M.B. Henry’s Top 10 Reads for 2021!
Some random, barely-heard-of writer (Stephen King someone or other) once said – “if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” It’s a very true quote, because reading the countless amazing books out there has had a profound impact on my own writing. In its way, reading has taught me more about writing than any course, conference, or writers group (but all of those are also more than worth a writer’s time). So you could say a lot of my reading is for professional reasons.
But I’ll be honest. The truth is I’m an utter and total bookworm. Full-on need a twelve-step-program addict. And it started long before I picked up a pen to write my own. I’ve been devouring books since I was a kid. They give me an escape from this troubled world, they provide insight into other worlds, and they are vehicles to launch my yawning and stretching imagination to new heights. When I was in school, I would wonder into the library, just to have the librarian say, “ah, you again. I have some stuff here you might enjoy.” At the bookstore, I could never leave empty-handed. Sometimes I even tricked my parents into buying me books that probably should have waited a year or two.
Maybe they saw through my devious little ways and maybe they didn’t. But either way, books feed me like little else can. It’s a passion that has turned into a livelihood, with my debut novel coming out in the spring (click here for more on that).
And it’s a passion I’ve decided I’m long overdue to share. Most notably during the pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of great blog posts about what everyone’s reading. And trust me – I love talking books. Even at pre-pandemic parties when I was most likely to hide in a corner somewhere, books got me talking like you wouldn’t believe. Especially history books.
But in my line a work, it bodes well to read everything. Anything I can get my hands on. I rampage my way through dozens of books a year. While I can’t remember all of them (who could?), there are always a handful that leave a profound mark on me. Books that teach me a significant truth, that pull at my heart strings, that stick with me through thick and thin. And every year, I make a top ten list of reads that I post on my social media accounts (handle @mbhenry1985, come say hello!) The thought hit me the other day, while I was compiling this list, that perhaps you guys might want to see it too! And this being a blog instead of something pithy like Instagram, I have a lot more room to really share my thoughts.
So, without any further ado, here are my top ten for 2021, in no particular order. Books that kept me inspired during a year of big changes all around me.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo – Christy Lefteri
The thing I love most about placing fictional characters in a real situation is it enables readers to put a human face on a vast concept. In this case, the flooding of refugees out of war torn Syria. Something that grabbed a lot of headlines at the time, but seemed very distant and remote to someone like me. This harrowing account follows a beekeeper and his blinded wife as they make the heart-breaking decision, more or less at gun point, to leave their home and everything they know and love behind. The story shows, in vivid detail, the personal loss they endured during the fighting as well as their perilous journey from Syria to Britain, filled with violence and the unspeakable dangers of putting their trust in several strangers’ hands. I love how Lefteri found such a smooth, creative way to weave together flashbacks of the turbulent journey out of Syria with the family’s current predicament in Britain, awaiting their Visa/Asylum status while coping with the horrors of their tragedies and losses. And did I mention the bees? There’s lots of pretty writing about bees.
Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell
To be, or not to be? For all that we know of William Shakespeare the writer, there is remarkably little we know of Shakespeare the man. Which makes it extra enticing when historical fiction writers sweep in there to fill in the blanks. This novel is an account of a young William Shakespeare, his nature-loving, somewhat eccentric wife, and their sometimes fraught family life. It’s also an account of the plague, along with a tragedy that might have actually inspired Shakespeare’s masterpiece play, “Hamlet.” Worth a read for the absolutely gorgeous writing alone.
Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead
I will say this about Colson Whitehead. I haven’t read all of his novels, but I haven’t yet encountered one I didn’t like. A writer rapidly moving up on my favorite authors list, he has a great way of capturing the era and people he writes about, making you feel like you’re along for the ride. I think Harlem Shuffle – the story of furniture salesman Ray Carney trying to keep on the straight and narrow despite the heavy criminal elements around him – is my favorite work of his so far. It made me feel transported right into 1960s Harlem, and Whitehead also slipped in some startling facts about Central Park and other NYC landmarks that I didn’t know before.
The Coming of the Third Reich – Richard J. Evans
A dense, info-packed historical volume I stumbled upon while doing some research for a new writing project. This book will tell you absolutely everything you need to know, spanning back centuries, about how the groundwork got laid for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to seize power in an incredibly violent and turbulent post-WWI Germany. Never did I think I would find so much history from one writer, and this incredibly detailed work is only the first of three volumes on this dark chapter of Germany’s history. A read that remains relevant today, in this humble writer’s opinion, especially given the extremism in our current politics.
Olympus, Texas – Stacey Swann
Small-town drama plot anyone? I’m a sucker for stories like that, and this one pulled me in hard and fast. The lives of the well-to-do Briscoe family of Olympus are filled with betrayals, cheating, lies, and fights – quite juicy reading, especially when a sudden dark twist (one that left my jaw on the floor) throws a violent wrench into their already toxic family dynamic. A novel that kept me turning the page from beginning to end, filled with suspense, tragedy, and even some well-timed humor here and there. I’ll be looking forward to more from this author.
Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi
This novel follows Gifty, a fifth-year student at the Stanford School of Medicine, doing studies on mice to learn more about addiction tendencies – like the ones that claimed her brother Nana – a highly gifted athlete before sustaining a career-ending injury and eventually dying of an opioid overdose. A gripping enough story on its own given the opioid crisis of today, but what really pulled me into this book was the writing. Gyasi did a masterful job weaving in gorgeous prose, observations on race, and deep philosophical questions about science and religion, all while never straying from the important plotlines of the story. A book that moved me to tears more than once, I highly recommend it.
The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah
I know I’m not the only Kristin Hannah fan out there! This year found me reading two fantastic books of hers, her recent release “the Four Winds” along with “the Great Alone.” While “the Four Winds” was a fantastic tale worthy of this list as well, “the Great Alone” beat it out for the sheer wonder of learning about the lethal off-grid life in Alaska, experienced through teenaged Leni and her very troubled parents. The story boasts many other fantastic characters (Large Marge being a favorite), and tackles head-on some important society questions about small-town life vs. a fast-paced, growing modern world. It’s a dark read at times, dealing with themes of severe PTSD, domestic violence, and cult mentality. And it comes complete with the classic Hannah sock in the gut towards the end. But it is an incredible book that I just couldn’t put down, and I rank it her second best topped only by the Nightingale.
The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett
A novel that follows light-skinned twin sisters who ran away from their Southern black community as teenagers. While one sister eventually moves back to their hometown with her daughter, the other sister vanishes into the wind, passes herself as white, and marries a wealthy white man who knows nothing of her past. While both sisters struggle to come to terms with their racial identities in their different lives, their children end up with trials of their own and actually cross paths in busy Los Angeles. An absolutely fantastic, multi-generational story about coming to terms with who we are, accepting our family roots, and facing things that we can’t run away from. It also taught me a lot about some racial topics I knew little of before. Namely “passing,” light-skinned black people who live as white to escape oppression and racism.
John Adams – David McCullough
After seeing “Hamilton,” I can’t say this founding father’s name without hearing King George’s sneering, mocking voice in my head (“John Adams!… that little man who spoke to me…”). But I have to say, after reading this incredibly thorough and very relatable biography by one of my favorite historians, I think “Hamilton” took a lot of unfair pot shots at John Adams. While he had some notable flaws that McCullough never dances around, John Adams was still an instrumental figure in the founding of our nation and the American Revolution. As our second president, he avoided a war with France (in the face of considerable scorn from both his political opponents and the public at large) that could have brought the American dream to a screeching halt before it even got started. I also couldn’t help but admire the Adams who always saw both sides of the coin – as evidenced by his legally representing the British soldiers who opened fire during the Boston Massacre. I highly recommend this book to learn about a John Adams who made some mistakes, but who ultimately sacrificed an awful lot to build our country. A President who made many more bold and courageous maneuvers, without ever bowing to extreme and sometimes hateful public pressure, than history gives him credit for.
Apples Never Fall – Liane Moriarty
The Delaney family of tennis renown is a beloved, comforting fixture in their Australian neighborhood. But when their matron Joy turns up missing, things quickly go awry for the entire grand slam clan. Known for their passion on and off the court, and four supremely tennis talented children (now fully grown), Stan and Joy Delaney don’t have many secrets, and all fingers (and police investigations) start pointing at Stan regarding Joy’s sudden disappearance. Yet, as the situation unravels and more family secrets come to light, the children surmise there might be more to Joy’s disappearance than meets the eye. Especially given the strange young woman named Savannah who joined the family fold under mysterious circumstances a few months before. A delicious “who done it” novel told in a juicy family scandal style, reading just as delightfully as a crisp apple crumble. Two thumbs way up for this one, although I guess that’s no surprise coming from Liane Moriarty.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – V.E. Schwabb
What would you trade for more time? When Addie LaRue, living in 1700s France, asks this very question, she gets a lot more than she bargained for.
Hurricane Summer – Asha Bromfield
Especially as girls, we all have that one summer that changes us – moving us abruptly from girlhood to womanhood. Tilla’s summer in Jamacia with the father who once abandoned her, and his somewhat dysfunctional community, is just that.
The Last Story of Mina Lee – Nancy Jooyoun Kim
When Margot Lee’s mother unexpectedly dies, it takes Margot on a journey to get to know her – the younger Mina Lee who left war-torn Korea for America, fell in with both amazing and hostile people, had a daughter, and then somehow mysteriously died all alone (or perhaps not) in her apartment.
And that’s a wrap on this year’s top ten reads! Let me hear your favorite books of the year in the comments below. I need some new recommends for the holidays!
Follow me on Instagram (@mbhenry1985) for more great reading recommends – I post at least one a week!
NOTE: Yes, that is my home library! Yes, it is about ninety percent history books. And yes, I am immensely proud of it!