Every year, one of my favourite things to do is to reflect on my reading year and make a list of my favourite years. I’ve been doing ‘Top Reads of the Year’ post for years now and, every year, having to choose a small, single-digit number of books to include in this list has always been difficult. And so I had a thought: Why do I even have to choose 8 or 10 books, even though I have so many favourites?
This year, I’ve decided to do something different. Instead of my usual ‘Top 10 Books of the Year’, I’m going to write a love letter (or, well, a love essay) about all the books I loved this year. After looking at all 142 books I read this year, that’s 53 books! Because why not? Because why do I have to make an ‘exclusive’ small list when there were so many books that moved me, changed me, impacted me this year that I feel need to be celebrated and acknowledged?
So, without further a do, here is my love essay to the 50 books that I read in 2021 and loved, listed in chronically reading order. 🥰
1. You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao
I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript for this (thank you Dustin!!) and, yes, I kickstarted 2021 with so many tears. Love that for me! You’ve Reached Sam is a heartfelt and honest portrait of grief, in all its messiness, pain, jagged edges, and hurt. Julie may not be ‘likeable’, but if I lost the person I loved most? I’d be unrecognisable, bitter, and forever changed too – and I loved that this story had the courage to portray that.
2. Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong
I read this all in one day, slumped over my mattress on the floor (it was a hot summer and I moved my mattress to the air-con room) in all sorts of positions while I fell headfirst into Chloe’s 1920’s Shanghai. Terrifying, heart-stopping, unforgettable, and such a fantastic conclusion to such an amazing duology. (Also, I’m in the acknowledgements! Lots of love to you, Chloe meimei. 🥺 )
3. Yesterday is History by Kosoko Jackson
I’ve always felt drawn to stories where the premise feels like a ‘what if…?’, and Yesterday is History feels like a ‘what if your new liver gave you the ability to time travel?’ story. I adored the time travel, well-written queer love triangle, realised characters, the exploration of love and that, sometimes, love is about timing. Yesterday is History made my heart ache – and I’m looking forward to reading Survive the Dome by Kosoko early next year!
4. Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
I read this on my flight home from a long stint of work travel and we passed by a storm in the night while I was reading this. There was turbulence but my insides shook harder while reading Ace of Spades. Not only was this a twisty mystery thriller, Ace of Spades was also a profound exploration of systematic racism, classism in academia, and how Black people have to tailor their image to be accepted by their white peers. Nail-biting, terrifying, and yet such a fun ride.
5. Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun by Jonny Garza Villa
I have so much love for Jonny and their debut, Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun. It has all the things that I love – a fluffy and joyous romance, heartwarming friendships that aren’t always perfect, bigotry, machismo and heteronormativity from an unaccepting parent, and fantastic humour. This book feels so real in its depiction of challenges that may face queer teens but also shows the joy and love and future that is possible.
6. When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk
I read this in a motel in a small sleepy town with nothing to do, so I remember listening to the audiobook while starfishing on my bed. I wept, shook my head, and felt my heart break. When You Were Everything perfectly and poignantly captures the throes of a devastating and messy friendship breakup and the bitterness to yearning that comes with it. A portrait of how friendships are so pivotal and how they can both healing yet painful.
7. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
I read this in one of my city’s most humid days, lying on the literal floor and feeling the oppressive heat and the gravity of this book crush me. A reimagining the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty as a girl who claims her brother’s fate, this is truly an epic of identity, ambition, revenge and power, all with a queer twist. A truly magnificent debut, showcasing that Shelley will be a defining voice in the historical fantasy genre.
8. Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean
Tokyo Ever After is pure joy. This story fulfilled my child-like dream of being a secret princess of some faraway land and also had a bodyguard/royal romance that made me absolutely feral. I squealed into a pillow so many times while reading this. Tokyo Ever After was one of my most wholesomely joyous reading experiences in recent memory, one that made inner-child-CW so, so happy. I had so much fun reading this and I’ll love this book forever.
9. Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury
Uh, hello? Witches in a futuristic setting?! I need this book to get more love and hype, as it deserves, particularly with its sequel, Blood Like Fate coming next year. But gosh, if you want a high-stakes witchy urban fantasy set in the future that explores families, true love, relationships and is also dark, horrific, yet so captivating and unique, then do yourself a favour, love yourself, and read Blood Like Magic.
