The 50 best books and audiobooks of 2021

The 50 best books and audiobooks of 2021

In Reading Lists, Reading Lists - Best New Books by Ashley McDonnell

The 50 best books and audiobooks of 2021

It’s been a year, made way better thanks in part to these books. Yes, they were some of the year’s most anticipated books, but not only that, they also stayed with us far beyond reading the last page. Whether you love fiction or nonfiction books, this list of fifty books is a good launching point for creating a to-be-read list or spark a few you want to re-read.

25 FICTION BOOKS

Set in the Sunshine State, this collection shines a light on the lives of Black women and girls. Brilliant characters grapple with estrangement from church and family, the enthralling bonds of young best friends forever, and revenge. LitHub says, “Every story in this book feels soaked with heat and blood and wanting and a slice — sometimes more — of danger.”
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The long-awaited sequel to Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer does not disappoint. Set off the tourist path in the immigrant neighborhoods of 1980s Paris, the nameless narrator continues his quest for revolution, but finds himself caught up in the capitalist market of drug dealing. The Committed is a serious triple threat: a look at the aftereffects of colonization, funny satire, and a gripping crime thriller.

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Infinite Country reflects our current global moment: tense, cut off from each other, but with a glimmer of hope. This powerful story moves readers back and forth in time, across borders, and among anguished family members separated by the sacrifices they’ve made at the altar of the American Dream. The propulsive plot hooks you from the first chapter when teenage daughter Talia escapes from a juvenile detention center in the mountains of Colombia, racing to make a flight to the U.S. before she loses her chance to reunite with her family. 

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Set in Brooklyn just after the Civil War, the book follows Libertie, the daughter of one of the first Black women doctors in the U.S. But music, not medicine, is Libertie’s passion. Yearning for freedom in all aspects of her life, the young woman follows her heart to Haiti. Libertie is a stunning, stirring exploration of what independence means when you’re Black, a woman, and an artist.

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Jake seemed destined to write the next great American novel, but never managed to. Now he’s a bitter nobody stuck teaching at a backwater MFA program. When one of his students suddenly drops dead, Jake steals the plot of the student’s book and publishes it as his own bestseller. Jake basks in fame and literary success until an anonymous email threatens to make his secret public. Buckle up for a wild, twisty ride with this fast-paced thriller fueled by dark secrets.

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Nella’s excited when another Black woman joins the very white publishing house where she works: She’s no longer the only Black employee.! Her delight takes a turn for the sinister when threatening anonymous notes start showing up on her desk. Is her new coworker an ally or an enemy? A timely, funny and creepy thriller with hints of Get Out. Author Zakiya Dalila Harris and Rashida Jones are adapting the book for a series on Hulu.

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Visceral and vivid, Animal is a thrilling punch to the gut. Joan, a woman with a mysteriously violent past, relocates from New York to California in search of Alice, who may be able to answer questions that have been plaguing her. Toxic relationships, female rage, and revenge propel this charged debut novel by Three Women author Taddeo.

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The author of the smash hit The Silent Patient penned another gripping thriller, this one centered on a secret society at Cambridge University. When a student is found dead, a psychologist is convinced the charismatic, cultish new professor on campus is the killer. But the psychologist’s personal demons cast a shadow on her credibility, pushing her to take deadly risks to prove she’s right. 

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A hit man with a heart of gold. An honorable Iraq war vet-turned-assassin about to retire after one last job. An unlikely pair thrown together on a quest for revenge and redemption. You may think you’ve heard this one before, but King masterfully turns all the hard-boiled crime tropes on their head in this thrilling noir page-turner.

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The highly anticipated short story collection from Veasna So — who died unexpectedly in 2020 on the verge of breaking through as a literary star — is one of the standouts of 2021. Irreverent, funny, and raw, Afterparties paints a vibrant portrait of growing up queer in a Cambodian American community, with an older, refugee generation that survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and a younger generation that wants to do more than survive.

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Jones (The Only Good Indians) is a national treasure, and his latest horror novel doesn’t disappoint. A young Native American woman who stans gory slasher movies must put her encyclopedic knowledge of the genre into action when something sinister starts stalking people in her gentrifying small town. Scary and thought-provoking in the best kind of way, Jones shines a light on how we cope with the unthinkable.

