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Favorite Nonfiction of 2021

My goal the last couple of years has been to read more nonfiction and it's proven more difficult than I would have guessed. But I think I finally turned the corner this past year. Whereas audiobooks were key in 2020, lunchtime nonfiction reading changed the game for 2021. For several months, I would eat lunch and then read one chapter out of a couple of nonfiction books I had going.

I've long been a proponent of reading several books at once. It keeps things interesting and it keeps things moving, especially if you're not quite feeling one book or another needs more time to digest before you can move forward. I've almost always had at least one nonfiction read in the mix. This was the first time I made a dedicated, diligent effort to make continual progress on the ones that need to be read at a slower pace, instead of letting them sit at the bottom of the books stacked on my nightstand. The ones that held my attention the whole way through? Well, I still read them at lunchtime as well and if I was especially gripped, I'd read more at bedtime too.

I have to say I'm especially impressed by the nonfiction on this year's list. At least one is on my lifetime favorites list, plus a couple of resources I already refer to regularly. The memoirs were out of this world good. It makes me hopeful about this next year's nonfiction possibilities.

(If you want even more nonfiction recs, I recommend listening to The Stacks Podcast. Traci's interviews and book discussions are incredible. She's put so many great books on my radar, including a couple from this list.)

You can find my full reviews with content notes on Goodreads. I've included a link for each review. Feel free to give it a Like while you're over there!

This post contains affiliate links.


How the Word Is PassedHow the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith

An absolute masterpiece. Smith explores the way we tell the story of enslavement and the way those narratives can help or hurt us. Beautifully written, he deftly balances his experience of visiting notable places, such as the Whitney Plantation and a Confederate cemetery, with robust research and his own family history. I was glad he included New York City and Gorée Island so we could have a fuller picture of the pernicious reach of enslavement. I haven't stopped recommending this one. It's among the best books I've ever read. (Content notes.)








Between Two KingdomsBetween Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad

What a gift of a memoir! Gripping and poignant, the author shares her experience being diagnosed with leukemia at age 22 and then figuring out a new normal after the cancer went into remission. It’s divided into two parts, the titular two kingdoms: life with cancer and then life after cancer, which includes a road trip at age 27 visiting various people she’d corresponded with during treatment. This might be the first cancer memoir I’ve read by someone who went through it in their 20s. As such, it touches on things those other cancer memoirs don’t, like the impact on fertility and what it’s like to face a terminal illness when your adult life is supposed to be beginning. Her perspective was so valuable. Jaouad is a gorgeous writer. Her honesty and vulnerability stopped me in my tracks at times. I’ve walked alongside those who have cancer from both my personal and professional lives and I believe I'm good at doing so but this brought me to a closer, better understanding of what it’s like to walk in their actual shoes.

My library hold of this book came in in the midst of grieving a friend who died of cancer. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of reading it now—would it hit too close to home? But I found it to be a surprisingly comforting companion, full of insights to my friend’s experience but also the process of grief. My experience of grief changes from year to year and season to season and this loss is no exception. In addition to grieving the ways cancer inherently changes one's life, Jaouad experienced the death of fellow patients and friends. I particularly appreciated the way she touched on rituals and meaning making. I suspect my own loss is the reason I cried while reading this. Yes, sad, hard things happen but I would not describe this as a sad book. It’s about growth and finding a way forward as much as it is about illness. It’s a much-needed exploration of survivorship and what it looks like on the other side. (Content notes.)



Seeing GhostsSeeing Ghosts by Kat Chow

I've been looking forward to Kat Chow's memoir ever since she announced it and it exceeded all expectations. A gorgeously written, luminous exploration of grief. It has a nonlinear structure with snippets of essays, some longer than others, and even this is reminiscent of how grief functions. Her mother died of cancer when she was 13 and I was fascinated by the way she sometimes experienced her grief by imagining or sensing her mother’s ghost. There’s so much to admire in how Chow chose to explore her own experience of grief, as well as her family history as a child of immigrants.

Her mother’s death was naturally a ripple effect of loss throughout their family, strikingly seen through her father now needing to be the primary caretaker. He is not suited for the role, nor did he step up to the plate, possibly due to an undiagnosed mental illness or neurodivergence. He hoards and lets the house deteriorate. He resists most of his daughters’ advice or help, while insisting they respect him since he’s their father. It was often hard to read these parts and I really felt for them. Chow writes with compassion and grace about their relationship, even in the struggle.

I’m so glad she wrote this book. (Content notes.)



Somebody's DaughterSomebody's Daughter by Ashley C. Ford

Ashley Ford is a tremendous writer. I’ve been looking forward to reading her debut memoir and it did not disappoint. Difficult to read at times—it deals with her trauma around abuse, rape, and sexual assault—and my heart ached for what she experienced but there’s such open-eyed grace woven in throughout. What I appreciated about her writing prior to this book and what remained true as I read this is her perspective as someone whose father was incarcerated. Very moving in places. I’ll be keenly interested to see where her career goes from here. (Content notes.)








Crying in H MartCrying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

A powerful and poignant grief memoir. At times, I was amazed by just how raw and honest the author was regarding some of the stories she shared. But overwhelmingly, I was lost in the pages of her story. Grief and loss don’t magically heal complex relationships, like the one Zauner had with her mom, especially given the stress of being a caregiver. There’s much she had to navigate and negotiate, even in terms of how present she should be once her mom was diagnosed.

I appreciated how she wove in stories from the past and present and how they illustrated an aspect about herself or her mom and then how that evolved after her mom died. Grief changes us and I found her reflections about what this meant for her Koreanness, and the way she sought to find connection through food, to be quite moving. I’m not sure that I’ll want to watch the adaptation but I’m very glad I read this. (Content notes.)






One LifeOne Life by Megan Rapinoe

I didn’t know a ton about Megan Rapinoe before reading this, outside of peripheral sports coverage and a few articles. This really exceeded my expectations and my admiration for her now knows no bounds. I loved learning more about her soccer career, of course, but the best part was hearing about her activism. Highly recommend listening to the audiobook, which she narrates. (Content notes.)









Hurts So GoodHurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart

A phenomenal exploration of the link between purposeful pain and pleasure. I’ve read my fair share of BDSM romance and erotica but I hadn’t thought much beyond the sexual application of masochism. Sure, we all joke about various things making us masochists but it’s so much broader than that. Some masochism is viewed as “normal” (eating hot peppers, running marathons, ballet dancing), while other forms are viewed as deviant or abnormal. There’s value in asking why and what purpose that serves. I will never think about it the same way again.

Cowart had me thinking through the times in my life when I have purposefully chosen pain in a brand new light, particularly when I was on the crew team in college. One of my proudest moments happened when I got a navel piercing twenty years ago and an employee watching exclaimed, “she didn’t flinch!” Or how about how nonchalant I’ve been while getting tattoos? There might be more of a masochist in me than I originally thought.

