Are we really more than halfway through the year already? Last year felt like a decade, but this year is just zooming by. They say time flies when you’re having fun, so maybe I feel this way because I’ve gotten my hands on so many great books in 2021.
As of July 1, I had finished more than 100 books, so I dug through my StoryGraph (an Amazon-free alternative to Goodreads—you should check it out!) to see which books had made the biggest impression on me thus far. If you’re looking for book recommendations for the second half of 2021, I highly suggest giving one of these personal 5-star reads a try.
I admit I never would've picked this book up based on the cover, so even if it doesn’t immediately look like your kind of book, I encourage you to give it a chance! I don’t often read science fiction, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this debut novel featuring multiverse travel since I read it in January. The Space Between Worlds would also be an excellent book club pick, as it provides brilliant social commentary on topics ranging from immigration and identity to guns and sex work.
This memoir by the woman behind indie band Japanese Breakfast was incredible. I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by Michelle Zauner herself (highly recommend!), and I spent the entire 7.5 hours alternating between trying not to cry and being very hungry. The memoir is focused on Zauner’s relationship with her mother and her grief after her mother’s diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer, and it also explores her Korean American identity, often through food.
This was a wild ride. Featuring a Chinese-Indonesian family living in Southern California and running their own wedding planning business, this genre-defying novel is a bit romance, a bit murder, and a lot of laughs. I couldn't stop snickering at all the ridiculousness that happened in this story, so if you need an engaging book to help distract you from real life for a bit, Dial A for Aunties is an excellent escape.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved this young adult thriller set in an Ojibwe community in the Upper Peninsula. Part bildungsroman and part crime novel, the story follows a recent high school graduate who is drawn into an investigation of corruption—but I recommend not reading too much about this book beforehand so you can be completely surprised by the plot. As if this title wasn’t hot enough already, apparently the Obamas are adapting it for Netflix. You’ll definitely want to add this one to your sooner-rather-than-later TBR list!
For another excellent crime novel that is more introspective, When the Stars Go Dark is the first mystery book from bestselling historical fiction author Paula McLain (The Paris Wife). Set in early 1990s Mendocino County, this quiet and empathetic novel about a detective searching for a missing girl in her hometown weaves in real-life stories of girls who went missing in Northern California during that time. It also addresses how the rise of the internet changed the way law enforcement approached missing persons cases, which I found fascinating.
This exquisite debut novel features a woman who moved to Canada with her family as a young child while her father stayed behind in Hong Kong, a common phenomenon leading up to the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. This was a beautiful story of family and grief told through short vignettes (sometimes a few pages but often only a few paragraphs), which made the book fly by. The only complaint I have is that it was over too quickly!
If you’re looking for a *Very Important Book* to read this year, I think you'll find it in Four Hundred Souls. This book has a unique and very effective format: 90 Black writers worked together to cover the 400-year history of Black people in the United States (hence the subtitle: “A Community History of African America 1619-2019”) by writing 80 essays spanning 5 years each, plus 10 poems set at 40-year intervals. I listened to the audiobook and the full-cast production was flawless, but I also got a print copy of the book because I needed to revisit some pieces again on paper. It’s that good!
This genre-blending novel from the author of The Sorcerer to the Crown is part post-collegiate existential crisis, part ghost story, part thrilling page-turner with gangsters and family feuds, and all worth reading! This exciting story features recent college grad Jessamyn, who returns to the Malaysian island of Penang with her parents after growing up in the U.S. and begins receiving cryptic messages from her estranged grandmother Ah Ma—who is dead.
Alyan’s debut Salt Houses is one of my all-time favorite novels, so I'm thrilled to report her sophomore novel is another stunning family saga. Told in alternating timelines, The Arsonists’ City features three Arab-American siblings and their parents, who came of age in Syria and Lebanon during the 1970s. Life in this book is messy, heartbreaking, and beautiful, and though almost all the characters said or did things that were nearly unforgivable, I couldn’t help but love them. This will be one of my top books of 2021!
One of my personal reading goals for 2021 is to read 365 short stories, and I’ve been fortunate to read several excellent collections during my journey. One of the best by far has been The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. This is a compact collection of nine stories about Black women in church communities exploring their own desires. At less than 180 pages total, this is a great choice for readers who don’t know if they like short stories or not, as you won’t be investing too much time if they’re not for you (but of course I hope you’ll love this collection as much as I did).