2021: The Best Of

In the second week of December, I sat down at my desk and seriously considered the reading year. I prepped myself for intense focus and elimination in order to determine the TEN BEST books I read this year. I encouraged and pep-talked to my heart’s content: you can do this! Never before have you been able to share only ten books as your end-of-year reading wrap-up, but THIS YEAR IS YOUR YEAR, ALISON. 

And then I promptly decided there were 23 books I couldn’t cross off the list. 

Sorry. 

(Also, I’m not sorry.)

I read too many good, nay, GREAT, books this year! I can’t limit myself, and I won’t. So there.

Here’s the full list of 5-star books I read in 2021: 
  • Taste, Stanley Tucci
  • I Hope This Finds You Well, Kate Baer
  • Heir of Fire, Sarah J. Maas
  • Falling, T.J. Newman
  • The Soulmate Equation, Christina Lauren
  • House of Earth and Blood, Sarah J. Maas
  • Real Friends, Shannon Hale
  • Songs in Ursa Major, Emma Brodie
  • The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton
  • Mary Jane, Jessica Anya Blau
  • The Midnight Library, Matt Haig
  • Malibu Rising, Taylor Jenkins Reid
  • New Kid, Jerry Craft
  • A Rogue of One’s Own, Evie Dunmore
  • Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech
  • Firekeeper’s Daughter, Angeline Boulley
  • This Close to Okay, Leesa Cross-Smith
  • Fable, Adrienne Young
  • Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton
  • A Court of Silver Flames, Sarah J. Maas
  • The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah
  • Serpent and Dove, Shelby Mahurin
  • On the Come Up, Angie Thomas
  • Home is Not a Country, Safia Elhillo
  • Finding Freedom, Erin French
  • Passing, Nella Larsen
  • A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle*
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling*
  • Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo
  • Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo
  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury*
  • The Guest List, Lucy Foley
  • Ella Enchanted, Gail Carlson Levine*
  • The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins*
  • Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins*

(*indicates a reread)

So, I think we can say with confidence that Sarah J. Maas wins my author award of the year because multiple of her books made it on my five-star list. Frankly, she’s incredible, but that’s not news for anyone. 

I also had a super great audiobook year; honestly, I read more great audiobooks than I ever have. My favorites were probably Taste and Passing, but New Kid was also incredible.

Okay, I’m going to try to determine which books I loved the most in the accurate order. Please pray for me, because this is about to get dicey.

The Best Books I Read in 2021 are as follows:

  1. Firekeeper’s Daughter, Angeline Boulley
  2. The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah
  3. Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo
  4. Fable, Adrienne Young
  5. Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton
  6. A Court of Silver Flames, Sarah J. Maas
  7. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, JK Rowling
  8. House of Earth and Blood, Sarah J. Maas
  9. Mary Jane, Jessica Anya Blau
  10. Finding Freedom, Erin French
  11. Malibu Rising, Taylor Jenkins Reid
  12. A Rogue of One’s Own, Evie Dunmore
  13. Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo
  14. Songs in Ursa Major, Emma Brodie
  15. The Guest List, Lucy Foley
  16. I Hope This Finds You Well, Kate Baer
  17. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, JKR
  18. Taste, Stanley Tucci
  19. Heir of Fire, Sarah J. Maas
  20. This Close to Okay, Leesa Cross-Smith
  21. Giver of Stars, Jojo Moyes
  22. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton
  23. On the Come Up, Angie Thomas

My very best books of the year weren’t hard to pinpoint. Honestly, Firekeeper’s Daughter and The Great Alone were potentially all-time favorites, they were both that incredible. The problem is that I read a bunch of genres I don’t typically read or see at the top of my year-end favorites list (I’m thinking namely of fantasy and nonfiction here) and I just don’t know what to do with those. They were wildcards, that’s what. And additionally, ugh, I just read so many great books!!! What am I to do?! 

Is it escaping me that there were 40 five-star reads this year and I’m including over half of those in my best-of? No, no it’s not. 

I think maybe it would be easiest to do this by genre, so here we go: 

FANTASY

For whatever reason (cough cough, COVID-19, cough cough) this was the year of fantasy for me. I read gobs and gobs of fantasy books, and I had the absolute best time doing it. This was the year I found Leigh Bardugo (Shadow and Bone? Fine. Six of Crows? INCREDIBLE.) and Adrienne Young and deepened the never-ending infatuation with Sarah J. Maas. I read other fantasy authors and enjoyed them, but these are the ones that stuck with me. My best fantasy books this year? Take a peek below.

  • Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo
    • I love this book. I love the world, I love the characters, I love the heists! I love the crime and the filth and the hearts of gold underneath of them. I love the cleverness. I love it all.
  • Fable, Adrienne Young
    • Fable was the first character I fell in love with in 2021. The way Young gives her such fire and spirit and determination really won me over; additionally, it had a real Peter Pan-but-tougher feel that I could NOT get enough of. Honestly? Fable has probably the most ideal fantasy world setting you could find for me. And also? It’s just a total blast to read. Fun and exciting from start to finish.
  • A Court of Silver Flames, Sarah J. Maas
    • Anyone who’s talked to me about books in the last two years has heard me rant about how much more interesting Nesta is than Feyre. I’m not lying, I’m not kidding, I’m not taking it back. So, I was thrilled to have an entire book dedicated to her. Also, Cassian is my favorite of the Bat Boys, which makes this book virtually hand-crafted for me. I’m pretty sure I’m actually the reason Sarah J. Maas wrote it. Nbd. I loved this story and watching their love story develop (it was a bit too steamy for me, but I’ll forgive it); however, the element of this story that I loved the very most was that of the Valkyries. Strong women supporting one another as they heal and grow and become total warriors. Obsessed. 
  • House of Earth and Blood, Sarah J. Maas
    • I was psyched to read this, and also floored because it feels totally different than the ACOTAR series (the only SJM I’d read up to this point). I loved it, obviously. It was darker and urban, weirdly, and had so many different types of creatures that I almost needed a log to keep them all straight, but it was a complex that I loved. There were outsiders and friendships and of course, because it’s SJM, a hot love story. 
  • Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo
    • This book has to win some sort of award because I finished this and immediately started weeping IN PUBLIC. At a CAR SHOW, NO LESS. People are burning rubber and honking horns all around me and I’m sitting in a lawn chair shedding actual, real-life tears. This book will break your heart and blow your mind. It’s just as good as Six of Crows, in my opinion.
  • Heir of Fire, Sarah J. Maas
    • I love SJM, obviously, if you’re here you know that. I started the Throne of Glass series earlier this year mainly because I had no more of her books to read, and I was desperate. The first one? Good, fine, enjoyed it. The second one? Better, ended so brilliantly I couldn’t wait for the third. This one?! Rocked my freaking world. So good. So much back story. So much fighting. Big fan. 

HISTORICAL FICTION

Historical Fiction has always been my darling. I’ve loved it from the very beginning when I was a small lass devouring Martha Finley books and Dear America tales by the wagon-full. I didn’t give the genre as much time as I have in the past because I’ve introduced a few new genres into my reading routine, but several great HF reads still made my best-of list this year! 

  • The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah
    • You know I loved this, one of my top books of the year. I’m honestly completely obsessed with it. The nature writing was incredibly beautiful, the plot was propulsive and interesting and complicated, and the characters seemed like real people in a way that is rare to encounter. I wept and had to audibly sigh after finishing the story. I knew Kristin Hannah was great before I started reading this one, but this really cemented her position as an icon in my list of revered writers. 
  • Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton
    • This book caught me off guard! I had no idea I’d be as enamored with the story as I was. I think the thing I loved the most about Next Year in Havana was that it presented a part of the world and of history that I knew very little about prior to reading; I constantly found myself googling events and characters and scenarios as I read. And also, it was mega-glamorous in a vintage way, which I love. I have high hopes of reading more Chanel Cleeton in the near future. 
  • Mary Jane, Jessica Anya Blau
    • WHAT A CUTE FREAKING BOOK. I had very few expectations for this one and was totally blown away by the story. This was music-related, a trend I noticed in a bunch of my reads from the year. It was also a coming-of-age story, and I am such a sucker for those! I’ve become moderately obsessed with 1960s-1970s music, and this was so adjacent to that time period and world that I ate every bit of it up. 
  • Malibu Rising, Taylor Jenkins Reid
    • I love TJR, and I’ll read anything she releases. Was this my favorite of her books? No. Did I still totally enjoy it? Obviously, it’s in my Top 20. It has so many things I love, like ‘80s pop culture, rich people problems, and *ding ding ding* sibling drama! Loved it. Also– just the perfect amount of chaos.  
  • Songs in Ursa Major, Emma Brodie 
    • Again, a music book! This was completely inspired by real-life people and real-life events, which I LOVE. It was slow and building and romantic and just musical, which feels like a cop-out as an adjective, but I feel like it’s the truth. It was a special book, and I’m so grateful I got an e-ARC of this one. 
  • The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, Dawnie Walton
    • Surprise, surprise! Another music book. I will say, this one was frequently compared to Daisy Jones and the Six (another favorite) in marketing, so I had a pretty good indication that I’d love it. However, it felt TOTALLY different from Daisy Jones. The vibe of the book was a completely different feel, and in a great way. It was less rock-and-roll, more personal voyage and discovery. Both featured strong, iconic women, but aside from that they were only similar to me in genre. I liked this so, so much.  
  • The Giver of Stars, Jojo Moyes
    • I had complicated feelings when starting this book because of the controversial release and its coinciding story with The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, one of my very favorite books from a few years ago. That being said, I received it as a gift, so I endeavored to read it anyway because I was dying for some good historical fiction– Jojo Moyes typically delivers, in my past reading experiences, anyway. This book has some of the greatest female relationships and friendships that I’ve ever read. It’s so deeply entrenched in history (and a history that received very little attention until recent years), but it’s also very much about the strength and resilience of women. I really enjoyed it. Not as much as Troublesome Creek, but I still loved it. 

