All my life, I’ve been a voracious reader. Books about the past, books about the world—I can never get enough. 2021 is the first year I read 100 books within a calendar year, and it was easily the best choice I made. These 25 are the best books I read in 2021.
If you’re looking for books to read in 2022 (especially if you love historical fiction), start with this list.
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Best Books of 2021: Historical Fiction
Historical fiction is my favorite genre, by far. Most of the titles on this list feature strong female characters, and many are placed in World War II.
1. Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly
Lilac Girls is one of the best historical fiction novels I’ve ever read, and one of the most emotional about World War II. The plot follows three women: Kasia, Caroline, and Herta.
Kasia is a Polish teenage girl living in Lublin when the Nazis invade her home.
Along with many other Polish youth, Kasia gets involved in the resistance. Neighbors are disappearing, never to be heard from again when they step out of line with Hitler’s regime. This fate ultimately befalls Kasia and her loved ones, as well, and she is imprisoned in Ravensbrück.
After surviving unimaginable atrocities there, Kasia’s path collides with both Herta’s and Caroline’s in unique ways, reminding readers forever of the Ravensbrück Rabbits of WWII history.
2. The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
The Nightingale is tied with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See for my favorite novel of all time. Hannah’s work follows two sisters, Vianne and Isabel, whose lives are forever changed when their beloved France is occupied by the German enemy in 1940.
Vianne and Isabel are polar opposites, but both use their positions and skills to work for the French Resistance in their own ways. Isabel endangers herself time and again to get downed Allied pilots to safety, while Vianne hides a child who no one can know is a Jew.
Enthralling and heartbreaking, The Nightingale is a story about unforgettable women persevering through desperate circumstances.
3. The Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys
The Fountains of Silence is the best novel I’ve read about Spain, especially of those I’ve read in English. For 40 years of the 20th century, Spain lived under the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
In a time of surveillance and repression, Ana, a hotel maid, and Daniel, the son of a Texas oil tycoon, fall in love in 1957 Madrid. Daniel is both a foreigner and a photographer. The images he captures portray Spain in a light that authorities would prefer to hide.
When Ana and Daniel are separated, they never forget the love they shared and eventually find one another again.
4. The Things We Cannot Say, by Kelly Rimmer
Alina and Tomasz are teenagers when the Nazis invade their homeland of Poland. Their passionate young love is tested, but never broken when Tomasz goes to the city for medical school and Alina stays with her family to harvest their land.
A few short months into their physical separation, German boots parade into their town, and nothing is the same. Tomasz joins the underground resistance movement, eventually making his way back to Alina. The two are blissfully together again, working against the enemy.
But one day, Tomasz sends Alina to safety and disappears. From Poland to America and across six decades, The Things We Cannot Say is a story of love and sacrifice you’ll never forget.
5. Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay
Sarah’s Key is a work of historical fiction about a lesser-known event in Holocaust history, the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup.
In July 1942, the Vichy French police rounded up thousands of Jews in a Parisian stadium, imprisoning them for days with inhumane living standards. They were later deported to concentration camps, either for labor or for death.
This novel is about a six-year-old girl who was a Vel’ d’Hiv victim and the tragedy of her younger brother, a story that intertwines with an American woman in another century. This work is poignant, difficult, and important.
6. Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys
As Hitler’s army marched into Poland and the Baltics, countries like Lithuania already faced aggression from the USSR.
Lina is fifteen when Soviet officers barge into her family’s home in the middle of the night, taking herself, her mother, and her younger brother prisoner. The three are separated from Lina’s father and herded onto a train with other families like theirs.
Their final destination is a Siberian work camp, where they are “reeducated” via hard manual labor. The story that unfolds is one of young love, heartbreaking separation, and an undefeatable will to survive.
7. Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah
Anya Whitson is a guarded woman who has yet to heal from her scarred past of surviving the Siege of Leningrad.
The plot of Winter Garden is told in alternating times, from Anya’s life as a young woman in Russia to her daughter’s point of view in 21st century Alaska. Both converge as Meredith and Nina, Anya’s daughters, learn more about their mom, and themselves, than they ever knew.
Heartbreak, love, passion, war—this novel has it all, and is told in beautiful prose.
8. The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
The Buddha in the Attic is a striking novel of Japanese women who were sent to internment camps during WWII in the United States. The narrator in this novel is a collective “we,” a voice of all women who experience this fate bringing their unique experiences to the wider narrative.
Many Japanese women left the only home they knew as young brides to marry Japanese men living in the USA years before the war. These women worked backbreaking jobs with their husbands to barely make ends meet, trying to build a home in a country that would ultimately imprison them for a government they did not choose.
Told in scintillating prose, The Buddha in the Attic is a necessary work for remembering a history that many would rather forget.
