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

THREE MINI REVIEWS: Brilliant Non-Fiction Books

It’s getting to that time of year when I look back and realise how many brilliant books I’ve read but not yet got around to reviewing. So for today’s post, I want to play catch-up and tell you about three brilliant non-fiction titles that I’ve read and enjoyed in 2021.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

The Greek myths are one of the most important cultural foundation-stones of the modern world.

Stories of gods and monsters are the mainstay of epic poetry and Greek tragedy, from Homer to Virgil to from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides. And still, today, a wealth of novels, plays and films draw their inspiration from stories first told almost three thousand years ago. But modern tellers of Greek myth have usually been men, and have routinely shown little interest in telling women’s stories.

Now, in Pandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes – broadcaster, writer and passionate classicist – redresses this imbalance. Taking Greek creation myths as her starting point and then retelling the four great mythic sagas: the Trojan War, the Royal House of Thebes, Jason and the Argonauts, Heracles, she puts the female characters on equal footing with their menfolk. The result is a vivid and powerful account of the deeds – and misdeeds – of Hera, Aphrodite, Athene and Circe. And away from the goddesses of Mount Olympus it is Helen, Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Antigone and Medea who sing from these pages, not Paris, Agamemnon, Orestes or Jason.

I’ve been a fan of Natalie Haynes’ fiction ever since her debut novel, The Amber Fury, and have also greatly enjoyed her amusingly informative podcast, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myth utilises both Natalie’s extensive knowledge of classical myth, legend, and literature with her ready wit to look beneath the surface of what we know – or often assume – about the women of Greek mythology. Was Pandora really to blame for the release of all the evils of the world? And did she even have a box from which to release them? Was Medea really the evil mother of legend? Did Helen of Troy really choose to leave her husband and run away to Troy with Paris?

The answers to these questions, as Haynes ably demonstrates in this lively and knowledgeable book, are far more complicated than popular culture might lead us to believe. Indeed, many of these women whose stories we think we know so well have been, Hayne argues, viciously maligned by – you guessed it – predominantly male writers in the ages since.

Thoroughly researched but told in with humour and insight, Pandora’s Jar is a fascinating foray into Greek mythology, a call to arms for the reconsideration of maligned women in mythology, and a timely reminder of the importance of female voices in classical literature.

Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials by Professor Alice Roberts

This book is about belonging: about walking in ancient places, in the footsteps of the ancestors. It’s about reaching back in time, to find ourselves, and our place in the world.

We often think of Britain springing from nowhere with the arrival of the Romans. But in Ancestors, pre-eminent archaeologist, broadcaster and academic Professor Alice Roberts explores what we can learn about the very earliest Britons – from their burial sites. Although we have very little evidence of what life was like in prehistorical times, here their stories are told through the bones and funerary offerings left behind, preserved in the ground for thousands of years.

Told through seven fascinating burial sites, this groundbreaking prehistory of Britain teaches us more about ourselves and our history: how people came and went; how we came to be on this island.

I love history but my own studies have been woefully lacking on anything that can be classed as ‘prehistory’. As a kid, I always preferred knights in shining armour to dinosaurs and ‘cavemen’ and, as I’ve got older, the closest I’ve got to studying early civilisations is watching Ice Age.

Professor Alice Roberts’s fascinating book Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials changed all that, however. Combining archaeology, anthropology and, scientific enquiry into early DNA, Roberts tells the story of the earliest ages of humankind through seven remarkable prehistoric burials. What emerges is a picture of surprisingly complex – and deeply human – societies that reacted to changing food sources, social patterns, weather conditions, and climate.

Each chapter focuses on a specific burial – from the famous Amesbury Archer to the Paviland ‘Red Lady’ (who might, it turns out, not be a lady at all) – and examines not only what these burials might tell us about pre-historic Britain and its people, but also how scientific enquiry and excavation techniques have developed to allow us greater insight into these early peoples and their societies. As with Haynes, Roberts busts more than a few myths about pre-history during the course of her book and explains with ease the often complex science behind various theories and reasonings.

An informative yet accessible guide to a fascinating period of history through the examination of bones, pots, early weapons, and fragmentary remains, Ancestors made for a riveting read.

