My top books of 2021 – Mhairi McFarlane, Sera Milano, Rosa Rankin-Gee
Books

My favourite books of 2021

I sometimes find it hard to remember what I did yesterday, let alone any other point in the year, so for the last few years, every time I read a book, or watch a TV show, or film, I mark the title down in my Notes app, alongside a score out of ten. (Sometimes, however, I don’t even remember to do that.) There’s something deliciously barbaric about coming up with a score to rate an experience, assigning a value to something presented for your entertainment.

Years spent analysing the Guardian’s Blind Date column has taught me that scores are staggeringly inconclusive – one man’s 9 is anther woman’s 4. Our criteria and scales are extremely personal which, paradoxically perhaps, means that you, as a thing or person being scored, shouldn’t take a score personally. How can you possibly take a score to heart? Some people love coriander, some don’t; some adore blood-red sunsets, others prefer crisp, clean sunrises. Nobody is unbiased. A final rating is never just about one thing, it encompasses so much: expectations being met or dashed; what was going on in their life elsewhere; how things went (either on a date or while reading the book); how they feel once it’s all over; and whether they’re still thinking of it when they come to give their score. In fact, time between consumption and scoring can also be a factor. It’s all so random; we really should concentrate on giving much, much less of a fuck.

As a writer of some years now, I’m fairly used to my work being scrutinised. Quite a few authors recommend never reading the online comments or reviews, but I’m afraid I do it anyway. What else am I going to do? Just wonder what people are saying behind my back?! Come on! It’s all there – the world is a Burn Book just waiting to be opened! When my second book The Magnificent Sons was due out in 2020 and early copies were in circulation to create ‘buzz’ or whatever, I decided not to read any reviews until after it had come out, unless I was tagged in it. This was a very worthy thing to do, I suppose, and sounds vaguely impressive when I recount the story, but it was also very boring. I wanted to know!

Anyway, for the next one, THE FAKE-UP, out in April in hardback etc etc, I decided I may as well have a look at what people were saying. And it’s been fine. I’m an old hand now; I can take it, and I can’t change anything now even if I wanted to. I actually quite enjoy the variety of opinions that somehow cluster underneath the same rating. It is entirely possible, for example, for a score of 3/5 to comprise any one of the following:

– A rave review from someone who loved everything about the book and couldn’t put it down

– A meh from a reader who thought it okay, sufficient, no big deal, but not a total waste of time.

– An eviscerating takedown from someone who cannot understand why the author even bothered plugging their laptop in or, indeed, being born.

They will all say it was ‘an easy read’ and – advice to writers incoming – it is best you don’t think about whether that is a good or a bad thing. (I say good: I don’t want readers running off to Google every third line and taking six months to finish it.)

If this sounds frustrating, it can be sometimes, usually when it comes to making sure the algorithms are aligning for you or whatever. But personally, it’s quite reassuring that numbers have been around for 20,000 years and yet when it comes to giving feedback and rating an experience, we’re all very much doing our own thing and refusing to conform. Your work simply cannot be for everyone, and the inconsistency in how we express our love or distaste for something is what keeps us a little farther away from full automation, I reckon.

That said, a 4 or a 5 can really help with that good old algorithm and those golly-gosh-if-you-could-see-your-way-to-buying-it-I’d-be-super-grateful book sales.
Anyway, as I did last year, I’ve picked my top three favourite books of the year. I’m lucky to get to read a lot of books ahead of publication, so around a quarter of this year’s reads don’t come out into 2022, so are not eligible. I’ve also read books that came out in previous years because HELLO it’s not all about the new.

You can find a selection of my 2021 reads on my Bookshop page – not all of them are on there, btw, including the amazing Golden Girls Forever compendium that my bf got me last Christmas – but here is my top three, with a few honourable mentions below because it’s nice to give a shoutout, isn’t it? Books marked with an asterisk* were sent to me by publishers. Everything else I paid for.