The exploration is careful to distinguish the “on purpose” part from abuse. Masochism is inherently consensual. If it’s not consensual, it’s abuse. But the author took the book a step further by exploring when pain on purpose is okay and when it can become harmful and the sometime difficulty in distinguishing between the two.

This won’t be for everyone, especially those with certain triggers. At the same time, I hope people can look past their associations and assumptions about masochism and give this one a chance. Cowart has such an engaging narrative voice and I really appreciated their approach. (Content notes.)



Minor FeelingsMinor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

A fascinating essay collection that touches on a range of issues, anchored by reflections on artists, authors, and their work. Hong’s writing is gorgeous and I can’t get over what she did with her prose and the multiple meanings of language. (Content notes.)









Sisters in HateSisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism by Seyward Darby 

Not an easy read but an important one nonetheless. By profiling three women in white supremacist movements, one of whom has gotten out, Darby shows the important yet complicated role women play in their growth. White women are typically viewed as nice and less threatening, thus enabling them to get away with more when it comes to propaganda and spreading hate. And yet misogyny is an intrinsic part of white supremacy movements and so women can only have so much power within them. This is an intersectional analysis not only of women in today’s current hate groups but those of the past. It was disturbing to read about the ways seemingly innocuous movements like tradlife are actually gateways toward white nationalism. The three profiles show the people in these hate groups are searching for meaning and purpose but also power and the way propaganda fuels those needs. As difficult as it was to read about such horrible rhetoric, it’s important for me as a white woman to be aware of what’s out there and to use it to interrogate my own beliefs, instead of just writing these people off. This isn’t a problem that’s going to disappear any time soon, thanks to the ways Trump emboldened white nationalists.

Toward the end of the book, Darby mentions Lana and her family moved to a Mennonite town and the people there were grappling with how or if to respond to known racists choosing to move there and what that might say about them. And yet because Lana and her husband don’t make any big waves, the town ultimately doesn’t do much and the wary complacency was chilling to read and explains so much about an under-explored piece in this discussion. What do you as an individual do when the white supremacist is your neighbor? Additionally, in the conclusion Darby mentions white liberals or progressives who made racist statements about her book’s subject matter. These are people who probably think they’re not racist and yet they said things that would have been echoed by the people Darby profiled. It’s the insidious nature of racism and how much it’s been embedded into our structures and systems. Too many white people think they’re fine because they’re not overt racists like Lana and Ayla but they’re a part of the problem too. This is why I’m glad that the conversation has turned toward being anti-racist. It’s imperative to keep the conversation going so we can battle the gaslighting and propaganda that unfortunately continues on. (Content notes.)



AceAce: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

What a tremendous resource! I’ve become more familiar with the ace spectrum through reading romance but I haven’t felt like I fully understood asexuality before this. Chen does a great job of giving an overview through sharing her own experience, as well as that of many others. She also anchors this book in intersectionality and for that reason alone, I highly recommend it. This is especially important because asexuality first became known in white communities. It’s necessary to consider how centering whiteness impacts someone who is BIPOC or disabled and how asexuality intersects with stereotypes about different marginalizations.

There’s also an emphasis on asexuality as a liberation lens that benefits us all and I fully agree with this. This book gave me a lot more to consider regarding societal messages around sex and the ways we can need to improve. “The goal of ace liberation is simply the goal of true sexual and romantic freedom for everyone. A society that is welcoming to aces can never be compatible with rape culture; with misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia; with current hierarchies of romance friendship; and with contractual notions of consent.”

I’m so glad I read this book and have a feeling I’ll be recommending it frequently. Chen notes this book is geared toward people who aren’t ace but she also hopes aces will see their experiences reflected on the page as well. (Content notes.)



What Fresh Hell Is This?What Fresh Hell Is This?: Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You by Heather Corinna

I’m a cishet woman in my early 40s and I’m 99% sure I’ve started perimenopause so the release of this book was quite timely. The author is a queer nonbinary sex educator and there's a chapter from a trans woman, making for a super inclusive read. I’m glad I'll be able to recommend this widely without any reservations. It’s written in a conversational style and normalizes everything but also gives permission to be pissed off about it. It was reassuring to hear about what to expect and I learned a lot. My symptoms have been pretty mild so far (hope I didn’t just jinx myself) but I feel better equipped for if and when that changes. Cannot confirm or deny how many times I’ve brought up perimenopause in conversation with my friends while reading this. It made for great discussions! We should all be talking about this much more and I hope this book will help change the narrative. (No content notes.)

Note: I preordered another menopause book that released a week or two before this one but had to set it aside due to the gender essentialism. WFHIT is proof that it's possible to write a book on this topic that is both informative and inclusive. 



The Body Keeps the ScoreThe Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

What a powerful resource! I’ve meant to read this for many years and I’m so glad it finally came off my TBR. The mind-body connection is strong and there is much wisdom to glean from these pages, even if you haven’t experienced what we think of as extreme trauma. It gave me a few ideas to try for my own mental health and I'm grateful for that. This is more geared toward professionals and there’s an emphasis on how van der Kolk came to understand and then research trauma and what has proven effective in his practice. I was fascinated to read about the different studies, some of which I remember learning about in grad school when I got my MSW but much was new to me. van der Kolk makes a compelling case for us to be more mindful of the impact of trauma and to figure out ways of prevention. I found this to ultimately be hopeful, though we still have so much further to go. (Content notes.)






Favorite Nonfiction of 2021

Favorite YA of 2021

In 2019, I read more fantasy than contemporary YA. In 2020, I read more contemporary. Now I'm back to mostly fantasy, with a side of science fiction. I have no idea what's behind these subconscious trends! Regardless, this year's favorite YA really impressed me. Now I just need to start reading the next books in series in a timely manner so I can keep up.

You can find my full reviews with content notes on Goodreads. I've included a link for each review. Feel free to give it a Like while you're over there!

This post contains affiliate links.


Iron WidowIron Widow (Iron Widow #1) by Xiran Jay Zhao

Give me all the morally gray FMCs! Zetian gave me so much life. She was a true murder princess (except she wasn’t actually a princess…but you know what I mean.) It’s cathartic to watch a female character decide she’s had enough of the patriarchy and not only fight back but seek vengeance.

This is YA science fiction, loosely inspired by the first and only female emperor in Chinese history, Empress Wu. Science fiction can be tricky for me. I couldn’t quite picture the Chrysalises they’re piloting or what the Hunduns were. Basically, the pilots are inside the head or chest of these huge robot mechs that look like East Asian mythical creatures. The pilots can further transform them depending on their qi, as well as the spirit force of their concubine-pilot.

Becoming a concubine-pilot is basically a death sentence for girls because few survive a battle—their life force basically gets sucked dry by the pilot. But Zetian not only survives, she kills the pilot who murdered her sister. And she’s not going to stop there. She was fierce and prickly and absolutely glorious in her fury. The council doesn’t know what to do with her. Frankly, they don’t want to use her and so she not only has to fight literal battles against Hunduns but also political intrigue and misogynous advisors who would rather see her dead.

