My Top Ten Favorite Reads of 2021

Hey guys! It’s that time of year where we take a look back on what happened over the past 12 months. It feels like it’s been an incredibly long year–and also a short one at the same time. And over this past year, I may not have read as much as I used to, but I have also rediscovered my love of reading, in a way. (I used to try to get through books so fast that it killed some of the enjoyment.) But I feel less cynical about them and I think that shows in some of my choices for best books as well as the fact that I rated more as 5 stars than I have in years past.

So without further ado, let’s see what I liked best, yes? In order.

My Top Ten Favorite Reads of 2021

10. Withering Hope by Layla Hagen

This was one of those free romance novels I found at some point on Amazon and thought, “Eh, that might be interesting.” It starts out super cheesy: Aimee’s in a private plane on her way to Brazil for her destination wedding when the plane goes down in the Amazon rainforest. It’s now up to her and the pilot, Tristan, to try to survive long enough for someone to find them. While I initially rolled my eyes at a lot of it, I was soon sucked into the survival story where Aimee and Tristan are literally fighting for their lives and discovering what–and who–they actually need. It was surprisingly cute and moving.

9. Cascade (River of Time, #2) by Lisa Tawn Bergen

I know this is the 2nd book in the series and I hate to do that to you guys, but this really was just that good. This series is about two teenage girls, Gabi and Lia, who are in Italy with their archaeologist mother looking at old medieval Italian ruins when they find themselves transported to the 1400s. There’s a ton of action, some romance (it’s clean–this is considered Christian lit, though I don’t really get that), and the writing is just phenomenal. It kept me on the edge of my seat. Knights in shining armor, sword fights, political schemes…what more could you want?

8. The Box in the Woods (Truly Devious, #4) by Maureen Johnson

This was my most recent read on this list. I love the mystery, the characters, the writing. I can get into anything Maureen Johnson writes, honestly, but I think Stevie Bell and Truly Devious is some of her best writing yet. And I’m so excited to see that the mysteries are going to continue. (I’m having trouble finding anything officially talking about it, but I know Johnson has hinted on Twitter that she’s working on another.)

7. The Viscount Who Loved Me (Bridgertons, #2) by Julia Quinn

Like many of you, I watched Bridgerton last winter and fell in love with Daphne and Simon and the Bridgerton crew. I had to read the books. Imagine my surprise when Anthony, who drove me nuts in the first book, ended up being my favorite in the entire series, along with Kate. They’re so sarcastic and funny that that definitely added to the story–but there’s also a lot of vulnerability between Kate and Anthony, a vulnerability I just never saw to this extent anywhere else in the series and I loved it. I really hope the Netflix series does this book justice because I can’t wait.

6. Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

I teach a Holocaust unit at school and one thing we do is let kids pick from over a dozen Holocaust books that they want to read. A new one we added to the list this year was this one. I’d heard about it for a while but hadn’t read it. But oh my God, was it heartbreaking. The story’s told by Hanneke, a Dutch girl working on the black market to bring people what they can’t purchase with the Nazi takeover of their country. And then she’s asked by a client to find the Jewish girl who had been hiding in her home–before the police find the girl. In this way, Hanneke is slowly brought into the world of Nazi resistance and sees what’s actually happening to the Jews around her. It’s a mystery wrapped in a historical fiction. And it’s so good.

5. Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Of all the books on this list, this is the only one where I feel like putting it at #5 is kind of unfair and that it should be higher, but there’s just stiff competition this year. This standalone contemporary romance with a touch of supernatural is just amazing–and the only contemporary romance that made my top 10. Evie has given up on love, especially now that every time she sees a couple kiss, she can suddenly see how their relationship began–and how it will end in heartbreak. While trying to understand what’s happening to her, she meets X and finds herself roped into doing competitive ballroom dancing with him. It’s such a cute story, but there’s a lot of heartbreak in it as well. It’s so moving. I mean, this could be a yearly reread for me, because it’s just full of life lessons and it’s so easy to read.

