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The Best of 2021 – Dabney’s List

According to Goodreads, I read eighty-two books (for the first time – my rereads would have put that number closer to 165) in 2021. I read across genres and glommed series. I DNF’d anything that didn’t grab me after the first fifty pages. I gravitated (overall) to books that were aspirational and viewed humankind with a sympathetic eye. I read enough Karin Slaughter to sink a Kindle.

Here are the books I liked the best. I didn’t love them all but I’m glad I read them all and can recommend them easily.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

This is the fifth book I’ve read of Moriarty’s and the one I’ve like the best. The book is incisive, even brutal, in its finely honed depiction of the Delaney family. But what family isn’t, in its own way, deeply flawed? Moriarty’s novel makes it clear that, when it comes to love, especially that found in marriage and in families, is what matters most. Moriarty is Australia’s best-selling author–to date she’s sold 22 million books. She writes here with wit, insight, and compassion. Tired of endless fictional families you’d loath to know? Spend some time with the Delaneys. They’re delightful.

Buy it at: AmazonAudible or your local independent retailer

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

I, along with literal millions, was astonished by the brilliance of Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner All the Light We Cannot See. And when I read the description of his latest work, Cloud Cuckoo Land, a story stretching from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to a century or so in our future, I felt a pang of doubt. At best, I thought, it will be a very good book, but not a great one. I was wrong. Cloud Cuckoo Land is equally brilliant and perhaps even better plotted. The novel begins slowly, even somewhat confusingly, but as the chapters fly by, the three storylines weave together with a deftness that took my breath away. Months after reading it, I’m still thinking about Anna and Omeir, Zeno, Konstance and Sybil. It’s the best book I read last year.

Buy it at: AmazonAudible or your local independent retailer

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

Jewel’s been an auto-read for me since I read I Found You in 2017. The Night She Disappeared is, as Maggie wrote in her DIK review, a perfect example of all the things Ms. Jewell does right. I devoured this book, desperate to know what had happened to Tallulah–the she of the title– and her boyfriend Zach, hoping and but trusting that hope that they’d be found alive and well. The ending, while a tad anomalous, satisfied me and left me counting the months until August when Jewel will gift the world with another serpentine suspense story.

Buy it at: AmazonAudible, or your local independent retailer

Walk on the Wilder Side (Wilder Adventures, #2) by Serena Bell

Walk on the Wilder Side is my favorite romance of 2021. I adored Bell’s Sleepover so when I heard she was putting out a new series, I was IN. The first Wilder story, Make Me Wilder was big fun but Walk on the Wilder Side is better. The romance between Brody, the town’s bad boy, and Rachel, the little sister of his very best friend, is a gem. It’s full of heat, humor, and heart. The leads find love through talking and working to better understand each other. I’m pumped for Wilder with You which comes out in February. #wilderforthewin

Buy it at Amazon or shop at your local independent retailer

A Stranger in Town by Kelley Armstrong

Thanks to the wonderful recommendations of AAR readers, 2021 was the year I discovered Armstrong’s Rockton series. I read all seven books (the final one comes out next month) this past summer and enjoyed them thoroughly. Rockton is a rather unbelievable fictional town in the Yukon for people who need to vanish. The heroine of the series, Casey Duncan, arrived there in book one, City of the Lost, and has since then fallen in love, gotten a dog, solved any number of crimes, and tried to make sense of the deadly Hostiles who live in the wilderness surrounding Rockton. In A Stranger in Town, Casey and her boyfriend Eric are faced with betrayals, near death, and a threat to the very future of the town. It, like all the books in the series, is a fun, transportive read and sets the scene for the season finale which I promise to review.

Buy it at: AmazonAudible, or your local independent retailer

False Witness by Karin Slaughter

In 2021, I read 17 books by Slaughter. Yes, her books have too much sick violence against women–I skimmed many pages once I figured out the torture scenes aren’t necessary to understand the plot–but despite that serious flaw, I can’t get enough of her work. My favorite character of hers is Will Trent–I long for the next book in that series–but she didn’t write a Will Trent book in 2021. Instead she wrote the standalone thriller False Witness.

