2021 Favorites: Top Ten Books

Hey, bookish buds! Happy New Year to you all. 2021 was pretty crazy for me. Luckily, I did quite well on my reading challenges–completing a total of 113 books for my Goodread’s challenge after attempting to make just 60. Yes, some of these are middle-grade and children’s books, but I feel positive about my progress despite the challenges I’ve faced this year. I’ll do a separate post on the reading challenges, but here’s a quick list of the five-star books I read in 2021…


Live Your Life: My Story of Loving and Losing Nick Cordero

Amanda Kloots bravely reflects on love, loss, and life with her husband, Broadway star and Tony-nominee Nick Cordero, whose public battle with Covid-19 and tragic death made headlines around the world.

In the early spring of 2020, Broadway star and Tony Award nominee Nick Cordero was hospitalized for what he and his wife, Amanda Kloots, believed was a severe case of pneumonia. Entering Cedars-Sinai, there was no indication that Nick—a young man in the prime of life with no pre-existing conditions—would never return home. Diagnosed with Covid-19, this rising star—who only a few days earlier was the picture of health—soon deteriorated. Suffering a series of complications – minor heart attacks, an amputation, sepsis—he was kept alive for weeks, hooked to a ventilator, bypass machines, dialysis, and a specialized heart-lung bypass machine.

 Staying strong for Nick and their infant son, Elvis, Amanda shared their journey on social media, documenting Nick’s condition and the risks of Covid-19 for all ages. Her updates quickly made an impact, inspiring millions of followers around the globe who offered positive thoughts and virtual prayers, and danced each day to Nick’s hit song Live Your Life. When Nick passed away after 94 grueling days in the ICU, the world grieved for Amanda and her family’s devastating loss.

Live Your Life is her and Nick’s story: of their love and fairy-tale marriage, of the disease that quickly upended it, of the fight for Nick’s survival—those sudden tragic months that permanently changed her world and ours—of her grief and how she came to terms with his death, of keeping Nick’s memory alive for Elvis and the world. Offering courage and inspiration to anyone coping with overwhelming loss and written with her sister Anna Kloots who was with her every step of this journey, Amanda’s story is a thoughtful and poignant reflection on love, hope, motherhood, and the power of community in times of hardship. In sharing her experience, she shows us that, through positivity and community, even the most impossible circumstances can be endured. 

Live Your Life includes 16 pages of color photos exclusive to the book


Crying in H Mart

An unflinching, powerful memoir about growing up Korean American, losing her mother, and forging her own identity.

In this exquisite story of family, food, grief, and endurance, Michelle Zauner proves herself far more than a dazzling singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With humor and heart, she tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother’s particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.

As she grew up, moving to the East Coast for college, finding work in the restaurant industry, and performing gigs with her fledgling band–and meeting the man who would become her husband–her Koreanness began to feel ever more distant, even as she found the life she wanted to live. It was her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, when Michelle was twenty-five, that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.

Vivacious and plainspoken, lyrical and honest, Zauner’s voice is as radiantly alive on the page as it is onstage. Rich with intimate anecdotes that will resonate widely, and complete with family photos, Crying in H Mart is a book to cherish, share, and reread.


Every Last Fear

“They found the bodies on a Tuesday.”

So begins this twisty and breathtaking novel that traces the fate of the Pine family, a thriller that will both leave you on the edge of your seat and move you to tears.

After a late night of partying, NYU student Matt Pine returns to his dorm room to devastating news: nearly his entire family—his mom, his dad, his little brother and sister—have been found dead from an apparent gas leak while vacationing in Mexico. The local police claim it was an accident, but the FBI and State Department seem far less certain—and they won’t tell Matt why.

The tragedy makes headlines everywhere because this isn’t the first time the Pine family has been thrust into the media spotlight. Matt’s older brother, Danny—currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his teenage girlfriend Charlotte—was the subject of a viral true crime documentary suggesting that Danny was wrongfully convicted. Though the country has rallied behind Danny, Matt holds a secret about his brother that he’s never told anyone: the night Charlotte was killed Matt saw something that makes him believe his brother is guilty of the crime.

When Matt returns to his small hometown to bury his parents and siblings, he’s faced with a hostile community that was villainized by the documentary, a frenzied media, and memories he’d hoped to leave behind forever. Now, as the deaths in Mexico appear increasingly suspicious and connected to Danny’s case, Matt must unearth the truth behind the crime that sent his brother to prison—putting his own life in peril—and forcing him to confront his every last fear.

