The Best Books I Read in 2021 – Part 2: By Genre

Hello readers!

Welcome to part 2 of my favorite reads of this year! 2021 was a pretty amazing reading year for me, hence the need to split my best books of the year in three parts – I’ve read over 150 books at this point and I wanted to highlight a lot of the fantastic stuff I’ve read, which in my usual posts would be difficult to really talk about more than a small handful of books.

Part 1 of this short series is here: The Best Books I Read in 2021 – Part 1: Brazilian Books

Blog Divider

Literary Fiction

Litfic is always difficult for me to choose a top 3, because there is a lot of itI can highly appreciate and that I think of often, and there is the stuff I most enjoyed reading – sometimes these books intersect, others, not really. So I spent literally weeks to decide on the following books: If I Had Your Face, a book that fascinated me endlessly (I love anything that discusses beauty standards), The Vanishing Half, a book I could simply never stop recommending to people, and Piranesi, which was so close to being a perfect read and impressed me so much my husband (who doesn’t read much fiction, much less litfic) picked it up and became a huge fan of Susanna Clarke.

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

A debut novel set in contemporary Seoul, Korea, about four young women making their way in a world defined by impossibly high standards of beauty, secret room salons catering to wealthy men, strict social hierarchies, and K-pop fan mania.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

Historical Fiction

I don’t read a lot of histfic in general, so it’s no surprise to me that my top 3 books are entirely different from each other and could have easily gone into other categories. His Bloody Project is a mystery that reads like true crime – a collection of documents about a murder trial, and I loved it. It’s slow paced and at times frustrating, which to me added to the atmosphere and feeling of true crime to the book. Shuggie Bain is a beautiful, sad, incredibly written story about a boy whose mother is dealing with alcoholism and it’s so heartbreaking. It’s also surprisingly engaging, I kept turning pages although this is not an easy read at all. In stark contrast, The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao is a Brazilian family epic which focuses on two sisters who choose very different paths in life, but also peppers the story with lively, messy side characters, which I loved.

His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The year is 1869. A brutal triple murder in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae. A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty, but it falls to the country’s finest legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit such merciless acts of violence. Was he mad? Only the persuasive powers of his advocate stand between Macrae and the gallows.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Edouard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha, translated by Eric M.B. Becker

Euridice is young, beautiful and ambitious, but when her rebellious sister Guida elopes, she sets her own aspirations aside and vows to settle down as a model wife and daughter. And yet as her husband’s professional success grows, so does Euridice’s feeling of restlessness. She embarks on a series of secret projects – from creating recipe books to becoming the most sought-after seamstress in town – but each is doomed to failure. Her tradition-loving husband is not interested in an independent wife. And then one day Guida appears at the door with her young son and a terrible story of hardship and abandonment.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

This was TOUGH. I had some amazing choices to put here and this is the best of the best from a year where I read a lot of amazing SFF. I’m actually considering writing a separate post with my almost-top 3 SFFs of the year.

Illusion was the biggest surprise for me, a really underhyped book published in the 90s which is so charming, witty, multi-layered, I loved it SO much. I have talked about this a million times and will talk about it whenever I can because people need to know how amazing this book is – a fantasy retelling of the French and Russian revolutions which a charming main character who us forced to leave her comfortable life in court after the country sees a Revolution. Fantastic. A Dead Djinn in Cairo is another one that blew me away – I read the entire series basically right after finishing this. The magic, the atmosphere, the main characters, the mystery, everything was so perfectly executed and it scratched an itch for this kind of mystery that I did not know I had! Finally, Jade Legacy. Because obviously. Political intrigue, incredible magic system, martial arts, clans, an explosive finale to this perfection of a series, this was obviously going to be here.

Illusion by Paula Volsky

One of fantasy’s brightest new stars makes her Bantam debut with a colorful, sweeping high fantasy epic set against the fires of revolution. In the land of Vonahr, the Exalted have ruled by virtue of their legendary magical abilities for centuries, heedless of the misery of the lower classes. Now revolution is in the air. . . .

A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

Egypt, 1912. In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi leads her through the city’s underbelly as she encounters rampaging ghouls, saucy assassins, clockwork angels, and plot that could unravel time itself.

Mystery & Thrillers

This one was probably the hardest top 3 I had to do. I read SO many thrillers and mysteries this year (25+ books last time I counted) that my favorites changed all the time. Even right now I am sad not to include some fantastic reads – I’m considering writing a post with the best (maybe top 10?) mystery & thriller books I read this year.

