Staff Picks: The 10 Best Books We’ve Read This Year (So Far)

September 22 2021
Share Staff Picks: The 10 Best Books We’ve Read This Year (So Far)

It’s already more than halfway through the year! We’ve done a lot of reading and rereading and, let’s be honest: a lot of rearranging our TBR stacks as well. And now, after months of most anticipated lists, librarian recommendations, editor’s picks, and more, we’re checking in with our most favorites reads so far. Here are the books that gripped us and then left us reeling from a book hangover. If any of these recommendations resonate with you, click on each writer’s name to read more of their articles and book recommendations! 

Anxious People
by Fredrik Backman

Holly’s Pick: Fredrik Backman has stood as a favorite of mine for a few years now, but after reading ANXIOUS PEOPLE during the frightening pandemic, I developed a whole new appreciation for his writing. ANXIOUS PEOPLE is about a bank robbery gone wrong, which snowballs into a frantic open-house hostage situation. This, of course, is only the beginning of the story. Through Backman’s brilliant language, we dive deep into the characters’ emotions and motives. Behind the commotion of the situation, readers learn the very important lesson that everyone is human. Each of us holds our own unique and complicated set of baggage. And, when trapped with a group of quirky strangers, we can see our anxieties are no different from our neighbors’—if we only take a minute to understand them.

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Anxious People
Fredrik Backman

An instant #1 New York Times bestseller, the new novel from the author of A Man Called Ove is a “quirky, big-hearted novel….Wry, wise and often laugh-out-loud funny, it’s a wholly original story that delivers pure pleasure” (People).

Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix their own marriage. There’s a wealthy bank director who has been too busy to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-ready-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.

Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue. As the authorities and the media surround the premises, these reluctant allies will reveal surprising truths about themselves and set in motion a chain of events so unexpected that even they can hardly explain what happens next.

Proving once again that Backman is “a master of writing delightful, insightful, soulful, character-driven narratives” (USA TODAY), Anxious People “captures the messy essence of being human….It’s clever and affecting, as likely to make you laugh out loud as it is to make you cry” (The Washington Post). This “endlessly entertaining mood-booster” (Real Simple) is proof that the enduring power of friendship, forgiveness, and hope can save us—even in the most anxious of times.

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MENTIONED IN:

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The Last Thing He Told Me
by Laura Dave

Heather’s Pick: What would you do if, out of the blue, you learned that your new husband’s company was under federal investigation and he was nowhere to be found? It’s not a hypothetical question for Hannah Hall, whose idyllic life turns nightmarish in the space of a day in THE LAST THING HE TOLD ME. Guided only by a cryptic note from her husband that simply reads “Protect her,” Hannah assumes responsibility for her moody teenage stepdaughter, Bailey, and together the two of them try to figure out what on earth is going on. Because while they may not agree on much, they’re on the same page about one thing: Owen Michaels’s disappearance must be solved. Laura Dave’s discussion-worthy thriller was not only a perfect beach read, but it also made me wonder how I would react if I were in Hannah’s shoes. In fact, I’m still thinking about it...

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The Last Thing He Told Me
Laura Dave

From internationally bestselling author Laura Dave comes a riveting new suspense novel about a woman’s search for the truth about her husband’s disappearance—no matter the cost.

We all have stories we never tell.

Before Owen Michaels disappears, he manages to smuggle a note to his beloved wife of one year: Protect her. Despite her confusion and fear, Hannah Hall knows exactly to whom the note refers: Owen’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. Bailey, who lost her mother tragically as a child. Bailey, who wants absolutely nothing to do with her new stepmother.

As Hannah’s increasingly desperate calls to Owen go unanswered; as the FBI arrests Owen’s boss; as a US Marshal and FBI agents arrive at her Sausalito home unannounced, Hannah quickly realizes her husband isn’t who he said he was. And that Bailey just may hold the key to figuring out Owen’s true identity—and why he really disappeared.

Hannah and Bailey set out to discover the truth, together. But as they start putting together the pieces of Owen’s past, they soon realize they are also building a new future. One neither Hannah nor Bailey could have anticipated.

With its breakneck pacing, dazzling plot twists, and unforgettable characters, The Last Thing He Told Me is bestselling author Laura Dave’s finest novel yet, certain to shock you with its final, heartbreaking turn. This propulsive thriller with a heart is for fans of Liane Moriarty and Jojo Moyes.

