why it takes my number one spot.
And that’s it from me for another year. I hope you’ve all had a fantastic 12 months full of wonderful books and that many, many more are in store for you in 2022.
What were your favourite reads of 2021? (So I can add them to my enormous TBR).