The best book covers are magnetic. They draw us in, commanding the helpless consumer to heed the call: YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK. Will the helpless consumer obey or will they scroll past the book released in 2021 to cultivate their intellect with a more rarefied choice? Maybe something by a dead Russian author with an unpronounceable name? Readers are viewers first and whether or not people give a new release the time of day depends on the cover art. Period. Since we’re only halfway through the year these are the 21 best book covers of 2021 (so far)…in no particular order. Let’s hope the rest of the year’s book covers are as good as these.
1. Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters
How does one condense the essence of an entire book down to a single image worthy of the cover? With a collage, of course! Never underestimate the power of the collage to convey a feeling. Book covers are big on the art form this year, and Detransition, Baby does it right. Playful yet serious, this dance of muted color suggests the contents are simultaneously weighted and light. A story of three women–some trans, some not–entwined in a love triangle that would have made Altman proud.
2. Second Place by Rachel Cusk
Although this list is in no particular order, Second Place by Rachel Cusk is number two for the obvious reason. The cover image reminds one of an oil painting that was left out in the rain or maybe soaked tissue paper bleeding color. Second Place is one of those novels that reminds us of the power of art to uplift…and destroy. The cover art is falling apart beautifully before our eyes.
3. The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard
The Godfather font and colors suck you in, the bizarre, crudely-crowned flower-faced figure won’t let you go. The Rib King is author Ladee Hubbard’s powerful follow-up to The Talented Ribkin’s (a nod to W.E.B. DeBois, not Highsmith). Ladee Hubbard’s captivatingly original prose throws African American stereotypes under the microscope to be seen up-close for what they are: disgusting, cartoonish and infuriating. This historical novel about the final exploitation of a family of American American servants to a not-so-wealthy white family will piss you off and teach you something, too!
4. My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee
A burst of art deco color sells My Year Abroad right away. This bouncy eye-catcher is classy, cosmic, and child-like all at once. The result is that you want to buy this book so that you can hold its smooth, matte cover in your hands as you read in the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon with iced oat milk late. Dive in and see what happens when a brilliant Chinese American entrepreneur blows a mediocre white college kid’s mind with a trip across Asia that awakens his inner ambition.
5. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
Here’s another bleeding color cover that evokes nostalgia in the most current way. Light Perpetual is a multi-narrative weave of WWII-era London lives that paints a portrait of the human soul that transcends time. Spufford zooms in on the minute details of “modern” human life that are unchanging, despite what era it is. Our daydreams, our desires, our expectations vs. the realities of life. The title reminds us of our true nature as human beings and the cover is cool.
6. Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Are the best book covers always some sort of collage? Apparently so! The cover art for Build Your House Around My Body conveys the style of Kupersmith’s prose–a revenge ghost story of mythological proportions. This novel is a bizarre yet captivating genre mash-up that spans 50 years of Vietnamese folklore.
7. Falling by T.J. Newman
The cover art for Falling by T.J. Newman is warmly nostalgic of the “Action” section of your now decades-defunct local video rental store. Reminiscent of late ‘80s and early ‘90s cinema classics like Die Hard and Speed, the cover art promises a similarly classic pulse-pounding story inside. Ok, so here’s the deal. You’re the pilot of a commercial airliner in midflight to New York. Thirty minutes before take-off your family was kidnapped by terrorists and the only way they won’t be killed is if you follow orders and crash your plane, killing all one hundred forty-three passengers on board. What do you do?
8. Island Queen by Vanessa Riley
Island Queen is a historical novel based on the true story of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas–an African woman who purchased her own freedom from slavery and became the wealthiest land-owner in the Caribbean. The cover art is vibrant, elegant, and vibey like a tasty Caribbean cocktail. Gonbae!
9. The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
The Final Girl Support Group will make you aware of a genre trope you didn’t know existed. The “final girl” is the last female standing in a slasher flick. Take Sally Hardesty from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Sidney Prescott from Scream, for example. So what does the life of a final girl look like after the credits roll? Well, she is definitely suffering from PTSD and is in need of therapy. This book picks up where your favorite slasher left off. What says “slasher victim support group” better than a blood-soaked folding chair?
10. Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor
This colorful and simple cover art will make you feel like you’re zooming through time-space on LSD like the filthy animal that you are. However, the stories Filthy Animals contains are quite different. A heavy collection of stories set in the American midwest that range from one man’s threeway relationship with a couple of strippers to a babysitter driven crazy by an unruly client. This assemblage is American Gothic at its Twilight Zone-iest best.
