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7 Classic Science Fiction Books Worth Revisiting

top fiction books for 2021

Science Fiction stories delve into all things futuristic, technological, extraterrestrial — you catch our drift. Pivotal authors in the space include Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, N. K. Jemisin, and countless others.

In celebration of both Asimov, his peers, and the entire genre, we’ve put together a collection of sci-fi books that are always worth rereading (or reading for the first time if you’re just getting into these magical worlds of tomorrow). From fun and fascinating intergalactic travels to dystopian futures that will leave you with much to think about, these sci-fi tales are fundamental to the genre.

Foundation Series – Isaac Asimov

top fiction books for 2021

The Foundation series began as a few short stories published in the magazine Astounding Stories of Super-Science back in the 1940s and ultimately became an entire series of seven epic books. The tale is set in the distant future where a man named Hari Seldon has invented “psychohistory,” a mathematical means of predicting the future. 

Unfortunately, its predictions aren’t very flattering: They foretell a time when humanity will more or less revert back to the Dark Ages. These predictions get Seldon and his crew exiled to a distant planet known as “the Foundation,” where they attempt to shorten the period of decline to come. Apple TV+ also turned the series into a TV show and released the first season in 2021. 

Dune – Frank Herbert

top fiction books for 2021

As fans of the 2021 Dune film may know, the story is based on the 1960s book by Frank Herbert and its sequels. Dune eventually became a bit like a literary version of Star Wars, as Herbert wrote six novels in the Dune series before he passed away. Later, his son Brian and author Kevin J. Anderson teamed up to produce numerous sequels and spinoffs based on the Dune -iverse.

The saga is set in a future where noble families rule different planets under a sort of intergalactic feudal system. In the first of the six foundational novels, readers are introduced to the heir of one such distinguished group, a boy named Paul Atreides whose family is charged with ruling a planet called Arrakis. When his family is betrayed, Paul embarks on a journey that blends everything from adventure to mysticism in one of the most epic sci-fi tales of all time. 

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

top fiction books for 2021

While some earlier sci-fi classics tend to reflect women in the light of the times in which they were written, The Left Hand of Darkness is a whole other experience altogether. The 1969 novel follows the adventures of Genly Ai, an envoy who is sent to a stray world called Winter in an attempt to bring it back into the intergalactic fold. 

However, to stand a chance, he must overcome his own preconceptions when he’s confronted with a culture that exists entirely without gender prejudice. As Ai soon discovers, some of the creatures on Winter express multiple genders, while others don’t identify with any at all. If you’re a reader who loves to go deep, this one makes for a fascinating read. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

top fiction books for 2021

While the actual 1984 may have come and gone, the dystopian novel that shares its name remains a pivotal work of science fiction. The Atlantic notes that “No novel of the past century has had more influence than George Orwell’s 1984 ,” and this assessment is indeed a fair one. Published in 1949, the story follows Winston Smith, who lives under a totalitarian government in which “the Party” controls every aspect of its citizens’ lives. 

“Big Brother,” an invisible yet omnipresent leader, is always surveilling the populace to ensure that no one commits so much as a thoughtcrime, which involves no more than thinking of rebelling against the Party. When Smith dares to think for himself, he sets off on a haunting journey that transports readers to a world that’s all too easy to imagine actually existing. While this isn’t necessarily an easy read, it’s an important one that will stay with you for years.  

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

top fiction books for 2021

Though you may not think you’ve heard of this one, it may be a bit more familiar than you think — it’s the inspiration behind Ridley Scott’s film, Blade Runner (1982). First published in 1968, the novel takes place in a dystopian 2021 where entire species have been eliminated by a global war. In an effort to replace live animals, which are highly prized, series of incredibly realistic androids have been developed, some of which are even fashioned after human beings. 

However, when the government becomes wary of these AI humans and their disturbing capabilities, it eventually bans them from Earth. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard is sent to “retire” any rogue androids that remain, which doesn’t prove to be an easy task. 

Kindred – Octavia E. Butler

top fiction books for 2021

Kindred has become a foundational work of sci-fi and African-American literature alike. The story follows a modern young Black woman named Dana who is suddenly deposited back in time to the pre-Civil War South. Through a series of trips between that era and her own time, Dana is forced to contend with the horrors of slavery, racism and sexism while completing a series of tasks. 

Though each journey becomes more dangerous, Dana realizes that her own family’s future depends on their successful completion. First published in 1979, the novel remains relevant today with its skillful blend of romance, sci-fi, feminism, equality and adventure. 

A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle

top fiction books for 2021

A Wrinkle in Time is a classic story of good vs. evil presented through an adventurous sci-fi lens. The tale follows a high school student named Meg Murray, her friend Calvin O’Keefe and her younger brother Charles Wallace. When the three are introduced to tesseracts (or wrinkles in time) by an unearthly visitor, they set off on a journey through time and space to rescue Meg’s missing scientist father.

Along the way, she learns a series of timeless life lessons about everything from the power of individuality to the resiliency of love. Appropriate for both young and adult readers alike, this one is a fun and fascinating tale that seems impossible to outgrow. 


top fiction books for 2021

The 10 Best Fiction Books of 2021

top fiction books for 2021

T he year 2021 was poised to be a great one for established, fan-favorite authors. We were blessed with new work from a buzzy roster of titans, from Colson Whitehead to Lauren Groff to Kazuo Ishiguro . But while they, along with several others, did not disappoint (see TIME’s list of the 100 Must-Read Books of 2021 ), it was debut authors who truly shined. In an industry that has long been criticized for exclusion—and where it’s increasingly difficult to break out from the crowd—a crop of bright new voices rose to the top. From Anthony Veasna So to Torrey Peters to Jocelyn Nicole Johnson and more, these writers introduced themselves to the world with fiction that surprised us, challenged our perspectives and kept us fulfilled. Here, the top 10 fiction books of 2021.

10. Klara and the Sun , Kazuo Ishiguro

top fiction books for 2021

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Best fiction of 2021

Best fiction of 2021

Dazzling debuts, a word-of-mouth hit, plus this year’s bestsellers from Sally Rooney, Jonathan Franzen, Kazuo Ishiguro and more

T he most anticipated, discussed and accessorised novel of the year was Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber), launched on a tide of tote bags and bucket hats. It’s a book about the accommodations of adulthood, which plays with interiority and narrative distance as Rooney’s characters consider the purpose of friendship, sex and politics – plus the difficulties of fame and novel-writing – in a world on fire.

Klara and the Sun

Rooney’s wasn’t the only eagerly awaited new chapter. Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk ’s magnum opus The Books of Jacob (Fitzcarraldo) reached English-language readers at last, in a mighty feat of translation by Jennifer Croft: a dazzling historical panorama about enlightenment both spiritual and scientific. In 2021 we also saw the returns of Jonathan Franzen , beginning a fine and involving 70s family trilogy with Crossroads (4th Estate); Kazuo Ishiguro, whose Klara and the Sun (Faber) probes the limits of emotion in the story of a sickly girl and her “artificial friend”; and acclaimed US author Gayl Jones, whose epic of liberated slaves in 17th-century Brazil, Palmares (Virago), has been decades in the making.

Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle

Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton) continued her series reclaiming women’s voices in ancient conflict, while Elizabeth Strout revisited her heroine Lucy Barton in the gently comedic, emotionally acute Oh William! (Viking). Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness (Canongate), her first novel since the 2013 Booker-shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being , is a wry, metafictional take on grief, attachment and growing up. Having journeyed into the mind of Henry James in 2004’s The Master, Colm Tóibín created a sweeping overview of Thomas Mann’s life and times in The Magician (Viking). There was a change of tone for Colson Whitehead, with a fizzy heist novel set amid the civil rights movement, Harlem Shuffle (Fleet), while French author Maylis de Kerangal considered art and trompe l’oeil with characteristic style in Painting Time (MacLehose, translated by Jessica Moore).

Treacle Walker (4th Estate), a flinty late-career fable from national treasure Alan Garner, is a marvellous distillation of his visionary work. At the other end of the literary spectrum, Anthony Doerr, best known for his Pulitzer-winning bestseller All the Light We Cannot See , returned with a sweeping page-turner about individual lives caught up in war and conflict, from 15th-century Constantinople to a future spaceship in flight from the dying earth. Cloud Cuckoo Land (4th Estate) is a love letter to books and reading, as well as a chronicle of what has been lost down the centuries, and what is at stake in the climate crisis today: sorrowful, hopeful and utterly transporting. And it was a pleasure to see the return to fiction of Irish author Keith Ridgway, nearly a decade after Hawthorn & Child, with A Shock (Picador), his subtly odd stories of interconnected London lives.

Galgut, The Promise

Damon Galgut’s first novel in seven years won him the Booker. A fertile mix of family saga and satire, The Promise (Chatto) explores broken vows and poisonous inheritances in a changing South Africa. Some excellent British novels were also listed: Nadifa Mohamed’s expert illumination of real-life racial injustice in the cultural melting pot of 1950s Cardiff, The Fortune Men (Viking); Francis Spufford’s profound tracing of lives in flux in postwar London, Light Perpetual (Faber); Sunjeev Sahota’s delicate story of family consequences, China Room (Harvill Secker); and Rachel Cusk’s fearlessly discomfiting investigation into gender politics and creativity, Second Place (Faber).

Lockwood, No One is Talking About This

Also on the Booker shortlist was a blazing tragicomic debut from US author Patricia Lockwood, whose No One Is Talking About This (Bloomsbury) brings her quizzical sensibility and unique style to bear on wildly disparate subjects: the black hole of social media, and the painful wonder of a beloved disabled child. Raven Leilani ’s Luster (Picador) introduced a similarly gifted stylist: her story of precarious New York living is full of sentences to savour. Other standout debuts included Natasha Brown’s Assembly (Hamish Hamilton), a brilliantly compressed, existentially daring study of a high-flying Black woman negotiating the British establishment; AK Blakemore’s earthy and exuberant account of 17th-century puritanism, The Manningtree Witches (Granta); and Tice Cin’s fresh, buzzy saga of drug smuggling and female resilience in London’s Turkish Cypriot community, Keeping the House (And Other Stories).

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water (Viking) is a lyrical love story celebrating Black artistry, while the first novel from poet Salena Godden, Mrs Death Misses Death (Canongate), is a very contemporary allegory about creativity, injustice, and keeping afloat in modern Britain. Further afield, two state-of-the-nation Indian debuts anatomised class, corruption and power: Megha Majumdar’s A Burning (Scribner) in a propulsive thriller, and Rahul Raina’s How to Kidnap the Rich (Little, Brown) in a blackly comic caper. Meanwhile, Robin McLean’s Pity the Beast (And Other Stories), a revenge western with a freewheeling spirit, is a gothic treat.

sorrow and bliss meg mason

When is love not enough? The summer’s word-of-mouth hit was Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss (W&N), a wisecracking black comedy of mental anguish and eccentric family life focused on a woman who should have everything to live for. Another deeply pleasurable read, The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi (W&N, translated by Elena Pala), charts one man’s life through his family relationships. An expansive novel that finds the entire world in an individual, its playful structure makes the telling a constantly unfolding surprise.

my phantoms gwendoline riley

There was a colder take on family life in Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (Granta): this honed, painfully witty account of a toxic mother-daughter relationship is her best novel yet.

