My favourite reads in 2021

Looking back on this second pandemic year, it appears I took a scattergun approach to my book reading — fiction and non-fiction, variously set in contemporary, historical and futuristic times. I took some surprising turns. In the latter half of my reading year, for example, I found myself deliciously embroiled in all-things-Tudor, as though I needed to inhabit a totally different world to our present one.

Here are some of the top highlights of my reading year, roughly in the order in which I read them. I hope you find a book in this list that appeals to you!

Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet Press, 2014)

I do like a short novel, and art history is a go-to subject for me. Hotel Andromeda is about an art historian, Helena, who struggles with how to structure her next work of non-fiction. She is researching the life and work of surrealist Joseph Cornell who constructed collages within box frames made from scrap wood or drift wood. These collages often incorporated prints from books on astronomy, and one of his best-known works is Hotel Andromeda. Helena’s sister, Alice, works in an orphanage in Chechnya, and a friend of hers turns up unannounced at Helena’s flat. The novel draws out the difficulties we encounter in trying to understand another person, the dangers of miscommunication. Helena cannot seem to understand her sister, and yet she tries to understand Cornell, the most opaque of artists. She has an uncommunicative relationship with Tom, her downstairs neighbour, who is mining Helena and Alice’s relationship for his novel. And Helena’s elderly upstairs neighbour, Ruth, is a sounding board for Helena’s struggles with her book — is it better to analyse the full span of Cornell’s works, stick to a single artwork, or delve into his personal life. A short, complex and rewarding novel.

Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald (Jonathan Cape, 2020)

This collection of short essays was a must-read for me because I loved Helen MacDonald’s novel, H is for Hawk. Vesper Flights did not disappoint! Among my favourite essays were Field Guides, Tekels Park, The Student’s Tale, In her Orbit, The Falcon in the Tower, Vesper Flights… well, I could go on! Perfect reading to turn my thoughts away from the pandemic.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2020)

The opening chapter of this novel offers an unforgettable depiction of a heat wave in India, which causes 20 million deaths as the wet bulb temperature reaches 35C. Following this gruesome opening, Robinson focusses on game-changing innovations — a cooperative model for business, employee ownership, carbon coins and geoengineering. And the novel touches on issues of sustainability and species diversity with reference to wildlife corridors, rewilding, electric transport, dirigibles and no-till agriculture. The overall effect is one of optimism, which is one of Robinson’s trademarks.

The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy (Chatto & Windus, 2021)

The Last Migration merges eco-fiction and psychological mystery. McConaghy draws a fascinating parallel between the migration of the last Arctic terns and the human impulse to get away, to leave people behind. She deals deftly with the tragedy of loss. The Last Migration is, for me, reminiscent of Madeleine Watt’s The Inland Sea (see last year’s favourite reads) in presenting a young woman in the throes of self destruction, set against the backdrop of humankind’s destruction of habitat.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, 2021)

This collection of essays is my top read of 2021, and I believe it will be loved equally by writers and readers. Saunders offers brilliant insights into the writing process and the games that writers play to hook the reader’s interest. He picks apart seven classic short stories by Russian writers Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. Such a generous set of essays, I am sure I will read this book many times over the coming years. It left me feeling inspired to write more short stories!

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber, 1987)

This three-part novel has been on my TBR for several years and finally, in 2021, it reached the top of the pile. I relished the novel’s complex structure and its disconcerting mood. Akin to walking on quaking ground, I felt unsure of where the book might lead me. Detective fiction with a surreal slant.

Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy (Fourth Estate, 2009 – 2020)

Midway through 2021, I embarked on what would prove to be a deeply rewarding experience, a decidedly unusual one for me. I rarely tackle novels in a series, so I surprised myself by reading back-to-back Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and The Light. This second pandemic year left me somewhat rudderless, and I felt comforted to inhabit the Tudor court for several weeks! Mantel’s trilogy led me to devour a range of non-fiction books and tv dramas set in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I approached the end of 2021 thoroughly steeped in Plantagenet and Tudor history.

Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land by Malcolm Devlin (Unsung Stories, 2021)

I was fortunate to read Malcolm Devlin’s second short story collection prior to its publication. I loved it so much I endorsed the collection thus: “Malcolm Devlin dissects our everyday decisions, our individual tragedies, and summons the haunted feeling that our other selves are out there living alternate lives, and in doing so he offers the reader an unexpected and surreal consolation.” Another fantastic release from Unsung Stories.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (W&N, 2020)

The Weekend is a refreshing novel in bringing together three main protagonists who are all in their 70s. Their friendship spans forty years, and they come together at Christmas to clear the home of a recently deceased friend. All three characters reach a crisis point during this short novel. It’s a brilliant study of women who share a history of mutual support underpinned by the withholding of criticism. For me, this is a novel about tolerance. A good novel to read at the end of this difficult year.

Among my other favourite reads are Grove by Esther Kinsky (Fitzcaraldo, 2020), Exit Management by Naomi Booth (Dead Ink, 2020), and The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay (Scribe, 2020) – a worthy winner of The Arthur C Clarke Award. And this morning I finished Burntcoat by Sarah Hall (Faber, 2021), a blistering, heartrending novel that will take me some time to assimilate.

On my bedside table: Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (Jonathan Cape, 2021), The Fell by Sarah Moss (Picador 2021), Boy Parts by Eliza Clark (Influx Press, 2020). I expect these three novels will be on my Best Books list for 2022! Let’s see…

Many thanks to all of you who have posted your own favourite reads this year.

Happy reading, everyone!

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