My Favorite Novels of 2021

I read forty-two works of fiction in 2021; forty were new and two were re-reads. (I also read ten novels as a PW reviewer, but none of those are included in this roundup.) For the second year in a row, I’ve read considerably fewer novels than in pre-Covid years. It’s hard to tell if this is only because of Covid. I also spent the last two-plus years writing two books, which occupied a lot of my attention.

Woman Reading Book Paintings | Fine Art America
Painting by Charles Edward Perugini

Fortunately, as in past years, I read many good books. I know that a “Top Ten” is standard for “Best of” lists, but I had to stretch to eleven for 2021. And a reminder, this list is for the books I read in 2021, but not all the books were necessarily published that year.

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

I’m not sure what I expected when I started this novel, but it certainly exceeded every expectation I had about the story.

2. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. I put off reading this for awhile, and while I was reading it I had to set it aside for days at a time because of the subject matter. But it really is a beautiful book.

3. We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker. I picked it up on a whim from the New Books shelf at the public library and had a hard time putting it down. Wonderful characters and a great structure.

4. Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia. A fabulous generational story about Cuban women.

5. House of the Patriarch by Barbara Hambly. I read a lot of mystery series, and historical ones are my favorite. (Jacqueline Winspear’s newest addition to her Maisie Dobbs series was also one of my favorite reads of 2021.) Hambly’s Benjamin January is one of the genre’s most unforgettable characters.

6. The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. Inventive and stunning.

7. A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. A riveting drama of a teenage girl who longs to know her mother.

8. Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson. This is a sensitive exploration of the kinds of realities faced by enslaved women in the antebellum South.

9. Annie and the Wolves by Andromeda Romano-Lax. I can’t resist reading about characters who are academics. It has a time-travel twist.

10. Outlawed by Anna North. This alternate history of the American West contains one of my favorite opening lines: “In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.”

11. Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith.

Wow! There’s time-travel here, too, as well as some ghosts. Totally different from what I usually read but I couldn’t stop reading it.

My 2022 reading is still very new, but I’ve started the year with two stunners. One I began late last month and didn’t want to rush through it to finish before the end of the year. I know both will be on my “Best of 2022” list, so stay tuned until next January for that!

Up next, reflections on my 2021 nonfiction reading. Then some other new stuff, especially about my forthcoming book, Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans.

Happy New Year everyone.

Happy Birthday, Frances Octavia Smith

Born on this day, October 31, in Texas in 1912, Frances Octavia Smith. By the 1920s, she was singing on the radio. During the next decade, she adopted a new name, Dale Evans, and performed with big bands and in nightclubs.

By the 1940s, Dale Evans had moved on to Hollywood where she became a well-known movie actor, reaching the height of her popularity when she co-starred in a string of western films with the singing cowboy, Roy Rogers.

During the 1950s, the couple (by then, married in real life) starred in a weekly 30-minute western television program, The Roy Rogers Show. Throughout the country, Dale Evans was known as the Queen of the West.

I’m marking Dale’s birthday (and Halloween) by wearing my favorite western boots.

Five Best Books (and other news)

A new website for readers called Shepherd (“Like browsing the best bookstore in the world.”) asked me to contribute to its best books series. Authors get to recommend their favorites on a particular subject, and to keep my recommendations down to five, I had to come up with a very narrow topic!

I titled mine “The best books on 19th-century women’s rights activists who weren’t Susan B. Anthony.”

The list highlights works on lesser-known women like Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone who were devoted to a variety of gender equality issues, including suffrage. I’ve also included one of my all-time favorites, historian Nell Irvin Painter’s brilliant biography of Sojourner Truth.

Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

If you have the time, take a look through the other recommendation lists on the Shepherd site–it’s a great resource for nonfiction readers.

In other news, my forthcoming biography of singer and actor Dale Evans (the first one ever written about this mega-celebrity of the 20th century), Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans, has just gone through the copyedit stage. Next come the page proofs, when I get to see how the manuscript actually looks as a printed book. The cover design, which is quite snappy already, is still undergoing a bit of tweaking, but I’ll debut it here when it’s officially finalized. So far, the book is due to be released in March 2022.

