It’s that time again! It goes without saying that 2021 has been another strange year, and sadly for me, much of it was defined by a lingering reading slump. It boggles my mind therefore that I somehow managed to get through 101 books, with my favourites listed below.
As always, I chose from the books I read for the first time throughout the past 12 months, and not strictly books that were published within that time. I always take into account how much I enjoyed the book at the time, and how well it has stayed with me since. But without further ado, let’s talk about some books!
- Sealed by Naomi Booth
At once both highly allegorical and frighteningly plausible, this claustrophobic novel follows the perspective of a pregnant woman during the spread of a strange skin-sealing disease, born of climate change and an increasingly toxic atmosphere. Using body horror to explore the fear and potential terror of pregnancy/birth, the book also offers shrewd commentary on the narrative of female “hysteria” and the fight for body autonomy. This wasn’t the knock-out favourite I hoped it would be at the time, but certain moments continue to haunt me, strengthening my appreciation of its smart, understated power.
- The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender
A quiet exploration of family, trauma, and mental health, The Butterfly Lampshade follows Francie as she reflects on a particularly upsetting and unusual string of events that took place in her childhood. Though it flirts with an otherworldly tone and elements of magical realism, it offers very real, poignant commentary on a complex mother-daughter dynamic, looking at just how closely fear, guilt, and love can intertwine when it comes to family. Deliberately fragmented and skilfully underplayed, Bender’s unique approach makes the book all the more impactful.
- Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
His first release since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Ishiguro’s latest novel blends the appeal of commercial fiction (thanks to an enticing setup and immense readability) with the author’s signature exploration of the human condition. Concerned primarily with the moral complexities of artificial intelligence, the book explores well-worn themes of speculative sci-fi, but Ishiguro’s subtle emotional delivery gets to the heart of the best and worst traits of humanity. His brilliantly well-handled point-of-view and worldbuilding ensure it’s a fresh, worthwhile offering.
- Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder
Though not always easy to stomach, Ogawa’s signature hypnotic atmosphere makes it almost impossible to look away from this fascinating, offbeat little novel. The story Follows a 17-year-old who willingly subjects herself to a series of physical, emotional, and sexual humiliations at the hands of a much older man. Exploring misplaced grief and toxic relationships as a means of self-punishment, the book highlights the often fine lines between pleasure and pain, passion and torture, excitement and fear. In pin-sharp prose, Ogawa has written a novel that is as shocking as it is tender.
- Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Set in the run up to Christmas in 1980s Ireland, this understated yet powerful little novel looks at the ideas of compassion and secrets; those we cannot see and those we choose not to. Capturing a very specific time and place within Irish history, Keegan embraces the power of implication, commenting on heavy topics without resorting to sensationalism. Sad yet full of hope, it captures the feelings of charm, nostalgia, melancholy, and longing that so often go hand-in-hand during the festive period. It’s a sensitive ode to the resilience of the working classes, and the quiet yet vital heroism of those who choose not to turn a blind eye when faced with injustice.
- Endless Night by Agatha Christie
Though one of Christie’s lesser-known works, this quickly became one of my favourites. Hugely compelling, it has many of the hallmarks you’d expect from a classic Christie novel, including a central element of mystery, well-drawn characters, fantastic dialogue, and an intricate tapestry of clues that leads to a startling truth. What marks this out among her work, however, is how heavily she leans into the conventions of gothic literature – complete with a grand, imposing house, and whispers of the supernatural. Brooding and expertly paced, I loved its seamless blend of crime fiction and psychological horror – bolstered by excellent commentary on the freedoms and trappings of money.
- Tonight We Rule the World by Zack Smedley
This is a powerful look at navigating trauma on your own terms. We follow Owen, who is sexually assaulted during a visit to a prospective university. When the crime is anonymously reported to his school, he is forced to deal with the fallout. The novel delves into issues as wide-ranging as loyalty, abuse, gender, PTSD, gaslighting, sexuality, toxic masculinity, and warped plays for power. It’s a tangled web, but the narrative never feels bloated, thanks to how well-realised Smedley’s protagonist is.
- The Butcher’s Blessing by Ruth Gilligan
Set amidst the devastating outbreak of “Mad Cow Disease” in the 1990s, this is an achingly real portrayal of rural life in Ireland, and an ode to the country’s fraught history with its own folklore. Opening with the image of a body suspended from a hook, the narrative jumps back to explore the events that would lead to this man’s grotesque end. Instantly compelling, the stakes are consistently raised as we attempt to identify both the victim and the perpetrator from a cast of complex, morally ambiguous characters. Though ostensibly a literary thriller, the focus is placed firmly on its characters, all of whom are wrestling with their own inner demons. This allows for nuanced commentary on the fight for autonomy in a culture ruled by tradition, and the bravery required to defy society’s expectations in search of happiness.
- Love and Fury by Samantha Silva
This stunning novel serves as a love letter to the genius of pioneering feminist and writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, while also painting a picture of the very real, sensitive woman behind the legend. Silva does an excellent job of celebrating her subject’s sharp intellect and early push for equality, exploring issues of gender, class, and sexuality with nuance and grace. That said, the book never feels like an academic text or a dot-to-dot biography. Wollstonecraft was a pioneer in many respects, but she was also a human being, susceptible to the same flaws and heartache as the rest of us. I think Silva handled the balance of reverence and honesty in portraying her heroine with aplomb. Whether familiar with Wollstonecraft yet or not, this is a gorgeous, evocative read; a character study that is equal turns inspiring, captivating, and moving.
- Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
McConaghy blends powerful eco-fiction with the intrigue of a thriller in this arresting look at human nature. Our heroine is Inti Flynn, an environmental biologist leading a controversial rewinding project that aims to bring wolves back to rural Scotland. The surrounding community are immediately hostile; their resistance reaching a fever pitch when the mutilated body of a man is discovered. Inti is determined to absolve the wolves of blame — and thus spare them from a brutal culling — but to do so means proving there’s a killer in their midst. At once a page-turner and a deep dive into the psyche of its characters, McConaghy’s prose paints vivid pictures of Scotland’s rugged beauty. Almost every character is shown to be capable of both great compassion and immense cruelty, prompting us to consider which of these (if not both) is the true nature of man. And yet, nothing is ever presented as straightforward; McConaghy always mining the moral complexities of the situation. Even Inti is regularly forced to question the validity of her project, and where the line falls between vital conservation and unethical interference with nature. Burning with passion, Once There Were Wolves is an ode to the land as it once was, and how it could be.