Best Books of 2021

Another year, another book post. (I know we still have most of December to get through but you might be looking for Christmas presents/holiday reads, and I’m procrastinating.)

Goodreads informs me I have read 283 books this year, not counting the DNFs I didn’t trouble to list or the rereads (Murderbot and T. Kingfisher, mostly). Hilariously, if you’d asked me, I would have said I found it very difficult to read this year: certainly there’s several highly regarded books on my TBR on which I am still inexplicably and depressingly blocked. Still, I read some crackers, so without further ado, my faves. This year I am confining myself to four per category.

Romance

Fine, I lied about four per category.

Strong Wine by AJ Demas. Third in the lovely alt-ancient Mediterranean trilogy with a retired soldier and a genderfluid eunuch sword dancer/part time spy. This is set around a murder but it’s really a domestic piece in a lovingly detailed world. Read the whole series.

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall. Very funny ensemble romcom that still tackles some hard stuff about biphobia, with a bi single mum on an alt-Bake-Off finding love, trust, and confidence. Some really excellent swearing.  

Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron. Gorgeous contemporary with real, flawed, likeable characters, a lovely supporting cast, and a joyous romance. Heron’s greatest strength is her compulsive readability: I gulp her books.

Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert. Deep kindness (especially about human flaws and quirks) without sentimentality, terrific snark, great one-liners, swoony and hot romance, assured writing, and two neurodivergent leads.

Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins. Tough heroine, cinnamon roll hero, fantastically realised historical setting, Beverly Jenkins, enough said.

Falling into Place by Sheryn Munir. Delightful slow burn f/f romance with strongly realistic and likeably flawed leads and a beautifully depicted Delhi setting. Terrific writing.

Sweethand by Natalie Peltier. Zizzy, charming modern romance with a lovely slow burn and genuinely hilarious banter in a well-drawn Trinidad setting. (Talking of well drawn: the best illustrated cover of the year to my mind.)

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams. Excellent contemporary romance with two Black writers with troubled pasts finding one another again. A lot of heavy stuff but a lot of joy, and a hilarious look at the US literary scene to boot.

Fantasy

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard. Gorgeously written novella in a Vietnam-influenced world with a princess being used as a pawn, who finds a tiger spirit on her side. It’s about reclaiming yourself in the face of abuse, and hugely uplifting with it.

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho. Urban fantasy set in modern Malaysia, with a young woman haunted by her grandmother and meddling in the affairs of gods. Funny, scary, angry, vivid, and brilliantly played out.

Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher. Could have been in the romance section tbh. Second in this delightful series dealing with the paladins of a dead god, the oppression of gnoles, and in this case an order of shapeshifting bear-nuns. As ever the worldbuilding is effortlessly immersive, the mood sharp-edged but ultimately kind, and the characters a delight. Paladin’s Hope is also wonderful but this one had the edge for me.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. Tremendous fantasy set in alt-America (pre and sans Columbus). Complex plot, characters, and worldbuilding, all effortlessly conveyed to make a marvellously readable story. Dying for the sequel.

SF

Three Twins at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley. Literally an old-fashioned girls’ school story set on Mars. Is everything you hope it will be from that description. Played absolutely straight and note perfect.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. This one is entirely a character piece. A group of people are stranded at an intergalactic truck stop and almost nothing happens. It’s compulsive reading and made me cry so hard (in a good way) that I could barely breathe. Vitally hopeful.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine. Just stunningly good. Cannot possibly sum up how good this and the first book are as a pair. I’d say it was a novel of ideas if it wasn’t a wonderful character exploration except it’s also a terrifically tense adventure as we race to stop a war. For heaven’s sake, read these.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I mean, this book is literally about giant spiders, but I nevertheless loved it, rooted for the spiders, and even read the sequel, which is also about giant spiders. Which should tell you how well plotted, clever, engaging, and thought-provoking it is, but I do not wish to think about spiders any longer so let’s move on.

Crime/thriller

Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino. Epic scale thriller covering twenty years and a lot of changes in Japan. Violent, disturbing, compelling. I glommed this author’s backlist but I think this is his best. Hard-hitting stuff.

Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone. Gleefully evil revenge fantasy as sociopath Jane takes an abusive man apart by underhand means, which include not caring about his goddamn man-feelings. Good Lord, I needed that.

Dial A for Aunties by Jessie Q Sutanto. A truly glorious caper comedy about a young Indonesian/Chinese American woman, her overbearing aunties/mum, and the disposal of a body. Of a guy they kind of accidentally killed. Whoops. Absurd and at points very dark farce plotting, but written with a light touch and a warm heart.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots. Cracking superhero thriller from the perspective of a woman who temps as a villain’s henchperson. Funny, violent, dark, thought-provoking, and a hugely absorbing story. 

