I have consistently, in times of great distress or even merely to get through annoying circumstances, depended upon escaping into a novel to get through it. 2021 will be another heavy year; there will be battles to fight and hope to cultivate and energy in grave need of restoration. I intend to get through it all, at least in part, as I always have: by sinking into stories with the strength, humor, and heart to carry me from one trying day to the next.
Not everyone reads this way, but it’s how I’ve always approached reading — and it’s reflected in my lists, which tend to focus on books driven by character and which have a strong sense of narrative.
The forecast for 2021 fiction that fits this bill is very, very good. Overwhelmingly good, need-more-hours-in-a-day good. So behold: a necessarily abbreviated preview of what’s to come the first half of 2021.
PICKARD COUNTY ATLAS, Chris Harding Thornton. Jan 5. In Nebraska in 1978, a small town is torn apart when a family patriarch decides to end the search for his son’s body, who was murdered decades ago. Tana French calls it “an atmospheric, slow-burning beauty of a book, rich with raw-edged lyricism and achingly real characters.” Bookshop.
BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME, Julia Claiborne Johnson. Jan 5. In 1938, women looking for quick divorces establish six-week residencies in Reno, Nevada. An employee on a divorce dude ranch thinks he has these women all figured out, but two new guests are about to upset everything he thinks he knows. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly calls it a “rollicking comedy.” Bookshop.
BLACK BUCK, Mateo Askaripour. Jan 5. When an unambitious twenty-something meets the charming CEO of a tech startup, he transforms into a ruthless salesman, unrecognizable to his friends and family. But when tragedy strikes at home and things get desperate, he hatches a plan to help young people of color infiltrate the world of sales. Colson Whitehead calls it “mesmerizing.” Bookshop.
OUTLAWED, Anna North. Jan 5. On the run from her town where barren women are hanged as witches, a 17-year-old joins a band of outlaws who aim to create a safe haven for outcast women. “This feminist western parable is impossible to put down,” writes Publisher’s Weekly in a starred review. Bookshop.
THE CHARMED WIFE, Olga Grushin. Jan 12. Ten years and two children after Cinderella marries her Prince Charming, she once again meets up with the Witch, but this time her wish is much darker — she wants Prince Charming dead. In a starred review, Booklist calls it a “richly imagined, genre-bending retelling.” Bookshop.
WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG, Julie Carrick Dalton. An evocative, beautifully-written debut about a child who helps cover up a murder, and the ripple effects it creates in her small New Hampshire community. “A taut novel that builds suspense to the very end,” writes Publisher’s Weekly. Bookshop.
IN THE GARDEN OF SPITE, Camilla Bruce. Jan 19. The story of the real-life 19th-century serial killer Belle Gunness. A “mesmerizing look” at the life and times of a female serial killer, says Publisher’s Weekly in a starred review. Bookshop.
MY YEAR ABROAD, Chang-Rae Lee. Feb 2. An American college student goes on a year-long trip across Asia with a larger-than-life Chinese American entrepreneur. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Surrendered. “This literary whirlwind has Lee running on all cylinders,” writes Publisher’s Weekly in a starred review. Bookshop.
ANNIE AND THE WOLVES, Andromeda Romano-Lax. Feb 2. A historian obsessed with Annie Oakley finds the famous sharpshooter’s journal, and begins to have out-of-body episodes that mirror Oakley’s life. Publisher’s Weekly calls it “a winning anthem of female power.” Bookshop.
THE PROJECT, Courtney Summers. Feb 2. After most of their family dies in a tragic accident, two sisters find themselves in the thrall of a dangerous cult. “An almost unbearable level of suspense… A powerful, suspenseful, and heartbreaking thriller about identity, sisterhood, and belonging,” writes Kirkus in a starred review. From the Edgar-award winning author of Sadie. Read an excerpt here. Bookshop.
A TIP FOR THE HANGMAN, Allison Epstein. Feb 9. Famed playwright Christopher Marlowe lives a dangerous double life as a spy for Queen Elizabeth I. Bookshop.
