The holidays are upon us, and there’s no better way to relax than by curling up with a great book and a steaming mug of hot cocoa. Whether you’re a bookworm or you’re shopping for one, I’ve got you covered with best books of 2021!
Keep reading to discover the best historical fiction, thriller, and rom-com books released this year!
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20+ must-read books of 2021
The Forest of Vanishing Stars
I fell in love with Kristin Harmel’s writing in 2020 with “The Book of Lost Names,” and she’s written another favorite with “The Forest of Vanishing Stars.” It’s not often that a book stays with me long after I’ve closed the book (or tapped out of the app, as the case may be), but Harmel’s storytelling so deeply immersed me into the denser forests of eastern Europe during WWII, that I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.
“The Forest of Vanishing Stars” follows Yona, born to German parents as Inge and stolen at age 2, as she grows up in the forest, learning the secrets of the land. When her kidnapper dies, she’s forced to live on her own and make decisions about who she is– is it the blood that runs through her veins that decides, or can she forge a new destiny?
When she runs into a group of Jewish refugees, she has the chance to find out. This is a book about survival, love, and ultimately– home.
The Four Winds
I finished reading this book just before I was vaccinated. It was a year of one thing after another, and to be honest, the “just look on the bright side” advice was kind of pissing me off. It was a year of so much loss and isolation, and The Four Winds was just what I needed to read.
The book starts in Texas in 1921– just after the Great War when times are good, for everyone except Elsa Wolcott. The sickly daughter of a wealthy family, she was hidden away with only her books for comfort, until one night she sneaks out and meets Rafe Martinelli, the son of Italian immigrants. Soon, Elsa is a wife and a mother and times have changed– the Great Depression, dust storms, and droughts have taken over the Great Plains and soon Elsa must make the choice to stay and tough it out in Texas or make the trip west to California, where the promise of prosperity may not be all that it seems. This is the story of a woman who’s lost it all. And in her loss, she discovers her true strength.
The Hidden Child
Eleanor and Edward Hamilton lead a seemingly charmed life in 1920s London. They’re deeply in love, have a darling little girl and a baby on the way, and Edward’s academic research puts him at the forefront of the Eugenics movement.
Then little Mabel starts experiencing seizures, proving that maybe “genetic superiority” has nothing to do with physical health. When Eleanor discovers Edward’s been keeping secrets, it calls everything she thought she knew about him and causes her to question whether the scientific “facts” she’s heard are actually fact at all.
This is a story about ethics, prejudice, and how far the love of a mother will go in protecting her child. 100% recommend The Hidden Child!
The Invisible Woman
It took me a few tries to get into this one, but I’m glad I gave it another shot. This novel is based on the life of Virginia Hall, dubbed by the Gestapo as the “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Hall is a risk-taker, but she’s incredible at her job. She sent messages, arranged drops, and armed and trained members of the French Resistance. Oh, and did I mention she did it all with one leg? She accidentally shot her foot off in an accident years earlier. Author Erika Robuck did an incredible job weaving historical fact with fiction to immerse the reader in the dangerous landscape of WWII while providing moments of hope on the way to Hall’s ultimate mission.
The Last Night in London
Holy moly, I loved this book! Dual-era historical fictions are my favorite, and this one takes place between 1939, where British Eva Harlow and her American best friend, Precious Dubose are working in London as models, and 2019, where American journalist Maddie Warner travels to London to interview Precious for an upcoming exhibition. Precious doesn’t speak much about her experience during the war, but something about Maddie’s grief brings back a flood of memories. Friendship, fashion, romance, and betrayal all make their way into Karen White’s completely unique telling of The Blitz.
The Nature of Fragile Things
Sophie Whalen fled Ireland, hoping for a better life in New York. But when she finds a mail-order bride listing from a widower in San Francisco, she says goodbye to her rat-infested tenement and heads west. Things seem to be going her way when Martin Hocking is handsome and respectful and his daughter Kat is sweet– and silent. Martin’s away often on business, and the bond between Sophie and Kat grows in his absence, as does Sophie’s intuition that something is very wrong.
The depth of his depravity is revealed when Sophie answers the door to a pregnant stranger on her doorstep. And the two women start digging to discover even more lies. They’re set to bring those lies to light when, on the morning of April 18, 1906, a huge earthquake rocks the city and destroys the homes and lives of everyone in San Francisco. Can Sophie use love as a way to rebuild a life out of the rubble?
