When I started going through all my 5 star reads for 2021, I was pleasantly surprised that of the 141 books I’ve read as of this moment, I had well over 40 that were 5 star reads. Either I was just really fast and loose with the 5 stars this year or I had a really great reading year. I’m betting it’s the latter. I’ve managed to narrow the list down further by focusing on 24 5 star titles that were all published in 2021. So, here are my absolute favorite reads of 2021!
The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon – as the saying goes, begin as you mean to go on. And this book, my very first read of 2021 was a stellar start to the reading year. As I said in my review, this book hit some of my tropey sweet spots with an awkward MMC and a competent FMC. You can find my full review here.
Make it Sweet by Kristen Callihan – it’s a pretty well known fact that I’m a total Kristen Callihan fangirl. I love her books, her contemporaries just really, really work for me and this one, with ex-hockey player turned reclusive baker Luc and Emma, a recently unemployed actress is a delicious blend of sexual tension, banter, and lots and lots of pastries. You can read my review here.
When Tara Met Farah by Tara Pammi – when I first started reading this book, I had some doubts, especially when it switched from 1st person POV to 3rd person POV in alternating chapters depending on the MC. But this sapphic romance between the titular Tara and Farah just blew me away. Dealing with heavy topics of grief relating to parental loss as well as a young woman just trying to find her place in the world, this is absolutely a book that has stayed with me months after I read it. You can read my review here.
This Is Not the End by Sidney Bell – this polyamorous romance stole my heart and it really worked well because we got POVs from all three of the MCs. Anya, Cal, and Zac were phenomenal characters, both individually and collectively and I really need more of this author’s books in my life in 2022. You can read my review here.
Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert – I don’t think I’ve had a single best of year romance list without a Talia Hibbert book since I first read her. This, the final book in her Brown Sisters trilogy, features Jacob, one of the most endearing MMCs I’ve ever read and Eve, the equally endearing, messy, complicated youngest Brown sister. You can read my review here.
Twice Shy by Sarah Hogle – what happens when a grouchy groundskeeper and a down on her luck dreamer unexpectedly become the co-inheritors of a crumbling mansion in need of a lot of tender loving care? Magic, that’s what. No, not literal magic, this is after all, a contemporary romance and not a fantasy, but still, reading about socially anxious Wesley and hopeless romantic Maybell find love with each other does carry a touch of magic. You can read my review here.
Exposed by Kristen Callihan – yes, yes, I KNOW, this is the second book by this author on this list. I did warn you all I’m a major Kristen Callihan fangirl. Exposed, the long-awaited 4th book in her VIP series took a bit of time but let me just say, it was well worth the wait. ALL. THAT. PINING. Brenna and Rye, long at odds over the first 3 books, made us wait for their HEA and every single, torturous second was filled with excruciating tension and explosive chemistry. You can read my review here.
Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers – so, while I have listed this as a contemporary romance and it does contain a romantic subplot, this is really a story about family, the one you’re born to and the one you make for yourself and also a story about expectations, the ones your family puts on you and the ones you put on yourself. I read this book from the library, finished it, and immediately purchased it for my keeper shelf. You can read my review here.
Hang the Moon by Alexandria Bellefleur – that rare M/F romance where I fell harder for the MMC than the FMC. I’m normally all in on the FMC from the get go but Brendon, tall and charming, with his ridiculously tiny smart car and his love of rom coms and the grand gesture, owned me from the get go. He was delightful and sweet, as was this book. You can read my review here.
Battle Royal by Lucy Parker – Lucy Parker is another mainstay in my annual best reads lists. She never disappoints. Likewise, her 2021 entry is reliably tender and sweet, witty and charming, poignant and bittersweet. Really 3 love stories in 1, this is a story about love and loss, grief and heartbreak, and…yet another asshole cat. To be clear, there is a romance with a HEA in this book, a quintessential grump/sunshine romance with all of Lucy’s trademark witty banter and plenty of sexual tension. You can read my review here.
Tell Me Anything by Skye Kilaen – two words I would use to describe this book are soft and kind; FMC Isabel is going through a really difficult time and Derek, our bisexual MMC just wants to help her put her life back together; there are beautiful themes of self-acceptance, unconditional love, and found family and it just made for a really lovely story. You can read my review here.
All the Feels by Olivia Dade – let me preface by saying Olivia and I are twitter friends and she’s a delight and I love her. This maybe my all time favorite Olivia Dade book and that’s really saying something because every single book I’ve read by her has been a solid 5 star read. Lauren is a FMC for the ages and Alex – I genuinely don’t even have the words to express how much I love these two. Usually I have favorites when it comes to the MCs in the the books I’m reading but in this one, Alex and Lauren are both tied for favorites. You can read my review here.