Two debut story collections pushed formal and linguistic boundaries. Dark Neighbourhood by Vanessa Onwuemezi (Fitzcarraldo) announced a surreal and inventive new voice, while in English Magic (Galley Beggar) Uschi Gatward proved a master of leaving things unsaid. Also breaking boundaries was Isabel Waidner, whose Sterling Karat Gold (Peninsula), a carnivalesque shout against repression, won the Goldsmiths prize for innovative fiction.

It will take time for Covid-19 to bleed through into fiction, but the first responses are already beginning to appear. Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat (Faber) is a bravura exploration of art, love, sex and ego pressed up against the threat of contagion. In Hall’s version of the pandemic, a loner sculptor who usually expresses herself through monumental works is forced into high-stakes intimacy with a new lover, while pitting her sense of her own creativity against the power of the virus.

A fascinating historical rediscovery shed light on the closing borders and rising prejudices of current times. In The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (Pushkin, translated by Philip Boehm), written in 1938, a Jewish businessman tries to flee the Nazi regime. The J stamped on his passport ensures that he is met with impassive bureaucratic refusal and chilly indifference from fellow passengers in a tense, rising nightmare that’s timelessly relevant.

Finally, a novel to transport the reader out of the present. Inspired by the life of Marie de France, Matrix by Lauren Groff (Hutchinson Heinemann) is set in a 12th-century English abbey and tells the story of an awkward, passionate teenager, the gifted leader she grows into, and the community of women she builds around herself. Full of sharp sensory detail, with an emotional reach that leaps across the centuries, it’s balm and nourishment for brain, heart and soul.

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The 50 Best Books of 2021

The year was a banner showing for literary treasures.

Headshot of Adrienne Westenfeld

With such an embarrassment of riches on offer, ranking these books is a downright impossible task, so we present our selections in no particular order. In this singularly strange and challenging year, books comforted us, allowed us to travel even when borders were closed, and ultimately, kept us sane. We made it to the end of this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, and we're still reading. Congratulate yourself for that—and don't waste any time stocking up your "to be read" pile.

Virtue, by Hermione Hoby

“That was just what you did on weekends—brunch and protest,” narrates Luca Lewis from the distant remove of 2027, looking back on his formative time as a magazine intern in New York City during the heated year of 2016. As he learns the elite ways and means of the rarefied magazine world, Luca dismisses a Black coworker’s efforts to recruit him to workplace activism, then becomes infatuated with a wealthy creative couple and their life of privilege. It takes a tragedy to awaken Luca to his misbegotten allegiances in this trenchant story of complacency and social consciousness.

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones

In this groundbreaking compendium of essays, poems, works of fiction, and photography, Hannah-Jones expands on her Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine project about the “unparalleled impact” of chattel slavery on American life. These bracing and urgent works, by multidisciplinary visionaries ranging from Barry Jenkins to Jesmyn Ward, build on the existing scholarship of The 1619 Project , exploring how the nation’s original sin continues to shape everything from our music to our food to our democracy. This collection is an extraordinary update to an ongoing project of vital truth-telling.

I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness, by Claire Vaye Watkins

In this daring work of autofiction, a writer named Claire Vaye Watkins boards a plane to a speaking engagement in her hometown of Reno, where she aims to put the discontents of marriage and motherhood behind her. When her past rushes up to meet her, from her self-destructive first love to her father’s entanglement with the Manson Family, Claire’s brief getaway slides into a monthslong stay. Seared in visceral realizations about the pain of her past, Claire can’t go back home again, but how can she move forward? Boldly imagined and authoritatively told, this ambitious novel reminds us that Watkins is one of the most visionary writers working today.

Harrow, by Joy Williams

In her first novel since The Quick and the Dead , the inimitable Williams remains as beguilingly strange as ever. When teenage Khristen’s boarding school for gifted children shutters its doors, she roves across the desiccated American West until she washes up at Big Girl, a toxic lake frequented by the elderly residents of a “razed resort.” Together with these ecological terrorists and creative visionaries, Khristen queues up to wait for a looming climate apocalypse, while Williams meditates on finding hope, compassion, and reason as the doomsday clock ticks down.

Reprieve, by James Han Mattson

It’s April 1997, and four hopeful contestants have made it to the final room of the Quigley House, a “full contact” haunted escape room in Lincoln, Nebraska. If they can endure the home’s six cells of ghoulish horror without shouting “reprieve,” they’ll win a substantial cash prize, but not everyone will make it out alive. When a man breaks into Quigley House and murders one of the contestants, Reprieve sifts through its characters’ back stories and witness statements to solve the crime. Mattson crafts a nail-biting horror saga while also implicating us in our sick obsession with tales of this kind. Unrelenting and unforgettable, Reprieve is an American classic in the making.

My Body, by Emily Ratajkowski

Superstar model, entrepreneur, and actress Emily Ratajkowski explodes onto the literary scene with My Body , a revealing and personal exploration of what happens when a woman’s body becomes a commodity. My Body is a fascinating memoir of the objectification and misogyny Ratajkowski experienced as a young model, but also a searing work of cultural criticism about sexuality, power, fame, and consumption. My Body is the brilliant debut of a fearless multihyphenate from whom we’re eager to read more. Read an exclusive interview with Ratajkowski here at Esquire .

Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, by Mark McGurl

With its staggering American market share of 50% of printed books and upwards of 75% of ebooks, Amazon has changed literary life as we know it. That's not all the Everything Store has done. According to Mark McGurl, it’s transformed not just how we buy, but what we buy as well as what we read and how we write. In Everything and Less , McGurl draws a line from Amazon’s distribution model to the contemporary dissolution of genre boundaries, arguing that Amazon’s algorithm has effectively turned all fiction into genre fiction. In lucid and well-argued prose, McGurl goes spelunking through the many genres shaped by Amazon’s consumerist logic, from the familiar realms of science fiction to the surprising outer reaches of billionaire romance and Adult Baby Diaper Erotica. Perceptive and often deeply funny, Everything and Less raises compelling questions about the past, present, and future of fiction. Read an exclusive interview with McGurl here at Esquire .

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney

Expectations were high for Beautiful World, Where Are You , Rooney’s first outing since she became a global literary phenom—and her 2021 novel doesn’t disappoint. In these pages, Rooney explores the intertwined lives of four twenty-somethings: in one corner, we have Alice, a novelist who takes up residence in the Irish countryside following a psychiatric breakdown, and Felix, a local warehouse worker with whom Alice begins a noncommittal tryst. Alice’s oldest friends are Eileen, a dissatisfied magazine editor with big ideas, and Simon, Eileen’s on-again, off-again beau, an earnest and devout political activist. In Alice, Rooney’s anxieties about precocious literary success come into view. At once stylistically consistent with her previous novels and touched with a maturing sensibility, Beautiful World, Where Are You lucidly explores the ways we break up and make up in a world on fire.

Palmares, by Gayl Jones

When Toni Morrison discovered Jones in the seventies, she said of her debut novel, Corregidora , “No novel about any Black woman could ever be the same after this.” Palmares , Jones’ long-awaited fifth book, is a blistering return to form worth the two decade wait. Set in colonial Brazil, Palmares is the story of Almeyda, a young enslaved woman spirited away to Palmares, the last of the nation’s seven fugitive slave settlements. When Palmares is razed in the night by Portuguese soldiers, Almeyda travels Brazil’s luscious landscapes in search of her missing husband, only to find that it may take a medicine woman’s enchantments to bring him back. Gorgeously suffused with mystery, history, and magic, Palmares is a remarkable new outing from a major voice in American letters.

A Calling for Charlie Barnes, by Joshua Ferris

With A Calling for Charlie Barnes , Ferris has written his finest novel yet: a fabulist yarn about a flawed father in the twilight of his life, whose numerous get-rich-quick schemes and busted marriages have vaulted the American Dream forever out of his reach. Our narrator is Jake Barnes, Charlie’s son, whose earnest but unreliable memories of his father call the narrative’s very fabric into question: how can we rightly remember those closest to us? Does our intimacy blot out the truth? By turns lively, laugh-out-loud funny, and tear-jerking, this is Ferris at the height of his powers.

Billy Summers, by Stephen King

King’s latest endeavor begins with a familiar premise: ex-Marine sniper Billy Summers, a principled hit man on the eve of retirement, agrees to do one last job. With a $2 million payout looming, Billy goes undercover to assassinate a criminal, but the cover his employers dream up hits a nerve: while masquerading as a novelist, avid reader Billy sets to the task of writing his own lightly fictionalized autobiography, unspooling the wounds of a traumatic childhood and a bruising tour of duty in the Iraq War. Billy's escape from the wreckage of the job is complicated by Alice, a young woman he rescues after her brutal gang rape, who becomes an unlikely partner in his plans to get even. Remembering a Tim O'Brien aphorism, that fiction "was a way to the truth," Billy writes his way through the morass of his past and present, making for a poignant story about how fiction can redeem, heal, and empower. Read an exclusive interview with King here at Esquire .

Doubleday Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead goes back to his literary beginnings in his first noir since 1999's The Intuitionist . In Harlem Shuffle , it’s 1959, and used furniture salesman Ray Carney is expecting a second child with his wife. The son of a small-time crook, Ray has worked hard to become an upstanding member of his community, but when money gets tight, Ray is soon wrapped up in a risky caper to rob “the Waldorf of Harlem.” Whitehead’s Harlem—“that rustling, keening thing of people and concrete”—pulses with a vibrant heartbeat, evoked through bars and greasy spoons and Strivers’ Row townhomes. In this page-turning novel about how good people come to justify lives of crime, a master storyteller delivers beautifully rendered people and places.

Riverhead Books Matrix, by Lauren Groff

Groff’s first novel since Fates and Furies (which dropped in 2015) turns the clock back— way back. In these incandescent pages, Groff reverently imagines her way into the life and lore of Marie de France, the twelfth-century poet considered the first woman to write poetry in French. Cast out from the court by Eleanor of Acquitaine, seventeen-year-old Marie washes up at an impoverished English abbey, where she transforms from a reluctant refugee to a fiercely devoted leader. Through great works of construction and community, Marie fashions the now-wealthy abbey into an “island of women,” all while furtively writing the divinely-inspired poems that made her name. Woven from Groff’s trademark ecstatic sentences and brimming with spiritual fervor, Matrix is a radiant work of imagination and accomplishment.

