75 Books To Add To Your 2021 TBR List
A Chicago crime cover-up; a metaphysical mystery; new releases from Colson Whitehead, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Melissa Broder; and so much more.
Mateo Askaripour’s blazing debut follows Darren Vender, aka Buck, a young Black native of Brooklyn who goes from shift supervisor at Starbucks to sales wunderkind at Sumwun, a tech startup. The CEO takes Buck under his wing but conveniently looks the other way as Buck, Sumwun’s lone Black sales agent, is targeted with racist attacks from his coworkers, running the gamut from microaggressions to outright violence disguised as hazing. Still, Buck is great at sales and skyrockets to success. The only problem is he loses himself — and his connections to his home and community — in the process. —Arianna Rebolini
In an alternate version of late-1800s America, women who are unable to have children are ostracized by society, and babies are a hot commodity after a flu wiped out much of the population. Ada, a young newlywed, hasn’t gotten pregnant yet, so her only choice is to become an outlaw. She joins up with the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, a group of misfits who refuse to conform to gender or societal norms. But their dream of creating a utopia for outcasts comes with a dangerous plan — one that Ada isn’t sure she can live with. —A.R.
The resurgence of the late writer Bette Howland — thanks to A Public Space’s 2019 release of her short story collection, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage — has been one of the most exciting literary developments in recent years. This new edition of her 1974 memoir, including a poignant introduction by Yiyun Li, is a stunner. Written during and about her stay at a Chicago hospital psychiatric ward, it’s an illuminating account of mental illness, the pitfalls of psychiatric treatment, and the ad hoc communities formed within it. —A.R.
Murder in Canaryville: The True Story Behind a Cold Case and a Chicago Cover-Up by Jeff Coen (Chicago Review Press; Jan. 12)
I love a cold case true crime story, and this one, from Chicago Tribune crime and justice editor Jeff Coen, sounds riveting: In 1976 Chicago, 17-year-old John Hughes was killed in a drive-by shooting while at a park with friends. Forty years later, James Sherlock, a Chicago police detective, tried to research the unsolved murder but found the case file nearly empty, so he set off to investigate what seemed to be deep corruption. —A.R.
When Reese’s long-term girlfriend, Amy, decides to detransition and become Ames, it sends Reese into a self-destructive spiral. But Ames, who quickly discovers that life as a man isn’t as easy as he’d hoped, learns that his boss is pregnant with his baby. He wonders if this might be the key to creating a new family — and if Reese might want to come along. —A.R.
Gina Apostol won her second Philippine National Book Award for The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata when it originally published in 2009; now (following her 2018 novel, Insurrecto, one of our favorites of that year), Soho Press is releasing the first US edition. It’s another genre-bending historical novel that blurs the line between fact and fiction, presented as the memoir of Raymundo Mata, a 19th-century revolutionary who crosses paths with famed Filipino writer and national hero José Rizal, complete with feuding annotations from a nationalist editor, a psychoanalyst, and a translator. —A.R.
Murray’s innovative short story collection, The World Doesn’t Work That Way, But It Could, was one of my surprise favorites last year. In her latest novel, Murray explores the intersection of art, identity, and purpose through Amanda Ruiz, a queer Mexican American performance artist whose life turns upside down when she is sexually assaulted, her father dies, and her girlfriend starts questioning their future. As she did in The World Doesn’t Work That Way, Murray experiments with form, telling Amanda’s story through social media posts, online reviews, and various streams of consciousness. —A.R.
Originally published in 1932, The Conjure-Man Dies is the first known detective mystery written by a Black American author. Set in 1930s New York, it follows Perry Dart, one of Harlem’s 10 Black police detectives, as he investigates the suspicious death of a local “conjure-man,” N’Gana Frimbo, with the help of a neighboring physician and some local characters looking to clear their own names. —A.R.
In 1980s New York, art college student Rosie falls under the spell of Bennett, a charming, worldly man 20 years her senior who offers her entry into the most rarefied circles of New England society. She moves in with him at his Connecticut estate and they have a baby, but she learns Bennett is a con artist whose scamming catches up with him. Soon Rosie finds herself alone with their daughter, abandoned in a remote cabin, left to fend for herself. —A.R.
The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P. Nimura (W.W. Norton & Company; Jan. 19)
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the US to receive a medical degree; her younger sister, Emily, became the third in 1854. In The Doctors Blackwell, Janice P. Nimura explores their extraordinary lives, charting their achievements and setbacks throughout Europe and the US. —A.R.
This new collection gathers 12 essays from early in Joan Didion’s career, anthologized for the first time, including accounts of a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and a reunion of World War II veterans in Las Vegas, thoughts on Martha Stewart and Robert Mapplethorpe, and more. —A.R.
Cultural critic Rebecca Carroll describes growing up in rural New Hampshire as the sole Black person — not only in her family (she was adopted by white parents at birth) but also in her small town. When she meets her birth mother, also a white woman, the vague tensions of her youth are pushed into light as she’s forced to reckon with her alienation as a child, her complicated relationship with her parents, and her understanding of her racial identity. —A.R.
In Andromeda Romano-Lax’s latest novel, historian Ruth McClintock has been studying Annie Oakley for almost a decade. McClintock’s inability to walk away from her obsession has cost her a book deal, a doctorate, and a fiancé. Then she finds what she suspects is one of Oakley’s journals, and she’s closer to solving the mystery of how Annie became the legendary sharpshooter — but then out-of-body experiences place Ruth in Oakley’s memories. —A.R.
Chen’s debut short story collection explores the vast and diverse experiences of Chinese people, both in China and its diaspora globally, blending history, sociopolitics, and touches of magical realism in stories about people just trying to survive, and maybe even thrive. —A.R.
Anything by Melissa Broder is an immediate must-read for me; her 2018 novel, The Pisces, was one of my favorites of that year, managing to be both merman erotica and an astute, unflinching examination of depression. Her new novel — which follows 24-year-old Rachel, whose personal religion of calorie restriction is tested when she falls for a young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her favorite froyo shop — has the same precise blend of desire, disgust, spirituality, and existential ache that makes Broder’s depiction of the human experience so canny —A.R.
Chinese American entrepreneur Pong Lou sees something promising in Tiller, an otherwise underwhelming college student, and decides to bring him along on a life-changing journey across Asia. Over the course of that trip, Tiller’s entire sense of the world, and his place within it, shifts. Through his eye-opening experience, Chang-Rae Lee explores themes of capitalism, cultural assimilation, the mentor/protégé power dynamics, and more. —A.R.
When an unnamed narrator discovers her boyfriend is leading a secret life as an anonymous right-wing conspiracy theorist and fearmonger on the internet, she decides she’ll break up with him as soon as she’s back from the Women’s March in DC. But that plan is thwarted, and what follows is a chaotic spiral into a life of deception, manipulation, and disoriented identity. —A.R.
NYC comedian, cabaret star, and quarantine queen Catherine Cohen has been sharing her biting, unfiltered poems about sex, ego, art, millennial ennui, and longing on her Instagram for years. Now they’re gathered in one beautiful book, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. —A.R.
This debut short story collection, set in the cities and suburbs of Florida, explores trauma and recovery, good and evil. The anthology includes narratives about a teenager whose family accuses her of courting the devil, estranged siblings coming to terms with their father’s death, caterers at the mercy of their wealthy clients’ cravings, and more. —A.R.
National Book Award finalist Brandon Hobson’s latest novel draws on Cherokee folklore, tracing the long-lasting effects of a fatal police shooting within an Echota family. Fifteen years after her young son was killed by a cop, Maria hopes to bring her scattered family together for their annual bonfire. But as the reunion nears, each family member finds themselves in mysterious circumstances that blur the boundary between the physical and spirit worlds as they navigate their deep-seated grief and trauma. —A.R.
Alan Lightman appeared on my radar last March, when the novelist, essayist, and theoretical physicist quietly launched Our Artful Cosmos, a fascinating blog about the intersections between science, art, and creativity. In this year’s Probable Impossibilities, a series of essays on creation, consciousness, and our place in the universe, Lightman turns his attention to some of our biggest questions about infinity and nothingness. —A.R.
Elvira Navarro (included in Granta magazine's roundup of best young Spanish-language novelists) marries surrealism, horror, and irony in this eerie collection, featuring stories that will leave you feeling unsettled, including about a scientist whose experiment on an uninhabited island goes awry, a man of nobility who encounters a long-extinct beast, and a woman who finds her late mother’s memories mysteriously posted on Facebook. —A.R.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s groundbreaking book The Sixth Extinction (for which she won a Pulitzer Prize) was an explicit examination of the destructive effects of humanity on Earth. In Under a White Sky, she takes a critical look at the future we’ve created and analyzes our various methods of salvation. —A.R.
It’s 2015 in Zak Salih’s debut novel, and high school art history teacher Sebastian Mote is ready to settle down. Thanks to the recent Supreme Court decision to support marriage equality, he’s able to envision the future he wants. When he runs into an estranged friend, he’s hoping to rekindle their connection, but he’s surprised to find out that friend sees marriage for same-sex couples not as progress but as the death knell for queer culture, and an alarming step toward the LGBTQ community’s adoption of heteronormativity. Their reconnection incites questions of identity and progress, which are even more complicated when both befriend gay men of different generations. —A.R.
Dubbed by various news outlets as the poet laureate of the internet, Patricia Lockwood is a master of a kind of unhinged online humor in both her poetry and her hilarious 2017 memoir Priestdaddy, about growing up the daughter of a married, politically conservative Catholic priest. She makes her fiction debut with this novel about a social media star, not unlike Lockwood, who digests the last few years of internet detritus until her pregnant sister has a scary complication and reality kicks in. —Tomi Obaro
New mom Megan is emotionally and physically depleted in those early postpartum months. She’s mostly alone while her husband travels for work — until, apparent only to Megan, the ghost of children’s author Margaret Wise Brown “moves in” to the upstairs apartment with unfinished business. As Megan falls deeper into this ghostly drama, she becomes less and less connected to reality, endangering herself and her baby. —A.R.
When teenage sweethearts Elena and Mauro have their first daughter, the pair decide to leave an increasingly dangerous life in Bogota and head to Houston, Texas. But as their visa expiration nears — and their family grows — they face an impossible decision, moving again and again in an effort to avoid having their undocumented status discovered. —A.R.
In his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature (very well deserved, btw), Ishiguro returns to familiar territory, exploring the connections between loneliness and technology. Klara is an AI machine living in a supermarket, observing the human beings around her, and hoping to be chosen by a loving customer. —T.O.
But You're Still So Young: How Thirtysomethings Are Redefining Adulthood by Kayleen Schaefer (Dutton Books; March 2)
I loved journalist Kayleen Schaefer’s Text Me When You Get Home, her insightful and accessible examination of friendship between women, and I can’t wait to read her investigation into what “being in your thirties” means today. Weaving together personal history, original reporting, and cultural analysis, Schaefer tackles five of the major milestones we’ve been told define adulthood — finishing school, leaving home, getting married, gaining financial independence, and having kids — and explores their modern significance. —A.R.
Celebrated illustrator Forsyth Harmon makes her writing debut with Justine, a compact but powerful illustrated novel. In 1990s Long Island, teenager Ali is enchanted by Justine, the impossibly cool and beautiful cashier at her local Stop & Shop. Ali just can’t figure out if she wants Justine, or wants to be Justine — or maybe a little of both. —A.R.
Nguyen’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Sympathizer, was an immersive anonymous narrative about a North Vietnamese spy embedded in a South Vietnamese platoon during the Vietnam War. In this hotly anticipated follow-up, our wry double agent has just arrived in Paris as a refugee. —T.O.
Lucy Ives' 2019 novel, Loudermilk, was a wry, punchy, super smart look at creativity as confined by capitalism. Cosmogony, her debut short story collection, takes on daily absurdities and the subtle supernatural, playing with format as she weaves in Wikipedia entries, text messages, and science equations. —A.R.
Hala Alyan’s 2017 novel, Salt Houses, was a moving portrait of a family contending with their heritage. In The Arsonists’ City, she returns to similar themes of home, history, and identity: After Idris Nasr’s father dies, he becomes the patriarch of his large and far-flung family. When he decides to sell the family home in Beirut, the rest of the family flock from their new homes in Brooklyn, Austin, and California to change his mind. Once they’re all there, secrets and tensions erupt. —A.R.
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib (Random House; March 30)
An astute writer of essays and fiction with a firm grasp of Black history, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s second novel, set in 19th-century New York, is loosely based on the story of the first Black woman doctor in the state, Susan Smith McKinney Steward, and her daughter. In the novel, Libertie is the dark-skinned daughter of a doctor who expects her to also go into medicine. She decides to marry a Haitian man and live in Haiti instead; the novel interrogates the consequences of that choice. —T.O.
