Saturday, January 1, 2022

The Best Books I Read in 2021...

Happy New Year! The less said about 2021 the better (at least for me, professionally and personally), but the one thing that worked well was my reading. Amazingly, I read a record 372 books this past year. I didn't sleep much, and I didn't watch much television, but what else was I supposed to do when you never know whether you should stay inside or not?

As I've done every year since 2010, I put together a list of the best books I read in the last year. As the number of books I read increases, it gets more and more difficult to narrow the list down. So this year I came up with a top 26 (one was a two-book series) followed by an additional 24 books which were still too good not to mention. The title of each book is linked to my original review.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, either about these books or other books you loved this year!

The Top 26

1. Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune: It's the second year in a row that my favorite book of the year is by Klune. This gorgeous, life-affirming, romantic book teaches you that it’s never too late to make your life the way you wanted it to be. Even after you’re dead.

2. We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker: Can your heart be broken and be filled with love simultaneously? This is an unforgettable, emotional story about chosen family vs. blood, loyalty, love, the difficult decision about whether to trust people, friendship, secrets, and love.

3. The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun: I couldn’t have loved this book more if I tried. I was expecting a sweet gay love story—and boy, was this great—but I wasn’t expecting the deeper conversations about mental health, sexual identity, and self-esteem. I cried like a baby and smiled like a lunatic.

4. A Little Hope by Ethan Joella: A beautifully written, thought-provoking, and moving story about love, despair, and second chances. The lives of a number of residents of the small town of Wharton, Connecticut intersect in myriad ways over a period of time.

5. The Guncle by Steven Rowley: I loved this book so much. I didn’t want it to end, and I wanted to hug it when I was done.⁣ The story of a flamboyant, caftan-wearing gay man who suddenly becomes the temporary caregiver for his niece and nephew when their mother (and his best friend) dies. Ah-ma-zing.

6. In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead: One of the best, most addicting books I read all year. Five friends return to college for their 10-year reunion despite the fact that one of their original group was murdered, and another was accused. And someone wants to unmask the real killer from among the remaining friends.

7. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner: A moving, thought-provoking look at grief and the complicated relationship between mother and daughter. A writer and indie musician recounts losing her Korean mother to cancer in 2014 and discusses how their relationship was best celebrated through food, such a vital part of so many cultures.

8. The Push by Ashley Audrain: This is such a tremendously powerful, suspenseful, slightly creepy book I stayed up until nearly 1:30 a.m. to finish because I couldn’t put it down. It's a story about motherhood, the beautiful and the difficult moments. I won’t forget this anytime soon!

9. Catch Us When We Fall by Juliette Fay: This is a beautiful, emotional story about embracing your vulnerability and finding the possibility of a future when you never thought there was one. A woman tries to make a new life for herself after her long-time boyfriend dies, leaving her pregnant, broke, and alcoholic.

10. Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby: A fantastically gripping story of revenge, regret, and transformation by a thriller writer who should be a household name. Powerful, sad, gritty, and utterly searing, it's also very violent, so those of you who don't enjoy that should steer clear of this book, but you'll miss a masterpiece.

11. The People We Keep by Allison Larkin: A beautiful, emotional, hopeful look at the impact people have on our lives even for a short time, and the impact we can have on theirs. It’s a powerful and poignant book that made me think of those who have drifted in and out of my life through the years, and what an impact they’ve left.

12. Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci: Part memoir, part love letter to food and eating and cooking. The Oscar-nominated actor shares memories of great (and not-so-great) meals, eating experiences, the shared love of food with family, friends, and loved ones, and recipes! I, well, devoured this.

13. In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner: Zentner's latest YA novel is a powerful, poignant story about family, friendship, heritage, love, and finding yourself. He is one of my absolute favorite YA authors, and this book was another reminder why. I loved this, and went to bed with puffy eyes from crying, but it was just so good.

14. The Damage by Caitlin Wahrer: This debut novel is a powerful, emotional look at how far we will go to protect those we love.⁣ A young man and members of his family deal with the aftermath of his rape. Wahrer does a tremendously respectful job presenting the struggles faced by survivors of sexual assault. This was great and thought-provoking.

15. An Unexpected Kind of Love by Hayden Stone: This is a sweet, romantic, steamy love story that kind of undid me. A bookshop owner in London is struggling, financially and emotionally, when he has a meet-cute with an American actor filming nearby. Their blossoming relationship reminded me a little of Notting Hill.

16. These Silent Woods by Kimi Cunningham Grant: Such an excellent book—emotional, suspenseful, and it packed a real punch. It's gorgeous, lyrical, suspenseful, and thought-provoking, the story of the lengths a man goes through to raise his daughter, and the secrets he must keep.

17. The Sky Blues by Robbie Couch: A gorgeous, emotional book about chosen family, friendship, and love. Couch has created a beautiful, unforgettable story with an incredibly diverse group of characters. It gave me all the feels as it shows you that sometimes the things you want and need most are right in front of you.

18. A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw: Creepy, emotional, and evocative…I could not put it down!! This was fascinating and eerie, as mysteries are unraveled and long-hidden secrets are revealed. It's part mystery, part thriller, part contemporary fiction, and just so unique.

19. Bewilderment by Richard Powers: Powers' newest book is a gorgeous and poignant meditation on the world around us and the relationship between father and son. This is such a beautiful, emotional, evocative book. It’s at once a book about the fragility of our world and the fragility of our hearts.

20. How Lucky by Will Leitch: An utterly unforgettable, beautiful book about hope, friendship, and survival, with one of the most unique and amazing protagonists I've ever read about. It's suspenseful, uplifting, funny, poignant, and utterly charming. It makes you think, it’ll make you smile, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably tear up.

21. People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry: Funny, emotional, romantic, and thought-provoking—this book hit me on all fronts. This is a multi-layered rom-com that delivers so much more. There’s some real emotional complexity here and I truly felt some of the characters' issues and emotions.

22. Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour: Wow, what a book. Askaripour's debut novel is powerful, satirical, poignant, and so relevant. It’s sly and satirical at times, while at others it can be shocking and provocative. This is built on an all-too-realistic core of the racism and mistreatment and discrimination faced by minorities in the workplace.

23-24. Him and Us by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy: My first foray into the world of hockey romance, these books are about two childhood friends and hockey rivals who are reunited for a summer and realize what ended their friendship could change their lives for good. Steamy, emotional, and just so darned good.

25. The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave: This thriller asks the question, how well do we really know the people we love? It's part-mystery, part-thriller, but it’s also an introspective story, a look at love and relationships and truth and doing everything for those you love.

26. When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain: To paraphrase that mid-90s jam, this is how you do it. What a fantastic book Paula McLain has written—powerful, poignant, and utterly amazing. This book is about a child abduction case but so much more, and the beauty of this book is letting everything unfold.

Too Good Not to Miss

Life's Too Short by Abby Jimenez: Fun, sexy, moving, romantic, thought-provoking. I love the way Jimenez balances romance and fun with real emotion and issues that make you wonder how you’d react in a similar situation.

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers: This is as much a love story as it is a story of both blood and chosen family and finding the courage to follow your own path. Rogers’ prose was romantic, emotional, and lush, and her imagery was just so vivid. I was completely hooked.

The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon: Such a playful, romantic, and sexy story. Two rivals at a public radio station get roped into hosting a talk show for those seeking relationship advice, and they have to pretend they've dated. They're lying to everyone, including themselves.

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid: It’s 1983. Superstar model Nina Riva and her siblings—surfing all-star Jay, talented photographer Hud, and Kit, the youngest, who’s ready to be taken seriously as a woman and a surfer—are getting ready to have their annual party at the end of the summer. Much drama ensues.

Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage: This debut novel is a thought-provoking, disturbing, and emotional commentary on the power dynamics in a relationship and how easy it is to find yourself powerless. It's a fascinating look at #MeToo from a gay man's perspective.

Float Plan by Trish Doller: A poignant and romantic story about finding the strength to pick yourself up after tragedy. It’s a compelling, emotional look at how you find the strength to move on when there’s still part of you that doesn’t want to, and how it’s still okay to grieve what you’ve lost.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw: An excellent, powerful short story collection about Black women who follow their own desires. The nine stories in this collection are sometimes funny, sometimes frank and defiantly sexual, and sometimes poignant.

Bath Haus by P.J. Vernon: A taut and twisty thriller about truth, trust, and the cost of secrets. A man decides to seek a little adventure while his husband is out of town, but things go majorly awry. We’ve seen this scenario before but almost never with a gay couple, so that brought an added dimension to this terrific, tense thriller.

The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes by Xio Axelrod: This was such a great, emotional story about pursuing your dreams, finding your way, and trying to move beyond old hurts and resentments. I loved these characters and was so impressed with Axelrod’s storytelling choices.

After Francesco by Brian Malloy: Just an absolutely beautiful, moving, hopeful book. It is a gorgeously written, emotional book about grief, fear, feeling like no one understands how you feel and what you’re going through, and the guilt of surviving that many felt (and still do). How can you get on with your life when your partner and your friends didn’t have that chance?

Competitive Grieving by Nora Zelevansky: Seriously amazing. When a woman's best friend dies, she is shaken to the core. But she is most horrified by the group of friends who try to outdo each other in terms of grieving and purported friendship with the deceased. This is poignant, funny, hopeful, and thought-provoking, but it’s not too sad.

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams: In this second-chance love story, the characters have everything to gain—and everything to lose. Over the course of seven days, they try to decide whether to let themselves fall again and what that vulnerability will mean. At the same time, the story looks back on the first seven days they spent together years before, and how indelibly it changed them.

Flash Fire by TJ Klune: A gay superhero novel but it’s so much more, too!⁣ The sequel to last year's The Extraordinaries, the book is about Nick, a teenager with ADHD, who has a bit of an obsession with the superheroes who protect (and sometimes traumatize) his town. But at its core, this is a book about relationships. Excellent!

When We Were Young by Richard Roper: Is there anything quite like an old friend? I love books about old friendships and coming to terms with the past. This book snuck up on me and surprised me, and I really cared about these characters. It’s a beautifully written and emotional story about how much and how little we've moved on with our lives.

Never Saw You Coming by Erin Hahn: What do you do when your faith is tested? This book was beautiful, an exploration of faith and how it means different things to different people, and it was also a look at the hypocrisy that exists in religion, particularly in its treatment of women and girls and LGBTQIA+ people. But at its heart, this is a story about friendship, family, love, and finding your own path.

Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie: If you’re a fan of books about the music industry, here’s one for you. This was excellent and atmospheric, a story about fame, sexism, addiction, friendship, and the pull of the familiar. Books about the music business and musicians hook me completely.

Donuts and Other Proclamations of Love by Jared Reck: How about that title? This an excellent story about love, family, following your dreams, and lots of food. While you could assume this is your typical YA romance, albeit one that might make you hungrier than others, this is much more because of the nuances Reck gives his characters.

56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard: Fifty-six days ago, Ciara and Oliver meet at a supermarket. They share some witty banter and start dating shortly afterward. Three weeks later, as COVID lockdown restrictions start to be enforced in Dublin, Oliver suggests that they move in together and deal with quarantine together. Today, police have been summoned to Oliver’s apartment and they find a body that has been decomposing for a little while. Hmmm...

Tonight We Rule the World by Zack Smedley: This was so good but so heartbreaking. It's so powerful, emotional, and thought-provoking. It’s a look at gaslighting and how often we’re failed by those who say they have our best interests at heart. But more than that, it’s about finding the inner courage and self-belief to do the right thing and stand on your own.

Doubting Thomas by Matthew Clark Davison: Davison's debut novel is beautifully written and thought-provoking. This is a powerful story of finding yourself, of finding the strength to rebuild your life after it falls apart through no fault of your own. It’s also a story of family dynamics in the midst of crises, of finding allies and discovering those you can depend on.

The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta: Add romance, a cup of magical realism, a few spoonfuls of finding yourself, and lots and lots of baking. This book was absolutely fantastic!! Aside from all of the mouthwatering food, this book had so many beautiful, glorious, life-affirming things to say. (And recipes!!)

Love, Lists & Fancy Ships by Sarah Grunder Ruiz: This is a book about love and family and grief and what happens when you try to insulate yourself from getting hurt. Jo is a yacht stewardess who put together a bucket list of things to do before she turned 30. But when tragedy strikes, she abandons the list. Can she get back to it with the help of family, friends, and a new love? This is funny, sad, thought-provoking, and just so good.

The Secret, Book & Scone Society and The Whispered Word by Ellery Adams: The first two installments of an excellent cozy mystery series about friendship, trust, strong women, and the power of books, reading, and good pastries. I love the vividness of these characters and the amazing town of Miracle Springs, North Carolina!

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