Happy New Year! 2021 is done – hooray! 2022, behave yourself. I had a better book year in 2021 than the previous year (The Year That Shall Not Be Named). I’m still not up to the heady heights of The Before Times but I’m getting there and my love of reading has definitely returned in full glory. Although now it has to compete not only with jigsaws (people, make more jigsaws, I’ve done THEM ALL) but also with my new crocheting and knitting addiction. This fiddly new hobby may not have legs because I’m flippin useless at it. Anyway, enough of all that. Time for the books!
I read 111 books in 2021 and, because I picked and chose, I really enjoyed the vast majority of them and those that I didn’t I left off the blog. I don’t waste energy on books I don’t enjoy but I love to spend it on the books I love. These books were a mix of hardbacks, paperbacks and audiobooks and included historical fiction (my true love of 2021), science fiction, action or spy thrillers and a few crime novels. Thanks so much to all of the lovely publishers for so kindly sending me review copies, thanks to my favourite Oxford bookshops for swapping my pennies for gorgeous books, and congratulations to every author who had a novel out in 2021. It’s a huge achievement.
It seems impossible to pick my top ten but I’ll give it a go. And so, in no particular order until my top pick…
Favourite ten books of 2021
The Appeal by Janice Hallett
Without doubt, this is one of the most enjoyable crime novels I have ever read. I love cosy crime and this novel dances around with it – it’s both ingenious and fun – and it works brilliantly as an epistolary novel. The clues are there. You just have to see if you can work them out. I got some but by no means all. This is a witty book. Some of the observations in the correspondence had me rolling with laughter as we see the contradictions, slurs, sucking ups and lies. As for the plot, I’m saying nothing. It is an absolute pleasure to watch it unfold in this unusual and engrossing fashion.
A Winter War by Tim Leach
It is 173 AD and only the Danube stands between the mighty army of Marcus Aurelius and the complete destruction of the Sarmatians, a fierce, fractious nomadic people. Tim Leach is an amazing writer and now he portrays a clash of cultures on the fringes of a Roman empire ruled by an enigmatic, cruel philosopher emperor. We spend time with Marcus Aurelius, camped by the Danube, and it’s a dangerous place, but most of the time is spent with Sarmatian Kai and those closest to him, his friend, his daughter, his lover and his slave. And his extraordinary sister. Through Kai, Tim Leach explores the society of the Sarmatians, its blurring of genders and roles, its strange and terrible traditions, its relationship with horses and the land, and its complete lack of perception about what the Romans really are, what they represent and what they will do. This is gorgeous prose, immersing the reader in the trials of this cold, cold place at such a time of brutal crisis.
Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeod
It is the 2070s when a brilliant scientist receives a letter from her future self giving her the formula for Faster Than Light travel. At the same time an engineer in Scotland witnesses something that should not be possible. I love Ken MacLeod’s science fiction. It blends hard SF and wondrous things with the reality of a recognisable future, firmly set in Scotland. Beyond the Hallowed Sky begins a new trilogy and it starts it brilliantly. Ken MacLeod brings this future into people’s ordinary lives and it all makes it seem so believable and on our own horizon. But there is much in the novel that is far from ordinary. There are space ships but space ships like no others – they are fantastic! – and wonders. This is also a tale of first contact and it’s not like one I’ve seen before.
The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman
He’s done it again! Once more Richard Osman features in my top ten post and I doubt it’ll be the last time. The plot is magnificent and works on so many levels. Enough said about that. Rarely have I felt so warmly attached to characters and, in these books, there’s not just one or two characters to love but several. A fabulous plot, beautifully witty and kind, clever, poignant and tragic at times, even shocking, and so completely fun to read. How I love Joyce… See you next year!
A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick
This wonderful author tells an utterly engrossing and captivating story of Joanna of Swanscombe and her marriage to Henry III’s half brother William de Valence. She gives Joanna and William the limelight they deserve, bringing them out of the shadow of the monstrous and astonishing Simon de Montfort and the weak Henry III. I was particularly fascinated by the depiction of Henry III’s marriage. Elizabeth Chadwick illuminates this period of medieval history like no other author I can recall. The men, women and children of her novels are so believable and genuine. Their motivations and aspirations are so well understood. Joanna lived so many hundreds of years ago but, thanks to Elizabeth Chadwick, I can feel a connection.
