My 2 Cents on the Top Ten Books of 2021

What’s new, everyone? As of this writing, 2021 is just one day away from its official conclusion! Plenty of notable events have unfolded over the past year: the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Bennifer getting back together, the premiere of the Disney+ MCU shows, Paul Rudd being named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, the numerous COVID variants that have been designated with letters of the Greek alphabet, the release of “Red (Taylor’s Version)”, Britney Spears being freed from her conservatorship, and much, much more. Right now, I’m feeling the same thrumming anticipation and cautious optimism towards 2022 that I felt at the end of 2020, even though it isn’t like our situation improved markedly in the limbo of 2021. But no matter. The year is coming to a close, and I’m going to honor it here with my Top Ten Books of 2021. Keep in mind that all of these books were published this past year and that they’re not supposed to be the “best” books of 2021, but rather books that appeal to my individual palate and have proven to be memorable throughout the year.

First, I’d like to list off a few honorable mentions that I considered ranking in the Top Ten:

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Going There by Katie Couric

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

The Push by Ashley Audrain

You Love Me by Caroline Kepnes

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

False Witness by Karin Slaughter

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

With that, here are my Top Ten Books of 2021, starting with #10.

10. Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

As the prequel to Thomas’s 2017 debut novel The Hate U GiveConcrete Rose(a nominal nod to Tupac Shakur’s poem, “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”) offers a new perspective on the Black neighborhood of Garden Heights by rewinding time all the way back to 1998 and pausing on seventeen-year-old Maverick “L’il Don” Carter. Before he grows up to be a devoted dad to The Hate U Give protagonist Starr Carter, we follow him as he navigates gang life, taking care of an unplanned baby, and Black masculinity. Thomas infuses the narrative with her special brand of droll and clear-eyed wit, which translates fluidly through the street-smart savvy that Maverick uses to grasp his world. The facets of humanity and compassion that Thomas adds to his family and friends further enriches the microcosmic rapport that holds Garden Heights together, even in the midst of gang wars and personal conflicts. On a broader level, this coming-of-age story provides insightful commentary on the importance of Black men young and old tuning in with their emotions, dissociating their masculinity from the sense of power that comes with waging violence, and realizing that asking others for help isn’t at all a sign of weakness. All of these things are why I’ve deemed Concrete Rose one of the most valuable YA books of 2021 and certainly one of my Top Ten books of the year.

9. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

While the publishing world is slowly but surely growing more inclusive, it hasn’t been able to give us that much access to stories that explicitly grapple with the intricacies, the bigotry, and the freedom experienced by the transgender community. Detransition, Baby—something I still consider to be the first example of 21st century American trans literature from a trans author—not only addresses those issues from a trans feminine viewpoint, but also takes a step further to tackle the politically charged subject of detransitioning (switching back to the sex you were assigned at birth after having already transitioned to a different gender) via Ames, who was once a trans woman before recently detransitioning to his former identity as a man. He; Reese, a trans woman and his ex-girlfriend; and Katrina, his divorced cis boss who is expecting his baby, are authentic and complicated main characters who come to life through Peters’s robust and sharp-witted voice as they try to figure out whether they can build a found family together in preparation for the future child. Maternity, bourgeois society, and gender constructs are additional topics that Peters explores to great effect in her debut novel.

8. Fresh by Margot Wood

In debut author Wood’s contemporary YA novel (really, though, it should be marketed as New Adult), we follow Elliot McHugh as she undergoes the joys, pitfalls, and capers of her freshman year at Boston’s Emerson College. Drawing loose inspiration from Emmaby Jane Austen, Fresh was such a hilarious ride through the highs and lows of college, feeling exaggerated and yet authentic the whole time. The meta framing device of Elliot’s first-person POV lends to her breaking the fourth wall Deadpool-style with a plethora of self-referential footnotes. The sheer sex positivity, conveyed via Elliot’s experiences as a white bisexual woman who makes it her raunchy mission to engage in tons of casual hookups, is much welcome in a time when we need more stories with open-minded takes on sexuality. The conversations that focus on sexual awakenings and the importance of enthusiastic consent are valuable, too. I also appreciated the neuroatypical representation that was presented through the protagonist’s ADHD. With comedy and empathy, Wood brings all of this together in a story about the candid, chaotic, and ebullient Elliot as she learns to take responsibility for her mistakes, gain self-confidence, and open herself up to her loved ones. If you’re searching for an entertaining and queer coming-of-age novel written with a frank and relatable voice, this is the pick for you.

