My Top Ten Favorite Novels of 2021



These are my favorite novels published in 2021. I make no effort to read a bunch of books I SHOULD read or which would make anyone else's top ten. Also, there are no non-fiction or story collections.



A Gambling Man

by David Baldacci

Archer stops in Reno, where a stroke of fortune delivers him a wad of cash and an eye-popping blood-red 1939 Delahaye convertible—plus a companion for the final leg of the journey, an aspiring actress named Liberty Callahan who is planning to try her luck in Hollywood. But when the two arrive in Bay Town, California, Archer quickly discovers that the hordes of people who flocked there seeking fame and fortune landed in a false paradise that instead caters to their worst addictions and fears.

Archer’s first stop is a P.I. office where he is hoping to apprentice with a legendary private eye and former FBI agent named Willie Dash. He lands the job, and immediately finds himself in the thick of a potential scandal: a blackmail case involving a wealthy well-connected politician running for mayor that soon spins into something even more sinister. As bodies begin falling, Archer and Dash must infiltrate the world of brothels, gambling dens, drug operations, and long-hidden secrets, descending into the rotten bones of a corrupt town that is selling itself as the promised land—but might actually be the road to perdition, and Archer’s final resting place.
Not sure whatever mental machine Baldacci uses to churn out all his series from John Puller to Will Robie to Atlee Pine to Amos Decker and now these Aloysius Archer books that I think may be my favorites.  They are throwbacks both in setting and in tone to the  noir novels of the late 1940s and early 1950s.  Archer is a former soldier and former prison inmate trying to build a future on using his new-found determination with learning the private investigator trade from one of the old guard best, Willie Dash.
I especially enjoy Baldacci's decision to NOT make Archer the smartest guy in every room.  He is self-assured, but with a firm grasp of his abilities and more importantly, shortcomings.  He has a hard head, a keen mind, and a sense of common decency.  He can defend himself in deed and in expression, but Baldacci does not allow him to slip into stand-up comic mode.
As is the case in many Baldacci novels, there isn't always a moral to the story, but the morality of the characters figure prominently.


Billy Summers

by Stephen King

Billy Summers is a man in a room with a gun. He’s a killer for hire and the best in the business. But he’ll do the job only if the target is a truly bad guy. And now Billy wants out. But first there is one last hit. Billy is among the best snipers in the world, a decorated Iraq war vet, a Houdini when it comes to vanishing after the job is done. So what could possibly go wrong?

How about everything...

Laying low, trying to remain undetected until he can escape, Billy sees a young woman, Alice Maxwell, get dumped out of a van, unconscious or drugged or both.  He has to get her out of the rain and tend to her wounds caused by the men who abused her and cast her aside.  She's afraid the men will come back for her when they find no report of her death.  Billy makes no promises, but agrees to take her along.

It will turn out that neither one of them can escape completely.

What can anyone say about Stephen King at this point.  I can only say that I am more of a fan of his suspense thrillers than of his super-natural fare, but I believe he is overall the most versatile and naturally-talented novelist of the past 50+ years.



City on Fire

by Don Winslow

Two criminal empires together control all of New England.

Until a beautiful woman comes between the Irish and the Italians, launching a war that will see them kill each other, destroy an alliance, and set a city on fire.

Danny Ryan yearns for a more “legit” life and a place in the sun. But as the bloody conflict stacks body on body and brother turns against brother, Danny has to rise above himself. To save the friends he loves like family and the family he has sworn to protect, he becomes a leader, a ruthless strategist, and a master of a treacherous game in which the winners live and the losers die.

From the gritty streets of Providence to the glittering screens of Hollywood to the golden casinos of Las Vegas, two rival crime families ignite a war that will leave only one standing. The winner will forge a dynasty.
*I read somewhere that Winslow used The Illiad and Helen of Troy as templates for this book. It may be true.  I didn't notice.  It didn't jump out at me.  It may have such elements, but I simply found the story and characters to be intriguing.  As is usually the case with Winslow, it is a solid, well-told tale.  As I was unaware of the history of gangsters in Rhode Island, I found it original and plausible.  I particularly liked the ending, and hearing this might be another trilogy, I look forward to seeing how it leads into the next novel.



Razorblade Tears

by S.A. Cosby

Ike Randolph has been out of jail for fifteen years, with not so much as a speeding ticket in all that time. But a Black man with cops at the door knows to be afraid.

The last thing he expects to hear is that his son Isiah has been murdered, along with Isiah’s white husband, Derek. Ike had never fully accepted his son but is devastated by his loss.

Derek’s father Buddy Lee was almost as ashamed of Derek for being gay as Derek was ashamed his father was a criminal. Buddy Lee still has contacts in the underworld, though, and he wants to know who killed his boy.

Ike and Buddy Lee, two ex-cons with little else in common other than a criminal past and a love for their dead sons, band together in their desperate desire for revenge. In their quest to do better for their sons in death than they did in life, hardened men Ike and Buddy Lee will confront their own prejudices about their sons and each other, as they rain down vengeance upon those who hurt their boys.

