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.

Book Review: The Good Children

good children

The Good Children, by Roopa Farooki, is a tale of four Punjabi siblings and their attempts to carve out lives for themselves in the wake of an abusive childhood. Physically and mentally manipulated by their beautiful, wily mother throughout their formative years, they were required to follow the paths chosen for them: the boys to become doctors and the girls to become trophy wives. All were expected to live to bring honour to their parents, to be good.

The book is set in Pakistan, England and America; the different cultures and expectations of those around adding weight to the inner battles that each of the siblings must fight throughout their lives. All recognised the damage that their upbringing had inflicted, yet despite their best efforts none could entirely overcome what had gone before.

The author has done a fabulous job in drawing the reader into the world that she has created. The differences in expectation of a traditional family living in Lahore may seem shocking to a Western reader, but it is presented in an understated yet powerful way. It becomes real and believable, the reasons for the traditions understood if not agreed with. All can empathise with the guilt that a grown up child can feel when they have negative feelings of any kind towards a parent.

The time period covered, from 1938 to 2009, gives ample opportunity to explore each of the characters lives. Chapters are written in the voice of each sibling, allowing the reader to consider thoughts and perceptions from alternative perspectives. The book has depth and clarity, is challenging but never off putting despite the many difficult topics broached: rape and domestic violence; racism, sexism and homophobia; cultural clashes and the effects on children of parental choices.

I particularly liked the comparative scenes, such as when the daughter raised in Pakistan, who expected servants to see to her every whim, irritated her all American cousin when his parents pandered to her whims. I also enjoyed the way the author used clothes on many occasions to illustrate character development, such as when the sisters wore traditional costumes which spoke of wealth and privilege in Pakistan yet looked garish in the West, or when the children mixed and matched western and traditional garb to create their own styles.

The book is beautifully written, enabling the reader to enter a world that can so often be portrayed as primitive or barbaric, and gain an understanding as to why it may be perpetuated by some. It is not a difficult read, but should not be rushed. Each member of the cast is worth getting to know, each can tell the reader something of the impact of an individuals actions on others.

I value a book that teaches me empathy and understanding of different cultures and lifestyles, and The Good Children does so in spades. It is never moralistic or judgemental, but tells an intricate tale of love and loss across cultural, sexual and generational boundaries. It is so much more than just a family saga, it is a story of survival, of life, and the price that must be paid for living with ones self.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: Fan

fan

Fan, by Danny Rhodes, is a fascinating social commentary about changing times. Two stories about the same protagonist unfold side by side, one covering his teenage years in working class Nottingham, the other set fifteen years later when he travels from the new life he has carved out for himself down south to confront his demons in the home town he escaped from.

The writing style is raw and sparse but the tale is utterly compelling. There is a great deal of football in the story, but it is the football of the 1980’s when ticket prices were low, grounds were run down and the passion of the fans was pivotal to the lives they led. This was the era of hooliganism and disasters waiting to happen, culminating in the Hillsborough tragedy of April 1989, which the author of the book experienced first hand.

Despite the book pinning its events around a timeline of football matches, it is not a story that requires an interest in the beautiful game. This book is about characters and attitudes, about a bygone era and how the teenagers who lived their lives from Saturday to Saturday coped, or failed to cope, with the changes to the game and to their lives as they aged.

The author manages to give reasons for the violence, to gain sympathy for men who would appear from the outside to be emotionally weak, to have brought their misfortunes on themselves through foolish behaviour, apathy or shallowness of expectation. He harks back with regret to a time that most would be glad to have moved on from, but succeeds in explaining why it seemed good.

There is no redemption or closure, but real life is not a series of neatly parcelled, self-contained episodes. We are made what we are by our experiences and how we deal with them. This is a book that looks at events that affected a nation, and explores their impact on individuals. It is brutal in places, yet compelling and thought provoking. The author succeeds in drawing the reader into his imperfect world and making them care.

My copy of Fan was sent to me by Sophie of Reviewed The Book. I am grateful to her for providing me with a thoroughly good read that I would have no hesitation in recommending to others.

Book Review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus UK

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a glorious assault on the senses. Full of sumptuous, descriptive prose that reads like poetry in places, it takes the reader on a fabulous journey through time where nothing can be taken for granted. Just as visitors to the circus wind through seemingly never ending pathways and tents filled with wonder, sometimes exploring new vistas, sometimes criss crossing back along well trodden paths; so the plot twists and turns but never disappoints as it develops it’s characters and exposes just enough of it’s secrets to elicit a gasp of delight or fear as the reader guesses at where they could be going next. It is dream like yet deliciously believable in so many ways.

The book is at heart a love story with allegorical undertones. The writing is rich but never cloying, the author’s imagination both original and delightful. Nothing is easy for the protagonists as they slowly decipher the secrets behind the lives that have been chosen for them, yet this is not written as a tragedy but as a lesson in hope. The lessons that they learn about how an individual’s actions impact all around are universal.

I particularly liked the constant references to how most do not take notice of what is happening right in front of them, how most will not believe what they see if they have been conditioned to think in a certain way.

I read this book over two days, having to put it down from time to time to absorb the imagery and think through the latest nugget of understanding as another layer in the mystery was peeled off. It is not a difficult read but should not be skimmed. By allowing the story to permeate I became absorbed in the tale, feeling satisfied if somewhat bereft when the book was concluded.

I am told that it has received mixed reviews from readers; I do not understand why. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the fantasy world of the Night Circus, in the idea that magic could exist and be learned. Who can truly say what in life is illusion and what is real? Those who have not read this book have a treat in store should they choose to indulge.

Book Review – The Year of the Flood

Having enjoyed ‘Oryx and Crake’ many years ago, I was predisposed to be impressed by this, the second book in Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy. It did not disappoint.

Set in a dystopian future the book chronicles the lives of a wide cast of disparate characters, thus enabling the reader to better understand the new world order. It works as a standalone read, although the references to characters from the first book of the series add interest.

As with other futuristic books by this author, the world she creates is all too believable. From the brothels to the beauty parlours to the segregated housing and healthcare for rich and poor, the reader will recognise the direction in which the modern world could be heading. The book is both comic and frightening in it’s perceptiveness.

It is easy to read but has depth and action in abundance. Although it is tempting to despair of the foolish and selfish actions that have lead to this place in time, there remains humanity, friendship and compassion within individual relationships, alongside the power struggles inside the many groups. It feels real and therefore all too believable.

Leaps of faith are required, such as the creation of a new race by Crake (for which the first book offers background), but the studies of religion, power and humanity’s acceptance of what should be horrific, are spot on.

It is a story of love, friendship and survival that spans twenty years in the lives of the main protagonists.

Another recommended read from one of my favourite authors.

year of the flood