Best Reads of 2021: My Top 5 ✨

Hello there!

Time to jump into a quick time travel trip back to 2021 because I’m (finally) here with my top reads of last year 😊 I read some great books and it was pretty difficult to prune the list into the very best 5, but I managed! First I’ll present to you these lovelies and then jump into why I loved these so much (and a bit about why you should read them too).

Your Top Books 2021 (presented similarly to Spotify wrapped in a pretty graphic, the graphic by Julie (Struck by Stories)). #1 Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim, published by Hodder & Stoughton on July 6th 2021. #2 Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden, published by Canongate Books on January 28th 2021. #3 Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, published by Grove Press on June 12th 2019. #4 A Psalm for the Wild-built by Becky Chambers, published by Tor on July 13th 2021. #5 The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna, published by Delacorte Press on February 9th 2021

A huge thank you to Julie @ Struck by Stories for making available this gorgeous graphic for listing top books 2021! You can check it out here.

Let’s dive in to this list!

#1 Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

the cover of Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

YA Fantasy

My copy was from a Fairyloot box – a hardcover

454 pages

Published on the 6th of July 2021

Asian American author!

Quick vibes

  • Reads like a fairytale
  • Characters have depth and complexity! The relationships shift and evolve
  • The magical aspects are just MAGICAL

The story follows Shiori, a princess about to be wed off to a prince she has never met. Shiori has been concealing her forbidden magic for years, but on the morning of her betrothal ceremony she loses control. This catches the attention of her cold stepmother, Raikama, who puts a curse on Shiori and her six brothers: Shiori is banished, and for every word she says, one of her brothers will die.

Six Crimson Cranes provides a breath-taking, magical adventure that reads like an ancient fairytale. Shiori is a delight to read about. She has a lot of passion but still always makes reasonable decisions given the circumstances (I have been reading way too many books lately where the protagonist just prances around with no clear motives). Shiori’s brothers are a pretty amazing bunch too. They all have different personalities and you won’t be mixing up them even though there are so many of them. All of the characters have depth and personality, they shift and their relationships evolve. It’s beautiful to read about.

Six Crimson Cranes has an intriguing magic system, a vast world, mythology, and dragons. The world isn’t overwhelming to read about, because it opens little by little. Overall this book feels like a tale told around a campfire. A story that is told slowly by a grandmother, perfectly setting up the scene, at times pointing at the mountains surrounding you – saying ‘there – that’s the place where it happened’

I was so surprised about my love for Six Crimson Cranes. I went into the book hesitantly, after having dnf’ed Elizabeth Lim’s Spin the Dawn. Six Crimson Cranes ended up sweeping me with it from the very beginning, and I was transfixed by its characters, the world, the magic, and the writing style. It was everything I could have hoped for. This makes me think that I should probably go back to Spin the Dawn – maybe I was wrong to dnf it? Maybe I was reading it when I was tired or distracted or with wrong expectations? Maybe I would love it too?

The sequel to Six Crimson Cranes, The Dragon’s Promise, comes out in August this year. I’m really excited and already pre-ordered the magical Fairyloot edition of it!

ad by Fairyloot for their edition of The Dragon's Promise by Elizabeth Lim. The book cover is pastel toned with illustrations of a girl and a dragon. The book has sprayed edges.

#2 Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

The cover of Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Adult fantasy

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author

302 pages

Published on the 28th of January 2021

Black author! Mental health rep.

Quick vibes

  • The poetic writing style is enchantingly beautiful
  • Heavy, thoughtful discussions about life and death
  • A relatable main character who struggles a lot

This book is simply impactful, powerful, and poetic. (TW: death, discussion of death, suicide, mental health, poverty)
Mrs Death Misses Death made me stop and stare into space while listening to it. I found it difficult to tear myself away from it, and it was impossible to do anything meaningful while listening to it. It demanded all of my attention and completely consumed me.

This is one of those books that it’s best to know as little as possible going into. The book is essentially about a writer who tries to write a biography of Mrs Death who he keeps meeting. Full of poetic, abstract moments and deep discussions, this could be a book for you if you don’t mind being confused.

