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.
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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