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The Best Fiction and Mystery Titles of 2021

Cindy Burnett
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Over the past few weeks, I have written about my favorite historical fiction novels and nonfiction books of the year. This week, I am combining fiction and mysteries together and highlighting the standouts for 2021. In two weeks, I will narrow the lists down to my top reads of the year.

In these two genres, some of my favorites include a fast-paced mystery set in West Texas, a pandemic story that takes place in the near future, a set of short stories happening mainly in China, a thriller set in the French Alps and many more. Here are the best fiction and mystery titles of 2021 (listed alphabetically):

Down Range

Taylor Moore's debut mystery is set in West Texas. 

Down Range by Taylor Moore – With Down Range, Moore, a 6th generation Texan (he grew up outside of Houston) and former CIA intelligence officer, launches a new mystery series starring DEA agent Garrett Kohl that is set in the Texas High Plains and is filled with adventure, thrills, and a clever plot. Following a mission in Afghanistan that takes an unexpected turn, Garrett finds himself back in his hometown Canadian with a young boy named Asadi Saleem in his protective custody. Garrett’s strained relationship with his father, one of the most memorable characters in the book, and his brother and brother’s family is a focus of the story, and his brother’s missteps drag Garrett into a dark and dangerous illegal ring that threatens to destroy the entire Kohl family. Moore brings Texas to life as only a native can, and his ability to transport the reader to the High Plains of Texas, where Moore now lives, is a high point of this fast-paced and high-octane mystery.

The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird – Sweeney-Baird’s debut speculative fiction novel, written prior to Covid’s arrival, tackles the premise of what the world would be like if 90 percent of the men disappeared from the planet. Set in 2025, The End of Men opens just as the first case of the virus has appeared and follows various characters (mostly women) as they deal with this mysterious virus and come to terms with a changed world. Through their eyes, Sweeney-Baird chronicles how the world would be impacted by such a large gender imbalance -from the loss of husbands and sons to the changed workforce and what it now would mean to give birth to a son. The End of Men is a truly thought-provoking read that will stay with me for a long time.

Hostage by Clare MackintoshHostage is a timely and fast-paced thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. Flight attendant Mina is working the inaugural flight from London to Sydney, the first time a commercial plane will fly that distance (20 hours) without stopping. Once in the air, she receives a threatening note advising her to help hostages overtake the plane or her husband and child will be killed. Told in many alternating viewpoints including Mina, her husband Adam, and numerous passengers, Hostage is clever, thought-provoking, and full of fabulous twists and turns. Advice on reading this one – do not go on Goodreads and read the reviews because important parts of the story will be spoiled; it will be a much better read if you go in blind. I highly recommend this one.

Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping ChenLand of Big Numbers is a collection of short stories set in modern-day China depicting its history, politics, culture and people. The stories combine razor-sharp commentary on life in a country governed by a Communist regime combined with elements of satirical magical realism, and the effect is almost always superb and at times surreal. Two of my favorite stories in the collection are “Gubeikou Spirit” which follows a group of citizens who end up stranded for months on a subway platform, kept there by the station’s guards and “Flying Machine” which tells the story of an elderly man who against all odds keeps trying to build an airplane out of items he accumulates. Te-Ping’s inspiration for the stories comes from her years spent as a Wall Street Journal correspondent living in Beijing, and these thought-provoking stories have stayed with me, I frequently find myself reflecting on them as I go about my day.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman – Richard Osman returns with the follow up to his sleeper hit from last year, The Thursday Murder Club. This engaging, big-hearted, and humorous series features four individuals (Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron) living at Cooper’s Chase, a retirement community in the English countryside. Elizabeth is contacted by an agent with whom she worked when she was in MI5. He has been accused of stealing $20 million worth of diamonds and needs a safe place to hideout so Elizabeth agrees to shelter him at Cooper’s Chase. Filled to the brim with entertaining and well-drawn characters and a clever mystery, The Man Who Died Twice is a joy from start to finish, and I am already eagerly anticipating book 3. While this book is the second in a series, it can definitely be read as a standalone as well.

Once There Were Wolves

Once There Were Wolves is a deeply moving and intriguing book set in Scotland. 

