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Find more Booklist Editors' Choice
The most outstanding adult books of 2021, titles selected by Booklist’s adult books editors from all the starred reviews of the year across our expansive nonfiction and fiction coverage, include an exceptional number of titles by debut authors and a strong showing of nonfiction works addressing complex social issues and exploring heretofore hidden historical events and realities. We applaud the vitality and conviction of writers and publishers and hope that this best-of-the-best rundown will inspire many readers to turn to these exciting works of inquiry and imagination, facts and truth.
ARTS & LITERATURE
Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World. By Wil Haygood. Knopf, $30 (9780525656876).
Haygood presents a captivating and enlightening century-spanning chronicle of Black film in the U.S., featuring determined, largely unsung Black actors, writers, and directors who strove to create fully realized portrayals of African American life despite heartbreaking setbacks.
The Hard Crowd: Essays, 2000–2020. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, $26 (9781982157692).
Kushner’s breathtaking personal essays recount her adventures with polished rigor that mirrors the fine-tuned mechanics of the motorcycles and classic cars she treasures, while her critical essays are astute and rigorous.
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. By Hanif Abdurraqib. Random, $27 (9781984801197).
Blending pop-culture essays, memoir, and poetry, Abdurraqib delves into the many iterations of Black artistic expression on both cultural and individual levels through an often deeply personal lens.
Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get through Hard Times by Making Up Stories. By Charlie Jane Anders. Tor.com, $26.99 (9781250800015).
In this packed collection of essays about the vibrant support and energy to be gleaned from the act of writing, Anders offers readers digestible and motivating advice dipped in a satisfying coating of snark.
Nöthin’ but a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ‘80s Hard Rock Explosion. By Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (9781250195753).
This oral history weaves together quotes from all the big names of stateside hair metal into a comprehensive document of the rise and fall of the scene, spending equal time on Motley Crüe-style debauchery and the behind-the-scenes business that made these bands superstars.
Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be. By Nichole Perkins. Grand Central, $17.99 (9781538702741).
Poet, writer, and podcaster Perkins presents a funny, sexy, reverent, vulnerable meditation on Black women’s sexuality by recounting one woman’s journey through family, boyfriends, and pop culture to her own hard-won power.
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. By Ai Weiwei. Tr. by Allan H. Barr. Crown, $32 (9780553419467).
World-acclaimed artist of conscience Ai Weiwei tells the story of how both he and his father, the revered poet Ai Qing, were tyrannized by the Chinese government in this gripping, revelatory, and very moving family history and memoir.
And Now I Spill the Family Secrets. By Margaret Kimball. Art by the author. HarperOne, $18.99 (9780063007444).
This pristine and inventive graphic family memoir is the years-in-the-making result of Kimball’s attempt to understand what led to her mother’s long-concealed suicide attempt. (Top of the List Winner—Adult Graphic Novel)
Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South. By Winfred Rembert and Erin I. Kelly. Bloomsbury, $30 (9781635576597).
In searing prose and dynamic paintings of clarion witness and reckoning, Rembert tells the harrowing story of his life in rural Georgia, where he survived toxic racism, a near-lynching, incarceration, and chain gangs to become an artist of unique vision and power. (Top of the List Winner—Adult Nonfiction)
Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. By Anne Sebba. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (9781250198631).
Sebba chronicles with unprecedented detail how Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg was fatally betrayed by her family and her country in an appalling miscarriage of justice during the Cold War outbreak of political extremism and rampant lies.
Let’s Make Dumplings! A Comic Book Cookbook. By Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan. Ten Speed, $19.99 (9781984858757).
This comic book cookbook is so successful at making the process of making dumplings approachable—and the dumplings themselves look delectable—that readers will get excited to jump in.
Mooncakes and Milk Bread: Sweet and Savory Recipes Inspired by Chinese Bakeries. By Kristina Cho. Harper Horizon, $29.95 (9780785238997).
