Every Brilliant Book I Read In The Second Half of 2021
I’m so sorry I’ve not written one of these posts in a while! The latter half of 2021 was super busy, but I know while it is not food content, a lot of you enjoy these posts to find something to read every so often, so without further ado, here is every brilliant book I read and can recommend during the second half of 2021!
A little bit of light housekeeping before we get started: while usually I mark all my affiliate links as (ad), to keep things tidy in this post I’ve used a (*) instead – I’ve honestly loved and would recommend all of these books, so think of using these links to make your purchases as using a personal shopper for book recommendations, and a way that does not cost you any extra to support all the free content I create for this site. Also, some of these books were gifted to me to review on my bookstagram, Lilac & Ink. These have all been marked as gifted where applicable.
Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding* (gifted)
We’re starting in Edwardian England, just prior to the outbreak of WWI, Agnes Ashford is hired as the family archivist to the Bryant family, grateful for a position and very aware that she must hide the truth about her past. Taking advantage of events at the house and against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world where class divisions are starting to fall away she manages to rise to be the right hand of Lady Helen Bryant, the glittering matriarch who entangles Agnes in some of the families deepest, darkest acts as they fight to cling onto their wealth, position and titles as the world changes around them.
The narrative is meandering, but still compelling. It jumps from being a country house gothic novel to being full of summers in Italy and political machinations in Westminster, but it does all come together in the end and the writing is so good, the thematic jumping around does not matter all too much. This book is about the journey as much as the destination – actually, while I guessed the big reveal at the start, cleverly, Fielding made me forget I’d even sussed it as I read on. She also made me forget how ruthless her characters could be, sullying the waters further in the build up to a very satisfying ending.
A new release in the spring that I thought I was not into, but actually, in the end had a really twisty, surprising, satisfying ending – I know this is an audiobook review but I think part of the problem at first was that The Vanishing at Loxby Manor is one of those ones I think is probably much better in print, so even if you’re into your audiobooks like me, read this one rather than listen to it!
Billed as a Regency romance for fans of Bridgerton its really a Recency country house mystery (you know I can’t resist a gothic novel with a big house full of family secrets!) – Charity Halliwell arrives back in England after five years abroad to stay with the Cavanaugh’s at Loxby Manor, her childhood friends. But her homecoming is turned upside down when her friend Seline goes missing and Charity and Piers Cavanaugh – Seline’s brother and her former paramour who broke things off in strained circumstances – take it upon themselves to investigate. What follows is a clever, dark mystery full of cryptic letters, stormy weather and secret societies.
Ruby May is a highly trained, elite nurse from the prestigious Noreland Institute, but when her employers emigrate from London to Chicago she turns in her notice citing family reasons that prevent her going with them, but avoids explaining anything further. In need of another position the Institute posts her to the depths of Yorkshire to look after the children of the England family, a big country house where (you guessed it!) she gradually learns that the family is just as unhappy and dysfunctional as her own, with just as many dark sinister secrets she slowly, uncomfortably uncovers.
Mrs England has everything that Stacey Hall’s other two, also brilliant books The Familiars* and The Foundling* have in beautiful, vivid, engaging writing, fully formed, curious, and sometimes sympathetic characters, and a big reveal (this one is quite something!) at the end where all the breadcrumbs were cleverly left if only we’d known what we were looking for – and which we reach in a really clever crescendo. I especially loved the characters of the children and how they were each shaped by the hidden truth of their family dynamic, as well as the eery, vivid descriptions of the all important moor. Also, as ever with a Stacey Halls book, I really appreciated her authors note at the end and learning how much truth the book was actually rooted in.
John Eyre by Mimi Matthews* (gifted)
As you probably may have guessed, John Eyre is a retelling of my favourite classic novel – Jane Eyre – but flipped, so that Jane becomes John, the new tutor to the two wards of Mrs Rochester at the dark, remote and forbidding Thornefield Hall. It’s actually also a retelling – in part – of another beloved gothic classic in a very clever way (especially when you get to the authors note at the end), but letting you all know about that one would be a massive spoiler that I don’t want to ruin!
