My Best Books of 2021

While I haven’t been posting book reviews regularly, I have been continuing to read a lot of books this year. My Goodreads goal was to read 50 books for 2021 and although I’ll fall short of that, I expect to reach 43 books read by the end of the year. So what did I think of what I read? If you want to see my favorites from the year, keep reading below!

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First, the stand-alone novels:

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow was the first novel I had read by this author. This was a wonderful portal fantasy and you can read my full review here.

I read another book by Alix E. Harrow and also loved this one. The Once and Future Witches follows three sisters as they rediscover witchcraft in a slightly alternate history tale.

I had never read anything by Octavia E. Butler but listened to Kindred as an audiobook this year. This was a disturbing tale of time travel, racism, and slavery. Now I need to read more books by Octavia Butler.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir is a fun science fiction tale with an emphasis on science. While I did question one aspect of the biology, it was quite entertaining.

I fit two re-reads in: these books were past favorites and remain so:

I can’t remember how many times I have read Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey over the years, but it had been at least 20 years since my last read. I’m always nervous to re-read something I remember so fondly, wondering if it will still stand up to my memories of it. But this book is still a solid winner in McCaffrey’s introduction to her Dragonriders of Pern series. I even wrote a review of this one here.

Then of course with the recent movie release, I had to go back to Dune by Frank Herbert. I had only read this once before and I found that I enjoyed it a lot more this time around. I never read beyond the first book though so I will likely put more of this series on my growing to-be-read list for 2022.

Best series:

I have a bad habit of starting series and not finishing them. So for 2021, I managed to read two complete series and start another that made this list.

I started to read The Shadow and Bone Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo when the recent television adaptation was released. This was a spur of the moment read and these books hadn’t been on my radar prior to the series. But if you’re looking for a YA fantasy series with some romance and fun magic, then these are great.

The first book in The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty had been on my to-be-read list for a while and I’m sooooo glad I finally started this series. This story is set in a world of magical djinn and follows two main characters through struggles for power over the magical city of Daevabad. This series was nominated for a 2021 Hugo Award and has some wonderful political machinations, bad guys who really justify their actions, and a slow-burn romance. I’m actually still reading the last book of this one and I’m dying to know how it ends.

I picked up the first book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series (The Calculating Stars) last month and didn’t have time to get to more in the series, but I loved it. This is an alternate history where the space program is accelerated in the 50’s and women are chosen to be astronauts sooner than our real history allowed.

While A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine could be read as a stand-alone novel, there is also a sequel. I liked this first book more than the follow-up though. This is science fiction set in a far future empire with a focus on political machination and intrigue in a uniquely built culture. I also wrote a review for this one here.

Non-fiction:

Lastly, I do try to read some non-fiction every year and did fit a few in. The most thought-provoking one of these for 2021 was Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. This book examines our social structures and racial disparities in a disturbing assessment of American culture. I learned a lot reading this one and would highly recommend it, even if you don’t think you need to do any reading on this subject.

So those are my top picks from the year! Did you read any of these? Do you have any other recommendations? Let me know in the comments (above, near the date). Coming soon – the entire list of books read in 2021, then my planned reads for 2022.

Book Review – The Republic of Thieves

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch is book #3 in the Gentleman Bastard series. I reviewed the earlier books, The Lies of Locke Lamora (#1 – review here), and Red Seas Under Red Skies (#2 – review here). I also listened to this as an audiobook, narrated by Michael Page.

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Here is the blurb:

With what should have been the greatest heist of their career gone spectacularly sour, Locke and his trusted partner, Jean, have barely escaped with their lives. Or at least Jean has. But Locke is slowly succumbing to a deadly poison that no alchemist or physiker can cure. Yet just as the end is near, a mysterious Bondsmage offers Locke an opportunity that will either save him or finish him off once and for all.

