You should probably prepare yourself for a list of amazing thrillers. I’m not saying that I only read thrillers. I branch out from time to time. But I love a good thriller with a storyline that makes you gasp and a plot twist you didn’t see coming.
Lack of originality is probably my biggest complaint about books today. So many books read a lot like something you’ve read before. So, to make my favorites list, which means to get a perfect grade from me, is no small feat.
I read 125 books in 2021. Of those, I gave 28 fiction books perfect grades. My reviews of them are below. But instead of listing them totally in alphabetical order, I’m going to do something I don’t think I’ve done before. I’m naming my favorite book of the year. That review is first.
1. False Witness
I was hooked the minute I started reading Karin Slaughter’s latest book, False Witness. It was hands down my favorite book of the year. None of the other books I read even came close to it. But I need to warn you that it’s graphic and difficult to read. Oh, and some parts might be a bit unrealistic, but I thought it was fantastic overall.
Attorney Leigh Collier is living a successful life, despite her traumatic past. Leigh lives with her 16-year-old daughter, who she co-parents with her ex-husband. The two have a close relationship, despite not staying married. But you can see that something isn’t right with Leigh. She uses her career and her sexuality to cover up her past trauma. And she spends seemingly every minute waiting for her “normal” life to shatter. How will that happen? Probably her sister, Callie.
Callie is a drug addict who has been in and out of rehab. She bounces from one cash-only rental apartment to another. Her whereabouts and safety are always on Leigh’s mind, even as she tries to protect her little family from her sister.
Then Leigh gets a call asking her to defend a rich guy accused of multiple counts of rape. She doesn’t want the case, but the suspect asked for her, so her firm’s senior partner isn’t giving her an option. When Leigh meets the accused face-to-face and realizes why he asked for her. All of that trauma she thought was buried comes out into the open.
Twenty years later Leigh has another chance to protect herself, her sister, and other women. But she has to figure out how to do it without destroying her own life and while keeping her family safe. It seems unlikely that she can balance it all, but failing is an option that ends in deaths.
2. An American Marriage
I hoped that wasn’t going to happen… then it did. That’s pretty much the story of An American Marriage. You see what’s coming a mile away. You hope it doesn’t happen. But it happens anyway.
Celestial and Roy don’t have a perfect marriage, but the newlyweds are making their way toward the American dream. Roy is a young executive. Celestial is a doll maker whose art is catching on.
As the couple begins making their life together, one decision tears them apart. They visit Roy’s family and decide to stay the night in a hotel instead of with his parents. That single decision results in Roy’s arrest and sentence for 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Prison officials overturn Roy’s sentence after five years. But can he and Celestial pick up where they left off?
3. Dear Child
Lena disappeared 14 years ago. Now she is in the hospital after being hit by a car as she claims to have been escaping her captor. The woman even has Lena’s forehead scar. But Lena’s parents say it isn’t her.
Lena’s parents are even more baffled by the strange little girl who showed up at the hospital with the woman claiming to be Lena. She actually looks like their daughter and is about the same age Lena was when she disappeared.
Does this little girl know the truth about what happened to their daughter? If so, how do they get her to tell them? And who is this woman claiming to be Lena?
4. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
I love odd characters, and Eleanor Oliphant certainly is that.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story of a woman with unusual social skills. She says exactly what’s on her mind. And, sadly, her strange personality led to a life where she’s totally alone.
But then Eleanor meets Raymond, the IT guy in her office. His mannerisms are anything but acceptable to her. He’s sloppy and eats like a slob. He doesn’t communicate well. She’s really not fond of him at all.
Then Eleanor and Raymond save a man’s life. They form and bond with the man and his family. And everything about Eleanor’s life changes. She begins to recognize how her past shaped her until now and what she needs to do to live a better future.
5. Every Last Fear
Imagine being away at college and finding out that your entire family is dead. That’s what happens to Matt Pine.
One minute he’s just an NYU student at a party. The next minute he returns to his dorm to find out that his parents and younger siblings died from an apparent gas leak while they were on vacation in Mexico.
