Another year in the books: Best reads of 2021

Alfred A. Knopf/Macmillan/Simon & Schuster/Penguin Publishing Group/Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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The panorama of human struggle and persistence is reflected in the wide-ranging titles that Monitor reviewers picked as the top books of the year. The stories tell of people who challenged racial injustice and hatred, sought solace in a time of grief, and made important discoveries about the natural world.

Among the notable lives featured in biographies on our list are tennis icon Billie Jean King and the 20th century’s most celebrated artist, Pablo Picasso. 


Why We Wrote This

A good book doesn’t leave readers where it found them. Our favorites for 2021 include stories that move readers to walk in others’ shoes, honor challenges overcome, and feel the redemptive power of friendship.

“Reading is a discount ticket to everywhere,” wrote former Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich in 1998. This is especially true of our reviewers’ choices for best books of the year. Whether set in far-off lands, or next door, these fiction and nonfiction titles stood out for their humanity and inclusiveness, and for the quality of the writing. 


Things We Lost to the Water 
by Eric Nguyen

Why We Wrote This

A good book doesn’t leave readers where it found them. Our favorites for 2021 include stories that move readers to walk in others’ shoes, honor challenges overcome, and feel the redemptive power of friendship.

This debut novel spans three decades in the lives of a Vietnamese immigrant family that escapes war and communism to settle in New Orleans without the father – who has disappeared. Eric Nguyen exquisitely captures the nostalgia of childhood, the problems facing refugees, and the search for healing when secrets rock the soul. 

by Kaitlyn Greenidge

“Libertie” follows a Black girl born free in the Reconstruction era. Her mother is a doctor who wants nothing more than for Libertie to follow in her footsteps, but Libertie has different ideas of what freedom – for herself and for her people – truly looks like.


Klara and the Sun
by Kazuo Ishiguro

In his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in 2017, Kazuo Ishiguro explores questions about what makes humans irreplaceable. This parable about a society in which science has been taken to ethically questionable levels is, thanks to its narrator – a kind, smart, sympathetic, solar-powered Artificial Friend – a surprisingly warm morality tale about love, hope, and empathy that subverts our expectations about dystopian fiction.

Emily’s House
by Amy Belding Brown

Irish immigrant Margaret Maher works as the maid in the family home of poet Emily Dickinson, cleaning, cooking, and defending her mistress from prying eyes. Margaret’s Tipperary-tinged voice brings this captivating novel to life; it’s a perspective rife with honesty, humor, and clever observations. Upon discovering Emily’s verses, Margaret breathes, “Like sparks they were – tiny scraps of light.”

My Monticello
by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s short-story collection aims its powerful beam on history’s proximity, racial trauma, and community survival. The title story follows a group of residents fleeing a white supremacist siege of their Charlottesville, Virginia, neighborhood. Led by Sally Hemings’ descendant Da’Naisha, the group escapes to Thomas Jefferson’s well-preserved manse.

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World
by Laura Imai Messina

In a coastal garden in northeast Japan sits the Wind Phone, which offers visitors a place of grace for their sorrow. This quiet novel follows grieving Yui and Takeshi as they form a friendship of shared experience – and navigate the trickier shoals of a deeper relationship – in lyrical, unrushed prose. 

"The Elephant of Belfast" by S. Kirk Walsh, Counterpoint, 336 pp.

The Elephant of Belfast
by S. Kirk Walsh

A young zookeeper caring for a motherless elephant plumbs the depths of love and loyalty in a spellbinding novel set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in World War II. S. Kirk Walsh’s account was inspired by the true story of the “elephant angel” of the Belfast Zoo, and she provides a deeply researched backdrop for complex characters.

Yellow Wife
by Sadeqa Johnson

Sadeqa Johnson’s novel is a layered look at the journey of Pheby Brown, a multiracial woman born into slavery and, ironically, privilege. Johnson probes deeply into the roots of color, class, and gender in the 1800s. The book strips bare what it means to struggle to survive as an “owned” woman.

by Richard Powers

Astrobiologist Theo Byrne is raising his troubled 9-year-old son after the death of his wife. While the genre-defying novel explores such issues as the expanding cosmos and our endangered planet, at the center of this heartbreaking but beautifully written story is the bond between a father and son. (Readers may wish to know about a disturbing plot twist.)

