There’s no shortage of fantastic books that have come out over the first few months of 2021. To help you figure out which ones to read first, take a look at these bite-sized book reviews for some of our favorites!
When it comes to books, 2021 has started out real strong. From contemporary YA romances to heart-pounding novels about survival to a story about a deadly worldwide pandemic that’s truly an escape from the one we’re living through right now (if you’d believe that!), there’s a wide variety of new releases for you to feast your eyes upon.
Though we know everyone has their own personal book preferences, we hope that these bite-sized book reviews of some of the titles we enjoyed most this winter will give you a good idea of what to pick up first.
January, February, March 2021 bite-sized book reviews
‘Roman and Jewel’ by Dana L. Davis
I never realized how much I missed experiencing (and listening to) musical theatre over the past year until I read Roman and Jewel. Sultry and sweet with the perfect amount of drama, Roman and Jewel perfectly captures the excitement and emotions of theater and gives Broadway fans the perfect novel to sink their teeth into.
Meet Zeppelin Reid (no, really, that’s his name) and Jerzie Jhames. Zeppelin is a 19-year-old theater newcomer who landed the lead in the new musical opposite, you guessed it… NOT Jerzie. 16-going-on-17-year-old Jerzie is the standby for the lead female part. She would’ve been the actual lead but business decisions led to a famous popstar being cast, even though Jerzie is clearly far more talented. But that doesn’t stop the two from suffering a severe case of insta-love, just like their Shakespearean counterparts. And, as you’d expect, fierce drama ensues.
With its vibrant New York City setting and Hamilton-ish vibes, I couldn’t help but binge this novel and binge it HARD. It’s incredibly swoon-worthy and sweet, cuddly and hopeful. It strikes a wonderful balance of realism and romance, where the two main characters’ interactions feel so lifelike and electric without falling into the trappings of a romance that’s too fantastic to be true.
Aside from the romance, I enjoyed the glimpse behind the curtain and seeing just a bit of what it takes to get a show up and running. As an occasional theater-goer, I don’t have a lot of “behind the scenes” knowledge, and so I was fascinated by the ways in which this book explains the roles of everyone involved in the production and just how many decisions go into even the smallest detail of a show. It gave me a far greater appreciation for theater, and also made me lament the fact that this musical doesn’t actually exist!
Roman and Jewel will surely make you want to sing musical love songs at the top of your lungs and buy the very first theatre ticket you can when they’re available. Regardless of whether or not you’re a huge musical or Broadway buff, you’re bound to be mesmerized by this contemporary YA novel.
‘You Have a Match’ by Emma Lord
Fact: Author Emma Lord is great at romance. Like, really, really great. But actually, what she’s truly best at (and what I should’ve really caught on to while reading her debut novel, Tweet Cute) is love. Stories of all kinds of love: Romantic, friendship, community, and, of course, familial.
You Have a Match is a heartfelt story of two girls who essentially have their worlds blown apart when they realize that they’re siblings and have lived a mere 30 minutes from each other their whole lives. And had no idea the other even existed. It’s a story about stressing over finding room in your life when really, the important people that you meet will actually enhance and fill up spaces in your life you didn’t even realize were there. Watching Abby and Savvy get to know one another is a true delight, as is the realization that there’s some inherent thread between them that makes it easy to understand and forgive.
When it comes to familial love, this story also explores the relationships with parents and their children, and the decisions parents make, for better or worse, in the hope of giving their child the best possible life. They acknowledgement of that, as well as the fact that parents are just fallible people like their kids, opens a gateway to fascinating conversations about intent and the realization that parents had their own messy lives before their children came on the scene.
Of course, You Have a Match wouldn’t be an Emma Lord novel without a healthy dose of swoon-worthy romance. The friends-to-lovers romance in this book isn’t a case of “will they/won’t they” but rather a question of “DEAR GOD, WHEN WILL THEY WISE UP?” But more than that, the tension and beautiful moments between Abby and her best friend come from instances where the tenderness of their lifelong friendship shines through. Quiet moments of remembrance and inside jokes, as well as just they way they can anticipate each other’s movements. Those quiet moments are wonderful and so heavy with care for one another, and Emma Lord writes them so beautifully.
Lovingly written and laugh-out-loud funny, You Have a Match is the perfect follow up to Tweet Cute and shows just how talented a writer Emma Lord is. It’s utterly delightful.