4. Lore by Alexandra Bracken

I’m a big fan of Greek mythology and last year I really discovered Alexandra Bracken’s writing for myself. Combining the two was sure to be a win. And it was. This standalone urban fantasy is really unique and interesting. It’s like Hunger Games meets Greek mythology, where every 7 years the Greek gods lose their immortality and these families can attack them. If they kill them, the killer gains the god’s powers. Lore wants out of this whole thing, until at the beginning of this Agon, she runs into Castor, her best friend that she thought was dead. Now she’s suddenly sucked back into the world that killed her entire family and she’s out for vengeance. It’s really good and the fact that it’s standalone makes it even more unique.

3. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, #1) by Holly Jackson

This really must have been the year for murder mysteries, huh? I just found this book to be so incredible. Five years ago, Andie Bell was murdered. The police closed the case when Sal Singh also turned up dead with a note saying he did it. But Pip doesn’t buy it. She knew Sal, knew him to be kind and caring…this just didn’t fit. She decides to make solving the mystery her senior project and begins uncovering the mystery the town doesn’t want to reexamine. I really loved the way the story was written and how Pip pretty much literally just knocked on doors and read through interview transcripts to find the information she was looking for. It was fun to actually work this case with her.

2. House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City, #1) by Sarah J. Maas

Some of you may be surprised this is only at #2. It was a phenomenal read–and if you’re a fan of Maas and haven’t read this yet, I highly recommend that you do. Yes, it is adult rather than YA, but let’s be real, ACOTAR was on its way there too, so it’s not much of a jump except these characters have jobs and own their own apartments. But. As much as I loved the second half of this book and was glued to it, the first half was a bit slow and I found Maas’s writing to start to have a certain pattern to it. I pretty much figured out how the story would go and how the characters would be written early on. She’s got a formula now–that works–but it eliminates a lot of the surprise I used to love. Maybe the next book will be better.

1. Bring Me Their Hearts (Bring Me Their Hearts, #1) by Sara Wolf

Far and away, this was clearly my #1 pick for the year since I read it. It was so much fun! A fantasy that combined all my favorite elements of court intrigue, stubborn princes, a fake socialite trying to outsmart the nobility, and magical abilities. Zera is so much fun in her irreverence as she takes on the palace in an attempt to literally steal Prince Lucien’s heart and regain her own humanity. The world building is great and the characters are just as good. I absolutely loved how tight the writing is, how everything seamlessly fit together. It was so fun and this book deserves so much more recognition than its currently getting.

Never Saw You Coming

Never Saw You Coming

First Lines: I was four the first time I accepted Jesus into my heart. I say first time because I did it at least twelve times before I turned sixteen. Better to be absolutely sure, you know?

I know she’s a fairly new author, but I have yet to find an Erin Hahn book I haven’t liked. She’s a fun, unique voice in YA, with her books focusing on music and family and love in ways that I feel like are different that most things on the market. So I was excited to get to this one.

Meg has just learned her entire life has been a lie. At 18, she truly thought she had her life figured out, but with one conversation, her world is thrown off axis. Instead of taking her gap year to work and find herself, she’s now heading to meet what’s left of the family she never knew existed. While there, she meets Micah, the son of a former pastor who ended up in prison. Micah has his own complicated feelings around the church and, with his father’s parole hearing coming up, Micah has to decide if he’s willing to forgive–because he certainly can’t forget. As Meg and Micah grow closer, they’ll have to navigate the complicated process of growing up and cutting ties with childhood beliefs while also discovering what it means to fall in love.

It was…not exactly what I was expecting. But that’s also not necessarily a bad thing.

Hahn’s books so far have been heavy on their musical influences. And I was kind of expecting that to continue. At first, it did. Meg and Micah have musical talents that they lean on to help them through rough patches. But that really didn’t carry on past the beginning of the story too much. And you know, that’s fine. This is a new book with new characters who have different interests.

