Every year at the end of December, I post a list of my favorite novels I read that year. I tend to read about 50-ish (non-academic) books a year, and so I pick through them for 8 to 10 that enjoyed the most and want to recommend! Note that even my own taste might change over time, so consider this as a bit of a time capsule, though I will revise this list if I think a past recommendation may be harmful.
2021 was a rough fiction reading year for me. I read less than 20 books, which is WAY under what’s typical. I also read a somewhat higher proportion of YA than usual because I had to keep up with a monthly book club – but that’s not a bad thing. 🙂 And fortunately the books that I did read were very good, and I hope that you enjoy the ones I’m highlighting here!
A BEAUTIFULLY FOOLISH ENDEAVOR by Hank Green. I typically don’t highlight sequels in this roundup if the first book was in a previous year, but this was a rare time when I enjoyed the sequel even more than the first. In part because it touched on tech ethics a lot! Here’s a twitter thread about it.
FRIEND ME by Sheila M. Averbuch. I really wasn’t expecting one of the best fictional narratives I’ve seen that touches on tech ethics to show up in a contemporary middle grade novel. 🙂 Also thrillers set in middle schools should be more of a thing.
THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA by T.J. Klune. This book got a lot of hype, and when the blurb on the cover from V.E. Schwab described it as “a big gay blanket” I figured I would like it. I did! Even just “what if magic were mired in bureaucracy” is a concept that super works for me.
IRON WIDOW by Xiran Jay Zhao. I saw someone describe this YA scifi novel as “Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale” and this concept totally delivers. It’s all kinds of SMASH THE PATRIARCHY with bonus Chinese historical details and a romantic structure that we don’t see often in YA.
THE IVIES by Alexa Donne. I’m cheating because technically I read a mostly-done draft of this in 2020, but it was released in 2021! I think that YA thrillers are totally having a moment, and murder + competitive college admissions is a pretty timely topic right now. I’ve handed me copy of this book to a couple of college students this year and they tore through it.
SAGA BOOK ONE by Brian K. Vaughan (author) and Fiona Staples (artist). When SAGA first started being released, I read it in single issues for six months or so, before I got out of my comics-pull-list habit. I always meant to return to it, and finally this year got around to it. I actually read the first two of these omnibus editions; each is 18 issues. I don’t really know how to describe this series except that it’s an absolutely amazing space opera/epic fantasy and I’m so glad there’s more for me to read.
A SONG BELOW WATER by Bethany C. Morrow. I’ve read a lot of YA urban fantasy over the past 15 years or so, and this has two things I really love: (1) a lesser-written-about magical creature (sirens), and (2) reimagining of the world where people actually know about magic such that the magical world interacts with contemporary things (e.g. YouTube or the justice system).
VICTORIES GREATER THAN DEATH by Charlie Jane Anders. Charlie is one of my favorite authors, and this is her first YA novel so as you can imagine I was super here for it and this did not disappoint. It’s a super queer space adventure full of a lot of my favorite things.
See you in 2022 – this year I have pledged to make more time for reading for pleasure!
In 2020 I read 39 fiction books total, which is under what’s typical, but uh… it was a rough year for concentrating on anything. 🙂 I also read an exceptionally high number of very GOOD books this year, perhaps because I had no patience for books I wasn’t enjoying! Here are my 10 most favorite novels I read this year, that I think others might enjoy as well. Also, I recently posted a list of books to get kids and teens excited about coding, so check that out! And for some NON-FICTION here is my accidental viral tweet of books about tech ethics.
AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING by Hank Green. Commentary on social media stardom and also ALIENS?! Yes, please! I did this book on audio, and it was a real page-turner so I seriously was like cleaning my house to have an excuse to keep listening. I also read this right as I was getting started on YouTube. 🙂
ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and definitely should have sooner! It’s brilliant and thought-provoking and original. If you are a science fiction fan you MUST read this. No wonder it won All The Awards, and it was also part of the speculative ethics book club that I set up late last year.
AXIOM’S END by Lindsay Ellis. More aliens + also linguistics and a wikileaks stand-in?! Between this and Green’s book I am very into first contact stories right now. I actually started reading this BEFORE I went down a rabbit hole of Ellis’ video essays (yes, I know I was late to that party), so enjoying this book enough to start digging through those just in time for copyright craziness was a nice bonus.
DON’T READ THE COMMENTS by Eric Smith. I didn’t read quite as much YA as I usually do this year (maybe because of the tragic-yet-appropriate cancellation of Dragon Con, where I help organized the YA Lit track, which usually has me reading a whole bunch before and after), but I REALLY enjoyed this one. It gets at a lot of issues around online harassment, especially around gaming, that I think about as part of my research. And great characters!
THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz. I have described this book to people as “time travel but with Wikipedia-like edit wars pitting bad-ass feminists against trolls.” The concept is BRILLIANT. You’ll notice Newitz’s first book Autonomous on my 2018 list, and basically they’re one of my favorite writers now.
JULIET TAKES A BREATH by Gabby Rivera. Last year I went to a Writers With Drinks salon when I was visiting San Francisco and saw Rivera do a reading of the prologue of this book. The book is about a queer Puerto Rican woman who as a college student interns with a white feminist writer in Portland, and I LOVED it.
ROSEWATER by Tade Thompson. This was also a selection for the speculative ethics book club, and… MORE ALIENS! I think I read more books with aliens this year than I have in the past five years. It takes place in Nigeria in 2066 and the worldbuilding (in the aftermath of a first contact that left some people with psychic abilities) is amazing.
SPACE OPERA by Catherynne Valente. I read this over the summer at the height of my quarantine depression, and it was EXACTLY what I needed in my life at that moment. It’s zany and fun and a reminder that as bad as things are at least the planet isn’t going to get blown up if we don’t place at Eurovision. Also the audiobook is superb.
THE STARLESS SEA by Erin Morgenstern. This book gets the top spot in all the books I read this year, for me. It immediately catapulted into one of my favorite books of all time. The writing is beautiful, the narrative and worldbuilding compelling, and it also became my new favorite example of something that is bizarrely rare in narrative: a gay protagonist in a story that is not a story about being gay. I really liked her first book The Night Circus as well so I can’t wait for more books from her.
WILDER GIRLS by Rory Power. I don’t read a lot of horror, even in YA. Just not my thing. And reading this book, about a school quarantined on an island due to a deadly virus outbreak, was definitely a Choice for this spring. (I also re-read The Andromeda Strain, so…) But this was one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a while. Like WOW does this author know how to turn a phrase.
See you in 2021!
In 2019, I read 42 novels representing a range of genres, from adult science fiction to middle grade contemporary. Here are eight of the best books I read this year that I think others would also enjoy!
EMMY IN THE KEY OF CODE by Aimee Lucido. If you follow me, you probably have already seen me rec this book! I read the arc back in February, and it was officially released in October. Middle grade novel about a 12 year old girl learning to code, and connecting it to her love for music. Written in verse, with code intertwined. Every middle schooler should read this!
RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE by Casey McQuiston. I don’t really like romance novels, and this is probably the first one I’ve read in years! It’s the story of the first son of the United States (whose mother is president – wish fulfillment!) falling in love with the prince of England. I can tell from the writing style that the author has her roots in fanfiction (which is a GOOD thing!) and it’s laugh out loud funny over and over. I recommend the audiobook; the narrator does a great job with various accents!
MAGIC FOR LIARS by Sarah Gailey. I saw Sarah do a reading from this book this fall, and I immediately went out and bought the book. I would describe it as, like… if Harry Dresden was Jessica Jones instead. A murder mystery set primarily in a magical school, which of course I also love.
WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE by Maria Semple. I decided to read this before the movie came out, and I’m so glad I did! It was really fun, with a brilliant voice, and I loved how the plot unfolded. Also I feel like you definitely need to read it if you live in Seattle and/or work at Microsoft.
AFTER ON: A NOVEL OF SILICON VALLEY by Rob Reid. A great novel for speculating about the ethics/consequences of tech; in which a social network becomes an AI with way more power than it should have! I loved that it started with what tech very close to what we have today, and then told a slippery slope narrative. Reminded me a lot of The Circle in that way. Highly recommend the audiobook, with cameos from folks like Felicia Day and John Hodgman.
SLAY by Brittney Morris. As a YA novel, I would describe this book as HE HATE U GIVE meets WARCROSS. It’s the story of a teenage girl who creates an online game that becomes the center of a huge controversy. At its core, the game (and the book) is a celebration of Black culture, and it was so thought provoking and wonderful.
THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers. I think this is my number one favorite read of the year! It’s appropriate to compare it to Firefly, as a story focused on the crew of a spaceship, and it definitely has that vibe. My favorite part was the characters, who are all wonderfully drawn. I was also so impressed with the worldbuilding, especially the alien races, which were so original and well thought out!
NINTH HOUSE by Leigh Bardugo. I just finished this book a few days ago, and I loved it! It’s urban fantasy set at Yale, and I actually had no idea until I’d finished reading it that the majority of locations, secret societies, etc. are all real. Just throw in magic, ghosts, creepiness, and murder to New Haven, and stir. Also a fascinating and complicated main character!
In 2018, I read an unusual number of children’s books (in part because I’m picking away at a middle grade novel of my own), so this year my usual list of 8-10 books is 15 instead – 5 adult, 5 young adult, and 5 middle grade. So peruse for your kids, too. 🙂
HEAD ON by John Scalzi. A sequel to Lock In, which you’ll find farther down on this page, this book is set in the same future where an epidemic of lock in syndrome has led to technological advances that include people steering robots (“threeps”!) around the physical world–and brings up all the crazy social changes that would entail (like sports that involve ripping people’s heads off).
AUTONOMOUS by Annalee Newitz. A really fascinating potential future that includes military robots in love and pharmaceutical pirates bringing cheap drugs to the poor. I nerded out especially over the vision of where patent laws bring us in the future.
ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane Anders. This is one of the rare books I’ve read where I’ve fallen deeply in love with the writing style. Anders knows how to turn a phrase beautifully, and on top of that, I fell in love with the characters. The marriage of technology and magic is also fantastic in this book.
SPINNING SILVER by Naomi Novik. A companion novel to Uprooted (also appearing farther down on this page!), Spinning Silver is a beautifully written, atmospheric retelling of Rumpelstiltskin with a brilliant cast of characters. I was lucky enough to grab an ARC at Denver Comic Con this year and read the whole thing in a single (long-ish) plane trip!
MY BOYFRIEND IS A BEAR by Pamela Ribon. This is a graphic novel about a woman whose boyfriend is literally a bear. It’s charming and weird and I think that Ribon and I must have the exact same sense of humor. Also the artwork (Cat Ferris) is adorable!
Let me start by saying that, yes, I realize that three out of five books on this list are about fan conventions. #sorrynotsorry
THE PROS OF CONS by Alison Cherry, Lindsay Ribar, and Michelle Schusterman. As someone who has spent a lot of time in convention centers (both for academic conferences and fan conventions), the premise of meeting people because they’re there for different (totally random!) conventions had me immediately on board. I love that the three of them wrote this together, because the three characters (there for a fan convention, a high school percussion competition, and a taxidermy convention) all have great, unique voices.
GEEKERELLA by Ashley Poston. A Cinderella retelling where Cinderella is a brilliant fangirl, and the prince is a teen actor cast as the lead role in a reboot of the TV series she’s obsessed with (think Star Trek + Firefly). It’s charming and fun and basically set at Dragon Con!
SHIP IT by Britta Lundin. This book is a love letter to fandom and to fanfiction, and it captures the value and magic of that community beautifully. If you love fandom, you must read this book.
THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. If I had to choose, this is probably the best book I read this year. All of the hype was 100% deserved. It’s brilliant and heartbreaking and powerful. And Starr is the very best Gryffindor.
SCYTHE by Neal Shusterman. Imagine a future in which death is cured and a benevolent AI controls the world. Obviously the next step is creating an order of legally sanctioned murderers. And as implausible as I found it, the worldbuilding here is fascinating and brilliant.
ELLA UNLEASHED by Alison Cherry. This is a book about dog shows and catfishing. It’s the latter that really got me – the idea of a young girl signing her dad up for a dating site is awesome, and the results are both hilarious and thoughtful.
GIRLS WHO CODE: THE FRIENDSHIP CODE by Stacie Deutsch. This is the first book in a series that is basically Babysitters Club but with coding instead of babysitting. It’s a wonderfully diverse set of girls (including the introduction of a queer character in book four, which was handled so well), and I can imagine girls loving it for the same reasons I loved Babysitters Club when I was this age! (I also have a lot of thoughts about more books that might get kids excited about coding – but that will be the topic of a separate blog post. 🙂 )
BAN THIS BOOK by Alan Gratz. A young girl finds out that her school library has banned some books because of complaints from a parent, so she finds copies of them and starts a banned book lending library out of her locker. I LOVED this book. It teaches kids about the first amendment and civic disobedience.
