Books

THE BEST BOOKS I READ IN 2021

I’m set to finish 62 books this year, certainly my biggest reading year in the past decade. When I thought of picking my favorites I tried to think of the books that I still find myself reminiscing over. Whether it was the way they made me feel, a certain character in them that remained especially vivid or a storyline that really captured my mind or my heart. Below, my top 10 books of 2021.

In terms of stats – it was fun to notice that all 10 were written by women, 6 were debut works, 4 were by diverse authors, 4 were backlist titles (meaning they didn’t come out in the past couple of years) and 2 were non-fiction. 

And in case you’re looking for more: my 2020 top 10 list here and my 2019 list here.

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain – Originally published in 2012 (almost a full decade ago!) this book had been on my list to read for awhile now and I’m SO glad I finally did. This is one of those rare books that I would absolutely re-read. A love letter to Hemingway’s Paris and the woman lost to his early history.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – Unlike anything else on this list, or that I’d read before. This debut work was hilarious and heart-breaking in equal turns. A modern story of trans identity, motherhood, and love.

Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff – Another backlist title, this one from 2016, proved that if you can press pause on the shiny new releases, there is a world of amazing books that I still want to read from years past. This one blew me away in a way that a book hasn’t in a long time. A couple so complicated, so dynamic, so unbelievable yet so vividly real – I still think about them often. Another book I can’t wait to re-read in a few years.

Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi – I was really excited to find this author this year and she quickly became a new favorite. Yolk is a really gripping story of two sisters and their complicated relationship set in modern New York. So few books get today’s generation’s voice right and Choi really does it well in my opinion.

She Come by It Natural by Sarah Smarsh – If you can believe it, I just read this over the course of the past couple of days (it’s short) and it made the list! It’s essentially a think piece on Dolly Parton’s life and a look at how she’s been a brash, unorthodox embodiment of feminism all these years. There’s a lot on the way she was raised – which is very similar to my own late Nan (who I adored and who not surprisingly, was a Dolly fan herself) and how she never ‘got too big for her britches’ as my Nan would say. I loved it. Long live Dolly.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – Switching between present day Cape Cod and the main character’s often wrought childhood in Manhattan, this book was at turns dark and gripping. A complicated family dealing with the rippling effects of past traumas with settings so vivid you felt like you were there.

Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz – I sometimes struggle with short story collections – I like a few, feel mediocre about the rest. Get bored and set it aside. Not the case with this debut collection of short stories, that I devoured in a day and still think about a few of the stories. Sometimes dark and always full of emotion, this author will be one I watch.

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb – One of the most interesting ‘memoirs’ I’ve ever read in that it re-told the stories of her great grandmother, grandmother and mother as they were passed down to her. Largely, it was a love letter to the strong women in her family and the bond between her and her beloved late grandmother which I adored.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett – Her second book, The Vanishing Half, made my list last year but I’m so glad I went back and read her debut novel because I actually like it even more. There are particular lines in this book I still think about months after reading it.

Olympus Texas by Stacey Swann – A dynamic family with drama as big as the gods, this story set in the ranch lands of Texas played with themes of Greek mythology while remaining completely modern and original to me. My entire book club loved it and I’m hoping it gets translated into a movie or miniseries. The female characters were some of the most interesting I read all year.

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Looking at thAT list, I definitely lean towards more complicated, sometimes darker reads – so I wanted to add in a few honorable mentions for 3 books that were completely *fun* to read.

The Guncle by Steven Rowley – An out of work actor and resident ‘Guncle’ (gay Uncle) has to take in his young niece and nephew for the summer in his Palm Springs home. Hijinks and heartwarming moments ensue. Such a feel good read.

The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling – Read this next October. It’s like Practical Magic meets Gilmore Girls, fun, light, and romantic with just the right amount of witchiness.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix – This was described as Dracula meets Steel Magnolias and as strange as that sounds – and as unlikely as I was to me that I would like this book – I loved it and couldn’t put it down this summer. A reminder to branch out every now and then when it comes to your reading life!

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HOLIDAY BOOKS TO READ THIS SEASON

It’s officially holiday romcom reading season! By this point in the year, my mind typically of mush from my full-time job and an otherwise busy schedule, so a couple of years ago I started gravitating towards really light, fun holiday books in December – and it’s since become one of my favorite seasonal traditions. Sure, they’re sometimes a little bit cheesy, but they’re also full of heart and go down easier than a cup of eggnog. Besides this year’s new releases I’ve also included a few that I loved from years past as well as a couple that aren’t romance focused at all – but still perfectly seasonal. Happy holiday reading!