Magi political elections are imminent, and the factions are in need of a pawn. If Locke agrees to play the role, sorcery will be used to purge the venom from his body – though the process will be so excruciating he may well wish for death. Locke is opposed, but two factors cause his will to crumble: Jean’s imploring – and the Bondsmage’s mention of a woman from Locke’s past: Sabetha. She is the love of his life, his equal in skill and wit, and now, his greatest rival.

Locke was smitten with Sabetha from his first glimpse of her as a young fellow orphan and thief-in-training. But after a tumultuous courtship, Sabetha broke away. Now they will reunite in yet another clash of wills. For faced with his one and only match in both love and trickery, Locke must choose whether to fight Sabetha – or to woo her. It is a decision on which both their lives may depend.

These books are a lot of fun but also take some dark turns. This one in particular will open up wounds from reading the first in the series (The Lies of Locke Lamora) because much of the book follows Locke’s backstory in happier days before all the tragic stuff happened in the first book.

However, we do finally meet Sabetha who is alluded to in the earlier books, but has never made an appearance. She is a worthy rival/love interest for Locke, and their banter keeps this book going through a less deadly plot than the earlier installments. The poison lurking in Locke’s system also provides a countdown type of urgency to the story.

I really enjoyed this book and am eagerly awaiting the next one in the series. There is no release date yet for The Thorn of Emberlain (#4).

Have you read any of The Gentleman Bastards series? Let me know what you thought in the comments above.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Klara and the Sun

I had never read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro before this, probably because his books seem to be regarded more as literary fiction than science fiction. However, I thought I’d try this one since I’d heard a lot about it recently. I listened to Klara and the Sun as an audiobook, narrated by Sura Siu.

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Here is the blurb:

Klara and the Sun, the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.

Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: What does it mean to love?

I found myself more entranced by Klara and her world in the first half of the book than I did in the later parts. Klara is a type of android who is supposed to be incredibly smart, but seems to lack understanding of much of the world. However, her curiosity and her desire to fulfill her job as an Artificial Friend, easily endear her to the reader.

Her teenage companion is Josie, a girl with some sort of sickness that killed her older sister. The details of this are gradually revealed through the book as Klara tries to find a way to heal Josie. The narrator in the audiobook was wonderful and easy to listen to.

I started to find Josie irritating as the book went on and Klara’s misguided attempts to help her were mystifying for an AI creation that’s supposed to be so intelligent. When things work out later on, it didn’t make sense to me. I also felt let down by the ending and Klara’s ultimate outcome. I guess this is why I usually stay away from literary fiction.

Have you read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro? Is there a different book you’d recommend by the author? Let me know in the comments above.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Kingdom of Exiles

This is a another review for a book that I read a while ago, but I decided to go back to write down my thoughts because there’s a sequel out (The Frozen Prince) that I’d like to read. Kingdom of Exiles by Maxym M. Martineau is book #1 in The Beast Charmer series and is a fantasy romance combined with fun summoning magic that works a lot like Pokemon.

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Here is the blurb:

Exiled beast charmer Leena Edenfrell is in deep trouble. Empty pockets forced her to sell her beloved magical beasts on the black market—an offense punishable by death—and now there’s a price on her head. With the realm’s most talented murderer-for-hire nipping at her heels, Leena makes him an offer he can’t refuse: powerful mythical creatures in exchange for her life.

If only it were that simple. Unbeknownst to Leena, the undying ones are bound by magic to complete their contracts, and Noc cannot risk his brotherhood of assassins…not even to save the woman he can no longer live without.

I enjoyed this book and it was a fast read. We get to see both Leena and Noc’s point-of-view in alternating scenes, so their secrets are obvious to the reader, but not known to each other, adding to the tension. This book was also very much a romance, and it looks like there are two versions available (adult and YA) which I didn’t know at the time I read it. I must have read the adult version, but if you want less explicit romance, then maybe look at the YA one?

While some of the plot was wrapped up in the ending, there was one large aspect still left open. I wouldn’t really call it a cliffhanger, but I do need to read the next book. It looks like there is also a third book (The Shattered Crown) coming out at the end of this year.

Do you read much fantasy romance? Are there other books you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments above.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Rocket Men

My brother recommended this book to me a couple of months ago and since I have a special interest in astronauts and the space program, I picked it up. Rocket Men by Robert Kurson tells the story of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to reach the moon (not land on it, but to orbit it).

Kurson also wrote Shadow Divers which I had ready many years ago while doing some wreck diving off the Jersey shore. I didn’t review that book, but it is a well-researched story of the discovery and identification of a sunken U-boat off the coast of New Jersey that inspired the television show Deep Sea Detectives.

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Here is the blurb:

By August 1968, the American space program was in danger of failing in its two most important objectives: to land a man on the Moon by President Kennedy’s end-of-decade deadline, and to triumph over the Soviets in space. With its back against the wall, NASA made an almost unimaginable leap: It would scrap its usual methodical approach and risk everything on a sudden launch, sending the first men in history to the Moon—in just four months. And it would all happen at Christmas.

In a year of historic violence and discord—the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—the Apollo 8 mission would be the boldest, riskiest test of America’s greatness under pressure. In this gripping insider account, Robert Kurson puts the focus on the three astronauts and their families: the commander, Frank Borman, a conflicted man on his final mission; idealistic Jim Lovell, who’d dreamed since boyhood of riding a rocket to the Moon; and Bill Anders, a young nuclear engineer and hotshot fighter pilot making his first space flight.

Drawn from hundreds of hours of one-on-one interviews with the astronauts, their loved ones, NASA personnel, and myriad experts, and filled with vivid and unforgettable detail, Rocket Men is the definitive account of one of America’s finest hours. In this real-life thriller, Kurson reveals the epic dangers involved, and the singular bravery it took, for mankind to leave Earth for the first time—and arrive at a new world.

This book told both the stories of the astronauts and their families, which was an approach I hadn’t seen before in similar non-fiction. The narrative jumps around a lot historically, weaving the imminent mission with the background of each astronaut. But this approach worked, and I never had trouble following the story.

While it would probably help to have some basic knowledge of the early space program before reading this book, it isn’t essential. I already knew the background of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Many of the names tossed around in the book were also already familiar to me, but maybe to someone less knowledgeable of the history, it might be confusing.

I enjoyed this book and found that it gave me a new appreciation for Apollo 8. I hadn’t realized how many obstacles had to be overcome to launch this flight and how it really was the mission that won the Russia/US space race more than the actual moon landing.

Have you read much non-fiction about the space program? Let me know in the comments above. Here are a couple of other books that I would recommend on the topic if you want to learn more: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz, and Red Moon Rising by Matthew Brzezinski.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Time’s Convert

This is another review for a book that I’d read some time ago. Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness is both a prequel and a sequel to her All Souls Trilogy. I don’t think I reviewed the first book, A Discovery of Witches, but you can find my reviews for Shadow of Night (#2) here, and The Book of Life (#3) here.

While you could probably read this book without having read the earlier ones since much of it tells the backstory of one character (Marcus), the parts set in the present of the story won’t make much sense.

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Here is the blurb:

On the battlefields of the American Revolution, Matthew de Clermont meets Marcus MacNeil, a young surgeon from Massachusetts, during a moment of political awakening when it seems that the world is on the brink of a brighter future. When Matthew offers him a chance at immortality and a new life free from the restraints of his puritanical upbringing, Marcus seizes the opportunity to become a vampire. But his transformation is not an easy one and the ancient traditions and responsibilities of the de Clermont family clash with Marcus’s deeply held beliefs in liberty, equality, and brotherhood.

Fast-forward to contemporary Paris, where Phoebe Taylor–the young employee at Sotheby’s whom Marcus has fallen for–is about to embark on her own journey to immortality. Though the modernized version of the process at first seems uncomplicated, the couple discovers that the challenges facing a human who wishes to be a vampire are no less formidable than they were in the eighteenth century. The shadows that Marcus believed he’d escaped centuries ago may return to haunt them both–forever.

