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.

12 thoughts on “Best Books of 2021

  1. What an amazing year you have had! Good luck with your studies… that’s really exciting. I got into Birbeck to do a masters in contemporary literature in 2010 but had to defer but then let my position lapse. I’ve always wondered what direction my life might have taken if I’d gone ahead with it. And hooray for seeing family… I haven’t seen mine in two-and-a-half years even though we live in the same country! That’s because the WA border has been closed since March 2020 but is coming down next month. So who knows… might actually get to see the parentals this year! Anyway, hope you have another great reading year and good luck with all your literary endeavours.

    1. Thank you, Kim! It is really exciting. I think we all have questions about the road untraveled—it’s amazing how much one choice can determine. (That said, further study is almost always a possibility later in life, so you might well find yourself doing a master’s later…)

      I had heard about Australia’s stringent border policies for international travelers, but hadn’t realized there were internal border closures, too. That’s extraordinary. I hope you get to see your folks really soon and that it’s a wonderful reunion!

      1. You meant to say you haven’t heard about the “hermit kingdom”? LOL. That’s what everyone in Australia calls Western Australia because we have isolated ourselves from the rest of the world and for the entire pandemic we have had no community transmission as a result… until mid-January this year, that is… and now Omicron is here and that is why our borders will re-open because it’s pointless trying to keep something out that has already arrived. It looks like the population aged over 16 will be 99% double vaxed and 70% boosted when the border comes down on 3 March, so that’s good news. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to university study… the cost is too prohibitive here (I already have a masters in journalism) and since replugging back into the tax system here after 20 years away I am now having to repay my “higher education contribution scheme” tax notched up in the late 1980s (!!!), which is killing me… all that interest. Argh. But anyway… have been looking at flights to the east coast so I can go see my sister, brother-in-law, much-missed neices, and my folks…!

  2. Great to hear from you again. (WordPress somehow unfollowed your blog without my say so, why would it do this??) I’ve got We Are All Birds of Uganda ready to read next after your recommendation on Twitter, and The Animals in That Country also sounds like one to add to my TBR. I’m afraid Great Circle was a bit too much for me, but I did think the final Antarctic flight set-piece was absolutely brilliant. And lots of love for The Woman In White, which I should re-read.

    Congratulations on all your amazing achievements in 2021, and I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. Fab to hear that you did get home in the end after the +ve test delay over Christmas x

  3. Wonderful to have you back! I’ll have to seek out We Are All Birds of Uganda. It was great to read some of the Barbellion Prize shortlist again this year. Thanks for your part in bringing those books attention!

  4. What an incredible year, professionally and personally. And many congrats on your PhD program. I almost did one of those myself (history in my case) but . . . went in quite another direction instead. I must admit, however, that I’v always had a “what if I had done that” thought somewhere in the back of my mind!
    I loved your “best of” lists, particularly as it doesn’t quite reflect my own taste (I love differences). I’m afraid I just couldn’t do the Maggie Shipstead, despite its acclaim; it just seemed too melodramatic and too long. I’ve been interested in Shipstead for a long time, however and your review did a very nice job of highlighting Great Circle’s strong points (I may still start with Seating Arrangements when I get to her work!)
    I see that I simply MUST read Birds of Uganda, which has been on my list since last fall.
    I’m not a big fan of Dostoevesky but D in Love has been on the radar since I read Kaggsy’s excellent review. I may consider it as an easy intro to his work (I’ve only read C&P and Brothers).
    Like you, I’m a hugh Tolkien fan although I’ve stuck mostly to LOTR. I also like sci-fi but probably couldn’t do McKay’s Animals, as I’m afraid that I couldn’t handle the thoughts of species that we’ve treated so badly.
    Wilkie Collins? Read many years ago but your review makes me think a re-read would be nice . . .

    1. Great Circle has definitely been a divider of opinion, and in a different mood, I might hate it, but it worked for me when I first read it! Birds of Uganda is great. Doestoevsky in Love is MARVELOUS – I think you’re in a perfect position to read it having read two novels, since it’s so illuminating about how and why he wrote. (I’d only read C&P at the time I read it, and hugely enjoyed it.) Yay for Tolkien! The Animals in That Country is incredible, and not at all what I was expecting, so although I totally get where you’re coming from, you might find it surprising… And Wilkie Collins is great. I’d like to read some of his less well-known ones next (The Law and the Lady, perhaps, or No Name).

  5. Enjoyed your Best of 2021. I also enjoyed Birds of Uganda, chiefly because of its East African setting.
    the Animals in That Country sound tempting. Good luck with your studies, and hope you will still be able to find a sliver of time for an occasional blog post.

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