[You can read all of the Mercury’s “Top Stories of 2021” here.—eds]

Looking for a good read? Here’s a fun, diverse—and by no means exhaustive—list of our favorite books (including comics!) that came out in 2021. As an added bonus, we got a few Multnomah County librarians to give us their picks as well. And if you want even more recommendations, you can browse all of the library’s best books of the year here.

The Actual Star by Monica Byrne

A science fiction epic that spans thousands of years to tell three stories that all share a connective tissue, The Actual Star proved to be the book that stuck with me the most this year. I still have caught myself thinking just how ambitious and vibrant of an achievement it really is to see Byrne wrangle the vast scope of the story with ease. It’s drawn comparisons to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, though Byrne’s voice and style is all her own, a sweeping vision that’s a must-read for anyone who appreciates truly revelatory science fiction. — CHASE HUTCHINSON

A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett

Casey Plett’s story collection A Dream of a Woman centers trans women in their capaciousness and vulnerability, with deep stories of love and family, sex and addiction, and how we reconcile trauma. These stories look forward, not for clean triumphs but for the hope that we can hold complication. Though noted as a bright star of this breakthrough era in trans fiction, Plett is often overlooked as an Oregon writer. In Dream, Plett understands Oregon rain and Oregon mud, and how good intentions become stifling in a place where limited possibilities are as oppressive as the winter clouds. — ELINOR BROKER

The Nice House on the Lake by James Tynion IV, Álvaro Martínez Bueno, and Jordie Bellaire

This cabin-in-the-woods-style horror comic by writer James Tynion IV and artists Álvaro Martínez Bueno and Jordie Bellaire has been at the top of my pull-list since it debuted this summer. There's no way to talk about the best parts of The Nice House on the Lake without spoiling some of its best narrative turns. Like all great horror, it speaks to our modern anxieties, and it's fucking funny too. It's the kind of comic you can shove under the eyes of your non-superhero-loving friends as proof that comics, in general, are worth their time. At the time of this writing, it's still in the middle of its run, so you’ll have to find the back issues until the collected editions come out. — CAMPY DRAPER

Philomath by Devon Walker-Figueroa

From the Mercury’s previous piece on Philomath:

“I burned through Philomath: Poems, the debut poetry collection from Devon Walker-Figueroa, in one sitting. A narrative coming-of-age poetry collection laced with searing imagery and gut-punch single-line revelations, Philomath is about Walker-Figueroa’s childhood in Benton County’s rural community, Kings Valley, and in nearby town Philomath. (You can read the collection’s titular poem, one of its best, here.)... This collection also felt very Biblical to me. There are overt references to church and Christianity, but also Biblical themes: male violence, blood and fire, a rotating cast of mysterious characters that appear and disappear just as quickly.” — BLAIR STENVICK

Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer

Deliriously frothy escapism and thoughtful queer representation don't always make the best bedfellows, but Hannah Templer's comic Cosmoknights ships it, and hard. This is what you'd get if Robot Jox was a Saturday morning cartoon and everyone was LGBTQ+, and the techno-feudalist backdrop is the perfect playground for derring-do and longing looks and the occasional swipe at the patriarchy. With a cast of winning space cowboy thirst traps and a color palette that oscillates between an equatorial sunset and Lisa Frank on a two-week mescaline bender, this is the big gay space opera you need in your life right now, right this very second. — BEN COLEMAN

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhaor

Marketed as “Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in a polyamorous reimagining of China’s only female emperor,” Iron Widow blew up on bookish TikTok as one of this year’s most anticipated YA debuts—and it did not disappoint. Xiran Jay Zhao tackles structural misogyny through the lens of a dystopian sci-fi world while also blowing up the love-triangle trope and giving readers the epic poly romance we deserve. This book is a brutal rollercoaster and ends with a devastating cliffhanger that I couldn’t stop thinking about. The YA genre has evolved a lot over the years, and Iron Widow embraces that future. — ALIYA HALL

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

From the Mercury’s previous piece on Crying in H Mart:

The heart of the book, of course, is about grief: The grief Zauner feels watching her mother’s health decline, and the grief after her death, made more acute by the fact that Zauner and her mom had recently finally reconciled after an adolescent rough patch in their relationship. But rather than wallowing in pure sentiment, Zauner writes the particulars of her grief: A strange visit to an apple orchard right after she dies, because it’s one of the few places in Eugene they’d never gone to together; eschewing weekly counseling sessions and teaching herself to make kimchi instead, its own form of therapy. After a year in which we’ve all felt grief of some kind—if not for a person, then for a way of life—it’s those idiosyncrasies, the weird ways our minds find to process the onslaught, that ring the most true. — BLAIR STENVICK