A passionate love story and a fascinating exploration of the power of tradition and the possibilities not just for change but for revolution, Time’s Convert channels the supernatural world-building and slow-burning romance that made the All Souls Trilogy instant bestsellers to illuminate a new and vital moment in history, and a love affair that will bridge centuries.

I enjoyed this book but I could see how it wouldn’t be for everyone. If you read the original three books, then this novel fills in some backstory and provides a look ahead at how Matthew and Diana’s story continues. The dynamics between the vampires are expanded upon, but the story doesn’t have the same tension as the original trilogy.

The author is reportedly working on more books in this world though, so if you liked Matthew and Diana’s story, I would read this book so that you’re caught up when the next one comes out. Also, AMC has produced a television show from the All Souls Trilogy. The first season was well done and the second season is out now (I still have to watch the new episodes)!

Here’s my last comment — I have a kitten (okay, adult cat now) named Marcus. He wasn’t named for the character in this book, but here are photos, just because the internet always needs more cats.

If you like witches, look here in October for my thoughts on some witchy fiction! I’m planning to read several witch-themed books soon.

Have you read anything by Deborah Harkness? Are you watching the show? Let me know in the comments above.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – League of Dragons

I just finished reading two books this weekend and sat down this morning to write those reviews. But when I logged into my blog, I looked at how many unfinished reviews I had sitting in my queue. Now these are all for books that I read some time ago, so I’m not going to go back to finish writing about all of them. But I thought I’d still put my thoughts down for a few that were more memorable.

This is a book review for League of Dragons (Temeraire #9) by Naomi Novik, the final book in the series. While I didn’t really enjoy the last few books, I felt like I still had to finish reading to the end. You can find my reviews for Crucible of Gold (#7) and Blood of Tyrants (#8) on this site also.

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Here is the blurb:

The deadly campaign in Russia has cost both Napoleon and those allied against him. Napoleon has been denied his victory…but at a terrible price. Lawrence and the dragon Temeraire pursue the fleeing French army back west, but are demoralized when Napoleon makes it back to Paris unscathed. Worse, they soon learn that the French have stolen Termeraire and Iskierka’s egg. Now, it is do or die, as our heroes not only need to save Temeraire’s offspring but also to stop Napoleon for good!

The premise behind all these books is that they are set during the Napoleonic Wars, but there are dragons and they are used like an air force. I loved the first three books and had high hopes for the rest of the series. But for some reason, each book took the main characters further afield and lost tension as they were no longer as immediately important to the war.

This final book does wrap up the overall story, but it fell flat in resolving all of the characters’ arcs. I was disappointed in the ending, unfortunately. If you want to read something by this author, I’d recommend either the first book in this series (His Majesty’s Dragon) or one of her more recent stand-alones: Uprooted reviewed here, or Spinning Silver reviewed here.

Are you a Temeraire fan? What did you think of the series? Let me know in the comments above.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – The Daylight War

The Daylight War is the third of five books in The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get through this series because I am enjoying it. I had to re-read the first book, The Warded Man, so that I could remember the details before plunging ahead into the later volumes.

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Here is the blurb:

On the night of the new moon, the demons rise in force, seeking the deaths of two men both of whom have the potential to become the fabled Deliverer, the man prophesied to reunite the scattered remnants of humanity in a final push to destroy the demon corelings once and for all.

Arlen Bales was once an ordinary man, but now he has become something more—the Warded Man, tattooed with eldritch wards so powerful they make him a match for any demon. Arlen denies he is the Deliverer at every turn, but the more he tries to be one with the common folk, the more fervently they believe. Many would follow him, but Arlen’s path threatens to lead him to a dark place he alone can travel to, and from which there may be no returning.

The only one with hope of keeping Arlen in the world of men, or joining him in his descent into the world of demons, is Renna Tanner, a fierce young woman in danger of losing herself to the power of demon magic.

