Robyn’s Reads of 2021

As you all might have noticed, I’ve taken a bit of a step back from the blog in the past couple of months. Now that I’m working full time, I barely have enough time to read – let alone to write about what I’m reading in any coherent way. Moving into 2022, I’m hoping to continue to contribute occasional reviews and perhaps other posts such as book recommendations, but I won’t take any regular review slots. Despite the chaos, I’ve read some truly brilliant books in 2021, so here are some of the best ones. In no particular order, the books I’d recommend are:

Fantasy:

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

If you’re looking for a well-developed epic fantasy with intricate worldbuilding, complex characters, and lingering tension, this is the book for you. The start of a new series inspired by Indian history, it’s everything I love about the fantasy genre. The sequel, The Oleander Sword, is due for publication next August so there’s plenty of time to get stuck in!

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

The sequel to A Deadly Education, Novik’s foray into the ‘magic school’ subgenre, this is a funny, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful novel perfect for fans of excessive sarcasm, antiheroes, and anthropomorphic settings. This is miles better than the already enjoyable first book and the ending sets up a tantalising finale in The Golden Enclaves, slated for a September release.

The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin

This quiet, atmospheric fantasy novel has crossover appeal to fans of both YA and adult fantasy, and is at its heart a character study about what its actually like being the sort of all-powerful hero foretold in prophecies. Its a beautiful read that packs an emotional punch, and as a standalone there’s no waiting around for any loose ends.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

The only criticism I have about this book is that it’s too short. The start of a new epic fantasy series inspired by the pre-Colombian Americas, its packed with fascinating characters, intriguing worldbuilding, and knife-edge tension. The sequel, Fevered Star, is due for publication in April, and with such a good platform to stand on should take the series to new heights.

Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favourite authors, and The Stormlight Archive is his magnum opus – an immense epic fantasy series with unparalleled worldbuilding and characters who couldn’t feel more real. Rhythm of War, the fourth book, takes the series in intriguing new directions, and the ending is so gut wrenching I can’t believe it’ll be a several year wait to find out what happens next. If you haven’t discovered Sanderson yet, now is the perfect time to start.

For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

This dark fairytale is perfect for fans of Uprooted, enchanted forests, and lingering atmosphere. The first in a planned duology, the tale will conclude in For the Throne in June.

Science Fiction:

The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

The Wayfarers series is like a comforting hug – beautiful, character-driven science fiction that gives you hope for humanity and beyond. Unlike most series, the books are only loosely interconnected and can be read out of order. Chambers has confirmed that this will be the last book, and whilst its sad to come to the end of a tale that cemented my love for the sci-fi genre, this book is a lovely note to end on.

The Second Rebel by Linden A Lewis

The first book in this series, The First Sister, was a solid space opera in the vein of Star Wars – The Second Rebel elevates the potential to new heights, with an intriguing world, complex political dynamics, and fascinating characters. If you’re looking for an intergalactic sci-fi with all the technology, family drama, and witty one-liners of the original Star Wars trilogy, this is the series for you.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

The man who wrote the best-selling The Martian is back with another humorous, science-packed, and clever novel. If you’re looking for a novel that details what it might really be like living in space, with plenty of funny moments thrown in, this could be the book for you.

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

Dystopia has gone a little out of fashion since the days of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner, but if you’re looking for a quieter dystopia and don’t mind a book that makes your head hurt with its complexity, this is a vastly rewarding read.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

A quiet, atmospheric dystopia highly reminiscent of poetry in its writing style, this is a crossover between science fiction and literary fiction with all the best of both worlds. A surprise discovery that’s been on my to-read list for years, this is a gorgeous feat of wordcraft.

Contemporary:

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

A challenging novel about childhood sexual assault, this is a powerful and gripping read about an immensely important and timely issue.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

A light, fun piece of escapism, this contemporary sapphic romance is the perfect read when you’re having a bad day.

Young Adult:

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

A powerful coming-of-age novel about a teenager with HIV, this is both a highly enjoyable read and an important, educational one. With HIV still so highly stigmatised, this digs deep into the real-life impact without ever losing its accessibility or appeal to a teenage audience.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

An engaging contemporary fantasy about a transgender teen in a conservative Latinx community, this combines fun paranormal elements with serious interrogations of issues including gender, immigration, and class.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callendar

A coming of age story about identity, art, and purpose, this has some of the most realistic depictions of teenagers I’ve ever seen in fiction. The characters aren’t necessarily likeable, but they’re delightfully real, and highly relatable for any teenager just figuring out growing up.

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

A young adult fantasy set on a series of islands, this is a brilliantly entertaining and exceptionally crafted novel about the power of stories, surviving toxic friendships, and the mysteries of the sea.

Children’s:

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

Last but certainly not least, this delightful story about the friendship between a girl and a polar bear is both a rallying call against climate change and a heartwarming tale for both children and adults alike.

I hope you can find something here that intrigues you! Wishing you all a wonderful 2022 filled with great reads.

Annual Roundup: My Books of 2021

new-years-books

Christmas once again approaches and with it the excuse, should one be needed, to buy books for family and others we care for, including ourselves. The titles selected here represent just some of my personal recommendations from my reading over the past year. I posted reviews for well over one hundred books in 2021 so choosing just a few from the many enjoyed wasn’t easy. I hope those who share my literary tastes will find this post useful, or at least of some interest.

As with my monthly roundups, click on the title below to read my review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

We start with fiction likely to appeal to a wide variety of readers.

stone diaries case study
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, published by World Editions
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet, published by Saraband

Beautifully told stories dealing with just one of the shameful periods in Irish history.

emmet-and-me  small things
Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin, published by Honno
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published by Faber & Faber

Short stories that capture the Irish mindset with aplomb.

the last resort   intimacies
The Last Resort by Jan Carson, published by Doubleday
Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell, published by Faber & Faber

An academic study of contemporary Northern Irish writing that is fascinating and written to be accessible to all.

northern irish writingNorthern Irish Writing After The Troubles by Caroline Magennis, published by Bloomsbury

Exploring areas of Great Britain – fine non fiction.

coasting  where
Coasting by Jonathan Raban, published by Eland
Where? by Simon Moreton, published by Little Toller

Non fiction with bite.

chauvo feminismChauvo Feminism by Sam Mills, published by The Indigo Press

Fiction with a darker edge.

beasts turned away  fox fires
The Beasts They Turned Away by Ryan Dennis, published by époque press
Fox Fires
by Wyl Menmuir, published by Salt

Fiction that shines a light on our less than admirable behaviours, beautifully told in imaginative ways.

the high house  Pupa
The High House by Jessie Greengrass, published by Swift Press
Pupa by J.O. Morgan, published by Henningham Family Press

Poetry that powerfully explores our present situation, living through a time of plague.

SpringJournal  the heeding
Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, published by CB editions
The Heeding by Rob Cowen, published by Elliott & Thompson

Should have, at least, made the Booker shortlist if not gone all the way.

an islandAn Island by Karen Jennings, published by Holland House Books

Deliciously dark short stories.

dead relativesDead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy, published by Dead Ink

Reminders that I should read more translated fiction.

ramifications  winter flowers
Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney), published by Charco Press
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter), published by Peirene Press

For when we need a laugh, within damn fine storytelling.

domestic bliss
Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions, published by Bluemoose

Encourage children to pick up books by giving them compelling reads.

sunny wicked lady  last bear
Sunny and the Wicked Lady by Alison Moore, published by Salt
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, published by Harper Collins

So there we have it, 23 books that particularly impressed me, many published by our wonderful small, independent presses – do please support them when you can. Whatever your choice of literature over the festive season and coming year, I wish you many hours of satisfying reading.

Robyn’s Roundup: 20 Highlights of 2020

2020 is almost over! It’s been a strange year in many ways, but perhaps as a form of escapism I’ve read more books this year than I have in the past two years combined. I’m grateful to all of the fantastic authors, editors, publicists, translators, illustrators, and others responsible for creating so many brilliant portals into other worlds for me to escape into – I don’t know what I’d do without them.

