Favourite Books 2021

I seem to have read mostly children’s books this year, but I’ve still read a few fantastic adult books that I would highly recommend. Here are twelve of my favourites:

The Lighthouse Witches by CJ Cooke

1998: When Liv is commissioned to paint a mural inside an old lighthouse, she packs up her three daughters and drives to the remote Scottish Island to start work. But when they arrive, they discover that the lighthouse has a sinister history and that the locals believe the island was cursed by witches. At first Liv doesn’t pay attention to the superstitions, but when strange things begin to happen she realises that they are all in terrible danger. 

In the present day, Luna has been searching for her mother and sisters for two decades when she gets a phone call that her sister has been found. But her sister is still the same age as when she went missing twenty-two years earlier. 

It was the gorgeous cover design that drew me to this story but once I’d started, I couldn’t put down this dark and twisted magical thriller. The Scottish-island setting is wonderfully atmospheric and sinister, the plot is clever and satisfying, and the relationships between mother, daughters and sisters is wonderfully warm and moving. Definitely one of my books of the year!

The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont

In 1926, after the death of her mother and shock of her husband asking for a divorce, Agatha Christie crashed her car and vanished for 11 days without ever giving an account of those missing days. The author begins with the facts surrounding the mystery writer’s unexplained disappearance and creates an alternative history to explain the circumstances.

The story is told from the perspective of a fictional version of the ‘other woman’, Nan O’Dea, and the plot itself is a wonderfully Christie-esque puzzle with elements of Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express amongst others. 

I absolutely loved The Christie Affair – a brilliantly crafted combination of historical fiction, romance and mystery as well as a wonderful homage to Agatha Christie. 

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

Perfect for fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Sorcerer to the Crown, A Marvellous Light is a historical fantasy and queer romance set in Edwardian England.

Robin Blythe starts his new job as a civil servant to discover he has been appointed as a parliamentary liaison to a magical world he didn’t know existed. But before he can find his feet in this dazzling new reality, he is cursed by rogue magicians searching for a magical artefact hidden by his predecessor. His magical counterpart, Edwin Courcey, is his only hope to remove the curse before it kills him – unfortunately Robin and Edwin are very different people and don’t exactly hit it off.

I was thoroughly charmed by this story – an intriguing magical mystery with a Bridgerton level of romance.

Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey

When Thora and Santi meet for the first time a ruined clock tower in Cologne, they recognise in each other a restless yearning for something bigger. Their relationship is cut short by a tragic accident, but this is not the end. Thora and Santi meet over and over again in various lives as lovers, enemies, siblings, parent and child, teacher and student—always living in the same town and cursed to remember all of their past lives while attempting to live the current one. Santi is philosophical and hopeful—he looks for meaning and trusts in a higher power. Thora is cynical and struggles with a sense of futility. But neither of them have any idea why they are trapped, living different versions of their lives over and over again.

For most of the book I wasn’t entirely sure where this magical-realist time loop/parallel worlds story was going. The sense of doom and inevitability reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and the Netflix series, Russian Doll. But the reason for their multiple lives, when it is finally revealed, is brilliant and devastating—I was entirely blindsided. A wonderfully complex, ambitious story, that is also full of heart and humour. Loved it.

The City We Became by NK Jemisin

I loved the Broken Earth trilogy, set in a futuristic world completely removed from our reality, but this book might be even stranger and more alien, despite the familiar geography, and it took me a while to find my feet. 

NK Jemisin takes that quintessential book review trope, that New York city is a character in the book, and turns it into a weird and wonderful piece of fantasy in which New York City is a literal character, alongside the five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island—with personalities corresponding to the collective disposition of that neighbourhood. (If I lived in Staten Island I might be slightly offended at this point.)

In this world, when a city reaches a certain stage, it goes through a process of birth and the city is embodied in one living person. But if that process is interrupted then the city will die, and millions of lives will be lost in the process. When the five boroughs of New York realise that they have become living embodiments of the city, they must find each other and work together to locate the city Avatar and defend themselves against an evil force trying to destroy the city before it is born.

I particularly love the way that NK Jemisin uses Lovecraftian references and imagery in a book that joyfully celebrates and embraces the cultural diversity of New York—a authorial middle finger to Lovecraft’s white supremacism. I’ve never been to New York, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot more about it from this book than anything else I’ve read. 

The City We Became is a thrilling, wildly inventive urban fantasy, and the start of another epic series from a hugely talented author. Highly recommended.

Girl in the Walls by AJ Gnuse

The title and the cover encapsulate this sinister, Southern Gothic tale perfectly. Eleven-year-old Elise has been living in the walls of her old house for nearly a year. She knows exactly which floorboards creak and she can move around in the crawl spaces, the attic and inside the walls while the new family are home, and when they are out she has the house to herself once again. But the younger son Eddie senses that someone else is there…

The story is told mainly from Elise’s perspective as she is haunted by the new family who have moved into her house. You would think this would make the story less creepy, as we know exactly who it is who sneaks through the walls. And yet this is a nail-bitingly tense read, as Elise ekes out her existence just out of view. Brilliantly done – a thrilling, atmospheric and heartbreaking read.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

An unnamed peasant girl is already close to starvation when her family is attacked by bandits, but she alone has the will to survive. She claims not only her brother’s identity but also his foretold fate. 

China is occupied by the Mongol armies. A small rebel force called the Red Turbans have gathered together to attempt to oust the invaders. But little do they imagine that they will be led down their road to victory by a small, effeminate monk.

