Everyone agonizes about what to write for the very first post of their shiny new blog, right? Since we’re in a brand new year, I decided to start with my favourite books read in 2021.
I had an amazing reading year, able to get back to the sort of volume of reading I had missed since becoming a mum 7 years ago. There were some short periods of reading slumps last year, but I still managed to read 41 books from a target of 20, which I’m super pleased about.
Without further ado, here are my 14 favourite reads of the last year.
This gorgeous thing had been on my TBR shelf for years. It started off as a real slow burn and I almost gave up on it. I’m really glad I didn’t.
Packed with wonderfully intricate location description and history mixed with fantasy, The Bedlam Stacks made for a brilliant, magical adventure deep in Peru. I am greatly looking forward to reading The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which is not a sequel, but features a character from The Bedlam Stacks.
This had also been on my TBR for a few years, ever since I read Purple Hibiscus. I’m so glad I got to it in 2021.
CNA writes in such an arresting, disquieting way, giving me eternal awe. This is a hugely important book. It’s essential reading to anyone who cares about other humans at all, particularly those who want to know more about the devastating after-effects of colonialism in Nigeria which still switch between shouting and echoing to this very day.
For me, The Midnight Library is a quiet, unassuming presentation of what all of us think all the time but never actually talk about properly. “If only I had…”.
I listened to the audiobook version of this and adored it. I love folk and fairy tales and Botanical Folk Tales is full of whimsy and perfect for nature-lovers (like me).
I want to get a paperback copy so I can share them with my girls. I told them some of the tales I could recall from memory and they really enjoyed them. And that’s the point of this collection – for the stories of this land to be embellished, tweaked and embroidered and passed down, changing a little with each generation.
I have a special love of translated works and read the most I ever have this year.
Bleak truths about the female existence are plastered whichever way you turn in Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. But I also drew strength from this book, feeling solidarity that even on the other side of the world there are women who understand me perfectly.
I listened to the audiobook ARC of this to review for NetGalley.The Arctic Curry Club is a fabulous debut from Dani Redd. I really enjoyed how intricately she wove examinations of attachments and anchors, to people, place and identity, throughout the story. It was beautifully layered, like a recipe.
Speaking of which, there are many beautiful recipe explorations sprinkled throughout (and two personal recipes included at the end by Dani Redd) which I am excited to try out soon.
I loved the vivid, beautiful nature writing in this fiction debut from Delia Owens and am keen to seek out her non-fiction works too.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a poignant tale of female survival with all the odds stacked against her.
Another wonderful translated work, from Czech this time. I am drawn to stories from WWII that you simply don’t hear where I live, stories outside of the UK-US perspective. And, indeed, I feel it is our duty to seek these out if we are to feel any honour at all in saying “never again” each November.
Gerta examines the treatment of Czech citizens with German blood following the end of the war. Gerta has a Czech and a German parent. She becomes a single mother and finds herself rounded up with the rest of the German community living in the Brno, many of who helped the resistance and were actively anti-fascist, and expelled to forced labour.
I reviewed the ARC of Only a Monster for Netgalley.Only A Monster is an explosive start to what is going to be a fantastic YA fantasy series.
It had so many elements I loved: the hidden monster world-building, the system of powers, the hierarchies of the monster families and the Court, the historical elements and the time travel.
The time travel element deserves special attention. Len wove it into this story with what feels like such ease but must have taken a heap of work. Time travel is notoriously derided in many narratives as being nonsensical or lazy. But it’s described so effectively in Only A Monster, with clarifying details on its mechanics showing up as a natural part of the story. I thought this was so masterful.
This was another ARC review for NetGalley.I loved this reading experience, completing the book in one sitting. I laughed, I cried and I felt nostalgic for a time and place I’ve never known.
All of the characters are woven together through exploration and celebration of food. But the two main characters don’t storm about imposing themselves and breaking cultural boundaries. Rather, they are curious about them.
They peek over the parapet, quenching their fascination with studious enquiry. They walk through the doors opened to them with deep gratitude and, finally, meld with the boundaries to create wonderful new connections. I need to go back through and pick out recipe inspiration to try!
Another glorious insight into the experiences of other nations around wartime. The Island of Sea Women is set on Jeju Island, South Korea, directly before, during and after WWII. Jeju Island is famous for its historical, matriarchal society and its haenyeo, female divers who harvest from the seafloor to sell and eat.
This book gives insight into the experiences of haenyeo women during the Japanese occupation, as well as during liberation by the USA, and how unfortunately similar those experiences turned out to be. Another crucial read.
Another amazing ARC reviewed for NetGalley, The First Day of Spring is a powerful, heartbreaking story of serious crime committed in young childhood, the dominoes that led to it, and its aftermath and wider impacts on everyone affected.
Nancy Tucker writes in a way that evokes such a strong flavour of tragedy-strewn nostalgia, even if you yourself experienced nothing remotely similar in your own early days and grew up in a different era. There are so many important topics presented in this novel that are not discussed enough. It is a difficult but brilliant read.
I caught this by chance scrolling through Instagram one day to see Will Dean post that The Last Thing to Burn was 99p that day on Kindle. I’m so glad I did.
Claustrophobic throughout, this book follows Thanh Dao, a Vietnamese human trafficking victim being held captive on a remote farm by the British captor she was handed to, Len.
Dean writes in such an explosive way, I think I held my breath throughout the entire thing. I can still vividly see that house in my mind’s eye. I know it as intimately as if I were “Jane” myself. I know every room, the grain of its wood, the rot in its core. Absolutely unforgettable.
Also, Will Dean is so lovely to chat with on Twitter.
It was really hard to choose between Sinopticon and The Last Thing to Burn for my top spot of 2021. They’re both incredible.
Sinopticon was another amazing ARC review for NetGalley. This is a very special collection of short 科幻 (Kehuan), Chinese science fiction. Science fiction is not a genre I tend towards, but I am so glad I read this wonderful work and am now keen to read more.
There wasn’t a single entry in this collection that didn’t make me ponder on our endearing struggle against our own impermanence, our will to survive and the secret hope we all harbour of something coming along to excuse us from our pre-booked date with death (despite the equally horrifying prospect of immortality, as one of the stories expertly illuminates).
The selection, ordering and translation work by Xueting Ni is nothing short of masterly. I highlighted so many beautifully-built passages that I often forgot I was reading translated work, making them even more delicious to consume when reminded myself.
I have read comments by translators in the past about how difficult it is not to cave to temptation and edit while translating to the point of superimposing their own reimagining of the work. Yet each author’s voice in Sinopticon was crystal clear, despite Ni being the sole translator of every single story.
Equally as much care and devotion has gone into the glossary-style notes and author backgrounds at the end of each story, varnishing each masterpiece and making its colours and forms even more vivid.
I especially loved that each author considers the globalising impact of technological advances yet retains, in varying strengths, an honouring of Chinese tradition in the fabric of their stories.
Sinopticon is my happy introduction to 科幻 and Xueting Ni (who is absolutely lovely, by the way!) takes clear pride in opening that door and warmly inviting you in. It touched my heart and I greatly look forward to reading more.
So that’s my 2021 round-up! Do we have any mutuals? I urge to to check out my top 14 if you haven’t already.
I’m really looking forward to reading more amazing work in 2022.