Summer is officially in full swing, and for a lot us, that means more time for reading. And sure, you do want to have a few easy, fun reads: books you can bring with you to the beach or while you sip lemonade on your porch. Still, it’s nice to read thought-provoking books that continue to challenge you as you get through these warmer months. So if you’re looking for that book that’s going to stick with you longer than your average beach read, then you’ll be happy to hear 2021 has been a great year for must-read, stimulating, conversation-starting books.
How will the books on this list challenge you? Some cover difficult topics that will have you reexamining your own feelings about various issues. Others deal with complicated moral issues. Some of these books will have you itching to share with your friends so you can discuss what it all means. Warning: the books on this list might even leave you with a serious book hangover for days. So consume with caution.
Remember that summer reading list your English teacher would give you before you left for break every year? Think of this as the adult version of that list. Here are your 2021 must-read books (both fiction and nonfiction) to keep the brain wheels turning this summer.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Looking for a compelling and well-written takedown of racism in the workplace (specifically the publishing industry)? You’re going to want to pick up The Other Black Girl. Twenty-six-year-old Nella Rogers is the only Black person working at Wagner Books. So when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle next to hers, at first Nella is thrilled. But there’s something…off about Hazel. Sometimes she seems like a friend, and other times she’s highly competitive. And when Nella starts receiving threatening notes telling her to leave Wagner, she can’t help but wonder if Hazel is behind them. This page-turning thriller will also have you reflecting on racism, code-switching, and all the ways that people of color are forced to compromise their sense of self in predominantly white spaces.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
My personal favorite sci-fi stories all center around one question: what does it mean to be human? This is the question at the heart of Nobel Prize–winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun. Klara is an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities. From her place in the store, Klara watches and learns from the people she sees browsing. All the while, she remains hopeful that a shopper will see her and choose to bring her home.
Everything is Fine by Vince Granata
This is a moving memoir that explores complex issues like grief, mental illness, and the role of family in one’s life and identity. In Everything is Fine, Vince Granata explores the traumatic death of his mother. Vince was a thousand miles away from home when he received the news that his mother has been brutally murdered at the hands of his younger brother Tim, who was dealing with paranoid schizophrenia. Vince’s personal story of grief and learning to find love for his family again in the fast of devastating tragedy will stick with you long after this book’s final pages.
Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia
Of Women and Salt is a portrait of the United States of America from the immigrant perspective, and so much more. This sweeping story takes readers from 19th century Cuba to present day Miami, following the lives of an immigrant family through multiple generations. And when Carmen, living in Miami in 2019, travels back to Cuba to meet with her grandmother and reckon with the secrets from her family’s pasts, generations of betrayals — both personal and political — come to the forefront.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby is the first novel by an openly trans woman to be nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. For that alone, this novel is worth a read. But more importantly, Detransition, Baby tells a story featuring beautifully rendered characters you won’t soon forget. This book explores issues of motherhood, womanhood, and found family as three women — cisgender and trans — consider the possibility of raising a baby together.
Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi
After crying my eyes out over The Death of Vivek Oji last year, Akwaeke Emezi’s memoir Dear Senthuran quickly became one of my most-anticipated books of 2021. And it’s finally here! This is a memoir in letters. Through examining intimate correspondence with friends, lovers, and family, Emezi explores their own personal journey with their gender, their body, and their creative process.
Animal by Lisa Taddeo
Here’s another thriller that’s got a lot more bite to it than your average beach read. Joan has spent most of her life enduring the cruel acts of men. But when she witnesses a particularly shocking act of violence, Joan leaves New York City and heads out to Los Angeles. There, she seeks out Alice, and with her help, Joan is able to work through the traumatic and haunting violence of her past. And eventually find the strength to fight back.
Seek You by Kristen Radtke
This graphic novel is a striking blend of cultural history, memoir, journalism, and sociology. And after a year of living in quarantine, the subject matter seems more relevant than ever. In Seek You, Kristen Radtke explores the devastating effects of loneliness throughout the history of America. This books covers a wide range of topics, from the sexist portrayals of women in romantic comedies to the epidemic of mass shootings, and pretty much everything in between.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Read Sorrowland if you’re looking for a novel unlike anything else you’ve ever read. This novel is a mixture of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror that still reflects on the very real hate and violence of American history. Sorrowland tells the story of Vern, who is desperately trying to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised. She flees to the forest, where she plans to raise her twins far away from the outside world. But the community won’t let her go so easily, and some strange metamorphosis is happening to her.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Michelle Zauner, the lead singer of indie-rock band Japanese Breakfast, first wrote a version of “Crying in H Mart” in 2018 as an essay for The New Yorker. For her 2021 memoir of the same name, Zauner has expanded on these ideas and stories. Following the death of her mother, Zauner found herself asking, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” This book is an exploration of grief, what it means to be Korean American, and more.
