Books

The Best (and Worst) Books of 2021

The Best (and Worst) Books of 2021

It’s the most wonderful post of the year! I absolutely love sharing with y’all what I’ve been reading. My favorite way to find new books is through recommendations from friends and other trusted sources, so I hope maybe I can return the favor! I’m recapping all of the books I read last year and giving them star ratings so you know which ones to add to your “Want to Read” list immediately….and which ones to skip.

I started out the year really strong, powering through book after book via audio. Then, in the second half of the year, I maybe read one or two books TOTAL. Life got perfectly insane, and in the process of moving I misplaced my AirPods for two months (audiobook is typically my preferred reading medium). I ended with 30 books read total, still really great all things considered (that’s more than two per month!). I’m hoping to get back into the reading life here in 2022.

I use a five star system to rate each book, with 5 stars being the highest rating and 0 stars being the worst rating. Obviously the star ratings are highly subjective, as they are based on my own enjoyment of the book. You may see silly beach reads ranked alongside truly great works of literature, because I may have enjoyed each one equally!

Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2021, along with my rating and opinions on each:

The Scent Keeper by Erica Bauermeister. 5/5

This novel was absolutely exquisite. The descriptions of the scents and the way they helped tell the emotional and social parts of the story were brilliant. This novel is heart wrenching and gorgeous at the same time.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. 5/5

This is the story of the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations, told by the two journalists at The New York Times who reported on it. The care with which they tell the stories of the women impacted by the assaults, as well as the care that went into their investigations and reporting, are truly admirable. I found every part of this book fascinating and inspiring!

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. 4.5/5

This murder mystery was truly delightful! Told with wonderful British humor. Not gruesome or scary at all. Really loved reading it!

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi. 4.5/5

Y’all, I loved this book and was ready to give it 5 stars until the climax. I did not think the characters’ reactions felt “real.” It was a little bit of a let down, but the rest of the book was so good that I still gave it a high rating! I have not read many novels that take place in India, and the author’s descriptions of the sights, smells, and tastes were absolutely beautiful. Gave me wanderlust for sure! I also felt so tender hearted toward many of the characters as they overcame hardships and challenges.

Open Book by Jessica Simpson. 4.5/5

Okay, I was NOT expecting to give Jessica Simpson’s memoir this high of a rating. But it was so interesting, heartfelt, and emotional! I only knew very high level information about Jessica’s personal life beyond her professional career and enjoyed getting to know her a bit better through this book. She was incredibly open about very raw and difficult times in her life, such as losing her cousin in a car accident, experiencing sexual abuse as a child, becoming addicted to alcohol and sleeping pills, and going through emotional abuse in romantic relationships with well known celebrities. The book very much champions women and normalizes seeking help during struggle. Loved so much about it!

A Promised Land by Barack Obama. 4.5/5

I was shocked when I downloaded this audiobook and saw how long it was. I panicked that I wouldn’t be able to finish it before it automatically returned to the library! However, I flew through it (well, as fast as you can fly through a 29 hour audiobook!). I really enjoyed hearing more about the behind-the-scenes of former President Obama’s presidential election campaign as well the first term of his presidency. I always thought he was a very authentic president, but now that he is no longer in office, it seemed he could let his personality shine even more without fear of how that could impact the presidency, the U.S., or his chances at reelection. He is so charismatic and such a talented writer. He narrates the audiobook, and I could listen to his voice all day long! I actually didn’t realize when I started that this book is only part one of a planned two book series. I was about 80% of the way through and thought there was no way we could race through a reelection and second presidential term in the final 20% of the book. Turns out, we didn’t! That will be the next book!

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. 4.5/5

I didn’t really know what to expect from this book, but I had seen that it came highly recommended. It is a book I will never forget because I have never read something quite like it! Kimmerer is an incredibly talented author. It is rare for me to be moved to tears by a book, yet this book had my eyes brimming on a couple of occasions. I loved learning more about Indigenous American philosophies about the earth, environment, and economy. There were many valuable lessons to be gained, and I enjoyed how Kimmerer wove these lessons and Indigenous wisdom into stories about her own life and interactions with nature. While I am not a “nature person” like Kimmerer, her passion for plants and soil and animals was so obvious and contagious. Thought provoking and beautiful!