Also, the audiobook read by the author is simply magnificent! Go listen to it! It reads like poetry. It’s about death and life and all in between. It’s poignant and beautiful.

My favourite quote (TW: suicide, death!) : “Let’s hope I come when you are busy doing something you want to live for. Let us hope I come when you are doing something you would die for, and let’s hope that if you kill yourself, you are well over 40 years old, because to kill yourself before age 40 is like murdering a stranger,”

#3 Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

the cover of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Literary fiction

I listened to the audiobook

168 pages

Published on the 12th of June 2019 (in English)

Japanese author! Mental health rep.

Quick vibes

  • A quirky story about struggles in trying to meet society’s expectations
  • Clever, mundane observations

This is a brilliant story about the struggle to match society’s expectations.
Keiko Furukura has always had difficulty reacting like people around her do, and she has been content to be a part-time convenience store worker for 18 years. People react badly to her career and complain about her being single. Furukura tries her best to match others’ expectations, but the random rules of society seem hazy to her.

I loved Furukura as the main character – she is sweet and easy to understand. I just wanted her to be herself, and loved following her tale. The book is written in a slice-of-life style that is usual to Japanese literature, and the familiarity of the mundane tasks like convenience stores was really comforting. People around Furukura are conservative, some are misogynistic, and all demand a lot of things from her (a certain type of career, a marriage, a child etc), but Furukura’s rationalism takes out the edge of these abusive comments.

I have a feeling that whenever I need to find myself again, I’ll return to this tiny book. I imagine it could help you find yourself too.

#4 A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

the cover of A Psalm for the Wild-built by Becky Chambers

Adult Scifi

I read the ebook version that I got from the library

160 pages

Published on the 13th of July 2021

Asexual and queer characters, a nonbinary main character

Quick vibes

  • A wholesome read
  • Exploration of the meaning of life, some in-depth discussions that are very accessible and gentle
  • Amazing characters

It has been 6 months since I read this, and I still think about every week.

This short novel follows a monk who decides to take up the role of a tea monk and starts touring in a tea carriage, offering tea and solace to anyone who needs it. A sense of restlessness spurs Sibling Dex into taking the new role, but although they become better at the task, an odd urge makes them move away from the usual roads, into the wilderness where robots disappeared a long time ago after gaining sentience.

The discussions in this book touch deep into the idea of do I need to do something meaningful to be meaningful, and this really struck a chord with me. Simply put, A Psalm for the Wild-built came at the perfect time. I have been exhausted after over-working on my PhD (also why I find it so difficult to get any posts out in reasonable time!) and completely confused about my current work, what to do after, and who I want to be. A Psalm for the Wild-built stepped into that overwhelming jumble of thoughts and made me feel human in the chaos. I laughed and cried. I wish I had a print copy of this one so that I could keep coming back to it.

I have read all of Becky Chambers’ books, and her impeccable writing style is still intact in this one. The story is character-led with deep, insightful discussions. The scifi landscape is key in the story, but the characters and their difficulties remain close to Earth.

#5 The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

the cover of The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

YA Fantasy

I read the Fairyloot paperback version

432 pages

Published on the 9th of February 2021

Black author!

Quick vibes

  • Engaging, action-packed plot with great characters
  • Some truly gory scenes which made this feel more like adult than YA
  • Vast world with an intriguing mythology
  • Discussion of feminism and race!

A lot of the books on this list are somehow poetic or provide in-depth discussions. But an actionable YA fantasy can easily make it to my top 5 too! The Gilded Ones is action-packed and made me hold my breath while reading it. Although the book is marketed as YA, it is far more gory than most fantasies I have read and I would urge you to proceed with caution. TW: Violence, murder, killing in graphic ways, bleeding and lots of blood, rape, genocide, animal injury.