Doubleday Nightbitch , by Rachel Yoder

In this unforgettable debut novel, Yoder delivers an outrageous Kafka-esque parable about the mundanity and monstrosity of early motherhood. Our protagonist, an artist turned stay-at-home parent known only as “the mother," has become a husk of herself after two years of raising a toddler without the support of her husband, who's all-too often away on weekly business trips. Soon, her mind and body begin to change; she grows dense patches of hair, her teeth sharpen, and she develops canine impulses. It’s only through her surreal transformation into "Nightbitch" that she experiences liberation from the pressure cooker of motherhood. Yoder touches on a kaleidoscope of themes, from the towering inferno of female rage to grieving the loss of self that accompanies motherhood, all of it undergirded by feral, ferocious scenes of our heroine feasting on rabbits and pissing on the lawn. Nightbitch will grab you by the scruff and refuse to let go. Read an exclusive interview with Yoder here at Esquire .

Avid Reader Press Falling, by T.J. Newman

Written by a former flight attendant while she worked red eye trips, this bruising thriller unfolds over the course of one transcontinental flight. When the pilot’s family is kidnapped, he has a choice: crash the plane to save his loved ones, or deliver his 130 passengers safely and let his family die. With a terrorist organization holding the plane captive, the pilot and his resourceful crew must race against time to do the impossible; meanwhile, an impulsive FBI agent stationed on the ground goes rogue to save lives. Expect major anxiety as this nail-biter barrels to a stunning conclusion.

Flatiron Books Somebody's Daughter, by Ashley C. Ford

In this searingly honest memoir, Ford recounts her turbulent coming of age in Indiana, where she was raised by a volcanic and sometimes abusive mother. Her childhood was haunted by the specter of her incarcerated father, whom she visited only occasionally during his decades in prison, but idealized as the loving and supportive parent she lacked. When an adult Ford learns that her father will be released after almost thirty years, she is ushered to reckon with the heinous crime he committed. Ford’s vulnerability on the page is an extraordinary feat, as she masterfully traces how the yearning girl she once was became the empowered woman she is today.

Atria Books The Other Black Girl, by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada in the summer’s buzziest debut: a blistering work of semi-autobiographical fiction about Nella, the lone Black employee at Wagner Books. The arrival of Hazel, another Black editorial assistant, seems like the answer to Nella’s prayers—but Hazel isn’t the ally she seems to be. When Nella begins to receive threatening anonymous notes demanding that she leave Wagner, she immediately suspects Hazel. The truth is far more sinister, exposing Nella to a dangerous conspiracy that alters her worldview forever. In this powerful story of racism, privilege, and gatekeeping’s damage to the Black psyche, Harris puts corporate America on blast. Read an exclusive interview with Harris here at Esquire .

Little, Brown and Company How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith

The summer’s most visionary work of nonfiction is this radical reckoning with slavery, as represented in the nation’s monuments, plantations, and landmarks. As he tours the country, Smith observes the wounds of slavery hiding in plain sight, from Confederate cemeteries to plantations turned tourist traps, like Monticello. As he considers how the darkest chapter of our nation’s past has been sanitized for public consumption, Smith explores how slavery has shaped our collective history, and how we might hope for a more truthful collective future.

CUSTOM HOUSE Appleseed, by Matt Bell

In this epic speculative novel, Bell braids three narrative strands: the eighteenth-century rise of a proto-Johnny Appleseed, a portrait of civilization on the brink of ecological collapse fifty years from now, and the tale of the next millennium’s inhospitable Earth, plunged into a new Ice Age. Together, these narrative threads coalesce into a gripping meditation on manifest destiny and humanity's relationship to this endangered planet, making for a breathtaking novel of ideas unlike anything you've ever read.

Harper Perennial An Ordinary Age, by Rainesford Stauffer

All too often, we’re told that young adulthood will be the time of our lives—so why isn’t it? Stauffer explores the diminishing returns of young adulthood in this soulful book, providing a meticulous cartography of how outer forces shape young people’s inner lives. From chronic burnout to the loneliness epidemic to the strictures of social media, An Ordinary Age leads with empathy in exploring the myriad challenges facing young adults, while also advocating for a better path forward: one where young people can live authentic lives filled with love, community, and self-knowledge.

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Adrienne Westenfeld is the Books and Fiction Editor at Esquire, where she oversees books coverage, edits fiction, and curates the Esquire Book Club. 

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top fiction books for 2021

The Best Reviewed Fiction of 2021

Featuring sally rooney, kazuo ishiguro, colson whitehead, viet thanh nguyen, jonathan franzen, and more.

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Well, friends, another grim and grueling plague year is drawing to a close, and that can mean only one thing: it’s time to put on our Book Marks stats hats and tabulate the best reviewed books of the past twelve months.

Yes, using reviews drawn from more than 150 publications, over the next two weeks we’ll be revealing the most critically-acclaimed books of 2021, in the categories of (deep breath): Memoir and Biography ; Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror ; Short Story Collections ; Essay Collections ; Poetry ; Mystery and Crime ; Graphic Literature; Literature in Translation; General Fiction; and General Nonfiction.

Today’s installment: Fiction .

Brought to you by Book Marks , Lit Hub’s “Rotten Tomatoes for books.”

Sally Rooney

1. Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (FSG)

27 Rave • 26 Positive • 25 Mixed • 2 Pan Listen to an excerpt from Beautiful World, Where Are You here

“… wise, romantic, and ultimately consoling … Once again, Rooney has drawn a circumscribed world—four people, tightly wound in the small universe of one another’s lives—and once again, this is a love story, although the book’s most compelling romance is the platonic one between its two main female protagonists … it is the epic minutiae of human relations , not the grand structures of economic inequality, that send the blood pumping through the writing. Nonetheless, we know the two can’t be extricated; the latter impinges on the former … In [some] moments, Rooney deprives herself of access to her character’s interiority—the very medium of most fiction concerned with personal relations. Here’s an alternate way of seeing, one derived from a camera lens rather than the traditionally omniscient novelist’s gaze. The effect—implying the novelist herself might not fully know her characters, or at least withhold some of her knowledge—is one of delightful modesty … Maybe Rooney knows that it’s the small dimensions of her fiction—the close, funneled, loving attention she pays her characters—that allow her books to trap within their confines anxieties of huge historical breadth.”

–Hermione Hoby ( 4Columns )

2. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf)

28 Rave • 24 Positive • 6 Mixed

“ Klara and the Sun confirms one’s suspicion that the contemporary novel’s truest inheritor of Nabokovian estrangement—not to mention its best and deepest Martian—is Ishiguro … Never Let Me Go wrung a profound parable out of such questions: the embodied suggestion of that novel is that a free, long, human life is, in the end, just an unfree, short, cloned life. Klara and the Sun continues this meditation, powerfully and affectingly. Ishiguro uses his inhuman, all too human narrators to gaze upon the theological heft of our lives, and to call its bluff … Ishiguro keeps his eye on the human connection. Only Ishiguro, I think, would insist on grounding this speculative narrative so deeply in the ordinary … Whether our postcards are read by anyone has become the searching doubt of Ishiguro’s recent novels, in which this master, so utterly unlike his peers, goes about creating his ordinary, strange, godless allegories.”

–James Wood ( The New Yorker )

3. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead)

31 Rave • 13 Positive • 7 Mixed Read an interview with Patricia Lockwood here

“Now Lockwood has put that strength into her first novel, No One is Talking About This , which leaves no doubt that she still takes her literary vocation seriously. It’s another attention-grabbing mind-blower which toggles between irony and sincerity, sweetness and blight … Lockwood deftly captures a life lived predominantly online … This portrait of a disturbing world where the center will not hold is a tour de force that recalls Joan Didion’s portrait of the dissolute 1960s drug culture of Haight-Ashbury in her seminal essay, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ … Lockwood is a master of sweeping, eminently quotable proclamations that fearlessly aim to encapsulate whole movements and eras … It’s a testament to her skills as a rare writer who can navigate both sleaze and cheese, jokey tweets and surprising earnestness, that we not only buy her character’s emotional epiphany but are moved by it … Of course, people will be talking about this meaty book, and about the questions Lockwood raises about what a human being is, what a brain is, and most important, what really matters.”

–Heller McAlpin ( NPR )

4. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (FSG)

32 Rave • 12 Positive • 7 Mixed • 1 Pan

“… a novel that takes the religious beliefs of its characters seriously, without ever forgetting how easily faith can twist itself into absurdity … is light on curmudgeonly social commentary. (Readers who prefer his breakout 2001 novel, The Corrections , will surely welcome this … As with the best of Franzen’s fiction, the characters in Crossroads are held up to the light like complexly cut gems and turned to reveal facet after facet … feels purged of showy writing and stylistic set pieces, but the long flashback recounting this interlude feels bleached with the merciless glare and punishing downpours of winter afternoons on treeless Southern California boulevards. The way Franzen conveys this atmosphere without calling attention to how well he’s conveying it is in tune with the deferential spirit of the novel … The power of this enveloping novel, facilitated by neatly turned plot elements finally resides in how uncannily real, how fully imagined these people feel … Real people are tricky puzzles, volatile blends of self-knowledge and blindness, full of inexhaustible surprises and contradictions. Literary characters seldom achieve a comparably unpredictable intricacy because they are, after all, artifacts made by equally blinkered human beings, and furthermore they are the means to an artistic end. Franzen hasn’t always given his readers characters as persuasively flawed as the Hildebrandts. He hasn’t always tried to. But in Crossroads , his satirical and didactic impulses largely in check, his touch gentled, Franzen has created characters of almost uncanny authenticity. Is there anything more a great novelist ought to do? I didn’t think so.”

–Laura Miller ( Slate )

Matrix Lauren Groff

5. Matrix by Lauren Groff (Riverhead)

30 Rave • 9 Positive • 4 Mixed Read an interview with Lauren Groff here

“Now that we’ve endured almost two years of quarantine and social distancing, [Groff’s] new novel about a 12th-century nunnery feels downright timely … We need a trusted guide, someone who can dramatize this remote period while making it somehow relevant to our own lives. Groff is that guide largely because she knows what to leave out. Indeed, it’s breathtaking how little ink she spills on filling in historical context … Though Matrix is radically different from Groff’s masterpiece, Fates and Furies, it is, once again, the story of a woman redefining both the possibilities of her life and the bounds of her realm … Although there are no clunky contemporary allusions in Matrix, it seems clear that Groff is using this ancient story as a way of reflecting on how women might survive and thrive in a culture increasingly violent and irrational.”