Christmas in Rose Bend by Naima Simone – trust Naima Simone to give me the contemporary Christmas romance I’ve been looking for. Charming, with all the hallmarks of a…well, Hallmark Christmas movie but with Naima’s brand of heat and steam, this was a story of grief and loss and hope and love and redemption. Really love the world Naima has built in this series. You can read my review here.
A Thorn in the Saddle by Rebekah Weatherspoon – to say I have been waiting with breathless anticipation for the final book in Rebekah Weatherspoon’ s Cowboys of California series would be a bit of an understatement and Jesse’s book DID. NOT. DISAPPOINT. Socially awkward and sexually inexperienced MMCs are my catnip; throw in sex lessons from the FMC and I was SOLD. You can read my review here.
The Shame Game by Hannah Murray – this is very much an erotic romance and I will be blunt – this will not be everyone’s jam. The story focuses on a long married couple (he’s in his 50s and she’s in her 40s) exploring kink, particularly humiliation kink. And while that’s not my personal jam, I really appreciate how the author explored this kink with a lot of sensitivity and nuance with great attention to consent. You can read my review here.
Sing Anyway by Anita Kelly – soft, tender and lovely, set against the backdrop of a rundown karaoke bar, I adored NB Sam and Lily. Watching these two fall for each other over a night of singing and dancing at Moonie’s was utterly charming and delightful. You can read my review here.
Our Favorite Songs by Anita Kelly – yes, I read both these books back to back and they were both delightful, and I couldn’t help but put both of them on my top contemporaries of 2021 list. This one, about Aiden and Kai, former high school nemesis, who happen to both harbor secret feelings for each other was so charming. You can read my review here.
The Devil Comes Courting by Courtney Milan – I adore Courtney Milan’s historical romances and this was just perfect, with a competent (beyond competent) FMC who lacks confidence and the MMC who hires her to invent a telegraphic method for transmitting Chinese characters and slowly gives her back her self confidence. It’s beautiful and charming while also focusing on some pretty heavy themes and I absolutely loved it. You can read my review here.
The Devil and the Heiress by Harper St. George – I discovered this new to me author just this year and I am hooked. The second book in her The Gilded Age Heiresses series is even better than the first, in my opinion. As I wrote in my review, this book is peak example of how I would overlook and forgive certain traits and actions in a histrom hero that I would never excuse in a contemporary hero. This book was tropey fun – sickbed scene with caretaking hero, only one bed, historical romance road trip, marriage of convenience – you name it, it had it. And I loved it. You can read my review here.
Bombshell by Sarah MacLean – as you can see from my list, I am overwhelmingly a contemporary romance reader. But I do have a handful of historical romance authors I will always read. Sarah MacLean is one such author. Her books are consistently witty and fun, with FMCs who always subvert societal norms and expectations and MMCs who love them for exactly who they are. Sesily and Caleb have been 4 books in the making and all I can see is I can’t wait for the rest of this series. You can read my review here.
Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder – I finished this book on January 6th which seems oddly prescient. There’s a whole lot of world building going on in this book that is a mix of PNR and political intrigue with a huge cast of characters and I was riveted. You can read my review here.
Last Guard by Nalini Singh – let me just say, I’m a HUGE Nalini Singh fan and absolutely adore the Psy-Changeling series plus the spin-off Trinity series. It is remarkable in terms of world building and plot development and I do not know how Nalini keeps everything straight in her head but she’s amazing and so is this book. You can read my joint review with Melinda here.
Archangel’s Light by Nalini Singh – first of all, LOOK AT THAT GLORIOUS COVER. Illium. Aodhan. Bluebell. Sparkle. The day this ARC hit my kindle, I literally shrieked with joy. Finally we were getting the pairing that we have been anticipating for the past 13 books. 13 books!! This was stunning, epic, heartbreaking, and hopeful, with the usual twists that Nalini is known for. You can see our Smexy joint review here.
Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan – I don’t read very my YA but I am so happy I picked this one up. What a tremendous debut from this author and now I can’t wait to see what she does next. I adored everything about this book, related so hard to the FMC, Karina, and just enjoyed every heartfelt moment of this book about two high school students who are seemingly polar opposites, falling hard for each other. You can read my review here.
Reading year recap:
While I chose to focus this particular post on books that were published in 2021, I also want to add that I had many excellent reads that were published before 2021. Chief amongst them, I started to reread the Psy-Changeling series with my best friend Melinda and we started doing deep dives for them on Smexy. (You can find the ones we’ve done so far right here). They brought us so much joy in a year that was sometimes downright terrible. Books, in general, provided a great and much needed distraction and for that, I just want to thank the authors who write the words, even when times are hard. Cannot wait to see what great books lie in wait for 2022!
Great list! Because I’m always running behind in my reading, I keep two lists of favorite reads: one for books published and read in the current year and another for books published in a prior year but only read in the current year.
Thanks for sharing your list, @Melanie. I see some books there that I also enjoyed and others are waiting to be read. I hope that 2022 will be another excellent reading year!