The Top Ten Books I Read In 2021

I read sixty-five books this year. This is ot as many as I wanted, but they all meant quite a bit to me. Still, I managed to pick out ten of the most exceptional. I will never not be amazed at the power of books. This was, for a plethora of reasons, a particularly challenging year for me. I am so grateful to have book to escape into. Anyway, let’s get to it! These are in no particular order, by the way. I couldn’t possibly choose an absolute favorite.

Also, I have tried not to spoil anything, but tread carefully if you haven’t read these.

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1. The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel

Genre: Historical Fiction

Target Audience: Adult

Synopsis from Goodreads: “Eva Traube Abrams, a semi-retired librarian in Florida, is shelving books one morning when her eyes lock on a photograph in a magazine lying open nearby. She freezes; it’s an image of a book she hasn’t seen in sixty-five years—a book she recognizes as The Book of Lost Names.

The accompanying article discusses the looting of libraries by the Nazis across Europe during World War II—an experience Eva remembers well—and the search to reunite people with the texts taken from them so long ago. The book in the photograph, an eighteenth-century religious text thought to have been taken from France in the waning days of the war, is one of the most fascinating cases. Now housed in Berlin’s Zentral- und Landesbibliothek library, it appears to contain some sort of code, but researchers don’t know where it came from—or what the code means. Only Eva holds the answer—but will she have the strength to revisit old memories and help reunite those lost during the war?

As a graduate student in 1942, Eva was forced to flee Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she begins forging identity documents for Jewish children fleeing to neutral Switzerland. But erasing people comes with a price, and along with a mysterious, handsome forger named Rémy, Eva decides she must find a way to preserve the real names of the children who are too young to remember who they really are. The records they keep in The Book of Lost Names will become even more vital when the resistance cell they work for is betrayed and Rémy disappears.”

My Thoughts: This was the first book I read this year. It amazed me. I love any book that tries to uncover a forgotten or unknown bit of history and learning about forgery during the Holocaust is such an important thing to know. I think it is always important to be reminded that the right thing to do is not easy. It may come with risks. But it still needs to be done and that is exactly what the protagonist of the novel does. Also, I have to admit, after such a heart wrenching novel the ending made me incredibly happy.

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2. The War Outside by Monica Hesse
Genre: Historical Fiction
Target Audience: Young Adult

Synopsis from Goodreads: “It's 1944, and World War II is raging across Europe and the Pacific. The war seemed far away from Margot in Iowa and Haruko in Colorado--until they were uprooted to dusty Texas, all because of the places their parents once called home: Germany and Japan.

Haruko and Margot meet at the high school in Crystal City, a "family internment camp" for those accused of colluding with the enemy. The teens discover that they are polar opposites in so many ways, except for one that seems to override all the others: the camp is changing them, day by day, and piece by piece. Haruko finds herself consumed by fear for her soldier brother and distrust of her father, who she knows is keeping something from her. And Margot is doing everything she can to keep her family whole as her mother's health deteriorates and her rational, patriotic father becomes a man who distrusts America and fraternizes with Nazis.
With everything around them falling apart, Margot and Haruko find solace in their growing, secret friendship. But in a prison the government has deemed full of spies, can they trust anyone--even each other?”

My Thoughts: Monica Hesse became one of my favorite authors this year. I read her other two novels, The Girl in the Blue Coat and They Went Left, this year, too. But, The War Outside was my favorite. The idea of Japanese Americans being put into internment camps during World War Two is something that has always morbidly intrigued me. Fear and paranoia and prejudice can make people do horrific things. I had no idea about German Americans being placed into internment camps, as well, and I always love reading novels about little known history. But, I also love stories about unlikely but strong friendships (or more than friendship, depending on your interpretation of Haruko and Margot’s relationship.) So, everything about this novel was just incredible to me. The ending, though, broke my heart.

