illustration of 5 books kept standing next to each other and a cup on the right

2021 was a year of chill reading for me. I read when I wanted and what I wanted to. I didn't participate in any challenge, not even the A-Z one that I passively try to complete every year.

Because of that, my reading completely reflects my feelings throughout the year. During some months, I read only romance. In other months, I only reread my old favourites. And that's fine!

The point was to not make reading a chore or a challenge. I wanted to just be and now I'm seeing where it led me. I didn't read many 2021 releases except ARCs. Towards the end of the year, I stopped requesting ARCs as well. Due to that, my reading wasn't as diverse in genres/categories this year.

While picking my best books of 2021 from the 122 books that I read, I purely looked at how I felt. This is a very biased list. No thoughts or analysis, only vibes and feelings. It was still hard to make this list. I went through three drafts of lists before ending up with these 15 books.

And since I've written short reviews on almost every book in my monthly wrap-ups, in this post I'm mostly going to talk about why these books are on my best books list. Let's go!

the burning god by r. f. kuang

the burning god by rf kuang book cover

I don't think anyone will be surprised by this. The Poppy War series is one of my favourites and The Burning God was a really good end to it.

Why it's one of my best books this year:

  • As with other books in the series, I really liked how the author explored concepts that can't be defined in a few sentences. They have to be shown. This book had a bunch of them which made me highlight and write in the margins. There was this one small scene that I highly related to.
  • The book was simultaneously emotional and factual. Especially some things towards the end were just happening like facts which took me aback at first but then, thinking about it, I could see what the author was trying to do. It was good.
  • The last chapter of the book was a dream. My brain was in a fog and I remained in that fog even after reading the last line.

Compared to the previous books in the series, I'd still choose The Poppy War as my favourite. But this mammoth of a book holds its own otherwise.

raybearer by jordan ifueko

raybearer book cover

This is one of the best fantasy books that I've ever read. And the fact that it's a debut blows my mind.

Why I love this book so much:

  • The concept, the writing, the characters, and the plot are brilliant. Everything is brought together so well. I was hooked onto the book. I wasn't let down by anything.
  • The world-building is one of my favourite parts of this book. How did the author come up with this because *applause*.
  • During my read, I didn't feel all that much. But later on, I couldn't stop thinking about the book. It's been almost a year since I read and I regularly think about the book. The relationships in the book, what the characters went through, and even some of the dialogues.
  • If nothing else, this book is in this list because it is in my head a lot.

No, I have not read the sequel Redemptor yet because I have not been in a fantasy reading mood since it was released. But my book club gifted it to me for my birthday last week so I'll get to it soon.

heidi's guide to four letter words by tara sivec and andi arndt

Heidi's Guide to Four Letter Words book cover

This book looked like a generic romance with a little different storyline but I was so wrong. I did not expect that this would become one of my best books of the year.

Why this book is so good:

  • Heidi wants to change herself and be more confident. And so she takes actual steps to do it. I LOVED seeing a character actively try to become the person she wants to be. It was inspiring.
  • The book delves into sexuality, being open about it, and how it builds confidence.
  • While taking charge of her life, Heidi ends up reading an erotica book and I loved her reaction to it. Through her, the book shows how romance & erotica books are much more than fluff.
  • I just loved the love this book gave to the romance genre.

Read my review of Heidi's Guide to Four Letter Words

a little life by hanya yanagihara

a little life book cover

I knew going into the book that it would affect me and probably break me, but I was not ready for the tons of small ways it is meaningful.

Why I loved A Little Life:

  • The writing was so good. When I see quotes from the book shared online, I get a huge urge to reread. Just to experience that writing which puts heart-breaking feelings into beautiful words.
  • Even now, my heart aches every time I remember the book. I want to reread it all the time just to experience it again.
  • The focus on friendship and companionship was beautiful.
  • The book is in my head. And it is lodged in my heart. So it is in this list.

Sometime in 2022, I really want to reread the book. I will cave into the want and reread it, and let it take over me for a while again.

you've reached sam by dustin thao

you've reached sam book cover

I read an ARC of this way before it was released, and it has been on my mind throughout the year.

Why it's one of the best books:

  • It might genuinely be one of the best releases of the year.
  • The book made me FEEL like no other. Right off the bat, I was sucked into the book and lost sense of my world. I felt every emotion the main character felt (which was a lot).
  • Books generally don't make me cry but this one did. I sobbed at the end. It deserves to be in this list just for that.
  • It was written so well. Just brilliant.

Read my review of You've Reached Sam

drag me up by r. m. virtues

drag me up book cover

This book caught my eye when a couple of people I follow on Twitter raved about it. I wasn't sure what I was expecting but it blew through my expectations.

Why it is SO GOOD:

  • The world-building and characters are amazing. The author has put all of the Greek Gods in a modernized setting along with the several interconnecting relationships. It all fits and didn't confuse or overwhelm me.
  • The chemistry between the main couple was A+. They were madly attracted to each other but also spent time getting to know one another, being tender and vulnerable, and supporting each other.
  • It was hot as heck. If nothing else, you should read this book for the top-notch smut.

Read my review of Drag Me Up.

one last stop by casey mcquiston

one last stop by casey mcquiston book cover

One Last Stop is THE sapphic romance book for me now. It had everything we could want and more.

Why I loved it:

  • The characters were amazing. The main characters were great but each of the supporting characters were great too. There is a group of chaotic queer characters and I want to be best friends with them all.
  • It is romance, science-fiction, AND mystery. It isn't genre-bending but it simply includes elements of all these genres, and makes everything work!
  • The book spent a lot of time building the setting and the vibe. Because of that, I felt like I was there with the characters. It gave me the New York experience. It was really nice.

Read my review of One Last Stop

if we were villains by m. l. rio

if we were villains by m. l. rio

I picked this up after a small slump and wow, what a book to start with. It got me hooked.

Why this is one of my best books:

  • The vibe was perfect. Along with descriptions of the setting, the writing itself gets us into the book's atmosphere. It is a heady, academic, and obsessive mood. I felt like that the entire time.
  • The characters are messy in the best way. I couldn't help but root for them all and was way too invested in their lives.
  • The ending stuck in my head for days. I was thinking about how the ending came to be, what the characters went through, and what the ending signifies for a while. The open ending was perfect because it gave me material to think about and theorize.

Read my review of If We Were Villains

iron widow by xiran jay zhao

iron widow by xiran jay zhao

Iron Widow took book Twitter by storm when its ARCs started coming out. Due to all the praise, I grabbed the ARC when I could and read it. It's not a book that I would normally go for but I highly enjoyed it.

What I loved about the book:

  • The main character was unapologetically angry, ambitious, and bold. We don't read about such characters often, especially women. It made me this book stand out.
  • I loved how the book discussed and shit on patriarchy. Throughout, we see Zetian facing trouble due to regular patriarchy and how it is so imbued in society. The way it is discussed hit too close to home which made me angry and wanting to fight like Zetian.
  • It has a polyamorous relationship. We don't see polyam relationships in books unless the entire book is about it, so this was really nice.

Read my review of Iron Widow

what are the odds? by r. m. virtues

what are the odds by R. M. Virtues book cover

Since I loved Drag Me Up, I had high expectations of What Are The Odds?. While it is not set in the same universe as the former and is a completely different vibe, it was still really good.

Why it's one of my best books of 2021:

  • The smut. Drag Me Up was steamy as well but since this book doesn't work on world-building and plot as much, it has a lot of room for great smut.
  • The characters were super endearing. I couldn't help but root for them from the first chapter. They find themselves and each other through messy history.
  • And the smut. Listen, this book is on this list purely because the smut was impeccable. I added another point but this is the main thing. I reread the book several times because other books don't do it like this one.

When I said no detailed thoughts and analysis, just vibes and feelings, I really meant it.

a man called ove by fredrik backman

a man called ove by fredrik backman

Everyone told me I'd cry reading this. I didn't cry but it made really emotional.

Why this book is amazing:

  • The storytelling was brilliant. The book alternatively shows the current day and Ove's history until current day. It is written as if we are getting to know Ove in person, slowly and steadily, like peeling back layers of the person.
  • I loved all the characters. Each and every one of them have my heart, especially Ove. In the beginning, I thought I won't like him. But I absolutely loved him by the end.
  • This is probably the only book that I've loved featuring an older character. Ove is retired. I don't read about characters in that age. Mostly because I'm uninterested or can't relate at all. But this was too good.

Read my review of A Man Called Ove

the startup wife by tahmima anam

the startup wife by tahmima anam

I had heard great things about this before picking it up, and now I can say that I agree.

Why this book is on this list:

  • The writing is gripping. I read the book in almost one sitting. Once I started reading and got into the flow of the book, I couldn't stop unless I had to, which was only once.
  • I liked the portrayal of women in tech. It shows us one perspective through the main character but we also see a few others through supporting characters. Sure, technically people are given equal opportunities nowadays. But it's not completely true. This book shows that.
  • The concept was super interesting. It brought in a few tangential questions about religion and faith but the book is mainly about tech.

Read my review of The Startup Wife

battle royal by lucy parker

battle royal book cover

I don't know what I was expecting from Battle Royal besides a regular romance, but it definitely wasn't the pure softness that I got.

Why I loved it:

  • When I think about the romance book that gave me the best happy feelings this year, I think about Battle Royal.
  • It was cute, it was adorable, it was affectionate, it was funny, it was interesting. It was the whole package.
  • The rivals-to-lovers romance arc was perfect. The competitiveness, the snark, and the tiny fights which lead to budding romance were great.

Read my review of Battle Royal

maybe you should talk to someone by lori gottlieb

maybe you should talk to someone by Lori Gottlieb book cover

I heard mostly good but a few mixed reviews about this book, but I wasn't sure about how I'd like it. Mainly because I don't read much non-fiction and I wasn't sure about reading a book on therapy. This book really surprised me.

Why it is one of my best books of 2021:

  • I savoured this book like none other. I read every single chapter slowly and with intention. I wasn't concentrating on finishing it fast. I wanted to read one or two chapters a day and carry the words with me.
  • I liked how every chapter had something meaningful. Reading one chapter a day is actually enough for this book. I'd read one or two chapters in the mornings with breakfast and would think about them for the rest of the day.
  • It was easy to get involved with. I used three types of annotation in the same book for the first time ever. I highlighted, tabbed, and wrote summaries/learnings from every chapter at the end of each chapter.
  • It is highly informative. The book is about therapy but it takes us through every part of life through 4 patients and the therapist herself.
  • And it made me think. I love it when books make me think. With this book, I was thinking about emotions, past, how it affects actions, change, etc.

I loved it a lot. I'm procrastinating on writing a full review because I don't know if I can put it all into worthy words.

Read my full review on Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

malibu rising by taylor jenkins reid

malibu rising book cover

Taylor Jenkins Reid is a great author and Malibu Rising reinforces that fact.

Why it was so good:

  • Almost immediately, the writing sucked me into the book. I could not stop listening to the audiobook unless I had to. The writing and the narration were too good.
  • It makes us connect to the characters. Pretty soon, I was invested in the characters as if they're my friends.
  • It made me cry. I did not expect that 2021 would see me cry because of three books, but here we are. There was a part towards the end that made me tear up and I couldn't stop the tears for a while.

Read my review of Malibu Rising

best books of 2021 pinterest image

talk to me!

What are your best books of 2021? Do we have any in common? Do you want to pick up any of these books in 2022? Let me know in the comments!

stay wordy, Sumedha
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Sumedha spends her days reading books, bingeing Kdramas, drawing illustrations, and blogging while listening to Lo-Fi music. Read more ➔

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  • paperbacktomes says:

    I'm reading 5 books on this list this year. I had to add a little life to my TBR after seeing your IG stories and am excited to them all.

    Reply ➔
  • Brigid says:

    My favorite is definitely the wolf and the woodsman by ava reid. I've been thinking about reading battle royal. Seems so fluffy and cute. And I kinda need that right now.

    Reply ➔
  • Your Tita Kate says:

    You have a couple books on here that I've had on my TBR for the longest time, most notable What Are the Odds and Battle Royal. Definitely gonna get to them soon!

    Happy reading in 2022!

    Reply ➔
  • saniya | sunnysidereviews says:

    I've been wanting to read Battle Royale, so I'm so happy you loved it!! <3

    Reply ➔
  • thecritiquesofafangirl says:

    Malibu Rising was such a phenomenal book ? though it I didn’t make it to my best list (since Evelyn Hugo took that spot) it was amazing, I loved how raw it was and the conversations it had

    I have so many of the books mentioned in this post on TBR, I’m super excited to read Iron Widow, One Last Stop, A little life and If we we’re villains! They all sounds fantastic and it’s super promising they are on your best list ?? can’t wait to read them

    Have a great day and happy reading?

    Reply ➔
    • sumedha @ the wordy habitat says:

      I agree about Malibu Rising! The conversations and raw feelings made it amazing.

      Hope you're able to get to some of these books in 2022!

      Reply ➔
  • Deepan says:

    Love this! I have compiled my best reads of 2021 too and ITS A LOT OF WORK. I mean, there's a substantial amount of toil to distill down the favorites to just 10 and 15...but the harder part is making the post! Embedding the book covers, writing short descriptions and all. And you even put short reviews here, talked about what you liked in each, even added bookstore links. Kudos kudos kudos from one blogger to another Sumedha ❣❣

    Reply ➔
    • sumedha @ the wordy habitat says:

      Thank you, Deepan! I agree it's a lot of work but the finished post is definitely worth it. I'll admit, I did take a day just to add covers and links haha.

      Reply ➔