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Would you believe it’s been three years since I last had a favourite book of the year?
I was looking back at my posts from previous years to see which books made my top lists, and I was surprised it had been so long since I had a standout winner. I’ve read loads of great books in that time, but in 2020, 2019, and 2018 I didn’t read one that I adored above all the others. In 2021, however, there was a standout lead:
My Absolute Most Favourite Book I Read This Year
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, first in the Burning Kingdoms series
God, this book was incredible. I hadn’t read an epic fantasy in so long, and this made me want to explore more of the genre. I always think the sign of a really good book is when it sets off a craving not just to read more of the same series or more by that author, but more of the genre it fits within.
This is an absolutely stunning epic Indian-inspired fantasy with a huge and fascinating cast of characters. Malini is a princess who refused to burn on a ritual pyre and as a result has been exiled to a ruined temple by her emperor brother, where she is being slowly poisoned to death. Maidservant Priya is secretly a former child of the temple, keeping her history and knowledge close to her chest. The determination to survive draws them together, and magic, destiny and political machinations drive them forward. I am so excited to read the rest of this trilogy when it comes out.
The best of the rest:
Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning by Tom Vanderbilt
The only non-fiction book on the list, this is a must for lifelong learning enthusiasts. The author is clearly very privileged because he can afford to hire people to teach him, but still there is a lot of useful information that can apply to you even if you can’t afford tutors or class and are attempting to teach yourself. He meets and interviews experts on specific skills and learning in general, providing information about how adults learn best. Apparently learning multiple things at once is easier than learning one thing – who knew!
The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski
This is a fascinating fantasy set in a land with seemingly arbitrary divisions in society. The High Kith live in luxury, while Nirrim has always lived in poverty in the Ward and has never questioned the system. After she is arrested while trying to do the right thing, Nirrim meets a mysterious stranger from another land and sets out to discover why her country is so divided, and if there’s anything she can do to change that. I could not put this down. The world is vividly described and the relationships between Nirrim and the other characters are deeply compelling. The ending made me gasp in horror and amazement and I’m really looking forward to finding out what happens next.
Rescue Me by Sarra Manning
This is an adorable, poignant romance about a man and a woman who co-adopt (‘co-pawrent’) a dog. As they both fall in love with Blossom, a shy little Staffy who needs patience and care, they develop feelings for each other, but are those feelings compatible? I was so tempted to read it again as soon as I finished, the emotional journey the characters go on is just that compelling.
A Spoonful of Murder by Robin Stevens, sixth in the Murder Most Unladylike series
The seventh book and sixth novel in the Murder Most Unladylike series and my favourite so far! I didn’t think anything could beat First Class Murder as I loved the mystery on the Orient Express so much, but the setting of A Spoonful of Murder knocked it out of the park! 1930s teenage detectives Daisy and Hazel go to Hong Kong to visit Hazel’s family after the death of her grandfather, but find a surprise awaiting them – Hazel has a new little brother! Having been the most important child in her family until now, Hazel has mixed feelings about his arrival due to the sexism in Hong Kong society. She is worried that now her brother has replaced her in her father’s eyes. But everything changes when Hazel’s brother is kidnapped and his maid (formerly Hazel’s) is murdered! Despite Hazel’s complex emotions and grief, Daisy cannot let them leave any mystery unsolved… The story was gripping and the details about Hong Kong in the 1930s were so intriguing, I long to read more about this time period.
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Despite the blurb on my copy sounding quite dated in the way it describes this novel, the story hasn’t dated at all since its original publication in the 90s, it covers love, gender and privacy in ways that are still fresh today. After the death of legendary jazz trumpeter Joss Moody, his grieving son Colman learns that the man he’s always known was assigned female at birth, and in anger, tells the press, who go wild over the revelation that Joss was a woman (how Joss personally identified is not revealed). Millie, Colman’s mother and Joss’ wife, the only person who knew Joss’ secret, leaves their London home to hide in their Scottish holiday cottage and deal with her grief privately. Meanwhile, Colman makes a deal with tabloid journalist Sophie Stones, who wants to write a sordid sex-scandal-exposé type book about Joss. The novel features several different points of view – Millie’s, Colman’s, Sophie’s – plus short snippets from various other people, all of whom have some connection to Joss in life or death. As you would expect from a novel from such a talented poet as Jackie Kay, the characters’ voices are all unique andcompelling, and the book is a truly beautiful read.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
I stayed up far too late one night reading this! Bee is trying to figure out where her mother Bernadette has gone, piecing together emails, notes, and letters from her father, the other mothers at her school, and Bernadette herself, a one-time architecture genius who struggled to find her place in the world after becoming a mother. It’s part first-person narrative, part-epistolary novel (a novel told in written communications) and found the way the story was told so compelling. It’s funny, moving, and challenging. The different characters in the book come across so vividly through their writing, and as a huge fan and devoted student of the art of the compelling first-person voice, I thought it was wonderful.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
This novel combines some of the best bits of contemporary and sci-fi genres to make a fascinating story that also questions the nature of celebrity, community, and hope. April May is on her way home one night when she spots a giant robot, and, assuming it’s a strange new (and very impressive) work of art, she calls her friend who makes YouTube videos and gets him to come over and shoot some footage with her. When she wakes up the next morning she discovers they’ve gone viral and these robots have popped up in places all over the world. April May sets out to investigate the mysterious origins of the robots, whilst also trying to turn herself into a kind of celebrity, setting out to become a sort of spokesperson for the robots.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, first in The Locked Tomb series
This is an really strange book – it’s a sci-fi-fantasy locked room mystery with an idiosyncratic narrative style that’s very funny and delightful. It’s also about friendship that was forged in very very strange circumstances! Gideon is a servant of an aristocratic house of gloomy necromancers who kind of worship death and is desperate to get out. Her latest foiled escape plan leads to the revelation that Harrowhark, mistress of the house and heir to the whole situation, has been summoned by the Emperor. Harrow needs a cavalier, a swordsperson, to assist her but the official cavalier wimps out and Gideon ends up taking his place. When they arrive, they are presented with a puzzle to solve, which gets scarier and weirder when murders start happening. They have to investigate whilst also trying not to get killed themselves! It’s kind of got this weird decadent gross faded glamour wealth privilege thing going on but also it’s bizarre and magical! It’s extremely entertaining and very very odd – you will get it or you won’t, and I very much get it.
Whistle by E. Lockhart (writer) and Manuel Preitano (illustrator)
Willow has a lot going on – her mother has cancer and can’t afford the treatment, and she’s also involved in local politics and activism to help save their neighbourhood in Gotham City. Between going to protests, school, and her job at a dog shelter, she’s too exhausted to function. To her rescue, comes her mother’s long-lost friend E. Nigma who offers her a job helping to run his very illegal poker nights. This seems to solve all her problems until she ends up finding herself in hot water with various super villains! There are some interesting new takes on these villains you might recognize from Batman. There is also an adorable dog! I don’t want to say more than that because it’s a graphic novel length book and I could easily spoil the joy you’ll find, but I loved it.