It’s been a fantastic reading year, my second full year as a blogger and lots of milestones met. This year I’ve cracked my goals of 3000 followers, 200 subscribers to The Lotus Readers blog and I’ve smashed my Goodreads reading goal of 120 books. Aside from these rather trivial goals, I’ve read some fabulous books this year. Although being a blogger means I’m all too aware of the ones I’ve missed or not had time for yet. Even more important than this are the wonderful friends I continue to make on BookTwitter and Bookstagram. Becoming part of the #SquadPod, a collective of book bloggers, has been a wonderful experience. Since I’m an ‘at risk’ person thanks to my multiple sclerosis and breathing issues, I’m home a lot but even when I don’t see anyone that day, I still have some wonderful, kind and supportive friends to listen to. I love them all. So this is the start of my favourite reads list for 2021. I had to go with 21 because I would have struggled to reduce them any further. If I did star ratings, all of them would be five stars so it’s not a countdown. It’s just a chance to reminisce and a recommend ahead of the January sales.
Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.
I had read Elizabeth’s MacNeal’s first novel The Doll Factory, so I knew I would love this one. The story of a young girl with birthmarks on her face and body, catches the eye of a passing showman. Jasper Jupiter has seen her dancing round the camp fire with her brother. She has the sort of wild abandon that’s rare in one so shy and reserved. He can see her now, in his circus, perhaps even performing before the Queen if she could be tempted away from mourning Prince Albert. The book flits between the circus and back to Jasper and his brother Toby’s time in the Crimea. We follow Nell as she leaves her village behind to become Queen of the Moon and Stars. However, could Jasper’s eagerness to expand and show in London be their undoing? There are some very interesting disability issues here, including a look at the ethical concerns around freak shows. The beautifully vivid descriptions of the acts and their costumes are wonderful too.
The Great Silence by Doug Johnstone.
It’s no secret how much I love Doug Johnstone’s Skelf series, since I outed myself as a #Skelfaholic on Twitter. I was lucky enough to be sent an early copy of this book, the third and potentially last one in the series. I had to dive on it immediately and find out what came next. As usual the book began with a strange event. Dorothy takes her dog Einstein for a walk in the park and he fetches a human foot, even more strange is that it appears to be embalmed. This embroils Dorothy in a very unusual case that could be deadly. Jenny is dealing with the aftermath of her ex-husband’s actions in the last book, she’s still healing emotionally and potentially regretting the end of her relationship with painter, Liam. She misses him, and wonders if perhaps they could rekindle something. Then the other daughter of her ex-husband disappears. Jenny wonders if her life will ever be free of this man, as she joins forces with the other woman in Craig’s life to find her daughter. Finally, Hannah is facing massive changes in her academic and personal life. In a sense she’s being pulled between past and future. Her graduation becomes a double celebration when Indy proposes, but then she’s pulled into the past when their flat is broken into and someone makes it clear they still want to be part of her life. Her academic supervisor José asks her if she’ll look into one of the central questions of astrophysics, if there is extraterrestrial life, why haven’t they replied to our messages? He has had a reply, but doesn’t know where it’s come from. Is it really from another life form or is someone playing game with him? Doug Johnstone is a poet, philosopher and incredible observer of human nature and I can only hope for another instalment of this much loved series.
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward.
This was one of the first books I read in 2021 and for a while I didn’t know what on earth was going on for a while, I was drawn into this very strange mystery. I finished it in a sort of shell-shocked silence. I felt like I needed to go straight back to the beginning and start again. It is extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s also very difficult to review without spoiling other reader’s experience of it, but I had to give it a go. Multiple narrators were introduced, including a cat, and I was sometimes thoroughly confused, but never contemplated putting the book down. The beauty of the language and cleverness of the structure kept me going, determined to work out what exactly was going on. I was starting to be unsure which sections were real and what was illusion. The author is clearly hugely skilled at creating that sense of the uncanny – when everything seems normal and recognisable, but there is just that sense that something is off-kilter and sinister. The writing is so involving that I was inside a character’s head and at times I had an uneasy feeling I would never be able to get out. I guessed some of what was going on, but not the whole and I love the ambition and audacity. This is a unique, original and deeply creative piece of work that enthralled and stunned in equal measure. Ward is a writer of immense imagination and talent and I felt so privileged to have been given the chance to read this before it hit the shelves and became a phenomenon.
This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech.
