Friday, December 31, 2021

The Best Happy, Hope-filled Books of 2021

I speak to groups and recommend and review books and after I speak I answer questions. In the last year or so, especially when these were on Zoom, there have been more questions about “happy” books than previously. I’ve never written a list composed entirely of hope-filled books, but here it is. I hope it acts like the 1970s Calgon bath powder commercial and “takes you away” from whatever concerns may be bothering you.

The Best Happy, Hope-filled Books of 2021—It’s a four-way tie for the very best!

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny has all the quirkiness, heart, and insight of an Anne Tyler novel. Toss in humor, music, kindness, and small-town sensibility and it’s a winner. Jane is 26 and has moved to Boyne City, Michigan to teach second grade. She and Duncan, a furniture restorer and locksmith, fall in love within seconds of meeting. She soon learns that he’s been with almost every woman within fifty miles, but it doesn’t matter. His helper Jimmy, his ex-wife and her bizarre husband, and their friends become family and readers get to enjoy the resulting hilarity, tenderness, and contentment. D/GPR/S, BC

The Guncle by Steven Rowley, Patrick, once a famous sit-com star, now lives alone in Palm Springs. When his sister-in-law and best friend Sara dies, his brother Greg tells him that he’s become addicted to painkillers and needs to go into treatment and asks if Patrick will take care of his niece and nephew for the summer. (Don’t worry, it really is happy despite the premise.) Patrick resists but finally agrees. The kids call him GUP for Gay Uncle Patrick soon shortened to Guncle. Patrick and the kids work through their grief in tender, laugh-out-loud ways. The characters are delightful in this heartwarming romp that’s sure to brighten the darkest day. D/GPR, BC

The Laurentian Divide by Sarah Stonich is a stand-alone sequel to the glorious Vacationland. The people of Hatchet Inlet, Minnesota are fabulous characters. Alpo, a kind widower, is about to marry Sissy, one of the diner owners who’s much younger than he is and who’s also dealing with her mother’s disturbing, yet often humorous dementia. Alpo’s brilliant son, Pete, the local veterinarian, is newly sober and not always trusted to stay so. I love the people, the setting, and this novel. My book club adored it and so will yours. I highly recommend everything Stonich writes. GPR, BC (2018)

Vacationland weaves the stories of the residents of Hatchet Inlet and the Naledi Lodge in northern Minnesota into a rich tapestry that every reader will love. Pay attention to the chapter titles as Separation, Reparation, Destination, and Assimilation lead to beginnings and endings that you’ll keep pondering long after you finish. You’ll feel as if you’ve fallen into a town that could have been in either Northern Exposure or Brigadoon. Choose this for your book club. GPR, BC (2013)

The Best, Happy, Hope-filled Books of 2021

The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell’Antonia is a delectable dessert of a novel featuring two sisters and two fried chicken restaurants in a small Kansas town. Mae, a Marie Kondo-type organizer, just lost her gig on TV. Her sister Amanda has arranged for the reality show Food Wars to film the two restaurants and declare one a winner. The restaurants began as one in 1886, but Frannie’s broke away a few years later and is now run by Amanda and her mother-in-law while Mimi’s, the original chicken shack, is run by Mae’s mother. With Mae’s big-city tactics assisting Mimi’s, the feud grows. It’s an improbable but deliciously satisfying and tasty read that belongs in a beach bag. D, BC (2020)

Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney ruminates on marriage, family, friendship, and self-awareness. Flora, Julian, and their daughter Ruby have a happy life and their best friends Margot and David have become family. All but David are successful actors when a secret upends them. This wry, inviting novel makes you feel a part of the family—confused and wondering. D/GPR, BC

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan celebrates friendship, women, and food. Set in the English countryside in the third year of World War II, it shows the resilience of women especially when they help each other. It’s a fast-paced, plot-driven narrative that readers looking for respite will devour. Sharing recipes created with the few ingredients available provides authenticity. CC/D/PP

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is a sweet, but not cloying, novel about learning how to live your own authentic life. The book is based on the fantasy that “between life and death there is a library.” Because of this, troubled Nora can make right everything she regrets about her sad life. “Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived.” Mrs. Elm, the kind librarian, guides Nora on her journey, but only Nora can find her path. Read this to celebrate living the life you’re meant to live. It’s perfect for the pandemic. Trigger warning: the main character contemplates suicide. GPR/D/SBP, BC (2020)

The Newcomer by Mary Kay Andrews is a rom-com with a touch of mystery. It’s a plot-driven romp packed with colorful characters set in an aging Florida, gulf coast motel where snowbirds return every winter. When 33-year-old Letty arrives with her four-year-old niece Maya in tow, the motel owner’s cop son wonders why. Are Letty and Maya safe from the person who killed Maya’s mom and will he find them there? Just the predictable book a beach requires. D/GS 

The Santa Suit by Mary Kay AndrewsAfter Ivy’s divorce, she decides to leave the city and buys a rural farmhouse online. It’s a mess and she has to clean it out so she can make needed repairs. She finds a Santa suit and a note in the pocket that forces her to leave her cocoon and meet her fellow townspeople. This charming, short novel is packed with Christmas cheer. It isn’t easy to make a feel-good book realistic, but Andrews makes it work, D/GPR/T

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny affords a wry look at marriage, relationships, and parenting. Graham left Elspeth to marry Audra, a chatty, overly generous woman who befriends strangers and makes them houseguests. Their son Matthew, diagnosed as having Asperger syndrome, has trouble making friends. Graham wonders how things might have been different then realizes that life forces you to cope and to love the people in it “right now, right in this instant.” It’s a quiet charmer. D/GPR/S, BC (2017)

Winter Street by Elin Hilderbrand is the first in the series of delectable Christmas confections involving the Quinn family on Nantucket at the Winter Street Inn. Inn owner Kelley Quinn and his four adult children all face problems, but Christmas offers hope, romance, and humor. D (2014)

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