Brace yourselves. This is going to be a long blog post! It’s time to share the books I enjoyed reading the most in 2021.
Goodreads tells me I have read 155 books this year, but that isn’t quite the full picture as not all the books I’ve read appeared there. I’ve read a few others I haven’t reviewed because I haven’t enjoyed them – who needs to spread negativity in today’s world?
I’ve read some that will be part of my My Weekly online reviews in the spring so I haven’t shared them yet. I was thrilled to be asked to do this, to be interviewed here and even more happy when I was asked to continue for the rest of the financial year! It made up for being asked to appear on the Sky Arts Book Club which I declined as it was recorded just as the dreaded Delta variant of Covid hit London. I was so disappointed not to go.
I’ve read some books for blog tours in 2022 (and yes, I know I’ve said it before but I really am cutting back on those in 2022!) and a few to provide cover quotations for books that have yet to be published. I think that amounts to 180 (ish) books read.
If I’m honest, I found 2021 tough and was quite depressed at times and then cross with myself when I had so much to be thankful for. Yes, my 60th birthday was in lockdown – my second that way, but I was thoroughly spoilt.
I ‘attended’ so many online bookish events that I lost count, and even appeared in some, including giving a somewhat impassioned review of Hannah Gold’s children’s book The Last Bear with Bay Tales that you can see here and completing four online sessions with fellow bloggers Anne, Jo and Tracy starting with this session and ending with this one.
I had a brilliant time with fellow bloggers Anne, Kim and Julie in an interview you can watch here, and loved being interviewed on Instagram (which was a real revelation to me as I have no idea how that platform works) by Fiona Mountain for the RNA.
I also interviewed Jay Blades of The Repair Shop about his memoir Making it in an online event for The Deepings Literary Festival. You’ll find my review of Making It here.
I loved sharing my uplifting and comedic books on Teacher Hug Radio with Rebecca Keen and it was a real thrill to be invited to participate in the BBC Radio 4 Book Club where I got to speak with Rachel Joyce about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, my review of which you will find here. You can listen again here too!
Back in September I received an email from Team Inspire saying ‘We wanted to ask if you would be willing to write a letter or poem for our book, keeping within the themes detailed above about your own journey, or something that you feel would help inspire others. We know your contribution would be greatly received and valued by our readers, as well as helping us achieve our target of £10,001 for the Princes Trust.’ I duly sent off a letter and was delighted just before Christmas to find that it has been accepted for publication in The Power of Letters and is available for pre-order here.
I also found myself in another publication, Breathe Magazine, with fellow bloggers Anne, Jo, Noelle and Steph.
Towards the end of the year I gave a talk to the local WI about blogging and was featured here on Twinkl with my review of The Christmas Carrolls. The folk at David Nieper also got in touch to say they would like to start up their Linda’s Book Bag column again in late spring/early summer for their customer magazine after a Covid caused hiatus.
So you see, I can’t complain can I? Add in the fact that we managed to get away in Bryan the Motorhome (named after the urbane Mr Ferry) for 31 nights including for our 38th wedding anniversary and, on reflection 2021, wasn’t a bad year at all!
My 2021 Books of the Year
However, it’s time to share those books I have enjoyed the most in 2021. As regular Linda’s Book Bag readers know. I never add star ratings here. They are simply too imprecise for me even though I have to use them on Amazon and Goodreads. When I’ve finished reading a book, and before my judgement is affected by my beginning a new one, I write my review and add an immediate ’emotional reaction’ mark out of 100 to my spreadsheet. When I look back over that spreadsheet any book scoring 95 or above simply becomes a book of the year. I feel bad for any scoring 94 but there has to be a cut off somewhere!
My favourite books in previous years can be found by clicking the dates:
My full reviews and buy links can be found by clicking the titles. The books are presented in the order I read them and I thought they were all absolutely brilliant.
The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean
He is her husband. She is his captive.
Her husband calls her Jane. That is not her name.
She lives in a small farm cottage, surrounded by vast, open fields. Everywhere she looks, there is space. But she is trapped. No one knows how she got to the UK: no one knows she is there. Visitors rarely come to the farm; if they do, she is never seen.
