Written by: Andrea Marks-Joseph
It’s been a difficult and complicated year for everyone, so our reading lives have been more unpredictable than usual. Many of us have been diving back into our comfort reads, re-reading old favorites for a sense of nostalgia and the safety of the satisfying endings we know are coming. But there’s also been lots of joy and hope in anticipating and pre-ordering the brilliant, imaginative new books that authors have (somehow!) been able to write and release amidst the chaos of life right now.
This is decidedly not a ‘best of the year’ list because I didn’t get to read even half of the new releases I’ve been excited for. But, of the fantastic books I did read in 2021, these are the 10 that I found incredibly enjoyable, recommended most often, and could not stop thinking about. These include a delightful Young Adult novel about a girl who finally has the guy of her dreams, but can’t stop thinking about the new girl in her life; A mystery about a teenager who wakes up on a mountain with no memory of how she got there; and a sailing Romance novel about a woman who embarks on a spectacular, life-changing voyage.
It’s also been a stellar year for debuts! Many of the books featured on this list are debut novels: A dazzling space opera centered around an arranged marriage; A thrilling dystopian story featuring unforgettable misfits; and a glamorous fake-dating Romance that spans decades and discusses diversity in Hollywood.
These books would make excellent gifts, so I’ve tried to include a description specific enough to give you an idea of a mood and personality that would enjoy each of them. Recommendations include a romance between a producer and contestant on a The Bachelor-style show; A fast-paced hostage drama set around a commercial flight; A queer Southern Gothic novel that explores grief to stunning effect; and Seth Rogen’s memoir, which will make anyone laugh even if they don’t know who he is!
Wishing you a wonderful festive season, and happy reading!
1 - Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell (Space Opera, Science Fiction)
What is it about? When Imperial Prince Taam suddenly dies, his widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam's disreputable cousin to keep the rising hostilities between two planets under control. When it comes to light that Prince Taam's death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must quickly learn to trust one another while navigating the threats at court, trying to solve a murder, and preventing an interplanetary war... all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.
Why is it the best? The political intrigue, betrayal and strategy in this novel is unmatched. Maxwell’s depiction of two vastly different characters navigating the worlds they live in, and the way it shifts when they are thrown together in an arranged marriage –chef’s kiss! This story is a wild ride, sometimes literally in a space craft. It’s set in a wonderfully inclusive and deeply queer world where people of various genders and orientations live openly and without issue. (Content warning for domestic abusive in a past relationship.)
2 - Fragile Remedy by Maria Ingrande Mora (Dystopia, Science Fiction)
What is it about? Nate is a Gem (Genetically Engineered Medical Surrogate) created by scientists as a cure for the elite from the fatal lung rot ravaging the population. As a child, he was smuggled out of the lab and into a lawless region where manages to survive by fixing broken tech. When he meets Reed, a kind and fiercely protective boy that makes his heart race, and his misfit gang of scavengers, Nate finds the family he’s always longed for—even if he can’t risk telling them what he is. But now Nate is getting ill, and when danger comes knocking at their doors, it could be life or death for all of them.
Why is it the best? If you love stories of misfits living together as a fierce family, this one’s for you. The teenagers in Fragile Remedy are struggling under the circumstances which resemble the destruction of gentrification, capitalism, and technological issues specific to this gorgeously written story. Mora delivers an emotional, compelling, evocative tale that explores addiction, abandonment, the resilience of youth, and what it takes to survive. These characters are charming, unforgettable, wholly unique and will stay with you for a long time after reading. (After finishing the audiobook, I found myself missing the characters so deeply that I had to read it again a few days later.)
3 - Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler (Young Adult Romance)
What is it about? Lara's had eyes for exactly one person throughout high school, and he has suddenly started talking to her this year. Not just talking, but fully flirting! Which is everything she’s always wanted. Except she’s just come back from a romantic, strangely perfect once-in-a-lifetime summer with a girl named Jasmine who she met while away on vacation. Then Jasmine herself suddenly walks through the front doors of Lara’s school! Lara’s finally got the guy she’s always wanted, so why can’t she stop thinking about the girl?
Why is it the best? Cool for the Summer has all the stylish summer vibes and bubbly teenage crush emotions you expect and hope for when looking at the cover. The novel is made of the sun-filled boundless freedom and self-discovery of your favorite high school summer holiday. Adler gives us the not-knowing which person Lara will end up with in the end, and the push-and-pull of not knowing who you want her to end up with in the end! And as a bonus, the two girls are super bookish, sharing recommendations of their favorite reads —Lara even works at a bookstore!
