According to Goodreads, I have read 126 books this year. Some of them were old friends; a few I read more than once, and will again, adding to the suffering of my ever-growing TBR pile.
I have already announced my top 5 of the year twice and changed my mind 29 times. I’m going to write it down and publish, so I am no longer allowed to keep tweaking. Especially as all of those five (ahem) (you’ll see why “ahem” in a jiffy) books are absolute gems – each of the books in my top three belongs at #1 and if I weren’t desperately trying to keep my integrity and avoid including close friends’ books… okay. Here we go.
5. The Hand That Casts the Bone by HL Tinsley (The Vanguard Chronicles #2)
(literary grimdark fantasy)
I liked the first book in the series. It was good. I loved the second. It’s fantastic. The Hand That Casts the Bone is bleak, hilarious, sad, deep, multilayered. Instead of simply continuing the good-broken-guy vs the bad-broken-guy accompanied by the crazy-broken guy story, as I have expected, Tinsley explores relationships between people who will never get a happily ever after, and they know that. There is no one main protagonist in this book. Everyone gets their share, every character fleshed out and three-dimensional. When one of the bad guys suffered, I suffered with him. It’s very hard to pull that off. The Hand That Casts the Bone is a masterclass at getting it right.
4. Lady, in Waiting by Karen Heenan (The Tudor Court #3)
Heenan’s books are perfect. This should be a fact universally acknowledged. The third part of The Tudor Court is set… guess where, but it’s not the royals who matter here. Lady, in Waiting tells what happens after “…and they lived happily ever after” when neither of them knows how to live happily with the other one not cooperating. The most slappable of husbands and a wife who has the audacity not to be a library are truly a couple like no other. (Also, Will.) Is this book romantic? Gods know Margaery tries her hardest… it’s an anti-romance that is also a romance, deep, nuanced, and very real. I wish I could write a character like Robin and kick Will in the shin until he stops being like that.
3. Small Miracles by Olivia Atwater
I’m a part-time judge at a fantasy competition, SPFBO, where 300 indie authors’ books compete for the crown. Let’s be honest: the quality varies. After a few that, ahem, did not win me, I had no idea what to expect from Small Miracles, other than that it would be a lighter read and pleasantly short. I even more did not know I’d fall in love with Atwater’s style, multilayered prose (this book, on the surface, is cosy, silly YA fantasy… unless you start thinking), and humour. For the needs of the competition, I scored it 9.5/10. I might have been too harsh. I thought it would be the best indie book of the year for me, but then… wait for it… wait for it a bit longer…
2. Again, Rachel by Marian Keyes
When I found out the sequel to my favourite Keyes’ novel, Rachel’s Holiday, was coming, I thought – that’s my book of the year settled. In February. I was almost right, until… wait for it… anyway, after the disappointing Grown-Ups Keyes returned to her usual practice of tugging at my heart and casually delivering plot twists I wouldn’t have guessed in a hundred years. When it turned out that Rachel was no longer with Luke Costello (this is hardly a spoiler, you need to get to, like, page three) I GASPED. The new guy is smooth, rich, handsome… I know, such a cliché… and nice. He’s cool, exciting, interesting, fun to be around in a very different way than the hairy bloke who used to share a pair of leather trousers with his buddies and, apparently, has a problem. Rachel herself has many problems, including, but not limited to her mother and sisters… and, you will guess, a choice to make.
Technically, you could call Again, Rachel a romance – but then, Helen Hoang’s The Heart Principle, my book of 2021, can also be called a romance. If you just flinched and scowled, because you’re “not that kind of person,” I’m sorry for your loss. And closed-mindedness.
Criminally, I seem not to have written a full Goodreads review, which is a great excuse to re-read the book for the third time.
And now… here’s the best book I’ve read this year:
1. The Children of Chaos by Trudie Skies (The Cruel Gods #2)
Skies pulled the same feat as Tinsley: where the first book was really good, the second whooshed past greatness, heading straight for the top. The imagination on display is endless. I play with Norse lore in my books. Skies invented her own, complete with twelve distinct races, Gods, and worlds. “Visceral” doesn’t begin to cover how successfully she’s done it. It’s not realistic – it’s real. Free from the first book’s “and now we interrupt this action to explain a few things” The Children of Chaos soars. Immersive, complete, and (throws up a bit in own mouth because hates this word) unputdownable. Cruel, hilarious, heartbreaking, shocking, beautiful. It’s not a traditionally built novel, but an incredible TV series waiting to happen… although I have a feeling few directors could capture Skies’ vision. I couldn’t recommend this book more.
Aaalright… I’m a liar and I have no regrets.
Listen. I’ve read 126 bloody books this year. You can’t expect me to list five and ignore the rest, especially as two of the best only missed the “chart” because of my involvement in them.
