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My Favorite Books of 2021 (so far)

Cindy Burnett
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Favorite books so far

Cindy Burnett highlights her favorite books of the year so far, which include a range of fiction, historical fiction, memoir, and thrillers.

At the end of March and July, I highlighted my favorite reads of the first quarter and first half of 2021. I enjoy seeing how the list changes as the year progresses.

I love reflecting on the books that stand out to me and evaluating what I am reading and how each compares. My list did not change quite as much this quarter but I did end up with 13 instead of 12; I just could not narrow it down anymore. And much like the first two quarters, I have interviewed almost all of the authors, 11 of the 13, on the list below for my podcast. I am very curious to see how that trend continues at the end of the year. 

Here are my top 13 reads at the three-quarter mark of 2021 in alphabetical order:

Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson - Better Luck Next Time is historical fiction set on a divorce ranch outside of Reno, Nevada in the 1930s, told from the perspective of a man named Ward. The ranch houses women who are required to spend six weeks in Nevada to gain residency and then they can obtain a divorce. When the story opens, it is his present day, and he begins to reflect back on one particular six weeks, and the two women Nina and Emily that changed the trajectory of his life. The book is fantastic – I love the way she writes; I love the setting; and I really love Ward - he is now one of my favorite fictional characters. 

The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck – Robuck brings real-life American heroine Virginia Hall to life, highlighting her immense bravery as an Allied spy in German-occupied France during World War 2. She vividly depicts Hall’s extraordinary heroism amid the horror of the Nazi atrocities while also shining a light on the thousands of regular people who bravely joined the Resistance (and put their lives on the line) to ensure that their country would not fall to the Nazis. I read this one in less than 24 hours and absolutely loved it.

The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren – After World War I, women flocked to New York City to follow their dreams and sought safe, female-only places to live. While residential hotels for men existed, no such thing was available for women at the time. The Barbizon Hotel for Women was built to fill this void, housing such well-knowns as Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali McGraw, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Phylicia Rashad and many more, and was so successful that it remains the most famous of the women-only residences erected in the first half of the 20th century. In The Barbizon, Paulina Bren captures not only the story of the legendary hotel but also important moments in women’s history from that time period.

The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird – Sweeney-Baird’s debut speculative fiction novel, written prior to Covid's arrival, tackles the premise of what the world would be like if 90 percent of the men disappeared from the planet. Set in 2025, The End of Men opens just as the first case of the virus has appeared and follows various characters (mostly women) as they deal with this mysterious virus and come to terms with a changed world. Through their eyes, Sweeney-Baird chronicles how the world would be impacted by such a large gender imbalance -from the loss of husbands and sons to the changed workforce and what it now would mean to give birth to a son. The End of Men is a truly thought-provoking read that will stay with me for a long time.

House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran – Ly tells the story of how her family moved to the United States as part of a relocation program from Vietnam when she was three. They are resettled in an apartment in Queens, and they speak no English and are required to find their own work. Plus they are required to pay back the cost of their flights to the U.S. Ly’s father spent 10 years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp and has severe PTSD. So on top of trying to navigate the immigrant experience, her family is also trying to cope with his anger and irrational choices. For several years they perform sweatshop work as the kids go to school during the day and work a lot of the night. Ly tells her family’s story with grace, and she provides great insight into what the immigrant experience is like for one family.

Hostage by Clare MackintoshHostage is a timely and fast-paced thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. Flight attendant Mina is working the inaugural flight from London to Sydney, the first time a commercial plane will fly that distance (20 hours) without stopping. Once in the air, she receives a threatening note advising her to help hostages overtake the plane or her husband and child will be killed. Told in many alternating viewpoints including Mina, her husband Adam, and numerous passengers, Hostage is clever, thought-provoking, and full of fabulous twists and turns. Advice on reading this one – do not go on Goodreads and read the reviews because important parts of the story will be spoiled; it will be a much better read if you go in blind. I highly recommend this one.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman – Richard Osman returns with the follow up to his sleeper hit from last year, The Thursday Murder Club. This engaging, big-hearted, and humorous series features four individuals (Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron) living at Cooper’s Chase, a retirement community in the English countryside. Elizabeth is contacted by an agent with whom she worked when she was in MI5. He has been accused of stealing $20 million worth of diamonds and needs a safe place to hideout so Elizabeth agrees to shelter him at Cooper’s Chase. Filled to the brim with entertaining and well-drawn characters and a clever mystery, The Man Who Died Twice is a joy from start to finish, and I am already eagerly anticipating book 3. While this book is the second in a series, it can definitely be read as a standalone as well.

