Top 5 Reads of 2021: Ashley

The next installment of GateCrasher’s favorite reads in 2021, this time from Ashley!

I read a lot in a normal year. That being said, in 2021 I read more than I ever have before. Reading brings me a sense of comfort and normalcy, two highs I have been actively chasing since March of 2020. While making this list sounded difficult at the onset, it immediately appeared that these books wrestled their way out of the tangle that was “everything else.” I clearly had a hard time whittling it down to five, so here they are in no particular order, my five (plus a few more) favorite reads of 2021:

The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels
2021, by India Holton

“You are a scoundrel,” she whispered furiously.
“Yes,” he agreed. “I’m thinking of starting a Society of Gentlemen Scoundrels.”
“You’re millennia too late. It already exists and is called the patriarchy.”

— India Holton, The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels

The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels was my surprise favorite of the year. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but whimsical romp of tea-totaling Victorian lady-thieves who sail their houses through the sky wasn’t it. There’s a dashing pirate assassin, kidnapping plots, false identities, and a villain utterly obsessed with his supposed familial links to the literary Brontë siblings. This book was insane in the best possible way I can imagine. I laughed on every page, eager to finish so I could begin it again. Did I read this book 3 times this year? Yes. Am I considering reading it once more for good measure? Possibly. I spent a lot of time trying to decide what other work made me feel the same way, and I landed on The Princess Bride. If you’ve enjoyed reading William Goldman’s classic novel or the film adaptation is a favorite of yours, The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels just might be the book for you. While not being remotely similar, they share the same DNA of witty banter, memorable side characters, and a swashbuckling love story. The rest of this list isn’t in any particular order, but it’s obvious this one has taken the top spot for me in 2021. Author India Holt is set to release a sequel in 2022, The League of Gentlewoman Witches, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t my most anticipated book of the new year.

Our Violent Ends
2021, by Chloe Gong

“In this life and the next, for however long our souls remain, mine will always find yours.”

— Chloe Gong, Our Violent Ends

Chloe Gong’s highly anticipated sequel to These Violent Delights was an emotional rollercoaster that both broke me and stitched me back together again. I went in to this series knowing it was a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet set in late 1920’s Shanghai. Two warring gang families have it out for each other in the form of a blood feud, but our two lovers, Roma and Juliette, are trying to save the city their relationship was forged in. I know where Romeo & Juliet end up, but somehow I still wasn’t prepared for the final act of this novel. From page one, Gong asserts her deft control over tension and pacing. From the moment I cracked the spine, this book held me in its power. I could not put it down until it was finished with me. I love to reread favorites, but I definitely need some time to recover from this one before returning to Roma & Juliette’s Shanghai again.

Defy the Night
2021, by Brigid Kemmerer

“A spark of rebellion is all it takes to defy the night.”

— Brigid Kemmerer, Defy the Night

Defy the Night by Brigid Kemmerer was not a book I anticipated including on my final five list of the year, but something about this story and its characters have stuck with me even after others have fallen away. Is it weird to love a book about a sickness epidemic in the middle of a pandemic? While there were eerie similarities going on in the kingdom of Kandala, Tessa and Wes, our two vigilante heroes, made me feel as though ordinary people could make a difference against corrupt political power and social injustice all while fighting a deadly illness. I usually pride myself on seeing a twist coming a mile away, but Defy the Night had the honor of being the only book this year to trick me into believing a red herring. Once revealed, I nearly threw my book across the room in shock because it had been so long since a story actually surprised me. When you read and review books as much as I do, you begin to see the patterns in storytelling. They speak to you like road maps, pointing you towards the author’s true purpose. But, Kemmerer kept me in the dark and for that I am grateful. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment of this series to see where the action-packed revolution and our morally grey heroes take us.

Call Us What We Carry
2021, by Amanda Gorman

“The only way to correctly predict
The future is to pave it,
Is to brave it.”

— Amanda Gorman Call Us What We Carry

If you are anything like me, you were blown away listening to former National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman read her poem The Hill We Climb on Inauguration Day in early 2021. Gorman has immeasurable precision and skill when composing pieces that pierce your heart. Call Us What We Carry published right at the end of 2021, in time to claim a well-deserved spot on my top 5 list. This collection of poems had me choking up by the third page, as they are brimming with reflections on the trying times we’ve experienced as a collective over the past two years. Call Us What We Carry might be a heavy read, as we’re still enduring a lot of these emotions and difficulties as 2022 approaches, but it is also cathartic to have your experiences validated in the rhythmically haunting and hopeful ways Gorman excels at. I haven’t always gravitated towards poetry as a preferred reading genre, but 2021 has become a breakthrough year where poetry and I finally connected and understood each other. It found me right when I needed the words most.

Love and Other Words
2018, by Christina Lauren

“What’s your favorite word?”

— Christina Lauren, Love and Other Words

While this book released in 2018, it was a new read for me in 2021. Prior to this year, I hadn’t ready anything by the writing duo who share the pen name Christina Lauren. After picking up their new release The Soulmate Equation earlier this year, I took deep dive into their back list. Love and Other Words was an absolute knockout favorite for me. Quite simply, it’s the love story of Macy and Elliot, but what also emerges within the pages of Love and Other Words is loss, grief, forgiveness, second chances, and found family. The novel is told through alternating timelines; Elliot and Macy in their adolescence and present day. Christina Lauren holds just enough back to pack an emotional punch in the final act that will leave you weeping. Reading this book feels so special, it gives me warm fuzzy feelings just thinking about it. You spend so much time seeing these characters through the formative years of their lives, that they become more real than any other contemporary romance I can think of to compare it to. If you’re looking for something in this genre and want more than just fluff, Love and Other Words is one of my favorite women’s lit books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
TW: Sexual Assault, Grief related to death

Just Missed the Cut

I did mention I read a lot this year, right? Well, I’d be remiss to leave out these other favorites I think are worthy of your time:

Once Upon a Broken Heart
by Stephanie Garber

This sequel to Garber’s wildly popular Caraval series hit all the right notes for me. I love fairytales, and Garber excels at making even the most well-loved tropes feel new and unique to her story. Her prose are touched with sweet magic, expertly avoiding the line that crosses into cloying. The next book in this series is also one of my most eagerly anticipated releases for 2022.

“But you have to have a working heart for it to break.”

— Stephanie Garber, Once Upon a Broken Heart

Half a Soul
by Olivia Atwater

I’m a sucker for Regency set literature. Throw in a dash of fantasy to that and you’ll find I’m quickly obsessed. Cue Olivia Atwater’s Regency Faerie Tales. Half a Soul is the first in this series of stand-alones set in alternate-reality England, where magic abounds and capricious fairies are real and ready to curse you at their whim.

“He has asked me before how the world can be so heartless. It is this dastardly need to remain calm and composed and polite that has left us all feeling so alone.”

— Olivia Atwater, Half a Soul

People We Meet on Vacation
by Emily Henry

Emily Henry is a must-buy author for me. She has her finger on the pulse of millenial women’s lit. People We Meet on Vacation was an absolute page-turner just as Henry’s Beach Read was in 2020. I loved the alternating timelines and snappy dialogue, but the unfolding history between Poppy & Alex was as good as it gets in 2021 contemporary romance. I’ve already got Henry’s 2022 release Book Lovers pre-ordered because clearly I’m hooked.

“If I can’t love you at Times Square then I don’t deserve you at a used bookstore.”

— Emily Henry, People We Meet On Vacation

Assassin’s Apprentice
by Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb is one of the best fantasy authors of all time. I started to explore her catalogue this year, but I’m taking my time and savoring these, because they feel like a masterclass in fantasy writing. I’m currently on the third book of The Farseer Trilogy, but the first, Assassin’s Apprentice, did such a beautiful job introducing the world, it deserved a place on this list.

“I think myself cured of all spite, but when I touch pen to paper, the hurt of a boy bleeds out with sea-spawned ink, until I suspect each carefully formed black letter scabs over some ancient scarlet wound.”

— Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Apprentice

The Bridge Kingdom & The Traitor Queen
by Danielle L. Jensen

This was another wild surprise book series for me. I’ve never read any of Danielle L. Jensen’s books before, but The Bridge Kingdom & the action-packed The Traitor Queen took me on the ride of my life. My fellow fans of enemies-to-lovers and epic redemption arcs need look no further! This is the one for you.

“Alive isn’t living.”

— Danielle L. Jensen, The Bridge Kingdom

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