Books We Couldn't Put Down In 2021

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In a day and age where we have zillions of movies, TV shows, and random videos available 24/7 for our streaming pleasure, not to mention video games, live sports, concerts, and countless other forms of entertainment on tap, it is a true Christmas miracle that any of us are still reading at all. Somehow, however, we all manage to find a little time to enjoy a good book now and then. According to data complied by Statista, the average time adults have spent reading over the past 7 years amounts to about ½ hour per day, whether it be on weekdays, weekends, or holidays.

Did you manage to get lost in any good books this past year? Whether you're a mystery buff like Queen Elizabeth or a fantasy fan like Prince Charles — even if you prefer a real-life non-fiction narrative — you're sure to find something to enjoy in this selection of some of 2021's most un-putdownable reads. And yes, each of these picks is available in both ebook and print formats — and audio, too, for all you multi-taskers!

Harlem Shuffle

Author Colin Whitehead won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for a masterpiece of magical realism called "The Underground Railroad" (miniseries coming soon to Amazon Prime). This past year, he took us to yet another stop on the timeline, Harlem in the 1960s. "Harlem Shuffle" tells the tale of a furniture salesman who is "only slightly bent when it came to being crooked" but nevertheless finds himself getting mixed up in a jewel heist gone wrong. Equal parts family saga, crime caper, and social commentary, this novel pulls off being both serious and funny and also gives us a fascinating glimpse of Harlem in its pre-gentrification days. Whitehead's latest work already has accolades out the wazoo from the New York Times Book Review, Time, The Washington Post, and NPR. Amazon customers concur, as the book has a 4 ½ star rating and currently occupies the #2 spot on the Black & African American Literary Fiction list.

The Man Who Died Twice

Mysteries are a popular genre for readers of all ages, but older readers in search of new books are sometimes frustrated to find that many new series seem to feature protagonists in their 20s and 30s. One expects blatant ageism, in TV and movies, but must the publishing industry follow suit? Luckily, mystery author Richard Osman breaks the mold. His 2020 debut "The Thursday Murder Club," a book The New York Times calls "delightful," introduced us to 4 senior sleuths. "The Man Who Died Twice" reunites the quartet for another helping of murder and mayhem involving disappearing diamonds, secretive spy missions, and a 40-year-old mystery. Not only did Osman's second book instantly vault to the top of bestseller lists (it still occupies the #13 slots in Amazon's amateur sleuth and cozy mystery categories), but the rights to the series have already been bought by Steven Spielberg, according to iNews.

Project Hail Mary

Andy Weir, the author who brought us "The Martian" (the basis for that movie where Matt Damon becomes a potato farmer on Mars), is back with yet another science fiction tour de force. "Project Hail Mary" tells the tale of an astronaut suffering from amnesia who finds that not only are the rest of his crewmates dead, but he has to figure out how to save all of humanity from being wiped the face of the planet when he's millions of miles away out in space somewhere. Kirkus Reviews calls this book "a page-turning interstellar thrill ride ... nothing short of a science fiction masterwork." If that's not enough of a recommendation for you, Barack Obama also included it on his list of beach reads for last summer. Plus, if you read it now, you'll have bragging rights when the inevitable movie comes out!

Code Talker

While it's fun to read about fictional heroes, let's not forget that real life has its share of them, too. While the famous Navajo Code Talkers of WWII have received plenty of ink over the years, never before has one of these men told their own stories. "Code Talker," as its subtitle reveals, is "The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII." The author, a man named Chester Nez, actually passed away in 2014, but at least he was able to share his story before he left us. The Washington Times calls Nez' memoir "A remarkably affecting first-person account of the Navajo Marines who served their country with distinction through some of the worst battles of the Pacific theater." It's a must-read for WWII buffs, those interested in Native American history, and anyone who wants to find out just what made the Greatest Generation so great.

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev

Although Dawnie Walton is a first-time author who appears to be nowhere near old enough to remember life back in the days of disco, NPR's Maureen Corrigan says of her debut novel, "I had to stop and double check to make sure that this wasn't a true account of a real-life rock duo from the 1970s." "The Final Revival of Opal and Nev," as the book is called, is centered around a former Afro-Punk icon named Opal. She dropped out of sight after a race riot erupted at one of the her concerts, but resurfaces some 40 years later for a tell-all interview as she contemplates reuniting with bandmate Nev (white, male, and British) for one last tour.

Readers and reviewers can't stop gushing about this book. Ta-Nehisi Coates, himself a much-acclaimed author who's scripting the first movie to feature a Black Superman, calls it "a thrilling work," while others use adjectives such as "lovely," "brilliant," "magical," and "revolutionary."

Shoulder Season

Another blast from the past comes from author Christina Clancy whose "Shoulder Season" gives us a peek into life as a Playboy Bunny in the early '80s, a time when the Playboy empire was itself in its twilight days. The main character is a recently-orphaned 19-year-old girl who takes a job at the Playboy Resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. (The club, which actually existed, ditched its Playboy ties by 1982 and is today the Bunny-less Grand Geneva Resort & Spa.) This coming-of-age tale of a fresh-faced Midwestern church organist gone astray made for prime beach reading over the summer. It was chosen as a "best book" by quite a few sources, including Parade, CNN, and Good Morning America.

Flash Fire

Although T.J. Klune's superhero series is marketed as young adult fiction, this fantasy/LGBTQ+ romance doesn't just appeal to teen readers. The first book, "The Extraordinaries," won fans of all ages for its neurodivergent hero and his best friend-turned-awkward crush who is living a secret life. Kirkus Reviews calls the sequel, "Flash Fire," "Another extraordinary installment ... jam-packed with action, nefarious plots, romance, and puns." Amazon reviewers seem to think "Flash Fire" is as hot as its name. It's pretty close to that elusive 5-star rating (4.7 at last count), and comments include "The best book of 2021 and the most perfect sequel!" and "I never want it to end!" Good news for those of us who can't get enough Nick & Seth (or Jazz & Gibby): a third book in the series, "Heatwave," is set to come out in July!

The Box in the Woods

Yet another YA pick is "The Box in the Woods," Maureen Johnson's follow-up to her amazing "Truly Devious" trilogy. This time around, true crime podcaster Stevie, having solved a decades-old mystery at the one-of-a-kind boarding school she attends, has been invited to spend the summer working as a camp counselor. Sounds like a pretty tame follow-up? Not hardly! Turns out the counselor gig is actually a cover that will allow Stevie to tackle a cold case from the '70s involving murdered camp counselors. (No hockey masks or machetes figure in the narrative.) Cosmopolitan chose this book as one of 2021's YA must-reads before it was even published, while People listed it as one of the summer's best books regardless of age. Mountain Times, noting a certain Scooby Doo vibe, says "The Box in the Woods" is "just as much fun, if admittedly darker and more complex, than anything Shaggy and team would have tackled."