Oh, hello! Welcome to my gift guide for readers for 2021. Got a reader on your shopping list? Are their reading tastes weird like mine? You’re in the right place.
These aren’t the “Best books of 2021.” Nor is this a comprehensive list of books I think are worth gifting.
Rather, this is a list of books I personally read in the last year or so that I wholeheartedly recommend. Books I’ve been dying to shout about. Books that, were we standing next to each other right now, I would put directly in your hands and insist you purchase.
There are sci-fi and fantasy books, of course, along with a couple fun YA/middle grade and some suspense/thrillers to round out the mix. I’ve also included a few of my favorite non-fiction books from this year.
I thought about copying over the product descriptions so you could actually know what the books are about. Instead I opted to write my own blurbs while drinking a bottle of wine. You’re welcome.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
(Quick note: Some of these links are affiliate links — which means I get a few pennies when you make a purchase. But believe me. I’d be shouting about all of these things for free. I also chose to include Bookshop.org for the print links, because they donate to local bookstores! You could also order through your own local bookstore if you like.)
Oh, wait! Before we dive in to the books, do you have a reader in your life, but you’re not sure what their favorite genre is, or what they have or haven’t read? Give them the gift of lots of books at their fingertips!
- E-reader — I have both a Kobo Clara and a Kindle Paperwhite, and love them both equally. I know, I know. The smell of paper, etc., but the ability to pack all 27 books you’re certain you’ll read on vacation without taking up any more suitcase space than a poetry chapbook is pretty great. Plus, when you’re reading Fonda Lee’s doorstopping Green Bone saga way too late in bed and you nod off and the book hits you in the face, it doesn’t hurt as bad if it’s an e-reader.
- Oh, they already have an e-reader? Do have one of these lovely e-reader covers by Fintie? I have a galaxy print for my Kobo and a marble print for my Kindle — I also got one of their hardshell cases for my laptop. Seriously, I always assume if something has fun patterns and colors it’s not as well-made — but these Fintie cases are great. (And apparently only available on Amazon, sorry.)
- Audible subscription — One of my favorite wedding gifts was an Audible subscription. My husband and I were headed on an extended trip to Peru after our wedding, and we spent a ton of time listening to audiobooks together. (And, hey — you can get the Bulari Saga books on Audible now!
- Libro.fm subscription — a new kid of the audio block, Libro.fm is a great option if you want to listen to audiobooks, but also support your local bookstore. Their app is super intuitive — I’ve really been loving it.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
I wish I’d had a chance to read a fraction of the amazing sci-fi and fantasy books published this year! Here were some of the faves I read this year.
Persephone Station by Stina Leicht
Thank you to my cousin Faith for recommending this book to me! She said it reminded her of my Bulari Saga, and damn if she wasn’t right. Seedy underworld alliances, found family who have each other’s back, and lots and lots of explosions. You’re gonna love it.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
I don’t read a ton of fantasy these days, but I LOVE Rebecca Roanhorse (keep reading this gift guide, you’ll see). So when she released her first epic fantasy based around Pre-Columbian cultures, I picked it up — and devoured it in a few days. Lush, lovely, and a real page-turner. I cannot wait for the next book in this series!
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Since I’ve brought up Roanhorse, I’m just gonna go ahead and put this one here, too. Post-apocalyptic monster-hunting adventures set on the Navajo Nation after a flood cuts it off from the rest of the world and tears the fabric of the world between gods and humans once more. Love love love both this book and its sequel!
Torn by Rowenna Miller
Did I say I didn’t read much fantasy these days? Sure, but when Rowenna Miller tweeted a 1-star review complaining that Torn had “not enough magic and too much rebellion” I one-clicked it and was not disappointed. Do you like fashion, sewing, and revolutionary politics? Like a lot of fashion, sewing, and revolutionary politics? This will be right up your alley.
Also, LOOK AT THAT COVER! I can’t get over how fantastic it is with the needles and the blood and the whole thing. I am clearly the target market. Maybe someone on your list is, too.
Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha
Hey, speaking of rebellion? I am loving this new series by Kit Rocha. Communist mercenary librarian badasses do crime for good with rakishly broodily handsome supersoldiers. A little steamy, but not nearly as much as Kit Rocha’s Beyond series — which I also enjoyed, but gotta say I’m digging this new series more.