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy - Inti Flynn and a team of biologists arrive in Scotland to help re-introduce wolves back into the Highlands through a program similar to the way wolves were returned to Yellowstone National Park. While participating in this venture, Inti also hopes to help her twin sister Aggie recover from a traumatic event in her past. Facing resistance from the locals, Inti struggles to reassure them that the wolves won’t harm them as long as they are left alone but instead will assist with balancing the ecosystem by slowing down climate change and environmental degradation. McConaghy’s writing is lyrical, and her descriptions of both the wolves and the wild Scottish landscape cause them to leap off the page. Once There Were Wolves is a beautiful and haunting story that will remain with me for a very long time and will be in my top reads of the year. It is truly not to be missed.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams – In this beautiful tribute to books and libraries, The Reading List tells the story of Aleisha, a teenager with a troubled home situation, who decides to work in the library for the summer to escape her home life. While working at the library, she stumbles across a list of 8 books with the words “In case you need it” at the top. Curious, she begins to work her way through the list becoming engrossed in each book and its characters and finds that each book helps transport her to another place and away from her own personal issues. Along the way, she recommends each book to a librarian patron she meets named Mukesh, a lonely widower trying to fill his days. As the two read and discuss the books, they develop a sweet friendship that helps them both through trying times. While parts of the book are incredibly sad, I absolutely love The Reading List and its focus on the incredible power of books and community.

Shiver by Allie ReynoldsShiver is a closed circle mystery set in the French Alps which brings a group of friends together for a reunion. Upon arrival, the friends realize that nothing is at it seems and that someone will go to extreme lengths to solve a mystery from the past. The plot, the characters, and the mystery itself are all skillfully developed and kept me on the edge of my seat. I do not know very much about snowboarding, and it was fun to learn more about it – Reynolds includes just the right amount of detail. The French Alps setting is very vivid, and the toggling back and forth between the past and present works very well to slowly unveil the relevant details to the reader. I absolutely loved this book and highly recommend it. 

The Siren

The Siren is an engaging and entertaining mystery set on a popular island. 

The Siren by Katherine St. John – Part beach read and part indictment of Hollywood and the cost of fame, The Siren is the perfect book to take on vacation this summer. As the book opens, superstar actor Cole Power has assembled an all-star cast and production team for his latest movie The Siren and flown everyone down to the beautiful Caribbean island of St. Genesius for filming. For the first time since their divorce years before, Cole and his ex-wife Stella Rivers (who has suffered several breakdowns) star opposite each other on screen, and the media is on high alert, anxious to report about the fireworks that are sure to occur. Told from the perspective of the three main women, each with their own secrets, as well as occasional media articles and social influencer posts, The Siren is a fast-paced mystery with enough twists and turns that I was left guessing until the very end.

The Survivors by Jane Harper - Jane Harper returns with another stunning and well-paced Australian mystery, this time choosing Southern-most Tasmania as her setting. After a long absence, protagonist Kieran Elliott returns home to Evelyn Bay for a visit to help care for his ailing father. When he was twelve, an accident led to the death of Kieran’s brother Finn and his friend, and the town blamed Kieran for the tragedy. His arrival is met with disdain and when a murder occurs, Kiernan is dragged back into the tragic events of the past. Part character study, part mystery, The Survivors showcases Harper’s stellar writing style, and her vivid imagery helps to immerse the reader in the atmospheric and gloomy setting. 

These Silent Woods by Kimi Cunningham Grant - Kimi Cunningham Grant’s new compelling and haunting thriller stars a father and daughter duo who have been living in a remote cabin off the grid for eight years in the northern Appalachian woods. Lacking electricity and running water, Cooper and Finch’s only connection to the outside world are Cooper’s friend Jake who owns their cabin and brings them supplies once a year and a mysterious older gun-toting neighbor named Scotland. But when Jake does not show up with supplies and Finch begins to push back on their isolated lifestyle, a series of events are set in motion that will challenge the life Cooper has created for them. This tension-filled story kept me on the edge of my seat until I had turned the very last page; I read it in one sitting, and it is one of the best thrillers that I have read in a long while.

We Are the Brennans by Tracey Lange - This terrific contemporary drama follows the Brennans, an Irish Catholic family whose bonds and livelihood are tested when estranged daughter Sunday Brennan is involved in a drunk driving incident and returns home to New York to recover. Five years prior, Sunday fled to California with no explanation to her family and long-time boyfriend Kale. While she is happily and immediately welcomed back into the family fold, her arrival slowly triggers a release of long-held secrets which spark a chain of events that require the Brennans to put aside their differences to keep their family intact. We Are the Brennans is a beautifully rendered story that highlights the importance of family and that reminds us there are consequences no matter the choices made.

I hope you enjoyed reviewing my list, and I would love to hear what your favorites for the year are so far - feel free to drop them in the comments.

For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see Cindy’s monthly Buzz Reads column, her Thoughts from a Page Podcast or follow @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram. Find upcoming Conversations from a Page events here.

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