The Kind Worth Killing was probably the most entertaining thriller I’ve read all year. This had me HOOKED. It was so bonkers. The Satapur Moonstone charmed me to no end with its atmospheric story and wonderful main character. This is a story that truly comes to life and it’s so easy to fall in love with. Apples Never Fall had me laughing, crying, tense, the whole package. I ADORED it. I read it on my honeymoon during a very long trip between locations and it made the trip a wonderful experience.

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning and mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing very intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage that’s going stale and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him. Ted and his wife were a mismatch from the start—he the rich businessman, she the artistic free spirit—a contrast that once inflamed their passion, but has now become a cliché.

But their game turns a little darker when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, “I’d like to help.” After all, some people are the kind worth killing, like a lying, stinking, cheating spouse. . . .

The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey

India, 1922: It is rainy season in the lush, remote Sahyadri mountains, where the princely state of Satapur is tucked away. A curse seems to have fallen upon Satapur’s royal family, whose maharaja died of a sudden illness shortly before his teenage son was struck down in a tragic hunting accident. The state is now ruled by an agent of the British Raj on behalf of Satapur’s two maharanis, the dowager queen and her daughter-in-law.

The royal ladies are in a dispute over the education of the young crown prince, and a lawyer’s counsel is required. However, the maharanis live in purdah and do not speak to men. Just one person can help them: Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s only female lawyer. Perveen is determined to bring peace to the royal house and make a sound recommendation for the young prince’s future, but she arrives to find that the Satapur palace is full of cold-blooded power plays and ancient vendettas. Too late, she realizes she has walked into a trap. But whose? And how can she protect the royal children from the palace’s deadly curse?

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

The Delaneys are fixtures in their community. The parents, Stan and Joy, are the envy of all of their friends. They’re killers on the tennis court, and off it their chemistry is palpable. But after fifty years of marriage, they’ve finally sold their famed tennis academy and are ready to start what should be the golden years of their lives. So why are Stan and Joy so miserable?

When Joy goes missing, and Savannah is nowhere to be found, the police question the one person who remains: Stan. But for someone who claims to be innocent, he, like many spouses, seems to have a lot to hide. Two of the Delaney children think their father is innocent, two are not so sure—but as the two sides square off against each other in perhaps their biggest match ever, all of the Delaneys will start to reexamine their shared family history in a very new light.

Horror

The Push is a bit of a controversial one because I know it won’t work for most people but it definitely worked for me. This is a bit more on the litfic side, a slow-burn suspense / horror novel that does atmosphere so perfectly I kept wondering if the main character was actually a bad person or a victim. Incredible book. The Haunting of Hill House was BRILLIANT. I loved it more for its creepy atmosphere, witty banter between characters and That Ending than for being a proper horror story, but this was such an incredible book I had to include it in this category. Finally, another controversial one that consumed me entirely, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is a body horror story that had me disgusted, creeped out and obsessed. I loved it but no idea who I’d recommend this to! It’s just… a lot.

The Push by Ashley Audrain

A tense, page-turning psychological drama about the making and breaking of a family–and a woman whose experience of motherhood is nothing at all what she hoped for–and everything she feared. The Push is a tour de force you will read in a sitting, an utterly immersive novel that will challenge everything you think you know about motherhood, about what we owe our children, and what it feels like when women are not believed.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely and lighthearted assistant; Luke, the adventurous future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past. As they begin to cope with chilling, even horrifying occurrences beyond their control or understanding, they cannot possibly know what lies ahead. For Hill House is gathering its powers – and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca

Sadomasochism. Obsession. Death. A whirlpool of darkness churns at the heart of a macabre ballet between two lonely young women in an internet chat room in the early 2000s—a darkness that threatens to forever transform them once they finally succumb to their most horrific desires. What have you done today to deserve your eyes?

Middle Grade and Young Adult

Okay so I did not expect to write a top 3 for either of these categories this year, but turns out that I read enough of both together that I can create a top 3 if I merge both MG and YA into one. I have been gravitating towards adult fiction a lot more lately, which is why I had to merge these other two age groups.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a wonderfully cozy and hilarious young adult fantasy book about a girl who gets cursed and the only one who can help her break her curse is an insufferable wizard. A classic. House of Hollow is a creepy, atmospheric young adult horror about three sisters who disappeared one day and reappeared later changed and with no memory of their experience. Princesas, Bruxas e uma Sardinha na Brasa was such a fun one! This is a Brazilian middle grade retelling of popular fairy tale stories which highlight the role of women in these tales, and it’s by one of my favorite Brazilian writers, Helena Gomes. This was fun and charming and I devoured it!

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

In this giant jigsaw puzzle of a fantasy, people and things are never quite what they seem. Destinies are intertwined, identities exchanged, lovers confused. The Witch has placed a spell on Howl. Does the clue to breaking it lie in a famous poem? And what will happen to Sophie Hatter when she enters Howl’s castle?

