Happy New Year!
Now that 2021 is well and truly in the can, and I’ve started reading books due to be published in 2022, I think it’s safe to present the list of books that stood out for me over the past twelve months. I read 102 books in 2021 and, after much agonising and to-ing and fro-ing, I got the list of my favourites down to 14 or 15. But it didn’t feel like a good representation of what I read. So, I’m trying something a little different this year: here are the 30 books that got a 5-star rating from me, and which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend should anyone ask. My 14 or 15 favourites are in here somewhere, but I’m not going to make the distinction.
As always, these are all books published in 2021, and are presented (for the most part) in the order that I read them. Enjoy, and be sure to keep an eye on Reader Dad throughout 2022, as I work my way through a brand new batch of escapist pleasures!
The year opened with the long-awaited first book in the Star Wars: The High Republic series. Set some 200 years before the Skywalker Saga, Charles Soule’s series opener, Light of the Jedi, introduced us to a previously-unvisited era in that galaxy far, far away where the Jedi Order was at the height of its powers and new technology – such as the ability to travel through hyperspace – allowed the Republic to expand from the Galactic Core to the Outer Rim, where many of the worlds that we know and love are located.
January also showed us a different side to Will Dean, who introduced us to deaf reporter Tuva Moodyson back in 2018. The Last Thing to Burn introduced us to Jane (“my name is not Jane”) and her life in captivity to a cruel farmer in the north of England. Thanh Dao had been transported illegally from Vietnam with the promise of a new life, only to find herself married to the cruel and possessive Lenn. When she discovers she is pregnant she finds new reason to go on living, and to gain her freedom, in a book that takes the best of Stephen King’s Misery and Emma Donoghue’s Room and produces something completely original.
Louise Carey had two novels under her belt, written with parents Mike and Linda, when she released her debut solo novel, Inscape. The start of a trilogy, Inscape shows us a future world run by giant corporations. Tanta, an orphan raised by the InTech corporation is tasked with retrieving stolen data from the wilds of the Unaffiliated Zone. Part post-apocalyptic dystopia, part hard-boiled thriller, Inscape is an excellent introduction to this completely original world, and the fascinating characters that populate it.
Derek B. Miller is best-known, perhaps, for his crime fiction. In 2021 he gave us a glimpse at a post-apocalyptic world in his excellent novel, Radio Life. The Commonwealth, a group of survivors, have established the Archive, a library of pre-destruction knowledge divided into six categories (a surprising decision that makes the utmost sense when you see why). Outside their walls, the Keepers are massing, believing that the Archive is the most dangerous thing in this new world: if this knowledge caused the original “fall”, maybe it’s best forgotten. The first book in a projected trilogy, Radio Life is that rare beast: the post-apocalyptic novel without a supernatural enemy.
After an 8-year break, James Smythe returned to his mysterious – and excellent – Anomaly Quartet with The Edge. Ali is part of a mission on an orbital research station observing the Anomaly, which is slowly but surely getting closer to Earth. Ali has lost faith in the mission and suspects that something is going on in the research station that she has been excluded from. As gripping as The Explorer and The Echo, The Edge sets up the Quartet’s final volume, The Ends, due later this year.
2021 saw two new novels from Stephen King: Later, the third of his novels published by Hard Case Crime, in March and Billy Summers in August. Later, a strange choice, for the Hard Case imprint, has a decidedly supernatural flavour, and a direct link to King’s classic, It.
Billy Summers introduces us to a hit man who only kills bad people. When Billy tries to get out of the business, he finds himself on the run with an unexpected partner, as King examines the post-truth, post-Trump world and the #MeToo movement. Throw in a reference to The Shining, and Constant Readers everywhere (yours truly included) are foaming at the mouth.
Perhaps my favourite book of 2021, and definitely the one that surprised me most, was Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street. Pitched as a horror/crime hybrid, the book introduces us to Ted Bannerman who lives in the eponymous house with his cat, Olivia, and who seems to have irregular visits from his daughter. Delilah Walters is determined to find the man who abducted her little sister over a decade ago. Ted Bannerman seems to fit the bill, but both Delilah and the reader will soon discover that not everything is as it seems. The Last House on Needless Street is nothing less than a masterpiece.
M.R. Carey gave us the final volume of his far-future epic, The Rampart Trilogy. The Fall of Koli follows Koli’s return to the little village of Mythen Rood where his journey started. Along the way, he learns something of the history of the world, and how it got into its current state, and that the high-tech gadgets so revered by his village’s Ramparts, were once the domain of everyone. The stage is set for Koli to change the world, but will he be accepted as a hero back home?
The latest entry in Cara Hunter’s DI Adam Fawley series, The Whole Truth, is, perhaps, the best yet. A gender-bent spin on the classic teacher-student scandal provides the central plot while Hunter uses the historic Roadside Rapist case to dig into Fawley’s background, examining how he got to his current position, while also forcing the reader to ask themselves if they can really trust him. The Fawley books continue to go from strength to strength, and this is one of the few series that I manage to keep abreast of, purely because of the central characters.
Watch this space for Parts 2 and 3 in this series for more excellent 2021 recommendations.