Best Reads of 2021 (part 1)

A few days ago, we examined my least favourite books of 2021, but today we’re going more positive and looking at my favourite reads!

I read a lot of books in 2021, and the majority of them were really good. But there were a couple that just stood out from the crowd. These are the five stars out of the five stars. The books that I know will be going on my reread lists in the coming years.

If you want to see a more comprehensive view of all the books (good and bad) that I read last year, you can take a look at my Year in Books . Also, I will note that I’m not including rereads on this list, even though all my rereads were five stars, simply because I’ve gushed about those books in other posts (such as 2020 and 2019) and this post is already monstrous.

Without further ado, let’s get into it!

When The Apricots Bloom: Gina Wilkinson

Every year, my library does a summer reading challenge with a different theme, and this year’s theme is reading around the world. When The Apricots Bloom was my read for the Middle East subsection and it was so good. It was a heartrending tale of life under Saddam Hussein in Iraq, told through the perspectives of three different woman. Huda, a secretary for the Australian embassy and informant for the secret police. Rania, the once privileged daughter of a sheikh, now a struggling manager of an art gallery in Baghdad. And Ally Wilson, the wife of the deputy ambassador from Australia.

Their lives intertwine in dangerous, and beautiful ways, as the two Iraqi women give all they have to save their children from the tyrannical government. It was such a wonderful examination of both a mother’s love for her children, and a person’s love for their country, despite the tyranny of it’s leaders. It was a slow, meandering book, but there was an undercurrent of suspense and fear present through the whole thing, which really kept me hooked. It’s also heavily based on the author’s experience living as an ambassador’s wife in Irag during the Saddam Hussein regime, and as the reader you can feel the thread of authenticity her experience weaves into it.

Overall, I definitely recommend.

The Icepick Surgeon: Sam Kean

This is a fun, and yet serious, pop science book which examines the various crimes that have been committed in the name of science over the past few hundred years. The topics are extremely varied, ranging from piracy, to espionage, fraud, murder, racism, slavery and ableism. The serious topics are dealt with delicately and respectfully, but in an easy to read and understand way, and with humour in the appropriate moments.

Some of the people and events in this book are well-known, such as the popularisation of lobotomies and the pirates who served in the name of science (William Dampier and Francis Drake, for instance), and Burke and Hare, the infamous “scientific” murderers of Victorian Britain. Others are not so well known, such as the woman who fraudulently tested thousands of drug samples in the mid 2010s.

So overall, it provided a nice balance of well known and obscure stories, and nicely balanced respect for the cruelty wreaked in the name of science, with humour and an easy writing style.

Say Hello: Carly Findlay

Say Hello is a memoir by Carly Findlay, a disabled Australian activist, who has ichthyosis (a serious skin condition). It’s beautiful written and examines both Australian attitudes towards disability and chronic illness, and Carly’s own personal life experience. It was challenging in some parts, and funny in others, and upsetting in several more. I felt a lot of empathy for Carly, despite not having a visible illness, because frankly, a lot of the things she faces are also faced by people with invisible disabilities. The disbelief (“You’re too young to be sick”), the denial (“I don’t see you as disabled!”), the unsolicited medical advice (“Well, my cousin cured her condition with this essential oil which is definitely not from an MLM”), and the shaming (“Obviously you don’t want to get better, or you’d be trying harder!”) were all relatable.

Highly recommend this book, whether you’re disabled or not!

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Bronte

This book…this is just the pinnacle of Victorian literature. Trust me, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is brilliant.

Written by the most obscure Bronte sister, Anne’s novel is a deconstruction of her sisters’ favourite trope–the brooding, abusive bad boy.

Essentially, it follows Helen, a young woman who falls for Arthur Huntington, the Byronic Hero of this tale, and marries him, naively believing that she can tame him.

Well, he isn’t tame and as he becomes more and more physically, emotionally and verbally abusive, Helen begins making plans to escape. But obviously, this is Victorian England, and women weren’t allowed to simply up and leave.

The end result is an amazing novel that examines the rights of women, written long before feminism was an organised movement. I highly recommend it, particularly if you enjoy Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

The Other Side of Perfect: Mariko Turk

This book is a masterpiece of YA fiction. The story follows Alina, a ballet dancer, on track to become a prima ballerina, who suffers a traumatic fall which shatters her leg.

With her dreams ruined, Alina withdraws into herself, cutting off her best friend, who is still living her ballet dreams. But her parents aren’t having any of this, so in a last ditch effort to get them off her back, Alina signs up for the school musical.

Of course, here she meets a cute boy named Jude, and she begins to question the only life she’s ever known. She’s forced to examine her beloved ballet, and along with her best friend (who is black), unpack the racism that is prevalent in the dance industry. The book also deals with girl hate (most of the school dislikes Alina, and one of the other girls, because of their driven, ambitious and aloof natures), sexism, broken relationships, and how to challenge the status quo.

To sum it up, this is one of the best YA contemporaries I’ve read and I highly recommend it.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory: Caitlin Doughty

This is a surprisingly hilarious book detailing the author’s experience working in a crematorium. Fresh out of college with a degree in medieval history, Caitlin gets a job at West Wind Crematorium, where she’s thrown into a world of make up, ashes, and wildly hilarious situations.

As anyone who’s come across her YouTube channel (Ask a Mortician), can tell you, Caitlin is a hugely charismatic person. And she tells her stories so well, and somehow manages to relay these crazily inappropriate situations, while still remaining respectful to the deceased in question.

This book is a tiny bit morbid, but if you have an interest in the culture and traditions surrounding death, it would definitely interest you.

The War of the Worlds: H.G. Wells

I have a post sitting in my drafts all about why I loved this one, which I’ll post soon. I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but suffice to say I loved this book (and also the musical) and I can’t wait to unnecessarily dissect every word.

The Shape of Sound: Fiona Murphy

2021 was nothing if not the year of disabled memoirs, and this one did not disappoint.

The Shape of Sound chronicles Fiona’s struggle to accept and identify with her deafness, and to find her way in a world that is centred around hearing people. She also spends a lot of time on her difficulty learning Auslan as an adult, and becoming involved in the Deaf Community.

It was a really good read, and Fiona also has a short story in the collection Growing Up Disabled in Australia (edited by Carly Findlay), which is an edited version of one of the chapters in The Shape of Sound.

Circe: Madeline Miller

There are no words that can adequately describe how much I loved Circe, both the book and the character. There were simply no downsides to this book, Circe was fascinated, well-developed and likeable, the plot was winding and twisting, and the prose was achingly beautiful (and the audiobook narrator had such a melodious voice).

I’m quickly latching onto the fact that feminist retellings of old myths and legends are literally my favourite reading material at the moment.

I think the best way I can describe this book is by imagining a forest you walk through all the time. All the trees, animals and paths are familiar to you, you know it all and are used to it. And then, imagine that someone took you through that forest again, but they were pointing out all these new things, things you’d never noticed before because you’d stopped paying attention. They showed you again all the beauty with fresh eyes and a different frame of mind.

That’s what Circe is like, because Miller treads over well-worn paths of Greek mythology, but casts a fresh gaze over them, inviting you to view the events and characters in a different light.

Overall, highly recommend. Especially the audiobook.

Never fear, part two will be coming very soon! Have you read any of these books? What were some of your favourite reads for this year? Do you have any recs for retellings of old myths from a woman’s POV? If so, please send them my way!

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