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With her signature literary style, Rooney (“Normal People”) immerses readers in the complexities of desire, friendship, and sex through the lives of Irish millennials grappling with a turbulent world. Told through emails between two bookish friends, Beautiful World, Where Are You is another absorbing, intimate novel from one of the best writers of her generation.

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The dazzling tale of a long-lost ancient Greek manuscript from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See. Interconnected stories spanning hundreds of years — from a medieval walled city to present-day Idaho to a spaceship in the near future — explore the connections that make us human and the power of hope in dark times.

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Tech thriller meets apocalyptic sci-fi meets fairy-tale fantasy in this sweeping epic. Told in three cleverly interconnected timelines, Appleseed explores climate change, mythology, corporate responsibility, and the magical power of apples. A must-read for fans of Jeff VanderMeer, Station Eleven, and The Overstory.

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After discovering potentially serious health issues with their unborn baby, a couple makes the agonizing decision to terminate their first pregnancy. They then make the equally agonizing decision to try again. The second baby comes to term, although not without complications. This achingly moving novel about parenthood told from the father’s perspective is a treasure.

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Death-defying adventure meets the supernatural in this daring novel about Two Feathers, a young Cherokee woman who performs as a horse-diver at an amusement park in Jim Crow-era Nashville. When strange things start happening around the show, Two Feathers plunges into solving the mystery along with an unforgettable cast of characters.

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This poetic debut — told memorably in second person — revels in the beauty of Black art while exposing systemic racism, grappling with police brutality, and condemning the toxic expectation that young Black men mask their emotions. When two young artists meet in a London pub, can the pull they feel toward each other withstand the forces threatening to keep them apart?

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A thrilling horror meets sci-fi fantasy from the Lambda Award-winning Solomon. Fleeing from a fundamentalist cult and abusive husband, a pregnant Vern takes refuge in the temporary safety of the forest. But as she raises her twin boys in exile, a monster hunts her small family and Vern must fight back with escalating supernatural strength and violence against a past that won’t let her go. At once disturbing and hopeful.

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The second we saw author Cho describe her fantasy adventure as “A stressed zillennial lesbian fights gods, ghosts, gangsters & grandmas in 21st century Penang” on Twitter, we were in. Equal parts sass, suspense, family drama, and heart, you don’t want to miss this charmer set in modern Malaysia.

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Boulley spent 10 years crafting this exquisite YA thriller, and all that writing and rewriting more than paid off. Daunis Fontaine is a biracial, unenrolled member of the Ojibwe tribe who’s determined to put an end to a new drug trafficking ring that’s devastating her community. There’s equal parts brutality and beauty to be found in this twisty, unique novel.

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A queer time travel rom-com? Yes, please. Especially one by the delightful mind behind the swoon worthy hit Red, White & Royal Blue. Everybody’s gushing about this fun, romantic tale of true love on the subway stuck in a time loop between modern day Brooklyn and the punk rock ’70s. You’ll be longing for commute delays so you can keep on reading and rooting for August and Jane.

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The waters of the world fluctuate between calm and stormy for tender teens in love, Aristotle and Dante, who stole our hearts in the original entry of Sáenz’s series. Ari and Dante are determined to figure out their future and build a relationship together, despite the difficulties inherent in young love, and the added adversity of being gay in the 1980s. This is the rare sequel that challenges genre conventions and still matches (and perhaps even surpasses) its multi-award-winning predecessor.

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Colson Whitehead calls Johnson’s short story collection “a badass debut by any measure — nimble, knowing, and electrifying.” In the title story, neighbors flee white supremacists and seek shelter on the former Monticello plantation with the help of a descendant of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. This stunning collection grapples with the legacy of racism, all while humming with hope and resistance.

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Four funerals across decades are the only times we meet up with the Swarts family in this inventive, boundary-pushing novel about the end of apartheid in South Africa. This white family’s saga provides a window into a corrupt and dying national identity. “The Promise” won this year’s Booker Prize.

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The Great Gatsby, but queer and with magic. Nghi Vo’s captivating reinvention stars tennis pro Jordan Baker, at once a fixture at the glitzy Jazz Age parties due to her lifelong friendship with Daisy, but forever an exoticized outsider because of her Vietnamese heritage. With an intoxicating mix of hedonism, demon blood drinks, and enchantments conjured out of paper, Vo “captures the spirit of Fitzgerald’s original while brilliantly reframing the narrative and subverting expectations at every turn,” writes Publishers Weekly.

