Top 10 Books Read, 2021

I did say I was going to do a few of these over different media. As a doctor of English and current English professor, I do my share of reading. The genres are fairly diverse, though you’ll see a pattern among the books I love most. Now, these are the ones I first read through in this particular year through the particular medium I read through them on, much like the Switch list. Which means that only a handful were released this year (though of the list, 7 were within either this year or late last year). Same as always: this is based mostly on tilt factor.

10 Shadowspell Academy: Year of the Chameleon by Shannon Mayer

This is sort of mushing three different books together into one, which sort of feels like how the author put them out. Each is about 200 pages and released within a three month time span. As I’m fairly certain this is self-published, I can hardly blame them. I fortunately had a free/cheap Kindle Unlimited plan and blitzed the books when I could.

The story continues from a previous trilogy/split books, detailing a sort of more mature magical school. Everyone’s divided according to their magic, and now the main character, Wild, is now in the school proper. The story details how she’s got special magical powers and how she’s linked her friends together through presence and trial. There’s very much a Chosen One narrative going on here, but there’s just as much this extra level where her friends are part of the reason why she has power and they got power simply by working with her.

It’s still a bit clunky (they lost an author somewhere between this release and the previous), and the romances feel a little all over the place. There’s not really a big meaning to latch onto or anything more important to say, but it is a fun romp and something I enjoyed in the earlier parts of the year.

9 The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

This book kind of stands in for a lot of the heteronormative romance novels that I read this year (my phrasing indicates that there are going to be more romances and likely some queer ones), and I was a little hesitant on including it, as it’s the book I most recently finished. But it was also one I purchased on a whim, as it was constantly advertised to me while I was doing my Black Friday browsing, and I essentially bought it to to fulfill some deal.

It tells the story of Olive, a Ph.D student (and half of you just went “ahh”). She recently broke up with a guy and isn’t all that broken up about it. Her friend, Anh, is interested though, so Olive gets the wild idea to kiss the first guy she sees and then pretend to be in a relationship with him. But, oh, no, she’s kissed Adam Carlsen, a known ass and biology professor! Whatever shall she do?

So, yeah, the premise is wacky and very romantic comedy. There’s definitely that element here and it’s appreciated. At the same time, the book actually delves into academic life with the awareness that comes with being in it (the author’s a professor). On top of that, they detail Title IX, the law that deals with gender relations and sexual conduct among academics and those involved in college life. There are a few moments where the book gets a bit Too Real in that regard, but at the same time I can appreciate addressing that rule and the issues head on (there’s an initial tease about how Adam could file a Title IX complaint against Olive, which would have been legitimate [something that panics Olive]).

The majority of the book is fluffy romance, compared to Rey x Kylo from the latest Star Wars series (only much better done here), and there’s some great character interaction. For me, it’s that added bit that pushes it onto this list.

8 Inkspell by Cornelia Funke

This is probably the oldest book in this listing, though it was just released as a collection at the end of last year (so a bit flexible?). For those that don’t know, Funke is a well known German fantasy writer, specializing in tales that are ostensibly for children, but often in the same way that old fairy tales were written for children. I got back into her work after stumbling upon a book of hers that I missed, and picked up this collection after admittedly a long time not reading it (I owned a hardcover back when it came out; I read this on my Kindle).

This is the second book in her most popular Ink Trilogy. The first book’s pretty solid, dealing with a man named Mo and his daughter Maggie. Maggie discovered that her father can read people into and out of various stories through the power of his voice (Funke’s commentary on the power of reading, obviously). Mo accidentally read Maggie’s mother into a story and the villains of that story out into this world. So the first book detailed them dealing with said villains in the real world.

This book has the characters entering into the world of the book where the villains came from (Inkheart). Maggie wants to see that world, and thus reads herself into the story. It’s here where the story becomes almost too real, as they’re dealing with this deadly, but magical fantasy world. The book does this great job of pointing out how very, very dangerous it would actually be to be in one of the fantasy novels we all love so very much.

At the same time, it also balances this idea of whether authors control their world and their stories or the other way around. Not to mention the reiteration of the Power of Reading. As if all that weren’t enough: there’s actually starts to some pretty good romances, and one of my favorite kind: a romance that actually keeps going past the characters getting together (in this case involving a married couple who are very much in love and rediscovering why).

It’s a brilliant series, and this middle book is, to me, the best of the trilogy. The first feels a bit clunky, and the third is just too long, but this middle one is, well, just right.

7 Steve Jobs: the Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson

The oldest book on this list and also perhaps ironically the only one I didn’t purchase from Amazon. Several of you may recognize this, as it’s that Steve Jobs book that was a big deal ten years ago. Was everywhere, showed his slightly smirking picture. I avoided it precisely because it was so popular and because for quite some time, I wasn’t interested in biographies and the like (this is not the only one on this list).

But this book is utterly fascinating. Isaacson didn’t set out to write a “Great Man” biography, though there are hints of that here (this idea that one man changed history). He paints the picture of this utterly fascinating, very flawed figure in the form of Jobs, gathering interviews and putting together an exhaustive amount of research. It’s incredibly thorough and well detailed, but also engagingly written, which is hard to do for something like this.

There’s quite a bit of history in this too, and it’s worth picking up if you’re remotely interested in all that. I know I appreciated the information regarding Pixar myself.

(For those curious: I got this for free at a book store after trading in literal tubs full of my old books)

6 Tristan Strong Keeps Punching by Kwambe Mbalia

I always feel a little off in rating and mentioning these books, as I really don’t think I’m the target audience. That comes some with YA books in general, as the genre literally says “Young Adult” and I’ve likely moved past them. But I love reading them as an educator and now as someone who’s written YA books (I’m shopping at least one title around as I write this).

This is from Rick Riordan’s extension series where he calls in various individuals of various nationalities to write “myth” books based on the legends and beliefs they grew up with. The imprint comes off part as capitalistic greed (Riordan is the author of the wildly successful Percy Jackson series and the various Greek/Roman/Norse myth books that offshoot), but part as an honest attempt at getting these stories out.

Mbalia’s books detail African American myths and stories, and there’s something incredibly real in the way he presents them. The stories still contain the fun and adventure that comes with any book in these imprints (I’ve read no less than five or six this year alone), but Mbalia interjects racial history into the mix in engaging ways. The characters presented as myths are often those that are from the African Diaspora, or who happen to be those that slaves or other black folks raised up on their own.

But it’s not just that the story is weighty that makes me love this one and the entire series. It’s that Mbalia never forgets that he’s writing a fictional book and story. Tristan is an engaging, dynamic character who learns to grow and deal with his rising temper and mixed feelings. He suffers love and loss and learns what it takes to keep going. The title is a great commentary on his personal journey.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I consider this book and most of the series absolutely perfect and a must read for those who like stories based on myths or who are interested in a tale like the one above.

5 The Falling in Love Montage by Ciara Smyth

I picked this one up mostly on a whim, as it mentioned “Ireland” and “romance,” which was really enough for me to be on board. But the premise here is just too good: a college bound girl, Saoirse Clarke, isn’t looking for a relationship, but bumps into Ruby, a dynamic girl she can’t get out of her head. They decide that they’ll have a summer romance lifted directly out of the movies. They’ll go on dates and experience everything that you would see in one of those corny movie montages, knowing that there’s going to be a definite ending.

After the last one, you may think that there’s some kinda big commentary here. That they deal with hardship or something. But nope! It’s just a cute romance story between two girls as they deal with things. That’s kinda the beauty of it though: they don’t overemphasize the queer nature of the relationship, but treat it as just this adorable summer romance. There are hints that there’s more weight here, and they address the whole idea of going away from college and balancing romance.

It’s like I said: books are here for the tilt and how much I enjoy them, and I thoroughly enjoyed this cute Irish romance.

4 On the Come Up By Angie Thomas

Sooo… remember how I said that the books don’t have to be about something major? Yeah, this book is about something major.

Thomas is well known as the writer of The Hate U Give, a major YA novel that has already been turned into a successful film and details what it’s like being a black teenager in America. It’s on my Kindle, and I’m gonna get to it.

I got this one because it was on sale and I was kinda interested. It tells the story of Bri, who wants nothing so much as to be a rapper. Her father used to rap, something of a local hip hop legend before he died tragically just before he could make it big. Bri wants that for her and her family. She’s also highly intelligent and goes to a pretty decent school.

Still, she does a rap about her situation, coming off as angry despite being lyrically talented, and the book details how that goes as well as her own life. For me, it was as much the look into rap and rap culture that I found fascinating, as that is very much not my world. It’s what had me picking up this book: I’m huge into music and often write musical characters (ironically one of whom is into hip-hop and would probably love Bri’s stuff).

There’s intelligence to Bri and the characters here I can appreciate. Like the Tristan Strong book earlier, this one also details being black in America but never forgets to have a plot or characters. It does lean a lot more into the whole struggles, but it also has a cute romance side-plot, and the whole musical journey thing is great (there are several raps written out and a handful of rap battles). It goes into a lot of different areas, and it’s definitely worth a read.

3 I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom

I’m not quite sure what to call this book? Memoir? Creative collection? Autobiography? Odd? I mean, it actually includes a direct link to a one-woman musical that details a portion of Bloom’s life. That’s literally a chapter: a self-contained musical. There’s a few sections that are poetry about exes, several stories, a few reports, I think a horoscope?

It’s madcap and creative as heck is what I’m saying, and I loved every moment of reading it.