I both raced through and adored John Eyre – it was one of those reads I kept on trying to carve out time to spend with my reading for, and I think if anything it is more spookier and gothic than the original. The characters are bold and vivid, the retelling clever while still being true to the original, and if you enjoyed the original, even a little bit, you need to go order it right now. A seriously excellent, fun, enjoyable gothic read.
As previous readers of these reviews? Guides? Lists? Roundups? Will know I’m a massive fan of E. S. Thomson’s brilliant Jem Flockhart mysteries, following a hospital apothecary and their (and I’m using ‘their’ for a reason) friend and partner Will as they solve a series of gruesome – and often personal – murders throughout Victorian London. They’re gothic brilliant at their best, starting proceedings in Beloved Poison* where Jem and Will meet in the soon to be demolished hospital full of egotistic doctors and obsessed anatomy surgeons. Will is an architect, tasked with clearing the cemetery to make way for a new bridge, but obviously murder gets in the way.
Nightshade* is the 5th book in the series that contains a mystery just as compelling, characters old and new that seem larger than life, and which reveals, tantalisingly, just that little bit more about our main characters. It is certainly an excellent reason to get your teeth into this series if you’re looking for a new world to immerse yourself in for 2022.
These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan* (gifted)
If you’re a Sarah J Maas fan you’ll love this fantasy novel with echoes of A Court of Thorns and Roses* full of parallel worlds and humans plunged into fae courts. While for the first 100 pages I though it would be a bit cookie cutter it really hotted up to the point where at the end when all the twists started coming in thick and fast I always had the feeling that something was not quite right but I absolutely did not guess how it ended – and it has been set up for a sequel I’m already looking forward to!
Brie travels to the Seelie Court under the guise of vying for the princes’ hand in marriage in order to hunt for her sister who has been sold into slavery to the fae to pay off a life debt. Given three tasks in order to win her her freedom she gets caught between warring courts responsible for great brutalities, right in the middle of a twisted love triangle, and she’s subject to constant manipulations, never truly knowing who she can really trust. Oh and there are goblins. I’ve never seen a goblin in a fantasy novel and I’m very happy that there are goblins.
Threadneedle by Cari Thomas* (gifted)
Anna always knew that her magic would be bound. Magic is dangerous, magic is what will get you killed. Magic got her parents killed. Or at least, that is what her Aunt who raised her has always taken pains to teach her. However, when she joins a coven at school and starts to explore her magic during her last year of freedom before her binding she discovers something wrong with her magic and becomes desperate to find out the truth about her family and her parents deaths before time runs out and she becomes a binder. Is her Aunt right that their magic is a curse that must be bound, or is the truth something much deeper and darker?
Threadneedle was a fantastic read if you’re into YA, the characters were bold and filled with life, I never saw the truth of everything coming at the end, and the descriptions of all the locations were vivid and very, very real (though as a former Dulwich resident I’m pretty sure I know which school inspired their school so I had its majestic facade burned into my mind as I read!) It’s a really unique YA fantasy novel about pure magic so if you love witchy magic books rather than high fantasy novels full of fae, Threadneedle needs to be your next winter read.
I’m terrible at finishing off series if they’ve not all already been published by the time I start reading them, but last year I finally took the time to conclude historian Tracy Boreman’s brilliant Frances Gorges trilogy* which starts in The King’s Witch* with a young woman brought to court by her parents who gets tangled up in both James I’s obsessive hunt for witches as she has a skill for herbs and healing, and the Gunpowder Plot to topple him. The books are a must for anyone who loves character driven historical fiction of Royal Courts: each one will both have you on the edge of your seat and in tears inn equal measure as we follow Frances through a life that, at different times seems both very fortunate, and most unfortunate both due to her own actions and those of others. They’re bold, vivid, and the historical fiction series I’d recommend you read start to finish in 2022.
