A look back on 2021’s best books

How many books did you read this year?

My personal goal was 25. It had been a long, long time since I’d read that many books in a whole year, mainly because I just didn’t have that many available and didn’t quite know where to start. That changed recently. For one, book-buying has become one of my pandemic hobbies and comfort purchases. And secondly, I recently moved and acquired beautiful bookshelves that needed to be filled. Two birds, one stone, right?

All that to say, this year I nearly doubled my goal and read a whopping 46 books. I don’t think I’ve ever read this many in a single year! So let me tell you: when it came to picking the top six, it was both very hard and very easy. Some stellar reads stood out from the first page, while for others, it was a tossup.

Without further ado, here is the list of the top books I read in 2021:

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Set in the days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

Without a doubt, this book was beautiful to read. The prose and wordsmithing were like nothing I’d ever seen before. This is not your typical ‘fighting for survival after a catastrophic worldwide collapse’ story. It is hopeful, it is optimistic in its own way. Reading it during a global pandemic was cathartic, but Station Eleven was a beautiful reminder that life goes on, and that even in the darkest days there is always an ‘after’. 

Read the review on Instagram.

Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s tale in this futuristic story, set in a world inspired by Chinese cultural elements. Iron Widow is fast-paced, edgy, and unabashedly feminist. Zetian does not mince words, and has no problem with taking down those who she feels have crossed her. As she becomes more powerful, and therefore more dangerous to those who wish to maintain the status quo, Zetian will have to decide if she wants to change the world, or burn it down to the ground. I loved this book and had a hard time putting it down. The story was like nothing I’d ever read before, and it reads almost like a villain origin story, which was different from what you usually find in the YA genre. There is nothing soft about this book, it’s full of rough edges and hard truths. I highly recommend!

Check out the full review on Instagram.

Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the Earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it. All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species. And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

This book was an automatic five-star read for me. The story is told in two timelines: the present, where the MC, Ryland Grace is on the Hail Mary, and the past, which come in the form of burst of his memories. These memories also happen to contextualize what is happening in the present, and I found it a brilliant way to show the reader what happened, without telling them outright. The back and forth also did a great job in cranking up the tension, especially as it becomes clear that Earth’s position is even more dire than initially thought.

And, without giving any spoilers…the ending of the book was one of the most beautiful I’ve read in a long time. I teared up reading those last few pages, and was completely taken by surprise. This is for sure going to become a classic in the sci-fi genre!

Kingdom of Ash, Sarah J. Mass

Aelin Galathynius has vowed to save her people ― but at a tremendous cost. Locked within an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin must draw upon her fiery will as she endures months of torture. The knowledge that yielding to Maeve will doom those she loves keeps her from breaking, but her resolve is unraveling with each passing day…

With Aelin captured, friends and allies are scattered to different fates. Some bonds will grow even deeper, while others will be severed forever. As destinies weave together at last, all must fight if Erilea is to have any hope of salvation.

I finished reading the whole Throne of Glass series for the first time this year, and I finally understood the hype around Aelin and her adventures. The series as a whole was so good, and the finale, Kingdom of Ash, is a fantastic end to the series, where all the different plots converge and come together to form a beautiful tapestry of storytelling. This series has redefined how I think of good storytelling, and the importance of worldbuilding to push the narrative forward.

The Cruel Prince (series), Holly Black

One terrible morning, Jude and her sisters see their parents murdered in front of them. The terrifying assassin abducts all three girls to the world of Faerie, where Jude is installed in the royal court but mocked and tormented by the Faerie royalty for being mortal. As Jude grows older, she realises that she will need to take part in the dangerous deceptions of the fey to ever truly belong. But the stairway to power is fraught with shadows and betrayal. And looming over all is the infuriating, arrogant and charismatic Prince Cardan.

I’m always down for a story that incorporates politics and political intrigue. The Folk of the Air series does exactly that, and it does it very well. I was really impressed with the storytelling, plot, and love story. It felt like one of the most genuine enemies to lovers stories I’ve read, and I really liked how the immortal love interest was an authentic idiot kid, at the beginning of his long immortal lifespan.

There’s so much I enjoyed in this trilogy, from the political intrigue and subterfuge to the MC needing to acquire power in impressive ways to make up for her otherwise lackluster defenses as a human in a world of magic. Overall, it was *chef’s kiss*.

The Grace Year, Kim Liggett

No one speaks of the grace year. It’s forbidden. In Garner County, girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, to drive women mad with jealousy. They believe their very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That’s why they’re banished for their sixteenth year, to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive.

Sixteen-year-old Tierney James dreams of a better life—a society that doesn’t pit friend against friend or woman against woman, but as her own grace year draws near, she quickly realizes that it’s not just the brutal elements they must fear. It’s not even the poachers in the woods, men who are waiting for a chance to grab one of the girls in order to make a fortune on the black market. Their greatest threat may very well be each other.

With sharp prose and gritty realism, The Grace Year examines the complex and sometimes twisted relationships between girls, the women they eventually become, and the difficult decisions they make in-between.

This book came in just under the wire to be able to count in my 2021 reading tally. I’d heard a lot about The Grace Year, and so my expectations were pretty high. Yet still, I was floored by how amazing this story was. I was tense reading it the entire time, waiting to see what would happen next. The plot kept me on edge and I was always questioning myself on what was happening, and whether anything was really real. It was SO good and was one of the rare stories that I can call jaw-dropping.

So tell me in the comments: what were some of your top reads in 2021?

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