Inspired by the life of Zhu Yuanzhang, founding Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, this story is meticulously researched and vividly brought to life. I wasn’t sure what to expect. This is not an era I am at all familiar with and I’m not a particular fan of war strategy stories, but the events of Zhu’s rise to power are incredibly compelling and exciting. Zhu is a wonderful character with a fierce, ruthless determination, not only to survive but to claim the Mandate of Heaven and achieve the glorious destiny once promised to her brother. She will do whatever it takes, no matter the cost.

An epic, breathtaking and dazzling tale – I thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t wait to find out what happens to Zhu, Ma and Ouyang in the next book. 

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

I loved Sorcerer to the Crown and its sequel, so I was very keen to read Zen Cho’s new book, though it has a very different setting.

Jessamyn has graduated from Harvard, but after her father has a cancer-scare, her parents move home to Malaysia and Jess moves with them, unsure what she wants to do next. Jess’s girlfriend wants her to look for a job in Singapore where she will be living, but Jess is not out to her parents and feels an obligation to stay with them. To make matters even more complicated, Jess has started hearing a voice in her head and realises she is being haunted by the ghost of her estranged dead grandmother. Ostensibly, Ah Ma wants to prevent the destruction of a small local temple but there is more to the story than Jess realises, and soon she is enmeshed in the machinations of a vengeful goddess called Black Water Sister. 

I absolutely loved this Neil-Gaimanesque mashup of ancient gods and contemporary Malaysian settings. Zen Cho superimposes a supernatural realm onto a concrete setting in such a way that this bizarre juxtaposition of worlds seems perfectly natural. Similarly, she overlays some horrific trauma with mischievous humour in a way that does justice to both. I’m not sure if I can call this a coming-of-age story as the protagonist is in her early twenties, but it definitely has that feel as Jess attempts to assert herself as an independent adult to her overbearing relatives—both alive and dead—and the ending is incredibly moving. A vivid, enthralling and funny fantasy world with an endearing, beleaguered protagonist.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara is an AF, an Artificial Friend, designed to be a companion to a teenager. Until she is purchased, her perception of the world is limited to the view out of the store window but Klara is incredibly observant and learns everything she can based on the human interactions she sees, and the trajectory of the sun. When Klara is purchased as a companion for Josie, a girl with a chronic illness, she gets to observe the vast complexity of human relationships up close.

This book reminded me a lot of Never Let Me Go, in narrative style, concept and vaguely dystopian undertones, but it is a more mature and subtle story. As an AI, Klara’s character is rendered in precise and painstaking detail and her developing understanding is beautifully controlled. All of the obvious ethical questions about AI are in there, but so seamlessly integrated that you feel them rather than think about them and the ending left me in pieces. A brilliant, heartbreaking, profound story.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

If, like me, you were worried that this was going to be an aimless story of a guy rambling philosophically through a surreal world, fear not. There is in fact a plot, a mystery, and even a villain. 

This is a whimsical, hypnotic book, and the first few chapters do include a lot of philosophical rambling. The house where is Piranesi lives is comprised of a seemingly endless procession of vast classical halls full of statues. There are three levels but the basement level is flooded and the top level is in the clouds, so Piranesi is mainly confined to the middle level. There is one other person there with Piranesi, who he calls the Other, but for as long as he can remember it has just been the two of them. Until Piranesi finds a strange message in chalk and the Other begins to warn him about someone new, coming to disrupt the harmony of their world. I can’t say much more than that without spoilers, but the gradual reveal of the mystery of Piranesi’s life is incredibly compelling and poignant. 

Piranesi is a completely different book to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but the mundane and the magical are similarly blended. The inside of Susanna Clarke’s head must be an equally magical and dreamlike place…

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

Based on a true story, A Net for Small Fishes is a meticulously researched and thoughtfully imagined account of the friendship between Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, and Anne Turner, and the circumstances that led to a shocking murder in the Jacobean Court.

In their connection to the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, history paints these two women as scheming, murderous criminals, but Lucy Jago creates two colourful and nuanced characters—real women forced to navigate their world within the confines of their sex.

When we meet them, the narrator Anne Turner is a doctor’s wife of no rank, but she has patented a type of yellow starch for collars and cuffs and is in demand as a fashion consultant in Court. Anne advises Frances Howard how to dress in order to gain the attention of her husband, and in doing so empowers the younger woman, and despite the difference in rank and age, they become friends. 

At the time English women in general were perceived as becoming too masculine and self-sufficient. Frances Howard’s desire to be liberated from her abusive and impotent husband marks her out as an unnaturally independent woman, while Anne’s aspirations to rise above her station lead to her being vilified as: ‘a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon and a murderer’. The title, A Net for Small Fishes, refers to fact that those of lower rank, like Anne Turner, often took the fall for those of higher rank like her friend, Frances. But while society pits them against each other, their friendship is the heart of this book. They are definitely not paragons—Anne Turner’s ambition makes her proud and mercenary, while Frances Howard’s privilege makes her selfish and thoughtless—but the strength of their attachment is genuine.

A Net for Small Fishes is fascinating account of a Jacobean scandal as well as a poignant portrayal of female friendship. Brilliantly done.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

My first read of 2021, this was the oddest and most intriguing book I’d read in a while. It feels like historical fiction but it’s not…it’s more like a historical parallel world. The main action concerns a voyage on a ship from Batavia (Jakarta) to Amsterdam in 1634. But the story creates a fictional world that encompasses decades and continents. The world’s greatest detective and his bodyguard (Homes & Watson-style characters) are on board but the detective has been arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of a crime. When mysterious symbols begin to appear and the ship is rumoured to be cursed by a devil, the sidekick, Arent, must investigate in partnership with the governor’s wife, Sara.

This inventive, brilliantly-constructed story kept me guessing till the last chapter, but thankfully had a suitable satisfying conclusion.

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