In a parallel world that looks a lot like Elizabethan England, May is sentenced to be a Sin Eater. Marked for life, the Sin Eater shall not speak and the Sin Eater shall not be heard. The Sin Eater serves the Maker, and arrives only at a persons home when they are about to die. The Sin Eater listens to the Recitation of their sins, and the Sin Eater takes in their sins once they have passed by eating the foods that correspond to their sins, prepared by their families from the top of their coffins. May becomes resigned to her new life, until she’s called to the palace for a series of Recitations and Eatings that accidentally make her privy to a secret that may topple the crown – and a secret that people are willing to kill for.
This is a brilliant book, but it gave me something akin to emotional whiplash at the beginning, I found it impossible to binge and I was not always in the mood for it, but that does also lend something to the power of the writing – it’s so apparent, especially at the end when everything comes together and you realise what you should have seen all along that it’s a brilliantly built narrative, founded on a clever idea built from a single scrap of history. It’s about personal power, personal freedoms, the sins we carry with us and the very nature of sin. It’s about what it is to be a woman in society, and it’s about what it is to be human.
If it were not for what is about to come next, I’d say that the Tearling books were the best fantasy series I read last year. They’re epic in scope, full of bold characters, impossible decisions, twisty plots and a ruthless world; honestly I demolished all three of them in a matter of days. We join Kelsea, the daughter of a murders monarch, who has been kept in hiding until she became of age on her journey to the capital of her kingdom where she is to be crowned Queen of the Tearling: that is, if she survives the many assassination attempts on the journey that is. She finds herself in a kingdom she is ill-prepared to rule, where no decision has a right answer and one wrong move would mean war with their impossibly strong neighbours.
It is difficult in a couple of paragraphs to relate the scope of these books which is truly marvellous, worlds built vividly within worlds, and with characters you’re desperate to see succeed as both you and Kelsea both rush to discover a truth you won’t quite understand until it all comes together. However, a word of warning: I’m not sure how I felt about the ending of this series, I found it both disappointing and strangely fitting, but I know a lot of people who loved this series as they were reading were furious with it. So, whilst I can wholeheartedly recommend these books, perhaps if you like everything to end how you’d wish it, give these a miss.
King of Scars & Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo*
And the prize for the best fantasy series I read last year? If you’re at all into fantasy you’ll have watched Shadow and Bone on Netflix by now, and if you’re familiar with these roundups you’ll know that I did really enjoy the Shadow and Bone trilogy*, and the Six of Crows duology*, but nothing could have prepared me for how much I loved the next series in Leigh Barduguo’s GrishaVerse. King of Scars*, trying to cut out the spoilers here, takes us back to the Little Palace and, along with Rule of Wolves*, my favourite book in the entire cannon deals with the question of who has the right to rule Rakva once and for all. Obviously if you’ve enjoyed the series thus far you’ll enjoy them, but I think in these books the world is more defined, the characters come across as more unique and shine brighter, and there is even more suspense, twists, and heart-wrenching scenes than in any of the other books before them.
With these two books as evidence the GrishaVerse books just keep on getting better and better this is my fantasy pick for a series to get your teeth into for 2022, for sure.
The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward* (gifted)
Hester, the second eldest daughter of a family of Quakers leaves home alone for the first time to undertake a journey to the Nottinghamshire workhouse where her sister died, trying to find closure for her parents by finding out how her sister ended up in such a place after her elopement, and to discover how she died. She finds the workhouse a strange, austere place, and after meeting with the superintendent and his wife she leaves with more questions than she arrived with, sure what she’s been told about Mercy’s fate is untrue, and that she must dig deeper to find answers. As is always the case with all of these wonderfully gothic novels I read, of course the truth of what she uncovered is even more horrible and sinister than she could have possibly imagined.
I raced through this atmospheric read, perfect for the changing of the seasons. While I did get a little frustrated with Hester as the main character – there were so many situations where she was just being plain stupid and naïve – I found the characters vibrant and the truth something I could not have expected. It was a relatively short read, and while I think it could have benefited from being a bit longer so characters could develop a bit more, it was still a great read I’d recommend to fans of, of course, The Quickening, but also Mrs England, The Shape of Darkness, and The Foundling.
