Best Pop Fiction of 2021

Annie Oakley, J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian, and a young mother becoming…something else inhabit the best pop fiction of 2021.

Adams, Sara Nisha. The Reading List. Morrow. ISBN 9780063025288.

Grieving widower Mukesh, prickly young librarian Aleisha, and assorted patrons of a struggling London library find a reading list left in their books. Slowly, Mukesh and Aleisha become friends while reading the books on the list; they and others apply the books’ messages to their lives. Adams’s heartwarming debut conveys the power of reading to heal and bring disparate people together.

Benedict, Marie & Victoria Christopher Murray. The Personal Librarian. Berkley. ISBN 9780593101537.

Benedict, who’s white, and Murray, who’s Black, fictionalize the life of Belle da Costa Greene, hired in 1905 by financier J.P. Morgan to over- see his collection of art and rare books, now known as the Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle’s professional success is tempered by the fear that her secret—that she is Black, passing as white—will end her brilliant career. The novel addresses code switching and early 20th-century racism while bringing to life a most remarkable woman.

Chance, Megan. A Splendid Ruin. Lake Union: Amazon. ISBN 9781542022392.

May Kimble’s life is upended three times: first, when her mother dies and she goes to live with her wealthy aunt and family in Gilded Age San Francisco; second, when a dastardly betrayal causes her to lose everything; and third, when the 1906 earthquake gives her the chance for revenge. Chance’s heroine transforms from naive to strong and determined in this vivid historical story.

Dobmeier, Tracy & Wendy Katzman. Girls with Bright Futures. Sourcebooks. ISBN 9781728216461.

This wildly entertaining debut delves into the cutthroat world of elite prep schools, college admissions, and parents who will do anything to advance their progeny. Three moms of varying socioeconomic status maneuver their daughters (of varying academic ability) toward one coveted early admission spot at Stanford. When one of the daughters is injured in a hit-and-run, have things gone too far?

Escandón, María Amparo. L.A. Weather. Flatiron. ISBN 9781250802569.

This dramedy follows the fortunes of the Alvarados, a wealthy Mexican American family living in drought-stricken L.A. Matriarch Keila announces her intention to divorce Oscar, who seems interested only in watching the weather channel. Their three grown, successful daughters suggest a year of counseling, but Keila’s decision causes them to examine their own lives and marriages. Escandón folds weighty issues—immigration, climate change, gentrification—into a lively, slyly humorous family story.

Greenidge, Kaitlyn. Libertie. Algonquin. ISBN 9781616207014.

Young Libertie Sampson, a freeborn Black woman in 1860s Brooklyn, struggles to find her place in the world. Her mother, a doctor, wants her to follow in her foot- steps, but Libertie is drawn to music and to a Haitian man who proposes, promising a “Black utopia” in his country. In Greenidge’s richly detailed historical novel, a spirited heroine confronts colorism, classism, misogyny, and racism.

Lee, Jonathan. The Great Mistake. Knopf. ISBN 9780525658498.

Lee fleshes out real-life figure Andrew Haswell Green, developer of Central Park and other NYC institutions, and close friend of New York governor Samuel Tilden. Beginning with Green’s murder on Park Avenue in 1903, the novel moves backward to his unhappy childhood, then forward to a police inspector’s investigation of the murder. In ornate, period-perfect language, Lee juxtaposes the exquisite interiority of Green with the everyday brutality of turn-of-the-20th- century New York.

Pellegrino, Amanda. Smile and Look Pretty. Park Row. ISBN 9780778311126.

Four ambitious twentysomething friends toil as executive assistants in New York. After a particularly bad week, the women decide to launch an anonymous blog chronicling their bosses’ and coworkers’ abusive behavior. When the blog catches on, the friends face monumental decisions. Will they ever work again in this town if they’re outed? Pellegrino’s debut is a deli- ciously updated 9 to 5.

Romano-Lax, Andromeda. Annie and the Wolves. Soho. ISBN 9781641291699.

The “Annie” in Romano-Lax’s speculative fiction is sharpshooter Annie Oakley; the wolves are predatory men who abuse women and children. Oakley scholar Ruth McClintock studies Oakley’s journal and sees parallels between their lives. Both can time-travel through memory; both try to avenge wrongs in the past and save their loved ones; and both discover the strength and the limits of their power to change events. A tour de force.

Yoder, Rachel. Nightbitch. Doubleday. ISBN 9780385546812.

A protagonist known only as “the mother” used to have a promising art career. Now she stays home with her rambunctious toddler while her husband travels for business. When she finds a patch of hair on her back and notices her canines seem sharper, she wonders if she’s turning into—what? Yoder’s biting, satirical debut pits the wild against the domesticated in a deftly described suburban setting. It’ll rip your throat out.

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