There are books to make you laugh, books to make you cry, and books that make you unsure of which you’d rather do. In 2021, I read each of those. I surpassed my reading goal of forty-five books and tried everything I could get my hands on. I read in bed, on the train, by a pool in Spain for three glorious days, and curled under a blanket on the couch.
These seven novels were the highlights in a rocky year, and gave me thousands of pages away from reality. I have no doubt that I’ll be rereading them in the years to come, and maybe you’ll feel the same way.
Here they are, the seven books that stood out of the forty-seven books I read in 2021. My top reads of the year:
“And at the center of it all was Sassy Cassy, the Texan with a signature smirk that had everyone falling for her. But now she's dead. Suicide.” - The Unravelling of Cassidy Holmes, Goodreads
I find it shocking that I don’t run into this book more often online. I see the same books recommended over and over again, most of which are truly good, and yet this little gem is ushered into the shadows. That’s why I decided to put this book front and centre, in the deserved first place spot!
To set the scene: I was emerging from my Taylor Jenkins Reid binge (more on that later) and looking for something fresh. I wanted a debut read. Do you ever have that craving? To read the first work that an author put out into the world, to see their words and style before it was tarnished, however slightly by negative reviews or the opinions of thousands. So I checked out my To Read list and found ‘The Unravelling of Cassidy Holmes’, which I had once seen recommended on Instagram. This book caught my eye as it dealt with mental illness, as the story begins with the announcement that pop star Cassidy Holmes has committed suicide - what a way to start!
The novel takes place in the past, where it follows the girl band Gloss as they rise to fame, and the present, where the remaining members come to terms with Cassidy’s death. It’s the only book I’ve read that started with a trigger warning. The book is told from multiple perspectives, including Cassidy’s, and takes you through the supposedly glamorous rise and fall of a pop icon. I loved that even though you know what happens in the present from the first page, you still devour each page, searching for clues and some kind of an explanation, and how layered the characters are.
I absolutely adored this book and definitely recommend it to read in 2022!
“In Troy you will find heroism and hatred, love and loss, revenge and regret, desire and despair. It is these human passions, written bloodily in the sands of a distant shore, that still speak to us today.” - Troy, Goodreads
If you’ve read Mythos and Heroes, then don’t forget to top it all off with the final instalment: Troy! And if you haven’t read the other two, get on it or just hop onto this book instead. The books work as stand alones, but reading them all provides a layered context that I found helpful.
I have always been fascinated by the battle of Troy, probably from watching shirtless Brad Pitt as Achilleas at an impressionable age. I’ve read quite a bit of Greek mythology books in my time (it was a struggle to only limit myself to two onto this article), and none have portrayed the siege of Troy better than this book. Fry distinguishes himself through starting long before the Greek ships sailed, earlier than the gathering of the suitors of Troy, to provide the geographical, economic and mythological context required to properly understand what was going on.
He turns the characters into more than just a name or single act, transforming them into real people with strengths and weaknesses, love and hatred, accomplishments and failures. I particularly liked that Fry didn’t force readers to choose a side and instead caused you to switch between the two sides repeatedly.
“Defying the gods, betraying her family and country, and risking everything for love, Ariadne helps Theseus kill the Minotaur. But will Ariadne's decision ensure her happy ending?” - Ariadne, Goodreads
And here is the second Greek mythology novel I allowed to sneak into this article! It was a tough decision between Jennifer Saint and Madeline Miller, both of whom are incredible writers that paint Greek mythology so vividly to life. But given that I see Miller shared more often, I went for the ‘underdog’ of the two! I also favoured Ariadne for the theme of sisterhood, as I love reading about sisters.
This book is about seizing back the story that defined Ariadne’s life in a few sentences. You might recognise her name from Theseus and the Minotaur, where she helped him to successfully slay the Minotaur, escape the labyrinth and save countless lives. But what happened next for this Creation princess? Why doesn’t the rest of Thesus’ long tale include this heroine that turned on her family for the greater good?
In this novel, Saint explores what happens to the women standing directly behind the most famous myths, focusing on the case of Ariadne and her younger sister Phaedra. You’re given a backstage pass to the birth and raising of the Minotaur, to the woman who changed the fate of Athens and Crete, and to how the gods appear up close…
I won’t spoil anymore, because I loved reading a Greek book where I didn’t know the rest of the story in the slightest. I was on the edge of my seat and devoted to Ariadne faithfully.
