My Top 10 Sapphic Reads of 2021

A collage of the book covers listed with the text Best Sapphic Books of 2021: My Favourite Bi & Lesbian Reads (The Lesbrary)

Generally, when I make an annual wrap up list, I include any Lesbrary books I’ve read that year, regardless of publication date. In 2021, though, I was reading so many books for All the Books that all of my picks happen to be new releases. To be clear, these are just my favorites that I read. There were so many queer books that came out that I wanted to read but haven’t gotten to yet, including Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, and She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. I’m guessing those would all be on this list if I had read them in time.

I’ve decided to do this countdown style, but it’s a pretty arbitrary order. I recommend all of these, and I enjoyed them in different ways. (How do you compare a thought-provoking fantasy to a heartwarming YA contemporary to a soul-crushing litfic title?) I’ve also borrowed heavily from my reviews, full disclaimer.

10) Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

cool for the summer cover

Dahlia Adler is a personal hero of mine not only for writing great queer books (and editing lots of fantastic anthologies), but for running LGBTQ Reads, the queer book blog everyone should know about and follow. She pours so much love, time, and energy into that incredible resource.

So of course I had to pick up her new bisexual YA novel! It’s told in two timelines: the confusing summer that Lara spent with Jasmine; and the present, when Lara starts dating the guy she’s had a crush on for ages. It’s a bit of a Grease set up: Jasmine shows up unexpectedly at her school, and Lara has to reconcile that summer with her life as a whole. She also is grappling with her sexuality, and it takes her a while to accept that she’s bisexual.

I really enjoyed how this book depicted how bisexuals experience heteronormativity/compulsory heterosexuality. That’s usually only discussed in terms of lesbians, but Lara is so clearly trying to act out the image of a perfect heterosexual relationship (dating the quarterback, dreaming about being prom queen) without actually engaging with her own emotions. Is she attracted to Chase? Or is she attracted to the title of being Chase’s girlfriend?

Both Lara and Jasmine are Jewish, and they bond over that as well. I still don’t come across a lot of queer YA with Jewish main characters, never mind both the main character and love interest, so that was nice to see.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

9) Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

Rise to the Sun cover

I read this during a heat wave, and it begins with two best friends driving to a summer music festival with the volume cranked, singing at the top of their lungs. It felt like exactly what I was craving reading!

While this is a story about friendship, summer love, and music—with a scavenger hunt, too!—it also has a lot more depth than that would suggest. It tackles gun violence, sexual harassment, and grief. Both characters are struggling with their sense of self.

My heart ached for Toni and Olivia, who get overwhelmed with their own insecurities and fears. They make mistakes. They hurt people. But they’re also doing the best they can and learning.

I love how much depth there is to both main characters and to everyone’s relationship dynamics (romantic relationships and friendships). This could easily have been a much simpler summer love story, and I would have enjoyed that too, but instead it felt much more messy and realistic. I appreciated Olivia’s journey to recognizing both her faults (and the damage they’ve caused) as well as her self-worth.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

8) A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett

A Dream of a Woman cover

Casey Plett is the kind of author I love and dread reading, because she so skillfully can break your heart. Her stories are beautiful, bittersweet, and achingly honest about the little ways we support and fail each other. 

This begins with an absolute gut punch of a story, “Hazel and Christopher,” that left me staring at a wall for a while after reading the ending to try to emotionally process it, and I mean that in the best possible way.

I’m in awe of the way Plett paints these characters. They feel so real and multifaceted. They are deeply flawed, but sympathetically drawn. When a character makes a decision I disagree with, when they hurt someone, I felt for both of them. 

One story, “Obsolution,” continues throughout the collection. I guess it’s actually a novella, with the chapters interspersed with the other stories. I thought this format worked really well, and I was always interested to return to this character, but each story/chapter feels complete enough that I wasn’t skipping or rushing through the stories in between. (The novella and one of the short stories both have sapphic main characters.)

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

7) Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

the cover of Follow Your Arrow

I feel like this book deserves so much more attention than it’s gotten. It examines bisexuality as a distinct identity, including feelings of imposter syndrome. It also has a bi main character with a gender preference, which I don’t see a lot in books!

This was also a bit of a personal read for me. CeCe and her ex-girlfriend were influencers that had the perfect relationship that baby lesbians looking up to–until Silvie broke up with her. She worries that her audience won’t accept her outside of this relationship, especially if she starts dating a guy. Though I’ve never been famous, I have experienced a tiny version of this, and it was terrible.

I also appreciated that the story validates CeCe’s decision to set boundaries around her relationship with her father.

I do want to give a content warning for biphobia: Follow Your Arrow includes hateful biphobic comments that I found difficult to read, but the narrative obviously contradicts them. If you’re looking for a coming of age story that considers bisexuality as an identity and the pitfalls of growing up online, I highly recommend this one!

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

6) Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

Indestructible Object cover

This was really a year of fantastic bisexual YA reads. This one has the bonus of being one of the very few polyamorous YA books I’ve ever come across!

I started my review “Messy bisexuals, this one’s for you. ❤️” and that continues to be my main pitch. I appreciated this passage, as she admits to cheating to a queer friend who tells her she’s enacting a negative stereotype:

“That’s not fair,” I say. I’m not trying to defend what I’ve done, but I also don’t think I should be expected to model ideal bisexual behavior–whatever that is–at all times. When straight people cheated, they weren’t failing the whole straight population. They were just failing one person.

My heart hurt for Lee when she finally realizes what she really wants out of her life, which includes polyamorous relationships, and she tears up because it’s “too much to want,” an impossible dream–at least, that’s what it seems to her.

I loved this story that takes on the messiness of queerness, shifting identities, and figuring yourself out (especially as a teen).

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

5) Unbroken by C.L. Clark

the cover of The Unbroken

This is a tricky one to rank, because if I’m completely honest, I didn’t always enjoy reading it. It’s a gritty fantasy about colonialism and war, which isn’t usually my genre. But it also left me thinking about it long after I finished, and I think it’s really well crafted. Though I put it down feeling a bit exhausted by the emotional turmoil, months later, I’m now looking forward to the sequel!

Even after writing a thousand word review about this book, I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I appreciate it. I think it is a complex book the depicts the messiness and horrors of colonialism. It allows its characters to be incredibly fallible. It doesn’t shy away from the real-life consequences of their actions and of colonialism in general.

While it’s a comparatively small part of the book, I am interested to follow this series to see where Touraine and Luca’s relationship goes. They can’t seem to stay apart or forget about the other, but they never have an equal footing or healthy dynamic. It can be frustrating, but it’s also compelling enough that I am itching to find out what happens next.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

4) The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

the cover of The Chosen and the Beautiful

I’ll be honest: I’ve never read The Great Gatsby. But I still adored this queer, fabulist take on the story. It’s told from the perspective of Jordan, a bisexual Vietnamese American adoptee who occupies an uncomfortable space in society: she’s wealthy, but not entirely accepted by her peers, who still treat her as exotic.

In this version of the story, Nick and Gatsby have their own romantic relationship, which makes the love triangle (or square or pentagon) between Daisy, Tom, Gatsby (and Nick and Jordan) even more fraught. Nick is reluctant to acknowledge that he has any inclination towards men, but he clearly cares deeply about Gatsby and their… dalliances, even if Gatsby doesn’t take them seriously.

Although this is a fantasy novel, the magic is in the background for most of the story. Gatsby’s parties employ magical entertainment and decor–but that’s not dramatically different from the lavish parties he would throw without it. The book has a languid, dreamy quality. Time passes unpredictability: we are just seeing the beginning of Nick and Jordan’s relationship when she mentions how it ends.

It’s this beautiful atmosphere and language that made me fall in love with the book, and I can’t wait to read more from Vo.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

3) A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

the cover of A Dowry of Blood

A Dowry of Blood is a queer polyamorous reimagining of Dracula’s brides. If you, like me, are already intrigued, I recommend reading this without knowing much more about it, as long as you are aware that it depicts unhealthy and abusive relationships and includes descriptions of gore. This is a meditative look at this relationship, so it’s easy for me to give away more than I mean to–the relationship doesn’t even turn into a polycule until about halfway through.

This is a M/F/F/M polycule, and each of the four characters are bisexual (or pansexual). We see this relationship through Constanta’s eyes, who was his first bride. She also kills him within the first pages of the book. The rest of the story backtracks to say how we got there.

Although this is a vampire novel, complete with ample sex scenes and bloody scenes, it’s just as much about Constanta reflecting on her relationship with this captivating and abusive person.

If you want a bisexual polyamorous vampire novel that is also thoughtful and atmospheric, definitely pick up A Dowry of Blood.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

2) The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta

The Heartbreak Bakery cover

To be clear, this isn’t a lesbian or bi woman book. It has an agender main character who dates multiple genders, and the main romance is between Syd and Harley, who is genderfluid. (This is where I use the wishy-washy definition of which books the Lesbrary covers—books about a main character who “doesn’t identify as a man and is at least some of the time attracted romantically and/or sexually to others who do not identify as a man”—to talk about a book I love and think you will too, even though it’s not sapphic.)

When Syd’s girlfriend breaks up with Syd seemingly out of nowhere, it’s crushing. Syd funnels that pain into baking, the same way Syd deals with everything. Except that it soon become apparent that everyone who eats Syd’s breakup brownies breaks up, including the owners of The Proud Muffin. Now Syd and Harley, the bakery delivery person, are on a mission to track down everyone who’s been a victim of broken-hearted brownies and find a way to fix it.

If that premise doesn’t grab you, we do not share the same taste in books! 

This book is so celebratory of queerness and queer community. People check Harley’s pin for their or his pronouns every day. Everyone is so accepting and kind, even in difficult moments. (And even if they express that a bit differently!) The bakery is almost entirely queer people, including an aro/ace character. There’s a polyamorous brunch! This is a bit of a spoiler, because it happens at the end, but I have to mention it any way: there’s a big gay Texas bake off! “Sure, but what makes this a bisexual babka?”

It feels like a big queer hug. In fact, I was overcome with cute aggression after finishing it and had to suppress yelling and shoving it random passersby’s hands. “READ THIS! IT’S SO GOOD.”

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

1) Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

the cover of Milk Fed

My top read of 2021 is probably the book I would recommend to the fewest people.

I found myself reading this book compulsively. I fell completely into Rachel’s worldview and couldn’t tear myself away. If you are someone who struggles with disordered eating or body image issues, this isn’t a book to pick up lightly. 

At the same time, it was a cathartic read. Over the course of the book, Rachel goes from extreme restriction to feeling out of control to discovering something like balance. It’s a book that asks, What is your worst fear of your body? Isn’t that person worthy of love?

It’s also a darkly comic book that had me highlighting and underlining on almost every page. On her first boyfriend: “I began dating him by default when one night, in his car, he put his hand on my thigh and I was too hungry and tired to deal with moving it. I ended things a few months later, when I got the energy to move it.” Her assessment of her therapist: “She was probably someone who genuinely enjoyed a nice pear.”

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

What were your favourite queer reads of 2021? Let’s talk about them in the comments!

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