Despite of the violence, The Gilded Ones is a beautiful book. The story has high-stakes and it captured me from the beginning. We follow Deka who wants nothing but belong. When Deka’s turn comes to prove her purity in a ritual, she bleeds gold as the mark of impurity. Her experiences after the ritual are unimaginable in their cruelty. Deka is a strong character, but I loved how well The Gilded Ones showcases the depth of her pain. This book doesn’t skimp on the complexity of the characters, and Deka is most interesting of all. While battling with her own traumas, Deka is filled with unreserved love for others and a strong sense of trust, even when things go way south. I loved how quickly she thinks and addresses mysteries by asking questions and demanding answers, instead of endlessly musing over things. In addition to Deka, the side characters are golden too (see what I did there lol)! I loved Britta, Adwapa, and Belcalis – strong women with distinct characters.

The worldbuilding and plot is great — we are given a sense of ancient history and mythology. The world is vast with different types of people. I need a prequel to this, following how the Gilded Ones came about and what happened to them.

One of my favourite aspects of The Gilded Ones is its unapologetic feminism. In fact, I can easily imagine some readers seeing this book as preachy. We get nice and lengthy discussions of feminism and how people are treated in Otera both interleaved in dialogue and slotted in Deka’s thoughts. Otera is abusive to women, and they are not allowed to leave home without a man, run, go to school or work. Women are property of men, and the only thing that women can hope to achieve is a marriage with lots of children. Any woman of age has to wear a mask to hide herself from prying eyes, and everyone has grown up to not only accept these things but to aspire to behave perfectly according to them. I loved how the characters slowly but surely chip into the things they have always been taught. These discussions and events made me really happy. I know the feminism can come across as preachy or cliche – but I really liked it. Whenever I pick up a new book, I have constant doubts about the events – are these micro-aggresions? Is there sexism? Racism? Is that a bad joke or an ableist slur? – and honestly, getting the ideology of the characters so plainly on the page puts me at ease. I don’t need to read in between lines when the agenda is clear.

A quick note – this isn’t to say that I think the feminism in The Gilded Ones is perfect. I think it doesn’t showcase freedom of everyone regardless of gender very clearly, and focuses strongly on the liberation of women. I did understand that the goal was a world without abuse or prejudice, but I see it as a possibility that someone reads this and interprets some parts as man-hatred. I choose to believe that it isn’t true because I loved this book. The women in this story have been abused by countless men in power and their anger is warranted. But deep in its core, the women believe that the freedom, equality and peace belongs to absolutely everyone and they do not hold men in general accountable. But honestly – there are so many books that argue that they are feminist fantasies, when they are simply not. The Gilded Ones does an amazing job.

This is a great book and I can’t wait to see what the author writes next. It is an intricately written story of strength, being different, and getting through traumas. Definitely pick this up – but keep in mind that it is one of the most gory and violent YA fantasy out there. In fact, it is so bloody that I’m not sure that it’s YA at all. 

Those were my favourite 5 books of 2021! I felt odd writing about this as it’s already March, but I needed to share my love for these books. It was fun to think back on why I loved these stories so much, and I definitely got a strong sense of longing to read them all again. Here’s to hoping that 2022 will bring with it tales that rival the beauty of these!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Are any of these on your TBR? And what were your favourites of 2021? I would love to know!

Thank you so much for reading! I hope your day continues well and you have a lot of of sweet, joyful and comforting moments. I hope your 2022 is full of great books that stir your soul!

- Pauliina

7 thoughts on “Best Reads of 2021: My Top 5 ✨

  1. Such a great list, Pauliina! I’m finally going to pick up The Gilded Ones in April and I can’t wait 😍 Also I’ve had my eye on Six Crimson Cranes – you’ve definitely convinced me to read it!


  2. I loved seeing your favorites of 2021!! 💕 I’m currently reading Six Crimson Cranes and I’m enjoying the world and mythology (I’m only 23% into it though), it has got something whimsical about it 🥰 The Gilded Ones is still on my TBR, I got an Arc that I sadly never got around to reading 🙈 Glad to hear that you liked it!


  3. all of these are on my TBR! I actually got an eARC for Six Crimson Cranes and still haven’t read it, shame on me 🙈 Out of all of these I’m probably looking forward to reading Mrs Death Misses Death the most, I love books about death and grief, even though I often find them hard to read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

    Liked by 1 person

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