The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy

What I love about The Atmospherians is that it’s funny and sad and infuriating and thrilling and very, very smart. In the satirical novel set in the near-distant future, Sasha Marcus is an Instagram influencer scorned by trolls on the internet. Sasha joins forces with her childhood friend Dyson to start the Atmosphere, a cult designed to reform men and rid them of toxic masculinity. McElroy has written a fantastic novel about online culture, wellness culture, cults, celebrity, and its center, the desire to be seen. I found it impossible to put down. — EMME LUND

Summer Fun by Jeanne Thornton

“What if Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys was a trans woman?” is not something I had ever asked myself before reading Summer Fun. But I’m so glad author Jeanne Thornton took up that conceit (fictionalizing the band as the Get Happies) and spun a truly weird, expansive, multi-generational tome about family, identity, self-harm, and self-love, spanning from 1950s Los Angeles to early 2010s Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Equally important to this narrative as surf-rock star Diane is Gala, a young trans woman working at a hostel in the middle of the desert, who uses rituals and compelling letters to connect her own destiny with Diane’s. This book enveloped my brain for a few days, demanding me to keep turning the page, as the very best novels can. — BLAIR STENVICK

Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption and Hollywood by Danny Trejo

Danny Trejo is an icon in the Chicano community for his roles in so many tough-guy films, but in this book he allows us to see him in a much different light: as a loving father, a mentor, and as a person who cares a lot about his community. This book is relatable—especially with his growth and struggle with machismo. (Seconded by librarian Melanie F.: “Machismo? More like Machis-don’t. If Danny Trejo can pull himself out of the trenches of toxic masculinity, then maybe the rest of society can too.”) Find Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption and Hollywood at the library. — ENRIQUE R., MULTNOMAH COUNTY LIBRARY, WORKPLACE TEAM

This is Not for You: An Activist’s Journey of Resistance and Resilience by Richard J. Brown

This Is Not for You: An Activist's Journey of Resistance and Resilience by Richard J. Brown recounts his life's work to build connections between police and the Black community. Those unfamiliar with Portland’s history will find an intriguing portrait of the city in the 80s and 90s. Through his long career as a community activist, photographer, and storyteller, this local author draws on his efforts to empower Black people. Now in his mid-80s, Brown ponders who will take on the work he has been doing as an activist and community builder, if anyone. — BARBARA H., MULTNOMAH COUNTY HILLSDALE LIBRARY

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aok

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aok is an excellent science fiction-fantasy combo, with great characters, intergalactic visitors, a dive into the world of the violin and its players, great food descriptions, and a fully human trans protagonist. Between Shizuka Satomi, who made a deal with the devil, Katrina Nguyen, a transgender runaway, and Lan Tran, a retired starship captain, you will find a story of fate, magic, identity and hope. — RACHAEL S., MULTNOMAH COUNTY LIBRARY, MOBILE AND PARTNER LIBRARIES

Bodies are Cool! by Tyler Feder

Our bodies really are cool! There's a very good chance every young reader will see folks throughout this book who look like them and people they love. Bodies are Cool! by Tyler Feder is an illustrated, easy-to-read book that shows people, no matter body size, color, shape, or ability, doing fun things they enjoy doing! This is a must for families with children who are curious about bodies and want to normalize all kinds of bodies with all kinds of abilities. In a world where we’re encouraged to see everything outside of “normal” as a flaw, it’s a joy to see people living happily in their bodies. — NATASHA F., MULTNOMAH COUNTY HOLLYWOOD LIBRARY

Jukebox by Nidhi Chanani

Music plays an important part in many people's lives...but what happens when music comes to life and flips your world upside down? Jukebox by Nidhi Chanani is a delightful read about family, music, and luck that keeps you engaged the whole way through. This graphic novel is about two cousins who are pulled from their era and transported to another time through a jukebox that moves through history. Vibrant illustrations, a diverse cast and a great coming-of-age story makes this book hard to put down. — ELLEONA B., MULTNOMAH COUNTY CENTRAL LIBRARY