Books of the Year 2021: Part One  

Cover image for Memorial by Bryan Washington Not such a strange year as 2020 but far from back to normal either. There’ve been many more outings and much more socialising but reading and blogging continued to keep me going through the more difficult parts of 2021. Perhaps partly as a result of that, I’ve failed to get my books of the year list down to 20, let alone ten, so there’ll be four posts, roughly one for each quarter.

My reading year got off to a brilliant start with Bryan Washington’s Memorial to which I’d been looking forward very much having loved Lot, his short story collection. Mike and Benson’s relationship is already a little rocky when Mike announces his mother is due to arrive in Houston from Japan the very day he will be flying in the opposite direction. What ensues is a surprising companionship between Benson and Mitsuko who decides to teach him how to cook while her own son doggedly tracks down his father in Osaka. By the end of this empathetic novel all the messiness of relationships and family has been explored. Cover image for Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

Messy families with knobs on feature in Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth which tells the stories of the inhabitants of an Edinburgh tenement over nine decades, beginning with the arrival of the devil’s daughter in 1910, fresh from murdering her father. No brief synopsis will do justice to this richly imagined novel which spins stories within stories, many laced with a dark dry humour. Fagan divides her novel into three parts, each telling the tale of three tenants over three decades, ranging from the flamboyantly gothic to gangland crime to William Burroughs’ visit to his lover in Luckenbooth Close. All this is played out against the backdrop of an Edinburgh so vividly evoked it’s almost a character in itself.

Cover image for Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden There’s more than a touch of the gothic about Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death. It was the clever wordplay of that title that made me want to read this sharp funny novel all about the subject we try our best to avoid but can’t. Mrs Death is a tired black cleaner, eager to unburden herself, who follows a young, blocked writer home and finds him only too ready to listen. As he records her many stories, Wolf recalls the loss of his mother in horrific circumstances and his own miraculous escape. Then Mrs Death disappears leaving him with his loneliness. Godden’s playful yet sobering novel both made me laugh out loud and brought me up short. It went straight on my Women’s Prize for Fiction wishlist alongside Luckenbooth. Cover image for Nightshift by Kiare Ladner

As did my first February favourite, Kiare Ladner’s Nightshift which seemed to get very little coverage, at least in the blogging world. Meggie becomes so obsessed with her new colleague Sabine that she transfers to the nightshift in order to continue working with her. As Meggie becomes increasingly nocturnal her behaviour becomes wilder until one night things take a dangerous turn and Sabine slips away. The madness of Meggie’s extreme obsession is uncomfortably well done as is Sabine’s shapeshifting personality, and the disorienting effects and camaraderie of the nightshift’s eccentric staff vividly conveyed. A riveting novel, neatly executed with a smartly fitting ending.

Cover image for Consent by Annabel Lyon Another Women’s Prize wish, Annabel Lyon’s Consent, did make it onto the longlist, I’m pleased to say. It brings together two very different women: Sara watched her mother coping with the special needs of her sister, struggling after their father died suddenly, while Saskia grew up in the shadow of her beautiful, bipolar twin. When, Saskia discovers the provocative text which precipitated her twin’s accident, she begins to investigate who sent it leading her to Sara, both of them struggling with loss, grief and self-blame. Lyon’s novel is a sophisticated, thought provoking exploration of the meaning of consent wrapped up in a smart piece of suspenseful storytelling.

My next books of the year post begins with a novel I was delighted to see on the Women’s Prize judges’ shortlist but which – and I really can’t imagine why – I managed to leave off my own despite it being by one of my favourite writers.

30 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2021: Part One  ”

  1. Oh we are already at that time of the year, I do love these posts. I haven’t read any of these but hood to see they’re msking your end of year favourites having been on your women’s prize wish list. Looking forward to going over the years teading and seeing what stands out for me too.

  2. As I said on Twitter, I get most of my book recommendations from your blog Susan. I really enjoy top books of the year posts in case I’ve missed any. This time, it’s Nightshift and Consent you’ve alerted me to – thanks for all the work you put into making the blog such an interesting read.

  3. I love reading lists like these at this time of year. It such a joyful thing to see so much book love, even if it does tend to result in many additions to my wishlist. It also serves as a reminder that at some point I must apply myself to the challenge of coming up with my own list.

  4. Nightshift is still on my TBR, purchased after I read your review! I started Luckenbooth and was really enjoying it but it got put aside and forgotten. I think I’ll have to rectify that!

  5. Can it really be that time of year already?! You’re very organized to start a few weeks ahead; my best-of posts are likely to bunch up in the week after Christmas. I think Mrs Death Misses Death will make my list, too. I also loved Memorial, but because I read it last year for a U.S. review I tend to think of it as a 2020 book.

      1. I always love your end-of-year posts… A nice reminder of all the great reading you’ve done. I’m happy to see Consent on your list! And, if I were to choose just one from these to read, I think I’d go with Nightshift.

        1. Thank you, and for alerting me to Consent, too. So pleased to hear you like the sound of Nightshift. I’m not sure it made much of an impression when it was published, sadly, but I thought it was excellent.

  6. Gosh you are organised, I understand you picking 20 books, you seem to read sooooo much. I haven’t read any of those but I remember liking the sound of Luckenbooth and Nightshift when you reviewed them before. Looking forward to seeing what else makes your list.

  7. What a clever way of doing it. I haven’t even started to think about my best-of yet, though I have a habit of reading one of them during the bit between Christmas and New Year! Memorial is the one here that appeals most; I’ve seen mention of it a lot.

    1. Thanks, Liz. The old bookseller in me always hopes these posts might be useful for people looking for present ideas. Memorial is a great book. Already looking foward to his next and hoping it will appear in 2022.

  8. It is a shame Nightshift hasn’t broken through as much as it deserves to. It’ll be appearing on my Best Of too. I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops too – so much potential.

  9. Gosh, I guess it’s that time already. Christmas has really snuck up on me this year, partly because I’m not in the bookshop on a regular basis as I can manage the book subscriptions and my other activities from home (hooray!). As for the books on your list Mrs Death is the one that appeals the most, partly because the title is so clever!

    1. That’s a lovely part of the job, Jacqui! It’s an eyecatching title and the books lives up to it. Godden’s night job as a performance poet shows in the ryhthm and cadence of her writing

  10. Thanks for sharing. I hadn’t heard much about these. I’ll share min early January. I should be able to read at least 10 more before the end of the year, so too early to pick my favorites. I usually pick about 14, by genre and format. For instance mystery in print, in ebook, in audio, etc

  11. Lots of fun as always, going through your “best of” lists. I’ve read some of Bryan Washington’s pieces in The New Yorker and very much look forward to reading Memorial. As for Luckenbooth (which I did read, last October) I totally agree that it’s a wonderful piece of feminist gothic. I considered but rejected Mrs Death, based largely I think on some luckwarm review somewhere; I may give it a second look. Nightshift definitely goes on the (overflowing) TBR!

    1. Glad you’re enjoying them! And delighted that you’re adding Nightshift to your list. It seems to have been overlooked. After reading Luckenbooth and Mrs Death in quick succession they were bracketed together in my mind. Funnily enough, Godden and Fagan have been appearing at events together.

  12. You’re so well organised, I haven’t even thought about my favourites yet. Of this batch, Nightfall is the one that appeals most. I hadn’t heard of it though, wonder why it caused barely a ripple when it sounds so good.

    1. Ah, it’s the old bookseller in me, Karen! Someone might spot something that would come in handy as a present. You’re right, the Ladner seems to have sunk leaving little trace which is a shame.

  13. You enjoyed Consent more than I did, but that makes me happy…those characters could all use a little more love. 🙂

    Nightshift is one I really want to read. It reminds me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (for the newspaper clipping work) and The Other Black Girl (for its workplace contemporary friendship)…two books I’m sure have never been compared before. LOL

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