Many readers prefer curling up or traveling with a paperback than a hard-cover book, and certainly don't mind paying a bit less for it, as well. The only downside? Having to wait for the paperback release, which can be a few months or more than a year if it's a huge bestseller. But some of the best novels from 2021 are now in that less expensive and more portable form — and just as wonderful as they were last year.
Golden Girl by Elin Hilderbrand
The Queen of the Beach Read's Nantucket-set novel hit the top of the best-seller list last summer, and for good reason: It may be one of her best. Famous beach-book writer (ha) Vivi Howe is killed in a hit-and-run while out jogging, causing chaos among her three grown children and friends, who want to understand what happened. Meanwhile, Vivi has gone to “the Beyond,” where she's told by an Hermès scarf-wearing character named Martha that she holds three “nudges” to affect life on earth. While deciding how to use those nudges, Vivi watches her loved ones with concern as they go through their summer days — until an unexpected stranger threatens everyone's peace.
Billy Summers by Stephen King
This weighty thriller from the King of Suspense is a long read at 528 pages but worth the commitment. It's about sharpshooting hit man Billy Summers — though that's just one of his names — who justifies his profession by only killing “bad guys.” But after taking on a high-priced job, he wonders if the person or group orchestrating the hit might be the baddest of all. When he eventually becomes a target himself, he ends up saving the life of a young woman, and they hit the road together. Unlike many of King's classics, there's nothing supernatural here — besides a winking allusion to The Shining. It's on its way to a limited series adaptation for TV. And good news for King fans: He has a new book, Fairy Tale, out in September.
Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams
Beloved historical-fiction novelist Williams (author of The Summer Wives, among many others) brings us an engrossing story about American twin sisters whose paths diverge during World War II, then come together in dramatic fashion years later. In 1952, Ruth is head of a New York City modeling agency when she's sent an enigmatic postcard from her estranged sister, Iris Digby, who's married to a U.S. diplomat and living in Moscow. Ruth and a British counterintelligence agent set out together, pretending to be a married couple (rather convincingly, ahem) to possibly free Iris and her children from trouble behind the Iron Curtain.
The Magician by Colm Tóibín
Literary lovers will want to sink into this absorbing reimagining of the life of the Nobel Prize-winning German writer Thomas Mann. The story takes us through Mann’s youth, rise to fame in Germany with the publication of Buddenbrooks, initial complacency then growing alarm as the Nazis take power, marriage to wife Katia despite his attraction to young men, and emigration to the U.S. Mann family members have their own struggles, all vividly brought to life. The Irish Tóibín’s other notable novels include 2009’s Brooklyn (turned into a 2015 film starring Saoirse Ronan).
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
A true page-turner by the author of 2014's You Should Have Known (called The Undoing in the recent HBO version starring Nicole Kidman), the novel focuses on a writing professor, Jacob Bonner, who has a student with a fantastic story idea; after the student dies, Jake makes it his own, with serious consequences.
Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan
The setting for this mesmerizing novel is a quiet suburban street whose center literally and figuratively falls away during a brutally hot summer when a sinkhole opens up, spewing a smelly black sludge. After a girl falls in, a troubled woman starts pointing fingers at one family (they never did fit in), and the nastiness escalates on Maple Street — Langan's witty reference to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” the famous Twilight Zone episode about scapegoating turned deadly. It offers both page-turning suspense and brilliant social commentary.
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
This beautifully written debut novel — a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction — is a love story about two enslaved men, Isaiah and Samuel, whose devotion to each other leads to trouble on a brutally run Mississippi plantation. Voices of their African ancestors are woven throughout the book, Toni Morrison-style, with a complex mix of characters, including an older enslaved man, Amos, who embraces the plantation owner's Christianity and becomes a preacher. This draws attention to the love between the two men, and tension builds toward an inevitably violent reckoning.
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Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
A sweeping epic with brilliantly drawn characters by Shipstead — author of 2014's Astonish Me — focuses on Marian Graves, whose story begins with a near drowning at sea with her infant twin brother, Jaimie. Her life is no less eventful while growing up as an aspiring pilot in Prohibition-era Montana, working as a bootlegger to squirrel money away for flying lessons. As an adult, she's becomes legendary pilot whose story is in the process of being captured on film in modern-day Los Angeles; the book jumps forward to the filming and the young actress who's playing her role.
We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker
This extraordinary heart-rending novel is centered on a terrible accident in a small California town that led to the death of a child and a prison sentence for a teenager. The story is about the fallout 30 years later — including at least one apparent murder — that's shouldered by a tough little 13-year-old named Duchess Day Radley and her younger brother, raised by a troubled single mom, and a police chief who's tragically consumed by the past. Disney’s 20th Television Studios plans to develop it for a TV series.
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
It's hard to believe this moving, beautifully written novel, long-listed for the 2021 Booker Prize, is a debut. The book is set in the American South just after the Civil War, when enslaved people have been emancipated but are still shackled in many ways by racism, not to mention their traumatic pasts. Trouble starts soon after a good-hearted older white man, George, hires two freed brothers to help him farm his land. He and his family draw close to the pair, but the townspeople don't look kindly on the arrangement. Tensions build to a near-apocalyptic climax, and a kind of justice is finally served.
More winners coming very soon in paperback
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (May 18): One of the best works of historical fiction I’ve read in recent years, this story about William Shakespeare’s family (including his son, Hamnet) is so evocative that you can almost smell the freshly baked bread and hear the clopping of horses in 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins (June 21): The author of the mega-bestseller The Girl on the Train whipped up another killer page-turner in 2021, this one about the murder of a young man on a London houseboat. Actress Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) narrates the audiobook.
Silverview by John le Carré (July 5): This is the final, posthumously published novel by the renowned master of spy fiction (The Man Who Came in From the Cold, among many others). Julian Lawndsley is running a bookstore in a quiet seaside town when a mysterious man shows up at the store. Julian’s simple life soon grows very complicated. When it was released last year, our reviewer Steven Ritterman, an ardent le Carré fan and book collector, gave it the thumbs up, calling it “Less labyrinthine than some of le Carré’s early work, it has all the grand themes of his best novels — love and betrayal, loyalty and morality — fully on display.”
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.