2021 was the year we all expected normality to come crashing back in, we hoped for a year better than 2020, and yet it stormed by with as much turbulence and as much confusion as the former. Reading is something I find incredibly therapeutic; it helps me to escape my own mind no matter what’s happening in the real world and immerse myself into the depths of someone else’s. Throughout the year, I have shared on Instagram my own personal reviews of the books I’ve read, from the ones I’ve loved and struggled to finish. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 books I read in 2021!
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SMALL PLEASURES – CLARE CHAMBERS
1957, the suburbs of South East London. Jean Swinney is a journalist on a local paper, trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape.
When a young woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.
As the investigation turns her quiet life inside out, Jean is suddenly given an unexpected chance at friendship, love and – possibly – happiness.
But there will, inevitably, be a price to pay.
In Clare Chambers’ novel ‘Small Pleasures’, I truly felt like I had been transported back to 1957 (as though I was ever there…). Often with books that are set in a different era, the dialogue reflects the language that would have been used rather than the entire novel itself, and yet throughout the whole of Small Pleasures, I felt as though I was listening to my Grandma tell a story. The book has a clear focus and Chambers has a real ability to vividly describe the most dull imagery, such as the ‘porridge-coloured doilies’, leading you to picture the brown and beige, tobacco stained home with such clarity. The book kept you guessing right until the end, with enough of a twist to keep the page turning, without the eyebrow raising ending it could have quite easily succumbed to.
Buy Small Pleasures HERE
NORMAL PEOPLE – SALLY ROONEY
Marianne is the young, affluent, intellectual wallflower; Connell is the boy everyone likes, shadowed by his family’s reputation and poverty. Unlikely friends, and later lovers, their small town beginnings in rural Ireland are swiftly eclipsed by the heady worlds of student Dublin. Gradually their intense, mismatched love becomes a battleground of power, class, and the falsehoods they choose to believe.
I was incredibly late to the party with Normal People, both in terms of the book and the series. I remember when everyone first started watching the series and spoke so highly of it, yet I refused to watch it until I’d read the book. I was so glad I did. Whilst the series itself I thought was beautiful, the book was a different level altogether. Rooney’s style of writing is worlds apart from the average novel and certainly takes some adjusting to, yet it’s delicate, witty and often surprisingly graphic. I felt Normal People was very ‘tumblr-esque’, and somewhat glamourised the troubled indie teenagers, and I found myself both adoring the characters and being frustrated at the communication between them. I was totally and utterly engrossed, feeling absolutely engulfed by the ‘will they, won’t they’ love story. It lacks the rose-tinted glasses of a youthful love affair, highlighting the way we float in and out of love and lives, leaving you feeling unanimously uncomfortable and full of pleasure.
Buy Normal People HERE
AMERICAN DIRT – JEANINE CUMMINS
Lydia Perez owns a bookshop in Acapulco, Mexico, and is married to a fearless journalist. Luca, their eight-year-old son, completes the picture. But it only takes a bullet to rip them apart.
In a city in the grip of a drug cartel, friends become enemies overnight, and Lydia has no choice but to flee with Luca at her side. North for the border… whatever it takes to stay alive. The journey is dangerous – not only for them, but for those they encounter along the way. Who can be trusted? And what sacrifices is Lydia prepared to make.
A book has never impacted me to the extent of American Dirt. A true page turner filled with nothing but suspense, my heart ached for Lydia and Luca from the second I started reading. I felt scared with every page and it is the longest it has ever taken me to read a book – I contemplated stopping reading so many times, not because the book was anything short of impeccable, but because it filled me with such a dread that given all the happenings in the world right now, it felt too real. I found it truly difficult to read, and yet it is a book I recommend everyone reads. The lasting impact is immense, and I think about this story at least once a week. American Dirt is so far from my usual choice of genre, and yet it was everything I could possibly hope for in a book. A book that everyone needs to read at least once.
Buy American Dirt HERE
ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE – MIKE GAYLE
Hubert Bird is not alone in being alone. He just needs to realise it.
In weekly phone calls to his daughter in Australia, widower Hubert Bird paints a picture of the perfect retirement, packed with fun, friendship and fulfilment. But Hubert Bird is lying.
The truth is day after day drags by without him seeing a single soul. Until, that is, he receives some good news – good news that in one way turns out to be the worst news ever, news that will force him out again, into a world he has long since turned his back on.
Now Hubert faces a seemingly impossible task: to make his real life resemble his fake life before the truth comes out.
Along the way Hubert stumbles across a second chance at love, renews a cherished friendship and finds himself roped into an audacious community scheme that seeks to end loneliness once and for all…
Life is certainly beginning to happen to Hubert Bird. But with the origin of his earlier isolation always lurking in the shadows will he ever get to live the life he’s pretended to have for so long?
Mike Gayle, in All the Lonely People, has created a beautifully moving story with a hugely diverse array of characters. Gayle has combined each of the character’s modern realities, from the life of a young single mother, a young Latvian man making his way in London, and the life of a black widower who made England his home as part of the Windrush generation. It’s a story that made me both laugh and cry, a true rollercoaster of every emotion. It was a real story, it felt close to home, and it was engaging from beginning to end. It is a story that focuses on loneliness, mental health, friendship, hope, and how family doesn’t stop with blood connection, but family can in fact be those you choose to spend your time with. It’s a genuinely heart-warming book that I could read repeatedly.
Buy All The Lonely People HERE
DOLLY ALDERTON – GHOSTS
Nina Dean has arrived at her early thirties as a successful food writer with loving friends and family, plus a new home and neighbourhood. When she meets Max, a beguiling romantic hero who tells her on date one that he’s going to marry her, it feels like all is going to plan.
A new relationship couldn’t have come at a better time – her thirties have not been the liberating, uncomplicated experience she was sold. Everywhere she turns, she is reminded of time passing and opportunities dwindling.
Friendships are fading, ex-boyfriends are moving on and, worse, everyone’s moving to the suburbs. There’s no solace to be found in her family, with a mum who’s caught in a baffling mid-life makeover and a beloved dad who is vanishing in slow-motion to dementia.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Ghosts is my favourite book I read in 2021. It is possibly the most relatable book I’ve ever read, with every single character speaking to my soul in one way or another. From the realisation that your parents are ageing and the fact that they too are human and not just your parents, the change in relationships as our friends reach different points in their lives, from marriage, to work and children, and the ways in which our lives just seem to be a mission to tick boxes, I fell in love with Ghosts during the very first chapter. Dolly Alderton has a marvellous talent and I have maintained ever since I turned the final page that this is a book that every millennial woman needs to read.
Buy Ghosts HERE
I’ve got my Waterstones points saved up to make some 2022 read purchases (I am still to read Where The Crawdads Sing, and The Thursday Murder Club; certainly some catching up to do!), but I’m excited to explore the literature entering our orbit over the next 12 months.
What are your favourite books you’ve read this year?
Love, Amber x
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