The Curse of Morton Abbey by Clarissa Harwood* (gifted)
A solicitors daughter, Vaughan Springthorpe – neither as beautiful as her sisters and born with a physical deformity that has left her with a limp – acted as her fathers legal assistant until his death. Whilst her mother wished for her to move in with her and her sister, desperate for freedom Vaughan takes a job offer that seems too good to be true: to live with a staggering salary for a couple of months at Sir Peter Spencer’s family home Morton Abbey in order to prepare the necessary paperwork for it to be sold. Vaughan finds Morton to be a forbidding, austere place where someone or someones unknown seem set on preventing her work and driving her away, creating noises in the uninhabited wings and leaving the toys of a deceased child about the place. That, combined with Sir Peter’s ornery younger brother who she is supposed to find in residence makes her new employment a formidable task as she gradually unearths the families – and Morton’s – secrets.
You know I love a good gothic read like this with twisted, aristocratic families and old houses big enough to contain all their secrets and this is one of the good ones – engaging, atmospheric, with a satisfying ending, a good thread of strong but not over the top romance, complex mysteries that are not at all guessable and a heroine who is both relatable and admirable.
The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle*
This is a hard one because if I tell you too much about this brilliant, brilliant book, it will ruin it!
Frances Howard, great niece of the all powerful Northumberland and a bastion of the noble – but historically unfortunate Howard family (Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, anyone?) is stuck in a loveless marriage. Robert Carr, the King’s intimate favourite becomes bewitched, but the path towards their union is so paved with obstacles there is a great chance that someone has turned up dead because of it: and one, or both of them, may hang for it.
This book. I was told it was excellent, but for the first roughly half, I did not get it. Yes, it was exceptionally good writing, set in one of my favourite periods, and exploring a historical event I knew was fascinating. It was a solid four stars. But then. There is a moment, a moment in this book that changes everything and makes it truly stunning. This is the historical thriller you need to read to is autumn. The characters are brilliant, teasing, fascinating, and Freemantle’s manipulation of history is unparalleled. Happily while I was aware of the event on which it was based, I’d forgotten how it ended so I could be totally taken in. Honestly, I know I’ve been a bit vague here but for a reason: this one is worth taking a punt on.
Kingscastle by Sophia Holloway* (gifted)
Shockingly, a Regency romance recommendation from me that was not written by Julia Quinn!
Elevated to the peerage via an unexpected inheritance, Captain William Hawksmoor of the Royal Navy must return to civilian life to become the new Marquis of Athelney, and take up residence at the family seat of Kingscastle in Somerset. There is one issue with his new inheritance, however: he must marry and produce an heir within a year or his estates will continue to be controlled by the trustees who were installed when his erstwhile cousin was heir. With little experience with women, and a pushy, difficult aunt in the dower house trying to marry him off to her timid daughter, this stipulation turns out to be a greater obstacle than he’s first thought.
I adored this book: it has bold, vivid characters that I was rooting for all the way through, a good villain, some laugh out loud funny bits and a main plot line that seemed reasonable and wonderful, rather than ridiculous and overdone, which is my real issue with the majority of romance novels. It’s a wonderful light read I simply raced through, and one I’d recommend to even the most casual reader of such romances like me.
Once Upon A Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber*
Caraval* will forever remain one of the most magical books I’ve ever read, so obviously as a fan of the trilogy I pre-ordered Once Upon A Broken Heart*, the first book in the next series set in the magical world of Caraval. You’ll need to read that trilogy first, but if you enjoyed them I promise you’ll adore this new addition to the canon.
Out new heroine is the rose gold-haired Evangeline Fox who gets tangled up with everyone’s favourite Caraval-world tragic hero-villain the Prince of Hearts when she, broken hearted turns to him for help stopping the wedding of her one true love who she believes had been cursed to believe he is in love with another. But as we all know in the world of Caraval, you should never make a deal with a fate… we also know from knowing and loving the world that is is full of whimsically design and magic both bright and impossibly dark: this book is yet another fairy tale you will now appreciate even more for now being a grown up.
