The editors of the New York Times have been publishing an annual list of the year’s best books since 1896. I have no idea whether theirs was the first to see print in the United States, much less in Great Britain, where people read more books. Suffice it to say that the practice has become obligatory for any self-respecting book reviewer. Far be it from me to depart from the norm.
For what it’s worth, then, here are my picks for the best of the more than 100 books published in 2021 that I’ve read and reviewed here. (I read many others published previously.) I’ve selected five in each of four categories: nonfiction, mysteries & thrillers, science fiction, and popular (or trade) fiction. Each is listed by title and author, followed by a link to my review.
Somewhat arbitrarily, I’ve picked the very best of each of the four lists. It’s positioned first in its list and highlighted by an image of its cover and an excerpt from my posted review.
Best nonfiction of 2021
One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965 by Jia Lynn Yang—What has made America a nation of immigrants?
On as many as a dozen occasions in the course of the twentieth century, the United States Congress attempted to write the rules for immigration. Twice the result was major legislation signed by the President. The first was in 1924, with the passage of a racist bill that strangled the flow of immigrants for four decades. The second passed in 1965, reopening the floodgates. One law sharply reduced the percentage of foreign-born residents. The other dramatically increased it once again—and, in the process, changed America’s ethnic composition. Now, in One Mighty and Irresistible Tide, journalist Jia Lynn Yang traces the history of that second bill. Her account casts light on today’s immigration debate. It’s both eye-opening and timely.
Yang shows how each of the two major immigration laws was grounded in the governing obsession of its time. In the 1920s, she writes, looking back from the 1950s, “immigration debates had centered on the struggle to control the race and nationality of Americans.” Then, the pseudo-science of eugenics held sway. Members of Congress were “guided by the fear that the United States had to maintain a certain ethnic makeup to protect its democracy. Concerns over Communist infiltration by immigrants had played a supporting role in passing the 1924 law. Now they were taking center stage.” The immigration debate had shifted focus. But the opponents of reform remained resolute in their desire to keep the entry of immigrants to a minimum. Their efforts notwithstanding, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which eliminated the racist national origins formula as a factor in immigration. Read more.
Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic that Changed History by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta—America’s nightmarish response to COVID
The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson—CRISPR technology may change the world as we know it
Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert—In the Anthropocene, the chickens come home to roost
Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa—Bob Woodward’s revealing new book about the Trump-Biden transition
Best books of 2021: mysteries and thrillers
Red Widow by Alma Katsu—A poisoned CIA asset, and a hunt for a CIA mole
A Russian businessman dies on a plane from JFK to Washington National Airport. It seems to be a heart attack. But Lyndsey Duncan knows better. It was clearly poison. And the man was no businessman. He was, instead, a high-ranking officer in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the FSB. A ten-year CIA veteran, Lyndsey had recruited Yaromir Popov as a high-level asset when in Moscow on her first overseas assignment. The man had proven to be the most productive agent in the agency’s recent history, and Lyndsey had gained stature and notoriety as a result. But she has thrown it away by an affair with an MI6 officer on her next assignment, in Beirut.
Lyndsey’s now back in Langley, under investigation for collusion with a foreign intelligence officer. So, she is shocked when Eric Newman, Chief of Russia Division, calls her back from administrative leave. He places her in charge of an investigation to find out who in the CIA has revealed Popov’s identity to the Russians. Because the poison that killed Popov was often used by the FSB. Thus begins the long, complex saga of Alma Katsu’s revealing novel of contemporary espionage, The Red Widow. Read more.
A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León—From Aya de León, a brilliant thriller that exposes the FBI’s illegal tactics
The Judge’s List (Lacy Stolz #2) by John Grisham—John Grisham’s new legal thriller about a judge
Damascus Station by David McCloskey—A spellbinding novel about espionage in Syria
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead—A gripping crime novel set in Harlem by Colson Whitehead
Best science fiction of 2021
2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis—The Third World War breaks out in 2034, but not how you think
A squadron of three US destroyers sails on a “freedom of navigation” mission in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Nearby a smaller vessel is gushing smoke, and Captain Sara Hunt, the squadron’s commodore, orders her warships to veer off course to investigate. They find a small craft packed with electronic surveillance equipment, which they seize. And this ill-considered act in March 2034 triggers a succession of shocking events that unfold over the next four months. Not the rapid-fire, tit-for-tat exchange of strategic nuclear weapons conjured up in the most common fantasy of a Third World War. Just a slow-motion disaster with its own tragic and far-reaching consequences. Thus begins 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. It’s the most frightening book I’ve read in many years.
While Sara Hunt’s squadron is engaged off the China coast, another drama is unfolding half the world away. US Marine pilot “Wedge” Mitchell’s F-35 is on a provocative test flight into Iranian airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. Suddenly, all the electronics that control the aircraft stop working. The plane is under someone else’s control, and slowly it circles on its way down to the massive Iranian military base at Bandar Abbas.
For Sandeep Choudhury, the US Deputy National Security Adviser working in the White House, these two events appear unconnected. But he will soon learn they are both the product of a Chinese-Iranian alliance. And they represent the opening salvos in a complex and risky plan hatched within China’s Central Military Commission.
And no one has a clue that the actions they all take will help set off the Third World War. Read more.
Jury Duty (First Contact #17) by Peter Cawdron—First Contact Down Under. Way down under.
A History of What Comes Next (Take Them to the Stars #1) by Sylvain Neuvel—An alternate history of the space race
Phase Six by Jim Shepherd—This future pandemic is worse than COVID-19
The Genius Plague by David Walton—The greatest threat to humanity is . . . a mushroom?
Best books of 2021: popular fiction
The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood—A Muslim odyssey, from Karachi and Baghdad to San Francisco
Anvar Faris and Safwa lead very different lives growing up. In Karachi, Pakistan, now the world’s seventh largest city, Anvar lives a life sheltered from violence and poverty with his parents and older brother. He’s the black sheep in the family, the bane of his mother’s existence because he fails to follow the strict Muslim rules she imposes on everyone else. By contrast, living in Baghdad with her brother Fahd and her stern father, Safwa experiences the American invasion as a child. Then her father, who years earlier had answered the call to jihad in Afghanistan, is captured and tortured by US troops. Abu Fahd (“father of Fahd”) turns cruel after his release and forces her to live under the veil and devote her life to caring for her dying older brother.
In Syed Masood’s fast-moving account about two young Muslim immigrants, we follow these engaging teenagers as they establish shaky new lives in San Francisco. Eventually, the two families both end up as tenants in a rundown old apartment building owned and run by an Indian Muslim immigrant. There, Anvar and Safwa’s lives intersect in tragedy. Read more.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi—Questions science cannot answer in this brilliant new novel
Comrade Koba by Robert Littell—A biography of Joseph Stalin as told by the man himself
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld—Hillary Rodham before—and after—Bill Clinton
The Lost Diary of M by Paul Wolfe—John F. Kennedy’s lover kept a diary, and it was explosive
For more reading
You might also enjoy:
- Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here
- The 10 top espionage novels reviewed on this site
- 10 top science fiction novels (plus lots of runners-up)
- The 10 best novels about World War II (with 40 runners-up)
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.