Anna’s Favorite Books of 2021

It’s that time of year again! That time when we start thinking about everything we read in the past year—what we loved, hated, and everything in between. This year, I revolutionized my reading by keeping a reading journal within my bullet journal. I kept notes there on each book I read. I found that this helped me internalize each book, think critically about the plot and writing style, and more clearly remember the books I read throughout the year. 

Looking back on my reading in 2021, here’s what I found:

My top genres were mystery and thriller, which I’ve never read much of before this year. Many of my favorite books of the year fall into this genre, including my favorite series of the year, Tana French’s The Dublin Murder Squad and Anthony Horowitz’s Susan Ryeland’s series. In contrast, I also read some really bad thrillers and came to the conclusion I prefer crime/murder mysteries over physiological thrillers. We’ll see if this genre sticks!

I didn’t read much nonfiction at all, coming in with one essay collection, Disability Visibility, and just one memoir, Flesh and Blood by N. West Moss. I love memoirs, especially, so that’s something I want to read more of again in 2022!

Let’s get to the best books I read this year, by genre but in no particular order:

Literary Fiction

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott

Summary: In a world divided by a coup, climate disaster rages. The Rain Heron follows different characters as they try to survive as well as the appearance of a mythical rain hero. 

Dystopian; environmental; climate control; lyrical; magical realism 

If you like: Abby Geni & books like Severance 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Summary: Silvie’s dad is an Ancient Britain/Iron Age enthusiast. He forces his family to spend 2 weeks a year living in the woods with an Archeology class and professor. This year, things change.

Favorite Quote: “Without a house, it occurred to me, it is much harder to restrict a women’s movement. Harder for a man to restrain a woman.” – page 59 

This coming-of-age novel manages to have a conversation about misogyny and abuse in so little pages. 

Content Warnings: Physical & Emotional Abuse 

 

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh 

Summary: Three sisters grow up on an isolated island with their father and mother. They’ve been told the outside world isn’t safe, and they are made to perform horrible experiments on each other. When men arrive from the outside world, they realize their parents might not be telling the truth.

Content Warnings: Sexual, Emotional & Physical Abuse

If you like: The Handmaid’s Tale

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Summary: This is a fictionalized account of William Shakespeare’s family and the death of his son, Hamnet, during the Black Plague.

Warning: This book will make you cry. I loved the magical element and creative liberties O’Farrell took with Shakespeare’s history. 

Content Warnings: Death; Grief

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Summary: Lifelong friends and penpals Eileen and Alice live very different lives. One is a wealthy, successful author post-mental health collapse and the other has been stuck in the same job for years. When they finally decide to visit each other, tensions mount. 

Don’t come at me, Sally Rooney haters. No one writes characters, dialogue, and life like Sally Rooney. This is a beautiful novel about mental health, fame, and how friendships change over time.

Thriller & Mystery 

The Likeness by Tana French

Summary: When a woman named Lexie is found dead, Detective Cassie Maddox, who looks just like her, goes undercover as Lexie.

This is my favorite of the Dublin Murder Squad books so far and has dark academia elements.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Summary: Drawing Master Walter Hartright teaches art at an estate and becomes intrigued by a crime and the mysterious presence of a woman in white. 

This massive book is surprisingly readable and reminded me of my love for Victiorian fiction. 

Like all Victorian fiction, there are themes of madness, surveillance, and lack of women’s agency in society. 

Northern Spy by Flynn Berry

Summary: Tessa’s word unravels when she finds out her sister is a member of the IRA. 

This is a twisty novel about family, loyalty, and lies that helped contextualize the conflict in Ireland for me.

The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James

Summary: Carly drops out of college and travels to the haunted town of Fell, New York to investigate the disappearance of her Aunt Viv 20 years earlier.

There are some really terrifying ghost scenes in this, but this is ultimately one of the most heartwarming thrillers I’ve ever read.

Content Warnings: Sexual abuse

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Summary: A woman, Cecily, disappears from Branlow Hall and the answer is hidden in a book by the late mystery writer Alan Conway. The family asks his ex-editor, Susan Ryeland, to find Cecily. 

This book-within-a-book may be even better than the first book in this series! The plotting and double mystery is so cleverly written. 

Young Adult

Yolk by Mary H.W. Choi

Summary: Jayne moves from Texas to New York for college and to flee from her first generation Korean parents. There she reunites with her older sister, June, who reveals she has cancer.

This is one of the most intense and emotional books I’ve ever read. Unlike other tear-jerker YA books that deal with cancer very badly, Yolk treats it with respect. 

Content Warnings: Cancer; Eating Disorders

The Valley and the Flood by Rebecca Mahoney

Summary: Following the death of her best friend, Rose struggles with PTSD. One day, trying to escape her grief, she ends up in a strange town that she can’t leave. 

Warning: You won’t have a clue what’s going on for the first 100 pages or so, but this book is so creative, emotional, and interesting that you’ll want to keep reading. It’s all one big metaphor for PTSD. 

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

Summary: In a futuristic world destroyed by climate change, Kasey searches for her lost sister, Cee. 

This book asks big questions about science and humanity, such as, if we don’t act to save the world now, when will we? And, when will we hold big polluters responsible? But at the center of all this is the complicated relationship between two sisters. 

The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold

Summary: A group of kids try to survive a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by flu flies. 

I loved everything about this book. It’s about sacrifice, found family, hope, survival, and it had a huge twist that blew my mind.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danworth

Summary: Dual timelines one-hundred years apart follow creepy happenings and strange deaths at The Brookhants School for Girls. 

Admittedly this book could have been a lot shorter, but this sapphic mystery includes some of the best characterization I’ve ever read in YA.

The River Has Teeth by Erica Waters

Summary: When Natasha’s sister Rochelle disappears, she turns to the witchy girl, Della, who lives by the woods where she went missing.

Set in rural Tennessee, this is a really atmospheric and original fantasy/mystery with LGBTQ+ rep.

Fantasy 

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Summary: A fantasy based on Pre-Columbian American mythology. 

This is a complex, perfectly paced fantasy that follows multiple characters. One of the biggest problems I usually have with fantasy as an adult is the length, and this book didn’t lag for one second. Black Sun ended on a huge cliffhanger, and I can’t wait for the sequel. 

Middle Grade

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus

Summary: When orphaned siblings Anna, Edmund, and William are forced to leave London during World War II, they make a pact to find a new family in the countryside. Instead, they’re placed with several horrible families. Their only solace: the library . 

If you liked: The War that Saved My Life

I binged this cozy middle grade treasure in one sitting. This is a great story about found family, the tenacity of children, and how books can save lives. 

Happy reading! I’m excited to see what 2022 brings and hope that everyone has a great year, reading wise and otherwise.

Pub day spotlight: The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue

Anna: Happy publication day to The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donahue! Thank you @algonquinbooks for sending me an arc of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Set in a boarding school in an old Victorian house in Ireland, scholarship student Louisa quickly becomes enamored by classmate Victoria and their charismatic art teacher, Mr. Lavelle. Louisa struggles to fit in with her rich classmates, but as she becomes closer to Victoria and Mr. Lavelle, something even darker is underfoot. 

25 years later, an unnamed journalist investigates Louisa’s disappearance. It’s widely accepted that Louisa willingly ran away with Mr. Lavelle, but as the journalist becomes more entangled with the case, it’s clear something much worse happened.


The Temple House Vanishing evokes major My Dark Vanessa and The Likeness vibes. This is a quick, smart, and atmospheric read that explores love, friendship, obsession, race, class, and the ways in which men in positions of power take advantage of young women. I did find the perspective from the journalist a little lacking and would have liked more character development there. We learn little about her own life, besides that she grew up on Louisa’s street and Louisa once babysat her. The only thing we know is that she is a workaholic. I thought something might happen with her intern, who gets a lot of dialogue, but that turns out to be a dead-end in the plot. Then there is also an artistic choice in the epilogue involving a ghost that I found a little strange and a bit cheesy.

But overall, I can’t say no to a spooky boarding school mystery, and this is another one of those.

Review: The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

A hardcover copy of The Ones We're Meant to Find rests on a wooden table in a coffee shop. An iced green tea and a coffee sit behind it. A laptop rests on the book's right.

Alexis:

I’ve been trying to read more sci-fi and dystopian, so I was excited when I won this book and got it in the mail!

The Ones We’re Meant to Find follows sisters Kasey and Cee. Cee is stuck on an abandoned island with nothing but a robot for company. She has amnesia, but she does remember her sister, Kasey, is out there somewhere. And she needs to find her.

Kasey is a 16-year-old STEM prodigy living in an eco-city, which is basically a city hovering in mid-air that’s an oasis from the rest of the polluted planet. She has always felt like a loner, and she can’t stop thinking about when Cee went missing.

I really liked how Kasey and Cee have opposite personalities. Cee is a caring, social butterfly, and Kasey the quiet loner; their characters are foils of each other, and it works well. 

I read He’s debut novel, The Descendant of the Crane, and I feel like both her writing style and her characterization have improved! The pacing was great, and I enjoyed seeing the plot unfurl, along with a massive plot twist.

That being said, if I’m being honest, I sometimes wasn’t sure what was going on in Kasey’s chapters. Because she’s a scientist, her chapters contain a lot of science, and I had to re-read certain paragraphs, especially since He created the future science herself. I honestly feel like I need to just re-read the entire book to get a better picture, as I sometimes had a hard time picturing what the world looked like. I almost wanted more info dumps, because scientific and futuristic technology was thrown at the reader rather than explained.

I also had a bit of a hard time connecting with Kasey, as she often felt a little too unfeeling; however, I know that was intentional, so I didn’t let it affect my overall rating. 

I was especially invested in Cee’s story and the mystery of her past. I loved the themes of humanity, sisterhood, and the environment. And not to mention, I love the cover!

VERDICT: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry has been on my tbr for a long time, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading this one!

The Dry is crime fiction set in Australia. Federal Agent Aarron Falk returns to his hometown for a funeral of a childhood friend, Luke. Luke allegedly killed his wife and son before turning the gun on himself. Aarron hasn’t been back since he and his dad quickly left town after Aarron was linked to the death of a girl in town. The reader soon realizes that the past and present are more closely intertwined than they might seem.

