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16 Best Book Reads of 2021
I’ll be the first to admit that I have quite an eclectic taste in books. I also judge a book by its cover or – more to the point – I’m shallow and go for the pretty books that draw my attention. Then I read the blurb and if that draws me in I’ll start to read the first page or two … by then I’ll know if the book is for me. I NEVER go to the end of a book to decide – to me, that’s book blasphemy! And here and there I will read a handful of books that have been recommended to me.
So, now you know how I select my books, here are 16 of the books I read in 2021 and recommend that you read, or at least consider adding to your TBR list.
1 | The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden
The Bear & The Nightingale is the first instalment of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy and is utterly enchanting from the start. The blurb for the book offers you a small glimpse into the world of this small village in Russia – a wild and wintry place that sits on the edge of a dark forest, and where stories of Russian Folklore come to life via the protagonist, Vasya.
Immediately it felt like I was listening to a fairytale from the Brother’s Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. Vasya, the youngest daughter to Pyotr and Marina, is confronted with many a challenge throughout – we are told she is not beautiful with cold green eyes, her step-mother is unkind to her, the people of the village think she is weird and the Priest Konstantin Nikonovich thinks she is a witch. But she is strong-willed and kind, she loves her family and the spirits of the house, yard, and the forest – I could only will her on to succeed from start to finish.
I am now listening to the next instalment in the trilogy, The Girl in The Tower.
Read my full review of The Bear and the Nightingale.
2 | Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
A beautiful, thought-provoking book by British-Asian author, Kazuo Ishiguro. Personally, I would not normally read a book that had sci-fi elements in it – Klara is an ‘Artificial Friend’ and the book is set in a dystopian future. However, it is also a reflection of our modern world; the decline in social skills, taking risks in order to be perceived to be the best – to be lifted above others at the expense of one’s health, but above all, it raises the question about love:
“?? ??? ??????? ?? ??? ????? ?????? ? ???’? ???? ?????? ??? ?????, ?????????. ?’? ???????? ?? ??? ?????? ?????. ??? ????? ?????. ?? ??? ????? ????? ?? ???? ? ?????? ????????? ???? ????? ???? ?? ?? ??????? ??? ???????????”
Klara and the Sun is sweet and heartbreaking, and I will be reading more by this author in the future. Read my full review.
3 | Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
I listened to the audiobook version of Conversations with Friends. It was good, I enjoyed the narrative, and although I felt the story was very similar to Normal People it’s a really easy listen/read.
4 | One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
I am in love with Gabriel García Márquez and his book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Funny, weird, magical, unreal and yet real – I couldn’t put it down and I can’t stop smiling when reminiscing about it.
Has anyone had a dose of Marquez’s magical realism and do you have any recommendations on other magical realism books and other authors?
5 | Normal People by Sally Rooney
Heartbreaking. Heartfelt. Normal People rings true of teenage struggles to emotionally express themselves to one another without being judged by friends or family. Poignant and beautifully written.
It’s not a large volume so you can get through it quickly, the writing style also helps and for a love story, it’s really well-paced. Also, I love the cover – very cool.
The story focuses on the relationship between the awkward Marianne and the popular Connell, from school through to university and how the social pressures and their own anxieties affect them. It’s sometimes sad and frustrating yet very real. Definitely a fan of Rooney’s – even though her next book was similar, especially the angst of the characters – but I am very much looking forward to reading, or listening to, Beautiful World, Where Are You.
6 | The Shielding of Mrs Forbes by Allen Bennett
A very funny short story by Alan Bennett. Goldiggers, liers, some incest, blackmail and denial. I read The Shielding of Mrs Forbes in less than an hour and recommend adding this to cheat your Goodreads reading challenge list.
7 | The Rat Line: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive by Philippe Sands
Fascinating story. I originally listened to the podcast, and also an episode about this story on The History Extra Podcast (I think?). The book delves into more detail and I loved being able to see the sources Sands used.
You will probably find, as I did, Otto Wachter’s son infuriating, especially when confronted with the facts and science by the experts. However, Sands and others, though they may also have their bias, retain their humanity and accept the results of the detailed research into this book. I recommend The Ratline to anyone who loves history, WWII and Nazi’s being hunted down.
8 | The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes
i really enjoyed these three, funny and short stories in The Lydia Steptoe Stories, by Djuna Jones:
- The Dairy of a Dangerous Child – a 14-year-old describes how she falls for her sisters’ lover, tries to tempt him, and gets caught by her mother.
- A Diary of a Small Boy – a naive boy, who thinks he is worldly, is tricked into the forest by his temptress ‘cousin’.
- Madame Grows Older: A Journal at the Dangerous Age – a woman in her middling years cannot cope with the love she feels for a younger man.
I do like how these stories are all written in the first person via diary/journal entries and an interesting way to deliver a story – quick, hilarious, and fun to read.
9 | The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex
I first heard about this book listening to the History Extra podcast and their episode: The Mystery of the Vanishing Lighthouse Keepers (24th March 2021). Emma talked about the strange true story of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse Keepers who disappeared without a trace in 1990.
Her book, The Lamplighters, is inspired by and written in respectful memory of this event.
Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead, it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface.
Inspired by real events, The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is an intoxicating and suspenseful mystery, an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.
