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Wartime London, 1400s Constantinople, Mad Men-era air travel and a summer on Cape Cod. This year provided us with fearlessly imagined characters and a slate of highly anticipated books that brought us to lands far away from COVID testing sites.
To celebrate the year in publishing, we’ve gathered the best books of 2021, a great mix of literary superstars and debut authors, sizzling summer getaways and terrifying winter lockdowns, buzzy book club picks and nuanced nonfiction, nostalgic musings and captivating memoirs—and of course, some truly exemplary contemporary fiction, all vetted by our Parade editors. Sure, we want you to look forward (to our most anticipated books of 2022), but there’s nothing wrong with adding a few of the best 2021 reads to your TBR list. Here are the books we enjoyed most this year. And if you’re adding to your cart, don’t forget to shop local (try this handy tool from Bookshop to buy from an independent bookstore near you).
In Great Circle, the epic and fateful stories of two women unfold—one of a female aviator who dreamed of circumnavigating the globe north to south and the other of a young Hollywood actress cast to play her a century later. Transport yourself to Prohibition-era Montana, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, New Zealand, wartime London and modern-day Los Angeles in this emotional—and epic!—story
The award-winning actor goes beyond foodie films, documentaries and his bestselling cookbooks in Taste: My Life Through Food, a memoir packed with savory stories of burned dishes and five-star food, falling in love over dinner and the power of a home-cooked meal.
Related: The Best Celebrity Books of Fall
A moving and suspenseful family drama (picked up by Apple to star Julia Roberts), Hannah Hall’s husband, Owen, disappears, leaving a duffel bag full of cash and a note that reads “protect her,” about his teenage daughter who wants nothing to do with her new stepmother. They’re wary of the story the FBI is telling, but the two will have to discover the truth about Owen together, while creating a family of their own.
The famed journalist and everyone’s favorite storyteller teamed up with novelist and historian Howe to chronicle the fascinating tale of an American empire—Cooper’s family, the Vanderbilts.
Hit the open road with Towles (A Gentleman in Moscow), whose latest follows a young man fresh out of a juvenile work farm in 1950s Nebraska who gets caught up in the exploits of two work farm escapees heading to New York City.
The story of two writers reuniting years after a weeklong affair changed their lives was a summer must-read for book-lovers this year.
Michaelides (The Silent Patient) is back with a thriller set among the ancient halls of Cambridge University, where a psychotherapist is certain that charismatic Greek tragedy professor Edward Fosca (beloved by the all-female secret society the Maidens) is a murderer.
Set during the Great Depression, Hannah introduces us to Elsa Martinelli, who must decide whether to fight for her Texas land ravaged by the Dust Bowl era or migrate west to California for a chance at a better life.
Related: Read an Exclusive Interview with Kristin Hannah on Her Epic Story of Female Resilience
Filled with suspense and dread, this psychological thriller follows a mother-daughter relationship. Blythe vows to be the mother she never had. But after giving birth to Violet, she’s certain there’s something dangerously evil about the child. So what makes a good mother? The page-turning tragic events will have you questioning everything.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Whitehead marvels with this family-saga-meets-classic-heist set in 1960s New York City.
Prolific author Green (The Fault in Our Stars) made his nonfiction debut with The Anthropocene Reviewed, a collection of essays and companion to his podcast of the same name. The bestselling book reviews objects (like the QWERTY keyboard and the Teddy bear) as he searches for joy—large and small—in human nature.
The fascinating, top-secret home to World War II codebreakers, Bletchley Park (a country house and estate outside London that hired the nation’s brightest minds—75 percent of which were women), is the setting for The Rose Code, which tells the story of three female codebreakers, all of whom were based on real-life women who penetrated the German’s secret communications during the war.
Related: Hear From Author Kate Quinn About Her Novel, The Rose Code
A lone astronaut is the only person who can save humankind in this absolutely thrilling sci-fi interstellar adventure from the author of The Martian.
In Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, four young adults—a Dublin novelist, her socially awkward best friend and their love interests— navigate relationships and come to grips with adulthood.
Characters in 1400s Constantinople, present-day Idaho and a future spaceship named Argos are all united by a long-lost book from ancient Greece in Cloud Cuckoo Land by Pulitzer Prize-winning Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See).
Related: Anthony Doerr Revels in the Uplifting Messages of Stories in His New Epic Cloud Cuckoo Land
Through the stories of several longtime flight attendants, author Julia Cooke looks at the gritty and glamorous Mad Men-era glory days of air travel, the women who wanted in and the intersection of feminism in Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am.
A YA favorite this year, Evie Thomas is done with love. But then there’s X, the man she learns to dance with at her dance studio. X is the complete opposite of Evie, but soon enough, she’s falling for him. Haunted by her visions of heartbreak, she’s forced to decide if the risk of love is worth the pain in the end.
Foo Fighters’ frontman Dave Grohl’s The Storyteller offers musings on a life of music, reflections on his childhood (teaching himself to drum on pillows) and thoughtful memories of being on the road with Nirvana, dancing with AC/DC, meeting Paul McCartney and drumming for Tom Petty.
Related: Dave Grohl on the Foo Fighters, the Pandemic, His Family and New Book The Storyteller
The first book since her TV-bound best-seller Daisy Jones & the Six, Reid’s latest happens to be one of the most anticipated of the year—and rightfully so. Welcome to 1980s Malibu, where four siblings—the off-spring of notorious singer/playboy Mick Riva—throw their annual end-of-summer party (even Rob Lowe has been in attendance). But before the ill-fated night (literally) goes up in flames, generations of secrets, loves and yearnings will come bubbling to the surface, changing each of their lives forever. It’s a must-read.
This YA fantasy novel (which will become a film trilogy, with the script also written by Forna), follows Deka, a young woman who leaves her village behind without a sense of belonging. What she finds in its place is a group of young women bonded by blood as warriors. Together, with her fellow alaki—near-immortals with rare gifts—she’ll journey to stop the empire’s greatest threat.
Related: The Best YA Books of 2021
If you liked HBO’s The Undoing (Hanff Korelitz’s previous novel, You Should Have Known, became the basis for the hit series), then you’ll be happy to know she’s returned with a literary thriller filled with deceit and betrayal set in the publishing world, where a fame-hungry writer steals a book and a vindictive reader uncovers the truth.
Love an enemies-to-lovers trope? How about a fake-dating rom-com? A steamy slow-burn romance? This one, set during a wedding trip to Spain, has it all.
A British soldier has a chance encounter with a middle-aged art historian in 1940s Tuscany that shapes his life and the lives of friends for decades to come.
Related: Favorite Historical Fiction From 2021
What happens when one apothecary secretly distributes poisons to liberate women from the men who’ve wronged them? In The Lost Apothecary, the stories of three women across centuries collide in a tale of revenge by debut novelist Sarah Penner.
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, in which a young orphaned girl fated for “nothingness” under Mongol rule claims her brother’s identity—and a chance at greatness.
A happily married 50-year-old must decide whether or not to upend her life after having an affair with her childhood love in Heller’s anticipated Cape Cod–set debut.
Related: Looking Back at Summer? Here are the Best Books of the Season
The Thursday Murder Club’s quartet of clever septuagenarian Sherlocks is back, this time in search of murderers and stolen diamonds from their luxe retirement village.
Set against the backdrop of the American South, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is an epic tale of adventure that follows a young Black girl struggling with her own identity, alternating her own story with those of her ancestors.
This 2021 favorite is a classic friends-to-lovers tale about a travel writer planning a weeklong trip to win over the best friend she might be in love with. There’s the When Harry Met Sally witty banter and all the slow-burn yearning you could ask for. And sure, this is a story that will have you pining for travel, but more importantly, it’s a reminder that no matter where you are in the world, no matter the type of vacation, it’s the people (or person) you’re with that brings the most joy.
Related: 25 New Books We Loved This Spring
Take a trip to the Scottish Highlands, where a troubled marriage comes to a head during a weekend away in this disturbingly twisty domestic thriller.
Whitaker’s literary thriller is a heartbreaking, emotional read that has gotten a ton of buzz, with television rights already sold. It centers around four characters: Vincent, who is released from prison 30 years after being convicted of killing a young girl; his now-police-chief childhood friend, Walker, who is reeling from the guilt of a testimony that put his friend away; Star, the sister of the girl who was killed, and Star’s daughter, Duchess, a 13-year-old self-proclaimed outlaw who must team up with Walk to handle the trouble that will soon hit their small coastal California town.
Pick up The Prophets for the exceptional writing, stay for the tale of forbidden love between two enslaved young men on a Mississippi plantation and the betrayal that threatens their existence.
Related: The Best Releases From Winter 2021
Most jumped at the chance to read Ford’s writing this year in this powerful memoir about her complex childhood with an incarcerated father, her feelings of isolation and how to “find the threads between who you are and what you were born into.”
Winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for The Night Watchman, Erdrich’s latest follows a formerly incarcerated woman named Tookie working at a Minneapolis bookstore and haunted by the ghost of the store’s most annoying customer. Set in present-day, Tookie attempts to solve the mystery of the haunting while simultaneously living in a city distraught by the pandemic, police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.
True-crime buff? Pick up Finlay’s thriller Every Last Fear, which follows college student Matt Pine, whose family, made infamous by a viral true-crime documentary about his imprisoned brother, is found dead in Mexico. With only him and his brother still alive, Pine wonders if it’s all connected. It’s twisty and unputdownable and intensifies until the very end.
For nonfiction that reads like fiction, Nimura’s The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women—and Women to Medicine is the dramatic true story about America’s first female physicians.
In this edgy, satirical thriller, Nella encounters microaggressions and racism daily as her publishing company’s sole Black employee. But when another young Black woman is hired, hostility and menacing events begin.
Related: Fasten Your Seat Belt! Suspense Specialist Riley Sager Picks Some of the Best Thrillers of 2021
A top sniper, decorated Iraq war vet and a hired killer who will only target the bad guys. Now he wants out though. With one more job to get done, what could go wrong? “It was a late-summer treat from the master of horror,” says Riley Sager.
Walton is a debut author, and her electrifying novel is set in 1970s New York and tells of the rise and fall of a fictional rock ’n’ roll duo, Afro-punk rocker Opal Jewel and her white partner, Nev Charles, with a fresh take on stardom, power and racial identity.
Set in a dystopian near future, Nobel laureate Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun follows a teenager’s “Artificial Friend,” who watches the world and reflects profoundly on human nature.
Next, the best book covers of 2021.
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