There’s nothing like a story that drags you in and refuses to let you go. The kind of book that’s so captivating it’s almost impossible to put down. I have a horrible (but fun) habit of staying up way later than I should when I get lost in a great book. So, this post is all about paying homage to the best novels I stumbled across in 2021.
Ranking books is an inherently difficult and inexact process. It’s so subjective that lists like this should be taken with a huge grain of salt. I’m biased toward my favorite genres and favorite plot types, even though I tried to break away from them often. But rest assured that every book on this list is phenomenal and totally worth reading regardless of what genre you’re into. Quality writing stands out, and this list is filled with superb examples.
So, let’s get down to business.
Top 5 Novels I Read in 2021
5. The Devil and the Dark Water
Stuart Turton’s mystery thriller knocks it out of the park. Not as well known as his first novel, The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I preferred it for a couple reasons. One, it takes place entirely aboard a Dutch trading vessel returning to Europe from an Indonesian colony. Turton’s use of a singular setting was masterful and lent a sense of adventure and danger that is sometimes lacking or not as heightened in your average mystery. I had no idea how treacherous long sea journeys were back then. And two, it involves the devil and a plot that seems totally unsolvable. I’m a sucker for sadistic/evil/devil worship stuff. Of course, the protagonist unravels the seemingly impenetrable mystery little by little, but he's hampered by the fact that he's confined to the ship's cramped brig for reasons unknown. Everything ties together in a plot that's chilling for both the characters and reader. Oh yeah, there’s a wild twist at the end that I’m not going to get into.
Intrigue, death, deception, and a ton of existential dangers and diverse characters aboard a small boat who really don’t like one another. You get the sense from the get go that the whole thing is destined for disaster, and the way the plot goes down in flames is fascinating to read. Fans of historical fiction and mystery thrillers won’t be disappointed.
4. The Prisoner of Heaven
Carlos Ruiz Zafon is my favorite author. There’s a poetry to his prose that no one else I’ve come across has been able to replicate. His novels capture the melancholia and danger of early twentieth century Barcelona in a way that can’t help staying with you. The third installment in his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, The Prisoner of Heaven focuses on the protagonist’s best friend and the time he spent in a Barcelona prison twenty years previous during the Spanish Civil War. In the present he is being equal parts hunted and toyed with by a mysterious man he was imprisoned with.
This series blurs the lines between genre fiction and something much more literary in style. A gloomy, rain-soaked Barcelona leaps off the page and it’s impossible not to fall in love, despite the constant peril and sheer unfairness of life the characters face. This is a novel I’m already excited to reread and will hopefully never forget.
3. The Historian
History, folklore, and mystery come together seamlessly in Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel. Some call it an adventure travelogue or a historical thriller. There’s definitely a Gothic feel as well. It’s not exactly new (2005) like a lot of this list, and I know I’ve talked about it in a previous blog. But it’s third on the list because it’s an amazing story and has two things I really like: history and vampires. Not cliché movie vampires or young adult night stalkers. The basis is Vlad Tepes, the real-life inspiration for Dracula, and the eventual search for his hidden tomb.
A present day plot is narrated by the protagonist, a young girl who eventually grows into an inquisitive teenager. The backstory is narrated by her father, Paul, twenty years previous. The trouble begins when a mysterious book containing the woodcut of a dragon turns up while Paul is conducting research for his thesis. Paul’s mentor subsequently goes missing and he’s led on a cross-continent search and rescue mission with Helen, his reluctant travel companion. In the present his daughter ends up being led on a very similar quest.
The Historian is a work of art for all who love history and mythology, particularly vampire mythology. It’s long, but I tore through it and couldn’t help wishing for a sequel.
2. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires
I stayed in the vampire genre. But I got more recent (published 2020) so that’s something. Grady Hendrix managed to write a novel that’s funny, off-kilter, and indicative of a life just about any person, young and old, who’s lived in the suburbs can relate to. There’s gossip, awkward neighbor relationships, wives living under the thumb of their oppressive husbands, and the total mind-**** that maybe something terrible is going on, or maybe the protagonist is simply out of her mind.
This novel isn’t about vampires. Not really. It’s about the principal characters, brought together by an impromptu book club, and the dynamics between them. That’s what makes it so great. I tore through it, and even though I’ve never lived in the South Carolina low-country I’ve been down there enough that I had some familiarity with the setting. But even if you don’t Hendrix does a phenomenal job of painting the picture.
A mysterious man moves in down the street. Is he evil? Or are all the bad things that start happening just a string of weird coincidences? Honestly this novel felt like a social critique, an examination of one little slice of the suburban south in the 90’s, as much as it did a horror story. It was so much fun and had such a strong voice I had to put it at #2 on this list.
1. The Prince of Tides
I’m a little late to the party here, I know. Please don’t hold it against me. But I can’t be the only one who’s known about The Prince of Tides, had some vague awareness of it lingering in the back of the mind, but never got around to reading it. If you’re one of those people, open the cover and start reading. Pat Conroy’s most well-known novel is a masterpiece in so many ways.
This is the second book on the list set in the South Carolina low country. Colleton is a fictional town, but it’s based on a town further inland that got totally relocated by the infamous Savannah River Site. But this novel is about much more than a town. It’s about pain, healing, learning to live with one’s past, and finding yourself in a world where it’s so easy to feel lost and untethered.
The book starts with the protagonist’s sister in a New York City psychiatric hospital after another suicide attempt, but we don’t know why. Slowly, as we uncover the protagonist’s past from childhood through adulthood we get a look at the demons haunting the entire Wingo family. Their pain is shared by the reader in a way that is haunting, real, and lasting. But throughout the book there is joy and euphoria.
Pat Conroy is a master, and I really can’t give this novel any higher praise.
Honorable Mention: Master of the Game
No list is complete without a little added bonus.
I read Mistress of the Game as a teenager (published 2009) and fell in love. It was written by Tilly Bagshawe, not Sidney Sheldon (he died in 2007), but picked up the story of America’s preeminent family and all the intrigues surrounding their mega-corporation, Kruger-Brent. I finally got around to reading Master of the Game, Sheldon’s family saga masterpiece, and wouldn’t have felt right leaving it off this list.
I’m dipping into the past again, this time way back to the early 80’s. In my opinion, great books easily stand the test of time. Kate Blackwell is the matriarch of the Blackwell family and head of Kruger-Brent Int. But how did she get there? The story jumps back to her father, Jamie McGregor, and how he turned bleak prospects into a generational windfall.
From there the novel takes us through Jamie’s life and onto Kate’s, with plenty of underhandedness, scheming, and betrayal along the way. I couldn’t get enough of this book, and wish there were a dozen more like it. It’s easy to read and as “binge-worthy” (not just for Netflix) as anything I’ve read in recent memory.
That’s the list. I hope you enjoyed it. I’m always on the lookout for new books, so if you’ve got some killer recommendations send them my way in the comments or at email@example.com. Until next time!
- Charles Harned