9. The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn
The Alice Network is my first glimpse into the repertoire of Kate Quinn, a first impression that moved all her other WWII novels to the top 10 of my TBR.
Charlie St. Clair travels to London with her mother, their strained relationship making Charlie suffocate from the high societal expectations placed upon her. She goes out on her own in the hopes of finding her beloved cousin, Rose, with whom Charlie lost contact during the chaos of the war.
Along the way, she meets Eve Gardiner, a British woman who fought the Germans in WWI as a spy in France. Told in alternating timelines between Eve’s First World War memories and their journey to find Rose in 1949, The Alice Network is a tale of strong women, their wartime secrets, and an epic journey to settle scores.
10. The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
First on this list that does not take place during World War II, The Sympathizer is a Pulitzer Prize winner about a double agent of the Vietnam War.
The narrator is a half-Vietnamese, half-French soldier in the south Vietnamese army as Saigon falls. The secret he’s hiding, though, is that he was reporting on the south Vietnamese army for their communist enemy the entire time.
As south Vietnamese army officials flee Saigon in the chaos of April 30, 1975, the narrator leaves with them. What unfolds is a tale of betrayal, secrets, and decades of hiding in plain sight thousands of miles from home. If you have any interest at all in Vietnam, this book is a must-read.
11. The Giver of Stars, by Jojo Moyes
The Giver of Stars is one of my favorite non-WWII novels out of every book I’ve read. Alice is a young English woman who leaves her home country to be the bride to the son of a wealthy Kentucky mine owner.
Her life in America is hardly that of the New York glamorous socialite she envisioned, and is instead about being the appendage of a man who doesn’t want her or her ambition.
Marjorie is a strong woman from the town where Alice now lives. Together, they deliver books on horseback to families living in the hills.
Both women defy cultural expectations, bring literature to those left out, and find love with men who wouldn’t want them to be anything but themselves.
12. Sunflower Sisters, by Martha Hall Kelly
I typically don’t read U.S. Civil War-era fiction. As a result, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about Kelly’s Sunflower Sisters.
Georgey is a woman from a wealthy Manhattan family who wants to support the Union army by becoming a nurse after witnessing a slave auction in Charleston. The social expectations of her in the 1860s stifle her gifts and ambition, but she makes the cut into nursing school when the war effort needs women like her.
In Maryland, Jemma is enslaved on the Peeler Plantation, where her dehumanization is spelled out in plain text on the pages of this novel. It is heavy, difficult subject matter, but we must read novels like these to reckon with all our history.
In its candor surrounding womanhood and slavery, Sunflower Sisters is a must read.
13. The Forest of Vanishing Stars, by Kristin Harmel
Harmel’s The Forest of Vanishing Stars is a story of survival centered around a strong female protagonist. Yona is stolen from her wealthy German parents as a baby and is raised in the woods. For her entire upbringing, she is taught about how to survive off the land.
When Hitler’s army marches into Poland and Belarus, she uses her survival skills to help Jews survive the Holocaust in hiding. Through their friendship, she learns more about herself than she ever knew.
I loved that this novel included romance plot lines, but they were much more realistic than tied up in a bow.
If you find this aspect of WWII interesting, a great movie to watch is Defiance.
14. White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht
Hana and Emi are sisters and daughters of a haenyeo diver. The haenyeo are female divers in South Korea that pass their profession from mother to daughter.
Under Japanese occupation, tragedy strikes one day as teenaged Hana is taken from the beach while her mother dives. She is immediately sent to Manchuria as a “comfort woman” for the Japanese.
Emi spends the rest of her life trying to find out what happened to her beloved sister.
Disclaimer: This is the most disturbing book I read in 2021, but was still one of the best. These women were real, and their stories are not widely known.
Another book about the haenyeo divers on my list is The Island of Sea Women.
15. Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See
Dreams of Joy is the sequel to Shanghai Girls, a novel about two sisters whose glamorous lives in Shanghai are uprooted at the arrival of Japanese occupiers. They set sail to America, where they start anew in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
This novel follows the story of Joy, daughter of one of the sisters from Shanghai Girls. Joy is raised in Chinatown, and desires to live in the communist society of Mao’s China based on how it is projected abroad as an egalitarian utopia.
Against her family’s wishes, she goes to China and experiences the devastating effects of famine under Mao’s economic policies. Determined to see their Joy alive again, the sisters come back for her, each in their own way.
Another excellent novel about China is The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.
Best Books of 2021: Fiction
Fiction books that are not historical fiction. Some are young adult fiction; others are romance novels. All come highly recommended.
16. Every Breath, by Nicholas Sparks
Hope and Tru are both at crossroads in their lives. Hope has been waiting for her longtime boyfriend to propose for what feels like forever.
Tru is a safari guide in Zimbabwe that makes the long journey to North Carolina after receiving a letter from his late father. When the two meet, their connection is undeniable.