But wow, was it a left turn when this book turned into a heavily religious-focused book instead. I mean, I kind of got that from the blurb, but it was a lot. However, this isn’t your typical Christian lit or anything. They question. They get angry with the church. They struggle with following their hearts and following the scripture, but more of like, “Is this actually how we’re supposed to live?” And I’m not going to lie, I related a lot to Meg. I had a similar (but much less rigid) upbringing. I’ve been in her shoes and, as someone who felt so alone through that process, it was a bit like finding a piece of myself in Meg. A recognition that I’m not the only one who feels/felt like this. And if I’m out here feeling that, I know there have to be others.

Ok, now let’s actually talk about the story. The characters are adorbs. Meg has learned some serious secrets her mom has been keeping from her and she doesn’t really know who she is anymore. Meg’s courage and her journey to make a new home in Marquette was really cool because the girl is fierce in a really understated here. Micah’s life fell apart six years ago when his pastor father got caught and went to prison. It broke Micah’s faith in…well, a lot of things. Now he’s finally getting to a place where he can feel normal when his father’s parole meeting comes up and all of this crap is thrown back in his face again. So Meg’s fresh face and faith in him is the much needed anchor in the storm to help get him through it. It was cute to see both of them together.

There’s something about Hahn’s writing that just pulls me in. From the second or third chapter, I knew I was into this story and I could feel myself there with the characters. I’m not sure what exactly it is that makes her writing so good, but it’s there.

The only thing I could maybe say that’s slightly negative about this was that I felt like the romance was a bit…I don’t know what to call it. Easy isn’t quite the right word, but predictable isn’t exactly it either. But I definitely felt like we were watching a Hallmark movie version of a relationship. And I say that as someone who really enjoys Hallmark movies, but it was something I noticed.

Anyway, this was a really good read, but it could be off-putting for people who don’t like the way religion is depicted in this book.

Sky Breaker (Night Spinner, #2)

Sky Breaker (Night Spinner, #2)

First Lines: Darkness rises around me like a shield–girding me with armor, enfolding me in steel, deflecting the whispers that climb the cavern walls like goblin spiders.

The first book in his duology caught my attention because it was a sort of gender-bend fantasy retelling of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and if that isn’t quite the description, I don’t know what is. And after really enjoying the first book’s innovation and creativity, I was very excited to read the second book.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Enebish has been betrayed over and over again. On the run across the tundra, her only allies are her best friend Serik and a group of ill-tempered shepherds who threaten to leave her at every turn. Her only hope of bringing peace to Ashkar is to bring together the Protected Territories against the might of the Zemyans and the tyrannical Askarian Sky King. But as supplies dwindle for their little group, she might start losing allies faster than she gains them. Meanwhile, Zemyan forces have stormed the Ashkarian capital and Imperial Army Commander Ghoa throws all of her power into stopping them, only to be abandoned by the warriors she leads. Held captive in a magic prison and tortured by the sorcerer Kartok, Ghoa learns his true ambitions don’t rest on just ruling the surrounding countries–he wants to take on the gods themselves. The war between Ashkar and Zemya has been raging for centuries, but it might take the two most hated people on the continent–Enebish and Ghoa–to bring it to an end before Kartok sends the sky falling down around them.

This was just as good as the first book in a lot of ways, but also a little bit…lacking in others.

The world building is still really good. I liked seeing the different cultures and groups of people introduced. I liked understanding the difference between the Ashkarians and the Zemyans, the way their philosophies and powers differ.

The characters are equally fascinating because they’re all incredibly flawed. And I don’t just mean in the “oh, I’m so clumsy” way. Enebish’s inability to trust is a legitimate fault that gets her into life-threatening trouble so many times. Ghoa’s pride is her downfall in so many ways. These are horribly flawed people who sometimes are good people and sometimes are terrible. But we still end up rooting for them. It’s actually quite fun because I don’t think I’ve ever read characters quite like these before.