11. Antonio: A Novel by Beatriz Bracher
You might be asking yourself…how is this one of the best book covers? The key to this cover’s effectiveness is in its simplicity. Nothing to prove here except that sometimes what’s left unsaid leaves more room for what’s really important. The eyes are like the eyes of the protagonist Antonio, peering into his familial past. Antonio by Beatriz Bracher follows the protagonist as he grapples with a dark family secret. Somewhere in the murky past is a story of patricide that he is determined to uncover as he is on the verge of becoming a father himself. Set in Brazil, Antonio has the gravitas of a Faulkner novel…with hip minimalist cover art.
12. Languages Of Truth by Salman Rushdie
This summer the legendary Salman Rushdie dropped Languages Of Truth, a new collection of old nonfiction essays…and the cover art is fire, son! In his nonfiction writing, the literary icon weighs in on the meaning of truth, censorship, and the massive cultural shifts that have taken place throughout the first two decades of the 21st-century. This collection is a bit of much-needed wisdom and sanity in an era where truth itself is on the chopping block.
13. Future Feeling by Joss Lake
The cover art for this decidedly 2021 tale looks like a candy-coated Coachella flyer. The design is perfectly evocative of the youthful spirit of this debut novel from Joss Lake. Future Feeling is about a trans man who walks dogs for cash and spends his evenings obsessing over a fellow trans influencer on the gram. Into the future!
14. Everything Now: Lessons From The City-State of Los Angeles by Rosecrans Baldwin
It’s obvious why this is one of the best book covers. It’s punk af. Everything Now is pure, distilled LA soul right down to the author’s name. Rosecrans Baldwin brings us a love letter to Los Angeles we’ve never seen before. Books like this might be the only piece of honest journalism we get nowadays. Here’s a nonfiction mash-up of interviews with real Angelinos mixed with the author’s own take on the iconic dreamland of the West. This ain’t your deluded golden age of Hollywood wet dream. This is real LA, baby, as seen from the eyes of its modern inhabitants.
15. Foucault in Warsaw by Remigiusz Ryzinski
The rusty image of a faceless humanoid is a striking portrait of what it might have felt like to be a gay writer sneaking around secret nightclubs in 1958 Poland. Foucault In Warsaw paints a picture of gay life under communism, as seen through the life of one of the 20th century’s great literary voices, Michel Foucault. This is a thoroughly researched account of the famous French philosopher’s time in Poland while writing what would become The History Of Madness.
16. Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson
This book made the list because it is so unhip, so decidedly NOT 2021, how could it be ignored? This late ‘60s maybe early ‘70s take on medieval English design sheds a little bit of humor on the current COVID situation. Hurdy Gurdy follows a young friar in the year of our Lord 1349, in the season of the Plague. The young friar is forced to tend to the sick and in so doing, realizes he knows less than he thought he did about the pandemic. This book holds the mirror up to our modern times by poking fun at the utter ridiculousness of 14th-century medicine.
17. Spooked: The Secret Rise Of Private Spies by Barry Meier
Is this the cover of a long-lost Hitchcock flick? No, it’s the classically brilliant design of Barry Meier’s new book about the technocracy under which we are unconsciously enslaved! The truth is worse than fiction but hey, let’s embrace it. Spooked is where we’re at, folks. Mr. Meier is one of the good ones for writing about the secret billion-dollar surveillance industry. Yep, the same industry that harvests your data every time you open Instagram then spits it back at you by condescendingly telling you what to buy online is the same one influencing elections here and abroad. Welcome to the matrix, where have you been?
18. The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy
Speaking of Instagram, the cover of Alex McElroy’s new novel will make you want to double-tap that heart. According to Esquire, The Atmospherians is a timely tale that “takes aim at wokeness, wellness, and toxic masculinity.”
19. How To Blow Up A Pipeline by Andreas Malm
Hey you guys, it’s getting awfully political in here. Well, wait…is there anything happening in 2021 that isn’t political? It’s not very often you stumble upon a book title that makes you sweat when typing it into a google search. The cover art for this book about one author’s radical approach to climate change looks like a Discharge album cover, and that alone is pretty cool. How To Blow Up A Pipeline is one of the best book covers, fa sho.
20. Catch The Rabbit by Lana Bastasic
Ok, enough with the heavy stuff already. Catch The Rabbit sports a cover design that feels like cruising out to Palm Springs for a poolside weekender at the Ace Hotel. Who doesn’t need a little bit of that in their life right about now? Leave the past in the rearview mirror, this novel is taking us from Dublin to Bosnia but somehow, we’re staying in a Palm Springs state of mind.
21. Nightshift by Kiare Ladner
Night Shift knows there is something utterly magical about nighttime skylines and pink neon lights. These things promise an exhilaration that can only be found somewhere in the darkness of the underworld. This is also the kind of thinking that keeps addictions going well beyond the point of being cute or fun, the state of mind in which all poor decisions are made. The liner notes in Kiare Ladner’s debut novel Nightshift spell a special kind of disaster that anyone who truly lived their youth to the fullest can relate to.
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