Five-Star Reads of 2021

These were my five-star reads in 2021. I’m stingy with my stars, so these books really stood out for me among the 115+ books I read last year. I enjoyed them for a variety of reasons: Some inspired me, some taught me forgotten history, some were funny, some were creative, but one stands alone for extraordinary writing.

 

Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose may be the best book I have ever read. Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel traces the fortunes of four generations of one family as they attempt to build a life for themselves in the American West. Confined to a wheelchair, retired historian Lyman Ward sets out to write his grandparents’ remarkable story, chronicling their days spent carving civilization into the surface of America’s western frontier. But his research reveals even more about his own life than he’s willing to admit. What emerges is an enthralling portrait of four generations in the life of an American family.

Stegner’s novel is stylistically complex and simply outstanding. I savored every sentence of his smart, flowing, eloquent prose, rereading his gorgeous sentences repeatedly to soak them in. His use of metaphor was brilliant, and the characters were richly drawn, particularly the grandmother, a strong, heroic woman who is unkind and spiteful with a “cumulative grudge.”

I can’t say enough good things about this dazzling novel. Wow.

Genres: Family saga, literary fiction, modern classic
Read-alikes: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Only Story by Julian Barnes, Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life
by Ann Voskamp

This book is for those in need of a renewed revelation of the grace of God. It is about freedom, not beyond your fear and pain, but actually within itNew York Times bestselling author of One Thousand Gifts Ann Voskamp sits at the edge of her life and all her own unspoken brokenness and asks: What if you really want to live abundantly before it’s too late? What do you do if you really want to know abundant wholeness? This is the one begging question that’s behind every single aspect of our lives—and one that The Broken Way rises up to explore in the most unexpected ways.

This was the most life-changing book I have ever read. I took me a year to finish it, because I savored what I learned. I highlighted countless paragraphs. I wept. I allowed God to love me through my brokenness. The most important thing I learned from Voskamp’s words is this: we strive to be that person to whom others can share their pain and brokenness, but do we think about how much we bless others by sharing our pain and letting them listen and love us?

Genre: Christian living
Read-alikes: Daring to Hope by Katie Davis Majors, How Now Shall We Live by Charles W. Colson, Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist, Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely by Lysa TerKeurst

Cloud Cuckoo Land
by Anthony Doerr

Thirteen-year-old Anna, an orphan, lives inside the formidable walls of Constantinople in a house of women who make their living embroidering the robes of priests. Restless, insatiably curious, Anna learns to read, and in this ancient city, famous for its libraries, she finds a book, the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky. This she reads to her ailing sister as the walls of the only place she has known are bombarded in the great siege of Constantinople. Outside the walls is Omeir, a village boy, miles from home, conscripted with his beloved oxen into the invading army. His path and Anna’s will cross.

Five hundred years later, in a library in Idaho, octogenarian Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war, rehearses five children in a play adaptation of Aethon’s story, preserved against all odds through centuries. Tucked among the library shelves is a bomb, planted by a troubled, idealistic teenager, Seymour. This is another siege. And in a not-so-distant future, on the interstellar ship Argos, Konstance is alone in a vault, copying on scraps of sacking the story of Aethon, told to her by her father. She has never set foot on our planet.

Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015 for his highly acclaimed WWII novel, All the Light We Cannot See. It was a wonderful book; I was curious to read his new release and see how it compared. Cloud Cuckoo Land is decidedly different. One doesn’t read Doerr’s books purely for their entertainment value, but also for the beauty of his writing. It took me a long time to read this book, because I kept rereading his exquisite sentences. He tends to compose especially long ones, and I admittedly got lost in some of them.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is an unconventional, complex novel with five separate plotlines. I loved the stories of Zeno, Seymore, Omeir, and Anna, but I didn’t care for Aethon’s narratives at the beginning of most chapters, although I understand how crucial they are to the overall plot. I’m also not a fan of futuristic books, so Konstance’s story didn’t turn me on. Doerr melds them all together in the end, which is quite a feat. Cloud Cuckoo Land is intelligent, peculiar, and unlike anything I’ve ever read. It is a triumph.

Genre: Literary Fiction
Read-alikes: The Actual Star by Monica Byrne, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

A Fall of Marigolds
by Susan Meissner

“The person who completes your life is not so much the person who shares all the years of your existence, but rather the person who made your life worth living, no matter how long or short a time you were given to spend with them.” — Susan Meissner, A Fall of Marigolds

September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

September 2011. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, widow Taryn Michaels has convinced herself that she is living fully, working in a charming specialty fabric store and raising her daughter alone. Then a long-lost photograph appears in a national magazine, and she is forced to relive the terrible day her husband died in the collapse of the World Trade Towers.

