2021 – My Year In Books

2021 – My Year In Books

New Year’s Eve has come upon me suddenly – in the limbo between the public festivals of Christmas and New Year, the days seem to merge into each other, especially this year when the grey skies touch the ground (alternating occasionally with thick fog) and it never seems to get properly light.  There have been a lot of ‘best books of 2021’ posted on social media over the past few weeks, and it set me thinking about what I have read this year.  Some I have reviewed on this blog or in other publications, but others I have read simply for pleasure or out of curiosity.  Here, in roughly chronological order, are my top 10 books of 2021.

Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem.  I originally bought this for my beachcombing mother-in-law, but it looked so interesting that I got a copy for myself too.  The author posts prolifically on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, so the book is very much a starting point for an ongoing engagement with the finds that emerge from the Thames, and the stories and history behind them.  Maiklem moves down the river, from the tidal head at Teddington to the estuary at Southend-on-Sea, telling the story of the riverbank, the characters who inhabit(ed) it, and her own experience of mudlarking along the shore and the artefacts she has discovered.  The book sits between travel writing, social history, and memoir, and is accompanied by photographs of some of the finds she refers to.  I am always entranced by the humble objects, sometimes lost for centuries, which give a glimpse into people’s everyday lives, so for me this book was a treasure trove.

Ghost Town: a Liverpool Shadowplay, by Jeff Young was another book which was originally a gift which I ended up reading myself.  This had a personal resonance for me, as the streets which Young describes so evocatively were trodden by my own father, half a century earlier.  Many of the places are familiar to me from tracing my family history.  In Young’s luminous memoir, he walks through his ‘ghost town’, and explores themes of metamorphosis – his own, and that of the city of Liverpool –and loss, remembering and mis-remembering.  A compelling narrative, highly recommended for anyone interested in place writing.

Next up was The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy.  I read this just a few days before the swifts arrived from Africa, perfect timing for this love song to the marvel of nature that is the swift.  Born of a passion bordering on the obsessional, Foster’s book describes the bird’s life-cycle, its mind-boggling feats of aerobatics and endurance, its biology, and the history of humans’ relationship with the species.  I wrote a full review on this blog here.

Where? Life and death in the Shropshire hills by Simon Moreton was a new departure for me – I have no experience of the graphic novel/zine genre which Moreton specializes in, and this innovative book combines text with illustration and collage in a way I’ve not seen done before.  Where? is a memoir, in which Moreton juxtaposes the narrative of his father’s illness and death with memories of a childhood in rural Shropshire, in a landscape dominated by the presence of Titterstone Clee which looms over the surrounding countryside, and near the summit of which is a radar station where Moreton’s father worked.  Again, this is place writing about somewhere I know slightly, and I enjoyed reading it, admiring the weaving together of the two strands.  I am aware, though, that there were aspects I didn’t ‘get’ because I don’t have the visual lexicon to understand the artwork which is such a large component of this book.

A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George.  I have followed Josie George on Twitter for a long time, and pre-ordered this book when she announced its publication.  However, it took me a long time to summon up the courage to read it.  In a year where so many themes were dark and hopeless, it seemed perverse to read an account of disability and chronic illness.  I was wrong.  George’s account of her life with a condition which long defied diagnosis and which continues to deliver twists and turns of challenge and disability, is full of light, hope and love.  Not that there is any false cheeriness here – she pulls no punches about the pain and hardships of her situation – nor is there any of the ‘disabled person as an inspiration to us all’ nonsense.  This is an exceptional person, taking life one moment at a time, doing what she can, not doing what she can’t, refusing to get frustrated, determined to continue loving, convinced that the world is good, that life is good, that being alive is the most amazingly wonderful thing, to be savoured and celebrated in whatever way we can in that moment.  It is heartwarming, not in an It’s A Wonderful Life kind of way, but in a way that stays with you, challenging the way you look at the world, at each small moment of our small lives.

The Long Field by Pamela Petro is again memoir/place writing about somewhere I know – in this case, Petro’s love affair with rural Wales started in Lampeter, at the university we both attended.  I reviewed The Long Field here.

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton was initially quite a challenging read (I don’t do philosophy, which dominates the opening chapters) but my persistence was rewarded by an insightful exploration of how language and culture influence and shape each other.  Barton tells of her experiences as an English teacher in Japan, and the fifty sounds of the title (which form the chapter headings) are onomatopoeic words in Japanese which she unpacks in her journey into Japanese language and culture, and into her own personality.  I wrote a full review for the Cardiff Review.

You will have noticed that all the titles in this list are non-fiction.  I have struggled with reading fiction since the beginning of the pandemic, but The Listeners by Edward Parnell may have rehabilitated me.  This clever, taut, beautifully written delight gave me more reading pleasure than anything else this year, and I reviewed it joyfully here on this blog.

Finally, two books which I am still reading.  Light Rains Sometimes Fall: a British Year Through Japan’s 72 Seasons by Lev Parikian is arranged in short chapters covering 5 or six days each, in which Parikian closely observes the natural world around him, partly through pandemic lockdowns, noticing details of the changing seasons.  I am a big fan of Parikian’s nature writing, and as I’m consciously attempting to live more in the present (rather than the past or the future) I liked the idea of reading this in ‘real time’, a chapter at a time for a whole year.  The current ‘season’ is called ‘Storms Sometimes Blow,’ which seems about right! 

As an utter map nerd, and a fan of his other writing, it was inevitable that I would eventually read Map Addict by Mike Parker.  At the time of writing, I am halfway through this blend of memoir, cartographical history, and celebration of the glorious Ordnance Survey map, and it’s so nice to connect with a fellow map addict! (I’ve written about the origins of my own map obsession here).

And, on this last day of 2021, I bring you good news – I have a whole lot more books lined up to read in 2022!  My ‘To Be Read’ pile includes poetry, a lot of exciting non-fiction, and even (tentatively) a bit of fiction.  I can’t wait!

Wishing you a Happy New Year.

Photograph of the books referred to in this blog post.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Belated book review – The Listeners by Edward Parnell

It grieves me that it took so long for me to get round to reading this book.  I know Ed Parnell, and have read his non-fiction Ghostland, so I knew his debut novel would be good.  But the arrival of my signed copy of The Listeners was followed closely by the arrival of Covid and the first lockdown, and I suddenly found it impossible to read fiction.  It was as if the surreality of real life, with everything we took for granted suddenly swept away into an unknowable and dystopian future, seemed to make my brain incapable of coping with imagined realities.  I had a large ‘to be read’ pile which included a number of fiction books by authors I knew I liked, but each one was closed and put aside after only a few pages.  I just couldn’t hack fiction. 

For a year and a half I read only non-fiction.  Then, last summer, I started re-reading the Golden Age crime fiction collection on my Kindle (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham).  These were safe, generally not graphically violent, with structures that were familiar and worlds which trundled along on their predictable tracks.  All very comforting.  Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, too.  But it has taken until last week for me to feel up to tacking new, more challenging fiction.  It was time to open The Listeners.

I love this book.  I’m sad I’ve finished it – I eked out the last few chapters over several days, to put off the moment when it would be over.  It is a treat, a gem, a perfectly-formed little treasure, like a beautifully crafted piece of work by a skilled artisan.  It is utterly beguiling.  And yes, I know that sounds hyperbolical, but I mean every word.

The Listeners is set in the wartime years of the 1940s in rural Norfolk – in an area near to where I used to live, so I recognize the descriptions of landscape and wildlife that provide the staging for the events of the book.  It is not so much the events that carry the reader forward, as the voices of the various narrators who take turns to give their perspectives.  It takes quite a while to work out which, if any, of the narrators are reliable.  Much of the action is in the shadow of events up to a generation earlier, events which are only hinted at.  The way those past events, and their implications for the present and the future, are gradually and subtly revealed to us is a masterclass in understated writing.  At several points in the narrative, I had a sudden, nauseating jolt as I realized what was actually being referred to, what it was that had happened and was not being talked about, or what was, with a sickening inevitability, going to happen next.

It is, in many ways, a dark book.  Anyone who has read Ghostland will know that Edward Parnell is an aficionado of the dark, the weird, of things hinted from the shadows.  The Listeners, which predates Ghostland, should really be depressing – I can’t tell you about all the motifs because it would spoil the plot for you, but let’s say that most kinds of violence, abuse, betrayal and grief feature in it – but the writing is so beautiful and the characters so deftly painted that it glows with chiaroscuro like the work of an Old Master.

The pace is measured – a pace appropriate to country folk who are, despite the upheavals of WWII, simply getting on with the necessary cycle of the agricultural year and domestic life – but the book never drags.  The change of voice with each chapter shifts our viewpoint, keeps the reader on their toes (and often doubting everything they’ve just read in the previous chapter).  And the ending – with the reader now knowing something which the protagonists do not – is genius.

