The Best Books I Read in 2021

2021 was another categorically Really Weird Year, but gosh there were some good books! This is my personal list of favourites, ranging from chaotic coming-of-age comedies to mythical urban fantasies to mecha battles to portal fantasies to time-hopping romances and back again. Take a look and see what catches your eye—and as always, let me know what your favourite reads were! There are always, always more novels to add to the pile.

(A title like “Best Queer Books I Read in 2021” would be superfluous—basically, assume these have queer protagonists or at least main ensemble cast members. It is the sensible option at this point on this blog)

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

Regan has always done her best to be normal, slotting herself carefully into the box of what a young girl should be. When she discovers she is intersex, “normal” and “girlhood” become relative and much more complicated. Faced with rejection and misunderstanding, Regan flees school… and steps through a doorway in the woods that takes her to a world of centaurs, unicorns, and kelpies; a world that reportedly needs a human hero.

The Wayward Children series remains fantastic, with this latest instalment being one of my favourites to date. This is designed as a standalone or a jumping-in point for new readers, and I highly recommend it even if you haven’t checked out McGuire’s other books: the fairy tale tone, the imaginative worldbuilding, and the engagement with oft taken-for-granted concepts like “destiny”, “heroism”, and “proper girlhood” are so fascinating and so valuable. (CW: characters reckoning with gender essentialism)

The Boy From the Mish by Gary Lonesborough

In a sleepy town tucked between the mountains and the sea, Jackson’s ordinary summer break is interrupted by the arrival of Tomas: a mysterious, quiet, decidedly cute boy in the care of Jackson’s aunt. Instructed to make sure Tomas “stays out of trouble”, Jackson reluctantly takes the stranger under his wing, exploring the forests, avoiding local racists and awkward ex-girlfriends, helping brainstorm a therapeutic graphic novel project and maybe, just maybe, falling a bit in love.

An Indigenous Australian queer coming-of-age story, addressing the pressures of small-town masculinity while also presenting a very tender alternative version of it. This is such a sweet romance, developing gradually between two leads that have a fun dynamic, and leading Jackson on a really rewarding journey of character development. (CW: characters using racist and homophobic slurs; racist microaggressions; internalised homophobia).

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Determined to prove his gender and his place in his magical family, Yadriel sets out to summon a spirit. He succeeds, save for the fact that he called upon the wrong soul, and is now stuck with the rowdy ghost of school “bad boy” Julian Diaz. All Yads wants to do is prove his worth and get rid of Julian’s ghost before Día de Muertos, but as the murder mystery thickens and the two boys grow closer, things become a little more complicated.

A vibrant and fun adventure (and heartening romance) with two charming leads, a rich and engaging setting, and a spooky mystery, all with a delightfully rebellious and affirming queer throughline. (CW: depictions of transphobia; parental death)

The Falling in Love Montage by Ciara Smyth

After seeing her mother deteriorate from a genetic disease, Saorise has impending doom on her mind. Among her cynical streak, she refuses to enter into a serious relationship; opting instead to kiss straight girls who will never form an attachment. But then an optimist named Ruby breezes into town and breaks the pattern. Ruby suggests a romance with only the fun parts included: all the sappy, picture-perfect moments you’d see in the falling in love montage in the middle of a rom-com, nothing more and nothing less.

Naturally, while this seems like a good idea at the time, such things are never so simple, and the resulting coming-of-age story is a fantastic exploration of love stories and why we tell them in the first place. You can read a longer review of all my feels here. (CW: terminal illness; parental death)

Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Godolia maintains its military might with the Windups: giant mechs piloted by cybernetically-enhanced soldiers, capable of wiping out entire towns should they not comply. But godlike robots are still made of nuts and bolts, and their greatest threat remains the rebel Gearbreakers who can climb inside and take them apart. Eris is a Gearbreaker, and thinks she’s met her mortal enemy when she comes face to face with Windup pilot Sona. But Sona is a war orphan like Eris, and has infiltrated the pilot program to try and dismantle Godolia from within.

Gorgeous, evocative writing. Complex, vicious, and lovable protagonists. Metal-wrenching ass-kicking heart-stopping action scenes. Girls falling in love. Giant robots. What’s not to love? Gearbreakers was a surprise favourite of mine, carried on the strength of its two leads and some fantastic prose. I’m looking forward to part two! You can read a longer review here. (CW: non-detailed torture scenes; parental death; child soldiers; copious injuries described in fairly gnarly detail; the horrors of war in general)

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

In a spacefaring, magic-infused future, The Immortal Emperor sends out a call: a call that reaches even the rocky, desolate, and skeleton-filled pit that is the Ninth House. Harrowhark, bone magic prodigy, sees an opportunity to finally strut her stuff and gain some imperial prestige. Gideon, Harrow’s childhood nemesis, sees an opportunity to get out of dodge. The two reluctantly team up as mage and bodyguard and set off, only to end up entangled in an interstellar murder mystery and a quest to uncover the Emperor’s secrets.

Just as brilliant and bonkers as everyone told me it was, and written with some of the most unique prose—by turns epic and poetic and hilarious—I’ve ever read. I’m glad this is part of a series, because I want to keep swimming around in this beautiful, weird universe. (CW: supernatural body horror; parental death; descriptions of suicide; a terminally ill character with some graphic descriptions of her symptoms)

The Girl From the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

Fifteen-year-old Morgan nearly drowns one night, but is saved by a beautiful selkie. Convinced that she’s dreaming, Morgan smooches her right on the mouth—and is shocked when said selkie then turns up on her doorstep the next morning, very real and ready to confess her love. This throws a spanner in Morgan’s plans to lay low and stay firmly closeted until she can graduate and leave her tiny island town. But maybe the magic seal-girl from the sea isn’t the only one able to undergo a transformation…

This is a gorgeous, magical coming-of-age story that skews the expectations of the coming out story, placing great weight on the personal, emotional stakes involved with figuring out your identity, even if homophobia itself isn’t part of the narrative. Summer romance, meaningful character growth, and adorable baby seals: it’s all good. You can read a longer review here. (CW: characters being outed in low-stakes family settings; characters almost drowning)

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar

Hani wants to prove to her friends that she’s really bisexual. Ishu wants to prove to her parents that she’s a better high achiever than her older sister. The two hatch a plan: pretend to date each other. Ishu will serve to “prove” that Hani has dated girls, and Hani will help Ishu get popular so she can run for Head Girl. Shenanigans, as I’m sure you can imagine, ensue.

Altogether charming—I think I liked it even more than The Henna Wars. The romance is sweet (Jaigirdar writes “rivals” and cranky classmates in an endearing way), and the exploration of the casual toxicity that can bubble away in platonic and familial relationships felt real and heartful. Also contains some of the most brutally authentic depictions of Entitled Basic White Girls in YA! (CW: casual biphobia and homophobia; obnoxious entitled White girls doing casual racism like no one else can)

Lore by Alexandra Bracken

Once every seven years, for seven days, the Greek gods are made mortal in the Agon—and if a human kills them during this period, that human will gain their powers. Melora “Lore” Perseous is the last in an ancient bloodline of god-hunters, but after the brutal murder of her family in the previous Agon, all she wants is to leave the bloodthirsty tradition behind. But then Athena turns up injured on Lore’s doorstep and makes her an offer she can’t refuse.

All the epic chaos the Greek pantheon deserves, centred on the struggles of a cast of great characters. Lore’s narration sets the tone: jaded, pragmatic, and terrifically angry, but also full of compassion and humour when it counts. This is a thrilling and clever take on familiar myths (yes, it does itch the place in my brain where my enduring love of Fate lives rent-free) that I definitely recommend if you’re looking for an adventure. (CW: violence! And a lot of it! Injuries described in detail; parental death; child death; threatened sexual assault)

The Lost Coast by A.R. Capetta

The Grays are a tight-knit coven of teen witches, working their magic among the ancient redwood trees of California’s Lost Coast… that is, until their charismatic leader, Imogen, vanishes into the forest one night. A wandering, yearning girl named Danny is summoned to help them, and must figure out her own burgeoning magic, her feelings for this new community, and the ghostly mystery of what became of Imogen before time runs out.

Gorgeous prose, with a dreamy nonlinear narrative about finding your way home even if you don’t know what “home” can look like. You can read a longer review here. (CW: discussions of homophobia, including a character being kicked out by her parents; brief discussions of terminal illness and parental death; brief (but often poetic rather than graphic) descriptions of dead bodies)

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

After Ciela and a boy she hardly knows are sexually assaulted by classmates at a party, Ciela’s world begins to change. She loses the ability she’s always had to guess exactly what sweets and pan dulce her customers want and need. The seasonal winds are eerily still. Trees are vanishing inexplicably from the neighbourhood. And, most troubling, everywhere Ciela goes objects and plants are turning to mirrored glass. When the boy turns up at school, Ciela sees someone she needs to protect—and wonders if them helping each other recover is what might bring the magic back.

This is a beautifully written book about a difficult subject, making it simultaneously really fun and really stressful to read. McLemore’s prose unfolds the magic of this world and the trauma of these characters with equal delicacy, always centring the survivors’ emotions. While the story takes the time to remind us that closure is not always easy, linear, or even possible, the novel ends with some wonderful catharsis. You can read a longer review here. (CW: sexual trauma as a main theme; the act itself described in detail; systemic racism; internalised victim-blaming)

Not My Problem by Ciara Smyth

Aideen can’t solve her own complicated situation: her mother is sliding back into alcohol abuse, she’s failing school, and her childhood BFF keeps belittling her. Other people’s problems, though? Aideen can make a business out of solving them… starting with pushing the class overachiever down a staircase so she can free up space in her hectic timetable.

Ciara Smyth might be one of my favourite new writers, and is definitely an exemplary author in contemporary YA. This expertly balances being funny and chaotic with being earnest and down-to-earth. Aideen and her issues feel deeply real, and her sense of humour (and the way it functions as a coping mechanism) is spot-on. She’s a snarky gay pocket rocket for whom I only want good things, and she has a satisfying little character arc across this adventure. (CW: emotionally immature parents; alcoholism)

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Cynical, pragmatic August moves to New York with the aim of keeping her head down and leaving her past behind, and it’s all looking up when a handsome woman named Jane steals her heart while on their shared commute. But Jane doesn’t just look like a cool butch punk-rocker from the ‘70s, she is a cool butch punk-rocker from the ‘70s: somehow unstuck in time, and trapped on the Q trainline for eternity.

It’s up to August to throw away her rulebook and work out how to save her girl, and it’s a delightfully romantic and sharply-written ride. One Last Stop is a time-hopping love story, but it’s also a glorious love letter to queer community and queer history, celebrating the rebellious spirit of love and fury that paved the way for the freedoms we can enjoy today. Jane and August are fantastic, but I would be remiss not to mention how delightful the side characters are, too. (CW: discussion of historical homophobia including hate crimes and violence; missing relatives)

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Postgrad student Zachary Ezra Rawlins borrows a strange book of fairy tales from the uni library one day, and is startled to discover that one of them is about him, recounting an event from his childhood that no one else witnessed. Trying to chase the book’s origins, Zachary finds himself on a beautifully bizarre adventure that takes him all the way to the underground archive on the shore of The Starless Sea: the place where all stories begin, end, and are kept safe, a place tangled up in prophecies and shifting timelines, and a place that is under threat.

Downright magical—just as The Night Circus enchanted me in my teens, The Starless Sea arrives just in time to be Exactly My Shit in my twenties. (CW: existential dread; parental death; a side character who really likes Harry Potter. Your mileage may vary with how much she grates on you, given… circumstances)

Stars in Their Eyes by Jessica Walton and Aśka

It’s Maisie’s first fan convention, and she’s excited to meet her personal hero: the amputee actress who plays her favourite superhero, and who makes Maisie and her own disability feel seen and feel powerful. But conventions are a little fraught: Maisie must navigate big crowds, abled people who want to tell her how “inspiring” she is, panic attacks, and—most pressingly—must make sure her geeky and overbearing mother doesn’t embarrass her in front of charming non-binary volunteer Ollie.

This graphic novel captures, with big heartedness, the way teenagers can fall in love with fiction (and with each other) when stories speak to them, and how that love inspires them to dive headfirst into passionate chats and transformative works. Stars in Their Eyes is adorable and affirming and I can’t recommend it enough if you’re looking for a cosy story about marginalised kids geeking out and having a nice time (and, despite being super embarrassed by their antics, having great and sweet relationships with their parents). (CW: casual ableism from annoying side characters)

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

Briseis has had power over plants for as long as she can remember: flowers bloom when she walks by, ivy tangles when she gets anxious, she can bring even the most shrivelled sprouts back to life with a touch, and she’s immune to poisonous weeds that should kill within minutes. When Briseis finds out a long-lost biological relative has passed away and willed her a country house, she jumps at the opportunity to discover more about her power and her lineage, and finds herself quickly tangled in family secrets of mythological proportions.

A super fun contemporary fantasy blending spooky secret gardens with remixes of Greek mythology, and starring one of the most lovable queer families I’ve read to date. You can read a longer review here. (CW: some gnarly descriptions of poison taking effect; brief discussions of systemic racism)

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Filed under Alex Reads

2 responses to “The Best Books I Read in 2021

  1. Pingback: Twenty-Twenty-Gone: December ’21 Roundup | The Afictionado

  2. Pingback: A Pile of Australian Queer YA | The Afictionado

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