Every year I’m struggling to find the perfect books to recommend for this list. There have been so many great books, but these I want to highlight. Some are lesser known books, others are a surefire gift that many will love. I’ve split them up by genre, but there’s definitely some overlap.
You’ll notice that there are no men on this list. I didn’t do it on purpose, but is there any doubt that women and non-binary authors kicked butt this year? Let’s celebrate that.
If none of these books are what you’re looking for, check out my list of reviews for more books I loved (and didn’t love).
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natascha Ngan
A relatively new release, but it’s already a much talked about book. So far I’ve only heard good things about it and I’m looking forward to diving into this one myself. I don’t think you can go wrong gifting this book to someone who reads YA fantasy.
Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.
But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.
Empress of all Seasons by Emiko Jean
I find the Japanese culture fascinating, both current and historical. So it shouldn’t surprise you that this one made my list. The naginata on the cover is also a reason for me to pick this one up. The naginata is definitely my favoured weapon that I’m trained in (even when it’s just a little). There’s enough conflict to keep the story interesting until the end. Better plan to read this one on a day off.
In a palace of illusions, nothing is what it seems.
Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.
Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast.
Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat YA fantasy.
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
I’ve only heard good things about The Poppy War, but it’s one of those books that doesn’t get a large marketing budgets. One of many good books.
When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.
The Wedding date by Jasmine Guillory
The wedding date trope might have lost its appeal, but when it’s well written I tend to forgive such things. The characters can also make or break the story.
Note: contains graphic sex scenes. Definitely for a more adult audience.
Agreeing to go to a wedding with a guy she gets stuck with in an elevator is something Alexa Monroe wouldn’t normally do. But there’s something about Drew Nichols that’s too hard to resist.
On the eve of his ex’s wedding festivities, Drew is minus a plus one. Until a power outage strands him with the perfect candidate for a fake girlfriend…
After Alexa and Drew have more fun than they ever thought possible, Drew has to fly back to Los Angeles and his job as a pediatric surgeon, and Alexa heads home to Berkeley, where she’s the mayor’s chief of staff. Too bad they can’t stop thinking about the other…
They’re just two high-powered professionals on a collision course toward the long distance dating disaster of the century–or closing the gap between what they think they need and what they truly want…
A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
We need more black main characters and I want them to have happy endings and become princesses. I’ve read so many princess stories with white princesses, so Alyssa’s stories are always a breath of fresh air.
Between grad school and multiple jobs, Naledi Smith doesn’t have time for fairy tales…or patience for the constant e-mails claiming she’s betrothed to an African prince. Sure. Right. Delete! As a former foster kid, she’s learned that the only things she can depend on are herself and the scientific method, and a silly e-mail won’t convince her otherwise.
Prince Thabiso is the sole heir to the throne of Thesolo, shouldering the hopes of his parents and his people. At the top of their list? His marriage. Ever dutiful, he tracks down his missing betrothed. When Naledi mistakes the prince for a pauper, Thabiso can’t resist the chance to experience life—and love—without the burden of his crown.
The chemistry between them is instant and irresistible, and flirty friendship quickly evolves into passionate nights. But when the truth is revealed, can a princess in theory become a princess ever after?
Unbroken edited by Marieke Nijkamp
I remember Marieke first talking about this anthology at the beginning of the year and it was already a hit in the writer community on Twitter. Lots of bloggers picked up this book aware, especially those who talk about diversity. Disabled characters are still widely underrepresented and this anthology is just the beginning of a new trend of #criplit.
This anthology explores disability in fictional tales told from the viewpoint of disabled characters, written by disabled creators. With stories in various genres about first loves, friendship, war, travel, and more, Unbroken will offer today’s teen readers a glimpse into the lives of disabled people in the past, present, and future.
The contributing authors are award winners, bestsellers, and newcomers including Kody Keplinger, Kristine Wyllys, Francisco X. Stork, William Alexander, Corinne Duyvis, Marieke Nijkamp, Dhonielle Clayton, Heidi Heilig, Katherine Locke, Karuna Riazi, Kayla Whaley, Keah Brown, and Fox Benwell. Each author identifies as disabled along a physical, mental, or neurodiverse axis―and their characters reflect this diversity.
Brace Yourself by S. E. Smart
Sarah connected with me through Twitter and when I knew what her book was about, I had to read it. There aren’t many books out there with a main character who deals with chronic pain and illness. Lizzy struggles with a long list of diseases and syndromes that rule her life. My own list (right now) is only two items long, but I recognised a lot of what Lizzy went through with. If you want to know about the struggles a ‘spoonie’ goes through, read Brace Yourself for a better understanding. The ending was very touching as well.
Since this is a self-published book, you’ll be supporting the author directly by buying this book. The full review of Brace Yourself will be online later, but I rated it five stars.
Brace Yourself is a light-hearted look at the atypical life of ‘nice’ Lizzy, who doesn’t understand why her body and her men always let her down. Looking to regain control of her life in this rom-com with a twist, will Lizzy’s bright-side attitude finally attract the perfect partner?
This isn’t a self-help book, but if you’ve lived with chronic illness you’ll identify with Lizzy’s struggles to stay upright in a world that knocks her down.
We join Lizzy on her humorous journey through a series of painful disasters. But with bad choices, bad men and bad Doctors behind her, Lizzy finally braces herself for a comfortable life.
In The Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard
A darker Beauty and the Beast retelling where the beast is a dragon and a woman. I’ve been recommending In The Vanishers’ Palace to everyone who wanted to hear about it. And some who never asked. Aliette self-published this story after many people showed interest in her passion project and I’m really glad she did. In The Vanishers’ Palace is probably the most diverse and incluse book I’ve read this year. If you’re looking for something like that, you can’t go wrong with any of Aliette’s books.
Since this is a self-published book, you’ll be supporting the author directly by buying this book. Read my review here.
In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land…
A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.
A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.
When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.
But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…
Spellswept by Stephanie Burgis
Last year I fell in love Stephanie’s book Snowspelled, this year it was Spellswept. Spellswept follows Amy’s story and how she became Cassandra’s sister in law. I absolutely love the setting of the Harwood Spellbook series and I’m thrilled that a third book will be released next year. Expect that one on the list next year.
Since this is a self-published book, you’ll be supporting the author directly by buying this book. Read my short review here.
In the world of the Harwood Spellbook, 19th-century Angland is ruled by a powerful group of women known as the Boudiccate – but in order to become a member of that elite group, any ambitious young politician must satisfy tradition by taking a gentleman mage for her husband.
Amy Standish is a born politician…but Jonathan Harwood is her greatest temptation. On the night of the Harwoods’ Spring Solstice Ball, in an underwater ballroom full of sparkling fey lights and danger, Amy will have to fight the greatest political battle of her life to win a family and a future that she could never have imagined.
It will take an entirely unexpected kind of magic to keep everything from crashing down around her.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Do I need to explain this one? Michelle Obama is one of the most influential and inspiring women of our century. Her memoire is nothing less than that.
In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African-American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.
In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms.
Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same.
Educated by Tara Westover
Educated is not a book you read for fun. It deals with difficult subjects and it will hurt to read it. But it’s a story that needs to be told and heard.
Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.
Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.
Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.