The Mexican police claim that the family’s deaths were accidental, but the FBI doesn’t seem to think so. Either way, the deaths put the Pine family back into the spotlight.
Yes, back in the spotlight.
Matt’s older brother, Danny, is in jail. He’s serving a life sentence for murdering his high school sweetheart, Charolette. The murder was the subject of a true crime documentary claiming Danny was innocent. Matt doesn’t think so.
But when he returns home to bury his family, Matt is shoved right back into a media circus. And he learns that his family’s death may be tied to Danny’s crime.
6. Firefly Lane
Everyone wishes the had a friend like Kate and Tully. The girls’ friendship begins in the summer of 1974 when they are in the eighth grade. And they know it’s going to last a lifetime.
Kate and Tully are as different as two girls can be. Kate is the nerd. Tully Hart is the beauty with plans to be a television journalist. But by the end of the summer, TullyandKate are inseparable.
Kate loves everything about Tully. And Tully loves how Kate has normalcy and a family that she doesn’t.
The book follows the girls through high school, college, first jobs, heartbreaks, and love. Through 30 years of friendship that makes you shake your head, cry, and think about your best friend.
7. Fly Away
Tully Hart, Kate’s best friend, is a mess. Gone is her television success from the previous book. She can’t get work. She started abusing drugs and alcohol after her friend died and rarely leaves her condo.
Marah Ryan, 16, spun out of control after her mother died. She ran away with the wrong boy and is essentially homeless.
Johnny, Kate’s husband, is trying desperately to hold his family together. He’s raising his twin sons, but Marah won’t speak to him. As a result, he often doesn’t even know where to find her.
When Tully almost dies from an impaired driving crash, the characters come back together for her. They receive unlikely help with Tully’s care from her estranged mother. Kate also gives Tully strength and wisdom from beyond the grave.
8. For Your Own Good
Sometimes books are better if you don’t take them too seriously. That’s the case with For Your Own Good. You’ll enjoy it more if you treat it almost like horror-comedy. Like the movie Scream. You can’t take the characters too seriously or you won’t enjoy it.
Teddy Crutcher, a strict but he thinks fair teacher, won Teacher of the Year at the prestigious Belmont Academy. Teddy sees his job as making the brightest Belmont students excel. Of course, sometimes that means he has to deal with a few entitled students. And he certainly can’t let a few annoying murders get in the way.
Pretty soon students, colleagues, and parents start to get in the way of Teddy being the teacher (and administrator) he thinks he’s meant to be. So he has to take matters into his own hands.
9. If You Find Me
Carey, 15, and her younger sister, Jenessa, were kidnapped a decade ago by their mother. She said she was keeping them safe from their abusive father. The two girls grow up in a broken-down camper hidden in the woods. Carey basically raises her sister. Then their mother leaves and doesn’t come back.
The girls are starving when social services finds them. And they release them to the one person Carey fears more than starvation or the wilderness — their father.
Carey soon discovers that their father, who is remarried and lives on a farm, isn’t a bad man after all. Her mother misled her and put she and her sister in danger.
Now the girls have to learn how to live life outside of the woods.
10. Invisible Girl
Saffyre Maddox can’t handle it when her psychologist, Dr. Roan Fours, decides she’s had enough therapy. Saffyre doesn’t think she’s ready for their sessions to end, and she begins stalking Dr. Fours, outside of his office, restaurants, and home.
Following Dr. Fours results in Saffyre learning way more than she ever wanted to know about her doctor’s personal life. Then she disappears.
What happened to Saffyre? Could Owen Pick, the odd 30-something teacher who lives across the street from the Fours family be involved? The police seem to think so.
A lot of people’s secrets will need to come out to discover what happened to Saffyre, including Dr. Fours’.
11. Jar of Hearts
Jar of Hearts is the story of three best friends and one extremely dangerous boyfriend.
Angela Wong disappeared when she was 16 years old. Some people thought she ran away, but her best friend, Georgina Shaw, knew the truth. Geo knew because she was there when Angela died, and she helped bury her. Geo’s boyfriend, Calvin James, killed Angela. Then Calvin went on to become a serial killer.