Few people are as they seem and that includes Shimin, the pilot she’s paired with who is also an alcoholic and Death Row inmate. And then there’s Yizhi, her only friend and possible love interest from back home, who makes his way to the barracks. I loved Shimin and Yizhi with all my heart, especially Shimin. He was basically my catnip, all misunderstood and tortured. But don’t worry, there’s nary a love triangle here. We’ve got a polyamorous triad! However, it’s a very, very slow burn between these three. Things are heading in a promising direction but we’ve really only gotten a hint of what things could be like. The love story plot is smaller than I’d like and I’ll be eager to see how things develop in the next book. Because that cliffhanger ending? Brutal. I can’t wait to see what happens next! (Content notes.)



Perfect on PaperPerfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

I loved this book SO MUCH!!! It’s about a girl who runs an anonymous relationship advice business at school until someone figures out it’s her and kind of blackmails her into helping him get his ex-girlfriend back. At least, that’s what Darcy thinks.

Darcy is great at giving other people advice but she has a hard time figuring out her own problems, whether it’s her long-time crush on her best friend Brooke or how to get her distracted mom to pay attention to her. Or what exactly she thinks about her blackmailer Brougham. While I was very ready for her to accept that Brooke wasn’t into her and that she should turn her attention to Brougham instead, I was completely in Darcy’s corner. Things aren’t straightforward, especially when you’re in high school, and I was more than willing to go along for the ride.

This was such a fun and moving read. I loved how things developed between Darcy and Brougham. They take their time getting there but it gives the reader a chance to really see how they bring out the best in each other and how they understand each other. Brougham might be a rich boy but he's had a rough home life and Darcy did a great job looking out for him, just as he did a great job standing up for her.

I thought this did a great job exploring bierasure and internalized biphobia. Darcy is bi, no matter the gender of whoever she dates, but there are still people out there who would invalidate that experience. It doesn’t matter that Brougham is a guy. It doesn’t change who Darcy is or her bisexuality. I hope that message really sinks home for people. The Queer and Questioning Club at school was one of my favorite parts, especially due to a scene toward the end that made me cry. I’m a cishet woman and I kept thinking about what that scene would mean to my bi friends. Cue the waterworks. (Content notes.)



Cemetery BoysCemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Such a fantastic debut! Anxious determined Yadriel and irrepressible Julian had my heart from the beginning. I had an idea about who was behind Julian’s murder but I wasn’t sure about the how or why and I especially wasn’t sure if there could be possibly be a happy ending for these two. I mean, Julian is a ghost! I loved seeing how it all played out. The magic of this world made for compelling reading, especially what it comes to mean for Yadriel and his cousin Maritza (who deserves her own book), and it was nice to read a blood magic book that wasn’t as bloody as others I’ve read. I am so excited to see where Aiden Thomas’s career goes from here. (Content notes.)








A War of Swallowed StarsA War of Swallowed Stars (Celestial Trilogy #3) by Sangu Mandana 

I have been on pins and needles waiting to see how this YA space opera trilogy would resolve. While I haven’t yet read The Mahabharata (I decided to hold off until the trilogy ended), I know the original story does end not well for the characters involved and I’ve been worried about what that would mean for Esmae, Max, and their crew in this retelling.

Well. Let me tell you it was worth the wait. I don’t want to spoil one thing about how everything unfolded but I will say I’m impressed with how Mandanna let characters evolve and how she explored the notion of hope in the face of hopelessness and the tradeoffs we make. Esmae’s growth throughout the trilogy was a marvel to behold. I didn’t always know if she’d get there but I always enjoyed watching her figure it all out.

I adore the secondary characters (except for that awful mother and her general, of course.) Titania’s evolution as a sentient spaceship was particularly fun and unexpected. I got a kick out of her character glossary at the beginning. There’s also a great secondary FF love story, which was lovely to see. The alliances continued to shift and change and I loved what this revealed about everyone and what truly mattered. Plus, there are all the gods and what Amba makes of life as a mortal.

Then there was Esmae and Max’s relationship. This gave me so many feels! I cannot say enough good things about this trilogy. Highly recommended. I can’t wait to see what Mandanna writes next. (Content notes.)



LakesedgeLakesedge (World at the Lake's Edge #1) by Lyndall Clipstone

What a lush gothic YA fantasy! I was completely captivated from the start. Leta is a complicated messy heroine, fierce and determined and not always able to see that she might get things wrong. At times this could be frustrating but then I’d remind myself that she’s only 17 and of course she’s going to screw up along the way. All she wants is for her brother to be okay and that plan gets thrown for a loop when Rowan comes along. Rowan who is being poisoned by the Corruption. Rowan who is the kind of misunderstood hero that makes me weak in the knees. Leta and Rowan get off on a very wrong foot at first and I ate up their verbal sparring with a spoon. Their relationship evolved in such a lovely way and I was here for each and every step they took toward one another.

Then there’s Lord Under, the god of death. Leta gave him her magic when she was young in order to save her brother and now they’re connected. I started to wonder if this was heading in a Hades-Persephone retelling direction. It’s not, at least not in this installment, but there are very strong nods. However, it’s definitely playing with the Death and the Maiden trope and I’m very interested to see how this plays out in book 2. The author said the sequel is going to have Orpheus and Eurydice vibes and I cannot wait.

All the secondary characters are fantastic. The way magic worked kept me riveted. I loved the way the estate becomes a character in its own right as it deals with the Corruption and the way the lake figures in. The gorgeous prose on top of the way the premise delivered really sealed the deal for me. Bring on book 2! (Content notes.)



The Silvered SerpentsThe Silvered Serpents (The Gilded Wolves #2) by Roshani Chokshi

I adore the world Chokshi created for this historical fantasy heist story. The characters have my entire heart, even when they could be behaving better. Case in point: Séverin has really been through the wringer since the death of his brother and it’s led to some negative personality changes. He decides to bring the gang back together for one more job, whether they want to help or not. This installment is darker in tone compared to the first and that makes sense given the exploration of grief and the fact that Laila is now dying, not to mention Zofia and Enrique’s respective concerns. They’ve created a wonderful found family but it’s not functioning the way it used to, now that Tristan is gone and Séverin is off the rails himself. But there’s still so much heart there. I loved watching them try to solve the mystery, even when their respective connections started to fray. There were some fantastic twists and turns and holy buckets that ending!!! I have no idea how things are possibly going to work out and I can’t wait to see how they do. (Content notes.)






The Ghosts We KeepThe Ghosts We Keep by Mason Deaver

A fantastic YA grief novel, The Ghosts we Keep follows a nonbinary teen after the hit-and-run death of his brother. The book is structured with scenes from Before and After as we come to understand just what and who Liam has lost. Not only are they grappling with what an Ethan-less life means, their two best friends have pulled back at a time when he needs them most. How true to life to have to deal with more than one messy loss at once. My heart really went out to Liam.