All the Ways We Said Goodbye by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, & Karen White. 4.5/5

I did not think I would give this novel this high of a rating at first. I have read so many books in recent years about heroic women during WWII, and when I started into this book, I felt like the storyline was being overdone. It is also painfully obvious to the reader what is going to happen. But then I got swept up in the romance and carried away. I ended up really enjoying this read! And as it turns out, while almost everything was entirely predictable, there was one little bit that took me by surprise!

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. 4.5/5 

This book about a woman’s experience with depression, regret, and self realization is excellent! It is a quick and witty read. It is at once funny yet deeply touching while dealing with existential subject matter. No easy feat! I highly recommend.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. 4.5/5

This book was freaking adorable. The most endearing characters and lighthearted voice while also serving up some solid feel-good lessons about acceptance and being your true self.

The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile. 4.5/5

I have been interested in the enneagram for several years now and have learned a lot about myself and others in the process. I have listened to podcasts from both authors and have heard so many people talk about this book that I think of it as a foundational enneagram book. I wasn’t sure if I would learn much from it since I already know a good bit about the enneagram, but in actuality, I learned a lot! I actually panicked halfway through and thought I had mistyped myself for many years, but after reading more, I think I’m actually still pretty spot on. Very educational read, and I highly recommend the enneagram as a tool for self exploration!

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. 4/5

This book is a true work of art and incredible literature! It took me a little while to figure out the format and what was going on, but once you wrap your head around it, you can fully appreciate the incredible tapestry of interwoven stories and perspectives Gyasi pulls together in one work. I learned so much about Ghana and the Gold Coast slave trade. This book hits on so many important themes, including racism, human trafficking, sexism, unrequited love, destiny, healing, mental health, and so much more.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. 4/5

So much incredibly fascinating history in this account of a woman whose cancer cells were unknowingly taken from her and then used for many scientific purposes, both good and questionable. Raises so many important questions about medical ethics, biomedical law, and racism/classism in the United States. I would most certainly recommend this book!

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins. 4/5

I got completely sucked into this thriller and tore through it! The narrators on the audiobook did a fantastic job. Suspenseful, and an excellent job infusing Southern elite culture into the story.

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle. 4/5

I picked this up because I was in the mood for a light read after several heavier books. It was a quick read, though not necessarily light on my emotions! A love story, though not the type you’d expect.

The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. 4/5

Okay, I felt really positive about this book IMMEDIATELY after reading it. While it did feel like a giant sales pitch and/or corny at times….it also felt quite life-changing for me. I didn’t ascribe to some of the author’s beliefs, but I took what resonated with me and it served me very well. I immediately implemented some aspects of the “Miracle Morning” in my own life and it was great. Now here we are, nearly a year later – and not a whole lot of it has stuck, to be honest. Some of that is my own fault and not the book’s. But I’m not sure I’m feeling as “rah rah” about it as I did when it was freshly read.

The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe. 4/5

I think Rufi Thorpe is an incredibly gifted writer. This book was very sad to me which is why I did not score it higher. But in terms of literature quality – very high.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman. 4/5

I remember this book was recommended to me based on another book I really enjoyed, but I can’t remember which one! Illuminae was very different from what I usually read, though. Set in 2075 in outer space, it was a science fiction novel that included a battle in space along with teenage love. Not my typical scene, but I enjoyed it! I think what I loved most was the strong female lead character who is a computer hacker. She bent a lot of female stereotypes and was pretty badass.

28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand. 4/5

An easy and enjoyable read about a 28-year-long romance. The story definitely felt a little different than your typical romance novel because of the length of the relationship and the lack of a pretty bow tying things up. I cried at the end, which is unusual for me with a book. I think Elin does a fantastic job with her endings, which aren’t always easy to nail!