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy - Inti Flynn and a team of biologists arrive in Scotland to help re-introduce wolves back into the Highlands through a program similar to the way wolves were returned to Yellowstone National Park. While participating in this venture, Intio also hopes to help her twin sister Aggie recover from a traumatic event in her past. Facing resistance from the locals, Inti struggles to reassure them that the wolves won’t harm them as long as they are left alone but instead will assist with balancing the ecosystem by slowing down climate change and environmental degradation. McConaghy’s writing is lyrical, and her descriptions of both the wolves and the wild Scottish landscape cause them to leap off the page. Once There Were Wolves is a beautiful and haunting story that will remain with me for a very long time and will be in my top ten reads of the year. It is truly not to be missed.

Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan - Callahan’s beautiful, magical, and captivating new book Once Upon a Wardrobe delves into the question of what inspired C.S. Lewis to create Narnia. Megs Devonshire studies math and science at Oxford and relies on facts versus intuition; when her terminally-ill brother George becomes infatuated with a new book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and implores her to find out how Narnia came about, Megs finds herself visiting C.S. Lewis, an Oxford don, and his brother Warnie hoping to answer George’s questions. Instead of providing her answers directly however, Lewis tells her stories about his own life growing up which she then relays each weekend to George. While Megs struggles to find the connections, George helps her understand the stories that Lewis relates and how they led to the creation of Narnia. I loved it from beginning to end.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray – Belle de Costa Greene worked as J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian and curator of his private library housed in a townhouse off of East 36th Street before the collection became the Morgan Library and Museum. While she became an influential individual in the art world and one of the country’s most prominent librarians, she hid a devastating secret – she was a Black woman “passing” as a white woman and moreover was the daughter of the first Black graduate of Harvard. All sorts of fascinating book-related information is woven seamlessly into the story including details related to rare books, manuscripts, and incunabula (books printed before 1501) including the Gutenberg bibles, the first books printed in English and who printed them, and so much more. 

Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie – This beautifully-written debut tells a fictionalized, loosely-based version of the relationship between James Taylor and Joni Mitchell in the late 1960s. This coming-of-age tale follows Jane Quinn, a talented singer, as she rockets to stardom, encounters extreme sexism in the music industry, battles with wanting to stay true to herself and her music, whether to choose love or a career, the stigma of mental illness and more. Brodie brings the music of the era to life and had me wishing I could actually listen to Jane’s music. Songs in Ursa Major is truly stunning and is my favorite book of the year so far. 

These Silent Woods by Kimi Cunningham Grant - Kimi Cunningham Grant’s new compelling and haunting thriller stars a father and daughter duo who have been living in a remote cabin off the grid for eight years in the northern Appalachian woods. Lacking electricity and running water, Cooper and Finch’s only connection to the outside world are Cooper’s friend Jake who owns their cabin and brings them supplies once a year and a mysterious older gun-toting neighbor named Scotland. But when Jake does not show up with supplies and Finch begins to push back on their isolated lifestyle, a series of events are set in motion that will challenge the life Cooper has created for them. This tension-filled story kept me on the edge of my seat until I had turned the very last page; I read it in one sitting, and it is one of the best thrillers that I have read in a long while.

We Are the Brennans by Tracey Lange - This terrific contemporary drama follows the Brennans, an Irish Catholic family whose bonds and livelihood are tested when estranged daughter Sunday Brennan is involved in a drunk driving incident and returns home to New York to recover. Five years prior, Sunday fled to California with no explanation to her family and long-time boyfriend Kale. While she is happily and immediately welcomed back into the family fold, her arrival slowly triggers a release of long-held secrets which spark a chain of events that require the Brennans to put aside their differences to keep their family intact. We Are the Brennans is a beautifully rendered story that highlights the importance of family and that reminds us there are consequences no matter the choices made.

I hope you enjoyed reviewing my list, and I would love to hear what your favorites for the year are so far - feel free to drop them in the comments.

For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see Cindy’s monthly Buzz Reads column, her Thoughts from a Page Podcast or follow @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram. Find upcoming Conversations from a Page events here.

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