15 books I read in 2021 – and you should too

I wanted to read a book each month of 2021, and started off the year really strong, whizzing through novels in a matter of days at the start of the year. But as the year has worn on, my TBR pile has been added to faster than I could whittle it down – yet I still managed to get through 15 books in the last 12 months.

From rom coms to ghost stories – there’s a real mix of genres here, each offering escapism from reality, which is something we’ve all needed in one way or another of late.

So, I wanted to share the 15 books I read and loved in 2021, which you should definitely add to your 2022 read list. I’ve tried to keep it short and sweet with a blurb description, but have linked the full reviews for each book should you find yourself intrigued.

Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney

Conversations with Friends is an intimate debut novel by young author Sally Rooney which explores identity, relationships and the perils of stumbling through your 20s.

The blurb reads: Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed and observant. A student in Dublin and an aspiring writer, at night she performs spoken word with her best friend Bobbi, who used to be her girlfriend. When they are interviewed and then befriended by Melissa, a well-known journalist who is married to Nick, an actor, they enter a world of beautiful houses, raucous dinner parties and holidays in Provence, beginning a complex ménage-à-quatre. But when Frances and Nick get unexpectedly closer, the sharply witty and emotion-averse Frances is forced to honestly confront her own vulnerabilities for the first time.”

Conversations with Friends is messy, exploring the politics of love and friendship in a chaotic and honest way. Sally writes openly about difficult themes, including identity, sex, self harm and detachment. Frances is on a road to self destruction which can make for gut-wrenching reading – but there’s something so powerful about the raw realness of it.

Read more: Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney review

Normal People – Sally Rooney

Normal People is a multi award-winning book by Irish author Sally Rooney, which has sold over one million copies since its release.

It was published in 2018, but became even more popular in 2020’s first lockdown when the BBC released an on-screen adaptation of the novel.

The blurb reads: Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but the similarities end there. In school, Connell is popular and well-liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation – awkward but electrifying – something life-changing begins.

“Normal People is a story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find they can’t.”

Marianne and Connell’s secret relationship exists in the four walls of Connell and Marianne’s homes, too afraid to let word slip out for fear of a tarnished reputation. That is, until they leave Sligo for Dublin to attend college.

Their mismatched love explores a struggle between power, class, social status and identity. Highly addictive, honest and relatable, it pulled at emotions I didn’t know existed.

Read more: The only way you should read Normal People by Sally Rooney

Echoes of Home – Matt Rayner

Echoes of Home quickly made it to the top 50 best selling horror novels after its release on New Years’ Day 2021. It will have you flinching at the creaks of your own home, waiting for bloody, blistered hands to appear at your windows.

The ghost story was based on the true historical event The Great Famine of Ireland, from 1845 to 1849, and The Highland Famine that followed, in Scotland, from 1846 to 1856. Matt’s ancestors hailed from Ireland at the time of the food shortage, and characters in the book were even named after his own family members.

The blurb reads: “After accepting a generous opportunity to start afresh, Leslie Wills, a young man from Stoke-on-Trent, eagerly begins his long-distance journey to the Scottish Highlands of Elphin, a settled village that sits huddled amongst the dominating mountains.

“Its people are welcoming, and the beauty of the land is great. But deep within its Highland paths, a location rests hidden from the public’s eye. A location which entices you to learn the truth of its troubled past. But once you bear witness to its sights and sounds, its presences will never allow you to forget.

“Uncover the truth, Journeying back to a forgotten time. With a plot full of secrets and suspicion that will leave you longing for answers.”

Echoes of Home is a ghost story full of history and suspense, and an absolutely gripping debut. You’ll be scrambling up your stairs when the lights are off in an attempt to escape what’s hiding in the dark. It’s emotive, and constantly has your brain ticking over with questions and theories – but all will be revealed as your turn the final pages.

Read more: Echoes of Home – a ghost story by Stoke-on-Trent author M. L. Rayner

The French Girl – Lexie Elliott

The French Girl, by Lexie Elliott, is a British crime thriller which will have you pointing fingers and guessing ‘whodunit’, right up until the final couple of chapters.

If you’ve read and loved The Heatwave, by Kate Riordan, then you’ll adore this novel packed with twists, lies, betrayals and secrets.

The blurb reads: “They were six university students from Oxford–friends and sometimes more than friends–spending an idyllic week together in a French farmhouse. It was supposed to be the perfect summer getaway–until they met Severine, the girl next door.

“For Kate Channing, Severine was an unwelcome presence, her inscrutable beauty undermining the close-knit group’s loyalties amid the already simmering tensions. And after a huge altercation on the last night of the holiday, Kate knew nothing would ever be the same. There are some things you can’t forgive, and there are some people you can’t forget, like Severine, who was never seen again.

“Now, a decade later, the case is reopened when Severine’s body is found in the well behind the farmhouse. Questioned along with her friends, Kate stands to lose everything she’s worked so hard to achieve as suspicion mounts around her. Desperate to resolve her own shifting memories and fearful she will be forever bound to the woman whose presence still haunts her, Kate finds herself buried under layers of deception with no one to set her free.”

No matter how many times you guess the ending, you’ll never hit the nail on the head.

Read more: The French Girl by Lexie Elliott – book review

The Hellion – Harriet Young

The Hellion is a fictionalised but well-researched adaptation of the Pendle Witch Trials on 1612, brought to life by Cheshire author Harriet Young.

The Hellion is packed with emotion, betrayal and drama – particularly for young Alizon Device, who feels conflicted about witchcraft, and finds her family life difficult. Following a heated run in with a pedlar, she finds herself and her family implicated in a web of witchcraft accusations – her nine-year-old sister the key witness to the trial.

