Someone on TikTok called the Goodreads Choice Awards a popularity contest for books and authors with big marketing budgets.
Based on some of this year’s winners, I don’t disagree.
Here are the books I would have selected for this year’s Goodreads Choice Awards.
Each of the following winners is a book I read during 2021.
For each category, I included a book published prior to 2021 and a book published in 2021.
I only included books that were new to me; no rereads allowed.
Also, I only permitted one win per book per category.
Let’s get to the winners.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2020)
Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy (2021)
I chose two weepers, both of them about trauma in some form.
Piranesi is an ontological mystery that could be categorized as fantasy. It was perhaps my favorite book of 2021 and one of the best books I’ve read, period.
Once There Were Wolves devastated me in so many ways.
It was both hard to read and incredibly rewarding.
Mystery & Thriller
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo (2020)
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey (2021)
Both books are feminist revenge fantasies of a sort.
They go in two VERY different directions.
Layne Fargo’s brand is unlikeable bisexual women. In this book, she follows both a serial killer and a naïve college student.
This book was so tense and also a pretty good time.
The Echo Wife sucked my soul out of my body.
I don’t know how to talk about this book.
It’s like The Other Woman by way of Ex Machina.
I wasn’t ready for any part of it.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)
The Companion by EE Ottoman (2021)
Historical fiction is a genre I commonly avoid.
I’m so glad I read Homegoing anyway.
My usual beef with historical fiction is that authors prioritize research over characters.
By contrast, all of Gyasi’s characters feel like real people.
I still think about Sonny and wonder what he’s up to before I remember he’s not real.
I just want the best for him.
The Companion refreshed my spirit.
The author included period-appropriate transphobia without making it the story’s focus.
I loved the setting, the relationships, and the surprisingly happy ending.
I would love write with Victor and make jam with Audrey.
Lastly, I’d like to shout out the extensive content warnings that let me know I was reading erotica.
House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas (2020)
The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid (2021)
I read the latter half of House of Earth and Blood in four hours straight.
I’m still AGOG about all the ground Sarah J. Maas managed to cover.
Trauma, grief, depression, murder, revenge, AND a slowburn bodyguard forced proximity romance?
I WASN’T READY.
Just when I thought I’d read the most shocking part, I got to [redacted.]
When [redacted] gave [redacted] to help [redacted], I bawled my everloving eyes out.
This book wrecked me.
I had The Wolf and the Woodsman down as Best Debut. That didn’t feel like a great enough honor.
This was genuinely the best fantasy book I read all year.
Ava Reid’s worldbuilding and historical research are phenomenal.
I was bowled over by all of it.
I will read anything she publishes from here on out.
Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn (2019)
The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun (2021)
I read a LOT of romance in 2021, so this was a difficult choice for me.
I finally settled on two. Just know it was tough.
Love Lettering has both the most intriguing premise and the WILDEST third act I’ve ever encountered in a romance.
I LOST my SHIT while reading this.
It also scratched the parts of my psyche that are filled with millennial dread. That felt nice.
The Charm Offensive swept in and won my heart at the last second.
THIS BOOK WAS SO GOOD. I DON’T HAVE WORDS ENOUGH FOR IT.
This is the best I can explain it:
I was reading a scene in the third act and bawling my eyes out.
Then a line from Dev made my laugh out loud.
That was my entire reading experience and I couldn’t ask for more.
The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin (2020)
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell (2021)
Alien invasion as commentary on colonialism and gentrification.
I said LISTEN.
Five different avatars embodying the different boroughs of New York City must team up to stop the invasion.
I lost it over one of the jokes/callbacks in the climax. I’ve tried to keep it vague on here so I don’t spoil the surprise for anyone else – PLEASE read this so you know what I’m talking about.
It is one of the most creative and well-plotted books I’ve read in a long time.
Winter’s Orbit had me in distress.
I wasn’t expecting painful miscommunication and WAR CRIMES.
