A reading journal of the plague year

I read more in 2021 than at any time I suspect since I was a teenager. Oddly that’s not because I had more free time, I didn’t. However, what did happen is that I mostly stopped commuting, which was my main reading time, so had to find other time in the day instead.

That’s made coming up with an end of year list harder than usual – there’s more books to choose from and a lot of them were genuinely great. Not the worst problem to have I admit. Whether I can continue to read at these levels we’ll see – I do expect to be going back to the office more in 2022 though I suspect we’re never going fully back to how it was pre-Covid.

Unusually for me I took part in 2021 in one of those reading events/challenges that are all over blogs and the internet (I hate calling them challenges, how is reading some books a challenge?), #WITMonth (i.e. Women in Translation Month). In August I only read books in translation originally written by women. It worked surprisingly well for me, pushing me to revisit some existing favourite writers and try some new ones. About a third of this end of year list dates to that August reading.

And with that, on to the end of year list! I read 103 books in 2021 (I know, I should get out more but it’s not really been an option…) of which I whittled down pretty hard to a shortlist of 18, then harder yet to 14. I wanted to get to 12 but I think each of these does merit its place.

Best non-fiction: This could easily have been Yuri Herrera’s A Silent Fury, but I’ve another Herrera in my end of year list so (I know, spoilers) and actually Selva Almada’s Dead Girls really is exceptional. An extraordinary and powerful examination of anti-female violence by a superb writer. I know it sounds dark, it is dark, but it’s eloquent and powerful and I highly recommend it.

Best novel about a relationship that really should never even have started: Otherwise known as the Alfred Hayes award, and unsurprisingly he wins it. I read two of his this year, In Love which was good but perhaps a little too bitter, and The Girl on the Via Flaminia which for me is subtler and more complex. Girl explores, among many other things, the price of war for soldiers and civilians both and the many ways people can completely fail to understand each other. Jacqui of JacquiWine’s journal talks of a sense of desolation here, and I can’t better that. One also for anyone who loves Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (which if you haven’t seen you really should).

Best cuban shaggy dog tale: This has to be Karla Suárez‘ hugely fun Havana Year Zero. A 1990s-set Hitchcockian web of intrigue and deceit where the McGuffin is evidence that the telephone was in fact invented by an Italian while he was resident in Cuba, rather than by Bell. It’s incredibly and wonderfully convoluted, yet none of it really matters and nobody’s really at risk (other than perhaps some academic embarrassment). It manages too to be a love story of sorts and an examination of a changing post-Communist Cuba. I loved it.

Best indirect novel: Novella really actually, since it’s under 100 pages. Anyway, this is Adam Mars-Jones’ Batlava Lake. It’s a story of the Kosovan conflict, but told by a narrator who lacks the emotional intelligence and insight to really address what he’s seen. Instead it focuses on anecdotes and irrelevancies, leaving it to the reader to really understand what the narrator wants to say but doesn’t know how to. It’s clever, sometimes funny, and beautifully written. Mars-Jones’ Box Hill is also very, very good but if you haven’t read him this is probably the more accessible entry point.

Best end to a trilogy: I loved Olivia Manning‘s marvellous Balkan Trilogy, and have now read her follow-up Levant trilogy. I think I slightly preferred the Balkan novels, but the whole is exceptional both as an examination of a marriage and of life during wartime. The Sum of Things is the final one of the sequence. The Levant novels feature not just Guy and Harriet and the usual cast but a new core character in the form of a young junior officer, Simon Boulderstone.

The addition of Simon in the second trilogy allows Manning to explore the experience of war directly as well as indirectly, and it gives additional depth to the whole thing. Radhika’s review of the second trilogy (linked to above) is spoiler free and worth reading – basically though if you liked Balkan you’ll like Levant. Manning should be up there with Powell and I’m delighted the blogosphere has helped expose her work to a wider audience.

Best use of fable: This has to be Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons (and I say that despite having recently read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber collection). Herrera shows the rise of a Mexican drug-ballad singer (actually a thing) who rises to prominence in the treacherous court of a powerful drug baron. It’s told as if a fairy tale – Herrera turns the characters into archetypes by using titles for them such as the King, the Heir, the Doctor, rather than names. However, just as in traditional fairy tales violence remain very much present. Herrera is one of my favourite novelists and this was up to his usual tremendous form. I also loved his A Silent Fury which is a non-fiction title recovering the forgotten history of a horrific mining accident.

