I only read two genres in 2021. As the world continued to burn down around us, the escapist swirl of romance novels kissed my forehead and let me forget my troubles for 400 or so pages at a time. Then, my optimism thus restored, I turned to memoirists and journalists to challenge my assumptions and articulate my bruises.
It is always hard to pick favorites, but these are the books I find myself recommending again and again. Not all of them were written in 2021, though most are; what they share is that they found their way to me in this difficult, wild year. I owe their authors a debt of gratitude.
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Blow Your House Down, by Gina Frangello
Some books come along just in time to save your life. After seeing Gina’s memoir all over the internet and bookstore displays, I picked up a copy at the tail end of a long-term relationship. Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason is the study of a woman who is so much more than the flattening roles of wife, mother, daughter and adulteress. Gina balances holding herself accountable while examining the circumstances of her life with focus, grace and honesty.
When it comes to infidelity and monogamy, we rarely have the space to ask questions without shame and guilt: Was this relationship working? Was it humanizing or hurtful before infidelity came into play? Is there a real victim and villain, or are those simple stories we tell ourselves? What roles do power, money, and violence play in monogamy, especially for women?
Gina leans into the ambiguity of ending a marriage and falling deeply in love with someone who isn’t your spouse. Blow Your House Down is one of those memoirs that helped me understand myself by holding up a mirror to my own doubts in the form of someone else’s experiences. It’s a gutting, vulnerable, angry and loving read, and far and away my favorite book of 2021.
The Charm Offensive, by Alison Cochrun
I could not put this contemporary romance down.
From the cover and the summary of The Charm Offensive, I expected to read a goofy gay rom-com that takes place during a Bachelor-esque dating show. Instead I got a deeply felt, sharply characterized and fiercely hilarious book about mental illness, sexual identity and the ickiness of reality television.
In my opinion, Alison Cochrun’s novel is the first romance that lives up to the legacy of Red, White and Royal Blue. This colorful, creative queer romance is unforgettable. If you’re new to the romance genre and looking for something with both escapism and depth, pick up a copy. And if you’ve been disappointed by other dating show romance send-ups, this one finally hits its mark.
Girlhood, by Melissa Febos
Melissa Febos is an iconic feminist writer of our time, but Girlhood is her first book to truly rattle my soul. I’m in awe of its unflinching depiction of the violent atmosphere girls are raised in, especially those of us who developed early and received sexual attention too young to escape it. Febos uses interviews, literature and film, as well as her personal experiences, to unpack the challenging nuances of consent, power and our relationship to our bodies.
My favorite essays traced the origin of the word “slut” and what it means to be a woman deemed bad, and a chilling look at the normalization of “peeping Toms” and the terror of being stalked in your own home. She also tackles the nuanced concept of “empty consent” and how women negotiate sexual encounters they don’t want in order to survive unscathed, as well as our lack of language to understand and describe experiences that don’t leave us traumatized but are nonetheless assault or violations.
Melissa Febos’s intelligence, curiosity and talent drip from each page. This is an essay collection to return to again and again.
The Viscount Made Me Do It, by Diana Quincy
I read a lot of historical romances in 2021, and after a time they begin to blur together into a swoony soup of genre tropes and unmarried dukes. But Diana Quincy’s books stand out from the pack, and The Viscount Made Me Do It is no exception.
Hanna Zaydan is an unforgettable heroine: all she wants in life is to open her own clinic in London as a bonesetter, a heavily stigmatized profession that the aristocracy dismisses as fraud. When veteran Viscount Griffin shows up at her door with a painful war injury that traditional medicine hasn’t been able to treat, she makes a powerful ally in her quest. Is Griffin only interested in Hanna for an end to his chronic pain, or does his arrival have something to do with the ugly murders of his parents many years ago?
This #OwnVoices romance is full of intrigue, chemistry and fascinating medical history. It is a true original.
Want Me: A Sex Writer’s Journey into the Heart of Desire, by Tracy Clark-Flory
I know this is a cliche, but goddamn do I wish I’d had Want Me: A Sex Writer’s Journey into the Heart of Desire to read as a burgeoning sex writer in college.
In her memoir, Tracy Clark-Flory peels back the curtain on her unconventional career. She delves into porn, intimacy and gender politics with the keen eye of a culture critic, and she doesn’t shy away from the sticky underbelly of sex.
If you’re a millennial woman who grew up amid the raunch culture of the 90s and early 20s, you’ll see way more of your sexual development reflected in Want Me than you can imagine. Tracy unpacks her relationship to sex with unflinching honesty, parsing the ways she has conflated her desire and pleasure with being seen as desirable by men. Get ready to feel angry, embarrassed and relieved all at once.
Whore of New York: A Confession, by Liara Roux
I grabbed Whore Of New York: A Confession on impulse when browsing at McNally Jackson–there was something about the striking cover and the intimacy of the prose when I flipped to a page at random. Liara thoughtfully explores her neurodiversity, queerness, non-monogamy, and her chosen profession as a sex worker. She also shares a slowly unraveling account of her emotionally, sexually and financially abusive marriage with her ex-wife. Each chapter is a kaleidoscope of consent and its true meaning.
Whore of New York is one person’s story and not a universal representation of sex work, but it doesn’t claim to be one. It’s a lush diary of desire, power, relationship structures, and labor.
Neon Gods, by Katee Robert
Katee Robert writes unapologetically filthy romances, and Neon Gods is a masterpiece of suspense and desire.
I don’t know what else to say about this retelling of the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone, other than there is one scene that I think about and, well- fuck! You’ll know it when you get to it. I learned about kinks that I didn’t even know I had.
Neon Gods is far and away the hottest book I read in 2021, followed closely by the second book in the Dark Olympus series, Electric Idol, out this upcoming January.
Katee Robert, take all of my money!
Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, by Tarana Burke
Tarana Burke’s long awaited memoir is required reading for those of us who want to end sexual violence, harassment and abuse. Tarana is a legendary community organizer and the original creator of the “me too.” approach to sexual violence. Her book re-centers black women and girls, who were always the focus of her activism and were largely left behind as #MeToo went mainstream in 2017.
Unbound is both an upsetting and smooth read: Burke writes with accessible grace and generosity about her personal and professional experiences with sexual violence. She shares insights as a survivor, as an organizer, and as a parent. If you have ever wondered how to talk about abuse with your children, your students, or your community, I strongly recommend making time to read Unbound. And if you are an activist who wants to create space for vulnerable conversations, Burke has words of wisdom and warning about how to do so responsibly.
Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, by Alexis Hall
For fans of The Great British Bake Off, Alexis Hall’s novel tells the story of a bisexual single mum competing to be the nation’s best amateur baker. This book has everything: very English explorations of classism, flawless bi representation, pitch-perfect humor and a great use of reality television as setting and plot.
Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake is one of few books that truly delivers on the promise of the rom-com sub-genre of romance. There is a dark thread of biphobia and sexual coercion that is handled responsibly and adds emotional heft. The romance plot line is wonderful, but Rosaline’s whole story fills you with joy and giddy warmth. I loved every character, every page.
Share this book with your cool sex-positive relatives and discuss it over pastries.
Somebody’s Daughter, by Ashley C. Ford
I devoured Ashley C. Ford’s new memoir in one sitting after listening to her episode of Brene Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us.
Ashley’s evocative storytelling pulls the reader into her childhood as a poor Black girl in Indiana with a difficult mother and a father in prison. She has a unique skill for honestly writing with love and respect about family members who have harmed her. Ashley never loses sight of the humanity of her subjects, even as she examines their actions and the impact of their violence on her younger self.
Somebody’s Daughter is a masterpiece of empathy and craft.
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, by Olivia Waite
Olivia Waite writes heavily researched historical romances about women in love. The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is steeped in the politics of homophobia and censorship in England, as well as period-appropriate details of bee keeping. I adored her main characters, who are both older than the women usually found in the pages of romance. Agatha Griffin is an independent business owner who runs a print shop with the help of an apprentice and her adult son. When her warehouse is taken over by a colony of bees, she hires beekeeper Penelope Flood to re-home the invaders, and the two women strike up a deep friendship.
This slow-burn queer romance aches with love and respect. Waite’s novels put LGBTQ characters back into history.
An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional, by Rainesford Stauffer
Growing up sucks.
Rainesford’s first book is about the shitty life stage of “emerging adulthood,” roughly ages 18 to 29, and the pressure we face to perfect our lives. Thoroughly researched and intentionally intersectional in its analysis, An Ordinary Age tracks the societal expectations that you will move away from home, build an extraordinary career, find the perfect romantic partner, and other milestones that have become increasingly impossible for millennials and Generation Z. It is timely, smart, and kind.
Rainesford lovingly grants you permission to reconsider the myths you’ve been fed about success, and to re-define what happiness and success mean to you.
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