My 34 Favorite Reads of 2021

book cover collage

I was just reading the intro to my 2020 post and, my god, it reads like a twisted version of one of those holiday newsletters sociopaths send out every December. Like, here’s this terrible thing my child had to deal with because of the pandemic. Here’s a story about how I left my job and lost my main source of income. Here’s this thing I launched that has not been monetized, but which brings me joy. Hopefully it will be sustainable? LOLOLOLOLSOB.

Anyway. Not much has changed since last year beyond getting vaccinated and boosted and sending my child back to in-person schooling. I’m still making significantly less money than I have in previous years. I still haven’t monetized this thing that nevertheless brings me joy. I’m still leaning heavily on genre fiction because super-serious nonfiction makes my head hurt. (Seriously. I have a low-level headache right now.)

At least I’ve taken up embroidery?


Here are the 34 books (out of the 172 I managed to read to completion) that made my heart sing this past year. Hope you find some gold nuggets in there with which to fill your own days.

1. Advice for Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale. A fellow Book Rioter recommended this one to me. After reading a library copy, I ordered my own so I could dog-ear pages and take notes. My husband thinks this means I’m a morbid weirdo. But this book is a revelation. Written by a practicing Buddhist who spent a decade working as a nurse in the field of palliative care, Tisdale provides a comforting perspective on whether or not a “good death” actually exists; what you should and should not do, say, and expect from your loved ones in their later years; the nature of grief; and more. I may be a morbid weirdo, but at least I’m a morbid weirdo who now feels a little less afraid of the future.

2. These Women by Ivy Pochoda. I’ve long been a fan of Pochoda’s work. In literary thrillers like Visitation Street and Wonder Valley, she took sprawling casts of characters and knit them together into stories that ended up feeling weighty and satisfying, greater than the sum of their parts. She does the same in These Women, which is about a serial killer in Los Angeles who has been targeting sex workers, and about the women whose lives are touched by these horrific crimes.

3. Guerilla Green by Ophelie Damblé and Cookie Kalkair. This is a charming as hell work of graphic nonfiction about a young woman who’s super into the guerilla gardening movement. I loved its sense of humor, its earnestness, and its practical tips on making things grow in the most unlikely of places. The book makes you interrogate the effects our small actions can have on the world around us, both positive and negative.

4. Broken by Jenny Lawson. Jenny Lawson’s superpower is in the way she manages to write affectingly about anxiety and depression while simultaneously making readers laugh until they cry. She did this with her first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. In Broken, I was thrilled to see her return to form, managing to combine the most random and ludicrous events from her life with real talk about mental health in a way that somehow made perfect sense.

5. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. Reading this book was like looking into my future. There is the anxious, aging father who eventually slips into dementia. There is the willful, stubborn-as-fuck, aging mother who refuses to ask for help when she needs it. And then there is the daughter — Roz Chast herself — who doesn’t know quite how to handle this sudden shift without completely upending her own life. I appreciated how this graphic memoir showed a woman pushing back against what is expected of daughters, making decisions that took into account not only the care of her parents but also of herself. After all, foregoing one’s own care is a trap many unpaid family caregivers fall into.

6 + 7. Lumberjanes, Vol. 17: Smitten in the Stars and Lumberjanes, Vol. 18: Horticultural Horizons by Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Kanesha C. Bryant, Julia Madrigal, Maarta Laiho, and Aubrey Aiese. I fell in love with the Lumberjanes series instantly. But now that I’m approaching 20 TPs (trade paperbacks), a handful of OGNs (original graphic novels), and even a crossover graphic novel, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t love every installment. Yet there are some that really shine. The 17th and 18th TPs in the series are two of those superstars. In volume 17, the side characters take center stage, giving readers a wider view of the camp in a way that makes the series feel fresh again. In the 18th arc, our fearless Lumberjanes spend the day with the enigmatic Rosie, the director of the camp, when they come up against a troublesome creeping vine. Then Rosie’s bestie from long ago shows up and, as they tackle their problem, we’re given a gratifying glimpse into the camp’s past. I especially loved the contrast between the artwork used for the present-day story and the narrative about the camp’s history. Mad props to Bryant and Madrigal.

8. Girlhood by Melissa Febos. This collection of essays digs deep into the topic of girlhood and the author’s years of unwanted touch. In each essay, Febos challenges the common narrative of what it means to be female, suggesting that there is a different way… one that veers sharply from the life we’ve been culturally conditioned to accept/expect. I appreciated her exploration of body autonomy and her acknowledgment that, often, it’s hard for girls and women to say no.

9. Later by Stephen King. Since junior high, I’ve loved Stephen King for his horror stories, dark and terrifying in the way they braid together psychological and supernatural horror. But his Hard Case Crime books are something else, playing with the pulp crime genre while still retaining a bit of the ol’ Stephen King dark magic. Later is his latest, and is just as much fun as his previous pulp novels. In it, a boy who can see dead people is drawn into the pursuit of a killer.

10. The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan. A recommendation from Emily Nagoski is a recommendation I can’t ignore and, on Instagram, Nagoski gushed about the way Milan handled first-time sex and female pleasure. In this first Wedgeford Trials book, Chloe Fong is a woman who lives by her lists and tries not to waste brain space on her childhood sweetheart. But when he saunters back into town, trying his darndest to woo her despite the massive secret he’s carrying, her entire life is poised to be upended. The book is humorous and hot and I might actually read the next one even though I don’t usually like to commit to series.

11. Wicked Things by John Allison and Max Sarin. From the same team behind the Giant Days series, Wicked Things is a standalone graphic novel about a teen detective who’s framed for murder. While lending her skills to the local police force in order to shave years off her jail sentence, she works frantically behind the scenes to clear her name. This story is fun and funny and I always get a kick out of how visually expressive Sarin’s characters are. If you’re still mourning the end of Giant Days, this could be right up your alley.

12. Disability Visibility edited by Alice Wong. I received this nonfiction anthology in one of my Feminist Book Club boxes and was immediately drawn into the personal stories of those living with both visible and invisible disabilities. Knowing about a human rights issue is different from really understanding a human rights issue, and I’ll admit I hadn’t previously read many books from the perspective of disabled folks. This book tackles everything from personhood, impostor syndrome, and asexuality to abortion rights, sexual violence, and the erasure of those whose disabilities can’t be seen.

13 + 14. The Last Days of Jack Sparks and Ghoster by Jason Arnopp. Okay. So, Arnopp’s characters aren’t exactly likable. And the titular protagonist in his Jack Sparks novel is especially unpleasant. But they are entertaining. And I really do love a horror novel that also makes me laugh. In The Last Days of Jack Sparks, journalist Jack Sparks is researching a book on the occult when he ends up going viral for mocking an exorcism. After that, a creepy video shows up on his own YouTube account and, after that… well… no one is quite sure. This book purports to be his accounting of what may or may not have been his final days. In Ghoster, a woman is ghosted by the boyfriend she was about to move in with. She shows up to his apartment only to find it empty, except for his discarded cell phone. And that’s when things get really weird.

15. The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix. Clearly, I leaned heavily on comedic horror this past year. And Hendrix never disappoints. In his latest, he centers the story around a group of real-life “final girls,” women who are the last ones standing after surviving a massacre. In fact, the final girls in this book belong to a support group… which is all well and good until someone starts picking them off one by one.

16. Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon. I was drawn to this book because it references that Magnetic Fields song, “Book of Love.” Which I love. Also, I really adored Yoon’s last book, The Sun Is Also a Star. In this newer YA novel, young protagonist Evie Thomas doesn’t believe in love, thanks to a latently developed power in which, upon observing a couple’s first kiss, she sees a vision of the couple’s entire love story, from beginning all the way to its heartbreaking end. But then, while taking ballroom dance lessons, she finds herself falling for someone. But how can she trust it?

