Books of the Year

Best Books of the Year 2021!

Happy New Year!! Yes, somehow it is now 2022 and that means its time for me to reveal my Best Books of 2021! I’ve decided to change the format a little this year – primarily because I’ve read so many fantastic books that trying to narrow them down to a list of five or ten title would be impossible! So instead of a list of reads, I’m going to give you a little narrative walkthrough of my favourite reads of the year, along with links to reviews or featured posts about those that I’ve covered in more detail (just click the book title and it should take you to the correct page).

Right back at the start of the year – my very first book of the year in fact – I read Eowyn Ivey’s To The Bright Edge of the World, a wonderful historical novel set amidst the wilderness of the Alaskan interior. I loved Eowyn’s first novel, The Snow Child, but, if possible, I adored this one even more. Although meditative in many ways, I became rapidly swept up in the tale of Colonel Allen Forrester and his exploration of the Wolverine River – and in the story of his wife Sophie, left at home but making new discoveries of her own. For any fans of historical novels, this one really is a must read.

The first few months of the year also saw me read Shaun Bythell’s amusing Confessions of a Bookseller, a sequel to his Diary of a Bookseller and a highly entertaining read for anyone who has ever wondered what running a bookshop is really like. I was also impressed by The Long Long Afternoon, Inga Vesper’s debut novel about secrets and lies in a picture perfect American suburb. The sultry heat and 1950s atmosphere practically rose off the page as I read! Summer sunshine and deadly secrets also permeated the pages of Alexandra Andrews’ page-turning psychological thriller Who Is Maud Dixon?

2021 has been a year for impressive debuts. I thoroughly enjoyed Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters, with its combination of domestic drama, folk fable, and supernatural suggestiveness, whilst Virginia Feito’s Mrs March provided a brilliant psychodrama of a woman teetering on the edge of crisis. Honourable mentions also need to go to Natasha Brown’s Assembly and Robert Jones Jr’s The Prophets – impressive, deeply moving novels with huge contemporary resonance that, although I never managed to put my feelings about them into words, have stayed with me long after turning the final page.

I wrote a double feature about two of my favourite crime novels of this year – Janice Hallett’s The Appeal and Joseph Knox’s True Crime Story – but they weren’t the only crime novels I read and enjoyed. The genre remains a firm favourite of mine and other favourites from this year included K J Maitland’s historical novel The Drowned City, V L Valentine’s wryly amusing The Plague Letters, Elly Griffith’s compulsively readable second standalone novel The Postscript Murders, The Diabolical Bones – the second in Bella Ellis’s Bronte Mysteries series – and Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice.

I also enjoyed some historical true crime in the form of Thomas Morris’s fascinating account of The Dublin Railway Murder whilst other no-fiction favourites included Professor Alice Roberts’s enlightening Ancestors: A Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials, Greg Jenner’s hilarious Ask a Historian, Natalie Hayne’s witty and enlightening Pandora’s Jar: Women in Greek Myth (all of which I reviewed in one post here), and Liz Jones’s fascinating biography of now-forgotten romance novelist Marguerite Jervis, The Queen of Romance.

2021 was also a good year for YA and Middle Grade reading. I’ve mentioned in a few posts that I’ve been reading more YA and Middle Grade as a result of taking part in blog tours for the wonderful folk at The Write Reads. And indeed, my favourite YA and Middle Grade reads of this year are all books I have read as part of their tours: Fireborn by Aisling Fowler, Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon, and Kat Ellis’s Wicked Little Deeds.

A couple of gloriously gothic reads also deserve a mention: Rebecca Netley’s brilliantly spooky debut The Whistling, Rhiannon Ward’s The Shadowing, and Riley Sager’s Home Before Dark. I also read and adored the latest in Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories – although my full review of Demon will not be coming until the new year!

Finally, the end of the year bought a small raft of brilliant fiction titles, including two of my favourite books of this year: the remarkable Piranesi by Susannah Clarke and quietly brilliant Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers (both reviewed here). I also adored Lauren Groff’s remarkable Matrix, another quietly brilliant novel that imagines the life of the extraordinary Marie de France and her relationship with Eleanor of Aquitaine. And a final mention has to go to Sarah Moss’s masterful The Fell. I didn’t think I’d want to read any pandemic fiction but, in Moss’s hands, the subject becomes a deeply human story of isolation and connection.

All in all, 2021 was a fantastic reading year. Even with all of the titles that I have mentioned here, I’m sure I’ve missed a few that I very much enjoyed! Out of the 122 books I read this year, the majority were 4 star reads or above. As always, I’d love to know if you’ve read and enjoyed any of my favourite reads – and please do tell me your top books of 2021 in the comments below!

Wishing you a very happy 2022 and here’s to another year of bookish delights!

If you decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Winter 1885.

Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester accepts the mission of a lifetime, to navigate Alaska’s Wolverine River. It is a journey that promises to open up a land shrouded in mystery, but there’s no telling what awaits Allen and his small band of men.

Allen leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Sophie would have loved nothing more than to carve a path through the wilderness alongside Allen – what she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage of her that it does of her husband.

Having adored Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel The Snow Child, I eagerly purchased her second novel, To The Bright Edge of the World on its release in 2016. I was even lucky enough to hear Eowyn herself talk about the novel at a wonderful Booka Bookshop event – and came away eager to read it straight away. So, why then, am I writing this review in 2021?

If there is such a thing as ‘book-fear’, I think I might have had it over this book! Every time I picked it up, the worry that I might not enjoy it quite as much as The Snow Child meant that I rarely got past the first couple of chapters. Having now read the whole novel, I think this might be because To The Bright Edge of the World has a much more measured opening. Indeed, by being told almost entirely through letters and diary entries, it is arguably a much more measured novel and lacks the instant immediacy of its predecessor.

But having finally plucked up my courage (much like Allen and Sophie both do), I can attest that not only is Bright Edge as breathtakingly magical as Ivey’s popular debut, I think the richness and depth of the story may mean it has supplanted The Snow Child to become my favourite of her books so far.

To The Bright Edge of the World follows two strands. The first is that of Colonel Allen Forrester who, at the start of the novel, is about to set off from Perkins Island on an expedition to map the treacherous Wolverine River. The journey that will take him and his men into the unexplored heartlands of Alaska – a place where the local indigenous populations say that the world of men and the world of the spirits collide. The second strand follows Allen’s pregnant young wife Sophie, awaiting her husband’s return at Vancouver Barracks. Finding herself ill-suited to endless rounds of afternoon tea, Sophie finds herself drawn to the developing science of photography and eventually finds herself combining this with her long-held fascination with the flora and fauna that surrounds her.

As the novel progresses, these two seemingly disparate narratives combine to form a tender story of endurance, love, loss and discovery. Although I don’t want to give any spoilers, I would caution that there is some gruesomeness amidst the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness so trigger warnings for minor character death, period-appropriate attitudes towards the role of women and towards indigenous populations, and depictions/discussion of birth and miscarriage. There’s nothing especially gory – and no attitudes that would not have been all too common for the period – but it is clear that Ivey has done her research and, although the novel wears this lightly, it does lead to some uncomfortable and emotive moments.

It is difficult to talk about the pull of this book because, as I indicated at the start of this review, it is in many ways a very meditative and quiet book. Told almost entirely through documents, the reader is often one step removed from the characters, particularly at the start of the novel. But as Allen and Sophie’s stories progress – and they begin relying more and more upon their respective diaries to recount their feelings about what they are undergoing – I found myself pulled in to their worlds as surely as Allen finds himself drawn onwards down the Wolverine River’s swift but uncertain course.

By the end of the novel, I was utterly spellbound. Ivey writes so captivatingly about the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, and manages so deftly to make Allen, Sophie and their companions come alive on the page. From the impish and flirtatious Miss Evelyn to the young native chief Ceeth Hwya and the sinister, possibly supernatural, Man Who Flies , I could picture every single character in my mind and longed to be beside them, exploring the natural beauty of Alaska’s canyons or experiencing the pleasure of watching a hummingbird care for a clutch of eggs.

To The Bright Edge of the World will not, I expect, be a novel for everyone. There is a still meditativeness to it that forces you to read it slowly – to savour each description and incident, and to contemplate each tantalisingly drawn out connection or inference. It is an enthralling yet touching novel that ruminates deeply upon love and the nature of love, as well as the connections we make with those around us and the impact we have upon the lives of those we come into contact with.