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3. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Historical Fiction

Target Audience: Adult

Synopsis from Goodreads: “Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband has left her, and her professional life is going nowhere. Regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career. Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. Monique begins to feel a very real connection to the legendary star, but as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

My Thoughts: I was very late to the party where Evelyn Hugo was concerned. But it was worth the wait. This book was incredible. Old Hollywood is another topic that really intrigues me. I love the way that Evelyn never allowed it to break her, the way that it broke so many real-life starlets. This novel made Taylor Jenkins Reid one of my favorite authors. (More on that in a moment.) Oh, and Taylor has said that Harry Cameron is her favorite of Evelyn’s husbands. I agree. He’s a gem. I will say, though, I hated the twist just because of what it did to Harry (no spoilers.)

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4. Forever Or a Long, Long Time by Caela Carter

Genre: Contemporary

Target Audience: Middle Grade

Synopsis from Goodreads: “Flora and her brother, Julian, don’t believe they were born. They’ve lived in so many foster homes, they can’t remember where they came from. And even now that they’ve been adopted, Flora still struggles to believe in forever. So along with their new mother, Flora and Julian begin a journey to go back and discover their past—for only then can they really begin to build their future.”

My Thoughts: I read middle grade quite often. I like to know what is out there to choose novels to read aloud in my classroom. And, oh, my goodness, this was one of the most beautiful middle grade novels I have ever read. I felt so deeply for Flora and Julian. I wanted to just go inside the story and keep them safe, forever. And the mother character is amazing. I’m sure I would feel differently if I were the age of the intended audience, but she absolutely was my favorite character and the sort of character I wish I could be more like.

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5. Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Historical Fiction

Target Audience: Adult

Synopsis from Goodreads: “Malibu: August, 1983. It’s the day of Nina Riva’s annual end-of-summer party, and anticipation is at a fever pitch. Everyone wants to be around the famous Rivas: Nina, the talented surfer and supermodel; brothers Jay and Hud, one a championship surfer, the other a renowned photographer; and their adored baby sister, Kit. Together, the siblings are a source of fascination in Malibu and the world over—especially as the offspring of the legendary singer, Mick Riva.

The only person not looking forward to the party of the year is Nina herself, who never wanted to be the center of attention, and who has also just been very publicly abandoned by her pro tennis player husband. Oh, and maybe Hud—because it is long past time to confess something to the brother from whom he’s been inseparable since birth.

Jay, on the other hand, is counting the minutes until nightfall, when the girl he can’t stop thinking about promised she’ll be there.

And Kit has a couple secrets of her own—including a guest she invited without consulting anyone.

By midnight the party will be completely out of control. By morning, the Riva mansion will have gone up in flames. But before that first spark in the early hours before dawn, the alcohol will flow, the music will play, and the loves and secrets that shaped this family’s generations will all come bubbling to the surface.”

My Thoughts: Another entry from Taylor Jenkins Reid? Well, of course! Remember when I said she became one of my favorite authors this year? I was so excited for this book to release and it was so worth the wait. Taylor is so amazing at creating compelling, flawed, real characters. So real, in fact, that all of her historical novels feel like nonfiction (which, I’m fairly sure, is the intention.) I related so deeply to Nina and adored seeing the love all the siblings had for one another. Oh, and I hated Mick Riva. Very much. (Which, I’m absolutely sure is the intention.)

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6. The Assignment by Liza Wiemer

Genre: Contemporary

Target Audience: Young Adult

Synopsis from Goodreads: “When an assignment given by a favorite teacher instructs a group of students to argue for the Final Solution, a euphemism used to describe the Nazi plan for the genocide of the Jewish people, Logan March and Cade Crawford are horrified. Their teacher cannot seriously expect anyone to complete an assignment that fuels intolerance and discrimination. Logan and Cade decide they must take a stand.

As the school administration addressed the teens' refusal to participate in the appalling debate, the student body, their parents, and the larger community are forced to face the issue as well. The situation explodes, and acrimony and anger result. What does it take for tolerance, justice, and love to prevail?”

