Best Books Of The Year 2021

Here we are again folks!

I have to be honest and say I didn’t know if I was going to write a Best Books post at all on here. I’ve not posted anything on here for a few months now and have been doing all my reviewing over on Instagram and it’s been very liberating! I’m sure I’ll use this platform to review books every now and again depending on my mood and it’s handy to have for posts like this one.

Anyway, enough of that! You’re here for the books so let’s crack on! I have no rules for choosing my best books of the year. I simply scroll down through my Goodreads and any book that gives me ‘the feeling’ makes the list! Simple. I don’t limit numbers and I don’t impose the rule that it has to have been a book published this year. This is basically just a list of books I’ve loved regardless of when they were/are going to be published.

Bernard & Pat by Blair James – Corsair

Bernard and Pat tells of Catherine’s fractured memories of a time in her childhood when she was looked after by Bernard and Pat whilst her Mum was working. Bernard is a devout Christian but also abuses little Catherine whilst she is in the care of him and his wife.

Told in short sharp vignette style chapters each focussing on an object or person, room or event from Catherine’s childhood. Fragments of memory, the feel of an object, the smell of a house, how Catherine was feeling at the time.

The narrative is told from the perspective of Catherine as an adult, looking back on her childhood, the loss of her Dad, feeling small and excluded. The narrative style is portrayed as quite childlike and I initially thought this was young Catherine’s voice narrating, then there would be flashes of adult language to jolt you out and make you aware that this is infact an adult who is in a lot of pain, questioning her early life.

Catherine wonders why the adults around her didn’t realise what was going on, she questions why she has an innate need to please men who don’t deserve her time or her love. She yearns for her Dad, the man who could have rescued her. She doubts her own memories and feelings and wants validation. The events of her childhood have shaped the woman she is in adult life and she is trying her best to come to terms with that.

I hate to use the old reviewing cliché of describing a book as ‘unflinching’ but Bernard And Pat most definitely is just that. It’s a book you cannot look away from despite feeling quietly horrified at what is playing out in front of you. It is sharp, it is brilliant, it is heartbreaking and I am astounded and hugely excited that this is Blair James’ debut novel.

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding – Bloomsbury

Set in Dublin, Bright Burning Things tells the first person story of single mum Sonya, a young woman living on benefits with her 4 year old son Tommy and their rescue dog Herbie. Sonya has a troubled past, dogged by signs of anxiety and mental illness after the death of her mother when she was 8 years old. Sonya’s isolation is further impacted by her fractured and distantly tense relationship with her father who struggled with grief after the death of his wife. 

Sonya has a very close relationship with little Tommy, which at times proves destructively close. They have their own language, their own in-jokes, their own haphazard way of living life. Unfortunately Sonya is also living with an alcohol addiction and Tommy has to witness her becoming ‘blurry’ and has to deal with the ‘bad fairy’ who comes out of her when she’s been drinking. 

Sonya clearly isn’t coping at all with life in general and looking after her son who should by now be attending school. She quite often forgets to feed him and has a propensity to blackout when she’s drunk, which in turn leads to precarious and downright dangerous events around the house. 

When Mrs O’Malley across the street threatens to call social services, Sonya’s father steps back into her life and takes the decision to corral Sonya into a rehab facility for a 12 week stay. 

Sonya has to suffer the absolute wrench of having Tommy taken from her and placed in the care of strangers and when she emerges from rehab having dried out she has to face the even more daunting fact of putting her family back together and getting her young vulnerable child to trust her again. 

This book obviously tackles very difficult subjects, ones which you cannot look away from no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel. To follow the story through the eyes of the person suffering from the alcohol addiction is very compelling. To know that there are times when you can’t completely trust what this person is telling you, and you can see the effect her behaviour is having on this young boy is heartbreaking at times. 

I was always willing Sonya on in her recovery and I was pleased in a way that the path back to some semblance of ‘normality‘ was not an easy one. Sonya doesn’t emerge from rehab miraculously ‘cured’ and all shiny and brand new. She still fights her demons daily, hourly. She still has to control the ‘flapping creatures’ that rise up in her chest, the outbursts of anger, the lapses of lucidity. She has to battle all of this whilst trying her utmost to appear stable and ‘normal’ in the eyes of the authorities and the judgemental eyes of her father. 

The relationship between Sonya and Tommy is so touching. They are so very close at the start of the book, living in their own little bubble. Making their own way through the days trying to have fun and in no need of help from anyone (in Sonya’s eyes). When they are torn apart it is absolutely heartbreaking even though rationally you know it’s for the best. 