17. What Fresh Hell Is This? by Heather Corinna. This is one of the smartest, most accessible, and most inclusive books I’ve ever read on (peri)menopause. Which makes sense because Corinna is the badass sexuality educator who founded Scarleteen. In What Fresh Hell Is This?, Corinna addresses everything from the basic bodily changes to be expected during perimenopause and menopause to the psychological changes you may experience to what sort of medical help you may (or may not) want to seek out. And while they don’t pretend that a lot of it doesn’t suck, they also don’t demonize aging in the way so many other authors do.

18. Pussypedia by Zoe Mendelson and Maria Conejo. For those who have some combination of a vagina, vulva, clitoris, uterus, etc., this is your brand-new, no-bullshit Our Bodies, Ourselves. The book contains information on everything from consent, masturbation, and pleasure to abortion and contraception to STIs, reproduction, and more. It’s all laid out in Mendelson’s irreverent voice, accompanied by Conejo’s rad illustrations, and backed up by a ton of research. This one is a must-have.

19. The Between by Tananarive Due. In this re-issued horror novel, a man who survived a near-drowning as a child begins to question the details of that day, particularly after racist hate mail directed at his wife places added tension on his home life and makes him start to lose his grip on reality. This supernatural suspense had me hanging on to every word.

20. Specter Inspectors by Bowen McCurdy, Kaitlyn Musto, and Jim Campbell. This comic series is about a group of young ghost hunters, one of whom manages to get possessed by a demon while out on the job. Can queer romance still bloom under these circumstances as they race against time to solve an ages-old mystery that will (hopefully) set their friend free? I loved this mix of sweet and spoopy and it’s a perfect read for those who enjoy their horror a little bit lighter.

21. Cackle by Rachel Harrison. In Harrison’s sophomore novel, we’re introduced to Annie, a protagonist who seems to suffer from exceptionally low self-esteem, especially in the wake of a breakup with her longtime boyfriend. She aches for reconciliation but resigns herself to a new life in a remote village, where she quickly latches onto a new bestie in a relationship that seems increasingly codependent. But who needs who more… and why do the other villagers seem so afraid of Annie’s new friend? I’m not ruining anything when I tell you that Annie’s new best bud is a witch. It appears in the book’s description. But how things play out is a delightful surprise.

22. The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop by Felicia Rose Chavez. Earlier this year, I slid on into the role of Essays Editor at Hippocampus Magazine. As a white cis woman, I knew that my ability to evaluate submissions was limited, so I built a team of readers from with a variety of identities, experiences, and backgrounds. And on top of that, I did what I always do: I did my homework. Chavez’s book in particular helped me interrogate the biases I was carrying, and see how those biases might play out as I evaluated various submissions. And sure, her book examined the systemic issues within the academic workshop environment, but a lot of parallels exist between academia and the literary magazine environment.

23 + 24. Dial A for Aunties and Four Aunties and a Wedding by Jesse Q. Sutanto. Sutanto’s comic thriller-romance is a mix of genres I don’t typically read so, when I received the book in one of my Feminist Book Club Boxes, I didn’t expect to love it. Within the first few pages, however, it became super clear that I was about to have the most fun ever. In the book, our leading lady accidentally kills her blind date. Meddelin Chan doesn’t know what to do, but her Chinese-Indonesian aunties immediately step up, all while prepping for the grandest wedding they’ve ever worked before. Can they pull it off? Will Meddelin reunite with the one who got away while also getting away with murder? The sequel (out in March) is just as much fun.

25. The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters by Julie Klam. This nonfiction book is about a curious author who, growing up, becomes fascinated by the Morris sisters, cousins of her grandmother. Over the years, she hears tales of their exploits: big dreams, big loss, abandonment, secret love affairs with high-profile figures. And running through it all, there’s a strong thread of fierce independence. But when Klam decides to dig deeper, thinking she might just find the fodder for her next book, she learns that the stories are “almost completely untrue.” The unraveling of this quiet mystery was deeply satisfying. I was fascinated by Klam’s journey of discovery, and I nerded out over the details of her research process.

26. Autumn Bleeds into Winter by Jeff Strand. Upon reading Strand’s “Mouthy,” a short piece of comedic horror fiction that appeared in the Southwest Review‘s annual Halloween issue, I knew I needed to find more from this guy. My favorite so far has been this one, a psychological thriller about a boy determined to prove that his reclusive neighbor is the person who kidnapped and killed his best friend. You wouldn’t think that a book with that premise would allow for lots of laughs, but you haven’t read Strand’s work yet.

27. The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam. A brilliant coder and a spiritual seeker fall in love, get married, and then go into business together, developing a social media app that creates meaningful rituals for its users. Can their marriage survive what comes next? This book is a delicious skewering of startup culture and of the patriarchy, and an exploration of the things we build our lives around and the things upon which we impart meaning.

28. Let’s Get Physical by Danielle Friedman. I didn’t expect to enjoy this one so much, but I found myself fascinated by this history of women’s exercise culture, from Jazzercise to jogging, all the way to SoulCycle and the Bar Method. These days, exercise culture is so wrapped up in systemically-driven and internalized fatphobia but, once upon a time, women’s fitness was frowned upon and those who opened up that world for their peers were trailblazers. It would be nice to get back to a place where mindful and joyful movement were done just for the fun feel-good of it.

29. Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda. In this book that’s been billed as a Millennial vampire novel, Lydia, the vampire in question, leaves her mother in a nursing home so she can strike out on her own and pursue her artist dreams. Being both biracial and half-human/half-vampire, Lydia has often felt that she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. For her, this often manifests in her cravings for Japanese food, cuisine she feels would make her feel closer to the father she never met, but which she is unable to eat. The way food wends its way throughout this piece, even as Lydia attempts to subsist on blood sausage powder and to ignore her pull toward human blood, is such a fascinating way to explore hunger, various appetites, and even identity. I regret to inform you that this one’s not out until the spring, but I believe it’s well worth the pre-order.

30. All the Secrets of the World by Steve Almond. I’m not quite sure how to categorize this one. Literary… thriller? Here’s the gist: 13-year-old Lorena Saenz is paired with the upper-class Jenny Stallworth for a school science fair. This pairing somehow leads to forbidden desire, a possible murder, and an unwitting family caught in the crossfire. Billed as a sweeping social novel for fans of both Little Fires Everywhere and Breaking Bad, this satisfying read manages to use the story of one girl to show how the War on Drugs expanded and gained an even firmer foothold in the United States.

31. Finlay Donovan Is Killing It by Elle Cosimano. Premise: A single mom/struggling novelist becomes an accidental contract killer. First line: “It’s a widely known fact that most moms are ready to kill someone by 8:30 a.m. on any given morning.” I mean… how could I not pick this one up? I enjoyed this comedic thriller and can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, which is out in February.

32. Margot Mertz Takes It Down by Carrie McCrossen and Ian McWethy. The premise of this YA novel isn’t exactly light — the young woman behind an internet clean-up business is tasked with taking down a revenge porn site — but the young woman in question is a high school junior, the victims who hired her are fellow students, and the whole book gives major Veronica Mars vibes. In fact, the narrative voice of our protagonist had me LOLing on every page. What I wouldn’t give to spend more time with her.

33. Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab. think this one came onto my radar when one of the speakers for the National Sex Ed Conference mentioned it. However it came into my life, it happened exactly when I needed it: right before the holidays. I’ve always had trouble saying “no” to people and setting firm boundaries. But after reading Tawwab’s book, I think I’m ready to set the boundaries I need to become a healthier person. Highly recommend.

34. Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo. Finally, I read this one during my COVID Christmas. Frustrated and angry about the state of ::gestures wildly::, it was the exact right time to take this one in. I’ve mentioned Oluo’s first book — So You Want to Talk About Race — in a previous list. In her latest, she delves into the last 150 years of American history to show how white male supremacy has always existed, and has always cost us far too much.

All of the links above are affiliate links to my shop. This past September, I set up a storefront on that allows you to simultaneously support both Guerrilla Sex Ed and your favorite indie bookshops. Ten percent of every purchase made through my shop goes to me and GSE, and another 10% goes to support independent bookstores.

My main storefront contains several different lists, including one that incorporates all the titles in the GSE database. But you can find the entirety of this list right here, in case you want to bookmark it and dip into it again at another time.

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