My Thoughts: I picked this up on a whim at my local library. Immediately, I was intrigued by the premise. Like Forever, Or a Long, Long Time, I know that my feelings would be different if I were the age of the intended audience. But, it was such an interesting read as someone who works in education. There have been so many real-life instances like The Assignment and reading this novel was a reminder of the responsibility we have to teach our students in a way that aligns with what is morally right. Also, I can only hope that my students would have the courage to do what Logan and Cade do.

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7. The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

Genre: Historical Fiction

Target Audience: Adult

Synopsis from Goodreads: “Two years into WW2, Britain is feeling her losses; the Nazis have won battles, the Blitz has destroyed cities, and U-boats have cut off the supply of food. In an effort to help housewives with food rationing, a BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front is putting on a cooking contest--and the grand prize is a job as the program's first-ever female co-host. For four very different women, winning the contest presents a crucial chance to change their lives.

For a young widow, it's a chance to pay off her husband's debts and keep a roof over her children's heads. For a kitchen maid, it's a chance to leave servitude and find freedom. For the lady of the manor, it's a chance to escape her wealthy husband's increasingly hostile behavior. And for a trained chef, it's a chance to challenge the men at the top of her profession.

These four women are giving the competition their all--even if that sometimes means bending the rules. But with so much at stake, will the contest that aims to bring the community together serve only to break it apart?”

My Thoughts: Food and World War Two! Two of my favorite topics. Honestly, though, I absolutely adored this book. It was surprisingly lighthearted (or, as lighthearted as a novel about World War Two can be) and a wonderful reminder of the good that shines through even in the darkest times. All of the characters felt so real and relatable, I wanted to be friends with all of them. And I loved that recipes were included.

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8. Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson

Genre: Historical Fiction

Target Audience: Adult

Synopsis from Goodreads: “Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Brown was promised her freedom on her eighteenth birthday. But when her birthday finally comes around, instead of the idyllic life she was hoping for with her true love, she finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half-Acre, a jail where slaves are broken, tortured, and sold every day. Forced to become the mistress of the brutal man who owns the jail, Pheby faces the ultimate sacrifice to protect her heart in this powerful, thrilling story of one slave’s fight for freedom.”

My Thoughts: I don’t have many except to say that this book broke my heart. It absolutely broke my heart. I felt absolutely devastated for Pheby but I so admired her strength.

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9. A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis

Genre: Historical Fiction

Target Audience: Young Adult

Synopsis from Goodreads: “Grace Mae knows madness. She keeps it locked away, along with her voice, trapped deep inside a brilliant mind that cannot forget horrific family secrets. Those secrets, along with the bulge in her belly, land her in a Boston insane asylum.

When her voice returns in a burst of violence, Grace is banished to the dark cellars, where her mind is discovered by a visiting doctor who dabbles in the new study of criminal psychology. With her keen eyes and sharp memory, Grace will make the perfect assistant at crime scenes. Escaping from Boston to the safety of an ethical Ohio asylum, Grace finds friendship and hope, hints of a life she should have had. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who stalks young women. Grace, continuing to operate under the cloak of madness, must hunt a murderer while she confronts the demons in her own past.”

My Thoughts: I described this book in an Instagram post as a historical Criminal Minds. And, honestly? I need more books I can use that description for. In the spirit of honesty, I will say that I could’ve done without the twist toward the end. Up until then, I loved Grace. She was such a strong, intelligent character who didn’t let the terrible things she had experienced dim her light. Until the twist. Sigh.

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10. The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton

Genre: Historical Fiction

Target Audience: Adult

Synopsis from Goodreads: “Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.”

My Thoughts: This was one of the last books I read. And I loved it. I loved it so, so much. I am fairly sure I first heard of this book because it was compared to Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six. I read (and loved) both but, I have to say, I preferred this one. I loved Opal. I mean, I loved her. I wanted her to have every, single success possible. I wish I could go back in time and read this book for the first time, again. I can’t believe this was Dawnie Wilton’s debut. I will definitely pick up whatever she writes, next.