Ahmann Jardir has forged the warlike desert tribes of Krasia into a demon-killing army and proclaimed himself Shar’Dama Ka, the Deliverer. He carries ancient weapons–a spear and a crown–that give credence to his claim, and already vast swaths of the green lands bow to his control.

But Jardir did not come to power on his own. His rise was engineered by his First Wife, Inevera, a cunning and powerful priestess whose formidable demon bone magic gives her the ability to glimpse the future. Inevera’s motives and past are shrouded in mystery, and even Jardir does not entirely trust her.

Once Arlen and Jardir were as close as brothers. Now they are the bitterest of rivals. As humanity’s enemies rise, the only two men capable of defeating them are divided against each other by the most deadly demons of all–those lurking in the human heart.

So this isn’t the book to start with and you should go back to read The Warded Man if you want to get into this series. While book 2, The Desert Spear, goes off on a tangent to explore other characters, their stories all converge in this third book.

After reading The Desert Spear, I understand Jardir and Inevera better, but I’m still rooting for Arlen in this tale. I do like that the other characters from The Warded Man, Leesha and Rojer, have both evolved to have their own goals and story amid everything going on.

This book does end in a literal cliffhanger, so be warned that you’ll need to pick up the fourth volume, The Skull Throne, soon if you’re reading this one.

Have you read any of this series? Let me know in the comments above.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – A Memory Called Empire

I had been meaning to get to this book for some time since it won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. For some reason I had it in my head that this was a fantasy novel, but A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is actually a science fiction tale of politics and intrigue.

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Here is the blurb:

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

This book was a wonderful and fast read for me. I had some trouble keeping the people straight at first, as the citizens of the Empire were named after first a number and then an inanimate object (ex. Three Seagrass).

The protagonist, Mahit, has studied the language and the culture of the Teixcalaanli Empire for her whole life and carries the memories and some of the personality of the previous ambassador in an implant next to her brain. When this implant malfunctions, she is at the mercy of her local liason and newly formed political connections that might be trying to kill her, making her a sympathetic outsider and a fun character to read about.

The world-building was intricate, and even though we only see a small portion of the Empire, it all felt very real. The characters were plausible and well-drawn, and the ending was a shock that made sense in hindsight.

While a second book was just released, the story in A Memory Called Empire does reach a satisfying conclusion, so you could read this as a stand-alone if you wish. I’m planning to read the next book, A Desolation Called Peace very soon though!

Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments above.

Find more of my book reviews here.

Book Review – The Sparrow

I hadn’t even heard of this book until it was brought up by one of my local book clubs. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell was published in 1996 and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. A mini-series based on the book is currently under development at FX.

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Here is the blurb:

In 2019, humanity finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post picks up exquisite singing from the planet Rakhat. While the U.N. debates possible contact missions, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an 8-person expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be human.

This brief description hardly begins to explain the scope of this book. The story unfolds in two parallel time frames, one telling how an alien radio signal was discovered and a secret interplanetary mission was sent to search out the planet from whence it originated. The second part follows the trauma of the sole survivor to return from that mission, a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz.

The plot develops slowly, but that didn’t matter as much to me as it usually does, being a plot-oriented reader. The way the character development was done and how the relationships between each character were slowly drawn were engrossing and made up for the lack of immediate drama. This is heartbreaking at the same time, for you already know at the outset that something terrible is going to happen to all these people.

Emilio Sandoz becomes the spiritual force behind the mission, and much of this book is about his faith in God at different points in his life. Everyone on this mission has their own reasons for being there, and while the expedition is driven by the Jesuits, this is not a book that glorifies religion. Rather, it asks questions of how far one will go for faith and how events can be interpreted by those with blind faith in their God. In the end, can tragedy be written off as God’s will? Or is it better to forgo all belief in such a system?

Have you read The Sparrow or anything else by Mary Doria Russell? Let me know in the comments.

Read more of my reviews here.

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