01 January 2022

My Top 5 Books of 2021

What with one thing and another, my 2021 end-of-year round-ups have been slightly delayed, such that it is now already 2022. In this post, I'm highlighting my five favourite novels that I read in 2021, as well as five more that almost made the shortlist. 

For the second year in a row, I've read fewer than 100 books this year — I know that for many people 72 is still a lot of books, but for someone whose yearly tally was once as high as 200, it feels like a big drop-off. The reasons are also the same as last year: I'm no longer commuting into the office (I would usually read at least two books a week on my daily 1h30 round trip bus journeys) and I've been travelling a lot less. I still find it difficult to make time to read in the evenings, unless I'm really gripped by what's currently on my Kindle or in my paperback.

Before I jump into this year's list, I'd like to give a quick shout out to BookShop.org, a UK-based online bookshop that supports independent bookshops. If you like, you can opt to support a specific bookshop local to you — my closest in their directory is the excellent Feminist Library Bookshop in Peckham. NB, this post isn't sponsored and I don't have any connection to BookShop.org; I just enjoy using their website.

1. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Set in a New York publishing house, Zakiya Dalila Harris's novel tells the story of Nella, a promising young editorial assistant, and Hazel, who becomes the titular (and only) other Black employee working for the company. When Hazel joins, at first Nella is pleased to see that the publishing house might finally be starting to make some very much-needed strides towards addressing its glaring lack of diversity. But as Hazel starts to impress both Nella's own manager and the CEO, sometimes at Nella's expense, Nella begins to wonder if all is as it seems with her new colleague. Darkly comic, compelling and sadly all too accurate when it comes to Harris's depiction of the publishing industry, the treatment of poorly paid and overworked editorial issues and, especially, the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion. Despite some small steps in the right direction, there's still a lot of work to do.

2. Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey
First, a brief disclaimer: Cat and I used to work together in science publishing in Cambridge some years ago. But as soon as I saw the blurb for her debut novel on her Facebook page, I knew I was going to love it. Meet Me in Another Life tells the story of Thora and Santi, who meet by chance under a clock tower in Cologne. There's an instant connection between them, which builds and builds, only for a tragic accident to cut their relationship short by the end of the chapter. Except, then it doesn't, because this isn't the first time the pair have met and it won't be the last. But each life they meet in, the dynamics change: they are often different ages, and although they aren't always lovers, they are always soulmates. The novel builds up to an impressive twist that I didn't see coming, and it's quite the journey to get there. Silvey's novel is full of heart, emotional without being maudlin, evoking, variously, Sartre's Les Jeux Sont Faits, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, some works from Kazuo Ishiguro, and the film Interstellar.

3. Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke
One of the books I have re-read most often is e by Matt Beaumont, set in an advertising agency at the turn of the millennium and told entirely through emails among the various staff members. When I first heard about Calvin Kasulke's new novel, the premise sounded similar but updated for the 2020s, with the story unfolding through Slack messages. Kasulke's story is always on point, usually hilarious and often surreal, the story sees one employee at the PR agency whose communications we are reading accidentally upload his consciousness into Slack. Will any of his colleagues notice he's missing in this WFH age? Will any of them help him? And what will the clients think? Several People Are Typing was just the novel 2021 needed and of all the books on this shortlist, it's probably going to be the first that I'll reread.

4. While Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams
Is there anything Stacey Abrams can't do? I don't know how she found the time to write a political thriller on top of everything else, including running to be Governor of Georgia next year, but I'm glad she did. As the novel opens, its eponymous justice, Howard Wynn, falls into a coma not long before a crucial Supreme Court. To her surprise, one of his law clerks, Avery Keene, finds that his legal guardianship is left to her, rather than to his estranged son and second wife. Avery quickly discovers that Wynn's coma and the upcoming case, on a controversial merger between a biotech and an Indian genetics company, may be linked. Knowing Avery's love of chess and puzzles, Wynn has left her a series of cryptic clues. But there are powerful people who will do anything to keep their own dangerous secrets hidden and who aren't afraid of using Avery's own past — or present — against her. Abrams' novel is twisty and multilayered, seamlessly weaving the fields of genetics and medical ethics into a gripping legal and political backdrop.

