Best and Worst Books of 2021
Credit: Book Illustration by EW

2020 was the year we stayed inside and read until our eyes went dry; 2021 was supposed to be the year that the outside world competed, once again, with our literary attention spans. Nothing about these last 12 months have been what we expected, but at least publishing provided — there were so many good stories to keep us company, whether on our first flights to reunite with loved ones or as we spent holiday breaks grounded, once again. Our Top 10 list offers a book for every mood: There's a lot of melancholy, of course, but there are also epic adventures, tales of triumph, descriptions of delicious food, and, as always, beautifully written words.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty
Credit: Doubleday

10. Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

This extensive takedown of the Sacklers —  the family behind the invention of OxyContin and the current opioid crisis — may not present as accessible, but Keefe has an aptitude for spinning complex investigations into page-turning thrillers. Empire lives out the promises inherent in the word exposé; it's not a book so much as a rallying cry for the reading masses. —Seija Rankin

No One Is Talking About This: A Novel by Patricia Lockwood
Credit: Riverhead Books

9. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Novel, memoir, primal scream: It's almost impossible to label the stream-of-consciousness latest from Lockwood (Priestdaddy), except to say that the way the Booker Prize finalist plays with language and memory and the mirror tricks of personal experience from one page to the next feels both intimately familiar and radically new. —Leah Greenblatt

Credit: Profile

8. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

The comma in the title of Peters' immensely readable debut works both ways: It is indeed about detransition, baby — as in the reversal of gender identification — and also, you know, an actual infant. When an unintended pregnancy forces three New Yorkers of varying persuasions to confront their new reality, it also tweaks the very idea of what a 21st-century family can be. —L.G.

July books gallery
Credit: Riverhead Books

7. Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

An unnamed woman takes a job at the Hague in Kitamura's beguiling lucid dream of a novel. A fraught romance with a local Dutchman and a much darker dynamic with an African warlord whose testimony she's assigned to translate quickly follow, but the book is less about linear plot than the fluid state of being a stranger in a strange land, wherever you go. —L.G.

Milk Fed: A Novel by Melissa Broder
Credit: Scribner

6. Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

Beleaguered L.A. assistant and aspiring comedian Rachel is used to finding her self-loathing at the bottom of a fat-free fro-yo cup. But when she meets Miriam, a yogurt shop employee who seems to embrace every ample fold and curve — just call her the emancipation dairy queen — it sets her free in this comic-erotic treat, a novel as sticky-sweet as it is outrageous. —L.G.

September Books
Credit: HarperCollins

5. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

A Pulitzer Prize winner for his last sweeping novel, 2014's All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr proves himself also a scholar of literary world-building with his latest epic. Cuckoo weaves through ancient Constantinople, modern Idaho, and near-futuristic outer space in three interconnected stories that remind readers of society's greatest beauty. —S.R.

Black History Month
Credit: G.P. Putnam's Sons

4. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.

In his debut novel, Jones — creator of the social justice community Son of Baldwin — uses lyrical prose and a hint of narrative mysticism to deliver a love story about two young men enslaved in the antebellum South. The plot is biblical in proportion, and the plight of Samuel and Isaiah severe, but their bond instills an unforgettable sweetness. —S.R.

Crying in H Mart
Credit: Knopf

3. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Equal parts blisteringly honest and generously vulnerable, Zauner's chronicle of the ways in which Korean food — and her family heritage — pulled her back from the brink of despair after her mother's untimely cancer death became the year's must-read memoir for very good reason. A sad story has never been so impossible to put down. —S.R.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
Credit: Knopf

2. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

To all the Robinson Crusoes and Counts of Monte Cristo add Marian Graves, a towheaded tomboy who lives as many lives as any great swashbuckler: teenage rumrunner in Prohibition-era Montana, pilot behind enemy lines in WWII Europe — even muse to modern-day Hollywood. Her Circle isn't just a passport, it's a gorgeous time machine. —L.G.

March Books to Read
Credit: Avid Reader Press / Simon + Schuster

1. Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

Infinite Country feels, frankly, like everything 2020's favorite literary lightning rod-slash-punching bag American Dirt was supposed to be: a raw, richly detailed immigration tale rooted in the beautiful specificities of real life. Their heads full of American dreams, a young couple from Bogotá heads for the border but finds mostly hard truths and fractured family on the other side — a scattered diaspora of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters "bound to the phantom pain of a lost homeland." Born in America to Colombian parents, Engel (The Veins of the Ocean) infuses her slim, propulsive narrative with both the deeper legacies of personal history and the sharp kick of a novelist's keenly penetrating eye; her gaze misses nothing. —L.G.

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's January issue, on newsstands Dec. 17 and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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