By G. ROBERT FRAZIER
It’s hard to pick a favorite. Or even several favorites. But here goes.
Of all the books I read and reviewed in 2021 – 41, counting the dozen audiobooks I also listened to – I’ve narrowed my list of best books to five, plus my top three audiobooks.
Looking over the list, my novel selections (except one) have a supernatural element or otherworldly force in them. That’s not all that surprising as my two favorite genres are mysteries/crime and horror (Stephen King being one of my favorite authors). You can’t go wrong with a gritty crime thriller or noirish detective tale combined with ghostly chills or otherworldly mayhem.
Top 5 Fiction
Clay Chapman’s Whisper Down the Lane stands out as one of my most memorable reads this past year.
Inspired in part by the real-life McMartin preschool trial—in which members of the McMartin family who operated a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were charged with sexual abuse of children, which in turn gave rise to a national panic over satanic ritual abuse—the novel follows similar circumstances, although in a highly fictionalized way.
Chapman alternates chapters from the perspectives of Sean, a kindergartener in 1983 Greenfield, Virginia, and Richard, a teacher living 30 years later in Danvers, Virginia, where he and his wife are raising his stepson, Elijah. As you might expect, their stories are inextricably linked, and everything starts when Sean, influenced by his mother’s paranoia, tells a lie that will change his entire world.
Part of the novel’s chilling effectiveness comes from its portrayal of the detectives assigned to Sean’s case and how their leading questions ultimately result in Sean saying what they want him to say, resulting in the unfair and undeserved persecution of Sean’s teacher on suspected sexual offenses. Chapman pulls no punches, revealing how the simplest of misrepresentations can result in a sort of mass hysteria against someone, just as it did in the real-life McMartin era.
The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
The six women in Lynnette Tarkington’s therapy group are fiercely independent and strong-willed but also tragically haunted by their past experiences. All of them survived random mass killings that later became the bases for Hollywood slasher franchises that were popular among moviegoers in the 1980s and ’90s.
But then “America’s first final girl” and keystone support group member Adrienne Butler is killed in a massacre of camp counselors at Camp Red Lake. Hendrix puts Lynette and her fellow survivors through all the typical horror tropes as they are forced to once again face a mysterious killer.
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig’s new horror/dark fantasy novel The Book of Accidents (Del Rey Books, 0399181136, $28.99) is a chilling romp through dark dimensions in the best Stephen King tradition.
The book starts out in typical horror fashion as our protagonists – husband and wife Nathan and Maddie Graves and their fifteen-year-old son, Oliver — uproot their lives to move to Nathan’s rural Pennsylvania family home following the death of his father. As is typically the case in a horror novel, though, strange occurrences soon follow and grow exponentially more bizarre as the story rockets along.
The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jonassen
The advertisement is simple and honest: “Teacher wanted at the edge of the world.” And for Una, the main character of Ragnar Jonasson’s The Girl Who Died, it is the perfect enticement to leave her drab life behind and start a new chapter.
The “edge of the world” is actually the isolated fishing village of Skálar, located on the northeastern tip of Iceland.
At first, the idyllic community of just 10 people, including two young girls whom Una is hired to tutor for the year, seems like something out of a storybook. It’s not long, however, before the remoteness of the community and the tight-lipped nature of its residents begin to weigh on her, forcing her to question if she’s made a serious mistake.
City on Fire by Don Winslow
The only book without a touch of the supernatural on my list is Don Wilson’s City on Fire, which I read for Chapter 16. But as the book’s publication date was postponed until spring because of the Delta Covid outbreak, my review has yet to be published. I’ll let you know when it’s up, but for now you’ll just have to take my word that it is not to be missed. (Hmm, I wonder if I should count it as a 2021 best book or a 2022 best book?).
Top 3 Audiobooks
Until this past year, audiobooks were not a thing for me. But BookPage editor Cat Acree asked if I’d be interested in taking on reviews and I was eager for the challenge. I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer reading my books to listening to them, but maybe this audio thing will grow on me in time.
Certainly, the audio experience is vastly different from physical reading and takes some getting used to. It does require a different skillset, namely, listening. With audiobooks, you can’t allow yourself to become distracted by other tasks or …
Most of my audio selections were nonfiction-oriented, but I also managed to listen to a few novels.
Topping my list of best audiobooks is Carry On by John Lewis. Written by the late, great civil rights icon and representative from Georgia, the book is made up of inspirational essays from Lewis on such topics as teamwork, friendship, success and justice. It’s like those motivational posters on the walls of your workplace, only better, because his aphorisms are punchy yet never cliched, and you can take his inspirational words with you and play them anytime you need a lift.
One of the most important books, or audiobooks, you should listen to is Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe.
In jaw-dropping detail, the New Yorker staff writer Keefe recounts the greed, deception, and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family’s multigenerational quest for wealth and social status through their company, Purdue Pharma, and the rise of the OxyContin painkiller epidemic.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
In a series of first-person interviews conducted by journalist S. Sunny Shelton, the fictional oral history recounts the story of a 1970s rock collaboration between glam Black American singer Opal Jewel and white British singer-songwriter Nev Charles. Walton skillfully blends in real-life events such as Vietnam War protests to firmly establish the narrative’s tone and time period, layering the duo’s rise to rock stardom with social, economic, racial and sexual undercurrents.
Click the links in any of the above articles to read the full reviews.