I know that sounds bad. Hear me out.
This book was so satisfying.
It took me on a journey and ferried me safely to the other side.
The audiobook was 20 hours long. Absolutely worth every second.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (2020)
This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno (2021)
I gave The Only Good Indians a second chance after DNFing it in January.
WORTH THE READ.
Nature horror is usually hit or miss for me. This book is a direct hit.
When the book started killing off characters, it didn’t hold back.
I was Team Gabe. Read the book to see if he survives.
Hey, do you like feeling paranoid?
This Thing Between Us is for you!
Is your smart speaker trying to kill you? Who can say!
The dog you adopted definitely is.
Best not to move to rural Colorado at this time, no matter how good the milkshakes are.
10/10 horror experience right here.
This is the one genre I didn’t touch in 2021 (aside from Business and Leadership.)
No winners here.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich (2017)
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen (2021)
The Fact of a Body radicalized me.
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich does an amazing job of showing how complicated the law really is.
We want to believe guilty is guilty and innocent is innocent.
The truth is more difficult.
The fact that the author shared their personal history is so moving to me. They didn’t owe us this type of intimacy; they wrote into the wound anyway.
For non-true crime writing, Ace is THE definitive text on asexuality.
Angela Chen dives into history and cultural consequences I’d never considered.
Both culture and human sexuality are complicated!
I feel like I learned so much.
I’m still thinking about the Golden Circle.
Excuse me while I butcher this concept:
Essentially, the Golden Circle refers to types of sexual expression that are considered desirable and/or acceptable.
In previous eras, society valued abstinence and restraint.
Nowadays, the Golden Circle errs on the side of free love and indulgence.
While this benefits some people, it invites scorn on people who don’t participate.
The assumption is that TRULY open-minded people do it all, when in reality some people would rather not do any of it, or some but not all, or one thing but not the rest, etc.
Anyway, read this book, especially if you’d like a more accurate explanation of this concept.
Memoir & Autobiography
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)
Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons by John Paul Brammer (2021)
The Fire Next Time was my first Baldwin (aside from some excerpts that I read in college.)
Every one of Baldwin’s predictions about society came true. He was right about a lot of things.
I’m curious now about his fiction. I love his writing style.
If John Paul Brammer’s goal was to make me cry on public transportation, he succeeded.
I’m still having trouble gathering my thoughts about this book.
It’s so gently honest.
The vulnerability really makes it.
Even though the book is framed as an advice column, Brammer doesn’t offer simple answers. Life is far too complicated for that.
I really appreciate his work.
History & Biography
Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller (2020)
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib (2021)
This category was tricky because both of the books I chose could also qualify as memoirs.
Those darn genre benders.
Lulu Miller turned a standard biography into a heartbreaking look at how to survive a disordered world.
The last few years have been really hard.
I feel like I’ve lost a lot. I also see a way forward now.
This book is partly responsible for that shift.
As for the other book I chose, it’s easy to tell people that understanding history matters.
Hanif Abdurraqib makes me believe it.
With his writing, he urges us to remember forgotten things.
Like Lulu Miller, he wrote about unlikely hope in the face of hopelessness.
I won’t forget that.
Graphic Novels & Comics
The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch (2020)
The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History by David F. Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson (2021)
The Adventure Zone graphic novels hit so much harder than the podcast for me and I’m not sure why.
Petals to the Metal was the first of the series to make me cry.
This volume retcons the show’s most controversial plot point in the best way. I appreciate this series and its creators so much.
My preferred method of learning about history is through informative graphic novels.
I learned more about the Black Panther movement than I was maybe ready for.
I really appreciated the notes from the author and illustrator detailing their frustrations with the time period and history in general.
Very little about history is neat. The Black Panther Party did a lot to protect and improve their communities. None of its members was perfect.
I want to reread this to keep the history fresh in my mind.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
We Shall Have Life by Dan Rogland (2021)
I read The Black Flamingo twice and cried both times.