Now that the Dale Evans book is essentially done, it’s time to move on to a new project. After a couple of conversations (one very long, the other pretty short) with my agent, we settled on one of the several ideas I pitched. It’s at the very, very beginning of the proposal process and much too soon to reveal particulars, but I can share that it’s in keeping with my penchant for writing about scrappy women in American history. 

Until my next post, happy reading!


Happy First Birthday!

One year ago today, June 1, Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War officially launched.

During that year in which Mary Walker found her way into readers’ hands, I worked on another book–about a more well-known scrappy woman, Dale Evans. Right at the tail end of May, I submitted the manuscript of that biography. Here’s what my study looked like on that auspicious day. (I’m especially fond of the flying pink pig.)

As soon as I know more about the timeline for copyedits and proofs, I’ll announce when I’ll start Queen of the West Wednesdays, to introduce you all to this new book. Saddle up, everyone. 2021 is about to get exciting.

How My Mother Beat 2020 (a kind of Mother’s Day story)

My mother, Irene (a name she always said she hated), was born in 1933, not long after Franklin Roosevelt took over as president and began the long process of pulling the United States out of the Great Depression. Her parents were staunch Republicans, so she probably never heard a good word about the man. Because of that economic catastrophe, her parents had to sell their house and move in with her paternal grandparents. A few other assorted relatives lived there from time to time, too. But my mother and her older brother grew up in this house.

My mother had a close friend, a boy, who lived on the block, but mostly she ran with a group who called themselves the Euclid Avenue Girls. My grandparents, as good Catholics as they were Republicans, sent my mother to parochial schools, both grade school and high school. Irene was, at best, an indifferent student. She liked the social aspects of education and didn’t appreciate the nuns’ discipline. When she graduated high school, she was glad to be done and looked forward to working full time.

Irene had a few choices for jobs. Her older brother, away doing his stint in the army, wrote and advised her to find an office job. Even though she’d told him she didn’t think it would suit her, he thought it was the best for her in terms of environment and pay (e.g. respectability). But really, anything but factory work would do, he thought. He warned her that nothing was worse than punching a time clock.

Irene decided to take a job at a local pharmacy. The owner/pharmacist let her wait on customers and helped her get a license as an apprentice pharmacist. She was so proud of the license–she kept renewing it for years after she stopped working there. And it wasn’t long before that happened. One day in 1955, a young army veteran from a good Democratic Catholic family in Chicago, now working for a land surveying company, walked in to pick up a newspaper. He came back the next day. And the next. Irene and Mike married in 1956. So after 23 years of living in her grandparents’ brick bungalow, she moved into this home, where she and Mike raised all four of us children.

The house, a prefab delivered on big flatbed trucks for onsite building, was originally much smaller: under 1000 square feet, three small bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, and an eat-in kitchen. As we children grew, so did the house. Every time my dad had a porch built on the back of the house, within a few years it ended up enclosed as new living space.

My mother stayed home taking care of us four. For many years she was alone with us, Monday through Friday, because my dad often had jobs that required him to travel. During some of those years we had a dog, too, which meant extra work for her. Still, she joined the PTA and was active during our grade school years. Irene loved baseball and the Chicago Cubs. (I always knew it was springtime when my mother set up the ironing board in the family room so she could watch the Cubs on television while she ironed.) She was happy when my brothers joined Little League, and she went to all of their games. For a time she served as chief umpire, the first woman in the area to do so. In her “spare” time, Irene loved antique shopping and she taught herself how to refinish furniture.

After we were teenagers, my mother went back to work part time for a few years as a receptionist. It wasn’t about the money–my dad earned a decent salary–it was probably for the sociability. Then we started moving away from home. Work, college, marriage, children–her grandchildren. My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They were beloved grandparents by that point. Here’s a picture of my mother with my son when he was about three years old. That’s the front of the very same house I grew up in. That’s Irene and that’s my son, happy to be free after hours in the car, driving from Wisconsin.

Despite her cigarette habit (besides her family, friends, and the Cubs, Irene most loved smoking and drinking vodka on the rocks), my mother remained in good health. In the early 2000s, small bits of treatable cancers popped up. She had them taken care of and stayed vigilant with her checkups. Then less treatable cancer turned up in my dad, and he died in 2009. Maybe because of all those years my mother took care of us and the house, the practical aspects of widowhood didn’t phase her.

But now, we all took care to watch out for her a bit more, even as she remained resolute about her independence. Irene went to church, spent more time again with the remaining Euclid Avenue Girls, did her own grocery shopping, and walked the aisles of Target looking for good sales. We thought we would lose her when she had a stroke. Luckily, she was out shopping at the time, not home alone. Because she got to the hospital so quickly, because she was so determined to get through rehab and back to her own home, she did. Irene slowed down, but she kept going. I often referred to her as the Energizer Bunny.

Then 2020 happened. Irene understood and accepted all the social restrictions necessary to contain Covid. She learned how to Zoom (though not very well), she let people deliver groceries, she sat in a chair in her driveway, masked, to receive birthday greetings from her family. Every time she heard bad news, she dismissed it with a shrug and, “Well, it’s 2020.”

Even when that bad news was, finally, that her cancer had spread. This time it wasn’t treatable. My mother consented to a round of radiation treatments that made her more comfortable. She consented to stay in an assisted-living facility, leaving her home of more than sixty years. When she first moved in, the place allowed visitors, which made us all happy. The next day, visitation shut down because a staff member tested positive. “It’s 2020,” my mother said, and told us all that it was enough that we called her.

I talked to her almost every day, a big increase from my normal weekly calls. We chatted about everything except her health. Her biggest sadness was that she didn’t get HGTV, but she was becoming fond of Animal Planet. Twice, visitation opened at the facility; twice it abruptly shut again before I could make the drive down. And you know what my mother said about that.

The assisted-living facility director let me and my siblings know that we could visit our mother any time we wanted, as long as we were masked, gloved, and gowned. My siblings visited, more than once. The weather remained good through the late fall. My husband and I finally got there, too, driving four hours to stay for barely more than thirty minutes, worried that all the precautions wouldn’t be enough to keep my mother safe from the virus. But my mother was happy to see us, no matter how short the visit.

There was a Christmas phone call, and we talked about the upcoming new year. I reminded my mother that 2020 would soon be over. I teased her that she wouldn’t be able to use her favorite saying anymore. She laughed a little, but didn’t directly reply. “You’re going to beat 2020,” I told her. Yes, was all she said.

Then it was 2021. My mother received her first vaccination. I watched the weather reports–January was unpredictable–before calling to say we were on our way, to expect us the next day. “Drive carefully, honey,” my mother said, as she always did. About halfway there, our normally reliable car died. I called to say we wouldn’t get there after all. Don’t worry, stay safe, she said. I asked if maybe 2021 was going to be as bad as 2020. She laughed a little.

It took a few days to get the car fixed. When we picked it up, we went right on to that facility. My husband and I wore masks, but gowns weren’t required. We brought her a chocolate shake from McDonald’s, which disappeared pretty quickly. (I would have brought vodka, but she lost her taste for it after the stroke.) She offered us snacks, but we didn’t want to take off our masks in her small room. We hadn’t been vaccinated. When it was time to leave–we stayed about an hour–we gave air hugs, something my mother had become used to. I promised to call her the next day.

Which I did. We had our usual conversation. But when I called the next day, she told me she hadn’t been feeling very well. She wasn’t up to talking. “That’s okay,” I told her. “I’ll check in on you tomorrow.” This had happened once or twice before. “Hey, remember, you beat 2020.”

My phone rang very early the following morning. My sister calling, after the facility director called her.

My mother beat 2020 by fifteen days.

I should have given her a real hug goodbye that day.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom. I do miss you.