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The Best Books We Read This Year (2021)

"The Best Books We Read This Year (2021)" is a collaborative book list by the reviewers at IBR in which they review the best books they read irrespective of their publication year. Consisting only of indie press and indie published books, this list is a way to break the mold of end of the year book lists.

“The Best Books We Read This Year (2021)”

from the IBR team

A collection of hardcovers and paperbacks for the best books we read in 2021 blog post.

What are the best books you read this year?

How do you answer this question?

Do you say, “Well, are you talking about 2021 releases?”

No.

At least I don’t think you do.

Because you heard the question correctly: What are the best books you read this year?

It’s the books that matter, not the year on the copyright page.

I love end of the year book lists (obviously), but I don’t limit myself to reading only the books that were published in a given year. And really, I doubt many people do. Why would they? Most books don’t spoil; paperbacks are cheaper than hardcovers; book recommendations don’t come only in the year of publication. Should we always put this harness on the concept of the year’s best reading?

On top of that, these lists give authors and presses only one chance to appear on them. If a book isn’t featured on an end-of-the-year list in its publication year, it likely will never be included in one. Matter of fact, many review platforms only review books that are about to come out or have come out in the same year. We don’t believe in that for our reviews, so why would we do it with our book lists?

With this, a new tradition begins.

Every year, from now on, the team at IBR will share the best books they’ve read that year regardless of the book’s publication date. With each book on their list comes a mini-review explaining why it’s making their list, and of course, just like our website, this list will consist only of indie press and self-published books.

Let’s get started.

Introducing the first annual IBR book list: The Best Books We Read This Year (2021).”


Joe Walters – Editor-in-Chief

#1. Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone

by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Where WE Go When All We Were Is Gone by Sequoia Nagamatsu is included in the best books we read in 2021 blog post by Independent Book Review

Publisher: Black Lawrence Press

Release Month/Year: May 2016

Genre: Short Fiction / Asian & Asian American Fiction / Myth

Review by Joe Walters:

I loved so much of what I read this year, but nothing compares to Nagamatsu’s Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. Japanese folklore in modern day Japan leaves way for some absolutely incredible imagery and storylines. The magic in this–whether it be a super stretchy neck or a palace under the water–offers so much for fantasy lovers while literary fans can be plenty satisfied with its concepts, characters, and execution. I’m going to be telling a lot of people about this one, especially to those who love magic realism and drop-you-in-on-the-fun first sentences.

#2. Craft in the Real World

by Matthew Salesses

Craft in the REal World by Matthew Salesses is a great nonfiction book about writing and publishing

Publisher: Catapult

Release Month/Year: January 2021

Genre: Nonfiction / Writing & Publishing

Review by Joe Walters:

This book changed the way I do business. I edit reviews, edit books, review books, market them, write them (or try to). If it’s got to do with books or writing, I’m probably dipping my toe in it.

BUT.

My foundation in the craft of writing and my ongoing research has taught me that craft is pure, that characters must have agency, that editing and workshopping includes telling the writer when they’re not abiding by the rules.

Craft in the Real World breaks down what you think you know about writing craft and communicates honestly about how to approach writing, editing, publishing, and workshopping books. If you’re a writer and you haven’t read this book yet, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Simply from the book’s quality, practicality, and how easy it is to utilize in workshops and editing, this book is destined to be a craft book classic.

#3. Late Migrations

by Margaret Renkl

Publisher: Milkweed Editions

Release Month/Year: July 2019

Genre: Nonfiction / Nature / Love & Loss

Review by Joe Walters:

Oh, wow, this one really hit the spot. I had been living in a city since before the pandemic started, and I was reaching a claustrophobic point where I was growing tired of sidewalk. I started to really miss grass.

And then, a few months ago, I moved–made my way over to a place with grass & trees, and that’s when I started reading Late Migrations.

Jaylynn reviewed this one for us two years ago, and it sounded incredible when I edited it, but I just never picked it up to read.

Until this year. And WOW.

What a world I’ve been missing.

This thing is such a lovely ode to nature–human and otherwise. Renkl captures the connection of us and our natural world with a flourish. It took me a little while to read–about two months–but that’s because I kept it as a special occasion read–a short essay or a few whenever I sat outside. It was such an awesome companion to sitting with the wind and the grass and the trees and the bugs and the birds. 

#4. What Storm, What Thunder

by Myriam J.A. Chancy

What Storm What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy is included in our best books of the year list for 2021.

Publisher: Tin House Books

Release Month/Year: October 2021

Genre: Literary / Disaster Fiction

Review by Joe Walters:

These sentences. These images. The world is shaking in What Storm, What Thunder, a novel detailing the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The narrative is strong and powerful, and it rivals the stellar prose as the best aspect of this book.

It’s not everyday I read images of sliding landscapes, of the earth shaking and breaking beneath my feet, but Chancy’s novel thrusts us into the setting along with some heartbreaking, formidable characters in life-changing situations. This is a badass display of what fiction can do.