Best short story collection about relationships that really never should have even started: Bit of a cheat as this is actually a novella packaged with short stories, but it’s my blog and I’ll award what I want to. This goes to one of the under-appreciated masters of the short story form, Eileen Chang and her Love in a Fallen City (and other stories). These are melancholic and often bitter tales of people trapped by society and circumstance, but full of atmosphere and longing. I also read Chang’s Half a Lifelong Romance which I enjoyed greatly, but I think overall I prefer Chang in short story form.

Best contemporary novel with a Greek chorus: This has to be Heidi James’ The Sound Mirror, my second Heidi James of the year after her impressive debut novel So the Doves. It explores the lives of three women each in different decades, alternating chapters between them and with an ancestor-chorus providing commentary. It reads almost like a thriller (a point I see the review I linked to makes as well) but it’s grounded in the mess of people’s lives. Heidi James is a novelist to watch.

Best novel about the Norwegian postal service: Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live the Post Horn!, which is one of my favourite reads of the year and had a strong claim to being my favourite. Hjorth and her characters find meaning in the most apparently unexciting of subjects, the Norwegian implementation of an EU postal directive. It’s funny, clever and just really well delivered. I’ve bought Hjorth’s Will and Testament too and am looking forward to it.

Best novel about a failing marriage: So much competition here, as this is such a very popular topic for novelists. However, the winner is Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave. A woman sees her daughter’s marriage failing due to her son-in-law’s infidelity, just as her own marriage failed years before. The daughter can’t, or perhaps won’t, see it. The three of them are sharing a connected pair of remote cottages during a summer heatwave. It’s a brilliant set-up and Lively delivers against it. One to save for the summer.

Best portrait of a country on the edge: This goes to Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight (I read her Gilgi, One of Us too which is also good but Midnight is the stronger for me). Keun captures the feverish madness of pre-war Nazi Germany but through the lens of a young woman who may have no interest in politics but has too much wit not to see what’s happening around her. Keun is another under-appreciated talent and one who amply deserves her recent attention from Penguin Classics.

Best did anything even happen novel: What else but A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, by Dominique Barbéris. A haunting novel consisting of a conversation between two sisters that tells of a sort-of relationship one of them had years previously outside her marriage. It’s a dream-like novel, superbly well-written and full of half-seen depths. I sincerely hope it leads to more Barbéris being translated.

Best use of genre structure to explore wider issues: Much of the best crime fiction uses the investigation of a crime as a vehicle to explore societal tensions. Claudia Piñeiro is particularly good at this, as she showed in her Thursday Night Widows where the crime (if there even is one) is offstage for almost the entire book which instead focuses on tensions within a rich gated community. In her newly translated Elena Knows a woman crippled by Parkinson’s Disease investigates her adult daughter’s alleged suicide, intent on proving it was actually murder. The depiction of Elena living with her illness is extraordinary, but Piñeiro goes further and explores wider issues of bodily autonomy. Possibly Piñeiro’s best so far, which given the quality of her output is saying something.

Drumroll please, my book of 2021: It’s another August #WITMonth read, Olga Tokarczuk‘s clever, funny and tremendously human Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. More accessible than Flights (which I also loved) this is a detective story featuring an ageing amateur astrologer investigating a series of mysterious animal-related deaths in her rural community. Except of course being Tokarczuk it’s much more than that. Kaggsy’s review is excellent and I can’t really add to it, except to say that if you’ve found other Tokarczuk’s daunting due to structure or size this is actually very readable and packed both with character and ideas. It’s an incredibly rewarding novel and the moment I read it I knew it would be my book of the year, and so it is.

Honourable mentions

Just space now for some honourable mentions. First up, Linda Grant’s A Stranger City which despite having been read literally a year ago holds up surprisingly well in memory. It’s a rich and well-written London novel. I also enjoyed Norah Lange’s Notes from Childhood; JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (though I prefer his short stories); and Sarah Moss’s punchy Summerwater, which rewards close attention near the end. On another day any of these might have been on the list above.

Finally, I’d like to mention a non-fiction book I’d never have bought but received due to a subscription, James Attlee’s Under the Rainbow. Between the second and third English lockdowns Attlee went to various households who’d put rainbows in their window and asked them why. It doesn’t sound like much, but it turns into a really thoughtful exploration of this strange time we’ve all been living through and how common narratives are constructed but fail to reflect a much more complex reality. I know it sounds too soon, but it’s good and deserves a wider audience.

This paragraph is a quick edit just to say I missed an honourable mention, which is Mollie Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day. It explores a middle class couple in post-War England coming to terms with a society visibly changing from the old pre-war certainties. On paper it’s not really my sort of thing, but six weeks or so on from reading it I realise I can still remember pretty much the whole thing in fairly good detail, which speaks to its quality. I discounted that a bit as it has only been six weeks, but I wonder if I’d read it earlier in the year if it would still be shining brightly in which case it might well have merited a place on the list.