10. Pawcasso by Remy Lai
I’ve loved every single book by Remy Lai, and Pawcasso is no exception. A fun and genuinely humorous graphic novel about a lonely girl, a basket-toting dog that does the shopping, and a small lie that snowballs into something that divides a community. I love Remy’s delightful and expressive art, as well as how the story explores friendship, community, and responsible dog ownership.
11. Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch by Julie Abe
My favourite little witch returns! Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch is such a satisfying sequel – one that hits all the right spots, addresses our biggest questions, and expands on the world and story in all the best ways. This sequel takes the Eva’s journey to a darker, more dangerous place and even had some genuinely creepy moments. At its heart though, it’s a story about how far you’ll go for someone you love – a theme that has me in a chokehold.
12. Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert
This book was just so unabashedly delightful and so sexy. I giggled so much reading this; Eve was a ray of sunshine and the romance was so sweet and fun. I also loved how this prominently features two autistic characters – one that understands himself and the other who comes into herself at her own pace as she learns what being autistic means for her. The perfect pick-me-up if you ever need a sunny and cosy read.
13. Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve
When I finished reading Between Perfect and Real, I thought to myself: You know what? This book is going to save someone’s life one day. This was such an affirming and powerful story about questioning and becoming the person you were always meant to be. It balances fluffiness and love and trans joy with serious and honest depictions of transitioning and bullying, showing that trans identity and experience is so varied and different, and that’s what makes it beautiful. I loved this book with my whole heart.
14. In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu
This was, honestly, quite unlike anything I have ever read and I am grateful for how it broadened my horizon and my vision of what SFF could be. Transcendent, intriguing, and delightfully subversive, In the Watchful City‘s biocyberpunk world and exploration of gender, queerness, culture, identity, diaspora and belonging has stayed with me since I’ve read it. I can’t wait to see what S. will write next.
15. Not Here to Be Liked by Michelle Quach
Gosh, this was so good and fascinating – not just the story itself, but also how people have responded to it. Not Here to be Liked explores and challenges some great questions and themes of what it means to be an unlikeable girl, especially when we tell young girls to be ‘unapologetic about who they are’ and ‘let haters hate’, and yet criticise them when they do exactly that. Moreover, I loved the vulnerable depiction of feminism and how its often not perfect or a learning process – that’s what it’s like for so many of us.
16. Made in Korea by Sarah Suk
I was going through a rough spot while reading Made in Korea, so this story felt like a much-needed balm to my soul. A fun rivals-to-lovers about two Korean teens with all the delight and tension, but also a profound exploration of how our ambitions can become our identity to our detriment. Also loved, loved, loved the relationship between Valerie and her halmeoni; I gave my grandma a big hug after reading this.
17. Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko
Raybearer was one of my favourite books of 2020, and Redemptor, despite my expectations being through the roof, did not disappoint. I’m truly in awe of Jordan’s writing and her magnificent way of telling such a rich and detailed story in less than 400 pages. The Raybearer duology shines because there is so much love poured into the storytelling and it shows. I’ve said it before and I’ll proudly say it again: the Raybearer duology is the best duology in YA. Period.
18. It Goes Like This by Miel Moreland
Illuminating and delightfully queer, a love letter to friendships, growing up, growing apart, finding each other again and fandom. By the end, I wished that Moonlight Overthrow existed so I could partake in the fandom and live the joy of queer teens/ex-best friends/the band members reuniting for a charity event. The friendship stuff in this book made me choke up a few times. Honestly, loved this and can’t wait for Miel’s next book, Something Like Possible.
19. How it All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi
I loved this book and wish I talked about it more, so here goes. I read this book in one-sitting (thus, a testament to how enraptured I was by it) and I was amazed by its profound and meaningful exploration of identity and how perceptions and bias shape the way we view others and the world. What got me though? How this story portrays love at its most genuine and confusing; that sometimes we lose our way but there are people that love us through it all.
20. The Darkness Outside Us by Eliot Schrefer
This book has my ‘Surprised Me the Most’ award because hot damn, The Darkness Outside Us surprised me! The Darkness Outside Us was absolutely not what I expected and I love a good book that subverts all my expectations. This ‘gays in space’ science-fiction mystery/thriller had me at the very edge of my seat (in fact, it unseated me and I read this on the floor by the end); it also thrilled me, shocked me, horrified me, and broke my heart.