Lisa Harding’s writing is beautiful, and given free reign to sound even more lyrical when a small child’s sing-song, innocent voice is added to the mix. I enjoyed the way the writing reflected the times when Sonya was struggling, short clipped sentences not quite fully formed giving the narrative an almost distracted flighty feel.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley – Granta

My Phantoms tells the story of Bridget, a woman in her 40’s originally from the north but living in London with her partner John. Bridget is essentially recounting for us some salient points of interest in her childhood with her sister Michelle, their mother Helen (known as Hen) and their father. In fact we come to the story after the divorce of Hen and Bridget’s father and start from a point of Bridget recounting the awkward and uncomfortable weekend visits with her father. 

The section involving her father is quite short but brilliantly written and if I’m honest I would have liked to have found out a bit more about him. He’s a strange character but also he has qualities of many a northern Dad. He makes cringey ‘Dad’ jokes and fools around in public to make his two young daughters embarrassed. The girls for the most part stay quiet and don’t really react to his ‘acting the goat’. However, there are times where the good natured ribbing becomes spiked with small acts of almost cruelty, where the humiliation of the girls become the main aim.

The majority of the rest of the book focusses on Bridget’s relationship with her Mother Helen. most of this is told from Bridget’s adult perspective. The two of them fall out of contact for a few years and we’re never really told why. Their relationship is strained and is reduced at one point to an annual birthday visit from Hen to London during which the two women meet for a meal and a drinks. These meals are awkward and Bridget veers from desperately trying to keep her mother engaged in conversation to becoming weary of the treading on eggshells and almost goading her mother into arguments. 

The dialogue between the two characters in these scenes is just perfectly true to life and utterly toe-curlingly awkward. Bridget tries to wring dry any subject she can think of to make conversation with her mother without inadvertently upsetting her. Hen is an inscrutable character but it is clear that she doesn’t like to be left out. She joins all manner of clubs and groups and is always on the go. She becomes subdued and sulky almost when Bridget recounts anything positive that is happening in her life.

The tension in these scenes is palpable and what I found so fascinating was the fact that I didn’t really know who to side with between mother and daughter. I was fully expecting at the start of the book to find a poor downtrodden woman who has been so ground down in life by her overbearing and cruel mother. This is absolutely not how it turned out and my preconceived ideas were very incorrect! 

I loved this book despite its low level tension throughout. It’s easy to draw parallels with real life relationships and identify small personality traits within the characters that I could see in myself or my family relationships. 

Gwendoline Riley’s writing is sharp and focussed and I’ve now enjoyed both of the books I’ve read of hers, which of course means I now need to visit her back catalogue.

Sorrow & Bliss by Meg Mason – Picador

The book opens at the point that 40 year old Martha’s marriage to Patrick is disintegrating. There doesn’t seem to be any anger or blame there appears to be a sad resignedness surrounding the end of their relationship. 

From here we go back in time through Martha’s early life with her sister Ingrid, and somewhat bohemian parents, her father an unpublished poet and her mother who ‘re-purposes’ items as sculptures. Martha and Ingrid are extremely close siblings and look after each other when their mother is off sculpting in her studio or making a show of herself by drinking too much. 

At 17 Martha starts to suffer from an unnamed mental illness which manifests itself with her sitting for days under her desk in her bedroom, barely eating or sleeping. She’s dispatched to the family GP who prescribes antidepressants and sends her on her way. She goes through very dark periods in her life where she can barely get out of bed, interspersed with times where she feels almost ‘normal’. But the dark periods are always hanging over her, lurking around the corner. 

We follow the family through the siblings teenage years, spending Christmas and family events at their wealthy Aunt and Uncle’s house with their cousins and cousins friend Patrick, who later of course becomes Martha’s husband. 

As the girls grow up Ingrid becomes a mother and Martha is staunchly against motherhood herself for her own private reasons which become painfully apparent as the story progresses. 

I loved so many elements of this book! It’s difficult to know where to start and what to focus on first! 

For a kick off it’s so funny! Painfully funny, awkwardly funny, darkly funny. The writing is so astute and sharp and Meg Mason really nails ‘normal’ interaction and dialogue between the characters. The little asides and ‘in-jokes’, the portrayal of differing personalities in such an authentic way. I’ve seen other quotes and reviews drawing parallels with Fleabag and I can absolutely see why. 