And a friendly reminder – I’ve linked these to Amazon so that you can easily see what they are – but independent bookstores need your support, especially at the holidays. And since it’s Small Business Saturday, why not pick one of these up from your favorite local shop?!

On My Reading List This Year:

The Holiday Swap by Maggie Knox: I’m reading this now and it’ a mix between movies The Holiday and The Parent Trap (a city to country + twin swap) plus both twin sisters are bakers, one as a host of a British Bake Off-esque show and one in a family run bakery. Lots of hijinx so far.

The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer: I finished this last week and honestly, it was so fun to learn all about the traditions of a holiday that I’m only surface-level familiar with. There’s not a ton of diversity in these holiday books, but this one did a really nice job of weaving that into the storyline – apparently the author, similarly to the main character, suffers from chronic illness as well. I loved the bubbe (grandmother) character too.

A Wild Winter Swan by Gregory Maguire: From the author of Wicked (that inspired the award-winning musical), this book is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swan’ fairytale – and takes place in New York City at Christmastime in the 1960s. It’s one of the books I’m most looking forward to this season.

The Christmas Dress by Courtney Cole: This one centers on an unlikely friendship between a young aspiring fashion designer and an older resident in her same apartment building and a certain dress brings them together. As previously mentioned, I love when older women get to be main characters in books (it so rarely happens) – so this one was an easy sell to me.

Eight Perfect Hours by Lia Louis: A blizzard traps two people together one night and then fate keeps bringing them back together. Feels a little like Serendipity which is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Always in December by Emily Stone: A woman who hates the holidays runs into a man who gives her a reason not to. Set in New York, London and Edinburgh (three places I love) so this was an easy sell to me.

The Little Bookshop on the Seine by Rebecca Raisin: Paris at Christmas.. in a bookstore. Need I say more? I actually picked this one up last year and didn’t have time to get to it so I’m hoping to this year. Sounds very sweet.

Past Favorites:

One Day in December by Josie Silver: The one that started it all. I read this 2-3 years and was instantly hooked on this genre. It’s a classic girl meets boy, girl loses boy to girl’s best friend story. And takes place over the span of almost a decade and I couldn’t put it down.

In A Holidaze by Christina Lauren: It’s Groundhogs Day meets Christmas in this book giving one girl many chances to get it right.. or wrong. A fun, festive read I liked last year.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva: A reimagined tale of what Charles Dickens life looked like as he wrote his beloved Christmas Carol. I loved going back in time to 1800s London and reading this fictionalized account of how his family and friends (and mainly himself) might have showed themselves in his famous work of literature.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris: I’ve mentioned it many times but Sedaris on of my favorite authors. This compilation of his holiday-themed essays is a short, funny read that includes reflections on his time spent working as an elf in Macy’s Santa-land.

Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory: Loved that the main couple in this book was in their 50s roughly, it had a Royal storyline (the daughter is a stylist for a Kate Middleton type Duchess) and was diverse (all of the main characters are Black) – and a fun trip to London too! A nice book if you’ve had your fill of the usual 20 somethings falling in love.

The Twelve Dates of Christmas by Jenny Bayliss: This was one of my favorites that I read last year. The main character is reluctantly seeking love after focusing on a career that she loves and balancing relationships with her family and friends. She felt really well-rounded and realistic. Spoiler – love ensues.

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STEELE MAIDEN BOOK CLUB: CHAPTER TWENTY

I swear I blink and another 3 months has passed since my last book round-up. This will be my last general reading recap for the year before I share some fun holiday book recommendations (hopefully late next week!) + my top 10 books of the year at the end of December.