After explaining the science of creating tender milk-bread dough, Cho shows the sometimes-intricate steps to transform such dough into an astonishing array of steamed, baked, fried, and stuffed creations.
HEALTH & MEDICINE
Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted. By Suleika Jaouad. Random, $28 (9780399588587).
Award-winning writer and activist Jaouad describes the shock of being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at 22, then gathering her strength to write about her medical struggles to help herself and others.
The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID. By Lawrence Wright. Knopf, $28 (9780593320723).
In 2020, America was waging war against a lethal virus and itself, Wright observes in this exemplary account of the cataclysmic effects of COVID-19 on society due to tragic missteps and disinformation, failed leadership and rejection of science.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. By Nikole Hannah-Jones. Ed. by The New York Times Magazine. One World, $38 (9780593230572).
Hannah-Jones expands the original version of The 1619 Project published in The New York Times Magazine into a mighty collection of historical photographs, essays, poems, and stories by such writers as Carol Anderson, Claudia Rankine, Jesmyn Ward, and many more.
All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. By Tiya Miles. Random, $28 (9781984854995).
The poignant tale of a family heirloom passed down through generations of Black women, from Rose, an enslaved woman in 1850s South Carolina, who gave it to her daughter Ashley on the eve of her being sold.
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African Americans, 1619–2019. By Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. One World, $32 (9780593134047).
Editors Kendi and Blain present a monumental work of collaborative history with essays and poems by 90 Black writers covering five-year periods from 1619 to 2019, including Peniel Joseph on Black Power, Angela Davis on mass incarceration, and Alicia Garza on Black Lives Matter.
A Line of Driftwood: The Ada Black Story. By Diane Glancy. Turtle Point, $16 (9781933527215).
Native American poet and writer Glancy illuminates, in this diary-like collection, the heroic life of Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiat woman meant to be the seamstress for an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean in 1921 that turned into a life-and-death struggle for survival.
Such Color: New and Selected Poems. By Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf, $26 (9781644450673).
Smith has earned high praise for her deceptively breezy embrace of form and deep engagements with race, faith, and language, all in evidence in this dazzling collection.
Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea. By Edith Widder. Random, $28 (9780525509240).
Innovative and intrepid marine biologist Widder chronicles her ludicrous, terrifying, and enthralling deep-sea investigations of bioluminescence, the light generated by sea creatures ranging from the crystal jelly to the lantern shark.
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. By Suzanne Simard. Knopf, $27.95 (9780525656098).
Forest ecologist Simard interleaves personal history with galvanizing accounts of her revolutionary findings about how “mother trees” nourish and protect the forest via a finely calibrated web that resembles our own neural network and cardiovascular system.
Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers. By Deborah Tuerkheimer. HarperWave, $27.99 (9780063002746).
Harrowing survivor stories and the lack of easy solutions make this a difficult but necessary read urging individuals to start changing the way they think about allegations of abuse and the women who make them.
Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally. By Emily Ladau. Ten Speed, $16 (9781984858979).
A well-designed, user-friendly educational resource by a prominent disability activist, this straightforward guide offers nondisabled folks a brief overview of how disabled people have been treated, an explanation of ableism, and terms to use and to avoid.
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. By Patrick Radden Keefe. Doubleday, $32.50 (9780385545686).
Investigative journalist Keefe tracks how the Sackler empire was built on drugs, including Librium and Valium, then profited mightily from the engine of the opioid crisis, highly addictive OxyContin.
The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood. By Julian Rubinstein. Farrar, $28 (9780374168919).
Rubinstein has constructed a shattering piece of investigative journalism involving street gangs, race relations, and law enforcement in Denver.
Life, I Swear: Intimate Stories from Black Women on Identity, Healing, and Self-Trust. By Chloe Dulce Louvouezo. HarperDesign, $29.99 (9780063072237).
Prominent Black women from around the world divulge vulnerable moments of healing and life lessons in this thoughtfully produced collection of photographs and essays inspired by Louvouezo’s podcast.