As Jackie said in her round-up post last weekend, curating an end-of-year recommendations list is a tough job – every book is special in its own way. This ‘highlights’ list contains books that especially resonated with me and that I’ve found myself thinking about long after I’ve finished reading them. Click on the book title to go to my review or the author’s name to go to the publisher’s website.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION

Challenger DeepNeal Shusterman – a contemporary with excellent mental health representation

Sorcery of ThornsMargaret Rogerson – fantasy with a strong female protagonist, bisexual representation, and a very interesting cat

Queen of VoltsAmanda Foody – the final book in the ‘Shadow Game’ trilogy packed with LGBT representation and a fascinating magic system

SCIENCE FICTION

Harrow the NinthTamsyn Muir – the second book in the ‘Locked Tomb’ trilogy, filled with more lesbian necromancers in space, utter chaos, and complete hilarity. No sense to be found here

The First SisterLinden A Lewis – Linden’s debut novel, a space opera with own-voices non-binary representation and a central sapphic relationship

FANTASY

The Empire of GoldSA Chakraborty – the final book in the Daevabad trilogy, a fascinating Islamic/Middle Eastern inspired epic fantasy

The Midnight LibraryMatt Haig – contemporary fantasy by the well known self help book author

The Ten Thousand Doors of JanuaryAlix E Harrow – Alix’s debut novel, a historical portal fantasy with gorgeous prose and a mixed-race protagonist

There Will Come A DarknessKaty Rose Pool – Katy’s debut novel, traditional epic fantasy with LGBT representation and fascinating Roman empire inspired worldbuilding

The Bone Shard DaughterAndrea Stewart – Andrea’s debut novel, East Asian-inspired epic fantasy with a central sapphic relationship and one of the best animal companions of all time

Ninth HouseLeigh Bardugo – dark fantasy, ghosts and secret societies in the heart of Yale

CirceMadeline Miller – a retelling of the Greek myths surrounding the goddess Circe, beautifully written and compelling

CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Anxious PeopleFredrik Backman – a closed-room mystery by the renowned Swedish contemporary author of Beartown and A Man Called Ove

A Girl Made of AirNydia Hetherington – Nydia’s debut novel, a spellbinding tale of a circus entwined with Manx legends

HISTORICAL FICTION

The Sin EaterMegan Campisi – sin eaters atone for the sins of others by taking them on themselves, and are thus shunned from society and banned from communicating – so what happens when a sin eater is the only witness to a crime?

The BetrayalsBridget Collins – blurring the border between historical fiction and fantasy, Collins’ sophomore novel is as gorgeously written as it is packaged

HORROR

Mexican GothicSilvia Moreno Garcia – a classic gothic mansion story set in rural 1950s Mexico

The Year of the WitchingAlexis Henderson – Alexis’s debut novel, the delightfully creepy tale of a Judeo-Christian cult

OVERALL FAVOURITES

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRueVE Schwab – the beautifully written story of a girl who makes a deal with the devil to live forever – but in turn is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets

The Once and Future WitchesAlix E Harrow – an alternate history in which the US suffragette movement turns to witchcraft, packed with gorgeous prose and evocative imagery

I hope you’ve discovered lots of brilliant books in 2020 and that there’s something here that interests you! Here’s to a great 2021.

Annual Roundup: My Books of 2020

2020 may not yet be over but, as in previous years, I’ve chosen to put out my annual roundup before Christmas. Books make the perfect gifts, especially as they are easy to wrap and mostly not too pricey. These are my personal recommendations from the titles I’ve reviewed over the past 12 months. It’s not a ‘best of’ list – who am I to judge what is best when so many titles exist and I have only managed to read a few? Rather, this selection highlights some of my favourites – books that I enjoyed reading and that continue to resonate. I hope those who share my literary tastes may find it useful, or at least of some interest.

I posted reviews for just over 100 books on my blog in 2020. Since Robyn took on the role of my intern in June, she has contributed many more. Robyn’s recommendations will be listed in a separate post to be published next weekend.

As with my monthly roundups, click on the title below to read my review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

 

Let’s start with fiction. These first two books tell compelling stories that bite.

 
The Mating Habits of Stags by Roy Robinson, published by Lightning Books
The Nacullians by Craig Jordan-Baker, published by époque press

 

The next two selected are, on the surface, more everyday tales but contain pleasing depth.