I’ve been hearing about this book for years and it lived up to the hype. A Fall of Marigolds was absorbing, richly detailed historical fiction with well-drawn, believable characters. Meissner shared the stories of two women, generations apart, in an intensely human way and reminds readers that love bears all things.  I just loved it!

Genre: Historical Fiction
Read-alikes: The Space Between Words by Michele Phoenix, The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver

Hamnet
by Maggie O’Farrell

You enjoy historical fiction. You’re fascinated by William Shakespeare. You appreciate great writing. This is a must-read!

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley Street, Stratford, and has three children: Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596 at the age of eleven. A few years later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet. Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

I haven’t read a book so quickly in a long time. Maggie O’Farrell did an incredible job of pulling readers into Elizabethan England. Her research was impeccable, and her characters were believable and well developed. Hamnet was highly readable and filled with gorgeous, lyrical sentences such as this one: “The whiteness of the paper seems to pulse, stark and glaring, one moment, then recede behind the black strokes of the letters.” I was especially impressed with her authentic use of language. In one scene the author writes about a woman who is allergic to cats: “…they steal her breath…” A perfect description of asthma, a term not used during that era.

Genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction
Read-alikes: March by Geraldine Brooks, Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell, Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

The Last Green Valley
by Mark T. Sullivan

“Don’t chew on the bad things that happen to you, dear. Try to see the beauty in every cruelty. It sets you free. Forgive hurt if you want to heal a broken heart. Try to be grateful for every setback or tragedy, because by living through them, you become stronger.”—Mark T. Sullivan, The Last Green Valley

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is one of my favorite novels of all time, so I was thrilled to receive an advance reader copy of Mark Sullivan’s next historical epic, The Last Green Valley.

In late March 1944, as Stalin’s forces push into Ukraine, young Emil and Adeline Martel must make a terrible decision: Do they wait for the Soviet’s intrusion and risk being sent to Siberia? Or do they take their young family and reluctantly follow the murderous Nazi officers who have pledged to protect “pure-blood” Germans? The Martels are one of many families of German heritage whose ancestors have farmed in Ukraine for more than a century and opt to search for freedom in Germany. Caught between two warring forces and overcoming horrific trials to pursue their hope of immigrating to the West, the Martels’ story is a brutal, complex, and ultimately triumphant tale that illuminates the power of the human spirit.

I’ll start my comments with the most obvious statement. No, The Last Green Valley wasn’t as good as Beneath a Scarlet Sky, but it was darn close! What the Martels had to go through to survive is unfathomable. I don’t want to give away anything, but I will say that every time tragedy struck—and it struck a LOT—they got back up and continued trudging toward their dream. This family was made of very tough stuff. This is a multi-layered novel with well-developed characters you’ll cheer for. My only criticism is that the author repeated key events in the story as if the reader had forgotten them, which I found maddening.

In the end, Sullivan’s latest endeavor was harrowing yet heartwarming and would make an excellent movie.

Genre: Historical fiction, biographical fiction
Read-alikes: The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, Sisters of War by Lana Kortchik

Miss Benson’s Beetle
by Rachel Joyce

It is 1950. London is still reeling from World War II, and Margery Benson, a schoolteacher and spinster, is trying to get through life, surviving on scraps. One day, she reaches her breaking point, abandoning her job and small existence to set out on an expedition to the other side of the world in search of her childhood obsession: an insect that may or may not exist—the golden beetle of New Caledonia. When she advertises for an assistant to accompany her, the woman she ends up with is the last person she had in mind. Fun-loving Enid Pretty in her tight-fitting pink suit and pom-pom sandals seems to attract trouble wherever she goes. But together these two British women find themselves drawn into a cross-ocean adventure that exceeds all expectations.

When a friend in my book club selected this book, I thought it was going to be silly. But you know what? It was a delightful break from the heavy fare I tend to read. Rachel Joyce’s writing is clever, quirky, and funny. “The room smelled like gravy and old cardigans.” Outstanding, right? If I believed in reincarnation, I’d want to come back as friendly, happy, free spirited, happy-go-lucky Enid and impact others like she did Mrs. Benson. All fun aside, there were tender life lessons about the transformative power of sacrificial friendship, no matter one’s age.