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MENTIONED IN:

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The Charm Offensive
by Alison Cochrun

Emily’s Pick: I’m calling it now: everyone is going to be talking about this book. I read it one day and now everyone I tell to read it next ends up raving about it too. Dev Deshpande, producer of a Bachelor-esque reality TV show, has recently gone through his own heartbreak but dives completely into his work as a distraction. And this next season proves to be a handful since the new bachelor is tech icon Charlie Winshaw, who has never been in love (or even really thought about it), and finds it almost painful to be there—but it’s just too good of a PR move to pass up. When the two end up spending more time together, sparks fly and what ensues is the most dramatic season ever! As a Bachelor fan myself, I was laughing along at all the inside jokes while also nodding at its valid critiques of the show. This romantic comedy is an adorable, heartwarming story and also covers topics of anxiety and depression with care and compassion.

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The Charm Offensive
Alison Cochrun

In this witty and heartwarming romantic comedy—reminiscent of Red, White & Royal Blue and One to Watch—an awkward tech wunderkind on a reality dating show goes off-script when sparks fly with his producer.

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.

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Why Peacocks?
by Sean Flynn

Elizabeth’s Pick: I knew I would like Sean Flynn’s delightfully quirky narrative detailing his first year as a peacock owner due to my own brush with peafowl domesticity at twelve years old. My family had recently moved into an apartment within a country manor, which became more mysterious as the months went by: we only ever saw the owners, traveling antique dealers, when they dropped off furniture in the multicar garage for storage, but we were more interested in what they kept locked behind the gates in the garden. Wandering among the Queen of Hearts–level topiaries was a menagerie of miniature animals, and of course, a majestic peacock whose cries made no natural sense at all among the surrounding landscape. I expect Sean Flynn would have enjoyed these oddball collectors of heirlooms and animals, as he also discovered throughout his haphazard peafowl tending the true joy (amid utter chaos) possible in taking a moment to observe beauty around us. His journey is made more poignant by the fact that Flynn’s day job is reporting on some of the worst parts of humanity–violence, devastation, and tragedy. What begins as a funny memoir becomes an unexpected treasure trove of lessons about nature, family, fatherhood and (of course) peacocks that will leave you with an answer to the title’s question: Why not?

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Why Peacocks?
Sean Flynn

An acclaimed journalist seeks to understand the mysterious allure of peacocks—and in the process discovers unexpected and valuable life lessons.

When Sean Flynn’s neighbor in North Carolina texted “Any chance you guys want a peacock? No kidding!” he stared bewilderedly at his phone. He had never considered whether he wanted a peacock. But as an award-winning magazine writer, this kind of mystery intrigued him. So he, his wife, and their two young sons became the owners of not one but three charming yet fickle birds: Carl, Ethel, and Mr. Pickle.

In Why Peacocks?, Flynn chronicles his hilarious and heartwarming first year as a peacock owner, from struggling to build a pen to assisting the local bird doctor in surgery to triumphantly watching a peahen lay her first egg. He also examines the history of peacocks, from their appearance in the Garden of Eden to their befuddling Charles Darwin to their bewitching the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Martha Stewart. And fueled by a reporter’s curiosity, he travels across the globe to learn more about the birds firsthand, with stops including a Scottish castle where peacocks have resided for centuries, a southern California community tormented by a serial killer of peacocks, and a Kansas City airport hotel hosting an annual gathering of true peafowl aficionados.

At turns comically absurd and deeply poignant, Why Peacocks? blends lively, insightful memoir and illuminating science journalism to answer the title’s question. More than that, it offers surprising lessons about love, grief, fatherhood, and family.

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MENTIONED IN:

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Educated
by Tara Westover

Sharon’s Pick: EDUCATED was the first book I finished this year, and it is still the best book I’ve read all year. EDUCATED is one of those rare books that sucked me in from the beginning and commanded my attention throughout. Tara Westover’s prose is absolutely stunning as she vividly depicts her childhood growing up in rural Idaho with survivalist parents and her journey toward receiving a formal education. The sheer honesty with which Westover describes abuse, trauma, and mental health is astounding, and the vulnerability with which she discusses her struggle with seeking help is why EDUCATED is now one of my all-time favorite books.

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Educated
Tara Westover

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MENTIONED IN:

New in Paperback: 9 October Reads More Exhilarating Than a Haunted House

By Alice Martin | October 18, 2021

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By Sara Roncero-Menendez | October 12, 2021

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Close
Aftershocks
by Nadia Owusu

Allie’s Pick: Nadia Owusu's memoir AFTERSHOCKS is one of the most brilliantly written memoirs I've ever read. In this incredible memoir, Nadia tells her story growing up with her father, a UN official whose job takes him (and his family) around the globe. Her mother is largely absent from her life and her father dies when Nadia is thirteen, leaving her to be raised by her stepmother, who soon shares revelations with Nadia about her family that leave her feeling shaken and rootless. What follows is Nadia’s journey to finding her own identity while finding ground firm enough to stand on. It’s a beautifully told story and one that I would recommend for anyone who loved THE GLASS CASTLE.

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Aftershocks
Nadia Owusu

In the tradition of The Glass Castle, this “gorgeous” (The New York Times, Editors’ Choice) and deeply felt memoir from Whiting Award winner Nadia Owusu tells the “incredible story” (Malala Yousafzai) about the push and pull of belonging, the seismic emotional toll of family secrets, and the heart it takes to pull through.

“In Aftershocks, Nadia Owusu tells the incredible story of her young life. How does a girl—abandoned by her mother at age two and orphaned at thirteen when her beloved father dies—find her place in the world? This memoir is the story of Nadia creating her own solid ground across countries and continents. I know the struggle of rebuilding your life in an unfamiliar place. While some of you might be familiar with that and some might not, I hope you’ll take as much inspiration and hope from her story as I did.” MALALA YOUSAFZAI

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2021 SELECTED BY VULTURE AND TIME MAGAZINE!

Young Nadia Owusu followed her father, a United Nations official, from Europe to Africa and back again. Just as she and her family settled into a new home, her father would tell them it was time to say their goodbyes. The instability wrought by Nadia’s nomadic childhood was deepened by family secrets and fractures, both lived and inherited. Her Armenian American mother, who abandoned Nadia when she was two, would periodically reappear, only to vanish again. Her father, a Ghanaian, the great hero of her life, died when she was thirteen. After his passing, Nadia’s stepmother weighed her down with a revelation that was either a bombshell secret or a lie, rife with shaming innuendo.

With these and other ruptures, Nadia arrived in New York as a young woman feeling stateless, motherless, and uncertain about her future, yet eager to find her own identity. What followed, however, were periods of depression in which she struggled to hold herself and her siblings together.

“A magnificent, complex assessment of selfhood and why it matters” (Elle), Aftershocks depicts the way she hauled herself from the wreckage of her life’s perpetual quaking, the means by which she has finally come to understand that the only ground firm enough to count on is the one written into existence by her own hand.

“Full of narrative risk and untrammeled lyricism” (The Washington Post), Aftershocks joins the likes of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, and does for race identity what Maggie Nelson does for gender identity in The Argonauts.

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MENTIONED IN:

New in Paperback: 9 October Reads More Exhilarating Than a Haunted House

By Alice Martin | October 18, 2021

Authors as Magicians: 8 Books That’ll Cast a Spell on You

By Sara Roncero-Menendez | October 15, 2021

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By Off the Shelf Staff | October 14, 2021

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By Alice Martin | October 13, 2021

10 Evocative Thrillers with the Power to Break Your Heart

By Sara Roncero-Menendez | October 12, 2021

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By Chris Gaudio | October 11, 2021

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Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead
by Emily Austin

Holly’s Pick: Gilda has a fascination with death. When will she die? How will she die? Could this slight pain in her chest be the last of her? To say the least, Gilda is a bit panic-stricken. And to make matters worse, she has recently lost her job and has been alienated from her family. This young, anxious, atheist lesbian somehow accidentally stumbles into a job at a Catholic church, replacing the recently deceased receptionist, Grace. Naturally, Gilda becomes obsessed with the demise of her predecessor. This touching story packed with dry humor was one of my favorite books of the year. Gilda learns what it takes to stay afloat in a world where the only thing that’s certain is death. As an overly-anxious, ailment-ridden hypochondriac myself, I found great comfort in Gilda’s exploration.

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Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead
Emily Austin

This hilarious and profound debut for fans of Mostly Dead Things and Goodbye, Vitamin, follows a morbidly anxious young woman—“the kindhearted heroine we all need right now” (Courtney Maum, New York Times bestselling author)—who stumbles into a job as a receptionist at a Catholic church and becomes obsessed with her predecessor’s mysterious death.

Gilda, a twenty-something, atheist, animal-loving lesbian, cannot stop ruminating about death. Desperate for relief from her panicky mind and alienated from her repressive family, she responds to a flyer for free therapy at a local Catholic church, and finds herself being greeted by Father Jeff, who assumes she’s there for a job interview. Too embarrassed to correct him, Gilda is abruptly hired to replace the recently deceased receptionist Grace.

In between trying to memorize the lines to Catholic mass, hiding the fact that she has a new girlfriend, and erecting a dirty dish tower in her crumbling apartment, Gilda strikes up an email correspondence with Grace’s old friend. She can’t bear to ignore the kindly old woman, who has been trying to reach her friend through the church inbox, but she also can’t bring herself to break the bad news. Desperate, she begins impersonating Grace via email. But when the police discover suspicious circumstances surrounding Grace’s death, Gilda may have to finally reveal the truth of her mortifying existence.

A delightful blend of warmth, deadpan humor, and pitch-perfect observations about the human condition, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is a crackling exploration of what it takes to stay afloat in a world where your expiration—and the expiration of those you love—is the only certainty.

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MENTIONED IN:

New in Paperback: 9 October Reads More Exhilarating Than a Haunted House

By Alice Martin | October 18, 2021

Authors as Magicians: 8 Books That’ll Cast a Spell on You

By Sara Roncero-Menendez | October 15, 2021

Staff Picks: 10 Classic Novels We Truly Enjoyed Reading for School

By Off the Shelf Staff | October 14, 2021

10 Immersive Series to Hunker Down with This Fall

By Alice Martin | October 13, 2021

10 Evocative Thrillers with the Power to Break Your Heart

By Sara Roncero-Menendez | October 12, 2021

10 Historical Novels Perfect for Crisp Autumn Nights

By Chris Gaudio | October 11, 2021

Close
Death's End
by Cixin Liu

Emily’s Pick: This year, I devoured the Three Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu, and I now recommend that everybody read every book in the series. Each one ramps up the mind-blowing factor even more. Without giving away the first two books, I’ll just say that the third book especially did so much to expand my understanding of what outer space, dimensions, technology, and society could be—more so than any other book or movie before. And although the novel deals with universal topics, the story also held a very human element; there was such a range in thoughts and behaviors of different characters and communities as they faced grave danger—from nonchalance, to humor, to escapism, to despair, that the book constantly surprised me with what would come next, whether it was a world-ending event, or a character’s subtle reaction.

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Death's End
Cixin Liu

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MENTIONED IN:

Staff Picks: The 10 Best Books We’ve Read This Year (So Far)

By Off the Shelf Staff | September 22, 2021

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Pizza Girl
by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Sharon’s Pick: Ever since I heard about PIZZA GIRL last summer, it has been high up on my TBR. This year, I made it my mission to finally read it, and it completely surpassed my already-high expectations. Jean Kyoung Frazier’s debut novel follows a pregnant eighteen-year-old Korean American woman, as she attempts to find a purpose for living while working a dead-end pizza-delivery job. Simultaneously smothered by her doting boyfriend and mother and reeling from the loss of her alcoholic father, our protagonist soon becomes obsessed with one of her customers, a struggling mother whose challenges mirror those of the protagonist’s. PIZZA GIRL is a delectably weird, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking book, and unlike anything I had ever read before.

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Pizza Girl
Jean Kyoung Frazier

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MENTIONED IN:

Staff Picks: The 10 Best Books We’ve Read This Year (So Far)

By Off the Shelf Staff | September 22, 2021

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People We Meet on Vacation
by Emily Henry

Heather’s Pick: Romance is my favorite genre, and Emily Henry’s PEOPLE WE MEET ON VACATION reminded me why: likable characters, charming banter, and an exquisite buildup of tension between two friends who can’t quite admit they’re head over heels in love. This latest novel from the author of BEACH READ follows New York–based travel writer Poppy and Ohio school teacher Alex, who first bonded on a road trip to college and then started taking an annual trip together. Poppy and Alex held to this summer tradition for a full decade until something happened in Croatia that all but ended their friendship. Two years later, the pair are barely on speaking terms when Poppy, desperate to make things right between them, spontaneously invites Alex to join her on a work trip to Palm Springs. Can they recapture the magic of past trips, or has their relationship changed forever?

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People We Meet on Vacation
Emily Henry

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MENTIONED IN:

New in Paperback: 9 October Reads More Exhilarating Than a Haunted House

By Alice Martin | October 18, 2021

Authors as Magicians: 8 Books That’ll Cast a Spell on You

By Sara Roncero-Menendez | October 15, 2021

Staff Picks: 10 Classic Novels We Truly Enjoyed Reading for School

By Off the Shelf Staff | October 14, 2021

10 Immersive Series to Hunker Down with This Fall

By Alice Martin | October 13, 2021

10 Evocative Thrillers with the Power to Break Your Heart

By Sara Roncero-Menendez | October 12, 2021

10 Historical Novels Perfect for Crisp Autumn Nights

By Chris Gaudio | October 11, 2021

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