I had high hopes for 2021. Then it reminded me why I’m a natural pessimist.
But 2021 did give me another crop of really good, really strong books to read. So while I didn’t accomplish much writing-wise these past 365 days (or really much of anything other than “don’t get the plague”), I can at least look back at my bookshelf and realize I was thoroughly entertained, enlightened, and educated.
NOTE: These are not necessarily the best books that came out in 2021, just the best books I read throughout the past calendar year.
5. Ever the Hero by Darby Harn
If you need a reason why the superhero genre is exploding, books like Ever the Hero are why.
Darby Harn gives us a mash-up of superheroes and science fiction (and a pleasantly surprising amount of political reality). For a story about aliens and spaceships and glowing, flying superheroes, Ever the Hero is remarkably grounded. This is where the relatively slow-paced opening half is so critical (if only in hindsight), showing us who protagonist Kit is, what makes her her.
We love all the best superheroes because of who they are beyond their splash page-worthy heroics. We can’t love Superman if we don’t love Clark Kent, and Harn gets that. For all Kit’s many strengths once she has powers, it’s who she is independent of those abilities that makes her so easy to root for and invest in.
This book is equal parts epic and tragic and frustrating in how plausible and realistic certain parts of it are. It’s the very best of a rapidly growing genre, and the perfect foundation for what promises to be a fantastic, engrossing series.
Ever the Hero is available in paperback and Kindle.
4. Inalienable by S.E. Anderson
Inalienable is the seventh entry in S.E. Anderson’s quirky, irreverent sci-fi series, and it’s every bit as funny and intense and fresh as the six books that came before it. Such liveliness this deep into a series is a rarity, yet Anderson manages to bring something new with each book while still keeping the themes and the humor that have become her hallmark.
The core trio of Sally, Zander, and Blayde manage the delicate balance of staying true to themselves while still growing, and the humor infused in their never-ending hijinks helps keep every installment fresh. In fact, we’re as out of our element in this book as Sally is, and that works to the narrative’s benefit.
Each book in the series offers something different, a taste of a different genre aside from the science fiction that rests at the foundation. Inalienable is no different, as it takes on a space opera feel to it—this book is certainly not as grounded as its predecessor.
But that works to keep the series fresh. Sally and her pals never know what’s coming, and neither do we. Anderson is to be lauded for her ability to keep this series as lively and interesting seven books in as it was when that hot air balloon first crash-landed into Sally’s window.
Inalienable is available in paperback and Kindle.
3. How the Word in Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
Given the racial reckoning that’s taken over America since George Floyd’s murder, books like Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed have seen a surge in interest. To be frank, though, the content of Smith’s book should be rendered moot by the subject matter having been taught in our history classes.
But the American education system’s failure of choice means Smith has to start candid, important, and uncomfortable conversations – conversations too many of us are still refusing to have. Almost every issue facing America can be traced, in one way or another, to our racist history (and present), and our collective refusal to acknowledge that leaves us…
As mentioned, How the Word is Passed is uncomfortable at times – both in predictable and unexpected ways. I was particularly struck by one chapter in which Smith takes a tour of a prison in Louisiana, because I cannot wrap my head around the concept of a prison giving tours to the public. Yet one more offshoot of how America continues to have – and ignore – a race problem.
This is a book everyone needs to read. Especially white people.
How the Word is Passed is available in hardcover, audiobook, and Kindle.
2. A Sky Beyond the Storm by Sabaa Tahir
An emotionally satisfying ending is not necessarily a happy ending.
Sabaa Tahir’s A Sky Beyond the Storm, the finale in the Ember series, taught me that lesson. While the conclusion was every bit as violent and intense as expected, it was also the kind of ending that satisfied, even if the conclusion was (perhaps in hindsight) inevitable and far from what anyone would consider happy.
Because it made sense for the characters.
Through four books, and through possibly just as many points of view, Tahir never once lost sight of her characters. Through each book, Laia, Elias, and Helene were at the center of every twist, every shocking reveal, every tragedy. Tahir’s almost obsessive reliance on her characters above all else made for an emotionally tense and visceral tale.
And whereas many a series stumbles on the dismount, Tahir suffers no such fate with Sky, because of her insistent need to center the characters. Tahir’s series is a masterclass in not just fantasy storytelling or the practice of telling a story through multiple POVs, but also in the importance of character over plot.
Tahir’s masterstroke of a finale proves that characters are what make us fall in love with stories.
A Sky Beyond the Storm is available in hardcover, audiobook, and Kindle.
1. A Country of Eternal Light by Darby Harn
Harn pulls no punches in his magnum opus, a spec-fic classic that feels less like spec fic and more like a thorough examination of the human condition. Specifically, what do human beings do when stripped of all hope, of all optimism?
It turns out, they…keep on living.
If that sounds cheery…it’s not. Harn makes A Country of Eternal Light a difficult read—not because he lacks narrative skill or understanding of what makes great characters (he certainly possesses both qualities in spades), but because he forces the reader to examine, to experience, to feel everything his characters feel. There is no hiding in this book. Not for the characters, and not for us.
And yet, the pages keep turning. There is no last-minute save. Harn does not concoct some plot device to wave away the despair that lies at the core of this book. We have to sit with the woe and the death and the hopelessness as much as the characters do. This book is the human experience, stripped to its hopeless yet stubborn core.
It’s a modern masterpiece that will break you several different ways.
A Country of Eternal Light is available in paperback and Kindle.
Honorable Mention: Consistent Creative Content: A Guide to Authoring and Blogging in the Social Media Age by Lee Hall, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, Bag Man by Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz, Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings, The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin, A Promised Land by Barack Obama, Deferred Glory: Heroes of the Negro Baseball Leagues by Danny A. Ingellis, The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi.
About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.