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It’s December, which means it’s time for a round-up of the most notable books of 2021. What have you read so far and which did you enjoy the most? From popular crime thrillers to breakout debut novels, this year has been one for the books.
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Check out our list below of the best books so far of 2021 and see which ones you might want to pick up next.
1. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
The Sackler Dynasty has a controversial history as the makers of Valium, building their first fortune off the drug by downplaying its addictive tendencies, playing the market, the FDA, and doctors alike to make themselves into the super-elite family that they are today. Having been investigated over and over again, their role in the hundreds of thousands of deaths from the drug OxyContin has finally brought about their downfall. Told with gorgeous reporting by Patrick Radden Keefe, this book explores the personal dramas, the courtroom legacies, and dives into the rich history of the family’s origins up to the present day.
2. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
The long-awaited novel by Maggie Shipstead has arrived to great acclaim. Her latest book follows the story of Marian Graves, a pilot who aims to circumnavigate the globe at any cost. Alternating chapters show the life of the modern-day actress set to play Marian in the latest film about her life and the cost of life in Hollywood. Part historical biography and part modern-day commentary on the starstruck life we all lead, Shipstead leads us into unusual places with the family history of Graves, Marian’s brother Jamie in World War II, and her long love affair with her friend Caleb. This is a gorgeous book rich with detail and drama that will leave you hooked until the very last page.
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3. On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed
The history of Juneteenth is explained here in a beautiful guide by historian and Texas native Annette Gordon-Reed. If you’re curious about the new federal holiday or just want to further your own education on the subject, Gordon-Reed’s book will give you plenty of information to discuss with family and friends. Weaving together her own personal history, American history, and the saga that led us here, Gordon-Reed’s book is a wonderful accomplishment that revises history and our own narratives.
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4. Animal by Lisa Taddeo
A highly anticipated book from the author of the bestseller Three Women, Taddeo has arrived with her fiction debut and it will leave you breathless. Joan witnesses a suicide in a Manhattan restaurant, a former lover who was stalking her while she was on another date with yet another married man — yes it’s one of these scandalous stories. From there, she heads to Topanga Canyon, CA to rethink her life and to also find a missing person whom she has never met but desperately needs to meet to resolve her own harrowing and tragic past. Why is Joan the way she is? She says she’s depraved, that she hopes you’ll like her — and you will. Told with rich and beautiful prose, Taddeo will leave you flat on your back, gasping for air like a fish after the last page. It’s almost too good to be true, but it’s not. It’s real. Go pick up a copy today.
5. Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone by Sarah Jaffe
Jaffe bites back against the theory that doing what you love means you’ll never work a day in your life; instead, she argues against this idea with thoughts about sacrifice, and how much we give to be able to do what we love. Already a preeminent voice on labor, social justice and inequality, Jaffe takes us on a journey with overworked teachers, unpaid interns, nonprofit workers, and even professional athletes and dives into their real lives as exploited workers. A good book for anyone rethinking their idea of work and what it means to do what you love.
6. My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee
A coming of age tale set in America, the protagonist Tiller befriends Pong and together they take off on a year abroad which will change Tiller’s outlook on life forever after. An exploration of an American in China and a Chinese man in America, values are questioned, cultural differences are evaluated and a rich commentary on capitalism, global health and parenthood abound. If you’re seeking out a novel of escapism and an analysis of Western culture, My Year Abroad will surely delight you.
7. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui
A deeply researched book about why we swim, Tsui writes with an electric ferocity about why some people crave total immersion. If you’re a swimmer or know a swimmer, this book is the perfect choice to flounder in the deep end of our own psyche. Tsui explores the history of swimming, writes about how it brings the unlikeliest of people together and pens harrowing adventure tales of people surviving freezing temperatures. This is a book that shows us who we are through the beautiful process of the water and why we keep coming back to it.
8. Kink: Stories, Edited by Garth Greenwell and R. O. Kwon
In this groundbreaking literary anthology about sex, two editors decide to call upon some of the best of the best sex writers in the business: Alexander Chee, Carmen Maria Machado, Chris Kraus and Brandon Taylor, just to name a few, to share short stories about BDSM, love and desire. Hopefully, this book will prove why sex writing is deserving of a proper place in the literary canon. Plus, we could all use some raunchy entertainment these days. Look no further for a book to share and read aloud with your own partners.
9. Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin
Since the start of the pandemic, bars and restaurants have been hit hard, and the gay and lesbian culture at these bars has fared no better. Why not take a deep dive into the history of gay bars while we can’t fully immerse ourselves in them? Written in great depth and detail, Lin takes us on the journey of the origins of the gay bar and how it cultivated a generation. Interspersed with his own stories of nights out, Lin reminds us of the importance of social culture and historical reflection.
10. Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas by Roberto Bolano
A contemporary voice of Latin America who is rich in prose and plot, these three novellas by Roberto Bolano take us through the journeys of his strange characters and uncanny settings. The first story Cowboy Graves takes us to Chile to fight for socialism after a coup. French Comedy of Horrors takes us to French Guinea when a teen finds himself called into a Clandestine Surrealist Group. In Fatherland, a poet watches airplanes write her poetry in the sky while they reckon with the fascist overthrow of their country. Each story will transport you to another place and time and since they are quite short in length, the perfect remedy to a longer novel’s heft.
11. The Collected Works of Jim Morrison: Poetry, Journals, Transcripts, and Lyrics
This collection of personal works by Jim Morrison will surely be a treat to any die-hard fan. The journals alone would be enough of a selling point for any studious music fan but the mixture of poetry, transcripts, and lyrics added to the bag make it a worthwhile gift for any Morrison fan.
12. Phillip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey
If you’re a fan of the literary star Phillip Roth, then you’ll be excited to dig into his biography by the esteemed writer Blake Bailey. Writers are often enigmas and their fans often have to guess at their inner lives or how they came to be a writer, so a biography is always an interesting document in and of itself. So if you’re curious about Roth or how he came to be such an infamous author, snap up this biography quick. You’ll be occupied for hours as it comes in at 912 pages.
13. Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux
If you’re interested in the real underbelly of the North Shore on Oahu, Hawaii, Paul Theroux’s latest novel depicts with delicious detail the gritty life of his protagonist Joe Sharkey, a famed surfer past his prime. When he drives home drunk from a bar one night and accidentally kills a stranger on the highway, his life is unmoored. How will he grapple with his age, his lackluster love for the ocean, and finding out whose life he took? Paul Theroux tackles the themes of privilege, age, and mortality with aplomb. Read this book if you’re interested in the real lives of surfers on the beautiful island.
14. World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever
If you’re a fan of the late chef and master of food, Anthony Bourdain, and devoured Kitchen Confidential like it was a hot panini, then you’re in for a real treat with his essays on culture, travel and of course, cuisine. There are also essays from his friends and family which honor his life’s work and style. Pick this up if you’re feeling nostalgic for a time when we could travel just to try the new food and culture.
15. Everybody: A Book About Freedom by Olivia Laing
A hotly anticipated book full of essays on artists, political figures and what it means to truly protest, Olivia Laing is back again this year with another beautiful book. She shares stories of her own time spent protesting, what it means to be a body and how everyone has the right to life. She draws from complicated figures such as Malcolm X, Susan Sontag, Nina Simone and Sigmund Freud to draw out what it truly means to live in the world right now. An excellent examination of our current culture and political climate.
16. While Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams
From the instrumental person whom we all wish was our alter ego, Stacey Abrams has arrived this year with a plucky thriller novel set in the courtroom. If it’s by Abrams, need we say more? She already has some stellar nonfiction out there to pursue as well as a few delicious romance novels if you’re in the mood, but either way, pick up her thriller and you’ll be in for a sweet spot of escapism.
17. The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee
If you’re a fan of historical New York novels, then you’re in for a treat here. This book follows the life and then the assassination of the city planner Andrew Haswell Green, the creator of Central Park, the MET and the NYPL. A vivid historical novel, character-driven and richly depicted, Lee has given us a masterpiece. A sure favorite for all of us obsessed with the city of New York.
18. Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor
Brandon Taylor is back with his hot new book of short stories, a collection that will delight anyone with a highly anticipatory summer reading list. Taylor’s prose is so cool and sweeping that you won’t know what hit you but by then, you’ll be swept up in the stories of these young people’s desires and connections to violence, their wants for love and intimacy in a world that proves hard to give it. One of the breakout literary stars of 2020, Taylor’s new story collection will leave you wondering more about your own life than when you started it.
19. Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Nelson’s debut novel is told in the harrowing second person, which is quite the accomplishment. Told in prose so beautiful it’s nearly poetry, Nelson’s love story is one for the ages. It starts out like your typical romance, but when the heat comes, you’d better duck. Both characters were scholarship students in London, both turned artists once they graduated, and now together, are struggling to be understood in a world that celebrates them as much as it rejects them. Nelson’s critical climax cites the life of a young Black man being wiped out, a tale that is told far too often in today’s world, and how it affects the protagonist and his tender new relationship. A beautiful book that celebrates love, Black culture, and the will to make your own way in the world, Open Water isn’t a debut to be missed.
20. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Probably one of the best-selling books of 2021 and will continue to be so as the year goes on, Ishiguro’s latest novel tells the story of the future: Klara is an Artificial Friend, waiting and observing in a store for someone to buy her and take her home. The book asks the central question that is often integral to our lives: what does it mean to love? Who will love Klara, as she watches love being acted upon and performed around her? Told in classic Ishiguro style, this book asks as many questions about humanity as it gives answers.
21. The President’s Daughter: A Thriller by Bill Clinton and James Patterson
A thriller from two dynamic people, one a former president and one a bestselling thriller author, The President’s Daughter is a harrowing tale that follows Navy SEAL and former president Matthew Keating as defenses around him seem to drop and an unexpected threat looms into view, setting his family in a precarious predicament. Keating’s daughter is kidnapped by a madman, setting off a plot full of escapes, spies, and drama. This is a best-selling book that will leave you rooted to the page.
22. Glorious Beef by Pat LaFrieda
Renowned butcher Pat LaFrieda’s new memoir Glorious Beef tells of his fascinating family history, shedding light on one of America’s most influential meat-industry dynasties. He also touches on meat alternatives and the true climate change implications of grass-fed beef, explains the beef grading process, humane processing methods and much more, in addition to sharing a few favorite recipes.
23. Dry by Stephon Stewart
This graphic novel addresses climate change in a big picture kind of way that touches on human relationships, and the life of the planet. In this beautifully illustrated novel, the world has become waterless due to solar flares and the greenhouse effect. It’s fiction, but it foreshadows a scary future we all may have in store if climate change is not reversed. It’s truly representative of a time of crisis.
24. Detox Nourish Activate by Dr. Lulu Shimek
Sometimes we don’t even know where to start in feeling better, and this book shares creative tools and techniques ranging from herbal medicine to aromatherapy, crystals, meditations and mindfulness exercises. It’s not about something as straightforward as medicine, but healing the entire body, from the inside out, and that involves a self-healing journey on a physical, emotional and energetic level. It’s a very empowering read!
25. Moon Bath by Dakota Hills
Sometimes, people are so busy taking care of everyone else, they don’t take the time to take care of themselves. 2021 was a major lesson in self-care, and this is a guide that encourages just that by channeling the healing powers of nature.
26. The Last Flight by Julie Clark
This book tells the story of two women on two flights, and the sudden opportunity to change their lives and leave behind their previous ones forever. The women switch tickets and exchange identities, but then something shocking happens, and changes everything.
27. Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab
In the past two years, many of us had to reexamine how we set boundaries in our personal and professional lives. We were working from home, stuck at home, often schooling our kids at home while our partners were also working from home. It was a lot. Learning to set boundaries and adjusting to a remote environment is something we needed to learn to redefine and stick to. If you struggle with knowing when to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in situations to achieve a better work-life balance, this book is for you.
28. The Push: A Novel by Ashley Audrain
For anyone who really enjoys psychological thrillers, this is one that touches on the relationship between mothers and daughters. While this thriller involves a lot of pretty big and incredible plot twists, at the core, it’s a story about trust, and how to know when to believe each other. Is the mother in this story imagining things? As she begins to question her own sanity, we all can’t help but wonder what the real truth is.
29. The Dead Are Arising by Les Payne
A biography of Malcolm X, this work took thirty years to complete and includes hundreds of interviews. Learn about Malcom X in a more intimate way than ever before, from people who actually knew him.
30. Atomic Habits by James Clear
Achieving our goals is often just about examining our habits and learning to change them. It’s about those New Years resolutions we don’t keep, the goals we make and never follow through on. This book teaches the art of building new habits and making small but significant changes that lead to big results over time.
31. Don’t Limit Me On What I Can Be by Emily Taffel-Cohen
It is an illustrated, rhyming ABC book about alternative careers kids may not know exist with illustrations featuring a diverse group of children, showing that anyone can be anything they want to be in this life. The book shows fun jobs that aren’t the first ones we think of in life and ultimately, the end message is to do what makes you happy because you have to do it every day, and to treat everyone the same no matter what their title is.
32. On Pause by Charlie Bennet
This is a poignant and gorgeously arranged photo book sharing the unforgettable moments in time during the shutdown in New York City during the spring of 2020. It’s eerie seeing New York City’s most famous landmarks completely empty, all the people gone. But what was left behind is beautiful, serene, and quiet.
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