I couldn’t put this book down: gripping, intriguing and not just a ghost story, it’s also a Who Done It book. And of course it has a beautiful cover.
10 | Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
From the cover alone, I would not have chosen to read or listen to Where The Crawdads Sing, but for once, the hype around a book got my attention and they were not wrong. I listened to the audiobook version and was hooked.
Kya is the ‘Marsh girl’ – abandoned by her family and alone. But she is intelligent, and what seems like isolation to others – the haunting marshlands – is her home. This book is beautifully written, and swaps between Kya’s past to 1969 with the death of the popular Chase Andrews. A heartbreaking murder mystery, and I loved the narration of this book.
11 | Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami
This is the second book I read in 2021 by a Japanese Author, and the first female Japanese author – I loved it even though the ending was a little weird.
The first half Breasts and Eggs follows thirty-year-old Natsuko, and her relationships with her older sister Makiko, and Makiko’s teenage daughter Midoriko in a poor neighbourhood of Tokyo. But their ‘holiday’ in Natsuko’s small apartment – that she can barely afford – is dominated by Makiko’s obsession with getting breast enhancements, Midoriko’s silence and Natsuko pondering her future as a writer, and her sister’s and nieces relationship.
The second half of the book is told eight years later. Natsuko is now a writer, Midoriko has grown up and has a boyfriend. But some things have not changed; Makiko is still working as an old Hostess – but now with Natsuko supplementing her income – and Natsuko wants to have a child without a relationship.
I enjoyed the first half of the book more – reading the sisters and niece’s history, why they existed as they did. The second half was good but strange as it jumped right into Natsuko’s obsession to have a child, but since she hates sex and finds it painful, she starts researching IVF.
Despite the blurb, this book is as heartwarming as it is hilarious, an eye-opening insight into working-class, and successful women in Japan.
12 | Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves
Telling Tales is the second book in Ann Cleeves Vera Stanhope series:
Ten years ago fifteen-year-old Abigail Mantel was murdered, her cold body discovered lying in a ditch. Her father’s girlfriend was found guilty of the crime. Now, evidence has emerged that proves her innocence and means that Abigail’s killer still roams free.
Abigail’s best friend at the time of the murder has now returned to the East Yorkshire village of Elvet to raise her young family. Shocked by the new revelations, she begins to realize that she didn’t know her friend as well as she thought . . .
Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope is tasked with uncovering the truth and, as her new inquiries stoke up past secrets the villagers will lie to protect, she must find out which lies will bring her to the killer.
Darker than the first story. The suspect is less clear. I loved all the references about the Humber (my dad is from that area of the country), and if you like British detective stories, add this to your reading list!
13 | The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves
After reading the first DI Venn book from Cleeves I literally couldn’t wait for The Heron’s Cry to be published so I could continue to indulge in getting to know the main characters, imagining myself on the North Devon coast again and trying to unravel this plot:
North Devon is enjoying a rare hot summer with tourists flocking to its coastline. Detective Matthew Venn is called out to a rural crime scene at the home of a group of artists. What he finds is an elaborately staged murder – Dr Nigel Yeo has been fatally stabbed with a shard of one of his glassblower daughter’s broken vases.
Dr Yeo seems an unlikely murder victim. He’s a good man, a public servant, beloved by his daughter. Matthew is unnerved though to find that she is a close friend of Jonathan, his husband.
Then another body is found – killed in a similar way. Matthew finds himself treading carefully through the lies that fester at the heart of his community and a case that is dangerously close to home…
14 | Miss Dior by Justine Picardie
The title of this book is VERY misleading. I’m not a fashion buff, but I do like Dior and history and I thought this would be a book that delved into Christian Dior’s lesser-known sibling and her heroics during WWII. Sadly ‘a story of courage and Dior’ is not that.
Picardie spends a lot of time talking about the fashion house history, its founder and everyone else who knew or were believed to have come across Catherine (a.k.a Miss Dior) during the war but we learn next to nothing about Catherine. After all, she did not write a memoir or leave any trace of her thoughts and feelings about what happened to her as a member of the French Resistance, caught and imprisoned at Ravensbruck.
However, having said that, this book does delve into the history of the French Resistance and women’s involvement in WWII and female POW’s. As women, we tend not to hear about the female heroics of WWII. Therefore, I would recommend this book if you want to start reading more about this side of history – intriguing and horrifying, but these women were courageous, fearless and true heroines.
I gave this book three stars, not because I thought it was not good but because it doesn’t deliver what it says on the cover.
15 | Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain
Another beautiful cover by Faber & Faber from their short story collection. Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain and another little cheat to add to your Goodreads challenge.
It follows the story of Maggy, imprisoned for her involvement with the IRA and who is on a hunger strike, contemplating what brought her to this point – was it the IRA or was it an amalgamation of other things?
It’s a little dark but shines a small spotlight on The Troubles, seen through the eyes of young Irish Girls.
16 | The Lost Man By Jane Harper
Pleasantly surprised by The Lost Man. Like Harper’s previous books, it is set in the Australian outback but instead of this being a detective led thriller, two brothers must solve the mystery of their brother’s death. Good plot and an unexpected villain.
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If you’ve read any of the books from my recommended books from 2021 list, let me know in the comments below.