2021 has been a year of reading for me. Starting the year in lockdown lasting into May with a summer of very little travelling and another three weeks of lockdown in December, a lot of books were read and my pile of ‘have to read’ became a little bit smaller.
The books of 2021 were especially amazing and some of them count among the most brilliant works I have ever read. I do think, especially regarding queer literature or the retellings of ancient myths have been enormously strong over the last years.
And while the queer books are definitely in the forefront this year, the list has also some outstanding works of feminism, ecocritical and black literature. Besides, there is of course a lot of fantasy and a classic. All those twenty books, the best of 2021 for me, show a variety of themes and I hope my list has something for everyone and something you might enjoy!
Number 20: The Penguin Book of Mermaids by Christina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani (2019)
If you enjoy mermaid stories and like history then this is a book for you. Bacchilega and Alohalani collected mermaid stories, legends, myths and fairy tales from all over the world and brought them together in this outstanding book. Some of these stories have not been translated into English very often before and therefore are not necessarily known in Western society. For me, a reader who loves everything about mermaids, it was the perfect collection to explore the multiverse of cultures and histories of unique mermaid stories from all around the world.
Number 19: This Lovely City by Louise Hare (2020)
This is one for every person who enjoys being taken back in time and explore a different historical period. This Lovely City tells the story of Lawrie Matthews, a jazz musician, who answered England’s call after WWII, to come help rebuild a Kingdom wounded by war. He and thousands of other Jamaican citizens and immigrants from other parts of the Caribbean come to England, hoping to find work, set up a new life for themselves and try to make a home of this strange country. But post WWII Britain is not as welcoming as Lawrie had hoped. When he falls in love with the girl next door and finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is mixed up in a horrific murder. And the London police single him out as the main suspect. The stakes are high.
Although the novel is set over seventy years in the past, many scenes remind the reader of the present, and especially when it comes to crime, the colour of one’s skin plays a big role. It makes the reader understand the beginnings of racial injustices, structural racism and immigration of the second half of the 20th century. Hare explores two cultures, two histories, one of post WWII Britain, one of Jazz and Jamaica in an exciting way, filled with love, family drama and a mysterious murder.
Number 18: Eye of the Shoal by Helen Scales (German Title: Im Auge des Schwarms) (2018)
Every fish has a space in the ocean and is vital to the ecosystem of the sea and thus the world. This is the main message I got from Helen Scales after reading Eye of the Shoal. It is a fascinating novel that takes you, similar like The Deep by Alex Rogers, which was on my book list from last year (Books I fell in love with in 2020 – Fabian’s Writing (fabianswriting.com) on a journey into the sea. It focuses on the most familiar aquatic animal, the fish. Since the beginning of time fish have played an important role in the lives of humans. Unlike the word ‘hunting’ which includes all sorts of animals that can be caught, ‘fishing’ is our very special word to catch fish from oceans, lakes and rivers.
This outstanding novel shows fish in a different light. Many of them are smart, care for their offspring, live in complex families, form social bonds and just like us, want to have a place in the world to live and thrive.
Scales’ book reads like a book of anecdotes where she brings the lives and wonders of fish closer to the human reader who has probably never seen a fish in their natural habitat. At the same time Scales uncovers all the problems of an industrialised fishing industry and how best to protect fish who stand as the most important link between all other marine life and humans themselves.
If fish die out, the oceans, as we know them would become unrecognisable, and humans would face greater problems than they could ever imagine. Fish have been around for hundreds of millions of years and Scales sums them up on a brilliant three hundred pages to show us their importance in the ecosystem of the blue planet we all share.
Number 17: A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough (2020)
From Helen Scales and the importance of fish to David and his witness statement and a vision for the future, as he himself describes this novel. The one and only David Attenborough tells the reader his story on two hundred pages.
It is about his rising career with the BBC and ultimately the story of him becoming the face of every nature and science documentary produced by the BBC. But it is also a story of the 20th century through which Attenborough lived the most part of his life. And how he witnessed the decline of the biodiversity of the planet because of an increasing industrialised world and its consequences: global warming.
It is a story that grounds the reader and sets a lot of problems humans face into a different light. The protection of biodiversity and working towards sustainable living are two of the main themes of his witness statement. It is the wisdom of an old man who has travelled the globe all his life and offers solutions in a world bursting with problems. So, sit down, have a read and listen.