7. Steelstriker by Marie Lu

It isn’t shocking that Steelstriker lands on this list, considering it’s the sequel to Lu’s Skyhunter, which made it on my Top Ten Books of 2020. I praised it back then for reinvigorating my love of YA dystopia (a genre that has grown tiresome and formulaic over the years) and for providing yet more evidence as to why Lu is one of my auto-buy authors. Steelstriker, the entry that wraps up the Skyhunter duology, accomplishes the same objectives with the grimly vivid worldbuilding, the badass protagonist that comes in the form of mute soldier Talin Kanami, her endearing allies, the skillfully written and fast-paced plotting, and the thematic condemnation of cultural appropriation and colonialism. While I would have preferred the backstory of villainous despot Premier Constantine to be handled a little differently, I still found him to be a compellingly menacing antagonist for Talin and her rebellion to rise up against. All in all, this is a rewarding conclusion for the duology to end on, and it leaves me eager for Lu’s future work.

6. The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

I may not be a slasher horror devotee, but I’ve absorbed plenty of it via cultural osmosis. That must have played a role in the numerous levels of enjoyment I derived from Hendrix’s latest novel, which revolves around a modern-day therapy support group made up of six “final girls” who garnered fame as the sole survivors of killing sprees that became the grisly inspiration for 80s and 90s slasher film franchises—franchises that in themselves are homages to HalloweenA Nightmare on Elm StreetScream, and other gruesomely iconic series. The machete-sharp tension amps up fast when one of the women is found brutally murdered, followed by a suspicious string of vicious attacks that befall the rest of the group. Gory scares and biting dark comedy abound as protagonist Lynette Tarkington, who made it out of the Christmas-themed Silent Night Slayings of 1988 alive, sets out to stop whoever is trying to butcher all the final girls. Hendrix shows himself to be a wiz at playing around with classic tropes in his love letter to slasher horror, e.g. his detailed descriptions of the nightmares that the final girls survived and his technique of naming the chapter titles after fictional sequels to his book. As for the final girls themselves, they’re wonderfully flawed human beings for whom I constantly cheered. Even in their most ill-advised and self-destructive moments, especially in Lynette’s case, I was wholly invested in their well-developed stories, the surprisingly heart-wrenching portrayal of their trauma, and the rousing strength of their durable sisterhood. In addition, The Final Girl Support Group won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Horror Novel of 2021, an honor that something as well-crafted as this book most certainly deserves.

5. Hang the Moon by Alexandria Bellefleur

Hang the Moon, Bellefleur’s standalone sequel to her debut novel Written in the Stars, was a hugely winsome and wholehearted rom-com to read back in the summer. It doesn’t have a lot of plot meat, so this may not be your jam if you prefer plot-heavy stories. However, it compensates for that by aiming a spotlight on the fleshed-out romantic leads, Annie and Brendon (a full-on cinnamon roll who likens Annie to a potato chip, which is a comparison that I think we all need someone to tell us at least once in our lives), as they tackle emotional obstacles and form a loving bond together. The earnest depiction of friendship between Annie and Darcy, who was a lead in Written in the Stars, is captivating as well. In addition, Hang the Moon follows in the footsteps of Written in the Stars by taking place in my hometown of Seattle and presenting bisexual representation (something that I’m glad to see more of in contemporary romances) through Annie.