#5. Monster Portraits

by Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar

Publisher: Rose Metal Press

Release Month/Year: February 2018

Genre: Short Fiction / Fantasy / Hybrid

Review by Joe Walters:

I’ve never read anything like Monster Portraits. This slim volume comes in at under 100 pages but packs a punch with damn near all of them. These short stylish vignettes and stories describe various monsters in the world, how we perceive them as other, and why. It’s empathetic and vibrant and filled with sharp and unique illustrations.

Honorable Mentions:

  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (Bookshop | Amazon)
  • Eternal Night at the Nature Museum by Tyler Barton (Bookshop | Amazon)
  • Doodling for Writers by Rebecca Fish Ewan (Amazon)
  • Amazon Decoded by David Gaughran (Amazon)
  • Chronicling Stankonia by Dr. Regina N. Bradley (Bookshop | Amazon)

Jaylynn Korrell – Creative Director & Reviewer

#1. What Would Elvis Think?

Edited by Johnny Lowe

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: May 2019

Genre: Short Fiction Anthology / American South

Review by Jaylynn Korrell:

A stunning tribute to Mississippi through the eyes of some of its most talented writers

When I first think of Mississippi, I think of sweet tea and a smooth, slow pace. But not everyone does; some think first of mystery, of ghosts, of strong women. This authentic anthology features a wide variety of storytelling styles that speak to Mississippi life and the overall human experience.

Though a Mississippian will find comfort in these familiar places and people, you won’t have to be anywhere near it in order to feel a connection to its stories. The vivid descriptions of the landscape and the heartfelt people who inhabit this place make for a really excellent anthology of short southern fiction.

#2. Running from COVID in Our RV Cocoon

by Gerri Almand

Running from Covid in our rv cocoon by Gerri Almand is a book included in our best books of 2021 list.

Publisher: Brown Posey Press (an imprint of Sunbury Press, Inc)

Release Month/Year: June 2021

Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir / Travel

Review by Jaylynn Korrell:

Openness. This is the word I use to best describe Almand in her RV books. This story is filled with stressful situations that, if it weren’t for Almand’s practiced mindset, would turn quickly into a “this is the end” type of situation. But even when she gets close to calling it, she always finds a way to remain open or to work hard enough to return to openness. 

Have I ever met Gerri Almand? Unfortunately not. But her writing, and her honest narration of her travels and anxieties, makes it feel like I have—and that I am better for it. She isn’t always in the right, she and her husband often bicker, and bad things come up on their trip running from COVID-19. 

Still, I finished this book an even bigger fan of hers than I already was. And that’s saying something. 

Tucker Lieberman – Reviewer

#1. The Madness of Knowledge

by Steven Connor

Publisher: Reaktion Books

Release Month/Year: May 2019

Genre: Nonfiction / Philosophy

Review by Tucker Lieberman:

Steven Connor’s The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing (2019) proposes a new word for the feeling of knowing.

Though the question of knowledge itself goes back at least to ancient Greek philosophy, the word to describe that intellectual concern is a relatively recent arrival to English. Ralph Cudworth’s treatise (written c. 1688, published 1731) suggested the related word “epistemonical, meaning something like ‘capable of being known’.” In Connor’s interpretation, a word like “epistemonical” begins to gesture toward our fantasy that something’s existence depends on our ability to know it “and not vice versa.” There doesn’t appear ever to have been a noun form, “epistemony,” for “the condition of knowability.”

But what about “the feeling we have of knowing” and of “learning, thinking, arguing, doubting, wondering and forgetting”? What are these unpleasant feelings of “irritation, rage, envy, lust, misery, boredom and melancholy” plus the more positive ones of “satisfaction, assurance, excitement and triumph”? What do we feel “in the itinerant or suspensive conditions we call surmising, supposing, doubting or wondering”?

Connor proposes epistemopathy

#2. Gruel

by Bunkong Tuon

Publisher: NYQ Books

Release Month/Year: June 2015

Genre: Poetry / Asian & Asian American Literature

Review by Tucker Lieberman:

A rich tapestry of family history.

Tuon escaped the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as a small boy with his family, acutely aware of how others in the United States often perceive him, and people like him, as “other.” Living memories, suspended memories, making poems, believing in oneself enough to make the poems. Stories, kindness, hope.

#3. This I Can Tell You

by Brandi Spering

Publisher: Perennial Press

Release Month/Year: March 2021

Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir / Family

Review by Tucker Lieberman:

A quietly harrowing memoir that explores a father’s sudden violent death

One of the graces of Brandi Spering’s memoir This I Can Tell You is how gently it leads into the fray of traumatic memory. Her father was the victim of a murder-suicide committed by his roommate…

Any sudden death leaves behind loose ends and unanswerable questions. This I Can Tell You leads the reader to begin to understand Spering’s unique loss—to the extent that she, herself, will ever understand it. An absence can’t be grasped. The book also helps us to more profoundly understand how we navigate our human vulnerability.