NONFICTION

  • Finding Freedom, Erin French
    • Big thanks to Celadon Books, because this was the very first ever galley I received in the mail without requesting it from the publisher. I was elated when I opened the mail box and found this there; I knew after reading it in January that it would likely be in my favorites of the year. That’s how strongly I felt this book. I go crazy for books about food (you’ll notice that in the next book I talk about, too) but this was special because of how beautifully Erin French incorporated her experiences with food into the events of her life. It was a really lovely memoir. And the television show is just as good!
  • Taste, Stanley Tucci
    • Stanley Tucci narrating an audiobook? Yes, please! His food stories and reminiscences were just a total and complete blast to listen to. I loved it, thought it was just so much fun, and honestly? I was impressed by how well he wrote this. I don’t know, there was just something about it that I loved. I think there are so many people who would enjoy it to no end. 
  • I Hope This Finds You Well, Kat Baer
    • Kate Baer is so good (you already know). I do love a great poetry collection, but most of the poetry I read anymore are e-ARCS from Netgalley; it’s really beautiful to have a finished, physical copy of a poetry collection sitting in my hands that I can slowly absorb and think about. I love Blackout Poetry, so this was a special treat for me.

YA FICTION

Note: Mary Jane, Fable, Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom, and any Harry Potter books could also fit into this genre; I placed them where they resonated most strongly with me

  • Firekeeper’s Daughter, Angeline Boulley
    • Spoiler, but no spoiler: this is my favorite book of the year. I was just totally obsessed with everything about it. The way this story incorporates prejudice and mystery and identity and a bunch of other crazy elements (like love triangles and loss and assault and drug use and nature and hockey?) had me reeling in the very, very best way. While Daunis, the main character, wasn’t necessarily my faovrite character of the year, I loved literally every single thing about this book. I always love books that explore identity, and this one didn’t that brilliantly while not spending a boring amount of time philosophizing or reflecting; there’s constant action and complicated families and an element of mystery. It also had one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve read in literature in recent years (if you’ve read this, hit me up and I’ll tell you which one I’m talking about). I can’t say enough good things about it. 
  • On the Come Up, Angie Thomas 
    • Something that’s been totally true of my reading this year is that I’ve been drawn to strong, realistic female characters and protagonists. I loved this book BECAUSE of Bri; her personality was so relatable. The doubts she feels and decisions she makes in this book felt like those that a real adolescent would, and I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for seeing that in a YA book (my biggest complaint about YA is often that the characters feel completely, totally unbelievable). I just loved her spirit; also, I was super into the fact that the author, Angie Thomas, communicated the theme of doing what is maybe the wrong thing for the right reason (a theme that is, in my opinion, so relatable to adolescence and also big kids) incredibly masterfully.

MYSTERY/THRILLER

  • The Guest List, Lucy Foley
    • Is anyone looking for a TRIP, because boy oh boy will this book deliver. I neared the end thinking I knew all the twists… and while I called probably two of them, there were like, FOUR BILLION surprises as the story wrapped itself up (so neatly, I might add). I literally read it in one day— do you know how rare that is in my teacher mom lifestyle? Let me tell you, friends, it’s RARE. This is a thriller I can actually recommend with gusto. Will say, there are several trigger warnings, including: abuse, suicide, bullying, and murder. It’s a dark book in a lot of ways, so if you’re a sensitive reader, this may not be for you. But if you aren’t! Read it so we can talk about it.

ROMANCE

  • A Rogue of One’s Own, Evie Dunmore
    • Historical romances are, apparently, MY THING. I’d not really read many before this year (with the exception of maybe Outlander), but the ones I’ve read this year have been such fun and immersive experiences. In this novel, Lucie, a suffragist disowned by her well-reputed British family, is scheming at every opportunity to get materials about equality and women’s rights into the hands of the public. Along with her friends, it seems that her goals are within reach when she encounters an obstacle: her long-time foe, the infamous rogue Tristan. Hijinks and hotness abound. It was a total romp, and I loved it a lot. I think there are so many readers who would enjoy this story. Lucie (like so many other protagonists in this best-of list) was full of fire and independence and strength. I loved her. That’s it, that’s the review. 

CONTEMPORARY FICTION

  • This Close to Okay, Leesa Cross Smith
    • Let me tell you. I think Leesa Cross-Smith might be a literary genius. The general tone and voice in This Close to Okay is equally masterful and beautiful and wonderful. And the world created in the pages of this book is all of those things, as well. I loved the way she explored the relationship between Emmett and Tallie, strangers, in this story; I loved the way that she addressed and dealt with the complexity presented by that same relationship. I loved it when we alternated between their perspectives and how she slowly, deliberately crept backstory clues into the narrative. I loved how she described Tallie’s home as the epitome of comfort and domestic peace. I loved the fact that this novel (which takes place over only a short period of days) felt fully formed; I loved how much I ached for the characters and how I yearned for their own happiness. I have to say that this is a really, really sad story; it would be a disservice to all of you reading not to make that entirely clear. But MY GOSH is it deserving of your time and attention.

That’s it! That’s 2021 in the books, as the kids say. Do we have any favorites in common? Drop them in the comments if we do!

Until we meet again, happy reading!

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