The 15 Best Books I Read in 2021, Ranked (Fiction Edition)

You know when you read a book that’s so good you wish you’d written it yourself? All the books on this list are like that for me.

17 comments

You know when you read a book that’s so good you wish you’d written it yourself? All the books on this list are like that for me.

Happy 2022! To kick off the year right, let’s jump right into a ranking of the 15 best (fiction) books I read in 2021— all of them books that maybe you should read in 2022?

I read 102 books in 2021 with an average rating of 3.4, and among those 102 books were some incredible reads that I cannot wait to share with all of you.

This never fails to be my favorite post to write, because it means I get to recommend all of the most brilliant books I read in the past year and reflect on their pure amazingness.

On to the list!

15) The Secret History by Donna Tartt- 4/5 stars

Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely?

the secret history by donna tartt
dark academia

Genre: mystery/thriller, contemporary

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last—inexorably—into evil.

The Secret History is a pretty well-known book, and I think it did a good job of living up to the (massive) hype. Read my review here!

14) Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin- 4/5 stars

There was a monster, but it didn’t live inside the death camp’s crematorium. Its den was much finer—a Chancellery full of stolen art, and doors with iron locks.

wolf by wolf by ryan graudin 
YA alternate history fantasy thriller

Genre: YA, alternate history, fantasy

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Her story begins on a train.

The year is 1956, and the Axis powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule. To commemorate their Great Victory, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race across their conjoined continents. The victor is awarded an audience with the highly reclusive Adolf Hitler at the Victor’s Ball in Tokyo.

Yael, a former death camp prisoner, has witnessed too much suffering, and the five wolves tattooed on her arm are a constant reminder of the loved ones she lost. The resistance has given Yael one goal: Win the race and kill Hitler. A survivor of painful human experimentation, Yael has the power to skinshift and must complete her mission by impersonating last year’s only female racer, Adele Wolfe. This deception becomes more difficult when Felix, Adele twin’s brother, and Luka, her former love interest, enter the race and watch Yael’s every move.

But as Yael grows closer to the other competitors, can she bring herself to be as ruthless as she needs to be to avoid discovery and complete her mission?

The premise of this book– an alternate history timeline in which the Axis powers won WW2 and a girl who can shapeshift is given a mission to assassinate Hitler– is extremely unique, and I truly have not read anything like it before. I remember being completely glued to my seat as I read this book, and all I can say is, I hope that there is no timeline like this out in the multiverse.

13) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – 4.5/5 stars

Interestingly, despite my wide-ranging literary tastes, I haven’t come across many heroines called Eleanor, in any of the variant spellings. Perhaps that’s why the name was chosen for me.

eleanor oliphant is completely fine by gail honeyman 
contemporary novel mental health

Genre: contemporary

Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living. Ultimately, it is Raymond’s big heart that will help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one. If she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.

Yep, it’s one of those books…. the Reese’s book club, everyone’s 40-year-old mom is reading it, books. But this book was really, really good. I remember how shocked I was at the ending and the amount of emotions it made me experience, and there are a ton of highlighted quotes from here in my Kindle notes.

12) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman- 4.5/5 stars

“The only thing you have for measuring what’s real is your mind . . . so what happens when your mind becomes a pathological liar?”

challenger deep by neal shusterman
YA contemporary mental health

Genre: YA, contemporary, mental health

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.

Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behaviour.

Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence to document the journey with images.

Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.

Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.

Caden Bosch is torn.

I remember being disturbed by how well Neal Shusterman was able to pull the reader into Caden’s head, which, combined with the gorgeous writing immediately put this book high on my list. If you want a beautifully written YA story about the effects of mental illness, this is definitely a book for you.

11) Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie- 4.5/5 stars

“Fey…a Scotch word…It means the kind of exalted happiness that comes before disaster. You know–it’s too good to be true.”

death on the nile by agatha christie
agatha christie book recommendations

Genre: classics, mystery/thriller

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

The tranquillity of a cruise along the Nile is shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway has been shot through the head. She was young, stylish and beautiful, a girl who had everything – until she lost her life. Hercule Poirot recalls an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: ‘I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.’ Yet in this exotic setting, nothing is ever quite what it seems… 

There is a movie of this book coming out in February and I cannot wait to watch it! I read this in June and forgot who the killer was, but I do remember the ending of the book. This Hercule Poirot installment has lots of suspense and as per usual, a very tricky mystery that is sure to mess with your head.

10) After the Fire by Will Hill- 4.5/5 stars

When you open certain doors, the kind that are supposed to be kept shut, you have to go all the way through them and to Hell with the consequences.

after the fire by will hill
YA thriller

Genre: YA, contemporary, thriller

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

The things I’ve seen are burned into me, like scars that refuse to fade.

Before, she lived inside the fence. Before, she was never allowed to leave the property, never allowed to talk to Outsiders, never allowed to speak her mind. Because Father John controlled everything—and Father John liked rules. Disobeying Father John came with terrible consequences.

But there are lies behind Father John’s words. Outside, there are different truths.

Then came the fire.

This novel about a fictional cult is actually based on the Waco siege. In 1993, the compound of a Texas cult called the Branch Davidians was raided by the FBI. After a 51-day standoff, the compound was set on fire (how the fire started is debated) and 76 people died.

I don’t see this book on many lists, but it was a very intense and well-written book that I would definitely recommend you read.

9) The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

That’s the beauty of corrupt men, you can always rely on them to be corrupt.

the 7 1/2 deaths of evelyn hardcastle by stuart turton

Genre: mystery/thriller, SFF

Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):

Aiden Bishop knows the rules. Evelyn Hardcastle will die every day until he can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest at Blackheath Manor. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others. With a locked room mystery that Agatha Christie would envy, Stuart Turton unfurls a breakneck novel of intrigue and suspense.

This book has an extraordinarily creative premise– Groundhog Day meets murder mystery– and it kept me on the edge of my seat until the mind-blowing reveal at the end! Definitely read this book if you want to liven up your usual diet of thrillers.

8) The Crucible by Arthur Miller- 5/5 stars

We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!

the crucible by arthur miller cover

Genre: classics, play, historical fiction

Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):

Arthur Miller wrote of his classic play about the witch-hunts and trials in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. Based on historical people and real events, Miller’s drama is a searing portrait of a community engulfed by hysteria. In the rigid theocracy of Salem, rumors that women are practicing witchcraft galvanize the town’s most basic fears and suspicions; and when a young girl accuses Elizabeth Proctor of being a witch, self-righteous church leaders and townspeople insist that Elizabeth be brought to trial. The ruthlessness of the prosecutors and the eagerness of neighbor to testify against neighbor brilliantly illuminates the destructive power of socially sanctioned violence.

So, I didn’t actually *read* this– I watched a production on YouTube, but I’m cheating a little and counting this as read, because why would you READ a play when you can watch it how it is meant to be consumed?

Anyway, I wasn’t expecting to like The Crucible as it has a bit of a negative reputation (being a “boring high school assigned reading book” and all), but I loved it. I thought the way that it portrayed the Salem witch trials and the parallels to McCarthyism were brilliant and I think this play really highlights how quickly people can get carried away by mass hysteria.

7) The Martian by Andy Weir

As with most of life’s problems, this one can be solved by a box of pure radiation.

the martian by andy weir cover

Genre: sci-fi, thriller

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit — he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Well first off, The Martian wins for best opening line.

I love this book so much. The humor, the scientific explanations, the fact that Andy Weir literally calculated launch trajectories to make the novel accuratethis is a pretty popular book and came out a while ago, so if you haven’t yet read it… with all due respect, what are you doing?

5) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”

the picture of dorian gray by oscar wilde cover

Genre: classics, Gothic/horror

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Written in his distinctively dazzling manner, Oscar Wilde’s story of a fashionable young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty is the author’s most popular work. The tale of Dorian Gray’s moral disintegration caused a scandal when it first appeared in 1890, but though Wilde was attacked for the novel’s corrupting influence, he responded that there is, in fact, “a terrible moral in Dorian Gray.” Just a few years later, the book and the aesthetic/moral dilemma it presented became issues in the trials occasioned by Wilde’s homosexual liaisons, which resulted in his imprisonment. Of Dorian Gray’s relationship to autobiography, Wilde noted in a letter, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps. 

If you had told me before I read this book that I’d finish a Victorian-era novel in one day, I would have said you were lying. But the story of Dorian Gray’s cursed portrait and descent into hedonism is captivating and Oscar Wilde’s writing is so immersive that I couldn’t put it down.

6) The Light in Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron

Mr. Diamant shook his head. “Di velt iz sheyn nor di mentshn makhn zi mies,” he said. “The world is beautiful, but people make it ugly.”

the light in hidden places by sharon cameron book 
cover

Genre: YA, historical fiction

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

One knock at the door, and Stefania has a choice to make…

It is 1943, and for four years, sixteen-year-old Stefania has been working for the Diamant family in their grocery store in Przemsyl, Poland, singing her way into their lives and hearts. She has even made a promise to one of their sons, Izio — a betrothal they must keep secret since she is Catholic and the Diamants are Jewish.