Ask a Historian: 50 Surprising Answers to Things You Always Wanted to Know by Greg Jenner

Why is Italy called Italy? How old is curry? Which people from history would best pull off a casino heist? Who was the richest person of all time? When was the first Monday? What were history’s weirdest medical procedures that actually worked? How much horse manure was splattered on the streets of Tudor London? How fast was the medieval Chinese postal system? What did the Flintstones get right about the Stone Age? Who gets to name historical eras, and what will ours be called in 100 years’ time? How do we know how people sounded in the past? How old is sign language?

In Ask a Historian the author, BBC podcaster, and public historian Greg Jenner provides answers to things you always wondered about, but didn’t know who to ask. Responding to 50 genuine questions from the public, Greg whisks you off on an entertaining tour through the ages, revealing the best and most surprising stories, facts, and historical characters from the past. Bouncing through a wide range of subjects – from ancient jokebooks, African empires, and bizarre tales of medicinal cannibalism, to the invention of meringues, mirrors, and menstrual pads – Ask A Historian spans the Stone Age to the Swinging Sixties, and offers up a deliciously amusing and informative smorgasbord of historical curiosities, devoured one morsel at a time.

As with Haynes’s work, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Greg Jenner’s previous books, as well as his fantastic podcast You’re Dead to Me. Ask a Historian is another triumphant mix of interesting yet esoteric history, cheerfully irreverent storytelling, and bum jokes.

I listened to the audiobook of this one – read by Jenner himself and featuring some additional content – and it was an absolute hoot. Not only did I learn a lot but I also laughed out loud on more than one occasion. It’s also an audiobook I can see me re-listening to – always a bonus in my book!

Given the nature of the book – 50 questions that bounce across ages and continents – Ask a Historian made the perfect read to listen to whilst out for a walk or commuting to work. The book would also be a perfect read for dipping into and out of alongside other reading – and would make a great gift for a history-loving friend or relative this festive season.

So those are three brilliant non-fiction titles I’ve read in 2021 and wanted to share with you. Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or intend to pick any of them up!

If you do 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!

Books of the Year · Reviews

My Books of the Year 2020

Yes, it is that time of year again. As I prepare to kick 2020 firmly out of the door (and good riddance to it indeed), the time has come to look back on my reading year and think about the books that really stood out as highlights for me.

And, on the reading front at least, 2020 really has been an excellent year! Being stuck at home has at least given me more time to read. And, for me anyway, books have provided a solace and support in this otherwise trying and difficult year – you are, after all, never alone with a good book. In a year that has required staying local (and often staying indoors), books have also allowed me to travel vicariously through their pages.

As a result, I’ve had my best reading year for a while – a total of 104 books read! I’ve also found myself much less slumpy this year – possibly as a result of giving myself more freedom to read by whim and allowing more time to savour and enjoy my reading, and almost certainly because of all the lovely book chats that I’ve got involved with on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook! Lockdown might be rubbish but it’s been so nice to be part of the book community during it and to get involved in online book clubs and reading challenges with fellow book lovers.

Continuing in this spirit of freedom – and in an effort to continue spreading the book love far and wide – I’ve therefore decided not to limit my Books of the Year to an arbitrary number. So instead of my usual ’round up’ post of my top 5/6 books, I wanted to share with you ALL of my favourite and recommended reads of 2020, along with a few words about why they’re brilliant and a link to my full review.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, let’s go!!

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

A magical historical romp featuring a child returned from the dead, a photographer, a pub, and – of course – a river. With the story beginning at New Year, this was one of my first books of 2020 – and definitely one of the highlights of the year for me! Full review available here.

The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore

A devastating novel of forbidden love and social hierarchy, the world of the eighteenth-century is bought vividly to life in this sexy, dangerous romp of a novel. With one of the most memorable ending paragraphs I think I’ve ever read, there was no way that Mr Lavelle wasn’t making it onto this list! Full review available here.

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

A book that combines fascinating figures and scholarly rigour with Greg Jenner’s trademark humour, this is the perfect read for anyone interested in celebrity, fandom, and the eighteenth-century. Shelf of Unread catnip essentially! Full review available here.

