The 15 Best Books I Read in 2021
1. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune
This adult fantasy is about a caseworker (Linus) who assesses orphanages for magical children. He's sent to an island inhabited by six dangerous children and their caretaker. This is one of my favorite books that I've EVER read. It's a fluffy, feel good read about found family with a heart melting cast of characters. If you're feeling down (as many of us are living during this pandemic) then I recommend checking this one out for a pick-me-up. There's enough fantastical elements for fantasy lovers but it's still accessible for contemporary readers as well.
Read if: You're looking for a lighthearted, happy read for some escapism.
2. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
This adult sci-fi is about a depressed, down on her luck woman named Nora Seed who decides to end her life. When she does she finds herself in an in-between place known as the titular Midnight Library where every book contains another version of her life. This novel has very accurate mental health representation (coming from someone with anxiety and depression). You can tell that Haig knows what he's writing but that he also took care to not make it triggering. The novel never trivializes depression but its message is ultimately one of hope. The pacing is flawless and the world building, while simple, has a brilliance to it. Much like The House in the Cerulean Sea, this is a story that is accessible to readers who aren't sci-fi/fantasy fans.
Read if: You want accurate mental health representation and a hopeful message.
3. King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender
This middle grade contemporary is all about titular character King as he grieves his brother's death and comes to terms with his sexuality. If forced to describe this novel in two words I would use powerful and important. The relationships within the novel are so well written with my favorite being that between King and his father. Callender uses a lot of hyperbole and especially when describing the emotions surrounding grief. I thought this was clever because often grief feels insurmountable. The ending offers both a sense of hope but also the reality that things have irrevocably changed. I think a lot of youth will be able to recognize themselves in King.
Read if: You want a book about grief, self-discovery, and family.
4. The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett
This adult historical fiction/literary fiction is a character driven novel which follows two generations of a family. The novel weaves together the stories of twins Desiree and Stella and their daughters Jude and Kennedy in a breathtaking tapestry. The reader follows all four women from childhood to womanhood, and from being lost to being found. Bennett manages to craft an ending that is somehow both bittersweet and satisfying at the same time.
Read if: You're a fan of character driven stories/books about family dynamics.
5. Vicious by V. E. Schwab
This adult sci-fi is about the rivalry between two college roommates (Victor and Eli) who, after studying the development of people with extraordinary abilities (superpowers) devise ways to get their own. This is an enemies-to-friends, superhero origin story in reverse. I was entranced by these 'protagonists' who are so deliciously morally corrupt. It is so refreshing to read in a sea of chosen one stories. The story moves between 10 years ago and the days leading up to Victor and Eli's final confrontation in ways that adds perfectly to the suspense. I don't even like sci-fi, so I think it's a testament to Schwab's talents that this made it onto the list.
Read if: You like morally grey characters.
6. Dead Mountain: The Untold Truth of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
The first nonfiction on this list was written by a documentary filmmaker who traveled to Russia to investigate the Dyatlov Pass Incident. This occurred in 1959 when 9 experienced hikers died in the Ural mountains under mysterious circumstances. I applaud Eichar's dedication to the case (he actually went to Russia and replicated the hiker's expedition). I also appreciated his commitment to the truth and not sensationalizing or exploiting the case. He reminds the reader of the human element to the story. It's a testament to Eichar as a storyteller that he can make me care for 9 people who died decades before I was even born.
Read if: You're interested in the case and want a book committed to giving facts and not fiction.
7. Under the Whispering Door by T. J. Klune
Klune makes a second appearance on this list with his 2021 adult fantasy release. The novel is about a ruthless attorney (Wallace) who dies and finds himself at a tea house that serves as a way station. This novel balances that knife's edge of heavy and lighthearted and does so quite well. For every serious and somber moment there is one of humor and happiness. Wallace is a protagonist you will start out hating and slowly fall in love with as he is transformed. Much like his previous novel, the story has an emphasis on found family, but it is also one of redemption.
Read if: You like books that have layers and enjoy whimsical writing.
8. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
A woman (Rowan) takes on a nanny position to 3 young girls at a remote Scottish manor in this adult thriller. This has all the aspects I love about thrillers; it's set at an isolated location, it has creepy atmosphere, and it features an unreliable narrator with a unique writing style (it's told via a letter written from jail). While it has some classic haunted house motifs it also employs some more modern and different elements with the house being run via an app (A.K.A. it's a smart house) and there's a poison garden on the grounds and a secret room in the house. There's also a bit of symmetry/mirroring regarding Rowan and the manor and I find symmetry within books so pleasing. I was genuinely unnerved while reading and the ending reveals managed to be both shocking and make perfect sense given all the breadcrumbs.
Read if: You like haunted house stories.
9. People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry
Poppy and Alex are best friends who take summer trips together every year. Two years ago they had a falling out and haven't spoken since. Poppy, missing Alex, suggests they do one final trip together to save their friendship and he agrees. After loving Henry's previous adult romance, Beach Read, and with friends to lovers being my favorite romance trope, this was a sure win. The novel is told both in present day and in past summers. The past chapters allow readers to witness the playful beginnings, inside jokes, and where things took a turn. The current day showcase the familiarity and awkwardness that come with reuniting.
Read if: You need a friends-to-lovers romance to take on your next vacation.
10. Disabled: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc
It's no secret that I'm a fairy tale fanatic. This book is about how fairy tales have negatively portrayed people with disabilities. The book examines how the tales of both old and their more modern depictions have influenced society's ableist mindsets. Leduc's writing is well researched and very articulate. She speaks for her community without ever speaking over anyone. It's part historical, part memoir, and part commentary and blends them all together well.
Read if: I believe the people who can benefit most from reading this are fantasy writers (such as myself). History can't be rewritten, but the future can be more inclusive.
11. Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo
It's really impossible for me to summarize this book because it is part of a sequel series to two other series all taking place in the same YA fantasy universe (known as the Grishaverse). Its predecessors are the Shadow & Bone trilogy (about a civil war) and the Six of Crows duology (about a heist). These are followed by King of Scars (which deals with the consequence of events of the formerly mentioned trilogy and duology) which then leads into this novel. What I will say is that this is my favorite Bardugo book to date. It has everything I love about her books and fantasy in general combined into one: warfare, political maneuvering, a heist, and a romance full of pining. If you love fantasy like me then Barudgo's books are must reads.
Read if: You're looking for fantasy books that have amazing magic systems and overall world development.
12. One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
This adult romance follows loner August following her move to New York. There, on the subway, she meets Jane. After learning Jane is from the 70s and somehow became stuck on the subway August becomes determined to help her get back home. I was less than enamored with McQuiston's debut but boy am I glad I gave her a second shot. The chemsitry between August and Jane is tantalizing and truly captures the evolution from obsessive crush to all consuming love. The supporting cast were endearing and I'm a always happy to see well developed, solid friendships in books.
Read if: You're looking for a fantastic sapphic romance.
13. The Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson
This is an addition to the Truly Devious trilogy which transplants the characters to a summer camp to solve the mystery of 4 camp counselors who were slain in the late 70s. Truly Devious is the series that got me into mystery and the first time I saw my own struggles with my anxiety disorder and panic attacks accurately represented. Therefore, it will always have a special place in my heart. As with any good mystery this novel incorporates lots of tiny but significant moments that serve as clues. The last 100 pages of the novel are the best part. They are full of excitement and twists I didn't see coming.
Read if: You want a summer mystery (but maybe not before you go to camp).
14. Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera
This middle grade fantasy has northern Mexican inspiration but also takes from the lore of other latinx countries to create a world where humans live alongside spirits (some good and some dark but all misunderstood) known as criaturas. The titular protagonist teams up with some legendary criaturas to save her kidnapped sister. As with any fantasy the world is its selling point but the messages of friendship, teamwork, and accepting others is what really sold me on this book, especially given its target demographic. Be warned, though, the novel deals with some heavy topics.
Read if: You want a story with a melting pot of cultural inspirations.
15. Broken Web by Lori M. Lee
This is the sequel to Forest of Souls and is a series about a young woman (Sirscha) who discovers she is shamanborn/has soul/light magic. She must use this magic to save her land from a forest of malicious, possessed trees. The first novel is undeniably ghoulish (which I ate up) while the sequel has more of an emphasis on fantasy politics (which I'm a sucker for). I have a soft spot for the characters and love their dynamics (especially Sirscha and her ally Theyen who needle each other but also support one another). Where the sequel excelled was its development of its antagonist and its world expansion which took us to new places while also returning to familiar ones.
Read if: You like fantasy with horror elements.