21. A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee
Not only did I love this for its queer Asian Treasure Island retelling, but A Clash of Steel was genuinely a whirlwind adventure that left me breathless and enraptured. I have a weakness for girls who forge their own destinies, and discover so much more than they imagined. The queer romance in this was so tender – I loved how vulnerable and genuine and soft it was, despite the harshness of the sea and survival. A wonderful story and I can’t wait to read all the other ‘Remixed Classics’.
22. Off the Record by Camryn Garrett
There’s a reason why Camryn’s books always appear in the book recommendations that I write. (They’re just so damned good!) As I’ve said many times before and I’ll happily say it again: I just love the way that Camryn writes teens and their voices; they feel so real and curious and nuanced. Off the Record delves into the #MeToo movement and demonstrates that speaking up is difficult and scary but can change the world. Loved this and I can’t wait for Cam’s next book.
23. Love and Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura
I love messy teens and characters who make questionable decisions, even when their loved ones call them out on it, but they get caught up in their feelings. Best of all, Love and Other Natural Disasters perfectly encapsulates the ‘disaster queers’ energy that I love from my stories. I just loved Nozomi and was intrigued by how she saw life as a romance film in which she was the director, being young and feeling like the world is your oyster. Loved this and love all the flawed heroines that Misa gives us.
24. How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
Breathtaking. This book made me fall in love with the universe and Moon Fuentez. I really peaked in book reviewing when I said: This book cracked me open, unfurled me at the seams. This book left me feeling raw, seen, understood, and yet so fulfilled by the end.” I stand by this statement. Raquel’s background in poetry shines bright in this profound story of life-changing roadtrips, trauma, grief, self-love, sexuality, fatness, religion, and falling in love. To say that I loved this book is an understatement; it’s a part of me.
25. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
Have you ever read a book with such marvellous storytelling that its creativity genuinely excited you? That’s how Elatsoe made me feel. After reading it, I legitimately told all of my friends about it and told them all to read it. Let me pitch it now: A blend of noir and mystery, set in a world where paranormal beings walk among us, a Lipan Apache girl who can raise the spirits of the dead sets off to solve the mystery of her cousin’s death after he appears to her in a dream. I loved this! Read it!
26. Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
What I loved about Light from Uncommon Stars was how it lays plainly all the trauma and grief and pain but also wraps you in this warm, welcoming hug and tells you, ‘yes, things are awful, but they can be beautiful and hopeful too and you, too, can find belonging and love‘? Gosh, I loved Light from Uncommon Stars so much, a story about three broken women – a violin teacher who made a deal with the devil, a trans violinist, and an interstellar refugee whose destinies collide. If this book was a corporeal being, I’d just hug it and never let it go.
27. It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi
Again, I love messy teens so It All Comes Back to You was a treat for me. I love nuanced flaws teenagers who are navigating who they are and who they want to be and also confront and reckon with the mistakes they’ve made. Because who hasn’t made mistakes? And I love books that show that plainly: that everyone makes mistakes and that imperfection is part of the human experience, despite how we see ourselves. This book is a gem and I am so glad it exists.
28. Tidesong by Wendy Xu
Ghibli vibes? Check. Witches? Check. Dragons?! Check! A soft and gentle story slide-of-life fantasy? Check. Parents apologising to their children when they realise they messed up? CHECK. Tidesong was an utter delight with gorgeous art and a just-as gorgeous story with its flawed yet relatable heroine. I loved that the story portrays Sophie’s ‘negative self-talk’ as something that she grapples with and that the story was about finding her own strength. This is the kind of story I’d give to my friends whose inner child needs healing and love.
29. Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young
I call books ‘a delight’ all the time – I need to widen my vocabulary, haha – but Healer of the Water Monster truly was a delight. A Navajo boy finds himself entangled with Holy Beings from Navajo mythology and a mission to save the eponymous Water Monster. There’s a scene when Nathan tells the spiders about the miraculous fly/food-infested place called the ‘outhouse’ and the scene fills me with so much child-like joy. Now whenever I see a spider in the bathroom, I chuckle to myself.
30. Last Gamer Standing by Katie Zhao
I’ve enjoyed all of Katie’s middle grade books, and Last Gamer Standing was no exception. I can really see young girl gamers really enjoying this book and feeling empowered by the story. I wish this game existed when I was younger, so I am glad it exists today. Moreover, I just had a lot of fun reading this – I read this in two sittings and it was such a fun and entertaining ride.
31. Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee
I’ve given myself 100 words for each book on this list, so if you want something coherent, read my review. But since I make no promises of having braincells in this post: Jade Legacy. What a book, what an ending, what a masterpiece. Jade Legacy is probably my #1 favourite book of 2021. … I don’t know what else to say. It was just a perfect book and I just feel grateful that I exist in the same timeline as Fonda Lee and the Green Bones Saga.
32. The Jasmine Project by Meredith Ireland
I read The Jasmine Project just as Auckland entered a lockdown and the story was what I needed – a distraction from despair and a warm and fuzzy story that felt like the biggest hug. This book was so adorable and I had so much fun reading this; this will definitely be a book that I’ll comfort read if I ever need one. Best of all? Yes, it’s a rom-com but it’s also about how one of the most important loves that we can have is the one that we have for ourselves. Loved, loved, loved this.
33. You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen
I feel like I’ve developed a sense for which books will do well, so I hope my senses are right when I say this: I have a feeling that You Truly Assumed will take the world by storm come 2022. Actually, no, You Turly Assumed BETTER take the world by storm next year because that’s what it deserves. This book is so bloody good; incisive, profound, and incredibly empowering in its exploration of community and friendship and how it firmly centers Black Muslim girls. Make sure you read this next year.
34. Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
I remember listening to the audiobook of this (powerfully narrated by Isabella Star LaBlanc) while cooking, and I distinctly recall just staring out the window in my apron and headphones, helplessly captivated by the story and mystery as it unfolded. Firekeeper’s Daughter was an absolute whirlwind and I think it ignited my love for mystery/thrillers. Who knew I loved being at the edge of my seat?
35. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Cordova
I hope Zoraida writes more adult, because I think it is absolutely her forte. (Don’t get me wrong, her YAs have been awesome, but her adult books? Sublime. [In saying that though, I’m looking forward to her MG, Valentina Salazar Is Not a Monster Hunter!]) The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is an enchanting and so dreamy. A family generational story full of wonder, mystery, and the beauty of the unknown, filled with magical realism and complicated family dynamics. I was riveted, friends.
36. Sweethand by N.G. Peltier
Close friends of mine will know that I have fraught and tenuous feelings about weddings. I was hesitant to read Sweethand at first because I was worried it’d set off my complicated feelings, but — it actually helped me make peace with weddings instead?! Sweethand was a lot of fun with awesome tension between the childhood-rivals-to-lovers and I loved that the storytelling captured the genuine love that ought to be in weddings, rather than something with stifling, outdated traditions.
37. Charming as a Verb by Ben Phillipe
Ben Phillipe’s humour is perfect for me, therefore I’ll read anything that Ben Phillipe writes. Charming as a Verb was indeed so charming with god-tier humour. The characters are, again, so charming, the romance in this lovely, and I loved how this delves into the stress of college, dreams, parental expectations, and the double standards of Black excellence. Loved this book.
38. Like a Love Song by Gabriela Martins
Sometimes when things are tough, there’s no better medicine than a fluffy, light, and sweet book. Like a Love Song had me grinning while reading it. The romance in this was wholesome, sweet, and nuanced in the way it portrays the complicated dynamic of fake-dating, and Nati’s journey of navigating her image and the way she presents (and curtails) herself was authentic and satisfying. Loved this debut and I’m looking forward to Bad at Love.
39. Rafe: A Buff Male Nanny by Rebekah Weatherspoon
This was the ultimate comfort book that I never knew I needed. And it was so sexy as well – not just because the romance was sizzling and dreamy, but also because the two characters were just so… steadfast and stable people. Honestly, no thoughts, head empty, just sexy and comforting vibes. I just picked up Xeni and I’ve heard it’s just as good – I can’t wait.
40. Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith
A Peter Pan retelling that subverts the original story’s anti-indigenous racism and colonialist themes and also retains the wonder and joy and sense of adventure? Sisters of the Neversea is an excellent retelling that hits all the right notes. I loved that the storytelling broke the fourth wall at times, making us, the reader, feel like we’re part of the Wendy and Lily’s adventure as it unfolds. A joy and wondrous retelling for inquisitive children.
41. Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie Rigaud
Simone Breaks All the Rules is a fun and joyous coming-of-age but, oh my goodness, I felt so seen. Growing up, I was definitely a sheltered teen with strict parents and I was flabbergasted by how much Simone’s experiences and thoughts and feelings reflected my own. Late bloomers unite. 🥲 Other than that, the complicated family relationships, the wholesome and supportive friendships, and the feel-good vibe made this book such a memorable one for me.