If not a tiny bit predictable, this book had rich characterization and the parallel storyline captivated me from beginning to end. I would pick up the second book in this series at some point. I don’t recommend reading this book in the height of a hot and humid Virginia summer.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

VERIDCT: 3.5/5 stars

Anna’s Currently Reading: A Snowy Thriller in June

Anna: I know summer just officially started, but I’m channeling some winter vibes with my current read! This book was getting much hype earlier in the year on Bookstagram, and I just got my library hold in. I’m not usually a huge fan of thrillers, but so far this is so fast paced and addicting that I already know I’m going to fly through it. I easily read around 100 pages when I cracked it open last night. 

If you’re looking for a pace-y book that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat, check this one out!

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Review: The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

Alexis: Read 2/27/19

The Night Tiger is a fascinating blend of magical realism, historical fiction, romance, and murder mystery. It follows two main characters: Ji Lin and Ren. Ji Lin is the apprentice of a dressmaker who is also secretly a dance-hall girl. Ren is an eleven-year-old houseboy who recently switched masters due to his old master’s death. Their lives come together when Ji Lin finds a severed finger and tries to figure out where to return it.

I love that the book is set in 1930’s colonial Malay, now modern Malaysia. This makes for a rich and cultural setting, and I loved reading about the different languages spoken and the foods eaten. I loved Choo’s descriptions of clothing from Ji Lin’s point of view, and how she showed England’s rule and influence over the culture of Malay.

Throughout the book, Choo focuses on the superstitions based on chinese numbers, as well the folklore of weretigers. She even includes a section explaining these at the end of the book, which I wish were placed before the book as pretext, but I still appreciated her including them at all.

The first 30 pages were a little slow, and I had to get used to Choo’s writing style and tone. But then I was hooked. This isn’t a fast-paced book, and the mystery is revealed slowly. Though the main plot is fairly slow, there were enough subplots to hold my attention.

I loved Ji Lin as a character. She’s a classic modern day heroine in 1930’s Malaysia, yet she also fits in perfectly in the time period. She’s intelligent and clever and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Yet, unlike where a lot of strong female characters seem to fail, she is still feminine and caring. I also really enjoyed Shin, her step brother’s, character. I found he and Ji Lin to have a lot of chemistry, and I found their relationship moved in a natural direction.

What I didn’t like about the book: the switching POVs. Ji Lin’s chapters were first person, past tense, while Ren’s chapters were in third person, present tense. And every once in a while, I was thrown into William Acton’s POV (Ren’s new master). It would have served the book better if both Ji Lin and Ren’s chapters were in first person, or, honestly, if the whole book was in Ji Lin’s perspective. Sometimes Ren felt like an afterthought.

I really enjoyed The Night Tiger’s setting, atmosphere, and characters. I wish the ending had tied up some of the loose ends, but overall, this was an interesting and unique read. Just don’t read it if you get queasy at the mention of severed fingers!

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books

 

SPOILERS BELOW:

I’m not really even sure how to address the twin issue. Why do authors always feel like one of the twins has to be dead? I enjoyed Ren’s “cat whiskers” sense, but Yi’s role in the story was kind of “eh” for me.

I actually really liked the fact that Ji Lin and Shin fell in love. Their relationship, and the progression of their relationship, felt very real to me, and I loved the dynamic. I didn’t find it weird because they were so close and important to each other and not actually related.

However, I wasn’t a fan of how Shin’s character progressed. He professed his love for Ji Lin, only to beg her to have sex with him…? It felt completely out of character, as Shin was nothing but respectful towards Ji Lin, and even though he was portrayed as a womanizer, I knew from the beginning that it was obviously just a front. I felt like their almost-bedroom scene could have gone very differently. But, in the end, I was glad Ji Lin stood up for herself and decided to wait on marriage and pursue a career. It felt true to her character.

 

Review: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Alexis: Read 2/4/19

“There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too.”

The Lie Tree is both about revenge and finding yourself. It manages to be a murder mystery book while exploring themes of science vs. religion, paleontology, family, and, of course, lies.

The book follows Faith, the 14-year-old daughter of a reverend/scientist, who moves to an island with her family. Throughout the story, she struggles with being a complacent girl in 19th century England while battling her desire to be seen and heard as a person with a brain and scientific ambitions. This was my favorite part of the book. I loved reading about Faith’s navigation through 19th century society and ideals. I felt and understood her frustrations as she dealt with being called useless. I also appreciated that Hardinge explored how her petticoats and corset always got in the way; it just felt very real to me. And, as the book progressed, I loved reading about her showing off her cleverness and proving to her mother, and the men in the book, what she can do.

Faith’s character was a little hard for me to like. I rooted for her to win, even through her ill-fated motives and her willingness to lie. I thought that the unlikability of the characters served the dark nature of the story and the Lie Tree well. However, at times, I found the story hard to get through because of this, and also because the plot was a little slow. Despite this, Hardinge is still a poetic writer and I enjoyed her descriptions and the murder mystery storyline.

VERDICT: 3 ½ out of 5 books