Her husband records her every movement during the day. If he doesn’t like what he sees, she is punished.
For a long time, escape seemed impossible. But now, something has changed. She has a reason to live and a reason to fight. Now, she is watching him, and waiting . . .
Straw Gods by Tom O’Brien
A straw man hung above my door like a ward of protection. Really it was a lure to charm my dead husband back. But it, like my other delusions and lies, drew lightning.
Ten years after the death of her husband, Rosa struggles to move on and takes solace in rituals and superstition. Sol, a young ﬁsherman, braves the sea to prove himself to an absent father. As a storm rips through the small community, disaster lays bare old secrets. Rosa and Sol’s lives tangle in tragic circumstances, forcing them to face the truth about themselves and the ones they loved.
Straw Gods is the debut novella-in-flash from Tom O’Brien, a heart-wrenching drama both moving and exhilarating, perceptively exploring the effects of grief and the lasting bonds of family and friendship.
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold
Imagine making friends with a polar bear… The Last Bear is perfect for readers of 8+, beautifully illustrated throughout by Levi Pinfold – winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal and illustrator of Harry Potter 20th anniversary edition covers.
“This is an important first novel, important for us, for polar bears, for the planet. It is deeply moving, beautifully told, quite unforgettable.” Michael Morpurgo.
There are no polar bears left on Bear Island. At least, that’s what April’s father tells her when his scientific research takes them to this remote Arctic outpost for six months. But one endless summer night, April meets one. He is starving, lonely and a long way from home. Determined to save him, April begins the most important journey of her life…
This moving story will win the hearts of children the world over and show them that no one is too young or insignificant to make a difference. The Last Bear is a celebration of the love between a child and an animal, a battle cry for our world and an irresistible adventure with a heart as big as a bear’s.
You, Me & The Sea by Elizabeth Haynes
Compelling, moving and teeming with feral desire: contemporary story of love and redemption set on a remote, windswept Scottish island from the bestselling author of Into The Darkest Corner and The Murder of Harriet Monckton.
Rachel is at crisis point. A series of disastrous decisions has left her with no job, no home, and no faith in herself. But an unexpected job offer takes her to a remote Scottish island, and it feels like a chance to recover and mend her battered self-esteem.
The island’s other inhabitants are less than welcoming. Fraser Sutherland is a taciturn loner who is not happy about sharing his lighthouse – or his precious coffee beans – and Lefty, his unofficial assistant, is a scrawny, scared lad who isn’t supposed to be there at all.
Homesick and out of her depth, Rachel wonders whether she’s made another mistake. But, as spring turns to summer, the wild beauty of the island captivates her soul. For the first time in years she sees the hope of a better life – if only she can break the deadlock between two men who are at war with one another, and with themselves.
Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? by Fran Hill
A funny, life-affirming memoir, in diary form. Set in the manic world of a busy teacher, and based on real experiences, Fran Hill’s account of one typical year shows it’s not just the pupils who misbehave.
English teacher ‘Miss’ starts the Autumn term beleaguered by self-doubts. She’s mid-menopause, insomniac, and Mirror and Bathroom Scales are blisteringly unsympathetic. Her pupils make her laugh, weep, fume and despair, often in the same lesson. Her unremitting workload blights family time and she feels guilty for missing church events to catch up on marking. After all, God-lady is watching.
Meanwhile, the new Head of Department seems unreachable, an Ofsted inspection looms, her sixth formers (against school policy) insist on sitting in rows, and there’s a school magazine to produce …
When childhood secrets demand attention Miss doesn’t want to give them, life gets complicated.
The Elephant by Peter Carnavas
‘A beautiful book – not just heartwarming but heart healing’ Chris Riddell
A big grey elephant is following Olive’s father around. It leaves with him for work and trails behind him when he comes home, keeping him heavy and sad. Every day, Olive wishes it would disappear.
When she is asked to bring something old and wonderful to show her class, Olive immediately wants to bring her old bike – but she will need her father’s help to fix it. Teaming up with her cheery grandad and best friend Arthur, she sets out to chase the elephant away.