The blurb reads: “Whalley, 1537: On a day like any other, a devastating fire changes the lives of two young girls. What happens next triggers a series of events leading inexplicably to the cells of Lancaster Gaol.

“Lancashire, 1612: The most notorious witchcraft trials in England are taking place. Among the accused, three generations of the same family. A family rooted in Pendle, tied to the infamous Malkin Towers and always followed by a whisper of evil. A family destroyed by the evidence given by a nine year old girl.”

The eerie novel beautifully brings identity and voices to the accused, and raises awareness of the horrific event which saw 10 of the 12 accused hung.

Read more: The Hellion – Harriet Young  book review

The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman

The only way I can describe The Thursday Murder Club is Ricky Gervais’ Derek meets How To Get Away With Murder.

In the debut novel by TV presenter Richard Osman, four pensioners in a peaceful retirement village remind us all that the elderly have been around a lot longer than us – they’re intelligent, crafty, and not afraid to get a job done.

The blurb reads: “In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved murders. But when a brutal killing takes place on their very doorstep, the Thursday Murder Club find themselves in the middle of their first live case.

“Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron might be pushing eighty but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer before it’s too late?”

Comedic, full of excitement and adventure – despite being a very English murder mystery, it’s incredibly heartfelt as you grow attached to the characters as if they were your own mischievous grandparents.

Read more: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman – book review

The Switch – Beth O’Leary

As you can see, I’d found myself reading quite a lot of crime thriller and horror books, and sometimes, you just need something a little bit lighthearted and witty to act as a palette cleaner – and The Switch is the perfect book to do that.

I loved The Flat Share – which sold over half a million copies – so had been really excited to check out Beth O’Leary’s second novel.

The blurb reads: “Ordered to take a two-month sabbatical after blowing a big presentation at work, Leena escapes to her grandmother Eileen’s house for some overdue rest. Newly single and about to turn eighty, Eileen would like a second chance at love. But her tiny Yorkshire village doesn’t offer many eligible gentlemen… So Leena proposes a solution: a two-month swap. Eileen can live in London and look for love, and Leena will look after everything in rural Yorkshire.

“But with a rabble of unruly OAPs to contend with, as well as the annoyingly perfect – and distractingly handsome – local schoolteacher, Leena learns that switching lives isn’t straightforward. Back in London, Eileen is a huge hit with her new neighbours, and with the online dating scene. But is her perfect match nearer to home than she first thought?”

The Switch is a book that does what it says on the tin – there’s no plot twist, no big surprises and not too many secrets. But, it’s a book that can hit pretty close to home. If you’re looking for something to cheer you up and remind you of the good in life, then The Switch is the book for you.

Read more: The Switch – Beth O’Leary book review

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

If you could live every version of your life, would you? Would you strive to find your happiest, most successful or most exciting life?

The Midnight Library, by mental health champion Matt Haig, is truly one of my favourite books having devoured it in a day in around four hours. There are few books that stick with me and that I think about frequently: My Sister’s Keeper was the first book to make me cry, Blood Orange was the biggest plot twist I’d ever read, and Daisy Jones and The Six for blurring the line between reality and fiction. The Midnight Library just made it onto the list of books I’ll never forget.

The blurb reads: “Nora’s life has been going from bad to worse. Then at the stroke of midnight on her last day on earth she finds herself transported to a library. There she is given the chance to undo her regrets and try out each of the other lives she might have lived. Which raises the ultimate question: with infinite choices, what is the best way to live?”

This reassuring and comforting book is such a life-affirming read, and beautifully explores the topic of depression in a way I’ve never seen tackled before.

Read more: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig – book review

Small Pleasures – Clare Chambers

The notion of someone calling the office and claiming a virgin birth really isn’t that far fetched when you work in local news, and so, I was excited to see how this novel panned out.

The blurb reads: “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.”

Small Pleasures sees intricate character studies with the slightest of words or actions hinting at the inevitable affairs that ensue as the novel wears on. Whilst each chapter begs the question ‘was it a miracle or not?’, you find yourself far more invested in the characters rather than the article.

Small Pleasures is a maturely written, heartbreaking story of love, loneliness, betrayal and loss. It’s very different to books I’d typically pick, but I’m certainly glad the cover caught my eye.

Read more: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – book review

The Glass House – Eve Chase

Eve understands the secrets lurking in the walls of domestic worlds, and leaks them into the pages of her novels, in an ‘if these walls could talk kind of way’.

The Glass House flits between past and present as Sylvie works to reveal the truth of what happened in the woods years earlier.

The blurb reads: “The truth can shatter everything . . . When the Harrington family discovers an abandoned baby deep in the woods, they decide to keep her a secret and raise her as their own.

“But within days a body is found in the grounds of their house and their perfect new family implodes.

“Years later, Sylvie, seeking answers to nagging questions about her life, is drawn into the wild beautiful woods where nothing is quite what it seems.

“Will she unearth the truth? And dare she reveal it?”

A murder, an abandoned baby, child loss, affairs, teen pregnancies and a whole forest of family trees – The Glass House is  dark and twisting,  exploring grief, the lengths people will go to for the ones they love, and the importance of self-identity and heritage, whilst reminding us just how small the world can be.

Read more: The Glass House – Eve Chase – book review

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age tackles the emotive topics of race, privilege, and class – and its easy to see why it’s been so highly acclaimed.

The book, written by Kiley Reid, was the fiction book of the month for Waterstones in 2021, was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, and shortlisted for the British Book Awards debut book of the year 2021.

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