Here’s the final instalment of my favourite reads of 2021. As I look back it’s been a brilliant reading year and I always think the past year can’t be topped but I have a huge list of anticipated reads for next year already! I’m spending the next fortnight doing the same things as everyone else – stuffing my face, drinking sherry, seeing family and watching far too much television. However, I’m also doing something that’s probably peculiar to book bloggers. I’m reading what I like for a fortnight. This might not sound like much, but it really is wonderful to read purely for pleasure. I enjoy what I do, but between blog tours and my NetGalley list (I’m greedy with both) I’m often reading to a schedule. So it’s nice to be able to go with my mood or my gut for a little while. I have reached a couple of milestones with the blog: I have reached ten thousand views this year and two hundred subscribers. I never imagined that I would have two readers of my writing, never mind two hundred. It’s amazing what a year’s hard work can do. Over the holiday I hope to evaluate how I’ve been working on the blog, maybe leading to some changes and hopefully time to share my personal writing too. I wish you all a very Happy Christmas with your loved ones and I look forward to writing for you all again in 2022.
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas.
This is what I would call a quiet book; gentle, subtle even, but so charming and witty. I remember posting that only three weeks into January I was already in love with a new literary heroine. I absolutely adored Sybil and felt so at home in her company, that I just kept reading all day. I finished at 11pm and was bereft, because I wouldn’t be with Sybil any more. Yes, this is what happens to avid readers. We fall head over heels with a character, can’t put the book down, then suffer from withdrawal. All day I was grumpy and reluctant to start a new book. Sybil’s life is puttering along nicely. She has a job she enjoys at a London museum – Royal Institute of Prehistoric Studies (RIPS). She has Simon, her boyfriend and ardent baker of bread from obscure grains. Her quiet life is turned upside down when she, quite literally, bumps into an old nemesis from university, Helene Hanson. Sybil and Simon are ice skating, when they first spot Sybil’s old university lecturer. Sybil doesn’t want to say hello, after all Helene stole some ideas from her dissertation, then put them into her own research on the Beaker people. They’re very unsteady on ice and end up careering into Helene’s group, in Sybil’s case ending up in hospital from a head injury. Only weeks later, Helene has stolen Sybil’s boyfriend and taken a huge interest in Sybil’s workplace. Now RIPS will be selling her Beakerware (TM) in the gift shop and welcome her onto their committee. Sybil’s mum suggests a mature exchange of views, but Sybil hates confrontation. She’s not felt herself since her injury and we see how she thinks in the fragmentary structure the author uses. Sybil has to find a way to expose Helene Hanson as a fraud. I felt a deep connection with Sybil. She’s offbeat, quirky and has a dark sense of humour the comes through beautifully into the narration. A simply lovely read that I’ll happily pick up again and again.
Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney
This was one of those novels that didn’t connect with me at first. In fact if it hadn’t been for a blog tour I might have stopped reading. Yet part way in I was suddenly won over by the intelligent, spirited and strangely beautiful Mary Rattigan. She is a character who will stay with me, especially the childhood Mary and her battles with Mammy – a woman who I hated so strongly it was as if she was a real person! Mammy is a hypocrite, playing the perfect Catholic matriarch on the surface – always loving or feeding her sons, cooking perfect chicken roasts and getting out the best china when the priest comes for tea. It broke my heart when she left Mary without tea, then next morning as the boys all lined up for their lunch boxes Mary was given an empty one. I felt so emotional for this girl, who doesn’t expect any better. The Rattigan’s life on her parent’s farm in Ireland is at odds with Mary’s romantic and wild nature. She wants to fly out of her dirty and dangerous surroundings, leaving ‘The Troubles’ behind her. However, life has a way of grounding us and Mary is no exception. In a life punctuated by marriage, five children, bombings, a long peace process and endless cups of tea Mary learns that a ten minute decision can change a whole life. These lessons are hard won and she’s missed a hundred chances to make a change. Can she ever find the courage to ask for the love she deserves, but has never had? Mary’s need to be loved is so raw she can’t even articulate it. How can she understand or recognise love when she’s never felt it? She has been told she’s nothing, so nothing is what she deserves. Delaney writes about love and the realities of marriage with such wisdom and tenderness that I was rooting for Mary Rattigan till the very last page.
Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult.
Jodi Picoult has been one of my favourite writers since Plain Truth and I was so happy to see that this was a real return to form and is the first novel addressing the COVID pandemic I’ve read. Diana and her boyfriend Finn live in New York City, he is a doctor and she works at an auction house for fine art, on the verge of promotion to become an Art Specialist at Sotheby’s. She’s trying to acquire a Toulouse Lautrec painting that hangs in the bedroom of a Japanese artist -loosely based on Yoko Ono – when everything changes. Finn and Diana have a very set life plan and part of that was an upcoming visit to the Galápagos Islands. However there are rumours in the medical community of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. It seems like SARS in that it’s a respiratory virus and requires huge amounts of resources to keep patients alive. Diana’s boyfriend feels torn, as a doctor he’s worried and thinks they should be preparing, but the president is on TV telling everyone it’s no worse than flu. What’s the truth? Finn tells Diana to go on holiday and she gets to the islands just as their borders are closed. She has to throw herself upon the kindness of strangers – a hotel cleaner called Abuela, her granddaughter Beatrice, and Gabriel her tour guide father. He is the perfect person to be stranded with because he knows every corner of the island and has no work, so he can show Diana some of the sights she would never have seen. The seals lazily basking on the jetty, the sea turtles and their nests buried in sand, lush vegetation and lizards lying around intertwined. I could see and taste the salt air. Everything is vivid and almost hyper-real. Then came the twist!! Oh my goodness I did not expect that at all. This was brilliantly done and shocked me. The world Diana has at the beginning, becomes subsumed by the pandemic. It’s a structure that echoes how our own lives have been interrupted and changed forever. There are people who went into the pandemic with a job that no longer exists. People have lost friends, family members and partners. The pandemic has changed people, they are looking at how they live and making changes. I could understand Diana’s decision at the end of the novel. When you’ve been through something momentous you change, and part of that is re-evaluating life and choosing what makes you happy. It’s trying to recapture hope. Why should things ‘go back to normal’; I want this pandemic to mean something and I want things to get better. Diana takes that decision for herself and I found that both brave and uplifting.
The Watchers by A.M. Shine.
I don’t often read horror novels, mainly sticking to Stephen King and gothic historical fiction, so this is a departure from my usual reading and it was exhilarating. Mina, is a young woman living alone in urban Ireland, and has lost her mother. Now without family – except one sister who appears to phone once a month or so, just to feel disappointed – she is largely a loner. Her loves are sketching, red wine and her friend Peter who is a buyer and seller of various things and often pays Mina cash to deliver his client’s purchases. On this occasion she’s to take a golden parrot to a remote part of Galway. Having broken down on the edge of a forest, Mina realises the likelihood of anyone passing by and helping are probably minimal. So, with the parrot in tow, she sets off walking in the hope of finding a remote farmhouse with a phone that works. Once in the forest Mina realises her mistake, it seems bigger than from outside and the light is fading fast. She feels unnerved, although she can’t say why, then she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, when suddenly she sees a woman beckoning her and urging her to hurry. She’s standing by a building and although it seems odd, Mina decides it’s better than staying out here to be found by whatever made that terrible noise. As they hurry inside and the door slams behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. As her eyes adjust to the light she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass, almost like she is the parrot in a glass cage. A younger man and woman are huddled together in one space, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching? This was unsettling, because of the creatures and the dynamics of the small group trying to survive. The author has an uncanny ability to instil dread in his readers, all the way to an incredible and terrifying end.
The Beresford by Will Carver.