Number 16: Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick (1987)
Gornick’s outstanding autobiographical novel tells the story about her life growing up in America and the relationship she had with her mother. Its prose is very precise, not decorative at all, and the reader understands with every sentence what is going on and what her life and her mother’s life was all about. It is fierce but minimalistic, it is honest and intimate, it is emotional but natural. A strong work and a must- read for every lover of autobiographical literature.
Number 15: Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth (2019)
Another autobiographical novel made it into my list of top twenty books and this one deals with many different issues. It is above all a book about mental health, about a woman going through severe depression after a very traumatic event. Ashworth combines her personal events with literature such as Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, drawing lines and parallels between history and the big issues of the world.
War, the end of civilisation, trauma, work, love and hope are tied together in knots and every chapter unveils very different aspects of life the reader did not imagine or was able to see before. I would consider it one of the most interesting novels I have ever read, creating a point of view you rarely see in literature.
Number 14: Beautiful World, Where are you by Sally Rooney (2021)
Probably the most anticipated novel of 2021, Sally Rooney returns once again with prose that moves within the realms of poetry, using the English language in a simplistic but enormously beautiful way. She is a brilliant writer and her third novel Beautiful World, Where are you tops her first two ones on the level of prose but unfortunately the plot does not give the reader anything new we have not seen before.
It is an interesting plot to follow with four very complex and once again in Rooney- style ‘difficult’ characters whose minds and mental states appear like hurricanes to the reader. However, the story is only slowly unfolding and, in the end, not really reaching a satisfying climax. It was not as good as Conversations with Friends and Normal People. Therefore, it did not make my top ten but a good 14th place.
However, as mentioned, her prose is unparalleled in beauty and therefore among my top twenty. It is a must read when you love character- driven novels, with a slow plot, but one that grabs you like all works of Rooney do.
Number 13: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (2015)
Six of Crows is plot- wise probably everything Beautiful World, Where are you is not. Of course, the latter is fiction and Six of Crows is fantasy but it is one of the most exciting, character- driven and fast paced novels I have ever read. It is the first of a duology, the second one is called Crooked Kingdom and if you love fantasy, this book is meant for you. It is set in the Grishaverse, the world built by Leigh Bardugo who also wrote the infamous trilogy of Shadow and Bone.
However, you don’t need to know the trilogy to read and understand Six of Crows. The world is brought to you in flashbacks, following the stories of the six characters, the crows, on their deadly mission that will change the world forever. It has everything a good young adult fantasy novel needs. It is exciting and enticing, it has queer and POC representation and you can’t put it down until you finish it!
Number 12: Rausch der Verwandlung by Stefan Zweig (English Title: The Post Office Girl) (1982)
The Post Office Girl was published posthumously and is a different Zweig novel. While it has all the elements of a Zweig story, brilliant prose, making mundane scenes appear extravagant, it is even more critical regarding history than some of his other novels are. It tackles the problems of the early interwar period. The characters are somewhat floating without purpose in an Austria without a future. In this melancholy, the protagonist, the post office girl, finds comfort and confirmation with an Austrian soldier who was a prisoner of war. Together they hope for a better future, one leading them towards crime and mischief.
Zweig manages to convince the reader to be on their side. His writing goes deep under one’s skin, so the reader understands the lives of the characters, their motivations and especially the time they live through. It might be considered one of the weaker novels of Zweig but I think it simply takes a different direction considering the plot and how a story can be delivered. It is an excellent depiction of the interwar period. It shows a depressed and hopeless Austrian generation which ultimately found their path to another world war.
Number 11: The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott (2020)
This ecocritical science fiction novel is one of the strangest but also best books I have read in 2021. Two very different narrative strands, focusing on two very different characters, make the first part of the novel, bringing them together in the third part, unfolding the story. Everything is connected through the mysterious rain heron that is of great importance to nature and the totalitarian government that is destroying the natural world of the country.
At no point does the novel explain its ecocritical point of view. It simply shows the reader how humans interfere and destroy the natural world by their actions and do not listen to the natives of an ecosystem they live with and try to preserve. The novel shows the reader in an almost fairy tale like way what living with nature means. How corrupt decisions of humans lead to an imbalance in nature and how it always backfires on humans themselves. It is a beautiful novel on every level, inside and out, from plot to cover.
Number 10: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (2019)
The first novel to be among my top 10 is the retelling of the entire Trojan war from the point of view of the women of Troy. It is a story we all know. We know the heroes, the battles, its tragedies, and the outcome but in this enticing retelling Haynes manages to show the reader a completely new story.
While it might be difficult to follow the first pages of the novel, the deeper in one goes, the more one admires her structure of telling a story. When the reader gets closer and closer to the end, one has reached an epic tale of female voices that have never been heard and never been listened to before.
If you love Greek Mythology and know its famous characters, especially the female ones, this feminist book is one for you. The heroes of the oldest and most epic myths we know become the villains. And the women, so far, moving in the shadows, do not necessarily become heroines, but they are portrayed as women of history. Women who were never given a choice, despise the gods and men they are meant to worship, they can finally voice their opinions, one that is filled with sadness but also great beauty.
Number 9: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2015, translated version)
Another great work of feminism is The Vegetarian by the Korean writer Han Kang. It is a story of how a woman is viewed in society and objectified. How she must suffer every form of criticism there is and try to build a life around it. But above all this novel is about mental health. It asks the question if a person is really mad, or only realising how mad and vile the world around us actually is.
Similar to The Rain Heron this novel is split in three parts, each exploring a different point of view of three characters in the story. Each perspective reveals a new aspect to the story that has not been seen before and draws the reader deeper into the minds of the characters.
Unsurprisingly it won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 and is a novel for everyone who simply loves literature and a story that is of a different kind. A story that takes you in completely, questions our societies, minds and sexualities.
Number 8: Trans, A Memoir by Juliet Jacques (2015)
This autobiographical novel is a story on three different levels. It is deeply personal, the story of a person born male transitioning into the person she really is: A woman. And on two other levels it is about society, in particular the queer society in Britain and the history of queer, in particular trans rights.
Jacques combines these three levels, personal, societal, and historical in a beautiful narrative that takes the reader on a journey of finding oneself, accepting oneself, leaving the past behind and looking forward into an uncertain future but one that is less dark.
It is also a queer book about not necessarily being proud or accepting of who you are but simply living with it, not demanding anyone’s acceptance but just choosing the life one wants to lead without needing anyone’s approval, whether the one of society or the government.
This autobiography really confronts a lot of issues of our straight society that is problematic and that exposes vulnerable people to dangerous people and situations. This story is a good introduction into the world of queerness and shows how marginalised groups need more voices like the one of Juliet Jacques.
Number 7: Feathertide by Beth Cartwright (2020)
I don’t know how to describe this novel other than precious and beautiful. It is a young adult novel with a clear fantasy narrative but that blends deep into fairy tale tropes. But above all it is one of those novels with enormously developed and complex characters you simply fall in love with.
It is, as many young adult novels are, a story about finding oneself and finding out how someone belongs in a world that is crazy, dangerous but also fantastical and beautiful. It is, so to say, a wholesome novel, filled with mermaids and bird- people, magical cities and floating islands.
Most refreshing was the love triangle that developed halfway through the novel which was not between the heroine and two men but a bisexual one, between the heroine, a man and a mermaid. This book takes the reader on a journey of delicious prose, enchanting places and explores and breaks the boundaries of sexuality.
Number 6: The Undying by Anne Boyer (2019)
This memoir by Anne Boyer is one of the strongest books with one of the most powerful voices I have ever read. On the one hand it is a feminist point of view on the health care systems of the West and how this system favours men. And consequently, exposes women, usually single, working class and women of colour to lesser or no proper health care at all. And on the other hand, she simply lays bare how our society and the health care system is aligned with capitalism and making profits. And she is not necessarily always criticising it but simply exposing it, pulling back the curtain with the help of clear data, scientific facts and powerful prose.
On a deeper level it is her own story about a woman who survives breast cancer and intensive chemotherapy. She finds words to describe what this means and what happens and how it changes her body and mind in the process. Boyer holds up a mirror that reveals the mistakes and problems of a health care system designed by men and capitalism that has to be changed. In 2020 she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Undying, a Meditation on Modern Illness.
Number 5: Circe by Madeleine Miller (2018)
Miller can be considered as Homer reborn. Circe is a feminist retelling of the infamous witch Circe who is best known for her encounter with Odysseus. But this story is entirely hers and portrays her as the immortal she is, but above all, as a woman with power, at the same time having no power at all. It is her journey of finding out of who she is, what potential she has and what she can do with it.
The novel clearly shows, similar like A Thousand Ships, how enormously dangerous the life of a woman is and can be in a world of men and male immortals who rule earth, heaven and the underworld. Combined with all these facets, the prose of Miller blends into poetry and is at some points so beautiful that it is more like the song of a muse rather than a narrative. It is a story we all believe to know, but while reading, we will be surprised that everything we thought to know about Circe and the Greek gods will be turned upside down.