4 - Falling by T.J. Newman (Thriller)
What is it about? You just boarded a flight to New York with one hundred and forty-three other passengers onboard. What you don’t know is that thirty minutes before the flight, your pilot’s family was kidnapped. For his family to live, the kidnappers demand that he crashes your plane. What follows is a fast-paced story of heroes on board the plane, champions on the ground, and even a compelling argument for the kidnappers’ side.
Why is it the best? You know going in that Falling has an impossible hostage situation, but from the very start it goes in alllll kinds of directions that you simply cannot envision. The author was a flight attendant for ten years and it absolutely shows in the depth of the writing, but also in the extensive imagined scenarios that civilians simply would not be able to dream up. You’ll learn some insider secrets about airplanes –some quite dark, some delightful. But more than anything you’ll be on the edge of your seat trying to figure out what is going to happen next and how on earth they’re going to get out of this situation. It’s mind-blowing that this is Newman’s first novel, because she has written Falling with a breathless pacing that I haven’t seen in tenth or fifteenth novels by many bestselling authors.
5 - The View was Exhausting by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta (Contemporary Romance)
What is it about? A-list actress Win Tagore and jet-setting playboy Leo Milanowski have had a fake-dating agreement for years. With chemistry that can rule the internet and tabloids, they use their “relationship” to make headlines when either of them need to distract from other scandals in their lives. But pretending to be in a passionate romance, especially when it’s one of Win’s only tactics to control her narrative as a woman of color in Hollywood, inevitably leads to trouble.
Why is it the best? This is a fake-dating Romance novel which spans years and confronts many controversial aspects of our society: Celebrity culture, tabloid gossip, power imbalances, and the unfair treatment of women of color. It also has the most convincing love interest I’ve read all year. You’ll be in love with Leo from the first moment you meet him, even if you don’t want to be. If you’re a fan of stories like Before Sunrise where time passes, chances are missed, and their lives look completely different from when they started out, this is the one. Its glitzy, glamorous, filled with movie stars and luxurious events, and rich with compelling points from the perspective of a woman of color in the public eye.
6 - Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo (Southern Gothic Horror)
What is it about? Andrew and Eddie were best friends bonded more deeply than brothers, until Eddie left Andrew behind to start his graduate program at Vanderbilt. Six months later, only days before Andrew was to join him in Nashville, Eddie dies of an apparent suicide. He leaves Andrew a horrible inheritance: a roommate he doesn’t know, friends he never asked for, and a gruesome phantom that mutters of revenge. As Andrew searches for the truth of Eddie’s death, he uncovers the lies and secrets left behind by the person he trusted most, discovering a family history soaked in blood and death.
Why is it the best? Summer Sons is don’t-turn-the-lights-off creepy, but it’s also can’t-put-down compelling; Eerily written, with chilling details and coming-of-age realizations about various characters. There’s so much haunting Sam that it feels like it’s haunting you while reading this book: A literal ghost, the weight of his grief, the impending sense of something about to collapse into its rightful, destructive place. This story is perfect for fans of dark academia, and The Raven Boys —the murky dreamworlds, the Southern Gothic lore, boys coming to terms with love and lust for each other, and mysterious scholars of a small-town family’s mythology.
I listened to the (spectacularly narrated!) audiobook and could not stop listening to it alllll night, which was… certainly an experience I won’t soon be forgetting. Long after having finished (and re-reading) it, I remain in amazement of how captivated (and creeped out) I was by Mandelo’s vivid writing; equal parts gory, gorgeous, devastating, and sultry.
7 - Yearbook by Seth Rogen (Memoir, Comedy)
What is it about? This memoir is everything a Seth Rogen fan, or lover of his particular brand of comedy, heart, and damn good storytelling could ask for, but it’s certainly not only for people who grew up watching his films. It would not be inaccessible for someone unfamiliar with his career; It’s mostly just a seriously funny book! In the description, Rogen says: “I talk about my grandparents, doing stand-up comedy as a teenager, bar mitzvahs, and Jewish summer camp, and tell way more stories about doing drugs than my mother would like. I also talk about some of my adventures in Los Angeles, and surely say things about other famous people that will create a wildly awkward conversation for me at a party one day.”