I absolutely loved this incredible book about love, disability, sex and the secrets we keep from each other. Veronica and her son Sebastian live together in Hull. Veronica wants the best for her son and just like all parents, she wants him to grow up and have a full life. However, Veronica isn’t like other parents, because despite Sebastian being twenty years, six months and two days old, he’s struggling with the love and relationships part of his life. Seb is autistic and he is lonely. Seb loves swimming, his fish, fried eggs and Billy Ocean, he’d also love to have sex but no one will have sex with him. He’s already been in trouble after the girl next door convinced him to write an explicit letter to her underage sister. When their lives collide with Violetta, Veronica thinks she can see a way forward. She’s thought of paying someone before, but has stopped herself. Here though, is someone they’ve met before and who was natural with Seb. Veronica couldn’t have known she was leading a double life as a high class escort, in order to earn enough money to keep her seriously ill father at home. These three lives come together and change each other in unexpected ways. This was an incredibly funny book as Seb’s straightforward way of interacting with the world butts up against nuanced and sometimes dishonest way humans deal with each other. This felt so real. So moving. It’s also wonderfully unexpected and such a fresh perspective. I loved it.
The Unheard by Nicci French.
I read this novel on the four hour drive to North Wales and spent most of the first day of my holiday absolutely enthralled with the story. I was hooked immediately, intrigued by the mystery of what exactly Tess’s daughter Poppy had seen or heard. Tess is starting a new life in a garden flat with her daughter, after a divorce from husband Jason. Having a background as a child of divorce, Tess was determined that Poppy should be their number one priority. No matter how much animosity and hurt they feel, their interaction with each other must be civil and they prioritise time with both parents. Jason is already remarried to Emily, a much younger woman who seems very sweet and tries hard to have a relationship with Poppy. One Saturday, Poppy returns from an overnight at her father’s and displays signs of distress. These were classic symptoms, that any counsellor like me, would be concerned by. She’s clingy, she wets the bed and seems to be having nightmares. Over a week these symptoms worsen: she bites a girl at school, uses foul language to her teacher, and her mother is terrified for her. She has her attention drawn to a picture Poppy has drawn, all in black crayon which is a huge contrast from her normal rainbow creations. The picture shows a tower and a woman falling from the top to the ground below. ‘He killed her’ she tells her Mum ‘and killed and killed and killed’. I read a lot of thrillers, but this one had me gripped. Had Poppy seen something? Who should we suspect? Or is Tess manipulating her daughter into such psychological distress? I was greedily hoovering up the chapters till the early hours!
The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea.
This was a simply stunning piece of historical fiction set on Orkney 1940. Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands. Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick. Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artist swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea debris, and something beautiful begins to blossom. But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem. This book is stunningly beautiful, so much so that I had to sit and think in the quiet when I’d finished it. It’s so rich in folklore, historical detail, the trauma of war and bereavement that I know I could pick it up to read again and still find something new. I immediately ordered a signed copy for my forever shelf, because it is so special. What did I love about it? The Scottish folklore, the incredible landscape, the community, the dignity of people facing the hardest times of their lives. Then amidst the chaos, violence and confinement, beauty emerges in the shape of a deep, immediate, connection and growing love between two people who can’t even speak the same language. The counterpart to this human story is the Italian Chapel, built out of the scraps of metal huts and concrete the prisoners are allowed. Yet from these humble materials a building of true beauty emerges, that still stands today. It made me emotional to think about the lovers, but also the patience and faith of these incredible men who needed a place to worship, a piece of home.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex.
I loved this book so much that I went to bed early two nights running so I could finish it uninterrupted. I was so drawn in by the isolation of this lighthouse, that it was just standing directly in the sea and no one could come on or off until the relief boat came. Inspired by true events, the story is set in two time frames. In one we learn that a writer is researching a book on a famous disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. While in 1972, miles off the coast of Cornwall a relief boat arrives at the Maiden, to find the door locked from the inside, the clocks stopped and no sign of the Principle Keeper or his two assistants. The writer contacts the women left behind by these men: Helen, wife of the Principle Keeper, Arthur; Jenny, wife of Bill his deputy; Michelle, girlfriend of the new recruit Vince. They have all received money from Trident, the company who employ the keepers, but with that came a directive, not to talk about the events surrounding the mystery. At the time, Vince came under the most suspicion. New to the area and with a criminal past, he seems the likely candidate to have harmed the others. Yet, why would Arthur write of a huge storm in the log, when seas had been calm all week? What became of the small boat rumoured to have sailed near the Maiden? There were also whispers about a mechanic sent to carry out repairs at the Principle Keeper’s request. It’s hard, years later, to distinguish between rumour and truth. Will any of the women speak to the writer and will they finally solve the mystery of what happened to the men? This was a fascinating mix of mystery, love story and the hint of the supernatural. The atmosphere created by the writer was incredible and I knew straight away this would be a book of 2021.
That’s my first seven books of the year, so watch out for parts 2 and 3 coming up in the next ten days.