Our Favorite Books from 2021

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As writers, perhaps it’s no surprise that reading is a major part of our lives. Books take us to new worlds, teach us new information and let us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. But besides being good for our brains, reading is often just plain fun. Fiction, in particular, gives us a chance to check out from the real world and forget our cares for a little while.

If reading more is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, here are ten titles we read in the past year that we recommend.

Amanda’s Top Books from 2021

I’ve completed 80 books in 2021 – the most I’ve ever read in one year. For me to really enjoy a book I need good character development and look for descriptions so that I can see scenes playing in my head as I read. I also typically need to be drawn in pretty quickly or I’ll find a book to be boring. I read some really good books this year and a few I didn’t enjoy much at all. There were even a handful that I started but abandoned. The following are some of my favorites from the past year.

The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel
4 out of 5

One of my go-to genres is historical fiction surrounding events during WWII. This is one of my favorites from this year on the topic.

Eva’s story is told in 2005 as well as in the past when she lived through WWII. As a woman in her 80s, she sees the photograph of a book she remembers from her past. She decides to travel from the US to Germany to see it once again as she’s the only one who can shed light on a mystery it holds.

Most of the book is a flashback of Eva’s time after her father was taken by Germans. She and her mother fled and in the process, Eva begins helping the resistance. Eva’s story and her character drew me in and I liked many of the supporting characters as well.

For me, the end was a bit predictable and I wish a bit more would have taken place after Eva returns to Germany but overall neither of these things detracted from the story too much.

The Orphan House by Ann Bennett
4 out of 5

I enjoyed this book but didn’t give it 4.5 or 5.0 stars mainly because I figured out the ending before it was revealed. Or rather I suspected it and it was confirmed. I also didn’t feel the two main characters were as well developed as they could have been. I felt like a sub-character had more draw to her and it was through reading her old diary entries.

Sarah has left her husband and is looking to move to be closer to her father. The home finds herself interested in belongs to Connie, the last living person who knows anything about the orphanage that used to run next door. Connie’s father was in charge of it and all of the children who passed through it.

After the orphanage shut down Connie and her sister remained in the house where they grew up. Recently Connie’s sister has passed away and Connie has been moved to an assisted living home after a fall. She’s in her 90s and may not be as physically strong as she used to be but is mentally capable.

Eventually, Sarah and Connie cross paths. Sarah’s father was a baby who was at the orphanage. He’s interested in finding out more information about his birth mother. Connie reflects on her past at the orphanage with her father, mother, and sister. She doesn’t have all happy thoughts and wonders what secrets her father was hiding.

The chapters go back and forth between Sarah and Connie as more and more is revealed about a mystery surrounding the orphanage. Overall I enjoyed the plot and the characters. This isn’t necessarily a mystery that is also a page-turning thriller. It’s more of a mystery with emotional ties. There are some twists and turns throughout as things are slowly revealed. The characters are likable although I do wish they were fleshed out a bit more.

Don’t Look for Me by Wendy Walker
4 out of 5

I read this book in one day. It had me guessing on whodunnit and was a page-turning psychological thriller.

Molly Clarke disappears one night. It’s thought that she’s a wife and mother who wanted to escape her life and not be found. But is this really the case? Her daughter, Nicole thinks otherwise and starts to look for her mother when the police close the case.

Without giving too much away, the plot switches between the point of view of two characters. As elements of the past and present are revealed the reader is left to wonder who is telling the truth and who is hiding something.

His & Hers by Alice Feeney
5 out of 5

There’s a murder. Jack and Anna both know the victim. Jack is a detective and Anna works for a news station. The plot is told from both of their points of view with little snippets from the murderer throughout. I had different ideas throughout the book but never fully landed on the final outcome before it was revealed.

I enjoyed the pace of this book. I wanted to keep reading because nearly every chapter felt like I was left with a cliffhanger. I liked going back and forth between Jack and Anna to see what each would reveal. There is more than one person who could be the murderer and it was fun to try and figure out who it was through some twists and turns.

It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover
5 out of 5

I’ve enjoyed many of Colleen Hoover’s books. While the plots are often similar I’ve liked her character development and presenting a story that draws you in. I’m not a romance fan but due to character development and storytelling ability, I’ve become a fan of this author. She’s similar to Tara Jenkins Reid for me in that her books aren’t ones I’d typically pick up but I enjoy the characters and plot.

By chance, Lily meets Ryle on a night when they both have had a bad day. There’s some flirtation going on but nothing happens. He’s not into relationships, but wouldn’t mind a one-night stand. She’s not that kind of girl. They end up seeing each other again and the attraction is still there.

They start a trial relationship. During this time the reader is also introduced to old diary entries Lily wrote when she was in high school. You learn about Atlas, a boy she had a strong bond with but circumstances that made it so even as friends they weren’t able to develop.

After Lily and Ryle start dating, Lily sees Atlas. It brings back old memories and feelings. Who should Lily be with? Who does she want to be with? And who is really good for her? There’s sadness, happiness, madness, and heartbreak – sometimes all at once – throughout this book. I even enjoyed the sub-characters, who were developed just enough to care about them and their role in the lives of the main characters.