Last Night – Mhairi McFarlane

Cover of Last Night, which features an illustration of a woman sitting on a sofa reading a letter.

When I first got my original book deal back in 2016, my then-editor sent me a big box of books with a note that said, ‘These are the kind of books we might expect your books to share shelf space with’. Such a thing was unimaginable to me to be honest, and was even more daunting when I saw one of them was Mhairi McFarlane’s It’s Not Me, It’s You. This made me nervous because Mhairi’s romantic comedies are very very good indeed – and hugely popular – and at that point, my first draft of The Last Romeo didn’t feel like it was within even ten hectares of being even half as great. I don’t know what to say about Last Night without giving too much of the plot away because something extremely huge happens early on and turns the book, and your world, upside down and suddenly, brilliantly, expertly: it’s a whole different story. It’s about Eve and her three closest friends – one of whom is gay and called Justin which is NOTHING to do with why I love this book, btw – and a life-changing event that they spend the rest of the book dealing with. Mhairi’s dialogue zings off the page, and her characters are always warm, and/or funny, and/or cool, and/or shaggable, and/or very punchable indeed depending on how she wants you to feel about them. One of my pet peeves is when someone tells you that something that made them cry in an effort to get a reaction out of you – crying, like rating something out of five, has no definitive parameters – and yet here I am, writing here, that Last Night made me cry. And laugh! Last Night is a comedy about a tragedy, and gets the tone absolutely right – that sweet yet painful intersection between rocking with laughter and trembling with grief as you try to keep your eyes from spilling over. It’s not easy, but Mhairi makes it look effortless. When you hit your late thirties, especially, friendships change; the vines that used to bind you together begin to wander, sprouting and flourishing in different directions. How you cope with it depends on how strong your bond was in the first place. Last Night might make you wonder how you’d react if its events happened to you or, if you’ve already been there, it may feel like having your own story told back to you. This book is a punch to the balls, but somehow leaves you feeling glad of the attention. Brilliant. My book of 2021.

>> BUY LAST NIGHT
This Can Never Not Be Real – Sera Milano*

Cover of Sera Milano book – lettering of title is spelled out in sparklers

I don’t read as much YA as I’d like, I confess, which is a shame really as I always enjoy it when I do, but it’s more a lack of time than inclination. I find YA, generally, very inclusive, and there’s a relationship there between target audience and writer that feels very honest and equal. After two (very smart and funny) middle-grade novels, Sera Milano rocketed round a hairpin bend with this, her third book and it really paid off. Set over a few hours, This Can Never Not Be Real is about a group of teenagers caught up in some kind of terrorist attack while at their town’s annual festival in the grounds of a local National Trust-type house of historic interest. As someone unwittingly caught up in the bombings in London on 7 July 2005, I was impressed by how brilliantly Sera captured the fear and tension of an unfolding, apparently random event. I felt like I was there with each character, willing them to survive but also desperate to know what the hell was going on, eager to find a rational explanation for something that rarely makes any sense at all. The attack is violent and sustained but this isn’t a gratuitous gore-fest; it’s about the instinct to survive, and how, when your life is in danger, almost everything else that’s going on seems inconsequential yet utterly vital at the same time. Most people never get to control the next chapter of their lives, and I was hanging on every word to see how this ended. Electrifying.

>> BUY THIS CAN NEVER NOT BE REAL
Dreamland – Rosa Rankin-Gee*

Cover of Dreamland which features the ruins of an old pier or jetty (I'm not a sailor, no idea) on a beach, underneath a grey sky.

