Books of the year

My favourite books of 2021

[UNDERSTATEMENT WARNING] 2021 has been strange and absurd and crazy and stressful and happy and sad and all kinds of things, hasn’t it?

But the one consistency in this rollercoaster of a year has been all the books I have been able to buy, borrow, read and review. I have read so many excellent novels I have been putting off choosing the best 10 because it’s just so difficult to pick which ones to include and which to leave out. So this year, I’m making an exception — and choosing a Baker’s Dozen instead.

I read a total of 89 books, just a few more than last year, and most were published in 2021, but the books I am going to select here aren’t all new, they’re simply ones I chose to read between 1 January and 31 December regardless of the year they were published.

In fact, I made a concerted effort to read older books by embarking on a plan to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May in a project I dubbed #TBR21. I actually managed to complete this but never did a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fifth time and managed to successfully read 20 books from my TBR — all listed here.

Other projects I did this year included running Southern Cross Crime Month in March and #BIPOC2021, which was my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the year (I read 12 in total). Once again, I attempted to read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist but only managed three out of five. (It didn’t help that I was in the throes of purchasing a new apartment at the time.)

I also participated in various other challenges and blogger events across the year, including the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021 (a wrap-up post will follow tomorrow), Bellezza’s Japanese Literature ChallengeGerman Literature Month, Novellas in November hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, and non-fiction November.

Phew! That’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin (2021)

Literary fiction meets a fast-paced psychological thriller in this Australian novel about a new mother who misplaces her baby and spends an entire day (in November 1969) trying to find her.

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter (2021)

This black comedy about death, grief and bondage follows a 20-something funeral parlour make-up artist whose life is thrown into disarray when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly.

‘Mermaid Singing’ and ‘Peel me a Lotus’ by Charmian Clift (1956/1959)

Published in one volume, these twin memoirs chart Clift’s life on two different Greek Islands with her husband, the novelist and war correspondent George Johnston, as part of a Bohemian set of artists and writers in the 1950s.

‘Mrs March’ by Virginia Feito (2021)

A wickedly fun story about a narcissistic, paranoid, upper-class woman who believes her writer husband has used her as inspiration for one of his unsavoury characters in his latest best-selling novel.

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut (2021)

Tracing the downfall of a white Afrikaans family over the space of 40 years, this year’s Booker Prize-winner is framed around four funerals, each about a decade apart, and uses a style and structure inspired by filmmakers to create a dazzling novel that feels fresh and new.

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy (1981)

Set in tropical Darwin in 1967, this masterful coming-of-age story is about a teenage boy who takes piano lessons from a renowned Austrian musician with a shady past.

‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings (2002)

A brilliant gem of a novel set in the 1990s, it recounts the story of an Australian woman working in a Wall Street investment bank by day and who looks after her ill husband by night.

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan (2020)

A haunting tale of a long-distance lorry driver trying to come to terms with the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa (1994)

A deeply affecting dystopian novel set on an island in which residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects — including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars — by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police which round-up and  “disappear” anyone who disobeys.

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung (2021)

A teenage girl living in a high rise flat is smothered by her over-protective mother and forced to stay indoors for 100 days when she falls pregnant.

‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jock Serong (2017)

A hugely entertaining tale of two brothers, one good and one bad, who rise to become successful cricketers on the world stage.

‘The Fortnight in September’ by R.C. Sherriff (1931)

An utter delight to read, this heartwarming tale perfectly encapsulates the small joys of a family embarking on their annual holiday to the English seaside.

‘Here we are’ by Graham Swift (2020)

Set on the Brighton seafront in 1959, this is a truly immersive story about three entertainers who perform in the regular variety show at the end-of-the-pier theatre during the summer season.

I hope you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2021, I’d love to know.

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2021 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Author, Book review, Conor O'Callaghan, Doubleday Ireland, Fiction, France, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan

Fiction – paperback; Doubleday Ireland; 260 pages; 2020.

We Are Not in the World by Conor O’Callaghan is a haunting, heartbreaking novel about an Irishman trying to come to terms with two major events in his life: the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

Two storylines

The narrative is comprised of two threads: the man’s road journey through France as a novice truck driver delivering unspecified goods for a mysterious man named Carl; and the tale of his illicit affair, told in reverse chronological order from break-up to initial meeting.

The first thread is told in the first person; the second in the second person.

It’s set in August 2015, before the Brexit referendum, in which “the whole landscape of continental haulage could change indefinitely and not for any good.” Refugees, fleeing war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, are on the news, and when Paddy arrives in Calais from Dover, it’s hard to ignore their inpoverished presence, in the “jungle” and on the streets around town.