*As I was one of the few who found Blacktop Wasteland a little disappointing, I wasn't certain I would be reading this follow-up.  The synopsis sounded a bit like a few other books I had read or seen recently, but as is obvious by its position in my Top Ten, I'm so  glad I changed my mind.  This is a slow-building pressure cooker of a story that keeps upping the stakes until when the top blows off everyone is going to get burned a little.  The protagonists are flawed men who are driven by necessity and the desire to attone for their previous actions or lack of action.  Despite, their past mistakes, they are not men of weak resolution.



The Nameless Ones

by John Connolly

In Amsterdam, four people are butchered in a canal house, their remains arranged around the crucified form of their patriarch, De Jaager: fixer, go-between, and confidante of the assassin named Louis. The men responsible for the murders are Serbian war criminals. They believe they can escape retribution by retreating to their homeland.

They are wrong.

For Louis has come to Europe to hunt them down: five killers to be found and punished before they can vanish into the east.

There is only one problem. The sixth.
It is always enjoyable (not because we don't want him in) a Charlie Parker book that concentrates on Louis, Angel, and his daughter Jennifer.



Outlawed

by Anna North

The day of her wedding, 17 year old Ada's life looks good; she loves her husband, and she loves working as an apprentice to her mother, a respected midwife. But after a year of marriage and no pregnancy, in a town where barren women are routinely hanged as witches, her survival depends on leaving behind everything she knows.

She joins up with the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, a band of outlaws led by a preacher-turned-robber known to all as the Kid. Charismatic, grandiose, and mercurial, the Kid is determined to create a safe haven for outcast women. But to make this dream a reality, the Gang hatches a treacherous plan that may get them all killed. And Ada must decide whether she's willing to risk her life for the possibility of a new kind of future for them all.

Featuring an irresistibly no-nonsense, courageous, and determined heroine, Outlawed dusts off the myth of the old West and reignites the glimmering promise of the frontier with an entirely new set of feminist stakes. Anna North has crafted a pulse-racing, page-turning saga about the search for hope in the wake of death, and for truth in a climate of small-mindedness and fear.
This was an enlightening read for me in so many ways.  It was an education. I was made aware of the not so subtle pressure on women to produce offspring and the consequences of being unable to do so.
I found the characters fascinating with each true to their faults and strengths and their acted reflected them accordingly. Above all, I cared about them all as individuals.  This was a new western steeped in traditional tropes, but totally original in focus and execution.  I will be looking to read more from Anna North.



Never Far Away

by Michael Koryta

Once a wife, mother, and witness to a gruesome crime, Nina Morgan has been in hiding for a decade as Leah Trenton. She left behind her Midwestern roots to move to the northernmost tip of Maine. She also left behind a family. Living a fairly isolated life along the banks of the Allagash River, she is determined to focus on the present, on her reclaimed future, but the demons of her past are relentlessly chipping away at Leah's protected hideaway.

Then, in the wake of their father's untimely death, Leah's children call and she rushes to them in the guise of 'Aunt Leah'. They embark on a cross country journey but before they reach their destination, danger finds them and it is Leah who must come out of her seclusion to search for and protect her children.

Told with the deft plotting and enthralling storytelling of a genre master, these two captivating chase narratives will converge along the rugged Allagash River, in the wilds of Maine, where the wills, morals, and ingenuity of a broken family will be tested against all odds.
Michael Koryta novels seem best when he puts his characters out in a forest, on a mountain, stranded on a lake, or washed down a river ...  or some combination of all of those. He is also a master at slipping in supporting characters who are not protagonists of the main plot, but are often more interesting, perhaps just more mysterious, than the central characters driving the plot.  Here, he also ties in a couple characters from a much earlier book which can often be fun for his loyal fans. Bravo!
Although this isn't my favorite of his novels, it is a worthy contender with many scenes and characters that are proving to be unforgettable.



The Final Twist

by Jeffrey Deaver

Just hours after the harrowing events of The Goodbye Man, Colter Shaw is hot on the trail of a missing person whose disappearance he desperately hopes to explain: his own father.

Following the enigmatic clues his father left behind, Shaw explores one site after another, seeing clearly for the first time what strange business his father was up to--and what dangerous people he was working against. But when Shaw is caught by these same people, he's rescued by an intruder: his own older brother Russell, from whom he's been estranged for more than a decade. After saving Shaw, Russell stays on, and the brothers--both very different and oddly similar--join forces to identify the family.

This novel is a race against time to both find the family and to pursue leads to solve a decades-old mystery.
This is the third in a trilogy of books about Colter Shaw and his search for what really happened to his father.  In the prvious two books, Shaw also worked finding other lost people if there was a reward offered.  He was more interested in the cases than the amount of the rewards.  In this book, as he pins down more about his father, he gives himself over to that pursuit.  I like Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme books, but I really liked this new character so I stuck with him for all three novels.  It will be curious to see whether he has more for Colter Shaw to accomplish.



