The Best Books of 2021

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best books of 2021
Maggie Rossetti/Thrillist
Maggie Rossetti/Thrillist

Even as the country began opening back up again with the vaccine rollout, a part of us still wanted to blow off plans and stay in with a great new book. Luckily, the 2021 releases included some of the most exciting titles in recent years, from bold debuts to the return of some of the best contemporary writers. It's always tough whittling down a bottomless trove of potentially excellent titles to just a small pile, but we managed: These are the books we loved most in 2021.

Need more reading recommendations? Check out our favorite books from 2020 and 2019.

Release date: January 12 (Random House)
Novelist and short story maestro George Saunders gives us a crash-course in his own course he teaches at Syracuse University's MFA program: a breakdown of the Russian short story through the work of some of the greats, from Chekhov to Turgenev to Tolstoy to Gogol. In seven essays paired to reprinted translations of these stories, Saunders takes us through structure mapping, character development, plot ideas, and other revelations he and his students have reached over the years. The result is an academic essay collection that never feels dull, and a masterclass in writing both fiction and nonfiction from one of our greatest living storytellers. —Emma Stefansky

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

Release date: January 5 (Mariner)
For fans of TV shows like Industry, Succession, and Billions, Mateo Askaripour's startup satire should be a must-read. Cleverly structured like a business and leadership book, a la The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Black Buck recounts the story of how Darren, a twentysomething coffee shop manager from Bed-Stuy, became Buck, a savvy, take-no-prisoners businessman for a hot NYC tech company. As Buck reckons with the disparities between his home and new (very white) corporate life, he finds a larger purpose of recruiting young Black employees and molding them into salespeople. It's an often laugh-out-loud funny send-up of a modern corporate culture that prioritizes self-serving office diversity only when it's convenient to business goals and appearances. —Leanne Butkovic

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Release date: April 20 (Knopf)
In her new memoir expanding on her viral 2018 New Yorker essay, indie rock musician Michelle Zauner, also known as Japanese Breakfast, writes about a mother-daughter relationship that’s all about tiny gestures of love, usually involving food. When struck with her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis, Zauner goes through a series of battles—the reckoning of her mother’s expectations, the struggles of being a caretaker, the loss of her Korean identity—and finds her way back in H Mart, where she’s able to conjure vivid memories of her childhood. It’ll make you both hungry and sad in the best way possible. —Jessica Sulima

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Release date: January 12 (One World)
Torrey Peters backstrokes through tricky waters with her breakout novel about a complicated love triangle, but has been celebrated for deftly avoiding the lane bobbers that would sink the story. Ames, who was once Amy and is detransitioning to a man, asks Reese, an ex who is a trans woman, to help parent the baby Ames' boss Katarina is carrying from their secret tryst. Funny, messy, and kind. —Esther Zuckerman

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Release date: May 4 (Knopf)
In the 1920s, young Marian Graves discovers a primal urge to fly airplanes after meeting a pair of barnstormers in rural Montana, setting her on the path to becoming one of the world's few expert female pilots, eventually ending in her doomed attempt to circumnavigate the globe by flying over the North and South Poles. In the present, actress Hadley Baxter agrees to portray Graves in a biopic after being unceremoniously ousted from her starring role in a popular supernatural romance franchise. The novel, pinging between past and present, ties the lives of these two women together in a loop that circles through time, as battles are fought and won and a decades-old mystery is finally solved. —ES

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

Release date: May 25 (Europa)
The 2020 translation of Mieko Kawakami's idiosyncratic Breasts and Eggs marked the Japanese author's break out into the English market, and her follow-up, Heaven, is a very different, but no less astounding, work of fiction. Narrated by a 14-year-old boy who's relentlessly bullied at his middle school for his lazy eye, Heaven is beautifully written, even in its most brutal depictions of extreme hazing, and a poignant meditation on the weirdness of friendships as the protagonist befriends a similarly tortured classmate who tells him she can show him Heaven. Nothing is predictable in this slight novel packed with existential inquiry. —LB

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Release date: March 2 (Knopf)
Kazuo Ishiguro's first book since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, two years after his last novel The Buried Giant, Klara and the Sun centers around the eponymous man-made Klara, an especially observant "teenaged" robotic Artificial Friend who is bought by a mysteriously sickly girl named Josie and her distant mother. How Klara perceives the world around her—including descriptions of her literal field of vision that would make for a fascinating and trippy screen adaptation—evolves as she works through understanding her human companions' complex emotions and secrets and the tech-saturated structure of society. As Ishiguro did with his seminal work Never Let Me Go, learning about the scope of the puzzling near-future he crafted comes in small, steady epiphanies that pick at our most uncomfortable thoughts about love and mortality. —LB

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Release date: September 28 (Del Rey Books)
The highly anticipated second book in Naomi Novik's exceptionally imaginative Scholomance series takes us back to the sinister school of magic where wizard students have four years to learn all the spells, alchemy, and alliances to keep themselves alive, and this year's graduating class, led by future dark sorceress Galadriel Higgins (though she's done everything she can to reject her destiny) and her demon-slaying sorta-but-not-really-boyfriend Orion Lake are about to set things in motion that will turn the entire Scholomance, not to mention the outside world of magic, on its head. With Graduation Day looming, El and her new friends have to convince first their whole class, and then the whole school, that there's only one way all of them are getting out of there alive. —ES

The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood

Release date: March 2 (Hogarth)
Christine Smallwood's brilliant debut novel follows Dorothy, an adjunct professor in New York, as she processes a miscarriage, goes to two different therapists (one about the other), teaches a class on the apocalypse, and reflects upon a life that's going nowhere as the world hurtles irrevocably into climate change. What it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in relentlessly perfect sentences, precise observations about our pre-apocalyptic moment, and genuinely funny writing. —James Chrisman

Release date: March 30 (Random House)
Poet, writer, and MacArther grant genius Hanif Abdurraqib's many works of nonfiction never cease to blow his readers away, and A Little Devil in America, a National Book Award finalist, is his best and most ambitious yet. In his prodigious style blending lyrical memoir and research-driven essays, Abdurraqib pulls from his own experiences and anecdotes while reaching back into history to highlight performances from often underrepresented Black artists, grappling with the entirety of American culture from the early 1900s to the present. —LB

Lurkers by Sandi Tan

Release date: March 30 (Soho Press)
"A novel by Sandi Tan"—the filmmaker behind the astounding 2018 autobiographical documentary Shirkers—would have been enough of a sell for us to pick up this book without second thought. Lurkers is a vague extension of her film, borrowing some of the themes of her own experiences, even name-dropping herself, to pen a rich novel about the interweaving lives of the closed-off residents of Los Angeles' Santa Claus Lane. Hopping from household to household, the paths of Tan's cast of characters are inevitabilities in each others' lives, whether they realize it or not, that all meet at the same crossroads before once again splitting off. —LB

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

Release date: February 2 (Scribner)
Rachel, a 24-year-old lapsed Jew living in Los Angeles, works at a talent agency and spends nearly every waking moment planning her tiny meals and counting calories, a habit picked up from her overbearing helicopter mom. After her therapist suggests she take a 90-day "detox" from communicating with her mother, Rachel meets Miriam, a zaftig frozen yogurt slinger and unabashedly Orthodox Jew who takes Rachel under her wing. What follows is a whirlwind fantasy combining appetites both sexual and comestible with the Jewish myth of the golem, a creature fashioned out of clay and brought to life through some combination of magic, desire, and desperation, as Rachel's eyes are opened to new ways of appreciating sex, food, and own body. Milk Fed is a lyrical meditation on what we are fed, from food to spiritual guidance, from the writer who gave us the similarly horny merman tale The Pisces and the tweets behind @sosadtoday. —ES

Mona by Pola Oloixarac

Release date: March 16 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Argentinian novelist Pola Oloixarac has been on a roll these past few years, with translations of her delightfully strange and dense works, Savage Theories and Dark Constellations, made available. Mona is her sharpest yet, a slim yet funny, harrowing, and sexy story about the titular Peruvian writer invited to a literary conference/award ceremony in Sweden and spending time with the other novelist and poet weirdos, some of them insufferable and others charmingly quirky, who attend, their long weekend in the European woods concluding with a fantastical twist. —LB

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

Release date: July 20 (Doubleday)
Already being developed as a star vehicle for Amy Adams to go fully unhinged, Rachel Yoder's debut novel is a dark and funny weirdo force. A mother, simply known as Nightbitch, starts succumbing to ferality and believes she's quite literally turning into a dog two years after putting her art career on hold to take care of her son, who joins in her "doggy games," while her husband travels during the work week. It would be a shame to reveal much more than this about the plot; Nightbitch, its magical thinking, its insight on being a woman and a mother and the pent-up frustrations that come with the territory all burst out in the last chapter to an ending that is beautiful, sad, unsettling, and glorious at once. Pre-order this one now. —LB

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Release date: February 16 (Riverhead)
Twitter queen Patricia Lockwood's debut novel, following her hilarious memoir Priestdaddy, feels like it's just barely fiction, her narrator an academic who gives talks on "the portal," with its references to some of the most extremely online pop-culture moments of the past five years, but buried within its jokes is a heartbreaking story about infant mortality family. When this novel is funny, it's laugh-out-loud good; when the flip switches, it's crushingly affecting. No One Is Talking About This is a perfect cultural artifact for our absurd and upsetting times. —LB

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino

Release date: June 29 (Harper Perennial)
Quentin Tarantino's paean to the Golden Age of Hollywood actually started out as an idea for a novel, until he realized he'd rather direct it. Now, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is back on the shelves in its original form, first published as an $8 trade paperback, as Tarantino mandated it to be. (As of this November, there's a deluxe hardcover version, too) The novel acts as a dry-witted, pulpy companion to the film, with deeper explorations into the character and exploits of Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth as they live out the twilight of a bygone era. —ES

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

Release date: April 6 (Riverhead)
Even when she's not rewriting fairy tales, as she did with 2019's Gingerbread, Helen Oyeyemi's novels maintain the same fable-esque magical whimsy. In Peaces, newlyweds honeymoon, along with their pet mongoose, aboard a train of strange provenance, great intrigue, and no real destination to account for. The past and present mingle as the couple, Otto and Xavier, meet and learn about the train's benefactor (and HER mongoose) and encounter the train's many eccentricities that reflect back their innermost beings. —LB

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Release date: May 11 (Celadon Books)
Novelist Jacob Finch Bonner only has one actual novel to his name, a bestseller that put him on the map whose follow-ups have yet to be published. Jacob languishes teaching a third-rate MFA program until he meets a student who arrogantly tells him about his "sure thing" idea for a novel— and Jacob grudgingly admits to himself that his student is absolutely right. Years later, when he finds out about the student's untimely death, Jacob writes and publishes the novel himself. It's an instant success, rocketing Jacob to stardom, and everything seems to be working out great until he starts getting anonymous messages from someone who knows, somehow, that his masterpiece has been stolen. —ES

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Release date: May 4 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy established her both as one of the most exciting writers working today and a genius. Her latest novel is a continuation of that project's innovations and a swerve into something stranger. It takes the form of a letter by a writer known only as M to the mysterious Jeffers, narrating her time hosting a famous and misogynistic painter known only as L at her family's home on a marsh during a vague global calamity. Expect trenchant writing on what it means for women to create and on the nature of motherhood, lots of exclamation points, and a general sense that you're in the company of one of the smartest writers alive. —JC

Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman

Release date: August 3 (Hogarth)
If there's one thing Alexandra Kleeman seemingly can't get away from writing about, it's cultish devotion to the capitalist infrastructures that supply the things we need to survive. In her 2015 debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, it was grocery stores; in her latest, Something New Under the Sun, it's water—er, WAT-R, the mysterious manmade solution for the dire water scarcity facing Los Angeles. Before getting to the bottom of that secret, however, the novel follows Patrick Hamlin, a writer who has moved out to LA to work on a movie being made from one of his books, and Cassidy Carter, a fallen-from-grace former child actress starring in the movie, conspiring to figure out if their movie is getting made or is simply a front for something darker. —LB

The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez

Release date: March 16 (Greywolf)
Chilean playwright and author Nona Fernandez wowed us with her 2018 novel Space Invaders, and her latest work fighting for Google search authority over another piece of popular art deserves to be read widely. Set during and after Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship over Chile in the 1980s, we enter The Twilight Zone when Fernandez's narrator, a writer herself, first sees the (very real) cover of an opposition newsmagazine with an interview with a man who tortured people for the regime and defected, and how that single moment would influence the rest of her life. It's a jarring history lesson, for those who don't know much about the deadly era, told in fragments, bouncing between past and present, as Fernandez faces the lasting trauma from the regime's legacy of evil. —LB

Release date: September 21 (Hachette)
If you think you knew everything about Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and her real-life alter ego, Cassandra Peterson, Yours Cruelly, Elvira is chock-full of surprises. Did you know that she was once an underaged Las Vegas showgirl, a Playboy model, and a struggling actress who once lived in a treehouse with a hunky Tarzan-obsessed boyfriend? In her recent tell-all autobiography timed to her 40th anniversary in showbiz, the legendary horror hostess takes a salacious stroll down memory lane and reflects on the days long before she became the vampy and campy “gal who put the ‘boob’ back into the ‘boob tube’” and self-proclaimed Queen of Halloween. Filled with eye-opening revelations and detailed anecdotes ranging from her Manhattan, Kansas childhood to her tumultuous teenage groupie years to her recent same-sex relationship bombshell, Peterson lifts the shroud on the woman behind Elvira. Other standout stories include her one-night fling with Elvis Presley, and the-right-place-at-the-right-time moment that lead to her smoking a joint and smooching with guitar god, Jimi Hendrix. She even dishes some dirt on Hollywood heavyweights that may forever skew your impressions of them (ahem, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Jimi Page).

—Gil Macias

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