The road is lined with wire fencing, fingers pushed through, faces pressed against. Behind them, waves of tents and shacks. The fence is staring at us. And we’re trying not to make eye contact, with the fence. A truck with an Irish reg gets pulled out of the contraflow. Live bodies, one by one, are prised from its chassis.

Clandestine daughter

Accompanying him on this journey is his 20-something American-raised daughter, Kitty, who, as it turns out, is making the trip as a “clandestine” — Paddy is not supposed to have passengers on board — and spends most of her time hidden in the sleeping alcove behind the driver’s seat. Paddy deliberately times their rest stops and overnight stays at unsociable hours to avoid other truck drivers, including the aforementioned Carl, making the same journey and spotting Kitty.

Their time together, whether in the truck’s cabin or sharing a meal in roadside cafes, is conveyed largely through Roddy-Doyle-esque dialogue:

This, she says staring straight ahead.
This?
These more like.
I’m gonna need a few specifics, darling, please.
There you go again.
These what are a bit what?
Carparks, she says.
Ah.
They’re a bit samey.
She is: bored in her reclined passenger seat, in shades and King of the Road cap, rambling aimlessly. I am: about to go indoors to check that it’s safe for her to join me, working overtime to humour her along, inclined to lose track of days that we’ve been here.
They are, I suppose.
They are, aren’t they?
They are.
It’s not just me, she says.
Not just you, love.
Same nothing spaces, she says. Same caffs, same staff, same drab grub. Same sun even, same dome of unblemished friggin azure over our heads.

As the journey unfolds, we learn more about Paddy’s tormented past, his childhood with his beloved mother, also called Kitty, and the strained relationship with his younger brother, Art, who is the “golden child” and executor of their mother’s will in which he is the major beneficiary.

Art also has a very close relationship with his niece, who is also his godchild, and it’s hard not to see that perhaps he has been more of a father figure to her than her own father and this is why this particular road trip, spending time together, is so important to Paddy: he needs to repair their fractured relationship.

We also learn the details of Paddy’s affair, the strange time he spent living in a snow-bound caravan in his lover’s back garden, and the forbidden trysts in stairwells, public toilets and other daring locations.

There’s an achingly sad side trip to Camargue to try to locate a house where Paddy’s mother stayed as a young girl, and another confronting scene in which Paddy is expected to partake in what appears to be a “gang bang” in a wood involving lots of other truck drivers. (He declines.)

An opaque but unforgettable story

Much of the story is opaque and occasionally confusing. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether references to Kitty are to Kitty the daughter or Kitty the mother. I suspect this is deliberate.

And just like O’Callaghan’s wonderful debut novel, Nothing on Earth, which I read a few years ago, the story is infused with a strange, almost elusive, sense of foreboding. It feels both sinister and enigmatic at the same time.

It’s the kind of novel that is hard work, for you have to piece together bits of information in your own head and come to your own conclusions about what is really going on, but it is entirely worth the effort. (We never find out what Paddy is transporting, for instance, and why Carl encourages him to rig the tachometer readings because he appears to otherwise observe all the haulier rules about driving limits and rest times.)

The ending, when it comes, is like a sucker punch to the stomach. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished this book a few days ago. Combined with the unsettling nature of the story, the beautiful language and the difficult subjects tackled, including familial and forbidden relationships, We Are Not in the World is a truly indelible read.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park: The story of a photographer from Northern Ireland driving across a snowbound England to rescue his ill son stranded in his student lodgings.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Black Swan, Book review, Conor O'Callaghan, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Nothing on Earth’ by Conor O’Callaghan

Nothing on earth

Fiction – paperback; Black Swan Ireland; 192 pages; 2017.

Irish writer Conor O’Callaghan has taken the concept of a “ghost estate” — an unfinished housing development abandoned in the wake of the collapse of the Irish economy — and turned it into a modern horror story. His debut novel Nothing on Earth will have you checking the locks, making sure all your windows are closed and on tenterhooks for every strange noise you might happen to hear.

Yet this book, which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, isn’t about ghouls or vampires or anything we might normally associate with the horror genre. It’s suspenseful simply because the plot is dotted with unexplained events, which play on your imagination, and O’Callaghan’s lyrical writing style, infused with a haunting, foreboding quality, ratchets up the tension.

Hot August nights

The story is narrated by someone looking back on a series of strange events that happened during the  “hottest August in living memory”. It begins with the sudden arrival of a 12-year-old “skin-and-bone” girl on the doorstep of his home:

She looked like one who had neither eaten proper food nor inhaled fresh air for years. Her teeth were yellow, her nails uncut and filthy. Her skin was sunburned, except for those white lines that had been covered by straps. It was also marked in places, her skin was: scratches, creases, streaks of dirt, and words.