When a man discovers Angela’s remains 14 years later, it blows Geo’s life apart. And she’s forced to tell the secrets she’s hidden all of this time.
But when police start finding the bodies of other women and children, it is up to Geo and Angela’s former best friend, Kaiser, to find the killer before he gets Geo.
12. Last Girl Ghosted
I almost gave Last Girl Ghosted a B, but the storyline was just too unique.
Wren is a successful podcaster and columnist, although no one but her best friend and a few tight-knit employees know it’s her behind the “Dear Birdie” column. She’s successful enough to afford a nice brownstone and has a good life, despite her troubled past.
Wren dates sporadically but hasn’t experienced anything serious. Then her best friend encourages her to use a dating app. She meets the man of her dreams. He’s not conventionally handsome, but his personality and hers are perfect together. He’s everything she ever wanted. Then he’s… gone.
Wren can’t accept that she’s been ghosted. Even more so, she can’t accept that she didn’t know the man she loves or that he’s done this to other women. They disappeared and were never found. If Wren finds him, will she also find them?
13. Local Woman Missing
If you love a good plot twist, Local Woman Missing won’t disappoint. Everyone who reads this book is like, “WHAT?!”
People in this town keep going missing.
Shelby Tebow was first. Then Meredith Dickey and her 6-year-old daughter, Delilah, followed. People didn’t know if the cases were related. Anything is possible when you have no clues.
But more than a decade later, Delilah returns home. Only something isn’t quite right. And figuring out what’s off could be the key to uncovering what is going on in this town and why people keep disappearing.
Ever wonder how you would react if you found out your spouse was cheating? Mine shows you how one woman took matters into her own hands. Maybe don’t use her as a guide, but it’s still a great book.
Tessa Taylor’s world falls apart when she finds nude photos of another, younger woman on her husband’s iPad.
With a hurricane coming toward their home in Florida, Ethan is stuck away on a business trip. Tessa decides to use the time to enact revenge. She lures her husband’s mistress to their home and tortures her.
But which woman is really the victim? Or are they both?
15. No Hiding in Boise
No Hiding in Boise was difficult to read because the storyline reminded me of mass shootings we’ve lived through, specifically the Pulse Nightclub and Columbine High School shootings.
The book starts with a woman getting a late-night phone call from police. They tell her that her husband was killed in a shooting at a local bar. But she didn’t even know he wasn’t in bed with her, let alone had left the house.
Thus begins the stories of the five people killed at the bar and a mother whose son was responsible for their murders before killing himself.
Joyce has to mourn her adult son and try to make sense of his actions while being labeled a bad mother and targeted for his crimes. All the time she wonders (and the reader wonders right along with her) if things could have been different.
16. Sleeping Dogs Lie
Audible Originals, free books offered with your Audible subscription, are hit or miss. Sleeping Dogs Lie by Samantha Downing was a good listen, but not worth it if you don’t already have an Audible subscription.
Shelby works as a dog walker. When she goes to return a husky named Pluto, she finds his owner dead. When a detective comes to interview Shelby, it becomes apparent that the death was not an accident, and there’s more to the story than previously believed.
17. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill
An odd character and a bookstore? The Bookish Life of Nina Hill has it all!
Nina spends her days working in a bookstore and her evenings leading book clubs, dorking out with her trivia team, or hanging out with her cat.
Nina is comfortable and mostly happy in her life. A few changes could be made, which she documents in her planner. The book features pages in her own writing, which are a cute touch.
Then Nina finds out that the father she never knew died. And he leaves behind siblings and nieces and nephews. A whole family worth of people she’s never known. And all of this happens as Tom from trivia starts showing an interest in Nina. Or is he? Either way, she suddenly has a lot more people in her life than she’s comfortable with. Or is this what life is supposed to be like?
18. The Butcher
Police Chief Edward Shank became a local legend of sorts after he killed Seattle’s serial killer, “the Beacon Hill Butcher,” back in 1985.
Thirty years later, Chief Shank is retired and thinks it’s time to move into a retirement community. He doesn’t want the responsibility of a big house in his older age.
