Naming a book the best of the year is no easy task, especially in a year like 2021 that’s been stacked with heavy hitters and crowd-pleasers. There were new books by literary titans, including Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro and Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead. Sally Rooney saw her third consecutive triumph with “Beautiful World, Where Are You”; and Michelle Zauner had everyone, well, crying with her memoir “Crying in H Mart.” How does one possibly crown a winner?
But when it came time for the books editorial team at Amazon to compile its best-of-the-year list, one title stood tall above the rest. “Once the team started reading it, it was like wildfire,” says Sarah Gelman, editorial director of books at Amazon, of “The Lincoln Highway.” Amor Towles, bestselling author of “A Gentleman in Moscow,” wowed not just the team at Amazon with his follow-up.
“I think that’s one of the great things about this book, it’s so universal,” Gelman says. “I gave it to my dad, my book club is reading it. There’s a little bit of something for everyone in it. It’s so hopeful and in many ways such an American story.”
A road-trip novel set over the course of 10 days in June 1954, “The Lincoln Highway” centers on Emmett Watson, 18 years old and newly released from a juvenile work farm where he was serving time for involuntary manslaughter. He hits the road with his 8-year-old brother Billy, on a quest to find the mother who abandoned them.
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A ★★★½ (out of four) review for USA TODAY calls the book “a propulsive narrative and a beguiling story about how the past shapes the future.” It debuted at No. 1 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list.
There are a lot of familiar names among the list’s Top 10, including Kristin Hannah with her Great Depression novel “The Four Winds” and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Whitehead with his twisty crime novel “Harlem Shuffle.” Gelman says she and the others on her editorial team, who together read hundreds of books a year in search of gems to champion, noticed a lot of distinctly American stories captivating readers this year. And while nonfiction dominated last year’s list, this year, fiction was king.
“It was an embarrassment of riches,” Gelman says. “With everything that’s going on in the world, people are looking for escapism.”
There are also some lesser-known names on the list, and Gelman hopes their inclusion will catapult them to greater acclaim. Among them is “The Beatryce Prophecy,” by Kate DiCamillo. A middle-grade book by a two-time Newbery Medalist, “The Beatryce Prophecy” is about a poor young girl prophesied to overthrow the king. “We wouldn’t normally put a children’s book on the Top 20 list,” Gelman says, “but this book reads like a modern classic.”
With this year’s list in the bag, Gelman and crew and already looking ahead to next year, and her to-be-read pile is already growing unwieldy. Two upcoming titles she’s particularly excited for are Hanya Yanagihara’s “To Paradise” (her previous novel, “A Little Life,” is a top-three favorite of Gelman’s) and Julia May Jonas’ debut novel “Vladimir,” about an English professor whose husband is facing a slew of accusations from former students.
It’s starting to look like 2022 will be an embarrassment of riches for readers too.
Here are Amazon’s picks for the Top 20 books of 2021. For the complete list of 100 books, including favorites by genre, visit Amazon.com.
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1. “The Lincoln Highway,” by Amor Towles
2. “Crying in H Mart,” by Michelle Zauner
3. “The Plot,” by Jean Hanff Korelitz
4. “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America,” by Clint Smith
5. “The Four Winds,” by Kristin Hannah
6. “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty,” by Patrick Radden Keefe
7. “Harlem Shuffle,” by Colson Whitehead
8. “Great Circle,” by Maggie Shipstead
9. “Project Hail Mary,” by Andy Weir
10. “Klara and the Sun,” by Kazuo Ishiguro
11. “Razorblade Tears,” by S. A. Cosby
12. “Sankofa,” by Chibundu Onuzo
13. “The Beatryce Prophecy,” by Kate DiCamillo
14. “What Storm, What Thunder,” by Myriam J. A. Chancy
15. “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” by Sally Rooney
16. “The Sentence,” by Louise Erdrich
17. “When Ghosts Come Home,” by Wiley Cash
18. “The Last Thing He Told Me,” by Laura Dave
19. “Count the Ways,” by Joyce Maynard
20. “Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience,” by Brené Brown