Reads of 2021

Taking a look back at my favourite reads of 2021. I’ve tried to choose one a month, but for some there really wasn’t an choice, and towards the end of the year, I had more than one impossible option to choose between.

In January, I read Incubus, the first book I’ve read by Joe Donnelly. Though distasteful things happen to women in this book, without them the story wouldn’t work. One might call this the ultimate in evil child tales, but it passes beyond into true monster territory. For some, the book may feel too long, but the strength comes from the inexorable build. The power comes from the writing, the sustained sense of menace, which creeps under the skin and into the mind. A brilliant idea for the horror genre, expertly executed.

Next, I have to jump to April with my first book by Ania Ahlborn. Although lower down on my lists of favourites, I felt I had to list The Bird Eater by a woman of horror. The book truly takes off from Chapter Two because in Chapter One I felt the opening pages threw too many names and too much background at the reader, but once I got close to the end of what read like a prologue, I fell into the story. Once I got to the end, I realised how well plotted the overall story was, all the threads interwoven. The odd grammatical redundancy jarred me out of the story but it’s otherwise superbly written with a proper sense of a descent into madness as someone’s psyche unravels, tormented by evil spirits perhaps of the supernatural world and of one’s own making. My first book by this author, but it won’t be my last.

In June I enjoyed another Firefly novels, The Magnificent Nine, by James Lovegrove. Book two of the Firefly novels. Not as enjoyable as the first, but primarily featuring Jayne Cobb it’s still fitting, like watching an episode. Not as rewarding, but the next best thing and the closest fans are likely to get to their beloved Serenity and its crew these days. I wasn’t sure I believed one of the plot points, but am inclined to be forgiving to the books of my favourite series. I also love how they present these paperbacks and hope the quality in both writing and presentation continues.

Also in June, The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell surprised me. This gothic chiller takes off slowly but picks up once the ‘companions’ make an appearance. I love the idea of them in this well-plotted gothic mystery. Alas, it’s impossible to tell why without giving away the creepiest part of the book. I’m pleased to have stumbled across this book. The only (small) negative is the sound the author describes as a ‘hiss’ does not appear to relate to the cause of the noise. I would liken it more to a rasp, and the narrative does indeed call it a rasping hiss at one point, which made no sense to me, and didn’t seem to relate to what the protagonist experiences. That slight discrepancy aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the story.

I enjoyed the above book so much in July, I picked up The Corset, also by Laura Purcell. Written differently to Purcell’s first book (The Silent Companions) in first person so with a different ‘voice’, still, this drew me in immediately. How best to describe Purcell’s work? Victorian gothic thrillers with supernatural slants, perhaps. Some books only reveal how well the plot works at the conclusion, and this murder mystery connecting two women from opposite sides of society is one such novel. This tale didn’t disappoint and pulls at the heartstrings. Despite not wishing to take on new authors adding to my To Be Read Mountain, I’m sorely tempted to continue reading more work by this author.

Another book picked up in July was Survivor Song, by Paul Tremblay. If looking for your average apocalyptic disaster infection outbreak story, this isn’t it. Instead, I stumbled into what the first-rate stories of this genre do best — focus on the survivors, this being the tale of two women connected by the shakable bonds of genuine friendship. While I wouldn’t call this book scary, it’s more effecting than that, containing true horror of a possible reality, not your average fairy-tale monster, reflecting light on the madness of humanity and the horror we watch and read in the safety of our darkened living rooms versus true adversity. Well-paced with ingenious ‘breaks’ in the narrative (gaps on the pages) that work on the emotions. The story of ’Nats and Rams’ is unforgettable. Painfully, tearfully, sorrowful.

The best book I read in August has to be The Elementals, by Michael McDowell. I’m so pleased to have read this. I loved the setting and the characters, which create a unique atmosphere for this haunted house story. The heat portrayed makes you want to lie around doing nothing but melting and reading this book. There are some truly spooky scenes, though I found the buildup more sinister than the ending. Towards the end, the book feels a little rushed because of the languid though absorbing journey to get there. Indeed, I found the slower parts of the book carry the more eerie aspects, so that when the story speeds up, as a climax should, it almost diminishes the scare, leaving me feeling the novel was over too fast. Still, the curious happenings and daunting disturbances are worth spending time with.

