Most Unique/Memorable reads of 2021
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
In my previous Year in Review series, this was the place where I would put my Most Surprising books, but this year I decided to change things up a bit. Because I felt ambivalent (or worse: absolutely nothing) about so many books this year, I started to appreciate the ones that were very different, memorable or unique even more. Hence; I wanted a place to highlight them. The following 7 books stood out to me, whether it be because of their approach to a topic, their narrative style or even their formatting.
1. Me (Moth) by Amber McBride
If you’ve already seen my favourites of 2021, you will already be familiar with this book, as it was one of my honourable mentions. There was no way however, to give the number one spot on this list to any other novel but Me (Moth).
A debut novel in verse, this is both a coming-of-age- and a ghost story about grief and a special friendship between two damaged teens. Moth has lost both her parents in a car accident and feels herself being eaten away by the survivors guilt she carries over it. Sani has suffered from depression, and wants to track down his roots in hopes of gaining a better understanding of himself and his life. The two find each other on a roadtrip, chasing down the ghosts that haunt them both. Told in stunning verse and interlaced with Navajo mythology, Moth’s story is an unforgettable one that resonated with me in quite a special way. Even if you’re not a YA-reader, or have never read a novel in verse before, I would still recommend this if the subject material appeals to you: you won’t be disappointed.
2. Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé
With only 300 ratings on Goodreads, Creatures of Passage could have made the top of my Underrated list, yet it was so different and memorable to me, that I couldn’t in good faith deny it its honourable place on this list. Creatures of Passage is a historical fantasy/magical realism novel, quite unlike anything I’ve read before. I don’t want to give too much away, as it’s not so much the story, but more so the atmosphere that made it so memorable to me, and atmosphere’s just one of those things you need to experience for yourself. What I will say is that this is a novel that echoes a bit of Neil Gaiman (his adult work) and covers themes of race, trauma and grief through the lens of ghosts. (yes, you heard it right: this book completely centres around my favourite trope ever). The entire novel is haunted and haunting, and its foggy cover does a perfect job of giving you a taste of what’s inside. I still plan on writing a full review of this little gem, but I plan on giving it a reread first. Until then, I’d love for more people to pick it up, so I have someone to discuss it with.
3. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Moving on from the most obscure book, to the one you’ve most likely heard about before. House of Leaves is the strangest thing I’ve read, probably ever. I’m calling it “thing”, as I truly have no idea what else to call it. It’s not novel in the classical sense, it’s not wholly a piece of alternative media, but something in between. What House of Leaves is, is mainly up to the reader. In simple terms, it’s a horror story about a haunted house, that’s larger on the inside than it is on the outside. Told through multiple perspectives of different people investigating this phenomenon, it’s also a tale of obsession and frantic divulgence into madness. I’m still unsure how I feel about this book as a whole, but the one adjective I can put on it with confidence is “memorable”. Its chaotic formatting and rambling narrative makes it at times borderline unreadable, but also adds to the unsettling effect that this story had on me. House of Leaves is such a hit-or-miss book that I struggle to recommend it to a specific type of reader. I don’t even know if I was that type of reader to begin with. All I can say, is that if you want to experience a horror-story like you’ve never had before, this may be an interesting place to start. It might also be the worst thing you’ve ever read: I’ll let you be the judge.
4. Chouette by Claire Oshetsky
House of Leaves may be the weirdest thing I’ve ever read, but the title of “weirdest 2021-release” goes to Chouette. Unlike House of Leaves however, Chouette was an undoubtable hit for me. It’s a magical realist tale about a mother who births an unconventional child: a child she calls “an Owlbaby”. Dealing with topic of motherhood, disability, non-conformity and acceptance, Chouette is a tale that will linger in my mind for quite some time to come. It’s at times unsettling, at times enchanting, and all throughout thought-provoking. You can find my full review where I speak about this story more in depth here.
5. Mrs. Death Misses Death - Salena Godden
In the same vein as Me (Moth), Mrs Death Misses Death also treads the line between prose and poetry, as a novel told in verse. Wolf Willeford, a young writer suffering from writers block, is well acquainted with death. He’d never seen met her in person however, until now… When he meets a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen, who introduces herself as Mrs Death, it’s the start of a unique friendship for both of them. As Mrs Death begins to share her lifestory, Wolf becomes her ghost writer, penning down the memoir of Death. Mrs Death Misses Death is an experimental novel that reads a little like Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, yet covers a broader scope than a single family. Due to both its formatting, as well as its topics, this book won’t be easily forgotten. Salena Godden, being a performance poet and activist buries quite some political topics in her work, and although it sometimes lost a little subtlety as a result, it doesn’t take away from the unique accomplishment that is this novel.
6. All's Well by Mona Awad
For fans of Bunny, it wouldn’t come as a big surprise that Mona Awad’s next novel was going to be a little bit strange as well… All's Well follows Miranda, a stage-actress turned theatre-professor after a horrible stage accident left her with chronic back- and hip pain. Although her students would rather perform MacBeth, Miranda is determined to direct the play that cost her her own acting career before: All’s Well That Ends Well. As her student start to rebel more and more, and Miranda’s mental well-being starts to spiral due to the trauma her pain’s put her through, the events in real life start to mirror the play, and the lines between theatre and life begin to blur. For a novel that deals heavily with chronic pain and the (mis-)use of medication for it, it’s only fitting that this reads like a delirious, opium-fuelled fever dream. Although I had a couple of doubts about some of the depiction of Miranda’s character, they weren’t so severe that I wouldn’t recommend the book because of that. I’d need to do a complete reread focussing just on that, in order to give a sensitivity read on the representation of chronic pain. Overall, my fascination with this story outweighed my doubts for now. Highly recommend it if you want a disturbing delirious ride.
7. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Last but not least, this story wasn’t so much memorable for being bizarre or having a unique format. Rather it was memorable for its phenomenal handling of its heavy subject matter. My Dark Vanessa follows the relationship between 15-year old Vanessa and her charismatic but manipulative teacher, 46-years her senior. It delves into the full complexity of a grooming and abuse, and the lasting damage it can cause even years after the fact. It was compared to Lolita upon release, which I feel does it a big disservice as My Dark Vanessa is a far more nuanced, emotionally mature and more modern take on the subject. It was probably the hardest novel to read this year, yet also one that left a lasting impression on me. It’s a stunning character study, a masterpiece of psycho-analysis and an arresting piece of literature that you shouldn’t pass up, provided you’re up for the subject matter.