DRAMA by Raina Telgemeier. I really like this trend of graphic novels for kids, and though I also read Telgemeier’s book Smile this year, it was Drama that really got me. It feels really true to the kind of “drama” that one has in middle school, and also dives into school theater productions!
THE CAMELOT CODE: THE ONCE AND FUTURE GEEK by Mari Mancusi. Seems like there’s a lot of books about kid gamers saving this world, but this is probably my favorite. The characters are great, and Arthurian legend is weaved really well into the plot. I think that this book could get kids interested in reading more about it!
ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS by Elan Mastai. You know that future we were supposed to have with flying cars and renewable energy and world peace? Turns out we could have had it if it weren’t for the protagonist in this book (and time travel!). A+ premise.
THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell. This book WRECKED me. Couldn’t get it out of my head for a week. I originally came across it on a list of classic science fiction tackling ethical issues and boy does it. It’s both brilliant and extremely upsetting, which I suppose a lot of brilliant books are.
LOVE MINUS EIGHTY by Will McIntosh. Imagine if your only chance for life-after-death was someone swiping right. In this future, women near death are frozen and woken for “dates” with men wealthy enough to revive them. Sound creepy? Yep! Also some really interesting and novel takes on future technology.
WALKAWAY by Cory Doctorow. Hey it’s a near future science fiction novel about the tragedy of the commons! Lots of big ideas that made my information scientist heart go pitter pat.
WARCROSS by Marie Lu. YA science fiction about an immersive virtual world based game. This novel has the kind of kickass teen girl coder protagonist I’ve been wanting to see in YA for a while now!
LEIA: PRINCESS OF ALDERAAN by Claudia Gray. It’s been a while since I’ve read a tie-in novel! (My all-time favs by the way are the Han Solo series of many years ago, and the Star Trek novel about Sarek, both by Ann Crispin.) This one is great – Leia as a rebellious teen, featuring some characters you’d recognize from the new Star Wars film. I also had the pleasure of meeting Claudia Gray recently, and she’s just lovely. I also recommend her original YA scifi novel DEFY THE STARS.
THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller. Yet another Achilles and Patroclus romance, really beautifully written. Shades of Mary Renault, but I think I liked this better (despite the fact that I didn’t actually like Patroclus’ characterization all that much).
THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss. I don’t think I need to actually say much about this, except that 2017 was the year that I finally read this book after years of everyone assuming that I had and then being horrified that I hadn’t. Yes, I loved it. 🙂
AND NOW… BONUS books-that-aren’t-out-yet! Because I have cool friends.
THE CRUEL PRINCE by Holly Black is probably my new favorite of hers, just barely edging out THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN. I feel like in general the fairy genre in YA has been oversaturated over the past decade, but this felt new again. Also her writing is gorgeous.
BRIGHTLY BURNING by Alexa Donne. Alexa’s a good friend of mine and was kind enough to let me read a not-quite-final copy of this book. Jane Eyre in Space! So if you like scifi and Jane Austen and YA then you should definitely pick this up. It’s out in May, and is already getting lots of buzz!
[I removed a book from this list that I will no longer recommend, and need to create an updated image of book covers!]
ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia. A realistic and slightly disturbing depiction of a hyper-over-achieving Stanford-bound high school student. Really creative structure to the storytelling.
THE FIFTH SEASON by NK Jemisin. This won all the awards, and well deserved! I read it partly because of how much the Sad Puppies hated everything about it, and was really struck by the originality of the worldbuilding and characters.
THE GLITTERING WORLD by Robert Levy. Great characters, very psychological. The sense of creeping small town weirdness and scary-as-they-should-be fairies made it kind of Stephen King + Neil Gaiman for me.
A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by VE Schwab. Her first adult novel Vicious is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and though it took me a while to start this series, I really loved it. High(ish) fantasy set in a really original world. While in progress Schwab called it “Pirates, Thieves, and Sadist Kings.” The third one comes out soon!