Together by Luke Adam HAwker
A beautiful book to connect us after such a challenging time.
‘Dark clouds were looming in the distance. We watched them gather, and we wondered… When will it come? How long will it last?’
A monumental storm brings huge and sudden change. We follow a man and his dog through the uncertainty that it brings to their lives. Through their eyes, we see the difficulties of being apart, the rollercoaster of emotions that we can all relate to, and the realisation that by pulling together we can move through difficult times with new perspective, hope and an appreciation of what matters most in life.
An Act of Love by Carol Drinkwater
It was an idyllic summer. Until they had to escape.
Forced to flee war ravaged Poland, Sara and her parents are offered refuge in a beautiful but dilapidated house in the French Alps. It seems the perfect hideaway, despite haunting traces of the previous occupants who left in haste.
But shadows soon fall over Sara’s blissful summer, and her blossoming romance with local villager Alain. As the Nazis close in, the family is forced to make a harrowing choice that could drive them apart forever, while Sara’s own bid for freedom risks several lives.
Will Sara be reunited with those she loves?
And can she ever find her way back to Alain?
By turns poignant and atmospheric, this is the compelling new novel from Sunday Times bestselling author Carol Drinkwater about the power of first love and courage in our darkest hours.
Listening Still by Anne Griffin
Jeanie Masterson has a gift: she can hear the recently dead and give voice to their final wishes and revelations. Inherited from her father, this gift has enabled the family undertakers to flourish in their small Irish town. Yet she has always been uneasy about censoring some of the dead’s last messages to the living. Unsure, too, about the choice she made when she left school seventeen years ago: to stay or leave for a new life in London with her charismatic teenage sweetheart.
So when Jeanie’s parents unexpectedly announce their plan to retire, she is jolted out of her limbo. In this captivating successor to her bestselling debut, Anne Griffin portrays a young woman who is torn between duty, a comfortable marriage and a role she both loves and hates and her last chance to break free, unaware she has not been alone in softening the truth for a long while.
Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin
Summer 1966: When her father comes home with lipstick on his collar, ten-year-old Claire’s life is turned upside down. Her furious mother leaves the family and heads to London, and Claire and her brothers are packed off to Ireland, to their reclusive grandmother at her tiny cottage on the beautifully bleak coast of Connemara. A misfit among her new classmates, Claire finds it hard to make friends until she happens across a boy her own age from the school next door. He lives at the local orphanage, a notoriously harsh place. Amidst half-truths, lies and haunting family secrets, Claire forms a forbidden friendship with Emmet – a bond that will change both their lives forever.
The Getaway by Isabelle Broom
Most people travel to Croatia for its endless sunshine, pebbly beaches and crystal clear sea.
Kate goes there to disappear.
She needs to escape from a life that has fallen apart in spectacular and public fashion, and no one on the beautiful island of Hvar knows who she is or what she’s running away from.
Until she meets another lonely soul.
Alex is different to any man Kate has ever known, yet the connection between them is undeniable. She soon begins to open up in ways she never has before – not even to herself. But Kate is not the only person in Hvar hiding secrets. And, as she is about to discover, it is always only a matter of time before the truth catches up with you . . .
The Beginner’s Guide to Loneliness by Laura Bambrey
The perfect feel-good read from an exciting new voice in women’s fiction, for fans of Heidi Swain, Cathy Bramley and Jenny Colgan.
Tori Williamson is alone. After a tragic event left her isolated from her loved ones, she’s been struggling to find her way back to, well – herself. That’s why she set up her blog, The Beginner’s Guide to Loneliness, as a way of – anonymously – connecting with the outside world and reaching others who just need a little help sometimes.
When she’s offered a free spot on a wellbeing retreat in exchange for a review on her blog, Tori is anxious about opening herself up to new surroundings. But after her three closest friends – who she talks to online but has never actually met – convince her it’ll do her some good, she reluctantly agrees and heads off for three weeks in the wild (well, a farm in Wales).
From the moment she arrives, Tori is sceptical and quickly finds herself drawn to fellow sceptic Than, the retreat’s dark and mysterious latecomer. But as the beauty of The Farm slowly comes to light she realizes that opening herself up might not be the worst thing. And sharing a yurt with fellow retreater Bay definitely isn’t. Will the retreat be able to fix Tori? Or will she finally learn that being lonely doesn’t mean she’s broken . . .
Always, in December by Emily Stone
Heartbreaking. Life-affirming. Truly unforgettable. Always, in December is the timeless, stay-up-all-night love story you’ll take straight to your heart.
If you loved One Day, Me Before You and the hit movie Last Christmas, this is the perfect book for you.
Josie Morgan never looks forward to December. It’s always a reminder of the life she lost, twenty years ago. Now, she always switches off the radio when Christmas music comes on. She always wants to tear down the tinsel her flatmate insists on pinning up. And she always posts a letter she knows will never be read.
Max Carter never expected to find himself stranded in London just days before Christmas. He never expected it would be so hard to say goodbye to a woman he hardly knows. Then again, he never expected to fall in love.
But, this December, when Josie’s letter leads her to Max, a chance encounter will change their lives in the most remarkable way. And their story is only just beginning . . .
From London to Manhattan, from Edinburgh to the English countryside, Always, in December is a romantic journey that’s impossible to forget.
Unbreak Your Heart by Katie Marsh
Seven-year-old Jake’s heart is failing and he doesn’t want to leave his dad, Simon, alone. So he makes a decision: to find Simon someone to love before he goes.
Beth is determined to forget the past. But even when she leaves New York to start afresh in a Lake District village, she can’t shake the secrets that haunt her.
Single dad Simon still holds a candle for the woman who left him years ago. Every day is a struggle to earn a living while caring for his beloved son. He has no time for finding someone new.
But Jake is determined his plan will succeed – and what unfolds will change all three of them forever.
The Heeding by Rob Cowen
The world changed in 2020. Gradually at first, then quickly and irreversibly, the patterns by which we once lived altered completely.
The Heeding paints a picture of a year caught in the grip of history, yet filled with revelatory perspectives close at hand: a sparrowhawk hunting in a back street; the moon over a town with a loved-one’s hand held tight; butterflies massing in a high-summer yard – the everyday wonders and memories that shape a life and help us recall our own.
Across four seasons and thirty-five luminous poems and illustrations, Rob Cowen and Nick Hayes lead us on a journey that takes its markers and signs from nature and a world filled with fear and pain but beauty and wonder too. Collecting birds, animals, trees and people together, The Heeding is a profound meditation to a time no-one will forget.
At its heart, this is a book that helps us look again, to heed: to be attentive to this world we share and this history we’re living through, to be aware of how valuable and fragile we are, to grieve what’s lost and to hope for a better and brighter tomorrow.
Croak by Phil Bishop
Croak is a collection of delightful quotes and gorgeous photographs celebrating the underappreciated beauty of frogs. Many of the stunning, colourful images were taken by author Phil Bishop on his travels around the world. They showcase frogs in their natural habitats, paired with quotes from famous faces such as Cameron Diaz and John Steinbeck. Simultaneously amusing and illuminating, this perfect coffee table book is a celebration of one of the most varied and vibrant species on earth.
This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech
Sebastian James Murphy is twenty years, six months and two days old. He loves swimming, fried eggs and Billy Ocean. Sebastian is autistic. And lonely.
Veronica wants her son Sebastian to be happy … she wants the world to accept him for who he is. She is also thinking about paying a professional to give him what he desperately wants.
Violetta is a high-class escort, who steps out into the night thinking only of money. Of her nursing degree. Paying for her dad’s care. Getting through the dark.
When these three lives collide – intertwine in unexpected ways – everything changes. For everyone.
A topical and moving drama about a mother’s love for her son, about getting it wrong when we think we know what’s best, about the lengths we go to care for family … to survive … This Is How We Are Human is a searching, rich and thought-provoking novel with an emotional core that will warm and break your heart.
The House Beneath the Cliffs by Sharon Gosling
A remote yet beautiful village. A tiny kitchen lunch club. The perfect place to start again.
Anna moves to Crovie, a tiny fishing village on the Moray Firth, for a fresh start. But when she arrives, she realises her new home is really no more than a shed, and the village itself sits beneath a cliff right on the edge of the sea, in constant danger of storms and landslides. Has she made a terrible mistake?
Yet as she begins to learn about the Scottish coast and its people, something she thought she’d lost reawakens in her. She rediscovers her love of cooking, and turns her kitchen into a pop-up lunch club. But not all the locals are delighted about her arrival, and some are keen to see her plans fail.
Will Anna really be able to put down roots in this remote and wild village? Or will her fragile new beginning start to crumble with the cliffs . . . ?
Beautiful, moving and utterly absorbing, The House Beneath the Cliffs is a novel of friendship and food, storms and secrets, and the beauty of second chances.
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
For seventy years, Josef Weber has been hiding in plain sight.
He is a pillar of his local community.
He is also a murderer.
When Josef decides to confess, it is to Sage Singer, a young woman who trusts him as her friend. What she hears shatters everything she thought she knew and believed.
As Sage uncovers the truth from the darkest horrors of war, she must follow a twisting trail between terror and mercy, betrayal and forgiveness, love – and revenge.
A Poet for Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri
Allie Esiri’s beautiful gift anthology, A Poet for Every Day of the Year, is the perfect introduction to 366 of the world’s greatest ever verse writers.
Perfect for reading aloud and sharing with all the family, it is bursting at the seams with familiar favourites and exciting new discoveries. Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Christina Rossetti and Emily Bronte sit alongside Roger McGough, Wendy Cope, Imtiaz Dharker, Leonard Cohen, Sylvia Plath and Ocean Vuong.
Each of the 366 poems features a small introduction that gives a sense of who the writer was, and not just the greatness of their work. Some offer insightful biographical details or key historical context, while others may provide quirky, humorous anecdotes.
The day-to-day format of the anthology invites readers to make poetry a part of their daily routine, and makes sure that they discover something inspirational, life affirming, provocative, moving or entertaining each and every day.
Nature’s Treasures by Ben Hoare
The world is filled with curious objects made by plants, animals, and even by the Earth itself. Dive into this collection of more than 100 intriguing items from the natural world and discover the stories behind them.
Learn how bristly mouths help huge whales capture tiny animals, how minute scales make butterflies shine in the sunlight, and how studying a leaf skeleton can tell us how it transports food. A bird egg, a lump of coal, a cacao pod, a mermaid’s purse, a fossil, a pine cone, an owl pellet, and a chrysalis – all tell a story. Arranged into four chapters: Animals; Plants, fungi, and algae; Minerals and rocks, and Made by nature, objects are shown with truly stunning photography and colourful illustrations to help explain the science behind them. The lively descriptions by best-selling nature writer Ben Hoare explore the remarkable tales of each item and all are packed with fascinating information.
Nature’s Treasures takes you on a tour of our planet through commonplace-but-incredible objects made by nature itself. This book is for every inquisitive child who loves to spot things when exploring outside and wants to know more about the wonderful and mysterious natural world.
The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul
An unforgettable discovery
In 1922, Lady Evelyn Herbert’s dreams are realised when she is the first to set foot inside the lost tomb of Tutankhamun for over 3,000 years.
A cursed life
But the months after the discovery are marred by tragedy, when Eve’s father dies suddenly and her family is torn in two. Desperate to put the past behind her, Eve retreats into a private life with her new husband.
A deadly choice
But she is harbouring a dark secret about what really happened in Egypt. And when a young woman comes asking questions years later, the happiness Eve has finally found is threatened once more…
Silenced by Jennie Ensor
A teenage girl is murdered on her way home from school, stabbed through the heart. Her North London community is shocked, but no-one has the courage to help the police, not even her mother. DI Callum Waverley, in his first job as senior investigating officer, tries to break through the code of silence that shrouds the case.