Each of the peripheral characters are fully formed and fleshed out, each with their own idiosyncrasies, and the depiction of the varying interactions between them all is just perfect. The relationship between Martha and Ingrid is gorgeous, they have their own in jokes and shared experiences and an extra special sibling bond. I think for me the relationship between Martha and her Father is particularly beautiful and poignant. He takes her under his wing when she’s ill. He protects her in the smallest of ways without being overbearing. He lets her talk when she needs to but also let’s her sit in his study with him whilst he writes, silently together. Such a special relationship. 

The element I loved the most is the way that nothing is tied up neatly in a bow. Nothing is conveniently ‘fixed’ for the sake of the story. Martha’s life is messy, her road to recovery from her mental illness is not linear and a full recovery is not something that is expected of her. She has to deal with life as we all do, the huge up’s and downs, the difficulties in relationships of all kinds, the bumps in the road. 

She’s not always a likeable character but I was always rooting for her. 

The writing is bang on and I just knew that this book would be one of my books of the year. Just brilliant.

The Stranding by Kate Sawyer – Coronet

We meet Ruth, a woman who has travelled to New Zealand on her own from London. At the start we know very little about her other than the fact that she is on a beach in NZ, deserted but for a beached whale and a man she meets called Nik. There is a bad vibe in the air and know that something bad has happened or is about to happen.

When the bad thing happens (I can say no more than that! 😆), Ruth and Nik take refuge in the carcass of the whale, thus enabling them to survive the event but leaving them in a list apocalyptic world.

From here we go back in time to Ruth’s life back in London before the disaster, where she has been having a secret affair with a married man named Alex. Despite the disapproval of her friends and family, Ruth pursues this relationship and Alex leaves his wife and children. Over time, Ruth questions whether this relationship is really everything she wanted….

The timeline shifts with each chapter and we follow present day Ruth and Nik in NZ struggling to survive in a new world. Scavenging for food and hoping there is life out there and they will eventually be saved. Then we follow Ruth in the past following the timeline of events that lead to her arrival in NZ.

What I loved about this book (besides the dual timeline which you know I love) is that you never really know what the disaster is, Ruth steadfastly avoids the news even though she aware that something is brewing. In doing so we avoid the news too and are never fully aware of the details of what exactly had happened. This allows you to follow the story on a deeper character level rather than getting caught up in the details of the disaster. This is a story of love and survival high mentally and physically and I was HOOKED!

I had the pleasure of chatting to Kate about the book over on @twofondofbooks Instagram with Clare. Check it out here

Sundial by Catriona Ward – Viper Books

I can’t say anything about this one as my review will be posted in January! Soz! Just know that I loved it and you need to get your hands on it.

The First Day Of Spring by Nancy Tucker – Hutchinson

The story starts with eight year old Chrissie Banks giving the reader her murderous bombshell confession in the most calm and contained of ways. We know from the outset that little Chrissie has indeed murdered two year old Steven and left his body in the ‘blue house’ in the alleys. 

The close knit community of families are shaken to the core at the grim discovery and mothers are extra vigilant over the safety of their little ones. They are appalled that something so terrible could happen in their neighbourhood and are determined to keep their own children safe and find out who could have perpetrated this heinous act upon an innocent boy. 

Chrissie meanwhile is wandering the neighbourhood with her dark secret ‘fizzing like sherbet’ in her belly. She is giddy with the power she felt whilst she choked the life out of little Steven. 

Chrissie doesn’t hold any power at home. In fact, Chrissie has a very sad and lonely life at home. Her father is absent ‘at her majesty’s pleasure’ most of the time, flitting in and out of Chrissie’s life as and when he pleases. Chrissie’s mum quite clearly has mental health issues and often isn’t even aware where Chrissie is. The child is neglected and has a constant gnawing hunger. 

Despite the terrible neglect, Chrissie still champions her mother and sees the positive in the smallest of concessions, like her mother leaving the kitchen window ajar so she can climb back through at night. 

With her friends and other adults Chrissie is somewhat of a force to be reckoned with. She stands for no nonsense and can quite easily handle herself. She thinks nothing of a swift kick to the shins or shoving someone over. The other children are very wary of her bolshy ways and have to keep their wits about them. They are well aware that she has a vicious and mean streak which frightens the majority of them. 

The adults in the neighbourhood see a pest, a nuisance and a trouble causer and not the lonely and forgotten little girl who is forced to grow up far too quickly. 

The story then flits forward some 20 years later and we follow Chrissie, now given a new identity as Julia, and her young daughter Molly. Julia is working at a fish and chip shop and trying to keep her daughter safe but in only the most physical of ways and struggles to connect with her emotionally. Due to her past and the terrible crime she committed, Julia is well aware of how easily children can come to harm if you are not watching them carefully. 

