This year I decided to try something new: To write a one line review for every book I read. Though this started off well, it soon became hard to maintain. I’d envisioned each review as a precise, positive recap, but I couldn’t remain positive (nor brief) when it came to the books I disliked. Not wanting to sound malicious, I found myself making excuses for why I didn’t like them. And in some cases, I just couldn’t hold back. “Overrated and overstuffed with clichés and cheap tricks” being one example.
Then there were the books that I enjoyed but didn’t leave a profound impression on me. These were even harder to write about. In the end, I decided to only include the reviews I really enjoyed. After all, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Or at least save it for a time when you’re not limited to a word count and can really let fly.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (227 pages) Science Fiction
- What better way to start the year than with a story about the importance and preservation of literature?
- Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré (366 pages) Thriller
- My first le Carré (excluding adaptations) but not my last; I really clicked with the narrative style and contemporary elements—Brexit, Trump, Europe.
- An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (464 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- Books don’t always live up to the hype, but in this case it was well deserved.
- Neither Here, Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson (320 pages, audiobook) Travel
- A hilarious if dated travel across Europe—bring on more Bryson!
- The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon (452 pages) Fantasy
- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (448 pages, audiobook) Science Fiction
- A wild, wacky ride and metafun.
- The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (304 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- A beautiful, sensitively written and thought-provoking story.
- Song of Susannah by Stephen King (434 pages) Fantasy
- Really should’ve read this last year (after five years I lapsed in my savour-an-instalment-a-year reading speed) but it was another enjoyable part of a highly enjoyable series.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (208 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- Wonderfully mad.
- How Fiction Works by James Woods (187 pages) Non-fiction
- An insightful deconstruction of the building blocks of fiction.
- Jesus the Son of Man by Kahlil Gibran (173 pages) Fiction
- Recommended to me to inform my own writing, I enjoyed the frequently lyrical language.
- The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks (672 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- Though wary of the hype (as I always am) I’ve had Brent Weeks on my to-read list for some time, and I absolutely loved this super-plotted story.
- The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson (384 pages, audiobook) Travel
- Another hilarious audio-outing, I only wish Bryson had visited every state so the book could have been longer.
- Red Rising by Pierce Brown (382 pages) Science Fiction
- A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin (355 pages) Fantasy
- I loved these novellas and hope for many more tales of Dunk and Egg in the future.
- The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi (343 pages) Science Fiction
- Covid made me desperate for some pure, accessible escapism and that’s exactly what I got, though I missed the first person narrator of the previous novel, which I adored.
- The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Steward (448 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- The Hard Way by Lee Child (513 pages) Thriller
- 18(!) months since my last Reacher fix is far too long, and this was a much welcomed return.
- Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (432 pages, audiobook) Travel
- Bryson is becoming a fast favourite!
- King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence (597 pages) Fantasy
- I returned for Lawrence’s superb writing and enjoyed this instalment more than the first.
- Get In Trouble by Kelly Link (333 pages) Fantasy
- Eloquent writing mixed with new, clever and entertainingly weird ideas.
- On the Beach by Nevil Shute (312 pages) Science Fiction
- Probably the most relaxed approach to the apocalypse I’ve read.
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (236 pages, partially re-read) Historical Fiction
- A lyrical, character-focused look at the horrors of the Vietnam war.
- The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (656 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- A (mostly) warm-hearted and refreshing modern fantasy debut.
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (167 pages) Fantasy
- Though I wish I’d read this as a child, the story was no less enjoyable.
- Red Country by Joe Abercrombie (452 pages) Fantasy
- Fantasy meets Western in one of Abercrombie’s best yet.
- The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter (624 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- Wonderful African-inspired characters and world, if a bit too battle-heavy on plot.
- The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell (409 pages) Historical Fiction
- A solid, inoffensive continuation of what I loved about the first in the series.
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett (464 pages, audiobook) Historical Fiction
- Met the impossibly-high expectations from its Goodreads ranking.
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (335 pages) Western
- Loved the writing style, possibly a new favourite novel.
- City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (448 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- Found the Russian-inspired worldbuilding refreshing.
- The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (339 pages) Thriller
- Storm Front by Jim Butcher (307 pages) Fantasy
- A humorous and enjoyable start to what could be a promising series.
- Lucifer’s Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven (640 pages, audiobook) Science Fiction
- I enjoyed the large cast and hard-science approach.
- The White Rose by Glen Cook (317 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (494 pages) Fantasy
- Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (843 pages) Western
- A great, gritty western epic with a cast of fantastic characters.
- The Grey Bastards by Johnathan French (454 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (377 pages) Mystery
- Like everyone else, I loved it.
- Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (319 pages) Fiction
- A beautiful, beautiful collection of short stories.
- A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (672 pages, audiobook) Non-fiction
- Scientifically dense, undeniably informative, typically Bryson.
- A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (364 pages) Science Fiction
- Comfortable sci-fi with wonderful world-building.
- Time is the Fire: The Best of Connie Willis by Connie Willis (473 pages) Science Fiction
- A combination of clever and varied science fiction.
- The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (403 pages) Fantasy
- The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton (448 pages) Mystery
- Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (430 pages) Fiction
- Clear to see why it won the Booker.
- Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (880 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- An imperfect novel—an arguably sluggish start, thesaurus-thumbed prose (though I enjoyed it), lots of loose ends—but worth reading for the most original world-building alone, on par if not surpassing The Way of Kings.