September gave me my favourite read of the year, but before we get to that, Quite Ugly One Morning, by Christopher Brookmyre deserves a mention. I have to admit some of the Scottish colloquiums escaped me, though I got the gist. This humorous thriller set in the shady world of the NHS is so perfectly plausible and entertaining, it’s almost a must-read. I loved the character of Parablaine and would definitely read more work by Brookmyre if not for my to-be-read mountain. Highly recommend.

No One Gets Out Alive, by Adam Nevill immediately presented itself as my read of the year. I would plough through Adam Nevill’s work if not for my to-be-read mountain and the fact that would leave me waiting for him to write more books to devour. In anticipation of the upcoming Netflix adaptation, I wanted to read the novel first. This is a horror story of two worlds, urban despair and cruelty wrapped up with supernatural dread and distress, and it’s difficult to know which contains the most terror. The story also takes a necessary tangent towards the end that piles on more anxiety, questioning the main character’s sanity. Much of the story is relentless, and we waited to read the book before we watched the film…which was good in a different way, but nowhere near as enjoyable as the reading experience.

October gave No One Gets Out Alive, a contender for first place: The Ruins, by Scott Smith. A book with a slightly misleading title, in that it led me to expect adventurers finding something terrible buried beneath the earth or in some old tomb. If I say it’s about a strange vine, no doubt many will want to move on, but this book’s saving grace and what lifts it above B-Movie status is it’s so well written. There’s no letup, and no doubt left in the reader’s mind. The narrative draws you into the characters’ plight, makes you root for them regardless of their personalities. Makes the reader plead for a rescue. The narrative, sadness, predicament, and dread are simply relentless.

Another high contender came in November: Kill Creek, by Scott Thomas. Although the character of Sam McGarver is the protagonist of this novel, all four fictional authors (McGarver, Cole, Slaughter, and the unforgettable Moore), are in a sense all main characters of this trip into horror. And like the work they produce, they represent various facets of the genre, which makes this (in some small way) a book that questions the meaning of horror as much as it’s a part of the category itself. Undoubtedly a slow burn, this book will naturally invoke mixed reviews, but it instantly drew me in and I happily went along for the ride. The horror comes in snippets until it reaches an ultimate pay-off. I throughly enjoyed this, though it’s not for those who want an in your face terror fest, or those who don’t have longer than average attention spans. My only negative is I have to wonder if people could carry on moving while suffering such severe injuries even though they’d be running on adrenaline, but this is fiction, would make an excellent film, and we’ve seen people suffer through worse in the make-believe world of the cinema.

Another book which deserves a mention in November was Fevre Dream, by George R.R. Martin. Martin is a writer best known for the Song of Ice and Fire series (A Game of Thrones), but if readers were to overlook his other work, that would be a pity. Fevre Dream is an easy reminder of what sets this author apart. A richly drawn tapestry of life aboard steamships ferrying goods and passengers up and down the Mississippi, blended with a gothic helping of vampire mythology. Most striking of all is how the author brings the steamboat captain, Abner Marsh, alive in full coarse realism. Never has a protagonist so ugly been so wonderfully memorable. The story at once romanticises its setting and characters, simultaneously making them powerfully gritty. It’s possible to feel the heat and damp and oppression of the steamboat work, the river, the weather, and of society itself. There’s something classic about this book (references to Mark Twain abound entwined with Bram Stoker, and that’s a fair definition). This is no lightweight vampire tale or novel. Good for those who like a richly portrayed backdrop to the action. Atmospheric, and beautifully layered storytelling.

I thought no more truly excellent books were to come my way in the final month of year when I stumbled on in December, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V.E.Schwab. Lovely in hardback with a simple raised copper and blue design. Look under the dust jacket to see the attention put into every detail. The first quarter of this book felt a little overlong though I put that down to the tense not being one I favour, yet by the time I reached the end, the style seemed perfectly suited to tell this story. The more I read, the more I considered what life would be like without ties, without friends or family, and whether, at least sometimes, we truly need to be careful what we wish for. I believe I picked out at least one continuity error; however, despite any flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed this beautifully painful dark fantasy with a romantic subtext. A book which crosses genres. Someone destined to be forgotten makes for an unforgettable character. I loved her rebelliousness most of all. I even felt some affection for the terrible ‘darkness’ which transforms her life, and wondering who would truly win the final ‘battle’. Heart wrenchingly emotive with an ending which may require tissues.

With so many good books, I still feel No One Gets Out Alive is top of my list, with a few running an extremely close second.