She treats her life with Molly as being very regimented. Their schedule is timed down to the minute in order to fill their days and not allow Julia a moment to stop and think or have to bond emotionally with her daughter. A daughter who she feels she doesn’t deserve. 

But when the phone rings, and keeps on ringing, Julia is forced to confront her dark past in order to have a hope of salvaging her future. 

Well, this book from start to finish was so compelling. The narrative voice of young Chrissie is so immature yet insightful. To see the adult world through an eight year old’s eyes and experience what it is like to be inside her head is at times hard to handle. She lives such a terrible life at home and on the one hand, of course you feel sad for her but then you are hit over the head by the horrifying fact that she is a murderer. 

Chrissie revels in her secret and yearns to feel the fizzy sensation of power again. She only feels momentary jolts of remorse, not enough to make her feel truly sorry for her actions. This is in direct opposition to how she feels as an adult looking back on her crimes. 

It’s interesting to revisit the relationship she had with her troubled mother and feckless father. Seeing her mother through little Chrissie’s eyes then seeing how the relationship has changed over the years of Chrissie’s incarceration and beyond. 

I think the most notable element for me was witnessing a truly shocking event through the eyes of such a young child. It goes against everything we expect and is made extra shocking by the fact that the naivety and childishness of the perpetrator is jarring with the act itself.

This is a book that I think will pull people in opposite directions. I battled with my conflicting feelings whilst reading it and I just know that for some people it won’t be palatable. I however LOVED it!

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder – Harvill Secker

When I first saw Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder on Twitter, I was initially drawn to the cover and title and scuttled off to Google more. When I read the blurb I got the book tingles before I’d even got my hands on a copy. An exhausted struggling mother who thinks she’s turning into a dog?…..YES PLEASE. 

If you’ve been here for a while you’ll know I love books about motherhood. Particularly when that mother is having problems. But I also love weird fiction that deals with transformation or shapeshifting of sorts (think The Harpy by Megan Hunter or the short story collection Foxfire Wolfskin by Sharon Blackie). 

Nightbitch tells the story of a woman and mother in her thirties. She has a young toddler son and a husband who works away for most of the week, returning only at weekends. The woman is referred to only as ‘the mother’ in the first half of the book, later becoming Nightbitch. 

The mother used to be an artist but left behind the artistic world to focus on caring for her young son. A boy who at two years old is quite demanding, doesn’t sleep much and subsequently ends up in his parents bed most nights. 

It is during one of these restless, sleepless nights that the mother feels such absolute rage at her husband and the life she has been left with and this prompts the start of her strange transformation. 

It is a transformation that begins slowly and insidiously, a small patch of fur like hair on the back of her neck, her teeth seeming much sharper and canine like, a very heightened sense of smell and hearing and an urge to buy copious amounts of red meat in the supermarket and taste tiny morsels of it raw. 

Her husband laughs off her concerns and her young son is absolutely beside himself with joy as his mother begins to slowly abandon herself to her canine longings. They spend their days playing ‘doggy’ games, chasing each other across the grass, playing with balls, drinking water from a dog bowl and letting the boy sleep in a kennel. When her husband returns from working the mother returns the house to its normal state and tries to play down the doggy games as just a bit of fun with her son, bending to his childish wants. 

But in reality the mother feels like a much more accomplished parent when she gives in to her urges to nurture the child as a dog would it’s pup. She battles with the internal struggle of whether she is a good mother or a terrible mother for allowing the dog games to happen and whether they will damage her son in later life. 

Ultimately this is a story transformation borne of a deep rage. It is an utterly enthralling, rich an vivid tale of the way women have to find their way in the new role of ‘mother’ that is cast upon them, and leave their old selves behind. 

It is feral and bloody and visceral and pulsing with raw anger and rage and I loved it. An interesting take on motherhood that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry

The Melting by Lize Spit – Picador

Set in rural Flanders, #TheMelting tells the story of Eva and her two male friends Pim, the son of a local dairy farmer and Lauren’s the son of the village butcher. This unlikely trio are thrown together at school as they are the only three children born in the village in the same year. They are grouped together in lessons and spend a lot of their free time together outside of school.

Eva is looked on by the boys as one of them. Their adolescent sights are firmly set on the local girls who they give a number rating to for their attractiveness. It’s this ‘game’ that leads the boys into taking their fun further. They ask Eva to devise a riddle that the girls must solve, each question they ask they have to remove a piece of clothing….

