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.
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!