For the curious, here’s the full list of my 2021 reading. Feel free to ask about any of them:

January

A Stranger City, Linda Grant

The Edge of Running Water, W Sloane

Expert Sys. Brother, A. Tchaikovsky

Fogtown, Gabrich & Rader

Ladies Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett

Best of all Possible Worlds, K Lord

A Crack in the Wall, Claudia Piñeiro

Rain, Melissa Harrison

February

Shapeless Unease, Samantha Harvey

Kingdom Cons, Yuri Herrera

So the Doves, Heidi James

Some Will Not Sleep, Adam Neville

Girl on the Via Flaminia, Alfred Hayes

The Black Corridoor, Micheal Moorcock

Reality, & Other Stories, John Lanchester

The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla

March

All the Fabulous Beasts, Priya Sharma

The Silence, Don DeLillo

The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie

Hasty for the Dark, Adam Neville

Havana Year Zero, Karla Suárez

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Theatre of War, Andrea Jeftanovic

Passages, Ann Quin

The Deepening Shade, Jake Hinkson

April

Austral, Paul McAuley

Train Dreams, Dennis Johnson

Nordic Fauna, Andrea Lundgren

Everything Under, Daisy Johnson

Murders in the Age of Enlightenment, Ryûnosuke Akutagawa

Notes from Childhood, Norah Lange

Tripticks, Ann Quin

May

Box Hill, Adam Mars-Jones

Love in a Fallen City, Eileen Chang

Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro

Dead Girls, Selva Almada

Cause for Alarm, Eric Ambler

Lolly Willowes, Sylvia T. Warner

A Silent Fury, Yuri Herrera

Firewalkers, Ardrian Tchaikovsky

The Expert System’s Champion, Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Sound Mirror, Heidi James

June

The Danger Tree, Olivia Manning

Long Live the Post Horn!, Vigdis Hjorth

The Battle Lost and Won, Olivia Manning

Multitudes, Lucy Caldwell

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

Watermark, Joseph Brodsky

The Sum of Things, Olivia Manning

July

Moses Migrating, Sam Selvon

Spiderlight, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Private Life of Elder Things, Various

Heat Wave, Penelope Lively

The Unmapped Country, Ann Quin

Summerwater, Sarah Moss

Fearsome Creatures, Aliya Whiteley

Batlava Lake, Adam Mars-Jones

In Love, Alfred Hayes

Night Flight, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

August

Half a Lifelong Romance, E Chang

After Midnight, Irmgard Keun

Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk

The Years, Annie Ernaux

A Nail, A Rose, Madeleine Bourdoxhe

Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, Dominique Barbérique

Elena Knows, Claudia Pineiro

Slash and Burn, Claudia Hernandez

September

Witch, Damian Walford-Davies

The Siege of Krishnapur, JG Farrell

The Others, Sarah Blau

Gilgi, One of Us, Irmgard Keun

The Disaster Tourist, Yun Ko-eun

Compass, Mathias Enard

Foundation, Isaac Asimov

New Model Army, Adam Roberts

October

The Allure of Chanel, Paul Morand

Journey into Fear, Eric Ambler

Greensmith, Aliya Whiteley

Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov

Keeping the House, Tice Cin

The Wine-dark Sea, Leonardo Sciascia

Under the Rainbow, James Attlee

November

Infinite Detail, Tim Maugham

One Fine Day, Mollie Panter-Downes

The Man on the Balcony, Sjöwall & Wahlöö

The Singer’s Gun, Emily St. John Mandel

The Story of Stanley Brent, E. Berridge

Second Foundation, Isaac Asimov

Life and Death of Harriet Frean, May Sinclair

December

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene

Skyward Inn, Aliya Whiteley

Weathering, Lucy Wood

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Elder Race, Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin, Éric Faye

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock

Ghost Hardware, Tim Maugham

Doggerland, Ben Smith

Drowned Country, Emily Tesh

Little Eve, Catriona Ward

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories Angela Carter

Diary of a Film, Niven Govinden

17 Comments

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17 responses to “A reading journal of the plague year