Empress & Soldier by Marian L Thorpe (Empire’s Legacy series/standalone)
(literary historical fantasy/alternative history)
I have, more or less, very slightly forced, um, convinced the author to write this book. I have also served as an expert reader focused on one minor topic. Also, we’re friends. If not for all those things, Empress & Soldier would make it even harder for me to decide what belonged in my top five. Or three. Or two. It’s everything I wanted it to be and then some, with protagonists as different (you’d think) from each other as possible, their voices so different it’s hard to believe the book only has one author. I happen to be the audience for both (have I mentioned this book is partly my fault?). I can’t possibly be objective, but while I don’t envy other authors’ sales or financial success, I feel professional envy. Because the book just feels… effortless. It flows.
I’ve been a fan of the series before I ever exchanged a word with the author, I have watched her skills grow with each book, but this is just another league. It’s beyond me how someone can be so good in two completely different ways.
I won’t be writing a review due to my relationship with the author, but an essay is coming, because I have that much to say.
The Last of the Atalanteans by PL Stuart (A Drowned Kingdom #2)
(epic fantasy and/or literary fiction)
I loved this book so much my name is on its cover (this is partly because I kept telling the author, who is also a close friend, what I wanted to read, and he delivered). Like most of the books listed here, Atalanteans is multilayered to the point where two readers could argue about what the genre is, insisting the other one must have read something else. Again, like Tinsley and Skies, Stuart’s writing abilities developed so much from the first book to the second that it’s hard not to be awestruck. There are battles both bloody and against own integrity; rewriting the history as it happens in the name of truth; greed, gold, and, um, lots of shit. Literally. Plus, one of the most unusual protagonists I have ever met, a bigoted, narcissistic, racist, deluded Othrun. Am I rooting for him? Oh Gods, I don’t even know. He deserved all that shit, let’s say – yet I can’t wait for book three, Lord and King, next year.
Azalea & Syzygy by Lorain O’Neill
(I have no idea, comedic fantasy with oversexed nuns?)
I have read this book half a year ago, for the SPFBO competition. I had to eliminate it from the running. BUT: I still don’t know whether it’s the author who’s a joke, or the reader. This book is absolutely, utterly, completely horrible. It’s also brilliant, quirky, and surprisingly deep. It feels like a postmodernist joke, unless it isn’t. I honestly can’t tell. I would love to know, but you can’t exactly email an author to ask “are you really that bad or are you really that good?” I guess you had to be there… Boy, it’s been a LONG time since something made me think so hard. I don’t think I will ever re-read it, but I will always wonder.
Abominations by Lionel Shriver
To call this collection uneven would be an understatement. Nevertheless, Shriver and her career are the best illustration of how polarised our world has become. As the years pass (the book is sort of chronological, unless it isn’t) her essays drift from provocative to disgustingly predictable, and the author more and more smug about how super different and totally cancelled she is. There is a reason for it – when neither side bothers with actual thinking (or listening), but one calls you the worst of all evils and the other welcomes and embraces, which do you choose? Without discussion, and if Abominations proves anything it’s that there is neither space nor interest for discussion left, thinking and questioning becomes a waste of time. Shriver’s essays become more lazy and less interesting as years pass, and this is exactly why I still think about the book I spent three days writing a review for.
Taylor Swift: The Brightest Star by Michael Francis Taylor
This biography is 1) unauthorised, 2) a commercial flop, 3) perfect. It nearly made my top 5. If you think Swifties are obsessed, Taylor (ha) rules them all. I don’t think I have ever read a biography that well researched, free from the most scandalous tabloid stories everyone already knows, digging for what really happened. I don’t know whether Swift’s team, alerted about this book’s existence, would throw $$$ at the author or sue him for $$$, which is the only reason why I personally haven’t attempted to contact them. For obvious reasons, there are no pictures of Taylor aged 4 playing in mud, but I know what this woman looks like well enough. No Swiftie’s life is complete without reading this triumph of a book (it ends with evermore, so it’s not outdated). Will be re-reading.
Not going to read any more books this year, so I don’t have to update this post on December 31.
Well, almost definitely not going to read any more…
I would say it is possible that…
I AM NOT UPDATING THIS POST ON DECEMBER 31!!!!!
Seriously, though, 126 just doesn’t feel like enough. I don’t have FOMO when it comes to gadgets, social media, or whatever it is that influencers do. I just wish I could read all the books I want to and also resist the urge to re-read others. There is just so much – oh Gods, I just realised I forgot about Miss Percy’s Travel Guide to Welsh Moors and Feral Dragons by Quenby Olson and it totally belongs in the top five – also, Emily Henry’s Book Lovers, and… just look at my TBR. Just look. 126, including re-reads? That’s just pathetic. Normal people have no problems getting through 365, I am sure! Not that I know any normal people…
Alright. Enough rambling. Clicking Publish. I’ll just run through the whole post one more ti– [No, you won’t – TBR pile]