Best Fiction Reads of 2021: Part 3

Best Fiction Reads of 2021

This third installment to my “Best Fiction Reads” list focuses on historical fiction. As with my previous recommendations, this portion of the list includes a little bit of everything within the historical fiction genre. If you haven’t read any of these titles, then I hope one or two (if not all) of these will spark your interest and make it to your 2022 reading list.

I love reading anything written by Beverly Jenkins. (Seriously, if she writes it then I’m reading it!) Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Wild Rain, book two in the “Women Who Dare” series. This book included a character readers were introduced to in book three of the “Old West” series, Tempest. I’m a big fan of books featuring strong characters of color and this particular book introduced me to what has been termed a “cinnamon roll” male character. A “cinnamon roll” character is one that is described as kind and sweet, as well as being strong (physically and/or emotionally) and invested in the well-being of their love interest (yes, I’ve read other books with this type of character but hadn’t heard them referred to as a “cinnamon roll” before). If you enjoy reading historical romance with strong female and male characters, then look no further and grab yourself a copy of Wild Rain ASAP!

Wild Rain, Women Who Dare #2, by Beverly Jenkins
ISBN: 9780062861719 (paperback)
ISBN: 9780063075153 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9780062861726 (ebook)
ISBN: 9780062861733 (digital audiobook)
ASIN: B07ZTVKBPW (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B07ZP1NLD8 (Kindle edition)
Publisher: Avon Books
Release Date: February 9, 2021
Genre: Fiction | Historical Romance | African-American Historical Fiction

 

The second novel in USA Today bestselling author Beverly Jenkins’ compelling new Women Who Dare series follows a female rancher in Wyoming after the Civil War.

A reporter has come to Wyoming to do a story on doctors for his Black newspaper back east. He thinks Colton Lee will be an interesting subject…until he meets Colton’s sister, Spring. She runs her own ranch, wears denim pants instead of dresses, and is the most fascinating woman he’s ever met.
 
But Spring, who has overcome a raucous and scandalous past, isn’t looking for, nor does she want, love. As their attraction grows, will their differences come between them or unite them for an everlasting love?

 

 Read an excerpt here.



 

I’m sure you’ve probably heard of this next book, simply because it has been raved about online all year, Yellow Wife. If you haven’t heard anything about this book, then I’m pleased to introduce you to this amazing fictionalized historical read based upon a real woman and amazing circumstances in Virginia during the 19th Century.

YELLOW WIFE book coverYellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson
ISBN: 9781982149116 (paperback – released on December 28, 2021)
ISBN: 9781982149109 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781982149123 (ebook)
ISBN: 9781797118819 (digital audiobook)
ASIN: B08CM6NJBF (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B08BZFTB1Y (Kindle edition)
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: January 12, 2021
Genre: Fiction | Historical Fiction | Coming-of-Age | African-American Historical Fiction

 

Called “wholly engrossing” by New York Times bestselling author Kathleen Grissom, this “fully immersive” (Lisa Wingate, #1 bestselling author of Before We Were Yours) story follows an enslaved woman forced to barter love and freedom while living in the most infamous slave jail in Virginia.

Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life. Shielded by her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman and cherished by the Master’s sister, she is set apart from the others on the plantation, belonging to neither world.

She’d been promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday, but instead of the idyllic life she imagined with her true love, Essex Henry, Pheby is forced to leave the only home she has ever known. She unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold every day. There, Pheby is exposed not just to her Jailer’s cruelty but also to his contradictions. To survive, Pheby will have to outwit him, and she soon faces the ultimate sacrifice.

 

I especially enjoy reading stories about books or people dealing with books. This next book hit on both levels. The Personal Librarian presents the fictionalized story of the woman responsible for crafting the Pierpont Morgan Library, Belle da Costa Greene. This amazing woman of color passed as “White” for almost all of her adult life and had the amazing responsibility of assisting in the development of and subsequent management of one of the largest private libraries in the United States.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
ISBN: 9780593101537 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9780593101551 (ebook)
ISBN: 9780593409701 (digital audiobook)
ISBN: 9780593409718 (audiobook on CD)
ASIN: B08J8HRWP8 (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B08HL999ZD (Kindle edition)
Publisher: Berkley
Release Date: June 29, 2021
Genre: Fiction | Historical Fiction | Literary Fiction

 

The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian—who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict and acclaimed author Victoria Christopher Murray.