Gabriela Garcia, a prolific poet and fiction writer, delivers her highly anticipated debut novel, centered on three generations of Cuban and Cuban American women. Jeanette, determined to understand her family history but unable to get her mother (who’s still processing the emotional effects of her displacement from Cuba) to tell her about it, travels to Cuba to visit her grandmother, but this decision brings uncomfortable secrets and betrayals to light. —A.R.
John Woodrow Cox adapts his groundbreaking Pulitzer Prize–nominated series in this harrowing and illuminating account of gun violence in America, told through the children witnessing (and traumatized by) it, interwoven with an analysis of the government’s profound failure to protect them. —A.R.
Famous for turning fairy tales into dark fables about race and gender, Helen Oyeyemi’s latest fantastical novel centers on a newly married couple who are setting out on their honeymoon. But their train ride to the honeymoon of their dreams is not as straightforward as it would seem. —T.O.
An Apprenticeship, or the Book of Pleasures by Clarice Lispector, trans. Stefan Tobler (New Directions; April 6)
Another thrilling literary resurgence is that of the late, brilliant, and prolific Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, thanks to New Directions’ fleet of reissues in the past decade. (Personally, I’m a huge fan of her final, meta novel, The Hour of the Star.) An Apprenticeship — which includes an afterword by Sheila Heti — is an attempt to understand human connection and its limits, following a woman on her earnest journey out of solitude and in search of love. —A.R.
Caul Baby, Morgan Jerkins’ fiction debut, is a family saga about loyalty, betrayal, destiny, and magic. It connects two families: Laila is a woman reeling from a series of miscarriages; the Melancons are a family rumored to have a birth caul — a layer of skin from the amniotic sac with healing powers. That caul fails to protect Laila’s unborn baby, but when her niece gives birth to Harrow, a healthy daughter with her own caul, she is given to the Melancons to be raised as their own. As Harrow grows up, and her mother, now a lawyer, seeks revenge against the family, she reckons with who she is and where she belongs. —A.R.
If you’re looking for a creepy speculative thriller, it doesn’t get much better than Jeff VanderMeer. In Hummingbird Salamander, he tackles climate change, tech, and conspiracies: A security consultant receives a package from a dead ecoterrorist that sets her on a dangerous treasure hunt that quickly spirals out of control. —A.R.
To be honest, I don’t need to hear much about a new Murakami short story collection to be excited about it, but here’s some information for those who might: eight new stories all told from a narrator speaking in first person, which feel dreamy and pseudo-autobiographical at times, on topics ranging from music to baseball to nostalgia. —A.R.
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney follows up her bighearted family saga The Nest with another empathetic examination of family dynamics and domestic drama, this one about a married couple as they confront a secret that brings the foundation of their relationship, and the past 20 years of their marriage, into question. —A.R.
Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola (William Morrow; April 13)
I’m a big fan of British journalist Bolu Babalola (if you’re unfamiliar, her Vulture essay “The Innate Black Britishness of I May Destroy You” is the perfect example of her shrewd cultural criticism). Her fiction debut, a collection of reimagined love stories from history and myth, sounds fantastic: As Babalola herself describes it, it’s “a step towards decolonizing tropes of love.”” —A.R.
I adored Zauner’s 2018 essay of the same name, published in the New Yorker, so I’m thrilled to get more of the piercing, deeply felt writing I loved so much. Her memoir expands on that essay and its themes of family, grief, and heritage, exploring her relationship with her Korean identity through stories of growing up as one of very few Asian Americans in Eugene, Oregon, spending time in Seoul with her mother and grandmother, and processing her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis. —A.R.
Fiona Mozley’s hypnotic debut, Elmet, was a standout novel of 2018. Her much-anticipated follow-up takes place in London’s Soho, where a young millionaire intent on converting an old building into luxury condos finds out the hard way that its tenants — specifically two sex workers whose brothel is based in the building — won’t leave without a fight. —A.R.
The first novel in almost a decade from Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri (and her first written originally in Italian), Whereabouts centers on one woman over the course of a year as she navigates the dueling desires to form real connections and preserve her independence. —A.R.
Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, tackles the appropriation and whitewashing of Native spirituality in mainstream witchcraft trends in this memoir of essays. Writing about her experiences of abuse, addiction, and mental illness, she recounts the role of her ancestral magic in her own survival and journey to becoming a witch. —A.R.