Chief Shank decides to give the house to his grandson, Matt, who he and his late wife raised.
Matt, a famous local chef, is settling in and doing some renovations when he makes a gruesome discovery. Now he has to decide whether to protect the man who has always protected him, even now.
In the meantime, Matt’s girlfriend, Sam, is researching the Beacon Hill Butcher for a book she’s writing. She thinks her mother was one of the killer’s victims. And as she gets closer to the truth than is comfortable for either man, she puts her life in danger.
19. The Downstairs Neighbor
It’s not often that you read a book and dislike all of the characters.
Don’t get me wrong, The Downstairs Neighbor by Helen Cooper was a fabulous thriller. You just couldn’t figure out which “downstairs neighbor” the title referenced because everyone who lived in the building was hiding things.
The book begins with Paul and Steph’s teenage daughter, Freya, going missing. Paul and Steph own the house, which they divided into apartments for three families. So when Freya goes missing, everyone in the house becomes a suspect.
Emma, one of the downstairs neighbors, just closed her clothing resale shop and spends a lot of time looking out the window, watching Paul, Steph, and Freya. She also hears them talking through her ceiling (their floor). She thinks they seem like a good, wholesome family. Much more so than she and her estranged son. But Emma has some secrets, and it seems her son does too. How well does he know Freya? Could he be involved in her disappearance? What lengths will his mom go to when protecting him from suspicion?
The reader doesn’t really like Emma because she’s a weak person. But she may be the hero of this novel.
Then there’s Chris, the driving instructor who lives downstairs. He was the last person to see Freya before she went missing. He seems like the most likely suspect to have taken Freya right from the beginning. The reader dislikes Chris because he seems like a creep.
And Paul and Steph aren’t as squeaky clean as they might seem. Freya’s father used to be an undercover police officer. He was removed from the force after a case went wrong. Ironically, Steph seems to know little about Paul’s life as a cop and doesn’t question when he goes missing for long periods while they’re supposed to be searching for their daughter. Perhaps she doesn’t ask many questions because she’s hiding a colossal secret herself.
The Downstairs Neighbor never has a clear hero. Like I said before, you won’t like any of the characters — not even Freya, who is not so innocent herself. But it’s a page-turner, nonetheless. You won’t want to miss reading it.
20. The Good Lie
Psychiatrist Dr. Gwen Moore is a serial killer expert. She’s spent a decade studying predators like the Bloody Heart serial killer.
The serial killer’s latest teenage victim escapes. He says a local high school teacher, Randall Thompson is the killer. And it looks like he’s right. After all, why would he name an innocent teacher?
But Robert Kavin, a defense attorney, doesn’t believe the boy. His son was a BH Killer victim, still he plans to defend the teacher in court. And he wants Gwen to help his case.
But it seems like everyone involved in this story has a few secrets to keep. And they won’t find the real BH Killer until some of those secrets come to light.
21. The Good Sister
Fern Castle loves her sister, Rose, more than anyone else in the world. So, when Fern discovers that Rose cannot get pregnant, Fern decides to have a baby for her.
But Fern isn’t an average young woman. She has a sensory disorder that causes her to avoid crowds, bright lights, and loud noises. It also results in her viewing the world differently, perhaps even more honestly than others.
Fern seems to find her perfect match and intentionally gets pregnant. But giving their baby to her sister turns out to be more difficult than Fern expected. Rose intends to take the baby no matter what, and Fern discovers that her sister isn’t the loving protector she thought.
22. The Last Anniversary
Imagine Sophie Honeywell’s surprise when her ex-boyfriend, Thomas Gordon, tells her that she has inherited his Aunt Connie’s house on the beautiful Scribbly Gum Island.
Sophie feels guilty. She barely knew Aunt Connie, only having met her a few times. She wonders if she was too complimentary of the house and the island, both of which really are quite beautiful. And, of course, like everyone else, she is obsessed with the unsolved Munro Baby mystery, which is the family’s claim to fame and the reason tourists flock to the island.