The love they share survives separation, heartbreak, and binds them for life.
This is the best Nicholas Sparks novel I’ve read.
17. Every Last Word, by Tamara Ireland Stone
This novel is a prime example of young adult fiction that talks about difficult topics.
Samantha is one of the “It” girls at her high school. But beneath the veneer of superficiality, she’s hiding a mental health disorder. And she knows she can’t tell her friends—they’d ostracize her.
Samantha’s OCD viciously disrupts her everyday life. It’s unbearable, and her new friend, Caroline, is one of the only people in her life that understands. Caroline takes Sam to Poet’s Corner, a place for outcasts to perform slam poetry during lunch.
Intertwined is a first love with a boy from Poet’s Corner and discussions of struggles many people hide.
18. The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood
The Testaments is Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The dystopian Giliad is just as bone-chilling in this work as in its predecessor.
This novel picks up fifteen years after the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale. Told from the perspectives of three female characters, readers see the depravity and desperation of this society.
The ending was so gripping that I cried. Even if you’re familiar with the show on Hulu, read both of these books. They’re not quite the same as the show, and are genius in their own right.
19. Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes
This book-turned-movie is a heartbreakingly beautiful story of two unlikely lovers, whose union stays with both of them forever. Louisa is a quirky girl from England, who is satisfied with a life as small as her hometown.
Will is a daredevil who lives life on the edge, until he is injured in an accident and never walks again. Louisa becomes his caregiver, and as their bond deepens into love, he has a startling revelation everyone knows about but her.
Best Books of 2021: Nonfiction
All of these are memoirs. I love reading other people’s stories—it’s so candid and personal.
20. The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom
Corrie Ten Boom was living with her family in their watch shop just outside of Amsterdam when the Nazis invaded her beloved Holland. Dutch houses like hers had many places to hide due to their narrow, tall architecture. Anne Frank hid in a similar house with her family.
Corrie and her family hide Jews successfully for quite some time, until one day they are discovered by Nazis. She and her sister are sent to Ravensbrück, where survival seems impossible.
Corrie Ten Boom spent the rest of her life speaking at churches, museums, and memorial sites about the power of forgiveness, and her faith in God in times of war.
21. I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and deservedly so. If you’re unfamiliar with her story, she was shot in the face by the Taliban for going to school in her home of Swat Valley, Pakistan.
Her memoir details what her childhood was like, her father’s support of her dreams to get an education, and the slow-burn rise of the Taliban. The story then shares the details of that fateful day, and concludes in her life in the United Kingdom.
This story is not only inspiring and eye-opening, but also shares beautiful details about Pakistan as a country.
22. Lost Boy, by Brent W. Jeffs
CW: Child sexual abuse
This was the most disturbing memoir I read in 2021, but it was an important one. Brent W. Jeffs is the nephew of Warren Jeffs, convicted sex offender and leader of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints cult in the American southwest.
Brent was just a child when he first experienced abuse from Warren, and for years, his brain suppressed these memories. They didn’t rise to the surface again until he was an adult.
This is his story of the dysfunction of living in a polygamous family, his scars from the cult, and how he got out.
23. Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
As a biracial person myself, I knew I wanted to read Trevor Noah’s memoir. Born in South Africa during apartheid to a black mother and white father, he was literally a walking crime.
Had I been born there just a few years earlier, I would have been one, too. That is absolutely bone-chilling.
Aside from vital history about South Africa, this book also contains the most powerful quote about womanhood, courtesy of Trevor’s mother, Patricia. In it, she is talking about her marriage to Trevor’s stepfather, an awful, abusive man.
“…The traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. “He’s like an exotic bird collector,” she said. “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.””-Patricia Noah
24. Educated, by Tara Westover
Dr. Tara Westover’s memoir is so enthralling I could barely put it down. The story details her life growing up in a Mormon family that is part of a doomsday, anti-government mentality.
Her father doesn’t allow any of the family to go to the doctor, school, or to work outside the family businesses.
The first time Tara steps into a classroom is her first college course at Brigham Young University. A memorable excerpt is her first time learning about the Holocaust. She was nineteen years old.
But as she learns, she cannot unsee how women have been placed in a subservient position within her family and the Mormon church. I read John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women because she did.
You have to read this memoir.
25. House of Sticks, by Ly Tran
Last, but certainly not least, is Ly Tran’s debut. House of Sticks details her life as a Vietnamese immigrant who arrives to the U.S. with her family in the wake of the dramatic fall of Saigon.
Her father was a prisoner of war for fighting against the Viet Cong, and his traumatic wartime experiences affect everyone around him.
Along with the adjustments of living on a new continent, Ly and her family have intense financial struggles. In all of this, she candidly discusses mental health, womanhood, and making a comeback when all seems lost.
Read this memoir. You will absolutely love it.