I used to counsel grieving teens as part of my work as a hospice social worker and this struck me as a very accurate depiction of teen grief. Liam doesn’t always behave the best, nor is he honest about how he’s doing with the people who care, including his parents. His parents make a point of saying they’re figuring it out as they go, that there’s no roadmap for this and they might make mistakes. (I’m closer to Liam’s parents’ age so I was definitely wincing over how he treated them, whereas I’ve seen reviews from people closer to Liam’s age who thinks they were unfair. I thought they did a pretty good job.) I liked that Liam and Ethan had a complicated sibling relationship so the book offered a more even-handed portrayal of what Ethan was like—there is no placing the dead on a pedestal here. Liam was pretty self-absorbed and oblivious, somewhat understandably, but I was mystified that they didn’t figure out a big secret more quickly. As much as a I enjoy a good love story, I’m glad there wasn’t a romantic subplot. In this case, the focus really needed to be on bereavement and Liam was not in a place for anything more than finding new friends. It was such a moving read. (Content notes.)



Favorite YA of 2021

Favorite Romance Novels of 2021

It's hard to believe I only got back into romance almost 5 years ago. My life has changed for the better in so many ways because of it! Besides the obvious of discovering so many amazing stories, I've made life-changing friends and, wildest of all, beta read books. In such uncertain times as these, romance has been a balm, a catharsis, and an escape.

This year I re-read a few of my very favorites, which is rare for me. In the case of Sierra Simone's New Camelot series, enough time had passed and a few friends wanted to read it for the first time that it became an excellent excuse to revisit it. (This series must be read in order; check out the content warnings as needed.) I loved it just as much the second time around and the same was true of my other re-reads. 

I also wound up inhaling the backlists of three different authors. This might not sound unusual but it's not something I do! I can go months, if not years, before picking up another book by an author I'm enjoying. Maybe to make their backlist last longer? I'm not sure. In the case of Genevieve Turner, Kate Canterbary, and Cate C. Wells, I found their books to be compulsively readable. Whenever I had a string of lackluster reads or just wanted to be completely consumed by a story, I'd pick up one of their books and be lost to the world for a while. They all have interconnected series and a series with varying degrees where the stories happen concurrently, which is my catnip. I'm not completely done with their backlists but that won't be true by the time this next year ends. I'm not mad about it.

One of this year's highlights was finishing my foray into Laura Kinsale's backlist with Charlotte, Hannah, and Vicky. We'd all independently read For My Lady's Heart and Flowers From the Storm and shortly after the pandemic began, we decided to buddy read Shadowheart. That led us to the next book and the next and then we decided we might as well be completists. Reading her backlist was an experience in and of itself, full of highs and lows. (You can see my definitive ranking here.) Definitely mind the content warnings. But the real gift was the friendships I formed with them. I can't imagine life without our daily conversations.

You can find my full reviews with content notes on Goodreads. I've included a link for each review. Feel free to give it a Like while you're over there!

This post contains affiliate links.


Contemporary Romance:

For the Love of April FrenchFor the Love of April French by Penny Aimes

Holy moly did I love this book! It's a top notch contemporary romance and my very favorite of the year. April and Dennis were such compelling characters and I loved watching their relationship develop. These are two grownups figuring out how to love and support one another but of course they’re not always going to get it right. There’s on-page therapy, Dom mentorship, and even visiting a trans support group.

From the moment April and Dennis met at Frankie’s, I was on board. April was a sunshiny delight and Dennis was a steady presence. There’s a lot they have to figure out—April believes there’s no way Dennis will be interested in her long-term, Dennis is reeling from the end of a relationship gone bad—and that’s on top of April figuring out they work for the same company…and choosing not to tell Dennis. Normally I hate lie of omission plots but I totally understood why April, thinking this would be a temporary fling, chose to stay quiet and then couldn’t figure out a way to come clean. And I really liked how the author chose to handle the eventual reveal and how they work through it.

This is for sure a new favorite BDSM romance. April and Dennis’s negotiation and consent was hot. It has the longest duration of orgasm control I’ve ever read. I loved how Frankie’s functioned as a community and all the characters we met there—more stories set at Frankie’s, please and thank you.

I haven’t stopped thinking about the way Penny Aimes structured this. We get six months from April’s POV and then we get the same six months from Dennis’s POV. It was fascinating to see their respective experiences of the same situations and thankfully it never became repetitive. In fact, it was both brilliant and imperative to give us this insight into both characters and see how they were reacting to each other and to life. The structure was so unusual for the genre! I can't think of any other romance like it and I love that she went for it. It paid off. I would put this in the category of romances that elevate the genre. Truly a marvel to behold and an impressive debut. I can't wait to see what the author writes next! (Content notes.)



Love & Other DistastersLove & Other Disasters by Anita Kelly

Anita Kelly’s stories are like the best hugs. I simply did not want to put this down and I was both satisfied (because it was perfect) and sad (because it was over) when it ended.

I adored Dahlia and London to pieces. There were parts of Dahlia’s emotional arc that super resonated with me as she’s figuring out next steps in a life that hasn’t turned out as planned. I also loved her even more for not wanting to have children. I’m always here for more child-free couples. London is the first openly nonbinary contestant on Chef’s Special and has to navigate the public stage, as well as their father’s rejection. This also made for some moving, sometimes heartbreaking, scenes and I was glad London had other familial support, as well as Dahlia by their side. Dahlia and London had such great chemistry, making for some great steamy scenes. It wasn’t always smooth sailing between them (one of them could get sent home at any moment! social anxiety! words are hard!), which was so relatable. Their sheer appreciation of and belief in each other had me rooting for them the whole way.

I’m a fan of reality TV food competitions, particularly Top Chef, and I’ve read a few different romances set in this world. Love & Other Disasters is by far my favorite. It had all this great behind-the-scenes and the different challenges were fun to visualize. It’s not all sunshine and roses—there’s a transphobic contestant—but there’s nary an abusive producer or cheating contestant. It was truly enjoyable to be in that world. Dahlia and London are still competing against each other so there are high stakes, as well as navigating what happens if one of them gets cut. I was utterly invested as everything unfolded.

It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me hungry. Absolute perfection. Since this doesn't come out until January 18, bide your time with Kelly's novella Sing Anyway. If I hadn't read L&OD, it would be on this list. (Content notes.)

Disclosure: I received an advanced copy from Forever in exchange for an honest review. I'm friendly with the author online.



Love At FirstLove at First by Kate Clayborn

Kate Clayborn did it once again. Absolutely wonderful from start to finish. She is such a remarkable writer and there was so much intention and care with how she built this story. Nora and Will started off on the wrong foot when he wants to rent out the apartment he inherited in her building. This after a promising exchange from her balcony to his. I couldn’t help but root for them to figure things out. This was such a cozy and comforting book, from the emphasis on home to the older apartment denizens who have formed a found family to the way Will becomes friends with his boss at work. There’s even a poetry night! All these unique details coming together to breathe life into who Nora and Will are and who they want to be.