On Juneteenth. By Annette Gordon-Reed. Norton/Liveright, $15.95 (9781631498831).
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon-Reed, African American and Texan, draws on her family’s experiences and cloaked Texan history to recount the white rage and violence that erupted following the emancipation announcement of June 19, 1865 in contrast to the inception of the celebratory Juneteenth, now a federal holiday.
Seek You: A Journey through American Loneliness. By Kristen Radtke. Art by the author. Pantheon, $30 (9781524748067).
Radtke’s eloquent, crisply illustrated, and deeply provocative graphic essay examines isolation as a social, biological, and personal phenomenon in light of four human behaviors: listen, watch, click, and touch.
Speak, Okinawa. By Elizabeth Miki Brina. Knopf, $26.95 (9780525657347).
In her uniquely structured memoir, Brina shares her grandmother’s story of surviving, with four children, the brutal Battle of Okinawa, and investigates her own past as the daughter of an Okinawan mother and a white American father.
The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear. By Kate Moore. Sourcebooks, $27.99 (9781492696728).
Expert research and impassioned storytelling combine in this account of Elizabeth Packard, Civil War-era wife and mother, who was institutionalized for disagreeing with her husband, and who fought attempts to silence her and documented the horrific abuse she witnessed.
Beasts of a Little Land. By Juhea Kim. Ecco, $27.99 (9780063093577).
Covering most of the twentieth century across the Korean peninsula, Kim’s debut novel wondrously reveals broken families and surprising alliances created by uncontrollable circumstances, interweaving the stories of accomplished, independent women and many elements of Korean culture and history.
The Book of Form and Emptiness. By Ruth Ozeki. Viking, $30 (9780399563645).
“Has it ever occurred to you that books have feelings, too?” As does every object in supersensitive Benny Oh’s world after he loses his father, lands in a psychiatric ward, then finds mentors, sanctuary, and adventure in the public library.
Cloud Cuckoo Land. By Anthony Doerr. Scribner, $30 (9781982168438).
Demonstrating a singular ability for bringing complex characters to empathetic life, Doerr melds the stories of five young people across centuries with the saga of a shepherd on a quest to find a fabled city in the clouds.
The Five Wounds. By Kirstin Valdez Quade. Norton, $26.95 (9780393242836).
Amadeo Padilla played the role of Jesus during the re-creation of the Crucifixion as part of Holy Week in his small New Mexico town, and he also has heavy burdens to bear in real life as his teenage daughter, Angel, has a baby.
Girl A. By Abigail Dean. Viking, $27 (9780593295847).
Fifteen years after the six Gracie children were found in chains, oldest daughter Lex attempts to transform the family home, scene of the horrors, into a community center.
Harlem Shuffle. By Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, $28.95 (9780385545136).
Brushed with lovingly etched detail and featuring a wonderful panoply of characters, Whitehead’s portrait of Harlem in the early ’60s follows a furniture salesman as he attempts to balance the crooked and straight sides of his life.
Legends of the North Cascades. By Jonathan Evison. Algonquin, $26.95 (9781643750101).
Evison conjures the power of the Cascade Mountains over centuries as an Iraq War veteran struggles with PTSD while raising his daughter, who channels the spirit of a young mother who lived in the mountains at the end of the last ice age.
The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois. By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. Harper, $28.99 (9780062942937).
Jeffers traces the coming of age of her contemporary protagonist, Ailey, juxtaposed against the tales of multiracial ancestors whose suffering and blood infuse the rich Georgia soil, resulting in an audacious, mellifluous love song to an African American family.
Martita, I Remember You. By Sandra Cisneros. Tr. by Liliana Valenzuela. Vintage, $12.95 (9780593313664).
As Mexican American Corina reads through old letters from her long-ago friends, Martita of Buenos Aires and Paola of northern Italy, their intense time together in Paris comes into focus in Cisneros’ bittersweet, haunting, and witty episodic tale presented in English and Spanish.