I did think the plot dragged a bit, though. It meant well, but when you spend most of the story (the part told from Enebish’s POV anyway) traveling across a large country/continent, well, there’s just a lot of monotony. Even when you dress it up with occasional fights or stops in new places. It’s still a road trip. (I know I made this reference like 3-4 books ago, but Deathly Hallows again, anyone?)

I really didn’t remember much of Ghoa’s personality when I started this book, so I had a hard time slipping into her perspective. But actually, in the midst of all the traveling Enebish was doing, Ghoa’s story line helped quite a lot. She was actually in danger, trying to figure out the best way to survive and get her revenge. While I did start off the story thinking she was a truly terrible person (I did remember what she did to Enebish in the previous book), she grew on me a lot. And that’s a sign of good writing right there, when you don’t even realize the change is happening.

This is well-written, different, and just interesting. Even for a fantasy, it manages to do things I’ve never seen before and stand out in its own ways.

Escaping from Houdini (Stalking Jack the Ripper, #3)

Escaping from Houdini (Stalking Jack the Ripper, #3)

First Lines: New Year’s afternoon aboard the Etruria began like a fairy tale, which was the first indication a nightmare lurked on the horizon, waiting, as most villains do, for an opportunity to strike.

It’s been a bit since I read the first two books in this series, but apparently I’m on a bit of a murder mystery kick right now (what can I say? They’re entertaining.). So it sounded like fun to read this and make a little progress getting closer to the end of this series.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Audrey Rose Wadsworth and Thomas Cresswell are journeying to New York via a week-long trip aboard the luxury liner Etruria. It’s supposed to be delightful and diverting, especially since a circus troupe full of acrobats, fortune tellers, fire eaters, and more are their nightly entertainment. But then, first class young women start going missing and a series of brutal slayings shock the entire ship. The disturbing influence of the Moonlight Carnival isn’t helping matters, and passengers soon realize there’s no escape–unless you want to jump into the sea. It’s up to Audrey Rose and Thomas to solve the mystery before more women turn up dead. And with the clues beginning to point to the next victim being someone Audrey Rose loves, time is running out…

Maybe it’s just how much time has passed since I read the other books, but I feel like maybe I liked this one the best so far?

In this book, we’re immediately thrown into a mystery aboard a luxury transatlantic ship. And I do mean immediately. We have a dead body before the end of chapter one. Audrey Rose, Thomas, and her uncle are on their way to America when suddenly women begin turning up murdered. And brutally. Like, a couple of times when I happened to be reading while eating, I was like, “Well, that just made my food taste bad.” It does not back away from some of the gore and violence, going into details of the autopsies and murders. You’ve been warned.

I remember not exactly loving the previous book because it felt like too much of a copy of the first book and it got boring. This one was different. Audrey Rose is different in this one. She’s…I guess the best way to say it is swept away by the carnival. Despite her intelligence, she ends up finding herself captivated by the idea of sleight of hand and finding freedom on the stage. It’s an interesting twist for her character, not because it was too crazy but because it felt a lot like a young woman who doesn’t really know who she is quite yet and wants to explore other avenues. I really liked that, actually. The fact that she ended up butting heads with those closest to her over it also felt equally real.

I will admit that the mystery did get a bit old after a while because it was just so repetitive. There were, admittedly, different ways that people died and different ways people found them, but it was also just the same thing over and over. Find a body, look at the clues, get stumped, find another body. Rinse and repeat. But having said that, I didn’t have the mystery figured out until the end. So there’s that.

This was fun. I liked going along with Audrey Rose to see what horrors this ship could hold behind the silken mask of luxury.

The Box in the Woods (Truly Devious, #4)

The Box in the Woods (Truly Devious, #4)

First Lines: Sabrina Abbott was doing something illegal. Impossible. Sabrina had never done anything illegal. She was Barlow Corners’ paragon of virtue. The valedictorian. The library volunteer who read to children.

You know, I was very intrigued by this book when it was announced. Truly Devious ended…how could there be another book? (Not that I wasn’t thrilled by the idea.) I was even more curious when I found out it wasn’t going to spoil the original series mystery. How was Maureen Johnson going to pull this off while still giving us a new mystery?