Sophie doesn’t plan to accept the house at first, but Thomas and his family convince her that it was Aunt Connie’s choice and last wish. Aunt Connie even left a letter, which told Sophie she wanted her to have the house and that she would meet her soulmate on the island. How can you argue with that?
Sophie moves to the island and is living her best life, along with the cast of family characters who live there. Sophie wonders which of the island’s inhabitants or visitors Aunt Connie had picked out for her as the truth about the family and all of their secrets becomes clearer.
23. The Last One Home
Lauren Abrams moved into the home she grew up in under her grandmother’s care. Her grandmother, who is in assisted living, wants Lauren to have the home, which is the only one she’s ever know.
Lauren doesn’t have a relationship with her mother after the woman testified against her father years ago, sending him to jail.
But Lauren’s mother, Donna, knows that nothing good can come from her daughter being back at that farm. And pretty soon Lauren realizes it too. It seems the person she always thought was misleading her, her mother, was the only one telling Lauren the truth.
24. The Midnight Library
The Midnight Library is difficult to describe. But it’s totally worth reading.
Nora Seed needs a new life. That’s when she discovers the library. With her former school librarian to guide her, Nora learns that her life has endless possibilities, depending on which book she chooses.
Nora can have a different career and change decisions she made about old boyfriends. She can literally do or be anything.
But Nora has to decide which one of these lives might live her fulfilled. Or if life is even worth living in the first place. Does someone who is broken stay broken, regardless of what decisions they make?
25. The Missing Hours
I love a good girl is wronged and gets revenge novel, which is what The Missing Hours is.
Claudia Castro comes from a rich and famous family. The NYU freshman also is an Instagram influencer. She seems to have it all going for her — living it up as a college girl in the city that never sleeps.
Then one morning Claudia wakes up and can’t remember anything. She is severely beaten and doesn’t know how it happened. As she tries to piece together the hours before, she begins to think something even more terrible happened. Then the video appears.
What does a young woman like Claudia do when she finds out she survived a rape and beating and everyone around the men responsible is working overtime to protect them? She takes matters into her own hands.
26. The Wife Upstairs
Jane found a gig that would make ends meet and get her plenty of exercise. She walks dogs in an up-scale neighborhood in Birmingham. And, yes, she takes a few little trinkets from the owners of the dogs she walks — an earring here or a scarf there — but they have so much that they don’t even notice. In fact, they don’t notice much about her at all. Well, except for Eddie Rochester.
Eddie, who is gorgeous and recently widowed, takes special notice of Jane. Before she knows it, they are living together in his McMansion.
But Jane begins to have a lot of questions about the death of Eddie’s late wife, Bea, who is said to have drowned in a boating accident with her best friend. Something is off about the deaths and the neighbors all seem to know it.
In the end, Jane begins wondering who is lying to whom more — her or Eddie.
27. They Never Learn
As a college professor, I struggled a bit with They Never Learn. I mean, what kind of sick place is this university where the faculty prey on their students?
But I’m a sucker for vigilante justice by a strong female character. So when English professor Scarlett Clark starts offing men on campus who treat female coeds poorly, I was hooked.
But killing young men and making their deaths look like suicides or accidents is one thing. Killing your department chairman is more difficult, even if he has it coming.
I read this book in a day. I couldn’t put it down.
28. We’ll Never Be Apart
Alice Monroe, 17, is in a mental hospital, but all she can think about is getting revenge on her sister, Cellie, who is the reason she’s there.
Cellie has always been a problem. Since their grandfather and sole caretaker died when they were little girls, Cellie has gotten the pair kicked out of foster homes and put into facilities. The final act was when Cellie convinced Alice and her boyfriend, Jason, to escape from Savage Isle mental hospital. That same night, Cellie set fire to the barn they sought refuge in, killing Jason.
Now all Alice can think about is getting access to Cellie in another part of the hospital and exacting revenge for Jason’s death. Chase, another patient at the hospital, agrees to help Alice, but soon discovers there may be more to the story.
My Favorite Fiction Books of 2021
There they are! My 28 favorite fiction books of 2021. I hope you find something on the list to read and love. As always, happy reading!