2021 is shaping up to be an incredible year for fiction. Already Raven Leilani’s Luster has become one of the most talked-about books of the decade while the terrifying mysteries of Girl A and The Push have been snapped up for their screen rights. Plus, with new reads from much-loved and talented authors including Angie Thomas, Yaa Gyasi, Katherine Heiny and Taylor Jenkins Reid alongside much-heralded debuts from Caleb Azumah Nelson, Patricia Lockwood embracing fiction and Zakiya Dalila Harris making waves with The Other Black Girl, fiction really is an innovative, diverse and exciting place right now.
So whether you want dark thrillers, contemporary takes on modern life, piercing poetry courtesy of Hollie McNish, groundbreaking fantasy YA, explorations of race, queer politics and sexuality or laugh-out-loud tales that still root out the human condition, 2021 fiction has your back.
While we couldn’t fit in every book we wanted to, we have managed to create a list of 48 incredible fiction books that you need to order right now – so here’s to losing ourselves in stories from around the world in 2021.
Luster by Raven Leilani
Unflinching, insightful and funny, Leilani’s debut (21 January) has been heralded as something akin to the second coming and it does not disappoint. Edie is working in a publishing house that undervalues her talent (something she’s also guilty of herself) and is making some questionable life choices. Then, after finding herself homeless, jobless and juggling service gigs, the wife of her lover invites her into their home… Masterfully capturing our political, racial and sexual zeitgeist that no longer deals in certainties, this is a very special book.
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
One of the most highly anticipated releases of the year sees Angie Thomas return to Garden Heights with the story of Maverick Carter, Starr’s father, set 17 years before the events of The Hate U Give on 12 January. Exploring the world of the Carters in the late 90s, it’s a tale of evolution set against a world of race, drugs and redemption and one that underlines Thomas’ ability to unflinchingly reflect the truth of race, politics and family in the US.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
For those that are missing the tentative depiction of love in Normal People, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water is set to become one of 2021’s unmissable books. Out 2 February, it’s the story of two Black British artists – he’s a photographer and she’s a dancer – and an exploration of desire, love, trauma, race and art. Utterly transporting, it’ll leave you weeping and in awe.
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny
From cult author Heiny (her very funny 2018 novel Standard Deviation is passed among book lovers in hushed tones of delight and reverence), this is one of 2021’s most anticipated books filled with an understated, perfectly written humour. A slightly offbeat love story – primary teacher Jane falls for woman-loving Duncan – that turns into an uplifting tale of hope, love and acceptance in the oddest of places. Bookmark 15 April in your diary and look forward to a weekend of reading joy.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Patricia Lockwood’s 2017 memoir Priestdaddy quickly became a shorthand for books that leave you both confounded and laughing hysterically, so her first novel comes with much anticipation. This is a delightfully weird look at our service to the internet (fitting in a year that gave us the “doomscroll”) and human connection and intersection. Out 16 February, this is definitely one to pre-order.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 Homegoing went straight to the top of “our favourite books ever” list and we’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of her follow-up since its announcement last year (it was delayed due to you know what). Now out on 4 March, this is a heartbreaking tale of a family set in contemporary America that – like Homegoing – traces how the misuse of power and politics plays out in the personal.
Slug by Hollie McNish
This is exactly what we all need. The inimitable words of poet/goddess Hollie McNish once again hold up honest, damn funny and refreshing takes on the everydayness of our lives: the social demands, sex and orgasms, our bodies, judgement from friends (and ourselves). Never have we needed her more. Out 13 May.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Jenkins Reid’s follow-up to 2019’s Daisy Jones And The Six is set in 80s Malibu and centres on a glamorous, troubled family over the course of one fabulous party with flashbacks to pivotal moments of their pasts. It’s a full-on escapist delight (out 27 May).
Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor
Lean Fall Stand will probably win every prize going in 2021 so it’s best to pre-order now (it’s out 29 April) because with every book McGregor writes, more and more readers fall for his subtle-yet-powerful writing, all the while being softly punched in the heart by his characters.
The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam
Like a boxset for your bedside, The Startup Wife by London-based writer Tahmima Anam is where “The Social Network meets The Good Wife”. Asha and Cyrus are high-school sweethearts who launch an ingenious app and find themselves at the centre of start-up tech culture – but as their invention (and Cyrus’s profile) outpaces even their wildest dreams, Asha begins to question exactly what’s important in life. It’s such a good read (out 3 June).
Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley
Fiona Mozley’s Elmet was a breakout title in 2018 and her follow-up Hot Stew (out 18 March) should make even more waves. Set in contemporary Soho, Precious and Tabitha are working in a brothel and the new plans to turn their home into luxury flats do not sit well. Deftly exploring a very real clash of cultures, this is a funny and smart book.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Following the lives of three trans and cis women living in New York, this is a no-holds-barred adventure of love, family, hope, toxicity, self-deception and destruction plus some unexpected parenthood. Written with verve and humour, it’s a must-read (out 7 January) for 2021.
The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn
Inspired by the true story of Jeffrey Hudson, court dwarf to Queen Henrietta Maria of England during the mid-1600s, The Smallest Man is not your ordinary historical fiction centring on a special relationship between two unique souls set against the English civil war.
White Ivy by Susie Yang
In this twisty thriller out in the summer (8 August), Ivy Lin, is a Chinese immigrant in Boston who’s desperate to fit in with her US peers. Using her grandmother-taught skills as a shoplifter, Ivy transforms herself into the American dream only to find herself cornered just when she’s at the pinnacle of her success. One to wait for.
How To Kidnap The Rich by Rahul Raina
A satire, a love story and a thriller, How To Kidnap The Rich by Rahul Raina has shades of The Talented Mr Ripley that also casts an unerring eye over the huge disparity in Indian society. A rollercoaster of a read, this is going to be big (out 6 May).
Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
Another retake of a Greek myth from a female perspective (which is absolutely no bad thing – we’re here for them all thanks to Pat Barker, Madeline Miller and Natalie Haynes), Ariadne gives voice to the misused Princess of Crete who betrayed her father to save Theseus from the Minotaur. Relevant and revelatory, pre-order now (29 April).
Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee
A book inspired by the Pendle witch trials? Yes please… Elizabeth Lee’s evocative novel conjures (sorry) up a world where girls must hide their powers while communities turn on each other, whipped up by self-serving preachers. The perfect read in other words (out 22 April).
An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon
Oto is an intersex twin who is forced to live as a boy despite the belief they are a girl. From a life surrounded by a rich and powerful family that uses shame to oppress Oto to a new life in the US, Papillon draws on African mythology and art to create a rich, moving and uplifting story (out 25 March).
Little Gods by Meng Jin
The novel opens during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 as narrator Liya returns to China to discover the secrets of her parents’ pasts in communist China only to discover a complex love triangle. Meng Jin carefully explores the cultural revolution and the dangerous days leading up to Tiananmen in this ambitious debut (out 25 February).
Tall Bones by Anna Bailey
Creepy and atmospheric, this is about a girl’s disappearance in smalltown Colorado where religion and violence go hand in hand and nothing is as it appears. Conjuring up the darkness of Twin Peaks and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, you’ll almost certainly be sleeping with the light on (not that there’s anything wrong with that; out 30 March).
Victoria Park by Gemma Reeves
With shades of Elizabeth Strout, Gemma Reeves’s riveting portrait of intertwining lives in London is what makes literary fiction great. Tackling life moments we can all recognise and relate to (from identity to longing), it’s a portrait of a community underscored with genuine warmth for humans (out 15 March).
Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler
So imagine you discover your partner is in fact an online conspiracy theorist… After this year, we’d probably all take it in our strides. However, in Lauren Oyler’s very funny and original debut, it’s the catalyst to an innovative exploration of identity and what really makes us “real” (out 2 February).
A Room Called Earth by Madeleine Ryan
Madeleine Ryan is a neurodivergent author and outspoken advocate for neurodiversity and in her debut novel, a young autistic woman goes to a house party and what seems like an ordinary night is turned into something revelatory, funny and crucial via the narrator – it’s one we should all be reading (out 14 January).
The Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper
For fans of Revolutionary Road and Mad Men, this is an atmospheric tale of repression and style at the heart of the American Dream as a wife and mother disappears from her home leaving nothing but a stain of blood (out 4 February).
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
Namina Forna was born in Sierra Leone but emigrated with her family to the US in the 90s during her homeland’s civil war. In this debut YA fantasy novel, she weaves together themes of persecution, heroism and sisterhood. Utterly transporting and on a massive scale, this is the new series you’ve been searching for (out 3 February).
The One Hundred Years Of Lenni And Margot by Marianne Cronin
Two women meet in the terminal ward’s art class – one is 17 and one is 83. Together they forge a beautiful friendship as they share stories from their lives and loves. Guaranteed to leave you weeping and in need of a hug, this is a really special and lovely read (out 18 February).
We Are All Birds Of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan
Hafsa Zayyan won the first #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize (as announced by Stormzy) in 2018 and in her debut novel she tells the story of Sameer, a high-flying London lawyer who finds himself lost. As he traces his family’s past, he begins to understand the history of Indian Ugandans and their expulsion from their home country and the impact it’s had on both him and those around him (out 21 January).
How We Are Translated by Jessica Gaitan Johannesson
Exploring how language and culture unites and separates us, Swedish immigrant Kristin has an identity crisis when her Scottish-Brazilian boyfriend begins to insist that they only speak in Swedish to help him learn the language. Discovering she’s pregnant, she keeps it secret as she reflects on whether she really wants to bring a child into the world given its current state… (out 2 February).
The Divines by Ellie Eaton
An all-girls school closed in disgrace, class divisions and a group of friends hiding a secret… Exploring the destructive relationships of teenage girls and the echoes they have on our grown lives, this is an explosive debut that will also look rather good on your bedside table (out 19 January).