Maryalene’s Top Books from 2021

For 2021, I just barely hit my goal of 75 books for the year (cookbooks for the win!). My normal reading routine is nonfiction while eating breakfast before the kids wake up, fiction before bed and audiobooks while cleaning. The house is looking pretty dirty, and that’s probably why I didn’t get through many audiobooks this year.

For 2022, I’d like to incorporate some spiritual reading on Sundays, and I have some once-a-day books that I’d like to add into the mix as well. We’ll see how that goes.

In the meantime, here are some titles — spanning a range of genres — from the previous year that I recommend.

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
5 out of 5

I really love the Little House on the Prairie books, and Farmer Boy is one of my favorites. The pioneer families get so much done, always eat from scratch and their houses are so tidy! I think these books speak to my deepest productivity and housekeeping dreams.

This story isn’t about Laura, but rather her future husband Almanzo. It was apparently written by Ingalls Wilder based on events relayed to her by her spouse. Almanzo’s upbringing was much different from Laura’s. While her family spent her childhood traipsing from the big woods of Wisconsin to the plains of Kansas with all their worldly possessions in a covered wagon, Almanzo lived on a prominent farm in New York. I believe I read some of the Little House books when I was younger, but I have been reading the series aloud to my youngest kids and think I might appreciate them more as adults.

This was the first book I finished in 2021, and if you are looking for a short and easy read to kick off 2022, this is a good choice in my opinion.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
4 out of 5

In the classics category, I’m going with Wuthering Heights which is, quite frankly, a very strange story about a most unlikeable man who lives on the English moors.

Heathcliff was brought home as an orphan, neglected and abused and then turned into an abusive person himself. He and his adoptive sister are in love but apparently unable to speak or act rationally to one another. Some people die, others are held against their will and there are ghosts too. It’s enough to make you scratch your head and ask, is this really what life was like in England in the early 1800s?

Published in 1847, this isn’t the easiest of reads, but isn’t a dull story either. It’s one of the those books I’m glad I read because now I can understand many literary references that used to go right over my head.

The New Family Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen
5 out of 5

I need to give a shoutout to at least one of the cookbooks that helped me reach my reading goal this year, and I’m giving the nod to The New Family Cookbook. I’m not sure I’ve ever tried a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen that didn’t turn out, and this book is a goldmine of information.

There is a short introduction with plenty of photos on basic tools, chopping techniques and more, and there is detailed information about different ingredients and cooking methods throughout. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything has long been my go-to cookbook, but I think this one trumps it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
5 out of 5

I read The Handmaid’s Tale in college and just listened to it this year as an audiobook through Audible. Claire Danes was a wonderful narrator, but there was an essay by Valerie Martin at the end that I didn’t enjoy as much. It seemed odd to have Martin telling us what Margaret Atwood was trying to say in her novel when we just heard an afterword from Atwood herself. Why not simply let the author’s words stand on their own?

Anyway, as for the story, it is set in Gilead in the area of current-day Boston. It’s a society in which everyone has a particular role to play, and the powerful control everything. Free speech and expression isn’t a thing, and anyone who violates the norms is subject to public execution. Apparently, fertility is also an issue, and commanders and their wives are issued handmaids to remedy that problem. A very specific ritual must be performed each month in the hopes a pregnancy will result. The Handmaid’s Tale is written from the perspective of Offred — her real name has been erased by Gilead authorities — and alternates between her past and present.

I know it’s popular to compare The Handmaid’s Tale to politics today, but I don’t buy into it as some sort of cautionary tale about where the world is heading. However, I do think it’s an excellent dystopian novel — chilling and very well-written.

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
3 out of 5

I have to admit: this book is a bit of a mess.

Published in 2005, The Great Influenza is purportedly about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. However, it doesn’t even really get to the pandemic until page 160. Until then, it’s more about the history of medical science, the founding of John Hopkins University, the elimination of free speech during World War I and the process by which influenza invades cells and replicates. John M. Barry loves to string together clauses, pulling together analogies and random facts, offering up so many words when only a few will do, creating pages upon pages of text, comparing — oh, well, you get the idea. Anyway, the book really could have used some heavy-duty editing.

That said, once I got through the initial chapters about the history of medicine (did we really need to go all the way back to Hippocrates??), I found this book to be fascinating. There are so many parallels between our current pandemic and the events from 100+ years ago — from canceled church services to overrun hospitals to disputes among public officials about what precautions to take. This book also helped me understand why scientists were freaking out at the start of the current pandemic. While I am vaccinated and happy to wear a mask if there is even the slightest chance it will help keep others healthy, locking down states and countries early in the COVID-19 pandemic seemed like overkill to me at the time. Now that I better understand how viruses spread and mutate, it makes much more sense.

I still have about 100 pages left so it feels dicey recommending a book I haven’t finished. Hopefully Barry stays focused and on topic for the remainder. Any other year, I may have abandoned The Great Influenza because of its wandering style and information overload (so. many. names.), but given our current pandemic, it feels especially relevant and worth the recommendation.

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