 
Cat Step by Alison Irvine, published by Dead Ink
The Blackbird by Claire Allen, published by Henningham Family Press

 

Two that hold a darkness within their pages but not one that overshadows the fine storytelling.

 
The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes, published by oneworld
How Pale the Winter Has Made Us by Adam Scovell, published by Influx

 

For those who want straightforward but still fully rounded stories that are both engaging and entertaining (also proof that I do not only read books from my beloved independent presses!)

 
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce, published by Doubleday
V for Victory by Lissa Evans, published by Doubleday

 

More challenging to read but well worth considering.

 
Lake of Urine by Guillermo Stitch, published by Sagging Meniscus
Beastings by Benjamin Myers, originally released by Bluemoose Books, now published by Bloomsbury

 

I also enjoy short stories and these two collections delivered plenty of food to satisfy a variety of literary appetites.

 
London Gothic by Nicholas Royle, published by Cōnfingō
She-Clown and Other Stories by Hannah Vincent, published by Myriad Editions

 

Micro story collections offering short tales that are cleverly complete – they also contain a generous dollop of humour.

 
Postcard Stories 2 by Jan Carson, published by The Emma Press
You Ruin It When You Talk by Sarah Manvel, published by Open Pen

 

Single story chapbooks that pack a punch – so much conveyed in just a few pages.

 
A Stone Statue in the Future by Benjamin Myers, jointly published by Bluemoose and Little Toller
Signal by Michael Walters, published by Nightjar

 

Poetry with the potential to appeal to all readers.

 
Vertigo to Go by Brendon Booth-Jones, published by The Hedgehog Press
London Undercurrents by Joolz Sparks and Hilaire, published by Holland Park Press

 

On then to non fiction. Two books that encourage the reader to look at our world anew.

 
The Secret Life of Fungi by Aliya Whiteley, published by Elliott & Thompson
Unofficial Britain by Gareth E. Rees, published by Elliott & Thompson

 

Proving that non fiction prose can be piercing yet written with poetic beauty.

 
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, published by Tramp Press
My Second Home by Dave Haslam, published by Cōnfingō

 

This illustrated book has been widely publicised with captions quoted as offering help in adversity – something that can put me off a title – but was exactly what I needed in this difficult year.


The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy, published by Ebury Press

 

23 books that particularly impressed me – all but 3 published by small, independent presses. Whatever your choice of literature over the festive season and coming year, I wish you many hours of satisfying reading.

I’m a Versatile Blogger!

Well now. I woke up this morning to discover that I have been nominated for a bloggy award.

versatile-blogger-award-trophy

Thank you so much to Swivel Freely for bestowing this honour on me. It is always lovely when people read my posts and totally delightful when they feed back to say that they have enjoyed what I write. I am feeling quite chuffed about this. I also get to display a little award button on my sidebar, can you see that? Click on the image to find out what this is all about.

Now I get to nominate fifteen blogs or bloggers that I think are excellent. Hold on tight and check these out:

1. Black. Bunched. Mass. Mom.

2. Homesick and Heatstruck.

3. The Waiting.

4. Are You Finished Yet?.

5. Not Taken, Not Available 

6. I Am Begging My Mother Not To Read This Blog 

7. Taking Words for a Stroll.

8. Momma Roars 

9. Janet’s Notebook

10. Perfection Pending 

11. The Green Study.

12. Gillybirds

13. Suzanne Askham’s Blog.

14. E.J.Kay’s blog 

15. Vernacularisms

Phew. If I haven’t linked you in up there, please don’t feel sad. There are just so many awesome bloggers to follow that I found it hard to narrow it down to fifteen.

And finally, I get to do my acceptance speech. Actually, I get to tell you seven things about me.

1. I collect teddy bears and always travel with a small bear my husband bought me early in our marriage. You can check out his Facebook page at Edward Gainsborough – Teddy Bear.

2. I have worked: on a checkout at a petrol station; as a waitress in a posh restaurant; as a cleaner at an art gallery; as a computer programmer, designer and tester.