Number 4: The Dangerous Kingdom of Love by Neil Blackmore (2021)
In Blackmore’s second novel the reader is taken to the court of King James I and tells the story of Francis Bacon. It holds nothing back and portrays England in the way it was: Filthy, corrupt, bloody and simply the real version of Game of Thrones. Bacon and his rivals try to be the favourite of their idiotic King and Bacon finds the key to the kingdom in the form of a young man who would later become the famous Villiers.
Thoroughly researched by Blackmore it is a novel for everyone who loves history and is not afraid to find out the beautiful and also ugly truths of famous English men. It is a very juicy novel, one that takes the reader in deeply. Where there is wisdom there is corruption, where there is wealth, there is decay and where there is love there is tragedy.
While it is an exciting historical thriller it is also the story of gay men and love. It portrays in a beautiful but also very sad way how men, and marginalised people in general, live in a world that is against them. It eats them inside out and gives them no chance of love, and therefore strive for power no matter the cost.
Number 3: The Betrayals by Bridget Collins (2020)
We have reached the Top 3 and last year Bridget Collins made it to first place with The Binding and so this year, The Betrayals, reaches a well-deserved third place, not because it is not as good but simply because two other books were just stronger this year.
The Betrayals has everything The Binding has as well. Set in an extraordinary world with not a lot of world building but a balanced one, creating a space that is familiar, relatable to our world, yet completely different. It is the magic work of Collins. And in the midst of all this there is a mystery, three characters bound together through love and a changing and dangerous world around them.
It is once again a masterpiece of storytelling with a plot twist that turns this fantastic world upside down. Immerse yourself in beautiful prose, a dangerous love triangle and a secret that changes everything!
Number 2: The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore (2020)
On second place we are back with Blackmore’s great novel of 2020. Within one year he published two amazing historical novels. While this one is pure fiction it is a story unlike any other.
Two brothers of a rising family in high society London set out on their Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th century. On their journey one of the brothers, Benjamin, encounters the strange but incredibly handsome Mr Lavelle. He shows him a different world, a different side of Europe and its society. Passionate and forbidden love erupts and the reputation of Benjamin’s family is at stake. Similar like in The Dangerous Kingdom of Love Blackmore portrays the perilous and tragic lives of gay men, back then known as sodomites, in a world that is not theirs and never will be.
But on a more detailed level it holds up a mirror to European society that has little changed within two hundred years. The reader is shown how vanity, greed and jealousy were at the forefront of 18th century London and the familiarity of many scenes and situations of the novel portray how little has changed over time.
Caught within all this danger and madness are two lovers who either find a path to love or lose it all. Blackmore’s direct and incredible prose takes the reader on a journey of history, art, society, deceit, lies, love and tragedy.
Number 1: The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller (2011)
In my Top 20 from this year and last year I have recuring writers on my lists. And so, over the last two years, I read more than one book my Miller, Bardugo, Blackmore and Collins. All of them are outstanding and their writing is incredibly beautiful in their own ways.
But there is rarely a book that has the standard and the level of beauty and sadness within prose and story like The Song of Achilles. In this year’s list there are some retellings of mythological stories we all believe to know. And so is this one. It is the story of the greatest epic tale to survive millennia. It is a story about humanity, war, peace, death, life and immortality. It is the greatest love story of all times. It is the story of Achilles and Patroclus.
Bound by fate and torn apart by the immortals the two young men always find their way back to each other. While it is a story about all the great things in life, as mentioned above, it is also about the fundamental questions of why we are here, what is worth living for and what is worth dying for.
One of the most wonderful things about Miller’s outstanding prose that, at times, blends into poetry, is the fact that she gives back Achilles and Patroclus the love story they deserve. For thousands of years this best-known story, the Iliad, has been told in many different ways. A story of men, a story of beauty, a story of vengeance, a story of immortality and a story of love, the love between Paris and Helena. But only rarely, within a society that grew more and more conservative over centuries, was the true love story of the Trojan war allowed to be told.
Miller returned the romantic love to Achilles and Patroclus that was taken from them. One that was altered into friendship by storytellers and academics over the centuries. But with a knowledge that is superior to any other classicist, Miller simply tells a truthful story, rooting in research both historical and literary. It is a novel that breaks one’s heart but elevates one’s heart and mind to immortal spheres. And that is the story of the Iliad, the immortal love of the mortals Achilles and Patroclus.
The only thing left to say is that I hope there are some books you find interesting and stimulating for heart and mind. All these novels are very different from one another yet speak of similar truths in a world that appears to become more and more chaotic and corrupt. They can give what stories and the written word was always about. They can give comfort, a way to escape but above all they speak of reason, clarity and light.