The Listeners (the title is borrowed from the poem by Walter de la Mare, for reasons which will be come apparent) won the Rethink New Novels Competition in 2014 – this is another reason why I am calling this a ‘belated’ review.  The good news for those of us who are late to the party is that it is still available to buy (direct from the author at https://edwardparnell.com/buy-signed-copies/, or from Amazon as a print-on-demand book or on Kindle).  I have reviewed a lot of books this year which I have very much enjoyed but, for me, this is my book of 2021.  I just wish I could un-read it so that I could have the joy of reading it again for the first time.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Book Review – The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

This book arrived three days before the swifts returned to the skies above Somerset.  When I unwrapped the tissue-packed parcel, I was captivated by the cover – Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are so evocative of the drama and vertiginous speed of these remarkable, ancient birds.

The Screaming Sky is a book born of an obsession.  On his own admission, Charles Foster is obsessed with swifts – where others might be content to watch them in the skies over Oxford, and be blessed by their occupation of nest sites in the roof of his house, Foster travels on pilgrimage to see them in Spain, Greece and Israel, as well as in the tropical heat and humidity of their African winter homes.  He tracks the progress of their migrations via other obsessives on the internet, and the swifts’ presence or absence in the air above him is mirrored in the highs and lows of his mood.  It is as if he cannot live without them.

This gorgeously tactile little book is divided into monthly chapters, January to December.  In each chapter, Foster explores what the swifts are doing that month, and where, as well as delving into the history, biology and statistics of these enigmatic creatures.  We know quite a bit about Apus apus, the Common Swift.  For example, they spend most of their lives on the wing, landing only to breed and occasionally when encountering very bad weather during migration.  They sleep while flying – the two halves of the brain take it in turns to sleep.  Following the cornucopia of insect life (what Foster refers to as aerial plankton or krill), they migrate inconceivable distances – the swifts breeding in Foster’s summertime Oxford spend the winter months 6,000 miles south in Mozambique.   They lay up to four eggs, but the fourth hatchling (if there is one) never survives.  Young swifts set off for their winter homes within weeks, sometimes days, of fledging. 

We know that swifts are truly ancient, having evolved over 30 million years ago. Swifts are also long-lived – they can have a lifespan of 20+ years.  They return to the place where they were hatched, spending their first couple of summers screaming around the sky with their companions and generally, it seems, having a ball, maybe even tentatively pairing up, before scoping out a potential nest site for the serious business of claiming a nest and breeding.  We know that most of the birds which travel to western Europe for the summer breeding season spend a while over Liberia, gorging on the insect soup swirling in the air after the rains.  From there, the swifts I see in Somerset will have travelled some 3,100 miles, in as little as five days.

However, there is so much we don’t know about swifts.  There are myriad theories, for example, about how they navigate over these immense distances, how they decide that the time is right to start their migration, how they re-unite with their mate, and what accounts for the wide variations in how long it takes individual birds to make the journey.

Foster explores the place of the swift in literature, the emphasis on the bird’s speed (the clue is in the name) and its totemic role as the essence of the northern European summer.  He also rails against the appropriation of the swift as somehow the possession of the observer.  Swifts, he says, are not ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ or ‘his’.  They are their own selves, untameable, masters of the sky in a way that we can only dream of, and in no way reciprocating the sense of connectedness we feel with the swifts who condescend to make fleeting use of our roof-eaves and insect supplies.  It is this unconquerable wildness which, for Foster (and for me) makes swifts so compelling.

Perhaps more than anything, though, he is full of admiration for their mastery of their environment, the sky: ‘they inhabit the air as fish inhabit the sea’.  Their speed and seemingly effortless command of the tides of the air is not only functional (hunting insects) but also seems to have a powerful element of fun and joy: ‘not everything is about the algorithms of survival’ and the screaming parties of swifts hurtling through the sky are ‘colossal fun’.

I love this book.  The blend of facts and personal enthusiasm for the subject makes it an engaging read, and Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are perfect.  Of course, I loved it all the more – and was so excited when I heard that Little Toller Books were going to be publishing it – because of how I feel about swifts.  The sight of those exuberant little black sickles slicing through the late spring sky at the end of their epic migration is viscerally energising.  Shrieking squadrons, skimming just over my head between the red-brick cliffs of the town houses, sound so intensely full of life that they make me feel alive, too.  And the day in August when suddenly the sky is silent, empty of little black sickles as they follow the call of their African winter home, is the day the year turns towards winter for me, too.

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy, is published by (and available from) Little Toller Books, 2021.  ISBN 9781908213846

Photograph of the front cover of The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster