June caught me by surprise, and then I realized: it’s time to take stock of my Halfway Top Ten! I’ve read a lot of great books this year, 78 in total so far, and I’m excited to figure out which of these gems makes the Top Ten cut.
Paring It Down
In the process of choosing my ten (-ish, you know how bad I am at limiting myself) books, I have to look at all the books I’ve given five stars first. This year, those books are:
- Passing by Nella Larsen
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
- Finding Freedom: A Cook’s story; Remaking a Life from Scratch by Erin French
- Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo
- Serpent and Dove by Shelby Mahurin
- The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
- A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas
- This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith
- Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton
- Fable by Adrienne Young
- Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
- The Guest List by Lucy Foley
- Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
- On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson
- Holes by Louis Sachar
- Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
- Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Bouley
- The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
- Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
- New Kid by Jerry Craft
- Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Like I said, it’s been a good six months of reading! Now, when I start to think about the TOP TEN, I consider: which books have stuck with me the most? With which books do I remember having a strong emotional connection or response to? I generally eradicate rereads, as well, from this list. I really don’t know why other than the fact that those books have already had their impact; it’s not that I don’t get a different impact in rereading but that it’s not really what I’m looking for when I think about THIS YEAR’S best reads. I guess if you see rereads in my top ten lists that means I’ve not had the world’s best reading year, huh?
Don’t worry, there aren’t any rereads in this bunch. But just for total exposure, the books I reread and gave 5-star ratings in the first six months of 2021 were Out of the Dust, Love That Dog, and Fahrenheit 451.
The Ten (or So)
I think I’m actually going to try to do these in order? It’s unusual for me, but I’m going to give it my all. I’ll have you know, picking between the #1 and #2 position was a real situation and I’m still mad that I made myself choose.
#11: Giver of Stars, Jojo Moyes
Honestly, I’m still a little bit conflicted about choosing this, which is why it’s just on the cusp of the top ten books; sometimes you just have to follow your heart (I’m allowed to be moderately glib here, right?). When this was released a few years ago (2019), there was a ton of conflict about plagiarism and this story having copied another story (The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, which I LOVED; you can see it featured in my 2019: Best of Books post). Kim Michele Richardson, author of Troublesome Creek, approached her publisher (Sourcebooks) with her concerns, but when they approached Moyes’s publisher (Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House) there was not enough conclusive evidence to follow through with the accusations. I don’t know one way or another, but I know that it doesn’t sit right with me– hence, my hesitation.
Having read both Giver of Stars and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, though, I don’t really think that they were too alike for me to love them both; the elements that were the same were elements I would expect to see handled in a book about this topic: poverty, the natural beauty of the Kentucky landscape, treatment of women, mining ethics, etc.
Why did I love this? The characters, pure and simple. If you’ve read this or plan to, I think there will be at least three characters who will earn your love. The story was memorable (though it was a little long in places, but no harm no foul), and I am such a sucker for a good historical fiction novel. I’m going to say something slightly controversial: I think I like Jojo Moyes’s historical fiction better than her contemporary? There, I’ve said it.
If you’d like to read more about the controversy, you can read this Buzzfeed Article.
#10: On the Come Up, Angie Thomas
In reflecting on this list, I’m noticing that virtually all of these books (with the exception of The Guest List, because holy problematic cast alert) have characters I loved. I don’t think that’s something that I generally have to have in the books I read. One of my favorite classics is The Great Gatsby, for goodness sake, and all of those people suck. Anyway, let’s get to On the Come Up.
Not only did I love the premise (everything about it really: a girl trying to follow her dreams, which just so happen to follow in the footsteps of her murdered father, a complicated mother/daughter relationship, poor choices made for the right reasons), but I just adored Bri. She had such drive and ambition, and I loved how REAL she felt. The decisions she made and the thoughts she had were so very teenage, and also careful and thoughtful. Idk, I just wanted the best for her. I loved her story.
#9: The Guest List, Lucy Foley
Yay, a thriller I can say I loved! It’s been a good while since a thriller showed up on one of these lists, but here we are! This was the first book I’d read by Lucy Foley, even though it wasn’t her first.
Dark stories are often very compelling for me; that’s clearly the case here. Every character is pretty much awful. The setting even seems to want to do everyone in, and I love that element of complete distrust that appeared on every page. While there were elements of the ending that I caught on to, I felt ultimately surprised and satisfied with that ending. I read it in two days, it was that much fun to read.
#8: Finding Freedom, Erin French
I’ve said so many things about this book, and I still have so many to say… but I’ll try to keep it brief. I still think frequently about how much I loved this book, and I read it in January. Six months is a pretty lasting impression for someone who reads as obsessively as I do.
AND ALSO, IT’S NONFICTION! I’m always surprised/impressed when books of this genre end up in the top lists. It’s just astounding.
But if this book doesn’t make you 1) Want to eat really good food, or 2) Hop on a plane to Maine, then we are very different people.
You can read a full review of the book here!
#7: Malibu Rising, Taylor Jenkins Reid
I know that this is likely the buzziest book of the summer, and I think it’s worth that title! I’m a BIG FAN of Taylor Jenkins Reid (Daisy Jones is one of my all-time favorite books, and I really loved Evelyn Hugo— I’m even a proponent of her older stuff, like Maybe in Another Life), so I’ve been dying for my chance to read this book most of the spring. When Book of the Month chose this as a June selection, you know I jumped to claim it as my pick.
Things I’m a Sucker for That TJR Apparently Knew to Include in Her Newest Story: Sibling relationships, complicated family dramas, 1980s pop culture, crossover story elements between multiple works by the same author, seafood, dual timelines, and foreshadowing that may or may not come to fruition. This book has all of these and then some. Also! A main character you can really root for– I know that is important for a lot of readers.
Honestly, I think it’s kind of the perfect summer read.
#6: Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton
Have we recently talked about the long-standing love affair I have with literary fiction? It’s my first literary love, from the time I was a young girl devouring the Elsie Dinsmore and Millie Keith books from Martha Finley. I read the Dear America books and loved The Magic Treehouse series because of its connection to previous time periods. Let’s talk about all that on another day!
This book was so wonderful and charming and immersive. I don’t know much of anything about Cuban culture or history, something that I found really interesting about this title. I’m also, as we know, a sucker for dual timelines, and this book had just that. There was a love story (and star-crossed lovers is also a trope I love), but the love story didn’t feel like it dominated the plot. The setting is magical, the history is engaging, I loved it all. It’s glamorous and romantic and completely full of historical information.
#5: This Close to Okay, Leesa Cross-Smith
I’ve ranted about my love for Leesa Cross-Smith before; I’ve been enamored with her writing ever since I received a galley copy of her previously book: Whiskey and Ribbons. Her books aren’t necessarily happy, but they are so incredibly beautiful and nuanced.
This book is set in the fall, and everything about it feels like Autumn. There is an element of impossible love (also, vaguely inappropriate love) at work in this story, but that’s not why I loved it. I loved it because of how much I cared for the characters, I loved it for the admirable use of language, and the realistic nature of the relationships between the characters. It is quiet; it’s not a rampant, propulsive plot. Still, I think this is a really special work. Highly recommend it.
#4: Fable, Adrienne Young
My favorite adventure story, maybe of all time? I don’t read a lot of adventure stories, to be fair. Lol. This story has pirates! Basically. And it takes place on the sea (something I LOVE), and there’s a villain we all hate, and there’s a love interest who is SO SWOON-WORTHY. I’m obsessed with him. There are also all these secrets and backstory elements. Can you tell that I’m totally enamored? Also, I love the character of Fable. She’s memorable and rebellious and a hard worker. She’s a survivor, and she’s unique. This is just such a great read.
#3: Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo
Yes, I know. I’m so late to the game in reading this. I really only read this because I read Shadow and Bone in order to watch the series on Netflix; however, when I started watching I realized there was an entire other cast of characters that I didn’t know at all. So, I had to go read this series in order to fully understand the workings of the show.
I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH. The characters and the complexity. The action and the heist! I think anyone could read this and love it. It moves so quickly, and I hated any time I had to put it down. I can’t wait to read Crooked Kingdom!
#2: Firekeeper’s Daughter, Angeline Boulley
Okay, so buckle up because this book is about so many things: community, family, identity, culture, home, murder, drug use, hockey, science, love, mystery, grief, sexual violence, and more. And guess what? It freaking works, every bit of it. It was so hard determining between this book and The Great Alone in my favorites of the year so far, but I spent a great deal of time thinking about this as soon as I finished. Originally, I received this as an e-galley from Macmillan’s Children’s Publishing Group, and I am so mad at myself because I didn’t read it immediately. It took me more time than I care to admit not reading it, and I’m embarrassed because I loved it so much.
It’s important, yes, but it’s also incredibly readable. There are scenes that were so beautiful they had me catching my breath, and then such powerful moments of action that it was all I could do not to make myself skim-read to see the ending.
I think everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read this book– even if it’s not in their traditional genre.
#1: The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah
It was full of strong emotion and powered by a tremendous plot. It’s complex and wonderful. The Alaskan setting was written and described with finesse, and despite the sad, troubling dilemmas of our main character it brought a beauty to the story. There’s an element of forbidden love told from the perspective of a teenage girl (a protagonist I love in a literary/contemporary fiction novel; I prefer the writing style of these genres, but the viewpoint of adolescents is often so heartfelt and tumultuous; it’s a favorite of mine) who suffers through the constant mood changes of her father, a former military man plagued with PTSD.
I think there are predictable elements, but I didn’t mind even a little bit. I think that fans of historical fiction, traditional Kristin Hannah writing style, tales of adventure in the great outdoors, and star-crossed lovers will really buy into this story.