‘Wildfire’ by Carrie Mac
Wildfire is, without a doubt, one of the most stressful and devastating books I’ve ever read. I can’t remember a time (perhaps since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) where I needed to take a couple of breaks from a book while reading it because I couldn’t stop sobbing uncontrollably.
The basic premise is this: Lifelong best friends Annie and Pete decide to spend their last summer before college backpacking through the Washington State wilderness and training at Fire Camp, where they’ll learn techniques to help them fight the wildfires that have become more and more threatening to their area. But when a simple mistake puts them in danger of being killed by the fires they’re on their way to learn how to manage, Pete and Annie’s friendship and survival skills will be put to the ultimate test.
Though you wouldn’t know it by that simple summary, this is a story of love in all its forms, the good and the bad. Friendship and romantic, yes, but also unrequited and aggrieved. It’s a story of the gaping holes that losses burrow into a soul. The ones that others just don’t understand can’t be filled, and that change you irrevocably. It’s a story of trauma and dependence, hope and reality.
I know that’s all very vague, but I think going in to this book with very little context about the story (beyond knowing that no, this is very much NOT a YA romance) is the best way to do it. The tone of this book is established from the get-go, setting up a tense and stressful wandering through past and present, adventures and painful losses. As with life and real grief, there are certainly shining carefree moments, but they’re all painted atop a darkness that won’t let you forget that sense of impending devastation that you feel the whole way through.
The plotting of this novel is masterful, as is the way it’s written. As someone who’s surrounded by grievers every day, I saw so much truth in the way that Annie, the main character and narrator, sees the world. Her recollections are cloudy and scattered, never fully telling a story or complete thought without a break because she struggles under the weight of intense trauma and complex grief.
What I was expecting was a YA romance with a bit of danger and survival excitement thrown in. But what Wildfire is is a study of grief and trauma and the ties that bind us to one another. It’s messy and unexpected and doesn’t go the way we want it to (because nature and reality just don’t work like that). This book is devastatingly beautiful and not something you can really prepare for.
Just like life.
I highly recommend it.
‘Unchosen’ by Katharyn Blair
At a time where a deadly pandemic, transmitted in almost imperceptible ways, is still sweeping the globe, you’d think that reading a book about another similar viral pandemic (passed through sight rather than vapor droplets) would be the opposite of entertaining. But, when it comes to Katharyn Blair’s Unchosen, you wouldn’t be more wrong.
As a deadly, zombie-fying virus sweeps the modern world, transmitted by locking eyes with an infected person, people have no choice but to give up their normal lives and ban together in settlements. Of course, when it comes to Charlotte, there’s a lot about her life in general that she didn’t choose. She didn’t choose to fall in love with her best friend-turned-sister’s boyfriend. She didn’t choose to be her sister, the rumored Chosen One’s keeper.
She also didn’t choose to be ordinary and a burden on her family. But here she is. And so, when danger comes knocking through her front door, Charlotte doesn’t think twice before trying to sacrifice herself to save those she loves because at least she would’ve been useful. However, she’ll soon find out that that sacrifice is just the beginning of her story, and that she’s far more important to the survival of the human race than she ever could’ve imagined.
Part high seas adventure, part swoon-worthy romance, part sci-fi thriller… Unchosen hits a lot of notes and hits them well.
The way this novel reveals certain characters’ motivations as well as different facets the virus makes this book incredibly difficult to put down for any period of time. Just when you think you have all of the information or think you know what the novel might divulge next, the story adds in yet another complication.
Also, while not a pirate novel, Unchosen feels very much like a high-seas swashbuckling adventure, what with its motley crew and their dashing but mysterious captain as well as their many battles at sea. It made the virus aspect more interesting and compelling, turning it into a true escape from the current virus we’re dealing with.
And then there were the romantic elements. One of the main love interests in particular took me by surprise. Normally, YA novels feature love interests that are growing and maturing alongside the main character. Not Unchosen. This story features a heartthrob that is a man, through and through. A younger man, yes, but a man. His maturity and steadfastness provides a sense of comfort amidst all the chaos, something that all of us currently living through a pandemic can surely appreciate.
I’ve had a hard time lately with the pandemic and so a book about a virus was one of the last things I wanted to read. But I’m so, SO glad I chose to read Unchosen, and I think you will be too.