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25 NONFICTION BOOKS

Irish actor Byrne’s memoir is less about stardom and its outlandish secrets, and more about all the haunting incidences in his personal life (a priest’s sexual assault, a friend’s drowning) that shaped him and his honest and refreshing worldview. He proves his writing is on par with his fantastic acting skills.

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2. Just as I Am by Cicely Tyson

Over the course of her 96 years, entertainer, activist, and humanitarian Tyson co-created the Dance Theater of Harlem, launched an award-winning and iconic career on stage and screen, married jazz legend Miles Davis, and won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And these are just a few of the stories of her incredible life that she shares in her inspiring memoir.

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In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert opened our eyes to human-caused environmental devastation. In Under a White Sky, Kolbert tackles the urgent issue of finding ways to reverse the damage done. She investigates possible solutions born of the very human ingenuity that got us into trouble in the first place. Could these innovations avert disastrous climate change? Or dig us into a deeper hole?

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Superstar science and tech biographer Isaacson is back with a profile of the woman who revolutionized modern medicine by cracking the DNA code. Get to know Nobel Prize-winning scientist Jennifer Doudna, from her early days as a budding scientist to her pioneering work creating CRISPR, the tool that allows us to edit genes. This is a fascinating look at how Doudna unlocked the ability for human-made medical miracles and continues to grapple with the resulting moral issues.
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Oprah wants you to stop asking people the judgy question “What’s wrong with you?” and instead initiate a supportive conversation with “What happened to you?” In this powerful personal and scientific exploration of the lasting impact of trauma, Oprah joins forces with child trauma expert and neuroscientist Perry. Together they explore how a deceptively simple shift in perspective can pave the way for remarkable healing.

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Gordon-Reed is a genius at telling America’s story through the life of a family. She won a Pulitzer for her history of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson (The Hemingses of Monticello). Now she turns her attention to telling the history of how slavery ended through the lens of her own family in their beloved state of Texas, including her experience as the first Black student to integrate her local school. Eye-opening and engaging, this is an essential primer for all Americans on the importance of the Juneteenth holiday.

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Fitness fads have never been this fun. Bechdel (Fun Home) has always been obsessed with exercise crazes, and her passion is infectious. Her new graphic memoir takes a look at past workout trends decade by decade, but in Bechdel’s capable hands, the journey is about so much more than getting in physical shape. A joyful look at all the wacky ways we try to work out the meaning of life and how we fit in it.

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Travel along with The Perfect Storm author Junger and his three friends (two Afghan War vets and a conflict photographer) as they walk the railway lines and rivers of the East Coast, sleeping under the stars, for almost a year. A moving, thought-provoking mediation on the meaning of freedom and community that delves into how these two cherished human values both coexist and conflict. It’s a pleasure to wander with Junger, as he touches on boxing, resistance movements, the Apache, primatology, and more.

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A moving memoir about growing up Black and gay in rural Ohio. Framing his life story around the Gwendolyn Brooks poem We Real Cool, Broome brilliantly calls out destructive stereotypes about masculinity. A heart wrenching, intimate look at an outsider's search for a space to be his authentic self.

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Podcaster Ford (Lovecraft Country Radio, The Chronicles of Now) shares her story of growing up without her father, who was in prison most of her childhood, and her complicated relationship with her mother. “‘Somebody’s Daughter’ is the heart-wrenching yet equally witty and wondrous story of how Ford came through the fire and emerged triumphant, as her own unapologetic, Black-girl self,” writes The New York Times.

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11. Peril

Woodward (Fear, Rage) and Costa team up to reveal the inside story of one of the most precarious — and potentially dangerous — political periods in American history. The Pulitzer Prize winner and acclaimed reporter take readers behind-the-scenes in this deeply researched account of the tumultuous presidential transition from Trump to Biden.

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As long as we’ve shared the planet with animals, they’ve been our dinner, our companions, our employees, and more. In this fascinating collection, the treasured raconteur Orlean travels from backyards to the backcountry uncovering compelling animal-human connections.