But if your measure of a good novel is that it should be an extension of the human spirit – that it should endeavour to encapsulate both the intense pleasures and raw pains of our experiences – then To The Bright Edge of the World should be very high up on your ‘To Read’ list indeed.

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey is published by Tinder Press and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Readathons

Autumn Readathon TBR

As you may have already realised from recent posts, I love Autumn. As the nights draw in, the thought of curling up next to the fire in a cosy jumper with a good book and a large mug of tea is a welcome solace after a long day at work. So when Mercedes over at Mercy’s Bookish Musings announced she was going to run an Autumn Readathon, my immediate reaction was ‘where do I sign’?!

The readathon runs from 22 – 28 October and is fairly chilled by way of challenges to allow for readers of all speeds and intentions (which I love – not all of us have the ability to read 7 books in a week!) with 4 prompts and 2 optional prompts to attempt. You can watch Mercedes’ announcement video here as well as her TBR and recommendations here but I thought it might be fun to do a post about my own TBR and reading goals for the week as well.

Prompt One: Read a Gothic/Spooky Book

I started on Laura Purcell’s ‘The Silent Companions‘ during Lauren’s Autumn Cosy Reading Night on Friday and, fortunately for me, it doubles up nicely for this prompt. Set in a crumbling country mansion, this gothic ghost story that promises unsettling psychological horror in the vein of Susan Hill, Shirley Jackson and Henry James. I’m less than 50 pages in at the moment but I’m already loving the setting and the brooding sense of malice and unease that has been infused into the most innocuous of interactions and settings.

Prompt Two: Read an Autumnal Non-Fiction Book

Mercedes has classed this as nature writing or autumnal travel-writing but I’ve just gone with something a bit gothic again because I’m currently reading ‘Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England‘ by Sarah Wise which is a fascinating insight into the history of insanity in the nineteenth-century. Looking at both the rise of the ‘mad-doctor’ profession and public fears about sane individuals being locked away in private asylums, Sarah Wise examines twelve real-life cases that could have come straight from the pages of Wilkie Collins or Dickens.

Prompt Three: Read a Novel Set in a Cold Location
Prompt Four: Read a Historical Fiction Novel

Eowyn Ivey’s ‘To The Bright Edge of the World‘ gets to do double duty for this one. I already mentioned in my 5 Star TBR Predictions post that I wanted to get to this novel soon and, with it being both set in a cold location (Alaska) and in the past (1885), it fits the bill perfectly for this prompt. At over 400 pages, it’s unlikely I’ll finish this during the readathon week but, if I can get started, I’ll be happy.

Bonus Prompt Five: Read a Short Story Collection

I recently collected ‘Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories‘ from the library and am intending to dip in and out of it through the week. Featuring spooky stories inspired by English Heritage sites across the UK, the collection features stories by some of my favourite writers including Sarah Perry and Mark Haddon. It’ll also be ideal reading for the run up to All Hallows Eve.

Bonus Prompt Six: Read an Adult Novel with a Young Female Protagonist

I get that you could argue that Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials‘ could reasonably classed as Young Adult but I’m counting ‘The Amber Spyglass’, which I want to finally get around to reading so that I can start the recently released ‘The Book of Dust’, as my choice for this one. Again, I’m not sure I’ll get around to finishing this during the week but I am keen to get it started if I can.

So that is my Autumn Readathon TBR. Are any of you participating in the readathon? If so, what are you reading for it? Have you read any of my choices and what did you think? Let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter. You can also follow Mercedes at @mercysmusings and join in with the readathon chat using the hashtag #autumnreadathon. So here’s to a successful readathon week and, until next time…

Happy Reading! x

Uncategorized

5 Star TBR Predictions

I’ve recently watched a few videos on Booktube that use this tag and I thought it was a really fun idea for a blog post.

Basically the idea is to look at your shelves (because, let’s face it, who has just one shelf) of unread books and select some books that you think will be 5 star reads and that you intend to tackle and report back on in the coming months. I think the tag originated with Mercedes over at MercysBookishMusings and you can watch her original video here.