Told through multiple points-of-view and alternating between past and present, Alex Finlay’s Every Last Fear is not only a page-turning thriller, it’s also a poignant story about a family managing heartbreak and tragedy, and living through a fame they never wanted.


What Doesn’t Kill You – A Life with Cronic Illness – Lessons from a Body in Revolt

The riveting account of a young journalist’s awakening to chronic illness, weaving together personal story and reporting to shed light on living with an ailment forever.

Tessa Miller was an ambitious twentysomething writer in New York City when, on a random fall day, her stomach began to seize up. At first, she toughed it out through searing pain, taking sick days from work, unable to leave the bathroom or her bed. But when it became undeniable that something was seriously wrong, Miller gave in to family pressure and went to the hospital—beginning a yearslong nightmare of procedures, misdiagnoses, and life-threatening infections. Once she was finally correctly diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, Miller faced another battle: accepting that she will never get better.

Today, an astonishing three in five adults in the United States suffer from a chronic disease—a percentage expected to rise post-Covid. Whether the illness is arthritis, asthma, Crohn’s, diabetes, endometriosis, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, or any other incurable illness, and whether the sufferer is a colleague, a loved one, or you, these diseases have an impact on just about every one of us. Yet there remains an air of shame and isolation about the topic of chronic sickness. Millions must endure these disorders not only physically but also emotionally, balancing the stress of relationships and work amid the ever-present threat of health complications.

Miller segues seamlessly from her dramatic personal experiences into a frank look at the cultural realities (medical, occupational, social) inherent in receiving a lifetime diagnosis. She offers hard-earned wisdom, solidarity, and an ultimately surprising promise of joy for those trying to make sense of it all.


A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea

The harrowing true story of one man’s life in—and subsequent escape from—North Korea, one of the world’s most brutal totalitarian regimes.

Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life. A River in Darkness is not only a shocking portrait of life inside the country but a testament to the dignity—and indomitable nature—of the human spirit.


Dark Roads

The acclaimed and beloved author of Still Missing is back with her most breathtaking thriller yet.

The Cold Creek Highway stretches close to five hundred miles through British Columbia’s rugged wilderness to the west coast. Isolated and vast, it has become a prime hunting ground for predators. For decades, young women traveling the road have gone missing. Motorists and hitchhikers, those passing through or living in one of the small towns scattered along the region, have fallen prey time and again. And no killer or abductor who has stalked the highway has ever been brought to justice.

Hailey McBride calls Cold Creek home. Her father taught her to respect nature, how to live and survive off the land, and to never travel the highway alone. Now he’s gone, leaving her a teenage orphan in the care of her aunt whose police officer husband uses his badge as a means to bully and control Hailey. Overwhelmed by grief and forbidden to work, socialize, or date, Hailey vanishes into the mountainous terrain, hoping everyone will believe she’s left town. Rumors spread that she was taken by the highway killer—who’s claimed another victim over the summer.

One year later, Beth Chevalier arrives in Cold Creek, where her sister Amber lived—and where she was murdered. Estranged from her parents and seeking closure, Beth takes a waitressing job at the local diner, just as Amber did, desperate to understand what happened to her and why. But Beth’s search for answers puts a target on her back—and threatens to reveal the truth behind Hailey’s disappearance…


World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and other Astonishments

From beloved, award-winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil comes a debut work of nonfiction–a collection of essays about the natural world, and the way its inhabitants can teach, support, and inspire us.

As a child, Nezhukumatathil called many places home: the grounds of a Kansas mental institution, where her Filipina mother was a doctor; the open skies and tall mountains of Arizona, where she hiked with her Indian father; and the chillier climes of western New York and Ohio. But no matter where she was transplanted–no matter how awkward the fit or forbidding the landscape–she was able to turn to our world’s fierce and funny creatures for guidance.

“What the peacock can do,” she tells us, “is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life.” The axolotl teaches us to smile, even in the face of unkindness; the touch-me-not plant shows us how to shake off unwanted advances; the narwhal demonstrates how to survive in hostile environments. Even in the strange and the unlovely, Nezhukumatathil finds beauty and kinship. For it is this way with wonder: it requires that we are curious enough to look past the distractions in order to fully appreciate the world’s gifts.

Warm, lyrical, and gorgeously illustrated by Fumi Nakamura, World of Wonders is a book of sustenance and joy.


Kaffe Fassett’s Quilts in the Cotswolds: Medallion Quilt Designs with Kaffe Fassett Fabrics

In this 21st installment of Kaffe Fassett’s ever-popular series of patchwork and quilting books, Kaffe has chosen to show off his latest range of fabrics by revisiting many of his favorite medallion quilt blocks.