Pick it up for the person on your list who you’d most like to have on your team during the apocalypse.
Jade City by Fonda Lee
Have I raved at you about Fonda Lee’s Green Bone saga yet? No? Well let me rave at you now. Gorgeously written, full of complicated characters you love to root for, and all those tense, complicated crime family negotiations that I just eat up. The final book in the trilogy just came out a few weeks back and I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so if you spoil it for me I’ll cut you. Don’t even try.
Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
Since we’re talking intensely epic crime family drama, please go read the Luna trilogy. Fashion! Dinner parties! Lavish descriptions of both intricate interpersonal politics and delicious-sounding cocktails. GORGEOUS and DEADLY and SO MUCH FUN.
Whyborne and Griffin series by Jordan L. Hawk
I picked up Widdershins because I met Jordan at a writer’s conference and we instantly bonded over our deep appreciation of good IPAs. Bonus, his books sounded fun! A bookish wizard solves cosmic horror crimes with his dashing ex-Pinkerton detective boyfriend and best friend the headstrong lady archaeologist? Let’s check it out, I figured.
Friends — these books got me through the pandemic. Whenever I needed a good pick-me-up, I grabbed the next book in the series and sank into a world full of people I’m secretly starting to think of as friends. (Oh — heads up, there are steamy times ahead.)
Want more recommendations? Check out my “hopeful science fiction” post for some more great reads.
Suspense and Thriller
Don’t tell anybody, but even though I write science fiction I primarily read thrillers. I binge them like candy with no regrets — and I’ve read some amazing ones this year.
Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone
I picked up Jane Doe on recommendation a month ago, and absolutely tore through it. The minute I finished, I texted this to a couple of fellow true crime podcast listening friends:
Hey murder ladies book club — I just read Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone on recommendation from a new friend and I fucking loved it. A functioning sociopath who loves her cat sets out to ruin the life of a manipulative asshole dude. I would now kill for Jane but she would probably get there for me first.
I could rave more about it, but you should probably just pick it up for your weirdo true crime podcast loving friend. (I see you girl, email me.)
Killshot by Elmore Leonard
Not gonna lie, I’ve been wanting to read some Elmore Leonard for a while, but 100% picked this particular book because it shares a title with Bulari Saga 5. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but from the first paragraphs vividly describing the cracks in the hitman’s hotel room ceiling I was totally hooked.
(Seriously — almost a year after reading it, so many scenes of Killshot are etched in my mind. Leonard is a master of detail.)
I also gotta say I was expecting a bit more stereotypical relationship between the husband and wife, but a lot of the book is from her point of view and — guys. Leonard clearly interviewed some exasperated women as research for writing Carmen Colson. Just let Carmen take care of business, Wayne. She’s got this. Step back and don’t worry your pretty little head. Just go fishing or whatever you do, Wayne, Carmen’s got a plan.
When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain
This one was a bit of a tough read due to subject matter (missing girls, sexual assault, the loss of a child), but it was an excellent book. I read it soon after we’d spent a weekend in Humboldt County, CA, so the setting of the book felt gorgeously familiar. And the prose was really, really lovely. Like, Tana French lovely.
It’s perfect for that true crime fanatic in your life.
The Secret Place by Tana French
Hey, speaking of Ms. French, have I shared with you lately the good word that is the Dublin Murder Squad series? I’ve been rereading Tana French’s books this year because her prose is a masterclass in writing conversations where one level of information is being relayed in the words, and a total other level is happening in the body language. Hashtag writer goals.
It’s hard to pick a favorite of her books, but I do really love The Secret Place. Don’t be scared off that it’s book 5 in the series — you can pick them up in any order. If you’re looking for a standalone, her most recent book, The Searcher, was also really fantastic.
Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine
Also in the category of books that got me through the pandemic? At one point when I totally lost motivation for anything, I picked up Stillhouse Lake and binged it — and the next three books in the series — over the course of a week.
They’re just so page-turnery, with characters you want to root for, and some seriously cliff-hanger writing. I’ll shout out a content warning for violence against women, stalking/harassment, and on-page serial killer horribleness. Caine handles that all very skillfully and thoughtfully, in my opinion, but I don’t want to throw you in a pond you aren’t interested in swimming in.
(That’s a thing people say, isn’t it?)