4. A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas

The latest standalone entry in Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series has been a polarizing read, especially after it was recently voted the winner of the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2021. Yes, the ending should have headed in a different direction. Yes, Maas should have steered given a wide berth to two tiresome tropes that I’ve encountered in multiple other books. Yes, Morrigan, the sole queer character in the inner circle, is absent for much of the plot, exacerbating Maas’s struggle to embrace inclusive storytelling. But I don’t think this overshadows the layers of emotion and catharsis that come with following Nesta Archeron on her long and winding road of self-healing. It certainly isn’t easy to dive into a somber story that wrestles with PTSD, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and suicidal ideation, but the moving nature of the journey on which Nesta embarks to overcome her trauma makes it, in my opinion, worthwhile. As for Nesta herself, whom many readers loathe, I find her to be someone who starts out as one-note at the beginning of the series, but then evolves into an endearing character with nuances to her pride and ferocity. That’s why I enjoyed her finally being able to lead her own story. The romance between her and smartass High Fae warrior Cassian has its own drawbacks, but the personal obstacles that Cassian has to tackle, the devotion he shows to Nesta throughout her rehab, the spicy sex scenes that advance the development of both Nesta’s character and their relationship, and the impish spirit that he manages to evoke from her are all well handled. I understand if you have major problems with ACOSF, and even I don’t know if Goodreads voters should have deemed it Best Fantasy Book, but I think there’s more to admire about the book than there is to call over the coals.

3. Silver Tears by Camilla Läckberg

It felt like reuniting with an old friend to join fierce and wily cosmetics magnate Faye Adelheim for the second chapter of her on-the-page journey. After finishing Läckberg’s riveting follow-up to The Golden Cage, the Swedish revenge thriller that wound up on my Top Ten Books of 2020, I knew Silver Tearswould make the 2021 list. Even as it presents new dangers for Faye to ward off from herself and the people she values in her personal circle, it upholds all the qualities I appreciated about The Golden Cage: a mega rootable and complex heroine whose past is veiled in mystery, male dickweasels who deserve to get their asses kicked, the twists and turns that deftly wend their way through the plot, and a celebratory attitude towards feminine empowerment and the collective companionship that women can share amongst each other. Overall, Silver Tears scratches that itch I have for stories in which powerful women, to put it colloquially, get shit done. Faye’s third book has already been published over in Sweden, so I can’t wait for it to cross over to the U.S.

2. Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

It might sound odd to say that I derived plenty of joy from a contemporary fantasy that spends ninety-nine percent of its time in the afterlife. Once you know this particular contemporary fantasy was penned by Klune, however, it makes complete sense. It doesn’t mean Door is made up of nothing but breezy times, though. It tackles weighty subjects like grief, existential dread, and what it means to accept the positive and negative things in life and move on towards the fate that’s awaiting all of us. But Klune writes all of this material with an honestly kind and thoughtful hand that prevents it from coming off as either depressing or insincere. The queer positivity and the roster of lovable characters—aspects that are earmarks in the rest of Klune’s work—are much-appreciated bonuses. Plus, I have to slot Door in my Top Ten to compensate for missing out on Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea in 2020. If I’d read it back then, it probably would have made the Top Ten of that year—though as much as I love House, I still struggle with its usage of Indigenous cultural appropriation.

1. The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

Hoang wrapped up her The Kiss Quotient series with the third and presumably final standalone entry, The Heart Principle. Like her previous books, it involves an autistic lead—in this case, Anna Sun, a violinist who becomes diagnosed with autism—undergoing a moving journey that we’re able to process through an acutely empathetic perspective that the author infuses into the narrative via her own experience as a neurodivergent person. But with the numerous personal obstacles that Anna has to face, including caregiver burnout (an element inspired by Hoang’s life, which she touches on in the author’s note) and a sister who vehemently disbelieves in her autism, the story takes on a much somber tone than one would expect from what appears on the outside to be a lighthearted romcom. In the time that has passed since reading this book and being able to absorb other people’s thoughts on it, I don’t think I’d call it a romance. Sure, it includes a love story with cinnamon roll hero Quan Diep, but neither the romance nor his character arc are nearly as much of a central focus as Anna’s inner growth. This doesn’t detract from the overall quality of The Heart Principle, but I only wish the marketing could have been fine-tuned to promote the content a little more truthfully. All in all, it’s a masterfully written gut-wrencher that maintains the high caliber I’ve come to expect from Hoang.

Until next year, stay healthy and stay strong!

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