It’s that time of the year when everyone is making lists of their favorites or what they consider the best of . . . My favorite reads from the past year are a bit all over the place since I read from many genres, but I suppose it’s no surprise that many of these are historical fiction. I’ve finished 142 books this year, but I didn’t try to pick out 21 of the best. (I came close though). These were not (necessarily) books published in 2021, but books I read in 2021. I will list them (in no particular order) along with a short review.
The Beacon of Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw, first published in 1986.
Historical fiction taking place in the 4th century AD. A young woman wants to be a doctor, but women aren’t allowed to study medicine, so she disguises herself as a eunuch and leaves her home in Ephesus to go to Alexandria where she hopes to find someone who will take her on as an apprentice. She soon apprentices to a Jewish doctor, becomes caught up in church politics and has to flee again. This time she finds herself as an army doctor for the Romans, but life continues to be complicated. I have loved every book I have read by Bradshaw and this is no exception. Great characters and interesting historical background.
The Truest Pleasure by Robert Morgan (1995) takes place in North Carolina after the Civil War and into the 20th century. Ginny’s father has returned from the Civil War but keeping up their farm in the western North Carolina mountains is a huge task for the two of them. When she meets Tom (whose father didn’t return from the war), their attraction for each other and the land are enough for them to marry. Though Ginny wonders at times if Tom was really more attracted to her father’s land than her, they continue to work at their marriage. Their struggles come when Tom becomes obsessed with making money, and Ginny wants to spend time at Pentecostal tent meetings. Both see the other’s passion as foolishness.
The Night Watchman Louise Erdrich (2020; Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2021). My first book by Lousie Erdrich. Erdrich based her story on her grandfather and his fight to stop a bill in Congress which wanted to terminate Native Americans in the name of freedom. It is 1953 and Thomas Wazhashk, a Chippewa Council member and a night watchman at a jewel bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota learns of a bill that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land. He meets with others on the council to try and decide what they can do to stop this. Another main character, Pixie or Patrice, also works at the jewel bearing plant and desires to do something with her life besides get married and have kids. She has an older sister, Vera, who has disappeared in the city of Minneapolis, so Patrice decides to try to find her. What she finds is exploitation and soon needs to escape herself. Great characters and a fascinating story.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (2013). I’ve heard a lot about O’Farrell (even before she won the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year), but this was my first book by her, and I couldn’t put it down.
While taking care of everyday business at her vintage clothing shop, Iris Lockhart receives a letter, then a phone call. Cauldstone Hospital is closing and they need to know what she wants to do with her great-aunt Esme. Iris is sure there is some mistake as she has never heard of this woman. She soon learns that her grandmother’s claims of being an only child were false and that her sister had been committed (and ignored) to this hospital over sixty years ago. Once she meets Esme and does some research, she is horrified to learn how little it took for a family to get rid of an unwanted and embarrassing relative.
O’Farrell tells Esme’s story through flashbacks, some from Esme’s viewpoint and others through her sister’s whose mind is now clouded with dementia. I found her storytelling compelling and engaging, though, like Iris, I was also horrified to think of the many (mostly) women who may have ended up in institutions such as this with no one to plead their cause. I will definitely be reading more from O’Farrell.
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle Monique Roffey (2009). This is the story of a marriage and also a snapshot of the history of Trinidad. I lived in Trinidad for a couple of years (the years portrayed at the end of the book) and I wish I had been able to read this then. I’m sure it would have given me a better understanding of the country’s history and politics.
Still, in spite of the unusual way it was told (the last years are told first), I found the story of George and Sabine compelling, sad, and relatable. From England, George is offered a job with his company in Trinidad and he promises his wife they will only be there for a couple of years. George immediately falls in love with the country, and Sabine–does not. She grits her teeth and determines to stick it out, but as the years go by, the strain is felt on their marriage. Fiction shortlist for Orange Prize in 2010.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January Alix E. Harrow (2019). Loved this stand alone fantasy. January is of mixed race and questionable origin being raised by a white man in London while her father travels the world finding unusual artifacts for this wealthy man. Is he a benefactor or a prison warden? January finds a door to another world early in her childhood but her guardian insists it is in her mind and when she goes back to find it, it has been destroyed. When January is 16, everything she knows is being questioned and her life and sanity become endangered. I could write more & more about this book, but if you want to read a good stand-alone fantasy, just read it!
Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese (2009). Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born in Ethiopia in 1954. Orphaned by their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, they are raised by two doctors from the hospital where they were born, and not surprisingly, they both become interested in medicine though in different fields. Revolution and untold secrets cause Marion to have to flee to America where he learns more of his father’s history.
A fictionalized version of what might have happened when Agatha Christie first rode the Orient Express. Trying to escape the shame and hurt of her divorce, Christie rides incognito and soon meets two other women with secrets of their own. Together, they help each other out and even become involved in an archaeological dig when they reach Baghad.
I listened to several excellent audio books this year which was in no small part due to the excellent narrators. The first of my top five audio books: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by Victoria Schwab (2020), narrated by Julia Whelan. In France, some 300 years ago, Addie is about to be married to a man not of her dreams. She runs into the forest and calls out for help though she has been warned never to call to the gods of the night. When a man in black offers to give her the life she wants in exchange for her soul, Addie gladly accepts, not understanding the consequences of such an agreement. She will have a (very) long life but will not be remembered by anyone who meets her.
Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory (2020), narrated by Louise Brealey. I reviewed the first in this two book series last year (Tidelands) which I also listened to on audio. Midsummer Eve 1670 at a warehouse on the River Thames, Alinor receives two unexpected visitors and neither are entirely welcome. James Avery is the lover who deserted her years earlier. The other is a Venetian woman who claims to be the widow of Alinor’s son, Rob. Alinor refuses to see the first and though outwardly she accepts the widow’s claims–inwardly, she does not believe her son is dead. Her daughter, however, is taken in by this glamourous Venetian, so Alinor must bide her time to learn what has truly happened to her son.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016). Though unfamiliar with Noah’s comedy routines, I had heard he read this memoir himself and did a great job. I totally agree that his reading was excellent and often humorous, but it is much deeper than just a comedy routine. Born to a black mother and a white father in apartheid South Africa, Noah’s birth was literally a crime. Noah tells what it was like growing up where his mother and grandmother often had to hide him to keep him from being taken away and themselves arrested. His mother plays a key role in his life and is a delightful character as well. Noah gets into many escapades, but his mother makes sure he gets an education and never wavers from making him learn and to always do his best.
When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain (2021), narrated by Marin Ireland (one of my favorite narrators). Anna is a missing persons detective. When a tragedy occurs in her life, she takes off and goes to a small town where she had felt comfortable and loved as a foster child in high school. One of the first things she sees there is a poster for a missing teen. Even though she is there to escape her own grief, she soon becomes involved in this case. She meets old friends and uncovers old secrets.
Honorable mentions: Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018).
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012). Another that was excellent on audio. Narrated by Julia Wheland and Kirby Heyborne.
September by Rosamunde Pilcher (1990).
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron (2001).
Wintercombe by Pamela Belle (1988).
The last three were rereads, something I seemed to do more of this year. Happily, these three were still enjoyable and fun to read.
Happy New Year!