This I Can Tell You is an admirable achievement, showing how all of our lifelong memories, good and bad, are sense impressions and misrememberings, subject to the slippage of time.

#4. Certain and Impossible Events

by Candace Jane Opper

certain and impossible events included in our best books of the year list.

Publisher: Kore Press

Release Month/Year: January 2021

Genre: Literary Nonfiction / Memoir

Review by Tucker Lieberman at Author’s Guild:

“You may find yourself seized by a recurring thought. All of us return to the same waters now and then. Depending on your personality type, though, what has hooked you may be not only a preferred topic but something more narrow: an event that replays in your mind, a person who has infiltrated your heart. You may call it a ‘special interest’ or even a ‘fixation’ or ‘obsession.’

“For author Candace Jane Opper, it was the suicide of a fourteen-year-old classmate. She was thirteen at the time, and she had a crush on him from afar, though she was uncertain if he ever knew her name. Her fascination with the boy’s absence—he was there, and then one day he wasn’t—changed the trajectory of her life. Suicide became a research interest for her, mostly in the service of trying to unpack the mystery of this particular teenager’s death. The person she addresses as ‘you’ throughout the book is the persona of the dead boy, a force that grew more powerful as he evolved into a personal mythology for her even as her memories faded. Opper’s narrative of her own research into the boy’s life, Certain and Impossible Events, won the Kore Press Memoir Award. Childhood innocence and grief are slippery to explain, and she has done so expertly and evocatively.”

Honorable Mentions:

  • Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun by Jeff Chon (Bookshop | Amazon)
  • Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry by Agarau Adedayo (Amazon)
  • You Do Not Have to Be Good by Madeleine Barnes (Bookshop | Amazon)
  • Behind the Scoop: Why You Should Think and Act like a Journalist by Johannes Koch (Bookshop | Amazon)

Steph Huddleston – Reviewer

#1. Guns and Smoke

by Lauren Sevier and A. Smith

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: July 2021

Genre: Dystopian Fiction / Romance / Thriller

Review by Steph Huddleston:

An epic romance on an adrenaline-pumping adventure 

Guns & Smoke is a triumph of a book with characters who face real and dark internal struggles and who must learn to accept and face their demons. The supporting characters and worldbuilding are both vibrant and full without depending on too many overused post-apocalyptic tropes. For fans of Joss Whedon’s Westworld (only with a lot more romance), this is well worth adding to your TBR.

#2. Beyond the God Sea: Betrothed

by Elora Morgan

Beyond the God Sea by Elora Morgan for our end of the year book list

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: September 2020

Genre: Young Adult Fiction / Romance / Fantasy

Review by Steph Huddleston:

A lush enemies-to-lovers romance with stellar seaside worldbuilding

This story is beautifully written.

Zaria’s world feels realistic and well thought out. Everything from the language, cuisine, religious beliefs, and history has been considered and combine to form an island-based culture that feels engaging and vivid to readers. The island setting is so lovely and well described. When this world is challenged by the arrival of an outsider, readers experience Zaria’s struggle with her as she wars between what she’s always believed and the truth. 

Then there’s the romance. Fans of Holly Black’s Cruel Prince will likely find the outsider (Kirwyn) an engaging romantic lead. He presents a challenge for Zaria on multiple different levels, firstly in her cultural worldview and secondly, in her identity. It doesn’t feel like his touch condemns her, as she’d expected; rather it sparks something in her. The romance on the page is appropriate for teenage readers, though more explicit sexual acts are alluded to.

Overall, the romance is entertaining and gripping and readers will likely find themselves aching for these characters to overcome their many differences.

#3. A Rake Like You

by Becky Michaels

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: August 2021

Genre: Historical Fiction / Romance

Review by Steph Huddleston:

A Rake Like You is a shining example of Regency romance. The character development of both Charles and Louisa is executed beautifully, with both having their own flaws and misgivings that initially make them ill-suited to a relationship. It is a joy to witness them overcome their difficulties and rebuild the trust that was shattered when they first knew one another.

[The novel] does not shy away from real-life problems such as alcoholism, gambling, and infidelity. These struggles feel realistic as they crop up consistently throughout the book, rather than being used as merely an initial point of plot tension. Given that issues such as alcohol abuse are serious in nature, it demonstrates the author’s ability to write with sensitivity and nuance.

For fans of the Regency period, the familiar beats of the drama of unrequited love, scandals in secluded corners, and the thrill of marriage proposals are present. But there is enough depth and variation from those patterns to sustain this book and others in its world. Fans of the Bridgerton novels by Julia Quinn are going to feel right at home with A Rake Like You.