CROSSTALK by Connie Willis. I’ve been wanting more novels about slightly dystopic tech companies since reading The Circle. Sold! Near future scifi where couples can get brain implants to sense each other’s emotions. The main character works for a tech company trying to make the next big breakthrough in phones…
AMERICAN GODS (10th anniversary edition) by Neil Gaiman. I first read this novel 15 years ago when it came out, and wanted to do a re-read before the TV series starts, so I picked up the expanded edition. As good as I remembered, and I suspect the extra material really adds to it. There’s even an addendum of a deleted scene where Shadow meets Jesus.
THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu. I have mixed feeling on how much I enjoyed this novel from a character and narrative standpoint but it feels like a new take on an old trope, and I also appreciate books that really bring on the SCIENCE in science fiction. It also prompted me to read up on the Chinese cultural revolution!
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel. Beautifully written post-apocalyptic tale with multiple narratives.
I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson. Another beautifully written novel, breathtakingly original for YA, and my good friend Steve Berman gets the credit for convincing me to read this one with the best review of a book I’ve ever heard.
UPROOTED by Naomi Novik. Compelling characters and amazing worldbuilding, rooted in fairy tales which I’m not normally that taken with, but I loved this.
BIG LITTLE LIES by Liane Moriarty. I am a sucker for effective foreshadowing. Small community intrigue, reminded me of The Casual Vacancy.
HERO by Perry Moore. YA superhero novel that parallels coming out with powers and coming out as gay.
THE AERONAUT’S WINDLASS by Jim Butcher. Rip-roaring fantasy about airship pirates. But mostly about how awesome cats are.
CARRY ON by Rainbow Rowell. Everything the Harry Potter fangirl of my early twenties hoped it would be.
THE WICKED AND THE DIVINE by Kieron Gillen. I actually read a number of graphic novels this fall, and the first two volumes of this are fantastic. Highly recommended for fans of e.g., American Gods. He is still my favorite comics writer!
THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir. Science fiction, heavy on the science.
THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell. Ambitious literary fantasy.
LOCK IN by John Scalzi. Near future scifi about technological solutions for a widespread disease.
SHADOW AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo. Young adult high fantasy in a Russia-inspired world.
THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion. Super interesting, well-written voice.
THE BOY KINGS by Katherine Losse. Technically this is non-fiction, but it reads like a novel, and like any memoir is probably somewhat fictionalized. Early days of Facebook.
ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY by Chris Grabenstein. Middle-grade Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque romp through a library.
WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON by John Green and David Levithan. A really nice LGBT YA novel with duel protagonists.
BLOOD AND BEAUTY by Sarah Dunant. Historical fiction, heavy on the historical, an account of the Borgias.
THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman. Atmospheric and nostalgic, like Coraline written for adults.
VICIOUS by V.E. Schwab. Basically, if the science bros (/geek reference to Bruce and Tony in Avengers) were evil. Awesome sympathetic villain origin story. If you’ve got a thing for Loki, read this book.
S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. Experimental narrative story-within-a-story-within-a-story with margin notes and pull-out letters and etc. A love letter to the printed, physical book.
FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell. Not only an incredibly accurate portrayal of fandom, but also an incredibly accurate portrayal of social anxiety, and (IMO) what it’s like to be in love at 18. (Also recommended is ELEANOR & PARK by the same author, but Fangirl is a little less YA.)
READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline. I probably already raved about this to anyone who would care, but it’s virtual world cyberpunk awesomeness drowning in 80s nostalgia.
THE CIRCLE by David Eggers. If Facebook/Google were turned up to eleven, and the creepiness just crept up on you without you realizing what’s happening. The book starts out seeming entirely plausible, and at some point you’re like, “wait where did this dystopia come from?!”
BLOOD ENGINES by T.A. (Tim) Pratt. A general rec for the entire Marla Mason series, since I made my way through them all last spring. Best urban fantasy I’ve read since Dresden Files. Actually has original ideas, which I weren’t sure existed in that genre anymore. Also kudos for the author’s initiative in self publishing to continue after his publisher (stupidly) dropped the series.
YOUNG AVENGERS by Kieron Gillen. Throwing in one comic. There are two trades so far though, so that counts as a book, right? My new favorite comic writer taking on one of my very favorite teams, and bringing along Kid Loki, who is made of wonderful.
THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by Holly Black. Because I’m really, really sick of vampires and yet somehow I still really liked this book. Probably my favorite of hers since the Tithe series. (And also Holly was one of my Clarion instructors and she’s lovely.)