Genre: Historical fiction, Relationship fiction
Read-alikes: Light Changes Everything by Nancy E. Turner, Serena Singh Flips the Script by Sonya Lalli, The Switch by Beth O’Leary

The Night Watchman
by Louise Erdrich

“Patrice had come to think that humans treated the concept of God, or Gizhe Manidoo, or the Holy Ghost, in a childish way. She was pretty sure that the rules and trappings of ritual had nothing to do with God, that they were ways for people to imagine they were doing things right in order to escape from punishment, or harm, like children. She had felt the movement of something vaster, impersonal yet personal in her life. She thought that maybe people in contact with that nameless greatness had a way of catching at the edges, a way of being pulled along or even entering this thing beyond experience.”—Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman.

Based on the extraordinary life of Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Erdrich’s grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with elegant prose, subtle humor, and depth of feeling of a master craftsman.

In The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a majestic work of fiction from a revered cultural treasure.

Genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction
Read-alikes: When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka, Let Him Go by Larry Watson, Making a Difference by Ada Elizabeth Deer, House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle

The Noticer
by Andy Andrews

“You see, with a degree of intelligence and a hint of wisdom, most people can tell the difference between good and bad. However, it takes a truly wise person to discern that oh-so-thin line between good and best. And that line, my friends, is the line that separates a roll of the dice about your future, from a sure thing… from trying, as the Bible says, to ‘see through a dark glass’ and having a perspective that allows you to see clearly the long-term consequences of your choices.” —Andy Andrews, The Noticer.

The good folks of Orange Beach have their share of problems—marriages teetering on the brink of divorce, young adults giving up on life, businesspeople on the verge of bankruptcy, as well as the many other obstacles that life seems to dish out to the masses. Fortunately, when things look the darkest, an elderly man named Jones shows up carrying a battered old suitcase.

I stumbled upon this book when I received an advance reader copy of Just Jones. When I realized it was part of a series, I decided to start from the beginning. Andy Andrews, where have you been all my life? Imagine how much different my perspective might have been had you imparted your wisdom upon me years ago when I really needed it. The Noticer is one of those books I will never forget. Not only did I love the writing and the premise of the book, but the key learnings the author shares are simple, yet mind-blowing! This is a must read for people of all ages.

Jones speaks to that part in everyone that is yearning to understand why things happen and what we can do about it. The Noticer is unique blend of fiction, allegory, and inspiration. Gifted storyteller Andy Andrews helps us see how becoming a “noticer” just might change a person’s life forever. Sometimes all a person needs is a little perspective.

Genres: Allegories, mainstream fiction
Read-alikes: The Walk by Richard Paul Evans, Can’t Make This Stuff Up! by Susannah Lewis, This is the Day by Tim Tebow, Rising Strong by Brene Brown

The Rose Code
by Kate Quinn 

The year is 1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. They develop a powerful bond as they live and work together. In 1947 the three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter—the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. The three resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together.

Kate Quinn certainly has come into her own. Her last three books have been massive bestsellers and just keep getting better. Although I gave The Huntress and The Alice Network each four stars, The Rose Code was my favorite. It’s thrilling historical fiction jam-packed with intrigue, treachery, romance, and the beauty of female friendship. You can’t go wrong with spies and code breakers, especially when they are intelligent women. It surprised me to learn Quinn is a native Californian; the nuances of her writing, her knowledge of WWII-era slang and fashion made her sound like a Brit. My thanks to NetGalley for the ebook and audio ARCs. Excellent narration by Saskia Maarleveld.

Genres: Historical thriller, Spy fiction
Read-alikes: The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott, Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon, Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig, In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen

Sparks Like Stars
by Nadia Hashimi

The current situation in Afghanistan is madness. The horrors being experienced by citizens and foreigners are unimaginable as thousands run for their lives. Sadly, the land that is now Afghanistan has a long history of domination by foreign conquerors and strife among internally warring factions, from Genghis Khan to ISIS.

In March, I read an astonishing novel by Nadia Hashimi set in Kabul during the 1978 communist coup. It has eerie similarities to what is taking place today. Hashimi was born and raised in New York and New Jersey, but both her parents were born in Afghanistan and left in the early 1970s before the Soviet invasion. She writes with an authentic voice.