Honorable Mention:

  • The Kitchen Tales by Sally Nansen (Publisher)

Andrea Marks-Joseph – Reviewer

#1. Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark

by Charlie J. Eskew

Tales of the astonishing black spark by charlie j eskew from lanternfish press is featured on our best books we read this year list.

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Release Month/Year: September 2018

Genre: African American Fiction / Fantasy / Superhero

Review by Andrea Marks-Joseph:

Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark reads like the feverish first draft of a Black superhero’s memoir. It’s self-aware, smart, and so much fun! The story celebrates geekdom, is explicitly and poignantly filled with Blackness, and it truly is a rollercoaster of adventure. The worldbuilding is fantastic, the narration unforgettable, and it’s possibly the most perfectly in-joke-with-the-reader title ever. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook. 

#2. Dio in the Dark

by Rizwan Asad

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: September 2021

Genre: Fantasy / Mythology

Review by Andrea Marks-Joseph:

A cinematic Toronto adventure depicting the ancient Greek gods as flawed eternal beings and fractured families living in a modern world

Dio in the Dark is a delightful reimagined future for Olympian gods. An ode to Greek mythology, this adventure offers something fresh and unique to their stories.

The story is rich with a sense of familial duty, distant grief, and a rediscovering of self. It’s also filled with humorous beats: Hades is in the very lucrative insurance business; Hestia is actually Martha Stewart—and in this world also has a show with Snoop Dogg; Dio goes to a nightclub to dance with Death (literally), and he is presented with life lessons on wallowing from Sisyphus himself; the goddess Aphrodite is a social media icon, and the god of sleep incarnate “looks like the little old man from Up.” 

It’s a story as delicious and full-bodied as the ancient Greek wine Dio adores. Dio in the Dark is a truly captivating, intriguing adventure with so much new life brought to the mythology that one can’t help but wish for more. 

#3. Academy Gothic

by James Tate Hill

Academy Gothic by James Tate Hill is featured in this best books of 2021 list.

Publisher: Southeast Missouri State University Press

Release Month/Year: October 2015

Genre: Literary / Humor

Review by Andrea Marks-Joseph:

If you enjoyed Sandra Oh’s Netflix series The Chair, and thought, “This could really use a murder mystery,” Academy Gothic is the novel for you. It’s got a brilliantly accurate depiction of academia and a snarky protagonist who is legally blind (written by an author who is also legally blind). I have not stopped thinking about these two sentences since I read them: “A man who responds to email is a man who receives more email” and, describing an early morning scene: “Outside, the birds were still clearing their throats.”

#4. Kings of Ruin

by Sam Cameron

Publisher: Bold Strokes Books

Release Month/Year: March 2013

Genre: Young Adult Fiction / Fantasy / LGBTQ+

Review by Andrea Marks-Joseph:

Kings of Ruin is so much fun and would make for a fantastic on-screen adaptation. This Young Adult novel is Men in Black meets Transformers meets Bumblebee—with two gay teens as the main characters! There’s cars and rock music, small town vibes, and futuristic tech combined with a potential alien species. The truth that the protagonist uncovers opens up potential for a whole series that I would buy in a heartbeat. 

#5. Free Hand

by E.M. Lindsey

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: April 2019

Genre: LGBTQ+ Romance

Review by Andrea Marks-Joseph:

This small town found family Romance novel is the literal dream for those of us who are deaf/hard of hearing, or physically disabled. It is the start of a series where one love interest is Deaf, the other has PTSD, and an important side character uses a wheelchair. The worldbuilding is profoundly supportive; designed so that every single character can flourish in the environment. The community that Lindsay has written around the couple is so kind, endlessly welcoming, and creative in their inclusivity. 

Honorable Mentions:

Alexandra Barbush – Reviewer

#1. Eternal Night at the Nature Museum

by Tyler Barton

Eternal Night at the Nature Museum by Tyler Barton is included in this year's best books of 2021 list.

Publisher: Sarabande Books

Release Month/Year: November 2021

Genre: Short Fiction / Literary

Review by Alexandra Barbush:

A writhing portraiture of the losers, outcasts, and hourly workers across the ever-still landscape of small dusty towns in America  

Barton’s Eternal Night at the Nature Museum sheds light on a cast of unlovable characters: an hourly museum-worker, a demolition derby evangelist, a spinster with an affinity for homemade mailboxes. Each story stands on its own but a few overarching themes repeat: a landscape of largely forgotten small towns across Pennsylvania, unreliable narrators who slowly (or rapidly) reveal themselves, intimate peeks into the quotidian pain of feeling forgotten, left behind, and inconsequential.  

Barton’s prose manages to be funny while painstakingly honest, overtly earnest, and, at times, prickly–leaving his characters, their dialogue, and the overall tone of the entire work quite raw. 

I’d recommend this short story collection for anyone interested in localized feeling, nostalgia, and the quotidian experience of emotional pain. It reads with unflinching clarity and real purpose, with some stories being powerful enough to invoke real feeling (mostly dread at the character experience) and introspection. 

