Favorite (YA + nonfic) reads of 2021

The third post in the Best of 2021 series (previously: fave litfic and Gothic reads)

YA (contemporary)

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

I absolutely love this cover

I don’t read a lot of Young Adult fiction; I think I read two this year. Nothing wrong with it, just not my usual cup of tea. I don’t remember why I picked this book up, but I’m glad I did.

Quintero’s debut novel was everything I wanted a YA epistolary to be: voicey, deep, emotional. It never felt like the diary form was being used as a vehicle to just info dump/tell the reader everything. It was immersive from the beginning and carried me through to the end.


Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

This narrative nonfiction uses the case of one disappearing—of Jean McConville, widow and mother of 10—to explore the conflict in Northern Ireland, known as The Troubles.

At first, I wished for more history of the conflict but as I kept reading I appreciated the narrative approach. Keefe didn’t set out to write a history; he set out to present the volatile situation through the lens of some major players, intertwining with the mystery of Jean McConville’s kidnapping and death. It makes for an incredible story. Keefe spent years researching and writing this book, relying heavily on oral histories and other primary sources, and it shows.

I went into this book already knowing a bit about The Troubles, but I ended up learning a lot more, especially about specific people—Gerry Adams, Dolours Price, Brendan Hughes. Because Keefe doesn’t speak much about the background of the conflict, I imagine that someone with no prior knowledge might have trouble (eek, sorry) following along at times. That shouldn’t be a deterrent but rather a disclaimer—if you don’t know anything about this situation, be prepared to Google.

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of PTSD and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma.

Mailhot’s writing, her voice, is brisk, sharp, painful. She is brutally honest about her trauma and mental illness, and it was hard to read at times. This book is barely 125 pages but so immersive that I remained with it for weeks after I finished it. Her prose is arresting, and this memoir was unlike anything I’ve read before.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.

I’m fascinated by thru-hikes like the PCT and over the last few years, I’ve gotten into hiking (though nothing like she did). If I had read this when it came out, I’m not sure I would have liked it as much. Just goes to show how books can serve you at some times more than others.

And Cheryl Strayed is just a phenomenal writer. I felt all of her emotion in these pages, from losing her mother to losing her marriage to losing (and finding) herself on the PCT. I felt like I was there with her on her journey. I love nonfiction that reads like a novel, and this definitely fit that category.

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