In his 1994 novel “The New Life,” Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk writes, “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” A good book can not only change us, but it can make us laugh, cry, or fall in love with characters; it can whisk us to places and manifest worlds we can only imagine.
To bring you a list of the best books of 2021, Stacker dove into year-end lists featuring the bests books of the year from vetted publications and analyzed data on popular book-rating sites to get a gauge for 21 books that won out the year in acclaim and popularity. Titles are organized chronologically.
These books feature villains and heroes; they span all sorts of genres, from historical fiction to fantasy; and some were even written by historians, poets, and Pulitzer Prize winners. Whether it’s a gift book containing a poem by the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, the first novel in a proposed trilogy about a Midwestern family, or the fictional story of a humanoid who serves as an artificial friend, these books moved us and many other readers alike this year.
Keep scrolling to see whether your favorite book of the year made the list.
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‘A Court of Silver Flames’ by Sarah J. Maas
The story of Nesta Archeron, who feels lost in the world surrounding her, and the warrior, Cassian, “A Court of Silver Flames” is the fourth novel in the “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series by Sarah J. Maas. This series is inspired by several fairy tales, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “Tam Lin.” The novels in the series are in the works of being adapted for Hulu from “Outlander” creator Ron Moore.
‘All That She Carried’ by Tiya Miles
This tale by historian Tiya Miles is one of resilience and love. It tells of three generations of women and a bag packed with a few items that was originally passed down from an enslaved mother named Rose to her daughter Ashley, who gets sold. Eventually, Ashley’s granddaughter, Ruth, embroiders words and the family history onto the bag. Miles’ “All That She Carried” also garnered this year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction.
‘The Anthropocene Reviewed’ by John Green
The inspiration for this book of essays by bestselling author John Green comes from his popular podcast of the same name. The title meaning is tied to the Anthropocene, which, according to National Geographic, is “an unofficial unit of geologic time, used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems.” In the book, Green reviews everything from sunsets to the QWERTY keyboard.
‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney, who wrote “Normal People” and “Conversations with Friends,” brings readers a tale of four people who do their best to connect in a modern world. Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon get together, navigate sex and relationships, break up and try to figure out life. “Beautiful World, Where Are You” earned numerous accolades, having taken home the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fiction as well as Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards.
‘Broken’ by Jenny Lawson
By sharing her struggles with both mental and physical health in her most recent book, Jenny Lawson—fondly known by her many fans as “The Bloggess”—continues to prove that we are not alone. Lawson uses her pitch-perfect humor and anecdotes from her life with her husband Victor, who is almost as well-known to her fans as she is, to bring “Broken” to life. This instant New York Times bestseller is the follow-up to “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” and “Furiously Happy.”
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‘The Committed’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen
“The Committed” is the sequel to “The Sympathizer,” Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Nguyen’s latest novel focuses on the nameless hero as he attempts to find his way in 1980s France with his blood brother and friend, Bon. Born in Vietnam and raised in the United States, Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and a professor at the University of Southern California.
‘Crossroads’ by Jonathan Franzen
The sixth novel from Jonathan Franzen, “Crossroads” is meant to be the first in a proposed trilogy. It centers on a Midwestern family at a crisis point and takes place almost entirely over the course of a single day during the 1970s. The Hildebrandt family includes husband and father Russ Hildebrandt, an associate pastor, his wife Marion Hildebrandt, and their three children, all of whom have come to a moral crossroads. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, critic Dwight Garner remarked the character Marion as “one of the glorious characters in recent American fiction.”
‘Crying in H Mart’ by Michelle Zauner
Michelle Zauner takes readers through her life, from her beginnings as one of the only Asian American kids in her class in Eugene, Oregon, to her time spent with her grandmother in Korea, through her early adulthood, which pulled her further from her Korean culture. “Crying in H Mart” also explores how her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis brought her back to her cultural roots. Apart from being a bestselling author, Zauner is also the frontwoman and songwriter of the Grammy-nominated indie rock band Japanese Breakfast.
‘Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty’ by Patrick Radden Keefe
The bestselling author of “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” brings readers an examination of three generations of a family whose wealth came from one drug, Valium, and whose fall came due to another. The Sacklers watched their family name crumble due to their role in the opioid drug epidemic. “Empire of Pain” follows the family’s business beginnings, including the purchase of Purdue Frederick, a drug manufacturer, to the disgrace they’ve faced due to the legal battles and investigations surrounding their role in the health crisis caused by the drug they created and marketed, OxyContin.
‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead recreates 1960s New York City in his latest novel. “Harlem Shuffle” focuses on Ray Carney, a man who sells furniture to support his family, though it isn’t enough. Carney’s cousin offers him a chance to get in on a heist at the Hotel Theresa, also known as the “Waldorf of Harlem,” but when things go wrong, Carney has to figure out how to save himself, his cousin, and make some money from the heist, all while maintaining his reputation as a responsible family man.
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‘The Hill We Climb’ by Amanda Gorman
In January 2021, Amanda Gorman became the sixth and youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history when she recited a poem to commemorate Joe Biden’s becoming the 46th President of the United States. This keepsake gift edition of the poem, titled “The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country,” includes a forward by Oprah Winfrey. Gorman began writing at a young age, and the Harvard University grad was only 22 years old when she read her inspirational poem—which touched on themes of unity and healing—at the presidential inauguration.
‘How Beautiful We Were’ by Imbolo Mbue
Opening in 1980 in the fictional African village of Kosawa, “How Beautiful We Were” tells the tale of locals sickened by capitalist corporate gain. Imbolo Mbue’s latest novel finds a determined village woman taking on an American oil company as children are poisoned from toxic drinking water. Mbue’s 2016 debut novel “Behold the Dreamers” garnered the African native a spot on The New York Times Best Seller list in addition to the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award.
‘Klara and the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro
A humanoid named Klara waits on display in a store to be chosen, becoming a keen observer of the human condition in the interim. She is part of a future world where AIs have replaced many human workers. Klara is eventually placed with a girl to be her artificial friend and help her get through life until college. Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote the Booker Prize-winning novel “The Remains of the Day,” was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize for “Klara and the Sun.”
‘The Last Thing He Told Me’ by Laura Dave
In this thriller, Hannah’s new husband Owen asks her to do one thing before he disappears: take care of his daughter Bailey. As Hannah and Bailey join together to find Owen, they realize he isn’t the man they thought him to be. Produced by Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine, Jennifer Garner will replace Julia Roberts as the star of the book’s upcoming limited series adaptation on Apple TV+.
‘Malibu Rising’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid
In her latest novel, Taylor Jenkins Reid focuses on the fictional and famous, a prominent Southern California family, and one night in their lives. It’s 1983, and the Riva family is throwing their annual end-of-summer party in Malibu, but nothing goes quite as expected. The follow-up to the 2019 novel, “Daisy Jones & The Six,” which examines the dynamics of a 1970s rock band, “Malibu Rising” became a New York Times bestseller.
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‘No One Is Talking About This’ by Patricia Lockwood
Poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood pens her first novel with “No One Is Talking About This,” a book that examines social media and the stronghold the internet has on people. A finalist for the 2021 Booker Prize, this novel features a female narrator whose viral social media post offers her unbelievable opportunity, though she falls into the internet rabbit hole known as “the portal,” and only climbs out after urgent real-life matters pull her back. Lockwood became known for her memoir, “Priestdaddy,” which drew on her life as the daughter of a married Catholic priest and won her the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
‘On Juneteenth’ by Annette Gordon-Reed
Perhaps Annette Gordon-Reed’s “On Juneteenth” provides such an interesting historical account because the author herself was a part of history as the first Black child to enter an all-white school system in Conroe, Texas, in the mid-1960s; or maybe it is because she is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who teaches at Harvard Law. Either way, the book, part history and part memoir, explores Juneteenth’s origins in her home state and its historic journey to becoming what it is today, a federal holiday and a day finally recognized by the entire nation.
‘People We Meet on Vacation’ by Emily Henry
Emily Henry provides another foray into romantic escapism with “People We Meet On Vacation,” the tale of Alex and Poppy, two best friends who take annual vacations together until they have a falling out and are no longer on speaking terms. When Poppy comes to realize that the last time she was happy was on her final vacation with Alex, she understands that they must take one more vacation together to try to right old wrongs. Henry also wrote The New York Times bestseller, “Beach Read.”
‘Project Hail Mary’ by Andy Weir
Andy Weir wrote the bestselling sci-fi novel “The Martian.” The debut novel was originally self-published and was eventually adapted into a major motion picture directed by Ridley Scott starring Matt Damon. In “Project Hail Mary,” Weir delivers yet another space-centric story with the tale of a solitary survivor who must work to save humanity from extinction even though he remembers nothing of his mission. Screenwriter and director Drew Goddard, who brought “The Martian” to the silver screen, has already been slated to do the same for Weir’s latest novel, with Ryan Gosling rumored to star in the film.
‘The Sentence’ by Louise Erdrich
A ghost story of a haunted Minneapolis bookstore and the previously incarcerated book clerk working there, “The Sentence” takes place over one year from All Souls’ Day 2019 to All Souls’ Day 2020. Not only does Erdrich’s novel take place during the pandemic, but it also focuses on Native American culture—a topic that runs central in many of the previous works written by Erdrich, who is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, just like her mother and grandfather before her.
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‘When We Cease to Understand the World’ by Benjamín Labatut
Benjamín Labatut brings us stories of great thinkers, using fiction to examine the real lives behind these geniuses and luminaries. Physicist Erwin Schrödinger, mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, chemist Fritz Haber, and physicist Werner Heisenberg are some of the brilliant minds the author takes a deeper look at while examining their lives as well as the benefits and costs to some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs. “When We Cease to Understand the World” was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021.
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