Girls of Fate and Fury by Natasha Ngan* (gifted)
I’m so incredibly proud of my brilliant friend Natasha for finishing off her fantastic Girls of Paper and Fire* series in the most powerful way possible.
What can I say about the grand conclusion to these three wonderful books? I was entranced by Girls of Paper and Fire when it first came out – even more so than her first two books – the story of two Paper Girls, chosen concubines taken to live in the Hidden Palace to serve a Demon King who, along with his line have ruled a kingdom where magic is slowly dying with an iron fist for 200 years. The first 3/4 of this book show us more of Natasha’s strong, complex characters from the cast she’s built where I think there is someone we can all relate to, with beautifully, vividly written scenes and enough shocks to keep you racing forwards, but the final 1/4, while nothing unexpected happens I think was beautifully appropriate: it left me feeling a sense of peace, important I think in an a trilogy that is not just about fighting for a better world, but that is primarily about healing.
All three books are must-reads, brilliant stories about strength and resilience, and they’re also impossibly important books with the themes about identity they explore.
The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters* (gifted)
Jayne Swift, daughter of a Dorset gentleman finds herself caught between the two warring factions of the English Civil War. Whilst only a man can hold the title ‘doctor’ she practices medicine anyway, adamantly staying neutral and treating both sides in a world increasingly by allegiance, rather than family.
The Swift and the Harrier is both a beautiful historical narrative betraying how war allowed women to step out of their gender roles in a way that would not be ready for them for another couple of hundred years, a changing world, and of how romance can bloom between a meeting of minds, even between two people who have a war set between them.
It may not have many bells and whistles, but if you enjoy strong writing, vivid and many faceted characters and absorbing historical world relating (I feel a more apt description than world building for this genre) this is the book you want to pick up in front of the fire on your next chilly afternoon off.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent*
A back catalogue book I think needs more attention, this dark, cold, patchwork Icelandic mystery reminds you that sometimes life is never fair, and that doing the right thing may have horrific consequences. Burial Rites is about real life, rigid societies and the way people perceive each other, taken to the extreme.
Based on a true story, we join Agnes in 1829 rural Iceland during the final days she must live out on a remote farm in the custody of the family who live there until her execution for the horrific murder she stands convicted of. At first the family who have had her foisted upon them are part horrified, part fascinated by her presence, and the young priest she has requested attend on her who is charged with preparing her to meet her maker has no idea what to make of her. But, as they start to piece together the patchwork of Agnes’ past, what happened on that terrible night, and as they weather the cold Icelandic winter together everyone comes to realise that first assumptions can often be false.
I was taken in by the deeply atmospheric, deeply heartbreaking prose of Burial Rites, drawn into Agnes’ story, knowing all the while what Agnes’ fate must be, just as those around her come to realise, even thought they’ve known the truth of it all along. They is a brilliant, cold novel, just like the landscape and perfect if you’re into slightly noir gothic where the only thing that is unsettling is the truth of human behaviour.
The Widow of Pale Harbor by Hester Fox*
Hester Fox is always a good shout for some brand new, historical American gothic and the second book of hers I’ve now enjoyed, The Widow of Pale Harbor* in no way disappoints. Deeply gothic tied up with a good mystery and a healthy dose of romance, the year is 1846 and Gabriel Stone, fleeing from the secrets and ghosts of his past travels to Pale Harbor to take up the role of minister to the small coastal town. While we’ve got Gabriel’s secrets to unravel, on arriving he is quickly warned against Sophy Carver, the surprisingly young widow who lives up in the great old house slightly away from the town, and who never leaves it. She’s rumoured to be a witch, to have murdered her husband, and as strange happenings and tragedy start to take over the town (which, for you Lovecraft fans very much has some serious Innsmouth vibes) and people start to turn up dead, every finger in the town points at her, even though their new minister becomes increasingly entranced with her at their every meeting…