My Favorite 2021 Reads

Not a coincidence that my last post was the Best of 2020 Books, because 2021 was a blur. Isn’t everything during a pandemic a time-warp?

Seriously – 2021 was jam-packed. I had a full-time job at WebMD, worked part-time at Crate & Barrel, did a lot of work for the non-profit I served on the board for, completed a massive renovation in my condo, and had a lot of changes in my personal life. While I didn’t do much writing last year, I did a TON of reading, mostly because I never hooked my TV back up after the kitchen remodel and hardwood floors were replaced in May. I had between 10-20 books checked out at a time from the library, but for a change, I was only reading one book at a time, probably because I didn’t travel much.

Of the 88 books I read last year (yes, that’s a lot, I know, but 2021 didn’t afford much of a social life), here are some of my favorites:

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, from start to finish. As a classic movie buff, I enjoyed the flashbacks to the glamour of old Hollywood, and the way that the current time period setting juxtaposes with the looks back into Evelyn’s life, both before, during and after Hollywood. I didn’t know what to expect with this book, but I kept being surprised. Then thinking what the culture was like during the decades the events in the book took place, and the lengths that studios went to “protect” actors and actresses, I was not surprised at all. I highly recommend this book, and since this is my first book by Reid, I have added more to my “hold” list at the library!

Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson

I used to read a lot more non-fiction, but the pandemic has sent me down a rabbit hole of fiction as an escape. I read The Warmth of Other Suns a couple of years ago, and was enthralled by the way that Isabel Wilkerson wove in personal stories from individuals with historical data. She does this again with Caste, this time, showing how our country lives in a hidden caste system that goes beyond race. She compares the caste systems within the U.S., India and Nazi Germany, and how class divides and represses. As with her previous work, she intertwines personal stories with statistics and historical information, and that helps to give faces to what may seem like a very sobering topic. As I’ve always said about India’s caste system, it’s an ugly history, but we have to learn about it, teach it to the next generations and acknowledge the history so that we don’t repeat it, and we don’t allow our society to go back to that way of life being the norm.

The Guncle
by Steven Rowley

A book that will make you laugh and cry, on the same page even! I loved this glimpse into a 21st century family – a gay recluse actor takes in his niece and nephew after they experience a loss in their family. Neither he nor his home are equipped to take care of children, but they make do. They learn to grieve, survive Palm Springs heat, and have fun all at the same time. In the process, all three characters grow up and learn that they need each other.

I love the “Guncle Rules”, and may even adopt a few of them as my own as a “Saunt – Single Aunt”!

A Fall of Marigolds
by Susan Meissner

As with a few other novels on my list, this book goes back and forth between time periods and two characters. The story encompasses several historic events, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, 9-11, and the experience of immigrants in Ellis Island’s hospital, so of course, I was intrigued! love historical fiction, but there’s only so much World War II fiction you can read. This was a nice departure from that era. I will definitely be reading more from Meissner (see below)…

Lightning Strike
by William Kent Kreuger

Unlike most of the books that I read this past year, this one was by a male author, and mostly male characters. It was, like most of the others I’ve read, historical fiction, but not in the popular World War II or Gilded Age eras. Instead, Lightning Strike is set during the 1960s in Minnesota, where most of Kreuger’s books are set. From the perspective of a young boy, a small town murder mystery unravels as the protagonist learns more about his Native American heritage and how his Irish-American father, also the sheriff, has to police the town, navigate politics, and keep the peace. Think Stand By Me

The Nature of Fragile Things
by Susan Meissner

Another great read from Susan Meissner, this book is set mostly in San Francisco around the 1906 earthquake. A young Irish immigrant, Sophie, is a mail order bride for a widower with a young daughter in San Francisco, but all is not as it seems with her new husband. Flashbacks to the protagonist’s past in Ireland and New York, and a trip to the arid climate of Arizona keep you guessing… what will happen to Sophie?

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill
by Abbi Waxman

I read a couple of Abbi Waxman’s books this year, and this one really felt the most like me. Nina lives for winning on trivia nights, loves books (so much that she works in a bookstore – I’m not quite so ambitious!), and doesn’t have much of a social life. Yeah, that’s me. Unlike Nina though, I don’t have a cat, am not addicted to coffee (don’t touch my Coca-Cola though…), and I don’t have a long-lost father or family I’ve never met. Yeah, this is chick-lit, but reading this book made me want to work in a bookstore. The way that Waxman describes books though, I was hooked.

There’s something almost miraculous about seeing a child’s eyes light up when you hand him a book that intrigues him. I’ve always thought that it’s those children – the ones who realize that books are magic – who will have the brightest lives.

It’s always nice when children love books. Books change the world, I think.

The Things We Lost to the Water
by Eric Nguyen

As a New Orleans native, and considering I read this book the week before I visited my birth city, this one hits close to home for me. Like the main character of the book, I am also a child of immigrants in New Orleans. Unlike the main character though, I had both of my parents, my father was a doctor, and we lived in Metairie, not East New Orleans (two very different worlds for those not familiar with New Orleans geography).