This is a world where the notorious Skull Crew rules through fear. Everyone knows you keep your mouth shut or you’ll be silenced – permanently.
This is Luke’s world. Reeling from the loss of his mother to cancer, his step-father distant at best, violent at worst, he slides into the Skull Crew’s grip.
This is Jez’s world too. Her alcoholic mother neither knows nor cares that her 16-year-old daughter is being exploited by V, all-powerful leader of the gang.
Luke and Jez form a bond. Can Callum win their trust, or will his own demons sabotage his investigation? And can anyone stop the Skull Crew ensuring all witnesses are silenced?
Silenced is the compelling and gritty new thriller by British author Jennie Ensor. A gripping story of love, fear and betrayal, it’s Romeo and Juliet for our troubled times.
Anything Could Happen by Lucy Diamond
Your big secret is out. What next?
For Lara and her daughter Eliza, it has always been just the two of them. But when Eliza turns eighteen and wants to connect with her father, Lara is forced to admit a secret that she has been keeping from her daughter her whole life.
Eliza needs answers – and so does Lara. Their journey to the truth will take them on a road trip across England and eventually to New York, where it all began. Dreams might have been broken and opportunities missed, but there are still surprises in store…
Anything Could Happen is a warm, wise, funny and uplifting novel about love, second chances and the unexpected and extraordinary paths life can take us down.
Fall by West Camel
Twins Aaron and Clive have been estranged for forty years. Aaron still lives in the empty, crumbling tower block on the riverside in Deptford where they grew up. Clive is a successful property developer, determined to turn the tower into luxury flats.
But Aaron is blocking the plan and their petty squabble becomes something much greater when two ghosts from the past – twins Annette and Christine – appear in the tower. At once, the desolate estate becomes a stage on which the events of one scorching summer are relived – a summer that shattered their lives, and changed everything forever…
Grim, evocative and exquisitely rendered, Fall is a story of friendship and family – of perception, fear and prejudice, the events that punctuate our journeys into adulthood, and the indelible scars they leave – a triumph of a novel that will affect you long after the final page has been turned.
The Visitors by Caroline Scott
From the highly acclaimed author of The Photographer of the Lost, a BBC Radio 2 Book Club Pick, comes a tale of a young war widow and one life-changing, sun-drenched visit to Cornwall in the summer of 1923…
Esme Nicholls is to spend the summer in Cornwall. Her late husband Alec, who died fighting in the war, grew up in Penzance, and she’s hoping to learn more about the man she loved and lost.
While there, she will stay with Gilbert, in his rambling seaside house, where he lives with his former brothers in arms. Esme is fascinated by this community of eccentric artists and former soldiers, and as she gets to know the men and their stories, she begins to feel this summer might be exactly what she needs.
But everything is not as idyllic as it seems – a mysterious new arrival later in the summer will turn Esme’s world upside down, and make her question everything she thought she knew about her life, and the people in it.
Full of light, laughter and larger-than-life characters, The Visitors is a novel of one woman finally finding her voice and choosing her own path forwards.
So there you have them. Last year I had a tie for my overall book of the year but this year there is one book that scored top marks for me.
Given the recent controversy over romance books and their perception of them as somehow second class in the book world I cannot be more thrilled than to have a romance book as my winner. Who says romance books don’t exist?
My 2021 Book of the Year
My outright book of the year is Always, in December by Emily Stone. I read Always, in December in July and I don’t think a day has passed where I haven’t thought about it. It’s beautiful, affecting and unexpected.
I’d just like to end this blog post by thanking all of you who have taken the time to visit Linda’s Book Bag to read my reviews and the other bookish posts I’ve published. My special thanks to my fellow bloggers who share my posts across their social media platforms. This is very much appreciated. I am eternally grateful to the authors, publishers, publicists and media brands who send me the books, even when they know there’s very little chance of a review. And perhaps most importantly, my thanks to the authors who pour their hearts and souls into their writing, so that readers like me can inhabit new worlds, travel to new places and meet new people all from the comfort of our own homes. What would we have done without books these last two years?
Happy New Year everyone. I hope 2022 brings you all you wish for.