I love everything Susan Meissner has written, and this is perhaps one of my favorites. I actually got goosebumps at the end!
The Paris Library
Janet Skeslien Charles
It’s possible that books about WWII and librarians are two of my favorite topics. Put them together, and you’ve found my dream genre. The heroic staff of the American Library in Paris keep the library running during the war– providing a haven for book lovers who can visit, and secretly delivering books to those who can’t. When the war ends, librarian Odile Souchet, should be celebrating– marrying her police officer beau and patting herself on the back for a job well done. Instead, she realizes that a careless word she spoke is responsible for the greatest betrayal.
Fast forward to 1983 in Montana. Reeling from the loss of her mother, she befriends her mysterious elderly neighbor. Through their time together, they discover they share so many similarities– both for good and bad. Can Lily learn from her neighbor’s mistakes?
The Women of Chateau Lafayette
Despite its length, I flew through all 576 pages in just a few days. The only reason it wasn’t faster was that every time I read about Lafayette, I had to sing a song from Hamilton the Musical in my head or listen to the soundtrack.
I LOVE longer books because they give the author time to really develop every character. With three different eras and multiple leading ladies, Stephanie Dray did an incredible job giving each woman her time in the limelight. The book is based on
1774 Adrienne was merely a child when an arranged marriage paired her with Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette. There was no way to know that the two would fall deeply in love and their political partnership would spark a revolution in France, upsetting the balance of nobility and commoners. Will she denounce her husband to save herself and their children?
1914 American socialite Beatrice Chanler’s marriage to William Astor Chanler is anything but perfect, but he’s given the divorced former actress a chance to put her past behind her. When WWI begins, she braves trans-Atlantic crossings to provide philanthropic aid, founding the Lafayette Memorial Fund at the Château de Chavaniac as a museum and school.
1940 Marthe Simone was raised within the walls of Chateau Lafayette and remains as a teacher and artist. When the Nazis show up on her doorstep, will she take a stand or hide within its walls?
My words can’t do justice to how much I enjoyed reading The Women of Chateau Lafayette. If you like historical fiction, you’ll love this book.
Wish You Were Here
This might be the best book of 2021. Incredibly timely, the novel is set at the beginning of the pandemic. Diana O’Toole and her boyfriend Finn have booked a dream vacation to the Galápagos. Their flight is set to depart on March 14, 2020. Finn is a surgical resident and when the pandemic breaks, he’s forced to stay in New York and work. At his urging, Diana takes the trip solo. We all know what happened around the world over the next few days. By the time Diana arrives in Galápagos, she’s met with spotty WiFi and a closed hotel, and she’s missing her luggage. She’s taken in by a local family, who takes her to see the island, and Diana begins forming a bond with a troubled teen– and her dad.
I was entranced by the sense of escapism provided by this book alongside the very real reality of a deadly pandemic. There is a surprise twist in this book that I don’t want to give away, so you just have to buy the book, mask up, and dive in for yourself!
The Donut Trap
I decided to read The Donut Trap because if I’m going to get stuck in any kind of trap, I’d love for it to be a donut trap!
After graduation, Jasmine returns to work in her parents’ donut shop as she decides what she wants to do with her life and quickly falls into the cycle of donuts, Netflix, and sleep.
Her immigrant parents want so much more for her, and when Jasmine’s college crush walks back into her life, it looks like her parents might get exactly what they want. Alex is Chinese, fluent in Mandarin, and easy on the eyes. But when her parents meet his mom, things go downhill– fast.
I love Jasmine’s awkwardness (relatable), the complexity of the characters’ familial relationships, and the sweet romance between Jasmine and Alex.
The Invisible Husband of Frick Island
Anders Caldwell had dreams of being Clark Kent– not Superman. He wanted to be a big-shot journalist, but nothing seems to be going his way. But when he’s sent out to Frick Island to cover the annual Cake Walk, he stumbles on a much juicier story. Piper Parrish is going out on dates with her husband, seeing him off to go crabbing, and cooking for him. Which isn’t newsworthy, except that her husband disappeared when his boat capsized. She’s carrying on with her married life with an invisible husband and the whole town is playing along.
Anders sees this as his big chance and launches a podcast about the island and Piper’s story. But, as in all good stories, things aren’t always what they seem. I loved this easy read that took me on an escape to the Chesapeake Bay and immersed me with a cast of quirky, lovable characters.
The Matzah Ball
The description to The Matzah Ball says “Oy! to the world,” and that’s really all I needed to read before deciding to dive into this Hanukkah romance.
Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is the daughter of a respected rabbi and a closeted Christmas fanatic. She’s built a career as a famous Christmas romance novelist– a fact which she keeps locked away with all her Christmas paraphernalia in her secret writing room. The career is a great fit for Rachel, who suffers from myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome) that leaves her absolutely spent after exerting minor effort.
When her publisher insists on a Hanukkah romance, Rachel must discover the magic of Hanukkah, and the Matzah Ball is the perfect event for inspiration. There’s just one catch. It’s being run by Jacob Greenberg, her summer camp enemy, and the tickets are sold out.
Her only hope for scoring a ticket to the hottest Hanukkah event in town? Volunteer.
NBD for the average Joe, but for Rachel, every menial task Jacob inflicts is akin to running a marathon.
I love, love, loved this book, and can’t wait to read more from Jean Meltzer!
The Party Crasher
I’ve loved all of Sophie Kinsella’s books, and The Party Crasher is no exception! Effie has fond memories of her childhood, raised by her father and stepmother Mimi. Mimi made life whimsical, and her hand-sketched cabinets are a talking point and memory all in one. At least that’s the way she remembers it. When they divorce, that image is crushed. To add insult to injury, Effie’s father suddenly has a (much younger) girlfriend, Krista.
Effie blames Krista for her father’s sudden desire to sell the house, and refuses to attend the “house cooling” party. Not that she’s actually been invited anyways. Which is how she ends up hiding in the garden when the love of her life shows up for the party. Sophie Kinsella keeps you on the edge of your seat as you root for Effie’s success (with one eye covered as you await the fallout).
The Soulmate Equation
I know this is fiction… but can someone please create the technology from this book!? Jess is a single mother who’s sworn off love. She sits with her best friend Fizzy, a famous author, at their local coffee shop every morning, as Fizzy writes and statistician Jess crunches data. Every morning at 8:24, a tall, handsome (and utterly preoccupied) man walks through the door and orders an Americano.
The two women learn that he works for a biotech dating company, and finagle their way into a tour of the company. GeneticAlly uses DNA data to determine compatibility… but since Jess isn’t even a little interested in romance, it shouldn’t matter, right? Right. At least… it would have been right, but on a down day, Jess submits her DNA and finds out that she’s been matched, and the couple’s compatibility is a 98– the highest score GeneticAlly has ever seen. And do you want to know who she matches with? Yep… 8:24 Americano.
I finished this book in 24 hours! The nerdy scientific love story drew me in and the thought that a soulmate could be quantified intrigued me, because almost every single person has a Bumble or Tinder horror story!
Lesley Kara’s books have made appearances in the 2019 and 2020 best book lists, and she’s back again for the third year in a row with The Dare! Alice and Lizzie were the best of friends, and did absolutely everything together. Which is why the two 13-year-olds were together the day Alice was killed by a train. That same day, Lizzie suffered an epileptic seizure, which essentially wiped her memory of her friend’s accident. The thing is… Alice’s family isn’t so sure it was an accident. Kara is a master of the slow burn with explosive results at the end!
Every Last Fear
Returning to his dorm after a night of partying, NYU student Matt Pine learns the devastating news that his mom, dad, and little brother and sister died in their holiday rental in Mexico– an apparent gas leak. Matt’s older brother, Danny, is currently in prison serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend– although a recent true-crime documentary featuring his story has convinced many that he’s innocent.
When Matt returns to his hometown to bury his family, he’s met with a hostile community and a sneaking suspicion that his family’s deaths may not have been accidental after all. Determined to find the truth, Matt embarks on a journey to discover what really happened in Mexico… and what really happened the night Danny’s girlfriend was killed. Because despite the distance between the two crimes, he’s pretty sure they’re connected somehow.
Every Last Fear kept me guessing until the very end– action-packed, suspenseful, and intense, this is a must-read for psychological thriller-lovers!
It’s an open and shut case. Simone Fischer murdered her husband in cold blood while her son played in the next room over. Everyone’s heard what happened, but no one knows why. And for more than 10 years, she hasn’t told anyone.
Esme Fox is a true-crime podcaster who’s hoping she might be able to get Simone to open up. Surprising everyone, Simone agrees to tell her story. She reveals an abusive relationship and horrifying details of what she endured through the marriage. As she talks, Esme sees her own life reflected in Simone’s words. Thankfully, Esme was able to avoid the same fate. Her sister supports Esme by helping with her son, injured by a hit and run driver that left him with lifelong injuries. But when Esme’s sister disappears and is found close to death after a brutal attack, she searches for the truth as her life begins to unravel. Can she finish the podcast, find her sister’s attacker, and hold off her obnoxiously overbearing mother-in-law?
Honestly, the review was tough to write because there are so many twists, turns, and merging plots that I don’t want to accidentally give anything away. Just trust me on this one and get the book!
Amy Suiter Clarke
If you’re a true crime lover like me, you’ll LOVE this book. After finishing all episodes of Crime Junkie, Morbid Podcast, Anatomy of Murder, I turned to Clarke’s book about Elle Castillo, a social worker-turned-true crime podcast host.
After two successful seasons, Elle decides to tackle the case that’s haunted her for more than 20 years– The Countdown Killer. Two decades ago, TCK abducted and murdered three girls over the course of 7 days. First, a 14-year-old. Then, a 13-year-old. Next, a 12-year-old. And then, he stopped.
She follows the tips, stopping at nothing to prove TCK is still alive and bring him to justice. But perhaps she should have just let the case fade away because, under Elle’s scrutiny, the killer’s restarted the clock. I couldn’t put this book down. It was suspenseful and well-written, and I loved the twists and turns!
The Good Sister
If any of you have sisters, you know all about the precarious nature of sisterhood. Rose and Fern are twin sisters and they’re practically attached at the hip despite their differences.
Rose is the short, round, responsible one with a husband and a charmed life. The only thing missing is a baby to complete the family. Fern is the tall, willowy, introverted librarian who is averse to touch, light, and noise stimulation, thrives on routine, and would do anything to make her sister happy.
Both sisters are keeping secrets, and as you know, secrets ALWAYS have a way of coming out. The twists and turns will keep you guessing who’s the good sister until the very end.
I love that Sally Hepworth writes about a character with sensory-processing issues without making her into a freak, and hope more authors follow suit to normalize people who see the world differently.
The Guilt Trip
As a travel blogger, I love trips of all kinds. Well, I thought I did until I read this book.
Three couples travel to Portugal for a dream destination wedding. Rachel, Jack, Paige, Noah, and Will have been friends for years. Ali, Will’s fiancée is new to the group.
But this dreamy destination turns into a nightmare as secrets are revealed that threaten friendships and marriages. One thing’s for sure– history isn’t everything and first impressions are not always as they seem!
The Hidden was one of my favorite books of 2021, and I’m still not quite sure how to put my thoughts into words other than– just read it.
Ruby’s flat looks directly into Gregor’s, and she’s enthralled by the man who practices yoga in the middle of the night. To the outside world, he appears single, but he lets her in on a secret. He cares for Constance, a seemingly mentally unstable woman who believes she’s a Selkie, and their daughter Leonie.
When Leonie is found abandoned at a seaside shop and Gregor is discovered bludgeoned in the bathroom, no one connects the two. Especially when a woman claiming to be Leonie’s mother shows up and takes the little girl away. DS Joanna Harper is on the case, but she’s got a personal stake in the outcome that she hasn’t told anyone.
The lines between fact, fiction, and folklore take you on a wild ride. Hold on and enjoy it!
The hook: “Ten years ago he killed my son. Today I married him.” Tom and Jesse were best friends. Their moms, Jill and Bridget were also best friends.
Then one night, when the boys were 18, something goes horribly wrong after a night spent partying. Jesse is dead, and Tom is in jail for his murder. Case closed, friendship over. Right? Of course not.
In a bizarre twist, Bridget and Tom get married, and the reader spends a big chunk of this very twisty book trying to figure out– what’s the catch. Who can we trust? When is the other shoe going to drop? K.L. Slater is a genius, weaving a web thick with lies, betrayals, and of course, packed with a hefty dose of karma.
The Other Passenger
Jamie and Clare (no relation to the Outlander couple) are a middle-aged couple living in a nice home in London (purchased by Clare’s parents back when real estate was affordable). Kit and Melia are a young, beautiful couple who always seem to complain about their financial issues.
Melia and Clare meet at work, and a post-work get-together at Jamie and Clare’s home leads to Kit and Jamie’s daily commute by ferry. Then one day, Kit doesn’t show up for work. No big deal– he’s been known to party hard and skip work. But when Melia phones the police, it’s discovered that the last person to see Kit alive was Jamie– when they were fighting on the ferry.
I thought I had the ending pegged– but Lousie Candlish kept me guessing until the very end!
The Perfect Guests
Y’all know I love a good dual-era novel. And The Perfect Guests didn’t disappoint. It’s a little reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel, and I’m here for it.
In 1988, Beth Soames is dropped off to stay with the Averell family at Raven Hall by her aunt who doesn’t have the time to care for her orphaned niece. Beth becomes fast friends with Nina, and the two become like sisters. But what seemed like a picture-perfect life comes with a strange string attached. When Nina’s grandfather visits, Beth is required to pretend to be Nina. Beth can’t figure out why she’s required to play the role of his doting granddaughter, and when a tragic accident drives her from the home, it seems she’ll never find out.
In 2019, struggling actress Sadie Langton books a gig at Raven Hall that seems too good to be true. She’s given posh clothing and a persona to play for a weekend getaway. But as guests arrive… and disappear… it becomes clear that something sinister is afoot. If you like whodunnits and tidy endings, you’ll love this mystery!
Rock Paper Scissors
Alice Feeney has been called the “queen of the twist,” and she doesn’t let us down with Rock Paper Scissors. Every time you think you know the twist, she spins you another 180° and sends you back to square one.
The novel is written with alternating chapters from Adam’s and Amelia’s perspectives, with anniversary letters interspersed throughout– chronicling a happy start and spiraling downward. When Mr. and Mrs. Wright win a weekend getaway at a converted chapel in the Scottish Highlands for their 10th anniversary it seems like great luck, right? Not so fast. We learn quickly that Adam and Amelia winning the trip wasn’t based on luck at all. And as strange things start happening, it’s evident that someone doesn’t want the Wrights to live happily ever after.
The creep factor is high, and I loved trying to figure out who was behind the electricity outages, lack of cell reception, and other spooky happenings.
The Stranger in the Mirror
Mmmk. Remind me to never trust anyone else ever again, ok? This book is straight-up diabolically twisty.
Addison is engaged to be married and should be excited to begin her new life as a wife, but to her, everything feels new already. She was discovered on the side of the road, bleeding, next to a highway in New Jersey with no memory of her past.
A couple of states away, Julian and his seven-year-old daughter Valentina miss their wife and mom, Cassandra, who disappeared without a trace two years ago.
After listening to way too many crime podcasts and murder documentaries, I can usually guess the ending fairly early in the novel. But I DID NOT SEE THIS COMING! You’re just going to have to read this one for yourself. But don’t tell me I didn’t warn you that it would be all kinds of messed up, ok?
The Truth About Melody Browne
Melody Browne’s earliest memory is that of being rescued from a house fire by the people she’s called mom and dad for her whole life.
But after being called on stage as a volunteer during a hypnotist’s show, flashes of memory begin to unlodge themselves and Melody is determined to discover the truth. She follows the clues– from the city life she’s known to a quaint seaside town she’s sure she’s never visited before– until the memories begin flooding in along with even more questions.
I couldn’t put this book down— from the moment I picked it up, I didn’t stop reading until I knew the truth!
The Wife Upstairs
Meet Jane. That’s not her real name, of course, but when she begins dog-walking a rich suburb, she –correctly– assumes no one will think to ask the “help” about her story. So Jane walks the dogs, pockets a few trinkets and dreams of ways to better her life. When Eddie Rochester nearly runs her over with his car, Jane sees a possibility for a new life.
Eddie is a wealthy man and a presumed widower. His wife disappeared, and everyone assumes she lost her life in a tragic accident on the water at her lakehouse. Jane finds it difficult to fill Bea’s shoes in her picture-perfect life, attempting to hide her past from Eddie while climbing the social ladder among the women who used to be her employers. It turns out Jane isn’t the only one in this book with something to hide.
Which book will you read first? Have I missed your favorite book of 2021? Let me know in the comments!