You might think reading a borderline apocalyptic novel during the third lockdown of a terrifying pandemic a whole month before my first lifesaving vaccine shot would be a bad idea. But if anything it helped put everything into perspective. Set in the currently very trendy but imminently underwater Margate, Dreamland tells the story of young girl Chance, who lives in a not too distant future where water levels are rising and anyone with any sense, and the financial means, has escaped inland. Growing up poor, with an erratic mother and a caring but dodgy older brother in a world where nobody seems to care about what happens to them, sensitive Chance has to toughen up to survive. When she meets an enigmatic stranger, she dares to imagine happiness for herself, that she can actually live rather than just exist. It would be simplistic to call Dreamland dystopian because it’s much more than that. It’s bleak at times, yes, but it’s witty and very involving. Rosa’s writing is really beautiful, even in the main character’s depths of despair – no detail is missed, no emotion left unfelt. It’s also a terrifying reminder of the selfishness of humanity and how that’s coming back to bite us on the bum much sooner than we’d hope.

>> BUY DREAMLAND

And now…

Honourable mentions:

We Need to Talk About Money – Otegha Uwagba. Another insightful and witty banger from Otegha, whose essay Whites was one of my top three books of 2020. This is part-memoir, part-dismantling of our screwed-up reverence for money and those who have lots of it. Oxbridge toffs, the advertising industry, and the cringeworthy cult of hipster media each get a satisfying skewering. Buy

Memorial – Bryan Washington. At times stark, sometimes uplifting, this tale of a gay couple reevaluating their relationship when one of them takes off to Japan for a family emergency had its ups and downs for me, but I liked the first third so much, it still scored highly. The awkward silences leap out of the page. Buy

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle – Matt Cain*. A feelgood gay romance about a postman whose retirement is the catalyst for coming out, this still packs some heft, taking in historical homophobia, ageism, and loneliness, all with Matt’s trademark warmth and charm. Buy

Detransition, Baby – Torrey Peters. Our flawed, hyper-smart heroine Reese is a trans woman who’s offered the chance of motherhood by her now detransitioned ex Ames and Katrina, the cisgender woman colleague Ames has got pregnant. There’s properly impressive writing and a great cast of characters that I wanted to know more about, even if the premise didn’t quite work for me. Buy

A Still Life – Josie George. Awe-inspiring writing in this kind and uplifting memoir about finding the magic and beauty of being alive when a chronic illness makes your world much smaller than you’d like. Relatable for many reasons, not least because I read it during yet another lockdown. Buy

The To-Do List – Amy Jones. I have loved Amy’s writing for a long time, and her memoir is funny, heartbreaking and honest. Buy

The Breakup Monologues – Rosie Wilby*. A funny and wise exploration of relationships and common things that go wrong and, of course, what ends them. Buy

Older stuff I’ve liked this year: 

My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite. (Would be my runner-up book of the year if it had come out this year.)

Sweet Sorrow – David Nicholls

Play it as it Lays – Joan Didion

Wow No Thank You – Samantha Irby

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh (started well, anyway)

The inevitable plug for my own books

Me! Holding paperback copies of my first two books, wearing a T-shirt that says 'But Daddy I love him' and a strange expression.

I’ve officially been an author for almost four years now, and I like it, which is great news, isn’t it? Sadly, I’m not the kind of author who can afford to buy a big castle or travel business class or whatever, so I still rely on people buying my books for my income! Christmas is coming up so why don’t you treat someone you vaguely like to one (or both) of mine currently on sale? The Last Romeo is a ‘razor-sharp’ (someone else’s words, not mine) tale about gay dating and the lies we tell online, while The Magnificent Sons is a ‘warm, witty, heartbreaking’ story of two brothers trying to work themselves out in the 21st century. The paperback is £2 on Amazon at the moment. If I get really rich and successful, I promise not to turn out to be a massive bigot, as is all too common these days!

Davina McCall on the set of Big Brother saying' Do you want another one?'

And if you’ve read those, why not preorder my third one The Fake-Up, which is a snarky rom-com about a couple who are destined to be together, but have to pretend they’re not, for various reasons that will become evident upon reading. It is good! A solid 3/5 – in the rave review sense! It’s out in April.

>> PREORDER THE FAKE-UP

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