Stevie Bell hates that she’s about to have a normal summer. She’s just caught the killer at her school and now, what, she’s just expected to hold down a job at the local grocery store for the summer? So when Stevie gets a message from the owner of Summer Pines, formerly known as Camp Wonder Falls, it’s like a dream come true. Camp Wonder Falls is famous for the Box in the Woods murders–in 1978, four camp counselors were murdered and their bodies left in a grisly display. The owner wants Stevie to come help him solve the case and work on a podcast about it with him. Even better, Stevie gets to bring her friends along too. But something evil still lurks in Barton Corners and when Stevie begins stirring things up, she’s going to find that danger still lurks in these woods…

Man, did this work. It was incredible, which I shouldn’t be surprised by. I devoured this. The mystery was incredible and nuanced, the clues were so subtle it was hard to catch them even if I had suspicions, and it was just fun. It flew.

Stevie and her friends are back together to investigate a mystery known as The Box in the Woods, a murder that took place at a summer camp in 1978. It’s a pretty gruesome murder of four people and it unfolds in the novel by jumping between 1978 and the present. So it goes back and forth for a while until we know the details of the case and then it sticks to the present. I liked that, since we had no backstory on this particular murder before beginning this story. I felt like I was all caught up by the time we were maybe halfway through the story.

I was definitely into this story more for the mystery and Stevie than her friends, I admit, but I do feel like the storylines kept progressing from where we left off. Nate is just hilarious in his “I hate people, keep me away from everyone at this summer camp” mentality. And Janelle is great with her crafting euphoria at a camp where there are so many little kids ready to take part in her crafts. And David has his own growth, but I don’t want to spoil too much of that.

Suffice it to say this story has a great mystery, a sense of humor, and some summer camp fun. If murder mysteries are your idea of “fun”, anyway.

Send Me Their Souls (Bring Me Their Hearts, #3)

Send Me Their Souls (Bring Me Their Hearts, #3)

First Lines: Prince Lucien d’Malvane looks at me with the steady gaze of a wolf across a meadow. Waiting.

As I mentioned in the previous review, I just had to know how this series continued. I was very charmed by Zera and her group of friends and I just had to see how this trilogy ended. So it was a no-brainer that I was going to pick up the final book pretty much right after I finished the 2nd. (It’s rare that I actually read a series this quickly, but it’s fun when I can.)

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Reunited with her friends, Zera finds she needs them now more than ever. War rages all around them, and the army of valkerax partaking in the destruction means the death toll is astronomical. It also means Zera needs the immortality of Heartlessness now more than ever, even if now she actually truly can regain her humanity. But saving the world has to come before personal desires, right? The bigger question for Zera and her friends, though, is…is there even a world left to save anymore?

This book, the last in the trilogy, was obviously the darkest of them all. But I love that it still managed to hold onto its heart (hehe) and its sense of humor. Zera is just so irreverent, even after all the destruction they’re witnessing and all the death. I love that nothing is sacred with them, except the love and friendship this group has for each other. It really managed to lighten the story while still showing just how awful everything was around them.

It was fun to see so many different parts of the Mist Continent in this book, cities that we’d heard of but hadn’t seen. At times, it did kind of remind me of Deathly Hallows, in that the characters were on a constant march and danger followed them at every turn. So that sometimes got a little slow, but the character development usually helped because if one character isn’t growing and changing, someone else probably is and that kept things somewhat fresh.

There is still a ton of action in this book, which was fun. It was nice to be kept on my toes as I read, always wanting to find out what happened next. And with battles happening all around them, it was pretty much guaranteed that something special to them was going to get destroyed or someone was going to get hurt. It was just a matter of seeing what it happened to be this time.

I feel like this was a good conclusion to this series. I’m very impressed by this series, how tight everything is and how much fun it was to read. I haven’t read a fantasy series that has pulled me in in this way in quite some time. I’m thrilled.