On top of being genuinely funny and engaging, Bloom also tackles some serious issues. There’s detailed discussion of her own mental health struggles and the weight she’s felt as a female comedienne getting into the business. She tells us about how she’s been insulted for all kinds of things, from promiscuity to not putting out enough to being too heavy to not being funny, etc.

For those of us in the know, there’s something of a happy ending: she made the hit show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that’s won a few awards, and she’s now a pretty successful voice actress (with absolutely horrible taste in picking projects; she was in both Angry Birds 2 and Extinct). But it’s great seeing her journey, and the book itself deserves credit for being one of the most creatively constructed things I’ve ever seen.

Whatever it is.

2 The Kyoshi Series by F.C. Lee and Michael Dane Dimartino

I do think I tilt some of these based on my surprise. The past four entries and Love Hypothesis were all splurges or picks I didn’t expect to enjoy. I bought this series during the Prime Day sale, primarily because the upcoming Avatar Table Top Role Playing Game (TTRPG) has “Kyoshi” as a setting for some of its games, and I wanted to inform my players. So, yeah, I literally bought it as a campaign setting for a game I may hypothetically run.

And this series probably sucked me in more than any other.

For one thing, it’s a grittier story set in the Avatar universe. This is the same Eastern fantasy story that spawned two successful animated series and a handful of comics. The same one where the creatures sound like something four year olds would make: sky bisons, turtle-ducks, badger-moles. But in this story, people die, in very gruesome and descriptive ways. Politics are dirty. Filthy bandits have to steal to survive and callously assault and murder people out into the open.

The story follows Kyoshi’s journey as she discovers she’s the Avatar. If you’ve seen the series, you already know that Kyoshi’s the avatar that lived the longest and was known as being a rampaging badass who did not care about your feelings and would kill you if you were evil or a jerk. In this, we see a trembling girl who’s not initially the Avatar but instead a servant. We watch as she discovers her power and grows into the role, dealing with the mess her previous incarnation has left her.

Oh, yeah, and there’s a brilliantly well done and well handled romance between Kyoshi and her best female friend. No, queer romance doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna rank high for me, but of the top five books, most have some variation (I like romance, period; I have made this clear). It’s also dealt with in a mature fashion, including the possible difficulties of having such a relationship in this time period.

This is just such a realistic story that hits so many levels, talking about different ways of handling right and wrong, balancing personal issues with global, and, y’know, growing into power. It’s a brilliant novel series that anyone who’s interested should pick up.

1 House of Earth and Blood – Crescent City Book 1 by Sarah J. Maas

For me this book is kinda cheating a little? I preordered the hard copy nearly on a whim when it came out last year, but picked this up during Black Friday of last year. It has quickly become one of my favorite books of all time, possibly in the top 3 (Aeronaut’s Windlass is the top; it has a talking cat).

Maas is a relatively well known writer in YA circles. She’s probably most well known for her fairy romance series A Court of Thrones and Roses. That details supernatural romances and Fae dealings and, yeah, is pretty good. I liked her Throne of Glass series, until it devolved into a bloated fantasy epic about a destined heir fighting darkness and evil (instead of a nuanced portrayal of an assassin who did good).

It’s hard to say if this series is really YA. It covers far more adult themes: the main character goes out to party and gets high on drugs in the first few pages, plus there’s a fair amount of description regarding sex and sexual ideas. But there’s still a lot of Maas’s usual stuff present here: a romance between a kind of brooding asshole figure with tattoos and a perky, attractive female with more spunk than power. In many ways, this feels like Maas putting together every cliche she’s ever written into one book.

But it’s just so good. The romance is brilliant. The world is incredible and engaging, a modern fantasy that isn’t simply a copy of Earth with fairies and elves thrown in, but instead a truly magical society where things are different (districts are based on magical heritage, so there’s one that’s entirely under water and requires magic to enter). The world feels vibrant and alive and worth exploring, but the characters are even better.

I’m botching a lot of details here. It’s the story of Bryce Quinlan who’s part fae and all sexy, who lives as an assistant in a city. she witnesses a crime and has a tendency to get into trouble, but the brooding fallen angel (not the way you’re thinking) Hunt Athalar is there to help her. They discover the conspiracies around them, deal with demonic hordes, fall in lust and love, and help and support each other.

So, yeah, I probably did a bad job explaining this. Know this: it’s one of my favorite books of all time, and by far the favorite I’ve read this year. I’m eagerly awaiting the second book, and I’m already betting it’ll at least be in my top 10 for next year as well.

2 thoughts on “Top 10 Books Read, 2021

  1. I enjoyed reading your reviews and gaining insight into what makes you tick, so to speak. I think I might like “Inkheart” and “Shadowspell”. At least, your reviews made me think so. Oh, and the Steve Jobs biography>


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