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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

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! 

80 Comments on “M.B. Henry’s Top 10 Reads for 2021!

  1. Oh, my…I love that David McCullough is one of your favorites! His books are tremendous. I have yet to read John Adams. Looking forward to it!

    • Oh yes I have a ton of his books on my history shelf! 🙂 🙂 Whenever I see a title of his at the used bookstores I’m sure to grab it.

    • It’s always hard to narrow down my top ten every year (so many good books out there) but I’m very happy with the ones I chose! 🙂 🙂

  2. Ohhh, thanks for the great list! I have read the Great Alone, John Adams and nearly all of the Liane Moriarity books except this one. I ebb and flow on book reading, it’s five books in a week or one a year. I’m currently on one a year 😂😂. Can’t wait for yours 💕

    • As someone else who just recently moved states, I can attest that such a big change leaves little time for reading! Honestly if my job didn’t depend on it, I probably wouldn’t have read as much this year either. If you do find time to read anymore of these, I hope you enjoy them! 🙂

  3. Great post, M.B.! I read the John Adams biography several years ago and agree that it’s extraordinary. Also, I’m very much looking forward to picking up “Apples Never Fall”; Liane Moriarty IS a terrific author.

    The 2021-read novels I liked best? In no particular order, J.K. Rowling’s “Troubled Blood,” Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War,” Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” John Williams’ “Stoner,” Joy Fielding’s “Grand Avenue,” Colleen McCullough’s “The Thorn Birds” and “Morgan’s Run,” and Jean M. Auel’s “The Clan of the Cave Bear” and its sequels, to name a few.

    • I have “Clan of the Cave Bear” on my list after your post about it! It sounds amazing and I can’t wait to get a copy 🙂 🙂

    • Yes it’s my favorite part of our new house 🙂 🙂 🙂 A life dream finally come true! So glad you love it too.

  4. I love your Home Library! I will be sharing your picks with my Book Club… is there one that you would highly recommend… We love discussions! Thank you for your picks my friend!
    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • I’m sure this answer is infuriating but I would highly recommend all ten – each are such stand-outs in their genres and the message they need to convey! So to better answer your question, I might ask what sort of themes it’s common for your book club to explore 🙂

      • We love historical genres. The last few we have read have been about women in history.
        Thanks so much for all the info. I have sent your post link to my Book Club Gals!

      • Oooh women in history is an excellent genre and seeing a lot of great titles come out these days. Hamnet might interest you from that perspective, and there’s LOTS of great women in WWII books out these days (my own book falls into that category as well). I might recommend anything by Kate Quinn for your book club if you are interested in women and history. Ruta Sepetys also has some great books in that genre, as does Jennifer Chiaverini.

      • 🙂 Anytime! I love talking books, I hope you enjoy them!

    • Kristin Hannah is an amazing author – I’m sure it won’t disappoint! 🙂

  5. Our lists only overlap by two, which is exciting because now I have even more to add to my tbr list. I loved Addie LaRue. A fascinating story and luscious prose. I’m just finishing Apples Never Fall. Intriguing mystery but paired with wonderfully fleshed out literary characters.

    • Yes Addie LaRue was such an engaging book, with such a great hook and yes, amazing writing too. And I totally agree with Apples Never Fall. Usually that’s not my typical genre but the well-rounded characters and all of their singular dramas as pieces in the big picture really pulled me in!

  6. My goodness, MB, you read all those books? That’s alot. Wish I could sit and read as much as you. I have trouble doing that. Just don’t have the patience to really do it, I guess. Still trying to get thru the book “The Holocaust” written by Martin Gilbert. It’s a very thick book that tells the true stories of what the Jews of Europe endured during WWII. The Nazi War Machine truly did horrible things to them during the War. He describes in detail what happened and when.

    • These and so many more this year. I do read a lot 🙂 It’s an addiction! I’ll have to look into “the Holocaust” as WWII gets most of my attention on the reading pile!

  7. hey matey thats great news! I will certainly be getting your book as it sounds very interesting.
    Dave Astor mentioned the book “The Thorn Birds ” it is a ripping story abut outback Australia,Colleen has really captured what life was like back years gone by.

    • Yay! I hope very much that you enjoy my book 🙂 🙂 I’ll have to look into the Thorn Birds, Dave Astor’s blog is where I get a lot of my reading recommends 🙂 🙂

  8. Hamnet and Harlem Shuffle we’re already on my list of things to read, but I needed a reminder. And thanks for the other recommendations. First I need to finish the next book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I’m almost done with the third in the series.

    • I read the very first of that series (My Brilliant Friend) a few years back, I haven’t gotten around to reading the other ones yet!

  9. The best book I read this year was Where the Crawdads Sing. Also really enjoyed How Beautiful We Were and Shuggie Bain, although enjoyed is not the right word to use with the latter.

    • I read Where the Crawdads sing two years ago and absolutely loved it. It made my top ten that year! 🙂 Such a beautiful book, and I learned so much about nature in addition to being drawn in by the story.

    • Ooooh you will love the John Adams book 🙂 🙂 Be sure to let me know when you get a copy.

      • I didn’t even realize there was an HBO miniseries. I’ll have to watch it immediately!

  10. Good list! The Beekeper, and Addie Larue I can also heartily recommend, botht excellent. I have Hamnet on shelf waiting for me to finish Shogun (James Clavelle) which is also a most excellent read.

    • Ooooh I’ll have to look into Shogun! 🙂 I hope you enjoy Hamnet, I liked it very very much!

    • Yay you are most welcome GP! If you read any of them let me know what you think! 🙂 🙂 I LOVE talking books.

  11. A lot of great books! I’m particularly interested in the book about John Adams as I am too a history buff.

    • You will LOVE that John Adams book – and anything by David McCullough. He is an excellent historical writer on a very wide range of topics!

  12. Goodness, you put my bath time reading to shame. I haven’t read any of these, as my budget only allows for clearance books at our local bookstore. I had to resort to Goodwill last month but theirs are more than I would like to spend. My mother worked in a library during all of my childhood, so many of my days were spent on the third floor/entertainment reading books all day long. So I feel you on that. No wonder you are so smart and so learned, consistently reading so many various topics! I imagine reading this post was more than many Americans do, although I still prefer paper for my books. These all sounded very interesting. And it reminds me that even if the topic is fascinating, it takes a good writer to keep me interested. I’m excited for you in the spring!

    • I prefer hardback and paper books too. I enjoy having the Kindle for trips, but other than that I bank on the library (where I get almost all novels that I read) and used bookstores. I was incredibly fortunate at the library this year with their “lucky day” shelf – a place where they put extra copies of immensely popular reads with long wait times, and if it’s your “lucky day” and you find one you want to read, you get it for seven days. It’s how I was able to read Harlem Shuffle so fast and Apples Never Fall! And thanks so much for your kind words about my writing, they always mean a lot to me! Especially as spring approaches and I get more and more nervous for the world to read my book!

  13. Good on you to keep reading!!
    Your list of books makes me wish I read more – I’ve gone back to my infatuation with Nancy Drew mysteries for children!!
    So interesting to see how language has improved – think “the crippled” child, e.g. The “gypsy” tribes…
    Hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving!

    • I LOVED Nancy Drew when I was a kid! My mom had a bunch of them and I just devoured them 🙂 🙂

    • Our neighbor keeps bees! 🙂 I have been very much enjoying learning about the process (and the free honey he brought over this summer!)

  14. You would like the Winter Garden by Kristen Hannah if you haven’t already read it. Some of her earlier work was more fluffy but this one, along with the three you named are among my favorite books.

    I own that Colson Whitehead but couldn’t get past the first page. It was me, not him, as I was struggling to quiet my mind during that period. However, the reviews have been great and I can’t wait to go back to it soon.

    Isn’t it wonderful being surrounded by books you love? So many books, so little time….

    • I actually read Winter Garden before and you are right it is very good. I enjoyed it very much! The ending especially – although it was painful in its way. I wouldn’t mind reading some of her earlier stuff, I’ll have to see what the library has. I hope you do get back to Harlem Shuffle because it is a pretty amazing book, I think you would enjoy it. Yes, to me, heaven will be a great big library and a lot of comfortable chairs 🙂 <3

      • I saw a picture of a bookstore in Germany today and all I could think was what a nice place it would be to live! Lol.

        Harlem Shuffle is in my stack for a little later. My head just wasn’t in the right place at the time.

  15. M.B., we certainly have similar tastes in books. As soon as I’m finished reading Braiding Sweetgrass (a review of my own on that is to come on my blog), I am going to dive into the Liane Moriarity book. I’ve read many of these. Among my favorites is The Great Alone (although disturbing), and the John Adams biography. I read that years ago. Adams is my favorite president and founding father. I have several books on him and Abigale as well as him and his relationship with Jefferson. Fascinating! You know I’ve read two Colin Whitehead books but not Harlem Shuffle. I’ll put that on my list as I did like his writing style and storylines. Thanks for a great list! You’ve reminded me that it’s been a while since I made a review of my own. Have a great Thanksgiving! ~ Carol~

    • I have noticed based on some of your other reviews that we do have very similar reading interests! 🙂 And it definitely sounds like this list confirms that. I absolutely loved reading that John Adams book and I think I will be digging for more books about him – so if you have any recommends let me know. And I agree, the Great Alone is definitely hard to get through at times, I had to take breaks here and there. I think you will like Harlem Shuffle, especially if you’ve liked his previous novels. Can’t wait to hear about Braiding Sweetgrass! 🙂 🙂

      • I’ll look over my other John Adams books…I used them for some research of my own, so I didn’t read them cover to cover like the biography. Thanks for your interest in my review of Braiding Sweetgrass…I have a love/hate feeling about the book. It’ll be interesting to write it up. Looking forward to Harlem Shuffle, too!

    • Very nice! I just looked it up and it sounds very good, I’ll have to add it to my list.

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  18. It’s always gratifying to see a room with so many books. Of the books you singled out, the biography of John Adams is the only one I’ve read. It was a necessary correction to the relative neglect Adams had received compared to other founders like Washington and Jefferson.

    • Such a good book! I really enjoyed it but so I do anything but David McCullough. Such a good historian and writer 🙂 And yes I’ve always wanted a home library and feel very lucky I got a house with an extra room for me to have one!

      • One of the things that attracted me to our current house is the built-in bookshelves in the living room and in the study, all of which got filled as soon as we moved in.

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