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. 4/5

This novel details the experiences of a woman whose family immigrated to the United States from Ghana and subsequently dealt with assimilation difficulties and her brother’s drug addiction. I wasn’t that into the book at first, but as it progressed, I became more and more impressed with the author’s descriptions of addiction and the impact of addiction and unexpected death on a family. I binge listened to this book in one day while cleaning my house for a showing, but I wish I had taken my time with it so I could digest it a bit more. This is a book I might consider re-reading, and I think I might enjoy it even more the second time around!

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. 4/5

This novel about a woman and her son fleeing a drug cartel in Mexico is beautifully descriptive. However, it is also long and excruciatingly sad at times (well…pretty much all of the time). My impression after reading it, not being someone with first hand experience myself, is that it was an informative and important read about what it is like for people trying to cross the border into the U.S.  However, after reading critiques of the book and the author, I have learned that many Mexican and other Central and South American folks believe this book to not be an accurate portrayal of what it is like to cross the border. These same voices have expressed some concern and frustration about the author as well, which I encourage you to read prior to purchasing the book–perhaps this is one you borrow from the library instead if you are concerned about supporting the author with your dollars.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. 4/5

This book is an extremely short and easy read about what it means to be a feminist and why it matters. The material wasn’t earth shattering to me as this is a subject I have already thought and learned about a great deal, but I found it interesting nonetheless! Great read for someone who hasn’t yet thought much about feminism.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes. 3.5/5

This novel was an easy and interesting enough read. I wasn’t hooked on the story, but in the end it gave some great lessons about healing, self love, and friendship.

Vassal by Mereda Hart Farynyk. 3.5/5

This is the third book in the Firedark series, and I wasn’t as hooked by it as the first two books in the series. The last quarter of the book was definitely not my favorite, as the descriptions of the “Old Way” just felt way too similar to Christianity to me.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Mutara. 3.5/5

Even after digesting this one for a while, I’m still not sure how I feel about it! There is a lot of indirect societal commentary written into this short novel; a great book to unpack with a book club or class. It was definitely something different, and I appreciate that about it!

The Lies That Bind by Emily Giffin. 3.5/5

Throughout this book, I wasn’t sure whether I hated it or really enjoyed it. It definitely keeps you interested and engaged, with many plot twists! The story itself is incredibly unrealistic, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about the character development. An entertaining enough beach read for sure!

Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore. 3.5/5

This book was entertaining enough (let’s be real – the sex was good), but it wasn’t a particularly gripping story to me. It sort of felt like the same romance I’ve heard a thousand times, just with characters with slightly different names.

The Searcher by Tana French. 3.5/5

I really had difficulty connecting to the main character in this book which definitely impacted my enjoyment of it. However, the storyline and mystery gradually became more interesting and I did get into it. Wasn’t ripping through it though.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. 3/5

I’m sure some of y’all will be shocked that the OG Outlander novel didn’t rank higher for me, given how absolutely IN LOVE I am with the TV show. The book just…didn’t do it for me. The book, which was written 30 years before the show, has much less of a feminist lean to it which impacted by enjoyment of it heavily. Indeed, Jamie’s character was not nearly as attractive to me given some of the patriarchal behavior. While understandable in the context of his time and perhaps more realistic than the TV show’s rendering, it did not endear me to him as a character, and I found Claire’s character equally frustrating from a feminist worldview.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. 2.5/5

Goodness, I don’t even know what to say about this novel, which is right on the edge of being dystopian. It is incredibly well-written and full of well thought-out social commentary….but I really didn’t enjoy it. I think it is intended to be a bit disquieting, and it was, especially because the book ends with more loose ends than it started with. I also just didn’t love the voice/tone of the book–a bit too blunt and perhaps a bit crass?

Alright friends, that’s a wrap! Leave me a comment if you also have thoughts on the books listed. And, be sure to comment with suggestions of books to add to my reading list for 2021! You can see what’s already on my list on my Pinterest board.

And, you can read my book recaps from previous years here: 202020192018,  20172016.

xoxo Laura

P.S. – This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you purchase a product using a link from this post. Read more here about my disclaimers/disclosures.

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