“Under the surface, though, conditions are murkier. While some people clash, other people like each other far too much . . .” - Grown Ups, Goodreads
This is the longest book I read in 2021 and probably the fastest I read! But the 656 pages are needed to take you through the stories of all of these characters. I’ve seen some reviews complain about the number of characters, as the plot follows three brothers and their partners, as well as mentioning the various children involved. At the start, I had to flick back to the family tree a few times, but if you focus and give it time, you get so involved in this delicious story that you’ll know everyone better than your own family!
Keyes does more than deliver another dysfunctional Irish family; she provides an insightful portrayal of layered characters and how they bring out the best and worst of each other. This was my favourite Marian Keyes, taking the crown from The Other Side of the Story, because of how she dealt with a very particular mental illness storyline. I won’t spoil anything, but seeing this issue dealt with by one of my favourite authors meant so much to me, and I think it sheds light on a very misunderstood mental illness, also addressing the experiences of those surrounding them.
This book resonated with me because it shows how inexplicably we become linked to our family, not just the one we were born into. It covers how people moved past the worst things that could have happened to them, the moments that you think you couldn’t ever deal with.
“What happened to the women we were supposed to become?” - Expectation, Goodreads
As the stereotypically lost twenty-something-year-old, I needed to read this book. I needed it even more in 2021, amidst heartbreak, a pandemic and a good old helping of existential angst. In Expectation, the characters are left to question where their life veered so desperately off-track, as they all can’t seem to pinpoint it.
Cate, Hannah and Lisa are three friends who met and lived together in their early twenties and are now ten years further and not pleased with how things have turned out. They each have their own struggles - flailing careers, wanting children and faltering marriages- as they try to understand how they could be leading a meaningful life.
The detached yet somehow still personal style of writing reminded me a lot of Sally Rooney. I liked how Hope wasn’t afraid to make aspects of the characters highly unlikeable, as that allowed the reader to find themselves in one, or several, of them.
“At the turn of the millennium, Jesse seeks a fresh start in London, escaping a broken immediate family, a repressive religious community and his depressed hometown in the industrial Black Country.” - Rainbow Milk, Goodreads
I was trying to push myself out of the comfort zone of my own perspective when I picked up this novel in my favourite bookstore, drawn to the stunning cover art. The book is split into two parts.
The first is set in the 1950s, when an ex-boxer Norman Alonso reflects on how he reached this point. A humble and determined Jamaican, Norman immigrated to Britain with his wife to secure a brighter future for their children. He explores the false dreams they once arrived with and how they need more than just hope to survive in this unfriendly new environment.
The second moves us forward several decades, where nineteen-year-old Jesse grapples with his sexual and racial identities against the background of a Jehovah’s Witness upbringing. As I said, this book was my chance to immerse myself in a world that differed significantly from my own, and I cherished the opportunity! Jesse escapes his cold family and seeks a new start in London, but finds himself untethered and turning to sex work.
This novel wasn’t always easy to read, but it was so worth it. It explores race, class, freedom, religion, sexuality and identity and what those mean across generations, cultures and periods. Mendez captures each voice perfectly and begs you to care for these characters as you pray for a happy ending.
“By morning, the Riva mansion will have gone up in flames. But before that first spark in the early hours before dawn, the alcohol will flow, the music will play, and the loves and secrets that shaped this family’s generations will all come bubbling to the surface.” - Malibu Rising, Goodreads
In 2021, I dived deep into a Taylor Jenkins Reid reading binge, one that inspired me to write this article on bingeing authors.
I could recommend almost each Taylor Jenkins Reid, but for this article, I thought I’d just focus on her latest novel that was released in 2021. I think her latest three novels (Malibu Rising, Daisy Jones and the Six, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo) really stand out from her previous work in how they bring a new time alive and focus on different perspectives and roles.
We find ourselves in Malibu in 1983, just in time for Nina Riva’s famous end-of-summer party. The story focuses on four siblings. Nina is a talented surfer and supermodel and has just been publicly abandoned by her tennis player husband. Jay is a pro surfer nursing a career-ending secret and hoping to see someone special at the party. Hud is hiding a massive secret from his brother, and tonight is the time to confess. And finally, Kit, who has a couple of secrets rolled up her too-big sleeves, including a guest she invited without consulting anyone.
The book moves seamlessly between each of the siblings whilst also addressing their childhood and broken upbringing, and shares moments of various party guests who contribute to the tale.
As I said, I could easily write about all the books I read in 2021, as there was something wonderful in each of them. But if I had to choose only seven to gift the next reader, it would have to be these seven. Within them, there is joy, loss, family, loneliness, friendship, hope and possibility, everything that made up 2021 and every year that follows. I’m already excited for all the books that this year will bring, both new and old, rereads and debuts. Good luck on another year of appreciating the magic of the written word!
Looking for a way to structure your 2022 reading goals?
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Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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