Anna K by Jenny Lee: This is a YA retelling of Anna Karenina – set in modern day NYC. So basically it’s classic literature that reads like an episode of Gossip Girl. I have never read the original or watched any of the movies.. which I don’t think you necessarily need to, but I do think it would help to give you more context. I found it a little bit plainly written but I did think the dramatic UES friend groups/love interests and the concept were fun overall. (3 out of 5 stars)

Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz: I don’t read a lot of short story collections but I’d heard really rave reviews of this debut author’s work and this didn’t disappoint for me. There are some trigger warnings here for sexual assault, suicide and other sensitive content – so proceed with some caution. But the writing was beautiful and Moniz managed to really envelope you in a world in just a few short pages before moving on to the next story. (5 out of 5 stars)

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller: This book gripped me from the very first page and didn’t let go until the end. There’s been a lot of hype around it, but for me – it totally lived up to the praise. A complicated love and family story that takes place between Manhattan and a family lake house on Cape Cod. It will definitely make my personal top 10 books of the year list. (5 out of 5 stars)

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton: I took this on a girl’s weekend trip and read it in a day by the pool. I really liked Alderton’s portrayal of a woman in her early 30’s that’s at a different place in life than some of her closest friends and is also moving into a new phase in her relationship with her parents. Not to mention a messy love life. This felt in some ways like a modern day Bridget Jones and would make a great holiday gift for a friend. (4.5 out of 5 stars)

Come Fly The World by Julia Cooke: I haven’t read much non-fiction this year, so it was fun to pick this one up for my virtual book club. The book follows the true story of a handful of Pan Am stewardesses in the late 60s-early 70s as well as the history of the airline itself. There were some parts that felt a little boring, but I loved learning about the Vietnam War operations that these young women were a part of as well as some of the frivolous stuff like how their uniforms evolved over the years. (3.5 out of 5 stars)

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge: Well.. they can’t all be winners. I probably wouldn’t have finished this one if it hadn’t been for it being a pick from my New York book club. The story is based on the true life of the first female black doctor in America, during Brooklyn’s reconstruction era. However, the slow pace and the fact that all 3 main characters were seemingly very unlikeable, made it a miss for me. (2.5 out of 5 stars)

The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling: It’s not too late to squeeze in one more ‘fall’ book and since this one will likely only take you a day or so – it’s perfect! Think Practical Magic meets Gilmore Girls. A very fun little witchy romcom of a book that somehow managed to not be cheesy. (4 out of 5 stars)

The Mothers by Brit Bennett: Last year, I read The Vanishing Half – along with seemingly the rest of America. And I liked it. But I loved The Mothers, Bennett’s debut novel. There was something more honest about it to me and yet still beautifully developed. It’s a story of motherhood and love in many forms, set against the backdrop of a small church community in a sleepy California town. (5 out of 5 stars)

Mrs. March by Virginia Feito: It’s a skilled author that can make you want to follow a deeply flawed, unreliable narrator down the rabbit hole. But that’s what Feito manages to do in Mrs. March. A psychological thriller set between Thanksgiving and New Years in NYC, you find yourself losing touch with reality alongside the main character in this one. I really like it but it’s dark.. so have something light to read after. (4 out of 5 stars)

Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann: If you read Paper Palace and think… what’s next? It’s this. I loved the writing, the dynamic, complicated family, the strong sense of place, and the subtle hint at Greek mythology. My book club is reading it this month and I can’t wait to discuss it with the group. (5 out of 5 stars)

Honorable mentions to the two audiobooks I listened to these past couple of months, Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling and Yearbook by Seth Rogan. I love memoirs on audiobooks because the author is the one to narrate – and especially in the case of these two very funny people – you get the benefit of their comedic timing in the pacing of the story. Both were fun and easy listens.

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10 FALL BOOKS TO READ THIS SEASON

I tend to read “seasonally” whenever I can – lighter books in the Summer, longer classics in the Winter. In the Fall I like to read books with an autumnal feeling. Ones that feel like a cozy hug or have a hint of magic. Below – the top 10 books I’d recommend picking up this season.

  1. Practical Magic Series by Alice Hoffman: Okay, okay so this is actually 4 books, but I’m counting it as 1 since it’s a series. Following a generations of a family of witches, the first in the series inspired the classic 90s movie with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock – I’ve seen it a million times and it never gets old. Then there’s Rules of Magic – set in the 60s/70s in NYC and my favorite of the series so far. Last year brought Magic Lessons which is old Salem and has a very cozy feeling and this Fall will be the last book – The Book of Magic. Honestly I’ve loved them all.
  2. The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller: This is the perfect summer into fall book to me. Set at a lake house in Cape Cod, a family convenes as their lives diverge. It has an incredibly strong sense of place (you feel like you’re in the cabin with them in the woods) and vivid, complicated characters. I couldn’t put it down and it’s absolutely going to make the cut as one of my top reads of the year.
  3. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix: Described as Sweet Magnolias meets Dracula – this is the vampire story I doubted I’d even like and ended up loving. It’s a mix of early 90s small suburban town nostalgia meets campy thriller. Just trust me.
  4. The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson: I read this book last October on a whim after seeing it as a staff recommendation at The Strand and it exceeded my expectations. It reminded me of ‘Are You Afraid of The Dark?’ in that it was sort of nostalgic and kitschy without being actually scary and had so much heart to the story. If you lean toward literary fiction but want something that feels seasonal, I think you’d love this.
  5. The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow: This one is pretty lengthy but if you’re looking for an engrossing slow burn, world-building type novel to disappear into this Fall, this is it. Sisterhood, sorcery and suffragettes set in “New Salem” during the early 1900s. A cozy, magical book that I really enjoyed last Fall.

6. The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller: Basically the literary version of an episode of Gilmore Girls. This was such a sweet comforting read set at a small town bed & breakfast in Vermont. You’ll want to hug this book at the end.

7. Toil & Trouble by Augusten Burroughs: If you like David Sedaris but want something that’s slightly seasonal – I loved this one. Burroughs is one of the few authors that I find myself truly laughing out loud to and these sharply written

8. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab: Set between early 2000s Brooklyn and late 1700s Paris – this is a sweeping story about a young woman trapped in time after making a deal with the devil. I loved the settings and the longevity of the storyline and while there’s an obvious suspension of belief with the premise – there was so much that felt really real to me.

9. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn: I rarely go in for the blockbuster thrillers but I loved this one when I read it a few years back. A Hitchcock Rear Window-esque story with a reclusive woman who watches her neighbors from her New York apartment but things aren’t always what they seem. Don’t watch the Netflix movie and go in spoiler-free.

10. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: I basically just put this on every list because I love it so much – but there’s something about a drama-filled family story with this really vivid house at the center that feels right for reading in the Fall. Plus there are some ‘coming home for Thanksgiving’ plot points that tie it in. And if you are more into audiobook – Tom Hanks reads this one and it’s just a delight.

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STEELE MAIDEN BOOK CLUB: CHAPTER NINETEEN

My last book club post was in April and suffice to say.. I’ve read a few books since then. 20 to be exact. I’ll keep these reviews fairly concise in light of that, but wanted to check in as we’re just past the halfway point of summer and I’m on 8 out of 15 from my Summer Reading list. Hoping the tackle the rest between now and Labor Day weekend. And hoping that you find a great book or 2 to try out of the below list. There’s a little bit of everything on this list!

Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson: This was one of my virtual book club picks earlier this year and while I’ve read quite a few books on slavery, this one stood out because I knew almost nothing about the history of “yellow wives” – enslaved Black women who were the daughters of slave owners and then, due to their mixed race, were able to become the wives of slave owners. It was a tough read at times but really eye-opening. (4 out of 5 stars)

Jackie and Maria by Gill Paul: Historical fiction about First Lady Jackie Kennedy and famed opera singer Maria Callas – and the way their lives intersected due to their complicated relationships with Greek tycoon Onassis. I felt like this dragged in a few parts but overall I really liked this glimpse into these women’s lives post-JFK. (4 out of 5 stars)

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner: Among the most honest and wrenching books I’ve read on grief. Zauner chronicles the ups and downs of her relationship with her mother, explores her relationship to her Korean heritage through food and shares the illness and ultimate death of her mother with startling clarity. This was another book club read and we all were blown away by it. (5 out of 5 stars)

The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett: The Crown meets Agatha Christie – this murder mystery has the Queen solving crimes. If you like a who-dunnit but thrillers are too much for you, this might be a good pick! I ultimately think mystery isn’t really my genre. (3 out of 5 stars)

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: I’d heard people rave about Groff’s writing for years and I don’t know what took me this long to get to it… because, damn. A book that instantly joined the rankings of my favorite literary fiction of all time. Go into it blind and let the story lead you. (5 out of 5 stars)

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi: One of the best YA books I’ve read. Choi’s writing is razor sharp and her characters are so believably modern. There was a romance at the heart of this but also friendships and a complicated mother daughter relationship that I thought was really well done. (5 out of 5 stars)

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver: Coming off of several back to back 5 star reads, this one fell a little flat for me, but I know others really enjoyed it. I think I struggled to connect with the main character and wished for less in the middle of the story and more surrounding the ending. (3 out of 5 stars)

Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi: After reading Emergency Contact I was quick to pick up Yolk by the same author. It was like the older sister – with more mature content and more of an edge. I loved this story of sisters but to give fair warning – if disordered eating is a difficult subject for you – please proceed with caution here. This book is brutal at times but worth it in the end. (5 out of 5 stars)

Beach Read by Emily Henry: This book was a really popular fiction release last summer but I hadn’t gotten around to it until this year – and I’m glad I did! It was a quick read and a fun, romantic comedy with an ‘enemies to lovers’ trope which I always find fun. I want to read Henry’s ‘People You Meet on Vacation’ next. (4.5 out of 5 stars)

Luster by Raven Leilani: This one fits into that category of “millennial malaise” to me- think Normal People and My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Luster tackles modern issues of race and class alongside its central, troubled relationship and while there were moments that felt brilliant to me, there were others that were really difficult to get through. Which I think was Leilani’s intention here… but still. (3.5 out of 5 stars)

The Switch by Beth O’Leary: In much lighter fare, The Switch was just delightful. So rarely do you get a main character in a book that is in her 70s – finding love, building friendships and going on adventures. This book reads like the movie The Holiday in which a Grandmother switches places with her Granddaughter so that both of them have a chance to reignite their lives. A bit predictable but I honestly didn’t mind. (4.5 out of 5 stars)

Enchateé by Gita Trelease: I only read ‘fantasy’ in pretty specific scenarios and this book – witches in Marie Antoinette-era Versailles and Paris ticked all the right boxes. It was a really fun escape read. (4 out of 5 stars)

Find Me by André Aciman: This is the follow-up story to Call Me By Your Name – a book that I love so much I kept my expectations very low going into this one. And you know what? I was reallyyy pleasantly surprised. It’s not a straight forward sequel and many years have passed – but you get to return to these characters and that rich world of Rome and Paris and I just loved the way it twisted and turned slowly towards the ending. (4.5 out of 5 stars)

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: Another book club pick and while almost everyone in the group really liked it, I struggled a bit with the writing. The concept – of a young woman exploring alternate versions of her life – was one I really liked but I think the execution ended up feeling slightly cliché for me. That being said, I think there were some nice lessons in it and if you are looking for some words of affirmation about life, this could be it. (3.5 out of 5 stars)

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer: This is probably the first middle grade book I’ve read since well, middle school. Who cares, sometimes it’s fun to read something really PG and sweet! I read it in an afternoon and it had a modern-day Parent Trap vibe and a really cute grandma side character that made me smile. I wish I knew a 13 year old to pass this book along to. (4 out of 5 stars)

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Admittedly I didn’t love this book like I loved Daisy Jones and The Six or The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, but Reid’s latest was still a really fun read. I devoured it in a day – which felt fitting since the entire book takes place over a 24 hour period in Malibu. And it actually subtly crosses paths with Daisy Jones and Evelyn Hugo’s stories. A family drama and wild party setting are almost always a win for me. (4 out of 5 stars)

The Guncle by Steven Rowley: Hijinks and heartswells abound in this story about Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP for short) who is an out of work actor hiding out in Palm Springs when he unexpectedly has to take his young niece and nephew into his care. I loved it. (4.5 out of 5 stars)

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland: Set in Atlantic City in the 1930s, this story is centered on a singular tragic even that sets into motion a series of family secrets that ripple throughout the course of a summer. I loved this one and think it’s perfect for fans of historical fiction like Lilac Girls or family dramas like Everything I Never Told You. (4.5 out of 5 stars)

Under the Rainbow by Celia Laskey: The premise is that a LGBTQ committee gets sent to live in what’s voted America’s most homophobic town. They’re meant to infiltrate and essentially try and change the minds of the towns residents. Each chapter is from a different person’s point of view, with lots of intersection in the stories. Some of the chapters made my heart hurt but I loved the premise of this story. (3.5 out of 5 stars)

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb: I adored this book. It’s a memoir written from the perspective of Kalb’s grandmother and tells the story of the lineage of strong women in their family. For anyone that had a special relationship with their grandmother as I did – this one will hit all the right notes. The ending had me in tears. (5 out of 5 stars)

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