Matrix. By Lauren Groff. Riverhead, $28 (9781594634499).
In the twelfth century, 17-year-old Marie, former child crusader and “bastardess heir to the crown,” arrives at the dismal abbey she will eventually transform as Groff spins a courageous, spine-tingling tale of faith, power, and temptation.
My Monticello. By Jocelyn Nicole Johnson. Holt, $26.99 (9781250807151).
Johnson’s brilliant stories include the title novella portraying Charlottesville neighbors forced out of their homes by white supremacists and taken by Da’Naisha, a Black college student, to Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home for safety.
The Night Always Comes. By Willy Vlautin. Harper, $26.99 (9780063035089).
Vlautin’s emotionally wrenching novel explores the overlooked underclass in gentrifying, superhip Portland, Oregon, where a 30-year-old waitress’ dream of buying a house seems about to implode.
Radiant Fugitives. By Nawaaz Ahmed. Counterpoint, $27 (9781640094048).
Pregnant, though she’s mostly involved with women, Seema is visited in San Francisco by members of her Muslim family arriving from India and Texas, her dying mother and estranged sister, who are baffled by Seema’s queer community and political work.
The Sentence. By Louise Erdrich. Harper, $28.99 (9780062671127).
Edrich’s funny, painful, and redemptive ghost story is set in her actual Minneapolis bookstore, Birchbark Books, where Tookie, who discovered her love for books in prison, and the other Native American booksellers contend with the unhappy spirit of a former customer while the pandemic rages and protests erupt. (Top of the List Winner—Adult Fiction)
Sisters in Arms. By Kaia Alderson. Morrow, $16.99 (9780062964588).
Themes of female friendship, bravery, and resilience radiate from Alderson’s emotional historical-fiction debut, about the daring all-female Women’s Auxiliary Corp during WWII, and its all-Black unit, the 6888th Postal Battalion.
That Old Country Music. By Kevin Barry. Knopf, $23.95 (9780385540339).
These 11 lyrical short stories, set mainly in the west of Ireland, are imbued with the melancholy of an Irish folk ballad, but that bone-deep sadness exists alongside pulsing, deeply felt life.
That Summer. By Jennifer Weiner. Atria, $28 (9781501133541).
Daisy Shoemaker’s life revolves around her family until she meets Diana Starling, who is hiding a secret past, in a novel that paints an uncompromising portrait of the dangers of the patriarchy and is a lot of fun to read.
Vera. By Carol Edgarian. Scribner, $27 (9781501157523).
In the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 15-year-old Vera struggles to save her mother and find a life with the boy she loves. Richly plotted historical fiction, brilliantly conceived and superbly realized.
When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky. By Margaret Verble. HMH, $27 (9780358554837).
In a beautifully written historical novel that will resonate with book groups, horse-diver Two Feathers recovers from an accident, watched over by Crawford, a Black horse handler, and Little Elk, a Cherokee spirit from precolonial times.
Who Is Maud Dixon? By Alexandra Andrews. Little, Brown, $28 (9780316500319).
Identity theft takes on a new meaning in this arresting novel about a young publishing professional who takes the job as an assistant to the reclusive, pseudonymous Maud Dixon, who disappears on a research trip to Morocco.
Billy Summers. By Stephen King. Scribner, $30 (9781982173616.
King’s take on the one-last-job trope in a tale about a hit man wanting out of the game is really many novels, all equally compelling, combined into one perfectly orchestrated package.
Blind Tiger. By Sandra Brown. Grand Central, $28 (9781538751961).
A woman discovers her father-in-law is running a moonshine still while a reluctant deputy works to prevent an all-out moonshine war in this historical thriller that smoothly combines romantic tension and page-turning suspense.
City on Fire. By Don Winslow. Morrow, $28.99 (9780062851192).
This page-turningly immersive first volume in a trilogy, set in Providence, Rhode Island, combines a gang war with a passionate family drama centered on conflicted Irish Mob leader Danny Ryan.
Dead of Winter. By Stephen Mack Jones. Soho, $27.95 (9781641291026).
Ex-cop and former marine August Snow investigates a deadly real-estate scam in Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood. A fine thriller in the hard-boiled tradition, as well as a sensitive, multifaceted portrait of race in America.
Dream Girl. By Laura Lippman. Morrow, $28.99 (9780062390080).
Writer Gerry Andersen, bedridden after a fall, begins receiving phone calls purportedly from one of his own fictional characters. A deliciously intricate thriller with a jaw-dropping finale.
Five Decembers. By James Kestrel. Hard Case Crime, $22.95 (9781789096118).
Kestrel’s magnificent debut historical thriller combines murder and romance and traverses Hawaii in the days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong at the time of the Japanese invasion, and Tokyo through the course of WWII.
Incense and Sensibility. By Sonali Dev. Morrow, $15.99 (9780063051805).
After California gubernatorial candidate Yash Raje is violently attacked, yoga therapist India Dashwood wants to help him recover in spite of their painful past. Dev’s soulful, second-chance romance involves LGBTQIA+ relationships, multicultural adoption, and mental health.
The Jasmine Throne. By Tasha Suri. Orbit, $16.99 (9780316538510).
In a lavishly realized series opener inspired by the history and epics of India, two women, one a princess, one an orphan, find common ground and inconvenient mutual attraction in their quests for freedom and revenge.
Light from Uncommon Stars. By Ryka Aoki. Tor, $25.99 (9781250789068).
A transgender violinist and her infamously tough teacher, who is in love with an interstellar refugee who owns a donut shop, search for their true places in a difficult world in this joyful, queer, radical ballad of a story.
A Lowcountry Bride. By Preslaysa Williams. Avon, $15.99 (9870063040298).
Bridal-wear designer Maya returns to Charleston, South Carolina, to help her father, and Derek hires her to save his late mother’s business, Always a Bride, but how long will Maya stay? Williams stitches together a quietly powerful romance.
My Heart Is a Chainsaw. By Stephen Graham Jones. Saga, $26.99 (9781982137632).
In this thought-provoking, trauma-themed horror novel, Jade, half-Native American, poor, and motherless, finds her only solace in the slasher movies of the 1980s and thinks they hold the key to fighting the threat to her secluded hometown.
On Fragile Waves. By E. Lily Yu. Erewhon, $25.95 (9781645660095).
In this poetic fantasy, as Firuzeh and her family set off from Afghanistan on a long journey as refugees, she crafts tales that morph into imaginary friends whom she and her brother can’t seem to shake.
The Queen of the Cicadas. By V. Castro. Flame Tree, $24.95 (9781787586031).
Using multiple perspectives to explore Mexican folk tales and the history of Texas, this erotically charged supernatural thriller follows a woman who, while attending a friend’s wedding, becomes uncomfortably reacquainted with Milagros and an Aztec goddess.
Razorblade Tears. By S. A. Cosby. Flatiron, $26.99 (9781250252708).
Two ex-cons, a Black businessman and a white alcoholic, are brought together after their sons, who were married to each other, are murdered. Cosby combines a pulsing thriller with a nuanced reflection on racism and homophobia.
A Thorn in the Saddle. By Rebekah Weatherspoon. Dafina, $8.99 (9781496725424).
Weatherspoon pairs grumpy Black equestrian and co-owner of his family’s luxury dude ranch, Jesse Pleasant, with tough tech consultant Lily-Grace LeRoux to catalyze this scorching and incisive enemies-to-lovers romance.
The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu. By Tom Lin. Little, Brown, $28 (9780316542159).
In 1869 Utah, Ming Tsu is on his way to kill five men who had him sentenced to forced labor building the Central Pacific Railroad. Lin’s beautifully imagined first novel is an extraordinary epic, brimming with cinematic action.
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