Supernatural elements feature in top books read in 2021

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.

Review: The 1619 Project is vital, thought-provoking reading

One of the most thought-provoking books you could read this year, or perhaps any year for that matter, is The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (One World, 978-0593230572, $38), created and edited by Nicole Hannah-Jones.

An in-depth collection of essays expanding on the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine series, the book offers a critical examination of race in the United States from the introduction of slavery in 1619 to the push for voting rights in the present day.

The project makes the argument that America’s uneasy relationship with Black Americans has permeated every facet of society today – from race to politics, from citizenship to capitalism, from healthcare to music – and extends back to the first arrival of slaves in America in 1619, well before the country’s more publicly acknowledged “birthdate” of 1776.

The authors pull no punches as they highlight some of the biggest lowlights in this country’s history. The affronts to the Black community through history are numerous and, oftentimes, horrifying.

This is not some glossed over middle grade or high school textbook, but an unflinching and stark account of America’s darkest, most vile act of slavery of a race the authors argue became the backbone of the economy and the nation itself.

Detractors argue the book’s authors are biased and their arguments attempt to rewrite history. As such it has inextricably been tied to discussions of critical race theory, which they argue shames or humiliates whites.

More to the point, it reveals aspects of history all too often overlooked for a more palatable narrative.

This is not a rewrite of history, but a more thorough reckoning of our country’s origin.

Context matters.

Some of the arguments and essays may stretch the authors’ point, but there is certainly merit behind much of it.

Either way, it is information worth reading, discussing, debating, and learning from. If the country is ever to move past its racial divide, understanding comes from knowledge, not misrepresentations.

This book attempts to do that and deserves to be on everyone’s reading list.

Review: The Book of Accidents King-like in scope, sheer terror

by G. Robert Frazier

Make no mistake, 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.

Nathan is more reluctant about the move than any of the trio because of his traumatic past with his abusive father. But after Oliver experiences an emotional breakdown at school during an active shooter drill, they agree this may be the fresh start they all need.

At first, things seem to go well. Oliver makes a few friends in his new school, Maddie takes up a new hobby, and Nathan takes on a new role as a park ranger. As is typically the case in a horror novel, though, strange occurrences soon follow and grow exponentially more bizarre as the story rockets along.

Oliver falls into a feud with a new school bully and is rescued by a mysterious scarred youth who seems oddly familiar; Maddie’s hobby with wood sculptures results in a bizarre obsession; and Nathan sees a strange figure on his lawn in the middle of the night. It seems the town is haunted by the spirit of a serial killer who did most of his slayings under a bridge in the local park, which sits over a series of coal mines.

Oliver’s overly sensitive personality ultimately collides with a malevolent version of himself as the action ramps up toward a fierce, violent showdown.

Wendig skillfully alternates perspectives between the three family members over the course of the 500-page tome, allowing readers to become more invested in each character. While Oliver eventually takes center stage, the author roots the action in the family’s unique bond for each other, making each spell-binding chapter emotionally impactful and altogether terrifying.

This is horror at its grandest, darkest level: viscerally stunning and spooky good.

Books: Donaldson’s novel recreates flavor of Justified

The More They DisappearIf there’s anyone out there still lamenting the absence of Elmore Leonard’s “Justified” on TV, you can get your fix of small-town Kentucky criminals in Jesse Donaldson’s debut thriller, The More They Disappear.

The novel starts with the shocking assassination of longtime Kentucky Sheriff Lew Mattock at his own re-election campaign barbecue and quickly escalates into a thrilling manhunt for his killer.

Chief Deputy Harlan Dupee steps up as acting sheriff to investigate the shooting, following a trail of dark secrets amid the townsfolk he only thought he knew. Along the way he discovers his former boss wasn’t as upstanding a lawman as he believed. At the root of everything is a prescription drug trade that has its hooks in everyone, from the town’s most innocent children to even its most prominent citizens.

Read the full review now at BookPage.

Review: The Passenger by Lisa Lutz a study in do-overs

The Passenger

Have you ever wanted to just run away and start over as someone else? The main character in Lisa Lutz’s new novel does just that — time and time again.

You can read my review now at BookPage.