42. The Grimrose Girls by Laura Pohl
My gosh, this book was so good. I love fairytale retellings, but throw in twisted and gruesome fates, a murder mystery, and complicated queer girls with nuanced characterisations, and you have this splendid book. Moreover? It’s super dark and eerie and I relished in the tension and anticipation and just how the girls were angry, sad, hurt, grieving, flawed. I’m so excited to read the sequel and to see where Laura takes the story.
43. Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto
I have never in my life laughed so hard while reading a book. Dial A for Aunties was hilarious and had me suppressing my laughter at 1AM in the morning. Silly, self-aware, fun, and at times heartwarming, this is a story about an accidental murder gone awry where literally everything goes wrong. The chaos is indulgent and delightful. I really need to buy myself a physical copy of this book so I can re-read my favourite scenes.
44. Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis
Bad Witch Burning is one heck of an emotional rollercoaster that did not let me go. A Black witch uses her power for money, and things go terribly wrong when her power to raise the dead manifest and she sells her services to escape poverty. Complicated characters, nuanced relationships, heartbreaking situations, and an unapologetic and unfiltered portrayal of the realities of housing and food insecurity and living in an abusive household. This book will stay with me forever.
45. The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
The influx of ‘action-packed’ and unnuanced post-apocalyptic/dystopian YA made me jaded and weary and cynical. And then I read The Marrow Thieves, which proved that dystopian YA can be good – if it’s written by a marginalised writer who actually understands and integrates meaningful themes of oppression and power into their narrative. But my goodness, The Marrow Thieves was so thoughtful, heartwrenching, and a profound reflection of the past, present, and future from an indigenous lens. An amazing book, and I’m looking forward to dive into the second book, Hunting by Stars.
46. Falling into Rarohenga by Steph Matuku
Living in tiny little Aotearoa, it’s not often that I read a book that reflects my experiences – and then you have Falling into Rarohenga, which was such an exciting portal fantasy into Rarohenga, the Māori underworld. Siblings Tui and Kae were fantastic in this story, the way they spoke with each other, and all the Māori atua in the story reminded me so much of my childhood. Loved this taonga.
47. XOXO by Axie Oh
This was so much fun and just so ADORABLE. I felt like I was watching a K-drama romance while reading this book and I could feel my heart explore from all the cuteness. Though I liked the (forbidden) romance, there were so many other things that I loved: Jenny’s journey of self-growth, her complicated relationship with her mother, the gorgeous friendships. I almost wished that the eponymous fictional band, XOXO, was real – I’d become a fan immediately.
48. Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie
Ophelia, her roses, and her friends have my whole heart. Ophelia After All embodies everything that I love in a YA contemporary – heartfelt, so incredibly real, and captures the confusing mess of growing, changing, and becoming. I loved that this book is ultimately about identity and who we are – but in such an understated and organic way where it really isn’t about the destination, but the journey. Not only did I love this book, but I felt loved by this book – and what a gift that is.
49. Waves by Ingrid Chabbert & Carole Maurel
Waves devastated me. A gorgeous graphic novel about a young woman’s experience of infertility and miscarriage as queer women, and the grief, pain, and hope that comes with it all. This book hit me incredibly hard that I just wept through it. Everything about the story feels so real; the author’s own experiences and pain emerge through the storytelling and art, holding unbearable pain with delicate fingers. I’ll never forget this story.
50. Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
I only just finished this book two hours ago and I’m still processing it all. All I can say is: my god, I felt so seen by this book. The details, the nuances, the complicated feelings about family, queerness, and being part of diaspora returning to the motherland! All meld together in this rich and organic story with identity at its core, but also incorporates a story of gods, revenge, and secrets. What a book.
3 thoughts on “A Love Letter to All the Books that I Loved This Year – CW’s Favourite 50 Books of 2021”
With a reading year as wonderful as yours must’ve been, this is an excellent idea! So many books you loved! My heart is so full! I’m definitely in agreement with you on Elatsoe, which was one of my favorites last year––it’s such an amazing, ambitious fusion of genres and fantasy elements, I feel the need to thrust it into as many hands as I possibly can. Here’s to another year of marvelous books––and your marvelous reviews 💕
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Thank you. What an amazing list. I am starting to read them asap.
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This is such a wonderful list of love, and there are so many books that I haven’t heard of before, so very excited about all the new potential reads!