–Ron Charles ( The Washington Post )

6. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)

30 Rave • 10 Positive • 1 Mixed • 1 Pan Read an interview with Colson Whitehead here

“Whitehead’s own mind has famously gone thataway through nine other books that don’t much resemble one another, but this time he’s hit upon a setup that will stick. He has said he may keep Ray going into another book, and it won’t take you long to figure out why … brings Whitehead’s unwavering eloquence to a mix of city history, niche hangouts, racial stratification, high hopes and low individuals. All of these are somehow worked into a rich, wild book that could pass for genre fiction. It’s much more, but the entertainment value alone should ensure it the same kind of popular success that greeted his last two novels. It reads like a book whose author thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing … The author creates a steady, suspenseful churn of events that almost forces his characters to do what they do. The final choice is theirs, of course … Quaint details aside, this is no period piece … Though it’s a slightly slow starter, Harlem Shuffle has dialogue that crackles, a final third that nearly explodes, hangouts that invite even if they’re Chock Full o’ Nuts and characters you won’t forget even if they don’t stick around for more than a few pages.”

–Janet Maslin ( The New York Times )

Oh William Elizabeth Strout

7. Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)

25 Rave • 7 Positive Read an interview with Elizabeth Strout here

“… yet another stunning achievement … In spare, no-nonsense, conversational language, Lucy addresses the reader as an intimate confidante … all her characters are complicated, neither good nor bad but beautifully explored and so real in their humanness … Strout’s simple declarative sentences contain continents. Who is better at conveying loneliness, the inability to communicate, to say the deep important things? Who better to illustrate the legacies of imperfect upbringings, of inadequate parents? When William explains that what attracted him to Lucy was her sense of joy, the reader can only agree. This brilliant, compelling, tender novel is—quite simply—a joy.”

–Mameve Medwed ( The Boston Globe )

8. The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.  (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

24 Rave • 3 Positive Read an excerpt from The Prophets here

“Meeting yourself in media is no guarantee that the mirror will be kind or wanted. Instead, it’s often a jagged glass you catch yourself in before it catches you. And even when you know it’s coming, the blood’s still warm and sharp. What of me, of us, was I to witness in The Prophets , the debut novel of Robert Jones Jr., set on an antebellum plantation in Mississippi? … What I found was an often lyrical and rebellious love story embedded within a tender call-out to Black readers, reaching across time and form to shake something old, mighty in the blood … One of the blessings of The Prophets is its long memory. Jones uses the voices from the prologue to speak across time, to character and reader alike. These short, lyric-driven chapters struck me as instructive and redemptive attempts at healing historical wounds, tracing a map back to the possibility of our native, queer, warrior Black selves. These voices are Black collective knowledge given shape, the oral tradition speaking in your face and setting you right … What a fiery kindness […] this book. A book I entered hesitantly, cautiously, I exited anew—something in me unloosed, running. May this book cast its spell on all of us, restore to us some memory of our most warrior and softest selves.”

–Danez Smith ( The New York Times Book Review )

The Committed_Viet Thanh Nguyen

9. The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove)

19 Rave • 12 Positive • 4 Mixed • 1 Pan Listen to an interview with Viet Thang Nguyen here

“The novel is […] a homecoming of a particularly volatile sort, a tale of chickens returning to roost, and of a narrator not yet done with the world … Nguyen […] is driven to raptures of expression by the obliviousness of the self-satisfied; he relentlessly punctures the self-image of French and American colonizers, of white people generally, of true believers and fanatics of every stripe. This mission drives the rhetorical intensity that makes his novels so electric. It has nothing to do with plot or theme or character … That voice has made Nguyen a standard-bearer in what seems to be a transformational moment in the history of American literature, a perspectival shift … It’s a voice that shakes the walls of the old literary comfort zone wherein the narratives of nonwhite ‘immigrants’ were tasked with proving their shared humanity to a white audience … May that voice keep running like a purifying venom through the mainstream of our self-regard—through the American dream of distancing ourselves from what we continue to show ourselves to be.”

–Jonathan Dee ( The New Yorker )

Afterparties Anthony Veasna So

10. Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So (Ecco)

22 Rave • 5 Positive • 1 Mixed

“The presence of the author is so vivid in Afterparties , Anthony Veasna So’s collection of stories, he seems to be at your elbow as you read … The personality that animates Afterparties is unmistakably youthful, and the stories themselves are mainly built around conditions of youth—vexed and tender relationships with parents, awkward romances, nebulous worries about the future. But from his vantage on the evanescent bridge to maturity, So is puzzling out some big questions, ones that might be exigent from different vantages at any age. The stories are great fun to read—brimming over with life and energy and comic insight and deep feeling.”

–Deborah Eisenberg ( New York Review of Books )

Our System:

RAVE = 5 points • POSITIVE = 3 points • MIXED = 1 point • PAN = -5 points

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The Best Books of 2021

From radical nuns to gut-wrenching memoir, this year’s books hit us where it hurt..

top fiction books for 2021

This was a big year in bookworld for the phrase “much-anticipated.” As publishers reinstated some semblance of normalcy after pandemic shipping delays, a bevy of marquee names beckoned readers with long-awaited follow-ups — and, in some cases, unexpected merch . The heavy hitters met with mixed success , but this year was still abundant with books that scribbled outside the lines, upended old conventions or freshened them up, and dug out stories we’d forgotten or never known to ask about. The best of the lot were invigorating — the kinds of books that crawl outside their text and into your life. And, of course, there was a new Franzen novel .

10. Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

top fiction books for 2021

This story of a resentful artist turned stay-at-home mom morphing into a dog claws its way out of the pile. Yes, the premise sounds a bit like it was found on the reject list at a B-movie studio, but Yoder’s commitment to describing the animal nature of parenting carries it through with maximal success. The protagonist grows a scruff of coarse hair above her sacrum and sniffs out bunnies in her yard; playtime with her son involves licking and biting. Her metamorphosis is a “a pure, throbbing state” that redirects her energy and moves her beyond learned helplessness. Yoder goes deep on the performative nature of mothering — how so much of it feels like a Marina Abramović performance in which strange creatures are invited to scream in our ears and wrestle raisins from our fuzzy pockets, all while we gaze ahead coolly. In a crowded field of novel-manifestos about the indignity of parenting, Nightbitch is primal and corporeal, a labor scream of a book.

9. The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen

Translated by tiina nunnally and michael favala goldman.

top fiction books for 2021

For months this was my pitch to potential readers of The Copenhagen Trilogy : “You have to read this. It was so good I couldn’t finish it.” Blame my low tolerance for inhabiting someone else’s psychosis. These books percolate with the sickening anxiety of madness, a state that the best writers can render as a kind of hell. From her muffled young adulthood in Nazi-occupied Denmark to her rise as a writing wunderkind and spin into a romantically mangled, drug-fueled early adulthood, Ditlevsen’s autobiographical collection (composed of three formerly separate memoirs — Childhood, Youth, and Dependency — first published between 1967 and ’71) spares neither the writer nor the reader. This is not a tale of heroic endurance. It’s a sally inside the mind of a young writer who tentatively climbs toward professional success and familial stability, only to find that both are moving targets.

8. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles

top fiction books for 2021

The stories of enslaved Black Americans are still far too scarce, lost to time by a nation indifferent to more personal aspects of the experience. Miles, a Harvard historian and MacArthur fellow, had little definitive information about a simple embroidered sack found at a flea market in 2007, other than what it said: My great grandmother Rose mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina / it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my Love always / she never saw her again / Ashley is my grandmother / Ruth Middleton / 1921

From there, she traces the likely lineage of this unlikely object — a bit of cotton that might have crumpled into dust, but instead carried a whole family’s legacy — and puts both what she learned and what might have been into this riveting book, which just won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. All That She Carried balances two aims: to share what it can of Ruth Middleton’s matrilineal family and to explore what their lives might tell us about the experiences of other Black women connected, thread by thread, to an uncertain past. The result is as delicate and determined as the story that inspired it.

7. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins

top fiction books for 2021

Forget reading for comfort. Watkins has no interest in the concept, for herself or for you. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness follows a protagonist (also named Claire Vaye Watkins) who leaves her family behind as she smokes and ruminates and screws her way through the Mojave Desert, where she grew up. The story alternates with real (but edited) letters written by Watkins’s mother as a teenager and excerpts from Watkins’s father’s book about his role as Charles Manson’s “number one procurer of young girls.” The desert setting is as prickly and vast and mutable as Watkins’s writing; the book is a stern kick to the groin of heroic tales about the majesty of the American West. Watkins wrote two brilliant books before this — the otherworldly good story collection Battleborn and a terrifying enviro-novel, Gold Fame Citrus — but this is the work that should put her on the map. Watkins is a necessary writer for a changing American pastoral.

6. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

top fiction books for 2021

For the first time, the U.S. has surpassed 100,000 deaths from drug overdoses in a single year — and opioid deaths accounted for more than 75 percent of those. Opioid overdose has grown so common that some cities have installed Narcan vending machines and pharmacies put up posters showing customers how to administer it. The epidemic has spilled into every corner of American life. In Radden Keefe’s meticulously reported and brilliantly assembled Empire of Pain, he traces that spill back to the family at the very center: the billionaire Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma. Like Gilded Age barons before them, the Sacklers sat atop a massive fortune, behind a fortress of lawyers and corporate privacy screens, while their company pushed OxyContin onto prescription pads and out into America. It’s a blood-boiling story of American apathy — of a family more concerned with putting their name on museums than keeping people from harm, a pharmaceutical industry shrugging its shoulders at staggering death rates, and a medical community entirely unequipped to handle the surge.

5. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

top fiction books for 2021

In the very near future, an AF (Artificial Friend) named Klara, manufactured as a companion for a child, stands in the sunlit window of a quiet shop and narrates her yearning to be purchased and taken home. She’s childlike herself and exceptionally naïve; we are immediately endeared to her, though we know her insides are wire, her thoughts determined by code. Ishiguro has claimed his prose is nothing special, but over the course of his career, he has again and again managed to push readers into mourning for some of the most isolated members of society. Klara and the Sun glides in on tiptoe, tracing delicate circles around Klara’s time in the shop; her life with Josie, the young girl who takes her home; and the realization that Josie’s mother’s decision to genetically “lift” her daughter’s intelligence is costing the girl a normal life. Even in the book’s quietest moments, there’s a sense that humanity’s control over itself is on the line. And much like Ishiguro’s earlier book Never Let Me Go, this novel delivers a tender, enthralling twist.

4. Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi

top fiction books for 2021

Sometimes a writer comes along who seems to float above language and direct it like a sorcerer, raising up whole worlds then sliding them out of the way. That’s Emezi. Dear Senthuran is their fourth book in three years (with another three on the way), and they organize this memoir — about their childhood in Nigeria; their role as an ogbanje, which they describe as a spirit reborn to cause suffering; and their painful, necessary gender-confirmation surgeries — as a series of letters to friends and family, a form that amps up the intimacy and penetration of the work. Emezi’s words emerge, bold and annunciatory.

3. One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival by Donald Antrim

top fiction books for 2021

One Friday in April 2006, Antrim checked himself into the psychiatric facility at Columbia Presbyterian; late that summer he finally exited its doors, after several new medications had failed and innumerable group- and individual-therapy sessions, as well as about a dozen rounds of electroshock treatments that made it possible for him to at least “look forward to feeling well.” His memoir about the experience ought to immediately join the pantheon of classic works about the treacherous pull between life and death that can occur in one person’s mind. Antrim cracks himself wide open. The book is declarative and urgent, tracing the precise contours of suicidal thinking; it’s also quiet and engineered, a fully reasoned tour of a recalcitrant brain. “Maybe you’ve spent some time trying every day not to die, out on your own somewhere,” Antrim writes. “Maybe that effort has become your work in life.” One Friday in April may be remembered as the work of his own.

2. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

top fiction books for 2021

I started the year thinking that Lockwood’s pseudo-autobiographical bait and switch irritated me too much to ever wiggle its way onto a list of my favorites. Then the damn thing crawled inside my head and refused to leave. If this sounds like the opposite of an endorsement for this book — which begins as a story about the noxious pull of the Twitterverse and turns into a family drama — that’s because when I first encountered it, I felt primed to reject a novel propelled by social-media discourse. (“The word toxic had been anointed, and now could not go back to being a regular word,” Lockwood writes. “It was like a person becoming famous. They would never have a normal lunch again, would never eat a Cobb salad outdoors without tasting the full awareness of what they were. Toxic. Labor. Discourse. Normalize.”) Here’s what’s kept me bouncing back to it: Lockwood doesn’t give a shit about the traditional novel or what anyone might want from it. She knows she can nab you with descriptions of the self-imposed suffocation of being Very Online before wringing your heart out with the tale of a dying infant. No One Is Talking About This flicks the Establishment in the face and giggles.

1. Matrix by Lauren Groff

top fiction books for 2021

I wanted to live inside this novel, to peel apples and dig in the soil and repair the stone walls of the nunnery Groff manifests as she builds a life around Marie de France, the 12th-century poet and maybe-abbess about whom we know very little. And what a life Groff designs, unfurling Marie’s story in ribbons. Big, awkward, and of mildly noble heritage, the teenager is cast out of the French royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom she adores, and sent to starve in a dripping, tumbledown convent. But through sheer grit and wildly progressive plans, she spends the next decades turning the abbey into a paradise for women — a sheltered place where their work has meaning and their faith can catapult beyond unthinking ritual. Matrix practically draws blood in its bid to evince ecstasy, physical, spiritual, and emotional. This novel has its own racing heartbeat.

Honorable Mentions

Throughout 2021, I maintained a “Best Books of the Year (So Far)” list. Many of those selections appear above in my top 10 picks. Below are the rest of the books that stood out to me this year:

The Fourth Child, by Jessica Winter

The bloody pyrotechnics of anti-abortion organizations in the early ’90s, country-club drunks and their cruel domestic antics, the pre-internet teen scene in Buffalo: Jessica Winter’s sophomore novel is Franzen-esque in its broad sweep of a Rust Belt family coming down off the highs of mid-century American capitalism. (I say that as a huge compliment.) Winter starts with Jane Brennan’s accidental pregnancy in the late 1970s, then works through her tempestuous relationship with her shotgun husband and the push-and-pull dynamic with her eldest daughter Lauren, and finally into the utter displacement the Brennan family undergoes when Jane brings home Mirela, one of hundreds of thousands of “ Ceausescu’s children ” — Romanian children abandoned in orphanages in poor living conditions. Like Graham Greene before her, Winter is fascinated by the Catholic draw to suffering — Jane’s as a beleaguered mother, Lauren’s as a misunderstood young woman, and Mirela’s as a nearly feral outsider — and she manages to elegantly and movingly write a novel about faith that doesn’t proselytize or condemn.

Libertie, by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Greenidge debuted with a bang in 2016 with her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman , about a Black family who agrees to participate in a psychological study more nefarious than it first seems. Libertie is a tamer work, though no less forceful and imaginative. Libertie is the dark-skinned, free-born daughter of a light-skinned doctor mother in Civil War–era Brooklyn. The story begins when an enslaved man named Ben Daisy is delivered to them in a coffin — alive. From there, Greenidge charts Libertie’s development from college student to young wife, and then stranger among family in Haiti, wondering where she belongs and whether she belongs to someone. Every bit of Libertie is rich and vibrant, offering the best of what historical fiction can do.

Infinite Country, by Patricia Engel

America isn’t paradise , one of Engel’s characters thinks to herself in this tale of a cleaved immigrant family. Co-workers murder each other with semi-automatics, kids blow each other’s brains out at school. And violence isn’t held at bay by ICE; in fact, it’s often perpetuated by the people who fill the agency’s ranks. Infinite Country follows whats happens when one member of an undocumented Colombian family is deported. Engel writes beyond mere frustration or sadness or economic hardship — and she brings individuality to a story too often told in statistics and two-minute news reports.

‘Detransition, Baby’ by Torrey Peters

Reading this novel is like holding a live wire in your hand. The first novel by a trans woman to be nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, it follows a triangle of people — Reese, a trans woman desperate to be a mother; her ex Ames (formerly Amy), who detransitioned and is living as a man again; and Ames’s boss Katrina, who is pregnant with his child and unsure about the prospect. But there is so much more than that — Detransition, Baby is populated like a Dickens village of the queer community, with married HIV-positive cowboys and IVF-entangled trans couples. Most refreshingly, it isn’t out to prove that a trans love triangle can move copies just as affectively as cis ones do; there’s no mimicry here. It is what it is, an eyes-wide-open escapade.

The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo

In this mash-up of culinary history, cultural criticism, and memoir, the cookbook author and essayist chooses a different “difficult” fruit for every letter of the alphabet — things like authentic maraschino cherries made with poisonous bitter almond juice, little-known thimbleberry, inedible Osage orange. Some entries are almost entirely personal histories, but most move around more freely — like a chapter on juniper berries’ unwritten history as an abortifacient, or the story of the eugenicist horticulturist who domesticated blackberries for the masses. Through it all, you can connect the dots on humanity’s history of turning fruits into magical entities capable of tightening our skin, supercharging our diets, and making sense of evil in the world.

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu (January 12)

Nadia Owusu’s young life was splintered into dozens of little pieces — her Armenian American mother left the family, her sometimes cruel stepmother joined it, and she moved between continents for her father’s work for the United Nations. Her memoir Aftershocks , structured as a series of reverberations, doesn’t assemble those bits together. “I have written for meaning rather than order,” she explains. She whisks together the fractured history of her father’s homeland of Ghana and her own privileged bubble inside sometimes bomb-strewn locales, then teaches herself to reread her own childhood history, to see beyond the story she has always told herself of who she is.

Under a White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert

Cornflower blue, Simpsons -esque skies may be a thing of the past if the environmental scientists get their way. In Under a White Sky , the Pulitzer-winning Kolbert examines — in terrifying detail — the measures researchers and climatologists have already taken (like electrifying the waters of the Chicago River so invasive Asian carp can’t make their way to other tributaries) or are considering (filling the atmosphere with light-reflecting particles to form a sunshield and, in turn, a powdery firmament) to reverse-engineer the ecological mess humanity has gotten itself into. This is definitely an “It’s Time to Worry” book, but it’s also a wise rumination on hubris — how factories and engines and our desire for Progress set a ticking time bomb on our planet, and how mankind now thinks it can mastermind a way to cut the fuse.

In the Quick, by Kate Hope Day

Forgive me for screaming, but In the Quick is Jane Eyre IN SPACE! The idea sounds unhinged, but its execution is so fresh and so understanding of Brontë and genre fiction that it all comes together in a wild Ad Astra meets Prep mash-up. In a not-so-distant America, orphaned young June Reed is sent to study at the space program her brilliant uncle founded after his early death. At the same time, a crew he sent deep into the solar system suddenly goes quiet. As June endures a punishing regimen of robotic sciences, physical fitness, and team-building exercises, she quietly works on the problem of where the crew might be and how best to save them. An entirely fun adventure.

Hot Stew, by Fiona Mozley

Lately I’ve been missing the sweaty rub of strangers’ arms in tight city streets and the faint smell of yeast rising up from bar floorboards. Cities are made for clamor and bustle, and the past year has emptied them of both. Mozley’s Hot Stew is just the sensorial knockout I needed, alive with the hoots and steam of a small patch of London’s Soho, where an unlikely group of tenants works to keep their building, a French restaurant with a brothel on top, out of a developer’s grip. Among the tenants are a sex worker and her carer, a homeless couple who inhabit the grates beneath the building, a policewoman, and a bright young thing — a mix just as chaotic as any group of strangers sharing walls and air in the city’s bowels. Mozley writes across the spectrum of humanity — a talented juggler who throws a dozen plates in the air and then catches each one as if it were nothing.

Fierce Poise by Alexander Nemerov (March 23)

A biography that intentionally blows up its subject’s own image. On the cover: A demure Helen Frankenthaler neatly seated on one of her pastel-soaked canvases in a salmon-pink button-down that could blend right in with the paint, a dainty cream headband holding back her Veronica Lake curls. Inside: A rollicking beat-by-beat saunter through the downtown 1950s art scene and a long-overdue reckoning with Frankenthaler’s oft-derided, so-called “feminine” work. Too pretty, too rich, too well-connected — these were the bombs lobbed at Frankenthaler even after she produced Mountains and Sea , the seemingly brushstroke-free, nursery-colored work that Nemerov claims launched the genre of color field painting. Nemerov admits to his subject’s privileges, but undoes the (jealousy-induced) fantasy that Helen, as he calls her, was just a painter of pretty little pictures. This Helen is a woman of the mind, a crucial component of America’s mid-century dominance in the art world, and, at times, a provocateur, even if she didn’t see it that way.

Painting Time, by Maylis de Kerangal

Give me the glorious tangle of page-long sentences, the piled-up cacophony of crowded prose. In Painting Time , French novelist de Kerangal (she whose book covers always lure me in) refuses to match form to subject matter, a collision that yields a stylistic wildness we need more of. Protagonist Paula Karst is a young Parisian decorative painter learning trompe l’oeil, “the art of illusion,” at an intense Belgian institute that churns out faux marble re-creators and faux bois conjurers, but not artists. Formerly a glassy-eyed layabout, decorative painting has molded Paula into a rigorous worker, and Painting Time accompanies her through that transformation. As she moves from Paris to Moscow to Rome and back again, it’s de Kerangal’s meticulous understanding of the tiny devotions that craftspeople make again and again — the thin strokes, the blended edges, the changing of brushes — that elevates Painting Time into a pulsing ode to creative labor.

Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993 by Sarah Schulman

The first time I heard about ACT UP — the organization that formed to demand that the political establishment and scientific community take action on AIDS — was nine years after it was founded, when activist David Reid poured the ashes of a friend who’d died of the disease onto the White House lawn in 1996. “If you won’t come to the funeral,” he said, “we’ll bring the funeral to you.” The act was shocking to my 12-year-old self, but it’s not nearly as shocking as the history of neglect, contempt, and disgust for the gay community that thinker, archivist, and ACT UP activist Sarah Schulman writes about in Let the Record Show , a necessarily expansive and bombastic corrective of modern history. Using years of interviews and her own vast inside knowledge (the Times ’ Parul Sehgal called Schulman “ a living archive ”), Schulman charts ACT UP’s highly effective barricade-storming tactics, eventual sway over drug companies, and early ’90s fracture. Let the Record Show is as righteous and revelatory as its subject matter.

top fiction books for 2021

I counted over 130 exclamation points in Second Place , Rachel Cusk’s first novel since the end of her highly celebrated, much-dissected Outline trilogy. For Cusk, well-known for her tight control over her prose, such bluster and exuberance demonstrate a more unwieldy new direction, an experimental phase. Protagonist M is the bombastic exclamation-point user, as she writes a letter to a friend about her miserable experience hosting L, a famed painter of the Lucian Freud variety, at her home in an English marsh. Seeing L’s work once helped to transform M’s life, and she hopes his presence will provoke another revelation. Second Place grapples with the contradictory desire to be muse and artist, and with the extraordinary tolerance that the world shows intolerable men.

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

In the first scene of Good Behaviour , originally published in 1981 and reissued in May by the reliable folks at NYRB Classics, protagonist Aroon St. Charles kills her mother with the mere scent of a rabbit mousse. She puts the lunch tray in front of her, and Mummy trembles, cries, vomits, and promptly dies in “a nest of pretty pillows.” Is it intentional? Why no, not exactly, but it is a glorious introduction to this novel with a hungry, wolfish smile but no visible claws. Aroon is a child of the Irish aristocracy, raised in the early 20th century in a manse built by her ancestors; she’s bent on explaining her good intentions to the reader, though she seemingly understands very little of her own motivations. This is not a damp, woe-is-the-child redux: Good Behaviour includes very little good behavior, featuring instead delicious and deleterious accounts of illicit sex and wild high jinks, and a mother-daughter duo who can scrap with the best of them.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Witch hunt! The phrase has enjoyed a renaissance, courtesy of our former POTUS, along with MeToo-ed men of all varieties. It reverts to its original meaning in this romp, from the cerebral and daring novelist and essayist Rivka Galchen , that’s set in 17th-century Germany, a time and place where women were hunted, jailed, taunted, and tortured for actually (supposedly) being witches. Galchen’s novel focuses on illiterate but brilliant Katharina Kepler — a real historical figure and the mother of the iconic astronomer Johannes Kepler — as her neighbors turn against her, bringing wild charges of hexing and poisoning. This parable about the dangers of many little lies is also a true guffawer, with a protagonist so sharp and self-righteous she may have a direct familial line to Olive Kitteridge. Read it to leave this century behind for a while.

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (June 22)

All of Taylor’s stories of young midwestern ennui are A sides, but one tale from this new collection, “Anne of Cleves,” is particularly bound-for-the-anthologies good. Sigrid is on her first date with Martha when she asks her with which wife of Henry VIII she most identifies. Martha is an engineer, living outside the shimmery dome of the liberal arts, and she barely understands the question. But it reverberates underneath their whole relationship; for the next 30 pages, the two women slide toward one another and then away in a mating dance reminiscent of a Shirley Hazzard story, where sighs and shifting thighs make huge waves. And yes, Martha is an Anne of Cleves: strong, stoic, and capable of survival. Taylor’s energy is so focused, his characters so full and motley, that each of the 11 tales here (some of which are linked) fleshes out a small spinning world of its own.

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

Katie Kitamura’s novels are like recently vacated rooms. The occupant’s scent is still there, the warmth of their hand on the doorknob, but the space itself is desolate. Intimacies is the story of an interpreter for an international court in The Hague who is lingering in an in-between space of her own — she cannot pin down her Dutch boyfriend, who moves between her and his estranged wife, or the charismatic, recently deposed African president whose words she worriedly translates as he stands trial at the court for crimes against humanity. Is she misreading everyone and everything in her adopted country? Is there a reason for her to feel this low-level dread? Like Muriel Spark in her darker moments, Kitamura taps into the most basic human fear: that we will never really know anyone.

Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman

Kleeman doesn’t do maudlin — she forces you to look into the fun-house mirror until you realize that what you’re seeing is reality. Something New Under the Sun starts off as a Hollywood send-up, when a novelist arrives on the set of a film adaptation of his work and discovers he’s actually a babysitter for the tabloid-ravaged teen bopster playing the lead. He also realizes he’s in a hellscape where water is scarce, a commodity for the yacht set, and WAT-R — a molecular near copy of the real stuff — is pumping out of every other faucet and plastic bottle in California. Because this is Kleeman, the plot is far less important than the view along the way. Her writing is cool, detached, and DeLillo-ish, the urgency red hot. Reading it while the West crackles, it’s easy to imagine this book may someday be a vital artifact from our era of climate twilight.

Burning Man: The Trials of D.H. Lawrence by Frances Wilson (May 25)

The British press has been singing the praises of Wilson’s wise, brutally honest, expansive consideration of Lawrence’s “middle years” — the time from 1915 to 1925 when he wrote Women in Love and The Rainbow , exiled himself from England, and tried to found a utopian community in New Mexico. American readers haven’t picked up on it yet, but it’s time to change that! For all the hoo-ha that once surrounded his reputation and antics, Lawrence is now considered a sturdy, capital- I Important writer. Nonetheless, his novels don’t make it to syllabi, and his life hasn’t been called up for a feverish prestige biopic. Wilson writes without undue flattery or inflation about this decade of Lawrence’s life, when he was convicted of spying for Germany and darted across America to meet a mildly mad heiress and produced some of the century’s most enduring novels. This is a biography on fire, brilliant with tiny anecdotes and broad assertions about English literature alike.

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead knows how to slither into a new literary identity with perfect ease. He started his career writing magic-sprinkled novels about zombies, elevator-repair workers, and John Henry before publishing The Underground Railroad in 2016 and The Nickel Boys in 2019, both investigations of cruelty inflicted upon Black Americans. These books became runaway hits of the change-the-author’s-life variety. How to switch things up again? Harlem Shuffle is a zooming, maniacal caper; the fact that it’s wrapped up in a historical novel is a sweet little bonus. There’s too much (read: just enough) plot for one sentence to do it justice, but let’s leave things here: A scheme by a madcap cast of characters to rob a swanky uptown hotel canters alongside a potent reconstruction of mid-century Harlem’s buoyant vibes.

The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon

Liselle is a private-school teacher in a tony Philadelphia neighborhood; her lawyer husband, Winn, just lost an election for state representative, and the FBI is investigating him for his campaign’s behavior. Set around a dinner party Liselle is reluctantly hosting, Solomon’s insightful  The Days of Afrekete  dives back and forth between Liselle’s cracking veneer and her memories of an intoxicating relationship (with the brilliant, unconventional Selena) that once constituted her world. It’s in the nitty-gritty that Solomon nails things — Liselle’s fretting over whether financial success has recast her as an out-of-touch Black woman; the rightfully chaotic depictions of sexually ambiguous entanglements. The publisher describes The Days of Afrekete as  Sula  plus  Mrs. Dalloway ; Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf may be towering names to live up to, but Solomon is on the right track.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

The Lucy Barton universe keeps expanding. Strout published My Name Is Lucy Barton, the gentle blockbuster introducing the character, in 2016, then broadened the web with the interconnected stories in Anything Is Possible , set in Lucy’s quiet Illinois hometown. Now Strout has written a more linear follow-up with Oh William! , which takes place about 20 years after the events of the first book and sees Lucy widowed and reconnecting with her first husband, the titular William. Strout’s placid prose and unswerving style go down as easily as ever. In other hands, this novel might reek of franchise aspirations, but the Pulitzer-winning author remains as devoted as ever to storytelling that prods at life’s big questions about trauma, loneliness, and the search for a hand to hold in the dark.

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clock This article was published more than  1 year ago

50 notable works of fiction

The novels, by prize-winners as well as newcomers, that wowed us this year.

top fiction books for 2021

Newcomers and established prize winners alike stunned us this year with exceptional novels. These 50 standouts are worth your consideration.

“ Afterparties ,” by Anthony Veasna So

Stories about Cambodian Americans burst with as much compassion as comedy in this bittersweet collection by a young writer who died last year.

“ Apples Never Fall ,” by Liane Moriarty

Joy Delaney is missing, and her husband is the prime suspect. But, as always, the author of “ Big Little Lies ” has some twists in store.

“ Assembly ,” by Natasha Brown

A middle-class Black woman exhausted by the stressors of unfulfilling success decides to opt out of treatment for her recently diagnosed breast cancer.

“ Beautiful World, Where Are You ,” by Sally Rooney

The author of “ Normal People ” transforms a deceptively simple plot — four people struggling to define their relationships — into a nuanced study of power dynamics.

“ Black Buck ,” by Mateo Askaripour

This effervescent debut about an ambitious African American man is an irresistible comic novel about the tenacity of racism in corporate America.

“ The Chosen and the Beautiful ,” by Nghi Vo

In this reimagined “ Great Gatsby ,” partygoers drink demon blood, sorcery twists the beams of reality, and Jay Gatsby is a bisexual vampire. Finally, the story makes sense.

Need more recommendations? Ask the Book World team.

“ The Committed ,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “ The Sympathizer ” continues the story of a Viet Cong spy, now retired and working in France for a Chinese drug lord.

“ Creatures of Passage ,” by Morowa Yejidé

In a mythological version of D.C., a woman drives a haunted taxi while her murdered twin embarks on a posthumous revenge mission against the men who lynched him.

“ Damnation Spring ,” by Ash Davidson

An experienced logger and his young wife in Northern California suspect a defoliant being used to clear brush is poisoning their community.

“ Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch ,” by Rivka Galchen

In 17th-century Germany, Johannes Kepler’s mother stands trial for witchcraft, and Galchen’s retelling is a magical brew of absurdity and brutality.

“ Fake Accounts ,” by Lauren Oyler

A Brooklyn blogger, full of intellectual superiority and self-loathing, discovers that her boyfriend is an online conspiracy theorist. But is she any more authentic?

“ The Final Revival of Opal & Nev ,” by Dawnie Walton

A collage of voices tells the story of Opal Jewel (a “Black girl from Detroit”) and Nev Charles (“a goofy white English boy”), musicians who got their start as an unlikely 1970s duo.

“ The Four Winds ,” by Kristin Hannah

Faced with starvation during the Depression, a Texas woman drives her two children to California, where her dreams of an oasis collide with reality.

“ Good Company ,” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The discovery of an old photo alongside her husband’s supposedly lost wedding ring prompts a woman to reassess her past and her marriage.

“ Great Circle ,” by Maggie Shipstead

Best feel-good books of 2021

A soaring work of historical fiction about a “lady pilot” in the mid-20th century intertwines with the tale of a modern-day celebrity portraying the trailblazer in a biopic.

“ Harlem Shuffle ,” by Colson Whitehead

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner has written a rollicking crime novel about a furniture salesman who gets pulled into an ill-advised robbery scheme.

“ Hell of a Book ,” by Jason Mott

This National Book Award winner follows a Black author’s book tour that turns surreal when an imaginary friend materializes.

“ Hour of the Witch ,” by Chris Bohjalian

In rich detail, Bohjalian conjures 17th-century Massachusetts in this gripping tale of a woman determined to win independence and seek justice.

“ How Beautiful We Were ,” by Imbolo Mbue

The new novel by the author of “Behold the Dreamers” is set in an unnamed African country where villagers fall prey to the false promises of an American oil company.

“ How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House ,” by Cherie Jones

This lavish, cinematic debut, set mostly in Barbados during the summer of 1984, juxtaposes people at a tony resort with the local residents struggling to get by.

“ Hummingbird Salamander ,” by Jeff VanderMeer

The “Annihilation” author’s latest thriller takes place in an environmentally ravaged near future, where a social outcast embarks on a deadly rescue mission to save the globe.

“ I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness ,” by Claire Vaye Watkins

A new mother abandons her family and flies to Reno, Nev., setting in motion an audaciously candid story about the crush of conflicted feelings a baby can inspire.

“ Infinite Country ,” by Patricia Engel

A Colombian family living in the United States is divided by deportation, each member weathering the psychic pain of being “split as if by an ax.”

“ Intimacies ,” by Katie Kitamura

A woman working in The Hague as an interpreter becomes embroiled in a war crimes trial involving the former president of a war-torn African nation.

“ Land of Big Numbers ,” by Te-Ping Chen

Chen, an American journalist once based in Beijing, crafts a story collection about an array of Chinese characters driven to take control of their fates.

“ Libertie ,” by Kaitlyn Greenidge

A young Black woman from Reconstruction-era Brooklyn ponders the notion of freedom after she marries, moves to Haiti and realizes that neither the man nor her new home live up to expectations.

“ The Lincoln Highway ,” by Amor Towles

The author of “A Gentleman in Moscow” starts his new novel in 1954 Nebraska, as two brothers, headed to California to find their mother, get derailed by some juvenile delinquents.

Best book covers of 2021

“ Lorna Mott Comes Home ,” by Diane Johnson

After her French husband’s latest affair, an American woman ditches Europe for San Francisco to “prove, to herself if to no one else, that you can make a new life at any age.”

“ The Magician ,” by Colm Tóibín

Though 500-plus pages, Tóibín’s novel about Nobel Prize-winning writer Thomas Mann canters along with graceful prose and delightful cameos.

“ Malibu Rising ,” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The author of “Daisy Jones and the Six” serves up a mix of celebrity culture and family drama as four children, abandoned by their rock star dad, raise themselves.

“ My Monticello ,” by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

The standout novella in this debut collection follows a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, who takes shelter at Monticello from a white supremacist mob.

“ No One Is Talking About This ,” by Patricia Lockwood

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Lockwood’s debut follows a social media star whose absurdist travails online come to a grinding halt when a gutting tragedy hits IRL.

“ Of Women and Salt ,” by Gabriela Garcia

Beginning in 19th-century Cuba, Garcia’s novel follows five generations of women as they flail against forces that are unmistakably patriarchal, capitalist and colonial.

“ Oh William! ,” by Elizabeth Strout

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Olive Kitteridge” revisits Lucy Barton as she accompanies her ex-husband on a journey to understand a grim puzzle from his past.

“ The Other Black Girl ,” by Zakiya Dalila Harris

A workplace satire about a Black woman trying to make it in publishing transforms into a surreal thriller involving a covert brainwashing effort.

“ Our Country Friends ,” by Gary Shteyngart

Blending the ludicrous and poignant, the “Absurdistan” author channels Chekhov with the tale of eight city-dwellers who relocate to Upstate New York to ride out the pandemic.

“ Outlawed ,” by Anna North

North puts a feminist twist on the Western in this alt-history about an on-the-run midwife who falls in with the Hole in the Wall Gang, a sapphic iteration of the Jesse James gang.

“ The Personal Librarian ,” by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Two authors teamed up for this historical novel about J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, a Black woman who passed for White.

“ The Prophets ,” by Robert Jones Jr.

This remarkable debut, a finalist for a National Book Award, recounts a love story between two enslaved men who dare flout their owners’ intended use of them for breeding by choosing to love each other instead.

“ Rites ,” by Savannah Johnston

The debut collection, with stories about Indigenous characters in rural Oklahoma, portrays the aching, farcical nature of existence with stunning economy.

Best graphic novels of the year

“ Secrets of Happiness ,” by Joan Silber

Every chapter in this novel spins to a new character, each looking for the secret to happiness. (Spoiler alert: They do not all find it.)

“ The Sentence ,” by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich’s first novel since winning a Pulitzer Prize takes place in a Minnesota bookstore where employees are haunted by the ghost of their most annoying customer.

“ The Sweetness of Water ,” by Nathan Harris

In this exceptional debut — given the Oprah seal of approval — a grieving White landowner befriends two recently emancipated Black men amid the tension of post-Civil War Georgia.

“ That Summer ,” by Jennifer Weiner

Two women with the same name end up corresponding after one receives an email meant for the other. It’s all a random coincidence. Or is it?

“ Velvet Was the Night ,” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The style-shifting author of “Mexican Gothic” (and a Book World columnist) goes noir with an adrenalized, darkly romantic tale of two people looking for the same mysterious woman.

“ The Vixen ,” by Francine Prose

Comedy and tragedy intermingle as a junior editor for a 1950s publishing house is tasked with making an erotic thriller — based on the life of convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg — “less bad.”

“ Wayward ,” by Dana Spiotta

An underemployed woman, unhappy in marriage, despondent in her middle-aged body and rebuffed by her teenage daughter, decides to upend her life and flee the circumstances.

Best children's books of 2021

“ What Strange Paradise ,” by Omar El Akkad

After a harrowing journey toward a supposedly better life, a 9-year-old Syrian refugee washes up on a small Mediterranean island and tries to evade capture.

“ With Teeth ,” by Kristen Arnett

This scathingly frank story of motherhood conjures up the disturbing mixture of devotion and alienation endured by anyone raising a child they don’t understand, don’t even like.

“ A Woman of Intelligence ,” by Karin Tanabe

In the 1950s, a brilliant former U.N. interpreter, who gave up her career to raise children, comes alive when she accepts an undercover assignment from the FBI.

A note to our readers: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.


Best Books: 2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 Summer Reads: 2023 | 2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012

top fiction books for 2021

Sarah Hall (Custom House)

Booker finalist Hall’s story of a devastating pandemic revolves around an artist working on a sculpture to memorialize the dead. In the process she reflects on her mother, a writer who was altered by a brain injury, and on her lover, who died from the virus. Hall conveys intense sex scenes, superb descriptions of the artist’s practice, and insights on the transformations of bodies in stunning prose.

  • Read the Full Review

Cloud Cuckoo Land

Anthony doerr (scribner).

Doerr makes clever and spellbinding use of the vignette-style narration found in his Pulitzer-winning All the Light You Cannot See with this sprawling story of a book from Ancient Greece that passes through 15th-century Constantinople, present-day Idaho, and a spaceship in the distant future. The disparate threads tie together perfectly, adding up to a deeply affecting page-turner.

  • Anthony Doerr Knows the Power of the Book
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Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A hippie Christian youth group outside Chicago in the early 1970s provides the nexus for a fascinating family drama involving a bitter pastor; his complex wife, who’s beginning to reckon with a mental health episode from decades earlier; and their four soul-searching children, one of whom forfeits his draft deferment. Even Franzen’s critics would have to admit this makes psychological realism great again.

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Dear Miss Metropolitan

Carolyn ferrell (holt).

Ferrell astounds with the complex and formally inventive story of three young women who are kidnapped and held captive at a house in Queens, N.Y., and of their discovery a decade later. Ferrell also turns the lens on the neighbors of their captor who are now wracked with guilt, including a newspaper advice columnist. It’s a powerful examination of collective trauma.

  • Unseen and Unheard: PW Talks with Carolyn Ferrell

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Filthy Animals

Brandon taylor (riverhead).

Taylor follows up his Booker-shortlisted Real Life with a collection exploring similar ground on and around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, to even greater effect. Short stories are Taylor’s bread and butter, and each one here offers a master class in characterization, interior monologues, and complex backstories. What’s more, they make a satisfying whole.

  • Brandon Taylor Is Ready to Show You His Stories

The Five Wounds

Kristin valdez quade (norton).

Valdez Quade expands a story from her NBCC-winning collection Night at the Fiestas into a novel about a man entering his 33rd year unemployed and addicted to booze. There’s some hope after he accepts the starring role in his New Mexico village’s annual Passion play, but it fades to destruction and drama. The author pulls off a loving, empathetic portrait of a vibrant community.

  • The Jesus Year: PW Talks with Kirstin Valdez Quade

A Ghost in the Throat

Doireann ní ghríofa (biblioasis).

At once a frank autobiography of a middle-aged mother and poet, an insightful critical study of a classic Irish poem, and a sparkling fictional narrative of the poem’s inspiration, Ní Ghríofa’s text attracts the reader even as it resists categorization. This special brew offers both challenges and rewards.

Harlem Shuffle

Colson whitehead (doubleday).

Whitehead comes off back-to-back Pulitzers with a heist novel that offers a rich portrait of Harlem in the 1950s, and a memorable cast of characters good, evil, and somewhere in the middle, who rope a furniture dealer into a dangerous robbery. This demonstrates, once again, that Whitehead can do just about anything.

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Lean Fall Stand

Jon mcgregor (catapult).

A technician on a geographic research crew in Antarctica suffers a stroke after an accident in McGregor’s powerful story. The descriptions of the continent’s blank whiteness are stunning, and so is the subsequent chronicle of the man’s recovery, which offers a brilliant depiction of speech therapy. This shows the acclaimed author at the top of his game.

  • The Silence You Don’t Know: PW Talks with Jon McGregor

The Morning Star

Karl ove knausgaard, trans. from the norwegian by martin aitken (penguin press).

Fans of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series remarked on how those books were page-turners even though not much happens. His latest, in contrast, revolves around a momentous fantastical event: a new star appears in the sky, causing people and animals to act erratically and dangerously. The result evokes the horror of the everyday as well as the otherworldly.

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My Year Abroad

Chang-rae lee (riverhead).

Lee spins a wild and moving picaresque about an American college student named Tiller who winds up stranded in China by a shady entrepreneur who’d promised him a business opportunity. Tiller then makes it home and shacks up with an older Chinese American woman, and their relationship helps him explore his Asian ancestry. Each page is full of life and real-feeling sentiment.

  • War Story: PW Profiles Chang-Rae Lee

No One Is Talking About This

Patricia lockwood (riverhead).

A young woman, famous for a viral post, becomes a globe-trotting social media pundit. Then she finds out her sister is struggling with a pregnancy, and reluctantly returns to her Ohio hometown to help. The tonal shift leads to a staggering meditation on real life versus screen life. In a glut of novels about the internet, Lockwood’s is one for the ages.

  • What’s the Internet Got to Do with It?: PW Talks with Patricia Lockwood

The Orphanage

Serhiy zhadan, trans. from the ukrainian by reilly costigan-humes and isaac stackhouse wheeler (yale univ.).

Poet and novelist Zhadan, also a Ukrainian independence activist, delivers a profound road story about a teacher named Pasha and his attempt to retrieve his nephew from an orphanage during an onslaught of devastation by Russian-backed separatists. A blend of naturalism and lyrical metaphors conveys Pasha’s struggle as well as the corrupt Ukrainian authorities’ crippling distortion of the truth.

Anna North (Bloomsbury)

North’s revisionist western follows a young newlywed on the run from accusations of witchcraft in the late 19th century. In the Dakota Territory, she joins up with a gang of women and gender-nonconforming people who want to build a town for outsiders like themselves. A plan to rob a wagon for gold goes terribly wrong, but everything is just right in this blistering adventure.

Hanne Ørstavik, trans. from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken (Archipelago)

A woman named Liv leaves her seminary in Germany for a post at a church in northern Norway, the site of a Sami rebellion against Christian missionaries. Liv’s reflections on that fraught history dovetail brilliantly with her responses to the conservative and sexist men she meets in the Church of Norway. Ørstavik’s slow-burning narrative crescendoes as a potent feminist anthem.

The Promise

Damon galgut (europa).

South African playwright and novelist Galgut, twice shortlisted for the Booker, conceives of a damning and explosive story of a white family that fails to make good on a promise to a Black woman who once worked as their maid. The prose and the voices are pitch-perfect in this tragic, all-too-plausible drama.

Ramadan Ramsey

Louis edwards (amistad).

It’s been two decades since Whiting winner and New Orleans music industry veteran Edwards published a novel, and this saga of a 12-year-old NOLA boy’s search for his father in the Middle East was worth the wait. The author writes on a Dickensian scale with quick-witted young characters reminiscent of Twain. This has the feel of a classic.

The Removed

Brandon hobson (ecco).

A Cherokee family reunites for an annual independence celebration a year after the killing of one of the children by police. The uneasy mix of trauma and celebration sets the tone, and the story is filled with the spirits of the family’s ancestors along with cameos from the ghosts of David Foster Wallace and Jimi Hendrix. Heartfelt and painful, Hobson’s latest is a revelation.

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The Sentence

Louise erdrich (harper).

This inventive story from NBA, NBCC, and Pulitzer winner Erdrich rises like a phoenix from its grief-stricken setting: the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. At the center of these overlapping historical moments is a resilient bookstore. An ingenious structure and the urgent tone make this impossible to turn away from.

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Winter in Sokcho

Elisa shua dusapin, trans. from the french by aneesa abbas higgins (open letter).

A young French Korean woman works at a seaside inn near the DMZ in South Korea. After an older Frenchman, a comic book writer, visits in search of inspiration, a complex relationship develops between the two. Dusapin’s spare, ornate prose evokes French writers such as Nathalie Saurraute, while her heroine’s resistance to Korean beauty standards feels direct and incendiary. It makes for a brilliant and infectious stylistic mix.

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The 10 Best Books of 2021

Editors at The Times Book Review choose the best fiction and nonfiction titles this year.

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How Beautiful We Were

By imbolo mbue.

top fiction books for 2021

Following her 2016 debut, “ Behold the Dreamers ,” Mbue’s sweeping and quietly devastating second novel begins in 1980 in the fictional African village of Kosawa, where representatives from an American oil company have come to meet with the locals, whose children are dying because of the environmental havoc (fallow fields, poisoned water) wreaked by its drilling and pipelines. This decades-spanning fable of power and corruption turns out to be something much less clear-cut than the familiar David-and-Goliath tale of a sociopathic corporation and the lives it steamrolls. Through the eyes of Kosawa’s citizens young and old, Mbue constructs a nuanced exploration of self-interest, of what it means to want in the age of capitalism and colonialism — these machines of malicious, insatiable wanting.

Random House. $28. | Read our review | Read our profile of Mbue | Listen to Mbue on the podcast

By Katie Kitamura

In Kitamura’s fourth novel, an unnamed court translator in The Hague is tasked with intimately vanishing into the voices and stories of war criminals whom she alone can communicate with; falling meanwhile into a tumultuous entanglement with a man whose marriage may or may not be over for good. Kitamura’s sleek and spare prose elegantly breaks grammatical convention, mirroring the book’s concern with the bleeding lines between intimacies — especially between the sincere and the coercive. Like her previous novel, “A Separation,” “Intimacies” scrutinizes the knowability of those around us, not as an end in itself but as a lens on grand social issues from gentrification to colonialism to feminism. The path a life cuts through the world, this book seems to say, has its greatest significance in the effect it has on others.

Riverhead Books. $26. | Read our review | Read our profile of Kitamura

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

By honorée fanonne jeffers.

“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” the first novel by Jeffers, a celebrated poet, is many things at once: a moving coming-of-age saga, an examination of race and an excavation of American history. It cuts back and forth between the tale of Ailey Pearl Garfield, a Black girl growing up at the end of the 20th century, and the “songs” of her ancestors, Native Americans and enslaved African Americans who lived through the formation of the United States. As their stories converge, “Love Songs” creates an unforgettable portrait of Black life that reveals how the past still reverberates today.

Harper/HarperCollins. $28.99. | Read our review | Listen to Jeffers on the podcast

No One Is Talking About This

By patricia lockwood.

Lockwood first found acclaim as a poet on the internet, with gloriously inventive and ribald verse — sexts elevated to virtuosity. In “ Priestdaddy ,” her indelible 2017 memoir about growing up in rectories across the Midwest presided over by her gun-loving, guitar-playing father, a Catholic priest, she called tweeting “an art form, like sculpture, or honking the national anthem under your armpit.” Here, in her first novel, she distills the pleasures and deprivations of life split between online and flesh-and-blood interactions, transfiguring the dissonance into art. The result is a book that reads like a prose poem, at once sublime, profane, intimate, philosophical, hilarious and, eventually, deeply moving.

Riverhead Books. $25. | Read our review | Read our profile of Lockwood

When We Cease to Understand the World

By benjamín labatut. translated by adrian nathan west..

Labatut expertly stitches together the stories of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers to explore both the ecstasy and agony of scientific breakthroughs: their immense gains for society as well as their steep human costs. His journey to the outermost edges of knowledge — guided by the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck , the physicist Werner Heisenberg and the chemist Fritz Haber , among others — offers glimpses of a universe with limitless potential underlying the observable world, a “dark nucleus at the heart of things” that some of its witnesses decide is better left alone. This extraordinary hybrid of fiction and nonfiction also provokes the frisson of an extended true-or-false test: The further we read, the blurrier the line gets between fact and fabulism.

New York Review Books. Paper, $17.95. | Read our review

The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood; Youth; Dependency

By tove ditlevsen. translated by tiina nunnally and michael favala goldman..

Ditlevsen’s gorgeous memoirs, first published in Denmark in the 1960s and ’70s and collected here in a single volume, detail her hardscrabble upbringing, career path and merciless addictions: a powerful account of the struggle to reconcile art and life. She joined the working ranks at 14, became a renowned poet by her early 20s, and found herself, after two failed marriages, wedded to a psychopathic doctor and hopelessly dependent on opioids by her 30s. Yet for all the dramatic twists of her life, these books together project a stunning clarity, humor and candidness, casting light not just on the world’s harsh realities but on the inexplicable impulses of our secret selves.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30. | Read our review

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America

By clint smith.

For this timely and thought-provoking book, Smith, a poet and journalist, toured sites key to the history of slavery and its present-day legacy, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary; and a Confederate cemetery. Interspersing interviews with the tourists, guides, activists and local historians he meets along the way with close readings of scholarship and poignant personal reflection, Smith holds up a mirror to America’s fraught relationship with its past, capturing a potent mixture of good intentions, earnest corrective, willful ignorance and blatant distortion.

Little, Brown & Company. $29. | Read our review | Listen to Smith on the podcast

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City

By andrea elliott.

To expand on her acclaimed 2013 series for The Times about Dasani Coates, a homeless New York schoolgirl, and her family, Elliott spent years following her subjects in their daily lives, through shelters, schools, courtrooms and welfare offices. The book she has produced — intimately reported, elegantly written and suffused with the fierce love and savvy observations of Dasani and her mother — is a searing account of one family’s struggle with poverty, homelessness and addiction in a city and country that have failed to address these issues with efficacy or compassion.

Random House. $30. | Read our review | Listen to Elliott on the podcast

On Juneteenth

By annette gordon-reed.

This book weaves together history and memoir into a short volume that is insightful, touching and courageous. Exploring the racial and social complexities of Texas, her home state, Gordon-Reed asks readers to step back from the current heated debates and take a more nuanced look at history and the surprises it can offer. Such a perspective comes easy to her because she was a part of history — the first Black child to integrate her East Texas school. On several occasions, she found herself shunned by whites and Blacks alike, learning at an early age that breaking the color line can be threatening to both races.

Liveright Publishing. $15.95. | Read our review | Listen to Gordon-Reed on the podcast

Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

By heather clark.

It’s daring to undertake a new biography of Plath, whose life, and death by suicide at 30 in 1963, have been thoroughly picked over by scholars. Yet this meticulously researched and, at more than 1,000 pages, unexpectedly riveting portrait is a monumental achievement. Determined to rescue the poet from posthumous caricature as a doomed madwoman and “reposition her as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century,” Clark, a professor of poetry in England, delivers a transporting account of a rare literary talent and the familial and intellectual milieu that both thwarted and encouraged her, enlivened throughout by quotations from Plath’s letters, diaries, poetry and prose.

Alfred A. Knopf. $40. | Read our review

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In “The Last Politician,” Franklin Foer presents the first half of Joe Biden’s presidency  as a series of made-for-television moments meant to inspire doubters and assuage critics.

What do you do when your doppelgänger becomes a conspiracy theorist on the internet? If you’re Naomi Klein, you write a book about it .

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