The girl, who has a stilted, foreign accent, isn’t a complete stranger.  She had come to public attention when her mother went missing a few months earlier. They had been renting a house on a nearby ghost estate. Now the girl, who calls herself Helen, says her papa is missing too — “One minute he is behind you. And next time he was gone” — and it soon emerges her aunt, who had lived with them, is nowhere to be found either.

What has happened to the three adults? And where did the security guard who lived on site in a caravan disappear to? What does the landlord know? Who are the mysterious neighbours Helen talks about? Can the girl be trusted? Is she telling the truth?

Strange events

The story spools back to the arrival of Helen’s family on the ghost estate and charts how events unfolded over the summer. What begins as a semi-idyllic existence — heady summer days, sunbathing in the garden, drinking wine and having a laugh — morphs into something more sinister as the nights give way to strange knocking on the front door and mysterious messages written in the dust on the windows.

The enigmatic nature of the story is its greatest strength. You’re never certain if something terrible has happened to Helen’s mother — was she murdered, for instance, or did she simply escape to a better life? Why isn’t her husband, Paul, upset, or is he just putting on a brave face for the sake of his young daughter? And has Helen’s auntie come to harm, or did she do a runner with the security guard who may, or may not, have been her lover?

This is the kind of novel that holds more questions than answers. You are never quite sure who to believe. And you’re not even sure that the events being described even happened.

It’s difficult to explain how O’Callaghan achieves this without giving away plot spoilers, but let’s just say it all adds up to a haunting and troubling and deeply unsettling read. There’s an undercurrent of menace running throughout the storyline, which gives it a necessary tension. And it’s hugely compelling; I wanted to eat it up in one long hungry sitting but had to ration it out because, you know, a little thing like going to work got in the way. I’d recommended clearing your schedule: once you begin Nothing on Earth you’ll want to read it all in one greedy gulp. Just remember to lock the doors.

This is my 2nd book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award

If you liked this, you might also like:

Broken Harbour by Tana French: A crime novel set on a ghost estate that brims with menace and unease.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year

The 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award shortlist

Writers' Week

Now that my Stella Prize reading is over, it’s time to shift my attention to another literary project: the Kerry Group Novel of the Year.

This is one of my favourite book prizes. It’s an annual award — worth €15,000 — for Irish fiction. Over the years it has introduced me to some brilliant reads — The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey and TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, to name but two — so I usually pay attention to it.

This year the winner will be announced at the opening ceremony of Writers’ Week at Listowel, in Kerry, Ireland on 31 May. Before then I hope to have read all five titles on the shortlist.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, including a synopsis. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks as and when I review each title.

Inch Levels
Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty
“Patrick Jackson lies on his deathbed in Derry and recalls a family history marked by secrecy and silence, and a striking absence of conventional pieties. He remembers the death of an eight-year-old girl, whose body was found on reclaimed land called Inch Levels on the shoreline of Lough Swilly. And he is visited by his beloved but troubled sister Margaret and by his despised brother-in-law Robert, and by Sarah, his hard, unchallengeable mother. Each of them could talk about events in the past that might explain the bleakness of their relationships, but leaving things unsaid has become a way of life. Guilt and memory beat against them, as shock waves from bombs in Derry travel down the river to shake the windows of those who have escaped the city.”

My Name is Leon 

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal
“Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to give Jake to strangers. Since Jake is white and Leon is not. As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile — like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum. Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a heart-breaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how – just when we least expect it – we manage to find our way home.”


The Wonder
by Emma Donoghue
“An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder — inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth — is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.”

Solar Bones
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
“Once a year, on All Souls Day, it is said that the dead may return; Solar Bones tells the story of one such visit. Set in the west of Ireland as the recession is about to strike, this novel is a portrait of one man’s experience when his world threatens to fall apart. Wry and poignant, Solar Bones is an intimate portrayal of one family, capturing how careless decisions ripple out into waves, and how our morals are challenged in small ways every day.”

Nothing on earth
Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan
“It is the hottest August in living memory. A frightened girl bangs on a door. A man answers. From the moment he invites her in, his world will never be the same again. She will tell him about her family, and their strange life in the show home of an abandoned housing estate. The long, blistering days spent sunbathing; the airless nights filled with inexplicable noises; the words that appear on the windows, written in dust. Why are members of her family disappearing, one by one? Is she telling the truth? Is he? In a world where reality is beginning to blur, how can we know what to believe?”

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?