In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. P. Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture on the New York society scene and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps build a world-class collection.

But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality. Belle’s complexion isn’t dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white—her complexion is dark because she is African American.

The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths to which she must go—for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.

 

There seems to be an underlying theme of “strong women of color” within my historical fiction recommendations, and the next title fits this quite well. I had never heard of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas before reading Island Queen, but I quickly became fascinated by this woman that lived during the 18th and 19th centuries. This is a fictionalized story of a real woman that had great influence in the Caribbean and beyond across two centuries. This is yet another book that I passed to my mother to read. We both enjoyed it so much, we have print copies for our respective home libraries (okay, I also have a digital copy in addition to my print copy). I consider myself fortunate enough to have obtained the author’s signature on my print copy at a regional book festival (I forgot to take my mother’s copy to get it signed, sorry Mom).

ISLAND QUEEN by Vanessa Riley book coverIsland Queen by Vanessa Riley
ISBN: 9780063002845 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9780063002869 (ebook)
ISBN: 9780063002876 (digital audiobook)
ASIN: B08MLPY619 (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B08KQD5J9T (Kindle edition)
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: May 11, 2021
Genre: Fiction | Historical Fiction | Literary Fiction

 

A remarkable, sweeping historical novel based on the incredible true life story of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, a free woman of color who rose from slavery to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in the colonial West Indies.

Born into slavery on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, Doll bought her freedom—and that of her sister and her mother—from her Irish planter father and built a legacy of wealth and power as an entrepreneur, merchant, hotelier, and planter that extended from the marketplaces and sugar plantations of Dominica and Barbados to a glittering luxury hotel in Demerara on the South American continent.

Vanessa Riley’s novel brings Doll to vivid life as she rises above the harsh realities of slavery and colonialism by working the system and leveraging the competing attentions of the men in her life: a restless shipping merchant, Joseph Thomas; a wealthy planter hiding a secret, John Coseveldt Cells; and a roguish naval captain who will later become King William IV of England.

From the bustling port cities of the West Indies to the forbidding drawing rooms of London’s elite, Island Queen is a sweeping epic of an adventurer and a survivor who answered to no one but herself as she rose to power and autonomy against all odds, defying rigid eighteenth-century morality and the oppression of women as well as people of color. It is an unforgettable portrait of a true larger-than-life woman who made her mark on history.

 

I had the pleasure of seeing this next author in a presentation with Vanessa Riley and others a few months ago at a regional book festival. And yes I got my print copy signed. This is another fictionalized history story featuring strong women of color. Sisters in Arms presents the story of several African American women in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. For those of you that enjoy WWII stories, I encourage you to grab a copy of this one to read.

SISTERS IN ARMS by Kaia AldersonSisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson
ISBN: 9780062964588 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 9780062964595 (ebook)
ISBN: 9780063096837 (digital audiobook)
ASIN: B08TN14WK9 (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B08FJHLBW3 (Kindle edition)
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: August 3, 2021
Genre: Fiction | Historical Fiction | African-American History | WWII

 

Kaia Alderson’s debut historical fiction novel reveals the untold, true story of the Six Triple Eight, the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps, who made the dangerous voyage to Europe to ensure American servicemen received word from their loved ones during World War II.

Grace Steele and Eliza Jones may be from completely different backgrounds, but when it comes to the army, specifically the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), they are both starting from the same level. Not only will they be among the first class of female officers the army has even seen, they are also the first Black women allowed to serve.

As these courageous women help to form the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, they are dealing with more than just army bureaucracy—everyone is determined to see this experiment fail. For two northern women, learning to navigate their way through the segregated army may be tougher than boot camp. Grace and Eliza know that there is no room for error; they must be more perfect than everyone else.

When they finally make it overseas, to England and then France, Grace and Eliza will at last be able to do their parts for the country they love, whatever the risk to themselves.

Based on the true story of the 6888th Postal Battalion (the Six Triple Eight), Sisters in Arms explores the untold story of what life was like for the only all-Black, female U.S. battalion to be deployed overseas during World War II.