Eva desperately wants to fit in with the boys as her home life with her detached father,alcoholic mother and troubled sister is difficult for her.

The game takes on a very sinister turn when Eva decides to tell the answer to the riddle to a girl the boys have given the highest rating to. A girl that Eva very much looks up to….

In the present day, Eva receives an invitation from Pim to return to her childhood village. Eva has thoughts of the summer of 2002 on her mind and packs a huge block of ice in her boot….but what could she possibly need this for?….

This book deals with a very dark side of coming of age. The burgeoning relationships between the friends and the battles with new and intense sexual feelings give the childhood pranks a dark edge.

The tone put me in mind of The Discomfort Of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, which is a book that I know divides opinion.

This is by no means an easy read! Some of the things these children do are pretty grim! You need to have quite a strong stomach.

That said, I found I couldn’t put it down and thought about it A LOT when I wasn’t reading it. I don’t often enjoy books that deal with ‘coming of age’, but this book was just the right amount of dark to keep me hooked. Give it a whirl!

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall – Faber & Faber

It tells the story of sculptress Edith Harkness who is making preparations for the end of her life. She knows she’s not got long left and along the way we find out why.

The narrative flits back and forth between childhood, her early sculpting success and a brief but intense love affair she has with a Turkish man she meets in a local restaurant.

We learn of her mother’s brain haemorrhage when Edith is only 8 years old, her father’s retreat from their lives and her mother’s battle to re-learn everything and take care of her daughter.

Edith gains acclaim for her sculpting after landing some high profile commissions and is able to buy Burntcoat a big old house with a huge studio space. This is to become the place she is holed up with her lover when a virus hits (sound familiar!) and the world begins to crumble.

The virus isn’t covid, it’s more harmful and the public react to lockdown in much more violent ways. Edith and Halit are thrown together in lockdown and their passion and intimacy builds as they hunker down, doing their best to evade the virus that is taking hold of the world whilst learning about each other.

In the present day, Edith reflects on this time as she prepares for the inevitable end of her life.

Sarah Hall is such a great writer. I have only ever read her short story collections but I count some of her stories as the most memorable I’ve read. This novel is about love, passion, resilience and power. It burrows under your skin and completely takes over. I read it in one evening and was completely consumed by it. I was pleased that there were certain distinctions between the virus and covid. If it had been covid I think I would have felt a little more uncomfortable reading about it. However, there are certain similarities which help you understand the intensity of lockdown and what Edith and Halit are going through.

Dead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy – Dead Ink

This is the only short story collection to make the cut this year and boy is it a belter! Lucie makes the ordinary extraordinary and tinges her stories with darkness and oddness and insidious feelings of things not being quite right….

Myself and Clare had the absolute pleasure of chatting to Lucie on our joint Instagram account @twofondofbooks which I urge you to watch here

If you like short stories that are creepy and odd and crawl under your skin, you need this collection.

Free Love by Tessa Hadley – Jonathan Cape

Annoyingly I’m going to have to keep you hanging on this one aswell! My review will be up in January. Safe to say, I loved it!

Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett – Serpents Tail

SkinLane tells the almost fairytale fable-esque story of Mr F, a furrier working at Scheiners making items of fur clothing. Set in London 1967 against a backdrop of social and political change, we follow Mr F a 47 year old fastidious and taciturn man who sticks rigidly to his routines and schedules. He lives alone and keeps himself to himself. We join him at a point in his life when he has started experiencing a recurring nightmare of finding a dead, naked young man hanging by his feet from his bathroom rafters. This dream troubles Mr F greatly and he cannot fathom what it can mean of who the young man is.

When 16 year old Ralph (who the machinists dub ‘Beauty’ on account of his dark good looks) joins the company under Mr F’s tutelage, Mr F fuses his recurring nightmare with this broodingly good looking boy and a frightening obsession begins to form.

This story is told to you as if you are having a fairytale read to you which I enjoyed very much. This writing style put me in mind of the start of The Crimson Petal And The White and Melmoth. It also riffs off Beauty And The Beast but in a very dark way. The writing is detailed and does often deal with the minutiae of everyday routines. The pacing is torturously slow but builds amazing tension and atmosphere that seems to crackle off the pages.

I’m so glad I eventually picked this one up. Although I am a little mad at myself for leaving it for so long. Oh and if you don’t want to read about animal skins give this one a swerve.

So there we have it! See anything you like? Have you read any of these and did any of them make your list too?

Here’s to more amazing books in 2022!

See you soon.

Amanda xx