The Whole Truth by Cara Hunter
There are lots of reasons why this is such a good series but one of them is its Oxford location. It’s my hometown and, while it’s often the location of thankfully fictional murder, this is the Oxford that I know and love. I recognise buildings, streets, the feel of the place. Like the other novels, it’s clever and engaging. A range of perspectives are used, including the first-person viewpoint of detective Adam Fawley who, at times, even seems to address us. But we also spend time with members of his team and his wife, Alex. All of them seem preoccupied with something and I like that, it’s how life is. Mixing with these are extracts from all kinds of things – tweets, newspaper reports, police interviews, texts. I love it! The best of an excellent series.
Three Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb
I absolutely loved this – which was no surprise because I think these authors work magic together (Hazel Gaynor is also one of my favourite authors in her own right). This has the perfect blend of history, romance and friendship as two sisters, who have drifted apart, travel together across pre-war Europe from New York to deliver three letters to important people in the life of their beloved and dying grandmother, Violet. I was riveted. The fact that the sisters are due to return home on the Hindenburg adds a little extra tension. It has a fascinating historical setting and the descriptions of 1930s’ Paris, Venice and Vienna, as well as the voyage aboard the Queen Mary, are fabulous. As for the section aboard the Hindenburg….
The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers
This is the final novel in this fantastic Wayfarer universe that Becky Chambers has created, with its wealth of traditions and customs, its hostilities and unions, its loneliness and its companionship and its wonderful, strange collection of species. I adored every page of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, only wishing it were longer. This is such a good series, one of the very best in science fiction, but this book, its glorious finale, is my favourite. The four species represented here, trapped together on the planet Gora, are so different from each other, in appearance, in nature, in their methods of communication and perception, in their relationships and in their desires. I don’t want to say much at all about these characters because it is such a joy learning about them but I must say that the Laru have to be the most loveable alien species I have ever encountered in fiction.
The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor
It is 1670 and the squalid and decaying court of Charles II is rife with intrigue as the unsteady Stuart crown is threatened by forces in the Netherlands and France. The King’s Secret is clever, historically rich and detailed, and extremely engrossing. I can’t rave about it enough as this fabulous series gets even better. It tells a great story (the King’s sister is quite a character) – compelling, tragic and thoroughly intriguing and, of course, it is deliciously steeped in the atmosphere of this secretive and diseased court of Charles II. The King’s Secret is quite possibly the best of the series, which is saying something.
My favourite book of 2021 is…
The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper
Pompeii, AD 74: Amara wasn’t always a slave and ‘Amara’ wasn’t always her name. A Greek and a doctor’s daughter, family ruin led her on this path to slavery and prostitution in the Wolf Den, Pompeii’s most notorious Lupanar, or brothel. The women who work alongside her on these stone beds in confined cells come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some know no other life, saved from rubbish heaps where they had been dumped as babies, but others, like Amara and Dido, stolen from her home in Carthage, remember their past lives and are desperate for freedom. Amara is determined to get it, but at what cost? The Wolf Den isn’t salacious, it isn’t erotic. Instead, it is a fascinating portrayal of these women’s lives, so full of misery and abuse but with such fight and resilience. It is a romance of sorts but this isn’t romance as we would know it. We know what looms over Pompeii and the fate in store for it. For much, if not all, of the novel, the reader can forget about that. Our attention is on AD 74 and not on AD 79, such is the power of the storytelling, but that fate is there and I really hope the author returns to Pompeii to continue its story and that of its she-wolves. The Wolf Den is utterly engrossing and immersive. I will never see Pompeii with the same eyes again.
I must also mention that in 2021 I re-read (listened to) the Cazalet novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard – loved them! And in 2021 I continued my addiction to Jodi Taylor’s Time Police and Chronicles of St Mary’s series. This is partly because they are brilliantly narrated by Zara Ramm. If you’ve not listened to any of them, please do. They are truly wonderful. I should also say that I’ve yet to read the new Expanse novel!
Happy New Year!