The Dark Hours

by Michael Connelly

Has a killer lain dormant for years only to strike again on New Year’s Eve? LAPD Detective Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch team up to find justice for an innocent victim in the new thriller from #1 New York Times bestselling author Michael Connelly

There's chaos in Hollywood on New Year's Eve. Working her graveyard shift, LAPD Detective Renée Ballard seeks shelter at the end of the countdown to wait out the traditional rain of lead as hundreds of revelers shoot their guns into the air. As reports start to roll in of shattered windshields and other damage, Ballard is called to a scene where a hardworking auto shop owner has been fatally hit by a bullet in the middle of a crowded street party.

It doesn't take long for Ballard to determine that the deadly bullet could not have fallen from the sky. Ballard’s investigation leads her to look into another unsolved murder—a case at one time worked by Detective Harry Bosch.

At the same time, Ballard hunts a fiendish pair of serial rapists, the Midnight Men, who have been terrorizing women and leaving no trace.

Determined to solve both cases, Ballard feels like she is constantly running uphill in a police department indelibly changed by the pandemic and recent social unrest. It is a department so hampered by inertia and low morale that Ballard must go outside to the one detective she can count on: Harry Bosch. But as the two inexorable detectives work together to find out where old and new cases intersect, they must constantly look over their shoulders. The brutal predators they are tracking are ready to kill to keep their secrets hidden.

Ballard and Bosch team up once again to find out where the old and new cases intersect. All the while they must look over their shoulders. The killer who has stayed undetected for so long knows they are coming after him.
Even as this was always another captivating read by Connelly, I sensed he was angling to put Bosch out to pasture and let Ballard burn her bridges for an exit from the department.  The ending to this one seemed a bit rushed, with Ballard being less than on top of her game,  That may have been on purpose.  I did like the ultimate ending.



Every Last Fear

by Alex Finlay

After a late night of partying, NYU student Matt Pine returns to his dorm room to devastating news: nearly his entire family—his mom, his dad, his little brother and sister—have been found dead from an apparent gas leak while vacationing in Mexico. The local police claim it was an accident, but the FBI and State Department seem far less certain—and they won’t tell Matt why.

The tragedy makes headlines everywhere because this isn’t the first time the Pine family has been thrust into the media spotlight. Matt’s older brother, Danny—currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his teenage girlfriend Charlotte—was the subject of a viral true crime documentary suggesting that Danny was wrongfully convicted. Though the country has rallied behind Danny, Matt holds a secret about his brother that he’s never told anyone: the night Charlotte was killed Matt saw something that makes him believe his brother is guilty of the crime.

When Matt returns to his small hometown to bury his parents and siblings, he’s faced with a hostile community that was villainized by the documentary, a frenzied media, and memories he’d hoped to leave behind forever. Now, as the deaths in Mexico appear increasingly suspicious and connected to Danny’s case, Matt must unearth the truth behind the crime that sent his brother to prison—putting his own life in peril—and forcing him to confront his every last fear.

Told through multiple points-of-view and alternating between past and present, Alex Finlay's Every Last Fear is not only a page-turning thriller, it’s also a poignant story about a family managing heartbreak and tragedy, and living through a fame they never wanted.

This was my first Alex Finlay novel.  I have to admit several times I almost decided to cut my losses, but I'm glad I stayed with it.  The payoff in the end was well worth it and, in retrospect, all the groundwork laid along the way, made the emotional connections much more persuasive.  I am very much looking forward to my next Finlay book.



The Winners

by Fredrik Backman

Over the course of two weeks, everything in Beartown will change.

Maya Andersson and Benji Ovich, two young people who left in search of a life far from the forest town, come home and joyfully reunite with their closest childhood friends. There is a new sense of optimism and purpose in the town, embodied in the impressive new ice rink that has been built down by the lake.

Two years have passed since the events that no one wants to think about. Everyone has tried to move on, but there’s something about this place that prevents it. The destruction caused by a ferocious late-summer storm reignites the old rivalry between Beartown and the neighboring town of Hed, a rivalry which has always been fought through their ice hockey teams.

Maya’s parents, Peter and Kira, are caught up in an investigation of the hockey club’s murky finances, and Amat—once the star of the Beartown team—has lost his way after an injury and a failed attempt to get drafted into the NHL. Simmering tensions between the two towns turn into acts of intimidation and then violence. All the while, a fourteen-year-old boy grows increasingly alienated from this hockey-obsessed community and is determined to take revenge on the people he holds responsible for his beloved sister’s death. He has a pistol and a plan that will leave Beartown with a loss that is almost more than it can stand.

As it beautifully captures all the complexities of daily life and explores questions of friendship, loyalty, loss, and identity, this emotion-packed novel asks us to reconsider what it means to win, what it means to lose, and what it means to forgive.
*This book gets added here as a special 11th selection in my Top Ten.  It is here representing the entire hockey trilogy.  Each book has its flaws which I have come to believe may be a result of the difficulty in translating from the author's native Swedish. At any rate, as a set these three books are a moving testament to rivalry, comaraderie, and humanity.

Honorable Mention:

Shoot the Moonlight Out by William Boyle

The Left-handed Twin by Thomas Perry

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas