Best Books of 2021

I know, I know, we’re two months into 2022—am I not a bit behind? Well, yes, but it also occurs to me that it’s much easier to determine the books that have stayed with me and those that were nine-days’ wonders after a bit of time has passed and lent some perspective. 2021 was a cracking year for reading and also a huge year personally: I got into a PhD programme for English at Birkbeck and a programme to support emerging writers run by the London Library, I got involved with judging the Barbellion Prize in its second year, and I also moved all the way across Greater London and in with my partner. I also lost a friend and colleague; she died untimely in October, and the awfulness of that loss is still reverberating. And on New Year’s Eve—yes, the last day of the year—I flew home for the first time in three years, and got to be together with my parents and brother for the first time since February 2020. It was a memorable twelve months.

Confessions of the Fox (review here) by Jordy Rosenberg was the book that lit a fire under my ass to write my PhD proposal. Reading and retelling the legend of highwayman Jack Sheppard and his supposed lover Edgeworth Bess through the lens of queer theory and reclamation, with a secondary plot strand that brutally satirizes the corporatization of higher education, it’s bawdy, bold and clever. It’s on this list because there are few singular texts I can point to and say “This changed my life”, but this one did.

Dostoevsky in Love (review here) by Alex Christofi. This biography of Dostoevsky, creatively told by repurposing excerpts from his novels, diaries and letters throughout, has been something of a slow burn. I really, really liked it when I read it, but it’s surprised me how much it’s continued to pop up in my head over the course of the year. I gave my proof copy away when I moved and now I wish I hadn’t. It’s made me want to explore Dostoevsky (of whom I have only read Crime and Punishment and, now, Notes From Underground) much more fully, sparking interest without making me feel locked out, which is what all good biographies should do.

A Still Life (review here) by Josie George. This was a shoo-in for the Barbellion Prize shortlist; I knew I wanted it there before I’d even become involved officially with the Prize. George’s memoir about living with a persistently misdiagnosed disability whose symptoms include debilitating fatigue, pain, mobility and cardiac issues is as far from a misery memoir as it’s possible to be, while also deftly and intelligently avoiding the pitfalls of #disabilityinspo. It could easily have won the Prize proper.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. I’m a little embarrassed by how strongly positive my reaction to this was; I know there are structure and plotting problems, and even on the first read-through, the melodrama became a bit obvious. But I also just loved it for its ambition: a historical plot strand following fictional aviatrix Marian Graves, and a contemporary plot strand following troubled Hollywood starlet Hadley Baxter. Shipstead made me believe in the full reality of her characters, in a way few writers manage, and even the length felt more like a luxury than anything else.

The Silmarillion, by JRR Tolkien. 2021 was the year I kicked back into high gear on my Tolkien obsession, which has been a part of my life since I was ten (though I have successfully hidden it from most people in my adult life). I’d never read The Silmarillion previously, and was hugely impressed with it: it wouldn’t have suited me age ten, but with the help of the Prancing Pony podcast, I enjoyed picking through the development of Middle-earth’s ancient mythology and history immensely. The fact that Tolkien never won a Nobel is, frankly, a travesty. It also reminded me that people who say Tolkien can’t write women only have part of the story; there are many very interesting female characters in The Silmarillion (including Luthien, the only person of any gender to completely overpower the physical embodiment of evil, and Haleth, who leads the defense of her lands and takes up the leadership of her people when all her male relatives fall).

What Willow Says, by Lynn Buckle. Our ultimate winner for the Barbellion Prize, and a very worthy one. Narrated by a woman whose granddaughter is D/deaf, it is the first book I’ve read that succeeds in portraying abled people as outsiders; the narrator is constantly aware of her granddaughter’s access to a rich social culture of fellow D/deaf people, and to her own system of home-sign (particular to each individual and as different from official British or American Sign Language as your own pattern of speech is from the Oxford English Dictionary). Beautifully written, full of care and thought, it’s exactly what I hope for in terms of literary representation.

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. One of the first things I read after we moved, and deliberately chosen for spooky season. It was perfect. I like Dickens fine, but when he’s annoying he’s really annoying; Collins, at least in The Woman in White, is never annoying. I loved the queer undertones of Marian Halcombe’s characterization, and Count Fosco is brilliantly creepy, the kind of man whose disturbing behaviour is always so isolated and apparently low-key that you can rarely put a finger on it or describe it to someone else. The multi-POV thing worked well for me in The Moonstone and does so again here, but is executed in a more sophisticated way. A winner all round.

The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay. This year’s Arthur C Clarke Award winner, about a new flu strain that enables people to understand animal communication. Unbelievably unsettling, darkly funny (a zookeeper is nearly killed by a crocodile; after being rescued, she keeps repeating “he said he wanted to play with me”), and with a brilliantly off-the-wall protagonist in foul-mouthed alcoholic grandmother Jean, who is socially isolated by her inability to quite fit into the world of humans. Her relationship with a dingo, Sue, forms the spine of the book, as they embark on a roadtrip searching for Jean’s granddaughter. What haunts me about The Animals in That Country is its devastating lack of sentimentality: humans have constructed much of our collective identity around the ways in which we’re not like animals, and to realize how little most animals care about us in return shakes most of McKay’s characters to their core. The ending is either tragic or pragamatic or both. Highly recommended.

We Are All Birds of Uganda, by Hafsa Zayyan. This has turned out to be one of those books that has an angle for just about any reader: the story of Sameer, a British Ugandan Indian whom we first meet living in London, working in finance, it’s also the story of his grandfather’s second marriage, and the political and personal compromises he made. A family saga, a coming-of-age story, with historical and contemporary strands, set between England (primarily Leeds, not London) and Uganda, full of politics and love (and the ways in which they overlap and inform each other), I have a hard time imagining anyone being totally unable to find a point of interest in it. That, perhaps, makes its ending even more of a jolt; there are two possible interpretations, but only one is likely and artistically coherent, and the darkness of it is surprising, but brilliant.

Other reading highlights of the year included the discovery of Robert Silverberg, whose science fiction novels are wildly inventive and slightly mystical; I read both The Book of Skulls and Downward To the Earth in 2021 and enjoyed them immensely. My two favourite Sarahs, Moss and Hall, each produced a pandemic novel (The Fell and Burntcoat, respectively); they’re not my favourite work from either of them, but they are the only fictional perspectives on the pandemic that I cared to pick up, and even non-major work from them doesn’t disappoint. There were several very enjoyable re-reads, including Emma by Jane Austen (absolutely sparkling, much better in my late 20s than in my early teens) and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (heart-breaking, as always; reminded me how much I love footnoted fiction; also, the Raven King’s roads are so reminiscent of the topographical interiors in Piranesi that I wondered quite how long that second novel had been kicking around in her head…) I also had an excellent holiday week in Devon with my partner and his parents, for which I had determined to take only un-serious books that genuinely thrilled me to contemplate: I brought Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart, The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson, Monday Starts on Saturday by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, and the third in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series (truly, a YA lit franchise that could only have existed in the US). I can’t recommend this strategy highly enough; they were all brilliantly satisfying and it enhanced the pleasure of the holiday no end.

Now, two months into 2022, I’m on track for another cracking year of reading, although slightly slowed down by my academic commitments! I know you’ve all done your Books of 2021 long ago, and I’m sorry for disappearing slightly these past few months. I’ll try to be around as often as I have the energy—if the blog posts aren’t coming thick and fast enough for you, I’m probably most frequently on Twitter, at @EleanorFranzen.