Review: Buckle up for Philip Donlay’s latest, Pegasus Down

by G. Robert Frazier

Before you crack open Pegasus Down (Oceanview Publishing), the new novel byPhilip Donlay, you better buckle up: You’re in for a hell of a ride. This action-thriller soars from start to finish with page-a-minute suspense and thrills to keep you riveted to your seat, just like an on-screen summer blockbuster.

Pegasus DownDonlay drops readers, and one of his main characters, right into the fray in his opening chapter as a CIA-operated Learjet crashes behind enemy lines somewhere in Eastern Europe. On board are Special Agent Lauren McKenna, code name “Pegasus”, and a recently liberated American scientist who possesses technological plans for a new stealth jet capable of delivering a nuclear device.

McKenna manages to swim free of the wreckage, and must immediately go on the run from foreign forces and a terrorist group that will stop at nothing to obtain the technology.

Read my full review at Killer Nashvillle.

Review: So, Anyway . . . I’ve got this complaint about this John Cleese book

By G. Robert Frazier

So, Anyway . . . I read this autobiography by Monty Python alum John Cleese, and I laughed. But certainly not as much or as hard as I hoped I might.

So, Anyway ...To be honest, the book is a bit dull at times. It’s not that Cleese’s life isn’t interesting. It is. I mean, the guy is wildly entertaining in his numerous classic sketches and standup routines on Python, and he’s starred in a few modestly funny movies. He can tell a pretty darn funny story.

Translating that humor from the small screen to the written page – or pages in the case of his book, aptly titled So, Anyway . . . (Three Rivers Press, $16) – is another matter. Sure, there are funny anecdotes here and there. And there are references to the brilliantly hilarious Python sketches he is renowned for. But they are few and far between.

I suppose that’s to be expected in an autobiography, where a lifetime of experiences are recounted to provide insight into who this man becomes. It is always interesting to learn more about the people who entertain us, but sometimes all we really need are the juicy bits.

Cleese instead regales us with his life story in a somewhat dry chronological blow-by-blow account that never really gets to the good bits fast enough. In fact, by page 255 of the nearly 376-page tome he still had not joined Python’s Flying Circus or recounted those experiences.

This is one autobiography where, for the sake of the reader, a little nonlinear storytelling would have gone a long way to increasing the readability, and laughability, of the book. I expected more from the man whose comedic genius gave us not only the popular TV series but films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and the sitcom Fawlty Towers.

I guess I’ll just take my complaint over to the Complaints Department.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

Review: A Better Goodbye takes look at gritty underside of L.A.

by G. Robert Frazier

A Better GoodbyeYou know how they always say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? In the case of A Better Goodbye (Tyrus Books), this is one instance in which you certainly could. The cover of John Schulian’s debut novel depicts a brilliant yellow and orange sunset over the dark and gritty cityscape of Los Angeles. It’s a perfectly fitting image, as it represents the murky lifestyle Schulian paints beneath the brilliant sparkle and glamour of the movie capital of the world.

It’s in this milieu, right on the fringes of tourist-friendly Hollywood, that we find Schulian’sunforgettable cast of down-and-out characters. They’re not the sort of characters you’d want to associate with, but you can sympathize with their plight. And like any good noir novel, the lives of Schulian’s characters are irrevocably intertwined and destined to come crashing down in a bloody finale.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

Review: Dig Two Graves a thrilling, suspense-filled debut

By G. Robert Frazier

Ethan Holt’s greatest accomplishment, winning the decathlon at the Olympics in his 20s, also proves to be his greatest undoing in Kim Powers’ thrilling, suspense-filled debut novelDig Two Graves (Tyrus Books).

Dig Two GravesNicknamed “Hercules” for pulling off the heroic task of being an Olympian, Ethan’s success on the field translates into a coveted teaching position at his ivy-school alma mater, where he’d just as soon as forget about the Olympics and get on with his life. His biggest challenge is simply relating to his teenage daughter, Skip, whose rebellious attitude tests him in more ways than any pole vault or long-distance jump ever could.

When Skip is kidnapped, Ethan realizes she is the most important thing in his life and he will do anything to get her back. To do so, however, means Ethan will have to push himself to his athletic, and academic, limits as he must solve a series of increasingly cryptic riddles and tasks at the behest of the kidnapper.

Read the rest of this review at Killer Nashville.