As we’ve noted in our seasonal roundups, 2021 has been a fantastic year for books — so much so it can be hard to choose which one to read next. We asked top authors for one novel or work of nonfiction that stood out for them this year, as well as for a less recent book that they particularly loved. Here’s what they said.
Author of more than 25 novels, including the new Wish You Were Here
The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren (2021): A charming novel about the intersection of science and romance, and what happens when DNA can predict your perfect match. Is that a blessing or a curse? And does destiny matter more than individual choice?
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005): A story about the resilience of humans, and how one little life can make a difference in thousands of others. And it’s narrated by Death, which is a mic drop in and of itself.
Blockbuster thriller author, most recently of Mercy
The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson (2021): The story of biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who helped to develop a gene editing technology, ushering in wondrous possibilities and unsolvable ethical dilemmas. It’s written in the unputdownable style of a novel as Isaacson does so well.
The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald (1950): A body of a woman in a pool leads to everything that Macdonald (real name Kenneth Millar) did so well: exploring the darkest of family secrets, the chasm between rich and poor, the dirt that clings to every pore of humanity, and most brilliantly of all, Macdonald’s detective, Lew Archer, who tries to make sense of the insensible. Macdonald is the best of the crime noir writers, taking up the mantle from Hammett and Chandler and lifting it to a rarefied level.
Canadian author of the Chief Inspector Gamache series, including her latest, The Madness of Crowds. Penny also cowrote the recent thriller State of Terror with Hillary Rodham Clinton.
When Harry Met Minnie: A True Story of Love and Friendship by Martha Teichner (2021): About the bond between two rescue dogs and their owners, this is a warm, intelligent, funny and most of all a luminous celebration of love and friendship and how life-changing events can spring from the mundane.
A Fish Caught in Time: the Search for the Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg (2001): In 1938 fishermen off the coast of South Africa brought up something extraordinary in their nets: a coelacanth, a huge fish with limb-like fins thought to be extinct for some 65 million years. This is the riveting story of what was described as the “greatest scientific find of the century.”
Bestselling nonfiction writer whose books include 2021’s The Splendid and the Vile
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021): A moving exploration of loneliness and artificial intelligence, as told through the observations and experiences of an “Artificial Friend” named Klara, acquired to be the companion of a dying girl. It kept me thinking for weeks afterward.
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman (2019): Set in Nazi Germany, this novel traces the wrenching journey of a Jewish girl named Lea and her mystical guardian, Ava, a golem Lea’s mother hopes will protect her — a thrilling story of the lasting power of love.
Author of 2013’s award-winning A Tale for the Time Being and 2021’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, among other novels. She’s also a Zen Buddhist priest.
The End of Bias: A Beginning by Jessica Nordell (2021): Implicit and unconscious bias exists in us all and underlies our most destructive human behavior. Nordell’s examination, based on 15 years of research and filled with fascinating case studies, is lively, informative, optimistic, compassionate and necessary. The takeaway is: We can change our biased behavior, so let’s start now.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Mǻrquez (1967): This sprawling masterpiece of a novel about a multigenerational Colombian family named Buendía was the first encounter I had with magical realism. It was the book that made me want to be a fiction writer. “Wait, I want to do that!” I remember thinking.
British author of popular thrillers, most recently The Night She Disappeared
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz (2021): This tale of a frustrated writer stumbling upon the perfect plot for a novel but having to negotiate a moral minefield to use it in his own work is so clever, so taut, so dazzling, I read it in about five hours flat. There is not one bum note or wasted word.
The Push by Ashley Audrain (2020): A mesmerizing exploration of the dark side of motherhood; what happens if your perfect baby girl turns out not to be made of sugar and spice and all things nice? Are you a bad mother? Or is your daughter a bad child? Spellbinding.
Author of bestselling novels, including 2021's The Hour of the Witch
Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog by Jenna Blum (2021): I feel I got to know Woodrow, novelist Jenna Blum’s black lab, in Blum’s wise, wrenching and devastatingly beautiful memoir of his last half-year. After reading it, you will never again look into your dog’s — or any dog’s — eyes and not feel the bond that can exist between a person and their pet.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018): Wistful and elegiac, but also rich with gentle humor, this is the story of a woman, her literary mentor who kills himself, a tiny apartment and an aging Great Dane. I loved it, with its explorations of the bonds between humans and our closest animal companions.
A fixture on best-seller lists since 1994; her most recent book is this year’s Game On.
Black Ice by Brad Thor (2021): Scot Harvath is back and better than ever in this fun, fast-paced thriller set in the beautiful country of Norway and the Arctic. You don’t need to have read the others in the series, your pulse will be pounding either way.
Heroes’ Feast: The Official D&D Cookbook by Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson and Michael Witwer (2020): This beautifully illustrated and charmingly written cookbook is not just for Dungeons & Dragons fans, but for anyone with an adventurous heart and a love for other-worldly travel.
Wanda M. Morris
Debut author of the buzzed-about new legal thriller All Her Little Secrets
Revival Season by Monica West (May 2021): A 15-year-old girl must come to grips with who her father, a famous Baptist preacher in the South, really is and the newfound power she possesses in a community where women are thought to be invisible and powerless. I love this coming-of-age story that is both compassionate and suspenseful, as well as a complicated and moving story about family and faith.
Defending Jacob by William Landay (2012): A quiet suburb is rocked when the local assistant district attorney's teenage son is charged with the murder of a classmate. This book enthralled me not only because of the outstanding storytelling but because it posed the scenario every parent, including me, grapples with — how far would you go to save your child?
British TV writer behind PBS's Foyle's War and author of bestselling mysteries, such as the recent A Line to Kill
Checkmate in Berlin by Giles Milton (2021): This is a fantastic story of Berlin at the end of World War Two. It starts with the disease and destitution that Berliners faced when the fighting stopped, moves through the increasing tension and menace of the Cold War and climaxes with the logistically impossible Berlin Airlift that managed to save thousands of lives. In Giles Milton’s expert hands, focusing on the larger-than-life characters who made this all happen, history is as enthralling as any fiction you’ll ever read.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009): I love the work of Sarah Waters, who brings the 19th and early 20th century to vivid life like no other writer. The Little Stranger is a superlative ghost story … if it is a ghost story. It’s hard to say. Certainly, Hundreds Hall, the grim, decaying mansion where it is set, contains a malign presence of some sort — but can we believe Dr. Faraday, the country GP called to the house, or is he the ultimate unreliable narrator? This book will linger in your mind long after you read it. It will haunt you.
Bestselling author of international thrillers, including Black Ice.
Steel Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann (2021): A serial killer is loose on an aircraft carrier. It’s an absolutely chilling thriller.
One Second After by William Forstchen (2009): In the aftermath of a mysterious event that cripples all modern electronics, the residents of a small college town must band together to survive. One of the best books I have read in the last 10 years.
Join today and get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.