A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister

Another fascinating non-fiction read, this time looking at the history of sex and sexuality. Kate Lister brings scholarly rigour and deft social commentary to bear on her topic, whilst retaining the wry humour that has made her @WhoresOfYore Twitter account such a joy.

The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

Crime writer Sarah Ward’s first foray into historical fiction provided a page-tuning country house mystery with a pinch of the gothic and supernatural. More Shelf of Unread catnip and a joy to read from first page to last. Full review available here.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

A historical detective novel with a difference, Things in Jars features a mysterious – and possibly magical – child, a pipe-smoking female detective, and the ghost of a dead boxer. Defying genre expectations and revelling in the playfulness of its prose, this was an absolute treat of a novel and perfect for devouring over a long weekend. Full review available here.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A powerfully imagined exploration of family, love, motherhood and grief, Hamnet is one of the few novels to have made me both laugh and cry in 2020. Just as magnificent as everyone says it is. Full review available here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Honestly the only reason I haven’t reviewed this yet is because I am still trying to find the words for it. A magnificent intergenerational story told from twelve perspectives. Fully deserving of every one of the accolades given to it.

A Tomb with a View by Peter Ross

A surprise hit on audio, this book about graves and graveyards manages to talk about very sad things without ever feeling sad. Instead the book is poignant, touching, and deeply hopeful. Perfect 2020 reading.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

A slice of everyday life encapsulated within pitch-perfect and elegant prose, Sarah Moss’s masterful novella – set in a series of isolated cabins on the edge of a Scottish loch – provided the perfect allegory for lockdown life whilst exploring the tensions and fractures that lie underneath society’s surface. Full review available here.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Smart, witty, and immensely pleasurable, Richard Osman’s first foray into fiction provided the perfect mix of mystery, comedy, poignancy, and compassion. Full review available here.

The Booksellers Tale by Martin Latham

Written by a bookseller, Martin Latham’s exploration of our love affair with books covers an eclectic list of topics. From marginalia to comfort reading, street bookstalls to fantastical collectors, if you love books and bookshops then you’re sure to find this a fascinating and comforting read.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Another genre-bending romp from the author of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Mixing history, mystery, supernatural horror, and suspense, Stuart Turton once again keeps the pages turning as a mysterious voyage goes badly wrong. Full review appearing on The Shelf shortly!

Deity by Matt Wesolowski

The latest in Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series isn’t out in paperback until 2021 (although it’s out now as an ebook) but I managed to get hold of a copy in preparation for the blog tour and let me tell you that it does not disappoint! I devoured this one in about 24 hours – a page-turning mixture of top-notch plotting, compelling mystery, and chilling events. Full review appearing on The Shelf soon!

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

By turns poignant and passionate, joyful and comforting, Dear Reader is an ode to books and book lovers. Combining memoir with reading recommendations, this was the perfect book about books for 2020. Full review available here.

Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

A pair of riveting mysteries with twists to rival Agatha Christie and a unique ‘novel in a novel’ structure, both of these were diverting and engaging reads. Full reviews available here and here.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The book that got me back into YA! With a gripping plot, a clever mystery, a little light romance, and some fabulous characters, this was a page-turning and entertaining read. I can’t wait for the sequel in 2021! Full review available here.

The Cousins by Karen M McManus

More YA, this time involving a hideously wealthy family, a small airport’s worth of emotional baggage, and an exclusive island home hiding a multitude of dark secrets. Fun, entertaining, and suspenseful, this has made me want to read more of McManus’ work. Full review available here.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

There’s nothing like a good sensation novel to curl up with as the nights draw in and Lady Audley’s Secret has it all – secrets, danger, illicit romance, possible murder, madness, arson! An absolute romp of a book, this classic is perfect for fans of Wilkie Collins.

On The Red Hill by Mike Parker

A beautiful combination of social history and personal memoir, Mike Parker’s On The Red Hill tells the tale of Rhiw Goch (‘the Red Hill’) and its inhabitants: Mike and his partner Preds and, before them, George and Reg. It’s also the tale of a remarkable rural community, and the lush prose and vivid descriptions took me straight back to the Welsh mountains and reminded me of the importance of home.

