Here comes the most excruciating part of any year…
I read so many fantastic books in 2021 that I couldn’t imagine deciding on my top books of the year. But as I was scrolling through my many positively-rated books, there were 11 books in particular that stood out the most to me, and I truly believe that every single one of them is written impressively well and .
Some quick observations: I love how this list ended up being so diverse in genre, and I love how my top 6 were all absolutely emotionally devastating! I may not have much going for me but at least I’m consistent with my book tastes (books that hurt me).
11. The Fifth Season: There are certain books that are just so smart that I feel too inadequate to even attempt to review, and this is one of them. The Fifth Season is so intricately weaved together, and once all the plot twists happened and my entire understanding of the book shifted, it all just clicked together and I was left in utter awe of N.K. Jemisin’s skill.
10. How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe: This book convinced me that maybe I DO need some heterosexual YA contemporary romances every once in a while… Genuinely, though, this is such a gorgeous book—I loved watching Moon find how to love herself, with the help of people around her but mostly by herself. Learning to put yourself first is difficult, especially after a whole life of never being prioritized, and I think this story beautifully portrayed that journey. And of course, it’s paired with a cute and surprisingly tender romance!
9. The Girls I’ve Been: I read this at the beginning of 2021, but it hasn’t been able to escape my mind since. Tess Sharpe’s books are always cutting, both her characters and her writing sharp and smart, and this is especially true in this book. I love her portrayal of messy, morally grey girls, a little broken and battered but still fighting to survive. The way she writes trauma and abuse is heartbreaking and nuanced, and I appreciate how she never shies away from the messier sides of survival.
8. Ace of Spades: While I love thrillers, there are few that have made me actually feel chilled to the bone. Maybe I’m not reading the right thrillers, but Ace of Spades is disturbing not (only) in the characters’ growing suspicion that something is wrong and the discovery of more and more sinister things—but in the gradual understanding that racism is deeply entrenched in our systems. I couldn’t put this book down, and it is definitely one of the most impressive debuts of the year.
7. Crush: I feel like I am not competent enough to write about this poetry collection. It’s gutting to read, with its portrayal of internalized homophobia and conflation of violence as love, among other themes, yet achingly beautiful. I love Richard Siken’s style and the almost chaotic feeling his words have; they feel so real and human and deeply emotional, and if I think about these poems for too long I fear that it will awaken even more feelings in me.
Reading this book feels like being punched in the gut without pause. It is the book I cried over the most in 2021, and when I say “cried,” I mean, “sobs racking my body as I lay in bed in the dark.” This book makes you witness the growth of its characters to view them as humans that you care about and the atrocities committed against them, the same thing for generations. And then you know that these are the experiences of real Palestinians too, and it’s even more heartbreaking.
But although there’s a lot of pain, there is a lot of love, too. Love for family, love for community, for the land and for heritage and for culture. And that might be the most devastating part of it all—the seemingly impossible prevailing of love despite the endless struggles and trauma these characters are forced to face.
Content warnings: ethnic cleansing, massacres, murder, implied rape, torture, violence
This is a book I don’t think I can ever reread, and I mean that in the best of ways. My mother was diagnosed with cancer almost 10 years ago, and though she’s healthy and in remission now, there’s always the fear that the cancer will come back. While I can’t completely relate to what Michelle Zauner went through, especially since I’m not Korean and my mother is still alive, I saw so much of my own experiences in hers that it brought me to tears.
Zauner talks about her tumultuous relationship with her family, her struggles as an Asian American (especially being biracial), and how she grieves her mother while also attempting to connect with her and Korean culture after her passing. There were so many things I connected with, and many things I hope I never have to, but despite how heart-wrenching this book was, I’m so glad to have read it.
Content warnings: parental death, depictions of grief
Even simply thinking about these poems makes me feel overwhelmed. Throughout the several times that I picked this up, preferring to savor Ocean Vuong’s words over a long period of time, I kept having to shut the book and take a break because I felt so much.
This is a beautiful collection of poems focusing on themes ranging from immigration, the body, family, and war, each word painting a careful image that slices into you. Some of what Vuong wrote may have gone over my head, but the things he made me feel… I had so many visceral reactions throughout the book where his words genuinely made me shudder. If you read this, take your time with it, not only because you will be overwhelmed by each poem (in the best way), but also to let everything sink into you and pull at your heart. You’ll come into this book as one person and leave it as another, fuller version of yourself.
Kelly Loy Gilbert has a way with words that draws out this entirely messy response from me, a tangle of emotions both good and bad, and there is no feeling more unique than what I experience reading her writing. This book brought me to tears, and several times I couldn’t even name the reason why I was crying.
This is a story about relationships, mental health, identity, and simply growing up and learning how to deal with serious issues when you aren’t equipped with the tools you need. Gilbert’s books are always so intensely human, and it’s this that makes reading them such a visceral experience. She captures the intricacies of with a level of accuracy that is genuinely painful to read! But even though this book leaves you feeling hollowed out, it’s also so hopeful in a genuine way, and I think that’s what makes it so touching.
Content warnings: suicide attempt, suicidal ideation, parental abuse (physical), panic attacks, racism, homophobia
Epic in all senses of the word, this book will captivate you with its intricate character work and unpacking of destiny and gender—and then break your heart. This story is so tragically beautiful, which is honestly what is so compelling about it to me! It’s intense, with morally questionable ambitious characters, fierce battles both military and political, and relationships fraught with desire and tension.
I adore these characters and their relationships, as wretched as they are, and I’m absolutely obsessed with the exploration of destiny throughout the book (and it’s even more interesting considering that the story is modeled after history that’s already taken place). Again, like so many of the books on this list, if I think about this and its ending for too long, I will lose my mind completely. But this is surely not a series to miss, even if it’s heartbreaking!
Content warnings: war themes, murder, death, violence, child murder (off-page), starvation, gender dysphoria, misgendering, internalized homophobia, ableism, amputation, misogyny
How do I write about this book? This is one of those cases of “if I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more” for book reviewing, because I stare at this book on my shelf and wonder how I am possibly supposed to write something that is able to accurately convey the genius of it.
This is truly a literary masterpiece, and it is searing and sickening and stunning. Carmen Maria Machado skillfully unravels the story of her abusive relationship as if it is a horror story, through short chapters that range from cyclical Choose Your Own Adventures to essay-like comparisons between pop culture and real life. Her creativity and innovation in this memoir is on another level, with her writing lyrical and emotional, and it all only serves to emphasize how horrible her abusive relationship was.
It’s heartbreaking to read this, but I couldn’t help but find myself also in awe of Machado’s writing ability and vulnerability. Truly, this book is so beautifully written and I won’t forget it for a long time.
Content warnings: abusive relationship
what were your favorite books of 2021? have you read any of mine? what were your thoughts?