And who they are is wonderful! I want to wax poetic about Will and his leaning and Nora and her sauce and then the sickbed scene and the towel rack. But I also want you to experience the magic for yourself so I’ll leave it at that.

Kate did remarkable things around grief and memory and generational wounds. Will’s uncle died but he only ever met him once and it’s a painful memory. He wants nothing to do with this apartment. Nora had more of a connection to his uncle than he did. And she’s dealing with her own loss. Nonna died a year ago but she has a palpable presence in the book. I had such a sense of who she was and what she meant to Nora just through the objects in her apartment (that Nora can’t bring herself to get rid of) and the way Nora so often referenced her or what she would have thought of something. It really made me miss my grandma who died in 2007. This story gave me all the feels throughout but the grandma content made me ugly cry. Reading about Nonna and Nora was sad but ultimately cathartic, especially as Nora figures out what changes she needs to make.

This story felt like a warm hug. It was just what I needed. (Content notes.)

Disclosure: I won an advanced copy from BookishFirst. I’m friendly with the author online.



Forever A MaverickForever a Maverick (Always a Cowboy #2) by Genevieve Turner

Where has Genevieve Turner been all my life? This really and truly blew me away. It’s a contemporary Marriage of Convenience between a very strong, kind-hearted farmer and a prickly single mother. I could not have been more on board the moment Ash proposed to Juniper. Her water rights in exchange for cash that will give her and her son Owen a fresh start away from their small judgmental town. Or so she thinks.

This book was downright magical for me. The characters, the gorgeous prose, the farm setting, the central conflict… I was hooked from page one. Ash has always been drawn to Juniper, even if he’s barely said a word to her the last 5 years. We know he’s going to fall hard for her once they’re under the same roof. My heart was in my throat watching the way he looked after her and Owen, just imagining the future heartbreak. But Juniper wasn’t immune either. She has reasons for often acting like a wary feral cat. It can be so hard to know if you can really trust someone and I really loved watching her journey. I tend to prefer my romance be child-free but Owen turned out to be great. It was lovely to see them form their little family, even if Juniper had one foot out the door for much of it. And Ash and Juniper had such great chemistry!! Ash puts his muscles to good use.

My heart truly ached for them. It wrecked me but it was a sneaky wreck. I nearly sobbed at one point. And then later I cried happy tears. It was just so moving and wonderful and it did my heart good. (Content notes.)



House RulesHouse Rules (Uptown #3) by Ruby Lang

Ruby Lang knows what I want and that’s romances about people in their 40s who are just fine about not having kids. I loved this second chance romance! Simon and Lana divorced 17 years ago and haven’t seen each other since, until they run into each other while viewing an apartment. One thing leads to another and they wind up becoming roommates, despite Simon’s reservations. They’ve both changed and grown during their time apart so now they have a chance to reconnect and discover these new sides to each other. I loved the way Simon took care of Lana when her endometriosis was especially bad (I’m relieved mine doesn’t get this bad) and all of Muffin the cat’s antics. It was cool to see Lana work her craft of hand-pulled noodles. It’s holiday-adjacent, following Simon and Lana through Christmas and Lunar New Year. This is a grown up romance about grown ups, lovely and quiet but still chemistry aplenty. This whole series has been a delight. (Content notes.)






Losing StreakLosing Streak (The Lane #2) by Kristine Wyllys

Kristine Wyllys, please write more books in this series because I need them! Or any books, really. I’m not picky. I’m just over here, completely astounded by this book. Wild Ones was one of my favorite reads of 2020 and I needed a little time before I reentered that gritty world again. Wyllys is a stunning writer. Her prose is evocative and there’s an immediacy that made me feel like I was right there with the characters.

And what characters they were! Rosie is my favorite kind of prickly FMC. She is a fierce fighter, ready to claw her way to a better life and to make sure her slacker brother and dying mother are taken care of. It's a house of falling cards thanks to her mother's medical debt and lifelong poverty. Rosie takes nothing for herself, until she meets Brandon. He’s not the best choice for her. He’s from the same side of the tracks as she is and he gambles, instead of getting a real job. When things go sideways, they really go sideways.

The book is divided into two parts. First, when Rosie and Brandon meet. And then after circumstances keep them apart for three years. The stakes were incredibly high, especially as Rosie and Brandon try to find a way back to each other without losing everything and everyone they love in the process.

It made for intense reading. It wasn’t quite angsty but it definitely punched me in the throat a few times. I was so invested in what would come of these two, desperate to learn how they could escape Joshua’s clutch. It was a relief to get to the end and see them come through to the other side. (Content notes.)



A Certain AppealA Certain Appeal by Vanessa King

Pride and Prejudice…but make it burlesque! What a fresh, inventive retelling this turned out to be. The author made great choices about what parts of the original to adapt. This omitted the parts of P&P I don’t care much for, which made it extra enjoyable for me. The burlesque club setting was fun. I loved the details about the various performances and behind the scenes preparations. The way Bennet talked about it and the way it grew her confidence was so appealing.

Darcy (there to advise his friend on whether to invest in the club) and Bennet don’t get off on the right foot. They had such amazing chemistry right from the jump. Their first kiss was one of the hottest first kiss scenes I’ve read in a while. Absolutely smoldering! And when they finally have sex, it was downright incendiary. It takes a while to build to those physical elements and it made for a great payoff.

I was particularly gripped and enchanted by the second half, as the book’s themes started coming together and as Darcy and Bennet got together. There’s a fascinating examination of intimacy within the world of burlesque, with who Bennet is on stage vs. who she is with Darcy. Darcy has trouble understanding burlesque initially, not necessarily in a kink-shaming way, but in being able to sort out his unexpected attraction to Bennet. I really loved how this element came together.

I’m so glad I gave this debut a chance! An absolute winner. (Content notes.)



One Last ChanceOne Last Chance (One Day to Forever #3) by Therese Beharrie

I’m so sad this series is over! How on earth did Therese Beharrie manage to write characters falling for each other over the course of 24 hours without it veering into insta-love? Zoey and Sawyer haven’t seen each other in 6 years when they come across each other at a park. And ope, they’re still secretly married. Through flashbacks, we learn more about their friendship, the way Sawyer pined for her for years, and where everything changed and then fell apart. There’s no quick fix here but it helped that Zoey has been in therapy and has worked through some of her issues and knows the kind of person she wants to be now. Sawyer still has some work to do but you can see how he and Zoey still have the ability to bring out the best in one another. At any point, they could have gone in different directions. That they continually chose each other, even in the years where they weren’t speaking, paves the way for them to choose each other again and then figure out a way forward. I adored these two. And it was fun to get glimpses of Zoey’s sisters and seeing how those relationships have come along as well. (Content notes.)






Big BoyBig Boy by Ruthie Knox

What a marvelous novella! Ruthie Knox packs quite an emotional punch despite the constraints of the form. The premise gave me big The Story Guy vibes, which I loved, and somehow I think I love this one even more. Mandy and Tyler meet once a month for some fun role play on a train at the National Railroad Museum. It’s a reprieve from their respective responsibilities. They don’t share names or details about their lives. Or do they? For hidden behind the roles they’ve assumed for the night—a flapper, a traveling salesman, etc.—they embed their secrets and fears and the reasons for keeping things anonymous and limited begin to go by the wayside, if they only dare. Moving, hot, fun read. (Content notes.)







Perfect MatchaPerfect Matcha (Bold Brew #3) by Erin McLellan

This was angstier than I was expecting it to be, compared to McLellan’s fantastic So Over The Holidays series. It hurt my heart so good!

“Need a date for my ex’s wedding” as a premise doesn’t work for me about 99% of the time because I don’t understand going to your ex’s wedding unless you’ve been able to forge a friendship afterward. I’m happy this is one of those exceptions. Theo, Camden, and Freddie were best friends while they were growing up. Camden was in love with Theo but missed his chance when Freddie made a move instead. Freddie and Theo dated for 3 years but broke up 5 years ago and the friendship hasn’t been the same since. It makes sense why Freddie might still invite Theo to his wedding and it also makes sense why Camden is so adamant about not rocking the boat. He is terrified of losing Theo’s friendship. This makes for some intense pining. Meanwhile, Theo has no idea what his feelings are when it comes to Camden but we get clues, like when he realizes Camden’s hands are cold and thinks he should research gloves for him. What a nerd! I loved it.

This was filthy and sweet and kinky and all kinds of heart-warming. I loved how sex toys were incorporated in to the plot and how gender inclusive and normalized the discussion around them was. Trademark Erin McLellan. (Content notes.)



Not a MistakeNot a Mistake by Amber Belldene

Surprise pregnancy is one of my least favorite tropes but every once in a while, I’ll give it a go because I love finding exceptions to the rule. Not a Mistake turned out to be one of those refreshing exceptions! 

Jordan is an Episcopal priest, a couple of months out of seminary and starting with a new congregation. I could not have loved her more! From her interactions with grumpy congregants to her friendship with Alma (who has her own spin-off mystery series!) to her love of a cardigan past its prime, I was completely in her corner.

Dominic was Jordan’s ethics professor at seminary and she had a crush on him the past 3 years. Nothing ever happened, nor had he given her the slightest indication he’d be interested. But the night of graduation, he actually said yes to celebratory drinks with her and her fellow seminarians and they wound up sleeping together. Now he’s no longer her professor but it’s not completely free of ethical gray area either. When she realizes she’s pregnant, she doesn’t even plan on telling him initially because she figures he regrets what happened but he figures it out. 

I loved how this wrestled with guilt and regret and what we mean by calling something a mistake. There was the right amount of angst and banter. They had amazing chemistry but circumstances also draw them closer together emotionally. I was so invested in watching them figure out if this would work. (Content notes.)



Best Laid PlansBest Laid Plans (Garnet Run #2) by Roan Parrish

If you told me Roan Parrish peered inside my heart and brain and then wrote this book just for me, I’d believe you. It could not have been more perfect for me! Characters that made me emotional. Stellar cat content. Laugh out loud moments to balance out the tears. Passages that had me reflecting on my own life. I could not have loved it more.

I do not presently own a cat but I am, at heart, a cat lady. Best Laid Plans had some of the best cat content yet. Charlie and his cat Jane have a whole morning ritual; Marmot regularly lays on Rye’s shoulders. The cats are stress relievers but also sources of joy and hilarity. Marmot and Jane quickly befriend each other. I seriously could not get enough! That was only the start of what cats come to mean to both Charlie and Rye.

And to keep this theme going, Rye is basically a feral cat himself. He’s been fending for himself for years and he’s never had a truly safe home, given that he left at age 16. Inheriting a house from the grandfather he never met seems like a chance to start over, except for the fact that it’s falling down. Charlie is a complete caretaker and he can’t help but offer his handyman services to Rye when Rye comes into his store for tools and supplies. Rye is skeptical as to why a stranger would offer to help and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him learn to trust Charlie and for Charlie to learn that he’s worthy in and of himself, not because of what he can do for others. They were so good together and I loved watching them create a home together. (Content notes.)



The Belle and the BeardThe Belle and the Beard (The Santillian Triplets #3) by Kate Canterbary

I was completely wrapped up in this story! From the moment Linden asked Jasper if she was breaking in to the house next door, I was hooked. True, I’m a sucker for neighbors-to-lovers and banter but I seriously adored both of these characters.

Jasper and Linden had such a great dynamic and their chemistry was palpable. There were so many details I loved. Linden notices how she leaves the last cup of coffee or dregs of marmalade for him—not as a kind gesture but because she’s trying to make herself small. That kind of noticing. Be still my heart! Jasper keeps thinking about Linden as a wolf (which delighted me, a werewolf lover)…and then she found out his middle name is Wolf! Did I cackle? Cannot confirm or deny. 

I also really enjoyed watching Jasper take stock of her life and figure out what she was going to do next. Fresh starts aren’t easy. Figuring out a new career on top of that is even harder. My heart really went out to her. I also enjoyed the metaphor of clearing out and rehabbing her aunt’s house. (Content notes.)





Holiday Romance:

Every New YearEvery New Year by Katrina Jackson

How did Katrina Jackson write not one but TWO perfect New Year’s Eve romances? Grand Theft NYE blew me away a couple of years ago and somehow this one is even better.

Candace and Ezra have been friends for 18 year. Friends who have been pining for each other for 18 years. Ezra has catalogued her laughs and she’s catalogued his smiles. The cuteness! They are convinced the other person isn’t interested and they don’t want to risk losing the friendship. Add in his shyness and social awkwardness and her wanting him to make the first move for once and you can see how this happened. You can also see how they just need to get out of their own way! 

The structure really made this book for me. We get scenes from various NYEs over the years interspersed with the present NYE. Candace and Ezra have both independently decided it’s time to get over this unrequited crush…only to land on the same plane to Quito, she as a flight attendant, he as a passenger.

I inhaled this story. It was sweet and sexy and moving. Highly recommended. (Content notes.)




Paranormal, Monster, and Fantasy Romance:

The Tyrant Alpha's Rejected MateThe Tyrant Alpha's Rejected Mate by Cate C. Wells

4.5 stars. Cate C. Wells’s first shifter romance did not disappoint! Not only did I thoroughly enjoy reading this, she subverted every part of the fated mates trope and it blew my mind. This is game-changing stuff for paranormal romance and I am so curious to see how the rest of the series will develop. 

