Best of 2021: New-To-Me (Non-Debut) Author Discoveries
Earlier this week, I made a list of my top ten books by debut authors that I read in 2021, and today I wanted to make a companion to that list, of the top ten authors I had the pleasure of reading for the first time this year. Sometimes, it seems like an author could have many books under their belt or have been active for years by the time I finally clue in and get onboard the bandwagon, even when they may have been lurking on my radar for a long time. How often have you said to yourself, “Why did it take me so long to read <insert author’s name>?!” Well, it seems to happen to me all the time, so that was the inspiration for this post. No doubt I have more new-to-me authors in 2021 than the ten listed here, but the following are those who have really stood out to me this year.
This year, I was happy to read The Last House on Needless Street, which was definitely odd, but in a good way. The story takes place in Washington, where perched on the edge of a forest lies the titular house located on a dead-end street. This is where Ted Bannerman has lived for his entire life. He has two other housemates, the first being a teenage girl named Lauren whom Ted refers to his daughter, but she isn’t allowed to go outside or interact with anyone. The second housemate is actually a cat, Olivia, whose life revolves around napping, the Bible, and being fiercely loyal to Ted. Then there’s the new neighbor, Dee, who recently moved into the place next door—which, of course, was all part of her plan. Years ago, her sister went missing, and Ted was a person of interest in the case. Although nothing ever came of it, Dee is convinced Ted had something to do with her sister’s disappearance and is determined to get close enough to him so she can prove it.What I loved about this book was the mystery, but it’s also not the kind of mystery you think. Many reviewers have pointed out the futility of trying to guess what’s going on, because you’ll probably end up way off base. I do think the author has done a great job leading the reader down a garden path, using misleading signals and other subtle types of deception. I have to say this aspect was done extremely well.
I challenge anyone to read These Silent Woods without falling to pieces. No, seriously, I was an emotional mess after this one, even with prior knowledge that this wasn’t going to your typical sensational thriller. For context though, this is a story about a man and his young daughter living in isolation in a cabin in the northern Appalachians. The father is secretive and careful about keeping to themselves, barely venturing out beyond their patch of forest, relying on a trusted source on the outside to bring them supplies. He’s even nervous about using his real name, going by the alias Cooper instead, while his little girl is given the nickname Finch. Later, we discover that the two of them have been living like this for a while, ever since Finch was a baby. Out here in the remote wilderness though, with no running water, no electricity, and no contact with the outside world, how long can Cooper hope to keep raising his child under such conditions? Sometimes you go into a book with expectations, but then get something you weren’t prepared for, something that makes you think and feel in ways that surprise you. I love it when that happens, and These Silent Woods was that kind of novel. I loved it.
Come With Me by Ronald Malfi is a haunting, harrowing, breath-holding stay-up-all-night chiller of a novel about one man’s journey to uncover the hidden secrets of his late wife’s past. I loved this one to bits, and mark my words, while this may be my first book by the author, he’s just earned himself a fan for life. Five weeks ago, when Aaron Decker first heard about the mass shooting at the mall near his Maryland home, his only thought had been for his wife Allison, who’d gone to shop there earlier in the day. After hours of torturous uncertainty and frantic unanswered calls to her cellphone, Aaron’s fears were finally confirmed: his wife had been among the victims gunned down by the crazed killer. Consumed with grief, our protagonist’s fragile state of mind is further threatened when, upon receiving his wife’s belongings from the local newspaper at which she worked, he finds a receipt in her name for stay at a North Carolina motel he’d never known about. Aaron had been out of town on business at the time, and Allison had paid in cash, leaving no evidence on their credit card statements. After her boss informs him that Allison had not been given any out-of-state assignments during that time frame, Aaron is forced to face the gut-wrenching possibility that his wife may have been having an affair. However, this suspicion is soon dispelled, as Aaron travels to the motel in North Carolina and finds no evidence that Allison had been cheating on him. Instead, he is left with even more questions and a disturbing theory that his wife may have been conducting her own investigations into a string of mysterious deaths going back the last two decades or so. Some might categorize Come With Me as horror, and indeed, there’s maybe just the slightest hint of ghostliness to this tale. Still, as far as paranormal elements go, that’s probably the extent. Rather, the novel reads more like a mystery or thriller-suspense with just a tinge of the supernatural, but under Malfi’s talented pen, I think just about anyone can enjoy this no matter which of the aforementioned genres you prefer.
After reading Win, I can see why Harlan Coben is considered a top mystery-thriller writer and why his books are bestsellers. This being my first book by the author, the character of Windsor Horne Lockwood III was completely new to me along with the Myron Bolitar books, which this new series spun off from. I’ve always wanted to read this author’s books though, and figured this would be a perfect time and place to jump on board. This one was a prime example of excellent and compelling storytelling, juggling a number of side plots and branching threads, but as ever the focus remained laser sharp with no words wasted. The story itself is fast-paced, compulsive, and smartly edgy—and somehow Coben manages it all with effortless style and ease. I was amazed at the way everything came together, given the jumble of different cases and the complex web of characters and motives involved. It is only in the hands of an experienced author like him that a mystery with so many disparate strands and moving parts can be coherently narrated like this and be resolved so meticulously. I’m also glad I finally got to read a Harlan Coben novel, and I can promise you this will not be the last time I pick up his work. I may even check out the next Windsor Horne Lockwood III book if he continues developing this series, because that’s just how much I loved the storytelling.