3. I passed my driving test on my first attempt.

4. I suffer from vertigo.

5. My husband and I still live in the same house we moved into when we got married twenty-one years ago.

6. I am a practising Christian but no longer go to church.

7. I have travelled around Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Australia but have yet to visit America.

So now you know. Have an awesome day 🙂

Influences

Yesterday I started to read a new book. I put this book on my Amazon wishlist after I came across a glowing review of it on a Facebook friend’s ‘Books I’ve enjoyed’ Pinterest board. There it sat for more that half a year. The synopsis and general reviews were encouraging, the price was not off putting, yet I never seemed to move it across to my basket when other books or DVDs were being purchased. It was the cover that put me off.

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I like my books to be challenging or, at the very least, thought provoking. This cover made me think it was a romance. Not just that, but a televised romance; appealing to a mass audience. How snobbish does that make me sound? I hate myself for that thought.

And then I spent a highly entertaining evening following a Twitter question and answer session between Tom Hiddleston and his fans. He was asked to name his favourite book of all time and came back with two:

.@inceptioning Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”. And “Any Human Heart”, by William Boyd. #TomQandA

— Tom Hiddleston (@twhiddleston) September 12, 2013

That weekend I ordered the book.

I am not a Hiddlestoner, but my daughter is. Through her I have started to take notice of the various television dramas and films that this actor has been in, and I have enjoyed what I have seen. To my untrained eye he appears to be a talented thespian, classically trained, intelligent and fun loving, who does not take himself too seriously. Who knows what he is like in private, but his public persona is eminently appealing. His answers to interview questions are riddled with quotes from Shakespeare, well known and lesser known poets, and his own mantras, which are full of self deprecation and encouragement. From what I have seen, I like the guy.

When such a well educated, seemingly smart person names a book, alongside another that I have read and been challenged by, as an all time favourite, I take note. It was on my wish list anyway, but am I making excuses for being influenced by a celebrity?

This got me thinking about who and what influences me. I already know that I admire academic achievement. I have a number of Facebook friends who I have known for many years and who have opinions that are at variance to my own. I am forever trying to work out why they think as they do. They could not have obtained the qualifications that they possess without having the ability to question and reason, so I am perplexed as to why they are so vocal in their support of certain points of view. However much I may disagree, I will always listen to what they have to say because I admire their intellect and wish to understand where their arguments are coming from.

Book recommendations are, of course, harder to value. People look for different things in the books that they read. If a working day is spent being challenged in a demanding environment then it may be that a light hearted, easy read is desired. Books are an adventure and an escape; some people wish to indulge in romance, or to engage in trying to solve a murder/mystery. There are those who enjoy travelling to an imagined other world, and those who prefer something closer to realism, even if extreme or sugar coated. Of those who choose to read fiction, a variety of genres are often chosen with a few, oft returned to favourites. Some people prefer non fiction or historical fiction based on real events. Knowing a person’s preferences helps when deciding whether their views are likely to correlate with my own.

I wish to read a variety of books and genres. By limiting the recommendations that I will take notice of I risk allowing my reading list to lack breadth; I risk missing out on new authors whose work I may love. I do not enjoy fluffy, shallow books, but can see from the best seller lists that these sort of books appeal to many others. There are so many books out there. I will never be able to read them all so must action some sort of selection process. My imperfect and unattractive literary snobbishness is the best I have come up with so far.

Based on my reaction to my latest tome, I will judge a book by it’s cover. The original recommendation came from someone whose opinions interest me, but whose reading history was largely unknown. I am perturbed that I should be swayed by a celebrity when I abhor the cult of celebrity, but the book is turning out to be highly enjoyable. Perhaps the lesson I should take from this is that I need to be more open and less judgemental of all.

Over the weekend my elder son accused me of coming out with the sort of sweeping generalisation of a group that I berate others for voicing (I made a derogatory comment about Daily Mail newspaper readers and those who commented on newspaper articles). We discussed this and I was saddened to come away with the knowledge that I am still far too judgemental.

Being aware of my shortcomings and influences can help me to improve, as can reading a greater variety of books. Let me know of any work of fiction that has challenged your thinking in the comments below. I have been blown away by Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and Edmund de Waal’s ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ this year. I would love to be pointed towards my next great read.