 


The final book on this list is a blend of contemporary and historical fiction, coupled with magical realism and time-travel. I’ve read and reviewed a number of titles in the “Found Things” series by Paula Brackston, including City of Time and Magic. This addition to the series is a bit darker than some of the others but it was still an engrossing read and one I hope you’ll enjoy when you read it.

City of Time and Magic, Found Things #4, by Paula Brackston
ISBN: 9781250260697 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781250260703 (ebook)
ISBN: 9781250818874 (digital audiobook)
ASIN: B08TZ38281 (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B08R2HCFLR (Kindle edition)
Publication date: November 23, 2020
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Fiction | Historical Fiction | Fantasy | Time-Travel

Xanthe meets Brackston’s most famous heroine, Elizabeth Hawksmith from The Witch’s Daughter, in this crossover story with all the “historical detail, village charm, and twisty plotting” of the Found Things series (Publishers Weekly).

City of Time and Magic sees Xanthe face her greatest challenges yet. She must choose from three treasures that sing to her; a beautiful writing slope, a mourning brooch of heartbreaking detail, and a gorgeous gem-set hat pin. All call her, but the wrong one could take her on a mission other than that which she must address first, and the stakes could not be higher. While her earlier mission to Regency England had been a success, the journey home resulted in Liam being taken from her, spirited away to another time and place. Xanthe must follow the treasure that will take her to him if he is not to be lost forever.

Xanthe is certain that Mistress Flyte has Liam and determined to find them both. But when she discovers Lydia Flyte has been tracking the actions of the Visionary Society, a group of ruthless and unscrupulous Spinners who have been selling their talents to a club of wealthy clients, Xanthe realizes her work as a Spinner must come before her personal wishes. The Visionary Society is highly dangerous and directly opposed to the creed of the Spinners. Their actions could have disastrous consequences as they alter the authentic order of things and change the future. Xanthe knows she must take on the Society. It will require the skills of all her friends, old and new, to attempt such a thing, and not all of them will survive the confrontation that follows.

 

 Purchase Links #CommissionEarned: IndieBound.org | Amazon | Amazon Kindle | Audible Audiobook | Audiobooks.com | AudiobooksNow.com | Barnes and Noble | BookDepository.com | Bookshop.org | Downpour Audiobook | eBooks.com | !ndigo Books | Kobo Audiobook | Kobo eBook


Thanks once again to the authors, publishers, publicists, book tour companies, library systems, etc. that afforded me the opportunity to read so many wonderful books this year. I hope you’ll return to see what books make the fourth part of this list, the contemporary romance reads.

Happy Reading, y’all!

Best Fiction Reads of 2021: Part 1

Happy Holidays and Seasons Greetings to everyone celebrating a holiday at this time of the year: Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Yule (Winter Solstice) Greetings, and Merry Christmas. Although I’m not celebrating any major religious holidays, I’m always ready to provide bookish recommendations to friends and family. This year, rather than simply doing a “best of 2021” list (books published and read in 2021), I decided to break my list down into general fiction, historical fiction, romance, and other fiction. (Yes, I have quite a number of recommendations, thus the breakdown.) Please note that some of the books included in these lists may have been reviewed here, others were not.

Happy Holidays


Let’s get things started with my best of 2021 in general fiction. If you haven’t already read any of the books on these lists, then I hope one or two will pique your reading interest and you’ll grab copies for yourself (or to gift).

I read this one at the very beginning of 2021 and at that time, it didn’t make a huge impact (sorry but bad migraine days usually result in bad everything including bad impressions of books being read). Since that initial reading, I’ve had time to re-evaluate and I’ve come to the conclusion that my pain levels during my reading played a major role in my initial response. As a result, this book is my first recommendation.

 
The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins
ISBN: 9781250245496 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781250245502 (trade paperback – released November 2, 2021)
ISBN: 9781250245519 (ebook)
ISBN: 9781250752451 (digital audiobook)
ISBN: 9781250752468 (audiobook on CD)
ASIN: B08DRR2K6X (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B08BKLVZRJ (Kindle edition)
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: January 5, 2021

 
Meet Jane. Newly arrived to Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is a broke dog-walker in Thornfield Estates—a gated community full of McMansions, shiny SUVs, and bored housewives. The kind of place where no one will notice if Jane lifts the discarded tchotchkes and jewelry off the side tables of her well-heeled clients. Where no one will think to ask if Jane is her real name.

But her luck changes when she meets Eddie­ Rochester. Recently widowed, Eddie is Thornfield Estates’ most mysterious resident. His wife, Bea, drowned in a boating accident with her best friend, their bodies lost to the deep. Jane can’t help but see an opportunity in Eddie—not only is he rich, brooding, and handsome, he could also offer her the kind of protection she’s always yearned for.

Yet as Jane and Eddie fall for each other, Jane is increasingly haunted by the legend of Bea, an ambitious beauty with a rags-to-riches origin story, who launched a wildly successful southern lifestyle brand. How can she, plain Jane, ever measure up? And can she win Eddie’s heart before her past—or his—catches up to her?

Purchase Links #CommissionEarned: Indiebound.org | Amazon | Amazon Kindle | Audible | Audiobooks | AudiobooksNow | BookDepository | Downpour Audiobook | eBooks | !ndigo | Kobo Audiobook | Kobo eBook


My next best read in general fiction is another Southern story and one I thoroughly enjoyed. Part coming-of-age tale combined with a moral tale, this story has a little bit of everything for every reader desiring a good story told well. Psst, it has even been considered a more contemporary retelling of The Great Gatsby, so if you’re into retellings, here you go!

The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington
ISBN: 9781616206802 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781643752006 (paperback – Released October 5, 2021)
ISBN: 9781643751078 (ebook)
ISBN: 9781649040237 (digital audiobook)
ASIN: B08QXZMS9Q (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B08519FF6Z (Kindle edition)
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Release Date: January 5, 2021

 

When Charlie Boykin was young, he thought his life with his single mother on the working-class side of Nashville was perfectly fine. But when his mother arranges for him to be admitted as a scholarship student to an elite private school, he is suddenly introduced to what the world can feel like to someone cushioned by money. That world, he discovers, is an almost irresistible place where one can bend—and break—rules and still end up untarnished. As he gets drawn into a friendship with a charismatic upperclassman, Archer Creigh, and an affluent family that treats him like an adopted son, Charlie quickly adapts to life in the upper echelons of Nashville society. Under their charming and alcohol-soaked spell, how can he not relax and enjoy it all—the lack of anxiety over money, the easy summers spent poolside at perfectly appointed mansions, the lavish parties, the freedom to make mistakes knowing that everything can be glossed over or fixed?

But over time, Charlie is increasingly pulled into covering for Archer’s constant deceits and his casual bigotry. At what point will the attraction of wealth and prestige wear off enough for Charlie to take a stand—and will he?

 


I read this book early in the year, and yes, I gave a copy to my 87-y.o. mother to read. We both enjoyed it and it made a lasting impression. It’s much more than a story about race, it’s about striving to be better, regrets, and the power of reaching out to others.

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson
ISBN: 9780063005631 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9780063005655 (ebook)
ISBN: 9780063005662 (digital audiobook)
ASIN: B0872K2Y82 (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B086ZRRYCW (Kindle edition)
Publisher: William Morrow Books
Release Date: February 2, 2021

 

A promise could betray you.

Its 2008, and the inauguration of President Barack Obama ushers in a new kind of hope. In Chicago, Ruth Tuttle, an Ivy-League educated Black engineer, is married to a kind and successful man. He’s eager to start a family, but Ruth is uncertain. She has never gotten over the baby she gave birth to—and was forced to leave behind—when she was a teenager. She had promised her family she’d never look back, but Ruth knows that to move forward, she must make peace with the past.
 
Returning home, Ruth discovers the Indiana factory town of her youth is plagued by unemployment, racism, and despair. As she begins digging into the past, she unexpectedly befriends Midnight, a young white boy who is also adrift and looking for connection. Just as Ruth is about to uncover a burning secret her family desperately wants to keep hidden, a traumatic incident strains the town’s already searing racial tensions, sending Ruth and Midnight on a collision course that could upend both their lives.
 
Powerful and revealing, The Kindest Lie captures the heartbreaking divide between Black and white communities and offers both an unflinching view of motherhood in contemporary America and the never-ending quest to achieve the American Dream.

 

 

Read an excerpt here.


I had the pleasure of reading this book with my online book group, Mocha Girls Read. This is just one of the many powerful and realistic fictional stories I’ve read this year dealing with friendship, family, and race relations. A definite #mustread.

WE ARE NOT LIKE THEM book coverWe Are Not Like Them by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza
ISBN: 9781982181031 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781982181055 (ebook)
ISBN: 9781797131092 (digital audiobook)
ASIN: B08WT2PVKZ (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B08VJM1568 (Kindle edition)
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: October 5, 2021

 

 A GOOD MORNING AMERICA BOOK CLUB PICK

Named a Best Book Pick of 2021 by Harper’s Bazaar and Real Simple

Named a Most Anticipated Book of Fall by People, Essence, New York Post, PopSugar, New York Newsday, Entertainment Weekly, Town & Country, Bustle, Fortune, and Book Riot

Told from alternating perspectives, an evocative and riveting novel about the lifelong bond between two women, one Black and one white, whose friendship is indelibly altered by a tragic event—a powerful and poignant exploration of race in America today and its devastating impact on ordinary lives.

Jen and Riley have been best friends since kindergarten. As adults, they remain as close as sisters, though their lives have taken different directions. Jen married young, and after years of trying, is finally pregnant. Riley pursued her childhood dream of becoming a television journalist and is poised to become one of the first Black female anchors of the top news channel in their hometown of Philadelphia.
 
But the deep bond they share is severely tested when Jen’s husband, a city police officer, is involved in the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. Six months pregnant, Jen is in freefall as her future, her husband’s freedom, and her friendship with Riley are thrown into uncertainty. Covering this career-making story, Riley wrestles with the implications of this tragic incident for her Black community, her ambitions, and her relationship with her lifelong friend.
 
Like Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage and Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, We Are Not Like Them explores complex questions of race and how they pervade and shape our most intimate spaces in a deeply divided world. But at its heart, it’s a story of enduring friendship—a love that defies the odds even as it faces its most difficult challenges.

I recommended this next book earlier prior to the release date and again later in the year in a review. Seriously y’all, I can’t say enough good things about this book. Okay, I can add that my 87-y.o. mother enjoyed it as much as I did (thank you, Ms. Nolfi for thinking about us and sending us the signed books). The book is The Passing Storm by Christine Nolfi. It is a story about secrets, forgiveness (of others and of self), tragedy, survival, second chances, love, and family being more than DNA.

THE PASSING STORM by Christine NolfiThe Passing Storm by Christine Nolfi
ISBN: 9781542029124 (paperback)
ASIN: B08SXRK8M1 (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B08MZPFY3J (Kindle edition)
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Release Date: November 1, 2021

 

A gripping, openhearted novel about family, reconciliation, and bringing closure to the secrets of the past.

Early into the tempestuous decade of her thirties, Rae Langdon struggles to work through a grief she never anticipated. With her father, Connor, she tends to their Ohio farm, a forty-acre spread that itself has enjoyed better days. As memories sweep through her, some too precious to bear, Rae gives shelter from a brutal winter to a teenager named Quinn Galecki.

Quinn has been thrown out by his parents, a couple too troubled to help steer the misunderstood boy through his own losses. Now Quinn has found a temporary home with the Langdons—and an unexpected kinship, because Rae, Quinn, and Connor share a past and understand one another’s pain. But its depths—and all its revelations and secrets—have yet to come to light. To finally move forward, Rae must confront them and also fight for Quinn, whose parents have other plans in mind for their son.

With forgiveness, love, and the spring thaw, there might be hope for a new season—a second chance Rae believed in her heart was gone forever.

Purchase Links #CommissionEarned: Indiebound.org | Amazon | Amazon Kindle | Audible | BookDepository.com | !ndigo

 


I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have read a host of great books this year. I’m grateful to the authors, publishers, publicists, virtual book tour companies, and book clubs that have afforded me the opportunity to read so many wonderful titles. Please note that this is just my first “best of 2021” post, I hope you’ll return to read future posts focusing on historical fiction, romance, and other fiction (Sci-Fi, AfroFuturistic, etc.) reads of 2021. Until then…

Happy Reading, y’all!