How Beautiful We Were
by Imbolo Mbue

Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian American author, tells a timely story about the people of Kosawa, a fictional African village, who struggle with the environmental devastation caused by an American oil company. She focuses on Thula, a young woman who emerges as a revolutionary when legal remedies fail and the villagers discover the power of taking a stand for what is right.


The Sentence
by Louise Erdrich

Fresh from her Pulitzer Prize win for “The Night Watchman,” Louise Erdrich offers an engaging, highly readable story that takes place in her real-life Minneapolis bookstore. Through her main character, Tookie, Erdrich traces local events from the past 18 months, seeking understanding about the murder of George Floyd, racial tensions, and the pandemic. The book is imbued with humor and a sense of urgency.


American Baby
by Gabrielle Glaser

Gabrielle Glaser tells the heartbreaking story of Margaret Erle, an unwed teen coerced into surrendering her infant son to an adoption agency in 1961. The empathetic account alternates between Margaret and her son David, up through their poignant reunion, while also illuminating the disturbing history of adoption in postwar America.

On Juneteenth
by Annette Gordon-Reed

Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed renders a perfectly quilted work of history seen through the eyes of an African American family in Texas. It follows the seldom-shared stories of descendants of enslaved Black people from the 1820s to their emancipation in Galveston on June 19, 1865.


Finding the Mother Tree
by Suzanne Simard

Suzanne Simard is a leading forest ecologist and a pioneer in the field of plant communication. She writes that trees are complicated, interdependent social organisms connected to one another through underground networks. This book is not just about the science, but about a deeply personal quest to understand one of the most dominant classes of species on Earth.

Fox and I
by Catherine Raven

In this thoughtful memoir, Catherine Raven finds herself out of sync with the world around her and retreats to a patch of property in rural Montana, where her job is online and her neighbors are a comfortable distance away. All neighbors, that is, except one: To Raven’s surprise, a wild fox begins visiting her regularly, and over time the two develop an unusual and touching friendship. 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

by Menachem Kaiser

A master storyteller embarks on a journey to learn about his grandfather and to reclaim an apartment building that was stolen during the Holocaust. The odyssey is fascinating and thought-provoking.  

How the Word Is Passed
by Clint Smith

In his debut work of nonfiction, Clint Smith embarks on a very personal tour of some key flashpoints in the history of American racism, from Louisiana’s Angola prison to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, which is now a bustling tourist attraction. The result is a reckoning both brilliant and unnerving.

Somebody’s Daughter
by Ashley C. Ford

Ashley C. Ford’s father was in prison during her childhood, and her memoir focuses on the twin pains of his absence and of her difficult mother’s presence. With deep empathy, Ford brings readers through her experiences growing up Black in the Midwest. From vulnerable child to independent adult, she shows the value of compassion.

All In
by Billie Jean King

The tennis champion writes about her life with self-awareness and humility, while not underplaying her role as a trailblazer for women’s rights. She gently criticizes her younger self for feeling a need to hide her sexual identity to safeguard her career, and touches on the toll that secret exacted.

Pastoral Song
by James Rebanks

English sheep farmer and writer James Rebanks offers a sustainable method for raising animals, preserving habitat, caring for the environment, and nurturing small farmers all at the same time.

A Life of Picasso 
by John Richardson

The fourth volume of John Richardson’s “Life of Picasso” biography tracks the great artist through Paris in the 1930s and early ’40s. Clear and compelling, it carefully and fairly examines his life and art. 

by Aki J. Peritz

In the summer of 2006, the British security services, with the assistance of the CIA, foiled what would have been the most devastating terrorist attack since 9/11: an al-Qaida plot to detonate bombs on seven transatlantic commercial flights, which would have resulted in over 3,000 deaths. “Disruption” is Peritz’s meticulous, fascinating history of this plot, from the radicalization of the perpetrators to their sentencing in a British courtroom.

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