This seems like a great idea to me, not only as a way of busting through reading slumps but also as a way of thinning a large pile of unread books into a more manageable TBR. So, without further ado, here are my 5 star book predictions!


The Good People by Hannah Kent

I adored Kent’s first novel, ‘Burial Rites’, and had the pleasure of meeting her at an author event over at Booka Bookshop in Oswestry earlier this year. She was a fascinating speaker and it’s clear that she puts a great deal of time and energy into researching her books. That said, ‘Burial Rites’ always put the story first and never allowed the history to get in the way of a good tale.

Her second novel, ‘The Good People’, is set in rural Ireland, 1825, and looks at three women who are forced together to try and save a child that they believe has been made a changeling by the faerie folk. Kent is brilliant at portraying the everyday struggles of people’s lives and so I’m looking forward to seeing how she tackles this tale of folklore and ritual.

I’m about 50 pages into this at the moment and it’s building up to be a fabulous read so I have high hopes and will report back when I’m done!

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

I mentioned this in my Autumn Reading post but ended up putting the book down as my chunky hardback copy was just too big to pack in the suitcase for my recent holidays.

I do really want to get back to this novel, set in Alaska in 1885, which follows Lieutenant Colonel Allan Forrester as he attempts to navigate Alaska’s Wolverine River with a small band of men. Alternating between Allan’s diaries and that of his young wife Sophie, left behind as her husband goes exploring, it promises to be a fascinating tale of discovery and adventure as well as a portrait of a marriage placed under unexpected strain.

Ivey’s ‘The Snow Child’ was one of my favourite winter reads a couple of years ago and she has such a talent for realising place so I’m just waiting for a chilly weekend to dive back in to this.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas 

I’ve recently added this to my stack after hearing about it on the All The Books podcast. I don’t know much about it other than the blurb which is as follows:

‘Aged 13, Joan Ashby drew up a list ‘How to Become a Successful Writer’. With tenets such as ‘write every day’, ‘do not entertain any offer of marriage’ and ‘do not allow anyone to get in my way’, it is no surprise that, less than a decade later, her short stories took the literary world by story. But, with her failure to abide by her own rules followed by a marriage and two children, Joan finds herself living a life very different from the one she had envisioned. Now she wants to get back on track and complete her much-anticipated first novel but a betrayal of Shakesperian proportions is lurking around the corner.’

This debut sounded fantastic to me when I first heard about it and it ticks a lot of my reading joy boxes – female protagonist, book about books and authors, Shakespearean style drama and betrayal. I’m hoping for something along the lines of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ or Diane Settenfield’s ‘The Thirteenth Tale’, both past favourites.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig 

Another book that’s had loads of love on Twitter and Booktube (and has also been optioned by Benedict Cumberbatch for TV), this novel sounds like it’s going to scratch my ‘Time Traveller’s Wife’ itch. From the blurb:

‘Tom Hazard looks like an ordinary 41 year old. But a rare genetic condition means he’s been alive for centuries. Always changing his identity and staying on the move, Tom’s seen a lot but he craves an ordinary life. Now, working as a history teacher in London, he can teach kids about wars and witch hunts as if he never saw them first-hand – and he can try to come to terms with a past that is fast catching up with him. What he cannot do – what he must never do – is fall in love.’

I adored Matt’s non-fiction book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ but I’ve never read any of his novels so I’m really hoping that this one lives up the hype.

If We Were Villains by M L Rio

Again, I haven’t started this one and I don’t know that much about it so I’m going to let the blurb do the talking regarding the plot:

‘Oliver Marks has just served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. Years earlier, as a young actor at an elite conservatory, he noticed that his talented classmates seemed to play the same characters onstage and off. But when the teachers change the casting, good-natured rivalry turns ugly and the plays spill dangerously over into real life. When one of the seven friends is found dead, the rest face their greatest acting challenge yet – convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.’

Doesn’t that just sound like Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’?!?! That is one of my favourite books so I’m really hoping that this debut will have similarly gothic, Shakespearean tragedy vibes whilst adding something new and original.