Appleseed by Matt Bell
Matt Bell’s latest novel has been compared to the works of Jeff VanderMeer and Neal Stephenson. Part climate fiction, part tech thriller, and part fairytale, Appleseed spans thousands of years, starting with apple orchards in 18th century Ohio and going a thousand years in the future, when North America is covered in ice. With Bell’s inventive incorporation of myths and legends, this is an unparalleled and unforgettable examination of the effects of climate change.
Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder
Rachel Yoder’s debut novel Nightbitch is a fabulist satirical novel that looks at art, power, and womanhood in a truly unexpected way. In this book, an artist puts her career on hold to stay at home with her newborn son, but motherhood is nothing like what she thought it would be. And she becomes convinced she’s slowly turning into a dog. As her symptoms increase, she looks for a cure and instead discovers a mysterious book called A Field Guide to Magical Women: A Mythical Ethnography. Then she starts hanging out with a group of mothers involved in a suspicious multi-level marketing scheme.
Girlhood by Melissa Febos
Girlhood is a collection of essays from bestselling author Melissa Febos that blends investigative reporting, memoir, and scholarship. In these essays, Febos looks at the things she’s been told throughout her life about what it means to be a woman. Furthermore, this book explores the harmful narratives that that teach women from a young age to not prioritize their own health, safety, freedom, or happiness. How do we unlearn these lessons, and how do we reclaim the power, pleasure, and anger that we’ve been conditioned to ignore?
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura
A Separation author Katie Kitamura’s latest is a literary novel that reads like a psychological thriller. This is the story of an interpreter who comes to Hague’s International Court and becomes entangled in personal drama and political controversies. When faced with dilemmas in both her personal life and at work, the interpreter is forced to confront what kind of person she truly is and what it is that she wants from life.
Women and Other Monsters by Jess Zimmerman
Of course, you probably read about Greek mythology when you were in school. But have you ever considered the portrayals of female monsters in those stories? These stories taught us that women who are too greedy, too ambitious, too sexual, or not sexy enough are not natural. In fact, they’re monstrous. In Women and Other Monsters, Jess Zimmerman questions the sexist narratives we grew up learning and reclaims the monsters of Greek mythology. After all, is being monstrous all that bad?
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Libertie is a stunningly beautiful historical fiction novel that explores the true meaning of freedom. Inspired by one of the first Black female doctors in the United States, this novel tells the story of Libertie Sampson, a free-born Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn whose mother is a practicing physician. Libertie’s mother would love for her to follow in her footsteps and study to become a doctor, but Libertie feels pulled in a different direction. So when a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie, she accepts. But life on the island is not what Libertie expected, and she has to question what it means to be free when you’re Black and a woman.
Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu
Aftershocks is a beautifully intimate and heartbreaking memoir in which Whiting Award–winning author Nadia Owusu grapples with issues of identity, the meaning of home, and Black womanhood. Nadia lived a nomadic childhood. She lived everywhere from Rome to London, Dar-es-Salaam to Kampala. Her mother abandoned her when she was 2 years old, leaving Nadia with unanswerable questions about her identity. Even when she moved to America to go to school, Nadia still felt like there were so many warring personalities within herself. Through poetic prose, Nadia Owusu begins to piece together the answers of her identity by reexamining her past.
A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib
In Hanif Abdurraqib’s brilliant follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2017 essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, the poet and essayist celebrates the significance of Black performance throughout American history. As he looks at all kinds of Black performance — from dance marathons to a game of spades — Abdurraqib unravels issues of racism in America and his own personal experiences with love, grief, and performance.
The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade
Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut novel The Five Wounds is a year in the life of five generations of a New Mexican family. Thirty-three-year-old Amadeo Padilla is preparing for his part as Jesus in the Good Friday procession when his life is completely flipped upside down. Angel, his 15-year-old daughter, shows up nine months pregnant on his doorstep, having fled her mother’s home before the birth of her child. What follows is the story of the first year of this baby’s life, and all of the love and sacrifice it take to raise a child and be a family.
The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright
Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground is a previously unpublished novel from the author of Native Son and Black Boy. This is a story about racism and police violence written nearly 80 years ago that still unfortunately feels extremely timely. Now the novel has finally been published after Julia Wright — Wright’s daughter and literary executor — reached out to the Library of America about the significance of the story’s perspective on police brutality. This is a significant work of literary fiction from a legendary author that’s absolutely not to be missed.