This was a brilliantly funny and clever book that had me smiling from the first page at the audacity of this clever and creative author. This was my very first Will Carver novel and I came away wondering where he’d been my whole life. This novel had such a darkly, delicious opening set at The Beresford, an old forbidding looking building in the city. In my imagination this conjured up the Gothic looking Dakota Building, where John Lennon lived and was killed back in 1981. Inside The Beresford are a number of apartments, bigger and better appointed than you would expect for the money. They even have large roll top baths that are the perfect size to dismember and dissolve a body. Resident Abe finds that as soon as one tenant ‘leaves’ another will ring the doorbell in sixty seconds. The building is presided over by a lovely old lady called Mrs May, who starts every day the same way. By brewing a coffee while the taps run, then enjoying a bath with bubbles, followed by eggs with her cold coffee. She has a routine, and is found at the same time every day pruning the roses in the front garden. As any fan of the film The Ladykiller’s knows, you should never underestimate sweet looking, little old ladies. She knows everything that happens at the Beresford because the same thing happens over again – some people leave and some people just disappear. Occasionally they stay. For a price. I loved the dark humour, the unexpected murders and the characters who pass through – sometimes in seconds! Maybe one day the author will venture further into the other side of The Beresford? The side Abe calls ‘the bad side’. If so, I’ll be waiting – but I’ll probably stick to reading in the daylight hours.
The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West
I’d anticipated this book for a couple of months having been told by my Squad Pod ladies that it was going to be a fantastic read. It certainly was, and even more than that, it was surprising too. Our setting is the city of Belfast, the Titanic sinking is still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s especially fresh at Professor William Crawford’s house since his brother-in-law Arthur was on the ship. Crawford is our narrator and he introduces us to his happy, but chaotic household as the novel opens. He is a man of science, working at an institute both furthering scientific enquiry and teaching the next generation of engineers. He’s a sceptic, so when he finds out that his wife is visiting a medium and has been trying to contact her brother Arthur, he’s shocked and angry. There’s no question that this girl is a fraud, stringing his wife along with a show put on with the help of her shady family. Yet, the couple have lost their son Robert too and Crawford’s grief is overwhelming. So when he hears Robert’s voice calling to him alongside an angry, vengeful Arthur who blames Crawford for his death, a small crack grows in his scepticism. What if he were to apply his scientific rigour to to this girl medium’s powers? If he could prove a link exists between this world and the next he could make a name for himself, not just in Ireland but all over the world. What I loved more than anything was the author’s ability to surprise, because as we neared the end I had no idea how the book and Crawford’s investigations would conclude. The theme of dishonesty is there right from the start, in Arthur’s reasons for being on Titanic, to the hidden note from their old maid who left in a hurry, and Elizabeth’s absence at weekly church meetings. By the end I felt triple bluffed, but couldn’t help smiling at how clever the author had been. As many of our characters find out, when it comes to being dishonest, the person we deceive most often is ourselves.
The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke
Just look at that stunning cover! Lighthouses have been a recurring motif in this year’s reading and this cover was particularly beautiful. This is a fascinating tale from the writer of last year’s The Nesting. Set on a remote Scottish Island, and with a hint of The Wicker Man about it, Liv and her three daughters arrive at a lighthouse named The Longing. We’re not sure what they’re driving away from, but Liv jumped at an opportunity to paint a mural in the lighthouse. An eccentric millionaire wants to use the lonely spot as a writing retreat. Liv and her three girls set up home in the bothy next door, but then some unusual happenings leave them wondering exactly what’s going on in this isolated place. There are some really unsettling scares for the family: a baby floating in flood water that turns out to be a doll; a child’s skinny arm creeping out from behind Liv’s paint supplies; a near naked and very dirty little boy appearing at the bothy, with no one on the island interested when he disappears again. Liv wonders why the lighthouse is named The Longing and finds a whole history involving the island’s women and the 16th – 17th Century witch hunts sanctioned by King James IV. Throw in some time travel and this is a brilliant combination of the supernatural and the historical. I enjoyed it immensely and would happily read it again.
So that’s my 21 favourite books and even now I’m wishing I could add a further three of four to the mix! Keep an eye on the blog over Christmas and New Year for some great recommendations for 2022 which is already looking like a bumper reading year. Happy Christmas and a peaceful, safe New Year. ❤️📚