But everything changes when the German army invades Przemsyl. The Diamants are forced into the ghetto, and Stefania is alone in an occupied city, the only one left to care for Helena, her six-year-old sister. And then comes the knock at the door. Izio’s brother Max has jumped from the train headed to a death camp. Stefania and Helena make the extraordinary decision to hide Max, and eventually twelve more Jews. Then they must wait, every day, for the next knock at the door, the one that will mean death. When the knock finally comes, it is two Nazi officers, requisitioning Stefania’s house for the German army.

With two Nazis below, thirteen hidden Jews above, and a little sister by her side, Stefania has one more excruciating choice to make. 

I was absolutely floored by the extent to which this fictionalized novel follows true events. Stefania Podgorska was a real person who really did hide 13 people in her attic, right under the noses of Nazi officials when she was just 17 (the age I am now…)

This book was incredibly well-written and taught me a lot about a hero whom I would have never heard of otherwise. I highly recommend it if you are interested in reading historical ficiton.

4) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

the bell jar by sylvia plath book cover

Genre: classics feminism, mental health

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic. 

Well, this book gave me a nightmare (so that means it impacted me strongly…)

I wasn’t expecting to really like The Bell Jar, but I ended up loving it. I related strongly to Esther’s feelings of uncertainty about the future and dread of a boring life, and I wrote a very, very long analysis of the book which I will post in my review, coming soon.

3) Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The house was a sepulcher, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection.

rebecca by daphne du maurier book cover

Genre: classics, mystery/thriller, horror

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

This book was so incredibly suspenseful that it was impossible to put down, and the way du Maurier was able to create such an intense feeling of suspense and foreboding was simply masterful. I wrote a full review for Rebecca explaining in more detail why I loved it so much, which you can read here!

2) Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir- 5/5 stars

“Where is the anomaly?” I ask. “Angular anomaly.” HAL 9000 this computer is not.

project hail mary by andy weir book cover

Genre: sci-fi, thriller

Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the Earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Fun fact: I talked about this book in my Princeton interview. In a stunning twist of fate, it turned out that my interviewer ALSO loves Andy Weir and read this book right when it came out too, and though I never thought I would be nerding out over fictional first contact with aliens during an Ivy League interview, it was great. (I didn’t get in– I got deferred but still. Fun)

Although Project Hail Mary is a little further removed from reality than The Martian, I loved it SO MUCH. It was so much fun to read, the humor was again 100% my humor and that ending. That ending really threw me for a loop! Read my full review here

1) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie- 5/5 stars

“An opened window,” he said. “A locked door. A chair that apparently moved itself. To all three I say ‘Why?’ and I find no answer.”

the murder of roger ackroyd by agatha christie book cover

Genre: classics, cozy mystery

Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):

The peaceful English village of King’s Abbot is stunned. The widow Ferrars dies from an overdose of veronal. Not twenty-four hours later, Roger Ackroyd—the man she had planned to marry—is murdered. It is a baffling case involving blackmail and death, that taxes Hercule Poirot’s “grey cells” before he reaches one of the most startling conclusions of his career.

THIS BOOK. YOU GUYS.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is my favorite book from one of my favorite authors. My friends had been encouraging me to read it for a while, but nothing prepared me for how good it actually was. I finished reading it at 1 AM and immediately texted them because I was SO BLOWN AWAY by the ending.

The thing about Agatha Christie is she always manages to trick you even though the clues are right there in front of you. And then you go back and see what was in plain sight, and it’s the most mind-blowing moment you can possibly have. Read my full review!

That list was extremely difficult to rank, but I absolutely loved every book on here and hope I can convince you to pick up at least one of them.

What was the best book you read in 2021? Do we share any favorites? Let me know in the comment section!

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Rating All 100+ Books I Read in 2021

Reflecting on 2021: Blogging Milestones, Reading Stats, and New Year’s Resolutions

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17 comments on “The 15 Best Books I Read in 2021, Ranked (Fiction Edition)”

  1. I loved reading this list Emily! Your blog is my go-to source for Agatha Christie recommendations—I’ve never tried her books before but I’m definitely going to have to keep an eye out for a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd!

    Happy New Year 🥳

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed The Bell Jar and The Picture of Dorian Gray, they’re some of my favorite books of all time. I recently read The Crucible and I agree with you, I was very surprised by it and how thought-provoking and engaging it was. I’ve been interested in reading Rebecca and Project Hail Mary for a while so I’m glad you enjoyed them!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, both of those are one my list of all-time favorites as well– I just posted my review/analysis of The Bell Jar
      And yes, you should definitely read Project Hail Mary! I feel like we have similar taste in books so hopefully you will love them too

      Liked by 1 person

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