Litfic

Mostly a bit Shania Twain for me this year, but two cracking reads.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters. Astonishing novel covering a detransitioned man, a cis woman, and a trans woman, negotiating a very messy set of relationships. Sharply observed, nuanced, very intelligent, and deeply connecting. A must-read.

Blue-Skinned Gods by SJ Sindu. Enthralling story of a blue-skinned boy touted by his father as the tenth incarnation of Vishnu. About family and faith and why people are so desperate to believe. Plus a really tender and human look at friendships and sexuality and gender.

Non Fiction

The Address Book by Deirdre Mask. Takes what seems to be a small topic and makes you see how big it is. Addresses are about state control, and society, and memory, and hope, and racism, and the wealth divide, and a shedload more. Genuinely fascinating, well written, and immensely readable.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. Horrifying, compelling, rage-aneurysm-inducing account of the greed-monster Sackler family and how they pushed OxyContin. You need to read it, then you need to take some very deep breaths to calm down, then you need to overthrow capitalism and guillotine the bastards.

Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear by Lev Parikian. Memoir of an amateur birdwatcher’s efforts to spot 200 species in a year. Very British, very funny, really charming, with some lovely nature writing, and enormously absorbing. Also, genius earworm title.

Semicolon by Cecelia Watson. An entire book about semicolons. Terrific on the history and the extremely weird and frankly scary ways people interact with semicolons; really interesting on the concept of punctuation in general.

History

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge. I went on a wild Angevin/Plantagenet binge this year, such that I briefly considered having a whole Angevin section in this list (I regained my senses). This is a terrific bio of a really impressive man at the heart of the period, which gives us a feel for the person as well as the culture, society, and turbulent politics of the time.

The Burgundians by Bart van Loo. Phenomenal history that reads like a saga novel and keeps you hooked. I didn’t know why I should care about the Burgundians, or indeed exactly who they were, and now I’m desperate to go to the Low Countries and see art galleries. Hugely engaging, exactly how history should be written.

The Anglo-Saxons by Marc Morris. Terrific in-depth look at the various little kingdoms that got merged into England. Morris is always highly readable, with a gift for description and a good sense of story. Highly informative, and does not leave you thinking that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was a descriptor to be proud of.

The Fighting Jew by Wynn Wheldon. The story of Daniel Mendoza, and his life as a boxer, a Jew, and a sporting superstar in Georgian London. Deserves reading alongside Richmond Unchained to get a picture of life for marginalised Georgians who literally fought their way to wealth and fame.

_______________________

I would be promotionally remiss not to mention a couple of things:

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting is one of the New York Public Library Best Books of 2021 (“A surprising, satisfying, and steamy Regency charmer”).

Subtle Blood is one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2021 (“wit, sexiness, humor, and heart”).

12 replies
  1. chacha1
    chacha1 says:

    I’ve only read two of the books on your list (aside from your own two promotionally mentioned below!) but instantly went to get a copy of ‘Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear’ for my mom (who will share it with me later). 🙂

    Reply
    • NilaJones
      NilaJones says:

      Thank you for saying this, chacha1. I imagine it was a bit hard to do so.

      We can all help each other learn, and together build a better world.

      Reply
  2. Drp
    Drp says:

    Hi! These look great. I also enjoyed Empire of Pain. I want to ask that you maybe think before calling for the execution of the Sacklers…what they did is horrific but there are quite a few other culprits, not least of all the architects and enforcers of the US’s punitive and abhorrent War on Drugs, and there is something so dismally familiar about letting one Jewish family stand in for all of that shite and calling for violence against them. Thanks for considering this.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I had intended “the bastards” to cover everyone involved in this horrible saga (in a hyperbolic fashion), rather than just the Sacklers because, as you say, there are so many people culpable in this, and this is just one terrible example of “the corporation is a psychopath” among far too many. But I do take your point: in times that feel dangerously extremist, hyperbole is probably something I need to watch. Thank you for your comment.

      Reply
  3. Joanna Maitland
    Joanna Maitland says:

    Fascinating list with a lot of authors new to me. Shall follow up. Unfortunately, none of the links to Goodreads seem to be working at the moment. I get “page unavailable”. But I’ll follow up anyway.

    Reply
  4. Jane Birdsell
    Jane Birdsell says:

    I always appreciate your annual round-up – it’s led me to favourite authors such as A. J. Demas and Alexis Hall. Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Karin
    Karin says:

    I went and got The Burgundians – thank you so much for the recommendations, this is all my history catnips in one! The first (and not quite age-appropriate) history book I read about age 11 was about the Hapsburgs, but what stood out for me and stayed with me were Charles the Bold and Burgundy. And I am still fascinated, over 30 years later!

    Reply

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