One of the joys in my reading year is finding an author that I haven’t read before but who goes straight to my ‘Read Everything I Can Lay My Hands On List’. In 2021 I was fortunate enough to find a dozen writers that I want to read more of. Some of them have been around for a long time and some have only recently been published but they all left me feeling as though I’d met someone new and was looking forward to meeting them again.
For this post, I’ve picked out the five that made the biggest impact on me. The ones who helped to define my year. I recommend them all to you.
Diane Setterfield’s ‘Once Upon A River’ was probably my favourite book of 2021 and it came as a complete surprise to me. It’s a hard book to explain but an easy book to read and enjoy. If you love stories and storytelling, vivid characters, beautiful language and an intriguing mystery, this is the book for you. Packed with strong characters and with a compelling mystery, ‘Once Upon A River’ is also a beautifully told exploration of the nature of storytelling.
This is one of those books that I know I’ll read a second time and that I’ve already given as a gift. ‘Bellman & Black’ is on my TBR pile and I’m expecting to get to it in 2022. I’ll also be picking up what Diane Setterfield writes next.
I only knew Richard Osman as the co-presenter of a TV quiz show. I was delighted to discover that his debut novel showed him to be a talented author. ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ was a joyous, character-driven, life-affirming novel that I enjoyed every moment of.
I’ve just finished the second book in the series ‘The Man Who Died Twice’, which was a lot of fun although more plot driven than character driven. Still, all my favourite people were there and the plot itself was clever and the execution was witty. A third book is scheduled for next year and I’m already looking forward to it.
My first encounter with Stephen Graham Jones was ‘The Only Good Indians’, which was astonishingly good. It’s not just a great horror novel, it’s a great novel by any standards. The horror in the stories that he writes always comes from us. The supernatural elements in the story gain their power from who we are, what we’ve done, what’s been done to us and what we wish for. So reading one of his horror stories is never just a journey into the to be feared dark, it’s a vivisection of the human heart.
This year, I also read ‘My Heart Is A Chainsaw’, his latest book and the first book in a trilogy, and ‘Mapping The Interior’, a powerful novella.
On the surface, ‘My Heart Is A Chainswa’ is a stylish, often witty, sometimes bloody, reworking of all the conventions and expectations that we absorbed from the classic Seventies and Eighties slasher movies, told through the eyes of a teenage girl with an obsession with the genre and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the movies that has become her filter for viewing the world.
What makes the book something more than a fine example of Final Girl Retro Chic are the two questions that the reader is left to find the answer to: ‘Why does this bright but isolated young woman find the solace of certainty in evaluating her world using a framework soaked in the blood and drenched in the fear of teenage girls?’ and ‘What if she’s not wrong about the signs that something terrible is coming?’,
The answers to those two questions plus Stephen Graham Jones’ empathy for our young heroine who never sees herself as a heroine, turned this book into something human and moving and truly frightening.
‘Mapping The Interior’ is a novella steeped in doom and sadness and love. It’s a book where the boundaries between imagination and fear and reality and hope and fate and action are permeable. It’s a book filled with ghosts, some of whom are still breathing but wish they weren’t. It’s about a boy whose dead father comes back. It’s about a father who loses his son. It’s about the persistence of hope in the face of loss. It’s about knowing that none of your choices is good but they are all you have.
I started by reading Tochi Onyebuchi’s ‘Riot Baby’ which won the Best Novella 2021 World Fantasy Award. It’s a tough, painful read that uses Science Fiction to explore the realities of racism and police brutality towards black people and understand where that anger and hatred might take us. It was a breathtaking, heartbreaking read that sent me looking to see what else he’d written.
I found ‘War Girls’, which was labelled as Young Adult but which read to me like Science Fiction for adults that focused on the experience of young people put under unbearable pressure. I thought it was Science Fiction at its best: strong, believable, human characters that you care about; fearless confrontation of the realities of being child-soldiers in a brutal civil war; credible and terrifying future weaponry deployed in vividly described combat; a constant focus on the human cost of violence and hatred.
I have the sequel ‘Rebel Sisters’, which deals with the aftermath of the war, in my TBR pile and I’ve pre-ordered ‘Goliath’, a book set in the same universe, which will be released next month.
Lots of things surprised me about Michaiah Johnson’s novel, ‘The Space Between Worlds’, not least of which was that it was a debut novel. It was so good and so unexpected. It had great storytelling, lots of surprises and lots to think about. It was raw, clever and disturbing.
Johnson uses travel between parallel worlds in the multiverse to explore social exclusion. She tells the story from the point of view of Cara, who started amongst the excluded but who has been allowed to live among the privileged because she has something that they need.
The book works well as an adventure but what really drives it are themes on the nature of identity, of privilege and exclusion, of the cost of survival and the reality of choice.
I’ve read that there is a second book on its way with the working title of ‘Ashtown’ but I haven’t seen a publication date yet. I’ll be picking it up as soon as it’s available.