The book takes you from the late 1970s until August 2005 (Katrina) and draws parallels between how water is both the lifeblood and culprit for those from Vietnam and New Orleans. We read about the trials and tribulations of an immigrant family from the perspective of one of the sons, from their life in East New Orleans, his brother’s scrapes with gangs, his own dreams to aspire to higher goals than he thinks possible, and finally culminates in the days leading up to and Katrina itself.

The Great Alone
by Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah continues to impress! I read The Nightingale last year, and knew that this would be a favorite since it was set in Alaska, which I loved visiting in 2015. The emotions reading this book… a rainbow of emotions is an understatement. It’s more like a 64-count box of crayons. Anger, sadness, love, happiness, contentment. I wanted to hug the protagonist, Leni, take a swing at her dad, and do both to her mom.

Then the way Kristin Hannah describes the Last Frontier, it feels like I am back there witnessing the beauty myself again. Some of my favorite passages:

At first there was the gray, ambient glow, light that wasn’t quite real, bleeding up from the snow, and then the dawn, pink as salmon meat, buttery.

Leni looked around. The beauty of this place, the majesty of it, was overwhelming. A deep and abiding peace existed here; there were no human voices, no thumping footsteps, no laughter or engines running. The natural world spoke loudest here, the breathing of the tide across the rocks, the slap of the water on the float plane’s pontoons, the distant barking of sea lions lumped together on a rock, being circled by chattering gulls. The water beyond the shore ice was a stunning aqua, the color Leni imagined the Caribbean Sea to be, with a snowy shoreline decorated with huge white-covered black rocks.

The world was something she’d never seen before. Blue, black, white, purple. From this vantage point, the geographical history of Alaska came alive for her. The colors were spectacular, saturating. Across the blue bay, the Kenai Mountains rose like something out of a fairy tale, white saw-like blades that pushed high, high into the blue sky. In places, the glaciers on their steep sides were the pale blue of robins’ eggs. The mountains expanded, swallowed the horizon. Jagged white peaks, striated by black crevasses and turquoise glaciers.

The Whole Town’s Talking
by Fannie Flagg

I’ve read a few of Fannie Flagg’s novels before, but this is the first that was not set in the South (hello… Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, anyone??), so I wasn’t sure what to expect. More than the South, Flagg has a knack for painting a picture of what life in small towns is like, and that is exactly what she does here in The Whole Town’s Talking. I won’t give away a major plot point, but the book encompasses over a hundred years of history in a small town in Missouri, made up of mostly Swedish immigrants and their descendants.

The Women of Chateau Lafayette
by Stephanie Dray

I was first introduced to Stephanie Dray when I read a book that she co-authored with Laura Kamoie, America’s First Daughter, about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy Jefferson. At an author lecture for America’s First Daughter that I attended, both authors said that they liked to write about female historical figures because, well, history is usually written about men, and by men. As with her collaborative work, Dray’s story about the Women of Chateau Lafayette is about strong female characters, this time, in France during three wars – the French Revolution, World War I and World War II, and how they overcame insurmountable odds to care for those unable to care for themselves, and the less fortunate.

Not Our Kind
by Kitty Zeldis

I identified with Eleanor, the main character so much. You wouldn’t think a middle-aged Southern woman of Indian origin would have anything in common with a Jewish woman in her 20s living in New York City, but… Our people are still working on being accepted, we are both learning to live with people who are still wary of our culture, and we aren’t quite sure we are doing the right things with our life. Eleanor is a teacher down on her luck who meets a wealthy Upper East side family in need of a tutor. They want the best for their daughter, but shhh… don’t tell the neighbors the tutor is Jewish!

The Forgotten Room
by Karen White, Lauren Willig & Beatriz Williams

Technically, I started in 2020, but I finished this book in 2021, so it’s on both lists. I loved it too much to limit it to one year! I love author collaborations, and these ladies do it so well. Like so many books that I read this year, this one was set during World War II, but it was also set in the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties. The three time periods involves three women from the same family who have connections to a room in a grand New York City mansion. You know I love any book set in an old house, and any historical fiction, so this was an easy read for me. I was also pleased to see the Schuyler name again, which I recognized from other Beatriz Williams Books. I will definitely be checking out All the Ways We Said Goodbye and The Glass Ocean, the other two books by this trio of authors.

Other reads from 2021 that I recommend:

  • The Kindest Lie
    by Nancy Johnson
  • The Last Summer at the Golden Hotel
    by Elyssa Friedland
  • The Forest of the Vanishing Stars
    by Kristin Harmel
  • The Woman with the Blue Star
    by Pam Jenoff
  • Island Queen
    by Vanessa Riley
  • The Almost Sisters
    by Joshilyn Jackson

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