I wish I had the words to describe Razorblade Tears. A crime novel at its heart, the story also has elements of a gritty revenge thriller, but it is also about so much more. The book follows two men, Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee Jenkins, a couple of rough-around-the-edges ex-cons whose lives would never have crossed had fate not put them on the same path for truth and retribution. Still, I promise this won’t be like any revenge story you’ve read before. It doesn’t matter how much violence and chaos and death Ike and Buddy Lee leave behind, the book never lets us forget why the two men are doing it in the first place. Despite this being first and foremost a mystery crime thriller, with some brutal action thrown in, it was also a heartbreaking read. There are also some powerful messages here, handled in incredibly meaningful, nuanced ways. Razorblade Tears is easily the most hard-hitting thriller novel I’ve read so far this year. If you’re looking for crime fiction that’s unflinchingly brutal, emotionally cutting, and moves at a relentless pace, then you need to pick this up. Now I really want to pick up the author’s previous novels.
I’m ashamed to admit it took me way too long to read Finlay Donovan Is Killing It because at first I didn’t think it would be my thing, but then of course the rave reviews started rolling in and made me start to think maybe it is my thing after all! This book ended up being so immensely entertaining that I can only recommend it with all my heart. Needless to say, the story is just too good to spoil, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens for yourself! But what I can talk about though, is how funny, fast-paced, and entertaining this novel was, which resulted in me blowing through its pages in record time. There were also plenty of laughs and some places that were over-the-top, but that didn’t matter; I was in love with the plot’s freewheeling, feel-good nature and was simply having too much fun to care. The pure enthusiasm for comedy and intrigue simply cannot be contained. I wish I had started the bok sooner, though it makes me so happy to know this will be a series, with another book to come out very soon. I cannot wait to go on another adventure with Finlay, and I will also need to look up the author’s other books.
I discovered Marina L. Lostetter this year, and I actually read two of her novels. One was Activation Degradation, an action sci-fi thriller. The other is a moody, broody dark fantasy mystery called The Helm of Midnight. It’s a testament to the author’s versatility, I suppose, that they felt completely different. Of the two, I probably preferred Activation Degradation, which moved at a breakneck pace that just wouldn’t let up, with info dumping kept to a minimal. The prose was also lighter and more readable, creating an energetic and entertaining atmosphere that’s obviously geared more towards mass appeal. I’m sure it comes as no surprise when I say it was by far a much more fun book to read. I would consider it for your TBR if you’re into thrilling adventure sci-fi that explores the themes of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. Overall, I would definitely read more of the author’s work, because she writes solid novels exploring the complexities of human drama.
A slow-burn thriller, Local Woman Missing is a mystery that takes a while to get going, but once the pieces start falling into place, it’s hard to stop reading. The story begins with the disappearance of Shelby Tebow, a young woman and a new mom who went out running one night and never returned. Naturally, her husband was the main suspect, as it came to light that the couple’s relationship had become rocky in the months leading up to the night Shelby went missing. But then not long after that, another woman named Meredith Dickey disappears, but this time, her six-year-old daughter Delilah goes missing with her. The main premise was definitely intriguing, and though the ending was a little iffy, I’m pretty used to endings to thrillers being hit-or-miss by now, and everything leading up to the resolution of this one was pretty awesome, so it’s a win overall! I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another thriller by the author.
2021 was definitely a good year for new thriller author discoveries! Though I’ll admit, a huge part of what drew me to Her Dark Lies was several of the story’s similarities to The Guest List, i.e., a remote island, a brewing storm, a wedding party from hell, and people dropping dead from murder. So, there lot’s to unpack here. Practically every character has a dark past and something to hide. Indeed, as information begins trickling out about both the bride and groom, one might begin to wonder which of them is actually sitting on a bigger mountain of secrets and lies! If I’m to be honest though, The Guest List was probably still better, but overall I would put Her Dark Lies squarely into the category of entertaining and suspenseful thriller, and if you’re drawn to some of shared themes and ideas between the two novels, it might be worth a look. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Ellison’s future projects.
Oppressively dark and deliciously Gothic, with shades of Oliver Twist or maybe The Lies of Locke Lamora, Alex Pheby’s Mordew is the opener to a new epic fantasy trilogy called Cities of the Weft. The story follows protagonist Nathan Treeves, a 13-year-old boy living in desperate poverty in the slums of the titular city. His father is very ill, suffering from the late stages of a parasitic infection called lungworm, which is as terrible and disgusting as it sounds. His mother has resorted to selling her body just to pay for his care and for food, but it is still not enough. As a last resort, Nathan is sent to the Master of Mordew, their mysterious ruler from afar said to derive his magical powers from feeding on the corpse of a God, upon which the city is built. On its surface, Mordew is the epitome of a literary fantasy novel, featuring complex and convincing characters who develop in multilayered yet natural ways. The themes of the story appear equally heavy and intricate, ostensibly carrying within them a deeper meaning or message. The norms of the fantasy genre are also followed, but not always in the ways we expect, and while there are certainly plenty of familiar tropes, there are many instances where the “rules” or patterns are broken as well. Ultimately, I enjoyed Mordew, despite some of its excess, which thankfully were not too severe. I confess I’m curious about the next book and where Nathan’s future will go from here, and the sequel’s definitely going on my watchlist!