House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland

Seventeen-year-old Iris Hollow has always been strange. Something happened to her and her two older sisters when they were children, something they can’t quite remember but that left each of them with an identical half-moon scar at the base of their throats.

Princesas, bruxas e uma sardinha na brasa por Helena Gomes

Vilã ou heroína? Bruxa, princesa, camponesa, conselheira ou madrasta? Ou todas elas? Nos contos de fadas, as personagens femininas costumam ser entregues em casamento a quem mal conhecem, sofrem muito, não têm direito a dar opinião nem a escolher o seu futuro. E tudo isso só porque nasceram mulheres. “Princesas, bruxas e uma sardinha na brasa” nos faz refletir sobre essas questões e também nos mostra como os homens podem ser aliados no processo de mudanças. São histórias que divertem, emocionam e ainda nos fazem ver que há muito a ser feito para que as mulheres também sejam donas dos próprios finais felizes.

Classic Fiction (English Language)

Okay, so I have a Brazilian Classics category on part 1 and a Translated Classics category on part 3, so I was not sure how to handle the more general “Classics” category, because honestly it would basically include only books from those other two posts. So I did here a top 3 for English-language classics.

The Age of Innocence broke my heart and solidified Edith Wharton as one of my favorite classic writers. I loved this book. Sure, I now think the world is a bleak and depressing place, but it was totally worth it. The Haunting of Hill House obviously had to be here! I decided to pick up Passing spontaneously after reading The Vanishing Half (they do pair so well together) and it was a very thought-provoking, interesting read!

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely and lighthearted assistant; Luke, the adventurous future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past. As they begin to cope with chilling, even horrifying occurrences beyond their control or understanding, they cannot possibly know what lies ahead. For Hill House is gathering its powers – and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Clare Kendry is living on the edge. Light-skinned, elegant, and ambitious, she is married to a racist white man unaware of her African American heritage, and has severed all ties to her past after deciding to “pass” as a white woman. Clare’s childhood friend, Irene Redfield, just as light-skinned, has chosen to remain within the African American community, and is simultaneously allured and repelled by Clare’s risky decision to engage in racial masquerade for personal and societal gain. After frequenting African American-centric gatherings together in Harlem, Clare’s interest in Irene turns into a homoerotic longing for Irene’s black identity that she abandoned and can never embrace again, and she is forced to grapple with her decision to pass for white in a way that is both tragic and telling.

Science & Technology

I was happy to read a few more science & tech books this year, I keep telling myself I will every year and then I get distracted by shiny new fiction instead. Humble Pi is a wonderful hilarious book about mathematical errors that was great fun to read. Ignition! was a chemistry-heavy book about liquid rocket propellants that took a lot of brain power to read but it was also very entertaining and surprisingly funny (things go BOOM a lot). But if I had to choose one, I would have to say that The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs was my favorite science read of the year. I had so much fun reading about all the different kinds of dinosaurs, about excavations and the evolving theories. So cool.

Non-Fiction: Other Categories

I actually read more non-fiction this year than I have in a long time, so I considered creating more categories for it in this post, but in the end I read so randomly that it was hard to put together a top 3 for true crime, history, biographies etc when I’ve read 2-3 of each. So!

Empire of Pain was an incredible book, explaining how the Sackler family was involved in the opioid crisis and got rich from it. It will make you mad in the best way. Also – the audiobook is narrated by Patrick Radden Keefe and it was wonderful! Fallout is another journalistic detective work style book about what happened in Hiroshima and how there was an attempt to cover up the effects of the bombings. The Girl with Seven Names is fantastic read about a young woman escaping North Korea and the bravery, luck and talent that it took to not get caught and to rebuild her life.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

The highly anticipated portrait of three generations of the Sackler family, by the prize-winning, bestselling author of Say Nothing.

The Sackler name adorns the walls of many storied institutions: Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford, the Louvre. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations to the arts and sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing OxyContin, a blockbuster painkiller that was a catalyst for the opioid crisis.

Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World by Lesley M.M. Blume

New York Times bestselling author Lesley M.M. Blume reveals how one courageous American reporter uncovered one of the deadliest cover-ups of the 20th century—the true effects of the atom bomb—potentially saving millions of lives. Released on the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, Fallout is an engrossing detective story, as well as an important piece of hidden history that shows how one heroic scoop saved—and can still save—the world.

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.

9 thoughts on “The Best Books I Read in 2021 – Part 2: By Genre

  1. If I Had Your Face was such a brilliant book! i listened to its audiobook this year and it just impressed me so much with its multiple POVs and themes. I CANT WAIT to see what else Frances Cha writes 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Best Books I Read in 2021 – Part 3: Other Categories | Naty's Bookshelf

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