  1. Super Post! I’m taking notes left & right (I have a spiritual, if not pragmatic, need for more books).
    Like you, I love Olivia Manning. I’ve read both trilogies, but very long ago; both are due for a re-read but . . . I’m eager to try some of her solo novels, so that will probably come first.
    I was delighted to see that you thought so highly of Eileen Chang’s Love In A Fallen City, as it was one of my favorite story/novella collections from last year (tied with Aoko Matsuda’s Where The Wild Ladies Are). Based on this collection (my sole exposure to Chang’s work) I agree that she’s woefully underrated.
    I loved Sunday in Ville d’Array. As you say, not much happens plot wise but who really cares, with that incredible, dreamy & ambiguous atmosphere? I must admit, however, that I was far less impressed by Lively’s Heat Wave; but then, I read it many years ago and perhaps memory doesn’t do it justice.
    I’ve been wondering which Irmgard Keun novel to tackle after Child of All Nations. Your summary tips the scales from Gigli towards After Midnight.
    Vigdis Hjorth is on my 2022 reading list (to the extent I have one). I considered Post Horn but decided to go with Will and Testament.
    I was amazed to see Leigh Brackett on your January list!!! Quite a trip for me down memory lane; as this is one of sci-fi things I read back in the day. Ditto for Asimov’s Foundation series, but that’s so much better known I was a little less surprised to see it listed. I honestly didn’t think anyone read Brackett any more (I mildly considered re-reading Nemesis from Terra, my personal favorite, a few years ago. I decided not to disturb the memory)
    I also noticed your entry for Farrell’s Siege of Krishnapur, as his great empire trilogy was one of my better discovries. Have you read Troubles? It’s my personal favorite of the three, although Siege was wonderful.
    Sorry for the long ramble! I’m off now to check out Heidi James . . .

  2. Some great reading, Max! I’ve read around 6 books from your list and agree they are all excellent; Elena Knows made it into my year end list too, while Dead Girls and the Olivia Manning trilogies have been some of my favourites from the last couple of years. I really loved Lange’s Notes from Childhood too.

    From the others, the Alfred Hayes, Heidi James and Penelope Lively are particularly calling out to me. And thank you for linking to my review of the Levant Trilogy.

  3. Hi Janakay,

    I have a review of Troubles here on the site, from some years back. It’s excellent. I’m actually reading The Singapore Grip at the moment which I think is probably the weakest of the three (too much research allowed to get onto the page). I’ve a review of a Chang collection here too, she’s very good.

    Sunday is indeed all about the atmosphere, but it does it so well! Interesting on the Heat Wave. It’s not as strong as Moon Tiger which I think is widely seen as her best (I’ve a review of that here too).

    Another Keun to consider is The Artificial Silk Girl, which was Keun’s take on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos and frankly I think is better than its inspiration. What did you make of Child? I liked it a fair bit, but it wasn’t my first Keun (maybe my second?).

    That Brackett actually got published in an SF Masterworks series and I think it does deserve it. I’ve read a few of hers, three I think, which is probably more than most these days I admit. Probably a better screenplay writer than author though.

    Foundation I think each is weaker than the last. I read it because I felt like watching the tv show, not that I have yet, and I’m happy to have done so but it didn’t come near the end of year list. As you say, often a good idea not to revisit childhood reads.

  4. Radz, I remember I absolutely loved the Lange when I read it, however looking back I couldn’t remember much more about it than that I loved it which is why it didn’t make the list. That may have been harsh on my part though. With Penelope James, Moon Tiger as I just mentioned to Janakay is I think often seen as her best – I’ve a writeup here and I do think you’d like it.

  5. Agh, I meant to add Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day to the Honourable mentions. I may go back and edit her in…

  6. [reply to Max; not sure how this will display]
    I’m inclined to agree with you that Singapore Grip is the weakest of the three (I’ll have to check out your review of Troubles. Hopefully you liked it as much as I did). It’s still really good. With respect to Lively, I also go with the conventional wisdom, i.e., Moon Tiger is her best but — she’s always worth reading and several of her other novels are almost as good. I’m thinking here of According to Mark and The Road to Lichfield.
    Child of All Nations is my first, and so far only, novel by Keun. I enjoyed it and thought she did quite a good job with her child narrator (always a difficult feat for a writer). I did think, however, that the second half of the novel (father & child in U.S.) lost focus & rambled a bit and that, on the whole, Keun should have stayed in Europe.
    I was very taken with the Foundation series back in the day. I tried re-reading it many, many years later and couldn’t manage; I found the style just too clunky. I think Asimov is/was more of an idea guy and much less of a writer (typical of his era in sci-fi, I think). He turned out lots of stuff, generated some fascinating concepts but words weren’t his thing. As for the current TV series, I enjoyed it a great deal but if memory serves it has little to do with the source material. I’m also afraid that it’s headed in certain directions that I won’t care for!

  7. I loved Troubles. Good to have a couple of Lively steers, thanks for that.

    Child I agree on pretty much all your points. The child narrator is hard to pull off, but she manages it, but it is stronger in Europe than the US.