Careless by Kirsty Capes
Careless by Kirsty Capes is a coming-of-age story about Bess, a girl in care who also realises she’s pregnant and has no one she can tell – not her overbearing foster parents and certainly not a bureaucratic care system. With a funny and flawed heroine, this is a book that deserves to be a huge hit (out 13 May).
Still Life by Sarah Winman
The Khan by Saima Mir
Jia Khan is a successful lawyer who’s worked hard to put space between herself and her family’s roots up north, where her father ran an organised crime syndicate. However, in shades of The Godfather, she finds herself very much pulled back into the family business. Bold, addictive and brilliant (out 4 March).
The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent
For fans of Marian Keyes, this is the perfect sweet spot of funny and moving women’s fiction. Birdy is on a downward spiral and in a moment of sheer folly accepts her best friend’s job as sommelier in a luxury Scottish hotel despite knowing nothing about tasting notes. Meeting people just as wounded as she is, Birdy finally faces up to the demons that are destroying her (out 13 April).
The Push by Ashley Audrain
One of the most hyped titles of the year, The Push isn’t an easy read but it is suspenseful, dark and intriguing, making it essential for book groups. Exploring the expectations of motherhood, the echoes of past abuse and why women can be so easily overlooked, it’s going to be a big discussion point in 2021 (out 9 January).
How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
Set in Barbados, this novel unflinchingly explores the violence, trauma and sadness of its characters but is written with total beauty and insight. These people won’t leave you any time soon and marks Cherie Jones as a writer of immense power (out 5 January).
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
A thriller that’s funny, compelling and also a searing look at race, Zakiya Dalila Harris is set to be one of 2021’s biggest breakout names. Buckle up for a highly entertaining ride that will make some waves this summer (out 1 June).
Rescue Me by Sarra Manning
If you loved Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare (she also wrote the wonderful The Road Trip coming out on 27 April) then this is the joy you’ve been searching for… Two damaged and lonely souls, one adorable rescue job (and this is coming from a cat person), Manning’s winning story is the perfect piece of escapism with one eye on snappy dialogue and another on the things that make us whole again (out 21 January).
People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd
A thriller not for the faint-hearted, this is also a takedown of influencer culture and the havoc it can wreak when taken too seriously. Told from the points of a view of an increasingly jaded couple (and written by a real-life husband and wife) and a bitter stalker, it’s a smart read (out 21 January).
Acts Of Desperation by Megan Nolan
Honest, brutal and intense, Megan Nolan’s Acts Of Desperation is described as “an anti-romance” exploring a toxic relationship that blows up in the face of a narrator who refuses to let go even if it means (especially if it means) her own destruction (out 4 March).
Girl A by Abigail Dean
A story of survival – this is about Lex Gracie, dubbed “Girl A”, who managed to escape a terrifying childhood at the hands of her parents. Now an adult, she is pulled back to the home where it all took place and begins to contact the siblings she’s long since left behind. Disturbing but incredible, it’s a big one (out 21 January).
Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan
Violet is a girl who wants more from her life and – in what amounts to a deal with the devil – she gets it via a new job, new bosses, money, food, sex and more. A piercing insight into the unreal demands modern women place on themselves and told with real humour and energy, we love this book so much (out 11 February).
Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic
Sudjic’s writing is hers alone and in this unsettling, disturbing and piercing novel, she tells the unravelling of Anya as she faces up to a past she’s tried to run from and a present that demands too much (out 21 January).
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Following up The Pisces was no easy task but Broder’s new novel exerts its own power as food and sex come together in the story of Rachel, a young woman who denies herself almost everything… until she meets the hypnotic and hunger-quenching Miriam (out 4 March).
Little Scratch by Rebecca Watson
An incredible debut, Little Scratch tells the story of a day in the life of an unnamed woman and digs away to the thoughts that power her away from the mundanity of everyday life to reveal the real truths within. It’ll be on every prize list so be the first to read it (out 14 January).
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Set in Spokane, Washington in 1910, this sweeping story weaves together “cops and tramps, suffragists and socialists, madams and murderers” to create a brilliant and addictive book that also eerily mirrors where the US is at right now. Buy it and turn off your phone (out 18 February).
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
A huge hit in the US, this is the tale of three characters who find themselves entangled in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in modern-day India. It’s written with a sense of fate and an understanding of injustice in all of its forms (out 21 January).
Everything Is Beautiful by Eleanor Ray
Take care of your heart with this story of Amy, who starts collecting keepsakes as a way to hold on to someone she loved and lost but then, many years later, is overwhelmed by a house that’s dedicated to “things”. As the mystery at the heart of Amy’s story unravels so did we – but in the best way possible (out 4 February).
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex
From the first page, Emma Stonex’s tale is unnerving as it explores the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers (it’s based on a true story) and the women they left behind. Full of atmosphere and dread, it’s the perfect way to escape right now (out 4 March).
Images Unsplash; courtesy of publishers
Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown