Top 10 Reads of 2021

In 2021 I gave myself a goal of reading 70 books, which I just about surpassed with 76 (you can look through everything I read this year on my Goodreads page). I also had a more generalised goal – of reading a wider variety of genres and formats. I wanted to read fewer science fiction and dystopian novels, and more non-fiction and contemporaries. While this meant there were a lot of disappointments, some of which I couldn’t force myself to finish, there were also a huge array of books I never would have picked up if it hadn’t been for this goal, and ended up absolutely loving.

My goal for 2022 is not overly ambitious. I want to read 75 books and continue this exploration into different genres, but I also want to include more classics. I think I’m going to try and read one classic a month… I think I’m going to try and find some shorter ones. If you have any suggestions, please let me know in the comments below.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my top 10 books of 2021.

10. Deity (Six Stories #5) by Matt Wesolowski

I received Deity with the Abominable Book Club, a monthly horror book subscription. Unbeknownst to me it was the fifth in Wesolowski’s ‘Six Stories’ series, a fictionalised podcast hosted by investigative journalist Scott King. King interviews six people involved in mysterious cases in an attempt to solve them. Fortunately, you don’t need to read the entire series to understand the plot of Deity.

In this novel, King looks into the suspicious death of mega popstar Zach Crystal, and the accusations of sexual abuse and murder surrounding his cultish fame.

This novel was a lot of fun. It was so easy to read and I tore through it in a matter of days, what with the format mostly being a transcript of King with an interviewee . I tend to find actual true crime podcasts disappointing as they’re either biased, exaggerated or so true to life that they’re dull. As this was fictionalised, Wesolowski provides just enough intrigue and realism to create a really satisfying story. I’ll definitely be checking out the rest of the series in 2022.

9. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea delves into the real story behind the famous Herman Melville novel, Moby Dick. From the social climate of 1820s Nantucket to the grisly cruelty of whale hunting, this stunningly written and well-researched book was absolutely captivating from start to finish. It felt like embarking on a real adventure with genuine peril and horror.

Philbrick was forced to embellish his narrative at times in order to fill the gaps of his research, which largely stemmed from first-hand accounts written by a couple of the survivors, but it was backed with such in-depth knowledge of the whaling industry and logical assumptions that it didn’t feel overly fictionalised. It was also stomach-churningly graphic in places, something I hadn’t entirely prepared myself for.

8. My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

I gave into the hype and read my first Grady Hendrix novel this year. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is practically an 80s movie in a book and follows the friendship of two teen girls, Abby and Gretchen. They’re the outsiders in school and always have each other’s back, until Gretchen starts acting rather strangely. She’s pulling away from Abby, but is it a natural disintegration of teenage friendship? Or is something more sinister going on?

This coming-of-age horror was really entertaining, and I can see it making a brilliant movie without the need to be adapted much for screen (there is apparently one in the works). Abby is quite an unreliable narrator, and this worked well with the plot. I was immediately engrossed in the teenage politics and 80s movie references, but my one regret was reading this as an e-book. From seeing the amazing video cassette cover online, I think all future Hendrix novels need to be bought in physical form.

7. Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (translated by Molly Ringwald)

Lie With Me is a gay romance set in France in the 80s. Teenagers Philippe and Thomas fall in love in their last year of high school, but while Philippe has in many ways accepted that he is ‘different’ from his peers, Thomas struggles a lot more with his homosexuality and the idea of other people finding out about their affair. In the novel, Philippe reflects on this love as a now successful novelist, and how the relationship has profoundly affected his life.

Not only is this story beautifully painful and poignant in a way only coming-of-age novels can be, it featured a time and a city I have rarely read about before. Besson depicted the dynamics of a small French town so well I almost felt as though I had grown up in one myself.

I picked up Lie With Me after seeing it linked to Call Me By Your Name, a novel I love and reread this year. It definitely has similar themes, but the characters in Lie With Me were a lot less sure of themselves and it felt as though it was written from first-hand experience, while Call Me By Your Name is a bit more fantastical, almost other-worldly. Either way, both novels made me sob.

6. A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favourite horror novels, and I always intended to read more by Ira Levin. Someone I follow on Instagram was reading his debut, A Kiss Before Dying, and was incredibly complimentary about it. As it was on my bookshelf, I decided to finally pick it up.

My god. One of the most exciting books I have ever read in my life.

It’s difficult to describe this novel – when I read the synopsis I thought it sounded quite boring, but now I understand that revealing too much would completely ruin the numerous twists and turns that occur in almost every chapter of the book. Essentially, A Kiss Before Dying is about a charming young man who tries to swindle as much out of people as he possibly can with as little effort as possible. When he gets a woman pregnant and doesn’t want to marry her or do right by her, he decides to concoct an evil plan which would mean he no longer has to take responsibility…

It doesn’t sound that fascinating, does it? But believe me, it really is. The characters were insane, and I never saw any of the twists coming. The fact that this was Levin’s debut novel is both impressive and enviable.

5. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

I must preface this by saying I don’t intend on reading My Dark Vanessa ever again. I read a lot of dark fiction, but this was almost too much for me.

My Dark Vanessa is about an abusive relationship between a female student and her male teacher, and the irreparable mental damage that plagues Vanessa’s life. Vanessa believes the relationship was mutual and that it wasn’t abuse because she consented, despite the fact she was underage and her mental and physical health was subsequently devastated by it.

What I really admired about this novel was how real it felt. I have heard women speak similarly as Vanessa does in the novel, in an almost dismissive way about their abuse, but never have I seen it depicted in fiction before.

My Dark Vanessa was tremendously raw, presenting a character’s deep-rooted pain that clearly cannot be fixed or forgotten, only endured. It shows how these situations start, and continue, and why so many survivors feel unable to report their experiences. The novel completely shook me. A great read, a must-read, but a very difficult read.

4. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

This non-fiction book pairs philosophy with animal sciences to better understand the concept of consciousness, and what species may have more or less of a ‘consciousness’ than others, and to speculate how they might perceive the world. Godfrey-Smith focuses mainly on octopuses and other cephalopods as he has a personal interest and experience studying them while scuba-diving in Australia.

My partner certainly noted how much this book captivated me. I often interrupted him to excitedly relay some facts I had discovered, such as how octopuses only live for two years despite their immense intelligence, and how the octopus is as close as we’ll get to meeting an alien lifeform on this planet because of how genetically different they are to humans. I was fascinated, not only by the philosophical questionings posed about consciousness, but also the complex nature of the octopus, an animal I didn’t know much about before. I have since bought Godfrey-Smith’s book Metazoa, which I believe looks more into evolution as he continues to explore the concept of consciousness in animals.

3. Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

Yes, this is another 1980s gay romance, but this time set in Poland. Swimming in the Dark is a story of the love between Ludwik and Janusz, who met at a summer agricultural camp. I know very little about Polish history, or Poland in general, but this novel was an accessible introduction into the political and social climate of the time. It clearly comes from a writer who is conflicted about his feelings for his home country, as the tone conveys both a sense of homesickness and a hatred.

As Ludwik and Janusz’s love continues to deepen, Janusz becomes more politically-minded, toeing the line with the oppressive communist party in order to elevate his career, but Ludwik begins to protest against a country he feels is backwards in its views.

Swimming in the Dark shows the joy and pain of young love, the confusion of seeing a close companion choose a different path, but also the fear and anger of knowing your country doesn’t want you to be your true self. Another devastatingly moving read from a unique perspective I have read little of before.

2. The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

Another book from the Abominable Book Club. I knew nothing about The Last House on Needless Street before I started reading, and I’m so glad I didn’t. I’m actually frightened to write too much about it here, as the novel has so many layers to it.

While this did come with a horror book subscription, I would describe The Last House on Needless Street more as an emotional thriller. As the synopsis states ‘This is the story of a serial killer. A stolen child. Revenge. Death. And an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street. All these things are true. And yet they are all lies…’ I think that’s just about as much detail as you need.

There are unreliable narrators, and then there are the narrators in The Last House on Needless Street. I really don’t think I can say much more for fear of ruining the experience.

Don’t think. Just pick this up and start reading.

1. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

I read John Williams’ Stoner a couple of years ago and balled my eyes out. I immediately made it my goal to read everything he has ever written, which turned out not to be a lot. I chose Butcher’s Crossing next, primarily because I liked the cover, but when I heard it was incredibly grim and depicted horrendous details of buffalo slaughter, I was put off. It took me a long while to feel as though I was in the mood to read something like that. I decided in summer I was ready – but I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready at all.

Butcher’s Crossing is set in the 1870s. A rich, young and somewhat sheltered man called Will decides to drop out of Harvard to experience ‘real’ life before he resigns himself to a life behind a desk. He decides to pay for and join a buffalo hunting expedition in Colorado, despite numerous warnings that it is a tough and unenviable job, and that buffalo hunters are hardened and broken as a result of their experiences.

What ensues is a gruelling journey through unforgiving terrain with tough and gruff buffalo hunters. This is another book that I read in a matter of days, and it was an unbelievable adventure. I genuinely gasped out loud at the ending.

It wasn’t as gory as I thought it would be. Although there were a lot of descriptions of buffalo slaughter, I felt hardened to it by the end, much like Will becomes used to it. What was truly grim about the novel was its commentary on human nature, on class, on what humans are capable of, and how society masks the true horrors of life.

Butcher’s Crossing is also completely to blame for my new obsession with bleak cowboy novels and movies.

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