‘The Invisible Woman’ by Erika Robuck
If you’ve never heard of Virginia Hall, you’re not alone. She’s one of the many important hidden figures of history, but she worked hard to keep it that way. A spy working in the European theatre behind enemy lines, Hall was one of World War II’s most influential figures.
Though this isn’t the only story devoted to the courageous spy to come out in the past year (I also recommend the podcast TRUE SPIES’ episode “The Limping Lady”), The Invisible Woman is an interesting blend of nonfiction observance and emotional storytelling that’s centered around Hall’s second and most important mission in France where she aided resistance groups in their sabotaging and driving out of their Nazi occupants in the wake of D-Day.
Pulling together a story around this second mission is no small feat. Author Erika Robuck expertly pieces together Hall’s time in Nazi-occupied France from the few sources and written documentation that remain. In places where there’s no historical record to be found, Robuck uses extensive contextual research and her ability to inhabit Hall’s mind to paint an emotionally true image of just what it would’ve been like to live under the radar, constantly in fear of being discovered or endangering others.
Focusing on this second mission, and this mission alone, makes a lot of sense given the sheer scope of it. The mission spanned multiple French towns, numerous resistance groups and mini-missions, and all of the drama and excitement that happened throughout those ~2 years. There’s just so much there to dig into and watch play out.
I will say, however, that I think the book may have been better served by providing all of the necessary context and details about her failed first mission at the beginning, rather than the way it slowly intersperses flashes throughout the story. The gradual reveal slows down the pace of the story and undercuts some of the tension that’s building around present-day events and situations. Though this method does underline the lingering emotional trauma Hall suffers as a result of that failed mission (with the way the memories pop up at random and never all at once), it doesn’t do much to propel the main timeline forward.
A bit drier than World War II books that *aren’t* centered on an actual historical figure (but no less tense or heartbreaking), The Invisible Woman is a fitting tribute to and exploration of a woman who hasn’t received nearly enough recognition for her successes and sacrifices during the war. It really does render Virginia Hall visible and shine a light on just how much she sacrificed.
‘A Pho Love Story’ by Loan Le
You know you’ve just read a good romance when you can’t help but wistfully sigh as you finish it and close the back cover. This was my experience with Loan Le’s debut novel A Pho Love Story. This and a healthy amount of wistful sighs peppered throughout the novel too.
Bao Nguyen and Linh Mai are caught in a sort of Romeo and Juliet situation: Their families own competing restaurants and hate each other’s guts. Just talking to each other goes against the (implicit) rules. And yet, one chance encounter in a dark alley changes everything.
With their post-high school futures looming large and their undeniable attraction to each other growing stronger every day, Linh and Bao have to figure out just what they want their lives to be, together and apart. But perhaps just as importantly, they have to figure out just how to tell their families.
Chock full of mouth-watering food descriptions, gorgeous art depictions, and adorable moments of teenage love, A Pho Love Story is a YA romance that hits all the right notes. The characters are incredibly realistic and so well-drawn that they feel like close, personal friends by the time you reach the end of the book. And the food? The food is enough to make you want to drop whatever you’re doing and order from your local Vietnamese restaurant right away (even if you’ve never had the dish they’re talking about before).
Perhaps the thing I love most about A Pho Love Story, however, is the way in which it’s a love letter to Vietnamese culture and traditions. This story takes a very nuanced and compassionate approach to describing Bao and Linh’s family histories and the struggles they faced in order to get to where they are. Memories of the past are drawn with great care, highlighting both the love and pain the families feel when remembering life in Vietnam.
But that love and pain doesn’t stay in Vietnam or in the past. It’s alive and well in the Mai and Nguyen’s Bay Area community. There’s a beautiful throughline connecting the past with the present, culminating in a “Letter to the Editor”-like newspaper submission that gets to the heart of the immigrant experience and celebrates their immense contributions. It was so well-written that I felt compelled to re-read it multiple times.
Honestly, I just couldn’t get enough of A Pho Love Story. Author Loan Le’s heartfelt writing expertly connects the past with the present, creating a story that you can’t help but want to peel back, layer by layer, until you get to its true heart. And, above all else, it’s just a really delightful YA romance. If you love feel-good stories of love, family, and food, give this one a read.