The scene I think about most often is this one:
As Michael learns to be comfortable in his identity, he also learns to be honest with others.
His friend Daisy accuses him of being overly harsh.
I thought this captured the tension of growing up well.
Sometimes the people in our life don’t react well to our true self.
This book also had a realistic resolution to being ghosted after a hookup. I appreciated that a lot.
The book called that guy out even if Michael didn’t get to.
In 2021 releases, I loved Dan Rogland’s chapbook We Shall Have Life.
One of their poems addressed those who are currently closeted.
A past version of me needed that poem.
I’m glad it’s here for others to grapple with.
The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (2020)
The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood (2021)
I’ve enjoyed Trung Le Nguyen’s art for a long time.
I was thrilled with his debut graphic novel.
Their drawings are so intricate and dreamy.
This was the first book I read this year and it really set the tone for 2021.
It warmed my heart.
The best books I read this year had major fanfic vibes.
My absolute favorite of these was a literal fanfic at one time.
Best of all, it was REYLO FANFIC.
This book was the best cure for Revenge of Skywalker blues.
It renewed my love for Star Wars and for romance in general.
I’m writing my own fic because of it. That’s the kind of power The Love Hypothesis holds.
Millennial dread and ace rep featuring my favorite ship? Can’t be beat.
Young Adult Fiction
Tweet Cute by Emma Lord (2020)
The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore (2021)
You know what’s fun?
Trying to create a distinct personal identity while pleasing your parents.
I wasn’t expecting Tweet Cute to be QUITE so emotional.
Also of note are the delicious desserts baked by Pepper. The author has recipes for some of these up on her blog, but they are not what I imagined.
Someone enlist America’s Test Kitchen.
I read The Mirror Season in March.
You’d think nine months later I’d know how to talk about it.
It’s gorgeous. It hurts. It honors rape survivors of all genders.
It’s painful and gentle and one you have to read for yourself.
Stay safe, look up content warnings, and be gentle with yourself and others.
Young Adult Fantasy
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn (2020)
Little Thieves by Margaret Owen (2021)
Bree coming into her own power was a highlight of my reading year.
Legendborn‘s worldbuilding and character dynamics are excellent.
I loved the contrast of Arthurian legend with ancestral practice.
Legendborn also brought back the YA love triangle in a big way. I have many feelings about it.
I can’t wait for the sequel.
As for other YA retellings, I love what Little Thieves did with “The Goose Girl.”
Piecing together the elements of the original story while crying over Vanya’s development felt incredibly rewarding.
I didn’t expect to read such a good book this late in the year.
I especially love Margaret Owen’s trans-inclusive fantasy worlds. 10/10 for inclusivity, highly recommend.
Middle Grade & Children’s
Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne (2020)
This is Our Rainbow edited by Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby (2021)
I was going to write about a moving moment from Beetle & the Hollowbones…but there are in fact too many and I am now crying about all of them.
Beetle loves her friends HARD, even when she doesn’t know how to help them.
I love how supportive her grandma is through all of it, even when supporting Beetle means conjuring a giant skeleton to protect the town.
I thought I was done crying, and then I THOUGHT ABOUT THE ENDING.
This book was heartwarming and pure. I adored it.
Speaking of heartwarming and pure, This is Our Rainbow was a delight.
JUST QUEER STORIES ABOUT QUEER KIDS LIVING LIVES.
I’m always thrilled about Molly Knox Ostertag comics, so her contribution was a treat.
Another author really swung for the fences with their piece. I wasn’t expecting it and I thought it was excellent.
Without spoiling it, there’s a story about how queer kids and adults unknowingly support each other.
I was expecting fun and sweet rainbow stories. I didn’t expect to CRY.
I hope every kid who needs this book gets a chance to read it.
Numerous excellent books were nominated for (and even won) the Goodreads Choice Awards.
If you were hoping for a wider selection, here are even more books to enjoy.