- Dune by Frank Herbert (530 pages, re-read) Science Fiction
- Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie (369 pages) Fantasy
- Fantastic, bite-size Abercrombie.
- The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (771 pages) Fantasy
- After learning of the story’s Tolkien-mining, I enjoyed this doorstop more than I expected.
- The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (848 pages, audiobook) Fiction
- A well—if sometimes over—written novel with a unique structure that stretches the story and, I imagine, some readers’ patience.
- Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson (379 pages, partially re-read) Travel
- Cleverly crafted and freely witty.
- The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams (544 pages, audiobook) Fantasy
- Refreshing worldbuilding.
- Different Seasons by Stephen King (679 pages) Fiction
- Since these four novellas were attributed to a different season I read them accordingly:
- March: The Breathing Method (A Winter’s Tale) – Should’ve saved this for Christmas, a seemingly ordinary tale that slants inevitably towards King’s trademark horror.
- April: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (Hope Springs Eternal) – Despite its small size, it packs a large, emotional punch.
- July: Apt Pupil (Summer of Corruption) – A tautly written, compulsive tale where the real monsters are human.
- October: The Body (Fall From Innocence) – A beautiful, bittersweet story of childhood.
- Pompeii by Robert Harris (416 pages, audiobook) Historical Fiction
- Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (368 pages) Fiction
- Beautifully, enviously written—the setting, the characters, the story.
- Jaws by Peter Benchley (336 pages, audiobook) Thriller
- The shark-focused story is excellent, going head-to-head (fin-to-fin?) with the film, but the affair and mafia sub-plots were unnecessary tangents with little payoff.
- Notes From A Big Country by Bill Bryson (384 pages, audiobook) Travel
- I was foolish to think I might not enjoy this bite-sized Byrson on the grounds it wouldn’t have a connected narrative: insightful and hilarious as always.
- Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (561 pages) Fiction
- Binti* by Nnedi Okorafor (56 pages) Science Fiction
- Dracula by Bram Stoker (315 pages, audiobook) Horror
- There’s a reason it’s a classic.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (436 pages) Science Fiction
- Truly excellent, gutted I didn’t discover this when everyone else did.
- The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (384 pages, audiobook) Non-fiction
- Absolutely hilarious, possibly the funniest Bryson I’ve read to date.
- The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (373 pages) Fantasy
- The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (187 pages, audiobook, re-read) Science Fiction
- A classic science fiction great.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (317 pages, re-re-re-re-read) Fantasy
- Such cosy, Christmas fun returning to Hogwarts, and this book proves Rowling is a master of world-building and plotting.
- Silverview by John le Carré (215 pages) Thriller
- Another Christmas, another le Carré (thanks, Nan!) and a fine, final read of the year.
I consumed 67 books in total, which was 15 more than in 2020.
I read 28,373 pages, which is almost 78 pages per day.
Overall I read 57 different authors, 27 of whom were new to me.
Bill Bryson entertained me the most with 7 of his books. Having only discovered Bryson last year with the excellent A Walk in the Woods (a university seminar almost a decade ago discussing extracts taken from Notes From A Small Island doesn’t count) it is unsurprising that during a global pandemic my most sought-after escape was found in a combination of travel and humour.
I read 10 genres in total. As always, I bowed to Goodreads’ authority when it came to classifying the genre of a book. To no one’s surprise, Fantasy remains the undisputed champion.
Among the notable reads was Red Country by Joe Abercrombie. Though Abercrombie’s style draws inspiration from other sources, he manages to spin a fresh, highly fun fantasy yarn, using his well-honed writing style that seems sharper compared to the previous First Law novels. The western epic Lonesome Dove is populated by colourful, off-the-page characters and is heaped with heart-warming and heart-wrenching moments. Larry McMurtry writes in such a way you feel, come the final page, like you should be knocking the sand from your boots, having undertaken an epic journey yourself. Though aimed at a younger audience, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a smart, imaginative and tautly written science fiction novel, and I can’t wait to continue the trilogy next year.
While I’ve managed to pick out a top three this year, I’m unable to put them in order. They appear instead in the order in which I read them.
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin
My current novel in progress is a series of inter-connected short stories/novelettes/novellas, focusing on the alien invasion of a fantasy world, and I was blown away by these three novellas. Compared to the doorstops of A Song of Ice and Fire, which shares the same world as these stories, the narratives speed along with all the familiar and much-loved author’s traits–the serpentine plots, the plotting characters, the dark-hued fantasy–and taught me a lot can be achieved in a small space. Whether you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or not, this should be on every fantasy-enthusiasts’ shelf.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
I was drawn to The Help after I discovered it was one of the most highly rated books on Goodreads. With a to-read list that’s already two shelves too long, I turned to Audible and was wowed from start to finish by the incredible cast: They elevated the beautiful writing and brought each character to life. This book, far better than the film adaptation (which in comparison is like watching the highlights of a football match) not only smashed my almost unscalably high expectations, it made me want to tell everyone, even non-readers, about it, so they could enjoy it as well.
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This is one of those rare books that a) surpasses its own colossal hype and b) deserves all the hype it can get. The prose, the setting, the characters–they’re all beautiful and unique, making Where The Crawdads Sing quite unlike any other book I have read. Much like The Help, you just want to keep on recommending it to everyone.
What was your 2021 in books like? Share your favourite books of the year in the comments below.
I wish you all the Happiest New Year!