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The Eight Best Books I Read in 2021

It’s 2022, and I ought to get into the swing of things and talk about some books. These are the eight best ones I read in 2021, brought to you in chronological order. The interesting thing is that all the fiction happened during the summer, which I wasn’t expecting.

Also, as of 2022, I am now a affiliate! What this means is that I earn a commission on books purchased through my link. Bookshop supports independent bookstores, which is excellent, and totally my thing. I’ve put all of these books on a nice little shelf for your browsing pleasure. Now, on to the list!

Lab Girl, Hope Jahren

Consistently cited throughout the year as quite possibly my favorite nonfiction book of all time, Lab Girl follows the structure of a plant, from seed on up, along Jahren’s path from kid hanging around her father’s chemistry lab to trained geobiologist. I loved this book so much I had to buy a physical copy just to annotate. You can read my more detailed thoughts on Lab Girl here, and as I say in that post, I don’t think you have to know science to like it or gain something from it. It’s potential all-time favorite material, and only time will tell.

Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo

This is the first full-fledged fantasy novel I’ve fallen in love with in a long time. It’s got solidly complicated characters, wonderfully unconfusing music system, and since that was one-liners. The characters come from diverse backgrounds, and have very different perspectives, meaning they disagree like real people.

One of these characters uses a cane, and never once is it suggested that anything about him be “fixed,” by magic or anything else. Kaz Brekker has flaws, and his disabilities are never framed by the narrative to fall in that category.

It was such a refreshing change for me to see a disabled character in a fantasy setting who wasn’t expected to use magic as a “solution,“ that I was still feeling residual joy the next evening, enough that I felt compelled to tweet about it. If you want an immersive fantasy story where a loveable cast of characters do morally questionable things, Leigh Bardugo has your back.

One Last Stop, Casey McQuiston

A fabulous rom-com with a bisexual protagonist and an excellent soundtrack, One Last Stop can bring the fun summer beach read vibes any day of the year. It centers on August Landry, who's just moved to New York for college, plus her new gang of quirky friends and the mysterious, attractive stranger on the subway who only listens to 70s music.

There is a mystery to the plot with a little bit of a magical component and just a twist of time travel, so it’s not a straight romance story (pun not intended, but fully acknowledged). These elements of the book, aside from lending to the sense of adventure, provide the ability to learn a little bit of queer history along the way that I really appreciated.

This was also the first book I ever reviewed for a print publication, so I am attached to it for that reason as well. I read it in the space of 24 hours, with only three breaks over the course of it, itching to get back to the story each time, so the fact that I reviewed it didn’t affect its rating. It’s just a good book.

The Black Flamingo, Dean Atta

The Black Flamingo is by far the shortest book on this list, clocking in at three hours and 40 minutes. (I’m using duration here rather than page number because I listened to this one in audio, an experience I highly recommend.) This novel in verse is narrated fantastically by the author, which assisted my brain in wrapping its way around the poetry.

It is the coming-of-age story of a Black drag queen, beautifully told and capable of swaying even the most steadfast “poetry’s not really for me,” opinion— and that’s speaking from experience.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

This book is about Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cancer cells were stolen by doctors for research purposes in the 1940s. HeLa cells have been used in research for all kinds of incredibly useful medical technology, but the ethics of the cells and therefore how the technology came to be is questionable at best. Skloot delves into the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family, as well as the legal and ethical ramifications of HeLa.

The narrative of Skloot’s discoveries is told incredibly well and at some points made me cry, which I consider to be a mark of success on the book's part. I came to this book knowing that it was an extremely well respected piece of science communication, and came away knowing that there is a reason for that. I also think that you don’t have to be “into science'' to understand or care about the story and the woman central to it.

Narratives, Nerdfighters, and New Media, Jennifer Burek Pierce

This one might seem strange in its spot here, since it’s an academic work in a field I don’t study. Narratives, Nerdfighters, and New Media is a thesis about the intersection of narrative (stories) nerdfighters (the fan community surrounding the works of Hank and John Green) and new media, which I took to mean any form of media that is not radio, print, or television. I may be wrong on that point.

This one gets points less for the achievement of “I’ve learned things, and now have a full understanding of this topic,“ — because I don’t, and won’t pretend to— and more because it succeeded in producing an emotional reaction to me other than frustration or relief directed at an academic text.

This thing made me nostalgic for middle school, of all things, which is certainly a feat. This is mainly due to the fact that this is the time when I discovered Nerdfighteria, or rather was led into it by a very helpful school librarian. It made me nostalgic for the friends I had who shared the same interests but I no longer see, and made me sentimental for the fact that I am also part of the larger narrative and community being discussed in an academic text. My fan community is worthy of study. Study in a friendly, caring, “I’m one of these people“ kind of way. Burek Pierce has participated in the same community events that I have, and discusses their importance in her work. This book is simultaneously a critical study of, and love letter to, a community that has meant so much to so many people, and the stories that bind it together.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, Deborah Blum

This one isn’t my usual style either, seeing as I have yet to become a true crime girl. Sometimes you just have to scroll the faculty pages of potential grad programs and write down which titles look interesting. According to the lady at the bookshop, people come in asking for this one all the time, even if they’re not like me and constantly living in the science section.

The Poisoner’s Handbook tells the story of the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age New York, as it says, organized by poison and following the work of chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler as they try to prevent murderers from walking free and innocent people from being punished. It’s atmospheric and a little grisly, but nothing too unmanageable. It’s also a fun one to read in public, as people don’t tend to interrupt you.

Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America, Beth Hoffman

This one does exactly what it says on the tin, explaining the financial realities of farming versus the American myth of the hardworking, independent farmer living the simple life. The book is written in understandable terms for the unfamiliar, with definitions resurfacing just when you need them. It also includes the occasional figure to better demonstrate a point, and has a whole 19 pages of sources, all while telling the compelling story of the switch to restorative agriculture on Whippoorwill Creek Farm.

Hoffman was a journalist and professor before she was a farmer, and she knows how to keep an audience engaged. The book was approachable enough that I could understand it while on winter break without taking any notes, though I don’t think a reread would hurt.

If you want to keep up with what I’m reading, feel free to follow me on The StoryGraph, an independent alternative to Goodreads. I read 37 books in 2021, and hope to read 40 this year. We’ll see how that goes.


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