THE ABSOLUTE BOOK, Elizabeth Knox. Feb 9. The fantastical story of a librarian who arranges the revenge killing of her sister’s murderer. “When I was finished with The Absolute Book I wanted everyone I knew to read it so I could discuss it with them… truly remarkable,” writes Slate. Bookshop.
THE WITCH’S HEART, Genevieve Gornichec. Feb 9. A banished witch falls in love with the trickster god Loki, but as she heals and regains her prophetic powers, she learns her new life is in danger. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly calls it “spellbinding” and “powerful.” Bookshop.
WE RUN THE TIDES, Vendela Vida. Feb 9. After two teenaged best friends disagree about a terrible event they both witnessed, one of them disappears in what appears to be a kidnapping that shakes their quiet, wealthy community in San Francisco. Bookshop.
ZORRIE, Laird Hunt. Feb 9. The life story of a hardscrabble Indiana woman during the Great Depression and decades after. “A touching, tightly woven story from an always impressive author,” writes Kirkus in a starred review. Bookshop.
THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE, Julia Fine. Feb 23. Shortly after giving birth, a graduate student discovers that the ghost of Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon, lives in her attic and has unfinished business with her former lover. “This white-knuckle depiction of the essential scariness of new motherhood will captivate readers,” writes Publisher’s Weekly. Bookshop.
VERA, Carol Edgarian. March 2. A 15-year-old navigates a broken San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. As a wayward San Franciscan, this might be the book I am most excited for. “Brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized,” writes Booklist in a starred review. Bookshop.
RHAPSODY, Mitchell James Kaplan. The story of the love affair between composer George Gershwin and a married young pianist named Katherine “Kay” Swift. Bookshop.
DOWN COMES THE NIGHT, Allison Saft. March 2. In this gothic YA novel, a healer in the Queen’s Guard is called to a reclusive lord’s manor to care for his servant — who ends up being the sworn enemy of the kingdom. Read an excerpt here. Bookshop.
WHAT’S MINE AND YOURS, Naima Coster. March 2. Two families on opposite sides of a school integration debate form close, but messy, ties over the course of two decades. From the author of Halsey Street, a Kirkus Prize finalist. Bookshop.
THE SEED KEEPER, Diane Wilson. March 9. A Dakota child is sent to live with a foster family after her science teacher father disappears; decades later, she returns to her family farm to grieve the death of her husband. Bookshop.
THE LAMPLIGHTERS, Emma Stonex. March 16. Two decades after a group of men disappeared from a lighthouse near which there was no storm, a writer visits to get the story of what really happened from the wives who were left behind. Bookshop.
WE BEGIN AT THE END, Chris Whitaker. March 9. A chief of police of a small coastal California town strives to protect a thirteen-year-old “self-proclaimed outlaw” and her five-year-old brother as their mother drifts towards irredeemable self-destruction. Jane Harper calls it “an intricately woven portrait of small-town intrigue.” Bookshop.
THE WHISPERING HOUSE, Elizabeth Brooks. March 16. A woman finds herself repeatedly drawn to a house that mysteriously features a large portrait of her dead sister. Bookshop.
THE HOUSE UPTOWN, Melissa Ginsburg. March 16. After the death of her mother, a child goes to stay with her eccentric grandmother in New Orleans. Bookshop. Bookshop.
CAUL BABY, Morgan Jerkins. April 6. When a young woman gives up her newborn to the enigmatic and powerful Melancons, a Harlem family who possess healing powers, it sets in motion a series of events that will forever change the lives of the Melancons, the young mother, and her mysterious child. From the acclaimed author of Wandering in Strange Lands and This Will Be My Undoing. Amazon.
PEACES, Helen Oyeyemi. April 6. A newlywed couple take a trip on a train on which things get progressively more strange and unexplainable. Publisher’s Weekly calls it “delightfully bonkers.” From the beloved author of Boy, Snow, Bird. Bookshop.
GOLD DIGGERS, Sanjena Sathian. April 6. A floundering teenager befriends a neighbor who, along with her mother, brews an alchemical potion made from gold that gives its user the ambition and power of the person who wore it. Ten years later, the girl’s mother falls ill, and the duo reunite for one last heist. “A dizzyingly original, fiercely funny, deeply wise novel about the seductive powers — and dangers — of borrowed ambition,” says Celeste Ng. Bookshop.