#2. You’ll Be Fine

by Jen Michalski

You'll Be Fine by Jen Michalski is included in 2021's best books we read this year list from IBR

Publisher: NineStar Press

Release Month/Year: August 2021

Genre: LGBTQ+ / Family

Review by Alexandra Barbush:

A gay drama that doesn’t sensationalize its characters or play too much to a specific audience. This story represents trans and queer people in their full spectrum and doesn’t seek to make a moral or value-based point. It shows trans and queer people for exactly who they are–people, with the same desires as everyone else: acceptance, understanding, compassion. 

It’s amusing and heartwarming, and while the characters might be failures, their redeeming qualities shine bright and loud.  The reader leaves the novel loving them all, and genuinely wishing the best for them. 

#3. I Will Die in a Foreign Land

by Kalani Pickhart

Publisher: Two Dollar Radio

Release Month/Year: October 2021

Genre: Literary / Historical Fiction

Review by Alexandra Barbush:

I’d recommend I Will Die in a Foreign Land to anyone who enjoys a beautiful, intertwining narrative that, while not neat and pretty, comes together at the end for a sense of true satisfaction. 

This is a human story, and you don’t have to be interested in history or recent Eastern European conflicts to be engaged. Pickhart does what the media couldn’t: she puts names and faces to the stories of violent conflict. She reminds the reader that every journalist who disappeared is your friend who loudly states their opinion, that every mother is a woman with a backstory of love and life and pain before she moves into her new role. 

Poignant and wrenching, but emotional and true. I love the sincerity of this novel and pure depictions of people caught on either sides of a conflict they didn’t start, nor want, but are forced to feel with every fiber. 

Joseph Haeger – Reviewer

#1. We Need to Do Something

by Max Booth III

We Need to Do Something by Max Booth III is Joseph Haeger's pick for best book he read in 2021.

Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing

Release Month/Year: May 2020

Genre: Horror / Occult

Review by Joseph Haeger:

This horror novella revolves around a family of four trapped in their bathroom after a tornado rips through their town. It’s fast paced and gives us all the information we need without overburdening us with the small details. 

#2. The Secret Diary of a SoundCloud Rapper

by Young Stepdad

Publisher: 11:11 Press

Release Month/Year: September 2021

Genre: Fiction / Satire

Review by Joseph Haeger:

This book is an intimate look at a young man’s mental well-being. Acting like a diary, we get great insights from Young Stepdad; some are ridiculous and hilarious while others are outright heartbreaking.

The marketing behind this book was intriguing too (no one took credit for writing it until the day it came out and multiple authors claimed credit), and the hype could’ve stopped there, but above all, this book delivers. 

#3. Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun

by Jeff Chon

Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun book cover

Publisher: Sagging Meniscus Press

Release Month/Year: May 2021

Genre: Asian & Asian American Fiction / Social Issue

Review by Joseph Haeger:

Jeff Chon writes about an accidental good guy with a gun (as in, he was going to shoot up a pizza parlor he believed housed a child sex ring, but ended up stopping a different shooting). This is a sharp and quick book with tons of layers to pull away. It looks at the gray area in our society and we witness the consequences blooming from an array of actions. 

#4. Hurricane Season

by Kelby Losack

Publisher: Ugly Child

Release Month|Year: May 2021

Genre: Paranormal Fiction / Surreal

Review by Joseph Haeger:

This is a brisk book about two guys trying to wait out a hurricane in Texas. It’s full of ramblings that turn into working class philosophy lessons, but in the best way possible. It’s a tightly compacted story and the language Kelby Losack uses is inspired because he’s tackling big ideas while staying true to the characters, making their conversations feel eerily authentic. 

#5. The Neon Hollywood Cowboy

by Matt Mitchell

Publisher: Big Lucks

Release Month/Year: April 2021

Genre: Poetry / Gender Studies

Review by Joseph Haeger:

This collection of poems hits you hard. Matt Mitchell folds you into his psyche and worldview and doesn’t let you go. It’s personal, honest, and engaging—weaving a life lived into a poetic form that’s incredibly effective in opening a window for us to look through.

Samantha Hui – Reviewer

#1. I Never Understood Religion Until I Learned Your Name

by Hunter Hazelton

Publisher: Tolsun Books

Release Month/Year: May 2021

Genre: Poetry / LGBTQ+

Review by Samantha Hui:

I Never Understood Religion Until I Learned Your Name is Hunter Hazelton’s debut poetry collection that recounts the speaker’s first queer relationship. The story follows the intense crescendo of a budding relationship and sexuality to its ultimate implosion that leaves the speaker shattered yet thankful. The poetry reveres the lustful body. The language conveys love as a deep angst for a person who can never be fully had or understood. I recommend this book to all young lovers who too feel that love can be both annihilation and emergence.