Why is it the best? Reading Yearbook genuinely feels like hearing stories from an old friend who has lived an incredible, hilarious life. I came away impressed with his teenage stand-up comedy grind, and so endeared to his quirky family. You will 10000% be laughing out loud constantly, whether you’re in public at the grocery store or sitting at home alone, and it will not be laughter that you can hold back out of politeness. I highly recommend you listen to the audiobook, read by Seth Rogen himself, complete with sound effects and cameos from actors voicing the eclectic characters that have come into Seth’s life over decades.
8 - That Weekend by Kara Thomas (Young Adult, Mystery)
What is it about? Claire wakes up on a hiking trail, bloodied and not knowing: how she got there, what happened the past two days, or where the two friends she was with the night she disappeared have gone. It was supposed to be the perfect prom weekend getaway, but it's clear that something terrible happened. Now everyone is asking questions, and she doesn’t know if she can trust her broken memories —or her missing friends’ families— enough to help with the investigation. But she needs to find them, and find out the truth of what happened…
Why is it the best? The author wastes no time meeting us at the point when Claire wakes up, so this book really keeps you guessing the whole way through. With every chapter —flashing between that weekend, shortly before that trip, and present day— it becomes more and more unpredictable. There are many twists leading us up different pathways following a trail of untrustworthy people and suspicious behavior.
What surprised and impressed me most is the way That Weekend unravels into a story of reclaiming a narrative and escaping from domestic abuse. (And yes, that is necessary a content warning. It’s subtle at first, but there is a consistent thread and undercurrent that becomes more prevalent as the truth comes to light).
9 - The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun (Romantic Comedy)
What is it about? Charlie, the star of a The Bachelor-esque show, looks terribly uncomfortable on camera with the women he’s supposed to be wooing, so the show’s producer, Dev, takes him under his wing to coach him into performing on-screen romance more convincingly. But they end up falling for each other! This contemporary romance includes adorable practice-dates, honest conversations, comedic accidents, and excellent side characters.
Why is it the best? This story is suuuper cute and entertaining, even though I have no interest in or experience watching reality dating shows on TV. Most notable is the representation of both men’s mental illnesses (Dev’s depression; Charlie’s anxiety and OCD) which somehow does not weigh the story down, but lifts it up beautifully with hope and authenticity. The Charm Offensive honors the value of human connection, genuine friendships, and knowing that we’re all deserving of love and the storybook romance if we want it. This is a comforting read set inside a fun, mishap-filled situation. It also includes a gentle, inclusive portrayal of realizing you may be on the asexual spectrum.
10 - Float Plan by Trish Doller (Contemporary Fiction, Romance)
What is it about? This book is as expansive and enveloping as the sea its protagonist sets sail on: It’s a sweeping romance, a coming-of-age story, a journey through grief, a fantastic travel diary. Anna has been stuck, drowning in grief after the death of her fiancé. When a reminder goes off about a trip they were supposed to take together, she impulsively decides (wholly unprepared) to complete the voyage alone. This turns out to be a lot more complicated than she imagined, but then she meets Keane, a professional sailor, who she hires to travel with her. Together, they chart their journey across the sea and into brighter futures, falling in love along the way.
Why is it the best? Float Plan is one of the most vividly descriptive novels I’ve read all year; I genuinely felt like I had visited the places that Anna sails to and met the people she encountered. In a year that has littered our lives with grief and loss, this story about a woman choosing to start an adventure on her own in spite of her heartache and the sudden death of her fiancé (content warning: by suicide) is important, and significant, and a story worth sharing. Though nuanced and emotional, the overall story is absolutely more warm, sweet and optimistic than dark or mournful. As a disabled reader, I particularly loved that Keane, the charming hero of this love story is disabled —and his prosthetic leg is even depicted on the cover!
If you’re looking for more recommended reads, have a look at our monthly anticipated lists here. Bonus highlights of this year’s reading included:
- This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron: We interviewed Kalynn Bayron about Black Girl Magic, queer families, and the upcoming sequel.
- Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao: We interviewed Xiran Jay Zhao about their iconic cow-suit author photo, smashing gender roles, and how one conversation changed their life.
- I loved reading the novels some of my favourite TV shows are based on!
- Reading these spooky books over Halloween.