Young Adult/Middle Grade
My niblings are getting to reading age, and the eldest (she’s almost 11) takes after her auntie with her nose always buried in a book. The following suggestions are books I’ve bought for her recently, and also read (and loved) myself.
Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol
Quick humblebrag, but Eisner and Caldecott award winning Vera Brosgol is my neighbor! Like, “hey Vera can you grab that package off my porch we’re out of town” neighbor. Like, “hey Jessie do you want half a loaf of this sourdough I just made” neighbor (she’s an excellent baker!).
But you don’t care about that. You care that Vera is a phenomenal storyteller and illustrator, and Be Prepared is incredible. I bought it for my niece and my sister says she read it through twice the same day it showed up in the mail.
Hey, me too, kid. Highly recommend.
Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
Yes, this post has become a shameless Rebecca Roanhorse stan account. Here’s the thing, friends. I grew up on the Yakama reservation, surrounded by people like the characters in Roanhorse’s books — people I so rarely see in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. So that’s one of the reasons I love her work.
But more than that, her writing is just ridiculously fun! I bought this book for my niece for Christmas, but I read it first myself and it was fantastic! (Don’t tell my niece and spoil the surprise — I don’t think she’s old enough to have found my blog).
Clockbreakers: Asterion’s Curse by Kate Ristau
This is another series I bought for my niece this summer. I loved mythology at her age, so I figured we’d both dig reading this series together. I was totally right — they’re really fun! Plucky BFFs learning how to fend for themselves, quirky minotaur mentors, and a truly cunning villain.
Full disclosure, Kate’s a friend — but that’s not the only reason I was able to score a signed set for my niece. Head to her website and I bet she’ll sign some for you, too.
The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks
Bear with me on the self help recommendation here, but I have been thinking about The Big Leap constantly since I read it a few months ago. Gay Hendricks has a very “so I was talking to my buddy the CEO on the golf course the other day” vibe, but he teases out the ways that we hold ourselves back from love and happiness in a truly brilliant way. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy for yourself, and for a friend.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
I debated putting this one in here. Not because it wasn’t absolutely the best book I read in 2021, but because it’s … not “gifty”? Not happy? I read this for a book club, and I kept texting the friend who recommended it “OMG this is getting so horrible” and she would text back “Oof just wait.”
It’s a true crime book about a series of murders of members of the Osage tribe in the early 20th century, and the way Grann lays out the story and surrounding history is masterful. Like, I’m still reeling in awe of his storytelling skills. (Is it too much of a spoiler to say that white colonizers weren’t a good thing for the original inhabitants of this continent?)
Killers of the Flower Moon is being made into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese, which should be coming out next year. And maybe this isn’t a classic holiday gift, but this book is Extremely Recommended Reading. You won’t regret it. Give it to a friend. Read it yourself. Then email me and let’s talk, I have a lot of Thoughts.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
I can’t even remember the last time I read a memoir, but when Mark Teppo showed me this memoir about an emotionally abusive relationship where every chapter is written as a different genre — “The Dream House as Noir,” “The Dream House as Bildungsroman,” etc. — I was fascinated. It’s gorgeously written, and way more of a page-turner than I expected.
Wait — is this not a good gift guide book either? Like, if you give a memoir about an emotionally abusive relationship to a friend, what message will they be thinking you’re trying to send? I’m starting to worry I’m failing at this gift guide thing.
But read this book, it’s awesome. I couldn’t put it down even though — and I can’t stress this enough — it’s a literary memoir. Those usually bore the shit out of me.
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy
Okay we’re back on track here, I promise. Do you have a badass feminist on your holiday shopping list? Get them this book. Mona Eltahawy is a NPR correspondent and generally rad person, and I am totally loving her collection of empowering feminist essays about the traits women are generally expected to have, and what we should embrace instead.
Get angry, murder ladies! Whether you’re navigating the seedy underworld of Luna (or Jade City or Persephone Station), sewing up a rebellion, librarianing mercinarilly, taking down way more than your fair share of serial killers, or just making up for your husband Wayne’s lack of awareness (I SEE YOU CARMEN COLSON, YOU GODDESS), Mona Eltahawy outlines the seven skills you need to dismantle the patriarchy.
Learn them. Internalize them. We ride at midnight.
(Oh hey, men, you’re more than welcome to ride with us! The patriarchy sucks for you, too.)