#2. We Have Something to Say

by Sonia Myers

We Have Something to Say included in this year's best books of the year list.

Publisher: Atmosphere Press

Release Month/Year: September 2021

Genre: Middle Grade Fiction / Environment & Nature

Review by Samantha Hui:

Jenny Barajas has always kept quiet because she worries that she isn’t as smart as the other kids in her class. When her new middle school science teacher Ms. Morgan teaches about the climate crisis through an approach that promotes trial regardless of error, Jenny learns that her voice might be the exact thing her school and her community needed.

We Have Something to Say! is a poignant story about climate justice and how a single, seemingly insignificant voice can be just what a community needs to activate.

Alexandria Ducksworth – Reviewer

#1. Consumers vs. Producers

by T.D. Brown

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: May 2016

Genre: Nonfiction / Business

Review by Alexandria Ducksworth:

Thomas Dev Brown has written so much truth here about how the world is divided between producers and consumers. He reveals that creators prosper more than those who only consume everything within their grasps. This book has helped me focus more on production and to reap the rewards for it. 

#2. The Infant Spirits

by Janice Tremayne

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: September 2021

Genre: Paranormal / Horror

Review by Alexandria Ducksworth:

Ghosts & demons lurk in this oddly delightful paranormal horror

Anything associated with children in a horror novel is bound to be creepy. But it takes a strong author to make it somehow delightful. The Infant Spirits is great for those in the mood for a quick creepy read capable of being devoured in a single night. This thing is exciting, fast-paced, and can be downright disturbing.

#3. The Last Halloween

by Abby Howard

Publisher: Iron Circus Comics

Release Month/Year: October 2020

Genre: Young Adult / Horror

Review by Alexandria Ducksworth:

The Last Halloween is alluring and rather dark. Monsters have been mysteriously released on Halloween, attacking people left and right. The problem: these monsters have close ties to their victims. How and why? The story has a deeper, more mysterious plot than you’d expect. I loved every single page of it.

#4. Playing in Time and Space

by Richard Dotts

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: September 2014

Genre: Nonfiction / Spirituality

Review by Alexandria Ducksworth:

Richard Dotts’ book is based on bringing your desires to life through your imagination. According to Dotts, everything is possible. There are no limits to what you want to bring into your life. People who have read The Secret and the works of Neville Goddard must read this book. The book has changed the way I see the world and the illusion of time. 

#5. Wolf Omega

by Joseph Stone

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: February 2021

Genre: Dark Fantasy / Horror

Review by Alexandria Ducksworth:

Joseph Stone’s Wolf Omega is an unapologetic, addictive dark fantasy that I could not let go of. There are plenty of aspects of the novel that keep me enraptured, but the finest has got to be the work the author has done with his protagonist Gabriella. Stone is unafraid to put his heroine through some truly rough obstacles. And when I say rough, I really mean downright grim. But with Gabriella’s strength bubbling beneath the surface, we can see a future where her power can break through. We’ll just have to get there first.

Rosa Kumar – Reviewer

#1. The Living Is Easy

by Dorothy West

Publisher: Feminist Press

Release Month/Year: November 2020

Genre: African American Literature / Historical Fiction

Review by Rosa Kumar:

An unforgettable portrait of an unlovable antihero as she manipulates her way through 1940s Black Boston society

The Living is Easy is an intimate, witty account of a shockingly unlikeable protagonist, Cleo, and her very lovable but victimized family. Cleo is a stunning, egotistical young woman who grew up in the countryside, but is sent to Boston when she is old enough because her mother worries her voraciousness is too much for the countryside. 

Dorothy West’s writing talent is wildly impressive. It’s a tragedy we only have a handful of novels from her to give us a deep insider perspective on the domestic lives of 1940s Black women, perhaps one of the most underrepresented people of literary America at the time.

Chika Anene – Reviewer

#1. The Girl in My Treehouse

by S.A. Fanning

Publisher: Immortal Works LLC

Release Month/Year: April 2021

Genre: Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction

Review by Chika Anene:

S.A Fanning has a way with words. Part of what makes The Girl in My Treehouse so enjoyable is just how smoothly the author can tap into the fountain of youth. The language is authentic and thought-provoking, constantly keeping us cued into what our main characters are going through.

Reading this one makes us feel like we’re right in the thick of it with our characters. We’re not merely reading; we’re stepping through the vivid descriptions, overhearing Matt’s and Lia’s interactions from nearby, and taking part in the wildness that is to come. I’m thrilled to feel like such a part of the scenery here.

The characters are also vivid and enjoyable. The novel sends me back into my own memories to dissect what it was like to be Matt’s age again, how the world seems against us when we don’t yet have a backbone.

This book captures the essence of small-town adolescence, and it takes older readers on a joyous ride back to their teenage years.

#2. Ajha’s Web

by Essence Bonitaz

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: June 2020

Genre: African American Literature & Fiction / Contemporary Fiction

Review by Chika Anene:

An authentic page-turner that will leave you tangled in its web of family secrets and drama

While readers will definitely come here for the drama, they won’t leave with only that. I enjoyed many different aspects of this story, but perhaps the thing I clung to the most was each individual character’s unique speech. Their dialogue and distinguishing voices make them feel so real and bring a whole lot of spice to the story.

We get loads of playful banter, especially in the scenes that include Hector and Ajha’s husband Marcus. Since the characters in this drama feel whole and unique, I’m able to dive even deeper into this captivating family drama and in-law strife. Ajha’s family dynamics keep things fresh for us, offering an honest glimpse into their intermingling lives and also their Dominican culture.

The theme of keeping up appearances is also a shining aspect to this well-executed novel. Sure, Ajha’s life may be considered perfect from the outside, but she still lives in a world where she must hide her true feelings, where she needs to keep it together to raise her niece and deal with Hector’s recent changes.

#3. Terms of Service

by Craig W. Stanfill

Terms of Service by Craig Stanfill is one of the best books we've read in 2021.

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: April 2021

Genre: Science Fiction / Dystopian

Review by Chika Anene:

The premise on which this book is founded is a brilliant one. The terms of service hinted at in the title are really going to get your attention. There are a number of smart sci-fi details that make this world unique.

The worldbuilding is really excellent here with its focus on artificial intelligence. It’s not every day we get to read an artificial intelligence novel from an author who has a PhD in artificial intelligence. The systems within the world really make it clear that Stanfill knows his stuff.

There is an all-seeing, all-knowing entity controlling the masses. Dystopian novels, for me, are often only as strong as those entities. And in this novel’s case, the entity stands up to those in 1984 and Brave New World.

Terms of Service is simply unputdownable. This novel comes highly recommended for those readers looking for a strong and unique AI world.

#4. Redeemed

by Lindsay Schuster

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: July 2020

Genre: Young Adult Fiction / Contemporary

Review by Chika Anene:

A coming of age contemporary novel that highlights the joys and agonies of transitioning from your teenage years into adulthood

Schuster’s writing isn’t loaded with flowery prose or complicated words, which makes the book easy for any reader to get through. Schuster draws a great picture of the types of issues that teenagers can run into while they prepare to become full-grown adults—including friendships, faith, and family. Her portrayal of each character is done with great effort and allows the reader to look into the minds of multiple characters, all with individual voices and different issues. 

Genevieve Hartman – Reviewer

#1. Yellow Rain

by Mai Der Vang

Publisher: Graywolf Press

Release Month/Year: September 2021

Genre: Nonfiction / Poetry / Asian & Asian American Literature

Review by Genevieve Hartman (originally in Gasher Journal):

“Weaving together the strands of personal testimony, declassified U.S. government documents, and personal research, Vang reframes the narrative of yellow rain, giving crucial weight to the witness of Hmong survivors. She unabashedly tells the world that this was no naturally occurring anomaly—these were poisonous attacks meant to harm and tranquilize the Hmong people, an experiment of biochemical weapons. The symptoms caused by yellow rain attacks line the pages of at least a quarter of the book.”

#2. The Naomi Letter

by Rachel Mennies

Publisher: BOA Editions, Ltd.

Release Month/Year: April 2021

Genre: Poetry / Love

Review by Genevieve Hartman:

This collection is dream-like and poignant. The speaker pines for her beloved who is out of reach, and the letter form serves both to humanize and to elevate this love story. 

#3. Don’t Call Us Dead

by Danez Smith

Danez Smith's  Don't Call Us Dead is chosen by Genevieve Hartman for this year's best books we've read in 2021 book list.

Publisher: Graywolf Press

Release Month/Year: September 2017

Genre: Poetry / African American Literature

Review by Genevieve Hartman:

This is a reread for me, but it’s one of the most essential books I’ve ever read. It remains timely and heartbreaking, and it is unafraid to be vulnerable in sorrow and in joyful imagination. 

Kathy L. Brown – Reviewer

#1. Mrs. Alworth

by Tim Castano

Mrs. Alworth by Tim Castano has been included in this year's book list "Best Books we Read in 2021"

Publisher: New Meridian Arts

Release Month/Year: July 2021

Genre: Literary / Historical Fiction

Review by Kathy L. Brown:

A nuanced, humane, and all-too-human exploration of life’s great mysteries: hope, death, and the love that lives on after we’re gone.

The finely drawn characters and everyday life’s minutia of Mrs. Alworth are made poignant by extraordinary circumstances.

Readers interested in sympathetic, fallible humans will enjoy the subtle and realistic portrayal of Amanda and Orest’s relationship. The themes and issues of Mrs. Alworth bear serious thought and discussion, making this an excellent book club selection.