    Asimov is very much one of those old school big ideas SF writers. I read there might be a film of Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and like Asimov’s Foundation you’d have to make changes because Clarke didn’t really write any plot or characters. It was all about the ideas.

  8. What a great year of reading, Max, and some wonderful titles on your list – and thanks so much for your kinds words about my Drive your Plow post. It’s a stunning book, and I’m almost afraid to read anything else by her in case it isn’t so good.

    And glad to find another lover of Long Live the Post Horn! It was a most unexpected hit with me, and I’m keen to read more of her writing, but a little nervous about the subject matter…

    As far as Keun is concerned, After Midnight was the first of hers I read and I definitely think it’s the best. She captures her setting and characters vividly, and the book really brought it home to me what it was like to live in that place and under that regime. Although I’ve loved other books by her, I think this is the strongest.

    Meantime, I may be taking notes from your post for future reads – happy new year to you! 😀

  9. Pingback: Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. I’ve read none of the titles you single out – but have read others by some of these authors, and there are a couple on my shelf waiting to be read. So it’s good to hear your take on them. I notice Train Dreams on your list. I’ve found Denis J patchy: brilliant at his best, sometimes almost unreadable (The Laughing Monsters). Great short story writer, whereas Tree of Smoke is way too long. Happy new year.

  11. Such a terrific selection of highlights, Max, it’s hard to know where to start! Firstly, I’m delighted you liked the Hayes, Heat Wave, Plow, the Barberis and Keun’s novellas so much. And many thanks for linking to some of my posts; that’s very generous of you. Purley by chance, I’ve just posted on Gilgi, One of Us, which I (controversially?) liked more than After Midnight, even though the latter is the more accomplished novel of the two. Keun writes these young, spirited female protagonists so brilliantly well!

    Mars-Jones is a writer I’d love to read more of in the future. I’ve only read his non-fiction so far – Second Sight (a selection of his film writing and reviews), plus various book reviews/opinion pieces for the likes of the LRB. Box Hill sounds excellent as a way into his fiction, so I’ll put that on my list for the future. I’m hoping that 2022 may be the year when I finally get around to trying a few of Charco’s books, so your recommendations for Amlada and Elena Knows are very much appreciated.

    Re: Heat Wave, I read another excellent novel last year which reminded me of this Penelope Lively is style and tone, It’s called ‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley, which I would thoroughly recommend. (There’s a review at mine, if you’d like more info, but it was good enough to make my ‘best of the year’ list for recently published books.)

    Sadly, Sarah Moss’ Summerwater didn’t quite live up to its promise for me, but I love that you got more out of it than I did! I really liked the set-up/premise, and most of the characters felt believable and nicely sketched, but the ending was too abrupt and rushed for me. Possibly my fault for wanting something that Moss wasn’t looking to deliver, but I preferred Ghost Wall by some stretch.

    So, onwards to 2022! I’ll be fascinated to see what you decide to read this year…

  12. I’m very pleased that you wrote up your best of the year – and thanks for the links! We seem to have a number in common – all the books you mention I’ve loved – which makes me want to go out and read the others – particularly The Sound Mirror (though I also want to read Eileen Chang).

  13. Pingback: January 2022 roundup | Pechorin's Journal

  14. I missed loads of comments!

    Kaggsy, Post Horn is great. Hjorth is one of the more interesting writers I’ve found recently. I don’t know (genuinely, I’m not sure how I rank them) if I’d put Midnight as Keun’s best but it’s definitely up there.

    Simon, I’ve only read Johnson’s shorter works partly as I did rather wonder if some of them (Tree of Smoke in particular) justified the length. He seems to be something of a writer’s writer, but even there I think more for the shorter works.

    Jacqui, I do plan to pick up the Hadley, no question about that. Summerwater is definitely weaker than Ghost Wall for me, it’s more obvious and perhaps a bit too on the nose.

    Grant, read Chang!

  15. I thought I’d comment on this but I clearly didn’t. I always love your categories Max, and this is no exception. Many of the books you mention here interest me, but I think I have to most note Adam Mars-Jones’ Batlava Lake. Love “indirect” – cheeky? – books like this. Yuri Herrera appeals, and so does Penelope Lively. I’ve read too little of her.

    The only books in your list that I’ve read are the Austens of course, and the Ishiguro.

  16. Batlava Lake is great and I think well worth giving a try. Lively too. Herrera I’m a massive fan of.

    Not sure the Austens are an of course, I’ve still several to read. My next is Emma. You’re well ahead of me on those.

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