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My 2021 Top Five Reads

Reading has been my top pastime since I was six years old, so in this year of “new normal,” I’m not surprised that my total was 153 books. A few stats:

  • 90 were audiobooks—my companions while gardening, walking, driving, running.
  • I gave 5* ratings to 35. I rate within genre and read in all genres if you consider Anna Karenina a romance.
  • I follow Robin Hobb’s rating system, where 3* is a good book; you should read it. 4* means I’m recommending it all over the place. 5* means the book is so good that I’m lost in its pages when I should be completing the book I’m writing!
  • I abandoned more books this year than ever before. As I once heard Madeleine L’Engle say, life is too short to finish any book that doesn’t interest you!

So here are my top five, culled from the 35, with a few honorable mentions at the end!

How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith.

Too often, we take historical site interpretation for granted and it drives our view of what happened. This is a hard-hitting, yet lyrical and story-driven narrative/travelogue/historical account/examination of the power of who tells the stories. Since I listened to the audio I don’t have the exact quote, but the book is summed up by the author’s tour guide for sites related to slavery in New York City: “If it makes you feel comfortable, question it.”


Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr.

At its heart, this is several stories, all connected via a single ancient text. If you’re puzzled or confused at first, relax into Doerr’s storytelling and trust that the tales will all come together with an amazing interweaving. Concentrate on the strong characters, look for the themes that connect the different storylines. Suddenly, you will not be able to put this book aside.

I heard Doerr speak on the inspiration behind this novel during which he discussed 10 fascinating themes that influenced him, all without giving away the plot of the book. I found myself wondering just how high his IQ is and being grateful for the curiosity that underlies his writing. Enjoy!


All the Devils are Here by Louise Penny.

Crime novels deliver a sense that justice will prevail, something that I at least have been craving. The best crime novels are more about the detective and her/his inner circle than about the murder. The outstanding ones provide insights into history, human nature, ethics, and more. I’m eagerly awaiting the next volumes of Maisie Dobbs (Winspear), Charles Lennox (Finch), and Jackson Brodie (Atkinson) books. And the next Louise Penny. This one, the 16th Chief Inspector Gamache novel, was my favorite of the year. In this volume, Penny explores trust. Who can you trust? How do you know someone is trustworthy? When do you need to doubt–or not–those closest to you?

If you haven’t been to Three Pines, consider the audiobooks. The citizens of this fictional Canadian village even joke at the absurdly high murder rate in their midst. They love their eccentrics no matter what they do. They model acceptance and forgiveness even in the midst of raw events. You’ll find yourself content in snarled traffic knowing you’ll get to listen a little longer, doing that pesky core workout each morning so you can get back to Gamache, content while on the treadmill, happily doing dishes…


Facing the Mountain by Daniel Brown.

Once again, Daniel James Brown, the author of The Boys in the Boat uses the power of narrative stories so readers almost relive history. And this time, it’s gut-wrenching in two eye-opening ways. The first part of the book brings home how America put the Japanese-Americans in concentration camps after Pearl Harbor and stole their property. First-person accounts detail how they stayed true to their values even as they were humiliated, housed in inadequate barracks in harsh desert climates, robbed of dignity, and more. They were not merely “resettled.” And then, you follow the 442nd Battalion in Italy and Germany, again through the stories of several Japanese-American soldiers. It became the most decorated unit of the war. When Brown collected the stories they were ready to talk, and their detailed accounts of war are very tough to read. But need to be read. Brown also included the story of Gordon Hirabayashi who fought his own battle in courts by refusing to relocate to the camps and willingly went to prison rather than submit to laws and regulations not applied to other US citizens. As he put it, “Unless citizens are willing to stand up for the Constitution it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”


The Chancellor by Kati Martin.

Read this for a picture of what an effective, democratic, moral leader looks like. If only more leaders could engage in the sort of calm, persistent negotiation she modeled…Raised in East Germany, Merkel has a keen sense of what loss of freedom means. In a recent PBS special about her, former President Bush described her as a values-driven leader who can solve problems. This volume provides fascinating insights about the experiences and individuals that cemented her leadership strengths.


My Runners-Up, also all five stars.

Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society by Ronald J. Diebert.

Do ya think we need this book? Do ya think? Well-researched and practical.




Belonging: A German Recons with History and Home by Nora Krug.

Exquisite use of graphic novel format for a memoir. Photos, drawings, journal entries all tell more than just words could convey.



Exit by Belinda Bauer.

Maybe you don’t think there could possibly be anything funny about assisted suicide, or novel-worthy. Trust me and try this poignant account of people who just meant to do good for others.


The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

And I don’t usually like short stories. Try the audiobook, with each one read by a different author.



Deacon King Kong  by James McBride

A master storyteller at his best. As I walked out of my fav indie bookstore carrying a copy, people on the way in said, “Oh you are going to love that one!!!”



A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Do not wait any longer to learn from this amazing man’s story…




Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell

Worth every bit of its detail. You’ll soon realize that Winston would never have been prime minister without her. Just read it.

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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