False Witness is the story of two sisters who left behind a horrific childhood via very different paths. Leigh, the oldest, pulled herself up out of the muck of rural violent poverty and is a bourgeoisie lawyer in Atlanta with a husband, a big house, and a daughter she adores. Callie found her escape in heroin. The past, however, is never far away and Leigh finds herself fighting for her and her family’s survival when the residue of her and Callie’s utterly f*cked up history comes calling. This story, at its heart about sibling love, is tragic, moving, and remarkably forgiving especially of Callie and her addiction. The end is perfect. False Witness is one of Slaughter’s best and despite its grimness, it’s a satisfying read.

Buy it at: AmazonAudible, or your local independent retailer

Portrait of a Scotsman by Evie Dunmore

I like Dunmore’s books although for the love of god she needs to stop having her heroines smack her heroes. Portrait of a Scotsman is my favorite of her A League of Extraordinary Women series even though I hated the ending. Don’t worry–there’s an HEA but it’s in the context of a truly selfish decision by Hattie, the heroine. Hattie is a tough one to love although I did, most of the time. I guess what I like about her is that, unlike so many putative feminist heroines in current historical romance, she’s not behaving like a brat nor do her actions seem to spring from 21st century progressive values. Nope, she’s just kind of a mess and it takes her a while to do the right things all the time. This is a sexy book–always a plus for me–and I loved all the scenes in rural Scotland. I’d give it a B+–it would have been a DIK for me if it hadn’t been for that dumb ending. 

Buy it at: Amazon, Audible, or your local independent retailer

Hostage by Clare Mackintosh

Mackintosh’s thriller is the most addictive book I read last year. I simply couldn’t put it down. As I said in my DIK review,

Beginning in her first book, I Let You Go, Mackintosh has gifted readers with twists we didn’t see coming. Here, she’s never offered more stunning revelations. This is a book that, to the very end, is full of smartly rendered shockers. I enjoyed each and every one…..

Hostage–along with all those Karin Slaughter books AAR convinced me to read–is the best thriller I’ve encountered this year. It’s perfectly paced, genuinely perplexing, and almost impossible to predict. I predict readers everywhere will be held captive to its thrall and will be bereft when the thrill ride that is this book comes to its stunning, jaw-dropping end.

Buy it at: Amazon, Audible, or your local independent retailer

The Paris Apartment by Kelly Bowen

After reading Evelyn’s rave review, I decided to give this a try. It’s a wonderful read, definitely Bowen’s best. My favorite WWII stories show the decency of humanity and not just the evil. This book has decent people in spades and I was deeply invested in their outcomes. I’ve spent a lot of time in Paris and Ms. Bowen portrays the city and its insouciant citoyens with an accurate eye. This is a book with a lot on its mind–the importance of art, the reason we go to war, the need to fight for good even at the cost of one’s life, with a smart dose of lesser known WWII history to boot. I had a few quibbles and I found the last scene a bit too saccharine and neatly done, but, overall, this is a must read for anyone who enjoys female centric historical fiction.

Buy it at: Amazon or Audible

The Tyrant Alpha’s Rejected Mate by Cate C. Wells

Before I read Maria Vale’s fabulous shifter series in 2020, I’d have said shifter books were not for me. I’m always unsure about what happens to their clothes for one and two, shifters require a certain kind of suspension of disbelief that I find hard to muster. But after several readers talked about the book on the forums, I decided to give it a whirl. It turned out to be a very good time. Wells, like many contemporary romance writers (this book is really a contemporary romance with shifters) writes in dual voice and both leads are bold and easy to like. The world-building is well done and believable. It’s also a very funny book. Plus, it has an excellent grovel scene. I can’t wait for book two!

Buy it at: Amazon


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