USA TODAY staff’s 2021 favorite first-time reads: 14 books we loved

December 23, 2021
“No One Is Talking About This,” by Patricia Lockwood.


If you’re anything like me, you’ve got enough books in your to-be-read pile to last you several back-to-back pandemics and possibly even the rest of your life. Any more books at this point would just add to the fire hazard your house has become thanks to a lifetime of book hoarding. 

Sorry (but not really) to add to the pile. We’ve got a few more books to recommend before the year is up. 

USA TODAY staff is sharing their 14 favorite first-time reads of 2021. Most are books published in the last year while some are just-discovered classics that hit the spot. Here are the books we loved reading the most.

2021 Goodreads Choice Award Winners include Amanda Gorman, Sally Rooney, Andy Weir

The best books of 2021: These 17 titles received four-star reviews from USA TODAY critics

‘No One Is Talking About This,’ by Patricia Lockwood

Oh, my heart. For its first 100 pages, Lockwood’s terminally online book reads like a breezy, entertaining romp written in short bursts of observational bons mots by a social media-famous narrator that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s been sucked in by Twitter. “She had become famous for a post that said simply, Can a dog be twins? That was it. Can a dog be twins?” But then Lockwood (“Priestdaddy”) pulls off a literary magic trick that stomps your heart to paste when the unnamed narrator’s sister has a difficult pregnancy and receives a devastating, one-in-a-billion diagnosis, turning “No One Is Talking About This” into a profound meditation on what really matters in life and how to get back to it. – Barbara VanDenburgh, books editor

‘Somebody’s Daughter,’ by Ashley C. Ford

In a year of books taking us to other worlds, Ford introduced us to hers. In her memoir “Somebody’s Daughter,” she is smart and insightful, funny and full of love, telling the story of growing up in Indiana with a father in prison, and of her tumultuous relationship with her mother. She is generous in her willingness to share how she came to be. It is a life that includes rape, poverty, trauma and the secrets families keep. Her pain sometimes stops you mid-sentence, yet her elegant writing pulls you along. And you think that wherever Ashley’s life takes her next, you will want her to bring you along. – Laura Trujillo, Life & Entertainment managing editor

More:An incarcerated father, fractured family inspire Ashley C. Ford’s ‘Somebody’s Daughter’

‘¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons,’ by John Paul Brammer

Brammer, a mixed-race Mexican American writer, created an advice column several years ago called ¡Hola Papi! – the name of which came from a wild Grindr message. He channeled the format into this memoir in essays. Expect any kind of story you can think of: Menacing middle school bullies who prompt Brammer’s suicidal thoughts. A “one that got away”-style love story. And as the sub-headline in the title suggests: Coming out in a Walmart parking lot. Consider it par for the author’s meandering-but-methodical course – and one well worth your time for a laugh, a cry and everything in between. – David Oliver, entertainment reporter, diversity and equality

More:John Paul Brammer transformed ‘notoriously unhinged’ advice column into memoir ‘¡Hola Papi!’

‘For Brown Girls With Sharp Edges and Tender Hearts,’ by Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodríguez

This past year was mostly a big fat reading slump for me, but as soon as I got my hands on “For Brown Girls with Sharp Edges and Tender Hearts,” I completely devoured it. Prisca, founder of Latina Rebels, has been a fierce advocate for WOC that find themselves in predominantly white, classist, sexist and racist institutions. Through her debut book, she gives us insight into her own personal journey navigating academia and corporate spaces as a woman of color, as well as the tools necessary to decolonize our worldview, think deeply about our relationship to the “white gaze” and how to combat imposter syndrome. “For Brown Girls” is raw, honest and transparent, and it challenged me to rethink my views on community, culture and the intentions behind the work that I do. A quote that stood to me: “Remember who you are and the rest will come.” – Pamela Avila, entertainment editor

‘Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight,’ by Julia Sweig

After a gazillion biographies of Lyndon Johnson, how is it that no previous historian noticed the seminal personal and political role that Lady Bird Johnson played in his political and his performance in the presidency? The evidence was there for all to see, but it took Sweig to recognize and explore it in this rich, readable account of a woman who did so much more than seek highway beautification. File this under the ongoing reassessment in books and our culture of the contributions of women, many of them long overlooked or underestimated. The related podcast series Sweig recorded, “In Plain Sight,” is worth listening to as well, as you can hear Lady Bird’s voice from her taped diaries and other audio of the era. – Susan Page, Washington Bureau chief 

‘With Teeth,’ by Kristen Arnett

No one writes about Florida with more honesty, compassion and humor than Arnett, and her latest novel is no exception. Arnett introduces us to Sammie Lucas, a middle-age mother in Central Florida who’s afraid of her son. Over the course of four seasons (summer being the longest), Sammie’s relationships with Samson and her wife Monika begin to crumble, and her vision of a picture-perfect family fades away. By embracing an unreliable narrator, “With Teeth” takes a critical look at queer relationships and explores the limits of motherhood, partnership and love. It might make you cry, but Arnett’s witty prose will definitely make you laugh, too. Best enjoyed with a cold beer by the pool. – Daniel Funke, fact check reporter

‘We Could Be Heroes,’ by Mike Chen

This book is not your average superhero book — in the best way possible, providing a refreshing approach to a genre that’s often formulaic with origin stories. The two leads, Jamie and Zoe, have dynamic superpowers and on the surface it seems like they’d be at odds. Instead, they connect to face their pasts and discover how to foster hope and overcome fear together on an adventure ride that reads partially like a mystery novel. Chen (“Here and Now and Then”) captures the emotionality and humanity of the characters with such depth to draw up relatable feelings like fearing to trust others (and ourselves) and tapping into our potential of who we want to become. – Scott Gleeson, NOW/college basketball reporter

‘A Psalm for the Wild-Built,’ by Becky Chambers 

“A Psalm for the Wild-Built” is a balm. Its beautiful prose, vine-strewn world-building and deceptively lighthearted exploration of what it means to seek fulfillment are going to haunt me like the friendliest, most welcome ghost. Becky Chambers’ novella follows a young tea monk, Dex, as they travel through Panga (Earth imagined in the future as a collaborative, idyllic world). The forests and wild-lands surrounding Panga are rumored to be home to sentient robots, and after being seized by restlessness, Dex heads out into the wilds, where they encounter Mosscap, one of the robots of legend. This is the book equivalent of a hug, or a note from a loved one you forgot you kept – it will make you feel seen, embraced and accepted. – Madison Durham, Reviewed

‘The Stationery Shop,’ by Marjan Kamali

Both love story and history lesson, but so much more, this book tells the story of Roya and Bahman, teenagers who fall in love against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution in the 1950s. Their young love blooms at Mr. Fahkri’s stationery shop in the heart of Tehran, and they decide to marry in secret. But on the eve of their wedding, violence erupts and Bahman never shows. The rest of the book tracks the next decades of Roya’s life as she struggles with her loss. The writing elevates every inch of this story and left me in tears as I ripped through the final pages to find out how it all ended for Roya and Bahman. – Annah Aschbrenner, White House, Congress and national politics editor

‘The Book of Accidents,’ by Chuck Wendig

Creepy, mind-bending, completely fascinating but also quite touching, Wendig’s genre-blending delight immerses itself in slasher horror, dark magic, alternate realities and generational trauma. Former Philadelphia cop Nate and wife Maddie move back to their working-class Pennsylvania town with their sensitive son Oliver following the death of Nate’s abusive father, into a childhood home in the woods haunted by old ghosts and past troubles. But close bonds among the family are tested when Nate begins to see strange figures afoot, Maddie’s art comes to odd life and Oliver makes a new friend who threatens to tear apart everything they hold dear. (All this and a heinous serial killer on the loose, too!) Armed with complex characters and a series of seriously nasty obstacles for them, Wendig’s book deftly navigates heady themes and features the kind of battle between good and evil that sticks in your soul. – Brian Truitt

‘Son of the Storm,’ by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

There are books that jolt your spirit and remind you why you love reading; “Son of the Storm” was that for me this year. It’s a multiple-POV story that explores power, happiness and purpose in a hierarchical society. To have an epic fantasy inspired by African culture, in which all characters all Black, enables nuance and understanding of real-world issues. Racism and classism still exist in this world, and Okungbowa expertly showcases how they can destroy a thriving society. Every character’s motivations are so clearly laid out that I walked away from it rooting for the antagonist and wanting her to achieve her goal. If all else fails, there’s a really cool giant bat zombie to look forward to! Fantasy readers should not miss this first installment in The Nameless Republic series. – Josh Rivera, travel editor

‘Mexican Gothic,’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

A thrilling book with a compelling heroine and gorgeously creepy setting, “Mexican Gothic” had me hooked from the first page. It is rare for me to find a book that is this well-crafted and exciting enough to get my heart racing. The novel has all the trappings of a classic gothic piece, complete with a crumbling mansion whose inhabitants would give Count Dracula the creeps. “Mexican Gothic” draws upon Mexican culture while directly challenging colonialism, eugenics and class exploitation. The answers to the novel’s mysteries are not predictable, but they are fully explained by the end. I’ve been telling all my friends to get a copy. – Sara Tabin, Reviewed sleep writer

More:Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s must-read noir ‘Velvet Was the Night’ is hard to put down

‘My Personal Best: Life Lessons from an All-American Journey,’ by John Wooden with Steve Jamison

This short and sweet nonfiction book published in 2004 is my favorite read of 2021. It doesn’t hurt that it has ties to a little show near and dear to my heart: “Ted Lasso.” In the show, Lasso hangs a framed copy of Wooden’s pyramid of success. I remembered years ago my brother Tom had told me about the pyramid and also recommended this particular book by Coach Wooden. In its 192 pages, I received a combination of consolation and inspiration from a coach whose advice honestly transcends sports and time. He’s written a playbook for life. Reading it reminded me of many of Lasso’s folksy and eloquent revelations that touched both myself and viewers across the country. And now I think I know who also may have inspired Ted.  – Mary Cadden, Best-Selling Books List editor

‘Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love,’ by Dava Sobel

Those who like to complicate their knowledge of a familiar topic and experience a narrative rendition of history will thoroughly enjoy this book. Sobel uses the letters from the eldest of Galileo Galilei’s illegitimate children (they all were! Did you know that? I didn’t!), Virginia, as touch points for historical events to weave a story not just of the flawed, complicated and sickly man, but of an era in history which deeply affected the path of humanity. The one-sided correspondence with Virginia, renamed Suor Maria Celeste after entering her convent which likely destroyed his replies after her death, details the long and winding path of Galileo’s life and relationships, providing a window into life in the 17th century, and a deeply human view of massive topics such as the rift between the Roman Catholic Church and science itself. – Hannah Gaber, senior video producer/politics

More to add to your TBR pile:20 winter books we can’t wait to read by Valerie Bertinelli, Brian Cox, Bob Odenkirk and more


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