The world-building choices were fascinating. The Quarry pack essentially functions like homesteaders living off the grid but humans are aware of werewolves’ existence and other packs are more integrated. Killian became alpha young and his leadership style has been more focused on what he doesn’t want to be like (his abusive dad). He hasn’t had good examples of healthy leadership that he could work toward so his efforts in changing the pack have only gone so far. Una opened his eyes to the ways the pack could do and be more. And at the same time he is learning and processing all this, he’s seeing Una in a brand new light. Gah, my heart!!

Una is the heart and soul of this book. She’s also the heart and soul of the Quarry pack. They just didn’t know it yet. I was all in for her from page one and I loved watching Killian slowly recognize what a treasure he had in her. He massively screwed up but this made for a fantastic emotional arc. He really broke my heart a few times and I wasn’t sure he’d be able to ever make up for the way he rejected Una. It was good and necessary to see Una make him work for it. The way it all came together was downright magical. (Content notes.)



A Duet for Invisible StringsA Duet for Invisible Strings by Llinos Cathryn Thomas

My heart is full after all the yearning and pining in this chaste FF contemporary fantasy romance. Neither Heledd and Rosemary realize they’re both in love with each other and it was sweet how oblivious they were. One of my favorite moments was when Rosemary invited Heledd over and Heledd thought about googling "what do you wear to a friend's house.” I love characters who aren’t quite sure how to people. The fantasy element is light—I had no idea there was going to be a fantasy element at all and I was utterly delighted when I realized what was happening. The star of this novella, however, is the way music draws Heledd and Rosemary together and ultimately becomes the key to the HEA. I loved how it all unfolded. Such remarkable writing! (Content notes.)







Paladin's GraceThe Saint of Steel series by T. Kingfisher

 I cannot pick a favorite between the first two books in this series so just start with book 1 and thank me later. For a book with a lot of severed heads and a murder trial, Paladin's Grace nonetheless felt like a warm hug. Grace and Stephen were adorably awkward together. She’s a master perfumer and is angry that he smells like gingerbread because how dare he! He’s a warrior who knits socks! T. Kingfisher’s writing just plain works for me and her books are always a delight to read. Her thoughtful world-building includes religion and I really appreciated the way this installment explored what happens when one’s god dies and the way the paladins take care of each other in the aftermath. (Content notes.)







JanineJanine: His True Alpha by Chencia C. Higgins

4.5 stars. I absolutely inhaled this werewolf romance! I’ve meant to read Chencia C. Higgins for a while now and I’m mad I didn’t read this sooner. Her world-building choices were compelling, starting with the werewolf origin story. A formerly enslaved woman was left 2000 acres in Texas by her enslaver so she moved there, along with her 11 children, after his death. She noticed that the 7 children she’d born for him had unique abilities and Madow became a werewolf colony and safe haven as a result, still thriving all these years later. But not all packs operate this way, as we learn through Janine who essentially grew up in a cult that repressed her abilities and manipulated her. She’s freshly arrived in Madow and it was heartbreaking to see her realize her old pack was not normal and that she’d been missing out on so much.

Janine and Langston were both wonderful characters and it was quite the treat to watch them resist the initial connection. There’s no resisting your mate though! I loved watching them slowly draw closer and especially enjoyed them frolicking in the woods together as wolves. There were so many thoughtful details that rounded out the story. I was utterly delighted! (Content notes.)




Morning Glory Milking FarmMorning Glory Milking Farm by C.M. Nascosta

A delightful steamy monster romance! It leans all the way in with a minotaur MMC and he is indeed a MINOTAUR. Violet becomes a milking technician and falls for one of her clients. This was freaking hot. Based on the set up, I was expecting erotic romance or erotica but it’s more like a really hot fantasy romance. Whatever it is, it sure worked for me. More than anything, it's a sweet story with an unconventional setup.

There was such anticipation in finding out Mr. Hot Minotaur’s name and then seeing how they would navigate whether a relationship was possible. I really enjoyed watching things come together for these two. The chemistry!! This was such a fun world to be in and I’m looking forward to seeing where the series goes from here. (Content notes.)






Science Fiction Romance:

Love CodeLove Code (Strange Love #2) by Ann Aguirre

Oh my heart! This was such an utterly delightful and satisfying story. I felt so happy after I finished it. It had humor, steam, and incredibly thoughtful consent. Truly, how does Ann Aguirre making head tendrils touching so hot?? Plus, great queer rep. (Saying this as a cishet reader but confirmed by two bi friends.) Qalu has four mothers and she’s either bi or pan. Asking about pronouns is common. Tiralan choose their gender when they reach maturity, although they can choose to remain in their neutral state. Helix initially decides to use “he” but by the end, decides the neutral state is a better fit and opts as “they” for their pronoun. This does mean “he/him” is used for the bulk of the book but everyone adapts quickly to the switch. 

Helix and Qalu were the aliens of my dreams and I loved watching how their relationship grew from scientist-prototype to friends to lovers. (OK yes technically Helix is an AI but they were given a biosynthetic body that looks Tiralan and so they are therefore also an alien.)

Aevi really stole the show for me, much like Snaps in Strange Love. She’s basically a cat-bird hybrid and wants to murder anyone who would hurt Helix. Same here, Aevi. (Content notes.)



Romantic Suspense:

Queen's RansomQueen's Ransom (Fog City #4) by Layla Reyne

CW: past intimate partner violence

I read the first three books in this series just so I could get to this one and it sure paid off! Celia and Helena’s chemistry has been building but I was worried they’d just jump right into things, despite what Celia’s been through. Luckily, enough time has passed before this book begins. Celia is now divorced and she’s gotten counseling and is in a domestic violence support group. She’s doing much better and Helena’s back in town after a long business trip. However, their friendship-turned-romance has to be put to the side when a drive-by shooting happens at Celia’s auto shop.

The suspense plot was well balanced to things slowly heating up between Celia and Helena. Celia has known she’s pan but she’d only ever been with her ex-husband. There’s a little internalized panphobia to work through and Helena was great about that, as well as Celia’s nervousness about not knowing exactly what to do. Helena’s really worried about bringing Celia into her life and possibly endangering her but Celia’s outsider perspective and caretaking nature is exactly why she’s so perfect for Helena. I loved watching them figure things out! (Content notes.)




Erotic Romance:

Way Down DeepWay Down Deep by Charlotte Stein and Cara McKenna

An epistolary erotic romance between a single parent and an agoraphobe that begins when one of them sends a text to a number that should be out of service only to find it compassionately answered by a stranger. Their messages go on from there. It is impossible to review this book without spoilers because of the way things are revealed, right down to the characters’ names, through the course of the story and I don’t want to spoil one thing. There are some big content warnings so check those out if needed.

The writing is heart-achingly good. Their connection is palpable and I loved how the messages evolved, from long tomes on the ordinary and everyday to hot sexts to starting to function more like the reply-and-response of normal texts. It was steamy and angsty and I was right there in it with them, hungry for personal details and to learn who was behind the texts and whether they’d be able to transition into a real life relationship. It didn’t make me cry because my heart is apparently made of stone but I did tear up because oh how I wanted it to work out for them and it was so close to falling apart.

I really didn’t know how an HEA would be possible, especially due to events toward the end, but it ends on a very promising, hopeful note. I only wish we could get that story next! (Content notes.)



Favorite Romance of 2021

Favorite Fiction of 2021

2021 proved to be an interesting reading year. On the one hand, I read just as much as usual. On the other hand, I noticed I had significantly fewer 5 star books. While I will still have four annual favorite books lists for this year, there are less books included and I didn't have all that hard of a time narrowing down the list.

I read a lot of great 4 star books so it's not like good reads were hard to find. More like, the best books stood out above the rest even more than usual. I have some untested theories about why that might be (maybe a little of my reading mood, maybe a little of more author's having books out that were written during the pandemic).

This year I read 276 books, 66 novellas, and 17 short stories. Just slightly more than last year. I would have guessed those numbers would decrease this past year, in hopes of more travel and social activity once I got vaccinated. Some of that has happened but I'm still being cautious and only spend time with people who are vaccinated. Plus, I still don't watch TV so if I'm home, I'm reaching for a book or two. 

As much as I enjoy fiction that isn't romance or YA, I didn't read all that much of it this past year and it took more to impress me, for whatever reason. This list is the shortest favorites list I've ever put together! But these books really do stand out. 

I'm still reviewing everything I've read over on Goodreads. That makes it three years now, which is truly wild. (More about that here.) Because of that, I decided to change how I formatted this post this year. I'm including a link to my Goodreads reviews for anyone who needs content notes/warnings or who would like to read the full review. Feel free to give it a Like while you're over there!

Still to come: my favorite romance novels, YA, and nonfiction of 2021.

This post contains affiliate links.


The Jasmine ThroneThe Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

Tasha Suri has outdone herself. This is an impressively crafted Indian-inspired sapphic fantasy about an imprisoned princess and a maid with a secret identity. The stakes are high for Princess Malini: not only does her brother want her dead but she’s trying to orchestrate a coup behind the scenes. The current king is oppressively misogynistic and abusive and he delights in setting women ablaze on pyres. According to their religion, this is how women become pure and holy but Malini refuses to burn. And soon Priya is drawn into the plot, despite her reservations and the personal cost of being back at the temple where she was almost murdered as a child. 

Malini, vicious and canny, was a force to behold. Priya was no slouch either. She is a temple child and being back the Hirana awakens more of her gifts. I wouldn’t mess with either of them. The characters in this world have gone through difficult things but this story is about overcoming and vengeance. It takes on imperialism, patriarchy, and the corruption of religion. But it also examines who the real monsters are and where the line is when it comes to taking back power. I gobbled it up.

While the story is focused on what will happen in the realm, it also delves into Malini and Priya’s shifting relationship. They can’t trust each other. They shouldn’t trust each other. And they certainly shouldn’t act on any feelings while they’re seeking freedom. But what else can you do? I really loved how things developed between them. The love story is secondary but it’s promising, even if both women are headed in different directions by the end. I can’t wait to see what path leads them back together and how everything else unfolds in the next book. I’m here for murder princesses and powerful priestesses! (Content notes.)



Honey GirlHoney Girl by Morgan Rogers

This is the exact kind of contemporary fiction I love reading! Complex characters going on an emotional journey with a hopeful ending. It has a hell of a premise (accidentally married a stranger in Vegas!) but it’s really about Grace trying to figure out her life. She’s in her late 20s, just finished her astronomy PhD according to her strict, driven plans, but nothing else has worked out. She’s a biracial lesbian who isn’t interested in conforming to others’ more limiting standards, going so far as to walk out of a racist job interview. But that doesn’t solve her dilemma about where to work and what to do next. Who is she if her life plan goes off the rails? What happens if she doesn’t get the absolute best job? And where does Yuki, the stranger she drunkenly married, fit in to any of this? She’s a fascinating character, at times entitled but also just as aware of society’s marks against her and her own perfectionist tendencies.

Grace could be messy. She has a history of running away when things get hard and we see that happen a few different times before she winds up starting therapy and reckoning with her choices and her upbringing. I loved her to pieces through it all. And then there’s Yuki, Grace’s new wife whose name she doesn’t even know. Yuki who spins magical yearning stories on her radio show to help people feel less alone. To help Grace feel left alone. This isn’t a romance but it does have a wonderfully moving love story. 

This was such a gorgeously written debut. I can’t wait to see what the author does next! (Content notes.)



For the WolfFor the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

I highly recommend this for anyone who enjoys fantasy and/or fairy tale retellings. The truly inventive world-building and gorgeous writing left me in awe. Creepy, enthralling, and such a great take on Little Red Riding Hood. I'm 100% Team Wolf. Red and Eammon were so well-suited for one another, although getting a happy ending was hard-won and their battle is not over yet. (This is fantasy, not fantasy romance, but the love story made my heart so full!) Red’s sister Neve was just as compelling, though I frequently wanted to yell at her to make different choices. But those choices mean her book has so many possibilities and I can't wait to read it. There’s not one secondary character that didn’t give me Big Feelings. Plus, I loved the way the Wilderwood functions as a character and the Wolf's role as a keeper of the forest/Green Man.

I don’t want to spoil one thing from the plot because part of the fun lies in this discovery. Suffice it to say there is so much to discuss: the corruption of religion, the truth behind myths, and the power of choice. I’ll be turning my mind around this story for a long time. This series has completely captivated me and I’m ready to see wherever Whitten goes next.
 (Content notes.)




HamnetHamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

An incredibly thoughtful, nuanced story about Shakespeare’s wife and children. He is never referred to as Shakespeare but instead presented in relation to others: Agnes’s husband, the Latin tutor, Judith’s father. The story is focused on those forgotten by history and I loved the way it centered on the women and children. O’Farrell imagines what happened when his son died. It took me a little bit to get into it but then I was completely gripped by the narrative and the way it flashed back between when Agnes met her husband in the past and then Hamnet and Judith getting sick in the present.

I expected this book to be more sad than it was, based on the premise. It is certainly quite moving in the last half of the book. The first 150 pages or felt distant or remote, however, as it built toward Hamnet’s death and then it flipped into the immediacy of the loss and Agnes’s grief. I’m always interested to see how grief is depicted and Agnes is dragged under and forever changed by hers. Understandably so. She had been steady for so long but Hamnet’s death undoes everything she knows of the world and her connection to liminal spaces when she realizes she cannot see her dead son, though she has seen others who are deceased. We see the impact on Hamnet’s sisters, particularly his twin Judith, and his father who eventually writes Hamlet as his way of processing what happened. It’s a great exploration of grief and loss. I’ll be mulling this one over for some time to come. (Content notes.)



Favorite Fiction of 2021