Kabul, 1978: The daughter of a prominent family, Sitara Zamani, lives a privileged life in Afghanistan’s thriving cosmopolitan capital. The 1970s are a time of remarkable promise under the leadership of people like Sardar Daoud, Afghanistan’s progressive president, and Sitara’s beloved father, his right-hand man. But the ten-year-old Sitara’s world is shattered when communists stage a coup, assassinating the president and Sitara’s entire family. Only she survives. Smuggled out of the palace by a guard, she is adopted by an American diplomat who raises her in America.

New York, 2008: Thirty years after that fatal night in Kabul, Sitara’s world is rocked again when an elderly patient appears in her examination room—a man she never expected to see again. It is Shair, the soldier who saved her, yet may have murdered her entire family. Seeing him awakens Aryana’s fury and desire for answers.

Her father had once told her that the world lived within her. That her bones were made of mountains. That rivers coursed through her veins. That her heartbeat was the sound of a thousand pounding hooves. That her eyes glittered with the light of a starry sky. That is the gorgeous, lyrical writing you’ll experience in Sparks Like Stars. It’s not the type of book you’ll breeze through; it is the type you’ll savor. The author painted vivid word pictures that engaged all my senses: the sounds of the Kabul marketplace, the chaos of the coup, the fragrance of the gardens, and the despair of a little girl whose family is murdered before her eyes.

It was that strength she calls upon when she leaves all she knows behind to forge a new life in the United States. Sparks Like Stars is epic, emotional, and educational. It’s a great choice for book clubs because there is so much to discuss.

Genre: Mainstream fiction
Read-alikes: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, My Heart by Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

The Stolen Baby
by Diney Costeloe

A new Second World War novel from bestselling author Diney Costeloe, based on a gripping and moving true story. Amid the chaos of World War II in England, an infant seemingly abandoned during a bombing raid finds a home with grieving mother Maggie. But could this child be the same son Maggie lost months before?

I devoured this book! It’s a real page-turner with great pacing, well-drawn characters, and terrific writing. What more could you ask? Oh yeah, it’s also based on a true story! The Stolen Baby isn’t as frightening as the title would have you believe, nor is it as depressing as many WWII novels. If you like audiobooks, this one’s a winner.

Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, The Orphan’s Secret by Shirley Dickson, Wives of War by Soraya M. Lane

While Paris Slept
by Ruth Druart

One woman must make the hardest decision of her life in this unforgettably moving story of resistance and faith during one of the darkest times in history.

Santa Cruz, 1953. Jean-Luc is a man on the run from his past. The scar on his face is a small price to pay for surviving the horrors of Nazi occupation in France. Now, he has a new life in California, a family. He never expected the past to come knocking on his door.

Paris, 1944. A young Jewish woman’s past is torn apart in a heartbeat. Herded onto a train bound for Auschwitz, in an act of desperation she entrusts her most precious possession to a stranger. All she has left now is hope.

This book checked all my boxes. The engaging plot, the richly drawn characters, and the important message of unconditional love were all topnotch. While aspects of the story were about WWII, much of it was about its aftermath. A true pleasure to read and highly recommended for fans of historical fiction.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Read-alikes: The Room on Rue Amelie by Kristin Harmel, The Woman with the Blue Star by Pam Jenoff, We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

The Women of Chateau Lafayette
by Stephanie Dray

“Glory is a bittersweet wreath of both flowers and thorns.”—Stephanie Dray, The Women of Chateau Lafayette

A mysterious castle, a hero of the American Revolution, spies, what’s not to love? Stephanie Dray writes long, ambitious books. After reading and enjoying her historical novel America’s First Daughter (written with Laura Kamoie) about Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, I was excited to receive an advance reader copy of her latest, The Women of Chateau Lafayette. This 600+ page true story is set in three time periods—the French Revolution, World War One, and World War Two—all united by the singular legacy of the Marquis de Lafayette and the women who safeguarded his castle during three of history’s darkest hours.

Whew. Following the stories of three women was daunting enough, but to place them in three time periods was intimidating, especially in audio form. This book deserves a 5-star rating just for the sheer magnitude of research required to write it. But this is much more than history, it’s a masterpiece of triumphing in the face of overwhelming adversity that is intensely human, and superbly told.

Genres: Historical fiction, relationship fiction
Read-alikes: In the Country of Others by Leila Slimani, The Girl in the Castle by Santa Montefiore, All the Ways We Said Goodbye by Beatriz Williams

 

 

 

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