THE WIDOW QUEEN, Elżbieta Cherezińska, Maya Zakrzewska-Pim (Translator). April 6. An epic novel about Świętosława of Poland, the first queen of Bohemia, who ruled from 1062–1092. Olga Tokarczuk says “Elżbieta Cherezińska writes with great depth and imagination, bringing to life seductive and detailed worlds.” Bookshop.
WHAT COMES AFTER, Joanne Tompkins. April 13. A father grieving the recent loss of his son, and a single mother struggling to cope with her own son’s heinous act of violence, come together when a mysterious pregnant 16-year-old shows up in town. Bookshop.
WHEN THE STARS GO DARK, Paula McLain. April 13. When tragedy strikes, a missing persons detective retreats to her childhood home of Mendocino, where she was raised by beloved foster parents. Yet the day she arrives, she learns of a disappearance that is startlingly reminiscent of a local murder that occurred years ago. From the author of The Paris Wife. Bookshop.
HOUR OF THE WITCH, Chris Bohjalian. April 20. In 17th-century Boston, a woman looking for a way to escape her abusive marriage experiences a strange series of events that convince her Puritan community that she’s a witch. From the author of The Red Lotus (which I loved) and Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. Bookshop.
THE FINAL REVIVAL OF OPAL & NEV, Dawnie Walton. April 20. As a journalist compiles an oral history about a legendary rock ’n’ roll duo from the 70s, a startling allegation threatens to destroy everything. Bookshop.
THE MYSTERIES, Marisa Silver. May 4. A friendship between two children escalates to tragedy, leaving one of the children to pick up the pieces alone. Peter Orner calls it a “stunning, uncanny novel.” Bookshop.
THE PARTED EARTH, Anjali Enjeti. May 4. After the loss of a pregnancy and the destruction of her marriage, a young woman in Atlanta begins to search for her estranged grandmother, who fled India during Partition and kept secrets about what she endured. “A fantastic debut,” says Laila Lalami. Bookshop.
WHEREABOUTS, Jhumpa Lahiri. May 4. Lahiri’s first novel in a decade, a portrait of a solitary woman in an Italian city over the course of a year. Bookshop.
GREAT CIRCLE, Maggie Shipstead. May 18. An actor struggling to break free of Hollywood strictures takes on the role of an early 20th century aviator who disappeared in Antarctica, as her fate and that of her character collide. From the author of Astonish Me. Bookshop.
THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING, Nancy Tucker. May 18. When she was eight years old, Chrissie killed another child. Now an adult with her own daughter, her carefully constructed life threatens to fall apart when the past looks like it’s catching up to her. Bookshop.
BEWILDERNESS, Karen Tucker. June 1. Two teenaged best friends become addicted to opioids, and when one gets a boyfriend and moves with him to Florida, the other is left alone in rural North Carolina. “Karen Tucker has the chaotic truth-telling energy of a sage and a lack of sentimentality that would give Hunter S. Thompson stomach cramps,” says Rufi Thorpe (author of my favorite novel of 2020, The Knockout Queen.) Bookshop.
THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL, Nghi Vo. June 1. A magical retelling of The Great Gatsby, starring a wealthy Vietnamese adoptee. Bookshop.
FUTURE FEELING, Joss Lake. June 1. An aimless dog walker obsessed with a social media influencer must go on an epic quest to save a young man he accidentally put a curse on. Barnes & Noble.
EVERYONE KNOWS YOUR MOTHER IS A WITCH, Rivka Galchen. June 8. In early 17th-century Germany, an illiterate widow with a brilliant scientist son is accused of being a witch by an insipid woman named Ursula. From the beloved author of Atmospheric Disturbances. Bookshop.
GOD SPARE THE GIRLS, Kelsey McKinney. June 22. In rural north Texas, two sisters discover a monumental secret about their evangelical preacher father that upends their community. Books Are Magic.