Since it’s the first week of January, I thought I would kick off the New Year by putting a bow on 2021. From January through December, I read 35-40 books. (Truth be told, a lot were research books which I forgot to write down.) Not as many as some, but a healthy amount. I’m hoping to increase the number in 2022.
While it’s difficult to narrow down that many books to an absolute “best”, I have managed to select a few favorites. (Click on the titles to purchase.)
Island Queen is the real-life story of Mrs. Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, a Caribbean slave from the mid-18th century who, after buying her freedom, became the richest woman in Demerara (British Guiana). In addition to building her empire, she secured manumission for her grandmother, mother, sister, and several of her children (several more were born free), bedded the son of the British king, and successfully petitioned the British government to overturn a taxation law that penalized freed black women. She owned a thriving plantation, a pair of hotels and several successful stores. In short, she was a freaking rock star.
It is my opinion that everyone who writes (or wishes to write) historical biography needs to read this book. Dr. Riley gives a masterclass on how to bring an historical figure to life. Her version of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas manages to be bold, intelligent, sensual, stubborn, naïve, hypocritical, cold, loving, proud, hot tempered, tender, and fierce. Talk about a multi-faceted character!
With so much material, Riley could have easily settled for recounting Thomas’s accomplishments and put out a decent, if not ordinary, novel. However, instead Riley focuses on Thomas’s relationships. It’s a brilliant choice. Dorothy Thomas was a strong black woman at a time when blacks were considered property, and when women of all races were expected to be docile and submissive. In order to success, Dorothy had to make a lot of tough choices – choices that often estranged her from the people she loved. In showing readers the consequences of Dorothy’s actions – and allowing them to suffer along with Dorothy – Riley makes her heroine human. We aren’t reading about Dorothy Thomas’s accomplishments, we’re experiencing them along with her. When she is successful, we cheer. When something bad happens (and bad stuff does happen) we cry.
Another plus for Island Queen? The pacing. Riley comes from the world of historical romance and as such, knows how to keep the tension level high throughout the book. It’s literary writing with a commercial fiction pace. You won’t want to put it down. And, with Island Queen clocking in at over 600 pages, that’s saying a lot.
Hands down, the best book I read all year.
(By the way, Island Queen was optioned for film by the producers of The Bridgertons. Can’t wait.)
Yellow Wife gets my vote for debut of the year. Johnson’s book tells the story of Pheby, a young mixed-race slave girl who has been told by the plantation owner that she’ll be freed come her 18th birthday. But, as happens in books, tragedy changes everything, and she soon finds herself owned by a slave trader in Maryland. The book is about her quest to survive, and let me tell you, Pheby is a Survivor with a capital S. Making a well-written story even better: it’s based on a real-life slave named Mary Lumpkin and a slave jail known as the Devil’s Half Acre.
Yellow Wife is out in paperback this month, and it is one of Barnes & Noble’s picks of the month. If you still have holiday money on that gift card, consider spending it on this title.
Willig’s single titles have been autobuys for me for years. Therefore it’s not a surprise that I loved Band of Sisters. The book is based on a real-life group of Smith College alumna who traveled to France on a relief mission during World War 1. These women braved over a year near the front lines providing medical care, education and supplies to the local villagers. Their goal was to give the French back their dignity as well as help repair their homes. Willig portrays the frustrations and hazards these women faced with her trademark combination of humor and drama. There’s also a wonderful storyline about the power of friendship and an adorable wartime romance.
This tiny little book about how to live your best life was never actually meant to be a book at all. It’s Marcus Aurelius’s private notes on stoicism and how he could best reflect the Stoic philosophy. Aurelius, like others, believed that your place on earth is secondary to your place in the afterlife. Thus, everything you do while alive should contribute to making the world a better place. He places the idea of personal glory in perspective as well, noting that mankind moves on from the dead, but that the afterlife does not. Aurelius’s advice is simple and timeless. When you finish reading, you’ll understand why he’s considered one of the last great Roman emperors.
Turning the page to 2022, there are two books that I’m eagerly looking forward to reading….
In the late 1930s, a man named Louis Hammond discovered a series of 48 stones supposedly inscribed with messages from the Lost Colony of Roanoke. With the exception of the first stone, all of them were proclaimed hoaxes. The first stone, which may or may not be legitimate (and remains controversial) bore a note from colonist Eleanor Dare explaining the demise of the colony. (For more on the Roanoke story, click here.)
In her book, Brock has taken the myth of the Eleanor Dare, fast-forwards to World War 2 and paints a mystery regarding the Dare women legacy. I am so excited for this book that I’ve even foregone a chance to read it on Netgalley so that I can buy the hardcover outright. (On Shelves April 2022)
The Secret Society of Salzburg by Renee Ryan
As you all know, Renee is my close friend. But even if she wasn’t, I would be looking forward to this book which tells the story of Hitler’s favorite opera singer who is arrested for treason by the Nazis. Who betrayed the diva and why? The book alternates between past and present in search of the answer.
Renee’s historical debut, The Widows of Champagne was absolutely fabulous. So well written that if she weren’t such a close friend, I’d have to make her my nemesis. I have a feeling she stepped up her game in this new book. I look forward to seeing if I’m right. (On Shelves August 2022)
Finally, one last note: I’m thinking of compiling all my recommended reads from the past couple years into one handy reference document. What do you think? If it sounds like something you think would be useful, drop me a line at Barbara@barbarawallace.com. I’m interested in your opinions.