Photographed on location at the world-famous Hidcote Manor Garden in the beautiful Cotswolds countryside, these delectable quilts find their perfect setting among the brilliant flower borders, avenues of trees, and stunning architectural features that make Hidcote one of the most visited gardens in the U.K.

Medallion quilts have universal appeal and the simple framework of the medallion design makes a great vehicle for Kaffe’s eye-catching color combinations in his brilliant range of fabric designs. Assisted by his team of designers and makers, Kaffe has created an exquisite and varied range of 19 medallion designs, among them:

  • the rich Berry Ice Cream quilt, photographed in Hidcote’s world famous Red Border
  • the dramatic Dark Gameboard, photographed against the geometric precision of Hidcote’s famous topiary hedges
  • the soft Flowery Jar, its pink and blue themed design echoing the colors of the flowers in Hidcote’s early summer border

Kaffe Fassett’s Quilts in the Cotswolds provides all the basic instructional text, diagrams, and templates to make the quilts, plus a section on basic patchwork techniques for less experienced quilters.


Ancient Remedies: Secrets to Healing with Herbs, Essential Oils, CBD, and the Most Powerful Natural Medicine in History

Long before the first pharmaceutical companies opened their doors in the 1850s, doctors treated people, not symptoms. And although we’ve become used to popping pills, Americans have finally had it with the dangerous side effects, addiction and over-prescribing—and they’re desperate for an alternative.

Here’s the good news: That alternative has been here all along in the form of ancient treatments used for eons in traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic and Greek medicine. Ancient Remedies is the first comprehensive layman’s guide that will bring together and explain to the masses the very best of these time-tested practices.

In Ancient Remedies, Dr. Axe explores the foundational concepts of ancient healing—eating right for your type and living in sync with your circadian clock. Readers will learn how traditional practitioners identified the root cause of each patient’s illness, then treated it with medicinal herbs, mushrooms, CBD, essential oils, and restorative mind-body practices. What’s more, they’ll discover how they can use these ancient treatments themselves to cope with dozens of diseases, from ADHD to diabetes, hypothyroidism, autoimmune disease, and beyond.

Through engaging language and accessible explanations, Ancient Remedies teaches readers everything they need to know about getting, and staying, healthy—without toxic, costly synthetic drugs.


The Christmas Pig

A heartwarming, page-turning adventure about one child’s love for his most treasured thing, and how far he will go to find it. A tale for the whole family to fall in love with, from one of the world’s greatest storytellers.

One boy and his toy are about to change everything…

Jack loves his childhood toy, Dur Pig. DP has always been there for him, through good and bad. Until one Christmas Eve something terrible happens — DP is lost. But Christmas Eve is a night for miracles and lost causes, a night when all things can come to life… even toys. And Jack’s newest toy — the Christmas Pig (DP’s replacement) — has a daring plan: Together they’ll embark on a magical journey to seek something lost, and to save the best friend Jack has ever known…


How did you do last year? Are you excited about any specific books for 2022? Let’s chat below…

❤️ Mischenko

27 thoughts on “2021 Favorites: Top Ten Books

    1. Thanks! I’m trying to prevent myself from getting overzealous. I have two challenges picked out on top of the Goodread’s regular challenge. They’ll overlap though. Happy reading to you in 2022! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  1. starjustin

    Wow! These all sound so interesting. Glad you made your challenge for 2021. I need to get back to reading more. Sounds like I’m missing out on so much. Good luck with your 2022 year and challenge Jen!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a really diverse collection of books, Mischenko. Great choices! I’m especially drawn to Every Last Fear.

    I’ll be sharing my top choices for 2021 this coming week (Wednesday and Thursday).

    We are almost identical with our GR reading challenge. I set mine for 60 books as well, and ended up reading 115. Couldn’t be closer, LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jo! I hope you love Dark Roads. That was the first thriller I’d read in a long time, and it reminded me how much I love to be on the edge of my seat. Great characters too. I’m excited to hear your thoughts. Happy reading! 💜

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read Dark Roads, Every last fear and Live Your Life: My Story of Loving and Losing Nick Cordero and also loved them giving them 5 stars. I have recommended Live Your Life to so many people, such an inspirational story. Happy New Year and enjoy whatever you read in 2022, Jen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad that they all turned out good for you, Carla. Live Your Life was sad, but yes, inspirational as well. It’s definitely at the top of my favorites for last year. My husband just lost a friend to Covid a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking about her story lot. It’s one I’ll never forget. Happy reading and hugs ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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