5. Eight Detectives by Alex Pavesi
Alex Pavesi's novel is to detective stories what Scream is to scary movies: you don't have to know the genre inside out to enjoy it, but you'll get even more out of it if you do. Julia Hart, a book editor, has managed to track down the reclusive Grant McAllister, a mathematics professor who, long ago, identified the seven permutations of a perfect whodunnit, which he published as a series of short stories. Julia wants to republish the stories but she has identified a number of things within the stories that don't add up, so they go through them together. We are treated to each of the stories in full, as well as Julia and Grant's discussions of them, but as the novel progresses, we begin to discover that all is not as it seems. Perfectly structured and extremely clever, Eight Detectives also allows the reader to play detective, but it kept me guessing right up until the end.

I also enjoyed the following five books, which didn't quite make my top five this year:

And here's the full list of books I read in 2021:
  1. The Secrets We Kept — Lara Prescott
  2. Black Buck — Mateo Askaripour
  3. Burnt Sugar — Avni Doshi
  4. The Wife Upstairs — Rachel Hawkins
  5. People Like Her — Ellery Lloyd
  6. The Perfect Guests — Emma Rous
  7. In the Land of Invented Languages — Arika Okrent
  8. The Divines — Ellie Eaton
  9. Before She Disappeared — Lisa Gardner
  10. If I Disappear by Eliza Jane Brazier
  11. The Good Sister — Sally Hepworth
  12. My Sister, the Serial Killer — Oyinkan Braithwaite
  13. Waiting for the Night Song — Julie Carrick Dalton
  14. How To Stop Time — Matt Haig
  15. The Therapist — B.A. Paris
  16. Good Neighbors — Sarah Langan
  17. Klara and the Sun — Kazuo Ishiguro
  18. Black Widows — Cate Quinn
  19. Bride of the Sea — Eman Quotah
  20. The Girls Are All So Nice Here — Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
  21. Her Dark Lies — J.T. Ellison
  22. Every Vow You Break — Peter Swanson
  23. Too Good To Be True — Carola Lovering
  24. The Perfect Nanny — Amanda Brittany and Karen Clarke
  25. A Million Reasons Why — Jessica Strawser
  26. The Drowning Kind — Jennifer McMahon
  27. The Lies You Told — Harriet Tyce
  28. The Dinner Guest — B.P. Walter
  29. The Push — Ashley Audrain
  30. The Whole Truth — Cara Hunter
  31. The Other Black Girl — Zakiya Dalila Harris
  32. Her Last Holiday — C.L. Taylor
  33. Local Woman Missing — Mary Kubica
  34. Where the Grass Is Green — Lauren Weisberger
  35. Who Is Maud Dixon? — Alexandra Andrews
  36. Yolk — Mary H.K. Choi
  37. Dead Man's Grave — Neil Lancaster
  38. Malibu Rising — Taylor Jenkins Reid
  39. Missing Pieces — Tim Weaver
  40. How to Win Friends and Influence People — Dale Carnegie
  41. The Heights — Louise Candlish
  42. The Night Hawks — Elly Griffiths
  43. Hostage — Clare Mackintosh
  44. The Stranger in the Mirror — Liv Constantine
  45. The Survivors — Jane Harper
  46. Meet Me in Another Life — Catriona Silvey
  47. Perfect Death — Helen Fields
  48. The Hunting Wives — May Cobb
  49. False Witness — Karin Slaughter
  50. The Turnout — Megan Abbott
  51. The Paper Palace — Miranda Cowley Heller
  52. The Startup Wife — Tahmima Anam
  53. The Good Lie — A.R. Torre
  54. Several People Are Typing — Calvin Kasulke
  55. A Line To Kill — Anthony Horowitz
  56. Rock Paper Scissors — Alice Feeney
  57. For Your Own Good — Samantha Downing
  58. You Should Have Known — Jean Hanff Korelitz
  59. Caffeinated — Murray Carpenter
  60. White Ivy — Susie Yang
  61. Apples Never Fall — Liane Moriarty
  62. Over My Dead Body — Jeffrey Archer
  63. Eight Detectives — Alex Pavesi
  64. Pretty Little Wife — Darby Kane
  65. Get Out of My Head — Meredith Arthur
  66. The Last Thing He Told Me — Laura Dave
  67. While Justice Sleeps — Stacey Abrams
  68. A Slow Fire Burning — Paula Hawkins
  69. My Dark Vanessa — Kate Elizabeth Russell
  70. Nanny Dearest — Flora Collins
  71. Wish You Were Here — Jodi Picoult
  72. The Burning Girls — C.J. Tudor

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