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If you’re feeling pessimistic or overwhelmed about our planet’s future, Goodall’s message will inspire you into action. The celebrated primatologist is on a mission to spread hope in this stirring book that’s part-memoir, part-guide to combating climate change. Goodall reveals the role hope played in how she revolutionized our understanding of the relationship between humans and animals and lays out how hope can help us become better advocates for the environment now.

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The moving history of a quest for enlightenment and how idealistic dreams came crashing down to earth. Two decades after founding the “aspiring utopia” Auroville in Southern India in the Sixties, a hippie couple dies under mysterious circumstances. Author Akash Kapur and his wife, both born in Auroville, return to confront the tragic deaths and the fate of their community.

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15. Broken

Lawson is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Furiously Happy and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. She also struggles with mental health, specifically depression and anxiety. In “Broken,” Lawson uses her trademark humor to share her own experiences through the mental health gauntlet, including her aspirations of appearing on the show “Shark Tank.” It’s a non-clinical look at one woman’s journey, and a great read for anyone looking for a little levity, and some laughter.

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As the daughter of a United Nations official, Owusu’s childhood was nomadic, never allowing her family to put down roots. An absent mother, the death of her father as an adolescent, and a series of family secrets and lies left her unmoored; depression threatened to drag her down further. Her move to New York and subsequent rewriting of her own identity result in this deeply compelling memoir of self-fulfillment in a sea of turmoil.

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Heartbreaking and inspiring, Turner’s memoir explores the power of friendship and the inequality of opportunity. Three Black girls grow up the best of friends on Chicago’s South Side in the 1970s, but their paths split in dramatically (and tragically) different directions in this thought-provoking page-turner.

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The late, great, Bourdain continues to bring us his infectious enthusiasm for the wondrous world he left all too soon. There’s no better way to escape quarantine than with the beloved travel companion as he bestows his best stories and recommendations culled from a lifetime of exploration.

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Gay’s personal trauma has shaped her life and work, including her 2017 memoir about her own sexual assault, Hunger. In her Scribd Original, Writing into the Wound, Gay unpacks the aftermath of Hunger, exploring the public reaction that reopened her wounds once more. The result is a skillful guide to sharing, processing, and healing from trauma through writing. “To change the world, we need to face what has become of it,” she writes. “To heal from a trauma, we need to understand the extent of it.”

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The founder of the #MeToo movement shares her moving life story in this brave memoir. A survivor of sexual assault, Burke has dedicated her life to fighting for justice, empowering fellow survivors, and embracing the power of empathy.

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Pearl applies his mystery novel writing skills to history in this gripping account of the 1776 kidnapping of Daniel Boone’s teenage daughter. The Taking of Jemima Boone is more than just an action-packed, historical true crime story, as Pearl reveals the complex relationships and interwoven lives of Native Americans and white settlers, adding essential context to the story of western expansion.

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Grab a front-row seat to a momentous court case grappling with the question of who owns human DNA, individuals or corporations? This engrossing work of narrative nonfiction reads like a courtroom thriller as it chronicles how the ACLU took a David versus Goliath case to the Supreme Court to decide if biotech companies can patent, and profit off of, the human genome. An excellent companion piece to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

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23. The Devil You Know by Charles M. Blow

New York Times columnist Blow is a man with a plan, and in The Devil You Know he lays it out with stunning clarity and resolution. He argues that if more Black people moved South, reversing the previous trend of migration to the North and West, it would create crucial political majorities in the Southern Heartland. And upending longstanding power structures could pave a new path toward racial equality for Black Americans. Blow’s powerful and timely manifesto is an urgent call to action.

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This is the gripping, previously hidden story of a courageous group of women who fought back against the Nazi occupation in Poland. These resistance fighters employed ingenious — and incredibly dangerous — tactics, like seducing and then killing German soldiers, hiding guns in loaves of bread, and bombing German train lines. A stirring tribute to unsung heroes.

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With the help of a qualified psychologist, YouTuber Howell infuses his advice about mental health with authority, authenticity, and humor. Reading this book ensures you get not only through this night, but many, many days to come.

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About the Author: Ashley McDonnell

Ashley is a Senior Editorial Associate at Scribd who loves Ernest Hemingway, “The Hunger Games,” and ice hockey. When she’s not reading or at the rink, she’s making nerdy podcasts about anime and manga.

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