#2. Manifest

by Adam Phillips

Publisher: Montag Press

Release Month/Year: January 2021

Genre: Historical Fiction / Sports

Review by Kathy L. Brown:

Manifest captures a robust turn-of-the-last century America through a game, baseball, and an assortment of death row prison inmates and staff drawn from all levels of society. Each character is a rich, vivid player in an epic game—not just the game of baseball but of life, death, redemption, and transcendence. The feel of the book is Walt Whitman, Shawshank Redemption, and Field of Dreams, all rolled up into killer storytelling. You do not need to know or care about baseball or sports to love this book. 

Tavleen Kaur – Reviewer

#1. These Violent Nights

by Rebecca Crunden

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: November 2020

Genre: Dark Fantasy

Review by Tavleen Kaur:

The worldbuilding in this book is amazing, refreshing and not too complex. There is a good mix of danger and action with emotional, funny, and everyday human moments. It shows what it’s like to live your life in the shadow of immense trauma that you have faced, trauma that you feel you can never get rid of.

Lindsay Crandall – Reviewer

#1. Skadi

by Steven Grier Williams

Skadi by Steven Grier Williams is on this year's best books we read in 2021 list

Publisher: Milford House Press (an imprint of Sunbury Press, Inc.)

Release Month/Year: August 2021

Genre: Fantasy / Norse Mythology

Review by Lindsay Crandall:

Skadi is a strong debut novel from Steven Grier Williams that stars a fierce heroine who must overcome extreme challenges while struggling with grief. Norse mythology with a healthy dose of magic and fantasy, this turns out to be a quick read with a rich cast of characters and an epic adventure.

Robyn-Lee Samuels – Reviewer

#1. The Bridge to Rembrandt

by Nelson Foley

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: June 2021

Genre: Historical Fiction / Time Travel

Review by Robyn-Lee Samuels:

The Bridge to Rembrandt is a humorous, engaging, and charming take on the classical historical romance narrative. Art lovers will be in for a treat with this one as the characters stroll through museums, meet Rembrandt’s pupils, and discover more about the Dutch master. You don’t have to be an expert on art history to enjoy it, though. The characters, romance, and whimsy of reliving the past are enough to keep readers engrossed to the end.

#2. Time for Redemption

by Susan C. Muller

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: May 2021

Genre: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

Review by Robyn-Lee Samuels:

Susan C. Muller’s ability to weave together such an intricate plot is impressive. From start to finish, the world is vivid, imaginative, and the stakes are always believable. The description of food, culture, and landscapes in both the Louisiana and Houston scenes make for an immersive reading experience and add textural layers to an already thoughtful setting. Instead of limiting characters to city regions, Susan allows them to explore the small town feel with strip malls, diners, and dollar stores as well as the swamps of the Bayou.

Mystery novels with multiple points of view can go really well or really wrong. In this case, Time for Redemption does not disappoint. Not only does it offer us a brisk and steady pace, but the interlinking plot arcs create tension and make it easy to keep on flipping pages. Muller masterfully juggles each POV chapter by focusing on the action and adding other POVs when necessary.

#3. A Cabin in the Woods

by Marek Zahorec

Publisher: Independently Published

Release Month/Year: March 2021

Genre: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

Review by Robyn-Lee Samuels:

An evocative psychological thriller that explores the influence of trauma on the human mind and soul

Author Marek Záhorec takes the reader on an unexpected journey in this one.

A Cabin in the Woods is intentionally slow-paced and unsettling at first, then it gradually becomes a page-turner as the tapestry comes together. The novel has two points of view: Damian’s and the story he is writing. Although the dual storylines seem disconnected at first, Damian’s fictional world drastically influences his reality. Záhorec mirrors certain events as Damian uses his writing to process the world around him, starting to make less sense as he goes on.

It is an exciting look at the process of storytelling and the toll it takes on storytellers. Throughout the novel, Damian must find inspiration and a muse, create writing rituals, and balance his social life with writing. Through Damian, Záhorec delves into the dangers of obsessing over a creative project. The reader watches as Damian’s issue transforms from extreme writers’ block to one of sacrificing health and relationships to complete his work.

This novel isn’t as hard-hitting as some psychological thrillers, but it’s a thought-provoking and twisty excavation into a writer’s mind. 


Thanks for checking out our choices for the best books we read in 2021! What are the best ones you read this year?


About Independent Book Review

Founded in April 2018, Independent Book Review is dedicated to showing you the best of small press and self-published books. IBR has over 25 reviewers on staff with an enthusiasm for genres all across the literary landscape. They are based out of Harrisburg, PA.


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3 comments on “The Best Books We Read This Year (2021)

  1. Thanks so much for all the wonderful reading you have put us onto, and illuminated so masterfully, this year. I’m sure I’m not alone in greatly appreciating your insights and the huge amount of time and effort you put into this. Looking forward to more of the same in 2023. THE BEST NOVELS<

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