After another year with the Covid crisis raging around the world, we need to seek comfort wherever we can get it. Here at Bookstr, it’s no surprise that we turn to books. Reading books, especially good books, will always spirit you away from reality for a beautiful, sweet moment. That’s why we love books—we’re swept away by good storytelling, layered characters, and intense feelings.
Because 2021 was such a wonderful year in books, it was difficult to narrow down our top favorites. But we succeeded, so here are Bookstr’s 10 best books that were published in 2021!
We love a good sequel, especially one by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Committed is the follow-up to Nguyen’s 2015 debut novel The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2016. His sequel follows a North Vietnamese spy as he arrives as a refugee in Paris, France. The Sympathizer, the narrator, is haunted by the past events in the prior novel, and as he traverses the capitalistic, drug-filled world of Paris to survive, he struggles to assimilate with an unfamiliar culture. Both a thriller and existential novel, Nguyen’s sequel is packed to the brim with his iconic wit, humor, and incredible storytelling.
This story literally made everyone feel the feels. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner is a powerful memoir that explores her personal struggles growing up as Korean American. In the book, Zauner recounts her childhood growing up as one of the few Asian Americans at her school and her tumultuous relationship with her mother. As she grows up, she shares moments with her mother that she treasures. Food is the love language of her life (something many other Asian Americans can attest to). However, tragedy hits when Zauner’s mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Through grief, Zauner relearns her identity and reclaims the beauty of their culture through food.
“In a display case in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture sits a rough cotton bag, called Ashley’s Sack, embroidered with just a handful of words that evoke a sweeping family story of loss and love, passed down through generations.” All That She Carried by Tiya Miles is a powerful story of the resilience and love of Black women. The winner of the 2021 National Book Award, Miles’s book centers on Black women and their history through three generations of this specific family. Her book reads like poetry and vividly magnifies the lives of these incredible women.
Again, anything by Ocean Vuong will hurt my heart. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the poet’s first novel. Vuong’s book is epistolary, a letter from a son to his illiterate mother. Little Dog, the narrator, reveals their family history, a history that begins in Vietnam. Full of powerful, emotive language, Vuong’s novel is about saving each other and confronting the fact that tragedy never really leaves a person. No one ever has to be “complete;” it’s completely valid to complete one another and share pain and healing.
A high fantasy read is always welcome in my books. The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is a dark fantasy novel full of everything we love about fantasy. The book follows sixteen-year-old Deka who is anticipating a blood ceremony that will determine whether or not she will become a member of her village. However, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity. After encountering a mysterious woman, Deka chooses to leave home and fight in an army of girls just like her for the emperor. Forna’s novel combines mystery and suspense and is certainly a page-turning fantasy.
I am convinced that anything by Anthony Doerr is an entryway into greatness. In his newest book, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Doerr ties characters through time and space. In 15th century Constantinople, thirteen-year-old Anna learns to read and discovers the story of Aethon who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky. Amidst all this, Constantinople is besieged and the wall crumbles down around her. 500 years later, Zeno and five children act out the story of Aethon. But around them in a small library in Idaho, Seymour plants a bomb on the shelves. On an interstellar ship called Argos, Konstance is copying the story of Aethon, told to her by her father. Tied by one book, the characters of Doerr’s novel translate the act of reading and how books connect us all.
In Chloe Gong’s long-awaited sequel to These Violent Delights, Our Violent Ends continues the iconic Shakespearean retelling of the romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet in 1920s Shanghai with threats of a revolution just around the corner. Juliette and Roma’s relationship is over. Juliette is the heir to the Scarlet Gang, and Roma is vengeful after Marshall’s death. However, something dangerous is brimming in the air, and Juliette and Roma have no choice but to work together to ensure its end.
You can always depend on a mystery thriller to bring the suspense. Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me packs all the things we love about mysteries and thrillers. The book follows Hannah Hall in the aftermath of her husband of one year, Owen Michael, disappearing. The only thing evidence left by him is a note that he leaves Hannah saying, “Protect her.” Immediately, Hannah knows who he is referring to—Owen’s 16-year-old daughter, Bailey. Now, both Hannah and Bailey work together to uncover Owen’s mysterious past and his real identity because not everything is the way it seems.
Louise Erdrich needs no introduction—she is a master of storytelling. In her newest novel, The Sentence, she writes a book about books. A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer, Flora. Tookie, working at the store, must solve the mystery of this haunting and discover why Flora is still here. A pandemic novel, Erdrich’s novel defines our grief, expectations, and our lives.
This last book made it to Barack Obama’s personal favorites list of 2021. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun is about the beauty of humanity and love. Klara is an Artificial Friend and awaits at the store for someone to take her home. She is keenly observational and day after day, Klara watches the customers. We fall in love with Klara’s character and through her narration, we discover how what we believe in can change the world and how the world, in turn, can change us.
For more of Bookstr’s end-of-the-year roundups, take a look at this article on Bookstr’s Top 10 Book Covers of 2021.