And we’re done!! Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or if you have them on your TBR! Here’s to having another excellent reading year in 2021 – and to leaving some of the less pleasant aspects of 2020 far behind us. Thank you for sticking with me and with The Shelf through 2020. Wishing all of you a safe, peaceful and happy new year – see you on the other side!

If you’re tempted to treat yourself after reading this post, 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!! Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

Dead FamousCelebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, strikes us as hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise.

Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy; or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend; or Edmund Kean, the dazzling Shakespearean actor whose monstrous ego and terrible alcoholism saw him nearly murdered by his own audience – the list of stars whose careers burned bright before the Age of Television is extensive and thrillingly varied.

In this ambitious history, that spans the Bronze Age to the coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Greg Jenner assembles a vibrant cast of over 125 actors, singers, dancers, sportspeople, freaks, demigods, ruffians, and more, in search of celebrity’s historical roots. He reveals why celebrity burst into life in the early eighteenth century, how it differs to ancient ideas of fame, the techniques through which it was acquired, how it was maintained, the effect it had on public tastes, and the psychological burden stardom could place on those in the glaring limelight.

You may recognise Greg Jenner as the host of BBC comedy podcast You’re Dead To Me!, or as the public historian whose work behind the scenes on the series Horrible Histories has been part of making history fun, interesting, and accessible for children and adults alike. If you don’t, I highly recommend hunting down both (the podcast is a delightful mix of the fascinating and the obscure, whilst Horrible Histories is an absolute riot to watch – I can highly recommend the ‘Kings and Queens’ song).

Dead Famous or, to give it its full title, Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen is not Jenner’s first foray into authorship. His previous book, A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Ordinary Life, From Stone Age to Phone Age was a wide-ranging and fascinating look at the history of the everyday. Dead Famous is a little narrower in its scope, zoning in on the history of ‘Celebrity’ which, as Jenner explains, is still a relatively new field of historical enquiry. Indeed the field is so new that it’s still debating exactly what ‘Celebrity’ entails, let alone when it came into being. Jenner, therefore, spends an early chapter considering the various definitions of the term before moving on to consider when ‘Celebrity’ culture really began.

Whilst the book’s subtitle is billed as covering ‘Bronze Age to Silver Screen’, the majority of the content focuses on the period from around 1750 – 1950. This, as Jenner explains, his because his definition of the ‘Celebrity’ places the start of the phenomenon (as we know it today) firmly in the 1700s. However, he does make the occasional foray back to earlier centuries, and even to the Ancient World, to consider individuals who benefited from both fame and renown. Considering the differences between the famous, the infamous, the renowned, and the celebrity is, in itself, a fascinating topic – and that’s before Jenner even starts on the tales of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century publicity-seeking celebs, scandalous money-making schemes, and crazed fans.

As a scholar of the long eighteenth-century (the period from 1660 – 1820, because us eighteenth-century scholars like to steal a bit of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries for kicks), I was particularly interested to discover how early stars of the London stage such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons curated and managed their own image, and was fascinated to learn that so many of the facets of celebrity that we consider to be ‘modern’ – such as product endorsements, celebrity souvenirs, and appearance fees – originated in the very early days of celebrity and fan culture.

In addition to be extremely interesting, Dead Famous is also wildly funny. Jenner has a real gift for a wry turn of phrase and had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. His witty style makes his topic instantly accessible without sacrificing any of the scholarly rigour or intelligence required to consider such a vast topic at length. Dead Famous is clearly extensively researched but it wears that research lightly, each fact and anecdote recounted with a richness and a relish that makes for extremely enjoyable reading.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely LOVED Dead Famous. To be fair, a book combining humour, history, sociology and the eighteenth-century was always going to be reading-catnip for me. But I genuinely think a lot of other readers will love this too. If you have even a passing interest in celebrity or fan culture, or have ever been gripped by news from your latest fandom or the gossip columns of magazines, Dead Famous is packed to brimming with facts that are sure to fascinate and amuse in equal measure.

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner is published by W&N and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

And don’t forget that, whilst high street bookshops might be closed at the moment, many of your local indies are still delivering – personal favourites include Booka Bookshop and The Big Green Bookshop!