So those are my 5 star book predictions! I’m really looking forward to starting each of these books and hope to report back with my verdict on each when I’ve finished them. Have you read any? If so, do let me know in the comments or over on Twitter. And, until the next time, Happy Reading! x

Blog Tours · Upcoming Books

Autumn Reading

Ah September, the beginning of autumn. The leaves begin to turn, the nights start to darken and book lovers everywhere prepare to turn on the fire, find their cosiest PJs and hibernate with a pile of books and a supply of comforting hot drinks under their favourite blanket. As thoughts turn towards Christmas, the stars of the publishing world unveil their heavy hitters and there’s a veritable feast of literature to look forward to over the coming months so, in this post, I thought I’d talk about some of the books that I’m hoping to curl up with this autumn.

29758006First up, and the book I’ve just started reading, is Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World, now out in paperback. I adored Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, and her second book returns to the wild beauty of Alaska in the Winter of 1885 as Lieutenant Colonel Allan Forrester attempts to navigate the Wolverine River and map the inner portions of the Alaskan frontier. Alternating between Allan’s journals and the diaries of his young, heavily pregnant wife Sophie left behind in the fort, I’m hoping for more of Ivey’s vivid descriptions of the natural world and her meticulous portraits of human relationships.

35508160Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017, has been garnering praise from across the literary world. Loosely based on Sophocles’ Antigone and set in contemporary London, Home Fire is the story of two British Muslim families and examines familial love, political ideology and what happens when the two collide. Isma is finally free, studying in the US after years spent raising her twin siblings. But she can’t stop worrying about headstrong, beautiful Aneeka, left back in London, and Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of their father’s dark jihadist legacy. When handsome, privileged Eamonn enters their lives, two families fates becomes inextricably intertwined in what promises to be a compelling story of family and loyalty that feels completely relevant to the world we live in today. I’ve got my reservation in at the library for this one and I’m looking forward to its arrival.

Arriving in October, Phillip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage is the first part 9307699of his much anticipated The Book of Dust and sequel to the acclaimed Northern Lights trilogy. I’ve stayed deliberately ignorant of any plot details for this because I want it to be a complete surprise on reading but I do know that it’s a prequel to the events of Northern Lights set when Lyra is just a baby. In preparation for its release, I intend to finally read the last part of the Northern Lights trilogy, The Amber Spyglass. Quite why I’ve never got around to reading the final part is a mystery even to me – I think maybe I just didn’t ever want the book to end so deliberately deferred reading the final portion. Now that I know more Pullman set in the same universe is on the way, I can read without fear!

34913762Joanne M Harris’ forthcoming A Pocketful of Crows, also due in October, promises to be a modern fairytale with a nameless wild girl at its heart. Again, I know very little about the premise but you only need to say Joanne Harris and fairytale to colour me interested. Plus I’m booked to an event with the author at the wonderful Booka Bookshop at which I look forward to hearing Joanne speak and debating whether my starstruck self is brave enough to ask a question at the end.

33876124Last, but by no means least, I’m taking part in three blog tours this autumn for upcoming titles that I’m happy to sing the praises of. The first, for Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury, is taking place on Saturday 09 September to tie in with the launch of the third book in her extremely enjoyable DC Connie Childs series of Derbyshire-based crime novels. Combining police procedural with domestic thriller and with a dash of nordic noir, there’s still time to check out Sarah’s first two books – In Bitter Chill and A Deadly Thaw – before picking up the third.

35079533Next up will be the second collection of the late, great P D James’ short fiction, Sleep No More. Published in early October as a companion volume to last year’s The Mistletoe Murder, the collection offers six more tales of murder from a master of the crime short story, all with the dark motive of revenge at their heart.

The Shelf will also be visited by Christopher Fowler, author of the popular Bryant & May series of crime novels, when he releases his intriguing non-fiction foray into the back catalogues and backstories of authors that were once hugely popular but have now disappeared from the shelves of most readers. The Book of Forgotten Authors promises to be an entertaining guide to 34100964some forgotten gems from an enthusiastic and enlightening guide and a real treat for any book lover who enjoys books about books!

Those are just a few of the titles that I hope will be gracing my shelves this autumn. What are you looking forward to in the upcoming months? Do let me know in the comments or by dropping me a line over on Twitter or Goodreads.